By Gordon Franz
The consequence of King Uzziah’s military strategy associated with his foreign policy is summarized by a proverb of wise King Solomon. He stated: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Let us examine the geography of King Uzziah’s military expansionist policies and show how these policies led to a proud heart and eventually to his downfall. King Uzziah (also called Azariah in II Kings 15:1-7) is an example of a king who starts out spiritually on the right foot, but ends up on the wrong foot (II Chron. 26).
At this point in Israel’s history the Kingdom is divided. The ten tribes to the north called Israel and the two tribes to the south called Judah. King Uzziah, also known as Azariah, reigned from 792-740 BC. He was 16 years old when he came to the throne (792 BC) after the death of his father Amaziah. Uzzaih “sought God in the days of Zechariah” which was about 25 years. When he was 41 years old, about 767 BC, he rebuilt Eilat. His expansionist policies led to a “strong heart being lifted up” and in the year 750 BC, the Middle East was struck with a devastating earthquake and Uzziah was struck with leprosy. In the northern Kingdom, Jeroboam II was ruling from Samaria (792-753/2 BC).
The Rebuilding of Eilat
King Uzziah stepped out of the will of God as revealed in the Word of God, by taking territory that did not belong to him. It is unusual for the writer of the book of Chronicles to mention the building activities in the summary formula of the king’s reign. The Spirit of God included this statement of the building of Eilat because it a key to understanding Uzziah’s pride, and his subsequent downfall.
The southern border of Israel, which is also the southern border of the tribal territory of Judah, is explicitly given in Numbers 34:3-5. It states: “Your southern border shall be from the Wilderness of Zin along the border of Edom; then your sourhern border shall extend eastward to the end of the Salt Sea; your border shall turn from the southern side of the Ascent of Akrabbim, continue to Zin, and be on the south side of Kadesh Barnea; then it shall go to Hazar Addar; and continue to Azmon; the border shall turn from Azmon to the Brook Egypt, and it shall end at the Sea.” Joshua basically reiterates the same borders: “The border of Edom at the Wilderness of Zin southward was the extreme southern boundry. And their southern border began at the shore of the Salt Sea, from the bay that faces southward. Then it went out to the southern side of the Ascent of Akrabbim, passed along to Zin, ascended on the south side of Kadesh Barnea, passed along to Hezron, went up to Adar, and went around to Karkaa. From there it passed toward Azmon and went out to the Brook of Egypt; and the border ended at the sea. This shall be your southern border” (15:2-4; CBA 51).
There are two things to note in these passages. First, the line of the border goes from the southern end of the Dead Sea, to the south of the Ascent of Akrabbim (the scorpion), through the Wilderness of Zin to a point south of Kadesh Barnea. The second thing to note is that the territory of Edom lies to the south of the Land of Israel and the tribal territory of Judah (Crew 2002).
The city of Eilat that was built by King Uzziah was in Edom’s territory. When King Solomon sent out his Red Sea fleet, they departed from “Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom” (I Kings 9:26). “Then Solomon went to Ezion Geber and Elath on the seacoast, in the land of Edom” (II Chron. 8:17).
In the description of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, the territory of Edom is mentioned and Eilat and Ezion Geber are placed in this territory (Deut. 2:1-8).
When I was a student at the Institute of Holy land Studies in Jerusalem, I had a class on “Modern Israeli Society.” One lecture was by a member of Israel’s parliament, the Kenesst. His name was Yehuda ben Moshe. He made a statement I never forgot. He said his only claim to fame in life was: “I was the first mayor of Eilat in 1948 and it was a city that did not belong to us Biblically!” I thought that was an odd statement when he made it, but when I began to study the life of King Uzziah, I realized he was right. Eilat belonged to Edom, not Israel.
The Identification of the Eilat
The region of Eilat / Akaba was first surveyed by Fritz Frank in 1933. He identified Tel el-Kheleifeh with Biblical Ezion Geber. Nelson Glueck conducted three seasons of excavations at this site between 1938 and 1940. He identified Tell el-Kheleifeh with Biblical Ezion-geber and Eilat (Glueck 1938: 2-13).
Prof. Benjamin Mazar challenged Glueck’s view. He stated: “The immediate vicinity of ‘Aqaba is the most suitable spot for an Israelite fort to be associated with Ezion-Geber, located within the settled area of Elath. The latter would be the earlier name of the site, and the fortress of Ezion-Geber would have been founded, after David’s conquest of Edom, as an emporium for the South-Arabian trade” (Mazar 1975: 119*). He suggested that Tell el-Kheleifeh was Ebronah, one of Solomon’s “store-city” (Mazar 1975: 120*), also known as Biblical Abronah (Num. 33: 34-36).
Burno Rothenberg identifies the Ezion-Geber with Jezirat Fara’un, known as Pharaoh’s Island, to the west of modern Eilat (Rothenberg 1972: 202-207; Flinder 1989: 30-43).
Recently, a reappraisal of the excavations and identification of Tell el-Kheleifeh was done by Gary Pratico (1985: 1-32; 1986: 24-35; 1993: 17-23). He concluded that the “identification of Tell el-Kheleifeh is both an archaeological and an historical problem. One may argue the identification from the perspective of possibility or probability but the problem of verification precludes examination of the site in the context of Biblical Ezion-geber and/or Eilath (1985:27).
While we may not know precisely where the ancient site of Eilat is today, it is safe to say that it is in the area of modern day Eilat (Israel) and Akaba (Jordan). It’s location on the tip of the Red Sea (Gulf of Eilat / Akaba) made it ideal for mercantile trade. Sea trade and caravans through this port brought an increase in wealth for Judah because of this trade. There were two other Israelite / Judean kings that took Eilat as well, Solomon (I Kings 9:26; CBA 112, 115) and Jehoshaphat (II Chron. 20:36).
The Military Preparations and Expansionist Conquests
The Chronicler records the military activity of King Uzziah. He states: “Now he [Uzziah] went out and made war against the Philistines, and broke down the wall of Gath, and the wall of Jabneh, and the wall of Ashdod; and he built cities around Ashdod and among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines, against the Arabians who lived in Gur Baal, and against the Meunites. And the Ammonites brought tribute to Uzziah. His fame spread as far as the entrance of Egypt, for he became exceedingly strong. And Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem … And Uzziah built towers in the desert (midbar). He dug many wells, for he had much livestock, both in the lowlands (Shephelah) and the plains (Coastal Plains); he also had farmers and vinedressers in the mountains and in Carmel, for he loved the soil” (II Chron. 26:6-10; CBA 141).
At the beginning of his military campaigns, Uzziah made war against the Philistines and God helped him (26:6, 7). The southern border of Israel was the “brook Egypt”. Nadav Na’aman places this border at the Nahal Basor, just south of Gaza city (1979:68-90; 1980:95-109). Anson Rainey disputes this identification and places it at Wadi al-Arish (1982:130-136). Judah should have driven the Philistines out of this territory long ago because they were a bad influence on Judah / Israel, a fact acknowledged by the Prophet Isaiah (2:6).
The securing of Philistia and the settlement of Judeans within the coastal plains had two economic benefits. First, it gave them the opportunity to develop the agriculture in the area. This was something that Uzziah had a keen interest in (II Chron. 26:10). Second, Uzziah was able to extract tribute from the caravans that used the International Coastal Highway that went through the territory of Philistia (CBA 9, 10).
Uzziah also turned his attention to the Arabians that lived at Gur Baal (26:7). The location of Gur Baal is a much debated topic, but it appears to be somewhere in the region southwest of Judah and near Philistia (Eph’al 1982: 77, 78). The Meunites (26:7) appeared to have settled in the northern Sinai Peninsula to the west of the Aravah and Edom’s territory (I Chron. 4:41, 42; Eph’al 1982:65, 66). In this military action, Uzziah is trying to secure his trade routes to Eilat from any attacks from the west.
The statement that the Ammonites brought tribute to King Uzziah (26:8), implies that Judah controlled the area as well as the strategic Transjordanian Highway that went through their territory, thus brining more tribute money (CBA 9, 10).
Uzziah built towers (migdalim) in the desert (midbar). The midbar in view here is the Wilderness of Zin and its surrounding areas (26:10). Rudolph Cohen has excavated a number of Iron Age fortresses in the Central Negev Highlands, the area of the Wilderness (midbar) of Zin (Cohen 1979: 61-79). These fortresses, along the southern border of Judah, guarded the road to Eilat (Aharoni 1967: 15-17). For a contrary view, see Finkelstein 1984: 189-209.
Uzziah also dug many wells, or cisterns (borot) in the area. Some of which can still be seen in the area (Cohen 1981: xxvii, 62-64, site 101).
The Relationship of the Kings of Judah to Wealth and Power
Moses sets forth the rules and regulations concerning the future rule of kings of Israel / Judah (Deut. 17:14-20). He states that the king will be chosen from “your brethren” (17:15). He was not to multiply horses to himself (17:16). This is to prevent the king from boasting about his own strength (cf. Josh. 11:6; II Sam. 8:4; Micah 5:10). The king is not to multiply wives (17:17a). An example of one who did was Solomon and the foreign wives drew his heart away from the Lord. The king was not to greatly multiply silver and gold to himself (17:17b). They need silver and gold to keep the kingdom functioning, but the instruction is not to “multiply” the precious metals. The king was to write a copy of the (Mosaic) Law (17:18) and read the Law (17:19). The king is subject to the Law and is not above it (17:20).
King Uzziah followed all these principles in the first part of his reign. In the beginning he learned to fear God (II Chron. 26:16a); he observed God’s statues (26:16b); his heart was not lifted up (26:16b); nor did not turn away from the LORD (26:18), thus his days were prolonged (26:21). Yet after he took Eilat, he built up his military and it included multiplying horses for his army. As a result of controlling the international highways and receiving tribute, he multiplied gold and silver to himself. The Prophet Isaiah acknowledged this state of affairs. “Their land [Judah] is also full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is also full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots” (2:7).
The Earthquake in the Days of King Uzziah
In the mid-8th century BC, the Middle East was hit with a devastating earthquake. The prophets warned both the Northern Kingdom as well as the Southern Kingdom of impending danger if they did not turn from their evil ways and return to the Lord and His ways.
Two years before this earthquake, the Judean shepherd from Tekoa, cried out against the social injustices in the northern kingdom under the rule of Jeroboam II (Amos 1:1; 9:1). The book that bears his name is replete with warnings of an earthquake to come. In the southern kingdom, Isaiah warns of this earthquake as well because of the haughtiness of the people of Judah (Isa. 2:6-21). Hundreds of years later, the prophet Zechariah reminds the people of Judah of the devastation caused by this earthquake (Zech. 14:4, 5).
Evidence for this earthquake has been uncovered by the archaeologists spade throughout Israel and Jordan. Graphic evidence can be seen at Hazor and Ein Hazeva (Biblical Tamar). I tri-authored an article with two geologists on this earthquake and it was concluded that the earthquake measured an 8.2 on the Ritcher scale and the epicenter was located in the Beka Valley, in present day Lebanon (Austin, Franz and Frost 2000: 657-671). An earthquake of that magnitude would put the fear of the LORD into anybody.
Josephus, the First Century Jewish historian, described the events in Jerusalem during this earthquake. King Uzziah was in the Temple trying to offer incense on the altar at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a duty only allowed the High Priest (Lev. 16 and 17). The priests tried to stop him, but he was defiant. Josephus records what happens next: “But, while he [Uzziah] spoke, a great tremor shook the earth, and, as the temple was riven, a brilliant shaft of sunlight gleamed through it and fell upon the king’s face so that leprosy at once smote him” (Antiquities of the Jews 9:225; LCL 6:119; cf. II Chron. 26:19-21, 23). The Bible does not place the two events together chronologically, but Josephus may have had access to records that are no longer available to us.
Uzziah was so full of pride that he thought he was above the Law and could do anything he wanted to do. The Chronicler again records: “But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the LORD his God by entering the Temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense” (II Chron. 26:16). The same Hebrew words are used in Proverb 16:18 which states: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Uzziah paid a high price for his pride and disobedience to the Word of God. He was put outside the city in an “isolation house” and was not allowed into the Temple again (II Chron. 26:21).
The Death of King Uzziah
The Bible records the death of King Uzziah in these terms: “So Uzziah rested with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field of burial which belonged to the kings, for they said, ‘He is a leper'” (II Chron. 26:23). He was buried with his fathers, but not in the royal tombs. His burial cave is probably the cave in the City of David overlooking the “Tower of Siloah.”
In the 19th century, a burial inscription was discovered on the Mount of Olives (Cameron 1973: 120, #255). It read: “Here were brought / the bones of Uzziah, / King of Judah, / and not to be opened.” The paleography of the inscription is late 1st century BC. Joesphus records that Herod the Great erected a monument over the tomb of David after he tried to steal some of the gold and silver from the tomb. This was probably the time when Uzziah’s bones were moved and the inscription was written.
Summary of King Uzziah’s Foreign Policy and Spiritual Regression
King Uzziah began his reign on the “right foot” by being obedient to the Word of God. Somewhere along the line, he stepped out of the will of God, as revealed in the Word of God, by taking Eilat. When he did this, he had built up his military in order to control the Transjordanian Highway and the International Coastal Highway. As a consequence of controlling these roads, he had to fortify these and other routes. Yet with the control of these roads, the national treasury increased. Yet the sad fact is, because of his military strength and wealth, King Uzziah developed a proud heart that led to his downfall (II Chron. 26:15, 16; Prov. 16:18).
Outline of the Life and Times of King Uzziah (II Chron. 26)
A. Introduction. 26:1-5.
B. The prosperity of King Uzziah. 26:6-15.
1. Material possessions. 26:6-10.
2. Military preparations. 26:11-15.
C. The pride of King Uzziah. 26:16-19; cf. Deut. 8:6-18; Prov. 16:18.
D. The punishment of King Uzziah. 26:20-23.
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This paper was first read at the Association of American Geographers meeting in Boston, MA on April 16, 2008.