The Bible in the British Museum
Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria from 858 to 824 BC, built a great palace near Nimrud. The palace itself has since become known as “Fort Shalmaneser.”
This ivory winged sphinx is of Phoenician workmanship. Not usually on display in the Museum, it also isn’t mentioned in the Bible — but ivory is mentioned, notably twice in Amos.
Why was Amos talking about ivory? We’ll look at the Biblical and archaeological records on Ahab, Jezebel, Jehu, and Shalmaneser. We’ll add in what we can learn from the Phoenician ivory carvings in Fort Shalmaneser and (especially) a discovery in Samaria. It quickly becomes clear why Amos talked about ivory.
So What’s Wrong with Ivory?
And I will smite the winter house with the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall have an end, saith the LORD.
Amos 6:3-4, 8
3 Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near;
4 That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall;
8 The Lord GOD hath sworn by himself, saith the LORD the God of hosts, I abhor the excellency of Jacob, and hate his palaces: therefore will I deliver up the city with all that is therein.
Some read Amos and see the ivory as symbolic of a luxurious lifestyle. They see his message as condemning those who enjoy luxuries when others have less. But is this really what Amos is saying? Certainly, Amos condemns those who oppress the poor, but is enjoying expensive things like ivory the same as oppressing the poor?
When we look elsewhere in Scripture, ivory usually appears in a positive light. In I Kings 10, which describes the abundant blessings God gave Solomon due to his wisdom, we are told Solomon had a great throne of ivory overlaid with gold. He had a fleet that came every three years bring riches, including ivory. Solomon obviously enjoyed luxuries, apparently far more than anyone in Samaria, but this is portrayed as one of the ways God blessed him, rather than oppression of the poor. Even more striking, in Psalm 45, “ivory palaces” are mentioned in relation to Messiah.
If ivory is positive in some contexts, why is it negative in others, particularly for Amos?
Ahab and Jezebel
I Kings 22:39
Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house which he made, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?
Ahab had an “ivory house” — this could possibly mean a house actually made of ivory, but it is much more likely that it meant a palace which was full of ivory decorations. These items, in Room 57 of the British Museum, were found in Samaria, Ahab’s capital city, and date from around the time of Ahab. They, like the ivory items at Fort Shalmaneser, are Phoenician in style.
Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian princess — and the Sidonians were Phoenicians. Ahab took a Phoenician bride and adopted Phoenician worship of Baal, so it is hardly surprising to find Phoenician-carved ivory in Samaria.
Where Fort Shalmaneser Fits In
Shalmaneser III, the Assyrian king who built the palace now known as Fort Shalmaneser, isn’t even mentioned in the Bible. He has a little bit of relevance to this story because of two items we looked at previously, in Ancient Royal Propaganda.
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (Room 6 in the British Museum) records many of Shalmaneser’s conquests, showing images of those who paid him tribute. Included is Jehu, who ruled in Israel about 15 years after the death of Ahab.
Ivory is not listed on the Black Obelisk, but if Jehu paid tribute to Shalmaneser, it would not be surprising if (at times) it included some of Ahab’s riches, such as his ivory carvings. And we know that Ahab himself had experience with Shalmaneser’s military might.
The Kurkh Stela (also in Room 6 at the Museum) records more of Shalmaneser’s exploits, including his victory at the Battle of Qarqar, the largest known battle up to that time in history. The monument lists the combatants — and one of the countries defeated by Shalmaneser was the Northern Kingdom of Israel, led by Ahab.
There is no record of any tribute having been paid after this battle, but as a general rule throughout history, those who win battles have expected the losers to pay, and Shalmaneser obviously felt the same.
Is there a connection between Ahab and the ivories found at Fort Shalmaneser? We don’t know, but we know that the ivory carvings from Samaria and those in Assyria are both of Phoenician workmanship and that Ahab and one of his successors were defeated by and/or paid tribute to Shalmaneser.
According to T.C. Mitchell, the Samaria find included winged sphinxes — like the one from Fort Shalmaneser pictured above. And both caches included other idolatrous items — winged goddesses, images of Horus, etc. Perhaps the Fort Shalmaneser ivories were originally in Ahab’s ivory palace before they became tribute to an Assyrian conqueror, or perhaps they have no direct connection to Ahab at all. What they do show us is that the smaller cache found in Samaria was representative (in its idolatrous elements) of Phoenician ivory carvings — the kind of ivories a Phoenician princess like Jezebel would use to decorate a palace.
The Samarian ivories were decorative inlays, embedded in wooden walls or as decorations on wooden furniture. Amos wrote a hundred years after the death of Ahab, but the legacy of idolatry begun by Jeroboam and expanded by Ahab never ended until the kingdom itself was crushed under the Assyrians. It’s not hard to believe some in Samaria still decorated their furniture, even their beds, with the same kind of ivory carvings — ivory carvings of sphinxes, goddesses, etc.
“Ye that lie upon beds of ivory….” The problem was not having and enjoying nice things. The problem was idolatry.
The Samarian ivories show the connection between ivory and idolatry in Ahab’s Israel. The Fort Shalmaneser ivories (and other finds as well) show that the cache found in Samaria was not unique — ivory and idolatry were apparently synonymous wherever there was Phoenician influence. We know from Scripture that Samaria had all three: ivory, idolatry, and Phoenician influence. The Scripture does speak to excessive luxury, but when Amos referred to ivory, his first readers in Israel would have understood — he was rebuking their idolatry.
Sources for the British Museum series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum