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Holman Bible Dictionary

Assyria, History and Religion of

Assyria (Assihrya) was a nation in northern Mesopotamia in Old Testament times that became a large empire during the period of the Israelite kings. Assyrian expansion into the region of Palestine (about 855-625 B.C.) had enormous impact on the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

History Assyria lay north of the region of Babylonia along the banks of the Tigris River (Genesis 2:14 ) in northern Mesopotamia. The name Assyria (in Hebrew, Ashshur ) is from Asshur, its first capital, founded about 2000 B.C. The foundation of other Assyrian cities, notably Calah and Nineveh, appears in Genesis 10:11-12 .

The history of Assyria is well documented in royal Assyrian annals, building inscriptions, king lists, correspondence, and other archaeological evidence. By 1900 B.C. these cities were vigorously trading as far away as Cappadocia in eastern Asia Minor. An expanded Assyria warred with the famous King Hammurabi of Babylon shortly before breaking up into smaller city states about 1700 B.C.

Beginning about 1300 B.C., a reunited Assyria made rapid territorial advances and soon became an international power. Expanding westward, Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077 B.C.) became the first Assyrian monarch to march his army to the shores of the Mediterranean. With his murder, however, Assyria entered a 166-year period of decline.

Assyria awoke from its dark ages under Adad-nirari II (911-891 B.C.), who reestablished the nation as a power to be reckoned with in Mesopotamia. His grandson, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) moved Assyria toward the status of an empire. Ashurnasirpal II used a well-deserved reputation for cruelty to extort tribute and taxes from states within the reach of his army in predatory campaigns. He also rebuilt the city of Calah as the new military and administrative capital. Carved stone panels in Ashurnasirpal's palace there show violent scenes of the king's vicious campaigns against unsubmissive enemies.

Ashurnasirpal's son Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) continued a policy of Assyrian expansion through his annual campaigns in all directions. These were no longer mere predatory raids. Rather they demonstrated a systematic economic exploitation of subject states. As always, failure to submit to Assyria brought vicious military action. The results, however, were not always a complete victory for Assyria. In such a context Assyria first encountered the Hebrew kingdoms of the Bible. In 853 B.C., at Qarqar in north Syria, Shalmaneser fought a coalition of twelve kings including Hadad-ezer (Ben-Hadad, 1Kings 20:26,1 Kings 20:34 ) of Aram-Damascus and Ahab of Israel. This confrontation is not mentioned in the Bible, but it may have taken place during a three-year period of peace between Israel and Aram-Damascus (1 Kings 22:1 ). In his official inscriptions Shalmaneser claims victory, but the battle was inconclusive. In 841 B.C., he finally defeated Hazael of Damascus and on Mt. Carmel received tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and King Jehu of Israel. A scene carved in relief on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, unearthed at Calah, shows Jehu groveling before Shalmaneser, the only known depiction of an Israelite king.

With the death of Shalmaneser, Assyria entered another period of decline during which she was occupied with the nearby kingdom of Urartu. For the next century only one Assyrian king seriously affected affairs in Palestine. Adad-nirari III (810-783 B.C.) entered Damascus, taking extensive tribute from Ben-hadad III. He is probably the “savior” of 2 Kings 13:5 , who allowed Israel to escape domination by Aram-Damascus. Nevertheless, Adad-nirari also collected tribute from Jehoash of Israel.

Assyrian preoccupation with Urartu ended with the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 B.C.). The true founder of the Assyrian Empire, he made changes in the administration of conquered territories. Nations close to the Assyrian homeland were incorporated as provinces. Others were left with native rule, but subject to an Assyrian overseer. Tiglath-pileser also instituted a policy of mass deportations to reduce local nationalistic feelings. He took conquered people into exile to live in lands vacated by other conquered exiles. Compare 2 Kings 17:24 .

As Tiglath-pileser, also called Pul, arrived on the coast of Phoenicia, Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:19 ) and Rezin of Aram-Damascus brought tribute and became vassals of Assyria. An anti-Assyrian alliance quickly formed. Israel and Aram-Damascus attacked Jerusalem about 735 B.C. in an attempt to replace King Ahaz of Judah with a man loyal to the anti-Assyrian alliance (2 Kings 16:2-6; Isaiah 7:1-6 ) and thus force Judah's participation. Against the protests of Isaiah (Isaiah 7:4 ,Isaiah 7:4,7:16-17; Isaiah 8:4-8 ), Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-pileser for assistance (2 Kings 16:7-9 ). Tiglath-pileser, in response, campaigned against Philistia (734 B.C.), reduced Israel to the area immediately around Samaria (2 Kings 15:29; 733 B.C.), and annexed Aram-Damascus (732 B.C.), deporting the population. Ahaz, for his part, became an Assyrian vassal ( 2 Kings 16:10; 2Chronicles 28:16,2 Chronicles 28:20-22 ).

Little is known of the reign of Tiglath-pileser's successor, Shalmaneser V (726-722 B.C.), except that he besieged Samaria for three years in response to Hoshea's failure to pay tribute (2 Kings 17:3-5 ). The city finally fell to Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 18:9-12 ), who apparently died in the same year. His successor, Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), took credit in Assyrian royal inscriptions for deporting 27,290 inhabitants of Samaria.

Sargon campaigned in the region to counter rebellions in Gaza in 720 B.C. and Ashdod in 712 (Isaiah 20:1 ). Hezekiah of Judah was tempted to join in the Ashdod rebellion, but Isaiah warned against such action (Isaiah 18:1 ). Meanwhile, unrest smoldered in other parts of the empire. A rebellious king of Babylon, Merodach-baladan, found support from Elam, Assyria's enemy to the east. Though forced to flee Babylon in 710 B.C., Merodach-baladan returned some years later to reclaim the throne. He sent emissaries to Hezekiah in Jerusalem (2 Kings 20:12-19; Isaiah 39:1 ), apparently as part of preparations for a concerted anti-Assyrian revolt.

News of Sargon's death in battle served as a signal to anti-Assyrian forces. Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) ascended the throne in the midst of widespread revolt. Merodach-baladan of Babylon, supported by the Elamites, had inspired the rebellion of all southern Mesopotamia. A number of states in Phoenicia and Palestine were also in rebellion, led by Hezekiah of Judah. After subduing Babylon, Sennacherib turned his attentions westward. In 701 B.C., he reasserted control over the city-states of Phoenicia, sacked Joppa and Ashkelon, and invaded Judah where Hezekiah had made considerable military preparations (2 Kings 20:20; 2Chronicles 32:1-8,2 Chronicles 32:30; Isaiah 22:8-11 ). Sennacherib's own account of the invasion provides a remarkable supplement to the biblical version (2 Kings 18:13-19:36 ). He claims to have destroyed 46 walled cities (see 2 Kings 18:13 ) and to have taken 200,150 captives. Sennacherib's conquest of Lachish is shown in graphic detail in carved panels from his palace at Nineveh. During the siege of Lachish, an Assyrian army was sent against Jerusalem where Hezekiah was “made a prisoner like a bird in a cage.” Three of Sennacherib's dignitaries attempted to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17-37 ), but Hezekiah continued to hold out with the encouragement of Isaiah (2Kings 19:1-7,2 Kings 19:20-35 ). In the end, the Assyrian army withdrew, and Hezekiah paid an enormous tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16 ). The Assyrian account claims a victory over the Egyptian army and mentions Hezekiah's tribute but is rather vague about the end of the campaign. The Bible mentions the approach of the Egyptian army (2 Kings 19:9 ) and tells of a miraculous defeat of the Assyrians by the angel of the Lord (2 Kings 19:35-36 ). The fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus relates that the Assyrians suffered defeat because a plague of field mice destroyed their equipment. It is not certain whether these accounts can be combined to infer an outbreak of the plague. Certainly, Sennacherib suffered a major setback, for Hezekiah was the only ruler of the revolt to keep his throne.

On a more peaceful front, Sennacherib conducted some major building projects in Assyria. The ancient city of Nineveh was rebuilt as the new royal residence and Assyrian capital. War continued, however, with Elam, which also influenced Babylon to rebel again. An enraged Sennacherib razed the sacred city in 689 B.C. His murder, at the hands of his own sons (2 Kings 19:37 ) in 681 B.C., was interpreted by Babylonians as divine judgment for destroying their city.

Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) emerged as the new king and immediately began the rebuilding of Babylon, an act which won the allegiance of the local populace. He warred with nomadic tribes to the north and quelled a rebellion in Phoenicia, while Manasseh of Judah remained a loyal vassal. His greatest military adventure, however, was an invasion of Egypt conducted in 671 B.C. The Pharaoh Taharqa fled south as Memphis fell to the Assyrians, but returned and fomented rebellion two years later. Esarhaddon died in 669 B.C. on his way back to subjugate Egypt.

After conducting a brief expedition against eastern tribes, Esarhaddon's son, Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.), set out to reconquer Egypt. Assisted by 22 subject kings, including Manasseh of Judah, he invaded in 667 B.C. He defeated Pharaoh Taharqa and took the ancient capital of Thebes. Some 1,300 miles from home, Ashurbanipal had no choice but to reinstall the local rulers his father had appointed in Egypt and hope for the best. Plans for revolt began immediately; but Assyrian officers got wind of the plot, captured the rebels, and sent them to Nineveh. Egypt rebelled again in 665 B.C. This time Ashurbanipal destroyed Thebes, also called No-Amon (Nahum 3:8 , NAS). Phoenician attempts at revolt were also crushed.

Ashurbanipal ruled at Assyria's zenith but also saw the beginning of her swift collapse. Ten years after the destruction of Thebes, Egypt rebelled yet again. Assyria could do nothing because of a war with Elam. In 651 B.C., Ashurbanipal's brother, the king of Babylon, organized a widespread revolt. After three years of continual battles Babylon was subdued, but remained filled with seeds of hatred for Assyria. Action against Arab tribes followed, and the war with Elam continued until a final Assyrian victory in 639 B.C. That same year the official annals of Ashurbanipal came to an abrupt end. With Ashurbanipal's death in 627 B.C., unrest escalated. By 626, Babylon had fallen into the hands of the Chaldean Nabopolassar. Outlying states, such as Judah under Josiah, were free to rebel without fear. War continued between Assyria and Babylon until, in 614 B.C., the old Assyrian capital Asshur was sacked by the Medes. Then, in 612 B.C., Calah was destroyed. The combined armies of the Babylonians and the Medes laid siege to Nineveh. After two months, the city fell. And all who look on you will shrink from you and say, Wasted is Nineveh; who will bemoan her? whence shall I seek comforters for her? There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is grievous. All who hear the news of you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil? (Nahum 3:7 ,Nahum 3:7,3:19 ). An Assyrian general claimed the throne and rallied what was left of the Assyrian army in Haran. An alliance with Egypt brought a few troops to Assyria's aid; but in 610 B.C. the Babylonians approached, and Haran was abandoned. Assyria was no more.

Religion Assyrian religion, like that of most Near Eastern nations, was polytheistic. Essentially the same as Babylonian religion, official Assyrian religion recognized thousands of gods; but only about twenty were important in actual practice. The important part of the pantheon can be divided into several broad categories: old gods, astral deities, and young gods.

1. The old gods, Anu, Enlil, and Ea, were patron deities of the oldest Sumerian cities and were each given a share of the universe as their dominion. After the rise of Babylon, Marduk was also considered one of the rulers of the cosmos. Anu, god of the heavens and patron god of Uruk (biblical Erech; Genesis 10:10 ), did not play a very active role. Enlil of Nippur was god of the earth. Ea, the god of Eridu, was lord of the subterranean waters and the god of craftsmen.

2. Astral deities—gods associated with heavenly bodies—included the sun-god Shamash, the moon-god Sin, and Ishtar, goddess of the morning and evening star (the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus). Sin was the patron god of Ur and Haran, both associated with Abraham's origins (Genesis 11:31 ). Ishtar, the Canaanite Astarte/Ashtaroth (Judges 10:6; 1 Samuel 7:3-4; 1 Kings 11:5 ), was very popular as the “Queen of Heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 44:17-19 ,Jeremiah 44:17-19,44:25 ) and served as the patron goddess of Nineveh.

Younger gods were usually associated with a newer city or none at all. Adad, the Canaanite Hadad, was the god of storms and thus both beneficial and destructive. Ninurta, the god of war and hunting, became a fitting patron for the Assyrian capital Calah. Most important, however, is the unique figure of Asshur. As patron god and namesake of the original Assyrian capital Asshur and the state itself, Asshur rose in importance to be lord of the universe and the supreme god. Since the god Asshur stood above all others, the Assyrian king was duty-bound to show his corresponding dominance on earth. Most Assyrian military campaigns were initiated “at the command of Asshur.” See Babylon, History and Religion of .

Although a number of myths concerning the various Babylonian/Assyrian gods are known, the religious function of but one can be determined. The enuma elish, or Epic of Creation, originated in Babylon where it was recited and reenacted at the New Year's Festival. In the Assyrian version Asshur, not the Babylonian Marduk, is shown to be superior to the other gods.

The various gods were thought of as residing in cosmic localities, but also as present in their image, or idol, and living in the temple as a king in his palace. The temples varied in size according to the god's importance. The gilded wooden images were in human form, clothed in a variety of ritual garments, and given three meals a day. On occasion, especially at the New Year's Festival, the images were carried in ceremonial processions or to visit one another in different sanctuaries. It is difficult to know what meaning the images and temples of the various gods had for the average person, and even more difficult to ascertain what comfort or help he might expect through worship of them. It seems clear, however, that beyond the expectations of health and success in his earthly life, he was without eternal hope.

Daniel C. Browning, Jr.


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Assyria, History and Religion of'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=539. 1991.

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