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337

CHAPTER XXXII.

THE KINGS OF ISRAEL FROM ZIMRI TO AHAB.

b.c. 889-877.

1 Kings xvi. 11-34.

As far as we can understand from our meagre authorities—and we have no independent source of information—we infer that Elah, son of the powerful Baasha, was a self-indulgent weakling. The army of Israel was encamped against Gibbethon—originally a Levitical town of the Kohathites, in the territory of Dan—which they hoped to wrest from the Philistines. It was during the interminable and intermittent siege of this town that Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, had been murdered. Whatever may have been his sins, he was in his proper place leading the armies of Israel. Elah was not there, but in his beautiful palace at Tirzah. It was probably contempt for his incapacity and the bad example of Baasha's successful revolt, that tempted Zimri to murder him as he was drinking himself drunk in the house of his chamberlain Arza. Zimri was a commander of half the chariots, and probably thinking that he could secure the throne by a coup de main he slew not only Elah, but every male member of his family. To extinguish any possibility of vengeance, he even massacred all who were known to be friends of the royal house.

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It was a consummate crime, and it was followed by swift and condign judgment. Through that sea of blood Zimri only succeeded in wading to one week's royalty, followed by a shameful and agonising death. We are told that he did evil in the sight of the Lord by following the sin of Jeroboam's calf-worship. The phrase must be here something of a formula, for in seven days he could hardly have achieved a religious revolution, and every other king of Israel, some of whom have long and prosperous reigns, maintained the unauthorised worship. But Zimri's atrocious revolt had been so ill-considered that it furnished a proverb of the terrible fate of rebels.571571   2 Kings ix. 31. He had not even attempted to secure the assent of the army at Gibbethon. No sooner did the news reach the camp than the soldiers tumultuously refused to accept Zimri as king, and elected Omri their captain. Omri instantly broke up the camp, and led them to besiege the new king in Tirzah. Zimri saw that his cause was hopeless, and took refuge in the fortress (birah) attached to the palace.572572   R.V., "the castle of the king's house." When he saw that even there he could not maintain himself, he preferred speedy death to slow starvation or falling into the hands of his rival. He set fire to the palace, and, like Sardanapalus, perished in the flames.573573   Justin, Hist., i. 3; cf. Herod., i. 176, vii. 107; Liv., xxi. 14. Ewald elaborates out of his own consciousness an extraordinary romance about Zimri and the queen-mother.

The swift suppression of his treason did not save the unhappy kingdom from anarchy and civil war. However popular Omri might be with the army, he was unacceptable to a large part of the people. They339 chose as their king a certain Tibni, son of Ginath, who was supported by a powerful brother named Joram. For four years the contest was continued. At the end of that time Tibni and Joram were conquered and killed,574574   Josephus (Antt., VIII. xii. 5) says that Tibni was assassinated, as does the Rabbinic Seder Olam Rabba, chap. xvii. LXX., καὶ ἀπέθανε Θαβνὶ καὶ Ἰωρὰμ ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ. and Omri began his sole reign, which lasted eight years longer.

He founded the most conspicuous dynasty of Israel, and so completely identified his name with the Northern Kingdom that it was known to the Assyrians as Beit-Khumri, or "the House of Omri."575575   Athaliah is called "the daughter of Omri." They even speak of Jehu the destroyer of Omri's dynasty, as "the son of Omri."

Incidental allusions in the annals of his son show that Omri was engaged in incessant wars against Syria. He was unsuccessful, and Benhadad robbed him of Ramoth Gilead and other cities, enforcing the right of Syrians to have streets of their own even in his new capital of Samaria.576576   The Aramæans have come to be incorrectly called Syrians because the Greeks confused them with the Assyrians. On the other hand, he was greatly successful on the south-east against the Moabites and their warrior-king Chemosh-Gad, the father of Mesha.

Few details of either war have come down to us.577577   1 Kings xx. 34. We learn, however, from the famous Moabite stone that he began his assault on Moab by the capture of Mediba, several miles south of Heshbon, overran the country, made the king a vassal, and imposed on Moab the enormous annual tribute of 100,000 sheep and 100,000 rams.578578   2 Kings iii. 4. Mesha in his inscription records that340 Omri "oppressed Moab many days," and attributed this to the fact that Chemosh was angry with his chosen people.

He stamped his impress deep upon his subjects. It must have been to him that the alliance with the Tyrians was due, which in his son's reign produced consequences so momentous. He "did worse we are told than all the kings that were before him."579579   1 Kings xvi. 25. Although he is only charged with walking in the way of Jeroboam, the indignant manner in which the prophet Micah speaks of "the statutes of Omri" as still being kept,580580   Micah vi. 16. seems to prove that his influence on religion was condemned by the prophetic order on special grounds. It is clear that he was a sovereign of far greater eminence and importance than we might suppose from the meagreness of his annals as here preserved; indeed, for thirty-four years after his accession the history of the Southern Kingdom becomes a mere appendix to that of the Northern.

One conspicuous service he rendered to his subjects by providing them with the city which became their permanent and famous capital. This he did in the sixth year of his reign. The burning of the fortress-palace of Tirzah, and the rapidity with which the town had succumbed to its besiegers, may have led him to look out for a site, which was central, strong, and beautiful. His choice was so prescient that the new royal residence superseded not only Penuel and Tirzah, but even Shechem. It was, says Dean Stanley, "as though Versailles had taken the place of Paris, or Windsor of London." He fixed his eye on an oblong hill, with long flat summit, which rose in the midst341 of a wide valley encircled with hills, near the edge of the plain of Sharon, and six miles north-west of Shechem. Its beauty is still the admiration of the traveller in Palestine. It gave point to the apostrophe of Isaiah: "Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which is on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!... The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under foot: and the fading flower of his glorious adornment, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall become as a fading flower and as an early fig."581581   Isa. xxviii. 1-4. All around it the low hills and rich ravines were clothed with fertility. They recall more nearly than any other scene in Palestine the green fields and parks of England.

It commanded a full view of the sea and the plain of Sharon on the one hand, and of the vale of Shechem on the other. The town sloped down from the summit of this hill; a broad wall with a terraced top ran round it. "In front of the gates was a wide open space or threshing floor, where the kings of Samaria sat on great occasions. The inferior houses were built of white brick, with rafters of sycomore, the grandeur of hewn stones and cedar (Isa. ix. 9, 10). Its soft, rounded, oblong platform was, as it were, a vast luxurious couch, in which the nobles securely rested, propped and cushioned up on both sides, as in the cherished corner of a rich divan."582582   Stanley, Lectures, ii. 242.

Far more important in the eyes of Omri than its beauty was the natural strength of its position. It did not possess the impregnable majesty of Jerusalem, but its height and isolation, permitting of strong fortifications,342 enabled it to baffle the besieging hosts of the Aramæans in b.c. 901 and in b.c. 892. For three long years it held out against the mighty Assyrians under Sargon and Shalmanezer. Its capture in b.c. 721 involved the ruin of the whole kingdom in its fall.583583   1 Kings xx. 1; 2 Kings vi. 24. Nebuchadnezzar took it in b.c. 554, after a siege of thirteen years. In later centuries it partially recovered. Alexander the Great took it, and massacred many of its inhabitants, b.c. 332. John Hyrcanus, who took it after a year's siege, tried to demolish it in b.c. 129. After various fortunes it was splendidly rebuilt by Herod the Great, who called it Sebaste, in honour of Augustus. It still exists under the name of Sebastïyeh.584584   Josephus, Antt., XV. vii. 7. One of the few instances in Palestine where the ancient name has been superseded by a more modern one. The early Assyrians call it Beth-Khumri, "House of Omri"; but the name Sammerin occurs in the monument of Tiglath-Pileser II.

When Omri chose it for his residence it belonged to a certain Shemer, who, according to Epiphanius, was a descendant of the ancient Perizzites or Girgashites. The king paid for this hill the large sum of two talents of silver,585585   About £800 of our money. and called it Shomeron. The name means "a watch tower," and was appropriate both from its commanding position and because it echoed the name of its old possessor.586586   LXX., Σκοπία; שָׁמַר, "to watch."

The new capital marked a new epoch. It superseded as completely as Jerusalem had done the old local shrines endeared by the immemorial sanctity of their traditions; but as its origin was purely political it acted unfavourably on the religion of the people. It became a city of idolatry and of luxurious wealth; a city in which Baal-worship with its ritual pomp threw into the343 shade the worship of Jehovah; a city in which corrupted nobles, lolling at wine feasts on rich divans in their palaces inlaid with ivory, sold the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. Of Omri we are told no more. After a reign of twelve years he slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city which was to be for so many centuries a memorial of his fame.

The name of Omri marks a new epoch. He is the first Jewish king whose name is alluded to in Assyrian inscriptions. Assyria had emerged into importance in the twelfth century before Christ under Tiglath-Pileser I., but during the eleventh and down to the middle of the tenth century it had sunk into inactivity. Assurbanipal, the father of Shalmanezer II. (884-860), enlarged his dominions to the Mediterranean westwards and to Lebanon southwards. In 870, when Ahab was king, the Assyrian warriors had exacted tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and Biblos.587587   Meyer, Gesch. d. Alt., 331; Kittel, ii. 221; Schrader, Keilinschr., i. 165. It is not impossible that Omri also had paid tribute, and it has even been conjectured that it was to Assyrian help that he owed his throne. The Book of Kings only alludes to the valour of this warrior-king in the one word "his might";588588   נְבוּרָתֹו (1 Kings xvi. 27). but it is evident from other indications that he had a stormy and chequered reign.


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