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Assyria

Assyria

(As·syrʹi·a).

The name applied to the country anciently occupying the northern end of the Mesopotamian plain or the extreme northern portion of what is today the modern country of Iraq. Basically, it lay within the triangle formed by the Tigris and Little Zab rivers, these rivers constituting generally its western and southern boundaries, while the mountains of ancient Armenia formed the northern boundary, and the Zagros Mountain range and the land of Media the eastern boundary. It should be noted, however, that these boundaries were quite fluid, Assyria spreading S of the Little Zab when Babylon weakened, but retreating when Assyrian political fortunes were low and those of Babylon were in ascendancy. Such fluctuation was true of the other boundaries and particularly that of the Tigris, as Assyria early extended its influence W of that river. The Assyrian Empire, of course, came to embrace a far larger area.​—MAP, Vol. 1, p. 954.

There was a continued close relationship between Assyria and Babylon throughout their history. They were neighboring states jointly occupying a region with no real natural division to serve as a frontier between their territories. The region of Assyria proper, however, was mostly a highlands area, generally of rugged terrain, with a more invigorating climate than that of Babylonia. The people were more energetic and aggressive than the Babylonians. They are represented in carved reliefs as of strong physique, dark-complexioned, with heavy eyebrows and beard, and prominent nose.

The city of Asshur, located W of the Tigris, is considered to have been the original capital of the region. Thereafter, however, Nineveh became its most prominent capital, while both Calah and Khorsabad were used at times by Assyrian monarchs as capital cities. A trade route to the Mediterranean and to Asia Minor ran along the northern part of Assyria, and other routes branched off into Armenia and the region of Lake Urmia. Much of Assyria’s warring was in order to gain or maintain control of such trade routes.

Militarism. Assyria was essentially a military power, and the historical picture left of its exploits is one of great cruelty and rapaciousness. (PICTURES, Vol. 1, p. 958) One of their warrior monarchs, Ashurnasirpal, describes his punishment of several rebellious cities in this way:

“I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, . . . and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. . . . Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others 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, and I bound their heads to posts (tree trunks) round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire . . . Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace. . . . The rest of them [their warriors] I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”​—Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, by D. D. Luckenbill, 1926, Vol. I, pp. 145, 147, 153, 162.

Reliefs often show their captives being led by cords attached to hooks that pierced the nose or the lips, or having their eyes put out at the point of a spear. Thus, sadistic torture was a frequent feature of Assyrian warfare, about which they shamelessly boasted and which they carefully recorded. The knowledge of their cruelty doubtless served them to an advantage militarily, striking terror into the hearts of those in their line of attack and often causing resistance to crumble. Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, was aptly described by the prophet Nahum as a “lair of lions” and as “the city of bloodshed.”​—Na 2:11, 12; 3:1.

What sort of religion did the Assyrians practice?

Assyria’s religion was largely inherited from Babylon, and although their own national god Asshur was viewed as supreme by the Assyrians, Babylon continued to be viewed by them as the chief religious center. The Assyrian king served as the high priest of Asshur. One seal, found by A. H. Layard in the ruins of an Assyrian palace and now preserved in the British Museum, represents the god Asshur with three heads. The belief in triads of gods as well as that of a pentad, or five gods, was prominent in Assyrian worship. The chief triad was formed of Anu, representing heaven; Bel, representing the region inhabited by man, animals, and birds; and Ea, representing the terrestrial and subterranean waters. A second triad was composed of Sin, the moon-god; Shamash, the sun-god; and Ramman, god of storm, although his place was often filled by Ishtar, queen of the stars. (Compare 2Ki 23:5, 11.) Then followed the five gods representing five planets. Commenting on the gods forming the trinitarian groups, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (1965, p. 102) states: “These gods are invoked at times severally in phrases which seem to raise each in turn to a position of supremacy over the others.” Their pantheon, however, included innumerable other minor deities, many serving as patrons of towns. Nisroch is mentioned as being worshiped by Sennacherib at the time of his assassination.​—Isa 37:37, 38.

The religion practiced in connection with these gods was animistic, that is, the Assyrians believed every object and natural phenomenon to be animated by a spirit. It was somewhat distinguished from other nature worship prevalent in surrounding nations in that war was the truest expression of the national religion. (PICTURE, Vol. 1, p. 956) Thus, Tiglath-pileser I said of his fighting: “My Lord ASHUR urged me on.” In his annals, Ashurbanipal says: “By command of ASSUR, SIN, and SHAMAS, the great gods my lords who protected me, into Minni I entered and marched victoriously.” (Records of the Past: Assyrian and Egyptian Monuments, London, 1875, Vol. V, p. 18; 1877, Vol. IX, p. 43) Sargon regularly invoked Ishtar’s help before going to war. The armies marched behind the standards of the gods, apparently wooden or metal symbols on poles. Great importance was attached to omens, ascertained by examination of livers of sacrificed animals, by the flight of birds, or by the position of the planets. The book Ancient Cities, by W. B. Wright (1886, p. 25) states: “Fighting was the business of the nation, and the priests were incessant fomenters of war. They were supported largely from the spoils of conquest, of which a fixed percentage was invariably assigned them before others shared, for this race of plunderers was excessively religious.”

Culture, Literature, and Laws. The Assyrians built impressive palaces, lining the walls with sculptured slabs portraying with quite powerful realism scenes of war and peace. Human-headed, winged bulls, carved from a single block of limestone weighing as much as 36 metric tons, adorned the entranceways. Their cylinder seals show intricate engraving. (See ARCHAEOLOGY.) Their metal casting indicated considerable knowledge of metallurgy. Their kings built aqueducts and developed systems of irrigation; they produced royal botanical and zoological parks containing plants, trees, and animals from many lands. Their palace buildings often gave evidence of a well-planned drainage system and quite good sanitation.

Of particular interest have been the great libraries built up by certain Assyrian monarchs, containing tens of thousands of cuneiform inscribed clay tablets, prisms, and cylinders setting out major historical events, religious data, and legal and commercial matters. Certain laws dating from one period of Assyrian history, however, illustrate again the harshness so frequently characterizing the nation. Mutilation is provided as punishment for certain crimes. Thus, a slave girl was not allowed to go veiled in public, and for violating such ordinance her ears were to be cut off. The lack of legal protection available for a married woman is evidenced by one law stating: “Leaving aside the penalties relating to a married woman which are inscribed on the tablet, a man may flog his wife, pull out her hair, split and injure her ears. There is no legal guilt (involved) in it.”​—Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria, by H. W. F. Saggs, 1965, p. 152.

Biblical and Secular History. The first reference to Assyria in the Bible record is at Genesis 2:14, where the Hiddekel River (the Tigris), originally one of the four heads of the river “out of Eden,” is described by Moses in his day as “going to the east of Assyria.”​—Ge 2:10.

The land derived its name from Shem’s son Asshur. (Ge 10:22) It thus appears to have been first populated by Semites shortly after the Flood. However, it was early subjected to infiltration, as Ham’s grandson Nimrod entered into Assyria and built “Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this is the great city.” (Ge 10:11, 12; compare Mic 5:6.) Whether this was subsequent to the erection of the Tower of Babel and the resulting confusion of tongues is not stated (Ge 11:1-9), although different “tongues” are already mentioned in this tenth chapter of Genesis. (Ge 10:5, 20, 31) Nevertheless, it is established that Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was developed from Babylon, and secular history harmonizes with this. At a later date, the tribes that descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael are described as reaching up to Assyria in their nomadic movements.​—Ge 25:18.

The period between about 1100 and 900 B.C.E. (following the rule of Tiglath-pileser I) was a period of decline for Assyria, and this has been suggested as a favorable circumstance for the extension of the boundaries of the nation of Israel under the rule of David (1077-1038 B.C.E.) and the further extension of its influence under Solomon’s reign (1037-998 B.C.E.). The success of such expansion was, of course, due primarily to God’s backing and hence not dependent on Assyrian weakness.​—2Sa 8, 10; 1Ki 4:21-24.

Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III. Assyrian aggression began drawing close to Israel during the rule of Ashurnasirpal II, who was noted for his ruthless warring campaigns and cruelty, already mentioned. Inscriptions show him crossing the Euphrates and overrunning northern Syria and exacting tribute from the cities of Phoenicia. His successor, Shalmaneser III, is the first king who records direct contact with the northern kingdom of Israel. Assyrian records show Shalmaneser advancing to Karkar on the Orontes River, where, he claims, he fought against a coalition of kings. The result of the battle was indecisive. Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk at Nimrud lists Jehu (c. 904-877 B.C.E.) as paying tribute to him and carries a carving in relief possibly depicting Jehu’s emissary delivering the tribute to the Assyrian monarch.​—See SHALMANESER No. 1.

Adad-nirari III and his successors. After Shamshi-Adad V, the successor of Shalmaneser III, Adad-nirari III came to the Assyrian throne. Inscriptions report his attacking Damascus and receiving tribute from Jehoash of Samaria. Perhaps sometime around the middle of the ninth century B.C.E. (c. 844), the prophet Jonah was sent on a mission to Assyria’s capital Nineveh, and as a result of his warning of coming destruction, the entire city, including its king, responded with repentance. (Jon 3:2-6) It may be that the Assyrian king at that time was Adad-nirari III, but this is not certain.

History records that the kings following Adad-nirari III included Shalmaneser IV, Ashur-dan III, and Ashur-nirari V, all sons of Adad-nirari III. This period was one of decline as far as Assyrian aggressiveness is concerned.

Tiglath-pileser III. The first Assyrian king to be mentioned by name in the Bible is Tiglath-pileser III (2Ki 15:29; 16:7, 10), also called “Pul” at 2 Kings 15:19. At 1 Chronicles 5:26 both names are used, and this caused some in the past to view them as separate kings. However, Babylonian and Assyrian King Lists give both names to the same individual. The suggestion is made by some that this king was originally known as Pul and that he assumed the name Tiglath-pileser upon ascending to the Assyrian throne.​—See PUL No. 1.

It was during the reign of Menahem of Israel (c. 790-781 B.C.E.) that Tiglath-pileser III entered the domain of that northern kingdom. Menahem made a payment to him of a thousand silver talents ($6,606,000) and thus obtained the withdrawal of the Assyrian. (2Ki 15:19, 20) Later, however, King Pekah of Israel (c. 778-759 B.C.E.) joined together with King Rezin of Syria against Judean King Ahaz (761-746 B.C.E.). Despite Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling the certain elimination of this Syro-Israelite threat through the power of the king of Assyria (Isa 7:1-9, 16, 17; 8:3, 4), Ahaz chose the unwise course of sending a bribe to Tiglath-pileser so that he might attack that combine and thus relieve the pressure upon Judah. The Assyrian monarch responded by capturing a number of cities in the northern part of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the regions of Gilead, Galilee, and Naphtali. Earlier in his reign, Tiglath-pileser had inaugurated the policy of transplanting the populations of conquered areas in order to reduce the possibility of future uprisings, and he now proceeded to deport some of the Israelites. (1Ch 5:6, 26) Additionally, Judah was now in a subservient position toward Assyria, and Ahaz of Judah traveled to Damascus, which had also fallen to the Assyrians, and evidently rendered homage to Tiglath-pileser.​—2Ki 15:29; 16:5-10, 18; 2Ch 28:16, 20, 21, compare Isa 7:17-20.

Shalmaneser V. Shalmaneser V succeeded Tiglath-pileser III. Hoshea (c. 758-740 B.C.E.), who usurped the throne of Israel, at first submitted to Assyria’s exaction of tribute. Later he conspired with Egypt to free Israel from the Assyrian yoke, and Shalmaneser began a three-year siege of the city of Samaria that eventually brought its fall (740 B.C.E.) and Israel’s exile. (2Ki 17:1-6; 18:9-11; Ho 7:11; 8:7-10) Most reference works state that Shalmaneser died before completing the conquest of Samaria and that Sargon II was king by the time the city finally fell.​—See, however, SARGON; SHALMANESER No. 2.

Sargon II. Sargon’s records speak of the deportation of 27,290 Israelites to locations in the Upper Euphrates and Media. Description is also given of his campaign in Philistia in which he conquered Gath, Ashdod, and Asdudimmu. It was at the time of this campaign that the prophet Isaiah was instructed to warn of the futility of putting trust in Egypt or Ethiopia as a means of protection against the Assyrian aggressor. (Isa 20:1-6) It was perhaps first during Sargon’s reign that people from Babylon and Syria were brought into Samaria to repopulate it, the Assyrian king later sending an Israelite priest back from exile to instruct them in “the religion of the God of the land.”​—2Ki 17:24-28; see SAMARIA No. 2; SAMARITAN.

Sennacherib. Sennacherib, the son of Sargon II, attacked the kingdom of Judah during Hezekiah’s 14th year (732 B.C.E.). (2Ki 18:13; Isa 36:1) Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrian yoke imposed as a result of the action of his father Ahaz. (2Ki 18:7) Sennacherib reacted by sweeping through Judah, reportedly conquering 46 cities (compare Isa 36:1, 2), and then, from his camp at Lachish, he demanded of Hezekiah a tribute of 30 gold talents (c. $11,560,000) and 300 silver talents (c. $1,982,000). (2Ki 18:14-16; 2Ch 32:1; compare Isa 8:5-8.) Though this sum was paid, Sennacherib sent his spokesmen to demand unconditional surrender of Jerusalem. (2Ki 18:17–19:34; 2Ch 32:2-20) Jehovah’s subsequently causing the destruction of 185,000 of his troops in one night obliged the boasting Assyrian to withdraw and return to Nineveh. (2Ki 19:35, 36) There he was later assassinated by two of his sons and replaced on the throne by another son, Esar-haddon. (2Ki 19:37; 2Ch 32:21, 22; Isa 37:36-38) These events, with the exception of the destruction of the Assyrian troops, are also recorded on a prism of Sennacherib and one of Esar-haddon.​—PICTURES, Vol. 1, p. 957.

Esar-haddon. During Manasseh’s reign (716-662 B.C.E.), Assyrian army chiefs were permitted by Jehovah to take this Judean king captive to Babylon (then under Assyrian control). (2Ch 33:11) Some think this may have been at the time of Esar-haddon’s victorious campaign against Egypt. At any rate, Menasi (Manasseh) of Judah is named in inscriptions as one of those paying tribute to Esar-haddon. Manasseh was later restored to Jerusalem. (2Ch 33:10-13) It appears from Ezra 4:2 that the transplanting of people from and to the northern kingdom of Israel was still continuing in the days of Esar-haddon, which may explain the period of “sixty-five years” in the prophecy at Isaiah 7:8.​—See AHAZ No. 1; ESAR-HADDON.

Ashurbanipal. Prior to Esar-haddon’s death he had appointed his son Ashurbanipal as crown prince of Assyria and another son, Shamash-shum-u-kin, as crown prince of Babylonia. Shamash-shum-u-kin later rebelled against his brother, and Ashurbanipal overcame the rebellion and sacked the city of Babylon.

Ashurbanipal brought about the greatest expansion of the empire. He put down an uprising in Egypt and sacked the city of Thebes (No-amon). The boundaries of the Assyrian Empire now embraced the regions of Elam, part of Media up into Ararat, as far W as Cilicia in Asia Minor, through Syria and Israel (but not Jerusalem), and down into Egypt, Arabia, and Babylonia. Apparently he is “the great and honorable Asenappar” referred to at Ezra 4:10.​—See ASENAPPAR.

The fall of the empire. The Babylonian Chronicle B.M. (British Museum) 21901 recounts the fall of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, following a siege carried out by the combined forces of Nabopolassar, the king of Babylon, and of Cyaxares the Mede during the 14th year of Nabopolassar (632 B.C.E.): “The city [they turned] into ruin-hills and hea[ps (of debris)].” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. B. Pritchard, 1974, p. 305; brackets and parentheses theirs.) Thus the fierce Assyrian Empire came to an ignominious end.​—Isa 10:12, 24-26; 23:13; 30:30-33; 31:8, 9; Na 3:1-19; Zep 2:13.

According to the same chronicle, in the 14th year of Nabopolassar (632 B.C.E.), Ashur-uballit II attempted to continue Assyrian rule from Haran as his capital city. This chronicle states, under the 17th year of Nabopolassar (629 B.C.E.): “In the month Duʼuzu, Ashur-uballit, king of Assyria, (and) a large [army of] E[gy]pt [who had come to his aid] crossed the river (Euphrates) and [marched on] to conquer Harran.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 305; brackets and parentheses theirs.) Actually, Ashur-uballit was trying to reconquer it after having been driven out. This record is in harmony with the account relative to the activity of Pharaoh Nechoh recorded at 2 Kings 23:29, which activity resulted in the death of King Josiah of Judah (c. 629 B.C.E.). This text states that “Pharaoh Nechoh the king of Egypt came up to the king of Assyria by the river Euphrates”​—evidently to help him. “The king of Assyria” to whom Nechoh came may well have been Ashur-uballit II. Their campaign against Haran did not succeed. The Assyrian Empire had ended.

The title “king of Assyria” was applied to the Persian king (Darius Hystaspis) who dominated the land of Assyria in the time of the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem (completed in 515 B.C.E.).​—Ezr 6:22.

Assyria in Prophecy. Assyria figured in the prophecy uttered by Balaam about the year 1473 B.C.E. (Nu 24:24) Numerous references to Assyria are found in the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Zechariah, while the warning about Assyria’s ravaging of the northern kingdom of Israel is interwoven throughout the entire prophecy of Hosea. Frequent condemnation was made of the reliance placed upon such pagan nations by apostate Israel and Judah, often vacillating between Egypt and Assyria, like “a simpleminded dove without heart.” (Jer 2:18, 36; La 5:6; Eze 16:26, 28; 23:5-12; Ho 7:11) The disastrous results of such a course were vividly described. (Eze 23:22-27) The humiliation of the Assyrians and the restoration of the exiled Israelites to their homeland were also prophesied. (Isa 11:11-16; 14:25; Jer 50:17, 18; Eze 32:22; Zec 10:10, 11) Finally, the time was even foretold when peaceful relations would exist between the lands of Assyria and Egypt and they would be united with Israel in God’s favor and constitute “a blessing in the midst of the earth.”​—Isa 19:23-25.

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Carving from the north palace in Nineveh. The king and his queen enjoying a garden party; on the tree in front of the harpist is the head of a conquered king

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Assyrian chariots carrying religious standards into battle

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Wall panel from Nimrud shows Assyrian soldiers carrying away gods of a conquered city