Ancient Samaria, a Land of Wealth and Idolatry

January 24, 2017 | Ron E. Tappy
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According to the book of Kings, the Israelite kingdom was split into two after the death of Solomon: the kingdom of Israel (later known as Samaria), consisting of the ten northern tribes, and the kingdom of Judah, consisting of the two tribes to the south. Ron E. Tappy describes what archaeological sources suggest about the northern kingdom:

A triangle of three cities—Shechem, Tirzah, and Samaria—lay near the center of this area and served as [its] religious and political center. . . . Around 884 BCE, King Omri of Israel purchased the family-owned estate of a man named Shemer, made it his political capital, and called the new city Samaria (Hebrew, Shomron). Throughout its existence, Samaria remained small in size—more a royal compound than a multifaceted city. . . . Until the fall of Israel in 721 BCE, Samaria remained that kingdom’s political hub. . . .

Omri’s son, Ahab, ruled after him (circa 873–851 BCE) and was one of Israel’s most powerful kings. . . . The Hebrew Bible obliquely praises and criticizes the lavish royal houses purportedly constructed by Ahab. Excavators have recovered a staggering quantity of ivory objects, sculptures, wall panels, furniture trim, and glass inlays from Samaria’s summit. These items reflect Israelite, Phoenician, and Egyptian artistic motifs with some direct parallels to ivories found in the contemporaneous Assyrian capital, Nimrud. The presence of unworked tusks suggests that Samaria might even have been a production center for these carvings. . . . Such conspicuous opulence undoubtedly inflamed orthodox [followers of the biblical God] like Elijah and [other] early prophets. . . .

Taken together, the biblical and extra-biblical evidence suggests a degree of religious pluralism at Samaria that would have enraged the orthodox establishment in Israel. In its broader world, Samaria seems to have maintained a kind of controlled syncretism, adopting elements of a variety of religious beliefs and practices, [and thus worshipping God alongside Baal, Asherah, and other Canaanite deities].

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