Jeroboam II and Osorkon II

The conventional timetable has Ahab, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as a contemporary of one of the kings of the Libyan Dynasty, usually Osorkon II. And almost regularly reference is made to archaeological evidence called to substantiate this synchronism; it is worded thus: “Osorkon II. He was a contemporary of Ahab, for in his palace at Samaria an albaster vase bearing the name of Osorkon II was found.”(1)

In the chapters VI to VIII of Ages in Chaos, dealing with the el-Amarna period, it is demonstrated that Ahab was a contemporary of the later kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep III and IV (Akhnaton), and that over sixty-five letters on clay tablets addressed by him to these kings are still in existence, in originals, as written by the royal scribes, found in the ground of el-Amarna. Having been a contemporary of these pharaohs, the synchronization of Ahab with Osorkon II of the Libyan Dynasty cannot but be grounded in error. To expose the error of the quoted sentence, we have to check the records of the excavators.

During the years 1908-1910 the Harvard University archaeological expedition at Sebastieh, ancient Samaria, uncovered the foundation of a palace. It was tentatively identified as the palace built by Omri and enlarged by Ahab.

Like the unearthed portions of the city wall of Samaria, the palace was built on virgin rock. The biblical passage about Omri building his capital on an unoccupied hill was regarded as confirmed. The floor of the palace was covered with layers containing the remains of later structures; but no vestige of earlier structures was found under the floor, nor were any signs of settlement prior to the time of Omri, except for a neolithic encampment, unearthed on the site of Samaria.

On the floor of the palace numerous small Egyptian objects were found, among them scarabs (signets). The carvings on the scarabs are mostly decorative designs, but on one of them a cartouche, or royal name, was found engraved. The cartouche was that of Thutmose III. Since there was no plausible explanation for the presence of the cartouche of Thutmose III in the palace at Samaria, presumably built about six centuries after this pharaoh had died, the excavators suggested: “This may be a local imitation of an Egyptian scarab.” (2) As we have seen in the first volume of Ages in Chaos, Thutmose III reigned only a few decades before Omri; the cartouche apparently is genuine.

A jar with the cartouches of Osorkon II was found near the palace of Samaria and it was brought forth as an evidence for the contemporaneity of Osorkon II and Ahab. Scores of ostraca were also found in Samaria. Ostraka, or potsherds inscribed with ink, were less expensive than burnt clay tablets or papyri; they were used when it was not expected that the writing would be preserved in an archive. Wine and oil when delivered were accompanied by these shards.

The ostraca of Samaria are inscribed with the names of persons or towns that delivered oil or wine to the king’s palace; they are dated “in the ninth year,” “in the tenth year,” “in the seventeenth year,” of the king, but the name of the king is not mentioned.

In various books and articles it is asserted that the jar of Osorkon, contemporary of Ahab, was found in the same debris as the ostraca,(3) and it has been concluded that the ostraca of Samaria refer to the ruling years of Ahab. But is it true that these inscribed shards were found in the same debris as the Osorkon jar? And then, is it true that the ostraca of Samaria date from the reign of Ahab?

The report of the excavation gives the location precisely:

The southern wall of the Osorkon House [so-called because of Osorkon’s jar] was built in part over the foundations of the north wall of rooms 406, 407, and 408. The foundations of the assumed northern part of the Ostraca House must have been destroyed previous to the construction of the Osorkon House.(4)

It follows that Osorkon’’s jar came to its location later than the ostraca came to theirs. This nullifies the argument that the jar must be of the same age as the ostraca. Thus even had the ostraca been inscribed during Ahab’s reign, Osorkon’s jar found its place at a definitely later date. But of what age are the ostraca?

The archaeologists at first reasoned thus: Since Osorkon II is known to have been a contemporary of Omri and Ahab, and since Omri reigned but twelve years, and the ostraca mention the seventeenth year of the king, they must have been written in the days of Ahab. It follows that the ostraca of Samaria are about the same age as the Mesha stele of the middle of the ninth century.(5)

A comparison of the Hebrew signs of the Samaritan ostraca with the Hebrew characters of the Mesha stele shows a definite change in the writing of single letters. The same characteristics found in the Samaritan letters reappear in the Shiloah inscription of King Hezekiah, dating from close to -700. “How to explain that the characters of the ostraca, a quarter of a century older than the stele of Mesha, are more directly related to the later characters of the Shiloah inscription?”(6) This compelled the researchers to advance the hypothesis that the Hebrew letters passed through a retrograde stage of development before resuming their progress, or that in Moab the development was slower than in Samaria.

In subsequent excavations at Samaria ivories with Hebrew letters were unearthed. These letters were found to be of the same type as those on the stele of Mesha and to have therefore originated in the ninth century. They are of a more archaic type than the characters of the ostraca of Samaria.(7)

The conclusion has now for some time been generally accepted that the Samaritan ostraca were written not in Ahab’’s time, but in the time of one of the last kings of Samaria. Of the kings of Israel after Ahab, only Jeroboam II and Pekah reigned for more than seventeen years. Th scholarly opinion arrived at an almost unanimous conclusion that the ostraca were written in the days of Jeroboam II (ca. -785 to -744).(8) This conclusion appears to be correct.

The house that sheltered the jar of Osorkon II in Samaria was built on the ruins of the house that sheltered the inscribed potsherds. Since the ostraca were written in the days of Jeroboam II, one of the last kings of Israel to reign in Samaria, every ground for making Pharaoh Osorkon II a contemporary of Ahab because of the findings in Samaria vanishes. Judged by these findings, Osorkon II was not only later than Ahab, but also later than Jeroboam II.


  1. P. van der Meer, The Chronology of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt, second revised ed. (Leiden, 1955), p. 83.

  2. G. A. Reisner, O. S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria, I, 377.

  3. La date des ostraca de Samarie est fixée par les circonstances de la trouvaille et cette date est confirmée par la presence dans les mêmes debris des fragments d’une vase au nom d’Osorkon II (874-853), contemporain d’Achab.” Syria, VI (1925). This statement, compared with the record of the excavators, is not exact. James W. Jack, Samaria in Ahab’s Time (Edinburgh, 1929), p. 42, also says that Osorkon’s jar was found “in the same debris” as the ostraca.

  4. Reisner, Fisher, and Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria, I, 131.

  5. See Ages in Chaos, Vol. I, Chap. VII.

  6. Dusaud, Syria VI (1925), 332: “Comment expliquer que l’ecriture des ostraca, d’un quart de siecle plus ancienne que la stele de Mesa, se rattache plus étroitement a l’ecriture cependant plus recente de l’inscription de Siloe?”

  7. F. L. Sukenik, “Notes on the Hebrew Letters on the Ivories,” in Crowfoot and Crowfoot, Early Ivories. Cf. J. L. Starkey, in Lachish , Vol. I: “The Lachish Letters” (London, 1938), p. 13.

  8. W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, p. 41, and idem in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1950), p. 321.