Part 2—Cruel Assyria—The Second Great World Power
Archaeological discoveries of the palaces of ancient Assyrian kings can add to your confidence in the historical accuracy of the Bible. What do those discoveries show about Biblical history, and what should they mean to you?
THE Assyrians were a violent and warlike people. They developed a vast, ruthless empire that spread out from their homeland on the northern end of the Mesopotamian plain. They are referred to many times in the Bible, being enemies of Judah and Israel.
Knowing more about this ancient people will certainly help us to understand things that the Bible says. Even Assyria’s own records confirm the truthfulness of Bible history and prophecy. But where did the Assyrians originate?
This strong people, who pictured themselves with heavy eyebrows and beards, descended from Asshur, a grandson of Noah. In fact, the same Hebrew word means both “Asshur” and “Assyria(n).” Nimrod, who is noted in the Bible as “a mighty hunter in opposition to Jehovah,” founded the cities of Nineveh and Calah. These two cities, along with Asshur and Khorsabad, later became Assyrian capitals.—Genesis 10:8-12, 22.
The book of Nahum opens with the words: “The pronouncement against Nineveh,” the capital of Assyria. Why? Because, as the prophet Nahum later describes, Nineveh was a “city of bloodshed . . . all full of deception and of robbery.” (Nahum 1:1; 3:1) Was he exaggerating? Far from it!
The Assyrians had an unparalleled reputation for brutality. Decorations in their own great palaces showed them pillaging, burning, and destroying in one country after another. Their king Ashurnasirpal boasts of covering a pillar with skins of his enemies. He says: “Many captives from among them I burned with fire . . . From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads.”
Yet, these people were very religious. It has been said concerning the ancient Assyrians: “Fighting was the business of the nation, and the priests were incessant fomenters of war. They were supported largely from the spoils of conquest . . . This race of plunderers was exceedingly religious.”—Ancient Cities, W. B. Wright, page 25.
The Assyrians inherited their religion from Babylon. Says The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: “In most respects Assyrian religion differed little from that of Babylonia, whence it had been derived.” An Assyrian seal, now displayed in the British Museum in London, shows their national god Asshur with three heads. The belief in triads of gods was common in their worship. So, with their record of cruelty and violence, it is little wonder that the Bible prophet Nahum wrote that the one true God, Jehovah, “is taking vengeance and is disposed to rage” at the Assyrians.—Nahum 1:2.
When Nineveh fell, its destruction was so thorough that for centuries even its site was forgotten. Some critics ridiculed the Bible, saying this city never existed. But exist it did! It was rediscovered, and what archaeologists found there was exciting indeed!
Great Palaces Discovered
In 1843 French consular agent Paul-Émile Botta dug at Khorsabad, hoping it would be ancient Nineveh. Instead, he discovered the splendid palace of “Sargon the king of Assyria,” mentioned by name in the Bible at Isaiah 20:1. Critics had claimed that the Bible was wrong because it was the only known ancient document to mention this king. But Sargon did exist, for archaeologists uncovered his 200-room palace, as well as a fantastic treasure of inscriptions and other items. These include Sargon’s annals that confirm, from the Assyrian viewpoint, events mentioned in the Bible. Since the mid-19th century, Sargon has been one of the best known of the Assyrian kings, although many details concerning him are still incomplete.
Then, in 1847, Austin Henry Layard discovered Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, some 12 miles [19 km] southwest of Khorsabad. This is the very same Sennacherib who violently opposed Jerusalem and is mentioned by name 13 times in the Bible. Layard investigated 71 rooms of this palace. It was lavishly decorated with scenes of battles, victories, and religious ceremonies.
Even more amazing, archaeologists found Sennacherib’s own annals—yearly reports of events, recorded on clay cylinders, or prisms. One is kept at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, while another, the Taylor Prism, is in the British Museum.
What did these discoveries show? That what the Bible says about these people and the events in which they were involved is precisely true—even to the naming of the Assyrian rulers!
The Assyrian Kings
The names of these ancient kings may sound strange to you, yet it is good to become acquainted with at least seven of them, as they are closely associated with events related in the Bible.
Shalmaneser III followed his father Ashurnasirpal on the throne. His famous Black Obelisk, found at Nimrud (Calah) and displayed in the British Museum, has a relief showing King Jehu of Israel paying tribute to him, perhaps through an emissary.—Compare conditions mentioned at 2 Kings 10:31-33.
Later that same century, sometime about the year 844 B.C.E., the prophet Jonah was sent to warn Nineveh of coming destruction.a The city repented and was spared. Though we do not know exactly who was the king at Nineveh when this happened, it is interesting to note that this period was one of decline in Assyrian aggressiveness.
Tiglath-pileser III (also called Pul) is the first Assyrian king mentioned by name in the Bible. He advanced into the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Menahem (791-780 B.C.E.). The Bible says Menahem paid him a thousand talents of silver to withdraw.—2 Kings 15:19, 20.
In his own annals, found at Calah, Tiglath-pileser confirms this Biblical fact, saying: “I received tribute from . . . Menahem of Samaria.”
However, Samaria and the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel were in trouble not just with the Assyrians but with the Creator of heaven and earth, Jehovah God. They had turned from his worship to a riotous, drunken worship of Baal. (Hosea 2:13) Although they received abundant warning through Jehovah’s prophets, they refused to turn back. So the prophet Hosea was inspired to write: “Samaria and her king will certainly be silenced, like a snapped-off twig on the surface of waters.” (Hosea 10:7; 2 Kings 17:7, 12-18) The Bible says that the Assyrians did this to Israel—and so do the Assyrians’ own records, as we shall see.
Shalmaneser V, who succeeded Tiglath-pileser, invaded the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel and laid siege to its well-fortified capital Samaria. After a three-year siege, Samaria fell (in 740 B.C.E.), as Jehovah’s prophets had said would happen.—Micah 1:1, 6; 2 Kings 17:5.
Sargon II succeeded Shalmaneser and may have completed the conquest of Samaria, as the beginning of his reign is said to coincide with the year the city fell. The Bible says that after Samaria fell, the king of Assyria “led Israel into exile in Assyria.” (2 Kings 17:6) An Assyrian inscription, found at Khorsabad, confirms this. On it Sargon states: “I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it.”
The Bible further says that after the Israelites were moved out, the king of Assyria brought people from other regions “and had them dwell in the cities of Samaria instead of the sons of Israel; and they began to take possession of Samaria and to dwell in its cities.”—2 Kings 17:24.
Do Assyrian records confirm this too? Yes, Sargon’s own annals, recorded on the Nimrud Prism, say: “I restored the city of Samaria . . . I brought into it people from the countries conquered by my own hands.”—Illustrations of Old Testament History, R. D. Barnett, page 52.
Jerusalem Is Saved
Sennacherib, Sargon’s son and successor, is well known to students of the Bible. In 732 B.C.E. this militaristically minded king brought a mighty war machine against the southern kingdom of Judah.
The Bible says that “Sennacherib the king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and proceeded to seize them.” Jerusalem’s king Hezekiah, frightened by this threat, “sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish” and offered to buy him off with a heavy tribute.—2 Kings 18:13, 14.
Does Sennacherib confirm that he was at Lachish? Definitely! He displayed scenes of this siege on large panels in his immense palace that archaeologists studied at Nineveh. These detailed panels in the British Museum show Lachish under attack. Inhabitants stream out in surrender. Captives are led by. Some are impaled on posts. Others pay homage to Sennacherib himself, the very person mentioned in the Biblical account. An inscription in wedge-shaped cuneiform writing says: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, sat upon a nímedu-throne and passed in review the booty (taken) from Lachish.”
The Bible says that Hezekiah paid as tribute “three hundred silver talents and thirty gold talents.” (2 Kings 18:14, 15) This payment is confirmed in Sennacherib’s annals, though he claims to have received “800 talents of silver.”
Despite this payment, the Assyrian king’s messengers stood outside Jerusalem’s walls, mocked Jehovah God, and threatened his holy city. Through Isaiah, who was inside Jerusalem, Jehovah said of Sennacherib: “He will not come into this city nor will he shoot an arrow there nor confront it with a shield nor cast up a siege rampart against it. By the way by which he proceeded to come, he will return, and into this city he will not come.”—2 Kings 18:17–19:8, 32, 33.
Did Jehovah stop Sennacherib, as promised? That very night 185,000 Assyrians were struck down by means of God’s angel! Sennacherib pulled away and returned to Nineveh, later to be killed by two of his own sons while he was bowing down to his god Nisroch.—2 Kings 19:35-37.
Of course, haughty Sennacherib would not be expected to boast of this loss of his troops. But what he does say is interesting. His annals, recorded on both the Oriental Institute Prism and the Taylor Prism, say: “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) . . . Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Sennacherib says that “the terror-inspiring splendor of my lordship” overwhelmed Hezekiah. Yet, he does not say he captured Hezekiah or conquered Jerusalem, as he had said about the “strong cities” and “small villages.” Why not? As the Bible shows, the elite of the troops that Sennacherib had sent to do so had been destroyed!
Esar-haddon, a younger son and successor of Sennacherib, is mentioned three times in the Bible—in Second Kings, Ezra, and Isaiah. The Bible records that the Assyrians captured Judah’s king Manasseh. Archaeologists have found an Assyrian list that includes “Manasseh king of Judah” among those who paid tribute to Esar-haddon.—2 Chronicles 33:11.
Ashurbanipal, son of Esar-haddon, is thought to be “the great and honorable Asenappar” mentioned at Ezra 4:10. He expanded the Assyrian empire to its greatest extent.
End of a World Power
Because of Assyria’s wickedness, its destruction had been decreed. Jehovah’s prophet Nahum had written that its capital Nineveh would be breached at the “gates of the rivers . . . and the palace itself [would] actually be dissolved.” There would be a plundering of silver and gold, the city would be laid waste, and people would say: “Nineveh has been despoiled! Who will sympathize with her?”—Nahum 2:6-10; 3:7.
Did this happen too? Let Nineveh’s conquerors answer. In 632 B.C.E. the Babylonians and the Medes wreaked bitter vengeance on the Assyrian capital. Babylon’s chronicles report: “The great spoil of the city and temple they carried off and [turned] the city into a ruin-mound.”
Two great mounds now mark the site of this once proud capital. They are a silent testimony to the fact that no nation—not even proud and violent Assyria—can block the sure fulfillment of Jehovah’s prophecies.
a As to dates, we accept the chronology that is indicated by the Bible, which differs from ancient dates based on less reliable secular sources. For a detailed discussion of Biblical chronology, see Aid to Bible Understanding, pages 322-48, particularly the section on Assyria, pages 325-6.
[Map on page 24]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Based on a map copyrighted by Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est. and Survey of Israel
[Picture on page 25]
King Ashurbanipal pours a wine offering over slain lions. Does this remind you of Nimrod?
Courtesy of the British Museum, London
[Pictures on page 26]
Assyrian relief depicting the assault with a siege engine against the fortified Judean city of Lachish
Courtesy of the British Museum, London
Tell Lachish. This important outpost in the southwest guarded the Judean hill country until the Assyrians laid siege to Lachish and conquered it
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.
[Picture on page 27]
Relief of Sargon II (on the left) facing an Assyrian official who may be Crown Prince Sennacherib
Courtesy of the British Museum, London