King Menahem: An Archaeological Biography

In the thirty-ninth year of Azariah king of Judah, Menahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel, and he reigned ten years in Samaria. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart all his days from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. (2 Kings 15:17).

Menahem was an 8th century BC ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, reigning for a decade, from ca. 752–742 BC.1 He took the throne in after killing Shallum, a usurper to the throne who had reigned only a month in Samaria after he himself had assassinated Zechariah, the last king of the line of Jehu (2 Kings 15:10,14).

A bulla (seal impression) bearing the inscription, “Achiav Ben Menachem.” It was discovered in City of David and dates to the period before the Babylonian destruction. While it does not refer to King Menahem, it demonstrates his name was used in the Iron Age II period. Photo: Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority

Menahem’s name appears multiple times in the archaeological record. Some inscriptions clearly refer to the king of Israel of that name (see below). The name Menahem has also appeared on a seal, currently housed in the Louvre Museum, and on a recently-discovered bulla (seal impression) from Jerusalem.2 While these date to a time after King Menahem’s life, they demonstrate the name was in contemporary use in the Iron Age II period.

Menahem of Tirzah

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

The Bible indicates that “Menahem the son of Gadi came up from Tirzah and came to Samaria, and he struck down Shallum” (2 Kings 15:14). Tirzah has been identified with Tell el-Far’ah, and was first excavated from 1946-1960 by Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française and, more recently, since 2017 by a group from the University of A Coruna and the NOVA University of Lisbon.3 Tirzah served as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel until Omri moved the royal city to Samaria. The city then appears to have fallen out of favor until the days of Menahem. Excavations there have affirmed this chronology. Stratum VIIb at Tell el-Far’ah dates to the ninth century BC, during the reign of Omri. This was followed by a period of abandonment, after which there was a resurgence of urban life at Tell el-Far’ah (Stratum VIId) in the 8th century during the days of Menahem.4

The ruins of Tell el-Far’ah, identified as ancient Tirzah. Photo: Leon Mauldin / https://leonmauldin.blog/2016/11/30/tirzah-tell-el-farah-israels-ancient-capital/

Peter Dubovský notes: “From excavation reports we can distinguish two types of buildings in Stratum VIId that are important for our purposes: the palace (Building no. 148) and three patrician houses (Buildings no. 327 and no. 328 from square II and Building no. 710 from square III). These buildings were larger than the dwellings of Stratum VIIb. The plan of the Stratum VIId is dominated by a large palace (Building no. 148), most likely a seat of a local leader.”5 This palace at Tirzah may have been the home of Menahem prior to his coupe.

Menahem’s Campaign Against Tiphsah

Shortly after securing the throne, Menahem sought to expand his kingdom. The Bible records, “At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on, because they did not open it to him. Therefore he sacked it, and he ripped open all the women in it who were pregnant.” (2 Kings 15:16).

The identification of Tiphsah has been a matter of debate for years. Some identify it with Thapsacus an important trade center to the east on the banks of the Euphrates River.6 As this city marked the eastern border of king Solomon’s great empire (1 Kings 4:24), proponents of the Thapsacus identification suggest Menahem’s motivation was to enlarge his kingdom to the proportions of Solomon’s kingdom. Others scholars, however, have suggested it is unrealistic to imagine Menahem’s kingdom stretching that far, considering the that the geographical distance of Thapsacus (about 1000 km from Tirzah). They point out that there is a variant reading in the Lucianic Recension of the LXX which reads, “Tappuah” (identified as Sheikh Abu Zarad), which is located on the border between Ephraim and Manasseh (Josh 17:8). If this is the original reading, then it may indicate Menahem defeated a nearby city to the south which refused to acknowledge him as king and shut their gates against him, perhaps in an attempt to stamp out a potential revolt.

This map showing the location of Tappuah (Tiphsah?) is part of the 2 Kings Photo Companion to the Bible, an excellent resource from BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/2kings-photo-companion-to-the-bible/

We should note Menahem’s brutality against the people of Tiphsah in ripping open the wombs of the pregnant women. On two previous occasions, the Old Testament writers described this atrocity committed by pagan armies against Israel: the Arameans (2 Kings 8:11-12) and the Ammonites (Amos 1:13). For the king of Israel to commit such a heinous crime against humanity was grievous indeed. It may have been the context for the prophet Hosea’s pronouncement, “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16).

Menahem’s Tribute

A relief of the Tiglath-Pileser III. Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

When the Assyrian King, Tiglath-Pileser III (also known as Pul – 1 Chr 5:26) invaded the land, the Bible records that “Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that he might help him to confirm his hold on the royal power” (2 Kings 15:19). At this time in Israel’s history, there were likely two rival kings reigning simultaneously in the northern Kingdom – Menahem from Samaria and Pekah from Gilead.7 When Menahem assassinated Shallum, who may have been from Jabesh in Gilead, the Gileadites appear to have chosen Pekah as their king; later the men of Gilead helped Pekah assassinate Menahem’s son Pekahiah to consolidate power over all Israel (2 Kings 15:25). Evidence of Pekah’s rival kingship come from the book of Hosea, where the two Hebrew kingdoms of the north, Israel and Ephraim, are repeatedly mentioned, in addition to Judah in the south (Hos. 5:5; 11:2 et al.).8 If this reconstruction of the geopolitical situation during this period is correct, it appears Menahem paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III in order to maintain his royal power over Pekah’s rival kingship.

The Iran Stele of Tiglath-Pileser III, which was discovered in the Zargos Mountains of Iran, names “Menahem of Samaria” as a king who paid him tribute. Photo: A.D. Riddle / BiblePlaces.com

Of course, this tribute was likely necessary for Menahem’s survival when Tiglath-Pileser invaded the land in 743 BC. The Assyrian king boasts, “As for Menahem I overwhelmed him like a snowstorm and he . . . fled like a bird, alone, and bowed to my feet. I returned him to his place and imposed tribute upon him: gold, silver, linen garments with multicolored trimmings…”9 In another inscription, “Menahem of Samaria” is listed as one of 17 kings who paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III.10

Menahem is also named on a stela of Tiglath-Pileser III, the only one surviving stela from his reign. The victory monument was likely erected during the Assyrian king’s campaign to the Zagros mountains in 737 BC (the last year recorded in the historical section), but includes a list of kings who paid tribute to him in throughout the course of his reign. It reads:

“The kings of the land of Hatti, the Arameans of the western seacoast, the Kedarites (and) the Arabs, Kushtashpi of Hummuh, Rezin of Damascus, Menahem of Samaria, Tuba’il of Tyre, Sibitba’il of Byblos, Urik of Que, Sulumal of Melid, Uassurme of Tabal, Ushhitti of Atuna, Urballa of Tuhana, Tuhamme of Ishtunda, Urimmi of Hubishna, Dadi’il of Kaska, Pisiris of Carchemish, Panammu of [Sa]m’al, Tarhularu of [Gur]gum, Zabibe, queen of the Arabs – I imposed upon them tax and tribute, silver, gold, tin, iron, elephant hides, ivory, blue-purple and red-purple garments, mulitcolored garments, linen garments, camels and she-camels.”11  

Conclusion

Menahem is one of 19 kings who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. To date, archaeological discoveries naming eight of these kings have affirmed the historicity of these biblical kings: Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Menahem, Pekah, and Hoshea. Why not more? Kenneth Kitchen explains: “Here the evidence began with Omri and Ahab, coming up to the mid-ninth century. Before that time no Neo-Assyrian king is known to have penetrated the southwest Levant to gain (or record) knowledge of any local king there. And it was not Egyptian customs to name foreign rulers unless they had some positive relationship with them (e.g. a treaty). Foes were treated with (nameless) contempt.”12 Thus, if one begins with Omri’s reign (ca. 885-874 BC), eight out of fourteen Israelite kings are attested in the archaeological record. Furthermore, some of the kings not yet affirmed reigned for mere months; Menahem’s predecessor, Shallum reigned for one month (2 Kings 15:13), and his predecessor, Zechariah ruled for but six months (2 Kings 15:8). On the balance sheet of archaeology, the biblical record fairs very well indeed.

Cover Photo: The Stele of Tiglath-Pileser III. Credit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / Ardon Bar-Hama

Endnotes:

1 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 124.

2 Daniel K. Eisenbud, “Seals from Judean Kingdom period shed light on life in ancient Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Post. Sept. 6, 2017. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/seals-from-judean-kingdom-period-shed-light-on-life-in-ancient-jerusalem-504173 (Accessed July 11, 2022).

3 “Previous Work,” Tel el-Farahttps://www.tellelfara.com/ (Accessed June 5, 2022).

4 Peter Dubovský, “Menahem’s Reign before the Assyrian Invasion (2 Kings 15:14-16).” In Literature as Politics, Politics as Literature, edited by David S. Vanderhooft and Abraham Winitzer. (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 38. Online: https://www.academia.edu/5202252/Dubovsk%C3%BD_Peter_Menahems_Reign_before_the_Assyrian_Invasion_2_Kings_15_14_16_In_Literature_as_Politics_Politics_as_Literature_edited_by_David_S_Vanderhooft_and_Abraham_Winitzer_29_45_Winona_Lake_Ind_Eisenbrauns_2013 (Accessed June 5, 2022)

5 Ibid, 37.

6 T.R. Hobbs, “Menahem.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5818.

7 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 124-130.

8 Ibid, 130.

9 James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Easter Texts Relating to the Old Testament,  (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 284.

10 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015), 59.

11 Ibid, 62.

12 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 62.

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