Israeli Archaeologists Are Uncovering the Lost Legacy of a Cursed Biblical King

The Bible describes King Manasseh as the wickedest monarch to ever rule in Jerusalem, but new discoveries show his reign brought peace and prosperity to First Temple period Judah

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King Manasseh in exile, dated between 1550 and 1603, by Maerten de Vos  (1532–1603) at the Musée Magnin
King Manasseh in Exile, dated between 1550 and 1603, by Maerten de Vos (1532–1603) at the Musée MagninCredit: Muse Magnin
Ariel David
Ariel David

This biblical king reigned in Jerusalem longer than any monarch in the Kingdom of Judah. He brought half a century of peace and prosperity, marked by monumental construction projects and international trade.

We are not talking about the exalted King Solomon or other semi-mythological monarchs of the early First Temple period, but of a later figure, the much-despised King Manasseh. The reason you may have heard little or nothing about this king, who reigned in the first half of the seventh century B.C.E., is that the Bible consigns him to the dustbin of history in less than a chapter (2 Kings 21).

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Manasseh, or Menashe in Hebrew, is described by the holy text as the prototypical sinner, one of the many ancient Israelite kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Indeed, it would seem that during his record 55-year-long reign, this king was preoccupied with promoting various idolatrous practices, allegedly incurring the wrath of God. Manasseh evoked such ire that he is single-handedly blamed for the later destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians (2 Kings 21: 10-15).

Now, however, some archaeologists say that recent finds reveal Manasseh’s forgotten legacy and cast him in a much different light. New discoveries and more accurate dating techniques paint the historical Manasseh as a capable ruler who brought Judah back from the brink of destruction after a failed revolt against the Assyrian Empire and nursed his kingdom to prosperity and stability.

If correct, the new theory would be only the latest case in which the biblical narrative does not match up with the archaeological record. It is no coincidence that the emerging paradigm on Manasseh is being championed mainly by archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, who have long been at forefront of the skeptical camp in the debate over the historicity of the Bible.

Chief among them is Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of the country’s leading biblical archaeologists, who already in 1994 published an article calling for greater efforts to identify remains from the time of Manasseh. And while there is still no smoking gun, such as an inscription pointing to Manasseh as the builder of this or that monument, there is enough evidence to suggest that a reevaluation of this king’s historical role is in order, several top archaeologists tell Haaretz.

Prof. Israel FinkelsteinCredit: University of Tel Aviv

Debunking the mystique of King Hezekiah

Ironically, the greatest problem with pinpointing Manasseh’s legacy is that nothing catastrophic seems to have happened in Judah during his time. Archaeology works best when layers of destruction are uncovered, because these represent a moment frozen in time that can be more easily dated and identified, Finkelstein explains. But during the seventh century B.C.E., half of which was occupied by Manasseh’s reign, there were no such dramatic events, which means archaeologists can have trouble linking remains to a specific time or ruler.

Ash from the Babylonian destruction of JerusalemCredit: Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities

The absence of destruction layers does not mean that Manasseh had it easy when he first ascended to the throne at the age of twelve in 698 B.C.E. - possibly as a co-regent with his father Hezekiah for a few years. Manasseh was left to pick up the pieces following the disastrous revolt led by Hezekiah against the Assyrian Empire.

Hezekiah is praised to no end in the Bible for cracking down on polytheistic cults. But if anything he nearly brought upon Judah the same fate that had befallen a few decades earlier its northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Israel, at the hands of the Assyrians. In 701 B.C.E., the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, responded to Hezekiah’s revolt by burning through the cities of Judah and besieging Jerusalem, according to both the Bible and Assyrian chronicles. The city barely escaped destruction, it is not clear how,  but what the historical and archaeological record show is that Judah was fully brought under the Assyrian yoke, was severely devasted and lost important territories, particularly the fertile hills of the Shephelah, the region to the southwest of Jerusalem.

“For the Bible, Hezekiah was a great, wise king, and Manasseh was the worst of all,” Finkelstein notes. “Archaeology shows the exact opposite: Hezekiah carelessly brought destruction upon Judah with his revolt, while Manasseh is the one who saved it.”

Assyrian relief, 8th century BCE. warriors on horses. From the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, IraqCredit: De Agostini / Getty Images

King Manasseh to the rescue

The young new king – or whoever was maneuvering him – appears to have enacted a policy of cooperation with the Assyrians, using technologies and symbolism adopted from the invaders to rebuild Judah and incorporate it into the empire’s profitable international trade networks.

Based on recent finds, it seems that Manasseh focused his energies on developing the countryside immediately surrounding Jerusalem, constructing agricultural estates, administrative buildings and small palaces to revitalize the economy, possibly compensating for the loss of the important farming lands farther away from the capital.

Recent discoveries that support this interpretation include last month’s unveiling by the Israel Antiquities Authority of ornately decorated capitals in the proto-Aeolic style from a monumental building probably dated to the seventh century B.C.E. and found on Armon Hanatziv, a hill located just south of Jerusalem’s Old City. Another recent discovery from the period that has grabbed headlines is a large administrative building, found replete with pottery fragments stamped with the seals of the Judahite monarchy, that was uncovered in the neighborhood of Arnona, also south of the ancient walls of Jerusalem.

Capitals of monumental building outside Old City of JerusalemCredit: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority
Judahite jar handle found at Armon HanatzivCredit: Emil Salman

Less sensational but equally important to this story is the 2016 survey that was conducted on a rock-cut spring called Ain Joweizeh, located next to the modern Palestinian village of Al-Walajah. In this underground water system, archaeologists found a pillar carved in the shape of a proto-Aeolic capital, a hallmark of Judahite royal construction in the seventh century B.C.E., suggesting the spring was used to channel water to a nearby royal estate or garden. And finally, we have Ramat Rachel, a hill located in close proximity to all these sites, which housed a palace and administrative center from the First Temple Period through the Persian and Hellenistic eras. Recent excavations there have shown that the earliest monumental phase of the site dates to the late eight or early seventh century B.C.E.

Manasseh’s tunnel

Taken together, all this evidence shows that after the Assyrian invasion the Judahite monarchy was very active in developing the area’s economy. But who was responsible? The biblical hero Hezekiah? The wicked Manasseh? Or was it perhaps the pious Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson, who ruled in the latter part of the seventh century B.C.E.?

As mentioned, it is hard for archaeologists to answer this question with certainty. The margin of error on radiocarbon dating, for example, is too broad to date structures with the necessary precision.

However, a 2013 study of Judahite administrative jar stamps led by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Oded Lipschits has figured out which types of seals were used at different times in the late First Temple period. And lo and behold, most of the stamp impressions found in the administrative sites recently uncovered around Jerusalem date to the first half of the seventh century B.C.E. – exactly to Manasseh’s time, Lipschits says.

“In all the area surrounding Jerusalem, from Armon Hanatziv to Arnona and Ramat Rachel, there is this very beautiful construction from the period of Manasseh,” he tells Haaretz.

Additionally, the construction of small palaces on the outskirts of cities, the creation of royal estates and gardens, and the use of advanced engineering to control water sources, as seen at Ain Joweizeh, are all typical of Assyrian royal architecture, notes Prof. Yuval Gadot, who has excavated at Ramat Rachel together with Lipschits.

Figurine heads found in Armon Hanatziv, southern JerusalemCredit: Emil Salman

“The control of water and the construction of gardens and monuments across the landscape were all symbols used to project power in Assyria, and they appear in the Jerusalem area for the first time during this period,” Gadot says.

It is even possible that important monuments in Jerusalem itself, so far attributed to other kings, may have been built during Manasseh’s time, he adds. This might be the case for the so-called “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” a large channel carved in the bedrock underneath Jerusalem to divert the water from the main local spring into the city walls. This impressive engineering feat is traditionally attributed to Hezekiah and believed to have been part of his preparations ahead of Sennacherib’s siege. But this interpretation has no firm archaeological foundation, and is mostly based on the Bible’s aggrandizement of Hezekiah’s deeds, Gadot says.

In fact, digging a 500-meter-long tunnel through hard rock doesn’t sound like part of the hurried preparations ahead of a siege. It seems more appropriate to the pattern of major Assyrian-influenced water engineering projects that date to after the siege, he says.

The strong parallels between Assyrian and Judahite architecture in this period increase the likelihood that Manasseh, rather than the anti-Assyrian Hezekiah, was behind the major development spree around Jerusalem, Finkelstein notes. This also jives with the extrabiblical records we have about Manasseh, who is mentioned in Assyrian records as a loyal vassal paying tribute and providing construction materials and troops to the Assyrian rulers Esarhaddon and his successor Assurbanipal, the archaeologist adds.

Part of Hezekiah's tunnelCredit: Tamar Hayardeni

If Manasseh was so cooperative with the Assyrians and their influence in Judah was at their peak during his reign then it makes sense to attribute at least part of the Assyrian-style projects uncovered in an around Jerusalem to this king rather than his predecessors of successors, Finkelstein says.

What is emerging from the archaeological digs is that Manasseh skillfully navigated the more benign aspects of an otherwise brutal Assyrian hegemony – technical innovations, international cultural influences and vast trading networks – to bring 55 years of peace and quiet during which the economy recovered, he says.

Yahweh alone

So if Manasseh was such a successful king, why does the Bible treat him so harshly, describing him as the wickedest ruler who ever sat on King David’s throne?

Most likely, Manasseh’s cardinal sin was not strictly religious, but political, as it was his cooperation with the Assyrians and his openness to international cultural and economic ties that apparently doomed his legacy. After Manasseh died in 642 B.C.E., his son Amon briefly succeeded him – but the local and international scenarios were about to change dramatically.

“The political and religious factions that had been in favor of Hezekiah’s revolt in 701 B.C.E. didn’t forget, they didn’t sleep and they waited for their chance,” Gadot asserts.

Amon, whom the Bible describes as being almost as bad as his father, was killed in a coup d’etat after reigning for just two years, and the eight-year-old Josiah, Amon’s son and Manasseh’s grandson, was placed on the throne.

The Book of Kings depicts Josiah as the complete opposite of his immediate predecessors, the most pious, saintly ruler Judah ever had (2 Kings 23:25). Josiah is said to have led a religious reform in the vein of his illustrious great-grandfather, Hezekiah, stamping out pagan cults and centralizing the worship of Yahweh at the Temple in Jerusalem.

King Hezekiah's seal impressionCredit: Oriya Tadmor

It is important to remember that for most of the First Temple period, including during Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s reigns, the ancient Israelites were not particularly monotheistic: they venerated Yahweh as their national god, but also worshipped other deities. Josiah became the darling of what historian Morton Smith has termed the “Yahweh-alone” party, the minority faction that wished to establish a religious monopoly for this deity and opposed the dominant “syncretistic” faction, which accepted parallel cults.

The key point here is that the Book of Kings, along with other early biblical texts, is believed by most scholars to have been first written during Josiah’s time, undergoing subsequent additions in the following century. This means that the biblical text most likely reflects the ideology of the “Yahweh-alone” faction and its hostility towards Manasseh’s syncretistic regime, particularly its openness to foreign political, cultural and religious influences.

The Assyrian overlords might have objected to the views of the new elite that had taken control in Judah, but by the 630s B.C.E. their empire had begun to collapse, pressured by the rise of new powers, the Medes and the Babylonians. The ensuing struggle for Mesopotamia created a temporary power vacuum in the Levant. Old dreams of glory were revived in Jerusalem and Josiah aggressively asserted the kingdom’s independence and expanded its territory, regaining lands lost in Hezekiah’s revolt.

Josiah’s revanchism may also be reflected by the state in which the recent archaeological remains from Manasseh’s period were found, the researchers say. The elegant capitals from Armon Hanatziv were not unearthed by the archaeologists in their original position: they had been removed from whatever building they adorned and buried in the ground. The administrative complex in Arnona was purposely covered under a huge mound of stones, for no other apparent goal than to obliterate its memory. And the original palace at Ramat Rachel was built over during Josiah’s time, reusing the materials from the building’s first incarnation.

While it was common in antiquity for building materials to be recycled in subsequent construction projects, some of these acts look more ideological than practical. They may reflect a campaign by Josiah’s supporters targeting the monumental landmarks built under Manasseh’s regime, Lipschits suggests.

A biblical scapegoat

Josiah’s era of religious and nationalistic fervor didn’t last long, and his territorial expansionism appears to have been his undoing. In 609 B.C.E. Josiah was killed at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29) by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, who was an Assyrian ally trying to reassert the fading empire’s control over the region.

Manasseh's repentance; as in 2 Chronicles 33:1-13 (illustration from a Bible card published in 1904 by the Providence Lithograph Company)Credit: the Providence Lithograph Compan

Egypt’s attempt failed as well and a few years later, with Assyria finally defeated, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar steamrolled into the Levant, conquering Judah and destroying the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.

However, many of the ideas from Josiah’s time did not die with this king or with the destruction of the Temple. The ideology of the “Yahweh-alone” party continued to evolve during the Babylonian exile and the subsequent return to Zion, slowly coalescing into the monotheistic religion we know today as Judaism. This also means that the name of Manasseh had to be further blackened to serve the religious purposes of the post-First Temple editors of the Bible.

“Theologically, they had to explain why God had allowed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple even though Josiah had been such a pious king,” Finkelstein says. Hence the origin of the terrible prophecy in 2 Kings 21, according to which Manasseh’s sins were so great that God had already sealed Judah’s fate back then, irrespective of the virtue of this accursed king’s successors.

“Manasseh becomes the tool to explain the destruction of the Temple,” Finkelstein concludes. “He is the scapegoat of the Bible, even though he actually was the one who brought Judah back to life.”

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The theological contortions of biblical scribes who lived more than 2,500 years ago have had far-reaching consequences in today’s Israel, where archaeology is often wielded as a political tool to highlight the roots of the modern Jewish state in the biblical past, regardless of whether that past is historically accurate. A lack of detachment from the biblical ideology can lead to biased research, Finkelstein asserts. In this case, it has pushed experts to attribute pretty much any remains from the late eighth and seventh century B.C.E. to Hezekiah or Josiah – ignoring Manasseh’s likely role, he says.

“By reconstructing the story of Manasseh, archaeology is bringing back to life a voice that was covered up,” Gadot adds. “This is biblical archaeology at its best. This does not mean that we should completely abandon the Bible as a source, but we need to use it critically, distinguishing between what is theological, political and historical to better understand the archaeological finds.”

Assyrian siege ramp at AzekahCredit: Benjamin Sitzmann / The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition

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