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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

When Israel and the Arabs Were Allies

Over 2700 years ago, an Assyrian ruler named Sargon II from what is today northern Iraq, ended more than a century of conflict between Israel and Assyria with the conquest of the kingdom. Many people are familiar with the legacy of the Ten Lost Tribes, but very few are aware of what actually happened to many of the Israelite people.

Based on archaeological records, one learns from the royal inscriptions, that Sargon II incorporated Israelite chariotry units into his own army. This information may come as a surprise to many people who are not familiar with this aspect of ancient Israel life. As it turns out, Sargon II had good reason to chose to incorporate Israelite chariotry into the Assyrian army: for the past 130 years such chariotry had been an obstacle to Assyrian expansion of its empire to the west.

Generally people are familiar with the biblical stories from this period which involves prophets such as the confrontations between Elijah and King Ahab and his queen Jezebel. What is overlooked is that precisely during this period, the kingdom of Israel was a military powerhouse in this region due to its chariotry. Indeed, West Semitic prowess with the chariot dates back centuries to the middle of the second millennium BCE.

Archaeological records excavated during the mid-19th century and frequently housed in the British Museum tell the story of the repeated efforts by the Assyrians to expand westward and of its failure to do so in 853, 849, 848, and 845 BCE. This conquest campaigns were stopped by a coalition of forces with Ahab either the leader or co-leader of the alliance. Ahab’s position is implied due to the Assyrian records of the number of chariots t his command, 2000, a number equal to those of the Assyrian army itself. Although it may seem strange given Assyria’s reputation as a powerful military empire and the lack of information about Israelite military prowess in the biblical record, the archaeological record is clear on this point. In the ancient “mother of all battles” in 853 BCE between Assyrian and the coalition at Qarqar in modern Syria, Assyrian was stopped in part because of Israelite chariots. In this context it makes sense that Assyrian would incorporate this fighting force over a century later when the coalition had collapsed and Assyrian finally prevailed.

Part of what makes this incident so interesting is the other members of the coalition. In particular one group of people appear for the first time in the archaeological record when the Assyrian royal inscriptions lists one of the members of the coalition contributing 1000 camels to the war effort. Those people are called “Arabs” in the Assyrian records and that appears to be the name the people used for themselves just as Israel is an indigenous name and Mesopotamia and Egypt are not.

These Arabs continue to be mentioned in the Assyrian records in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. They appear to have been located in the wilderness steppes where Arabia meets Syria. They were not an urban people and perhaps resemble the Bedouins today. Their significance during this time period derives from their increasing involvement in the spice trade between southern Arabia and the ancient Near East, a trade made most famous in the story of Solomon and Sheba. The use of the name Sheba to designate the people in modern day Yemen is a reminder that the Shebans or Sabeans had their own identity and it would not be until after Jesus when they would refer to themselves as Arabs.

The Arabs participation in the coalition was an act of foresight. Even though the Assyrian campaigns of empire did not directly threaten them at the time in the mid-9th century BCE, they could read the handwriting on the wall. It would only be a matter of time before the Assyrians sought to control the lucrative trade routes to Arabia and that is precisely what happened. In the meantime, the Arabs sought to prevent that occurrence and were willing to travel from their ancestral homeland to Syria to become part of this coalition against Assyrian expansion … a coalition in which King Ahab of Israel was the leader or co-leader.

Many people are familiar with the touching scene when Ishmael and Isaac reunite at the grave of their father Abraham. What people are not familiar with is that there once was a time when that textual image was matched in history as the archaeological excavations from Iraq have revealed. Let us pray that it will not be another 2856 before Israel and the Arabs are united in brotherhood once again.