Achav, Aram, and the Battle of Qarqar

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The Battle of Qarqar was a battle fought between a coalition of twelve kings, headed by Aram and Chamat, against Shalmaneser III of Assyria.  Assyrian sources which describe the battle mention Achav, the king of Israel, and imply that he played an important role in the alliance.  As such, the battle provides background information which can deepen one's understanding of Achav's foreign policy decisions in Melakhim I 20 and 22.

Biblical Sources

Melakhim I 20 and 22 discuss the foreign relations between Aram and Israel during the reign of Achav. 

  • In Chapter 20, Ben Hadad, the king of Aram, initiates war and is defeated. He and his servants surrender, don mourning garments, and approach the Israelites in the hopes that Achav will have mercy and spare them death. Somewhat surprisingly, Achav greets him without malice, saying "הַעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי אָחִי הוּא." Ben Hadad offers to return to Achav certain Israelite cities previously conquered by Aram and the two make an alliance.1 The prophetic reaction to Achav's actions is severe, and the king is told that he will pay with his life for having sent Ben Hadad free.
  • Chapter 22 tells of another battle between Aram and Israel which takes place just three years after the previous one. This time, Achav is the initiator and the point of contention is Aram's possession of Ramot Gilad.  During the war, Achav meets his death as an archer innocently hits him by arrow, fulfilling the prophecy of Chapter 20.

Achav's foreign policy decisions throughout the story make the reader wonder. Why did he have clemency on the enemy king? What is the significance of the alliance that is made, and why does it not last? Finally, why was Achav's lenient treatment of Ben Hadad so displeasing to the prophet?

Extra-Biblical Sources

Extant extra-Biblical sources do not speak of the Israelite wars with Aram discussed above, but they do describe another interaction between the two powers: an alliance made by Ben Hadad and Achav against the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, in the Battle of Qarqar. Significantly, this took place in 853 BCE, right in between the two sets of battles mentioned in Tanakh.

The Battle of Qarqar is discussed on the Kurkh Monolith,2 a stele which describes the various military campaigns that Shalmaneser III undertook in the first six years of his reign.3  According to the stele, in 853 BCE, the Assyrians met a coalition of "12 kings" at Qarqar in Syria.4 Hadadezer of Aram5 and Irhuleni of Chamat stood at the head of the alliance, while Achav of Israel provided major military support. The inscription attributes to him 2000 chariots (which is more than that of all the other countries combined) and 10,000 soldiers. In addition, he is listed third, suggesting that he was the next most important member of the coalition.6 The inscription declares Shalmaneser victorious over the alliance, with him claiming to have slain 14,000 of his enemies.  It should be noted, however, that despite the king's claims, it seems that the battle's outcome was not decisive. None of the listed kings appear to have lost their thrones, and Shalmaneser embarks on several more campaigns to the region in the ensuing years,7 suggesting that his goals had not been achieved.

Relationship to Tanakh

The information gleaned about the Battle of Qarqar might shed light on Achav's motives in freeing Ben Hadad. According to many scholars,8 the statement, "וַאֲנִי בַּבְּרִית אֲשַׁלְּחֶךָּ וַיִּכְרׇת לוֹ בְרִית" (Melakhim I 20:34), relates to the coalition spoken of on the monolith. It is likely that Achav recognized that Assyria was a much bigger enemy than Aram, and that it was politically expedient to make peace with Aram so the two could work together to topple the real superpower. Thus, the two made an alliance, ushering in a few years of cooperation between the countries in which they joined to battle Assyria.  However, once there was relative quiet on the Assyrian front, apparently the coalition broke up and the two resumed their old feud.

If the above reconstruction is correct, one might question the prophet's negative reaction to Achav's deed.  Why was the prophet so upset if Achav' motives were pure and he was acting in the country's best interests?

  • Prof. Grossman9 points out that the harsh response is in line with the general prophetic opposition to making alliances with foreign nations. Such alliances were looked down upon as they often brought foreign spiritual influences in their wake.10 In addition, they expressed the belief that victory is a matter of military power, rather than God's doing.11
  • The prophetic wrath might also relate to the events of Chapter 21 and the story of Navot's vineyard discussed there. In that episode Achav allows a judicial farce so as to engineer the death of Navot. The prophet decries Achav's willingness to let a national enemy survive, while killing innocents at home.12

Additional Significance of the Monolith

  • "Achav the Israelite" – Though many Assyrian sources mention names of Israelite kings,  the Kurkh Monolith is somewhat unique in referring to the king as an "Israelite," rather than referring to him as coming from "the House of Omri" or the like.  This makes the monolith one of four known contemporary inscriptions containing the name of Israel. [The others include the the Merneptah Stele,13 the Mesha Stele,14 and the Tel Dan Stele.15]
  • Synchronizing dates of events in Biblical and Mesopotamian sources – As Shalmaneser's annals mention and date events relating to two Biblical figures, Achav, here, and Yehu in the Black Obelisk Inscription,16 they aid scholars to synchronize the events mentioned in the two sets of sources. According to the annals, Achav fought the battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, and Yehu paid tribute in 841 BCE. From Tanakh we know that in between their reigns, Achazyah ruled for 2 years and Yehoram for twelve. To fit in all the events, Achav must have died a few months after the battle in 853, and Yehu must have begun to reign in 841, paying tribute soon after. Knowing these dates allows one to use Tanakh's list of the tenures of each king's reign and work backwards from Achav, and forwards from Yehu, to date other events of the era.