Soon, Jews around the world will be celebrating Passover. As usual, Pharaoh will be starring as the main villain for enslaving the Hebrews, killing their children and being generally pig-headed about letting our people go. But perhaps on this Passover night you could spare a thought for a different pharaoh, one who ruled over Egypt in the middle of the 10th century B.C.E and may have played a very different role in the history of the ancient Israelites.
The outsize role that Shishak, aka Sheshonq I, had in the affairs of the budding Israelite kingdoms in Canaan is beginning to emerge thanks to new archaeological discoveries and biblical scholarship.
But let's start with this: What do we actually know, and what do we not know, about the early history of the ancient Hebrews?
Israel isn’t actually laid waste
The origins of the Israelites and their kingdoms are shrouded in mystery partly because they date to the centuries that followed the collapse of multiple civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age. Few textual and archaeological remains survived from the chaos that engulfed most of the lands around the Mediterranean.
What we do know is that a group identified as “Israel” first appears in the historical record in the Merneptah Stele, which has been dated to around 1210 B.C.E., shortly before the Bronze Age collapse – around 3,230 years ago. This text describes the Israelites as a nomadic or semi-nomadic people living in Canaan and the pharaoh Merneptah boasts, somewhat prematurely, that “Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.”
Fast forward three and a half centuries, to the middle of the Iron Age, and Israel returns to the stage of history with a bang. The Kurkh Stele records how at the epochal battle of Qarqar in what is today northern Syria, in 853 B.C.E., the expansion of the Assyrian empire into the Levant was (temporarily) stymied by a regional alliance that included the biblical King Ahab, who is referred to as “Ahab the Israelite.”
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But what happened in the intervening centuries? How did a band of nomads hounded by Merneptah’s troops at the end of the Bronze Age, emerge into the Iron Age as a powerful kingdom capable of fielding hundreds of chariots and checking the might of Assyria?
The Bible tells us that this process began when the 12 Israelite tribes united under the kings Saul, David and Solomon to form a great kingdom, centered in Jerusalem, sometime in the 11th 10th century B.C.E. The so-called United Monarchy fractured after Solomon’s death, with the great king’s son, Rehoboam, retaining control only over Judah and Jerusalem while the rebellious northern tribes broke away to form the Kingdom of Israel under a ruler named Jeroboam.
However, many scholars doubt that there was a United Monarchy to begin with.
There is little hard evidence of this great kingdom, which was likely an ideology-driven description of the Jerusalemite scribes who compiled this part of the Bible, probably in the late 7th century B.C.E., hundreds of years after the days of David and Solomon.
So if the biblical story on the United Monarchy and its breakup cannot be taken as history, how did the very real and historically-attested kingdoms of Israel and Judah form?
One compelling new theory suggests it may have to do with the involvement in the affairs of Canaan of a pharaoh named Sheshonq, or Shishak, depending who you ask.
Sheshonq’s military campaign in the Levant in the mid-10th century B.C.E. is one of the earliest biblical accounts that can be partially corroborated through external sources. And the Egyptian campaign’s significance for the history of the ancient Hebrews may be even greater than the Bible lets on, theorizes Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s top biblical archaeologists.
“There are almost no extra-biblical historical references for the Levant between the 12th century and the Assyrian involvement starting in the 9th century,” Finkelstein tells Haaretz. “For the 10th century the only extra-biblical information that is relatively detailed is the evidence from the Sheshonq campaign.”
MEGA (Make Egypt Great Again)
The Bible says that in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign (around 925 B.C.E.), a pharaoh named Shishak attacked Jerusalem. He looted the city and “took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took away everything.” (1 Kings 14:25-26)
Archaeologists have known for a couple of centuries that there is at least some historical truth behind the biblical story, because Sheshonq recorded the exploits of his campaign in Canaan on the walls of the temple of Amun in Karnak in Upper Egypt.
Back in 1926, archaeologists also uncovered Sheshonq’s cartouche carved into a stone block at Megiddo, in today’s northern Israel, proving again that the pharaoh had been active in the region.
Finkelstein, as well as other scholars, suspects that the biblical authors used the memory of Sheshonq’s raid to construct a parable about Solomon’s and Rehoboam’s sins, and the subsequent punishment meted out by God through the pharaoh. “The looting of the temple is a trope that returns several times in the biblical text as a form of punishment,” Finkelstein points out.
However, while the Bible would arguably highlight the fate of Jerusalem, the archaeological record shows that Sheshonq’s campaign was much more significant than a mere predatory raid to loot the capital of Judah. Also, we can’t actually be sure that Sheshonq was in Jerusalem at all.
The inscriptions at the Karnak temple list dozens of towns that Sheshonq conquered in Canaan – but Jerusalem and other important locations in Judah are not among them.
This may simply be because some of the names on the list have been lost, or it may signal that Jerusalem and its surroundings were of no interest to the conquering pharaoh.
In any case, the text in Karnak – and the cartouche found at Megiddo – show that the campaign was not a pinpoint raid but a much broader effort to restore Egypt’s hegemony over Canaan and other territories that had been ruled by the pharaohs during the New Kingdom period, from the 15th century B.C.E. to the 12th century B.C.E.
“Empires do not raid. Egypt does not raid,” Finkelstein says. “For Sheshonq this was about restoring the great empire of Egypt in Canaan.”
Sheshonq and his successors in the 22nd dynasty unified Egypt after a long period of division and infighting that accompanied the end of the Bronze Age.
Back home, Sheshonq engaged in a massive building program the likes of which had not been seen since the time of Ramses II, explains Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Abroad, he attempted to restore Egyptian supremacy, not necessarily just through military might, but also through political alliances and trade relations. His influence reached deep into the Levant, as evidenced by the fact that statues of Sheshonq and his successors have been found as far as Byblos, in today’s Lebanon, Ben-Dor Evian notes.
In the past, archaeologists have interpreted destruction layers found at sites across Israel as linked to Sheshonq’s raid. But more accurate dating using carbon-14 has shown those devastations mostly date to periods preceding or following the campaign and cannot be conclusively connected to it. This also makes sense given the modus operandi of the ancient Egyptians, who were more interested in establishing economic supremacy than descending Atilla-like on their enemies.
“They didn’t destroy anything if they could avoid it,” Ben-Dor Evian says. “They looked for control, for buffer zones and to enjoy things from Canaan that they couldn’t get at home, like olive oil and wine.”
For example, we know from the Karnak list that during his campaign Sheshonq penetrated deep into the Be’er Sheva valley and possibly the Negev Highlands, in today’s southern Israel. In the decades that follow his campaign, archaeologists see a flowering of settlements and prosperity in the region. This is likely because Sheshonq successfully diverted the copper trade from the mines in the Arava valley away from its northerly direction toward Syria and Mesopotamia and back west toward Gaza and Egypt, Ben-Dor Evian says.
King Jeroboam, aka pharaoh's brother-in-law
It is against this background of statecraft that we have to understand Sheshonq’s involvement in the affairs of early Israel.
In antiquity, it was common practice for builders of empires, including the pharaohs, to conquer a territory and replace its ruling dynasty with a local leader who would act as a vassal king.
It is only a theory, but Finkelstein says there are several clues that suggest the birth of the northern Kingdom of Israel may be the result of political arrangements put in place by Sheshonq in the aftermath of his campaign.
The first clue is in the Bible itself, where Sheshonq/Shishak is strongly linked with the founder of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam.
Jeroboam is described as an official who led a failed rebellion against Solomon and found refuge at Shishak’s court to escape the Israelite king’s wrath (1 Kings 11). Jeroboam then returned to Canaan upon hearing of Solomon’s death and led the people against Rehoboam, successfully breaking away and forming the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12).
In the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Bible, there are additional verses about Jeroboam’s stay in Egypt that were not included in the traditional Hebrew text. In this version, Jeroboam’s connection to Shishak/Sheshonq is even stronger: he marries the pharaoh’s sister-in-law, who bears him a son.
While Solomon’s role in the story is likely the result of a later redaction of the biblical text, the connection between Sheshonq and Jeroboam may be a historical memory of the actual relationship between the pharaoh and the founder of the Kingdom of Israel, Finkelstein posits.
“Chronologically it works well,” he says. “Theoretically, Sheshonq could have been the one who installed Jeroboam as his vassal.”
The Saulide entity
There is no direct proof that this occurred, but there is some archaeological evidence that points in this direction. Finkelstein summarized this argument in an article titled “First Israel, Core Israel, United (Northern) Israel” published last month in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology.
Some 3,100 years ago, the core of Israelite territory – from the highlands north of Jerusalem to the Jezreel valley – doesn’t have the hallmarks of having been a powerful United Monarchy, as the Bible claims. To archaeologists, it appears instead that the region was divided into a patchwork of proto-Israelite city-states vying for hegemony.
The earliest of these entities, centered around Shechem (today’s Nablus) and nearby Shiloh was later replaced by a polity based in Gibeon, near today’s Ramallah.
Finklestein calls this formation the “Saulide entity” because many of the earliest stories about King Saul take place in the Gibeon area, suggesting the Bible may preserve a germ of historical memory from this period.
Whether or not someone called Saul led them, the Israelites from Gibeon built the earliest fortified sites in the area, and may have slowly begun expanding their territory in multiple directions. Signs of destructions in the highlands and the Jezreel valley, previously attributed by some to Sheshonq’s raid, have been shown by carbon-14 dating to be from an earlier period: Shiloh and probably also Shechem fell at the end of the 11th century B.C.E., while Megiddo and other sites in the valley were devasted in the mid 10th century B.C.E., close but not close enough to be attributed to Sheshonq.
The proto-Israelites annoy Egypt
While we cannot be sure who was responsible for these destructions, the prolonged period over which they happened fits more the pattern of the progressive expansion northward of the Gibeon formation than that of a single campaign by the Egyptians, Finkelstein says.
In fact, an attempt by the Saulide entity to expand toward the Jezreel valley and the coast would likely have been the immediate trigger for Sheshonq’s intervention.
“As long as people are killing each other in the highlands, the pharaoh doesn’t care,” Finkelstein says. “But when they start to expand toward the coast and the Jezreel valley, the breadbasket of Canaan and a key trade route, then Egypt faces a problem.”
This theory also helps explain something unusual in the Karnak text. Pharaohs campaigning in Canaan usually stuck to the coast and the valley to protect their strategic interests, and avoided taking their armies into the highlands, where supplies were scarcer and they would be more vulnerable to attack.
But, according to his inscription at Karnak, Sheshonq went deep into the highlands, conquering Gibeon and then marching on eastward across the river Jordan.
“Pharaohs didn’t enter the highlands unless there was a good reason, so this means that in the Gibeon area there was a threat to Egyptian interests,” Finkelstein says.
And in fact, archaeologically, the Gibeon entity declined after the time of Sheshonq. It was supplanted by the Kingdom of Israel, which ruled from Shechem and later Samaria.
To summarize Finkelstein’s theory, the birth of the Kingdom of Israel may have happened like this: Sheshonq came to Canaan, saw the uppity inhabitants of the highlands as a threat, so he conquered them and installed a vassal ruler over them.
While there is no firm proof, “it is absolutely possible” that the pharaoh was instrumental in establishing this kingdom and its first rulers, says Ben-Dor Evian, the Egyptologist from the Israel Museum.
As for Israel’s southern neighbor, Judah, it is harder to even theorize about a possible role of Sheshonq in the affairs of that kingdom, given that we have no firm extra-biblical evidence of his presence there. However, the Judahite material culture of this period does show signs of Egyptian influences, Ben-Dor Evian notes. Archaeologists have uncovered locally-made seals with crude hieroglyphs, some them even spelling out the name Sheshonq.
In the late 8th century B.C.E., more than 200 years after the pharaoh’s campaign, the seal of the Judahite King Hezekiah still displayed the ankh – the Egyptian symbol of life – in its iconography.
Of course, whatever role Sheshonq may have played in the rise of the Israelite kingdoms, his intention was likely to keep them under Egypt’s sphere of influence. But this was not to be. By the first half of the 9th century B.C.E, Egypt’s imperial ambitions began to fade as internal divisions took hold of the country once again, while a strong Israelite dynasty – led by King Omri and then Ahab – transformed the northern kingdom into an independent regional power.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in this period, Israel and Judah begin to appear as important players in near eastern chronicles such as the Kurkh stele. Having emerged from the long shadow of Egypt, the Israelites were finally free to make their own mark on history.