Discovered in Nimrud in 1846 by Austen Henry Layard, this 6.5-foot-high, four-sided monolith, known simply as the “Black Obelisk” (above), records ancient Israel’s obeisance to Assyria during a turbulent period in Israel’s history.
It all began with a coup d’etat. A garrison commander named Jehu 059marched his troops from Ramoth-Gilead, in northern Transjordan, to Samaria and seized the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel in about 842 B.C. After killing the reigning king Jehoram, he proceeded to eliminate all possible claimants to the throne by slaughtering the royal family, the courtiers and even Ahaziah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and his brothers (2 Chronicles 22:8–9). Jehu managed to do all this because he had the support of the army, of the poor and of prophets such as Elisha (2 Kings 9:1–3), who opposed the royal house and wanted to extirpate the Tyrian cult of Baal from Israelite religious life. Once in power, Jehu purged the cult by executing the prophets of Baal and destroying the temple of the god.
However, Jehu’s coup weakened the triple alliance of Israel, Judah and Tyre, a situation that the Arameans, a people in the vicinity of Damascus, tried to exploit. To protect himself from Atamean pressure on Israel’s northeastern border, Jehu turned to Assyria for help, paying to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.) a rich tribute recorded on the Black Obelisk. Jehu’s strategy proved temporarily successful, as the Assyrians embarked on a campaign against the Arameans, thus relieving the pressure on Israel from 841–838 B.C. But the Arameans soon recovered and conquered all of Israel’s territory to the east of the Jordan River, as far as the Arnon valley (2 Kings 10:32.33). Jehu nevertheless continued to reign until 814 B.C.
The obelisk displays 190 lines of text distributed above and below five rows of reliefs that wrap around the four-sided stone (drawing, at top). This text describes the major events in 31 military campaigns conducted by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. The tribute that Shalmaneser exacted from five kingdoms is highlighted in the five rows of reliefs on the obelisk, with one row devoted to each tributary. A line of text above each relief—like a photo caption in a modern magazine—identifies each panel. The reliefs in the second panel from the top on each face of the obelisk, according to the caption, depict “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri,” an event dated to about 841 B.C. This tribute comprised “silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] purukhti fruits.” (The tinted panels in the drawing correspond to the photos in this sidebar.) Since Jehu was a usurper, not descended from King Omri (882–871 B.C.), the phrase “son of Omri” is interpreted as a short way of saying “son of the house of Omri,” which was a conventional form meaning “Israelite.” The first panel (above) shows Jehu, or one of his representatives, bowing before Shalmaneser. Standing behind the bowing man and continuing on the other panels in the row is a long line of tribute bearers (below).