issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
As one enters the Middle Eastern section of the British
Museum in London, one is immediately confronted by two powerful,
towering statues of winged bulls with human heads. These 30-foot-high
artifacts were brought from Assyria in the middle of the 19th
century by archaeologist Henry Layard. The museum contains numerous
other statues of assorted winged creatures, obelisks and stone
slabs engraved with scenes of prisoners being hanged from poles
or impaled on stakes; young men and women being flayed alive;
captured slaves led in procession under heavy guard; archers aiming
their bows; blazing torches being thrown at the enemy; battering
rams attacking fortified city walls. A glance at these sculptures
leaves no doubt that the people who created them were dedicated
Bible mentions the Assyrians over 170 times and never favorably. They are presented
as fierce, invincible warriors who regularly swooped down from the north, terrified
the inhabitants of Israel, demanded exorbitant tributes and, satiated, went
back home. We read of the terrified King of Judah and his people plundering
the temple and their own homes to make payments to keep the Assyrians at bay,
but "all to no avail" (2 Chr 28:21).
From about 1300 b.c.e. Assyria encompassed the land
in the upper part of the Tigris River in what is today northern
Iraq. The territory consisted of rolling plains, mountains to
the north and east, semi-desert to the south and west, with some
agricultural settlements. The Assyrians regularly raided the rich
agricultural lands in Babylon and Syria.
took their name from the god Ashur and their king served as Ashur—s high priest
and was regarded as his governor on earth. But as a secular ruler, it was also
the king—s duty to maintain and extend the borders of the land of Ashur.
During the time of the
united kingdom, there was little to fear from the people to the north. Assyria
was still asleep. David and Solomon—s kingdoms lived in relative peace, although
excavations at Meggido show that they were always prepared for war.
the death of Solomon (922) the kingdom divided into two, Judah in the south
and the kingdom of Israel in the north. For the first 50 years, there was constant
civil war. The smaller kingdom of Judah had many advantages: only one tribe
to rule, a tradition of kingship, Jerusalem itself, and the Temple of Solomon.
The northern kingdom fared badly: diverse tribes, no tradition of kingship and
no temple. But Israel did have fertile and green lush lands. Owing to assassination,
there was a rapid turnover of kings in the north. Of the first five, only one
died a natural death. The fifth, Zimri, who had murdered his predecessor, had
a reign of seven days before he too was murdered.
The books of Kings and Chronicles record the history of this period,
but since these books were written at a later date and by a southerner,
one can expect some bias. Things did improve when an army general,
Omri, took over as king in 876, built the capital at Samaria and
solidified his kingdom by forming political marriages.
most of its 200-year existence, the kingdom of Israel lived a perilous existence.
Religiously it was a jumble. Shrines were set up at Bethel and Dan, worship
of pagan gods took over, and sacrifices—some human—on "high places" were not
uncommon. While they still regarded themselves as a covenanted people, worship
of Yahweh was on the decline. At the same time, rumblings from their northern
and western neighbors demoralized them.
The Assyrians Awake
In the beginning, the north had remained relatively
quiet. Assyria lay like a young lion, occasionally giving a roar
when disturbed by neighbors. But in 880 b.c.e. the lion became
fully awake when an ambitious new king ascended the throne. His
name was Ashurnasirpal II. He adopted a new god, Ninurta, and
spent the first few years of his reign building his capital city
of Nimrod. Then, after celebrating its completion, he stormed
with his model army across Lebanon to the Mediterranean where
"he washed his weapons in the sea." En route, he crushed many
city-states and returned to Nimrod laden with treasures extracted
from them and recorded all of this in carved bas-reliefs on his
While the little kingdom of Israel was not affected
by this particular campaign, it was obvious that before long,
Assyrian designs would affect them. As far as we know, the first
time that the Assyrians became directly involved with Israel was
in 853 b.c.e. when Ashurnasirpal—s son Shalmaneser III advanced
through Syria to Palestine. Local rulers, who hitherto had little
love for each other, formed an alliance to oppose him. King Ahab
of Israel contributed 200 chariots and over 10,000 men to fight.
It was futile. Shalmaneser had an inscription made of his great
victory: "They rose against me for a decisive battle....I slew
14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them
like Baal when he makes a rainstorm pour down. I spread their
corpses, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered
soldiers...with their corpses, I spanned the Orantes before there
was a bridge."
In the first year of the reign of King Jehu of Israel, 841, Shalmaneser
again came through Damascus, destroyed numerous towns and demanded
tribute from all including Jehu. The incident is not mentioned
in the Bible but is represented in four panes of the Black Obelisk,
a four-sided stele recording the Assyrian deeds. It shows the
Israelite king Jehu, bowed in obeisance offering tribute. One
panel displays the tribute being brought in by a parade of slaves,
and it is described in cuneiform caption over the procession:
silver, gold, a golden vase, a golden dish, golden goblets, golden
buckets, tin, wooden hunting spears. Shalmaneser returned to his
capital to enjoy his hoard and start further campaigns in other
The Great Prophets
For some 50 years, the Assyrians held off from Israel.
In that breathing space of a half-century, Israel entered a time
of relative prosperity. Trade expanded and Samaria became a great
center of wealth. But the affluence did not filter down to the
poor. The king and the upper class lived in luxury. The vast majority
of people groveled in poverty. The covenant with Yahweh was ignored
and the worship of Baal, the pagan god of fertility, became the
vogue. Pagan rituals and temple prostitution were practiced. Freed
from foreign threats, the people paid little attention to domestic
prophet Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, and never one to mince words, denounced
"Proclaim this in the strongholds of Assyria, / in
the strongholds of the land of Egypt; / Gather from the mountains
of Samaria, / And see the great disorder within her, / The oppression
in her midst. / For they know not how to do what is right, says
Yahweh, / Storing up in their strongholds what they have exorted
and robbed. / Therefore, thus says Yahweh: / An enemy shall surround
the land, / And strip you of your strength, / And pillage your
strongholds" (Amos 3:9-11).
Amos predicted that God would use other nations to bring Israel
to her senses. He warned of impending catastrophe, but few paid
attention. His prophecy would seem to be fulfilled a generation
prophet Hosea was the other prophet of doom for the north. His is a prophecy
in action. He married a prostitute, Gomer (symbol of Israel). He announced Yahweh—s
divorce from Israel (Hosea 2:4-7). His three children by Gomer are given prophetic
names: Jezreel "I will punish the house of Jehu"; Loruhama "I
no longer feel pity for the house of Israel"; Loammi "You are not my
The Onslaught Begins
The lion in the north
began its roar again with the accession of King Pul (Tiglath Pilaser III) in
745. This energetic man undertook a widespread expansion of the Assyrian Empire.
He first conquered Babylon to the south and then set his sights west and south
on the Levant. Terror-struck small rulers joined forces to try to stop him.
Israel, Damascus, Ammon, Moab, Edom forgot that they were enemies in view of
this new threat. King Ahaz of Judah (wisely or unwisely) refused to join them.
The consortium responded by attacking Judah. King Ahaz then appealed to the
one he knew would be anxious to help him, Tiglath Pilaser himself.
didn—t take long for Tiglath to come bursting down through Syria. In three campaigns
carried out between 734 and 732, Tiglath Pilaser III overtook the land and destroyed
major cities like Hazor and Meggido. Carved pictures of him in his flowing beard
and robe, truncated hat, and shaded by an umbrella, show him accepting the homage
of subjected states.
There was no resisting the Assyrian army. They were well trained
and disciplined mercenaries. They arrived by the thousands led
by their standard bearers, and their king surrounded by his bodyguards.
Then came the cavalry, infantry soldiers, and corps of engineers,
artists, and demolition squads. Many ancient cities came to an
end during his campaigns: Meggido, Hazor, and the city we now
Excavations there show this great city fought valiantly
but was overcome, and the city was set fire to in the spring of
732. So hot was the fire that it melted the brick. Experts so
far have been unable to ascertain what was added to the fire to
cause this, although we do know that the Assyrians regarded as
sacred their bitumen wells at Hit. Tantalizingly, one large panel
of an Assyrian wall, now in the British Museum, shows a city being
destroyed. A battering ram is shown penetrating a double city
wall with turreted towers which enclose a palm tree. Could this
be Bethsaida? We have discovered a double fortified wall there
and know that palm trees grew in this region. They did not grow
in Assyria or farther north. Women and children are seen being
driven away from the city in ox-drawn carts (there are no men
left); cows and sheep are being driven away by the captors and
two scribes are making notes of the spoils. Assyrian arrowheads
have been found at the site.
Deportation of captured
people became the policy under Tiglath. Israel was made a province of Assyria
with Samaria as capital and a governor appointed there. The kingdom of Israel
was at an end. There was some intermarriage between the vestiges of Israel and
the Assyrians. These people turn up later as the Samaritans. Foreign colonists
were brought in, and for another 600 years Galilee would be known as "Galilee
of the Gentiles."
King Ahaz of Judah had not sided with the consortium
against Tiglath, but this did not guarantee safety. Judah was
made a vassal of Assyria, forced to pay money each year. Ahaz—s
son Hezekiah tried to free himself from this bondage in 705 when
the old king of Assyria died. He fortified Jerusalem, building
a magnificent tunnel through sheer rock to ensure that water would
be brought into the city. But the fierce Sennacherib "came down
like a wolf on the fold" and surrounded Jerusalem. The Book of
Isaiah (chapters 36—37) tells us what happened. A plague wiped
out half of the Assyrian army and the rest left in panic. But
all of the other cities of Judah were destroyed. Sennacherib mentions
that he trapped King Hezekiah of Judah "like a bird in a cage"
and he covered a whole room in his palace with scenes of his conquest
of Lachish, the second-largest city in Judah. Hezekiah was forced
again to pay large sums of money to Assyria to maintain his throne.
The giving of tribute to Assyria continued for another half a
century. King Manasseh, the longest-ruling king of Judah (55 years),
was taken off in chains to Assyria for refusing to pay until he
pledged loyalty to them (2 Chr 33).
all bullies, Assyria wore itself out. In 612, combined forces from Egypt and
Babylon destroyed the state. The mighty lion was dealt a death blow and roared
no more. Nahum records it for us: "O King of Assyria, your nobles slumber. Your
people are scattered on the mountains with none to father them. There is no
assuaging your hurt, and your wound is grievous. All who hear the news of you
clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?"
Next: Mary Magdalene (by Mary Ann Getty)