Living Messages - Part 2

In our previous article in this section (see Archives) we commenced a review of some of the most interesting and significant inscriptions from Israel and adjoining countries, arranged in chronological order, with a brief explanation as to why they are so important.

The first four inscriptions in our list were:

  • 1. The Merneptah stele - around 1208 BCE

  • 2. The Zayit stone - late11th century BCE

  • 3. The Gezer stone (calendar) - early 10th century BCE and

  • 4. The stele of Mesha (or Moabite stone) - approx. 845 BCE.

Let's now move on to consider five fascinating inscriptions from the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, one of which is actually a collection of official and intensely personal messages written during a time of national calamity.

 

5.  The Jehoash Inscription

You might think this dark sandstone plaque to be a surprising inclusion on our list, because from the time of its "discovery" in 2003 it has been regarded with great excitement by some people and with disdain by others. The inscription purports to be a public record of repairs which were made to the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Solomon's temple) in the 9th century BCE by king Jehoash, or Joash, as we read in 2 Kings 12 and 2 Chronicles 24. But the authenticity of the plaque has been the subject of passionate argument among archaeologists, linguists and other experts on ancient monuments. And together with the famous "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary, the Jehoash plaque has become an integral ingredient in the ongoing Israeli forgery trial of a Jerusalem antiquities dealer, who was apparently at one time in possession of both items.

   

Jehoash Inscription
The Jehoash Inscription

                                                    (Photo: from the internet, source unknown)

We've included the monument in our list of important inscriptions because, whether genuine or not, it has to a considerable degree raised public awareness of the period of the Jewish monarchy and has generated widespread discussion concerning the interpretation and importance of archaeological discoveries. The inscription is also significant due to its potential for political manipulation by some conservative Jewish leaders, who desperately wish to secure physical evidence of the existence of the First Temple, of which there are very few confirmed remains, and to use such evidence in support of their claim to a Jewish right of sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately however, as the saga continues regarding the authenticity of the inscription, it appears that it might be a very long time, if ever, before we know the whole truth about this tantalising artefact.

 

6.  The Tel Dan Stele

In contrast there doesn't seem to be any doubt at all about the provenance or origins of the Tel Dan Stele, several fragments of which were uncovered during excavations at the Biblical city of Dan in 1993 and 1994. The incomplete stele was erected in the 9th or 8th centuries BCE by an Aramean (Syrian) king to celebrate his victory over king Joram of Israel and king Ahaziah of "the house of David".

The identity of the particular Aramean king is not included on the monument due to its fragmentary state, however the inscription parallels the account in 2 Kings 8 of the war of Joram and Ahaziah against a Syrian king named Hazael, who is presumed to be the author of the Stele. Whilst there are some differences in the description of the events this is to be expected in the public records of opposing sovereigns, as for example in Pharaoh Ramasses II's inaccurate descriptions of his "great victory" against the Hittites at Kadesh.

The major significance of the Stele however is that its use of the expression "house of David" is the first and so far the only definite reference to king David outside of the Bible. As such it confirms the Biblical evidence that the nation of Judah was known among neighbouring peoples by the name of their famous ruler for many years after his death (David is presumed to have lived around 1000 BCE).

 

 

Drawing of the Tel Dan Stele with "House of David" highlighted
Drawing of the Tel Dan Stele with "House of David" highlighted

                                                     ( Wikipedia Commons)

 

7. The Black obelisk of Shalmaneser III

Despite being discovered in a location well away from Israel this inscription deserves special mention in our list since it provides us with what is possibly the only accurate depiction of any Jewish person who is named in the Old Testament - Jehu, the king of Israel.

The obelisk is an impressive five-foot high piece of black limestone, which is engraved on all four sides with a record of the conquests of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, who reigned from 858-824 BCE.  It was uncovered in 1851 by the British archaeologist Sir Henry Layard in the ruins of Shalameser's palace near Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq) and among the inscriptions on the obelisk there is one which reads:

"Tribute of Jehu, son of Omri.  Silver, gold, a golden saplu (bowl), a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, tin, staves (staffs) for the hand of the king, puruhtu (javelins?), I received from him." 1

Immediately below this line we have an amazing, almost photographic-quality panel, which depicts either Jehu or his ambassador to the Assyrian court kneeling in submission before Shalmaneser. Three more Israelite men are seen standing behind him and carrying tribute offerings. Additional scenes also depicting Israelites bringing tribute to Shalmaneser appear on the remaining three sides of the obelisk.

        

   

Black Obelisk of Shalmanseser
Black Obelisk of Shalmanseser

 

Detail from the Black Obelisk of Shalmanseser
Detail from the Black Obelisk of Shalmanseser

King Jehu or envoy prostrating himself before the Assyrian monarch

(Photos: AR, Wikipedia Commons)

 

 Jehu, who reigned from 842 to 815 BCE, is renowned for having seized the throne of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in a coup, after having been anointed by a student of the prophet Elisha. According to 2 Kings 9 Jehu then proceeded to eliminate all remaining members of the family of Omri, including Ahab's son and heir Jehoram, his widow Jezebel and also king Ahaziah of Judah who was a nephew of Jehoram. It is also recorded that he attempted to eliminate the worship of Baal throughout the kingdom.

Throughout Jehu's reign the kingdom continued to be harassed by the Arameans, led by Hazael, the same king mentioned above in connection with the Tel Dan Stele.  Although the Bible doesn't record Jehu's appearance before Shalmaneser it is thought probable that he sought an alliance with the Assyrians in order to help defend his territory against Hazael, with whom the Assyrians were also at war at that time.

Thus this inscription and engraving provide an intriguing glimpse into Jehu's relatively long twenty-eight year reign about which we otherwise have very little information (see 2 Kings 9 & 10 and 2 Chronicles 22). 

 

8. The Siloam Inscription

This well-known inscription, which is held in a museum in Turkey, was originally carved into a rock at the entrance to a remarkable ancient engineering feat - the excavation of a 600m long water tunnel beneath Jerusalem in 701 BCE at the instigation of the Jewish king Hezekiah, at a time when the city was under threat from the invading Assyrian army led by Sennacherib (see 2 Chronicles 32 v 2-4 and 30 and 2 Kings 20 v 20).

The inscription describes how the tunnel was constructed by two teams of men, who started at opposite ends of the city and worked towards each other until they met in the middle. Its purpose, along with the stopping up of all the springs in the area around Jerusalem, was to deprive the Assyrians of water whilst ensuring a safe and continuous water supply for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

In vivid language the inscription relates the elation of the workers in the two teams as they heard each other's voices through the rock near the end of the digging and then finally broke through:

"and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, axe against axe and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1200 cubits." 2

 

The Siloam Inscription
The Siloam Inscription

(Photo: from the Internet, source unknown)

Construction of the Siloam tunnel was a key part of Hezekiah's strengthening of the defences of Jerusalem including the rebuilding of damaged walls, construction of new walls and towers and organising and equipping his army. Together these activities helped the Jewish defenders hold out against the Assyrians, until the Lord responded to the prayers of His people by sending "an angel who cut down every mighty man of valor, leader, and captain in the camp of the king of Assyria", thereby forcing Sennacherib to retreat in disarray (2 Chronicles 32 v 21).

The Siloam inscription, which was chiseled from the entrance to the tunnel during the Ottoman era, is thus an extremely valuable relic of these remarkable events; so valuable in fact that the Turkish Government has refused Israeli requests to return it permanently to Jerusalem, although they have offered to lend it on a short-term basis.

 

9. The Lachish Letters

The Lachish Letters are an extraordinary collection of 21 pieces of broken pottery of varying size with messages in ink on one or both sides, which were discovered during excavations in the Jewish city of Lachish in the mid 1930's.  These ‘ostraca' date to the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 589 BCE, shortly before the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar's army in 586BC (see 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 34).

 

One of the Lachish letters
One of the Lachish letters

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Many of the letters and notes were written by Hoshaiah, a Jewish soldier based in a forward watchpost, to his commanding officer in Lachish and they evoke in vivid fashion the distress which accompanied Hoshaiah's experience of the Babylonian assault. We read in one of the letters:

"To my Lord, Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace this very day, this very day!"

And in a more chilling vein Hoshaiah later writes:

"Let (my lord) know that we are watching for the signals of Lachish, according to all the indications which my lord has given, for we cannot see Azekah."

Absence of the signal fires from Azekah was an indication that this Jewish city, which is mentioned Jeremiah 34 v 7, had fallen to the enemy forces. Other letters indicate the failing morale of the Jewish army as the villages and towns where many of their families would have been living were destroyed by the unstoppable Babylonian war machine. Thus these unique documents provide a moving personal and physical background to the events of this catastrophic period in Israel's history, and they provide unequivocal support for the Biblical description of the events, such as we read in Jeremiah 34 v 6-7:

"Then Jeremiah the prophet told all this to Zedekiah king of Judah, in Jerusalem, while the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah that were still holding out - Lachish and Azekah.  These were the only fortified cities left in Judah."

Subsequent to these events the Babylonians overwhelmed the defences of Judah, killing many of the Jewish people and taking others, particularly the craftsmen, into exile as Jeremiah had foretold (e.g. Jeremiah 20).

 

Conclusion

The inscriptions reviewed in these two articles cover over 600 years of Jewish history, from the period of the nation's early formation around 1208, through the early years of the monarchy, its division into separate northern and southern kingdoms, up to 589 BCE when the era of the Jewish kingdoms was drawing rapidly to its close. They reveal much about the development of the nation the Bible describes as God's "special treasure ... above all people" (Exodus 19 v 5). And confirm much of the Biblical commentary. They speak to us about various aspects of daily life in Israel and Judah, including the annual agricultural cycle, the importance of the Jerusalem temple in Jewish thought and the constant tension with neighbouring states and empires.

The steles and ostraca also remind us of the numerous requests that God made to Israel to honour Him and to treat their fellow citizens with justice and equity. The failure of the peoples of Israel and Judah to comply with these simple commandments ultimately led to their defeat and exile, in Israel's case to Assyria and beyond and in Judah's to Babylon and Persia, in accordance with the messages of prophets such as Jeremiah, Micah (6, especially v 8) and Amos (chapter 5).

Throughout the pages of the Old and New Testament we have the opportunity today to hear the voice of our Heavenly Father and of His Son Jesus calling us, like Israel, to live in God's love, to live justly and to be generous in sharing our material and spiritual gifts with others (Matthew 25 v 31-41).

And the writers of the Bible looked forward to a future when Israel will once again enjoy a close relationship with their God, of which Jeremiah wrote:

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jeremiah 31 v 33; quoted in Hebrews 8 v 10).

 

We hope this time may be near, when the people and nation of Israel, together with countless millions of other people from around the world, will truly be living and breathing messages from the Lord!

 

Footnote: Since the writing of these two articles, the discovery in Israel of two new intriguing and exciting inscriptions has been revealed and these will be commented on in our next article.


 

1 Museum of Antiquities (website)

2 Wikipedia