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Post Info TOPIC: Israelites and the Assyrians – On the Margins of Empire


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Israelites and the Assyrians – On the Margins of Empire

Israelites and the Assyrians –

On the Margins of Empire

Beginning in the Early Bronze Age (circa 3500 BC) pastoral nomads – indigenous to the region – periodically settled the Canaanite highlands. Settlement was a response to grain shortage induced by disruption of lowland agriculture. But then drought forced these marginal farmers back into nomadism again. A second phase of settlement occurred during the Middle Bronze Age (from around 2000 BC) and a third, and final, period of highland settlement occurred after 1200 BC.

The catalyst for this final phase of migration to subsistence farming was the collapse of the cities of Canaan, overwhelmed by an invasion by the Sea Peoples. One consequence was that fringe subsistence farmers in the hills became the original 'Israelites' – most settling in the central highlands of Samaria, rather fewer further south in Judaea. But to the north and east of the sparse, tribal enclaves of the 'Israelites', expansive city-based empires were emerging that would overshadow their entire world. Foremost among them was Assyria, a terror and an inspiration to the Jews.


Rise of Assyria

Sargon of Akkad was the first king to assert control outside of his city-state as early as 2371 BC. In 1813 BC Shamshi-Adadunited the cities of Ashur, Nineveh, Arbel and Nimrud into a cohesive unit – Assyria. Several Assyrian empires rose and fell over the following 1200 years. The last period of imperial conquest began with Shalmaneser III in the 9th century BC. Assyria's main rival, of course, was Egypt.


Shalmaneser and Nimrud (Kalah)

The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858-824) ruled his empire from the mighty city of Nimrudon the Tigris. The 37 metre thick walls, 8 km in length, enclosed 3.6 sq km. (900 acres) of palaces, temples and parks and dwellings for an estimated 63,000 inhabitants. The city was quadrilateral in shape, with a Ziggurat in the south-west and “Fort Shalmaneser” in the south-east.

After the Assyrian intrusion into Syria/Palestine of 841 BC King Jehu of Israel was forced to pay tribute. The Aramean Kingdom of Damascus under King Hazael maintained a protracted resistance.



Shalmaneser's fortified
palace at Nimrud



Four warrior kings in particular built the Assyrian Empire:

Shalmaneser III (859-824), Tiglath Pilesar III (743-726), Esarhaddon(680-669) and Assurbanipal (668-627).

The secret of their success appears to have been iron-working, the war chariot, and an efficient civil service collecting tax.

Hebrew settlements to the southwest of Damascus (the tiny 'Kingdoms of Judah and Israel') were vassals of the Damascenes, who, for a time, held the Assyrians at bay.

Some Semites escaped. Trading fleets out of Tyre established a sea route to the western Mediterranean for the Phoenicians (the foundation for the future 'Carthaginian' maritime empire).

But all the small kingdoms of Palestine were conquered by Assyria about 725 BC and Egypt itself a century later.



An Israelite Empire? Don't Blink!

"This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel ... the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."

– Ha'aretz Magazine, October 1999.



Meanwhile, in the Mountains ...

In the clash of the Egyptian empire to the south west and the Assyrian/ Babylonian empires to the northeast, the Israelites were at best mercenaries and conscripts. The intrusion of Shalmaneser III in 841 BC – recorded on Assyrian monuments – is not mentioned in the sacred texts, but the subsequent fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (to Sargon II, though erroneously credited to Shalmaneser [V] in 2 Kings 17.6) is noted. Supposedly ‘10 tribes of the Jewish race’ were lost through conquest.

"Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only." – 2 Kings 17.18.

The traumatic loss of most of the Israelite 'nation' was to be the catalyst for a profound religious revolution: Yahweh priests, fleeing south to the tiny enclave of Judah, stiffened Jewish resistance by dreaming up the notion of a former 'great empire' which, under priestly direction, would rise again.

In 701 BC the Assyrians returned, devastated Judah and occupied the province. The Jewish king Hezekiah (715 - 687 BC) was besieged in Jerusalem but plague compelled the Assyrians to move on. Judah – reduced to little more than the environs of Jerusalem – maintained a precarious existence for another century by costly tributes to the Assyrian king.

Putting a brave face on events, Hezekiah's priests heralded the reprieve of Jerusalem as a victory for Yahweh!

Isaiah would have us believe that overnight the 'angel of the LORD' smote the Assyrians, leaving 185,000 to "arise early in the morning, and behold, they were all dead corpses." (Isaiah, 37.36). (To give a comparison, Hadrian's legions wiped Judaea off the map early in the 2nd century AD with about 40,000 troops.)

Over the next half century "Judaism" emerged – a religious response to the Assyrian assault and the total loss of the northern kingdom.


Sargon's Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin)

Although his predecessor Shalmaneser IV gets the credit (2 Kings 17), the Assyrian Sargon II (722 - 705) made biblical headlines in his inaugural year by a campaign in the west which, among other triumphs, included the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria.

Assyrians were settled in the province.

Yahweh priests fleeing south to Judah stiffened Jewish resistance by dreaming up the notion of a former 'great empire' which, under priestly direction, would rise again.

A triumphant Sargon returned to the Assyrian heartland and built himself a new capital – Khorsabad.



Evidence of Khorsabad

Massive human-headed, winged bullsrepresented the might of Assyria


Reconstruction of Khorsabad

The city Khorsabad flourished after Sargon's death in 705 BC, though his son Sennacherib (705 - 681 BC) moved the capital to Nineveh.



Archaeology has revealed the plan of Sargon II's capital Khorsabad:

It covered about 300 hectares (741 acres).

In comparison, 'Solomon's' Jerusalem was 1/20th size of Assyrian Khorsabad – and even that's just a theory!



Extant ruins of Khorsabad

Letters to and from the royal architect Tab-shar-Ashur, written on clay tablets, reveal that cedar from Lebanon was used extensively.



Meanwhile, in the Mountains (Part 2)

Hezekiah was followed by his son Manasseh (686 - 642 BC) and grandson Amon (641 -640) – both castigated in the sacred texts for ignoring priestly dictates – but then a hero of Judaism emerged: the 8-year-old Josiah. During his 'guided' reign (639 - 609 BC) 'reform' elevated the priests of Yahweh and eliminated the competition. Sacred 'high places' in the countryside were destroyed and rival priests were murdered. Communion with God now became a monopoly of the Jerusalem Yahwehists.

Conveniently, a second statement of 'The Law of Moses' – Deuteronomy – was 'found' in the Temple to give the divine seal of approval.

To graphically illustrate what was possible in a dynastic theocracy the fable of the 'Yahweh-guided, fabulous kingdom' – of Saul, David and Solomon – set 300 years earlier, was now fleshed out in painstaking detail (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles).

The fable of 'Imperial Israel' – long on court intrigue and adulteries but short on how the empire was won – reflects incidental detail from the empires the Israelites themselves faced as an enemy – the Assyrians and Babylonians of the 9th - 6th centuries!

The pious fantasy was further embellished in in the 6th and 5th centuries, in the aftermath of Babylonian conquest of Judah and the "captivity" (597-539 BC).


Sennacherib's Nineveh

Sennacherib (705-681 BC) moved the Assyrian capital to Nineveh, a vast walled city of 7.5 sq km.

The Temple of Ishtar alone was half a kilometre long! 


The reality of Sennacherib''s Palace:

Fitments to the Royal Palace of Sennacherib included three kilometres of carvings, over 100 massive bulls and sphinxes and vast quantities of Lebanese cedar, carried over 500 miles, and decorated with gold and silver.

In 701 BC Sennacherib devastated Judah, the minor 'southern' kingdom allied with Egypt and Phoenicia. The Assyrians occupied 46 walled towns and compelled the Jewish king Hezekiah to shut himself up in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage."

Plague compelled Sennacherib to abandon the siege and Judah – reduced to little more than the environs of Jerusalem – maintained a precarious existence for another century by costly tributes to the Assyrian king.

Putting a brave face on events, Hezekiah's priests heralded the reprieve as a victory for Yahweh!

The fantasy of Solomon's Palace:

"The throne had six steps ... and two lions stood beside the stays. And twelve lions stood there on the one side and on the other upon the six steps ... And all king Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver: it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon." –  1 Kings 10.19-21.

The fantasy of vast tribute – and 666!

"And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon ... she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones ... And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir ...

Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred threescore and six talents of gold ...

So king Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth for riches and for wisdom." – 1 Kings 10.4-23.


Egypt's Last Bid for Empire: Pharaoh Nekau II

Herodotus records that Nekau succeeded his father Psamtik I in 610 BC as pharaoh and assigns him a reign of sixteen years. Monuments and artifacts attest to his existence. It seems that the declining 7th century Assyrian conquerors of Egypt installed a vassal called Nekau (circa 655 BC) and this 'governor' in the delta was the grandfather of the future pharaoh Nekau II.

Nekau seems to have been an enterprising king: Herodotus writes that he attempted to complete the canal connecting the Red Sea with the Nile, and when he abandoned that project he sent a Phoenician expedition to circumnavigate Africa, which was successfully accomplished in three years.

In real history, Pharaoh Nekau II saw an opportunity to revive an Egyptian empire in Syria by assisting his Assyrian ally after the fall of Nineveh to the Babylonians in 612 BC.

Archaeologists, aware that Josiah was in no position to challenge the mighty Egyptian army, suspect that Nekau merely summoned Josiah to some sort of royal parley and had him killed for unknown reasons. With Josiah dead (609 BC) Nekau continued north but was himself defeated at Carchemish (605 BC).

The biblical Necho has a slightly different career ...



At last! – a genuine biblical pharaoh: 'Necho'


Nekau – Pharaoh, 6th century BC

2 Kings and 2 Chronicles tell of Pharaoh Necho.

In the biblical fantasy, for no very good reason Josiah, King of Judah, gets in the way of Nekau's army, moving north. The odd behaviour of the Judaean king includes 'disguise' and choosing an unfavourable battleground. But Nekau is on 'God's business' and Josiah is being silly. The point, of course, is theological: Don't you dare go against the Lord!

"Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Carchemish by Euphrates: and Josiah went out against him ... and hearkened not unto the words of Necho from the mouth of God, and came to fight in the valley of Megiddo." – 2 Chr. 35.20,22.

In this silly story, the polytheistic Egyptian king has become the mouthpiece of the Hebrew "God" who has sent him on a mission!

"But he sent ambassadors to him, saying, What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste: forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not." – 2 Chr. 35.21.

In a carefully woven weave, real history is mixed into a sacred legend. In any event, the (mostly!) righteous king is killed and Judah slides into oblivion.

As to Nekau giving 'Josiah' a knock-out blow on his way to the Euphrates, Herodotus says nothing – but then Herodotus had never heard of the Jews anyway!



On his return from the northern front – according to the Bible – Nekau installed a puppet king ('Jehoiakim') in Jerusalem but poor Jehoiakim also "does evil in the sight of the LORD" and gets his own divine comeuppance – this time from Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (601 BC).

Judah is conquered in 586 BC and its people carried into exile.

In the biblical story, Babylon's governor is murdered and fearing retribution, Jews (that is, the ones who didn't get carried into exile! ) – flee to Egypt. This includes 'Jeremiah,' a phantom 7th century prophet created by the 3rd/4th century BC scribe who wrote the entire Josiah saga (2 Chronicles, Jeremiah). At this stage the Jews are under Persian rule, Egypt is weak but nominally independent.

The Jewish priestly scribe hammers home his point about 'bad kings' indulging in 'foreign practices.' Reiterating the central message of Deuteronomy (the "fifth book of Moses") – supposedly 'found' during Josiah's rebuilding of the Temple –, it looks forward to happier times, when pious kings are controlled by priests and 'fear God':

"Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose ... When he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God ..."

– Deuteronomy 17.14,20.



Kings under priestly direction – biblical ideal


Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant, 1987)
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
John Romer, Testament (Viking, 1999)
Thomas L. Thompson, The Bible in History (Pimlico, 2000)
Israel Finkelstein, Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
Ahmed Osman, Moses Pharaoh of Egypt (Grafton, 1990)
B.S.J. Isserlin, The Israelites (Thames & Hudson, 1998)

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