Relief and Stelae of Pharaoh Shoshenq I: Rehoboam’s Tribute, c. 925 BCE
First explicit correspondence to a Biblical story
(also called the Bubasite or Bubastite Portal)
Current Location: Relief: Amun Temple Karnak, Egypt; Megiddo stele fragment: Oriental Institute, Chicago.
Language and Script: Middle (Classical) Egyptian; hieroglyphic
Shishaq first appears in the Bible as the protector of Jeroboam I, who later took reign over most of Israel in opposition to Solomon’s son, Rehoboam:
Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death, but Jeroboam promptly fled to King Shishak of Egypt; and he remained in Egypt till the death of Solomon. (1 Kings 11:40)
In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem—for they had trespassed against the LORD—with 1,200 chariots, 60,000 horsemen and innumerable troops who came with him from Egypt: Lybians, Sukkites, and Kushites. He took the fortified towns of Judah and advanced on Jerusalem… King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem. He took away the treasures of the House of the LORD and the treasures of the royal palace; he took away everything; he took away the golden shields that Solomon had made. (2 Chronicles 12:2-9)
• Part of a series of Shoshenq’s triumphal reliefs on and near the Bubastite Portal outside the Temple of Amun at Karnak, it portrays a triumphal scene of the hegemony of Shoshenq I over Egypt’s neighbors in Canaan. The relief has three main components: an inscription relating the power given to him by Amun, one of the chief gods of the Egyptian pantheon; large portraits of Amun, the goddess Wast, and Shoshenq in which Amun and Wast hand Shoshenq all his enemies literally on a leash; and 11 rows of images of small men, each signifying an enemy, with their names written on the torso of each body. The rows of subjugated enemies add up to at least 154 cities or towns.
• Fragments of two other inscriptions relating to this incursion have also been discovered. One is on a stele found in Hall K of the temple at Karnak, which tells of skirmishes on the Nile delta’s eastern borders, a possible provocation for the ensuing campaign. The other, a piece of a different stele, was found at Megiddo in northern Israel, clearly the site of Egyptian victory and dominion. It preserves only Shoshenq’s name, both nomen and prenomen (the birth name and throne name), along with a few epithets. The luck of just this piece surviving and being discovered in situ certainly pins Shoshenq I as having control of Megiddo.
• The military incursion of Shoshenq I into Israel and Judah represents an important benchmark for biblical historians and most agree that the incursion occurred. Not all scholars agree, however, that both the Egyptian and Biblical evidence suggests that the incursion was a historical event. Since the dissenters have some valid points, we will go through them after discussing the strength of the consensus opinion.
• Most scholars accept Shoshenq I’s attack of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as historical because the extra-biblical literary and archaeological materials show strong evidence that corroborates Shoshenq’s accounts of his campaign. It shows the veracity of the biblical account at a time just following the split of the United Monarchy and creates a chronological point that aligns the Egyptian, the Biblical and the Syro-Palestinian chronologies.
• To prove this threefold conflation, we embark on a subtle path of argumentation:
• With all of that evidence from different areas lining up so well, it would be difficult to deny the general truth of the Shishak’s invasion. We speak of general truth (as opposed to complete truth) since we must allow for a pro-Judah bias in the biblical account. This comes as no surprise: all historical statements reflect upon their authors to some degree. Ancient historical documents naturally contain similar points-of-view, exemplified by some later Neo-Assyrian , so, the modern investigator ought to accept biblical history with some cautious filtering.
• In addition to conclusions concerning reading the Bible, the convergence of the evidences of the Shishaq event should allow us to examine the material culture of the strata at various excavations that fit this period to reach greater understanding of Ancient Israel in early monarchic times culturally, religiously, economically, and the like.
• Kevin A. Wilson, professor at Lithuania Christian College, has argued, using various methodologies, against the wide consensus about Shishaq’s campaign. To begin with, he says that the method by which strata in sites in Israel have been ascribed to Shishaq’s campaign is flawed. Archaeologists often look to correlate destruction layers of different sites, and that is exactly what was done to identify Shishaq’s presence. Wilson argues that that criteria does not necessarily tell us where Shishaq went because there was much warfare throughout the area in those times, including wars between the Israelites and Edom, Moab, and Aram; numerous internal military coups; and ongoing strife between Israel and Judah.
• Next, he notes that the Bible only mentions Shishaq advancing on Jerusalem and taking large tribute from Rehoboam, king of Judah. Why is the rest of Shishaq’s campaign absent from the Bible, especially in light of the fact that the Bible spends much time discussing the kingdom of Israel during Rehoboam’s reign? How could it not have mentioned a widespread attack by the Egyptian Pharaoh?
• The major basis of Wilson’s disagreement with the consensus view is an analysis of Egyptian triumphal reliefs. All previous attempts at understanding the Bubastite Portal have committed two gross methodological errors, according to Wilson: they have focused almost solely on the names in the rows of captives, ignoring the rest of the relief, and they have not examined the relief in the context of its genre. He shows that Egyptian triumphal reliefs in the New Kingdom were meant as public displays of the Pharaoh’s idealized dominance over the whole world. In line with the inscription, the lists of places were not put in the order of specific military campaign(s), but were grouped by area in order to show how the Pharaoh controlled all areas of all foreign lands. Also, the depiction of the Pharaoh himself is in the smiting position, which implies that same world domination.
• To explain the fragment of a stele of Shoshenq I from Megiddo, Wilson points out another methodological flaw. Most scholars seem to assume that the existence of a stele in a town means that it was a victory stele commemorating the town’s conquest by the stele’s author. This is not conclusive, since quite commonly steles are found in places that were clearly under the steles’ authors control without any battle involved. They show a foreign power’s control over a town not in its homeland. An example of this are steles found at Beth-She’an near the Sea of Galilee: steles were erected there even though the town was a center of Egyptian control in the Levant for centuries.
• Kevin Wilson has brought new doubt to a fundamental tenet of biblical archaeology and seriously questioned an important piece of evidence used by maximalists (those who think the Bible contains much reliable history). He leaves much scholarship about the dating of the Bible’s archaeological context in search of other solid basis. Nonetheless, he does not deny a small campaign of Shoshenq I to Jerusalem that is attested to in the Bible. In fact, he sees it as making more sense with the pieces of information that we know from the Bible about the relationship between Egypt and Israel. Egypt already had the loyalty of the northern kingdom after the breakup of the United Monarchy since they had harbored its king, Jeroboam I, when he fled from Solomon. There was no need to campaign there because it already was already an area under strong Egyptian influence, making the appearance of its towns on the Bubastite Portal not surprising. Rather, it was Judah that stood independent from Egyptian presence.
In the end, it is difficult to swiftly dismiss a pillar of biblical archaeological scholarship such as Shoshenq I’s supposed campaign to the Levant. Only further debate may settle the matter.