King Manasseh: An Archaeological Biography

In our bioarchaeographies of the Hebrew kings, we’ve seen how archaeology helps us tell the story of their lives.  Numerous archaeological discoveries have affirmed biblical details about the reigns of kings like Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  Archaeology has also illuminated Scripture, filling in the wider historical context duing which these kings reigned.  The subject of our next bioarchaeography, King Manasseh, is known for his long and wicked reign, but also for his repentance and restoration.

Manasseh reigned for 55 years (2 Ki 21:1), from approximately 696-642 BC, although the first 11 years were likely a co-regency with his father, Hezekiah.1 He seemed to revel all manner of evil, including various forms of idolatry, witchcraft, and even child-sacrifice. (2 Ki 21:3-9;2 Ch 33:3-7).   Scripture records that Manasseh led the people of God astray and did “more evil than the nations had done whom the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel.” (2 Ki 21:9)   

Manasseh is named in several archaeological artifacts which attest to his historicity and help us understand the world at the time he reigned.

The Seal of Manasseh

The possible seal of Manasseh. Photo: Israel Exploration Society

Two seals have appeared on the antiquities market, both bearing the inscription, “Belonging to Manasseh, son of the king.”  The term “son of the king” refers to royal princes, whether they eventually ascended the throne or not.2 While it is doubtful that one of the seals (bearing a star and crescent) refers to the King Manasseh3, the other may be the seal that Manasseh used during his co-regency with his father.4  In the Corpus of Western Semitic Stamp Seals, Nahman Avigad concluded, “a thorough
microscopic examination of the stone revealed that the engraving does not give the impression of being recent. Moreover, the script, showing a fluent classic Hebrew hand, appears to be
authentic in form and spirit.”5 Interestingly, it bears the same iconography – the Egyptain winged scarab – as that of numerous seals attributed to King Hezekiah.  While some may be surprised to see an Egyptian symbol on a Hebrew king’s seal, it must be noted that Hezekiah established an alliance with Egypt against the Assyrians (2 Ki 18:21; Isaiah 36:6).  Further, it may have symbolized a desire to permanently unite the northern and southern kingdoms together with God’s divine blessing.6

Manasseh’s Kingdom

Manasseh inherited a strong and stable kingdom from his father.  Evidence of the administration of the Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh has been found in excavations at numerous sites.  Jar handles bearing  a stamp with a winged-beetle and the phrase LMLK (“to the king”), along with the name of a city, have been unearthed throughout ancient Judah.  Many scholars believe these are connected with Hezekiah’s “storehouses” (2 Ch 32:27-28), and held olive oil, food, wine, etc – goods that were paid as taxes to the king.7 Recently, a large administrative complex was unearthed outside of the old city of Jerusalem which archaeologists believe operated as a storage facility during the reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh.  Over 120 inscribed jar handles were discovered within the structure, including some that bore the LMLK seal.8  In addition to the LMLK jar handles, a group of clay seal impressions, called fiscal bullae, also bear the phrase LMLK (“to the king”).  One was recently unearthed by the Temple Mount Sifting project which read, “Gibeon, to the king.”  Archaeologist, Gabriel Barkay has dated it to the reign of Manasseh.9  All of this is evidence of a complex and highly-organized tax system in Judah begun during Hezekiah’s reign and extending into his son’s reign, something that would have been necessary to pay the tribute that the Assyrians demanded of Manasseh. 

A two-winged LMLK (‘Belonging to the King’) jar handle discovered during the Arnona excavations. Photo: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Manasseh and Assyria

Manasseh’s long reign coincided with the reigns of two significant Assyrian kings: Esarhaddon (ca, 680–669 BC) and Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC).  While his father, Hezekiah, (with God’s help) successfully resisted Assyrian domination, at some point Manasseh became an Assyrian vassal.  In Assyrian inscriptions, Manasseh and the kingdom of Judah are only mentioned in the list of subservient kings/states.10

Manasseh in Esarhaddon’s Annals

The annals of Esarhaddon make reference to “Manasseh, king of Judah.” Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In annals of Esarhaddon, Manasseh is listed as one of the 22 kings from the area of the Levant and the islands whom the Assyrian king conscripted to deliver timber and stone for the rebuilding of his palace at Nineveh.  In this inscription, Judah and the other states are clearly treated as vassals, required to do Assyria’s bidding:

“I called up the kings of the country Hatti and (of the region) on the other side of the river (Euphrates) (to wit) : Ba’lu, king of Tyre, Manasseh (Me,-na-si-i), king of Judah (Ia-ti-di)…[etc.]…together 22 kings of Hatti, the seashore and the islands; all these I sent out and made them transport under terrible difficulties, to Nineveh, the town (where I exercise) my rulership, as building material for my palace: big logs, long beams (and) thin boards from cedar and pine trees, products of the Sirara and Lebanon (Lab-na-na) mountains.”11

Manasseh in Ashurbanipal’s Annals

Esarhaddon’s son and successor, Ashurbanipal, also mentions “Manasseh, King of Judah” in his annals, which are recorded on the Rassam Cylinder, named after Hormuzd Rassam, who discovered it in the North Palace of Nineveh in 1854.  This ten-faced, cuneiform cylinder includes a record of Ashurbanipal’s campaigns against Egypt and the Levant.  It states:

The Rassam Prism contains the annals of Ashurbanipal, who records a tribute brought by “Manasseh, king of Judah.” Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“In my first campaign I marched against Egypt (Magan) and Ethiopia (Meluhha). Tirhakah (Targa), king of Egypt (Musur) and Nubia (Kicsu), whom Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, my own father, had defeated and in whose country he (Esarhaddon) had ruled, this (same) Tirhakah forgot’ the might of Ashur, Ishtar and the (other) great gods, my lords, and put his trust upon his own power …. (Then) I called up my mighty armed forces which Ashur and Ishtar have entrusted to me and took the shortest (lit .: straight) road to Egypt (Musur) and Nubia . During my march (to Egypt) 22 kings from the seashore, the islands and the mainland, Ba’al, king of Tyre, Manasseh (Mi-in-si-e), king of Judah (la-ti-di)…[etc.]…servants who belong to me, brought heavy gifts (tdmartu) to me and kissed my feet . I made these kings accompany my army over the lard-as well as (over) the sea-route with their armed forces and their ships.”12

It is important to note that Manasseh and the other kings are called, “servants who belong to me,” clearly indicating they were Assyrian vassals.  Moreover, Manasseh was one of the kings who brought tribute to Ashurbanipal and kissed his feet.  One is reminded of the image of Jehu bringing tribute to Shalmaneser III bowing before him that is inscribed on the Black Obelisk.

Manasseh’s Imprisonment and Release

Manasseh was eventually taken captive by the Assyrians and imprisoned at Babylon.  Scripture records:

“The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon. And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.” (2 Ch 33:10-13).

While Assyrian sources are silent on the specifics of Manasseh’s imprisonment, some scholars have suggested that Manasseh may have joined a widespread rebellion (or at least been suspected of having supported it) in 652-648 BC.  This rebellion was led by Shamash-shum-ukin, the king of Babylon, against his brother, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, in an attempt to take the empire for himself.13

Ashurbanipal inspects the prisoners after subduing his brother at the siege of Babylon. The cuneiform inscription reads, ” I, Ashurbanipal, king of the universe, king of the land of Ashur, who, at the command of the great gods has attained the desires of his heart: the garments and ornaments – the royal insignia of Shamash-shum-ukin, the faithless brother – his harem, his officials, his battle troops, his (battle) chariot, his processional chariot – his state vehicle, all the provisions which were in his palace, the people, male and female, great and small – they made to pass before me.” Photo: Anthony Huan / Wikimedia Commons via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Summary

Archaeological findings within Israel provide us with a better understanding of the administration of the kingdom of Judah during King Manasseh’s reign.  Assyrian texts offer more information on Manasseh’s role as a vassal, and the wider geo-political situation of his day.  The historical account of Manasseh’s life in Scripture serves as a warning against pride and offers a testimony to the grace of God when people humble themselves and ask Him for forgiveness.   


Cover Photo: A seal bearing the phrase, “Belonging to Manasseh, son of the king.” I don’t normally include photos of unprovenanced items obtained on the antiquities market in my blogs. However, renowned Hebrew scholar, Nahman Avigad, regarded it as “authentic in form and spirit” and included under “Hebrew Seals” it in his classic work Corpus of Western Semitic Stamp Seals. If it was good enough for Avigad, it’s good enough for me. Photo: Israel Exploration Journal.

Endnotes:

1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 174-176.

2 Nahman Avigad, “A Seal of ‘Manasseh Son of the King.’” Israel Exploration Journal. Vol. 13, No. 2 (1963), p. 135.

3 Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Boston: Brill, 2004), 227.

4 “The Seal of Manasseh,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible (ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr and Duane Garrett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 565.

5 Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass. Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. (Jerusalem:
The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Israel Exploration Society, and
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Institute of Archaeology, 1997), pg. 55.

6 Meir Lubetski, “King Hezekiah’s Seal Revisited.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 27:4, July/August 2001, p. 48.

7 Luke Chandler, “Gov’t complex from time of Hezekiah, Manasseh discovered near US Embassy in Jerusalem.” Bible, Archaeology, and Travel with Luke Chandler. July 20, 2020. https://lukechandler.wordpress.com/2020/07/22/govt-complex-from-time-of-hezekiah-manasseh-discovered-near-us-embassy-in-jerusalem/ (Accessed Feb. 10, 2021).

8 Amanda Borschel-Dan, “Huge Kingdom of Judah government complex found near US Embassy in Jerusalem.” Times of Israel. 22 July 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/huge-kingdom-of-judah-government-complex-found-stones-throw-from-us-embassy/ (Accessed Feb. 10, 2021).

9 “How Ancient Taxes Were Collected Under King Manasseh.“ Biblical Archaeology Society. Jan. 1, 2019. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/how-ancient-taxes-were-collected-under-king-manasseh/ (Accessed Feb. 10, 2021).

10 Roy Gane, “The Role of Assyria in the Ancient Near East During the Reign of Mannaseh.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 1997, Vol. 35, No. 1, pg. 22.  Online: https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2339&context=auss (Accessed Feb. 8, 2021).  

11 James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Easter Texts Relating to the Old Testament,  (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 291.

12 Ibid, 294.

13 Study note on 2 Chr. 33:11, in ESV Archaeology Study Bible, ed. John Currid and David Chapman (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 643.

3 comments

  1. Dear Brian, another very article. Thank you. I really appreciate your material and work with ABR. Thanks for your excellent website. Hope our paths cross some day. All the best. John Moore

  2. Hi Bryan, Thanks for the great information you always “Un earth”! Just wanted to tell you that I met Gabriel Barkay in Jerusalem when our group participated in the Temple mound sifting. It was a wonderful experience.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Thank you, Bryan, for this clearly written, well researched article on Manasseh, complete with attractive photos that vividly illustrate both the sources, the historical reality, and the character of both Manasseh and his Assyrian overlords. Well done!

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