Israel Adorned with Ivory

Credit:, Israel Museum

Leviticus 19 lists laws that protect and assist the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God…Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly…When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

The biblical prophets Hosea, Amos and Micah stress the importance of treating the poor well and of not abusing them, and of not abusing one’s position of power and wealth. In Amos 5, the prophet warns “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” Micah 6 is similarly critical. “Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully.”

1 Kings 22 notes that the Israelite king Ahab’s palace was “adorned with ivory.” The prophet Amos, writing roughly a century later, is critical of the use of ivory and notes in it his warnings. “I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished.”

Already in the 9th century BCE, it was clear that the Kingdom of Israel was a powerful. The Kurkh Monolith of Shalmaneser III lists Israel as a major contributor to an alliance against Assyria. In the 8th century, it appears that this wealth was being spent on luxury and not on the poor.

The Samaria Ivories are a collection of ivory carvings that were unearthed in the vicinity of Israel’s ancient capital. The carvings number in the thousands, much of which were likely for use in furniture carvings. These ivories date to the 9th and 8th centuries.

The existence of these ivories confirms the credibility of the Book of Kings’ and Amos’ criticism of the Kingdom of Israel’s use of ivory luxury products, and supports the idea that the criticism matches the circumstances of the time.

The image above of is of a Samaria ivory, housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.