Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Forty-Five

The Son of David

Between 1050 and 931 BC, the Hebrews become a kingdom, and Egypt recovers its strength

ON THE COAST of the Western Semitic lands, one of those wandering tribes that had taken part in the Sea People attack on Egypt had settled down near the Mediterranean. Their settlements grew into cities, the cities into a loosely organized alliance. The most powerful cities of the alliance were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, the “Pentapolis.” The Egyptians had called them the Peleset; their neighbors called them Philistines.

The Philistines did not write, which means that their history is refracted to us through the chronicles of their enemies; this goes a long way to explain their reputation as ill-mannered, boorish, and generally uncivilized. But the remains they have left behind them suggest that their culture was, indeed, mostly borrowed. Philistine pottery was Mycenaean in style; their original language was soon eclipsed by a Canaanite dialect; and even the failed invasion of Egypt added its own flavor to the Philistine soup. They buried their dead in coffins carved to look like Egyptian sarcophagi, with clay lids surmounted by faces and out-of-proportion arms too short to fold. The faux Egyptian coffins were even decorated with hieroglyphs, painted by someone who had seen the signs often but had no idea what they meant; the hieroglyphs are meaningless.

Powerful as they were, the five cities of the Pentapolis did not have unquestioned domain over the southern Western Semitic territories. Almost from the moment of their settlement, they were challenged by competitors for the land: the descendants of Abraham.

After leaving Egypt, the Hebrews had disappeared from the international scene for decades. According to their own accounts, they had wandered in the desert for forty years, a span of time during which a whole new generation came of age. These years, which were historically invisible, were theologically crucial. The book of Exodus says that God gathered the Hebrews around Mount Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments, carved on two tablets of stone—one copy for each of the covenanting parties, God as the greater party and the Hebrews as the lesser.

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45.1. Philistine Coffin. An “Egyptian” style coffin from the Philistine cemetery of Deir el- Ballah. Israel Museum (IDAM), Jerusalem. Photo credit Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

This was the bedrock of Hebrew national identity, and led to a political reorganization. The Hebrew people had informally traced their ancestry back to Abraham and his twelve great-grandsons for centuries. Now, under divine direction, their leader Moses took a census and listed all the clans and families. They were divided into twelve tribes, each known by the name of the great-grandson who served as its ancestor. The tribe of Judah was by far the largest, turning out almost seventy-five thousand men of fighting age; the smallest tribe was that of Manasseh, with less than half as many.108

The formal recognition of the twelve tribes was preparation for the next move. The Hebrews had now wandered all the way to the southern border of the Western Semitic lands; Moses was dead; and Joshua, his aide and assistant, had become their commander. Under Joshua, the Hebrew tribes laid claim to the land along the coast, “from Lebanon to the Euphrates, all the Hittite country, all the way over to the Great Sea on the west.”1

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45.1 Israelites and Philistines

Joshua marched his followers to the east of the Dead Sea, up around to its northern tip, and across the Jordan river: the formal border of the Western Semitic kingdoms. Then he ordered all adult Hebrew men circumcised, since the circumcision ritual had been much neglected during the four decades in the desert. This might not seem the best beginning to a campaign that was going to involve a lot of walking, but Joshua needed his men to understand what they were about to do: the conquest of Canaan was the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, the first Jew and the first to circumcise his sons, six hundred years before.

Their chief military target was Jericho, the first stronghold west of the Jordan river, surrounded by its huge wall and its watchtowers. According to the biblical account in the book of Joshua, the battle ended after the Hebrews had marched around the walls of Jericho once per day for six days. On the seventh day, they marched around it seven times in a row and blew trumpets, and the walls fell down. The Hebrews poured over the ruined walls and destroyed every living thing: men and women and children, cows and sheep and donkeys.

When the city had been razed and sacked, Joshua cursed it. Two hundred years later, Jericho still lay uninhabited.2 For six thousand years, the inhabitants of Jericho had been watching from the city’s towers, waiting for the irresistible enemy to rise into sight on the horizon and break against Jericho’s enormous walls.

The enemy had finally arrived, but the walls had broken instead.

JOSHUA DIED an old man, after a lifetime spent on the march. By the time of his death, Hebrews lived from Beersheba in the south all the way up to Kinnereth, on the northern shore of the little lake that would later be known as the Sea of Galilee, and as far west as Ramoth-Gilead. The conquered territory had been divided among the tribes. Joshua was succeeded not by a king, but by a series of chief judges, prophets who told the Hebrew tribes—now the nation of Israel—what God required.109

But large areas of Canaan remained unconquered. For one thing, the Philistines now governed the land from Ekron down along the Mediterranean coast, and they were unwilling to yield any space to the newcomers. During the years that Israel was ruled by judges, the Israelites fought battle after battle against the Philistines.3

It is impossible to date the “Conquest”—the Hebrew invasion of the Western Semitic lands under Joshua—with certainty. So it is also impossible to assign an absolute date to the years when the judges of the Hebrews led Israelite soldiers against the warlords of the Pentapolis.110 But the most famous of the judges, the supernaturally strong Samson, probably exercised his guidance over this whole territory right around 1050: the time of the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, the Aramaean dominance in Mesopotamia, and the Zhou rule farther east.

During the days of Samson, the Philistines were not only unconquered, but oozing over into Israelite territory. Down to the south, the two peoples had begun to mingle; Samson even married a Philistine woman, much to the despair of his devout parents. (“What? There’s no suitable woman anywhere among our own people? Why do you have to go and get a wife from the uncircumcised?”) The Philistine wife proved to be a mistake; after a falling-out with his father-in-law, Samson set fire to a vast swath of Philistine vineyards and grain fields, thus terrifying his countrymen at the thought of reprisals. “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?” they demanded. “What do you think you’re doing?”4

This seems to indicate that the Philistines, not the Israelites, had the upper hand in the very uneasy relationship between the two countries. But they did not actually govern Israelite land. Samson himself judged Israel for twenty years, during which he killed hundreds of Philistines in various fits of temper, but the Philistines were never strong enough to launch an actual war against him. Instead, they commissioned a prostitute named Delilah—a woman who lived “in the valley of Sorek,” or in other words, on the border right between Philistine territory and Israelite land—to betray him. Tricked and captured, Samson was blinded by his enemies and hauled off to Gaza, the strongest city of the Pentapolis; here, brought out and put on display by the Philistines during a festival to their chief god Dagon (a fish-god, reflecting their origin as an Aegean seafaring people), he used his tremendous strength to pull down the Temple of Dagon on top of himself and over three thousand of the enemy. “And so,” the book of Judges tells us, “he killed many more when he died than when he lived.”5

This sort of Pyrrhic victory over the Philistines reflects a stalemate. Philistines raided Israelite villages, Israelites burned Philistine fields, both sides knocked off the odd hunting party caught out of bounds, and neither kingdom triumphed. Politically, both nations suffered from the same indecisive leadership. No Philistine warlord could pull the armies of all five Pentapolis cities together behind him, and the judges of Israel, their theological authority notwithstanding, had even less power: “In those days, there was no king in Israel,” is the repeated refrain of the book of Judges, “and everyone in Israel did what was right in his own eyes.”

Finally, fed up, the Israelites demanded a king so that they could be like “other countries.” Presumably they had Egypt in mind, the one country whose king had beaten the Philistines off. They wanted to make an impressively tall Benjamite named Saul their king and general, so that he could lead them to military victory.

He was properly anointed the first king of Israel by the last judge, an old and weary man named Samuel who believed kingship to be an enormous mistake. “He will draft your sons to be soldiers in his army,” he warned the Israelites; “he will take them to plow his fields, to make weapons for his troops; he will take your daughters to work at his palace; he will take the best of your harvest, the best of your vines, a tenth of your grain, a tenth of your flock, the best of your servants and your cows; you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen.”6

Despite this warning, Saul was acclaimed king and commander. Immediately, he began to organize an attack against the Philistines.

Unfortunately, the Philistine hold over Israel had intensified to the point of an arms embargo: “There was no blacksmith anywhere in Israel,” 1 Samuel tells us, “because the Philistines knew that otherwise the Israelites would make swords and spears.”7 Instead, the Philistines had arrogated to themselves the privilege of working with iron. Any Israelite who wanted a plow or axe sharpened had to go down into the Philistine land and pay a Philistine smith for the work.111

As a result, when Saul gathered the fighting men from the tribes beneath his new royal banner, he and his son the crown prince Jonathan were the only two men with swords. Everyone else had hoes and pitchforks. The Philistines, on the other hand, assembled three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers (one to drive each chariot, and one to fight, hands free of the reins), and soldiers too great to count: “as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” The Israelite forces, badly outnumbered and completely outarmed, scattered and hid. Saul holed up at Gilgal, north of Jericho, with only six hundred men left. For the remainder of his reign, the Israelite push against Philistine strength consisted of guerilla raids and inconclusive battles.

In one of those indecisive battles, this one dragging on in the Valley of Elah, on the western edge of Judah’s territory, the fighting went on so long that the Philistines proposed a different kind of combat to settle the issue. Two champions would fight, one from each side, and the victor would take the loser’s country.

The Philistines certainly expected the new Israelite leader, Saul, to answer the challenge. The Philistine champion was a giant: three meters tall, a height unusual but not entirely impossible (particularly since an occasional manuscript lists his height as seven, not nine, feet), and Saul himself was known for his height. The selection of Goliath, who was armed to the teeth and had been a fighting man since his youth, was an in-your-face gesture of superiority.112

Saul had no intention of facing down this giant, but another Israelite accepted the challenge: David, the younger brother of three siblings from Judah who had joined Saul’s army. David, confident that God was with him, walked out with a slingshot, knocked Goliath out with a well-placed stone to the head, and cut off the giant’s head with his own sword. “When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead,” 1 Sam. says, “they turned and ran. Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the road to Gath and Ekron.”8 This victory made David so popular that Saul decided to get rid of him, as a possible competitor for the throne.

David, to preserve his own life, fled into Philistine territory. Here he acted as a double agent: sacking distant Philistine cities, and returning to his Philistine employers with the booty and a vivid description of the nonexistent Israelite settlements which had fallen to his might. When Saul was killed in a particularly violent clash with the Philistines, David returned and claimed the crown.

David was determined to weld the twelve tribes into not just a nation, but a kingdom. One of his first acts was to besiege the city of Jerusalem, which had remained unconquered and under the control of West Canaanites that the biblical account calls “Jebusites”—an uncertain mix of Western Semites and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula.113 David conquered it by leading an invading force in through the water-shafts cut into the rock beneath the city’s walls, and rebuilt it as his own.

With the twelve tribes under his authority, he extended his borders; he marched down to the southeast and defeated the Edomites, a people who had controlled the land as far as the Red Sea; he defeated the tribes of Moab, on the other side of the Dead Sea, and the tribes of Ammon to their north, just across the Jordan; and he decisively defeated the Philistines, who had marched on Israel as soon as they heard that David had assumed power. (They were, undoubtedly, more than peeved that their double agent had managed to deceive them for so long.) This was the end of Philistine dominance as a strong kingdom. Their summer of power had lasted barely more than a century.

David’s kingdom was marked not only by extensive Israelite control over almost all of the Western Semitic lands, but also by something previous leaders had not managed to do: the establishment of friendly relations with the leaders of other countries.

His most productive alliance was with the king of Tyre, a gentleman known as Hiram. Tyre, on the northern Mediterranean coast (in the modern territory of Lebanon), had been built into strength by its inhabitants, a Western Semitic tribe who had fled their own home city of Sidon, farther up the coast, when the Sea People had sacked it on their way down to Egypt. These “Sidonians” settled in Tyre, along with a few of the invading Sea People from the Aegean; the temples of Tyre, like those of the Philistines, honor the fish-god Dagon, betraying a common ancestry. By the time of David’s reign, Sidon was resettled, and the same peoples occupied not only Tyre and Sidon but also the ancient trading city of Byblos. Their particular mix of Western Semitic and Aegean became known as Phoenician.9

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45.2 Israel and Surrounding Kingdoms

There was no country called Phoenicia, nor was there a Phoenician high king. The independent cities along the coast were united by a shared culture and language; their writing system was the first to incorporate an alphabet. And they had a virtual trading monopoly on one of the most valuable local resources: cedar logs which they cut from the nearby hills and sent abroad to Egypt, to Israel, and farther away. When David passed the kingdom on to his son Solomon (a transfer made with a bit of bloodshed before Solomon triumphed; Israel had as yet no tradition of hereditary monarchy), the trade with Tyre allowed Solomon to embark on the biggest building program ever seen in Western Semitic lands.

Solomon, honored in the biblical account as a man who longed after wisdom, reorganized David’s kingdom into twelve administrative districts which did not always fall along the traditional tribal boundaries; he wanted to break up those old tribal divisions and any infighting that they might encourage. He revamped the tax system and pushed the borders of the kingdom out to their greatest extent. He also built an epically huge temple: forty-five feet high, constructed of quarried stone hauled from far away, lined with carved cedar, coated with gold in every possible place, filled with treasures. The God of Israel needed a temple, and Solomon was going to build him the best temple ever.

This was Solomon’s usual mode of operation. In this he was very unlike his father. David had been a rough and scruffy fighter, a charismatic leader who killed hundreds of men with his own hands, refused to execute traitors until their treachery was too obvious to ignore, played the harp, and broke into fits of embarrassingly ecstatic dancing in public. His sheer force of personality inspired both insane hatred and cultish loyalty; three of his warriors once risked their lives and freedom by battling their way into Philistine-held territory to get David a drink from the well near the village where he had been born.

Solomon was a different man altogether. He was an executive with a fixation on size, a man determined to do everything bigger and better than his famous father and to turn a kingdom won by blood into a cushy and well-organized empire. In a more recent age, David would have been the American frontier evangelist who spoke in tongues and succumbed to visions and fainting fits; Solomon, the suburban megachurch pastor shepherding an increasingly huge congregation into his plush auditorium, convinced that the size and prosperity of his enterprise were proof of God’s blessing. No king after Solomon ever wielded as much power over the Israelites, but no one ever risked his life out of love for Solomon.

Solomon’s stables boasted twelve thousand horses, and his huge court ate 185 bushels of flour a day.10 He was as powerful as any pharaoh. In fact, his kingdom now encompassed the Western Semitic province that had once belonged to Egypt, and Solomon even managed to marry an Egyptian princess; Egypt was long past the days when the pharaoh could sniff that daughters of the royal house did not travel out to other kingdoms.11 And Solomon expanded David’s connections with foreign countries. As well as dealing with Hiram of Tyre, he arranged to build his own ships at Byblos. He made marriage alliances with the far-flung Canaanite people that he could not conquer. He even received a delegation from Arabia: a delegation led by the most famous of ancient queens.

“WHEN THE QUEEN OF SHEBA heard about Solomon’s fame,” 1 Kings tells us, “she came to test his wisdom; she arrived with a caravan of spices, gold, and precious gems.”

The queen of Sheba is the first personality to struggle up out of the sandstorm covering the ancient history of the Arabian peninsula, and almost the only surviving face and name from the Arabia of very ancient times. Trade caravans were making their way to the Western Semitic kingdoms with greater frequency, and the queen of Sheba may have been leading such a caravan; she not only arrives with spices, gold, and gems, but leaves with “all she asked for, given to her out of the royal bounty.”12

Clearly, trade and manufacture, metalwork and weaving, had been going on around the edges of the Arabian peninsula for a very long time. The Mesopotamian kings, after all, had been travelling down from the head of the Gulf to the Copper Mountains of Magan, in southeast Arabia, two thousand years before. Farther north, the Arabian coast served as a staging post for ships making their way from Mesopotamia down to Indian ports; trading settlements here grew into cities.13

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45.3 Arabia

We know even less about the southern corner of Arabia, since the ancient inscriptions that exist there cannot be dated with certainty. But it was most likely the Sabean kingdom of southern Arabia that sent a royal representative up to see Solomon. Trade between Israel and Arabia probably continued after her visit; an ancient altar from the area just west of the Jordan river is inscribed with Arabic letters.14 But all of the stories surrounding the enigmatic figure of the queen of Sheba, who may also be a queen of the Sabeans, are from much, much later; they tell us nothing at all about the Sabeans themselves.

SOLOMON’S EMPIRE-BUILDING carved a rift through his kingdom that eventually split it apart.

In order to build his temple and palace, Solomon conscripted thirty thousand Israelite men as laborers. These conscripted laborers were paid for their services, but had no choice; they had to spend one out of every three months working for the king. Meanwhile they were supposed to keep up with their own fields and vines. Each district was required to feed the enormous court (along with thousands of royal horses, cows, sheep, goats, deer, gazelles, and chickens) for one month out of the year. As the court grew, it took the districts longer and longer to pay their debt to the court. In some areas, the people worked almost half the year to meet their obligations to the king, and the other half year to support themselves.

The huge court grew, in part, because of Solomon’s tendency to make his political alliances by marriage; he had, according to his chronicler, seven hundred wives “of royal birth” who had been sent to him to seal alliances of various kinds. There is less excuse for the concubines, three hundred women with no political purpose whatsoever; the throng simply reflects Solomon’s enormous appetite.

His appetite for size, which turned Israel into a kingdom important enough for other potentates to visit from afar, also destroyed it. Solomon’s building programs ran him into tremendous debt, particularly to Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre. Lacking enough cash to pay off his shipments of cedar, pine, and gold, Solomon settled his account by giving Hiram “twenty towns in Galilee”15—a large section of the northern edge of his kingdom.

This was a no-win situation for everyone. Hiram, having gone to see the towns, nicknamed them “The Land of Good-for-Nothing.” And the north of Israel was furious. Solomon was a southern king, from the large and powerful southern tribe of Judah; as far as the cluster of little northern tribes was concerned, he had overbuilt, overtaxed, and overworked his people, and then tried to fix his troubles by giving away twenty northern towns while refusing to touch his own native land.

Revolt began under one of Solomon’s officials, a northern man named Jeroboam. When a prophet from Ephraim anointed Jeroboam king, Solomon got wind of the growing rebellion and sent out an assassination squad; Jeroboam fled down to Egypt and stayed there until old Solomon—who had now been on the throne forty years—died, leaving behind him a huge, rich, powerful, divided, and unhappy country.

Jeroboam returned, immediately, and organized a delegation to go to Solomon’s heir Rehoboam and ask for changes: lower taxes, less conscripted labor. Rehoboam, in turn, asked for advice from the double assembly that helped him govern, as it had helped kings from Gilgamesh on. The assembly of elders, cautious and experienced, advised him to reverse Solomon’s policies, to be less of a monarch and more of a shepherd; the assembly of young men told him to assert his power. “Tell them,” the young men advised, “that your little finger is thicker than your father’s penis.”

Rehoboam liked this advice, which perhaps reveals certain unresolved issues. When the delegates returned, Rehoboam made what may have been the most tactless political speech in history: “My father put a heavy yoke on you,” he told them, “but I will make it heavier.” The political results were immediate: the northern tribes, already unhappy, seceded and proclaimed their northern leader Jeroboam as king.

Only the tribe of Judah, the ancestral home of David himself, and the tiny neighboring tribe of Benjamin remained loyal to David’s grandson. The united kingdom of Israel had lasted barely two generations.

THE WEAKNESS of the kingdom did not go unnoticed by the Egyptians, who were experiencing a very brief renaissance.

Since the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period back around 1070, Egypt had been divided by civil war. The high priests of Amun, following the lead of Herihor, ruled from the southern city of Thebes, while the pharaohs of Dynasty 21 ruled the northern parts from the delta city of Tanis. The pharaohs at Tanis had the prestige of the royal bloodline, but the high priests had most of the money, thanks to the amount of land handed over to the Temple of Amun by previous pharaohs. Their wealth was so great that it echoed down into the Iliad: “The hell with him,” Achilles announces of Agamemnon, when he refuses to join the attack against Troy. “I loathe his presents,”

and for himself care not one straw.

He may offer me ten or even twenty times what he has…

he may promise me the wealth…of Egyptian Thebes,

which is the richest city in the whole world,

for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men

may drive at once with their chariots and horses.16

The priests used some of this wealth to keep control of the south; they hired mercenaries from Libya to back up their authority. This Libyan “police force” was known as the Meshwesh.17 Around 950 or so, the “Great Chief of the Meshwesh” was a Libyan warrior named Sheshonq, with ambitions of his own. Although he headed up the armed forces of the north, he also managed to create an alliance with the south by marrying one of the daughters of the Tanis ruler Psusennes II, a pharaoh whose fourteen-year reign is almost completely obscure. When Psusennes II died, Sheshonq asserted his right, by marriage, to the throne of Egypt in Tanis. As Sheshonq had risen to prominence as the strong arm of the priests of Thebes, it did not take him long to assert his power over Egypt’s other capital as well.

The relative stability of this temporarily reunited Egypt can be seen by Sheshonq’s next action: he made a bid to recapture some of that land which had once belonged to Egypt, back in its glory days. And since Israel and Judah had now divided into weakened and quarrelling states, he set his eyes on the Western Semitic lands.

He marched up the coast, through the weakened Philistines, and laid siege to Jerusalem itself. “In the fifth year of King Rehoboam,” 1 Kings says, “Sheshonq king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. He carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made. So King Rehoboam made bronze shields to replace them.”18

Jerusalem’s walls remained intact, though. In other words, Rehoboam bought off his attacker with the temple treasure. Everything valuable but the Ark of the Covenant itself went to Egypt. In all likelihood, he was also forced to swear a vassal oath, becoming formally subject to the king of Egypt.

Sheshonq’s own reliefs tell us that he then marched farther north to subjugate the northern kingdom as well. Jeroboam, who had spent years hiding down in Egypt and waiting for Solomon’s assassination order to expire, now found himself on the wrong side of the people who had once given him refuge. He was dreadfully outnumbered; Sheshonq had managed to assemble twelve hundred chariots and sixty thousand soldiers, largely drawn from Libya and from Kush to the south.

Jeroboam fled, thus living to fight another day. Sheshonq pushed through Israel as far as Megiddo, and then stopped. He had reached the city conquered by Tuthmosis III half a millennium before; he had made his point, that under him Egypt had been renewed; and so he went back home. When he died, his descendants held the north and south together for some years.

Sheshonq’s invasion left a quivering and thoroughly demoralized divided kingdom behind him. For the next centuries, it would remain in two parts: the southern kingdom of Judah, under David’s descendants; and the northern kingdom known collectively as Israel, under an unstable shifting line of kings which turned over every two or three generations as a new charismatic warrior seized control of the royal house.

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