King Hoshea: An Archaeological Biography

Hoshea was the final ruler of the northern Kingdom of Israel, reigning from ca. 732-723 BC1 until the fall of Samaria2. The biblical record of Hoshea’s reign is as follows:

In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah, Hoshea the son of Elah began to reign in Samaria over Israel, and he reigned nine years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, yet not as the kings of Israel who were before him. Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria. And Hoshea became his vassal and paid him tribute. But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison.  Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:1-6)

Despite reigning for less than a decade, there is considerable archaeological evidence supporting the biblical description of the tumultuous times in which he ruled.

Seal of Hoshea’s Servant Abdi

The seal of “Abdi, servant of Hoshea.” Photo: Shlomo Mousaieff Collections, London

An ancient seal, bearing the paleo-Hebrew inscription, “Belonging to Abdi, servant of Hoshea” was purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in 1993 for $80,000. The translucent brown carnelian (or orange chalcedony) scaraboid seal also includes the image of a man wearing a long kilt and a short wig holding a papyrus scepter. At the bottom is an Egyptian winged sun disk, an image that is common on prominent Hebrew seals, such as that of King Hezekiah. In ancient seals, the servant’s title, ’ebed, indicates that the master was a king,3 such as on the famous Mediddo seal belonging to “Shema servant of Jeroboam.” Only one Hebrew king was named Hoshea: the final ruler of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Moreover, epigrapher André Lemaire notes, “The paleo-Hebrew writing on this seal fits very well with other dated inscriptions from the last third of the eighth century B.C.E.”4 Even though the seal was purchased on the antiquities market, most experts support its authenticity.5 If it is indeed authentic, it provides extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of King Hoshea.

Hoshea and Tiglath-Pileser III

King Hoshea is also attested in the royal inscriptions of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III.  Summary Inscription No. 4 was discovered on a large pavement stone by Austen Henry Layard during excavations at Calah. He made paper squeezes of the inscription, which were subsequently lost; thankfully, the inscription had already been copied by George Smith. Summary Inscription No. 4 reads:

Summary Inscription No. 4 records the deeds of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. Photo: https://thinkingtobelieve.com/2011/08/11/biblical-archaeology-13-tiglath-pileser-iii-inscriptions/

The land of Bit-Humria [literally Omri-Land, that is Israel]…all of its people […to] Assyria I carried off. Pekah, their king, [I/they ki]lled…and Hoshea [as king] I appointed over them.6

This affirms the biblical description of Hoshea usurping the throne when Tiglath-Pileser III attacked Israel. In 2 Kings 15:29-30 we read, “In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and he carried the people captive to Assyria. Then Hoshea the son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah and struck him down and put him to death and reigned in his place, in the twentieth year of Jotham the son of Uzziah.” The Assyrian text illuminates the biblical text by indicating Hoshea had sworn allegiance to Assyria in exchange for help securing the throne. Hoshea is also mentioned in Summary Statement No. 9, where Tiglath-Pileser again takes credit for appointing the Israelite king on the throne as his vassal.7 It appears that Hoshea remained a faithful Assyrian vassal throughout Tiglath-Pileser’s reign.

Hoshea and Shalmaneser V

According to the biblical text, Hoshea initially paid tribute to the new Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V (2 Ki 17:3). Soon, however, he revolted and turned to So, king of Egypt (possibly Pharaoh Osorkon IV) for support (2 Ki 17:4). Hoshea’s actions brought swift retribution as Shalmaneser marched to Israel, laid siege to Samaria for three years, eventually taking the Israelite king as prisoner and “deporting the Israelites to Assyria” (2 Ki 17:5-6 NIV). Thus, the biblical record attributes the fall of Samaria to Shalmaneser V. This is supported by the Babylonian Chronicle ABC 1 (BM 92502) which records, “On the twenty-fifth of the month Tebêtu, Šalmaneser in Assyria and Akkad ascended the throne. He ravaged Samaria.”8 The Eponym Chronicle for Shalmaneser’s reign is, unfortunately badly damaged and incomplete. It does seem to indicate that, in the years 725, 724, and 723 BC, he was engaged in a campaign somewhere, but the enemy’s name/location is missing. These three years may coincide with the three years the Bible records Shalmaneser was laying siege to Samaria, and numerous scholars have proposed that “Samaria” is the missing location.9  Shalmaneser reigned for only five years before he died and Sargon II ascended the throne.

The Babylonian Chronicle BM 92502 records events that occurred during the reigns of Nabû-Nasir to Šamaš-šuma-ukin. It includes a reference to Shalmaneser ravaging Samaria. Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Hoshea and Sargon II?

A relief of Sargon II (right) and dignitary from the wall of his palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq). Photo Jastrow / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The circumstances surrounding Sargon’s ascension are somewhat obscure. It appears that he was an usurper who led a coup d’etat to sieze the throne. In his inscriptions he repeatedly claimed that he had conquered Israel. In the Great Summary/Display Inscription (Prunkinschrift) from his palace at Khorsabad, Sargon boasts, “I besieged and conquered Samaria. I took as booty 27,290 people who lived there…I set my governor over them, and I imposed upon them the (same) tribute as the previous king (Shalmaneser V).”10 

The so-called Nimrud Prism from Calah contains Sargon’s boast that he deported the Israelites and resettled Samaria with people from other lands he conquered. Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Similarly on a cuneiform cylinder from Nimrud (Calah), Sargon declares that he deported Israelites to Assyria and “resettled Samaria more (densely than before (and) brought there people from the lands of my conquest. I appointed my eunuch over them as governor and counted them as Assyrians.”11

Some scholars have pointed out that Sargon’s claims to capturing Samaria all come from late in his reign (years 15 and 16). Edwin Thiele noted, “If it was indeed a fact that Sargon had captured the city of Samaria at the beginning of his reign, then the question may well be asked why it took him so long to remember this fact.”12 Others, have pointed out that Sargon was busy in Assyria making his claim to the throne secure in the first year of his reign, and could not have been campaigning in Israel.13

So who actually conquered Samaria? One possibility is that the conquest of Israel was begun under Shalmaneser, and finished under Sargon. Thus, Shalmaneser is named as the Assyrian king who invaded the land and imprisoned Hoshea (2 Ki 17:3-4), while Sargon is the “king of Assyria” who captured Assyria and carried off the Israelites (2 Ki 17:6). A more probably explanation is that Shalmaneser conquered Israel, but died shortly afterward and Sargon, writing later in his reign, took credit for the conquest. Kenneth Kitchen explains:

“…following Shalmaneser’s very brief reign, which ended before any account of his last year could be monumentalized, Sargon II replaced him in a coup d’etat, and subsequently claimed the capture of Samaria for himself, much later in his reign. This was certainly a propaganda exercise, to cover the gap in military successes that would otherwise disfigure the accounts of his reign. The mere three months of his “accession year” were not adequate to run a campaign, nor the season suitable; and internal strife occupied the first year of his reign. So the later annalists had to cover this over by attributing Shalmaneser’s capture of Samaria to Sargon.”14

What happened to King Hoshea? Unfortunately, nothing is conclusively known of Hoshea’s death, although it seems reasonable to conclude he perished in exile.

Conclusion

While the Assyrian data regarding the fall of Samaria is confusing and contradictory, there are inscriptions which align with the biblical account of Hoshea’s reign and the last days of the kingdom of Israel. That he was a real king who was an Assyrian vassal, but rebelled, leading to the fall of the Israelite kingdom is historically beyond doubt.

It is worth noting that the writer/compiler of the book of Kings ends the account of Israel’s history with a warning, recording that the fall of Samaria was God’s judgement against the peoeple’s sins: “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced.” (2 Ki 17:7-8).

ENDNOTES

1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 134.

2 For a detailed discussion surrounding the debate about whether Samaria fell in 723 BC, during the reign of Shalmaneser V (727-722 BC) or in 722 BC during the reign of Sargon II (722-705 BC), see ch. 8, “The Siege and Fall of Samaria in The Mysteries Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, by Edwin Thiele and Roger Young’s article, “When Was Samaria Captured? The Need for Precision in Biblical Chronologies.” (JETS, 44/4, December 2004, 577-95), available here: http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/samaria.html. For the purpose of this article, I agree with Thiele and Young and assume a date of 723 BC.

3 Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Boston: Brill, 2004), 65.

4 André Lemaire, “Royal Signature: Name of Israel’s Last King Surfaces in a Private Collection.” Biblical Archaeology Review 21:6, (November/December 1995), 51.

5 Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Boston: Brill, 2004), 58.

6 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015), 73.

7 Ibid, 68, 71.

8 A.K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. (Locust Valley: J.J. Augustin Publisher, 1975), 73. Also available online: https://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-1-from-nabu-nasir-to-samas-suma-ukin/ (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021).

9 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 165.

10. Younger K. Lawson, “The Fall of Samaria in Light of Recent Research.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Vo. 61, no. 3 (1999): 469. Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723630 (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021).

11 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015), 96.

12 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 166.

13 Ibid. 167.

14 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 39.

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