Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
Ancient Kings of Israel and Judah in Archaeological Sources
One of the last kings of Judah was Yehoyachin. We know from the books of Jeremiah and Kings that he was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar eleven years before the destruction of the Temple. The exile of Yehoyachin is also mentioned in the book of Esther. (There, the king’s name is given in an alternate form: Yechaniah.) According to 2 Kings, chapter 24 (and the parallel in the book of Jeremiah), Yehoyachin and his servants, princes and officers (and his mother!) surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadnezzar also exiled all the important people from Jerusalem at this time.But what happened to Yehoyachin after that? We are provided with some additional information from Tanach, thirty-seven years later. II Kings ends on the following positive note: “In the 37th year of the exile of Yehoyachin…Evil-Merodach king of Bavel, in the year that he began his reign, lifted up the head of Yehoyachin king of Judah out of prison. He spoke kindly to him and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Bavel. He changed his prison garments and he ate bread before him continually…[T]here was a continual allowance given him of the king, every day a portion, all the days of his life.” So for some reason Evil-Merodach, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, changed the Babylonian policy towards Yehoyachin and took him out of prison (which may have meant mere house arrest) and allowed him to eat at Evil-Merodach’s table for the rest of Yehoyachin’s life.From Tanach, we did not know anything about Yehoyachin during his thirty-six years of captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. And the skeptical among us could ask: How do we even know that there was such a king as Yehoyachin?Fortunately, archaeology came to the rescue. In the years 1899-1917, excavations were carried out in the ancient city of Babylon. In a room connected to the palace, records were found from the time of Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BCE) dealing with deliveries of oil and barley to prisoners and other foreigners. Among the records found was the following text: “To Ya’u-kinu, king of the land of Yaudu: ½ PI for Ya’u kinu, king of the land of Yahu-du, 2½ sila for the five sons of the king of the land of Yahudu… (The “sila” was a little under 1½ pints, and the “PI” was about 6½ gallons. The reference is probably to the monthly rations of oil.) These texts all range from the tenth to the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadnezzar. Yehoyachin is mentioned in this text and in three other texts.So we now have mention of Yehoyachin in a secular source, and even some data on how he was fed while in captivity by Nebuchadnezzar!This leads to the general question of which of the ancient kings of Israel, whether of Northern Israel or of Judah, are mentioned in archaeological sources. Fortunately, archaeology has much to contribute here. The following are the kings of Northern Israel that are mentioned in archaeological sources: Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Joash/Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Menachem, Pekach, and Hoshea. The following are the kings of Judah that are mentioned in archaeological sources. Uzziah/Azariah, Ahaz/Yehoachaz, Hezekiah, Menasheh, and Yehoyachin. There are also references in two different inscriptions to “Beit David,” implicitly referring to King David.What about Israelite/Jewish figures mentioned in the Bible who were not kings? Which of these are mentioned in archaeological sources? We do have mention of some such figures. Examples are Hilkiah and Azariah, both of whom were high priests during the reign of Josiah.What about foreign kings or other important foreign figures mentioned in the Bible? There is confirmation in archaeology of many of the Egyptian, Moabite, Aramean, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian kings. This deserves an article of its own. I will merely state here that the earliest foreign Biblical king confirmed in archaeology is Shishak (1 Kings 11 and 14), who reigned in Egypt from 945-924 B.C.E. In Egyptian sources his name is “Sheshonq” or “Shoshenq.”The scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk at Purdue University has dedicated many years to identifying all Biblical figures mentioned in archaeology. In March-April 2014, he published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review: “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible.” You can access his list and evidence at www.biblicalarchaeology.org/50. His list is continually updated. If you go to the site now, you will see that 53 Biblical figures are listed! (For those curious, the latest additions were: Nergal-sharezer and Nebuzaradan, who were both officers of Nebuchadnezzar, and Tattenai, a Persian governor mentioned in the book of Ezra.).Providing a list of Biblical figures mentioned in archaeology is not an exact science. Some archaeological inscriptions may be forgeries. Other times, the archaeological source refers to someone with the same name as a Biblical figure but the match may merely be a coincidence. Mykytiuk tried to be conservative with his list. He excluded inscriptions that were probably forgeries and included only identifications that he believed to be firm. He made a separate list of seven other identifications that are possible and reasonable, but not firm yet. For example, there is a seal from ancient Lachish that reads “Belonging to Gedalyahu, the overseer of the palace.” This may belong to the famous Gedalyah ben Achikam who was appointed governor by the Babylonians and later assassinated. “Overseer of the palace” may have been his prior position. But since scholars are not certain of the identification with Gedalyah ben Achikam, Mykytiuk omitted Gedalyah ben Achikam from his main list and included him only in his separate list.The most interesting material on his short list is an inscription that refers several times to a figure named “Bilam” son of “Beor.” This inscription was found at Deir Alla in Jordan, a site slightly east of the Jordan River, in the general area where the Biblical Bilam would have lived. It dates to around 700 B.C.E. But since the Biblical Bilam ben Beor would have lived several hundred years earlier than this, it is only conjectural to identify the reference with the Biblical figure.Mykytiuk did not include any very conjectural identifications. A famous one not that he did not include is the possible identification of “Amrafel,” king of Shinar (Genesis chap. 14, time of Abraham) with “Hamurabbi.” These names are very close (M-R-F vs. M-R-B). Hamurabbi lived in the 18th century B.C.E. The precise century of Abraham is not certain. (We have to work backwards from the Exodus, which may have taken place in the 13th century B.C.E. or perhaps the 14th or 15th centuries B.C.E. It is too hard to go into this topic here. Please read Ira Friedman’s columns on this topic!)None of the names on Mykytiuk’s firm list of fifty-three are earlier than the 10th century B.C.E (and none are women). I am hoping that one day we can dig up some earlier figures. For example, I am hoping we can dig up a reference to Kushan-Rishatayim, king of Aram Naharayim (Judges, chapter 3). Scholars have suggested that the Tanach did not record his name properly but adjusted it so it would have the meaning “doubly wicked.” I am waiting for his real name to be discovered to see if this suggestion is true!Finally, Mykytiuk limited himself to confirmations based on archaeology. He did not include confirmations based on literary sources. The earliest and primary example of a literary source that can confirm Biblical figures is the Histories of Herotodus, 5th century B.C.E. Herodotus writes much about the Biblical kings Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes (=Achashverosh). He also mentions the next king, Artaxerxes (=Artachshasta.) Moreover, in several passages, Herodotus refers to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes. The “is” at the end of this name is almost certainly a Greek addition. Therefore, we can deduce that her Persian name would have been based around the consonants M,S,T and R. As I have argued in one of the articles in my 2015 book (see below), this is very likely a reference to Esther. A later Greek historian, Ctesias, also perhaps refers to Mordechai. I have discussed all of this before and will do so in future columns.-------------------------------------------------------Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015) He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com. He looks forward to publishing a revised version of this article next year and expects that at that time the number of confirmed Biblical figures will be higher than 53.