By Norma Franklin
The Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa
The Omride dynasty was founded by Omri circa 880 BCE. It provided the northern kingdom of Israel with four memorable kings—Omri himself, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram—and one notorious queen—Jezebel (see Why was Samaria made the capital of the Kingdom of Israel?). Although Omri established his capital in Samaria, the important string of events that eventually led to the demise of the dynasty after only four decades took place not there but in the city of Jezreel.
The beginning of the end of the Omrides revolves around a story in I Kings 21-- the story of Naboth of Jezreel and his prized vineyard. Naboth's vineyard adjoined the property of King Ahab and the king wished to purchase the vineyard. Naboth, however, refused to sell on the grounds that it was a family inheritance. The thwarted king fretted over the matter until his wife, Jezebel, concocted a devious plan to have Naboth falsely accused of treason. Naboth was then condemned, executed as a traitor and the vineyard was forfeited to the crown. It was this ignoble series of events that prompted the prophet Elijah to forecast the death of Jezebel and the downfall of the Omride dynasty.
The story resumes in 2 Kings 9. Ahab has died, his son Jehoram has ascended the throne of Israel, and Jezebel has become queen mother. The Israelite army is entrenched at Ramoth-Gilead fighting the Arameans. Jehoram, wounded earlier in battle, is recovering from his injuries at Jezreel. He is being attended by his mother, Jezebel, when his cousin, King Ahaziah of Judah, makes a sick call. While the three are at Jezreel they hear that Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army, whom everyone thought was out fighting the Arameans, has instead staged a coup and is now driving furiously towards Jezreel. The two kings ride out to meet him at which point Jehu murders Jehoram and throws his body into the famous vineyard that once belonged to Naboth. Jehu then fatally wounds Ahaziah and proceeds triumphantly into Jezreel. Confronted by Jezebel from an upper room, he orders her thrown out of the window and tramples her to death under his horses’ hooves. He leaves her body unattended, to be eaten by dogs—an ignoble death.
The final blow to the dynasty is related in 2 Kings 10 when Jehu orders the annihilation of the remainder of the Omride dynasty. The 70 sons of Ahab, all resident at Samaria, are killed and their severed heads are brought to Jezreel to be stacked up at the city gate.
But why did this chain of events take place at Jezreel and not in the capital city Samaria? In order to answer this question we must first look at the geographical location of Jezreel and how this played a part in its long history.
The ancient city of Jezreel was perched on a rocky spur in the foothills of Mount Gilboa, 100 meters above sea level. It overlooked the valley that was named after it, and was located opposite the south-facing slopes of Mount Moreh and the city of Shunam, at the valley’s narrowest point. The summit of Jezreel affords an amazing panorama, from the hills of Nazareth in the northwest to Beit-Shean and the Jordan Valley in the east. Running through the valley below is the Via Maris, the ancient “Way of the Sea,” the main highway that linked Mesopotamia with the land of Egypt. And it was at Jezreel, too, that another ancient highway, the biblical “Way of the Patriarchs,” or Ridge Route, branched off south, connecting Jezreel with the central sites of Shechem, Samaria, Bethel and Jerusalem. The adjacent perennial spring of Jezreel, which provided water for both city dwellers and travelers, was guarded by a still-enigmatic lower city of Jezreel. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Jezreel—with its strategic location and plentiful water—was the scene of many important battles throughout history. Saul’s last encounter with the Philistines in this setting is portrayed in l Samuel 29-31; the fact that Jezreel was an important site well before the Omrides came to rule is also hinted at in 1 Kings 4:12. In the 4th century CE, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, refers to Jezreel as Esdraela, a strategic waypoint on the Via Maris, while in the medieval period the Knights Templar renamed it Le Petit Gerin and built a fortified tower and a church there, turning it into an important way-station on the long road from Galilee to Jerusalem. In 1187, Jezreel was the scene of a decisive conflict led by Saladin as he drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land. In 1260 a new enemy, the Mongols, entered the Jezreel Valley from the northeast, taking the same route as Jehu had some 2,000 years before. The Mamluk forces led by Baybars, although vastly outnumbered, soundly defeated them in the plain between the spring of Jezreel and the spring of Harod (Ayn Jalut in Arabic). In the modern era Jezreel’s strategic location was exploited by the British forces during WWI and fought over by the fledgling Israeli state in 1948.
The above brief account of the strategic importance of Jezreel throughout history serves to illuminate the biblical narrative and confirms that Jezreel functioned as a mighty military center for millennia. Yet this fact was not always obvious to scholars who, concentrating on the story of Naboth's vineyard, sought a very different reason for the Omrides’ partiality for Jezreel. Alt (1954) argued that early Israel had two capitals, one Israelite and one Canaanite. Morgenstern (1941) suggested that Jezreel, with its mild climate, was the winter capital of Israel while Samaria, high in the mountains, was the summer capital. Consequently, the idea arose that there must have been a royal palace at Jezreel, and although there is no mention in the biblical narrative and no historical or archaeological evidence, the idea proved very popular and is still cited today. The fact that its strategic location and not its climate dictated Jezreel’s importance was proposed by Olivier (1987); this was confirmed by excavations on the summit led by David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and John Woodhead of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (Ussishkin and Woodhead 1992, 1994, 1997). The TAU/BSAJ team revealed the remains of a large rectangular Iron Age II enclosure. Two towers, in the southeast and northeast corners, were exposed; two more towers are presumed to have stood at each of the other two corners, a six- or possibly four-chambered gate opened through a surrounding casemate wall and on three sides there was a protective rock-cut dry moat. The enclosure complex was attributed by the excavators to the Omride dynasty, ca 880 B.C.E., mainly on the “basis of biblical evidence” (Ussishkin 2007: 301). Below there was evidence of a pre-enclosure phase that existed in a slightly earlier phase of the Iron II; unfortunately, neither phase could be accurately dated by pottery. Consequently, there is uncertainty about which of these two Iron Age phases represents the city of Ahab and Jezebel (Franklin 2008).
In 2012 a series of intensive surveys was undertaken by a new expedition to Jezreel led by Jennie Ebeling of the University of Evansville and Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa (Ebeling et al. 2012). The results of the survey immediately showed that the city or, rather, the many successive cities of Jezreel, extended over a much larger area than previously thought (see Jezreel Expedition Update July 2012).
In 2013, based on the results of the survey, three very different strategic areas were chosen for excavation (see Preliminary Report of the 2013 Jezreel Expedition Field Season). Additional areas will be opened in future seasons. Thus, slowly but surely, Jezreel will begin to yield its secrets.
However, one thing is certain. It was Jezreel’s strategic importance that brought the Omrides to Jezreel. Jezreel was no mere hamlet, the site of a winter palace where the Omrides could enjoy the balmy air of the Jezreel Valley away from the harsh winters of Samaria. Rather, Jezreel was a strategic military center, the mustering station for the Israelite army during the years when the enemy lay to the east, whether Aramean or Assyrian. Therefore, in times of war the king and his troops had to be stationed at Jezreel, for Jezreel was the springboard to the east. The road south to Samaria began at Jezreel, and that road had to be protected at all costs. For if Jezreel fell, Samaria would fall, and if Samaria fell then the kingdom would fall.
Alt, A. 1954. Der Stadt Samaria. Berlin. Reproduced in: Alt, A. 1959. Kleine Schriften zur Geschicte des Volkes Israel, III. Munich:258-302.
Ebeling, J., Franklin, N., and Cipin, I. 2012. “Jezreel Revealed in Laser Scans: A Preliminary Report of the 2012 Survey Season,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 75/4: 232-239.
Franklin, N. 2008. “Jezreel: Before and After Jezebel,” in: Lester L. Grabbe, ed. Israel in Transition: From Late Bronze II to Iron IIAs (c. 1250-850 BCE): 1 The Archaeology. An Arts and Humanities Research Council Conference: 45-53.
Morgenstern, J.1941. Amos Studies, I. Cincinnati.
Olivier, H. 1987. “A Tale of Two Cities: Reconsidering Alt’s Hypothesis of Two Capitals for the Northern Kingdom”. Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif 28:2-19.
Ussishkin, D. 2007. “Samaria, Jezreel and Megiddo: Royal Centers of Omri and Ahab,” in: Lester L. Grabbe, ed. Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty: Old Testament Studies 421:293-309.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1992. “Excavations at Tel JezreeI1990-1991: Preliminary Report,” Tel Aviv 19:3-56.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1994. “Excavations at Tel Jezreel 1992-1993: Second Preliminary Report,” Levant 26:1-71.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1997. “Excavations at Tel Jezreel 1994-1996: Third Preliminary Report,” Tel Aviv 24:6-72.
Ebeling, J., and Franklin, N.
Jezreel Expedition Update July 2012
Franklin, N., and Ebeling, J.
Preliminary Report of the 2013 Jezreel Expedition Field Season
Why Was Samaria Made the Capital of the Kingdom of Israel?
A few questions from a non-archaeologist.
If Jezreel had a history extending backward in time before there was a kingdom based on Samaria it must have been important for reasons other than Samarian military necessity. Should the military rather than the economic importance of the site be exclusively stressed?
Meanwhile, the idea that the city was a military centre does not seem incompatible with its also being a royal residence or at least having a residence 'fit for a king' within its boundaries. The existence of such a place is surely required if the Biblical narrative is to be 'accepted'. And indeed required, I would have thought, if that was the place where the King mustered his army for the campaigning season. If there is really no trace of any place where Jehoram and Jezebel could have lived in their accustomed luxury (one can hardly think of Jezebel roughing it) then 'acceptance' of the Biblical story becomes that bit more difficult. I'm aware that my use of the word 'acceptance' is somewhat glib in this context.
Is there any indication of military operations by the Assyrians at Jezreel when they did successfully attack Samaria?
#1 - Martin - 11/07/2013 - 17:11
"Is there any indication of military operations by the Assyrians at Jezreel when they did successfully attack Samaria?"
-Only according to Norma Franklin. According to the scholarly consensus, the site was abandoned throughout the early-mid 8th century BC.
Also, a palace at Jezreel is mentioned in 1 Kings 21:1, as Todd Bolen pointed out.
#2 - E. Harding - 11/09/2013 - 19:29
Thank you for your excellent questions Martin. I will try and answer them.
You are correct and I also believe that Jezreel did have a strategic role long before the founding of the kingdom of Israel. As I mentioned it is hinted at in the Book of Samuel but until now there is no other textual evidence. Our survey and recent excavations highlighted the long occupational history of Jezreel at the junction of those two important highways. Highways that were essential trade routes on a daily basis and crucial military arteries only intermittently. Therefore Jezreel must have served an economic role but that role is not so dominant in the historical and archaeological record.
I am sure there was a residence fit for a king or queen at Jezreel and I loved the image you conjured up of Jezebel not wishing to “rough it”. (Please see me answer to the next question below).
The previous excavation team to Jezreel did find evidence of military conflict at Jezreel, especially the south-eastern tower of the Iron Age enclosure which had very visible signs of destruction. This was either wrought by the Arameans or the Assyrians. The annals of Sargon do not mention Jezreel which must have been taken by his immediate predecessor Shalmaneser V or even by Tigath-Pileser III who took control of the Galilee and was the first to deport Israelites to Assyria.
#3 - Norma Franklin - 11/10/2013 - 05:44
Thank you for asking these important questions.
Your first questions I have briefly answered above. I would further suggest that if Jezreel had already been taken by Tiglath-Pileser then this would help to explain the readiness of Menachem to pay tribute to the Assyrians of a 1000 talents of silver (2 Kings 15:19). That is the heartland of the kingdom of Israel and his capital Samaria were now exposed and paying “protection money” to the Assyrians would bought a few more years of peace to the kingdom.
Jezreel was never totally destroyed (according to the information contained in preliminary reports on the Iron Age enclosure by the previous excavators) and if abandoned, it was only temporary. There are signs of Assyrian occupation but not of Jezreel functioning as a mighty military site during that period.
In 1 Kings 21:1 there is mention of a “hekal” this word appears eighty times in the Hebrew Bible. However “Hekal” has been translated as palace just eleven times but as a temple fifty-four times! The other options are nave, fourteen times or court (of a palace) just once. So is there a palace, a temple, a nave (to a temple?), or a court (perhaps the enclosure?) at Jezreel? This interesting question regarding the meaning of the word “hekal” at Jezreel deserves further investigation.
#4 - Norma Franklin - 11/10/2013 - 06:30
Hi - thanks for your responses to the questions.
It seems pretty clear based upon the context of 1 Kings 21 that the "hekal" of 21:1 is the same location of the following conversation between Ahab and Jezebel (21:5ff.). Is it possible that King Ahab had a bed in a temple, a nave, or a court? I guess, but it would seem to make much more sense for him to "pout in his bed" in a palace. Besides, v.21:2 very clearly says that the vineyards is very near Ahab's "beth" (house) - the beth and the hechal are also very clearly the same building. Not to mention the fact, that the whole point of the passage is to show Ahab's disregard for the laws regarding familial inheritance (cf. 21:4). If, hypothetically, there is no palace at Jezreel (Ussishkins or otherwise) then there is no palace/home for Ahab or Jezebel - but that does not change the very clear identification of the building mentioned in 1 Kings 21... Here's to hoping that the stratigraphic issues are clarified - thanks again for making your project so accessible.
#5 - Chris McKinny - 11/11/2013 - 08:57
could be a reasonable explanation for the importance attached to Jezreel, the fact that the city pertained actually to Issachar and its control by the Israelite king, who most probably was a scion of Manasseh offered him personal control over both Issachar and Manasseh, while the rest of the Israelite tribes, under the lead of their eldest were not under such a personal affiliation and were liable to switch allegiance. Could this have been the ground for the resistance of Naboth, the local member of the Issachar elite, not wishing to leave the ground entirely to Omri?
Could alternatively Jezreel have been the basis of Tibni´s rule, and after his fall, a second basis for the Omride dynasty? You might be able to answer this question by your dig.
#6 - Michael Banyai - 11/12/2013 - 18:19
Chris thank you for highlighting the references to a “beth” or “beit” in respect of Ahab. You raise an interesting point and one that would be best answered by a biblical scholar rather than an archaeologist but I will give you my take on the situation. The fact that Naboth is referred to as Naboth the Jezreelite may mean that he was not living in his hometown of Jezreel. He was possibly a member of the royal circle at Samaria and therefore his negative answer to Ahab which resulted in Ahab taking to his bed took place in Samaria the capital.
However the location of the vineyard is more problematic. To be honest before I started my research on Jezreel I wrote an article speculating that the vineyard was probably near Ahab’s Palace in Samaria! However I have now changed my mind, especially since we excavated the large wine processing installation at Jezreel. So was the vineyard near a palace belonging to Ahab or near some other property, possibly residential, that belonged to Ahab? The problem is that the word “beth” or “beit” has a number of meanings e.g. “Beit Ahab” - “household of Ahab” or simply “beth” a house. The point I tried to make in my short article is that there was not a major Palace at Jezreel on par with the Palace at Samaria. The fact that Jezebel, Joram, and even Ahazia, were living there at the time of Jehu’s coup, was due to Jezreel’s important strategic location. I agree that there must have been a suitable residence available at Jezreel for the royal family and it is usual to refer to a royal residence as a palace, so I am not arguing against a palace at Jezreel but it was not on equal footing with the official Palace at Samaria.
#7 - Norma Franklin - 11/14/2013 - 13:50
Michael you raise an interesting point that highlights the fact that Jezreel is on the southern border of the land of Issachar and this may represent another aspect of the famous dispute.
Tibni is an elusive character and I would love to find some evidence of that long civil war that preceded the rise of the Omride dynasty, however I am not too optimistic that Jezreel will provide an answer to that question but I will keep it in mind.
#8 - Norma Franklin - 11/14/2013 - 13:50
Well,I would still suggest that if it turns out that there is, after thorough investigation, no sign of a building impressive enough to be a substantial royal residence then we would have to conclude that archaeology has called the Biblical account into question - not to use inept words like 'disproved'.
#9 - Martin - 11/17/2013 - 16:37
Martin - even if we don't find a suitable residence that would have been fit for Jezebel it won't mean that there wasn't a house fit for a Queen at Jezreel. The is a great archaeological phrase -- "absence of evidence doesn't mean evidence of absence" . My point is should we be calling Ahab's "Beth" at Jezreel a "Palace" ?
#10 - Norma Franklin - 11/19/2013 - 12:07
The passage in Hosea 1:5 - "I will break Israel's bow in the Valley of Jezreel," seems to predict the final fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But II Kings 17:6 places the decisive battle at Samaria. Is there some relationship between Jezreel and Samaria that explains this apparent discrepency?
#11 - David Miller - 12/31/2015 - 14:24