The Israelite monarchy came into being as a result of an external threat. The tribes of Israel had entered the Land of Canaan and settled in it, retaining a tribal organization. However, in the late eleventh century BCE, the Philistines began to dominate the Canaanite cities on the coastal plain as well as other Sea Peoples. They began to view conquest of all of Israel as a goal. The Philistines were not a particularly numerous people, but their strong military tradition posed a serious threat to the Israelite confederacy.1
Israel elected Saul as its first king. Although he made no serious changes to the tribal organization, he unified Israel militarily and succeeded in rallying almost the entire nation to fight against Jabesh-Gilead.2 Although he did not remove the Philistine threat, he did have some successes against them. Saul's reign was short-lived and failed in establishing a dynasty.3
Israel's next king, David (10th century BCE), was the most powerful Israelite king. He triumphed over nearly all the neighboring nations. He conquered the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and made it his capital. The list of nations he subdued and collected tribute from is long: in the north, Damascus, Hamath and Zobah; in the east, Ammon and Moab; in the south, Edom and Amalek; and in the west, the Philistines. At this time, the civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt were weak, so Israel was the greatest empire in the area for the first and last time.4
David's son Solomon inherited his vast empire and focused on its administration. Solomon conducted no serious military campaigns. Instead he made alliances with Egypt and Tyre. His greatest success was in improving the economy. He was aware of the economic significance of Israel's position on the major north-south trade routes from Egypt and Arabia into Syria. Solomon traded by land and by sea. He exported copper and imported horses and chariots. He built the Jerusalem Temple and a great palace for himself, but in the process he burdened his people with tremendous taxation.5
After Solomon's death, his son Rehobaam was rejected by most of the nation when it became clear that he intended to continue to follow his father's policy of heavy taxation. The kingdom split into two: the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ruled by Jerobaam, while the Kingdom of Judah remained in the hands of Rehobaam. Jerobaam feared the strength of the religious connection to Jerusalem and its Temple, so he established alternative centers of worship in Dan and Beth-El. The empire disintegrated: both Israel and Judah were too wrapped up in internal problems to try to administer it.
In the fifth year of Rehobaam's reign, Shoshenq of Egypt (known as Shishak in the Bible) invaded Israel. The Egyptians devastated Palestine and only left Jerusalem unharmed in exchange for a very hefty tribute. Shoshenq's inscription at Karnak describes the extent of the destruction and corroborates the brief biblical account. The internal weakness of Egypt prevented Shoshenq from establishing an empire in Asia and he was forced to withdraw from most of Palestine. Rehobaam of Judah was so weakened by the Egyptian invasion that he was in no position to subjugate the Kingdom of Israel, so the two kingdoms remained divided until their destruction.6
The sixth king of Israel, Omri, established a new dynasty and brought some stability and prosperity to the kingdom. He was appointed by "all Israel" after the assassination of the heir to the throne by an army officer called Zimri. Omri founded a capital at Samaria, which had been previously been unoccupied. From the reign of Omri onwards, Assyrian documents used the term "son of Omri" to refer to kings of Israel, even those who were not his descendants. According to the Moabite Stone (also called the Mesha Stele), Omri subjugated Moab. He ended the prolonged war with Judah and formed an alliance with both Judah and Phoenicia to counterweight the threat of Aram-Damascus.7
Shalmaneser III came to power in Assyria in 859, and in that same year marched across the Euphrates to Northern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean. The other kingdoms in the Middle East realized they could not defend themselves alone against Assyria and formed a coalition. The leaders of the coalition were Ben-Hadad II (Hadadezer) of Damascus, Irhuleni of Hamath and Ahab, son of Omri.8 Ahab's involvement in this coalition is not mentioned in the Bible but is attested to in the Kurkh Stele of Shalmaneser III which states that Ahab contributed 2,000 chariots and 10,000 troops to the war effort. Shalmeneser's stele declares that the Assyrian king won a complete victory, but this is likely an exaggeration since he faced the same coalition several more times.9 The Kurkh Stele is the earliest extra-biblical reference to the Kingdom of Israel.10
Jehu ended the Omride dynasty by assassinating all possible heirs to the crown and established a new dynasty in the Kingdom of Israel which would last for five generations. He is depicted on Shalmaneser III's Black Obelisk on his knees before the Assyrian king. The Annals of Shalmaneser report that the Assyrians collected tribute from Jehu "son of Omri" in the 18th year of the reign of Shalmaneser III.11
Expansion of the Assyrian Empire reached its height under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser III (known in the Bible as Pul). Due to a series of military campaigns he embarked on, Assyria became the dominant power in the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Assyrian tribute lists from this period – the Iran Stele and an Annal Fragment – include Menahem of Samaria among the kings who paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III. 2 Kings 15:19-20 also reports that Menahem paid tribute to the Assyrian king.12
In 729 BCE, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel formed a coalition against Assyria. They asked Ahaz, King of Judah, to join their coalition. When he refused, they attacked him and he appealed to Tiglath-Pileser, paying him a tribute in exchange for his aid. (This is reported in Summary Inscription No. 7 found at Nineveh and in 2 Kings 16:7 and Isaiah 7-8.) Tiglath-Pileser subdued the coalition and the Kingdom of Israel was almost completely destroyed. He conquered the Galilee and Transjordan, some of the population was deported and Megiddo and Hazor were destroyed. At this point, Hoshea ben Elah assassinated Pekah and paid tribute to the Assyrian king, thus saving the rest of the kingdom.
Hoshea later stopped paying tribute to Assyria and turned to Egypt for support against Assyria. At the time Egypt was weak and did not come to Israel's aid. Sargon II (according to the Bible, Shalmaneser V) captured Samaria in 722 BCE and deported its citizens. The Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist and the Kingdom of Judah, as a result of the actions of Ahaz, became a vassal state of Assyria.13
After the death of Sargon II and the accession to the throne of his son Sennacherib, revolt against Assyria spread through Palestine and Syria. Hezekiah, King of Judah, attempted to break free of Assyrian rule. He formally refused to pay tribute, with the encouragement of Merodach-baladan of Babylon, who had managed to establish himself as king despite Assyrian efforts to dislodge him. Despite Isaiah's warnings (Isaiah 30-31) that revolt was a mistake, Hezekiah prepared for war by building the famous Siloam Tunnel so that water could reach Jerusalem even if it were under siege. This tunnel has been discovered in the City of David in Jerusalem, along with an inscription left behind by the workers who dug it.
Sennacherib set about subduing the revolt. He destroyed 46 cities in Judah, besieged Lachish and demanded that Hezekiah pay a high tribute. Hezekiah was forced to hand over treasures from the Temple. Rebellion in Babylonia broke out again and Hezekiah took the opportunity to rebel once more. When the Assyrians finally managed to subdue the Babylonians in 689, Sennacherib turned his attention to Judah. Hezekiah refused to surrender and Jerusalem was not taken.14
The overextended Assyrian Empire was plagued by the Babylonians and the Medes. In 612, they captured Nineveh and destroyed it, thus bringing the period of the Assyrian Empire to an end and ushering in the era of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.15
In 605, the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar (also called Nebuchadrezzar) defeated Egypt at Charchemish. The way to Palestine and Syria was now open. Nebuchadnezzar took Ashkelon and Jehoiakim of Judah became a vassal of Babylonia. When he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians marched against him (598 BCE). Jehoiakim died that same month and his son Jehoiachin surrendered Jerusalem within three months. The king and all the leading citizens were taken to Babylon and the king's uncle, Mattaniah/Zedekiah was installed as king.
Judah rebelled against Babylonia again, and Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem in 588. He took the outposts of Judah one by one, finally defeating Azekah and Lachish. The Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem in the summer of 587, blinding Zedekiah and taking him in chains to Babylon. The city was torched and the Temple destroyed.16
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian Empire went into decline. The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, had an unstable personality. Daniel 4 mentions this problem, calling him Nebuchadnezzar. A Qumran fragment called "The Prayer of Nabonidus" parallels the biblical account, describing Nabonidus' illness which lasted 7 years and forced him to sequester himself in the Arabian city of Teima.17
The Medes had been Babylonia's most dangerous threat all along. In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Persian dethroned the king of the Medes, Astyages, and took the throne. Cyrus immediately began a campaign to enlarge his empire on all sides. Nabonidus entered into an alliance with Lydia and Egypt but they were both quickly overrun by Cyrus and Babylonia was left standing alone.18 In 539, Cyrus took Babylon without a fight. He was welcomed by the Babylonian people who no longer supported Nabonidus. This is attested to in Cyrus' inscriptions, as well as the Nabonidus Chronicle and the Stela of Nabonidus.19
Cyrus the Great ruled over all the territories west of the Euphrates. The Cyrus Cylinder, a Babylonian document composed after the Persian conquest of Babylonia, depicts Cyrus as the chosen one of the god Marduk, sent to save the city of Babylon. It describes the Persian policy of returning people to their lands and allowing them freedom of religion. This policy included the Jews, who were allowed to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. This event was predicted by Isaiah (45:1) and recorded in Ezra 1:2-4 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.20
Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are considered by scholars to be written by a different prophet than the one who wrote chapters 1-39. Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, would presumably have prophesied about Cyrus once his name was recognized in the ancient world. This would have been after 550 BCE and probably closer to 539 when Cyrus conquered Babylon.21
The Book of Isaiah covers the period from Assyrian domination until the rise of the Persian Empire. The events described in the biblical book are confirmed by the archaeology of this period. The Summary Inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser III, Hezekiah's Tunnel Inscription and the Cyrus Cylinder are examples. By reading the Book of Isaiah in conjunction with other books of the Bible and the inscriptions left behind by the great empires of the ancient world, we can form a complete picture of the history of the Middle East at this time.
1. John Bright. A History of Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: 2000 (4th edition), p.185.
2. ibid. p.190-191.
3. P. Kyle McCarter Jr. "Saul." Harper's Bible Dictionary. 1985, p.909-910.
4. Jan P. Fokkelman. "David." Harper's Bible Dictionary. 1985, p.208-209.
5. Bright p.211-222.
6. ibid. p.230-238.
7. Duane L. Christensen. "Omri." Harper's Bible Dictionary. 1985, p.729-730. Moabite Stone, c. 840 BCE.
8. Bright p.243.
9. Kurkh Stele, 853 BCE.
10. Mordechai Cogan. The Raging Torrent. Jeruslaem: 2008, p.13.
11. Jeremiah Unterman. "Jehu." Harper's Bible Dictionary. 1985, p.454. The Annals of Shalmaneser III: Jehu’s Tribute (4 inscriptions). Annals Edition 4 - The Black Obelisk, 828 or 827 BCE.
12. Cogan p.48-65. Tiglath-Pileser III and the Syro-Ephraimite War: Kalah Palace Summary Inscription, 729 BCE .
13. Bright p.273-276.
14. ibid. p.284-288. Hezekiah’s (or Siloam) Tunnel Inscription, 701 BCE.
15. ibid. p313-316.
16. ibid. p.328-330.
17. Laurie E. Pearce. "Babylon." Harper's Bible Dictionary. 1985, p.88.
18. Bright p. 354.
19. ibid. p.360. Stela of Nabonidus, 555-539 BCE. Nabonidus Chronicle, c. 539 BCE.
20. Cogan p.225-230. Cyrus Cylinder, c. 535 BCE.
21. R.N. Whybray. The Second Isaiah. London: 2004, p.9-12.
Hadassah Levy is a web content professional at the Center for Online Judaic Studies as well as i-pointwebdesign.