Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
Who Wrote the AMARNA LETTERS?
If, according to Velikovsky, Hatshepsut was the Queen of Sheba, and a contemporary of Solomon, then the Amarna Letters, which were written three to five generations after her time, must also date to a period three to five generations after Solomon -- the time of Ahab and Jehoshaphat. Is this really true?
by Emmet Sweeney
In Ages in Chaos (1952), Immanuel Velikovsky argued that the Amarna Letters, a series of over 300 royal correspondences composed during the reigns of pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaton, were written during the lifetimes of Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah. These latter, according to Velikovsky, were identical to the Amarna-period potentates Rib-Addi of Sumur and Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem. Velikovsky presented an enormous quantity of evidence, from many areas of knowledge, in support of this claim. He was able to show, for example, the astonishing parallels that exist between the language used in the Amarna documents (which often include Hebrew sentences and words) and the language found in the Books of Psalms and Kings. In the Books of Kings we find reproduced the same words, expressions, idioms, and popular sayings, that already occurred in the Amarna Letters, though these are supposed to have been written six hundred years earlier.
The evidence of language was augmented with that of art and archaeology, whilst the position of the Amarna Letters in the time of Solomon’s great-grandchildren was reinforced by Velikovsky’s earlier equation of Hatshepsut with the Queen of Sheba. If Hatshepsut was the Queen of Sheba, and a contemporary of Solomon, then the Amarna Letters, which were written three to five generations after her time, must also date to a period three to five generations after Solomon -- the time of Ahab and Jehoshaphat.
I have spent many years researching this question, and was, for a long time, inclined to accept Velikovsky’s identifications. Yet, notwithstanding the ingenious arguments put forward by him, I was always slightly uneasy with his proposals for the Amarna Letters. The most pressing problem, as I explain in my Empire of Thebes (2006), was that of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria and a known contemporary of Ahab. If the Amarna Letters dated from the time of Ahab, they could not have ignored Shalmaneser III, the most powerful and aggressive monarch in the Fertile Crescent at the time. Velikovsky had suggested that Shalmaneser III, who indubitably campaigned deep into Syria during the reigns of Ahab and Jehoshaphat, was the same man as the “king of Hatti” who threatened the cities of Syria during the time the tablets were written. But this “king of Hatti” was unquestionably Suppiluliumas I, as a veritable mountain of evidence made clear. Where then did Shalmaneser III come in? Not even Velikovsky tried to suggest Shalmaneser III as an alter-ego of Suppiluliumas I -- a proposal which would, in any case, have been easy to refute. The King of Assyria at the time of the Letters was named Ashuruballit, yet he was most definitely not the aggressive “king of Hatti” of the letters.
Eventually, I became convinced that Velikovsky had -- in this part of his Eighteenth Dynasty revision at least -- made a fundamental error. Whilst it was for me beyond reasonable doubt that the time of Ahab and Jehoshaphat belonged roughly to the same period as the Amarna Letters, it was equally clear that he had been mistaken with regard to the details.
This may be demonstrated by a brief consideration of the facts.
If we accept that Hatshepsut was a contemporary of King Solomon, then Hatshepsut’s successor, Thutmose III, must have been the biblical Shishak, and must have been alive during the partition of Solomon’s kingdom into the two rival states of Israel and Judah. Following on from this, it is inevitable that Asa, the great-grandson of Solomon, must have been a contemporary of the great-grandchildren of Hatshepsut’s generation. In Egypt, this is the epoch of the short-lived Thutmose IV. Since the latter pharaoh however reigned only eight years, it is quite likely that Asa (who reigned 41 years) would have been around at the time of Thutmose IV’s predecessor, Amenhotep II, as well as his successor, Amenhotep III: And I am in agreement with Velikovsky in identifying Asa as the king who defeated Amenhotep II (biblical Zerah) at Mareshah. But Asa’s exceptionally long reign means that he would also, in all probability, have been active during the lifetime of the next important pharaoh, Amenhotep III.
It is likely then, following Velikovsky’s own chronological measuring rod, that Asa of Judah, rather than Jehoshaphat (who lived a generation later), would have been one of the kings named in the Amarna Letters and an active player in the political scene at the time. This is all the more probable when we consider the fact that the great majority of the letters, it is now clear, were written in the time of Amenhotep III. (See eg. F. J. Giles, Ikhnaton: Legend and History (Hutchinson, Australia, 1970) Letter 116 actually mentions the latter’s death. It seems that, upon the abandonment of Akhet-Aton, in general only those documents of current diplomatic importance -- namely those belonging to the second half of Akhnaton’s reign -- were taken back to Thebes. The older letters, mostly belonging to the time of Amenhotep III, were left behind.
So, if we are correct in removing the five centuries that supposedly separate the Eighteenth Dynasty from the Early Monarchy of Israel, we should expect that some at least of the Amarna documents were written during the reigns of Asa in Judah and his rival Baasha in Israel. Does the evidence of the Letters support this?
Abdi-Ashirta, Grandson of Hiram
One of the most important and controversial figures of the Amarna correspondences is Abdi-Ashirta (also written Abdi-Astarte), king of Amurru. The double-dealing, scheming and aggression of this man made him a real menace to the security of the region. He was eventually put to death, perhaps on the orders of the pharaoh -- an event which happened, apparently, just immediately prior to the death of Amenhotep III. He was replaced as king of Amurru by his son Aziru, a man who proved as treacherous and violent as his father. If the chronology outlined in the present volume is correct, Abdi-Ashirta, who is described as a ruler of greater Syria, including the coastal regions, must have been alive during the third or fourth generation after the time of Solomon.(For extent of Abdi-Ashirta’s kingdom, see Margaret S. Drower, “Syria, c. 1550-1400 BC,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 2, part 1 (Third ed.) p. 427)
Does the history of Palestine/Syria in the days of king Asa provide us with any character who could be identified with Abdi-Ashirta?
In fact, Abdi-Ashirta needs no introduction or alter-ego explanation; he is Abd’Astartus (Abdastartus) of Tyre, whom Menander of Ephesus names as the grandson of Solomon’s great ally, king Hiram. The identification is put almost beyond doubt by the fact that both the Amarna correspondent and Menander’s Tyrian king were removed violently from the throne.
The list of Tyrian kings provided by Menander is as follows;
Abibaal (no length of reign)
Hiram (34 years) (Ally of Solomon)
Baalbazer (7 years)
Abdastartus (9 years)
Methusastartus (12 years)
Astharymus (9 years)
Phales (8 months)
Ethbaal (32 years)
Baalazor (8 years)
Mattan-Baal (29 years)
Pygmalion (47 years)
The above list provides us not only with the precise historical location of the Amarna Letters and, by extension, the latter 18th Dynasty, but also with the gap separating this epoch from the other, equally well-known time, of Shalmaneser III. Ethbaal, the fourth king removed from Abdastartus, was said by Menander to have been the father-in-law of Ahab of Israel, who was also a contemporary of Shalmaneser III. Since Abdastartus/Abdi-Ashirta died near the end of the reign of Amenhotep III, and the 21 years of the combined reigns of Methusastartus and Astharymus take us roughly into the fourth year of Tutankhamun, this would make Ethbaal, Ahab’s father-in-law, begin to reign in about the fifth year of the latter pharaoh.
We may conclude that Shalmaneser III was roughly contemporary with Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and Seti I.
There is, as far as I can see, only one reasonable objection to the equation of Abdi-Ashirta of the Letters with Abdastartus of Menander. In the Amarna Letters Abdi-Ashirta is described as the king of Amurru, a region which, though not specifically identified as incorporating the city of Tyre, nevertheless is at least recognised as taking in much of Syria, including the coastal regions. Following Abdi-Ashirta’s death, his son Aziru became ruler of Amurru. Yet now, contemporary with Aziru, another, quite separate person, Abimilki (Abimelech), is named as king of Tyre. This latter character is not regarded as a son of Abdi-Ashirta. How is this to be explained?
To begin with, Menander does not state that the successor to Abdastartus on the throne of Tyre was his son. Methusastartus was the next king, but not necessarily the son of his predecessor. Considering the widespread fear and hatred of Abdi-Ashirta during his lifetime, we should not be surprised to find the Tyrians appointing someone not related to him as his successor. Thus there is no objection to seeing Methusastartus as identical to Abimilki.
Labayu of Shechem
The earlier Amarna letters, dating from the time of Amenhotep III, are full of the activities of a king named Labayu. This ruler waged continual warfare against his neighbours -- especially against Abdi-Hiba, the king of Jerusalem, and was widely viewed by the correspondents as a real menace to the region’s stability. It is strange, and significant, that Velikovsky makes no mention of Labayu, save for a passing reference in a footnote. Yet any reading of the Amarna documents makes it very clear that this man, whose operations centre seems to have been Shechem -- right in the middle of historical Samaria -- was a figure of central importance at the time; and that he must figure prominently in any attempt to reconstruct the history of the period. The political situation is described thus by Aharoni:
“In the hill country there were only a few political centres, and each of these ruled over a fairly extensive area. In all the hill country of Judah and Ephraim we hear of Jerusalem and Shechem with possible allusions to Beth-horon and Manahath, towns within the realm of the Jerusalem king…Apparently the kings of Jerusalem and Shechem dominated, to all practical purposes, the entire central hill country at that time.
“The territory controlled by Lab’ayu, King of Shechem, was especially large in contrast to the small Canaanite principalities round about. Only one letter refers to Shechem itself, and we get the impression that this is not simply a royal Canaanite city but rather an extensive kingdom with Shechem as its capital.” (Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (London, 1966) pp. 162-3)
Labayu’s territory in fact takes in most of what was the ancient northern kingdom of Israel. It is somewhat surprising that this fact has not been taken into consideration by historians; for Shechem was the new capital of the northern kingdom built by Jeroboam I immediately after the division of the kingdom upon the death of Solomon. Thus in the Book of Kings we read: “And Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelt there…” (1 Kings 12:25) This, from the point of view of the present reconstruction, is a crucial clue. Shechem remained Israel’s capital -- more or less -- for only two generations, until after the death of Baasha, when Omri built Samaria (1 Kings 16:24-25)
The occurrence of Abdi-Ashirta has already pointed us to the time of Asa in Judah and Baasha and Omri in Israel as the date for the Amarna Letters. Now this pivotal piece of evidence points us in the same direction. The facts lead us to only one person who could be identified with Labayu: he is Baasha, the immediate predecessor (if we ignore the very brief reigns of Elah and Zimri) of Omri on the throne of Israel: And everything fits. Labayu, we know, waged continual war against the king of Jerusalem (Urusalim), whom we identify as Asa. Of Baasha we read; “And there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days.” (1 Kings 15:32)
Labayu of the letters was a daring and belligerent character. His neighbours in central Palestine complain continuously of his activities. Even Biridia, the commander of the Egyptian royal stronghold of Megiddo, is moved to warn the pharaoh of his aggression, and declares that unless reinforcements are sent quickly, Megiddo may be lost. But Labayu, whom the king of Jerusalem says had thrown in his lot with the nomad SA.GAZ, finally overstretched himself. A letter written by Biridia informs us that he and his brother had captured the outlaw and handed him to Zurata of Acco, who took him to his home city in bonds, apparently with the intention of putting him aboard a ship for Egypt. But Labayu succeeded in bribing his jailer to release him; at which point Biridia, along with his brother, set out personally to recapture him. But the fugitive was killed by other foes, people of the town of Gina (modern Jenin) before he could be apprehended.
It is no surprise, perhaps, that such a lawless man should be named Labayu, “the Lion-Man”. The lion, of course, has always been the symbol of daring and courage. How appropriate, then, that his alter-ego in the pages of the Bible should be called Baasha, “Boldness”!
Labayu’s long-suffering opponent, the king of Jerusalem, is commonly named Abdi-Hiba. The latter however is a hybrid title, combining the Semitic “Abdi” with the Hurrian “Hiba”. An alternate, and more probable, reading is the purely Semitic (Hebrew) Abdi-Tibi, or Ebed-Tov, which in Hebrew denotes “the Good Servant”. Such an appellation is surely a fitting one for Asa, one of Judah’s wisest and most able rulers.
Aziru: Hadad-izri of Syria
One of the most satisfying aspects of the present reconstruction, I believe, is that it relies very little upon alter-ego identifications. We saw, for example, how Abdi-Ashirta has the same name in the Letters as in the literary tradition of Menander: And just as there was no need to find an alter-ego for Abdi-Ashirta, neither is there any for his equally ruthless son Aziru.
I have argued that the Letters belong in the time of kings Asa and Baasha. During this period the ruler of Syria, according to the Scriptures, was named Ben-Hadad. It was to this man that Asa turned when Baasha built the fortress of Ramah to threaten Jerusalem. A prophet admonished Asa for this lack of faith in the Lord, placing his trust instead in the arms of the notorious Syrian leader. A curse, the prophet said, would fall upon Asa’s house because of this. We know that Ben-Hadad was a long-lived ruler. He continued to prosecute his war against Israel long after the death of Baasha and we know that in the time of Ahab, about 25 years later, he came close to completely destroying the northern Hebrew kingdom. This aggressive and treacherous Syrian monarch also occurs in the records of Shalmaneser III, and his death, as well as the usurpation of Hazael, is noted in year 14 or perhaps 15 of the Mesopotamian ruler. In Shalmaneser III’s records, however, the Syrian king is not called Ben-Hadad, but Hadad-izri (Hadad-ezer). The Assyrian records how,
“I defeated Hadadezer of Damascus together with twelve princes, his allies. I stretched upon the ground 20,900 of his strong warriors like su-bi, the remnants of his troops I pushed into the Orontes river and they dispersed to save their lives; Hadadezer (himself) perished. Hazael, a commoner, seized the throne, called up a numerous army and rose against me.” (J. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1950) p. 280)
Apparently the Syrian autocrat was known both as Ben-Hadad and Hadadezer, each of which names reflected his devotion to the storm-god Hadad.
If the reconstruction of history proposed here is correct, Ben-Hadad must appear in the Amarna Letters. Indeed, as a personality of major importance at the time, he must occupy a prominent position in the correspondences. Now we ask ourselves: Where is he?
As a matter of fact, given the geopolitical situation at the time of the Letters, there is only one person who could be identified with Ben-Hadad; and that is Aziru, the notorious son of Abdi-Ashirta. Aziru’s kingdom of Amurru is recognised as basically identical to Syria: it included Damascus (Letter 107 notes how, “Aziru, a son of Abdi-Ashirta, is with his brothers in Dumasqa”) and a treaty concluded with Suppiluliumas of Hatti lists Karaduniash (Babylonia) and Astata (the Middle Euphrates below Carchemish) as kingdoms bordering on that of Amurru. Clearly then Aziru must be the same person as Ben-Hadad: And here we remember that the latter was known in the records of Shalmaneser III as Hadad-ezer. Evidently the name Aziru, which on its own is meaningless (ie “([divine name] is) he who helps”), is but a hypocoristicon (accepted shortening) of Hadad-ezer, the latter meaning “Hadad is he who helps.” (David Rohl also equates Aziru with a Syrian king Hadadezer, but identifies him with a much earlier Hadadezer, a contemporary of David. See, “The el-Amarna Letters and the New Chronology,” Society for Interdisciplinary Studies; Chronology and Catastrophism Review (1988), Vol. X, pp. 39-40) Ezer, or Ezra, would be the precise Aramaic equivalent of Akkadian Aziru.
Another piece of the jigsaw fits into place.
The City of Samaria
Velikovsky believed that a city named Sumur, mentioned frequently in the Amarna Letters, was identical to Samaria, the capital built by Omri as his new residence in his sixth or seventh year. Yet Sumur of the letters was a port closely affiliated to Gubla (Byblos) and so its identification with ancient Simyra, which stood a short distance along the coast from Byblos, is hardly open to question.
The Israelite city of Samaria is not mentioned prominently in the letters because it had not yet been built when they were written; or at least it was only under construction when the last series of them were written. According to the reconstruction proposed here, Omri would have become king of Israel sometime near the beginning of Akhnaton’s reign, and he would not, therefore have begun construction of Samaria until roughly the last decade of Akhnaton’s life. Most likely, a lot of the major building work would have been carried out during the early years of Tutankhamun.
Now the site of Samaria has been reliably identified and extensively excavated. This provides us with a fairly rigorous test of our chronology. The settlement, it seems, was built upon virgin ground; and so we would expect the earliest levels of occupation to coincide fairly precisely with the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the start of the Nineteenth. In the terms employed by archaeologists this is the beginning of Late Bronze IIB, an epoch usually defined by the type of pottery on location.
Before however going into the question of the archaeological epoch during which the earliest structures at Samaria were raised, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to certain aspects of the material culture found there.
First and foremost, it was discovered, much to the surprise of the excavators, that the predominant cultural influence was Egyptian. This was not expected, since, in conventional terms, Egypt of the (supposedly) 9th century BC was ruled by the weak and uninfluential “Libyan” Dynasty, whose military power could scarcely have been expected to extend into Palestine. But the Egyptian-style artwork discovered at Samaria looked as if it belonged to the New Kingdom rather than the Libyan period. In particular, scholars were impressed by the great quantities of carved ivory from the site, which seemed to recall biblical passages about a “house of ivory” built by Ahab (I Kings 22:39) and the “beds of ivory” mentioned by Amos (Amos 6:4-5). But the ivories were of Egyptian design. The Egyptian double crown, clearly cut, was found on several ivory plates. (J. W. Crowfoot and G. M. Crowfoot, Early Ivories from Samaria (London, 1938) p. 23) There were plaques which represented Egyptian gods, and the subjects in furniture “are all Egyptian.” (Ibid., p. 9) Winged figures in human form were found in Samaria. “The forms of winged figures on the ivories…are derived from Egyptian models. Tutelary goddesses of this type stood at the four corners of the shrine of Tutankhamun.” (Ibid., p.18) Three human-headed and winged sphinxes were found at the site. These too were recognised as similar to a human-headed lion from the tomb of Tutankhamun. (H. Carter, The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen (London, 1923-33) Vol. 2 Plate XIX
The excavators, observing the close similarities between the artwork of Samaria and that of late-Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt, believed that the ivory workers of Samaria had revived the forms of the “Egypt of yesterday”. Ivories almost identical to those of Samaria were found in a number of different places, often with Egyptian objects of the Eighteenth Dynasty. One such place was Megiddo. But although the ivories of Samaria and Megiddo display the same patterns and workmanship, they were assigned to two different epochs. (See G. Loud, The Megiddo Ivories (Chicago, 1939) This happened in numerous other cases: either the ivories were assigned to the latter Eighteenth Dynasty or to the period of the kings of Samaria (9th and 8th centuries BC). (Ibid.)
As well as New Kingdom Egyptian-style artwork, the excavators found two tablets in cuneiform. These are very similar to the Amarna Letters, though they have a Hebrew seal. (G. A. Reisner, O. S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria (1908-1910) Vol. 1, p. 247) One of them contains the words; “…Abiahi to the governor of the cities to deliver six oxen, twelve sheep.” Since the Hebrew/Phoenician alphabet was already well attested from the time of Omri and Ahab (as for example on the Mesha stele), the use of cuneiform in business and diplomatic documents was not expected and seemed to hark back to an older Palestine, the Palestine of the Amarna Letters.
All of the above suggests very strongly that we are on the right track; that Samaria was built by Omri during the last decade of Akhnaton’s reign. It could even be that Omri’s move to a new capital was inspired by the “new era” inaugurated by Akhnaton, who moved his capital from Thebes to Akhet-Aton. The striking parallels between the ivories of Samaria and the artwork of Tutankhamun’s period agrees precisely with this scheme, since Ahab, who built the ivory palace, would have begun to reign just about two or three years before Tutankhamun ascended the throne.
Yet here we encounter a problem, one that has been made much of by Velikovsky’s critics. Archaeologists claimed that the earliest pottery on the site (aside from a tiny amount of Early Bronze material) was early Iron Age, or Iron I. (Ibid.) We, and Velikovsky, would expect material from the Late Bronze IIA/IIB interchange, which corresponds to the final years of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the early years of the Nineteenth, so that the fact of the earliest remains dating from Iron I seems to be decisive proof against Velikovsky’s, and the present writer’s, thesis.
A cultural designation is dependent upon a number of features -- one of the most important of which is pottery types. Other characteristics, such as technological level and artistic styles, are also significant. The reader will note how one of these, artistic styles, which should have placed early Samaria at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (end of Late Bronze IIA) was ignored because it clashed so decisively with accepted chronology.
Still, the excavators claimed the earliest pottery was of Iron I type, which, from the accepted chronological viewpoint, was still about 300 years too early. After all, Iron I is normally dated to the 12th century BC, whereas the beginning of Samaria should be dated to the 9th century -- Iron IIB in conventional terms. As a solution to the problem Kathleen Kenyon simply down-dated the end of Iron IIA slightly and suggested an overlap with Iron I pottery types. Others, including Albright and Wright, would not accept any down-dating of the pottery sequence and postulated an earlier undocumented settlement as the source of the pottery. And this is the view normally accepted amongst archaeologists today.
Yet the ease with which the experts were able to reassign the clearly late Eighteenth Dynasty ivory-work should make us very suspicious about their pronouncements regarding pottery. As a matter of fact, the evidence suggests that a lot of such judgements are dependent upon individual interpretation: Thus, for example, in nearby Shechem an American team was bitterly divided over where to place the pottery found in stratum 13. One of them, Campbell, put it in the 10th century, Iron IIA, whereas his colleague Toombs put the same stratum in LB IIB. (See R. M. Porter, “The Stratigraphy of Israel,” Society for Interdisciplinary Studies; Chronology and Catastrophism Workshop (1992) No. 1, p. 19) In the words of Bob Porter, “…this surprising confusion extended over all the Field VII strata from ten to sixteen.” He continues, “Both Campbell and Toombs were experts who had participated in the Shechem excavations and should have been able to identify pottery at a glance. Clearly there is an element of art rather than science in pottery identification and/or an overlap between LB and Iron Ages!” (Ibid.)
In fact, pottery and culture in general changed very little, if at all, between the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. The Iron Age settlements are regarded as little more than slightly poorer versions of the Bronze Age settlements. Clearly, as Porter said, it’s all a question of interpretation.
Samaria was founded at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The pottery used at the time, normally described as Late Bronze IIA/B, was indistinguishable, in all its essentials, from Iron I. It was however designated Iron I because that was closer to where it “should” have been in terms of accepted chronology. To have designated it Late Bronze Age would have been even more problematic. The designation “Iron I” was a compromise, still not entirely acceptable, but at least not as outrageous as Late Bronze II.
The King of Israel Becomes a Vassal of Syria
I have stated that Samaria was built in the latter years of Akhnaton’s reign. As such, we should not expect the city to figure prominently in the Amarna correspondences -- most of which date from the reign of Amenhotep III and the early years of Akhnaton -- though we might expect its erection to be mentioned in some of the later ones.
As noted earlier, a city named “Sumur” does appear prominently throughout the Amarna Letters; though the context within which it is mentioned makes it clear (in spite of Velikovsky) that it is the Phoenician port of Simyra that is being alluded to. But if Samaria were to be mentioned in the documents, its name would, in all probability, have been spelled identically to that of Simyra -- thus “Sumur”. Now it so happens that the building of a fortress-city called “Sumur” does appear in a number of the later correspondences. Here the builder, or prospective builder, is none other than Aziru (Hadad-ezer) of Syria. Three letters in all from Aziru to the pharaoh refer to the erection of this place and all offer excuses as to why the construction work has not begun. Thus letter 159 says:
“And in respect to the regents I say: ‘They are all enemies of my lord ---- they.’ My lord, I will now build Sumur in haste. Now let him appoint me when I have built Sumur.”
Letter 160 goes into more detail, offering the hostility of the kings of Nuhasse as an excuse for the failure to begin construction: “…and the kings of Nuhasse are hostile to me, and consequently I have not built Sumur. (But) in one year I will build Zumur.” Letter 161 also mentions the hostility of the kings of Nuhasse as the reason for the delay.
These three texts date from sometime near the middle of Akhnaton’s reign and are therefore in exactly the right place to refer to the construction of Samaria, if the chronology outlined in these pages is correct. But if this “Sumur” or “Zumur” is Samaria, two questions immediately arise: First and foremost, why would the king of Syria be responsible for the building of an Israelite city; and secondly, why would the hostility of the kings of Nuhasse, in northern Syria, have prevented its construction?
The second question has the most obvious answer. If the Syrian monarch had been ordered by the pharaoh to finance the erection of a fortress-city in Israel, he could reasonably offer as an excuse for his failure to begin that he had more important priorities on his northern border, namely the hostile actions of the kings of Nuhasse.
But this then brings us onto the other, more difficult, question: Why would the king of Syria, of all places, be charged with building a new capital for Israel? To attempt to answer this question I think we need to briefly cast our minds back to earlier events. We remember that Asa, whom we identify with Abdi-Hiba of the Amarna Letters, hired the king of Syria to help him against Baasha of Israel, whom we identify with Labayu of the letters. The Bible does not make it clear, but it appears that the intervention of the Syrian king was decisive in bringing Baasha’s reign to an end. It is true that a son of Baasha (Elah) sat on the throne afterwards, but his reign was short. Elah’s assassination was followed by the rise of Omri, though we know he had to fight four years before securing his position. Clearly this was a period of profound political disturbance in Israel. Nowhere does it say that Omri won his battle for the throne with Syrian help, yet the context within which his accession took place would suggest Syrian involvement. The previous king had been torn from power by the Syrians: it is highly likely that the new king would have ascended the throne with assistance from the same quarter: And this view is confirmed by the fact that nowhere is there any mention of war between Omri (recognised as an able soldier) and the Syrians.
It would appear that Omri’s dynasty was a client line established in power by the Syrian king.
When Omri’s son Ahab began his long war against Ben-Hadad it was, in its essential character, a war of liberation. The Book of Kings describes how this conflict began: the Syrian ruler arrived outside Samaria with this demand:
“Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives also and thy children, even the goodliest, are mine.
“And the king of Israel answered and said, My lord, O king, according to thy saying, I am thine, and all that I have.” (I Kings 20:2-4)
But Ben-Hadad was not satisfied:
“And the messengers came again, and said, Thus speaketh Benhadad, saying. Although I have sent unto thee, saying, Thou shalt deliver me thy silver, and thy gold, and thy wives, and thy children;
“Yet will I send my servants unto thee tomorrow about this time, and they shall search thine house, and the houses of thy servants; and it shall be, that whatsoever is pleasing to thine eyes, they shall put it in their hand, and take it away.” (I Kings 20:5-6)
This humiliation was too much for Ahab, and he replied thus to his master:
“Tell my lord the king [Ben-Hadad]. All that thou didst send for to thy servant at the first I will do: but this thing I may not do.”
In this way, the war of liberation began. It went well for Israel. After defeating Ben-Hadad twice, Ahab captured him, then allowed him to go free: At which point the Syrian made a very significant announcement:
“And Benhadad said unto him, The cities, which my father took from thy father, I will restore; and thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria.” (I Kings 20:34)
Apparently the building of a city, or part of it, was a symbolic act of ownership. The biblical scribe errs here in making Ben-Hadad’s father the man who constructed streets in Samaria. [The Tanakh and The Jerusalem Bible both say "...and you may set up BAZAARS for yourself in Damascus as my father did in Samaria." This could change the meaning of this verse and remove the apparent conflict with the Bible -- Editor] It was Ben-Hadad/Hadad-ezer himself, as the events of Asa’s reign (during which time Omri came to power) make very clear. Yet this passage of Kings leaves us in no doubt whatsoever; the king of Syria played a major part in the building of Samaria, just as the Amarna Letters tell us.
Emmet Sweeney’s Empire of Thebes: Ages in Chaos Revisited, is published by Algora (2006)
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