Archaeology is a curious discipline. It has the ability to capture the imagination, which is usually filled with images of lost civilizations and golden treasures. Although the average person may think
of archaeology as high adventure, it is often quite mundane. Hours and hours of work may reveal precious little, and sometimes nothing at all. A tantalizing discovery may only come after countless
hours of fruitless labor.
While archaeology has shed a great deal of light on the Bible, it also raises many questions of its own. Interpreting the ancient evidence is a complex task that is something of a combination of science and art. Still, there have been a number of fascinating discoveries that do connect the Bible to ancient history. This connection of the sacred to the secular is vital in our understanding of the Bible and the place of God’s people in history. We will consider several archaeological discoveries in and around the period of the Minor Prophets that shed light on the biblical text.
The Mesha Stele (Moab)
In the summer of 1868, F. A. Klein, a missionary from Strasbourg, France received word from a Bedouin tribe of a stone that no European had ever seen. He made a sketch of the stone and copied a few of the words of the inscription. Later, another scholar sent a young Arab man to take an impression of the inscription (a “squeeze”). Before the German consul could purchase the stone, the Bedouin broke it into pieces. They shattered the stone by heating it and pouring cold water over it. The reason for destroying the stone is unknown, but scholars have suggested one of two opinions. Either the Bedouin believed that gold was hidden inside the stone, or they thought they could maximize their profits by selling the stone in pieces. Ultimately, many pieces of the stone were recovered and, with the help of the squeeze, the inscription was largely restored (Fant and Reddish, 99).
Dated to about 835 BC, the inscription records a successful revolt of Mesha, king of Moab, against the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was quite powerful at this time thanks to Omri, a general who used the military to seize control c. 885 BC. He founded the city of Samaria, which would serve as the capital of Israel until its destruction by Assyrian forces in 722 BC. The Omride dynasty was a powerful one both militarily and politically, and was the most influential in the history of the northern kingdom (Hoffmeier, 102). Because of his influence, Assyrian rulers for decades referred to Israel as “the house of Omri” (Assyrian bit Humri).
Mesha records that Omri had oppressed Moab, but he successfully asserted his independence. In the inscription, Mesha refers to the “house of David,” which may be taken as a reference to the southern kingdom of Judah (as it is in the Tel Dan Inscription). Critics dispute this reading, but have offered no plausible alternatives. If the Mesha Stele does refer to the “house of David,” which it seems to do, it is a vital point of consideration in the question of David’s historicity. If the “house of David” is used in a similar fashion as the Assyrian references to the “house of Omri,” then it would seem as if the Moabites viewed David as a historical personage. Critics continue to dispute this reading but one wonders if it is not because of prejudice against the Bible in light of the inferiority of proposed alternatives.
The Nimrud Prism (Assyria)
Scripture is replete with warnings from the prophets, who frequently told God’s people to turn from their evil ways. Early on, the prophet Amos warned the Israelites about their departure from the covenant. They felt little need to do so, since they were enjoying a period of great prosperity. The Assyrian empire had been unable to exercise its dominance over the Eastern Mediterranean coastline in the mid-eighth century, which allowed Israel and Judah to prosper. An example of this wealth can be seen in the discovery of the Samarian ivories, beautiful, high-quality ivory sculptures which once decorated an elite home that may have been a palace (cf. 1 Kings 22:39; Amos 3:15). Ivory panels also decorated the beds in which the wealthy slept (cf. Amos 6:4-6). The Israelites took this abundant material wealth as a sign of blessing from God, even though their failure to adhere to the Mosaic Law was prevalent.
When Sargon II (721-705) took the Assyrian throne, regions on the periphery of the empire asserted their independence. Sargon was probably a usurper who had no rightful claim to the throne. This may be reflected in his name, which means, “the king is legitimate.” Regardless, it was only a matter of time before the Assyrian war machine, renown for both its efficiency and its cruelty, would bear down on the rebels.
Sargon waged war against Israel in 720 BC. In the Nimrud Prism he records that the inhabitants of Samaria had plotted against him, prompting him to attack. He invaded and took 27, 280 prisoners, chariots, “and gods, in which they trusted.” Concerning the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom he deported, he concludes his paragraph with the chilling words, “And I counted them as Assyrians” (Younger, 295-296). As was the usual custom, the conqueror carried off the gods, or idols, of the conquered people, often to place them in their temples as trophies. The words of the Assyrian monarch are telling. God’s people had adopted pagan practices, which included idolatry (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33). Since they were determined to act like pagans, God granted them their wish. Sargon took them to the heartland of Assyria, where they would lose their identity and become part of the Assyrian people.
The Lachish Reliefs and the Taylor Prism (Assyria)
Sargon’s son Sennacherib (705-681 BC) is one of the most significant Assyrian monarchs in the Hebrew Bible. When the news of Sargon’s death became public knowledge, rebellion broke out. The change in kingship often led to either refusal to pay tribute or to outright rebellion, and this case was no different. Hezekiah of Judah, along several other kings in the Levant, decided to break away from Assyrian rule rather than pay the heavy tribute the empire demanded. In response, Sennacherib claims to have besieged forty-six walled Judean cities, as well as numerous smaller villages.
One of the cities Sennacherib besieged was Lachish (2 Ki. 18:14, 17; 19:8). The conquest of the city is captured in stone reliefs that originally sat in the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib. Discovered in 1850 and now housed in the British Museum, the scenes depict the siege of Lachish from start to finish. It shows the troops preparing for war, the city under siege with an Assyrian battering ram breaking down the city’s wall, while the Assyrians and Judeans exchange missile fire in the form of both arrows and sling stones. Some inhabitants are shown being taken off as POWs, while the unlucky are impaled on poles by Assyrians soldiers. The reliefs were probably intended to dissuade foreign dignitaries from entertaining thoughts of rebellion.
Of king Hezekiah, Sennacherib says, “He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage” (Cogan, “Sennacherib’s Siege” 303). According to Isaiah 37:36, the angel of the Lord visited destruction upon the Assyrians as they camped outside Jerusalem. Since kings in the Near East were often concerned with personal glory, the defeat is not mentioned in Assyrian records. That Sennacherib was defeated is unquestioned, even though it is unmentioned.
The official Assyrian record of the siege against Jerusalem is recorded on the Taylor Prism (an eight-sided cylinder) housed in the British Museum. While Sennacherib boasts of besieging Judean cities and carrying off a substantial amount of plunder and a number of captives, his failure to record the defeat of Jerusalem is significant. It is also noteworthy that the events that took place at Lachish, not Jerusalem, were memorialized in the reliefs found in Sennacherib’s throne room. Lachish was a prominent city, but Jerusalem would have made the bigger prize. That it is Lachish, rather than Hezekiah’s capital, depicted in the reliefs is further proof that Sennacherib did not take Jerusalem. Scholars have offered various suggestions as to why Sennacherib was defeated, though they appear to arise out of an anti-supernatural bias against the biblical text.
The Cyrus Cylinder (Persia)
The connection between Judah and Persia finds its roots in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC by the Babylonians. The Judeans who could serve in valuable roles, such as those from the elite and artisan classes, were taken to Babylon. This is where Daniel and his three friends were taken and made part of a reeducation program designed to foster Babylonian loyalty in the young men.
The prophet Isaiah foretold in the eighth century BC that one named Cyrus would rescue the people of God (see Isa. 44-45). Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) founded the Persian Empire, becoming king in 559 BC. When he conquered Babylon in 539 BC, the Babylonians hailed him as a liberator. He records as much in the Cyrus Cylinder in which he says “I entered Babylon in a peaceful manner, I took up my lordly reign in the royal palace amidst rejoicing and happiness” (Cogan, “Cyrus Cylinder” 315). The barrel-shaped clay cylinder reflects the king’s genial nature in recording that some of the people captured by the Babylonians were allowed to return to their homelands (Yamauchi, 107).
Although the Cyrus Cylinder does not mention the Jews by name or support a widespread repatriation of all the various peoples conquered by Babylonian rulers, it does generally support the specific event of the Jewish exiles’ return from captivity. The Hebrew Bible provides a copy of Cyrus’ decree in both Hebrew (Ezra 1:2-4) and Aramaic (Ezra 6:3-5).
Archaeology and the Bible
Many more fascinating artifacts could be examined; each one of which offers a mute testimony to the historical reliability of the Bible. These fascinating discoveries solidly connect sacred and secular history. The Bible is not the product of a fertile imagination, nor were the events it records “done in a corner.” The stones, being mute, do indeed speak. And what a wonderful story they tell.
Cogan, Mordechai. “”Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Cogan, Mordechai. “Cyrus Cylinder” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Fant, Clyde E. and Mitchell G. Reddish. Lost Treasures of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Hoffmeier, James K. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Hudson, 2008. Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Persians” in Peoples of the Old Testament World, Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly, and Edwin M. Yamauchi, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.
Younger, K. Lawson. “Nimrud Prisms D & E” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
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