Solving the Mystery of the City in Isa 24-27: The Fall of the Assyrian Palace at Ramat Raḥel

Who built these impressive structures in the seventh century and used them as a base to oversee Judah and its economy? It was a period of major historical and political changes in Judah.

See Also: The Origins of Isaiah 24-27: Josiah's Festival Scroll for the Fall of Assyria (Cambridge University Press, 2019). 

By Christopher B. Hays
D. Wilson Moore Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies
School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary
October 2019

       Sometimes two mysteries come together to clarify one another. So it is with the identity of “the city” in Isa 24–27 and the role of Ramat Raḥel in the history of Judah.
       Much of Isa 24–27 revolves around the fall of a certain lofty city of foreigners (25:2; 26:5)—so much so that any historical interpretation of the passage depends on our ability to identify this city. It has proven difficult. Half a century ago, Otto Plöger lamented that “this city, which plays such a large part in the two hymns of thanksgiving, seems to be the chief enemy that is constantly impeding the interpretation.”[1] Continued research has not improved the situation.[2]
        My new book, The Origins of Isaiah 24–27, marshals data of various kinds to reorient our historical understanding of those contested chapters; one piece of the puzzle is the argument that the city in question was Ramat Raḥel, a luxurious, imperial compound located just 4 km (barely 2.5 miles) outside of Jerusalem.[3] Its dereliction by the Assyrians in the late seventh century would indeed have been a source of rejoicing in Judah. One reason it has not been proposed before now is that it is has been increasingly better understood in recent years thanks to the efforts of renewed excavations under the direction of Oded Lipschits.
       Numerous guesses about the historical identity have been made. The most significant include Jerusalem, Samaria, Tyre, Babylon, Sidon, Dibon, Nineveh, Susa, and Carthage. But none has generated anything remotely resembling a consensus. Nor have the previous treatments marshaled any substantial data external to the Isaianic text. Scholars typically presuppose a context—generally picking the fall of a major ancient city—and see if they can get the text to fit. Because Isa 24–27 has been viewed as historically unmoored from the rest of the book—or even unmoored from history itself—anything goes. In response to this diversity of opinion, the most popular approach to the problem is to disavow historical interpretation and the effort to identify a specific city.
       There is more than one city in the passage, of course. In Isa 26:1, the speaker says, “we have a strong city,” which contrasts with the lofty-but-fallen city in 26:5. Three terms, קריה, עיר, and ארמון, are used for the fallen city, and עיר is also used for the strong city—and I propose that קריה, עיר, and ארמון all refer at times to Ramat Raḥel. Since they all occur in Isa 25:2, we might begin there:


כי שׂמת מעיר לגל קריה בצורה למפלה

ארמון זרים מעיר לעולם לא יבנה

You [Yhwh] have made the city a heap, the fortress-town a ruin;

the palace of foreigners is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.


ארמון is used only here in these chapters, while the other two are common terms and appear elsewhere (עיר in Isa 24:12 and 27:10; קריה in Isa 24:10 and 26:5). These terms refer to, e.g., the palaces of Tyre in 23:13 and the citadel of the City of David in 29:1—so it would be a mistake to think of קריה, עיר, and ארמון as necessarily referring to large cities or to cities in their entirety. All of them can be used for small, fortified palace compounds of the sort that the Assyrians built (e.g., עיר דוד, “the City of David” in 2 Sam 5:7, etc.). Similarly, Isa 14:21 refers to the Assyrian tendency to build administrative outposts wherever they went: “Let them never rise to possess the earth or cover the face of the world (תבל) with cities (ערים).” As is widely recognized, the core of Isa 14 is an anti-Assyrian composition (although it may have been reframed in the Neo-Babylonian period). Taken together, these passages reflect the angry reactions of local populations against the kind of imperial oversight symbolized by the Assyrian fortress at Ramat Raḥel.[4]
       When the fallen city is referred to again in Isa 26:5, it is called “the lofty city" (קריה נשׂגבה), and it is laid low. What is this “lofty city of foreigners,” this symbol of oppression that has been overcome? Using the motif of exalted things brought low, it is linked in Isa 26:5 with a group called the “inhabitants of the height” (ישׁבי מרום), who are thrown down. It is also logical to connect this group with the צבא המרום who are said to be punished in Isa 24:4, 21.
       The phrase צבא המרום is handled in a fascinating way by nearly all translations, which conflate it with the much more common phrase צבא השׁמים. This trend dates to the earliest translations since the Septuagint renders both phrases as τὸν κόσμον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, “the power of heaven.” Yet the two Hebrew phrases are not the same. In fact, צבא המרום is a hapax legomenon. In all the language throughout the Bible about the heavenly powers, the stars, etc., it is never used, and perhaps this has contributed to its misunderstanding. But there are ample indications in the context that the צבא המרום is not the heavenly host: the heavenly host does not “dwell” in its own “city” as the inhabitants of the height are said to do in Isa 26:5.
       The “host/army of the height” was the Assyrian administration stationed atop Ramat Raḥel—more specifically, the garrison there. In the Neo-Assyrian period, the Akkadian cognate šābum referred regularly (although not exclusively) to groups of soldiers—not whole armies but specifically the sort of limited detachments that might have been stationed at a small regional center like Ramat Raḥel. For example, one Neo-Assyrian letter from Nineveh reads, “the governor of the land and his soldiers (ṣābīšu) are standing beside us with drawn swords.”[5] This is not to deny potential mythological undertones of these images (which are discussed in the book), but their most basic referents were historical and real.

The Archaeology of Ramat Raḥel

At about 800 meters above sea level, Ramat Raḥel stands slightly higher than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (740 m) and almost the height of Mount Scopus (825 m). Most of the suggestions made about the identity of the city account for the various descriptions of it in Isa 24–27 far less well than Ramat Raḥel.[6]
       Yohanan Aharoni, the site’s original excavator, hypothesized that Ramat Raḥel was the biblical Beth Hakkerem, which means “House of the Vineyard.” Jeremiah 6:1 identifies Beit Hakkerem as one of the places in which fire signals were located to alert Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period,[7] and Ramat Raḥel’s lofty vantage point would have made it desirable for that purpose as well as for an empire that wished to monitor a vassal. Manfred Oeming concluded in 2011 that this was still the majority opinion.[8] The reference to Beth Hakkerem in Neh 3:14 as an administrative district (פלך) would square with the impressive Persian period palace there.

Building Phase I: The Watchtower and the First Palace

The outpost at Ramat Raḥel was an important hub for the administration of Judah, beginning in the Neo-Assyrian period. The earliest phases of the site are of greatest interest for the present argument but have unfortunately proven the most difficult to reconstruct with precision.[9] There were at least two phases of building during the Iron Age II, separated by a transitional gap in the late seventh century BCE.[10]
       It appears that Ramat Raḥel was first built up in the late eighth century (Iron Age IIB). The earliest phase of building included a square tower, 28.5 meters on each side, with a commanding view of the surrounding lands, including the Rephaim Valley to the northwest, Bethlehem to the south, and western Jerusalem to the northeast. It offers control of both the so-called King’s Highway and the road west to Beth Shemesh.[11]
       The construction of the Iron Age tower fortress is similar to some other isolated forts from Iron Age Judah: “wide walls built of mixed fieldstones of varying sizes, some large, some medium-sized, and all uncut or cut only partially and crudely.”[12] Some large walls of a connecting fortress or citadel also appear to have been associated with this phase.
        The renewed excavations team called attention to the fact that there is more than one style of architecture in this complex, however. In fact, the styles differ quite significantly. The fortress or watchtower was part of a network of similar structures built around Jerusalem in the late First Temple period, presumably by the kings of Judah.[13] By contrast, other Phase I walls were built with chisel-hewn stones—indeed, “the most beautiful hewn stones found at Ramat Raḥel.”[14]
       Because the layer that dates to the late eighth and early seventh centuries included numerous exceptional, elite architectural elements found nowhere else in Iron Age Judah, it is hard to escape the conclusions that the relatively crude watchtower was a different and earlier phase of building and that the tower is attributable to the native kings of Judah, whereas the elite structures are attributable to the Assyrians. The tower’s foundations are built into the bedrock, and the lack of pottery finds within it have made it impossible to date with certainty. The excavators suggest that the shift in jar-handle seals shows that “Ramat Raḥel became the alternate collection center for agricultural products” after Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 BCE.[15] Given that Judah was pacified for a very long time after 701, it seems logical to assign the construction of the Assyrian compound to that time. The presence of significant quantities of early seventh-century pottery and artifacts, along with a few late eighth-century forms, indicates that the palace came into use some time in that range.[16]
       Numerous features indicate that the Phase I compound was an Assyrian imperial palace. The aforementioned elite architectural elements included more than ten decorated volute column “capitals” (formerly called Proto-Aeolic), roof (or wall) crenellations, finely carved round column bases, and decorative window balustrades. Although these architectural features were not discovered in situ, the renewed excavation team concluded that they were from the Assyrian-period building phase.[17] Although some of these uniquely luxurious items were part of an international design language dubbed “Phoenician” and found widely in the ancient Near East, the column capitals are not the same style as those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel; rather, they match capitals from Moab and Ammon when they were also under Assyrian rule.[18] None of the other features has analogs from Israel or Judah, and the crenellations and round column bases have parallels only in Assyrian art and artifacts.[19] Taken together, these items indicate that Ramat Raḥel was not only more elaborate than other Judahite palaces and fortresses of the period but also of foreign design.
       Nadav Na’aman argues that this early Assyrian administrative compound at Ramat Raḥel was built in the late eighth century as “a centre of government where an Assyrian official, with his staff and guard, was installed,” and that it included not only a palace but also a temple.[20] He points out that Edomite evidence from Buseirah and the Negev also indicates that the Assyrians had a “policy of constructing emporiums and centres of government at sites located near the capitals of vassal kingdoms and . . . posting . . . officials and troops in these places.”[21] The aforementioned volute column capitals even suggest a common tradition of workmanship on these various sites.
       Na’aman’s conclusion has been reinforced by Nirit Kedem, who worked with the renewed excavations and notes: “It seems that the palace at Ramat Raḥel was built according to an Assyrian architectural plan that can be seen in reliefs from the royal palaces of Sargon II at Dur-Sharukin and Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.”[22] Thus, the Building Phase I citadel was a very visible Assyrian imposition on the area. As such, it eventually became a symbol of foreign rule.
       The fact that Ramat Raḥel was not violently destroyed in Sennacherib’s highly destructive campaign of 701 is another indication that it was already an Assyrian center. That would explain its anomalous survival. Unlike Israel, Judah submitted to Assyria throughout the 730s and 720s and benefited from that submission. In 731, Assyria crushed the Syro-Palestinian anti-Assyrian coalition that had threatened Judah (Isa 7:1–9), and Israel was destroyed and provincialized in 721. Judah was spared by the favor of the Assyrians, but they did not do favors for nothing, nor did they trust blindly. There is every reason to think that Ramat Raḥel was built for them to supervise the region sometime in the last third of the eighth century. By that time, it “was already a well-assembled royal administrative center . . . . Even at this early stage, the palace at Ramat Raḥel was unparalleled by any other in the kingdom of Judah.”[23]
       Alternative theories about the construction of Ramat Raḥel do not withstand scrutiny so well. For example, could Hezekiah have built such a palace? He began withholding tribute from Assyria upon the death of Sargon II in 705 and prepared intently for the repercussions of that policy (Isa 22:8–11; 2 Chr 32:2–5). It seems highly unlikely that he was building an ornate and vulnerable palace in Ramat Raḥel at the same time he was hastily tearing down houses to build the Broad Wall (Isa 22:10) and diggers were frantically working on a water tunnel under the City of David (Siloam Tunnel Inscription; 2 Kgs 20:20). And after Sennacherib’s campaign in 701, Hezekiah would have been impoverished by the heavy tribute that was reimposed and by the loss of territories Sennacherib apparently took from Judah and gave to the Philistine city-states such as Ashdod, Ekron, Gaza, and likely Ashkelon.
       Another sign of Assyrian influence is the Assyrian Palace Ware that was discovered there—the most elaborate examples . . . found so far in Judah.”[24] Although Palace Ware is not necessarily a marker of direct Assyrian presence,[25] it has been taken to support the case for such presence.[26] (Assyrian governors had their Palace Ware vessels made locally,[27] so petrographic analysis would not settle the issue of origin.)
       A nuanced view of the imperial administration of Judah recognizes that it involved Judahite cooperation. The Assyrians did not govern client states like Judah by imposing an overwhelmingly large bureaucratic and military apparatus sent from the homeland. Rather, they relied on local representatives and functionaries who were motivated to serve the empire’s interests in various ways, including through enticements and the projection of prestige.[28] The temptation of “elite emulation” among Judahites is underlined by Zeph 1:8–9’s condemnation of “the officials and the king’s sons and all who dress themselves in foreign attire” (‎כל־הלבשׁים מלבושׁ נכרי), who are linked to “violence and deceit” (חמס ומרמה).
       Resentment of that kind led Na’aman to theorize that “[Ramat Raḥel’s] construction must have been one of the main reasons for the rebellion that broke out in the time of Hezekiah, just as the construction of other residencies near the capitals/ports of vassal kingdoms accelerated rebellions in those kingdoms.”[29] This is possible if the citadel were built before 705 BCE; in any case, the citadel’s existence would have generated Judahite popular resentment over decades until it found its release in Josiah’s time.

Building Phase II: A Grand Imperial Citadel

The palace of Building Phase II (=Aharoni’s Stratum Va), which came into use in the second half of the seventh century, was a stunningly ambitious undertaking. It employed more impressive building techniques even than the elite Phase I palace. It was characterized by “thin, elongated ashlar stones of local nari rock, laid course upon course as headers and stretchers,”[30] and this building phase also saw a thorough reenvisioning and reshaping of the hill. The prominence of the tower was augmented by cutting away an escarpment in the hillside around it, creating “a prominent rock cube projecting westward out of the palace complex.”[31] Fill was seemingly taken from the lower parts of the hill to level the land for a very large complex (84 x 72 m) with a sizeable courtyard (30 x 24 m and 60 x 21 m).[32] Lipschits and his team remark on this feat: “The extent of the energy required to adjust the natural outline of the extension to the satisfaction of the architects/engineers of the new design is testimony to the grandeur and might of the state’s investment, planning, and construction.”[33] By this point, the complex comprised multiple palaces;[34] it was at least as much a “city” as the City of David.
       Around the palaces were gardens more luxurious than any from the period excavated elsewhere in Israel or Judah. It has not been possible to identify what they contained when they were first planted, but in the Persian period (Building Phase III) they included imported plantings from elsewhere in the empire—cedars, walnuts, and citrons, as well as local myrtles, grape vines, figs, poplars, willows, and water lilies. The landscaped area has been measured at 16 dunams, about four acres.[35] Remarkably, these were maintained without a spring or other natural water source on the hill, thanks to an elaborate water system that captured rainwater. All in all, these massive works demonstrate control of nature, and even what excavator Yuval Gadot describes as “conspicuous consumption,” especially consumption of water.[36] He concludes that these were built as part of Building Phase II in the late seventh century and continued in use through the Persian period. He writes that the pools, channels, and gardens “were meant to display the power and ability of their builders to turn a barren hilltop into a flowering garden. The absence of a natural resource was turned into a manifestation of political might and human will.”[37] In Gadot’s description, one can hear an echo of the common ancient Near Eastern royal boast that the king makes the land flourish.
       The archaeological transition between the palaces of Building Phases I and II took place during or close to the time of Josiah. Past excavators have theorized that the citadel was destroyed,[38] but the renewed excavation team found no significant destruction layer and are therefore less clear on the nature and cause of the disjunction. They say only that “the administrative center from the first phase continued to exist at least until the mid-7th century BCE and perhaps even longer, toward the beginning of the last third of that century.”[39] It would appear that there was a significant disjunction in the second half of the seventh century, but that it was not of an extraordinarily violent nature.
       Although the renewed excavations found no clue that might explain the transition between the two building phases, it seems to me that the archaeological record is consistent with its evacuation by the Assyrians in response to unrest at home. It may be that they sabotaged their own structures so they could not be used. Or it may be that Judahites caused some limited destruction, either in an uprising against the Assyrians or as a symbolic act in the wake of their departure.

Taking Stock, Historically

All this sets the stage for the central question: Who built these impressive structures in the seventh century and used them as a base to oversee Judah and its economy? It was a period of major historical and political changes in Judah. Even if one accepts provisionally the renewed excavation team’s dating of the transition between Phase I and Phase II at Ramat Raḥel to the final third of the century, the three decades between 633 and 603 BCE saw four powers exercise hegemony in the area of Jerusalem: the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians, in addition to the Judahites themselves.
       It is prima facie unlikely that the Phase II palace was built by the Assyrians to replace their own palace. There is no indication that the Assyrians faced any problems from Judah during Manasseh’s long reign; indeed, Esarhaddon’s inscriptions reveal that Manasseh was among the foreign kings who brought building supplies to Nineveh for his palace.[40] There was also no earthquake in the seventh century that would have forced the Assyrians to rebuild.[41]
       Reasonably, then, the renewed excavation has focused on the period after the Assyrian withdrawal. Would the kings of Judah have built the Phase II palace? On the whole, Lipschits and his colleagues have reserved judgment because the archaeological findings simply do not allow for certainty. But insofar as they have tipped their hands, they have returned to earlier theories in which Ramat Raḥel was essentially a royal palace for Judah, concluding[42] that “the Ramat Raḥel palace functioned as a Judahite center under imperial rule and that the second building phase [Va] palace complex was built after the Assyrians left and before the Babylonians arrived. Its construction should thus be connected with that turbulent period in which it is almost certain that Egyptians or their Judahite supporters sought to establish and exercise their restored inheritance.”[43] In their view, then, either Josiah or Jehoiakim built the Phase II palace complex. But a “turbulent period” does not sound promising for the construction of an ornate palace, and there are indeed fairly serious historical problems with proposing any one of those options.
       The theory that the palace was built by one of the Judahite kings, Josiah or Jehoiakim, also has problems. One might begin with a trenchant objection raised by Na’aman: “The close proximity of Ramat Raḥel to Jerusalem was always an obstacle for the assumption that a royal palace of the kings of Judah stood there in the 8th-7th centuries. I could not find any ancient Near Eastern parallel for the assumed impressive palace built so close to the capital city. Why should a king of Judah build this magnificent palace near his royal palace at Jerusalem?”[44]
        In my view, greater attention to the ways Manasseh, Josiah, and Jehoiakim are portrayed in the Bible is advisable because those portrayals render unlikely the theory of a Judahite citadel at Ramat Raḥel. For example, if the Phase II palace had been built by Josiah, it would mean that the entire biblical picture of him is completely misleading. In 2 Kgs 21:24, he is the chosen king of the “people of the land,” who are generally portrayed as landowners who were less central and less wealthy than the existing court. This is not a group that seems likely to have tolerated its king building pleasure gardens or imposing greater taxation to fund them (cf. 2 Kgs 23:35). Furthermore, Josiah and the people of the land are portrayed as zealously Yahwistic (2 Kgs 11:18; 23:1–15) and opposed to solar religion (2 Kgs 23:11), yet Ramat Raḥel may have been designed to accommodate solar worship. Kedem notes that Phase II is built squarely on an east–west orientation that “defied the natural topography of the hill,” which suggested to her an association with solar religion.[45] Yet in 2 Kgs 23:11, Josiah is said to have “removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun at the entrance to the house of Yhwh” and “burned the chariots of the sun with fire.”
       The suggestion that Ramat Raḥel Phase II could have been the palace of Jehoiakim has only slightly more merit. This was Aharoni’s conclusion, although it should be noted that his method was essentially Bible-and-spade, based on the fact that Jehoiakim’s luxurious building projects were condemned by Jeremiah.[46] The key passage is Jer 22:13–15, which condemns Jehoiakim for saying, “I will build myself a large house… paneled with cedar.” The prophet scorns him, concluding sarcastically: “Do you reign because you’re hot for cedar?” He contrasts Jehoiakim with his father Josiah: “He did justice and righteousness—then it went well for him.”
       Things did not go especially well for Jehoiakim, which may be cause for skepticism about his capacity to undertake building projects of incomparable luxury. Jehoiakim exemplified Judah’s precarious political situation throughout the period. He was installed by the Egyptian pharaoh Necho in 609 (2 Kgs 23:33–34), but Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians took control of the Levant (2 Kgs 24:7) after they defeated Egypt in Syria (perhaps reflected in Jer 46:11–12), and within a year, Jehoiakim had become a Babylonian vassal (2 Kgs 24:1). Jehoiakim is said to have rebelled against Babylon after three years, presumably after Babylon suffered a setback against Egypt in Nebuchadnezzar’s fourth year.[47] There is great uncertainty about Jehoiakim’s death, but his end seems to have been ignominious.
       Judah was already little more than a puppet in international politics during Jehoiakim’s tumultuous reign.[48] The kings of Judah reigned entirely at the pleasure of foreign rulers, despite the fact that Judah was not a province like Samerina.[49] This was the case through most of the seventh century: the Mesopotamian empires governed Judah with a heavy hand, and it would be surprising if Egyptian taxation of Jehoiakim were lenient enough to make a pleasure palace in the neighborhood of Jerusalem a plausible project for him.[50] It is reported in 2 Kgs 23:33–35 that, upon Jehoiakim’s accession, Pharaoh Necho imposed a heavy fine or tax on the land. It is not very plausible that Jehoiakim, with his people already groaning under this burden, also managed to build the most exceptional palace complex that his land had ever seen.
       As for the possibility that the Egyptians themselves quickly stepped in and built the new palace, that theory is problematic because there is no sign of Egyptian culture or architecture among the remains and because no one claims that the Egyptians ruled anywhere near Judah. Even though they extended their hegemony into the region again after the decline of Assyrian power, they focused their efforts on the coastal areas. Bernd Schipper’s excellent study of the period demonstrates the Egyptian interest in the coast and the Shephelah before conceding that there is little evidence for Egyptian cultural presence in the Judahite heartland.[51] While no one doubts that Egypt stepped up to fill the power vacuum that Assyria left in the Levant, it challenges the imagination to think that they built the most lavish palace complex ever seen in the region during the Iron Age while leaving few other material signs.

Toward a New Synthesis

The most plausible reconstruction, then, is that the Assyrian citadel was overthrown without much resistance during Josiah’s reign. Or at least, the text of Isa 24–27 suggests that it was overthrown, but it uses exaggerated and conventionalized rhetoric of victory; an impartial observer would probably rather say that the Judahites reclaimed the site after the Assyrians abandoned it.
       The reasons that Judahites considered this a victory are not hard to see. It is a commonplace that Josiah’s reforms had an anti-Assyrian character. Although Ramat Raḥel would have housed a relatively small Assyrian presence, it became a symbol of foreign rule, taxation, even religious practices—things despised by those who brought Josiah to power. More specifically, it has long been perceived that the steps in Josiah’s reform correlated specifically with the receding of Assyrian power in the region.[52] This hypothesis is difficult to prove or disprove since there are no records of Assyrian activities in the region of Judah after 645,[53] but this much can be said: the most crucial single crisis in Assyrian power was the end of Assurbanipal’s reign, probably 631. Long reigns such as his were prone to invite instability because of dynastic struggles and sometimes ossification of administrative structures. The Assyrians’ departure took place during the period in which Josiah’s reform began, and transitions of power were regularly seen as opportunities to revolt.
       Assyria’s downfall began within Mesopotamia, which helps to explain why Ramat Raḥel was not destroyed. Babylon had already thrown off Assyrian rule by 626, and the Akitu Chronicle reported insurrections even within Assyria.[54] With the homeland under threat and in chaos, the Ramat Raḥel garrison may simply have been summoned home to help, in which case the compound would have been gutted, abandoned, closed up, and perhaps purposely damaged. This is consistent with the portrait of Isa 24:10b (“every house is shut up so that no one can enter”) and with the lack of military artifacts recovered from the scene. That the language of the city’s destruction is hyperbolic should, therefore, not be surprising since that is typical ancient Near Eastern rhetoric.[55]
       The purge of Ramat Raḥel is scarcely mentioned in the Bible because the ongoing Assyrian presence in Judah after Sennacherib’s siege in 701 was written out of the history by the Deuteronomistic historians. There is, however, a likely reference to the temple that seems to have existed at the Assyrian compound at Ramat Raḥel during Josiah’s reform. An intriguing passage in 2 Kgs 23:5 recounts that Josiah “shut down the priests of foreign gods (כמרים) whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem (בבמות בארי יהודה ומסבי ירושׁלם); those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations (מזלות), and all the host of heaven (צבא הטמים).” Despite the whiff of Deuteronomistic standardization, this passage, in fact, contains a number of unusual features:[56] the specification of foreign priests (כמר occurs only a handful of times in BH), and the differentiation between the “cities of Judah” and the cities “around Jerusalem.” The latter phrase occurs nowhere else in the Bible.
         Ramat Raḥel would seem to fit rather well with the picture of a non-Judahite city “around Jerusalem,” where there would have been priests serving foreign gods. Furthermore, the “host of heaven” is widely associated with the Assyrian astral religion against which Josiah and the Deuteronomists reacted. If (as noted above) Ramat Raḥel’s palace and courts were arranged for solar worship, that would have given more impetus for its vandalism than just resentment of the hardships of foreign rule.
       If the Neo-Assyrian citadel went out of use in Josiah’s time and if it were not rebuilt by the Egyptians or Jehoiakim, then it has to be the Neo-Babylonians who built the new Phase II palace. Such a construction project would not have begun until after 604, a year after they defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish (Jer 46:1–13) when they rapidly reconsolidated the former Assyrian empire up to the border of Egypt. This would mean that the palace complex had gone out of use for a span of decades, and that would explain the desire for a whole new building. Furthermore, Ramat Raḥel may well have been used by the kings of Judah during that span of decades for its original purpose as a watchtower for the military, which would explain the reference to signal fires being lit there in Jer 6:1.
       The identification of the Ramat Raḥel Phase II palace as Babylonian would also solve a couple of very significant archaeological problems. First, it would explain why the Babylonians did not destroy the site in 586. If the Judahites had taken over the Assyrian center as their own, let alone if they had built it anew for themselves, one would expect the Babylonians to have ruined it as they did Jerusalem. Furthermore, it would explain where the Neo-Babylonian administration was housed. Both the rosette and lion jar-handle seal impressions—the types usually associated with the Neo-Babylonian Period—are far more abundantly found at Ramat Raḥel than at Mizpah (Tell en-Naṣbeh). Ramat Raḥel has produced forty-five rosette impressions to two for Tell en-Naṣbeh, and seventy-five lion impressions to five for Tell en-Naṣbeh.[57] If Lipschits and his team are correct that the lion seals are associated with the Neo-Babylonian period, then their scarcity at Mizpah requires explanation. The impressive architecture of the Ramat Raḥel Phase II palace also befits an empire. It was not destroyed in 586, and I would suggest that it was the most important seat of Neo-Babylonian administration. In this understanding, the rosette seals would have been used prior to 586, whereas the lion seals might have come into use as part of the post-destruction reorganization.


With the exception of the explicitly contrasting reference to Jerusalem in Isa 26:1, all the references to the city (עיר, קריה, אראמון) in Isa 24–27 refer to Ramat Rahel. The site, identified as biblical Beth Hakkerem, appears to have been the site of a Judahite watchtower before being built up by the Assyrians to serve as an imperial administrative citadel that included a palace and temple. This compound was highly visible to the region and would have been a focal point for local resentment of imperial rule.
       The archaeological findings are consistent with a major disruption of production during the latter half of the seventh century, most likely during its final third. It has been argued on historical grounds that the Assyrians abandoned their citadel at Ramat Raḥel sometime between 631 and 622 as their empire crumbled and they suffered major uprisings much closer to home. We cannot tell whether the Judahites played any role in forcing them out, but the lack of a significant destruction layer from the late seventh century indicates that any pressure they brought did not rise to the level of a military action. In the relatively brief interim between the Assyrians’ departure and the arrival of the Babylonians in 604, I propose that Ramat Raḥel sat mostly abandoned and likely became somewhat decrepit, although it was not militarily destroyed. The unusual reference in 2 Kgs 23:5 to Josiah’s damaging the high places in “the cities around Jerusalem” may indicate that his sympathizers vandalized Ramat Raḥel after Assyrians were already gone. It may have reverted to its original Judahite purpose as a watchtower where the military encamped, accounting for the reference in Jer 6:1 to signal fires there.
         A new and even more impressive palace compound, which included major terraforming and lavish gardens, replaced the earlier Assyrian one sometime around the end of the seventh century. Unfortunately, a dispute over the interpretation of jar-handle seals used in Judah means that the dating of the second palace complex remains quite uncertain. Since this palace, like the first one, involved techniques and styles not found in any other known Judahite public buildings of the period, it is natural to conclude that it, too, was of foreign design. And since the Egyptians do not seem to have ruled the region of Jerusalem so directly in their brief period of domination, the Babylonians are the most likely candidates. If they rebuilt Ramat Raḥel as an administrative citadel in the end of the seventh century (after the campaigns of 604 or 597), that would be consistent with the lack of a destruction layer in 586.
       Within the Josianic edition of what would become the book of Isaiah, passages about the prospect of the citadel’s overthrow were combined with later ones celebrating the liberation of Judah from its authority. The disaster envisioned in Isa 24:1–12 is only anticipated and not yet real; it is an oracular pronouncement and not a historical description. The somewhat more subdued images of a fallen city in Isa 25:2, 27:10, etc., may also have been somewhat hyperbolic but are well within expectations for ancient Near Eastern prophetic texts.
       Every chapter of Isa 24–27 points to the fallen Assyrian citadel. In its developed form, the whole composition pointed to the decrepit Ramat Raḥel palace as part of its Judahite author’s appeal to the inhabitants of the former Northern Kingdom: The Assyrians who oppressed you are gone! Yhwh has done this! Unite yourselves with us and celebrate!


[1] Otto Plöger, Theocracy and Eschatology (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1968), 74.

[2] See, e.g., A. van Wieringen and Annemarike van der Woude, eds., Enlarge the Site of Your Tent”: The City as Unifying Theme in Isaiah: The Isaiah Workshop—De Jesaja Werkplaats, OtSt58 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[3] Christopher B. Hays, The Origins of Isaiah 24–27: Josiah’s Festival Scroll for the Fall of Assyria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[4] Previous connections between the city and Assyria, without reference to Ramat Raḥel, include H. L. Ginsberg, “Isaiah (First Isaiah)” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1971–1972), 9:59 and John H. Hayes and Stuart A. Irvine, Isaiah the Eighth-Century Prophet: His Times and Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1987), 297, 306.

[5] šakin māti itti ṣābīšu (ta lú.erin.meš-šu) namṣari karru ina rēšunni izzazu; ABL 473 r. 14. This letter is dated to the reign of either Sargon II or Sennacherib.

[6] Babylon and Jerusalem make no sense since Babylon is not on a height and Jerusalem is not a city of foreigners.

[7] Yohanan Aharoni, “The Citadel of Ramat Rahel,” Archaeology 18 (1965): 25 noted that Beth Hakkerem is mentioned in the ? supplement to Josh 15:59a as being near Bethlehem, and it is also mentioned in Neh 3:14 as a center of one of the districts in the province of Yehud.

[8] Manfred Oeming, “Identifying the Biblical Site,” NEA 74 (2011): 4 and Oded Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?: Ramat Rahel: 3000 Years of Forgotten History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017), 15–18.

[9] I am indebted to Yuval Gadot for his orientation to the site and the interpretations of the most recent excavators on July 6, 2016.

[10] The conclusion of the renewed excavations team revises the older findings of Aharoni, who believed the site was violently destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians in 586 BCE.

[11] Oded Lipschits, “Palace and Village, Paradise and Oblivion: Unraveling the Riddles of Ramat Raḥel,” NEA 74 (2011): 3.

[12] Ibid., 10–11.

[13] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 41.

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 52.

[16] Subsequent construction, especially in the Roman and Byzantine phases, has made it difficult for excavators to determine whether there were incremental building phases in the Iron Age in addition to the two major building phases.

[17] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 51–56. They have notches carved through the top center, unlike those from Jerusalem, Dan, Hazor, Megiddo, and Samaria. Some have concluded from this that they were originally built in Building Phase I and adapted for reuse with a different ceiling in Phase II; see Yigal Shiloh, The Proto-Aeolic Capital and Israelite Ashlar Masonry, Qedem 11 (Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1979), 10, 21 and, more recently, Lipschits et al., “Palace and Village,” 20. Norma Franklin see these as bases, not capitals (“From Megiddo to Tamassos,” 138).

[18] They are distinguished particularly by the oculi, or paired circular decorations in their top center; see Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 53–54.

[19] Ibid., 56.

[20] Nadav Na’aman, “An Assyrian Residence at Ramat Rahel?” TA 28 (2001): 267.

[21] Ibid., 267, 270.

[22] Nirit Kedem, “Site Formation of Ramat Raḥel,” NEA 74 (2011): 22. See also Ronny Reich, “The Assyrian Presence at Ramat Rahel,” TA 30 (2003): 124–29; this has been endorsed by Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 62.

[23] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 51 and Lipschits et al., “Palace and Village,” 20.

[24] Na’aman, “Assyrian Residence,” 271.

[25] Alice M. W. Hunt, Palace Ware Across the Neo-Assyrian Imperial Landscape: Social Value and Semiotic Meaning, CHANE 78 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 205.

[26] This was argued by Bradley J. Parker, The Mechanics of Empire: The Northern Frontier of Assyria as a Case Study in Imperial Dynamics (Helsinki: Vammalan Kirjapaino Oy, 2001).

[27] Locally made palace ware has been found in Assyrian palace complexes, e.g., at Tell Jemmeh; see Christin M. A. Engstrom, “The Neo-Assyrians at Tell el-Hesi: A Petrographic Study of Imitation Assyrian Palace Ware,” BASOR 333 (2004): 69–81.

[28] Hays, Death, 14–16 and sources cited there.

[29] Na’aman, “Assyrian Residence,” 273.

[30] Lipschits et al., “Palace and Village,” 10.

[31] Ibid., 23.

[32] For these measurements, see Shatil Emanuelov, “Measurements of the Iron Age Complex,” NEA 74 (2011): 31.

[33] Lipschits et al., “Palace and Village,” 21 (emphasis added).

[34] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 76.

[35] Lipschits et al., “Palace and Village,” 23.

[36] Yuval Gadot, “Water Installations in the Garden and ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ of Water,” NEA 74 (2011): 25–29.

[37] Ibid., 29.

[38] Yohanan Aharoni, Excavations at Ramat Raḥel 2, Seasons 1961 and 1962 (Rome: Centro di Studi Semitici), 119–24; David Ussishkin, “The Dating of the lmlk Storage Jars and Its Implications: Rejoinder to Lipschits, Sergi and Koch,” TA 38 (2011): 224 hypothetically attributed the destruction to Sennacherib’s conquest of 701, but this guess has been obviated by the more recent archaeological results.

[39] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 52.

[40] Prisms A (v 55) and F (vi 7’); Erle Leichty, The Royal Inscriptions of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680–669 BC), RINAP 4 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 22–23, 46.

[41] Sedimentary cores recovered at the shores of the Dead Sea point to the following dates for earthquakes in Palestine during the first millennium BCE: 759, ca. 700, 525, 148, and 140.

[42] Personal communication.

[43] Lipschits et al., What Are the Stones Whispering?, 87.

[44] Na’aman, “Assyrian Residence,” 272.

[45] Kedem, “Site Formation,” 22. Goddess figurines were also found in the Iron Age layers, but that is fairly typical, and the site’s use spanned a period well beyond Josiah’s reign in any case.

[46] Aharoni initially guessed it was built by Uzziah/Azariah as the separate house (בית החפשׁית) was built because of his leprosy (2 Kgs 15:5; 2 Chr 26:21). He realized even as Yohanan Aharoni, Excavations at Ramat Raḥel 1, Seasons 1959 and 1960 (Rome: Centro di Studi Semitici, 1962) went to press that this conclusion was untenable, and he added a postscript correcting himself in the same volume (59–60); see also Aharoni, Ramat Raḥel 2, 122–24 and Aharoni, “Citadel,” 25.

[47] A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, TCS 5 (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1975), 101.

[48] Josiah’s failed and fatal attempt to stop Necho in 609 (2 Kgs 23:29; 2 Chr 35:20–24) was Judah’s last meaningful attempt at military intervention in the region.

[49] Note on the flexibility and ad hoc nature of Mesopotamian imperialism in light of Holloway, Aššur is King!, 214. See also Parker, Mechanics of Empire, 252.

[50] Bernd Schipper, “Egypt and the Kingdom of Judah under Josiah and Jehoiakim,” TA 37 (2010): 221 could be right that “Jehoiakim . . . should be seen as the important figure of the period” from the standpoint of territory and wealth, but that would not materially change the assessment here.

[51] Schipper, “Egypt,” 218.

[52] Frank M. Cross, Jr. and David Noel Freedman, “Josiah’s Revolt against Assyria,” JNES 12 (1953): 56–58.

[53] Ephraim Stern, The Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Periods, 732–332 BCE, vol. 2 of Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 4.

[54] Frame, Babylonia, 213.

[55] Stephanie Dalley, “The Language of Destruction and Its Interpretation,” BaghM 36 (2005): 275–85.

[56] The term מזלות is also a hapax legomenon and is usually explained by reference to מזרות in Job 38:32.

[57] For the figure of five lion seals, see Jeffrey R. Zorn, review of Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation, by Avraham Faust, Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 1 (2013): 190.

Article Comments

Submitted by Niels Peter Lemche on Mon, 10/21/2019 - 08:12


Always interesting with these "the Bible is always right" approaches, because the author really disregards what has been the common opinion among critical scholars that Isaiah 24-27 -- "the little apocalypse" -- Is probably one of the latest texts in the Old Testament, perhaps not older than Daniel, i.e. from the 2nd century B.C.E.

The article simply does not make sense because it shows very little regard for critical biblical scholarship. That the archaeological argument is tenuous to say it least is another matter.

Submitted by Christopher B. Hays on Mon, 10/21/2019 - 10:00


Dear Prof. Lemche -- Your comment is a head-scratcher! This blog post is drawn from a 300+-page monograph published this year with Cambridge University Press, which not only includes far more detail on this topic but also interacts extensively with the history of critical scholarship, going back to the 19th-century German scholarship that gave rise to one of the current popular theories. It takes on the topic from the standpoint of a multiple other critical methods in addition to archaeology. It's really quite striking how thin the continental European tradition of dating this passage is, but I have done just the opposite of disregarding it.

Also, if arguing that a passage from Isaiah 1-39 is actually from a century after the time of the prophet qualifies me for "the Bible is always right" school, then the fundamentalists must be loosening up -- kudos to them!

I commend the book to your attention!:…


Chris Hays

Submitted by Jason Silverman on Tue, 10/22/2019 - 02:24


Do I understand your argument correctly, that the city is a hyperbole/metaphorization of Assyrian withdrawal from Ramat Rahel? If so, couldn't the entire image merely be a metaphor and not describing a particular location? That wouldn't necessarily argue against setting it in the time frame that you do. In any case, look forward to reading the book.

Hi Jason! Your first sentence is a reasonable summary, yes. In the book, I go into more detail about past interpretations, which have tended to treat the text as "unmoored from history" (as noted briefly above). If you do that, the text can mean pretty much anything you want it to. My approach will be too historically positivist for some, but... it's an historical argument. Another chapter of the book (based on a HBAI article) presents an argument for how the text came to be dehistoricized and read as apocalyptic, etc. So I'm trying to explain not just the initial composition but the early process of reception. -- Chris

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