David, Solomon and Egypt

Scholar claims evidence suggests limited relationship between the kingdoms of David and Solomon and Egypt. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)

By Paul S. Ash
March 2000

David, Solomon and Egypt: A Reassessment is a study into the life and times of David and Solomon and ancient Israel's relations with and dependence upon ancient Egypt. The study's two goals are:

  1. To broaden the base of evidence used to determine the relations and contacts between Egypt and Palestine at the time of David and Solomon.
  2. To engage the biblical evidence once again from a standard historical-critical perspective.

Up to now, the many studies that commented on relations and contacts between Egypt and Palestine at the time of David and Solomon have engaged and elucidated only the biblical statements, giving little or no attention to what effect any Egyptian evidence might have on the question. Moreover, until this point no one has sought to compile the archaeological evidence for contacts and draw conclusions from it based on the broader contacts between Egypt and Palestine throughout ancient history. The first goal of the study, then, seeks to correct this problem.

In realizing the study's second goal, I have concluded that contrary to the generally accepted supposition that this period witnessed significant contacts between Egypt and Palestine, which resulted in significant Egyptian influence on Palestine, contacts were minimal. Indeed, they were considerably less intense and influential than Egyptian/Palestinian contacts earlier or later.

Consequently, the book is divided into three chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. The Introduction provides the backdrop for the study, as well as a delineation of some of the past studies that have argued that contacts between Egypt, David and Solomon were strong, with many Egyptian influences on Israelite life during the time. Chapter 1 gives a discussion on the written evidence from Egypt pertaining to the issue. Chapter 2 details the archaeological evidence of Egyptian and Egyptian-related artifacts found dated to this time. Chapter 3 analyzes the biblical evidence. Finally, the conclusion summarizes the evidence and employs it to briefly reevaluate the many theories about Egyptian influence on Israel at the time of David and Solomon.

After discussing the problems associated with the chronologies of Egypt and Palestine for the early first millennium BCE, Chapter 1 looks at the small handful of texts and art from Egypt that have been used to argue that significant contacts existed between Egypt and Palestine at the time of David and Solomon (ca 1000-920 BCE, the time of the late 21st and early 22nd dynasties in Egypt). Three of these are associated with the 21st dynasty:

  1. Siamun's battle relief, a fragment of a limestone relief portraying a defeat of foreigners, allegedly Philistines, by Pharaoh Siamun;
  2. Papyrus Moscow 127, which mentions "Seir" (perhaps Edom); and
  3. The Abydos Stela of Shoshenq, which mentions two individuals from Khor, the Syro-Palestinian coast.

The other three texts are associated with the 22nd dynasty and include:

  1. Inscriptions pertaining to Shoshenq I's campaign to Palestine;
  2. The inscription on the statue of a certain Pediest, mentioning the "city of Canaan" and the Philistines; and
  3. References to Shoshenq found at the remains of Byblos.

Close analysis of these six texts shows that none are evidence of any close ties between the peoples of Egypt and Palestine during the time of David and Solomon. Generally, they have been misinterpreted or over-interpreted. For example, Siamun's Battle Relief, used to argue that Pharaoh Siamun campaigned to Palestine, has largely been misinterpreted. An object in the conquered individual's hand, almost invariably claimed by scholars to be a Philistine axe, almost surely is not. Consequently, there is nothing to connect the relief with Palestine. Indeed, the only indisputable Egyptian evidence for contact between Egypt and Palestine at this time is Shoshenq's campaign, and this indicates hostile relations, not close ties of alliance. Moreover, this was a period of relative weakness and isolation for Egypt, not a time of bustling trade, political activity, and cross-cultural pollination of ideas with Palestine. The broad history of Egypt depicted in the written remains from Egypt shows strong contacts with Palestine during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1150 BCE), a steady decrease through and past the time of David and Solomon, and a resuscitation only late in the reign of Shoshenq, probably after the death of Solomon.

Chapter 2 details the archaeological evidence (as of 1999) for contacts between Egypt and Palestine during roughly the time of David and Solomon (10th century BCE). First discussed are the problems concerning the correlating of material remains to the time of David and Solomon. Recently, there has been much debate regarding this issue. Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin have argued that the dating has been wrong and that remains usually dated to the time of David and Solomon really belong to the century after them. Others, Amnon Ben-Tor, Ahimai Mazar, William Dever, to name a few, argue for the traditional dating. This study opts to follow the latter and accepts the traditional dating.

The study then details the list of Egyptian and Egyptian-related materials found in excavations. Upon analysis, one immediately notes the paucity of remains, particularly when one contrasts them to other periods. The large majority of items are simple heirloom items such as scarabs and amulets. Most of these are impossible to date specifically to the time of David and Solomon. Similarly, it is almost always impossible to determine exactly when these items arrived in Palestine. The archaeological stratum in which they are found only indicates their final resting point not the time in which they entered Palestine via trade or immigration.

On the other hand, the types of items or structures that unequivocally attest to trade or Egyptian presence are entirely lacking. These things are Egyptian residences, temples, structures, Egyptian mortuary assemblages and locally made Egyptian pottery. All of these are well attested during times of strong Egyptian presence in Palestine, but entirely absent from Palestine of the 10th century BCE.

Two other conclusions arise from the archaeological evidence. First, the majority of Egyptian and Egyptian-related items come from the lowland cities—cities that had well-known Egyptian contacts during the earlier Late Bronze period. In contrast, highland sites, the sites usually associated with the Israelites, have so far yielded virtually no Egyptian objects. This is true of Jerusalem as well. The scarcity of Egyptian artifacts in highland sites seems to indicate that Israelites had little or no contact with Egypt or Egyptians at the time of David and Solomon.

Second, the geographical dispersion of the Egyptian objects found in Palestine for this time suggests that these items entered Palestine via trade with the Phoenicians not through direct contact. Northern sites, close to Phoenicia, have yielded considerably more Egyptian artifacts than southern sites. Moreover, Egyptian goods are consistently found in association with Cypro-Phoenician and Phoenician goods, indicating that the Egyptian items were arriving in Palestine from the North. Contacts with Phoenicia to the north were far more regular than contacts with Egypt.

This evidence strongly supports the conclusions from Chapter 1; namely, that during the time of David and Solomon there was little contact between Egypt and Palestine. During periods of strong contacts, Egyptian remains in Palestine are abundant, but such does not appear to be the case. Again, the archaeological picture of contacts between Egypt and Palestine shows strong contact during the Late Bronze period, a steady decline through and past the time of David and Solomon, and a resuscitation during the 9th century. The time of David and Solomon clearly is a low point not a high point in Egyptian/Palestinian relations.

Chapter 3 looks at the biblical evidence. For the most part, the references to contact are incidental and passing. These include a mention of encountering a lone Egyptian near Ziklag (1 Sam. 30:11-15), a reference to a Cushite in David's army (2 Sam. 18:19-31), and Benaiah's defeat of an Egyptian in one-to-one combat (2 Sam. 23:20-23). These are all of the references regarding contacts with Egyptians during David's life. One can hardly conclude from this that strong contact existed at the time of David. In addition, many of the references regarding contact with Solomon show hostility rather than close ties of friendship and alliance. For instance, Egypt is said to have harbored David's and Solomon's political rivals and enemies (1 Kings 11: 14-22, 40). This corresponds to the Egyptian evidence that shows hostility between Shoshenq and the kingdoms in Palestine.

The following exceptions to the data noted above, however, have been the lynchpins for arguments that close ties existed: the references to Solomon's marriage to a princess of Egypt (1 Kings 3:1, 7:8, 9:16, 9:24, 11:1) and a report of trade with Egypt (1 Kings 10: 28). Nevertheless, even if taken at face value as historical remarks, none of these references necessarily indicates strong ties or influences. Moreover, there are good reasons for not taking these references at face value.

First, the biblical accounts of Solomon in Kings and Chronicles were compiled and written long after Solomon's reign and it is uncertain how much they preserve an accurate historical memory of the period. Recent scholarship has called into question the existence of any early sources that the biblical writers might have used. In fact, it becomes more apparent with every passing archaeological campaign that the time of David and Solomon was a time of little or no writing. Writing was known but not used.

Second, the account of Solomon is clearly intended to glorify Solomon and not to give a dispassionate, antiquarian description of his kingdom. Indeed, virtually every aspect of Solomon's reign fits the pattern of typical ancient Near Eastern royal ideology and propaganda. Therefore, it is unclear whether the references to marriages with foreign potentates and grandiose trade are historical or merely part of the stock repertoire of "activities" in which any ancient Near Eastern king was supposed to have engaged. Consequently, there are good reasons to be initially suspicious of the historicity of these reports.

In the case of the references to Solomon's marriage to Pharaoh's daughter, several other facts lessen my confidence in their historical reliability. First, as noted above, there is nothing in the references to indicate that they were drawn from any first-hand source; that is, any account that was written close in time to the events and by a person or persons in a position to know the facts about Solomon's reign. Quite the contrary-Had the biblical writers been drawing from first-hand sources found in archives or records coming from Solomon's time, they surely would have included the names of the pharaoh and his daughter. After all, the point of a royal marriage of this sort was to establish an alliance, and listing the names of the participants was indispensable to this process. Also, a comparison of these notices to the biblical report about Shoshenq's (Shishak's) campaign in Palestine (1 Kings 14:22-25) immediately shows the differences. In the latter, not only is a year given, but a specific king's name is also mentioned. Neither of these data is found in the reports of the marriage. Nor is the princess's name given. Undoubtedly when the biblical authors had access to specific names, places, dates and such, they included them. Therefore, the references to Solomon's marriage resemble tradition and stock royal ideology not first-hand reports drawn from inscriptions, annals, archives, etc.

Second, we have explicit evidence from Egypt itself that pharaohs did not marry their daughters to foreigners. In a letter dating to the time of Amenhotep III (ca. 14th century BCE), Kadashman-Enlil I, king of Babylon, quoted Amenhotep III as having said, "From of old a daughter of the king of the land of Egypt was not given to anyone." Indeed, from what is otherwise known of the Amarna period, the time of Amenhotep III, Egyptian pharaohs regularly married princesses from foreign countries, but never allowed their own daughters to marry a foreign potentate. Moreover, an analysis of Egyptian evidence from the time of David and Solomon supports this fact by showing a lack of marriages of pharaoh's daughters to foreigners. Although a few scholars have attempted to demonstrate that such marriages occurred, primarily when Egypt was weak, my analysis of their published evidence and arguments shows that their claim does not hold up. To date, there are no clearly attested marriages of princesses of reigning pharaohs to foreigners. All of these considerations should make us skeptical of the historical reliability of the biblical reports of Solomon's marriage to an Egyptian princess. True, we cannot prove that it never happened, but prudence and caution make it necessary to avoid placing any weight on these reports in our reconstruction of relations between Egypt and Palestine during Solomon's reign.

Regarding Solomon's alleged trade with Egypt, similar concerns arise. First, reports of elaborate trade are part of typical Near Eastern royal ideology. Indeed, the passage in which the report appears is a description of Solomon's incredible wealth. Second, external evidence suggests that the report of trade with Egypt in horses and chariots is less than historical. Most importantly, evidence for Egypt's export of horses or chariots is virtually non-existent. In fact, Egypt usually had to import horses. Hence, both internal problems and external evidence combine to give us a picture that leans against having confidence in the historicity of this report. As with the reports of Solomon's marriage, there are good reasons to resist the temptation to place any weight on this reference to elucidate the relations between Egypt and Palestine.

It is at this point that my book differs radically from most scholarship on this topic. Other works usually begin with an acceptance of the historicity of the notices of the royal marriage and trade, usually with very little published critical examination of the texts, and end with these passages as well. The Egyptian evidence in turn is analyzed and interpreted based on acceptance of the historicity of the biblical passages. My book has 1) broadened the examination by including other evidence, 2) interpreted the Egyptian texts in isolation from the Bible and without the biblical framework, and 3) brought a published, critical analysis of the biblical texts.

When approached in this manner, all three types of evidence yield the same picture: There were few contacts between Egypt and Palestine at the time of David and Solomon and these contacts, when direct, occurred late in the time of Solomon and were hostile, not friendly. Therefore, the time of David and Solomon was not a time of vibrant trade and close political ties resulting in a flood of Egyptian influence on Palestine's and Israel's culture. Rather it was a time of minimal relations and few, even hostile, contacts. Hence, two broad conclusions arise:

  1. The lack of Egyptian presence or involvement with Palestine helped to allow the rise of the Iron Ages states during the early first millennium BCE. These include Aram, Israel, Ammon, Moab, Judah and Edom, as well as the Philistine city-states. Egypt's weakness left a power vacuum that allowed these states to develop.
  2. As yet, there should be no talk of direct, immediate Egyptian influence on Palestine's political structures, economic structures, art, literature, and the like, during the tenth century. No doubt, Egypt powerfully affected the peoples and civilizations of ancient Palestine, but not at the time of David and Solomon.

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