Who were the Assyrians?
8th April 2021
Figures such as Sennacherib and Tiglath-pileser flit mysteriously across the pages of the Bible. Dr Caleb Howard explains how they can help us to grasp a deeper understanding of Scripture.
When reading Old Testament narratives it’s easy to let the various people groups who jostle on the edges of Israel’s history merge into one blurry and villainous enemy. We can end up thinking of them as narrative furniture instead of the fascinating peoples and cultures who really existed in history and about whom there is a surprising amount of evidence. Taking the time to learn about the Hebrews’ neighbours can help us understand the world in which the Old Testament events unfolded, and offers intriguing sideways glances at some familiar Bible narratives.
The Assyrians in the Bible
Assyria enters the Bible right at the beginning, in Genesis 2:14, which observes that the Tigris river flowed “east of Ashur” (Hebrew qidhmat Ashshur). Some English translations render this “east of Assyria”, but since in the Assyrian language the spelling of “Assyria (the land)”, “Ashur (the city)” and “Ashur (the god)” would all be the same (Ashshur), it is likely that they would all be the same in Hebrew. Ashur was an Assyrian city, which shared its name with its principal deity and with the land which it ruled. The Tigris River did not flow to the east of Assyria, but through its middle. The Tigris does, however, flow to the east of the city of Ashur, so it is probably best to translate Genesis 2:14 as “east of (the city of) Ashur”.
Assyria sits alongside Babylonia as one of the two most significant Mesopotamian kingdoms. If we think of Mesopotamia as the land between (and along) the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in modern Iraq and Syria, Assyria corresponded to the northern part of this region, while Babylonia was the southern part.
Contest and conquering
Assyria and the Assyrians make regular appearances in the book of 2 Kings, where Assyria’s function politically was either as conqueror or as a potential ally against other states. By this point, Israel and Judah had been divided into two kingdoms, the North and the South, during the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. This period in the biblical plot corresponds with the reigns of some of the most powerful Assyrian kings, several of whom make an appearance in the Bible. First among them is Pul (2 Kings 15:19), which we now know to be a nickname of Tiglath-pileser III, whom the king of Israel, Menahem, paid to be his ally by taxing the Israelite wealthy (2 Kings 15:19-20). Indeed, Tiglath-pileser III mentions receiving tribute from Menahem in his annals for the year 738 BC.
Tiglath-pileser III also records his move to put Hoshea on the throne of Israel as a vassal, a subordinate position which required taxes to be paid to the Assyrian ruler. However, Hoshea eventually rebelled against Tiglath-pileser III’s successor, Shalmaneser V. We read of this fraught relationship between the rulers in 2 Kings 17:
“Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria. And Hoshea became his vassal and paid him tribute. But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” 2 Kings 17:3-6
During the time covered by this biblical passage, some important events occurred in Assyria, including the usurpation of Shalmaneser V’s throne by Sargon II. This political change probably explains why we have only a few historically trivial royal inscriptions of Shalmaneser V.
Sargon II, Shalmaneser V’s successor, took credit for the demise of Israel in his own inscriptions:
(As for) the people of [(the city) Sa]maria who had [altogeth]er come to an agreement with a king [hostile to] me not to do obeisance (to me) [or to br]ing tribute (to me) and (who) had offered battle — [with] the strength of the great gods, my l[ord]s, (iv 30) I foug[ht] them [and] counted [as] booty 47,280 people, together with [their] chariots and the gods who helped them. I conscripted two hundred chariots from among them into [my] royal (military) contingent and settled (iv 35) the remainder of them in Assyria. I restored the city Samaria and made (it) greater than before. I brought there people from the lands that I had conquered. I set a eunuch of mine as provincial governor over them and considered them as people of Assyria. oracc.org/rinap/Q006555; lines iv 25-41 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
However, we know from an entry in a Babylonian chronicle which records significant events in the history of Babylonia, that during his reign Shalmaneser V “demolished Samaria”. This probably refers to him beginning what became a three-year siege of Samaria (2 Kings 18:9-12). Sargon II either then brought the siege to an end in 722 BC or merely carried on with deportations and management of the region after Shalmaneser V had successfully completed the siege.
The fact that Sargon II took credit for the demise of Israel was undoubtedly an attempt to legitimise his kingship after he usurped the throne of Assyria.
What Assyrian evidence survives?
Assyria sits alongside Sumeria and Babylonia as one of the three most significant Mesopotamian kingdoms. If we think of Mesopotamia as the land between (and along) the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in modern Iraq and Syria, Assyria corresponded to the northern part of this region, while Babylonia was the southern part. The Sumerians mainly inhabited the southern part as well, but earlier than the Babylonians.
When the Assyrians entered recorded history, in the early second millennium BC, they were not yet the empire that would come to dominate this part of the Near East. Citizens of the city of Ashur participated in a remarkable trade network which stretched (at least) between modern day Afghanistan and western Turkey. Some of the Assyrians were shrewd business people who ran companies which transported tin and textiles from the city of Ashur to a colony in central Turkey called Kanesh, where they traded for precious metals. These people spoke the Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language and some of them could read and write the letters and business documents which today constitute the main evidence of their lives.
The imperial ambitions of the Assyrians emerged in the second half of the second millennium BC. It was then that king Ashur-uballit I took advantage of the decline of the neighbouring state of Mittani to make part of its territory his own, and joined the club of the great powers of the time: the Babylonians, the Hittites and the Egyptians. From then until the demise of the Assyrian state at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in 612 BC, the Assyrians maintained control over a heartland which they called the Land of Ashur. It stretched from the Zagros Mountains in the east to the River Euphrates in the west. But at various periods in Assyrian history, particularly powerful Assyrian kings managed to extend their domination over regions beyond the Land of Ashur, including little Israel and Judah near the coast of the Mediterranean.
The peak of Assyrian power came, strangely enough, near the end of its existence. During the time of the Sargonids — kings Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal, who ruled between 722 and about 631 — Assyrian might seemed unstoppable. These Assyrian kings went (or sent their armies) on regular campaigns in all directions from the Land of Ashur and extended Assyrian authority as far as Upper Egypt and central Turkey in the west, the Persian Gulf in the south, and eastern Iran in the east.
But the Assyrians were not only a powerful imperial force, they were also great lovers of the literature of Mesopotamia’s past. They inherited and respected literature in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages from the Sumerians and the Babylonians. Assyrian scribes learned and copied out great Mesopotamian classics such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem about the adventures of an ancient Sumerian king, or technical works such as Enuma Anu Enlil, which helped diviners understand the movements of heavenly bodies.
The Assyrians also composed some literature of their own, particularly related to their kings. Indeed, it was their last great king, Ashurbanipal, who collected thousands of tablets containing all manner of Mesopotamian works into the famous Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, most of which is now kept in the British Museum.
The invasion of Judah
The most famous appearance of Assyria in the pages of Scripture is also the Old Testament event that is best attested, both inside and outside of the Bible. The invasion of Judah by the armies of Sennacherib in 701 BC is portrayed in 2 Kings 18-19, in Isaiah 36-37, and in 2 Chronicles 32.
There is also a wealth of evidence about the event outside the Bible. Various aspects of the invasion appear in the annals of king Sennacherib, of which a number of different versions have been recovered. There are also images representing the invasion carved into the stone wall-panels of Room 36 in Sennacherib’s so-called “Palace Without a Rival” in Nineveh. Among archaeological evidence at the site of Lachish (one of the fortified cities of Judah, near Jerusalem) researchers have discovered, among other things, the Assyrian siege ramp that was used for taking the city.
Both the Bible and the Assyrian accounts are full of vivid details. The biblical book of 2 Chronicles (chapter 32) records the way Assyrian officials taunted the people of Jerusalem in their own language to frighten them into surrendering, while Assyrian evidence tells us that Sennacherib claimed to have trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage”, and that an Assyrian official claimed that Yahweh had told Sennacherib to come to attack Judah, so that Israel’s God was in fact on his side against them. There is a conspicuous absence of an explanation in the Assyrian texts for why Sennacherib withdrew from Jerusalem, apparently without fully subjugating it, while the Bible says that God inflicted a great defeat on the Assyrian army.
The end of the Assyrians’ story
Understanding something about the history and culture of Assyria gives additional colour to Old Testament narratives, and helps us see where they fit into the wider sweep of world events. Taking in the bigger picture broadens our perspective as we watch the politics of Israel and Judah playing out through the eyes of neighbouring peoples — little kingdoms stuck between great Assyria to the north and great Egypt to the south, faced with the question of whether to trust Yahweh or one of the major powers that surrounded them. Astonishingly, history shows that little Judah went on to outlive the mighty Assyrian empire. By the time Judah met its end at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC, the great kingdom of Assyria had already completely collapsed.