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Victorian Secrets: How Conservative Christians Messed Up Ancient Chronology

Yesterday I subjected a classroom full of unsuspecting guinea pigs to a thought experiment I’ll continue to play out over the next several weeks. In a nutshell, my thesis is that several key touchstones in our understanding of the chronology of the ancient world were put in place by Christians of the Victorian era in a well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfying attempt to buttress faith in the historical accuracy of the Old Testament.

Overall, there have been two recent trends that would suggest the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of ancient chronology. First is a tendency toward revised, lower chronologies. Mainstream Egyptologists have collectively come up with about 100 years that could be trimmed by shortening the reign of a pharaoh here and there, doubling up years in co-regencies or concurrent dynasties, and what have you. Of course, no mainstream Egyptologist advocates all of these adjustments—if they did, they would no longer be “mainstream”—but all of them believe there is sufficient warrant for the shortenings that they propose.

Second is the quiet abandonment of “scientific” dating methods. The Great Sothic Cycle, once considered a mainstay of Egyptian chronology, lies silently in the grave. In fact, Egyptologists have pretty much abandoned all of the various methods of astronomical dating for the past 20 years. Furthermore, they largely want nothing to do with radiocarbon (14C) dating, since this form of dating consistently yields results much higher than their textual evidence can support.

Even so, there has been no real effort to revisit questions of Egyptian chronology. In effect, the only real constraints assigning absolute (i.e., BC/BCE) dates to events in ancient Egyptian history is the way the Bible was interpreted by certain Victorian-era Englishmen!

The Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Egypt Exploration Fund (1891) states that the organization’s work was “for the purpose of elucidating or illustrating the Old Testament narrative.” Other agendas were at work beyond simply uncovering Egypt’s past. Representing some of the earliest work in the new field of Egyptology, the Egypt Exploration Fund came about in an era when skepticism about the historicity of the biblical narratives was growing. It is therefore perhaps to be expected that these conservative Victorian Englishment would be especially keen to rescue the Bible from the hands of the skeptics. Therefore, their earliest work was in the Nile Delta region, looking for Moses and the Hebrew slaves of the early chapters of Exodus.

In this intellectual environment, people jumped on possible biblical synchronisms that seemed to shed light on the stories they found written in their Bibles. One important piece of the puzzle was the story in 2 Kings 14 and 1 Chronicles 12 of an invasion of Judah by a king of Egypt named “Shishak” during the 5th regnal year of King Rehoboam. As early as Champollion himself” (1828), this biblical figure became identified with Shoshenq I, founder of Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty, who is known from Egyptian inscriptions to have invaded the Levant in his 20th regnal year. The identification has scarcely been challenged since, and today lies at the heart of modern understandings of Egyptian chronology. Shoshenq’s year 20 is synchronized with Rehoboam’s year 5 (around 920 BC, give or take), and, for the most part, the rest of Egyptian history follows from that.

But what if that synchronism were challenged? It seems to me there is at least justification in asking the question.

1. Shishak invaded in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:25; 2 Ch 12:2).

Year 5 Rehoboam is c.  925 (Thiele) or c. 917 (Albright) BC. New evidence, however, seems to date Shoshenq’s campaign to the middle of the 9th century BC.

In Jezreel, pottery found in Shoshenq destruction levels appears to indicate a mid-9th century BC date. Furthermore, 14C dating of seeds from the Tel Rehov city IV Shoshenq destruction level yields a result of c. 871 BC.

2. Shishak’s army included Libyans (2 Chr 12:3).

Shoshenq was the founder of the Libyan 22nd Dynasty, so I’ll give this one to the mainstream chronology.

3. Shishak’s army included “Sukiim” 2 Chr 12:3).

“Sukiim” are identified with Egyptian Tjukten, a tribe known only from the 19th–20th Dynasty.

4. Shishak’s army included Nubians (“Ethiopians,” 2 Chr 12:3).

Nubian troops were very important in the 19th–20th Dynasties, but not again until the 25th Dynasty (c. 715–664 BC).

5. Shishak was an ally of Jeroboam of Israel (1 Kgs 11:40).

Shoshenq inflicted virtually total destruction upon Israel, Transjordan, and Edom. Reputable historians agree:

It is clear from the Egyptian text that the main objectives of the expedition were not the towns of Judah and Jerusalem but rather the kingdom of Israel on the one hand and the Negeb of Judah on the other. (Yohanan Aharoni, Land of the Bible, 2nd ed. [Burns & Oates, 1979] 323-25)

Shoshenq reached the plain of Megiddo in the north, even sent troops into the region east of the Jordan, and so must have caused severe distress to the kingdom of Israel. (Herbert Donner, cited in J. H. Hayes and J. M. Miller, eds, Israelite and Judaean History [SCM, 1977] 389)

6. Shishak captured the fortified cities of Judah (2 Chr 2:4; see 2 Chr 11:5-12).

Of the 15 fortified cities listed in 2 Chronicles 11:5-12, only one (Aijalon) appears on Shoshenq’s victory relief on the Bubastite Portal at Karnak.

Shoshenq “avoided attacking the kingdom of Judah, concentrating his operations against the kingdom of Israel and the non-Judean Negevite areas.” (Nadav Na’aman, Tel Aviv 19 [1992] 71-72)

7. Shishak pressed as far as Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Chr 12:9)

He took away the treasure of Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Chr 12:9) and made King Rehoboam his vassal (2 Chr 12:8). And yet, Jerusalem does not appear on Shoshenq’s victory relief.

All of this suggests Shoshenq I may not be the best fit for the biblical “Shishak.” Even so, Jakob Politeyan can claim, “There is complete harmony between Shishak’s [sic] inscription and the Bible record” (Biblical Discoveries in Egypt, Paletine, and Mesopotamia [London, 1915] 135) and Kenneth Kitchen can aver that problems with the Shishak-Shoshenq identification are “frivolous and exaggerated” (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1:239). Well, maybe, but it still looks to me like somebody jumped the gun and made this identification before all the fact were in. In fact, that is exactly what happened: Champollion suggested the connection in 1828 on the basis of a misreading of a portion of Shoshenq’s victory relief, which he interpreted to be a reference to the kingdom of Judah as one of the regions Shoshenq conquered. This reading was first contested in 1888 and is not accepted today.

Despite the venerable pedigree of this association, it may be worth it to wonder…

  1. What if Shoshenq I invaded Israel—not Judah (as his victory relief states)?
  2. What if he did so in the ninth century BC—not the tenth (in harmony with 14C dating and pottery stratigraphy)?
  3. What if someone else was the “Shishak” of the Bible?

The Widow of Zarephath

The the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (1 Kgs 17:8-9)

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. (Lk 4:25-26)

There is no reason to doubt that, before Elijah showed up on her doorstep, the widow of Zarephath was a worshiper of Baal. She lived in a country were Baal-worship was literally the national religion. In fact, at her first meeting with the prophet she refers to “the LORD your God” (1 Kgs 17:12). She felt no particular attachment to the God of Israel. No doubt she prayed to Baal and offered him sacrifices-and all the more as her life began to come unraveled with the loss of her husband, the drought in her land, and finally the death of her son.

She worshiped a false god, but she was not evil. In fact, she demonstrated a degree of hospitality to the foreign preacher that can and should be praised as an example for us today. For his part, Elijah was not unwilling to receive help from a foreign, pagan woman-a fact that likely made a deep impression on her. Like Jesus with the Samaritan woman 900 years later, he asked her for sustenance and gladly received it. When her son died, Elijah prayed for his recovery, and when Yahweh raised him up, the woman was ready to reevaluate her spiritual loyalties.

You never know where God is going to meet you, or through whom.