Rise and fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea. FinnWikiNoderivative work: Richardprins.The origins of Abrahamic monotheism are traditionally attributed to culture heroes such as Abraham and Moses. Secular scholars instead assign a later date to these development, during the period of the Babylonian Exile or even later. Despite this late date, however, tendencies towards monotheism must have been developing in the centuries prior to the Exile as well. Usually the focus is on the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This is mostly because after the fall of the Northern Kingdom we witness a sharp increase in prophetic activity in the south. However, when tracing back the lines it appears that this prophetic movement had northern origins, as can be deducted from the prophetic activities of Elijah and his followers. This Elijah and his movement were in turn inspired by the political developments that took place in the small but also young and dynamic Kingdom of Israel. Therefore, I have dedicated this post to this obscure but very interesting kingdom.

The origins of Israel
The origins of the Israelite people are still somewhat obscure. Although the Bible provides a clear narrative, there is a lot of debate on its historical accuracy. The name ‘Israel’ first appears om a victory stele erected by pharaoh Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BC), in which the pharaoh describes his victories over foreign invaders and his pacification of the Canaan. He claims to have wiped out ‘the seed of Israel’, who supposedly lived in the hill country on the west bank of the river Jordan. Merneptah’s claims were empty boasts, however, as Egypt did lose permanent control over the Canaan soon afterward and the Israelites would be heard of again. According to archaeological studies the centuries following 1200 BC saw a decline in the urban population along the Philistine coast and an increase in small settlements in the hill country west of the river Jordan, which may be evidence of the origin of the Israelite nation.

Israel as a tribal federation
As those who follow my blog will probably know by now, I tend to see tribal federations everywhere. Israel is no exception. There are plenty of reasons to assume that Israel during the Judges and United Monarchy period was a tribal federation. First of all, the Bible makes it clear from the beginning that the Israelites consisted of 12 related tribes and ascribes to them a nomadic pastoralist origin. Second, the Book of Judges depicts the Israelites as a loose coalition of tribes who occasionally unite under one leader: the Judge. Regardless of the question whether or not the events described in the book of Judges are historically accurate, the book does paint a plausible picture of a loose tribal federation.

The ‘United Monarchy’
The Israelites often had to work together to fight their aggressive neighbors, which required stronger leadership. Saul, a warlord from the tribe of Benjamin, was the first to unite all the tribes into one ‘kingdom’ around 1000 BC, but he soon lost the southern tribes to the more charismatic warlord David, from the tribe of Judah. After the death of Saul, his son Ishbaal, ruled for two years until David managed to win over the northern tribes as well. During the reign of David and his son Solomon the Israelites were in constant war with their neighbors, but they were pretty succesful, allegedly extending their sphere of influence as far as the Euphrates river. After the death of Solomon, however, many Israelite tribes became tired of tyranny and decided to break away from the kingdom, as often happens with tribal federations. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained in the hands of the ‘House of David’, forming the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

12 Tribes of Israel Map by '12 tribus de Israel'. Translated by 'Kordas12 staemme'. Derivative work of 'Richardprins'.
12 Tribes of Israel Map by ’12 tribus de Israel’. Translated by ‘Kordas12 staemme’. Derivative work of ‘Richardprins’.

Rise of the House of Omri
The northern tribes continued to work together under Jeroboam, a warlord from the tribe of Ephraim. Jeroboam is mostly known for erecting two Golden Calves in Bethel and Dan, where people could go to worship the LORD instead of Jerusalem, which was still in the hands of the House of David. During the following decades several short-lived dynasties ruled over (some of) the northern tribes, until a general named Omri (r. 885-874 BC) managed to unite all the northern tribes into one kingdom. He is hardly mentioned in the Bible because he was loathed by the prophetic movement, but he seems to have been quite important. He founded the city of Samaria and probably tried to set up a centralized kingdom around this city. In fact, the Assyrians, the Arameans and the Moabites only knew the Kingdom of Israel as the ‘House of Omri’. Omri also married off his son Ahab to the Tyrian princess Jezebel, probably in an attempt to secure good relations with the city of Tyre, that dominated Mediterranean trade at the time. Ahab (r. 874-853 BC) was probably the strongest king that the Northern Kingdom of Israel ever had. He extended his sphere of influence over Judah, Edom and Moab and fought many successful battles against his mighty rival Aram Damascus. Eventually Ahab joined a coalition of Levantine states, including his former rival Aram Damascus, to stop an Assyrian invasion at Qarqar (853 BC). Despite all these deeds, Ahab is know mostly for his conflict with the prophetic movement headed by Elijah.

Elijah and his prophetic movement
The LORD, or Yahweh, had been the national god of the Israelites since at least the 11th century, when the first Psalms dedicated to him originated. However, like all of their neighbors the Israelites worshiped many other gods as well. This was generally not seen as a problem, since other gods were seen as equally real. Nevertheless, from very early on there seems to have been a movement that was intolerant of the worship of other gods. This movement, led by inspired prophets, considered Yahweh to be a special god that required exclusive worship. The prophetic movement is first attested during the reign of Ahab, when the cult of the Tyrian storm god Baal Melqart became popular in Israel due to the influence of the Tyrian princess Jezebel. The cult of Baal even threatened to take the place of the Yahweh cult. The prophetic movement was led by Elijah, a mysterious figure shrouded in legends. He is said to have had the ability to raise people from the dead, call down fire from heaven and outrun a chariot. Under the leadership of Elijah, the prophetic movement sought the confrontation with Ahab and his wife Jezebel.

Elijah being taken up to Heaven in a chariot of fire.

Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal
During a long drought, Elijah preached the message that it was Ahab’s tolerance of the worship of Baal that had made Yahweh ‘jealous’ and caused him to hold back the rains. Apparently Ahab believed that it was Elijah himself who was holding back the rains with his magic. Since both Yahweh and Baal were known as weather gods, Elijah made a wager with the prophets of Baal to see whose god could light an altar on fire and bring back rain. The prophets of Baal prayed to their god in an extravagant way for hours on end, while Elijah was mocking them by depicting Baal as an imperfect human-like god who couldn’t hear his people because he was sleeping or away on a journey. Elijah then offered a humble prayer towards Yahweh, upon which fire descended from the sky immediately, consuming the sacrifice. Soon after, plenty of rain came down from the heavens. Elijah then ordered all priests of Baal to be killed, probably because he held them responsible for causing the drought by leading Israelites away from the worship of Yahweh.

Elijah at Mount Horeb
Despite allegedly bringing back rain to the land, Ahab and his wife Jezebel continued to hold Elijah responsible for the drought. Furthermore, Jezebel wanted to have Elijah executed for his massacre of the prophets of Baal. Elijah then fled to Mount Horeb, where Moses, the one who had allegedly introduced the Israelites to the cult of Yahweh, had given his laws to the people of Israel. There Elijah received a revelation from Yahweh. Yahweh first sent forth a storm, an earthquake and a fire, but made it clear to Elijah that he was not ‘in’ these natural phenomena. He then revealed himself to Elijah in a cool breeze. This story was probably attributed to Elijah on a later date, when the concept of monotheism had developed further, just like the scene where Elijah is mocking Baal for his imperfections. Both scenes depict Yahweh as a peaceful God who acts in subtle ways and is not limited by human limitations, in contrast to the violent and very humanlike Baal. The story of Yahweh revealing himself to Elijah as a peaceful god may also have been a way for the author of the Book of Kings to distance himself from Elijah’s massacre of the prophets of Baal, which may have made people feel uncomfortable even in Antiquity.

Decline and fall of the House of Omri
After his stay on Mount Horeb, Elijah goes back to Israel to annoint Elisha as the new leader of the prophetic community. He also annoints Jehu as the new king of Israel and Hadadezer as the new king of Aram Damascus. This annointing procedure was a way of showing that Yahweh had chosen these people for their respective purposes. Elijah then crossed the river Jordan with Elisha and was allegedly taken up into the heavens by a chariot of fire. Elisha would carry on his mission, performing many miracles and helping both Jehu and Hadadezer to gain the throne that was promised to them. Hadadezer immediately set out to kill the reigning king of Damascus, Ben-Haddad, and subsequently invaded Israel. This Aramean invasion of Israel led to a revolt among the Israelite troops. The aforementioned general Jehu led the revolt and on his way to Samaria he killed the new king of Israel, Jehoram, a son of the late Ahab, and king Ahaziah of Judah, who was related to the House of Omri in marriage. Upon arriving in Samaria, Jehu kills the hated queen Jezebel, along with all other members of the House of Omri and all the remaining prophets of Baal. It is one of the most violent episodes in the Bible and even the author of the Bible text does not explicitly approve of it. Although he must have seen Jehu’s rise to power as Yahweh’s will, he does portray Jehu in an unfavorable way. Jehu continued to allow the worship of the Golden Calves, which is why Yahweh allowed the Arameans to win many victories over Israel.

Assyrian politics?
The Bible is clear that it was Elijah who made Hadadezer and Jehu king. However, when looking at the historical context we may identify a different reason. Upon his rise to power, the new king Jehu offered tribute to king Shalmaneser III of Assyria in 841 BC; a scene that is depicted on Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk. Remarkably, Jehu is called a ‘son of Omri’ on this obelisk, which is not to be taken literally, but which implies that Israel continued to be known as the House of Omri, even after the dynasty of Omri had died out. Furthermore, the Tell Dan stele, that was probably erected by Hadadezer, claims that Hadadezer subjugated both Israel and the ‘House of David’, i.e. Judah. When we remember the fact that Ahab and Ben-Haddad had resisted the Assyrians, we may come to a new reconstruction of the events. After Shalmaneser (r. 859-824 BC) had been driven back by a coalition led by Ben-Haddad of Aram Damascus and Ahab of Israel at the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC, he continued to look for ways to crush these two powerful kings. Perhaps Hadadezer was a pro-Assyrian candidate who conducted a coup against his king with Assyrian support. Afterwards Hadadezer attacked Israel, upon which a general named Jehu killed the entire family of Omri, probably in order to please the Arameans. Jehu then declared himself to be the humble servant of Hadadezer and, in consequence, to the king of Assyria.

By Steven G. Johnson.
The Israelite king Jehu prostrating himself before the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. By Steven G. Johnson.

Decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
The descendants of Jehu continued to rule over the Northern Kingdom until 752 BC. Their reigns appear to have been relatively peaceful. The population of Israel grew and long distance trade increased. The conflict between Aram Damascus and Israel resumed pretty soon after Jehu’s coup. Perhaps the Assyrians allowed these two ‘vassals’ to fight each other because of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, but it is likelier that the Assyrians were unable to continuously exert control over this distant region. In fact, it is well known that the Assyrian Empire was in temporary decline during the early eighth century BC. According to the Bible, king Jeroboam II of Israel (r. 782-753 BC) eventually managed to conquer Damascus, but Aram Damascus is attested as an independent state soon after, when the Arameans team up with Israel to conquer Judah in 736-732 BC. In response, king Ahaz of Judah, a descendant from king David, calls in the help of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, who had revived the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians easily conquer Damascus and Samaria. The Assyrians then turn Aram (732 BC) and Israel (721 BC) into Assyrian provinces and force Judah to pay tribute to the Assyrians.

Following the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, many Israelites fled towards Judah. The population of Jerusalem grew from 1000 to 15.000 within a few years. Undoubtedly this had a great impact on the Kingdom of Judah. Among the refugees were probably many members of the prophetic movement, who saw the fall of Israel as divine punishment for Israel’s worship of other gods. These prophets warned the Judeans that the same would happen to them if they would not change their ways. Under the reign of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, who sympathized with the prophetic movement, the prophetic movement continued to flourish. These prophetic activities in Judah would eventually form the basis of Judaism.

Further reading
The most comprehensive source on the history of Israel are books 1 and 2 Kings from the Bible. Along with a secular commentary, they can offer a lot of useful information. For more information on the archaeology of Israel I can recommend Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed (2002) and for a minimalist reconstruction of the history of Israel, read Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel (2005).

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