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Ancient Assyria, located in what is now northern Iraq, is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible as attacking the inhabitants of Israel and raiding Babylon and Syria. Read about Assyrian history and religion and the details of their wars in the region.

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The Assyrians

by Elizabeth McNamer

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 to war.

The 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.

They 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.

Divided Kingdoms

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.

With 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.

For 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 palace walls.

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 places.

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 issues.

The prophet Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, and never one to mince words, denounced the prosperity:

"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 later.

The 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 people."

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.

It 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 call Bethsaida.

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.

Mass Deportation

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).

Like 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?" (Nahum 3:18-19).

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch and a frequent contributor, spends time in the Middle East each summer working at the archaeological dig at Bethsaida. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

Next: Mary Magdalene (by Mary Ann Getty)


Living the Scriptures

What or who are the enemies in your life? What is it that threatens you with destruction? It could be a bad habit, an incident that happened to you long ago. Make a list and write out how you might deal with the enemy with God's grace.



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