Discuss the reigns of Omri and Ahab, both the historiographic and the historical issues and some of the principal scholarship on them. Is there a wider significance of these reigns for the course of Israelite history and for the conception and development of biblical historiography?
The reign of the Omride dynasty ushers in a welcome historical point in Israel’s history, where we begin to have more extra-biblical evidence that can be brought to bear in historical reconstruction. The abundance of evidence, however, tends to complicate rather than simplify. The Omride dynasty was the first dynasty in the Northern Kingdom to extend past two generations, according to the HB, although it only lasted a relatively short time. Omri and Ahab contributed to a strong and ascendant kingdom that reduced Judah and Moab to essentially vassal status and participated as a near equal with other states such as Damascus in rebelling Assyria’s incursions. The building activity attributed to Omri and Ahab is incredible. It is commonly thought that this period represents Israel at its zenith based on the HB, extra-biblical inscriptions (Assyrian, Moabite), and the biblical data. The sources at the end of the day, however, leave us with a number of questions:
- How long did the Omrides stay in power?
- Do the stories of Ben-hadad and the king of Israel belong to Arab’s reign?
- When does Omride building activity begin?
- What is Ahab’s relation to the Mesha Stela?
Omri was a commander in the army of the northern kingdom encamped against the Philistines, when Elah, the king of Israel who stayed behind, got drunk and was murdered by Zimri (1 Kgs 16:9-10), one of his officials. Zimiri declared himself king and Omri was proclaimed king by his soldiers (lit. “all Israel, see 1 Kgs 16:16) and marched on Tirzah the capital. Zimri’s reign lasted 7 days, ending in his suicide (v. 18). After Zimri’s death, the country was divided between Tibni and Omri and the civil war apparently lasted 4 years (v. 21-22, for the length of the civil war see below). Omri oddly has no patronymic in the HB, though he hails from Jezreel, making him possibly from Issachar, it has been speculated that he could be a non-Israelite. After becoming the undisputed king, Omri’s main achievement in the HB is the relocation of the capital to Samaria from Tirzah. This is considered a strategic descision both politically and economically. Similar to David’s relocation from Hebron to Jerusalem, Omri’s descision to move his capital may have been to choose a new location without political baggage. Samaria also had better access to the King’s Highway, the main international trade route running through the Transjordan. Omri seemed to be interested in making alliances and contacts with his neighbors and thus married his son Ahab to the Tyrian princess Jezebel. Omri’s granddaughter (or daughter) Athaliah was also married to the King of Judah, Jehoram. Archaeology has recovered the many building activities of Omri, but it is often difficult to distinguish Omri’s building activities from Ahab’s, and this is confounded with Finkelstein’s redating of traditional Solomonic strata to the Omrides. The archaeological problems will be discussed below. Omri’s name occurs in Akkadian royal inscriptions until the fall of Samaria, but it is only preserved in the Assyrian name for the Northern Kingdom “bīt ḫumri”. A reference to the person of Omri is found in the Moabite Stela that preserves a hitherto unknown conflict with between Omri and Moab in which Omri had the upper hand. Mesha claims that under Omri’s “son” his was able to take back the lost territory.
Ahab’s reign is given much more screen time in the HB, but he is not always the main character of the stories in which he appears, and for various reasons discussed below, it is argued by J. Maxwell Miller that some of these stories are incorrectly attributed to Ahab’s reign. The story groupings can be divided into The Elijah Stories (1 Kgs 17-19), Three Battles of Ben-hadad (1 Kgs 20; 22:1-38), and Naboth’s Vineyard (1 Kgs 21). Ahab is first mentioned in the famous Kurkh Monolith Inscription of Shalmeneser III for his participation in the Syria-Palestinian alliance of kings, headed by Hadad-ezer that repelled Assyria’s encroachment over the Orontes River at Qarqar in 853 BCE. Ahab is said to field the largest number of chariots in the coalition (2,000) and field the second largest number of combined forces (2,000 chariots + 10,000 troops). The Mesha Stela also records Mesha’s military success against Omri’s “son” which may refer to Ahab, although the Bible records a conflict between Mesha and Jehoram (Joram), the grandson of Omri. It is possible that the term “son” really means “grandson” or that the term is figurative.
Chronology and Problems with Ahab’s ReignEdit
Trying to pinpoint the reigns of Ahab and Omri is made difficult by conflicting biblical chronologies in the MT, differing years in the versions, and an apparent four year period between Elah/Zimri’s death before Omri took the throne. According to many of our sources, the Omrides in general seemed to be powerful rulers, making alliances with neighboring kingdoms, repelling Assyrian encroachments with impressive amounts of solders and equipment, but also with hostile relations with the prophets of Yahweh. However, other sources such as the stories of the battles with Ben-hadad (both with Ahab and Jehoram [a later Omride]) and the Elisha stories (Jehoram) depict a weak king who cannot defend his borders or even protect his capital and seems to have a good relationship with the prophets of Yahweh. The king of Israel in these stories is also often unnamed. According to J. Maxwell Miller the main proposals for dealing with this issue is either to consider the Omride dynasty a time of stark contrasts, a kingdom and dynasty that was sometimes ascendant and other times not. Miller, however, argues that these narratives are misplaced and moved them to the Jehu dynasty, where he argues these stories make better sense historically. Additionally, a related problem is reconciling the Syrian king(s) Ben-Hadad with what is know from Assyrian inscriptions. 1 Kgs 15:18-20 talks about a Ben-hadad the son of Tab-rimon who is contemporary with Asa and Baasha (this Baasha was the father of Elah, whom Zimri killed). In the Kurkh monolith inscription, Ahab is part of an alliance with Hadad-ezer (Akk: Adad-izri), and according to a fragment from a stela of Shalmaneser III, Hadad-ezer is followed immediately by Hazael (son of nobody) leaving no room for Ben-Hadad. This is a problem since 1 Kings depicts Ahab in conflict with Ben-Hadad, and Ben-hadad is the Syria king killed by Hazael in 2 Kings (Eliah narratives). This is further evidence for Miller that these stories do not belong here, but to the Ben-hadad the son of Hazael in 2 Kgs 13:24. Cross had previously argued that the Melqart stela has the name “Ben-hadad the son of ʾEzer the Damascene” but this reading has been cast into serious doubt by subsequent photos and examination of the stela. Some scholars merely suppose that Ben-hadad was known by two names, Hadad-ezer to the Assyrians and Ben-hadad by Israel/Judah.
The Omrides and ArchaeologyEdit
The Omride dynasty lasts a relatively short time, and could have began and ended within the lifetime of many people, and it is often difficult in the archaeological record to distinguish between the building activity of Omri and Ahab. Assessment of the archaeological record became problematic after Finkelstein disputed the layers at many sites formerly attributed to Solomon and reassigned them to the Omride dynasty. Undisputed sites of Omride building are Samaria and Jezreel. Conflict over which strata to assign to the Omrides occurs in Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. However, regardless of whether Finkelstein or the traditional schema is correct, the Omrides come out as prolific builders.
Ahab and MeshaEdit
The Mesha stela tells us that under the reign of Omri’s son that Mesha rebelled and reclaimed some of the lands that he had lost until Omri’s reign. It is unclear is Mesha is referring to the same incident that is recorded in the HB under Jehoram’s reign or if this is a separate incident. The term “Omri’s son” may be figurative, in fact, the Black Obelisk even calls Jehu the “son of Omri” even though his is not part of the Omride dynasty.
Implications on History and HistoriographyEdit
The Omride period was important in the formation of the kingdom of Israel as a major Levantine power and it is an important period for modern historical reconstruction. Although the biblical writers view this dynasty negatively and with obvious loathing, the archaeology and extra-biblical records point to a prosperous and internationally connected kingdom. Understanding the exact place and significance of the Omride dynasty is vital in modern historical reconstruction since our understanding of the United Monarchy and Judah’s political history is tied up with the Omrides.
Hayes, John, and J. Maxwell Miller. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006. Drinkard, J. F., Jr. “Omri Dynasty.” Edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books. Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005.