King Uzziah: An Archaeological Biography

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“How the mighty have fallen.”  This epithet adequately sums up the life of King Uzziah, the subject of our next bioarchaeograpy.  He was one of the greatest kings of Judah, reigning for 52 years, from ca. 792-740 BC.1 Scripture records how Uzziah (also known as Azariah in 1 Kings 15:1-7) became king after his father’s death:

And all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king instead of his father Amaziah. He built Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king slept with his fathers. Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem.  And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.  (2 Chr 26:1-5).

However, after Zechariah’s death, Uzziah became proud and broke God’s laws by trying to usurp the role of priests and offer incense to the Lord.  In punishment, he was struck with leprosy and lived as a leper in a separate house until the day of his death (2 Chr 26:21).

The Historicity of Uzziah

Uzziah’s historicity has been affirmed by several archaeological artifacts.  Two seals which once belonged to officials in his court mention him by name.  One reads, “belonging to Abiyau, servant of Uzziah.”2  It is made of agate, depicts a kneeling Egyptian figure, and was likely used in a ring.3  The second seal is made of red limestone and reads, “Belonging to Sebnayau, servant of Uzziah.”4  It depicts a man holding a scepter in his left hand with this right hand raised.  Based on the shapes of the letters and the styles of the seals, both date to the time of King Uzziah.  While they were obtained on the antiquities market, they are considered authentic, as were both purchased in the mid-1800’s, at a time when forgers could not have known about the epigraphical features of 8th century BC seals.5  Furthermore, both use the Hebrew term, ‘ebed for “servant,” which means the seal’s owner was the servant of a king.6

Seal of Shebnayahu servant of Uzziah king of Judah, with Assyrian figure, 1st half 8th c BC, tb0927195041
The seal of Sebnayau, “servant of Uzziah.” Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

A fragmentary inscription from the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III mentions “Azariah of Judah” (Uzziah’s other name) several times.  In one part, Tiglath-Pileser writes: “19 districts of Hamath, together with the cities of their environs, on the shore of the sea of the setting sun, who had gone over to Azariah in revolt and contempt [of Assyria].”7  While this event is not known in Scripture, it would be consistent with Uzziah’s influence as he expanded his control in the region (see below).  Some scholars have suggested that this might not be Azariah, king of Judah, but rather another influential ruler named Azariah of another region named Judah. However, this seems unlikely.

Israel Museum
King Uzziah’s reburial plaque. Photo: Ferrell Jenkins, https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2014/01/30/visualizing-isaiah-6-king-uzziah/

In 1931, a burial plaque came to light; it was rediscovered by E.L Sukenik, professor of archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, while he was looking at items in the Russian Orthodox monastery on the Mount of Olives.  The marble slab bore an Aramaic inscription which read, “Here were brought the bones of Uzziah, king of Judah. Do not open.” 8  The inscription does not date to the time of Uzziah, but to sometime between the Hasmonean and early Roman periods (ca 150 BC- 50AD).9  It appears to be a marker indicating that the bones of the Judahite king had been moved to a new burial location, likely because the city had expanded.  Gordon Franz notes: “Josephus records that Herod the Great erected a monument over the tomb of David after he tried to steal some of the gold and silver from the tomb. This was probably the time when Uzziah’s bones were moved and the inscription was written.”10

The Expansion of Uzziah

While Uzziah is perhaps best-known for the earthquake that occurred while he was reigning (see below), he was known to be a prolific builder.  Scripture records that he, “…built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate and at the Valley Gate and at the Angle, and fortified them. And he built towers in the wilderness and cut out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil” (2 Chr 26:9-10).

Gibeah Ruins
Iron Age ruins at Gibeah, as photographed in 1964. Photo: LifeintheHolyLands.com

Archaeological evidence of building activity around the time of Uzziah has been unearthed throughout Judah.  An 8th-century BC fortress was discovered at Ain el-Qudeirat (identified as Kadesh Barnea) with eight rectangular towers and a significant cistern inside the citadel.11  Towers and cisterns from this period have also been found at Gibeah and Beersheba.12  Pesach Bar-Adon surveyed and excavated a series of 8th-century BC sites in the Judean wilderness, including Qumran, and found that they resembled forts. This would be consistent with Uzziah’s building of towers and cisterns in the wilderness, and may have been a strategic attempt to build a string of fortified settlements could defend the eastern border of the kingdom and control access to the trade routes.13  The round, Iron-Age cistern at Qumran can still be seen today.  Further, Lachish (Level III) and Beth Shemesh (Level II) appear to have been constructed by Uzziah and display sophisticated urban planning.14

Qumran Cisterns
The round cistern at Qumran in the middle of this photo dates to the Iron Age. Some scholars believe it was built during the reign of Uzziah, as described in 2 Chron. 26:10 – “And he built towers in the wilderness and cut out many cisterns…” Photo: Courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

Remains of First-Temple era artifacts and architecture are rare in Jerusalem, as it has been both destroyed and built over numerous times.  Eilat Mazar has suggested that a First-Temple era structure, known as the “Extra Tower” in Jerusalem was one of Uzziah’s building projects.15  There is debate around this identification, however, as Leen Ritmeyer has pointed out that this structure was likely built during the reign of Hezekiah.16

Uzziah Kingdom
The Expanding kingdom of Judah during Uzziah’s reign. Image: GiantBibleMaps.com / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Scripture also records Uzziah’s expansion by conquest: “He went out and made war against the Philistines and broke through the wall of Gath and the wall of Jabneh and the wall of Ashdod, and he built cities in the territory of Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines” (2 Chr 26:6).  Archaeological evidence for Uzziah’s conquests is open to interpretation, given the incomplete and fragmentary nature of the data.  Jabneh (Tel Yavneh) has not been sufficiently excavated to gain an understanding of the site in the 8th century BC.17 At Ashdod, there are two 8th-century BC destruction levels beneath an Assyrian structure at the base of the tell, the earliest of which may be evidence of Uzziah’s conquest.18 At Tell es-Safi (Gath) evidence linked to Uzziah’s conquest has not been definitively discovered.  However, there is an 8th-century BC Judahite occupation level in Area F at the site19, which may be indirect evidence of Uzziah’s control of Gath.

aerial-foto-looking-sw-2009-with-excavation-areas Gath
An Aerial photo of Tell es-Safi (Gath) with Area F labeled. Photo: Courtesy of The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project / https://gath.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/the-2009-season-is-over/

The Earthquake of Uzziah

The Bible records that there was as significant earthquake in Judah in the days of King Uzziah (Amos 1:1, Zech. 14:1).  Archaeological evidence for a massive earthquake in the 8th century BC is visible at numerous sites throughout the Levant, including Hazor, Deir ‘Alla, Gezer, Lachish, Gath, Tell Judeideh, and ‘En Haseva.  An article in the journal Tectonophysics also details paleoseismic evidence for this earthquake.  The researchers used carbon-14 to date the organic matter in the deformed layers. Their analysis documented 11 earthquakes in Israel during the Bronze and Iron ages, including two in the 8th century BC.20  The larger of the two 8th-century BC earthquakes was likely the one that is remembered from the days of Uzziah.  Some scholars calculate that this earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8-8.2.21

brick-wall-destroyed-in-earthquake Uzziah
This photo, from Tell es-Safi (Gath) shows a collapsed wall, in which the bricks moved laterally about 2 meters off of the foundation and then toppled. Based on the stratigraphic context, this can be dated to the mid-8th century BC, and was likely the result of the earthquake that occurred in the days of Uzziah. Photo: Courtesy of The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, https://gath.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/view-of-philistine-temple-and-amos-earthquake/

Conclusion

King Uzziah’s life has been affirmed and illuminated through archaeological findings over the course of more than 100 years.  However, it is the ending of his life that is probably most instructive for those of us living more than 2700 years later.  Despite his long reign and perceived greatness, his pride led to his downfall and he lived as a leprous outcast until the day of his death.  His life illustrates the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

 

Title Photo: Epitaph of King Uzziah of Judah, Jerusalem, 1st century BCE-1st century CE, Limestone, https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/353190 Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Endnotes:

1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 118.

2 Amahai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (London: Yale University Press, 1990), 519.

3 Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Boston: Brill, 2004), 153-154.

4 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 143.

5 Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Boston: Brill, 2004), 154, 160.

6 Ibid, 157.

7 D.D. Luckenbill. “Azariah of Judah.” American Journal of The Semitic Languages and Literatures. Vol. 41, No. 4 (July 1925), 220.

8 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 140.

9 Ibid, 140.

10 Gordon Franz, “The Geography and Military Strategy of King Uzziah: An Expansionist Policy That Led to His Destruction.” Associates for Biblical Research. April 30, 2009. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/topics-by-chronology/divided-monarchy/4197-the-geography-and-military-strategy-of-king-uzziah-an-expansionist-policy-that-led-to-his-destruction (Accessed July 30, 2020.

11 Catherine L. McDowell, study note on 2 Chronicles 26:10, in ESV Archaeology Study Bible (ed. John Currid and David Chapman; Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 632.

12 Study note on 2 Chr. 26:10, in NIV Archaeological Study Bible (ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr and Duane Garrett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 1732.

13 “From Shepherd to Archaeologist: Pesach Bar-Adon and His Discoveries,” Biblical Archaeology Review 19:4, July/August 1993, 37.

14 Jeffrey P. Hudon, “The Expansion of Judah Under Uzziah into Philistia: The Historical Credibility of  2 Chronicles 26:6-7a in Light of Archaeological Evidence,” PhD diss., (Andrews University, 2016), 320.

15 Eilat Mazar and Benjamin Mazar, “Excavations in the South of the Temple Mount: The Ophel of Biblical Jerusalem,” Qedem 29. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1989. 59.

16 Leen Ritmeyer, “The Water Gate In Jerusalem.” June 22, 2011. https://www.ritmeyer.com/2011/06/22/the-water-gate-of-jerusalem/ (Accessed Aug. 5, 2020).

17 Jeffrey P. Hudon, “The Expansion of Judah Under Uzziah into Philistia: The Historical Credibility of  2 Chronicles 26:6-7a in Light of Archaeological Evidence,” PhD diss., (Andrews University, 2016), 321.

18 Ibid. 322.

19 Aren Maeir, “Talk on 8th cent. BCE at Gath,” Dec. 14, 2010. https://gath.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/talk-on-8th-cent-bce-at-gath/ (Accessed Aug. 6, 2020).

20 Bryan Windle, “Geological Study Confirms Earthquake Mentioned by Amos,” Jan. 22, 2019. Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/current-events-list/4388-geological-study-confirms-earthquake-mentioned-by-amos (Accessed Aug. 6, 2020).

Steven A. Austin, Gordon W. Franz, and Eric G. Frost, “Amos’s Earthquake: An Extraordinary Middle East Seismic Event of 750 B.C.” International Geology Review. Vol. 42. 2000. 657.  Online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00206810009465104 (Accessed Aug. 6, 2020).

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