2020-10-15

Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on Russell Gmirkin’s chapter, “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom”, in the Thomas L. Thompson festschrift, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity. All posts addressing the same volume are archived here.

Russel Gmirkin’s conclusions (p. 77):

• That the area later known as the kingdom of Judah was under direct rule from Samaria from c. 875 to c. 735 BCE.
• That Yahweh worship was also centered at Samaria during this early period and only appeared at Jerusalem as a result of Samarian regional influences.
• That Judah only emerged as an independent political entity in the time of Tiglath-pileser III under Jehoahaz of Judah in c. 735 BCE.
• That the Acts of Solomon originated in the Neo-Assyrian province of Samaria to celebrate Shalmaneser III as legendary conqueror and founder of an empire south of the Euphrates.
• That old local monumental architecture that the Acts of Solomon attributed to Shalmaneser III, including Jerusalem’s temple, is best understood as reflecting Omride building activities c. 875-850 BCE.

A typical chart illustrating the Old Testament chronology of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah is Jonathan Petersen’s on the BibleGateway Blog. I have copied that chart complete (left). If we use contemporary archaeological sources to determine what the kingdoms of Israel and Judah looked like and make adjustments to that chart we end up with something like the following. The United Kingdom disappears entirely. The Kingdom of Judah only emerges after the Assyrians have hamstrung the Kingdom of Israel in the time of King Menahem in the 730s. Before then the area we think of as the kingdom of Judah had been dominated by the kingdom of Israel.

Russell Gmirkin does not use the above chart but he does seek to reconstruct the historical origins of the kingdom of Judah, its Temple and Yahweh worship by means of the contemporary archaeological sources and comes to much the same conclusion as illustrated on the right side of the above chart. In an effort to get a handle on the archaeological sources and their relation to what we read in the biblical texts I made up my own rough grid based on Gmirkin’s list of archaeological sources. Dates and scale are only approximate. Many of the sources are available online for those interested in that sort of detail.

The kingdom of Judah does not register a mark on the world scene until after the Samaria based kingdom of Israel has been weakened by Assyria and on the brink of final collapse. For earlier Vridar posts on this order of events see

For those interested in following up the archaeological testimony to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as per the above chart . . .

Scene on Black Obelisk: Jehu prostrate before Shalmaneser V

Consult Luckenbill’s Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia Volumes 1 and 2 for

  • the Kurkh Monolith Stele
  • the Black Obelisk
  • the Mesha Stele
  • the Nimrud Slab Inscriptions (for Adad-nirari III)
  • the Annals of Tiglath-pileser
  • the Display, Pavement and Nimrud Inscriptions (for Sargon II)
  • Sennacherib’s Annals & Bull inscription
  • the Cylinder texts (for Ashurbanipal)

Consult Glassner’s Mesopotamian Chronicles (I was able to access this volume on Questia in July last year but cannot see them there now; hope you have better luck) for

  • Shalmaneser V’s siege of Samaria
  • Nebuchadnezzar II’s destruction of Jerusalem

And Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts for

  • Esarhaddon’s subjugation of king Manasseh of Judah
  • Nebuchadnezzar II’s deportation of king Jehoiachin of Judah

Archaeological finds have demonstrated that Israel under Ahab extended its power from the Galilee through to the Red Sea. The map below is from Israel Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom : the Archaeology and History of Northern Israel (open access link). Read the concluding paragraphs of chapter 3 for Finkelstein’s discussion of evidence that Jerusalem at the time of Ahab was far from being a significant urban site. The map shows the main sites of Ahab’s building activities.

A key passage in Gmirkin’s article establishing the significance of Ahab’s building activity, including an administrative and temple buildings in Jerusalem (pp. 80f):

An analysis of the inscriptional evidence from c. 850-800 BCE supports the hypothesis that Judah was under direct rule from Samaria during this period. The prominence of Israel under Omri and Ahab as a regional power of the southern Levant has been extensively discussed elsewhere (e.g. Finkelstein 2013: 83-117). In economic and political alliance with the Phoenicians, Ahab’s Israel controlled the coastal route through the (‘Solomonic’) chariot cities of Gezer and Megiddo, the northern inland trade route through Hazor, portions of the King’s Highway from Gilead through northern Moab (Dearman 1989: 159, 169), and the southern trade to the Red Sea (Meshel 2012: 69). The zenith of Omride military power and territorial expansion was during the reign of Ahab (874-853 BCE), whose activities as a builder is attested by monumental architectural remains at Samaria, Jezreel, Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor and elsewhere.

Omride interest in controlling trade routes in both the Transjordan and the Negev in this period calls into question the existence of a kingdom centered at Jerusalem in this period. The geographical territory of Judah was adjacent to the hills of Ephraim and immediately opposite Ammon and Moab. It is difficult to imagine a strong military power such as Israel under Omri and Ahab having overlooked Judah, a relatively easy target whose possession would consolidate Omride control of Ammon and northern Moab as well as giving Samaria full control of the fertile Jericho plain (cf. 1 Kgs 16:34). Omride rule of Jerusalem and Judah would also have given Israel control of the trade route that ran south from Samaria through Judah and the Negev to the Red Sea. Indeed, the royal establishment of the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud as a Samarian outpost [see below] indicated to excavator Meshel that Israel must have ruled Judah during the period Kuntillet ‘Ajrud was occupied (Meshel 2012: 69).

The above discussion points to the strong likelihood that Samaria ruled Judah and Jerusalem during the period c. 875-800 BCE. Construction of the Temple Mount’s palace and temple in the ninth century BCE, modeled on the royal compounds on the artificially leveled acropolises at Samaria and Jezreel (Wightman 1993: 29-31; Ussishkin 2003: 535; 2011: 18-21; Finkelstein and Silberman 2006: 105), is best attributed to the Omrides in line with their building activities (Omri at 1 Kgs 16:24, Ahab at 1 Kgs 22:39) well-documented in other cities such as Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor (Finkelstein and Silberman 2006: 163-7, 275-81). Several of these cities had a palace for the governor of the city. Jerusalem in the ninth century BCE is best understood as another such Omride city with governor’s palace and temple (like the temples at nearby ninth-century BCE Tel Motza and eighth-century BCE Arad; cf. Garfinkel and Mumcuoglu 2016: 166-72).

(Finkelstein 2013, Ussishkin 2003, Ussishkin 2011 & Finkelsetin-Silberman 2006 links are to full text open access)

On the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud outpost mentioned above:

The Inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. The archaeological remains at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud on an isolated hilltop in the eastern central Sinai consist of a single layer of occupation (in two phases) dated to c. 820-750 BCE. The inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud famously mentioned ‘Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah’ and ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah’ (Meshel 2012: 3.1, 3.6, 3.9, 4.1.1), but omitted Jerusalem and its temple.

(Gmirkin, p. 80)

Figures from Finkelstein 2013; Drawing from Haaretz.com

Given that the Temple Mount’s palace and temple are modelled on the royal compounds of ninth century Samaria as Gmirkin points out, the evidence of “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud makes a strong case for the Jerusalem temple being instituted for Yahweh worship at the behest of Ahab of Samaria/Israel.

That’s not the way the Bible story tells it, of course. But Gmirkin is only half done at this point. Next post we look at the possible sources for the biblical accomplishments of Solomon.


Gmirkin, Russell. 2020. “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom.” In Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, edited by Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh, 76–90. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.

Petersen, Jonathan. 2017. “Updated: Chart of Israel’s and Judah’s Kings and Prophets.” Bible Gateway Blog (blog). July 17, 2017. https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2017/07/updated-chart-of-israels-and-judahs-kings-and-prophets/.


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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah”

  1. I have since updated the post with links to earlier Vridar posts on the archaeological evidence for the kingdom of Judah only emerging as an independent state after the collapse of the northern kingdom of Israel.

  2. You say that Russel seeks “to reconstruct the historical origins of the kingdom of Judah, its Temple and Yahweh worship by means of the contemporary archaeological sources“. And then you quote him as saying:”Construction of the Temple Mount’s palace and temple in the ninth century BCE… is best attributed to the Omrides.”

    However the existence of a palace and temple complex in any shape or form in Jerusalem at any time between the 10th and 6th Centuries BCE is based solely on biblical accounts, so surely it shouldn’t enter into the discussion whatsoever, if one is taking a purely archaeological approach.

    1. Hi Austendw,

      It’s good to call for legitimate evidence for the existence of the First Temple.

      I see several lines of evidence that point to a temple at Jerusalem in Iron II.

      (1) The flattened acropolis of the Temple Mount is typical of (and an innovation apparently found exclusively in) large scale Samarian royal city construction under Omri/Ahab, found at Jezreel, Samaria, Hazor X, Hirbet el-Mudyine et-Temed (Jahaz) in Omride Moab, and a couple others. The close parallel suggests that the Temple Mount was another Samarian architectural enterprise. I find it extremely unlikely that such a monumental building task as leveling the Temple Mount could have taken place in Persian Era Jerusalem ca. 500 BCE.
      (2) The description of the polytheistic temple under Manasseh corresponds to the pictorial and inscriptional finds at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and arguably derived from the Iron II Annals of the Kings of Judah, an authentic source document embedded within the late (Hellenistic Era) books of 1 and 2 Kings.
      (3) The account of the construction of the temple in 1 Kings 5-8 conforms to building accounts in Assyrian inscriptions (and contains remarkable parallels with those associated with Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival).
      (4) The bit hilani form of the temple as described in 1 Kings closely corresponds with Iron II temples up and down the Levantine coast in that period.

      Russell Gm.

      1. Hi Russell

        I agree that there surely was a temple during the Iron II, but where I’m a little troubled is the notion that an entire monumental palace complex can be ascribed to the 9th Century BCE. The flattened acropolis of the Temple Mount that we see today is of course of Herodian construction, so it tells us nothing about earlier building phases, and the biblical account of the building of the temple and palace is certainly not early or contemporary. And therefore, how can we know that Iron II Jerusalem ever had a wide raised platform comparable in form and date to the one discovered in Samaria? Perhaps there was a less grandiose arrangement of buildings, built in the 8th Century BCE which was “bigged up” in the biblical account, and so having nothing to do with the Omrides? A literary critical analysis of the 1 Kings temple/palace narrative would presumably be relevant to this discussion.

        I’m at a disadvantage here, of course, because I haven’t read your article, only Neil’s post, and I know from his outline (and the essay title) that you have a more particular thesis.

        One last comment: I thought that “bit-hilani form” refers to the layout of palace architecture (two long rooms with their main axis running parallel with the facade), not the temple plan as described in 1 Kings where the main axis runs perpendicular to the facade.

        1. I’m in the midst of other projects so I can’t drill down into the data right now. Some quick reactions:

          Bit hilani architecture has been adduced for both palaces and temples. (What bit hilani specifically referred to is still being discussed.) I find parallels between Assyrian inscriptions and both palace and temple buildign stories in 1 Kgs 5-8. See Hurowitz 1992: 313-16 on the Kings building account based on Assyrian rather than even later Babylonian building accounts, pointing to an early (certainly Iron II) tradition.

          Hurowitz, Victor, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings (JSOT Supp 115; JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).

          Finkelstein and Ussishkin both believe Jerusalem’s Temple Mount acropolis was leveled off contemporary with the other sites I mentioned above, but allege it was done by a king of Jerusalem in imitation of Samarian practices. I find that interpretation highly doubtful, since (a) there is no inscriptional or other evidence of Judean kings at that time and (b) execution by the king of Israel/Samaria seems the most direct explanation of the distinct common features.

          If there was a credible case to be made that (contrary to Finkelstein and others) the leveling of the acropolis was done only at a much later time (e.g. by Herod the Great) I would find that interesting, but I don’t currently have time to research the point. I’ll put a faint question mark by this seeming fact in my brain, however, for future reference.

  3. I may be off base, but I suspect that Samarian influence has been downplayed, if not eradicated after the “Return” of those from Babylonian exile. The exiled were the elites of Judaic society and were gone for 50 years or so, so most of the original people were dead. It was mostly their descendants who “returned.” But given permission to rebuild the temple along with their sense of privilege led them to believe they would slide right back into the area and assume leadership positions. However, the Samaritans, who remained behind, did their best to carry on that culture. They were denied the ability to rebuild the temple, sop they build a temple in Samaria instead. They carried on. The “returnees” should have been in disgrace as they caused Yahweh to remove his protection from them during the Babylonian conquest.

    But they wanted their privileges, and Samaria was in the way. So they launched a disinformation/propaganda campaign against the Samaritans (for reasons of power, not scripture) and finally a military campaign in which the temple in Samaria was destroyed. (Israelites destroying a temple to Israeli gods, oh my.)

    So, later historians were biased against Samaria and we disinclined to grant them any influence they might have possessed.

    Much of the Israeli “back story” in the form of written scripture was written/edited at this time to provide a “scriptural guide” for the disinformation campaign.

    1. Steve, recent scholarship (eg: Reinhardt Pummer, Benedikt Hensel) has significantly modified – not to say totally rejected – the Biblical account which suggests that the Judeans (“Israeli” is hardly a helpful term to use of the period) and Samaritans were at each others’ throats from the time of the return of the Babylonian Golah community, as given in the Biblical books of Ezra-Nehemiah. These scholars argue that the tensions between Yehud and Samaria do not date to the Persian period at all, but only developed when the two sanctuary-centres became competitors within the single Hellenistic Coele-Syrian province, where before Yehud and Samaria had been two quite separate, non-competitive and culturally “collaborative” provinces. The fact that the Samaritan and Judean Pentateuchs are very similar (barring obvious tweaks) points to a significant cultural “commonwealth”, and the Elephantine letters similarly portray a cultic co-existence that substantially differs from the anachronistically hostile narrative of the mostly Hellenistic books of Ezra-Nehemiah.

      There is always a risk that, in being sceptical of the orthodox biblical narrative, we simply turn it on it’s head – making the biblical baddies (Samaritans) the new goodies (“did their best to carry on that culture”), and the biblical goodies (Judeans) the new baddies (“with their sense of privilege”… “should have been in disgrace”… “they wanted their privileges”… “disinformation campaign”). Happily, scholarship now takes a more balanced view of the period and relationship between Yehud and Samaria.

    2. Thompson understood the “myth of return from exile” to have originated with the propaganda of Persians who deported a new population to Palestine, as was a custom with ancient empires. (Whether the deportees included descendants of original inhabitants we cannot know). He cites at least one instance of those being deported being led to understand that they were the original inhabitants of a land returning to reestablish the rightful gods.

      Gmirkin views the “returnees” as descendants of the Mesopotamians sent by Assyrians and then the Babylonians to administer the lands, if I understand/recollect correctly.

      Philip Davies pointed out that whoever the new settlers were they likely looked down on the local inhabitants and eventually classified them as undesirable “Canaanites”.

      1. No, my position is that the historical community of Babylonians and other Assyrians who were placed in the Assyrian province of Samerina in the later 700s BCE to replace the deported Israelite ruling class largely retained their identity and traditions and persisted in Samaria down to the Hellenistic Era (cf. Jewish polemics at 2 Kgs 17.24-41), where they influenced the creation of the Pentateuch and other biblical writings, as evidenced by: Mesopotamian origin traditions in Genesis, Mesopotamian calendar names, a sprinkling of Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Pentateuchal laws, among others, as I alluded to in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as well as in the conclusion of the article Neil is writing about.

        This is a distinct issue from whether there could have been a return of Judean Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem as in the late Ezra novella. In my article for the Thompson Festschrift I merely observe that Mesopotamian traditions in the bible arguably originated with actual Mesopotamians educated elites living in Samaria, not Judean returnees from a brief period of exile in Babylon, to whom scholarship has traditionally attributed all biblical traditions Babylonian. Samaritan authors of actual Babylonian ancestry made significant contributions to biblical writings.

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