XI. The Problem of Pul of Assyria
by miriam berg
may 1994


The other problem posed by the book of II Kings is the reference during the reign of Menahem to the visit by "Pul of Assyria". Most if not all authorities equate this king with Tiglath-Pileser III, who did subjugate most of the tribes round about Palestine, though his records do not mention Menahem specifically. Since this Assyrian king reigned from 744 to 727 BCE, most scholars have concluded that Menahem must have reigned later than is said in the books of the Kings, which is from 760 to 750 BCE in the biblical chronology. But this requires attributing more errors to the writer of the second book of the Kings: that Pekah's reign was 20 years, that he began to reign in the 52nd year of Azariah, that Menahem began to reign in the 39th year of Azariah and reigned 10 years, and that Pekahiah began to reign in the 50th year of Azariah. Here are the relevant verses from II Kings:
    And Pul the king of Assyria came against Israel; and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, to let him continue to keep the kingdom in his own hand.
    And Menahem exacted the money from all the wealthy men of Israel, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back, and stayed not in Israel. (II Kings 15:19-20)

The conclusion that "Pul" of Assyria is the same as Tiglath-Pileser III is supported by the reference to an Assyrian king named "Pulu" in the Babylonian lists during the period when Tiglath-Pileser III was in fact king. But this does not prove that he was the king who came into Israel during Menahem's reign, and to whom Menahem paid 1000 talents. What if the writer, who was Jewish, referred to the king of Assyria by the wrong name? Furthermore, the assumption that the king who came into Israel during Menahem's reign was Tiglath-Pileser III may be doubted, because only a few verses later that king is referred to as coming into Israel himself during the reign of Pekah:
    In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria and took all the cities and the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria. (II Kings 15:29)
This fits because Pekah's reign was from 749 until 730 BCE according to the biblical chronology. And why would the writer use two different names for the same king?

But the name "Pul" could only have been known from the Babylonian lists, and it could only have been learned by the Hebrew historians during the exile, so that it could not have been known at the time that the books of the Kings were written. Thus it must have been added later in an attempt to identify that king, and could easily have been in error. But the king of Assyria during the reign of Menahem according to the biblical chronology was Ashurdan IV, who while not a conquering ruler nevertheless carried out some vigorous campaigns, and it is easy to suppose that Menahem turned to him for protection and paid tribute, but that his name wasn't remembered, and the writer in this case did actually make an error in attributing the name Pul to that king. Or perhaps the writer remembered the name of Ashur-nasir-pal, who was a mean king if there ever was one, and it is equally likely that the name "Pul" could refer to Ashur-nasir-PAL as that it refers to Tiglath-PIL-eser III, if the basis for the assumption is merely the similarity of the consonants.

Thus, while we need not doubt the identification of the name "Pul" with Tiglath-Pileser III, we may easily doubt the application of that name to the king who came into Israel during the reign of Menahem, in the light of the facts that Tiglath-Pileser III is specifically mentioned practically in the same breath in the same chapter, and that if we push Menahem forward in history so that Tiglath-Pileser III came into Israel during both the reigns of Menahem and Pekah, we completely destroy the otherwise self-consistent chronology of the Kings which accurately fits otherwise the dates of the fall of Samaria and the accession of Jehu. Is it easier to believe that the writer of the second book of the Kings made an error in the name of a foreign king, or that he made so many errors in the number of years in which his own kings reigned and in the correlative accession years of the kings of the other kingdom? No, it is far easier to believe that the authors applied the name "Pul" mistakenly to one of the earlier foreign kings than that they made so many errors about their own kings.