King Pekah: An Archaeological Biography

In the fifty-second year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekah the son of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned twenty years. (2Kings 15:27). 

Pekah ruled over the northern Kingdom of Israel during a turbulent point in history. While a captain in the Israelite army, he seized the throne by killing Pekahiah, son of Menaham in the citadel of Samaria (2 Kings 15:25). His reign was marked with conflict, as he fought against the Assyrian expansion of Tiglath-Pileser III, and was a key combatant in the Syro-Ephraimite war against Judah in 734 BC. Eventually, he himself was killed in a conspiracy by Hoshea, suffering the same fate that had originally brought him to the throne.

Pekah’s Regnal Dates

Chronologically, Pekah’s reign is one of the most confusing to understand. At first glance, there appears to be contradiction in the biblical data, and between the Bible and Assyrian sources.

Pekah began to reign in the 52nd year of Azariah/Uzziah (740 BC) and reigned for 20 years (2 Kings 15:27), but he is said to have died in the 20th year of Jotham, which occurred in 732 BC (2 Kings 15:30). This only gives eight years for his reign, not twenty.

Furthermore, the final three kings of Israel before Assyria put an end to the northern kingdom in 723 BC1 were Pekahiah, Pekah, and Hoshea. However, Assyrian sources record that Pekahiah’s father, Menaham, paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser. H.J. Cook summaries the problem:

This relief of Tiglath-Pileser was discovered in Central Palace at Nimrud. It is now in the British Museum (BM 118900). Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Menaham paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III, so that his reign must touch the years 745-727. But even if Menahem’s reign ended soon after the accession of Tiglath-Pileser, in 744 or 743, it would be impossible to fit Pekahiah’s two years, Pekah’s twenty, and Hoshea’s nine into the twenty-one years remaining before the fall of Samaria.”2

As often happens with apparent contradictions, some scholars assume it is the biblical data that is in error. Thus, various people have suggested that Pekah reigned for two, five, or six years, not twenty as recorded in the book of 2 Kings.3

The locations of Samaria and Jabesh-gilead, the capitals of two rival kingdoms during the time of King Pekah. Image: BibleMapper.com

Neither source need be in error, however, as there a plausible scenario that could explain both sets of data. Some scholars have suggested that Pekah ruled over a rival kingdom in the north for part of his 20-year reign. There is evidence to suggest that Pekah reigned in Gilead while Menahem reigned in Samaria for a decade, and then a further 2 years as a rival to his son before he killed Pekahiah and took the throne in Samaria.

Edwin Thiele notes, “When Menahem seized the throne in Samaria, it was by assassinating ‘Shallum son of Jabesh’ (2 Kings 15:13-14)…Jabesh here may be a geographical rather than a personal name. The meaning might be that Shallum was from the town of Jabesh. If this refers to Jabesh in Gilead, Pekah would have had strong support there for his stand against Menahem in Samaria.”4

This would then make sense of the biblical record that Pekah seized the throne from Menahem’s son, Pekahiah, “with fifty men of the people of Gilead” (2 Kings 15:25).

Jabesh-gilead has been identified with Tell Maqlub in modern-day Jordan, seen here from the northeast. Photo: BiblePlaces.com

Further evidence comes from the Assyrian records, where Tiglath-Pileser records a tribute paid by “Menahem of Samaria.” Later, he notes the death of Pekah, who is from Bit Humria (lit. House of Omri, or Omri-land) the usual Assyrian designation for the kingdom of Israel.5 The phrase, “Menahem of Samaria” rather than what would be expected – “Menahem of Bit Humria” – hints at a divided kingdom.

The idea of two rival kings reigning in the north is also supported in Scripture. Hosea prophesied against the kings of God’s people, stating: “Israel and Ephraim shall stumble in his guilt; Judah also shall stumble with them” (Hosea 5:5b). Here Israel and Ephraim are considered two separate entities, with Israel representing the king reigning in Samaria, and Ephraim referring to the king ruling from Gilead.6

An aerial view of Samaria, the ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel which was later built over in the Roman era. It shows the location of the remains of the palace from which the kings of Israel ruled. This photo is part of the Photo Companion to the Bible – 2 Kings. It is an excellent resource from Tood Bolen and his team at BiblePlaces.com: https://www.bibleplaces.com/2kings-photo-companion-to-the-bible/

Some have objected that this scenario is implausible because Pekah is referred to as Pekahiah’s “captain” (2 Kings 15:25). Roger Young responds, “The objections to Pekah being a rival to Menahem usually center on Pekah’s position as an officer in the army of Pekahiah, Menahem’s son and successor (2 Kings 15:25). But there is nothing inherently unreasonable about two rivals reaching a détente under which one contender accepts a subordinate position, and he then bides his time until the opportunity comes to slay his rival (or his rival’s son) in a coup. Once the rivalry had begun, the external threat (Assyria) provided compelling reasons for a détente.”7

A rival kingship makes the best sense of both the biblical and Assyrian data and assumes that both are accurate. Under this scenario, the chronology of Pekah’s reign would be as follows:

  • 752 BC – Menahem seizes the throne in Samaria by killing Shallum, who was from Jabesh in Gilead. The men of Gilead refuse to recognize Manehem as their ruler and swear allegiance to Pekah, who becomes a rival king.
  • 740 BC – Pekah kills Pekehiah and takes the throne in Samaria
  • 732 BC – Pekah is killed by Hoshea6

Pekah and the Syro-Ephraimite War

The main combatants in the Syro-Ephraimite War, ca. 734 BC. Image: FinnWiki / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, adapted by the author

In the 8th century BC, Assyria was the dominant world power and the kings of the west lived in continual threat from the Assyrians, eventually rebelling. Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Samaria tried to convince Ahaz of Judah to join their anti-Assyrian coalition. Ahaz resisted, resulting in Pekah and Rezin’s attack against Judah. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it.” (Isaiah 7:1-2). Their goal was to depose Ahaz, and place the son of Tabeel on the throne (Isaiah 7:6). Isaiah urged Ahaz to trust in God, but the Judahite king turned to Tiglath-Pileser for help instead, forming an alliance with Assyria and triggering what has been called the Syro-Eprhaimite War. While Pekah and Rezin failed to capture Jerusalem itself, they were apparently successful in the outlying parts of Judah. The chronicler records, “For Pekah the son of Remaliah killed 120,000 from Judah in one day, all of them men of valor, because they had forsaken the LORD, the God of their fathers” (2 Chr. 28:6). These events occurred during Pekah’s sole reign over Israel, a few years before he was killed, likely in 734 BC.8

Pekah’s Downfall

A drawing of Summary Inscription No. 4, which records the deeds of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. In it Tiglath-Pileser takes credit for the conspiracy against Pekah which put Hoshea on the throne. Photo: https://thinkingtobelieve.com/2011/08/11/biblical-archaeology-13-tiglath-pileser-iii-inscriptions/

The Bible connects the fall of Pekah to a campaign by Tiglath-Pileser and a conspiracy by Hoshea. “In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria. Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah” (2 Kings 15:29-39). This account is affirmed in the Assyrian records with one notable difference: Tiglath-Pileser takes credit for the assignation of Pekah and for setting Hoshea on the throne of Israel.

Austen Henry Layard excavated at ancient Calah (modern Nimrūd) from 1845-1851. There he discovered a large pavement stone with an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser. Squeezes of the text were made on-site, but then lost; the inscription, however, had already been copied by George Smith in his notebooks.9 The text of Summary Inscription No. 4 reads:

“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. 10 talents of gold, x talents of sivler, [with] their [property] I received from them and [to Assyria I carried] them off.”10

Tiglath-Pileser’s annals illuminate the biblical text by explaining that Hoshea had sworn allegiance to Assyria in exchange for help securing the throne.

Conclusion

In the end Pekah lost the throne by the edge of the sword, the same way he had gained it. Assyrian records both affirm Pekah’s historicity and illuminate this turbulent time in Israel’s history. Moreover, they provide important chronological clues that allow us to understand the dates of Pekah’s reign.

Cover Photo: Summary Statement No. 4 of Tiglath-Pileser III. Adapted by the author. Credit: http://cojs.org/tiglath-pileser_iii_and_the_syro-ephraimite_war-_kalah_palace_summary_inscription_4-_730_bce/

Endnotes:

1 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.

2 H.J. Cook, “Pekah.” Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 14, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1964), 122.

3 H.J. Cook, “Pekah.” Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 14, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1964), 122-123.

4 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 129.

5 H.J. Cook, “Pekah.” Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 14, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1964), 127.

6 Ewin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 129.

7 Roger Young, “When Was Samaria Captured? The Need for Precision in Biblical Chronologies.” JETS, 47/4 (December 2004), 582, note 11.

8 In Isaiah’s prophecies, he twice uses a child, soon to be born, as a sign that God would overthrow Pekah and Resin in just a few short years. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a song, and shall call his name Immanuel…For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land of the two kings you dread will be deserted” (Is. 7:14, 16). In the next chapter, Isaiah writes, “And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a song. Then the Lord said to me, ‘(Isa 8:3)  And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria’” (Is. 8:3-4).

9 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015), 72.

10 Ibid, 73.

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