O! ROT! Part I: The Divided Kingdom and Exilic Period & The United Monarchy

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This is the first part in a five part series on the reliability of the old testament, based on the book by Kenneth Kitchen.  For more, check out the introductory post.

The Divided Kingdom

The divided kingdom is recorded in both Kings and Chronicles, as well as bits from some of the prophets.  To measure historicity, external historical sources (records from Assyria and Egypt for the most part), bullae (seals of various kings and royalty), and archaeology are used.  To boil things way down, 9 of the 14 kings of Israel are mentioned in external sources and bullae of others have been found; for Judah, 8 of 15 (and other evidence as well).  Each date given for a king of either kingdom in the external sources agrees with the record in the Bible.  Kings and Chronicles also mention kings of many other nations.  Of the records we have, those mentions corroborate with that nation's own records.  Events which are recorded in both the Bible and external sources corroborate well, once propaganda is taken into account.1  In short, the idea that someone in the 2nd century just made this stuff up and happened to line up the dates, names, and events perfectly with Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Edomite, and other records through 350 years of various reigns is quite frankly an embarrassing hypothesis.

There are two things, however, that may be of interest.  The first is that it was common practice in the various cultures to have two sets of records (or more); the first is a blow-by-blow straightforward history.  The second is an interpretation of that history.  For example, the Babylonian Chronicles are very fair, recording even major defeats and disasters.  The parallel for Israel/Jordan were the Annals of the Kings, of which we have no originals.  Chronicles and Kings, however, are interpretations of that history.  This is not to say that they are not accurate.  However, invocations of YHWH and interpretations of defeats as divine punishment are given.  A similar thing occurs in the interpretive records of other cultures.

For example, Sennacherib cites his god for justification of his campaign against the Levant2 and for his great success.  He had a simply massive army, and leveled several cities on his way to splitting his army to take the western cities and Jerusalem in the east (with Hezekiah holding the fort) simultaneously.  A previously beaten-back army made of several nations tried to come up from behind with his forces split, but spies snuffed it out, and the two branches of Sennacherib's army joined together to repel this other army; the other army simply turned around and went home without a fight (mostly to Egypt and Libya).  It seems obvious that Sennacherib at this point could have then taken Jerusalem with ease.  However, Assyrian records simply say that they went home, with Hezekiah's tribute following.  But the Bible records that the Angel of the Lord struck down a large portion of Sennacherib's army.  In this case and other cases, it is clear that it was common practice to cite divine justification or assistance in victories and divine judgment in the defeats that were mentioned.

The second is this: a modern understanding of the regnal years given in the Old Testament will leave one completely confused.  As far as reigns, the inconvenient fact is that kings did not die at midnight of the last month of the year.  For a given reign, some kingdoms recorded the last year of reign as the king's, while other cultures gave that year to the successor, and called it year zero.  Over several reigns, this can yield discrepancies of several years.  Further, Israel and Judah often used different calendars - one spring-to-spring the other fall-to-fall.  And they sometimes switched both the calendar and the way of recording reigns.  For example, if the king of Israel was groveling at the feet of Assyria's king, they would probably adopt the practices of Assyria.  But if the successor was God-fearing, he would likely change the record methods back.  Hence the confusion.  Also note that obviously NONE of these cultures used a modern January-to-January calendar.  Given all this, to think one has a firm understanding of the regnal years - and hence dates - in the OT and can simply add them up is naive.  As Kitchen puts it, "[T]he chronological data in Kings in particular - regnal years, synchronisms, etc. - follow normal Near Eastern usage.  They cannot be understood by just totting up figures as if this were some modern, 'Western' composition.  That way lies confusion, as many have found to their cost."3

The Exile

On to the exile and subsequent return.  Perhaps the best summary is the following statement:

As we shall see (cf. chap. 6), neither the concept nor the practice of "exile" even began with these later Assyrian kings.  It was already a millennially old tradition, into which the Babylonian exile of the Judeans merely fits as one more such episode in a very long series, taking the long-term historical perspective.  The difference is the close-up impact that the Judean exile to Babylon makes upon the modern reader, particularly in 2 Kings and Jeremiah.4

Nor was it the case that all of Judah was taken from their land - even according to the Bible itself.  It was the king and his governors, the troublemakers to be put in prison, soldiers to be conscripted, and skilled people - artisans, craftsmen, musicians, etc. - who were taken into exile.  According to the Bible, "the poorest people of the land were left (behind)."  They were left as an imperial state, to yield revenue for Nebuchadrezzer.5

The Bible's record of the exile agrees well with what we know from history.  Add to this the fact that the foreign leaders named in all of the sagas of exile - such as the enemies of Nehemiah - line up well with the external evidence.

Finally, the return from exile is not some fairy tale.  It was not entirely without precedent in the ANE (as the Israelites were not the only peoples to ever be exiled).  Kitchen states:
The Persian kings supported local cults as a focus of local loyalties to the center; and that the local groups should invoke their deities' blessings on their rule.  Various minor details in the biblical sources find echoes in our external data.  Thus Nehemiah (2:7) asked for letters for safe conduct for his journey to Judea.  Just such a "passport," with requests (by the satrap Arsames for his adjutant Nahti-hur) to a series of officials for safe conduct (and provision) all the way from Babylonia to Damascus (en route to Egypt), has survived from only a few years after Nehemiah, preserved with other letters in a leather postbag such as couriers might have used on such journeys.  So we can see what Nehemiah might have expected from his king.6
Even comparing the language of Nehemiah's request and "passport" is exactly like the ones we have preserved.  The Israelites were not the only ones granted permission to return to their lands.  The Israelites alive at the time would obviously have been aware of this.  Nonetheless, their own return to their land was seen as a sign of divine blessing.

The United Monarchy

Kitchen begins with the biblical record of the United Monarchy (UM), including Saul and Ishbaal.  I will leave this study for you.

The extra-biblical information we have for the UM is scant.  The primary reason is that Assyria's influence did not reach the Levant until 853BC, some time after the kingdom had split, and Egypt during the UM was weakened compared to other periods.  The reason the likes of David and Solomon are not recorded by the Egyptians and Assyrians is simply that there was no contact.  Further, it is unlikely that lesser kingdoms would mention David or Solomon.  Most of the few records we have found of those smaller kingdoms simply deal with internal matters, with little to no mention of other kingdoms.

Overall, this time period (slightly before 1000BC to around 853BC) has few surviving records in all of Palestine and the surrounding area.  If one is critical of the lack of evidence for the UM, one must also be skeptical of the existence of the surrounding kingdoms as well - Philistia, Edom, Ammon, etc.  It is not the case that records are conspicuously missing from the UM and not for other kingdoms.  Much has been destroyed over the centuries, and much has yet to be dug up.

As far as a lack of structures from the UM, this should come as no surprise, especially with respect to Jerusalem.  There was significant destruction in 586BC, rebuilding long after, followed by the Herodian occupation (with significant construction), complete obliteration by the Romans, rebuilding some time after, the Crusades and the building of that time, occupation and building by Islamic forces, and the list goes on.  It is unlikely that anything survives after such expansive destruction and rebuilding.  If anything was carved, it was likely broken down for some rebuilding, then destroyed, then rebuilt, then ....

That said, there is one explicit mention of "the House of David" in the records of Hazael, who took credit for Jehu's murder of the kings of Israel and Judah.  There are two other very likely mentions of "the House of David" in other records, and much closer to when he lived.  Further, Assyrian records speak of another king taking two of their cities; for various reasons, this king was likely Hadadezer of Zobah, the enemy of King David.  This pretty much ends the explicit background from the UM.

The implicit background makes up the lion's share of what we know outside the Bible itself.  At this point I should probably mention the difference between explicit and implicit background.  Explicit background deals with historical writings from the time, bullae, and archaeological finds, while implicit background is more indirect.  Kitchen's purpose in the implicit background is to show that much of what is recorded in the Bible is not without precedence in the ANE.  That is, the dealings with foreign nations, economy, building projects, etc., of Saul, David, and Solomon are not unprecedented.  Historians - and skeptical Bible scholars especially - tend to regard much that is recorded as fantasy, because (for example) 22 tons of gold in income yearly for Solomon seems more like fantasy than anything grounded in the real world.  But an inspection of the wealth, writings, economies, buildings, temples, and palaces of contemporaries of the United Monarchy make it clear that what is recorded in the Bible is not simply castles in the air.  Because of this, the book doesn't much discuss how what is recorded in the Bible - be it hymns, teachings, buildings, foreign policy - differs from that of other nations, as Kitchen was stressing the similarities in order to dismiss the fantasy objection.

The Reign of Saul

For Saul, the background of interest is the excavation that has taken place at Shiloh, the tel that was likely the seat of Saul's kingdom (Gibeah), and several Philistine cities - Ekron, Ashdod, Geba.  The main question for all the locations is if there was civilization at each site when there should have been civilization (according to the Bible), and if it was the right people group taking up residence at the time.  The dozens of tels in the Levant and Palestine were constantly built, destroyed, rebuilt, abandoned, etc.  So, one should not find that a given tel was abandoned during years x-z, when the Bible records there were Philistines living there during the period.  Of what we know, the evidence at all of these locations are in agreement with the Bible.

In Shiloh, no evidence of a temple being there has been found.  However, the two most likely locations for the temple have not been excavated as they are simply too "denuded" to yield anything useful.  It is clear, however, that it was occupied by Israelites during the period that the Bible records it as being the home of the ark.
The series will continue in Part II with the reigns of David and Solomon as well as the time of the judges.

1.  As we will find out over the course of this series, much of the history of a nation that it itself recorded is propagandic.
2.  The eastern Mediterranean - more or less current-day Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, and southern Turkey.
3.  Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 26
4.  Ibid., p. 65
5.  That's Kitchen's spelling of the name from the original language, and Kitchen's a pretty smart dude, so I'll stick with his spelling
6.  OROT, p. 78
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