King Omri: An Archaeological Biography

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During the period in Jewish history known as the Divided Monarchy, the formerly united Hebrew nation split into to two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  In our series of bioarchaeographies, we explored the lives of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah of Judah; we now turn our attention to King Omri, one of the most powerful northern kings.

Omri was originally the commander of the army of the north at a time when there was much instability in the kingdom of Israel.  King Elah had reigned for two years when he was assassinated at his palace in Tirzah by his chariot commander, Zimri, who took the throne for himself (1 Kgs 16:10).  He had reigned only seven days, when the people rebelled.  Word of Zimri’s coup reached the army and they made Omri king over Israel (1 Kgs 16:16).  They immediately besieged the city of Tirzah, and Zimri, who saw that the end was near, set fire to the royal palace and burned it down upon himself, perishing in the blaze (1 Kgs 16:18).  Omri’s rule as king was initially contested, as half the people of Israel supported Tibni the son of Ginath.  With his military support, Omri overcame Tibni, who was slain, and solidified his hold on the throne (1 Kgs 16:22).  With Omri’s reign (ca. 885-874 BC1) came a period of stability for Israel, and the kingdom began to expand.

While Omri proved to be a powerful king politically, he was a wicked king spiritually.  Scripture records:

In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri began to reign over Israel, and he reigned for twelve years; six years he reigned in Tirzah.  He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver, and he fortified the hill and called the name of the city that he built Samaria, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill.  Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did more evil than all who were before him. For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in the sins that he made Israel to sin, provoking the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols (1 Kgs 16:23-26).

Omri at Tirzah

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Tell el-Farah, identified as biblical Tirzah. Photo: Jose G. Gomez, http://www.tellelfara.com

When Omri became king, the capital of Israel was based at Tirzah, and he reigned there for six years.  This ancient city has been identified with Tell el-Far’ah, and was excavated by the École Biblique et Archéologique Française from 1946-1960 under the direction of Roland de Vaux.2  The city that Omri besieged was Stratum VIIb, which showed evidence of having been destroyed by fire.3  Omri apparently began to rebuild the palace, which was exposed during excavations.  Archaeologist, Dr. Bryant Wood, explains:

The main building consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by three large rooms. The walls were faced with stone on both sides and were reinforced on the front and at the corners by pilasters. A pilaster is a rectangular support projecting partially from the wall, with a base, shaft and capital. The structure was well built, using fine-dressed masonry, some of which was finished with a boss, or smoothed area, on the edges. The stones’ oblique dressing resembles that of the masonry in the palace at Samaria, also constructed by Omri. Strangely enough, the building was never finished. Construction was abruptly halted as evidenced by abandoned building materials, partly dressed stones, and the absence of…It appears that construction was discontinued halfway through Omri’s reign when work began on the new capital, Samaria.4

In 2017 a group from the University of A Coruna and the NOVA University of Lisbon conducted a new dig; you can read about their finds here: https://www.tellelfara.com/campaign-2017.   You can also view photos from the earlier excavations of the site here: https://npaph.com/sites/tell-el-farah-tirzah/.

Omri at Samaria

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The remains of Omri’s palace, expanded by his son, Ahab, are visible on the acropolis of Samaria. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com
Northern_views._The_excavations_at_Samaria._Ruins_of_Omri's_Palace_LOC_matpc.22584
A photo from the early 1900’s of the excavation of Omri/Ahab’s palace at Samaria. Photo: Library of Congress / http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/matpc.22584/

Omri moved his capital to Samaria and built a palace at the top of the hill be had purchased from Shemer.  The site was first excavated by the Harvard Expedition from 1908-1910.  They focused on the highest part of the hill in an effort to unearth the city that Omri had built.5  The excavators discovered a palatial structure at the pinnacle of the summit which they identified as the “Palace of Omri.”  They explained their findings this way:

The oldest part, the core structure, was built on a pinnacle of rock made by cutting away the sides of the hill to form an artificial scarp from one to two metres high all around the summit… The stones are roughly dressed, massive blocks, and the walls are thick and heavy…It is assigned to Omri, because it is the earliest of the three structures constituting the Israelite Palace.6

Archaeologist, Dr. Norma Franklin, offers this description of Omri’s palace:

The original extent of the palace building is unknown, but the west-facing scarp is c. 80 m. long from north to south, and the south-facing scarp c. 150 m. long. The actual palace building may have extended as far as the north-facing scarp, all traces of which were eradicated by later Hellenistic and Roman quarrying and subsequent building. Alternatively, there may have been an elevated forecourt between the palace and the north-facing scarp. This elevated forecourt may have had rock-cut steps that led down to the lowerlevel bedrock courtyard that was situated between the north-facing scarp and the large grape treading area.7

OmrideWallSamaria
This Israelite wall at Samaria dates to the 9th century BC (ie. the reign of Omri and Ahab). Photo: Carl Rasmussen, http://www.HolyLandPhotos.org

Omri’s royal palace, large courtyard and smaller royal buildings were later expanded and renovated by his son, Ahab.  According to Ron E. Tappy, “Throughout its existence, Samaria remained small in size—more a royal compound than a multifaceted city….Until the fall of Israel in 721 B.C.E., Samaria remained that kingdom’s political hub.”8

Omri Inscriptions

Omri is mentioned in numerous Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions.  The most extensive of these is the famous Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone), in which the Moabite king, Mesha, describes his accomplishments.  In it, he describes how Omri had expanded the kingdom of Israel and subjugated Moab, before he had thrown off Israel’s oppression:

Mesha_Stela_or_Moabite_Stone,_plaster_replica_of_original_in_the_Louvre,_inscribed_in_Moabite,_Dibon,_9th_century_BC,_basalt_original_-_Harvard_Semitic_Museum_-_Cambridge,_MA_-_DSC06025
The Moabite Stone or Mesha Stela. Photo credit: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 /

[3] Omri was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemoš was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him, and he said – he too – “I will oppress Moab!” In my days he did so, but I looked down on him and on his house, and Israel has gone to ruin, yes, it has gone to ruin for ever!

[4] Omri had taken possession of the whole land of Medeba and he lived there in his days and half the days of his son, forty years, but Kemoš restored it in my days.9

Omri is also mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.  This inscription details how Jehu, King of Israel, brought tribute to Shalmaneser.  The accompany relief appears to show Jehu bowing before Shalmaneser.  In the inscription, Jehu is called, “Son of Omri,” which, in this case, means he was the “successor” to the Omride dynasty, not a “son” in the literal sense.

BlackObeliskBritishMuseum
A panel from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. The cuneiform inscription above the relief says, “The tribute of Jehu son of Omri: I received from him silver…” Photo: British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Finally, even 100 years after Omri’s dynasty came to an end, the territory of Israel was still referred to as “Omri-land” in Assyrian Inscriptions.  In ca. 732 BC, Tiglath-Pileser III invaded Israel and took many captives.  In his Annalistic Records he boasted, “Israel (lit . : “Omri-Land” Bit Humria) . . . all its  (and) their possessions I led to Assyria.”10  Over a decade later, Sargon II described how he defeated Israel and took its citizens into captivity: “I conquered and sacked the towns Shinuhtu (and) Samaria, and all Israel (lit. : “Omri-Land” Bit Hu-um-ri-ia).”11

Summary

Omri’s reign is described in only 12 verses in Scripture, which detail how he took the throne and established his new capital at Samaria.  Other events from his reign were chronicled in another ancient book, called the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kgs 16:27), but we no longer have this work.

One of the ways in which archaeology is helpful is in providing the historical background to the biblical text.  In Omri’s case, we have learned that he was a powerful king, whose dynasty stabilized the northern Kingdom, albeit for a few short decades, and who expanded his territory into Moab during his reign.  Furthermore, the archaeological remains at Tirzah and Samaria affirm details in the biblical text about Omri’s building campaigns.

The NIV Archaeological Study Bible concludes, “Omri was an enormously famous and successful king, yet the Bible pays him virtually no attention.  Political success, in the eyes of the biblical writers, counted for very little if an individual had turned away from God.”12

 

Appendix – King Omri in Moabite and Cuneiform

Omri.melek.israel
“Omri, king of Israel” as mentioned in the Moabite inscription on the Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele). Photo: Brave heart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Omri Inscription
Inscription from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which mentions “Jehu, son of Omri…” Photo: http://www.katapi.org.uk/BAndS/BlackObelisk2.html

 

Title Photo: Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele) from the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903).  Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Endnotes

1 Edwin R. Thiele, Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 88.

2 “Previous Work,” Tel el-Fara, https://www.tellelfara.com/ (Accessed February 26, 2020).

3 Bryant G. Wood, “Omri, King of Israel,” Associates for Biblical Research https://biblearchaeology.org/research/divided-kingdom/3774-omri-king-of-israel (Accessed February 26, 2020).

4 Ibid.

5 Norma Franklin, “Samaria: from the Bedrock to the Omride Palace,” Levant 36, 2004, pg. 189. Online: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/samariabedrockLevant.pdf (Accessed February 27, 2020).

6 George Andrew Reisner, Clarence Stanley Fisher, and David Gordon Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria, 1908-1910 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924), 61.  Online: http://www.etana.org/sites/default/files/coretexts/17084.pdf (Accessed February 27, 2020).

7 Norma Franklin, “Samaria: from the Bedrock to the Omride Palace,” Levant 36, 2004, pg. 201. Online: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/samariabedrockLevant.pdf (Accessed February 27, 2020).

8 Ron E. Tappy, “Samaria,” Bible Odyssey.  https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/samaria (Accessed February 27, 2020).

9 William Brown, “Moabite Stone [Mesha Stele],” Ancient History Encyclopedia https://www.ancient.eu/Moabite_Stone_[Mesha_Stele]/ (Accessed March 1, 2020).

10 A. Leo Oppenheim, “Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts,” in Ancient Near Easter Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 284.

11 Ibid, 285.

12 “Omri and Samaria,” in ESV Archaeology Study Bible, ed. John Currid and David Chapman (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 512.

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