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.