Although the archaeology of Palestine has often been valued mainly to confirm the biblical account, it is often better to look on it simply as an aid to reconstructing the culture of an ancient people. Much that archaeology discloses does not bear on the biblical accounts at all, and an occasional find may complicate rather than simplify our understanding of the Bible.

The period of Israelite history designated by the term “the monarchy” covers well over four hundred years, from the anointing of Saul to the destruction of Jerusalem (c. 1020–587 B.C.), and would cover up to two hundred years longer if the years of the judges were included. To discuss half a millennium under a single rubric would be difficult enough, and the situation is complicated by the variegated character of political and religious life during those centuries. For example, after the first hundred years, north-south tensions split the kingdom into two smaller principalities, Israel (the northern kingdom) falling to Assyria in 721, Judah lasting until 587.

But this long time span does afford a rich body of finds that show the kind of thing archaeology can do for the understanding of the Bible. This article will deal with the modest but important contribution of archaeology to our understanding of historical events, social and cultural development, and religion and theology, and to biblical criticism.

It is not necessary, of course, for a biblical person or event to be known from sources outside the Bible in order to be believable; but it is always interesting to see what additional light extra-biblical sources shed, and the corroboration is suggestive.

The Israelite king Jehu (c. 842–815 B.C.) is an instructive example. His coup and bloody purge are known from Second Kings 9–11, and so is the pressure on him from Hazael of Syria in the north. But the annals and monuments of Shalmaneser of Assyria also add the fact that Jehu paid tribute to Shalmaneser, perhaps to obtain relief from Syrian pressure. The famous “Black Obelisk” of Shalmaneser, discovered in 1846 and now in the British Museum, pictures Jehu (or his representative) bowing low before the king, while the inscription reads, “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri.” A list of gifts follows. This is the only known contemporary representation of any Israelite king.

Another king mentioned in Assyrian annals is Hezekiah, a late eighth-century king of Judah (c. 715–686 B.C.). Sennacherib laid unsuccessful siege to Jerusalem in his farthest penetration down the Mediterranean coast. He describes the entire western campaign, including the siege, in some detail, and at one point he mentions Hezekiah:

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As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, [and] I laid siege to forty-six of his strong cities … and conquered them.… Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage [Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 288].

The last two kings of Judah, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, while not mentioned by name, are referred to in the “Babylonian Chronicles.” These clay tablets are now in the British Museum and have been translated by Donald Wiseman. What Sennacherib the Assyrian attempted to do, Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian actually did. The biblical account (2 Kings 24:8–17) is paralleled by the Babylonian:

Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and seized it on the second day of the month Adar. He then captured its king and appointed a king of his own choice, having received heavy tribute from the city, which he sent back to Babylon [Chronicles of Chaldean Kings].

These particular tablets had been in London for over fifty years before Wiseman identified them; one might almost say they were recovered by exacavations in the British Museum!

The unfortunate King Jehoiachin, deported by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, is mentioned in Babylonian records by name as well as by office. About fifty years ago, German archaeologists working in Babylon found a group of clay tablets detailing rations of oil and barley issued to certain important captives. Jehoiachin of Judah is mentioned, along with other Jews, another kinglet, and numerous skilled craftsmen. This is clear evidence for the favorable treatment of Jehoiachin during his forced exile (2 Kings 24:15; 25:30).

Contrasting Cultures

The material culture of people is a clue to their values and preferences. The archaeologist usually studies an entire sequence of cultures and may be in a position to trace developments that are of great interest. For example, Canaanite culture in Palestine before the Israelite settlement stands in impressive contrast to the simple and unsophisticated homes that followed. This juxtaposition suggests that a simple but virile culture displaced a sophisticated but effete one (W. F. Albright, Archaeology of Palestine, p. 119). The reverse may be seen at the Israelite town of Tirzah. There Père de Vaux found all of the tenth-century homes similar in size and arrangement, while in the eighth century, the larger and better homes were in a separate quarter from the poor houses. He concludes, “Between these two centuries a social revolution had taken place” (Ancient Israel, p. 73).

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When Omri abruptly moved his capital from Tirzah to Samaria, he carried the taste of the nouveaux riches with him. Samaria was the only important city founded by the Israelites, and both its layout and material remains are significant. Omri appropriated the site’s impressive and strategic summit plateau for his palace quarters, with the rest of the city being built on the lower levels. Miss Kathleen Kenyon has compared this summit quarter with the Greek acropolis, “the defensible civic centre of a democratic community.” But instead of a democratic center Omri built “an exclusive enclosure reserved for an autocratic king and his servants,” a “new conception in Palestinian townplanning” (Archaeology in the Holy Land, p. 263). The contrast with Israel’s first king is also striking. Saul used a substantial but humble fortress at Gibeah for his headquarters. In the 150-year interval, Israel had developed both prosperity and social stratification.

Omri’s son and successor, the better-known Ahab, continued the reputation for elegance and luxury. His palace is called an “ivory house” (1 Kings 22:29), a symbol of extravagance and oppression later decried by Amos the prophet (Amos 3:13–15). Quantities of carved ivories excavated at Samaria illustrate this embarrassment of riches very nicely. They are carved with floral designs and inlaid with gold foil, lapis lazuli, and colored glass, and may well have come from Ahab’s palace. It is thought that the interior paneling and furniture were adorned with such ivory inlays, giving rise to the expression “ivory house.”

Temple Patterns

Because the religious life of a people is connected with its place of worship, any excavation that advances our understanding of Solomon’s temple takes on religious as well as architectural and cultural interest. It is impossible to conduct excavations on its presumed site, but reconstructions have been proposed for years, based on the data found in First Kings 6 and following. According to these data, the temple consisted basically of three rooms in a row: an outer foyer, an elongated inner room, and the innermost chamber, the Most Holy Place. Two free-standing pillars stood outside, and steps led into the inner room, which was a cube. The rooms were of the same width and on the same axis.

In recent years, temple buildings have been found in Palestine and Syria chronologically proximate to that of Solomon and showing the same basic floor plan. This is important, for it is known that Hiram of Tyre contracted with Solomon to furnish Lebanese timber, as well as “servants” and “builders” (1 Kings 5). Hiram himself personally supervised the casting of the bronze accouterments for the temple (7:13–47). Since Israel lacked a discernible architectural tradition, it may well be that Hiram also provided certain plans and motifs for the Jerusalem temple.

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In 1937, University of Chicago archaeologists discovered a chapel in northern Syria much like Solomon’s. It is at Tell Tainat, west of Aleppo, just over the Turkish border, and shows the same tripartite plan, with center room long and inner room small. The inner room may have been elevated and was probably the focal point of the building. Similar temples have been found at Khorsabad, north of the present Mosul, on the upper Tigris.

In each temple the three-room plan is followed, with steps leading up to a raised cella. The finds suggest a widespread impact of Assyrian architecture throughout Assyria’s general sphere of influence, molding Hittite and Phoenician forms that in turn provided a pattern for Jerusalem.

The chapels are each, like Solomon’s temple, attached to a royal residence. Indeed, at Khorsabad, a complex of three temples connected with Sargon’s palace has only two outside entrances, leading the first excavator, Place, to believe that it could only be the royal harem! The inference is that the temples were not so much public sanctuaries as private chapels. Solomon’s temple, therefore, may have functioned partly to encourage divine favor upon his deliberations by providing a place where Yahweh might be easily consulted.

About ten years ago, Israeli archaeologists working at Hazor in northern Galilee found a series of four Canaanite temples that show the tripartite plan. The latest of the four is probably from the thirteenth century. More recently still, excavations at Tell Arad in southern Palestine have brought to light a temple nearly contemporary with Solomon’s, apparently built by Israelites. It seems to have the three-room pattern, although the elongated central room is wide and shallow instead of long and narrow. It has the east-west orientation typical of temples, bases for two large pillars, and certain religious furnishings. Written records found at Arad even mention a “house of Yahweh,” apparently referring to the Jerusalem sanctuary.

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Controls on Biblical Criticism

One of the really interesting questions raised by this discovery has to do with the centralization of worship in ancient Israel. According to Deuteronomy 12, no worship was to be permitted outside Jerusalem, although, as has long been recognized, this regulation was not always observed. Indeed, Yadin believes that at Hazor he has found “an idolatrous Israelite cult place,” in use after the Israelites settled there but before the time of Solomon. It is clear from First Kings 12:28–30 that in the tenth century, Jeroboam I established sanctuaries in the north to rival that of Jerusalem, while Amos 5:5 indicates that in the eighth century there were sanctuaries also at Gilgal and Beersheba, both southern towns.

The Arad chapel was built in the time of Solomon, subsequently enlarged, and abandoned in the eighth century, about the time of Josiah of Judah. It was therefore in existence at the same time as Solomon’s temple, and less than forty miles away. Some think this supports the current opinion that the Deuteronomic regulation was first formulated by Hezekiah (715–686). Whether this is so or not, however, it does seem to indicate the effectiveness of Josiah’s well-known religious reforms (2 Kings 22–23), for the Arad chapel was abandoned and a massive wall built through it.

Biblical criticism, like literary criticism of any sort, is a procedure with subjective dimensions. It is legitimate when done with appropriate controls, but objective checks upon its conclusions are all too few. The Arad find is not really such a check, since some laws on all books seems destined not to be observed, but it suggests that archaeology may sometimes become at least a factor in biblical criticism. Unfortunately, the situation at Arad is still far from clear, for some experts in ancient masonry believe that the great wall marking the end of the sanctuary is not seventh century but first. If so, an evidence for the Josianic reform disappears, and with it also the evidence for the violation of Deuteronomy 12!

Religious practices during the monarchy will be clarified as excavations continue. We probably do not need archaeology to tell us basic facts about the history, culture, and religion of the period, but we gratefully welcome the considerable light it throws upon the biblical records.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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