A Lost Empire That Embarrassed Bible Critics
“Formerly the history of the Assyrian empire was one of the most obscure chapters in the world’s annals.” “All that was known of ancient Nineveh was comprised in the scattered allusions and prophecies alluding to it in the Bible, and the casual and fragmentary notices of Assyrian history in Diodorus Siculus . . . and others.”—Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature, Volumes 1 and 3, 1862.
THE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus lived 2,000 years ago. Nineveh, he claimed, was a quadrangular city; the four sides totaled 480 stadia in length. That is a circumference of 60 miles [96 km]! The Bible gives a similar picture, describing Nineveh as a great city “with a walking distance of three days.”—Jonah 3:3.
Bible critics of the 19th century refused to believe that an unknown city of the ancient world could have been that large. They also said that if Nineveh ever existed, it must have been part of an ancient civilization that preceded Babylon.
This view was contrary to Genesis chapter 10, which states that the great-grandson of Noah, Nimrod, established the first political state in the region of Babel, or Babylon. “Out of that land,” the Bible continues, “he went forth into Assyria and set himself to building Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this is the great city.” (Genesis 10:8-12) Notice, the scripture describes the four new Assyrian cities as being one “great city.”
In 1843 a French archaeologist, Paul-Émile Botta, discovered the ruins of a palace that proved to be part of an Assyrian city. When the news of this discovery reached the outside world, it caused great excitement. “Public interest rose higher,” explains Alan Millard in his book Treasures From Bible Times, “when it was proved that the palace belonged to Sargon, the king of Assyria named in Isaiah 20:1, whose existence had been doubted because he was otherwise unknown.”
Meanwhile, another archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard, started digging up ruins at a place called Nimrud about 26 miles [42 km] southwest of Khorsabad. The ruins proved to be Calah—one of the four Assyrian cities mentioned at Genesis 10:11. Then, in 1849, Layard unearthed ruins of a massive palace at a place called Kuyunjik, between Calah and Khorsabad. The palace proved to be part of Nineveh. Between Khorsabad and Calah lie the ruins of other settlements, including a mound called Karamles. “If we take the four great mounds of Nimrúd [Calah], Koyunjik [Nineveh], Khorsabad, and Karamles, as the corners of a square,” observed Layard, “it will be found that its four sides correspond pretty accurately with the 480 stadia or 60 miles of the geographer, which make the three days’ journey of the prophet [Jonah].”
Evidently, then, Jonah included all these settlements as one “great city,” calling them by the name of the city listed first at Genesis 10:11, namely, Nineveh. The same is done today. For example, there is a difference between the original city of London and its suburbs, which make up what is sometimes termed “Greater London.”
An Arrogant Assyrian King
The palace at Nineveh contained over 70 rooms, having almost two miles [3 km] of walls. On these walls were the burned remains of sculptures commemorating military victories and other achievements. Most were badly damaged. Toward the end of his stay, however, Layard discovered one chamber in a remarkable state of preservation. On the walls was a display showing the capture of a well-fortified city, with captives being marched before the invading king, who was seated upon a throne outside the city. Above the king is an inscription that experts in Assyrian writing translate as follows: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, sat upon a nimedu -throne and passed in review the booty (taken) from Lachish (La-ki-su).”
Today this display and inscription can be viewed in the British Museum. It agrees with the historical event recorded in the Bible at 2 Kings 18:13, 14: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib the king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and proceeded to seize them. So Hezekiah the king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying: ‘I have sinned. Turn back from against me. Whatever you may impose upon me I shall carry.’ Accordingly the king of Assyria laid upon Hezekiah the king of Judah three hundred silver talents and thirty gold talents.”
Other inscriptions were found among the ruins of Nineveh giving additional details of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and the tribute paid by Hezekiah. “Perhaps one of the most remarkable coincidences of historic testimony on record, the amount of the treasure in gold taken from Hezekiah, thirty talents, agrees in the two perfectly independent accounts,” wrote Layard. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who helped decipher Assyrian writing, announced that these inscriptions “placed beyond the reach of dispute [Sennacherib’s] historic identity.” Furthermore, Layard asks in his book Nineveh and Babylon: “Who would have believed it probable or possible, before these discoveries were made, that beneath the heap of earth and rubbish which marked the site of Nineveh, there would be found the history of the wars between Hezekiah and Sennacherib, written at the very time when they took place by Sennacherib himself, and confirming even in minute details the Biblical record?”
Of course, some details of Sennacherib’s record do not agree with the Bible. For example, archaeologist Alan Millard notes: “The most striking fact comes at the end [of Sennacherib’s record]. Hezekiah sent his messenger, and all the tribute, to Sennacherib ‘later, to Nineveh’. The Assyrian army did not carry them home in triumph in the usual way.” The Bible states that the tribute was paid before the king of Assyria returned to Nineveh. (2 Kings 18:15-17) Why the difference? And why was Sennacherib unable to boast about conquering the Judean capital, Jerusalem, in the way he boasted of his conquest of the Judean fortress Lachish? Three Bible writers give the answer. One of them, an eyewitness, wrote: “The angel of Jehovah proceeded to go forth and strike down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. When people rose up early in the morning, why, there all of them were dead carcasses. Hence Sennacherib the king of Assyria pulled away and went and returned and took up dwelling in Nineveh.”—Isaiah 37:36, 37; 2 Kings 19:35; 2 Chronicles 32:21.
In his book Treasures From Bible Times, Millard concludes: “There is no good reason to doubt this report . . . Understandably, Sennacherib would not record such a disaster for his successors to read, for it would discredit him.” Instead, Sennacherib tried to create the impression that his Judean invasion had been a success and that Hezekiah continued in submission, sending the tribute to Nineveh.
Assyria’s Origins Confirmed
Libraries containing tens of thousands of clay tablets were also discovered in Nineveh. These documents prove that the Assyrian Empire had its roots in the south in Babylon, just as Genesis 10:11 indicates. Following this lead, archaeologists began concentrating their efforts farther south. The Encyclopædia Biblica explains: “The Assyrians in all that they have left behind them betray their Babylonian origin. Their language and method of writing, their literature, their religion, and their science were taken over from their southern neighbours with but little modification.”
Discoveries such as the above have forced Bible critics to moderate their views. Indeed, a sincere investigation of the Bible reveals that it was written by careful, honest writers. A former chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, said after his investigation of the Bible: “It was a long, serious, and profound study: and using the same principles of evidence in this religious matter as I always do in secular matters, I have come to the decision that the Bible is a supernatural book, that it has come from God.”—The Book of Books: An Introduction.
Indeed, the Bible is much more than accurate history. It is God’s inspired Word, a gift for the benefit of mankind. (2 Timothy 3:16) Proof of this can be seen by examining Bible geography. This will be discussed in the next issue.
[Pictures on page 6, 7]
Above: Three details taken from wall relief
Below: Drawing of Assyrian wall relief depicting siege of Lachish
(Courtesy of The British Museum)
(From The Bible in the British Museum, published by British Museum Press)
[Picture Credit Line on page 4]
Courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum