The Rise and Fall of Kings: Divided Kingdom to Exile (c. 928-586 BCE)

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We have much more archaeological data for Israel and Judah going into the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. We even have a reference at the end of the 10th century: Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq I’s campaign list (c. 925). He attacked various Israelite cities, including Beth Horon and Megiddo. Sheshonq’s invasion occurred around the time the biblical authors portray a split between Israel and Judah, otherwise known as “the divided kingdom.”[1] If there was ever a united kingdom under kings David and Solomon, it was short-lived (c. 1005-928 BCE).[2] Much of the Old Testament recounts the history of two separate entities, Israel (north) and Judah (south). According to the biblical authors, a total of 20 kings reigned in the north, while 20 (19 kings and 1 queen) ruled in the south.[3] Israel experienced frequent political instability because of coups. In contrast, Judah maintained the same Davidic dynasty throughout except for a few years during a hostile take-over (c. 840s BCE). Israel reigned for about 200 years before falling to Assyria between 722-720 BCE. Judah lasted for approximately 340 years until the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587/86 BCE.  

Ninth Century Evidence for Israel and Judah: Mesha Stele, Tel Dan Inscription, and the Black Obelisk

In addition to Sheshonq’s list, three inscriptions dating to the 9th century BCE suggest Israel, Judah, and their neighbors were growing in power and international engagement. Moabite king Mesha’s stele cites Israelite ruler, Omri, and his son (Ahab) as oppressors. In Assyrian records, Israel is sometimes referred to as “Omri-land.” The Omride dynasty was powerful and successful such that the name became synonymous with “Israel.” Moabite king, Mesha, recounts eventual victory in throwing off the yoke of this dynasty, thanks to his god Kemosh. Among cities conquered was Nebo:

“And Kemoš said to me: “Go, take Nebo from Israel!” And I went in the night, and I fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, and I took it, and I killed its whole population, seven thousand male citizens and aliens, female citizens and aliens, and servant girls; for I had put it to the ban of Aštar Kemoš. And from there, I took the vessels of YHWH, and I hauled them before the face of Kemoš.” (translation adapted from Klaas Smelik)

In the biblical record, king Mesha is depicted as reigning during the time of Omri’s grandson Joram (c. 851-842 BCE). The biblical author describes a coalition comprising Israel, Judah, and Edom that comes against Moab for its failure to submit to Israel (2 Kgs 3). But, when Mesha offers his firstborn as a sacrifice, the god Kemosh succeeds in driving back the coalition. Significantly, the biblical author acknowledges the power of Kemosh to defeat Israel and Judah in battle even after Elisha prophesies that Moab will be taken (vv. 17-18; 26-27). The biblical author seems to believe in the efficacy of human sacrifice to conjure a god’s intervention.

The Mesha Stele may be the oldest artifact referencing a known biblical figure, namely, king Omri. However, the Tel Dan Inscription provides evidence for the earlier figure, king David (c. 1005-965 BCE), who lived a hundred years before Omri.[4] The inscription is dated shortly after the time of the Mesha Stele (c. 840) and refers to Israelite king Joram and Judahite king Ahaziah. Scholars attribute the epigraph to king Hazael of Aram-Damascus who brags about killing the king of Israel and the king of “the house of David” (i.e. Judah). A biblical narrative also recounts this event, but gives credit to an Israelite official named Jehu, who apparently made an alliance with Hazael to conduct a bloody take-over involving decapitation of all the Israelite royal sons (2 Kgs 9-10; see also 1 Kgs 19:15-17).

The coup resulted in Jehu and his dynasty reigning in Israel for several generations (the longest dynasty in the north per the biblical narrative). Jehu is the first identified biblical figure to be pictured in ancient Near Eastern iconography. Assyrian king Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk (c. 825 BCE) shows Jehu bowing submissively and paying tribute. The biblical authors make no mention of Jehu’s subordination to Assyria. Instead, Jehu is considered noble for efforts to purge the northern kingdom of Baal worship.

The archaeological record continues and swells in the 8th-6th centuries BCE—far more than can be cited here. Most of it pertains to political matters. Overall, Israelite kings mentioned in Assyrian records include Omri (Black Obelisk),[5] “Ahab the Israelite” (Kurkh Monolith inscription), “Jehoash the Samarian” (Adad-Nirari III inscription), “Menahem of Samaria,” Pekah, and Hoshea (all three from the records of Tiglath-pileser III). Assyrian records also include a few Judahite kings, mostly after the fall of Israel: “Jehoahaz of Judah” (i.e. Ahaz; Tiglath-pileser III), Hezekiah (Annals of Sennacherib), and “Manasseh, king of Judah” (inscriptions of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal).[6] Archaeological evidence within Israel and Judah also name Israelite king Jeroboam II (Megiddo Seal) and Judahite king Uzziah (two unprovenanced seals), as well as Judahite kings Jotham and Ahaz (on a single bulla; “Ahaz son of Jotham”). Finally, Babylonian administrative records refer to Judahite king Jehoiachin.

Significance of These Findings

Significantly, Sheshonq’s list, the Mesha Stele, Tel Dan Inscription, Black Obelisk, and the Assyrian references to kings primarily highlight the northern kingdom. This suggests Israel was more developed and powerful than Judah during the 9th and 8th centuries. The data also focus on political affairs and battles, as opposed to daily life. Records were written and preserved by scribes working for the palace or temple. Thus, national security and exploits dominate ancient Near Eastern records. Politics occupy much of the Old Testament as well. In fact, the prophetic books are primarily concerned with the events of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. Crucial for interpretation of the Old Testament is realization that the biblical authors’ theology was heavily influenced and shaped by these political concerns. Like other ancient Near Eastern peoples, they believed victory or defeat in war indicated God’s favor or displeasure.

Archaeological Evidence for Israel’s and Judah’s Most Traumatic Events

The most significant events in Israelite and Judahite history involve their ultimate destruction. They were stripped of statehood and thousands of people killed or exiled. Neither kingdom was ever revived (albeit, more than 2,000 years later the modern State of Israel was established in 1948).

According to the Annals of Tiglath-pileser III and the biblical record, Israel’s troubles escalated in the 730s BCE when Israelite king Pekah plotted with Aram against Judah. Judahite king, Ahaz, appealed to Assyria and received help after paying a large tribute. King Pekah was assassinated and replaced by Assyrian-approved king Hoshea. Apparently, Hoshea was submissive to Assyria for a season before rebelling at the encouragement of Egypt. The Babylonian Chronicle reports that Assyrian king Shalmaneser V responded to the revolt in 722 BCE by ravaging Israel. The invasion lasted for two years. Various deportations to Mesopotamia occurred.[7] The northern kingdom was completely destroyed. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests a flood of refugees poured into Judah from Israel during the turmoil of the 8th century. During a few decades, Jerusalem grew from 35 settlements to 120, while the southern lowlands swelled from 20 to 275 settlements. This population explosion no doubt had a significant impact on the formation of Judah.

Judah endured far longer than Israel, in part, because of its submission to Assyria. However, some kings did rebel. Hezekiah revolted and was met with a violent response from king Sennacherib in 701 BCE. Many Judahite towns were destroyed, people were slaughtered or deported, and Jerusalem placed under a siege. Sennacherib’s Nineveh palace walls show pictures of the hostile takeover of Judahite city Lachish. Certain male prisoners of war were stripped naked and impaled or skinned alive. Families with small children gathered belongings in wagons that carried them into exile.

While much of Judah was ravaged, the capital Jerusalem did not fall to Assyria. Sennacherib and the biblical author give different interpretations of this event. The Assyrian king brags about successfully humbling Hezekiah:

“I imprisoned Hezekiah in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage. I erected siege works to prevent anyone escaping through the gates . . . Hezekiah, who was overwhelmed by my terror-inspiring splendor, was deserted by his elite troops . . . He was forced to send me 420 pounds of gold, 11,200 pounds of silver, precious stones, couches and chairs . . . his daughters, concubines . . .” (see Annals of Sennacherib)

Despite the portrayal of defeat, Sennacherib never claims to successfully take Jerusalem, but only to force Hezekiah to pay tribute. The biblical author takes the survival of Jerusalem as a positive sign of God’s protective intervention. Each side claims “victory.” However, Judah’s victory was bittersweet: the kingdom persisted because Judahite kings ultimately submitted to Assyria.

Fast forward to 626 BCE. Neo-Babylonians have entered the scene and begin conquering Assyria (Nineveh was sacked in 612). Egypt, which had gained a foothold in Judea, is also pushed back. In 597 BCE, king Nebuchadnezzar attacks Judah. Apparently, king Jehoiakim rebelled, prompting the Babylonian administration to assert itself. Intermittent conflict with Babylon and waves of deportations occurred over the next 10 years, starting first with hundreds of skilled workers. The Lachish Letters record correspondence from Judahite officer, Hoshayahu, sent to commander Yaush at Lachish (the city had been rebuilt after the Assyrians destroyed it).[8] In Letter #4 Hoshayahu reports that his station is watching for fire signals at Lachish, but cannot see any at Azekah. Scholars debate if the lack of visibility indicates Azekah had been conquered. A biblical author reports that Lachish and Azekah were the only fortified cities left in Judah at the time (Jer 34:7). Shortly thereafter, in 587/586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Exile and Return

Following the Babylonian destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah, archaeological surveys suggest a population drop from over 100,000 to around 30,000. Large populations of Jews lived in diaspora, particularly Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Egypt. However, thousands of Jewish survivors remained in Judea and were not deported. In 539 BCE, the Persians overthrew Babylon. A biblical author records king Cyrus’s decree allowing Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:2-4). The Cyrus Cylinder confirms that the Persian king did allow this for various peoples, although Jews and Judea are not mentioned specifically:

“I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”

Some Jews apparently returned to Judea, but many exiles remained in Egypt and Babylon. The Elephantine Papyri, dating to the 5th century BCE, document a Jewish community living in the Egyptian border town of Elephantine. They appealed to Jews in Jerusalem for help rebuilding a local temple. Similarly, the al-Yahudu and Marashu tablets, from the 6th-5th centuries, shed light on the exiles’ life in Babylon (Iraq). Jewish populations thrived there for over 2,000 years. A recent documentary, From Exile to Exodus: The Story of the Jews of Iraq, interviews modern-day descendants of these exiles.


Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, ed., Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).

Victor H. Matthews, A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WJK Press, 2002).

[1] Interestingly, the biblical author says Sheshonq attacked Jerusalem—a southern city missing from the Egyptian list (1 Kgs 14:25-28; Shishak = Sheshonq). The biblical author also fails to mention any of the northern cities cited by Sheshonq. The discrepancy is likely the result of a southern author preoccupied with portraying a history of Judah. Curiously, the first northern king, Jeroboam is said to have fled to Egypt for refuge under Sheshonq (1 Kgs 11:40). Is there a relationship between Jeroboam’s time in Egypt and Sheshonq’s attack? If so, the biblical author does not make this correlation. In the narrative, Jeroboam is described as a high-ranking officer under Solomon who rebels against Solomon’s oppressive rule (1 Kgs 11:26-40). Jeroboam eventually returns to his homeland to challenge Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kgs 12). Ten tribes follow Jeroboam and two tribes stay with Rehoboam. The biblical author states that, initially, it was a bloodless division after God tells Rehoboam to accept the fate as punishment for Solomon’s idolatry. However, on-going war ensues between Rehoboam and Jeroboam (1 Kgs 15:6).

[2] There are contradictions and difficulties in the way the biblical authors present the chronology of the kings. Several scholars have tried to solve the puzzle. The dates used in this study are drawn from Mordechai Cogan, “Chronology” in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1002-11.

[3] I have counted Zimri, Tibni, and Shallum in this number.

[4] French scholar André Lemaire has proposed that “house of David” also appears on the Mesha Stele. However, the text is broken; thus, other scholars have been reluctant to confirm the certainty of this possible reference.

[5] Jehu was not the son of Omri. In fact, he overthrew the Omride dynasty! However, “Omri” seems to have become a synonym for Israel.

[6] The archaeological record is plentiful and not everything can be mentioned. For example, see also the Samaria Ostraca that demonstrate literacy for business transactions in the 8th century BCE, as well as the Samaria Ivories and the clay bullae archives.

[7] During this time, Shalmaneser died and was replaced by Sargon II.

[8] See also the Arad Ostraca.


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