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My own personal studies of Egypt have led me into researching the foreign peoples with whom it came into contact, either through diplomacy, trade, or war. Egypt would never have become the superpower of the Near East had it not been for its conquests of the New Kingdom, in the Late Bronze Age. These studies eventually nurtured in me a strong interest in ancient Israel and the development of its kingdoms and the Old Testament.

Some years back I read Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s David and Solomon. Finkelstein is a colorful and outspoken biblical scholar, and is certainly regarded as controversial by some of his colleagues (especially William Dever, another noted scholar). What I like about Finkelstein is his secular approach through the latest findings of archaeology and his careful, pragmatic dissections of biblical passages, as well as extrabiblical texts. Even to this day too many biblical scholars tend to take the Bible at its word, which is a stale and unreliable approach. Finkelstein is especially adept at searching out the kernels of historical truth at which the Old Testament hints. To be honest, however, Finkelstein’s minimalist leanings are quite obvious, and he goes against the flow. But maybe that’s why I enjoy his work.

David and Solomon takes a close look at these two principal characters in the earliest stages of the Judaic kingdom, and sorts out the facts from the fables. There is very little evidence that either of these two men actually existed, though David himself, as Finkelstein argues convincingly, may have arisen mythically from an actual leader of bandits at the dawn of the first millennium BCE. It’s possible the real David headed a group of Apiru, those raiding ruffians who made life so difficult for the rulers of Canaanite city states at that time—and even as far back as Dynasty 18 in Egypt (the Amarna Letters allude to them).

But what interests me here is the campaign of the Libyan pharaoh Sheshonq I (950-929 BCE), who ruled from Tanis at the start of Dynasty 22. This is one rare instance in which the Old Testament provides the name of a particular Egyptian pharaoh, in the Book of Kings. There is little doubt among scholars that the biblical Shishak and the historical Sheshonq I are one and the same; moreover, it’s an historical fact that the Egyptian army swept through the Levant at this time in a decisive military victory. The fact is we can’t be certain if there was one or two or more campaigns, but it is certain that Sheshonq I invaded Canaan. His reign in Egypt was one of the brief stretches of former glory and conquest in the otherwise bleak Third Intermediate Period.

One of the victims of the invasion from the perspective of the Old Testament was Jerusalem. In 1 Kings 14:25-26 it is written:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. He carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made.

Rehoboam is actually the first Judaic king for which scholars have some extrabiblical evidence; he reigned from 931 to 914 BCE. These numbers don’t mix perfectly with the recorded reign of Sheshonq I (950-929 BCE), but the figures for this early time in Judah are especially muddled and not always reliable. And it’s important to note that Rehoboam’s link to the Deuteronomistic History at the time of Sheshonq I’s invasion “may be more theological than historical,” as Finkelstein puts it. It’s a memorable example of the “Deuteronomistic principle of sin and divine retribution” (Finkelstein & Silberman 2006: 74). Rehoboam was sinful to the extent that he allowed idolatry, so he darn well deserved to get beat up by the Egyptians. The truth is we can’t be absolutely certain who was in charge of the chiefdom of Judah at this particular time in history.

In any case, this account of the sack of Jerusalem at the hands of Sheshonq I brings up a serious problem. On a massive inscription at the Temple of Amun (Karnak), Sheshonq I left a detailed account of his campaign in the Levant :

Relief carving of Sheshonq I at Karnak

Nowhere on this list does the town of Jerusalem appear. In fact, not a single village or town from the southern Judah highlands is on the list. Some scholars argue that Jerusalem may have been inscribed in one of the sections of the inscription that has broken off and been lost, but this is unlikely. The area of the inscription listing that whole area of Canaan is well preserved.

The archaeological evidence in fact shows that at this time Jerusalem and all of the Judah highlands was little more than a minor dimorphic chiefdom—a simple socio-political unit based on subsistence farming and herding. But to the north of Judah was an emerging polity of greater note (what would later be called the northern kingdom of Israel, though the word “kingdom” doesn’t quite fit in that area at the time of Sheshonq I’s invasion). The north developed at a much faster and more healthy rate than the south in the highlands of Canaan, and it was much heavier populated and contained more towns. And in fact northern settlements like Gibeon and Megiddo are included on the Karnak list of Sheshonq I.

So why does the Old Testament proclaim that Jerusalem was one of the Egytpians’ main targets, when most likely Judah was of little consequence to Sheshonq I? It so happens the rising power in the northern highlands of the Early Iron Age would, biblically speaking, correspond with the kingdom of Saul, the original king of Israel. But the Old Testament teaches us that Saul was deeply flawed (bug-nuts insane might also be an apt description, in his later years), and it is written that God himself more or less regreted anointing Saul as king. Saul would later die a violent and unpretty death along with some of his sons in a battle far to the north, at the hands of the Philistines. This is how David came to the throne, then to unite all of Judah and Israel, and to be followed by his son Solomon.

Again, this is all from the Bible and is not reflected in the archaeological record, but the point is, the scribes who started to write down the first passages of the Old Testament sometime in or after the eighth century BCE, were free to record history as they saw fit. And as the kingdom of Judah saw the kingdom of Israel as wicked, it was best always to record Judah and Jerusalem as the rightful power. It was important to make Jerusalem come across as the most important city of the highlands, even though at the time of Sheshonq I it was likely just a marginal and backward chiefdom.

Ironically, Sheshonq I’s invasion may have been the impetus for the rise of Jerusalem. Destruction levels clearly show that many of the smaller settlements in the northern highlands were never repopulated to any significant extent after the Egyptians withdrew, and it’s likely a lot of these displaced people fled the north and resettled in the southern highlands of Judah.


Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman’s David and Solomon. 2006.