When I went to press with my book Sacred Chronology of the Hebrew Kings in 2012, I presented a new chronology for the Hebrew kings that resulted in a reinterpretation of the campaign into Canaan by Shoshenq I in 925 BCE, the campaign depicted in the reliefs on the Bubastite Portal at Karnak.
The traditional interpretation of those reliefs, dating back to the French linguist Champollion in the early 1800s, equates the campaign depicted at Karnak as the attack by Shishak on Jerusalem and Judah during the fifth regnal year of Rehoboam of Judah, as recorded in the Bible (1 Kings 14:25 and 2 Chronicles 12:2). My new chronology for the Hebrew kings says that the attack on Judah and Rehoboam (who was in his fifth year as king over the United Kingdom of Israel before it divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah) took place thirty-six years earlier in 961 BCE during the reign of pharaoh Siamun. His army was led by his general Shishak, who later went on to become pharaoh Shoshenq I.
The attack by pharaoh Shoshenq I depicted on the wall at Karnak did happen in 925 BCE, but it occurred during the reigns of Baasha of Israel and Asa of Judah. It seems that Champollion was correct about identifying Shoshenq as Shishak, but he was incorrect about equating the Karnak invasion with the attack on Jerusalem and Rehoboam. Instead, the Karnak relief is an account of a campaign by now-pharaoh Shoshenq I to defend his ally Baasha of Israel against Ben-Hadad of Damascus and Asa of Judah. Let me explain.
As it turns out, the person known to history as Shoshenq I took part in two invasions of Canaan, the first time in 961 BCE against Rehoboam and Jerusalem as described in the Bible, but at that time Shoshenq/Shishak was only the commander of pharaoh Siamun’s army and not yet a pharaoh; he would ascend to the throne as “king of Egypt” about fifteen or so years after that 961 BCE invasion had occurred. The second invasion occurred in 925 BCE and is the one depicted at Karnak. By the time of that second invasion, Shoshenq was known to the world as the pharaoh Shoshenq I.
So, what about the Karnak relief of Shoshenq I that Champollion incorrectly interpreted as showing Shishak’s campaign against Rehoboam and Jerusalem? Why is Jerusalem not even mentioned at Karnak when it was so prominently mentioned in the biblical account of Shishak’s invasion? The answer is simple. The Karnak relief is not describing the Bible’s Shishak invasion, but instead describes a separate campaign that took place thirty-six years after that invasion. That invasion attributed to Shoshenq I at Karnak occurred, not during the reign of Rehoboam, but instead during the reigns of Asa of Judah and Baasha of Israel in the year 926/925 BCE.
The biblical account records only the first part of the military action in that second campaign, namely, the invasion of Judah by Zerah the Ethiopian (one of Shoshenq’s generals) during the reign of Asa of Judah. Zerah’s invasion was a disaster for the Egyptians, as described in 2 Chronicles 14. In fact, Zerah’s defeat was so bad that it required a subsequent invasion by pharoah Shoshenq himself, after Asa appealed for help from Ben-Hadad of Damascus and the latter attacked Shoshenq’s ally, Baasha of Israel. Shoshenq’s successful followup military foray to defend the northern kingdom of Baasha is the campaign recorded at Karnak.
A close look at the text of the Bible and and the inscription at Karnak indicates that the events of 926/925 BCE probably took place in four stages, as follows:
Stage 1: Shoshenq’s general Zerah the Ethiopian launched his invasion of Judah by attacking Hebron from the south, overcoming the defenders at that important fortified city. Zerah then attacked the fortified city of Mareshah, or possibly Hebron was not attacked and the fortified city of Mareshah was the point of first attack. In either case, Zerah and his task force were badly defeated by Asa and his Judean army at Mareshah, then were chased south as far as Gerar near Gaza. In the battle, Asa and his Judean forces took much spoil from Zerah and afterwards celebrated their victory in Jerusalem with a feast of thanksgiving, taking an oath to be loyal to God (2 Chronicles 14:9-15).
Stage 2: Baasha, king of the northern kingdom of Israel and ally of Egypt, had previously negotiated a non-aggression pact with Ben-Hadad I of Damascus. He was thus free to move against Judah, and did so by fortifying the border town of Ramah to cut off access to Jerusalem from the north, possibly doing so simultaneously as Zerah was attacking Judah from the south.
Stage 3: Asa, fearing invasion by Baasha, sent gold and other treasures to Damascus, asking Ben-Hadad to renounce his non-aggression pact with Baasha and attack Israel on its northern border with Syria. Ben-Hadad agreed and sent troops south to fight Baasha, in that way relieving the military threat to Judah as Baasha withdrew his troops from Ramah to defend his northernmost territories.
Stage 4: Baasha, now under attack from Damascus in the north, sent to Egypt for help from Shoshenq I, who was still aggrieved at the earlier defeat of his army under Zerah (as indicated from the inscription at Karnak that said: “Now, My Majesty found that, they [Asa and his Judean troops] were killing … my soldiers, and my army leaders. His majesty was troubled about them.” Not wanting to have Syria overrun the northern kingdom and control all of Canaan, pharaoh Shoshenq mustered his army and moved to confront Ben-Hadad in northern Israel, skirting the cities of Judah (except Ajalon) before moving northward into Israel to begin his main campaign to protect the northern kingdom. Shoshenq proceeded to neutralize the threat to Israel by Benhadad, then returned to Egypt. Again, note that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the inscriptions at Karnak.
Admittedly, the explanation of the campaign into the land of Canaan by Shoshenq I during the time of Asa as proposed above is speculative, but so are all of the traditional explanations that equate that campaign with Shishak and Rehoboam. The advantage of the Shoshenq-Asa scenario, which assumes an invasion by Shoshenq I to defend his ally Baasha of Israel against Ben-Hadad I of Syria after an unsuccessful attack on Judah had been made by the Egyptian general Zerah the Ethiopian, is that it better fits the details on the Karnak inscription and those in the Bible. Also, the chronology it employs is in agreement with the new chronology of the Hebrew kings, whereas the chronology that results by hypothesizing that Shoshenq I of the Karnak inscriptions was the Shishak of the Bible who moved against Jerusalem in the fifth year of Rehoboam does not match the facts.
Champollion’s incorrect identification of Shoshenq I as the biblical Shishak king of Egypt (i.e., as the pharaoh during whose reign Judah and Jerusalem were invaded by Egypt during the reign of Rehoboam) was a major historical-chronological error that has plagued the field of sacred chronology for almost two-hundred years. Shoshenq did lead the invasion against Rehoboam in 961 BCE, but he was not the reigning pharaoh at that time, Siamun was. Fortunately, we now have a dependable Bible-only timeline for the kings of Israel and Judah that, using cross-references for synchronizations, allows the history of Egypt and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to be correctly understood and aligned.
About pharoah Shoshenq I (aka Shishak)
Shoshenq, who the Bible calls Shishak, became a pharaoh in 945 BCE. In 961 BCE, he was the commander of pharaoh Siamun’s army when Siamun sent his forces against Jerusalem and Rehoboam that year, which was the fifth year of Rehoboam as king of United Israel (note that Israel had not yet divided into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah). That would mean that the person who reigned as Shoshenq I (from 945 BCE to 924 BCE) led an invasion into Canaan on two separate occasions, the first time against Judah and Jerusalem in 961 BCE as commander of Siamun’s army and the second time in 925 BCE as pharoah against Ben-Hadad of Damascus, who was attacking Shoshenq’s ally Baasha of Israel at the request of Asa of Judah.
So, even though Shoshenq was not pharaoh during the Siamun’s invasion of Canaan (that invasion is the one pictured on reliefs at Siamun’s capital Tanis, not at Karnak), he had become pharaoh when he campaigned into Canaan as described at Karnak and by the time the Hebrew scribes later compiled the Scriptures describing that period of Hebrew history. The biblical description of Shishak as “king of Egypt” can thus be understood to be an anachronism. Shoshenq was the biblical Shishak in the fifth year of Rehoboam, but did not become the “king of Egypt” until later.
We use titles anachronistically in the same way today. For instance, a historian might write, “President Obama graduated from Harvard.” Technically, that is incorrect. Student Barack Obama graduated from Harvard, not Barack Obama as a president. He was only president later, long after he had graduated. The ancient Hebrew scribes who wrote 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, apparently writing those books long after Shoshenq I had become pharaoh, were using the title “king of Egypt” in the same anachronistic manner. This shows up for the first time when the title “king of Egypt” in the Bible was applied to Shishak (Shoshenq) anachronistically by the Hebrew scribe who recorded the refuge given to Jeroboam of Israel during the last years of Solomon’s reign (1 Ki. 11:40). Shishak was not pharaoh at the time the refuge extended to Jeroboam was given, only later.
About the name Shishak
“Pharaoh Sheshonq (or Shoshenq1) I reigned from about 945 to 925 B.C.E. In the Bible, however, he is referred to as Shishak, rather than Sheshonq (or Shoshenq). The reason is technical but simple. In Hebrew, the sounds “n” and “m” are what linguists call “weak,” and are sometimes dropped. This is especially true in proper names. For example, we know that the city of Gath was spelled Ginti or Gimti in Egyptian inscriptions. And Hebrew Makkedah was spelled Manqedah in Aramaic. So it is no surprise that the Egyptian name Sheshonq became Shishak in the Hebrew Bible. The “n” has simply been dropped. As far as the shift from “q” to “k,” that’s just a matter of transliteration. Shishak would more correctly be spelled Shishaq, but Shishak is the spelling found in most English Bibles” … from Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 2012, page 42.