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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Israel to the End of the Persian Period: History, Social, Political, and Economic Background

J. W. Rogerson

Where should a history of Israel, including its social, political, and economic background, begin, and how should it proceed? Forty years ago this question was answered in one of two ways. A history of Israel began either with the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) or with the coming into being of Israel as a tribal confederacy in ancient Palestine in the thirteenth century BCE (so Bright 1960 and Noth 1950, respectively). If there was disagreement over the starting-point, there was unanimity about the continuation: a history of Israel would follow the main outline presented in the books of Judges and Samuel to 2 Kings, and Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Depending on where it ended, it would also utilize the books of Maccabees and Josephus, among other later sources. There was plenty of scope for disagreement within the consensus part of the answer—for example, over the length and extent of the reign of Saul, over whether Sennacherib campaigned once or twice against Hezekiah, and the dates of the work of Ezra and Nehemiah (see the differing treatments in Bright and Noth)—but the general approach—namely, that of following the biblical account—was not questioned.

Today the situation is quite different. While the question of where a history of Israel should begin would be answered in terms closer to Noth than to Bright (without accepting Noth's theory that Israel was a tribal confederacy with shared sacred traditions), the burning question has become whether it is possible to proceed by following the biblical outline. The main reason for this is that recent archaeological work has indicated that the kingdoms of Israel, Moab, Ammon, and Edom did not become established until the ninth century BCE, with Judah following suit a century later (Bienkowski 1992). These indications have put a question mark against the biblical account of the ‘united monarchy’ of Saul, David, and Solomon, not to mention the biblical account of a Davidic-Solomonic empire. This, in turn, has suggested that the beginning date for a history of Israel should be moved back to the time of the Israelite king Omri (c.880 BCE), or that the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah (c.727–698 BCE) should be seen as the period during which the biblical tradition began to be composed. Both kings are mentioned in Assyrian sources.

There are several difficulties with moving the starting-point of Israel's history back to points in the biblical narrative that seem to be more historically ‘secure’. The first is the possibility that each ‘secure’ point will be undermined by new archaeological findings. There will be a series of ‘retreats’ until nothing ‘secure’ remains. Secondly, there is the principle of what Whitelam has called ‘the tyranny of a historical paradigm over the data’ (Whitelam 2000: 387), by which he means the prior acceptance of the biblical picture as the framework according to which all other evidence should be interpreted and organized.

There is a simple way out of this dilemma, and that is to accept that the purpose of the biblical narratives is to inform us about the religion of ancient Israel and not about its history—history as understood in a modern sense. This would be to treat the history-like narratives of the Old Testament in the same way that scholars now handle narratives that contain Israelite beliefs about the physical structure of the universe, or the geographical distribution in the world of the peoples with whom Israel came into contact or about whom they had traditions (e.g. in Genesis 10). Whereas it was once accepted that Genesis 1 and 10 provided reliable physical and geographical material about the origin of the world and the distribution of its inhabitants, discoveries from the sixteenth century onwards made it clear that this information could not be preferred to the discoveries of astronomers and of naval explorers. It was, after all, Calvin who said of Genesis 1: ‘he who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere’ (Calvin 1965: 79)

There is, however, a difference between the history-like narratives of the Old Testament and what it has to say about physics and geography, and that is that the history-like narratives may well contain material that a modern historian can use with caution, in conjunction with extra-biblical texts, archaeological findings, and anthropological models. If it is accepted that the main purpose of the Old Testament is to witness to the religious faith that was held in ancient Israel, it is then possible to see what can be surmised about the history of the people(s) among whom the religious faith arose, without feeling that a rearguard action must somehow be fought on behalf of the Old Testament by salvaging as much historical ‘truth’ from it as possible. The value for theology of the opening chapters of Genesis does not depend upon the accuracy of its astronomy or prehistory (although many fundamentalist groups would argue that it does), and the same could be true of its history-like narratives. Freed from the need to defend ‘the tyranny of a historical paradigm over the data’, it will be easier to acknowledge how little is in fact known about the history of ancient Israel in the light of our present knowledge.

This brings us to another important subject: namely, how we understand the term ‘Israel’. There are a number of possible ways in which the term can be used. First, there is that of the non-Israelite outsider describing or naming an entity that is viewed in opposition to itself. Such reference can be geographical (as when by ‘Israel’ people today mean a particular location in the Middle East), or it can be to a people, as in the Egyptian Merneptah stele (c.1207), where the Egyptian writing system apparently makes this explicit. Second, there is the usage of the insider, of someone or some group needing to define themselves in opposition to ‘outsiders’. Third, there is a religious usage which sees ‘Israel’ not as a political or geographical entity, but as a people called by God to obey his laws and to witness to what he has made known of himself. This third ‘Israel’ is an ideal construct which, in the Old Testament, is often in conflict with the actual Israel of the first two usages. Those parts of the Bible that deal in various ways with this conflict not only dominate the history-like traditions; they are probably of more interest to theologians than to historians.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to say something about the social, political, and economic background of Israel in the first two senses given above, to the end of the Persian period. The attempt will be based upon extra-biblical texts, archaeological discoveries, and anthropological models. Where appropriate, reference will be made to Old Testament material, not in order to vindicate its historical ‘truth’ through the back door, but to suggest ways of looking at it in the light of the historical and social reconstruction.

The earliest extra-biblical references to Israel and events connected with it are the Merneptah inscription of c.1207, the so-called house of David inscription from Dan, dated to the ninth century, and the monumental remains relating to the expedition of the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonk I to Palestine in the late tenth century. The Merneptah inscription is too cryptic to reveal any information about the nature, location, or constitution of an entity called ‘Israel’, and the hidden agendas surrounding its interpretation have usually concerned whether or not the inscription supports biblical claims about the presence of an Israel somewhere in thirteenth-century Canaan. I shall return to the other inscriptions later, but will focus now upon a fourth early extra-biblical source, the Mesha inscription, which is usually dated to the end of the first half of the ninth century BCE. Erected in ancient Dibon by Mesha, king of Moab, it contains the following narrative:

Omri [was] king of Israel and he afflicted Moab many days [i.e. years], because kmš was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him and he also said ‘I will afflict Moab’…And Omri possessed the land of mhdba. And [Israel] dwelt therein, his days and half the days of his son, forty years…Now the men of Gad had dwelt in the land of ‘trt from of old; and the king of Israel built for himself ‘trt. And I fought against the city and took it. (For a standard translation see Pritchard 1955: 320, and cf. the study by Smelik 1992)

From this we learn of an Israelite king Omri who, together with his son, occupied two areas east of the Jordan, one of them an area inhabited by people (the men of Gad) presumably related or allied in some way to Omri. Even if the period of forty years of occupation of the area of mhdba is not taken literally, it represents a generation (say, of twenty to twenty-five years), and indicates more than an ephemeral exercise of occupying power. The Bible says nothing of Omri's military prowess at 1 Kgs. 16: 15–24, although he is described as a commander of the army, who seized power in a coup d'état and won the resulting civil war. His being credited with building a new capital in Samaria is supported by archaeological work at the site of ancient Samaria (Kenyon 1971: 73–82); and other significant public works, e.g. the water system at Megiddo, have been assigned to the time of Omri or his son Ahab.

These facts raise two questions. What was the nature and extent of Omri's kingdom? And what can be deduced from this about what preceded Omri's rise to power? In answering the first question, it is important not to read back into the situation of the ancient world modern ideas of the nation-state with its sovereignty being exercised within defined and defensible borders (see Giddens 1985: 52–3). The evidence of the Samaria Ostraca and the research of Niemann (1993) indicate that the effective exercise of power by Omri and his successors was confined to the immediate area around Samaria. His is best described as a segmentary state (Sigrist and Neu 1997: 9; cf. also Giddens 1985: 52: ‘Traditional states are … fundamentally segmental in character’) in which effective power outside the central authority is considerably diluted (Southall 1997: 78–9). If it is asked how Omri could, in this case, have ‘afflicted Moab many days’, the probable answer is that he established garrisons in several towns in Trans-Jordan which controlled their immediate surroundings, and which were a thorn in the flesh for Moabite leaders until Mesha ejected them.

What social and other circumstances preceded Omri's rise to power? Segmentary states are fragile and unstable, and because they rely upon dominant groups and their leaders, they can be subject to shifting alliances and seizures of power. That Omri's kingship was preceded by two coups, according to 1 Kgs. 15: 27 and 16: 9–10, fits this pattern well; but the prerequisite for such shifts in power was the existence of groups or individuals that had accumulated property and/or power over individuals that placed them in a position to vie for the most instances of power and authority. Neu (1997: 18–19) draws attention to individuals in the biblical record such as Nabal (1 Samuel 25), David, Abimelech (Judges 9), and Jephthah (Judges 11) as examples of people who are portrayed as possessing wealth and/or military power, and while this evidence must be used with caution (the name Nabal means ‘fool’ in Hebrew, and the narrative emphasizes Nabal's folly in not supporting David), it provides a plausible picture of the kind of conditions that existed in Palestine of the late eleventh and tenth centuries.

The ‘house of David’ inscription from Dan was discovered in 1993, and has been dated to the ninth century BCE. Written in Aramaic, it is very fragmentary but appears to say (lines 8–9):

… the king of Israel. And (I) slew (… the kin)g of the house of David. And I put …(see Lemche 2003)

Arguments about the authenticity and interpretation of this fragment have as their subtext the question of whether it does or does not support the biblical accounts of David's empire in 1 Samuel. If the view taken here is correct, that the social organizations that existed in tenth-century Palestine were segmentary states, then the inscription can be taken at face value. A ruler of a segmentary state could certainly establish a dynasty, even if the creation of an ‘empire’ in the modern sense was impossible. From a biblical angle, the most interesting material about David is the list of his heroes in 2 Sam. 23: 8–39. Commentators have noted that the locations of the heroes are confined to Judah and the territories immediately adjacent to the north, and that what might be called an ‘early core’ comes from towns within a narrow radius of Bethlehem (McCarter 1984: 500–1). If this material is authentic, it confirms the impression given in 1 Samuel that David was a kind of freebooter, whose power was invested in the loyalty of his followers, some of whom were alienated from their families and kin networks. The ‘Nabal’ incident of 1 Sam. 25, despite its obviously highly elaborated present form, may well indicate that David's group existed by offering ‘protection’ in return for food and other items. David's alliance with the Philistines (surely not an invented episode) can be seen as an instance of a change of allegiance for convenience's sake, typical of the situations in which segmentary states exist. Indeed, if 1 Sam. 27: 8–12 can be believed, David continued his freebooting under Philistine auspices. Again, his subsequent defeat of the Philistines was another instance of a shifting power balance within and between segmentary states, as were the revolts of Absalom and Sheba ben Bichri against David himself (Sigrist and Neu 1997: 9). The biblical claims that David defeated surrounding peoples such as Moab, Zobah, Ammon, and Edom (2 Sam. 8: 1–12) could mean that he set up garrisons in some or all of those territories. The garrisons would have been small (up to 300 men), and would amount to a legal claim over territory, which, however, was in no way controlled. As in the case of Omri's activities in Moab, an energetic military commander with a determined and loyal group of followers could capture and temporarily garrison key towns in neighbouring regions.

So far, the discussion has concentrated on the extra-biblical information about Omri, and on what may have preceded his rise to power. Is it possible to go further back?

In 1979 Norman Gottwald published a massively researched study which, expanding on a suggestion first made by G. E. Mendenhall (1962), argued that Israel emerged as the revolt of an egalitarian society against the power of the Canaanite city-states in the Early Iron Age. Mendenhall's contribution was an attempt to break the deadlock between the Albright theory that there had been an Israelite conquest and the Alt theory that the Israelite occupation of Canaan had been one of peaceful settlement. Mendenhall's proposal was that the ‘occupation’ had been an internal revolt. Gottwald's work was characterized by the attention he paid to social anthropology, including the development of ‘tribal’ systems in ‘colonial’ situations. A feature of it that captured some areas of scholarly imagination was its view that Israel had been formed as an egalitarian society, and that its God YHWH was seen as a God of liberation. The subsequent emergence of kingship was a development that denied the impulses that had led to Israel's formation. The idea of Israel as an egalitarian society was taken up in various ways, and parallels were drawn with segmentary societies, societies which lacked major centres of power, which had been found among African peoples (see Rogerson 1986). Mendenhall and Gottwald also raised the important question of whether the groups from which Israel was formed were indigenous, or whether they had invaded or settled peacefully from outside (as the book of Joshua proposed, at least with regard to invasion).

Gottwald's reconstruction presupposed acceptance of Noth's theory that there had been an Israelite amphictyony in the period of Judges—a view that today finds little support. It has also been overtaken by discussion of the results of archaeological site surveys undertaken after 1967. These surveys have revealed a striking decrease in the number of settlements in Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age and a striking increase in the number of small settlements in the Early Iron Age. The interpretation of this evidence has centred on two main questions: whether those who founded these settlements were indigenous or ‘outsiders’, and whether they can be identified as Israelites or proto-Israelites. A related question is whether the development that led to the formation of Israel from those settlements was evolutionary, in the sense of predictable social responses to environmental and external factors, or whether conscious decisions were taken to constitute a group or people in contradistinction to other groups or people in the region. With regard to the latter possibility, it has to be asked what mechanisms would enable collective decisions about the people's specific identity to be taken.

Two differing approaches to the above questions can be found in the work of Israel Finkelstein (1988; Finkelstein and Na'aman 1994) and William Dever (2003). According to Finkelstein, the settlements were largely the result of re-sedentarization from Palestine to Trans-Jordan at the end of the Late Bronze Age; in other words, they came largely from outside. Finkelstein doubts whether the settlers can be called Israelites. Dever's view is that the settlements are the result of an agrarian reform movement in which indigenous occupants of the land withdrew to the frontiers. He is certain that they can be called proto-Israelites (see most recently Dever 2003: 194–200), and also argues that the settlements exhibit a remarkable homogeneity of material culture and evidence for family and clan social solidarity (2003: 185).

The exhaustive study of selected villages in central Palestine of the Early Iron Age by Zwingenberger confirms Dever's view that the villagers were indigenous rather than ‘incomers’ (2001: 549), but is agnostic about whether there was a distinctive culture or some kind of decision to form an identifiable people (2001: 550–1). The evidence indicates that the social and cultural realia of each settlement were determined by their geographical location and environmental conditions. Survival was the main preoccupation; and during the early Iron Age villages experienced fluctuating fortunes, ending with the abandonment of some and the enlargement of others. This latter phenomenon may indicate a stage along the path to the emergence of a segmentary state. More favourable environmental conditions and the initiative or enterprise of particular individuals could enable such individuals to develop power in the sense of gaining de facto control over the use and benefits gained from particular areas of land. Their families would benefit, and begin to establish hierarchical and inheritable power. Such families would not control the whole of the country; some, perhaps many, villages could remain effectively outside their sphere of influence, and retain this comparative independence through into the period of the monarchy. It was sufficient that powerful families and their leaders could create the conditions for the establishment of segmentary states such as are found in the cases of David and Omri.

In the present state of our knowledge, it is impossible to answer the question about the origins of Israel, in the sense of a group self-consciously identified as a people and recognized as such by other ethnic groups (cf. also Zwingenberger 2001: 550). Israel must in some way have emerged from the villagers who established the settlements in the Palestine of the thirteenth century and onwards, and may even have existed in some form or other at the time of Merneptah's invasion (c.1207). However, the evidence allows no final conclusions to be drawn. The same is true of the theory of Gottwald and others regarding the egalitarian nature of early Israel. The villagers (or some of them) may have attempted to be an egalitarian society or a reform movement, but the evidence of archaeology does not permit such conclusions to be drawn. The same is also true of the religion of the villagers. Dever (2003: 128) sums up the situation as follows: ‘our only material evidence of early Israelite beliefs and cultic practices provides additional, corroborative evidence for continuity with Canaanite religion—nothing whatsoever here that is new or revolutionary.…Archaeologically Yahweh is as invisible in Iron I villages as he was said to be later in biblical Israel.’ The quotation expresses, of course, Dever's view that among the villagers were those who could be called Israelites or proto-Israelites, a view about which I am agnostic.

To sum up the position reached so far, the earlier evidence is of the likely emergence of individuals and families who were in a position to establish segmentary states by around the middle of the eleventh century. Some, at least, of the traditions contained in the book of Judges may reflect this situation (the lists of so-called minor Judges in 10: 1–15, 12: 8–15, certainly describe men and families with considerable localized power). The consolidation and expansion of power by the Philistines at the end of this period would have constituted a threat to such leaders and families, leading to resistance led by a figure such as Saul. The survival in the tradition of the saying ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ (1 Sam. 10: 12, 19: 24) and the role ascribed to Samuel in supporting Saul has an interesting anthropological parallel in the role of Nuer prophets in the face of colonial pressure (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 185). It is not impossible that confrontation with the Philistines was an important factor in the development of Israelite self-awareness, and that religious allegiance to YHWH, as fostered by prophetic groups, was a further ingredient in the shared conventions of that self-identity.

It has already been suggested that David was most likely the freebooting leader of a resourceful and determined group of fighters, who first allied himself with the Philistines and then broke their power (see Halpern 2001 for a recent detailed study of David). This enabled him to establish a segmentary state with garrisons in neighbouring territories. Whether his capital city of Jerusalem was occupied prior to David's capture of it has become a matter of fierce debate (see Auld and Steiner 1996). The biblical traditions about his son Solomon, with their picture of him ruling over a small empire and engaging in massive building projects, probably date from the time of Hezekiah in the eighth century (see Wälchli 1999), although they may contain older archival material. Fierce debate has raged over the dating of walls and entrance gates at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. Scholars who believe that they were the work of Solomon (e.g. Mazar 1990: 380–7) see them as evidence for Solomon's establishment of a centralized state in which public buildings were erected in key administrative towns. Other experts (e.g. Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 135–42) date these finds to the early ninth century, thus questioning the nature and extent of Solomon's rule.

The earliest extra-biblical inscription which correlates with information in the Bible is the triumphal inscription which the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenq I caused to be inscribed on the wall of the temple at Karnak. It is a list of some 150 towns and villages which Shoshenq claimed to have captured during a campaign in Palestine around 926 BCE (for a survey of the data in the list see Kitchen 1973: 432–42). The biblical account states that Shishak came up against Jerusalem in the fifth year of Rehoboam (the king of Judah) and took away all the treasures and gold from the temple and the royal palace, and that Rehoboam replaced the gold shields that were taken with bronze ones (1 Kgs. 14: 25–8). 1 Chr. 12: 4 adds that Shishak ‘took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem’. Correlating Shoshenq's inscription with the biblical material illustrates nicely the problems facing any historian of ancient Israel. The Egyptian inscription is a list of cities, and any attempt to reconstruct the course of Shoshenq's campaign involves scholarly conjecture based upon knowledge of the topography of Palestine and Egyptian military tactics. Inevitably, experts have not been completely unanimous in their reconstructions (see Kitchen 1973: 442–6 for a review of several reconstructions). A particular difficulty is that Jerusalem is not itself mentioned among the towns captured (Kitchen 1973: 298), a fact that can be explained in more than one way. Kitchen's view is that Shoshenq encamped at Gibeon, a few miles to the north of Jerusalem, and from there successfully demanded Rehoboam's submission and payment of tribute. According to Herrmann (1973: 55–79), it was a task force rather than the main army that went to Gibeon to demand Rehoboam's submission. The biblical record is almost certainly derived from an archive that detailed the fate of the temple and palace treasures, and in itself provides a valuable correlation with the Egyptian material. The interpretation of the correlation is not so straightforward, as the explicit claim in 1 Kgs. 14: 25, that Shishak ‘came up against Jerusalem’, is not directly confirmed by the inscription.

Another problem raised by Shoshenq's campaign is directly related to the argument about the nature of Solomon's kingdom. On the assumption that Solomon had established a centralized state with fortified cities and public buildings, such as those deemed to be Solomonic at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo, Shoshenq directed his blows against the fortified cities of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel that had come into being following the death of Solomon, with the blow falling most heavily upon the northern kingdom Israel (see Herrmann 1973: 247). It could be further argued that the civil war that led to the emergence of Omri as king of Israel c.880 was the result of the aftermath of Shoshenq's campaign, as the weakness that it effected was exploited by the growing power of Damascus under Ben-hadad (Noth 1950: 239). A quite different view is found in Finkelstein and Silberman (2001: 162). According to them, Shoshenq's campaign destroyed the last vestiges of power of the Canaanite city-states and created the conditions that later brought Omri to power, and to the establishment of the Israelite kingdom which extended its power into Moab, as stated in the Mesha inscription. The biblical narrative of 1 Kgs. 15: 1–16: 24 which records warfare between the kings of Judah (supported by Damascus) and the kings of Israel can be taken to provide an accurate, if necessarily very incomplete, picture of the fifty years or so from Rehoboam's reign to the time of Omri. It makes a big difference, however, whether it is understood in terms of the breakup of a once powerful Solomonic state or in terms of a struggle for dominance of emerging segmentary states.

If it were not for extra-biblical sources, all that would be known about Omri (apart from the fact that he was wicked in the eyes of the biblical editors) was that he removed his capital to the virgin site of Samaria and that he showed might (1 Kgs. 16: 24, 27). Excavations at Samaria have confirmed the biblical information; but discoveries such as the Mesha inscription have greatly enlarged the picture, and something of the impact made by Omri on the neighbouring world of his day is indicated by the fact that some 150 years after his death, Israel was still referred to in Assyrian annals as the house or land of Omri (Pritchard 1955: 284).

That Omri and his successor Ahab were able to mobilize considerable amounts of manpower to build cities such as Samaria and Jezreel, as well as to complete such projects as the water system at Megiddo, is shown by the archaeological record. If we had only the biblical record to go by, we would have no idea of the development of Israel's military strength under Ahab, or of the growing threat to the region from the emerging strength of Assyria. More space is devoted to Ahab's reign in 1 Kings than to any monarch other than Solomon, but this is because of the opposition to his rule led by Elijah, and the space devoted to Elijah's exploits (1 Kgs. 17–19, 21). 1 Kings 20 and 22 record battles between Ahab and the Syrian king Ben-hadad, but it has long been suspected that this material may originally have been connected with Ahab's son Jehoram and reapplied to Ahab because of the hostility of the biblical editors to Ahab. Indeed, the biblical record of Ahab's reign is another classical instance of the way in which archaeological discoveries complicate the interpretation of biblical history-like narratives rather than confirm them.

The whole subject is too complex to be discussed adequately here, but the following points can be made. The order of the names of the kings of Damascus in the biblical account differ from those given in Assyrian records (Pritchard 1955: 280; see the useful presentation of the evidence in Miller and Hayes 1986: 263–4). In the same records (Pritchard 1955: 278–9) Ahab and the Syrian king are allies against Shalmaneser III at the battle of Karkara (853 BCE), with Ahab contributing the largest number of chariots; yet 1 Kings 20: 23–5 gives the impression that Israel was weak in chariots compared with Syria. The alliance of Ahab and the Syrian king must have come at the end of Ahab's reign (usually reckoned as c.873–853), yet Ahab is killed in battle by the Syrian king, according to 1 Kings 22. It is not impossible to reconcile the biblical and non-biblical materials by assuming, for example, that the biblical name for the Syrian king (Ben-hadad) is a throne-name, or allowing that Ahab's alliance with the Syrian king was born of necessity in the face of a common enemy, and that their natural enmity reasserted itself once the common threat had passed. However, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the conclusion of Miller and Hayes (1986: 262) that the accounts of the battles with Ben-hadad (1 Kgs. 20, 22) belong to a later reign, and that the Israelite kingdom enjoyed friendly relations with Damascus at least until the reign of Jehoram. Indeed, if this adjustment is made, the state of affairs described in 2 Kings 5–10, one in which Israel suffered grievously at the hand of Syria (2 Kgs. 10: 32–3), makes sense in the light of extra-biblical evidence. It can be conjectured that the encounter with the Assyrian army at Karkara at the end of Ahab's reign weakened Israel more than Damascus. This weakness provided the opportunity for Mesha, king of Moab, to remove the Israelite garrisons from his territory (assuming that the reference to Omri's son is to his grandson, Jehoram), and ushered in a period of Syrian dominance over Israel, which created the conditions for a coup d'état in which Jehu overthrew the house of Omri and Ahab (2 Kgs. 9: 1–10: 18). Assyrian records state that as a result of Shalmaneser's fifth campaign to the west in 841, Jehu the son of Omri (!) paid tribute to the Assyrian king.

Of the remainder of the ninth century, until the power of Damascus was crushed by Assyria round about 800 BCE, nothing is known for certain, although it can be surmised that Israel struggled under Syrian domination and that Judah also began to seek its independence. The biblical narratives of 1 Kings 22 and 2 Kings 3 describe Judah as allied to Israel; and Athaliah, who was queen of Judah (c.840–835), was a daughter or granddaughter of Omri (2 Kgs. 8: 26). It is even possible that Jehoram, king of Israel, was also the king of Judah of that name (Miller and Hayes 1986: 280–2). The biblical evidence is confirmed indirectly by the fact that Judah is not mentioned in the Assyrian annals of the mid-ninth century. It is therefore likely that Judah was effectively part of Israel for much of the ninth century, but that as the century ended, attempts were made by Amaziah of Judah (unsuccessfully, according to 2 Kgs. 14: 8–22) to defeat Israel.

The first half of the eighth century was dominated by two kings who enjoyed long and prosperous reigns, according to the biblical record. They were Jeroboam II of Israel (c.782–747) and Azariah (Uzziah) (c.767–739). The dates can only be approximate. Little has been preserved in the archaeological record to inform us about these reigns. Finkelstein and Silberman (2001: 212) mention ivory plaques which decorated the royal palace in Samaria in the eighth century, and the Samaria Ostraca—receipts for consignments of wine to the capital from neighbouring villages. It is usual to link the strictures of Amos against the luxury of the ruling classes and the oppression of the poor (Amos 3: 9–11, 4: 1–4, 6: 1–7) with this period. Finkelstein and Silberman comment that it is under Jeroboam II's reign that the full complement of the criteria of statehood in the northern kingdom can be identified: ‘literacy, bureaucratic administration, specialised economic production, and a professional army’ (2001: 212). Even so, if Niemann (1993) is correct, such statehood did not amount to anything like the control that the modern state has over the area defined by its borders.

For the second part of the eighth century, Assyrian records greatly amplify the biblical material. Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727) extended his empire towards Syria and Palestine, and forced both Menahem (king of Israel, 747–42) and Hoshea (king of Israel, 731–722) to pay tribute (Pritchard 1955: 283–4; 2 Kgs. 15: 19–20). Indeed, the Assyrian king claims to have placed Hoshea on the throne. The fact that Israel had six kings and three coups d'état from c.747 to 722/1 is best understood as the outcome of pressure from Assyria.

In 722/1 the Assyrian king Sargon captured Samaria, deported 27,290 of its inhabitants, and repopulated the city with peoples from conquered countries (Pritchard 1955: 284; 2 Kgs. 17: 1–6, 24). Assyrian policy towards Israel was probably affected by the attempts of Pekah, king of Israel (c.740–731), and Rezin, king of Damascus, to organize a coalition against Assyria, possibly including an unsuccessful attempt to coerce Ahaz, king of Judah, to join them (2 Kgs. 16: 5; Isa. 7: 1–8). Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-Pileser for help again Rezin and Pekah, making Judah an Assyrian vassal (2 Kgs. 16: 7–18). Ahaz's successor, Hezekiah (c.727–698), had other ideas. Indicators of ‘statehood’ such as those listed by Finkelstein and Silberman for Jeroboam II become apparent for Judah of the eighth century (Jamieson-Drake 1991), and these, together with the likely increase in the population of Judah and Jerusalem as a result of refugees coming south after the fall of Samaria, emboldened Hezekiah to stand firm against Assyria. It was probably during his reign that Judah took over the role of Israel, and that the history-like narratives of the Old Testament began to be shaped into what, several centuries later, would become their extant form. Hezekiah may have been part of an anti-Assyrian coalition as early as about 715 BCE, with support from Egypt (Isa. 20: 1–6). At any rate, Sargon II attacked and captured Ashdod in 711 for its opposition to Assyrian rule (Pritchard 1955: 286). With the accession of Sennacherib (704–681), the opportunity came for Hezekiah to rebel, in league with the city of Ekron, provoking Sennacherib's compaign of 701, which is recorded not only in his annals (Pritchard 1955: 287–8), but in reliefs of his conquest of the Judahite city of Lachish. Hezekiah submitted and paid heavy tribute (Pritchard 1955: 288 lists 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, among other things; 2 Kgs. 18: 13 gives the tribute as 30 talents of gold and 300 of silver). Although Jerusalem was not captured (a fact that later gave rise to belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem), Judah as a whole must have suffered grievously. Hezekiah's rebellion led to a period of Judahite subjugation to Assyria that lasted for some sixty years, until the general decline of Assyria enabled Josiah (640–609) to make a renewed bid for independence.

The period of over sixty years between Hezekiah's humiliation and the beginning of Josiah's reign is largely a blank so far as our knowledge is concerned. It was spanned by the long reign of Manasseh (c.698–643), to whom the Bible devotes eighteen verses in 2 Kings 21, most of which comment adversely on Manasseh's religious offences. Assyrian records from the reigns of Esarhaddon (680–669) and Ashurbanipal (668–c.632; see Pritchard 1955: 291, 294) mention that Manasseh provided material and military help to Assyria. Finkelstein and Silberman (2001: 264–70) believe that Manasseh tried to integrate Judah into the Assyrian economy, that the centralized administration of the country was strengthened, and that the growing population of Judah extended into the ecologically marginal areas of the land. The researches of Jamieson-Drake (1991: 146) indicate a boom in population in the seventh century in Judah, accompanied by an equal surge in wealth as indicated by luxury items. He surmises that this prosperity would not have been possible without the vital role played in the economy by Jerusalem. According to Steiner (2001), a result of Sennacherib's invasion was that Judah was devastated to the point that Jerusalem was now able to exert almost total domination over the administration and economy of the country.

Josiah came to power as an 8-year-old boy following the assassination of his father Amon (2 Kgs. 21: 19–26). He was put on the throne by ‘the people of the land’ (2 Kgs. 21: 24), possibly powerful landowners who saw the declining fortunes of Assyria (Nineveh would fall in 612 BCE) as an opportunity to assert Judah's independence. The long biblical account of his reign (2 Kgs. 22: 1–23: 30) is devoted entirely to his religious reforms, reforms in which cult centres other than Jerusalem were closed down and Jerusalem became the national sanctuary. Such is the paucity of external evidence that it is impossible to know whether Josiah's reform was primarily cultic or whether the Jerusalem centralization was an economic move to reorganize the taxation system and strengthen the fiscal power of the temple over the rest of the country. Possible evidence for the cult reform is provided by the findings of Keel and Uehlinger (1992), that the official seals of the period ceased to bear artistic representations connected with astral and fertility religions. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Josiah's reign made a deep impression on the formation of the biblical tradition. The so-called Deuteronomic movement, which scholars believe was responsible for major editing of considerable parts of the history-like and prophetic traditions now extant in the Bible, if it did not originate in Josiah's reign, was either given active encouragement by it or looked back to it as a model.

Josiah's achievements, whatever they were (they may have included expanding Judah's territory northwards) did not outlive his death in 609 at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II at Megiddo. The circumstances of his death have been the subject of various theories, most of which are plausible but not demonstrable (see Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 289–92). Judah now faced the growing might of the neo-Babylonian empire and of Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem was captured in 597 BCE, and its king and nobles and craftsmen were exiled to Babylon. Zedekiah, placed on the throne by the Babylonians in 597, rebelled after eight or nine years. This time, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple (in 587), ushering in the so-called period of the Exile.

The biblical record (2 Kgs. 25: 21: ‘So Judah was taken in to exile out of its land’; according to 2 Chr. 36: 21, the land lay desolate for seventy years) creates the impression that ‘exile’ meant the total evacuation of the population of Judah. That there was a severe breakdown in the economic life of Judah is indicated by the researches of Jamieson-Drake (1991: 146–7). If Jerusalem had played a major economic role in sustaining towns and villages in Judah, its destruction must have made these places economically non-viable. There would have been a reversion, where possible, to locally based, self-supporting subsistence agriculture on the part of the 75 per cent of the population that remained in Judah (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 306). This is obviously a far cry from the picture of a land left desolate. Little more can be said with certainty about this period.

If the ‘exile’ is a blank period in our knowledge, the same is true of the periods of the so-called return and the domination by Persia (see most exhaustively Grabbe 2004). The decree of the Persian king Cyrus recorded in Ezra 1: 2–4, authorizing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple, is certainly consonant with Cyrus's religious policy in general, as set out in the Cyrus cylinder (Pritchard 1955: 316), whether or not the decree in Ezra is accepted as authentic or not (see Grabbe 1992: 34–5). The problems of reconciling the number of returnees—nearly 50,000 according to Ezra 2: 64–5—with the picture presented in Haggai and Zechariah 1–8 (normally dated to around 525 BCE) of a people with little or no desire to rebuild the temple, are well known. Also, there is the fact that the Persian province of Jehud, as Judah became, was much smaller than Judah when ruled by kings (see the map in Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 309), and it is difficult to see where 50,000 returnees could have settled. It is more likely that the list in Ezra derives from a survey carried out at a later date. Scholarly debate about the Persian period has considered whether there was opposition between ‘theocratic’ and ‘apocalyptic’ groups, and whether there was serious debate about the rebuilding of the temple. Many of the arguments are based upon the interpretation of prophetic texts, which may or may not be correct. When it comes to hard evidence, the most that can be said, in the words of Grabbe, is that ‘some Jews returned to the land, over a period of time; the temple was rebuilt, probably in Darius’ reign, though exactly when is uncertain; the old area of Benjamin suffered some sort of destruction in the first half of the fifth century; Nehemiah repaired the wall and undertook some other reforms. Beyond that we find fewer certainties the further we go' (Grabbe 2000: 406). If it is the case that Nehemiah's reforms in the second half of the fifth century involved making Jews divorce wives who came from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab (Neh. 13: 23–7), it must have had dire social consequences for the women involved. The Jews who had contracted such marriages were presumably not, or descended from, returnees from Babylon, but were families that had remained in the land after 587. The complaint of the people, in Neh. 5, that ordinary citizens were having to mortgage their fields and sell their children into slavery in order to live and to pay taxes, sheds a small patch of light upon part of the period. Again, if it is the case that some of the returnees found that their land had been occupied in their absence, and if they forcibly repossessed that land, then this, together with the information from Neh. 13 and 5 suggests a picture of communal strife, for at least part of the period.

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