The fall of Samaria in 722 BC should not be taken lightly. It was unnecessary and unexpected. In hindsight, reading through Kings, we can see the end coming because Israel deserved God’s judgment. At the time, however, Samaria seemed invincible. As Israel, i.e., the northern kingdom, distanced itself from the faith of its fathers, it grew in strength and overconfidence. Its true strength cannot be fully appreciated without gaining insight from archaeology. Hoshea had sufficient reasons to defy the mighty Assyrian empire. Samaria was powerful, but like the adage says, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”.
I know how easy it is for me to give in to the temptation to consider Jerusalem as the greatest city in the region, because of its religious fame. Jerusalem was great because God favored it, not because it was bigger and better than other cities. Jerusalem only covered 12 acres and Samaria, 20. Jerusalem lost 10,000 men to captivity, but Samaria lost 27,290. Samaria stood on a hilltop three hundred feet high and was surrounded by at least two walls twenty to forty feet thick. Imagine it high and mighty.
Samaria wasn’t the first capital of the northern kingdom. Shechem was, then Tirzah, but they were in the valley and vulnerable to attack. Just fifty years after Solomon’s death, the great king Omri purchased the oval plateau that was so high that you could see the Plain of Sharon and all the way to Mediterranean Sea. Syrian documents recognize Samaria as the “house of Omri” for several generations, so he must have been remarkable. It was his vision to make Israel great. His son Ahab, however, finished building Samaria. Ahab made an alliance with the Phoenician king Eth-baal and married his daughter Jezebel to seal the deal. Phoenician artisans created a magnificent palace similar to buildings in Tyre. Five hundred pieces of ivory have been found, with carved figures of plants, animals, and Egyptian gods, which probably inlaid magnificent furniture. The rich and famous graced its markets and streets.
Greatness came at a price. Eth-baal was first of all a high priest of Melcart, the chief god of a pantheon of gods that included Baal. Melcart was usually represented by fire rather than a physical form, and in times of need, sacrifices were offered in a special place called a tophet, even the sacrifice of children. Melcart was closely associated with the king, so that the king became divine. Eth-baal murdered King Philetes to become the 8th king of the Zidonians to rule since Hiram. Success went to his head, and Ahab sold his soul to the devil in order to have a part in it. Ezekiel directed one passage to the king of Tyre when he wrote, “Because your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a man, and no god,…” (Ezekiel 28:2).
Samaria was under siege several times without being overthrown. The gate of Samaria is where Jehoshaphat and Ahab inquired of the prophets about going to war with Syria. Here was the temple of Baal that Jehu turned into a latrine, after killing its prophets. It was from the gate of Samaria that four lepers went out to the Syrian army that was besieging Samaria to plead for mercy, only to find that the Syrians had all miraculously fled for their lives, leaving their goods behind. Samaria rose to its greatest glory under Jeroboam II, only to be followed by 25 years of intrigues and assassinations. Then came Hoshea.
Hoshea was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Samaria’s pride got the best of him. Although Samaria was safe paying tribute to Assyria, Hoshea rebelled against Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:3,4), as Zedekiah would later rebel against Babylon and fall (2 Kings 24:20). Hoshea stopped paying tribute to Assyria and thought he could lean upon the military support of a certain Pharaoh So of Egypt. Although the name So is not in the kings lists, the archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen equates So to Osorkon IV, the last pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty, while others equate So to the city of Sais and Pharaoh Tefnakht, the first pharaoh of the 24th dynasty. They were contemporary. The first was probably too weak to help, and the latter writes of running out of food on an expedition and having to return home. In either case, betting on Egypt was a bad decision.
Without Egypt, everything depended upon Samaria’s excellent location. Hoshea was captured and the city besieged. It took three years before the people finally opened the gates and capitulated. Samaria was probably the last of Israel’s 22 cities to give in. Samaria was ravaged, according to the Babylonian Chronicle. It’s people, taken away. Before Hoshea’s folly, Israel was a vassal of Assyria, administering its own land. Afterwards, the people were gone and the land was part of the Assyrian Empire. Pride and overconfidence got the best of them. Great was the fall of Samaria.