The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

By David McClister

One of the most fascinating archaeological finds relating to the Bible is the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. It is a four-sided column of black limestone inscribed with words (in the cuneiform alphabet) and pictures. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (who reigned 858-824 B.C.) had it made to record his achievements through the first 31 years of his reign. Austen Layard unearthed it in 1846 during his now-famous discovery of Nimrud (Calah), just south of the capital city of Nineveh. Shalmaneser’s monument was probably set up in a public place where people passing by could see it and take note of the king’s accomplishments. It was, in effect, the ancient Assyrian equivalent of a billboard. The obelisk stands about six feet tall and is now kept in the British Museum. Copies can be seen in other museums, such as the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

What is so amazing about this ancient monument is that it both mentions and depicts a person from the Bible. In the picture accompanying this article, which is a detail from one of the panels on the obelisk, the person bowing down is none other than Jehu, king of Israel, and the person before whom Jehu is bowing is the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. We are sure that this is indeed Jehu because of the inscription underneath the picture panel, which reads “tribute of Jehu son of Omri” (Jehu was not Omri’s physical son, but the word “son” is here used in the sense of “successor”). This is the only artifact from biblical times that contains a representation of a biblical character. While the picture is stylized and therefore probably not intended to be an accurate depiction of Jehu’s appearance, it is nonetheless striking.

A little background knowledge may help us understand the significance of this artifact. First, you may recall that Jehu was the man God chose to replace the wicked family of Ahab of the house of Omri. Elisha the prophet was commanded to anoint Jehu to be king over Israel in 1 Kings 19, and the command was carried out in 2 Kings 9 (841 B.C.). With the appointment as king came a command from God that Jehu destroy the house of Ahab. In this connection, Jehu is perhaps most remembered for killing the wicked queen Jezebel, the wife of Ahab and a Baal worshiper from Phoenicia. He also killed Joram, Ahab’s son who had taken the throne of Israel. Jehu was far from done, however. He killed Ahaziah, the king of Judah, and his relatives, and he killed the 70 sons of Ahab who lived in Samaria and put their heads in two piles at the city gate. Then, using trickery, he killed all the worshipers of Baal. This killing spree is sometimes called “the purge of Jehu.”

While we may be repulsed by all this bloodshed, it was God’s judgment upon the wicked house of Ahab, and it was just. God was pleased that Jehu carried out his orders (2 Kings 10:30). However, Jehu did not please God in everything. Jehu allowed the golden calves, set up by Jeroboam, to remain. He did much to bring Israel back to God, but he did not finish the job. Apparently Jehu did only enough to secure his position on the throne of the northern kingdom. For his failure to cleanse the kingdom of idolatry God allowed Israel’s enemy, the Syrians, to rise up against Israel. It is probably in the context of Jehu’s military problems that we should interpret Shalmaneser’s monument.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III records an event that is not mentioned in the Bible. Nowhere does the Bible mention Jehu going before the king of Assyria and bowing down before him. However, there is every good reason to believe that Jehu did exactly this. When Jehu was anointed he was encamped at Ramoth-gilead (2 Kings 9:1-6), indicating that control of this border town between Israel and Syria was still being contested. The Syrians had another problem, however, and that was the rising military strength of Assyria directly to their east. In the same year that Jehu came to the throne in Israel (841 B.C.) the Assyrians marched westward into Syria. According to Shalmaneser’s records the Syrians suffered heavy losses, but we also know that Shalmaneser was not able to take Damascus. In this context there are at least three scenarios that would have prompted Jehu to bow down before the Assyrian monarch: (1) Jehu saw that Syria (which was a buffer between himself and Assyria) was losing the war with Assyria and that he would not be able to withstand the coming Assyrian advance, so he submitted to their superior military might in order to avoid conflict (which also left his enemy, the Syrians, alone to face the Assyrians), or (2) Jehu may have submitted to the Assyrians in return for help against the Syrians (cf. a somewhat similar tactic by king Asa in 1 Kings 15:17-22; but this is the least likely scenario), or (3) Jehu submitted when the Assyrian army finally pushed into northern Palestine (Shalmaneser says that he took tribute not only from Jehu, but from Tyre and Sidon as well). Either way, it seems that Jehu (wisely) never entered into any anti-Assyrian alliance with Syria and that he probably submitted to Assyria to keep his throne. This is what is being depicted on the obelisk — Jehu bowing before the king of Assyria, recognizing his power, and presenting his nation’s tribute payment. 

The political effect of Jehu’s action would have been that while Jehu may have saved his kingdom from destruction (for the moment), he weakened his kingdom by obligating Israel to hefty annual tribute payments to Assyria. His capitulation to Assyria also increased Syria’s animosity toward Israel and the king of Syria, Hazael, apparently after the Assyrians withdrew, vented his anger against Jehu and captured all of Israel’s transjordan territory (2 Kings 9:32f). These negative effects only compounded the political crisis Jehu already faced. When he killed off the house of Ahab (including Jezebel), he lost favorable relations with the Phoenicians (Jezebel was a Phoeni- cian), and the Moabites had already successfully rebelled from Israelite subjugation under Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:1) about ten years earlier, which meant that Moab’s tribute payments, which once boosted Israel’s economy, had ceased. So Jehu created enemies to his north, he lost his territories to the east, and had lost control of the Moabites to the south. It would not be until the reign of Jeroboam II that Israel would recover.

There are two brief lessons to consider. The first is about the historical trustworthiness of the Bible. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III proves that there really was a man named Jehu who was the king of Israel, just as the Bible says there was, and that he lived in the time period which the Bible reports. The name of Hazael, the king of Syria at that time — who is also mentioned in the Bible — also appears on the Assyrian king’s monument. The Bible’s stories are true, they really happened, and the biblical record is accurate.

The second lesson is a moral one, and has to do with our influence on the world around us, how others see us. I have always thought it regrettable that here we have an actual picture of a person in the Bible — and what is he doing? He is making a fool of himself! Here was the king of Israel. With God behind him, there was nothing he could not have accomplished. God would have fought for Israel, and Israel could have risen to great power and blessing. But Jehu took advantage of none of this. In times of trouble Jehu looked for human help rather than looking to God for help. This scene, carved in rock and preserved for all the world to see, makes me think about the influence that we, as God’s people today, should have. How do others see us? Do they see us like they saw Jehu — catering to the world and bowing down (figuratively) before worldly people, surrendering ourselves to them and their lifestyle? If all that ever remained of our lives in the records of the world was that we served the world instead of God, what kind of legacy have we left?

Whenever I see this panel from Shalmaneser’s monument, I am both happy and sad. I am happy to know that the biblical record has been proven to be true and accurate, but I am sad to see that it shows one of God’s people acting in a faithless way. Let us live so that we are not remembered like Jehu was.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p10  January 4, 2001