BIBLE AND SPADE - BY STEPHEN L CAIGER D B - first published at the University Press, Oxford 1936. This Edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

Chapter XI: THE HOUSE OF OMRI

HOME | Contents | The House of Omri | Omri King of Israel | Ahab Son of Omri | The Moabite Stone

IN this chapter we move forward from the last years of Omri to the accession of the two Jehorams in 850 BC,
thus arriving at the threshold of the Assyrian period.  

The character of the most important archaeological evidence now changes:
at long last we find contemporary inscriptions which for the first time deal explicitly with Hebrew history;
and we have the thrilling experience of recognizing familiar Biblical names and situations in independent records written by men who were actually contemporaries of Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. 

We begin to see now what a narrow dividing line separates archaeology from literature.
The heap of burnt bricks exposed by the excavator's spade turns out to be a library of books,
nonetheless deserving of the name for being impressed on clay instead of printed on paper.
It is a type of 'book', however, which (for the most part) [Some of the tablets are copies of earlier ones.] has one great advantage, not only over the literary remains of such ancient historians as Herodotus, Berosus, Manetho, and Josephus, [See Appendix IV, 'Ancient Authorities'.] but even over the Bible itself:
it is in the fullest sense contemporary with the events described.
The tablets we handle today are the actual writings hot, as it were, from the kiln where their author placed them three thousand years ago. 

Yet it is possible to exaggerate their value as evidence.
The glamour of antiquity has too often obscured the very obvious fact that most of these inscriptions, whether on stone or clay, were indited by potentates with one eye on posterity and the other on immediate self-glorification.
'The accurate portrayal of events as they took place was not the guiding motive of the royal scribes ...
often it is clear that royal vanity demanded playing fast and loose with historical accuracy' (Luckenbill).
The word of the monuments must not, therefore, always be taken against that of the Bible, as was once the tendency. 

From the point of view of direct Bible illustration,
the Assyrian period we are now approaching is far the best documented of all,
and it happens at the same time to be one of the most vividly detailed in the Bible itself.
Hence the study of it requires some patience.
But until the student has mastered the outline of the Biblical narrative,
a survey of the inscriptions will be both tedious and futile.
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OMRI KING OF ISRAEL

Omri king of Israel (886-874 BC)
[The dates henceforward are those of T. H. Robinson, History of Israel (Appendix).
The Assyrian inscriptions are quoted from D. D. Luckenbill's Ancient Records of Assyria, vols i, ii (1927).],
is the first Hebrew king whose name appears on the monuments of antiquity.
It was not until after his death that his name was chiselled on the stone of Mesha king of Moab
or upon the cuneiform records of Assyria,
but the fact of its appearance in this form shows that in Omri's time
at last the world was waking up to the importance of the Hebrews. 

His reign is very lightly passed over in the Bible (i Kgs.xiv.23-28),
but from the independent records we must assume that the impression he made upon his contemporaries was not small.
From this time forward the country of northern Palestine is known to the Assyrians as the 'Land of Omri', or Humri
[The H is a strong guttural, but in common with other recent writers we refrain from the misleading transliteration Khumri, Khammurabi, .Khatti.&c.] as the Assyrians spelt his name. 

The chief event of Omri's reign recorded in the Bible is his transference of the capital of Israel from Tirzah to Samaria (i Kgs.16.24). 

Excavations in Samaria have been undertaken in recent years, with extremely interesting results.
Part of the fortress walls have been discovered,
showing the massive work of Omri with the repairs and enlargements added by his successors.
The position was one of great natural strength, the face of a steep cliff being terraced to receive the wall-foundations. 

Most of the buildings have been effaced by subsequent occupation,
but there is a good example of a private house contemporary perhaps with Omri,
known as the 'Osorkon House' on account of the cartouche of that Pharaoh (Osorkon II, 879-851 BC) which was found in it.
The house measures over 43 by 27 feet, being divided into rooms,
the walls of about a yard in thickness resting on the rock.
Some of the finest architectural remains in Samaria, however, date only from the time of Herod. 

The site and much of the plan of Omri's palace has been discovered, resting on the rock.
It was designed as a series of open courts with rooms grouped around them, after the style of a Spanish patio.
In one of the courts a circular shaft has been opened up, l
eading to an underground chamber of 20 feet by 16 feet and i6 feet high.
A secret passage led from this chamber to a room in the palace.
The place was full of bones, and it was first thought to have been used as a dungeon or oubliette,
but expert examination has shown that all the bones were those of animals.
Unromantic though it sounds, this underground chamber was probably no more than a larder. 

We shall read in the next chapter of Ahab's enlargement of this palace, and of the Ivory House that he built. 

Of Omri, as we have said, the Assyrian records preserve nothing beyond the mere mention of his name:
indeed, it was not until within a year of his death that the first tentative invasion of the far west was made by Ashur-nazir-apli, king of Assyria (884-860 BC), and the conquest of Palestine became a definite objective of Nineveh. 

A brief record of this campaign is preserved in the Assyrian inscriptions referring to the year 874 b.c.
In these we read that Ashurnazirpal (as he is usually called) marched as far westward as the 'Great Sea of the Land of the Amurru', and received tribute from the kings of the seacoast.
Thus the inscription on the threshold of the Temple at Calah runs:

874 BC:
At that time I marched along the side of Mount Lebanon,
and to the Great Sea of the land of Amurru I went up.
In the Great Sea I washed my weapons, and I made offerings unto the gods.
The tribute of the kings of the sea coast, of Tyre, Sidon, Gebal (Byblos), ...
Amurru, and Arvad, which lies in the midst of the sea -
silver, gold ... and a dolphin (sea-horse), a creature of the sea,
I received as tribute from them,
and they embraced my feet.

(L. i.479.) 

[The dates al the head of each inscription refer,
not to the writing of the record,
but to the events that it describes.] 

Such is the brief and colourless, but infinitely significant record, which commemorates the beginning of the Assyrian period in Hebrew history. 

But it was not till twenty years later that Assyria became a real menace to Palestine.
The 'Kings of the Hittites'
around Carchemish, Hamath, and the Lebanons provided a buffer state
which had first to be mastered;
and after them it was necessary to reduce Syria (Damascus) before Israel could be attacked with the Assyrian flank secure.
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AHAB SON OF OMRI

It was some time before Syria and Israel perceived the expediency of joining forces against the distant foe,
but at last they did so after the Battle of Aphek about 854 BC. (i K.xx.34).
The alliance was almost immediately faced with a second Assyrian invasion,
that of Shalmanezer III,
which, though not mentioned at all in the Biblical narrative,
is recorded for us in the earliest cuneiform inscription which explicitly makes contact with Hebrew history.

The cuneiform record describing the Assyrian victory of the Battle of Karkar -
on Shalmanezer's Monolith Inscription -
includes an important reference to Ahab king of Israel:

853 BC:
Karkar, his royal city, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.
1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, 20,000 soldiers of Hadadezer of Damascus
(= Ben-hadad): ...
2,000 chariots, 10,000 soldiers of Ahab the Israelite ...
thousands of soldiers of Baasa son of Ruhubi the Ammonite ...
(the twelve kings he brought to his Support) I defeated.
I rained destruction upon them.
1 scattered their corpses far and wide . . .
the plain was too small to let their bodies fall...
with their bodies I spanned the Orontes as with a bridge.
(L. i.611.)

[Hadad-ezer: (Bin)-Addu-Idri = Ben-hadad;
Damascus:
Shaimerishu (Syria);
Ahab
: Ahhabu;
Israelite:
Sirilite
(the sole appearance of the name Israel in cuneiform).]

'Such is the typically bloodthirsty account which the Assyrians give of their first recorded contact with the Jews,'
observes Pinches.
[T. G. Pinches, The Old Testament in the Light of the Records of Assyria and Babylonia (1902),
a useful book, if the dates are adjusted.]

It is more than that:
it is the first quite certain mention of any Hebrew monarch,
or indeed of any Biblical character outside the Bible.

It is startling to realize that not until now,
not until the middle of the ninth century,
when the most glorious period of her history is already overpast,
does Israel appear in the pages of world history:
and that the first King of the Jews to have his name so recorded should be,
not the warrior David, nor the wise Solomon,
but Ahab, the most detested name of all. 

Now the rest of the acts of Ahab,
and all that he did,
and the ivory house that he built ...
are they not written?

(i K.x.39)

Everyone has been struck by the sumptuous picture that these words call up,
but only recently have the excavations given tangible evidence of their truth.
From these it appears that Ahab preserved but greatly enlarged the palace built by his father,
especially by the addition of a tremendously heavy double wall completely encircling it,
and by the erection of a massive royal treasury
which by its great size and elaborate system of store-chambers evinces the prosperity of Samaria under his rule.

Hitherto most people thought that ivory here was only a figure of speech,
referring perhaps to the dazzling whiteness of the masonry:
but that the palace and its furnishings were really of ivory, or at least of ivory inlay,
is proved by the recent (1933) discoveries of Crowfoot.
The city was destroyed, with all its fragile beauty, by the Assyrians in 722 BC,
but 'by amazing good fortune, some ivories had entirely escaped the fire and were found embedded in the clay floor,
sufficiently well preserved to reveal the beauty of their carved work'.
Many of the ivory pieces bear marks showing that they had been inlaid over other substances,
'decorating the panels or framework of furniture, and let in to the wainscotting of the walls'.

Ivory wall panel - Megiddo.

The ivories show a strong Egyptian influence.
There are figures of a hawk-headed Horus,
of Isis with her lotus-flower,
of Thoth with his ibis beak,
sacred Horus Eyes, and so on.
There is also a beautiful winged sphinx or cherub,
with the body of a lion,
the crowned head of a man,
standing in a thicket of lotus flowers.
By far the most popular pattern was the 'drooping palm' in pierced ivory-work
set in rows and apparently intended for a frieze round the room.

The luxury and wealth of Samaria may be gauged from the fact that much of this exquisite ivory work had evidently been covered with gold leaf (as when Solomon's throne of ivory was 'overlaid with best gold'), an excess of sumptuousness which might well provoke the denunciation of the Prophet, Woe unto the people of Samaria who lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches (Amos vi.4).
A bed of ivory, with solid chased ivory legs and beautiful carving, has actually been found at Arslan-Tash in north Syria.
'One remarkable thing about this ivory work is the artist's passion for minute carving.
There are such tiny scales on the ivory wings of the goddesses, such minute glass insets to be inlaid into them?
I sometimes wonder if all this delicate work did not adorn the queen's room in the palace, rather than the king's, perhaps to delight a little princess, like her of whom the Psalmist sings:

"All thy garments smell of ivory and cassia,
out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad."

[Grace Crowfoot, Article in Bible Lands (Oct. 1933).]

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THE MOABITE STONE

Moabite Stone (Meshe Stele).

We now come to a monument,
which has the unique importance of being the only royal inscription written in Hebrew yet discovered,
namely, the so-called Moabite Stone, or Stone of Mesha.

The CMS missionary F. A. Klein, on the site of Dibon, found this famous monument in 1868.
The over-eager interest of Europeans caused the Arabs to destroy the stone by making a fire below it,
and dashing cold water over it when heated,
so cracking it to pieces.
Fortunately, skilful rubbings and squeezes had previously been taken,
with the help of which the fragments were pieced together,
so that the stone now stands apparently intact in the Louvre.
There is also a facsimile in the British Museum.

The stone is about 3 feet in height, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet thick.
It is written in the Phoenician script which was used also by the Hebrews of this period,
and the language differs only a little from Biblical Hebrew.

The historical situation underlying the stone seems to have been as follows:
Omri had triumphed over Moab for 'many days' before his death,
and Ahab had inherited the tribute payable by Moab (II Kgs.iii.4).
The supremacy of Israel lasted until halfway through the reign of Ahab,
that is, till about 863 BC (the 'forty years' of the stone must have been an exaggeration),
when Mesha protested and won some success.
On Ahab's death the Moabite rebellion came to a head,
and his son Jehoram marched from Samaria to suppress it (II Kgs.iii.5).
At first Israel in alliance with Jehoshaphat of Judah won a victory at the Battle of the Blood-red Water (II Kgs.iii.22),
but eventually Mesha sacrificed his eldest son upon the wall,
and defeated the Hebrew alliance, so that

they departed from Mesha and returned to their own land. (II Kgs.iii.27)

It is to this last Moabite victory that the stone refers at greatest length.
The record itself we may suppose to have been written about 847 BC, soon after the Battle of Karkar.

The following passages have been extracted from a literal translation of the stone:

  1. I am Mesha,
    son of Chemosh-Khan,
    King of Moab,
    the Dibonite.
  2. My father reigned over Moab thirty years,
    and I reigned after my father.
  3. And I made this High Place for Chemosh in Kir-haresheth,
  4. For he had saved me from all my foes. ...
  5. Omri was King of Israel,
    and he afflicted Moab many days,
    for Chemosh was angry with Moab.
  6. And his son (i.e. Ahab) succeeded him,
    and he too said, 'I will afflict Moab.'
    In my days he said it.
  7. And I looked upon (i.e. defeated ) him and upon his House:
    and Israel perished everlastingly.
  8. And Omri possessed the land of Medeba.
    And Israel dwelt therein,
    his days and half the days of his son,
    forty years.
  9. And Chemosh restored it in my days. ...
  10. Now the men of Gad had dwelt in the land of Ghatarot from of old:
    and the King of Israel built for himself Ghatarot.
  11. And I fought against the city and I took it.
    And I slew all the people of the city,
  12. A gazing stock for Chemosh and for Moab.
    And I captured from thence the ariel

    [It is interesting to find that Jehovah at this date had His sacred cult object that,
    like the effigies of foreign gods, could be carried off.]

    (i.e. shrine) of the god,
  13. And I dragged it before Chemosh in Cherioth. ...
  14. And Chemosh said unto me,
    'Go, seize Nebo against Israel.
  15. And I went by night,
    and fought against it from dawn unto noon.
  16. And I seized it, and slew all of it. ...
  17. For to Chemosh I had devoted it.
  18. And I took from thence the Vessels of Jehovah,
    [Jehovah - Yahweh = the earliest indubitable mention of the Divine Name outside the. Bible.]
    and dragged them before Chemosh.
  19. Now the King of Israel had built Yahash,
    and dwelt therein while he fought against me.
    And Chemosh drove him away from before me.
  20. And I took from Moab two hundred men,
    and I brought them up against Yahash,
  21. And seized it to add unto Dibon. ...
  22. Now cisterns there were none in the middle of the city of Kir-haresheth.
    And I said unto the people,
  23. 'Make you every man a cistern in his house.'
  24. And I cut the watercourse for Kir-haresheth by means of prisoners captured from Israel.
  25. I built Aroer and I made the high road by the river Ar-non. ...
  26. And I ruled over one hundred [princes] in the cities which I had added to the land. ...
[Mesha - Mesha; Moab - Moab; Dibonite - Da-ibonite; Chemosh - Kemosh; Kir-haresheth - Kerekhah ; Omri - Omri; Israel - Israel; Medeba - Mehedeba; Cherioth - Keriyyot.]

Thus the evidence of this contemporary monument both confirms and supplements the Biblical narrative.
Both sides have passed lightly over their losses, and magnified their success.
The Israelite invasion is admitted on the stone by its reference to the lack of cisterns in the city,
with which compare the Biblical note

they stopped all the fountains of waters (II Kgs.iii.25).

On the other hand the Moabite success is conceded by the Biblical writer not only in the words

there was great wrath against Israel (II Kgs.iii.27),

but in the reference to a time shortly afterwards when

the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. (II Kgs.i.20)

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