King Ahaz: An Archaeological Biography

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It has been noted by various scholars, that during the divided monarchy, the kings of Judah are generally righteous while the kings of Israel are generally wicked.  There are always exceptions to generalities and the subject of our next bioarchaeography is one of those exceptions.  While King Ahaz ruled the southern kingdom of Judah, he was one of the most wicked kings to sit on the throne.  Scripture records:

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as his father David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. He even made metal images for the Baals, and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. (2 Chr 28:1-4)

Ahaz began to rule in a co-regency with his father, Jotham, in ca. 735 BC, and officially took the throne as a sole ruler in ca. 732 BC.1  He is remembered most for his wickedness, his war against Israel (2 Kgs 16:5-8) and his collaboration with Assyria (2 Kgs 16:7-9).

Religious Reforms

Beersheba-four-horned-altar-replica-tb110702422-bibleplaces
A replica of the four-horned altar discovered at Beersheba. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

In order to understand how far King Ahaz and his people had wandered from their worship of Yahweh alone, it is helpful to look at the religious reforms instituted by his son, King Hezekiah. [Hot Link]  Hezekiah “removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah.” (2 Kgs 18:4) This intentional destruction and desecration is visible in the archaeological record. While scholars have highlighted this evidence in relation to Hezekiah’s reforms, it also testifies to the apostasy that was present under his father, Ahaz.

Lachish Toilet IAA
This stone toilet, discovered in a gate-shrine at Lachish, is evidence of intentional desecration during the reign of Hezekiah. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

During the reign of King Ahaz, there were shrines and alters throughout Judah which appear to be part of an official Judhite cult under royal control.2  The archaeological remains show that these were systematically destroyed and desecrated during the reign of King Hezekiah.  The altar at Arad was abolished, and the sacred area dismantled and buried.3  At Beersheba, a large, horned altar was dismantled and its horns reused in the construction of a public storehouse that was built when the Assyrian army threatened Judah in 701 BC.4   At Lachish,  archaeologists discovered an eighth-century cultic site within the city gate with the remains of two four-horned altars with horns intentionally broken off.  They also discovered a stone toilet, suggesting an intentional desecration of the gate-shrine (2 Kg 10:27).5  These findings suggest that the cultic activities which flourished under King Ahaz were stamped out under King Hezekiah’s reforms.

Bulla and Seal

Ahaz Bulla
The bulla (clay seal impression) of King Ahaz. Photo: The Madain Project, https://madainproject.com/list_of_seals_found_in_israel

In 1995, a bulla (clay seal impression) dating to the eighth century BC was discovered in the possession of an antiquities dealer by Robert Deutsch.6  It contains a Hebrew inscription set on three lines which reads, “Belonging to Ahaz (son of) Yehotam, King of Judah.” A fingerprint is on the left edge of the bulla which may belong to King Ahaz himself.  On the back of the bulla, one can still see the imprint of the texture of papyrus and the double string which secured the document that was sealed. While artifacts from the antiquities market are often forgeries and the provenance of this artifact is unknown, most scholars agree that this is authentic as bullae are so difficult to fake.  The Ahaz bulla is currently part of Shlomo Moussaieff’s private collection in London.

An eighth-century seal, that was purchased on the antiquities market around 1940, is another direct link to King Ahaz.  The orange carnelian scaraboid seal once belonged to one of his royal officials. In addition to Egyptian iconography, it bears an ancient Hebrew inscription that reads, “Belonging to Ushna servant of Ahaz.”8  It is currently housed in
the Babylon Collection of Yale University.

Ushna Seal servant of Ahaz
The seal of Ushha, servant of King Ahaz. Photo: Yale University Library – Seals From The Babylonian Collection

Assyrian Inscription

Early in his reign, Ahaz faced a significant crisis.  Rezen, King of Syria and Pekah, king of Israel attacked Judah with the goal of removing Ahaz from power and placing the son of Tabeel on the throne (Is 7:6).  Even though the prophet Isaiah urged Ahaz to trust in the Lord, he turned to Assyria for help.  Scripture records:

So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. And the king of Assyria listened to him. (2 Kgs 16:7-9a)

This tribute has been confirmed in Assyrian records.  When the palace of Tiglath-Pileser III was unearthed in 1873, numerous inscriptions summarizing the king’s accomplishments were discovered.  One tablet, called the Annals of Tiglath Pileser III (Summary Inscription Seven), lists a group of kings in Syria and Palestine who paid him tribute of “gold, silver, tin, multi-colored garments, linen garments, red-purple wool, [all kinds of] costly articles, produce of the sea (and) dry land, the commodities of their lands, royal treasures, horses (and) mules broken to the yo[ke]…” Among the kings listed is “Jeohahaz the Judahite.”  (In Assyrian Inscription Ahaz is referred to as Jehoahaz, his longer name, with a theophoric prefix – the Bible simply refers to him by his shortened name).10 The inscription affirms that Ahaz did indeed offer tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III, although the biblical inventory lists only the most precious items of gold and silver.

Tiglath Pileser Summary Statement 7 British Museum
The Annals of Tiglath-Pileser III (Summary Statement Seven). Photo Credit: THe British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Summary

Archaeology helps provide the historical background to the turbulent political times that King Ahaz ruled in.  Moreover, his historicity has been affirmed through multiple bullae and the major events in his life are attested in the archaeological record.  Sadly, he is primarily associated with wickedness and stubbornness in turning to the King of Assyria, rather than to God, for help.

 

Title Photo:  Ahaz Bulla, The Madain Project

Endnotes

1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 133.

2 David Rafael Moulis, “Hezekiah’s Religious Reform—In the Bible and Archaeology.” Bible History Daily – Biblical Archaeology Society, June 28, 2019. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/hezekiah-religious-reform-in-the-bible-and-archaeology/ (Accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Bryan Windle, “Desecrated Gate-Shrine Discovered at Tel Lachish.” Associates for Biblical Research. Oct. 4, 2016.  https://biblearchaeology.org/current-events-list/3503-desecrated-gateshrine-discovered-at-tel-lachish (Accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

6 David Graves, “Bonus 45 – Ahaz Bulla.” Biblical Archaeology. Dec. 21, 2014. https://biblicalarchaeologygraves.blogspot.com/2014/12/bonus-45-ahaz-bulla.html (Accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

7 Robert Deutsch, “First Impression: What We Learn from King Ahaz’s Seal.” Biblical Archaeology Review, 24:3 (May/June 1998), 54.

8 “Ancient Seals From The Babylonian Collection.” Yale University Library. https://www.library.yale.edu/judaica/site/exhibits/holyland/BabylonianCollection.html (Accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

9 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 131.

10 “Biblical Archaeology 14: Tiglath-Pileser III Inscriptions.” Theosophical Ruminations,  Aug. 11, 2011. https://theosophical.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/biblical-archaeology-13-tiglath-pileser-iii-inscriptions/ (Accessed February 12, 2020).

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