Divine Checkmate

The first time I met Jehu I did not recognize him. When I first visited the British Museum a couple of decades ago I hadn’t had the benefit of teaching students long enough to realize the importance of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. But then, who really does? The obelisk, one of many artifacts essential to understanding the Bible in its context, contains the only known image of an Israelite king from a contemporaneous period. Jehu is here mistakenly considered the “son of Omri,” but is correctly identified as the king of Israel. He is bowing in tribute to a foreign king, a position in which no monarch likes to find himself. Before leaving the British Museum this time around I made sure to include him on my list of ancient people to meet.

The Bible contains far less history than we are accustomed to think, so when we find a case of convergence where Assyrian and Israelite agree, mostly, it is worth pausing to consider. Assyrian interests can only in the most abstruse way be considered religious; ancient peoples lived in a world where gods were both ubiquitous and largely irrelevant to daily life. Irrelevant in the sense that probably most people only tried to access a god’s pity when a time of trouble arose—priests existed to keep the deities happy on a daily basis. Citizens supported this system with taxes. How reluctantly we can only guess.

We have no reason to suppose that Israelites were more religious than the rest. Eventually, after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, they came to see their religion in terms of monotheism. Still, the work of keeping Yahweh happy devolved on the priests, with the backing of the king. The king was God’s representative on earth. In this sense the only surviving image of a king of Israel, showing him bowed before the unflinching might of the Assyrians, becomes an unexpected paradigm. Both kings were pawns of the gods, and at the end of the day one stands regally and the other bows in utter submission.

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