Home > E. Religion: palimpsest & reconstruction, EE. The Bible & the Z Revolution > The Ivory House (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part 6)

The Ivory House (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part 6)

“Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house which he made, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?” (II Kings 22:39–KJV)

The Book of Kings records some of the most powerful–and violent–stories in the Bible. In its pages we find Elijah summoning the rain, the death of Jezebel, Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem, and the reforms of the Judean kings Hezekiah and Josiah. Kings is our principle source of information on the history of Israel’s divided monarchy–the period between 922 and 722 B.C., when the twelve tribes were ruled by two different kingdoms–the Northern Kingdom of Israel (or Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.


The victors write a conflict’s history. 1 Kings and 2 Kings (as the Bible presents Kings) are fine examples of this adage, emphasizing the apostacy of Samaria from the true religion of God. Kings makes no bones about how Samaria veered off course: 1) it rejected the rule of the House of David (mandated by God); 2) it worshipped at the two cult centers at Beth-El and Dan (as opposed to the true center of worship, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem); and 3) it worshipped the Canaanite god Baal and his images (which were forbidden by the Torah). God eventually gave up on Israel and allowed the Assyrian Empire to conquer the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. (Judah, on the other hand, survived the Assyrian assault.)


Let’s see if we can add some details to this picture. We should begin by noting that the Judeans worshipped Yahweh (or at least the elite did) at the temple built by Solomon. Archaeological evidence has shown that this picture holds true only for the major cities–outside the cities, people continued to worship the old Canaanite gods at local altars–as was the custom throughout Samaria.

In contrast, the Samarians followed two gods–in the south, they continued to worship Yahweh at Shiloh (though David had moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem); in the north, they worshipped Baal at his various altars. This cultural/religious split proved profoundly destabilizing for Samaria and eventually led to its collapse.


But not before the Samarian kings went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate the religious division in their realm. Jeroboam I (r. 931-910), the first king of Samaria, built the “golden-calf” cult centers at Dan and Beth-El as a means of unifying the ritual practiced by northern and southern Samarians and named a new priesthood to each meant to reduce religious tension in his kingdom. Ultimately, he failed; after his death, his heir was murdered and a new royal house took its place, suggesting that a substantial part of the population had rejected his compromise. Several decades passed without a further attempt at resolving the religious split.


Enter Omri and Ahab, the greatest kings that Samaria produced. Omri (r. 876-869), perhaps wanting to imitate David, purchased a steeply sided hill and built an impressive new capital city on it, which came to be called Samaria. The top of the hill was levelled–an extremely demanding and expensive architectural feat at the time–and the city surrounded with walls built of the highest quality ashlar masonry–another expensive item. It appears that the city had a highly cosmopolitan population, including a considerable Syrian merchant community–to satisfy the residents, Omri probably permitted the construction of temples for Yahweh and Baal within the city walls.

And there is the question of where the money to build this new city came from–RT guesses that Ittobaal funded the project, in return for a marriage contract authorized by Omri.


But it is with Omri’s son and heir, King Ahab (r. 869-850), that Samaria came to be associated. Though Ahab was the greatest of Samaria’s kings (bringing his country’s fortunes to their zenith), he is mostly remembered for his marriage to Jezebel (the name means “Baal Exalts”), the daughter of a powerful Phoenician King, Ittobaal (r. 878-847), who managed to unite most of Phoenicia under his rule. Ittobaal was a priest of Astarte before he seized the throne of Tyre, and it seems his daughter was bent on imposing the worship of Tyre’s pantheon, and in particular, of Baal, throughout Samaria/Israel. She honored the prophets of Baal by dining with them, and may have ordered a mass execution of the prophets of Yahweh–a gesture it seems was reciprocated by a massacre of the prophets of Baal.



How did Ahab respond to the appalling religious war in his kingdom? RT thinks he may have ordered the composition of the Elohist (or “E”) text, tasking its author with writing a work that would unite his kingdom under the worship of another, compromise, ancient divinity, El (or Elohim)–who reveals himself in the middle of the story to be none other than Yahweh.

In short, the Elohist text was the first of the four main strands of the Pentateuch to be composed. During a bitter struggle over the worship of Baal and Yahweh, the Israelites took the first step towards forging a new world consciousness.


P.S. What does the Ivory House have to do with all this? Could the reference have been to a winter palace, a favorite retreat of the king’s? It may have been the place where the E source was composed.


P.P.S. For more information on the Elohist Source & a link to the online E text, go here.

Map: Map of the Divided Kingdom, WikiCmns, Public Domain. Photo: Site of Ancient City of Samaria, 1910. WikiCmns, Public Domain. Painting: Adoration of the Golden Calf; Nicholas Poussin; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


  1. February 4, 2012 at 6:49 pm


    a nice read

    • February 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      7thH: thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the piece! RT

  2. February 5, 2012 at 1:57 am

    Very interesting and informative, RT. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • February 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      As always, Emma, thanks for stopping by. RT

  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:51 pm
  2. August 6, 2013 at 6:41 pm

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