Biblical Nations - Assyrian Empire

Assyrian Empire

Key Scripture: Isaiah 10:5-12

Figures: Tiglath-pilesar, Shalmaneser, Sargon, Sennacherib

This week, as we continue looking into the people groups that held control of the Hebrew people at some point during their history, we come across an empire that grew from one of the earliest locations to be mentioned in Scripture.  When describing the rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2 records that the Tigris was located east of Assyria.  As the region lies immediately south of the Ararat mountains at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent, it was one of the first to be populated by the descendants of Noah after the Flood.  The Assyrians experienced several rises and declines, like most long-standing civilizations, but the period we are most interested in for our current study is described by scholars as the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Although it was Ham's grandson Nimrod that founded many of the important cities there, the region gets its name from one of Shem's sons, Asshur.  Some scholars, including Jewish historian Josephus, believe the kings listed in Genesis 14 whom Abram attacked were rulers of an early Assyrian coalition.  Whether or not that is a correct identification, the area lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers now known as Mesopotamia, which had been previously under the influence of Sumerians and Akkadians, were by that point largely controlled by the Assyrians.  During the time of the judges and the unified kingdom of Israel, Assyria did not expand their control to the southwest, but after the division of Israel and Judah they became much more warlike and began to be influential in the politics of the Jewish people.  The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which is an archaeological discovery from the city of Nimrud that shows images and descriptions of the events of the Assyrian king who reigned there, makes note of the vassal status of one of Israel's kings, which has been identified as either Jehoram (the son of King Ahab) or Jehu (who assassinated Jehoram and usurped the throne).

The reason for Assyria's expansion was based in the strength of their military, which ruled the population and made use of iron weapons to devastating effect.  Much stronger than the bronze that their neighbors traditionally used, this metal meant that the Assyrian army was nearly invincible.  Consequently, they rapidly began defeating kingdoms as they built the largest empire the world had seen to that point, and they enforced their domain with a cruelty that became the hallmark of Assyrian rule.  Historical records make note of their tendency to dismember defeated armies and even nobility, to display impaled individuals or severed heads, and to subjugate defeated kings to humiliating and dehumanizing punishments.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that the prophet Jonah did not accept his assignment to preach in their capital city of Nineveh with much enthusiasm.  The idea that God would forgive their ruthlessness was unfathomable, but Scripture shows that is exactly what happened when their ruler led an impressive display of citywide repentance.  Nevertheless, the kings of Israel and Judah continued to rely on Assyria for many years, each acting in turn as a vassal to the mightier king (often Tiglath-pilesar) who would periodically be called upon to militarily interfere in the local squabbles between Samaria and Jerusalem.

The prophet Isaiah recorded that Assyria was the tool God had appointed to execute punishment against the people of Israel.  In 722 BC the armies of Shalmaneser and his successor, Sargon, completed a conquest against the northern kingdom and, after destroying Samaria, took the majority of the surviving citizens captive.  After the exiles were resettled at points throughout the Assyrian empire, their unique identity was effectively lost to history as they were absorbed into their surrounding populations.  Their defeated kingdom was repopulated by the new rulers, creating a mixed race known as Samaritans, with whom the Jewish residents of Judah (later Judea) would feud for generations.  The next king of Assyria, Sennacherib, attempted to conquer Judah several years later, and although he took many of the southern kingdom's cities his army was almost wiped away by a miraculous intervention.  The loss of 185,000 soldiers was repeated by a Babylonian historian named Berossus, who credited God with sending "pestilential distemper" on the doomed army.  Humiliated, Sennacherib returned home where two of his sons assassinated him, and while a third son succeeded him and led a successful campaign to conquer Egypt, Assyria's interference in Judah ended forever.  Echoing Isaiah's prophetic judgment against the merciless Assyrians, Nahum would write some 100 years later about the impending destruction of Nineveh, an event which took place at the hands of a Babylonian coalition in 612 BC.  In fact, the destruction of the city was so devastating that its location was forgotten for over two millennia until it was discovered again by a British archaeologist during the 19th century.  Today a minority of Assyrians still lives in Iraq, the last known remnants of the once-mighty empire, although the German city of Trier near the Luxembourg border claims to have been founded in 2050 BC by an Assyrian prince named Trebeta.


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