ISSUE: 2010, Volume 7, Issue 4
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In the May 2010 issue we looked at the ‘bricks and mortar’ evidence for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament and we saw that, where it was possible to check, what has been discovered through archaeological excavation reinforces what is found in the biblical text. However, it should be borne in mind that buildings and structures of themselves cannot prove anything, hence the controversies that often surround dating them. Pottery remains found at different sites have been used to great effect to build up sequences of different styles and techniques across a wide area to provide relative dates but this is as far as they can go. It may be argued that the fact that finds on the ground match up with what the Bible says is purely circumstantial. However, in response it may be said that the consistency with which such ‘circumstantial’ evidence supports the biblical text strongly suggests its accuracy. At the same time it is true that, for example, the fact that we have gate structures in different places from around the time of Solomon and that the Bible says that Solomon built the walls of these cities, is not conclusive proof that Solomon was responsible for their construction, although it is highly suggestive. Something else is needed, a further dimension that is, on the one hand, totally independent of the biblical text and on the other, has the capacity to place archaeological finds in an absolute historical context. This dimension is provided by the discovery of textual evidence.
Over the years, tens of thousands of written documents have been discovered at various sites in the Near East. Even so, the picture that can be built up from them is sporadic and incomplete. To a large extent this is due to the differing materials upon which texts were written. Papyrus, for example, does not survive the passage of time except in exceptional circumstances. Other materials such as stone, potsherds or clay tablets, are much more durable. Another factor is what is known as ‘accidents of discovery’, that is, at some sites archaeologists have hit upon an archive or library whilst at others they have not (yet). The result is once again rather like a jigsaw with many pieces missing. However, we are able to get detailed snapshots of specific, often brief, periods in time and also to build up a more general picture of the history of the Near East during the period covered by the Old Testament, in particular that of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Before we look at specific examples it is worthwhile noting that wherever it is possible to check the text against external sources the detailed accuracy of the biblical text shines through. For example, in the books of Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah and Jeremiah eight different Assyrian and Babylonian kings arementioned.1 Every single name appears in its right order, even when there are a number in quick succession. Where foreign officials are mentioned, these are given their correct titles and functions. The same is true the other way round. A number of kings of Israel and Judah are mentioned in Assyrian and Babylonian records, again in the historical order that they are found in the Bible. As believers we need not be surprised – it is only what we would expect from the word of God. It is interesting to note how many of the kings are attested outside the Bible.2 The ways in which their names are found include seals or seal impressions, records of foreign kings and even a ration list. In 2 Kings chapters 24 and 25, we learn that when Jehoiachin was carried away to Babylon he was kept in prison until his (limited) release at the beginning of the reign of Evil-Merodach, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor. At that time, 25. 27, he is still known as ‘the king of Judah’. Although we have no records of his release, an otherwise fairly boring ration list from the time of Nebuchadnezzar records several allocations to ‘Jehoiachin, king of Judah’, his five young sons, and various other Judahites. Apart from the seals of Hebrew kings, there are various officials who are also attested, perhaps most notable amongst them ‘Berechiah (Baruch) son of Neriah, the scribe’, that is, Jeremiah’s secretary, cf., e.g., Jer. 45.3 The people of whom the Bible speaks were real people.
The same is true of key events in Israel’s history where they interacted with foreign countries and their kings. 2 Kings chapter 3, for example, records the rebellion of Mesha the king of Moab against Jehoram the son of Ahab, king of Israel. In 1868 a stone stele was discovered at Dhiban in Jordan which is now in the Louvre museum in Paris.4 This held an inscription by this same Mesha, king of Moab, relating how Omri king of Israel had oppressed Moab and how he had rebelled against one of Omri’s successors. He records how Israelite dominion lasted for forty years – all the days of Omri, (no mention of Ahab) and ‘half the days of his son’. In true Middle Eastern fashion it appears that he is trying to minimize Moab’s humiliation by limiting the number of oppressors mentioned. However, if we add the years of Omri’s reign (12) to the years of Ahab (22) and half the years of Jehoram (6), even if Mesha’s number is an approximation we still arrive at forty. Thereafter, the two accounts diverge to provide a fuller picture of what took place. The account in Kings deals with Jehoram’s reaction to Mesha’s rebellion, initial successes and eventual forced withdrawal, 2 Kgs. 3. 27. Mesha, on the other hand, not surprisingly, makes no mention of Israelite successes but concentrates solely on his own gains, presumably after Israel and her allies had withdrawn. The two accounts, therefore, are beautifully consistent and complementary. Moving on in time 2 Kings chapters 15 and 16 tell the story of the interactions of the kingdoms of Syria (Aram of Damascus), Israel and Judah with Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria. Six different kings are mentioned: Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea of Israel, Rezin of Damascus, and Ahaz of Judah. Of these five are mentioned in Tiglath-pileser’s records. The fifth, Pekahiah, reigned for only two years and therefore presumably had no direct contact with the great Assyrian king. 2 Kings chapter 15 verse 19 states that Menahem gave tribute to Pul (another name for Tiglath-pileser). The Assyrian records confirm this. Kings gives the figure as one thousand talents of silver. Although there is no corresponding figure given by the Assyrians, the same figure was levied from another king whomTiglath-pileser installed as a puppet-king – Menahem requested the Assyrians’ help to establish his kingship and had to pay a heavy price for doing so. During Pekah’s reign a number of Israelite cities were annexed to Assyria. He himself was killed in a coup and replaced on the throne by Hoshea. All these details are confirmed by the Assyrian records, with the Assyrian king himself claiming the credit for installing Hoshea on the throne. At this time, Rezin was king of Damascus. Kings states that the king of Assyria attacked Damascus, captured it, carried its people captive and killed Rezin, 2 Kgs. 16. 9. The preserved part of the Assyrian records gives details of the siege of Damascus and the deportation of a number of captives. We do not have their account of its capture and Rezin’s execution but there is no reason to doubt this outcome, especially since T i g l a t h - p i l e s e r impaled Rezin’s chief ministers alive and put them on public view. 2 Kings also mentions the advances of Ahaz of Judah to the king of Assyria and payment of tribute, vv. 7-8. Tiglath-pileser confirms that he received tribute from ‘Jehoahaz (a longer form of the name) the Judahite’. Once again, the Bible is correct in every detail.
The fall of Samaria came under Hoshea. Against him came Shalmaneser V of Assyria who besieged Samaria for three years before the city was taken, 17. 3-5. This king reigned for only five years, yet the biblical account does not overlook him. He is credited with ravaging Samaria in a Babylonian chronicle.5 Israelites were deported to various places in Assyria and Media, from all of which people with Jewish names occur in documents dating to not long after the event.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the encounters between Israel and Assyria during this period is the invasion of Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah. This is not just because of the detail of the Assyrian and biblical accounts but also because they are augmented by a third, an account by the Greek historian Herodotus, which he attributes to Egyptian sources. The biblical account of the event may be summarized as follows: Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah during Hezekiah’s reign and took ‘all the fenced cities of Judah’, 18. 13. He laid siege to Lachish, v. 14. Hezekiah paid him tribute of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold, v. 14. Sennacherib sent his officials and part of his army to besiege Jerusalem, v. 17. He left off the siege of Jerusalem to fight against the Ethiopians but sent a letter to say that he would be back soon to finish the job off, 19. 9-13. His army was decimated and instead he returned home, 19. 35-36. He was later murdered in Nineveh by two of his sons and was succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon, 19. 37. Sennacherib, too, confirms that he conquered a number of cities of Judah and, whilst he does not specify Lachish among them Jeremy Gibson (see YPS Feb 2010 – Walk through the British Museum with me) has drawn our attention in a previous article to the reliefs in the British Museum that depict the siege and conquest of this city. He also states that he laid siege to Jerusalem and confined Hezekiah ‘like a bird in a cage’. Thereafter the situation becomes interesting. In true Middle-Eastern fashion it would be unthinkable for Sennacherib to record the decimation of his army and it is therefore not surprising that he does not. However, it is noticeable that his account ends rather lamely in comparison with the rest of his campaign. In essence, when the spin is removed, he goes home without having captured Jerusalem! What, then, of the decimation of his army? The Bible saysthat Isaiah predicted that he would ‘hear a rumour’, v. 7. This happens in verse 9 when ‘he heard say’ that the Ethiopians had come out against him. According to Sennacherib, when he first began his campaign the Egyptians and Ethiopians had come out to meet him and had been defeated in battle. The rumour that he heard, therefore, would be that they had regrouped and were ready for a second round. He therefore dropped everything and went out to meet them. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptian warriors were not willing to fight (not surprisingly if they had already been defeated, though this is not the reason that he gives) and the ‘army’ that went out to meet Sennacherib as he came was a mixture of the general public. However, the night before battle was due to commence something miraculous happened that left the army defenceless and the Assyrian army was massacred.6 To really finish Sennacherib off, some Assyrian and Babylonian sources confirm that he was indeed murdered by his own son, the Assyrian form of the name ‘Arda-mulissi’ being the equivalent of the biblical ‘Adrammelech’, v. 37. Once again, therefore, when compared with other texts the biblical account is consistent and complementary.
Space constraints do not permit further examples but they could be multiplied were we to look at other events, such as the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar or the fall of Babylon under Cyrus the Persian, or the enemies of the Jews in the time of Nehemiah and so on.
Sennacherib during his Babylonian war: relief from his palace in Nineveh
In every case, where it is possible to ascertain the facts, the Bible displays its accuracy and reliability. Therefore, we might approach the scriptures with confidence without fear of the critics or the sceptics, with the knowledge that, though they are not written with the sole purpose of presenting history, the history they present is real and accurate.