This is the last in my series on the five Egyptian Pharaohs who are mentioned by name in Scripture: Shishak/Shehonq I (1 Kings 14:25), So (2 Kings 17:4), Tirhakah (2 Kings 19:9), Neco/Necho II (2 Kings 23:29), and Hophra/Apries (Jer. 44:30). In this bioarchaeography, we’ll use archaeology to explore the life of Tirhakah, the enigmatic, “So, King of Egypt.”
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. (2 Kings 17:4)
Hoshea was the last ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, ruling from ca. 732-723 BC1. He initially paid tribute to Shalmaneser V (2 Kings 17:3) before rebelling against his Assyrian overlord by turning to So, king of Egypt. Who was this enigmatic Egyptian pharaoh?
Who was So, King of Egypt?
No pharaoh is known by this name in Egyptian history, although rulers sometimes had multiple names. For example, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III is called both Pul (2 Kings 15:19) and Tiglath-Pileser (2 Kings 15:29) in the Bible. One of the things making “So, king of Egypt” so difficult to identify is fact that Egypt was ruled by multiple rival kings at this period in history.
Throughout the years, multiple rulers have been proposed as the real So. In modern times most scholars have favored one of the two most prominent kings from the Delta region: Tefnakht I, who ruled from Sais or Osorkon IV, who ruled from Tanis.
Those who advocate for Tefnakht usually view “So” as a corruption of the name of the city Sais, suggesting that the text originally read, “to Sais, to the king of Egypt.”2 Proponents point out that Tefnakht I was a more powerful ruler than Osorkon IV.
Egyptologist, Kenneth Kitchen, however, has presented multiple lines of evidence for identifying So, king of Eygypt with Osorkon IV:
- He notes that, while Tefnakht was potentially a stronger ruler than Osorkon IV, “territorially, his large Princedom of the West was not unduly greater than the areas ruled directly by Osorkon IV as heir of the 22nd Dynasty.”3
- Geographically, Sais was too far distant to be of much use in aiding Hoshea, whereas Tanis, in the Eastern Delta was directly adjacent to lands of Judah and Israel to give speedy assistance when called upon.4
- Textually, reading So as Sais requires one to propose an emendation to the text, which is not needed if one views So as a personal name rather than a place name.5
- Biblically, the Hebrew prophets of the day warned against sending envoys to Zoan (Tanis) for help from Egypt, not Sais.6 For example, Isaiah denounced Egypt saying, “The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish; the wisest counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel.” “(Is. 19:11)
- Finally, Kitchen writes, “So is a perfectly feasible abbreviation for (O)so(rkon). Other royal names were thus abbreviated; cf. Shosh for Shoshenq, and the omission of the initial We from Wahibre in the Hebrew and Greek forms Hophra and Apries. Osorkon’s own name was abbreviated both by occasional omission of the final n and (in Assyrian) by loss of initial vowel (<U>shilkanni). There is no valid excuse for taking So as anything other than Osorkon IV, in terms of our present knowledge.”7
Egyptologist, Nicholas Grimal agrees with Kitchen, noting that the location of Tanis in the Eastern Delta was convenient for relations with the kings of Judah and Israel.8 It seems logical to conclude that So, king of Egypt was likely Osorkon IV, the closest Egyptian ruler to Hoshea.
Who was (O)so(rkon)?
Osorkon IV was the last king of the 22nd Dynasty, ruling from ca. 730-715 BC.9 He reigned over the region surrounding Bubastis and Tanis in the eastern Nile Delta.
Early in his reign (ca. 728 BC), the Kushite king, Piye/Pi-ankhy came north conquering all of Egypt. On the Victory Stele of Piye, Osorkon IV is named as one of the northern kings who submitted to the Nubian ruler; he is depicted bowing before Piye.10
A few years later (ca. 725 BC), Hoshea the king of Israel, refused to pay tribute to Shalmaneser V, turning to Osorkon for help. According to Kenneth Kitchen, the Egyptian king failed to come to Israel’s assistance through sheer lack of resources.11
Later still, (ca. 720 BC), Sargon II of Assyria marched west, crushing a revolt in Syria and conquering Philistia. Hanun, king of Gaza, turned to Egypt for help and Osorkon sent troops, but the coalition was defeated: Gaza fell and Osorkon’s army fled back to Egypt.12
Finally, in 716 BC, Sargon II came west again, attacking Philistia and then moving towards Egypt. With the Assyrian king at his doorstep, Osorkon turned to diplomatic measures, presenting Sargon with a gift of horses. Sargon was pleased and later wrote that Osorkon had brought him a present of twelve large horses of Egypt “without their equals in this country [ie. Assyria].”13
After this, Osorkon IV fades from history and the 22nd Dynasty comes to end.
Osorkon IV in the Archaeological Record
Relatively few archaeological remains related to Osorkon IV have been discovered. It is generally agree that Osorkon IV is named and depicted on the Victory Stele of Piye/Pi-ankhy (above). An Osorkon, named on a bronze aegis (above) with his mother Tadibast, has also been associated with Osorkon IV, as the previous Osorkons had mothers with different names. Two other items naming an Aakheperre Osorkon (a block and a faience seal) were initially associated with Osorkon IV. However, this combination of names is now known to have been affected by Osorkon the Elder, not Osorkon IV.14
In 2010/11 a relief was discovered in the sacred lake of Mut at Tanis bearing an image of a king in a faux-Third Dynasty style and the name Usermaatre Osorkonu. It was originally associated with Osorkon III, but the image is noticeably different than the relief of Osorkon III in the temple of Osiris Heqa-djet. Aiden Dodson from the University of Bristol has identified the ruler in the relief as Osorkon IV, who is known to have ruled in that area: “Given his localisation and the archaism of the art and royal names, it is thus difficult to doubt that the Tanis blocks provide us with both representations and the cartouche-titulary of Piye’s Osorkon, i.e. our Osorkon IV.”15
Of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s mentioned in the Bible, So, king of Egypt, is the most difficult to identify. Kitchen’s identification of So as Osorkon IV is logical and compelling, yet not conclusive. While relatively little is known about his reign, what is known is consistent with his brief appearance in the Bible. Osorkon IV was the closest Egyptian ruler to Hoshea, and was known to have come to the defense of other kings in the Levant when threatened by the Assyrians. If the identification of Osorkon IV as So, king of Egypt is correct, it is ironic the Israelite king depended on a “broken reed” as Egyptian kings were sometimes called (Is. 36:6) rather than on Yahweh, their God.
Cover Photo: Relief likely depicting Osorkon IV © Mission française des fouilles de Tanis / Christelle Desbordes
1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 134.
2 John Day, “The Problem of “So, King of Egypt” in 2 Kings XVII 4.” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 42, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 1992), 300.
3 K.A. Kitchen. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 B.C.). (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973), 373.
4 Ibid, 373-375.
5 Ibid, 373.
6 Ibid, 374.
7 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 16.
8 Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by Ian Shaw. (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992), 342.
9 Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1995), 215.
10 K.A. Kitchen, “Osorkon IV.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt – Vol. 1, ed. Donald B. Redford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 620.
11 K.A. Kitchen. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 B.C.). (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973), 375.
12 Ibid, 375.
13 ANET, 286.
14 Aidan Dodson, (2014). “The Coming of the Kushites and the Identity of Osorkon IV”. In Pischikova, Elena (ed.). Thebes in the First Millennium BC. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars publishing, 2014), 6. Online: https://www.academia.edu/8204722/The_Coming_of_the_Kushites_and_Osorkon_IV (Accessed April 23, 2022).
15 Ibid, 9.