THE RISE AND FALL
OF THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE
Assyria, in northern Mesopotamia, played only a minor role in history until, beginning early in the first millennium B.C., the Assyrians began their rise toward becoming the greatest power the Near East had ever seen. In 876 B.C. Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) led the Assyrian army west into Syria. At that time Omri (885-874 B.C.) was king of Israel. The Assyrians did not advance beyond Syria, but they must have then learned of Omri because from that point on they repeatedly referred to the kings of Israel as being from the "house of Omri."
Assurnasirpal inflicted heavy damage before he reached the Great Sea (the Mediterranean), and he later had wall after wall in his palace at Kalhu (biblical Calah, modern Nimrud) filled with scenes of death and destruction. The beginning of Assyria's policy of cruelty toward other peoples was recorded in both words and reliefs.
I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men ... and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar . . . and I cut off the limbs of the officers. . . . Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts round about the city....
Shalmaneser III took the throne of Assyria in 858 B.C. when Ahab was in his last years as king of Israel, and he was on the battlefield nearly every year of his reign. The lives of these two kings intersected early in 853 B.C. when the Assyrian army moved into Syria.
[Relief from Assumasirpal's palace at Nimrud. This relief shows archers and slingers attacking an enemy]
A coalition of twelve kings drawn from west of the Euphrates River confronted Sialmaneser III near Karkar (or Qarqar) in northern Syria. The Assyrian list of opposing troop strengths reports, "2,000 chariots, 13,000 foot soldiers of Ahab." Those figures represent over half the chariots said to have been fielded by the coalition, and only the Syrians contributed more foot soldiers.
Shalmaneser III boasts of a great triumph over the coalition: "I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered fleeing soldiers. During the battle I made their blood flow." But scholars note that the Assyrian army withdrew, and that for several years thereafter Damascus needed no help to hold off Assyrian inroads. They credit Shalmaneser III with no more than a pyrrhic victory.
The number of men and chariots Ahab contributed to the coalition implies that he was one of the more powerful kings of that day. There is no mention, however, of this battle in the Bible: the biblical writers focus was on Ahab's religious condition, not his military might. The battle of Karkar represents the first physical contact between Israel and Assyria. Assyria had heard about the "land of Omri," now their forces had met on the battlefield.
When, in 841 B.C., Shalmaneser III marched west again, Jehu had just begun his reign over Israel (841-814 B.C.). This time no coalition came out to meet the Assyrians. Although siege was laid to Damascus, the city did not fall. The Assyrian army moved southwest to Mount Carmel, where, the annals say they received tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and Jehu, the "son of Omri." Here is another event in the reign of an Israelite king which was only recorded extrabiblically.
Jehu's tribute is commemorated on what we today call the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser. On this obelisk Jehu is shown kneeling before Shalmaneser III, and the accompanying text lists the gifts he paid to placate the Assyrians. The Bible implies that although Jehu had a respectably long reign, he was never a particularly strong ruler. The Black Obelisk supports that impression.
Right: The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. This obelisk stands 6.5 feet (1.9 meters) tall. Of the different campaigns featured on the stele our interest here is in the portion showing Jehu kneeling before the Assyrian king (bottom). On the stele Shalmaneser III says: I received from him silver, gold, a golden saplu—bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king, [and] wooden puruhtu.
Top opposite: Relief of Tiglath-pileser III. Bottom: Panel relief depicts his army conquering an unidentified city. The men on the left carry spears and shields as they use a scaling ladder to gain entry into the city. On the right a battering ram is breaking down the defensive walls. Behind the ram, and in a greatly different scale, archers in mail shirts shoot arrows from behind large wicker shields. The inhabitants of the city are shown surrendering, dead, and dying. Some have been impaled on poles.
The obelisk also lets us mark another rise in Assyria's involvement with Israel's history. First Assyria heard of this "land of Omri," then it fought one of its kings. Now Assyria receives the first of several tributes.
There seems to be a surprising exception to Assyria's increasing pressure on Israel. Shalmaneser III's grandson, Adad-nirari III, reigned from 810 to 783 B.C. Jehoahaz was king of Israel from 814 to 798 B.C. During his reign Jehoahaz was so harrassed by Syria that he momentarily called on the Lord, and 2 Kings 13:5 cryptically states that God gave Israel a "deliverer" (in some translations, a "savior") who freed Israel from this Syrian threat. The verse does not name the deliverer. From an inscribed slab found at Nimrud we know that about 803 B.C. Adad-nirari marched into Syria: "I shut up the king of Damascus in Damascus, his royal residence. The terror-inspiring glamor of Ashur [the chief god of Assyria] overwhelmed him and he seized my feet, assuming the position of a slave of mine. Then I received . . . [a list of tribute follows]." Syrian forces were forced to withdraw from Israel to defend their own lands. It is tempting to see Adad-nirari III as the "deliverer" who freed Israel from Syrian pressure.
Tiglath-pileser III (sometimes called Pul) became king of Assyria in 744 B.C. (744-727 B.C.). The next year he moved west and reached south of Syria into Israel. In his annals Tiglath-pileser III boasts that, concerning Menahem (king of Israel 752-742), "I overwhelmed him like a snowstorm and imposed tribute upon him." According to 2 Kings 15:19-20, in raising this tribute Menahem required the wealthy men of his kingdom to contribute fifty shekels each. The Bible gives no hint of the significance of this amount, but ancient sources reveal that fifty to sixty shekels was then the going price on the slave market. In essence then, the rich men of Israel were told they could remain free by contributing the equivalent of their slave price.
Tiglath-pileser III marched west again in 734 B.C. In his annals for this campaign we read:
Nineteen districts of the city of Hamath, together with the towns in their environs, situated on the shore of the sea of the setting sun [Mediterranean] ... I restored to the territory of the land of Assyria, my officers as governors I placed over them.
Empire had definitely begun. As empire increasingly enveloped the Near East, Syria began to dream of a coalition that could once again stand up to the Assyrian army. Pekah of Israel (752-732 B.C.) agreed to ally himself with Syria, but the two nations were rebuffed when Judah declined to join them. In Judah, Ahaz (735-716 B.C.) had recently been put on the throne by a faction that thought it better to pay Assyria tribute than be destroyed. When Syria and Israel tried to take control of Judah (2 Kings 16:5), Ahaz quickly gathered tribute and rushed it to Tiglath-pileser III with a cry for help. Soon all of Syria fell to the Assyrians. Tiglath-pileser III occupied the northern half of Israel and deported its people (2 Kings 15:29).
Deportation has not been mentioned earlier in the Bible, and Tiglath-pileser III is credited with instituting the policy. Assurnasirpal had slaughtered those who resisted him; Tiglath-pileser III added the practice of moving captured populations within the expanding empire. Those who made these forced migrations were not badly treated—the Assyrians wanted them alive in order to continue their tribute—but Tiglath-pileser III hoped that people relocated to distant areas would be less inclined to revolt. For those groups who felt that the power of their gods did not extend beyond their homelands, this policy could have been quite effective.
Hoshea (732-722 B.C.) murdered his way to the throne of Israel (2 Kings 15:30). If Tiglath-pileser III's annals are to be believed, he had a hand in this assassination: he took
[Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria depicted in his chariot is preserved for us]
the credit for Hosheas accession. Hoshea withheld tribute when Shalmaneser V 726-722 B.C.) succeeded his father as king of Assyria. Shalmaneser V forced Hoshea back into line, but then he revolted a second time. This second defiance of Assyria resulted in Samaria coming under siege. Three years later, in 722 B.C., "The king of Assyria captured Samaria and carried Israel away into exile to Assyria" (2 Kings 17:6).
The identity of this "king of Assyria" is not fully clear. Perhaps Shalmaneser V died just before Samaria fell. In any event, in one of his annalistic reports Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) claimed credit for the victory:
I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it. I formed from among them a contingent of 50 chariots and made [the] remaining inhabitants assume their social positions. I installed over them an officer of mine and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king.
Judah had now lost the northern buffer between it and the Assyrian army; the empire was advancing closer. And 2 Kings 17:24 names cities elsewhere in the empire from which Sargon II drew people to repopulate Israel.
Sargon II ordered that a new capital, Dur-Sharrukin, be built. In one text he claims, "Day and night I planned the building of that city." When Khorsabad, as the city is now called, was excavated, the archaeologists found that it was never fully completed. Sargon's son abandoned the project and no future king had anything to do with it. As one scholar puts it, the "sudden rise and decline apparently reflect only the whim of a single monarch." Still, Khorsabad is a beautiful capsule in time, and provides evidence of how powerful Assyria, the destroyer of Israel, had become.
Sargon II went back into Palestine in 720 B.C. and then again in 712 B.C. This second campaign is mentioned in Isaiah 20:1, the only direct reference to Sargon in the Bible. Concerning this second campaign Sargon says in his annals:
Philistia, Judah, Edom, Moab, who had paid tribute and gifts to Ashur my lord [the chief god of Assyria], planned rebellion and evil against me; they brought gifts of friendship to Pharaoh king of Egypt, a prince who could not save them, and endeavored to form with him an alliance.
Ahab's participation in the battle of Karkar and Jehu's tribute to Shaknaneser III are only known to us extrabiblically. More of this extrabiblical amplification occurs within the reign of Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.). Trouble broke out when Sargon II died and Sennacherib (704-680 B.C.) took the throne. Sennacherib's Prism relates that only three kings in Palestine, including Padi king of Ekron, remained loyal to Assyria:
The officials, the patricians, and the common people of Ekron [threw] Padi, their king, into fetters because he was loyal [to me] and handed him over to Hezekiah .. . and Hezekiah held him in prison....
Sennacherib had other problems to deal with but by 701 B.C. he was able to lead his armies west. One by one the revolting cities were brought back into line. Again Sennacherib's Prism:
I assaulted Ekron and killed the officials and patricians who had committed the crime and hung their bodies on poles surrounding the city.... I made Padi, their king, come from Jerusalem and set him as their lord on the throne ...
The mural reconstructed, found in "residence K" shows Sargon II, perhaps followed by the owner of the residence, standing in front of a statue of the god Ashur. Two men were added by the modern artist to provide scale to the mural,
The Taylor Prism in the British Museum in London (15 inches [37.5 centimeters] tall). A nearly identical prism is in the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum. Both prisms are six-sided, made of baked brick, and detail Sennacherib's military campaigns, including his 701 B.C. invasion of Judah.
Sennacherib claims that he attacked dozens of Judean cities, "by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering rams brought near to the walls, combined with the attack by foot soldiers " Sennacherib took special interest in directing the assault on Lachish, and while it was under siege Hezekiah tried to placate Sennacherib with tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16). Sennacherib's prisms expand on the variety of tribute given. It agrees with the Bible concerning the amount of gold handed over, but lists a much larger volume of silver. Perhaps the Assyrian scribal notes were misread, or the silver stripped from the Temple was added to the total.
Lachish fell and Sennacherib moved on to attack another city (2 Kings 19:8). But Sennacherib was most proud of his victory at Lachish, and he later had some seventy linear feet (21.3 meters) of wall reliefs carved to commemorate his success.
Older books sometimes refer to another, later, campaign by Sennacherib into Palestine. Some scholars thought a second campaign was necessary to explain the biblical reference to King Taharqa coming to aid Judah (2 Kings 19:9). They argued that Taharqa was not old enough in 701 B.C. to have been ruling Egypt. According to this "two campaign theory," 2 Kings 18:1-16 related to 701 B.C., but the remainder of that chapter and into chapter 19 told of subsequent events in the reign of Hezekiah. It has since been recognized that when the Bible refers to Taharqa as "king" it is affording him the title that he later held. Sennacherib led only one campaign into Palestine, in 701 B.C. Hezekiah's dealings with the Assyrian threat are recorded in 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32, Isaiah 36-37; on Sennacherib's prism; and on Assyrian palace reliefs (the excavation of Lachish also adds its own insights concerning the city's siege and fall, see page 122). Putting all these sources together allows us better to recreate this moment in Judean history. We also become aware of some of Hezekiah's political maneuvering that is not recorded in the Bible.
Archaeology also allows us to understand better one episode of political maneuvering that is mentioned in the Bible. According to 2 Kings 20:12-13, messengers from Merodach-baladan approached Hezekiah, but the Bible gives no real explanation for this contact. Merodach-baladan was a Chaldean who for a number of years kept declaring himself king of Babylon, and kept trying to end Assyria's control of southern Mesopotamia. The Assyrians would put him
Relief from the ceremonial room at Nineveh devoted to the assault on Lachish in 701 B.C. This central scene from the tableau conflates the attack on the city and its aftermath as Judeans are being led away into exile or are impaled on posts.
to flight, only to find subsequently that he had returned. When his envoys met with Hezekiah, they were undoubtedly hoping that Judah might ally with them. A second front against Assyria could make it more difficult for Sennacherib to deal with Merodach-baladan. Fortunately, although flattered, Hezekiah stayed clear of this Intrigue. Soon Merodach-baladan fled into Ham for one last time.
Earlier kings had palaces at Nineveh but Sennacherib built what he called the "palace without a rival." The palace walls were decorated with carved stone reliefs depicting his military exploits, including his victory over Lachish. Sennacherib commissioned an inner city wall—-"wall that terrifies the
[Black marble boundary stone, 18 inches (45.5 centimeters) high. Here Merodach-baladan, the man who would be king, is shown on the left conferring a land grant to an official on the right. Emblems of four Babylonian deities are at the top of the stone]
enemy," he called it—that ran some 7 miles (12 kilometers) in circuit and was fronted by a deep moat. He gave names to the fifteen gates that led into the city. He also had an elaborate system of canals constructed to bring water into Nineveh.
Power struggles for the throne were not exclusive to Israel and Judah. Sennacherib's heir apparent, Esarhaddon, was so slandered by his brothers that he was forced into exile. Only after his father's death did he return, wrest control of the throne, and begin his
[Plan of Nineveh showing the city walls, the fifteen gates, and the location of two of the excavated palaces, including the one built by Sennacherib]
reign (680-669 B.C.). Manasseh was then king of Judah (697-643 B.C.), and from Esarhaddon's "Prism B" we learn that he was among those conscripted to build a new palace at Nineveh:
I called up the kings of [Syria] and of the region on the other side of the Euphrates River, to wit: King Balu of Tyre, King Manasseh of Judah. . . . together twenty-two kings. ... All these I sent out and made them transport under terrible difficulties, to Nineveh ... as building material for my palace: big logs, long beams, and thin boards from cedar and pine trees....
Esarhaddon blamed Egypt for repeated unrest in Palestine and in 671 B.C. he invaded and appointed local Egyptians to run the new Assyrian province. Empire had extended into Egypt.
Egypt broke free in 652 B.C. when Assurbanipal was king of Assyria (669-627 B.C.). Wanting to reclaim that breakaway province, Assurbanipal would have been concerned that the landbridge to Egypt (Palestine) remained secure. It is therefore most likely that he is the Assyrian king who "captured Manasseh with hooks, [and] bound him with bronze chains" (2 Chronicles
[In this tall stele—it is over 9.8 feet (3 meters) high—Esarhaddon is shown facing symbols of the gods, and holding ropes attached to rings through the lips(?) of two small figures (sometimes hooks were used). There is some debate over the identity of the two figures, but the one kneeling might be Taharqa of Egypt. Whatever the correct identifications, the stele is illustrative of action taken against Manasseh]
33:11). Either Manasseh had gotten caught up in the general unrest and was being punished, or he was being cautioned not to get out of line. The stele of Esarhaddon shown above provides a graphic description of the humiliation Manasseh suffered.
In spite of the apparent power of Assyria, the precipitous fall of both empire and nation was about to begin. In 626 B.C. people known as the Scythians stormed down from the north and rapidly tore the western regions free of Assyria. That same year a Chaldean named Nabopolassar (626-605 B.C.) conquered Babylon and with it all of southern Mesopotamia. Assyrian letters and legal documents reveal a throne in trouble: "In the land discord, in the palace strife, depart not from my side. Rebellion and evil plotting are continually contrived against me." A few years later the Chaldeans allied with the Medes (based to the east in modern Iran) and began advancing on the heartland of Assyria. Nineveh came under siege in 612 B.C. and collapsed within three months. The Assyrian empire had fallen.
BOTH THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE AND THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL MOVED NORTH AND EVENTUALLY WEST; THEY MOVED THROUGH EUROPE OVER THE FOLLOWING CENTURIES, AS VARIOUSLY NAMED IN SECULAR HISTORY. THE TRIBES OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL BECAME THE NATIONS OF NORTH-WESTERN EUROPE, THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. THE ASSYRIANS BECAME THE MODERN GERMANS.
TO BE CONTINUED