The Assyrians

The Assyrians—2 Kings 17-18; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36

by John Kitto, Daily Bible Illustrations

A very important event in the history of the Hebrews is the withholding of their tribute from the Assyrians by both the kings of Israel and Judah. The king of Israel was Hoshea, who had slain his ancestor—“his friend,” Josephus says—and reigned in his stead; while the throne of David was occupied by the pious Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. This measure appears to have originated in the expectation of being sustained by Egypt, which had at length become alive to its own danger from the steady progress in empire of so  great a power as Assyria, and saw the importance of encouraging the barrier kingdoms. It is clear that both received such assurances from Egypt, as gave them ground to expect that Pharaoh would afford them vigorous aid, in any difficulties that might arise from the assertion of their independence. It was so clearly his interest to do so, that the sincerity of his assurances cannot be doubted; and that he did not eventually fulfill the expectations it had raised, is accounted for by the peculiar circumstances of the country, which deprived the reigning king of the confidence of the army, and indisposed them to work out his objects. This had been foreseen by the contemporary prophets, who strongly discouraged all reliance upon the help of Egypt.

This stoppage of tribute soon brought the forces of the Assyrian king upon Israel. There was no help from Egypt, and the country was easily subdued; all, save Samaria, in which the king had shat himself up with the remnant of his forces, and where he held out for three years, vainly expecting the help from Egypt which never came. At length the city fell: Hoshea was sent off in chains to Nineveh; and the kingdom of the ten tribes ceased to exist. This was in the year 721 before Christ. According to the policy followed by the eastern conquerors with regard to those nations or provinces they designed to incorporate with their own domains, Shalmaneser sent away beyond the Euphrates the flower of the conquered nation, comprising all those distinguished for their rank or wealth, or for their abilities or qualifications in useful arts. To replace these, new settlers were brought from the East; and being merely designed to keep the land in occupation, formed a much less numerous and valuable population than that which had been removed. This policy was further carried out by Esarhaddon, the grandson of Shalmaneser, who gleaned the remnant of native Israelites, and substituted an additional draft of foreigners. These strangers gradually combined with the dregs that remained of the Hebrews, and the population thus constituted took the name of Samaritans, from the city of Samaria.  They were all originally idolaters; but believing in national or territorial deities, they thought it necessary to learn something respecting the God of the land into which they had come. The Assyrian king thought this a reasonable wish, and sent back from Assyria a Jewish priest to teach them “the manner of the God of the country.” The result was, that they combined the worship of Jehovah with that of their native idols. But in time the idolatrous dross got purged out, and eventually the Samaritan system of belief and practice became as pure as that of the Jews, though less exact in some of its observances. In some respects it may have been purer, as the Samaritans would have nothing to do with the mass of oral traditions with which, even before the birth of Christ, the Jewish system became disfigured and overladen.

The process of the Assyrian conquerors, as described by the sacred historians and the prophets, is remarkably corroborated by the Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions, as deciphered by Major Rawlinson; and it is not by any means unlikely that further research may bring to light accounts of the expeditions of the Assyrian kings in Palestine. We copy some sentences in corroboration. The king, in the first instance, is called Temen-bar, and all the inscriptions make the kings speak in the first person. The inscription begins with an invocation, which Rawlinson ingenuously confesses his inability to follow. He perceives, however, that first there is a list of gods; then the favor of all these deities, with Assarac at their head—the supreme god of heaven—is invoked for the protection of Assyria. The king then goes on to give his own titles and genealogy. He calls himself king of the nations who worship Husi and Assarac; king of Mesopotamia; son of Sardanapalus, the servant of Husi, the protector, who first introduced the worship of the gods among many peopled nations. Then the king proceeds to register the various military glories of his reign. “These campaigns,” says Rawlinson, Note: A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria. London, 1850. “are almost all described in the same  terms; the king of Assyria defeats the enemy in the field, subjugates the country, sacrifices to the gods, and then generally carries off the inhabitants, with their most valuable effects, into captivity in Assyria; replacing the people with colonists drawn from the nations immediately subject to him, and appointing his own officers and prefects to the charge of the colonists, and the administration of the new territory.” “In the third year Ahuni, son of Hateni, rebelled against me. The country beyond the Euphrates he placed under the protection of the god Assarac, the Excellent, while he committed to the god Rimmon the country between the Euphrates and the Arteri…. Then I went out from the city of Nineveh, and, crossing the Euphrates, I attacked and defeated Ahuni, the son of Hateni, in the city of Sitrat, which was situated upon the Euphrates, and which Ahuni had made one of his capitals. The rest of the country I brought under subjection; and Ahuni, the son of Hateni, with his gods, and his chief priests, his horses, his sons and his daughters, and all his men of war, I brought away to my country of Assyria.”

The phrase frequently occurs that in the places conquered “I raised altars to the immortal gods.” Those that adopted the Assyrian religion seem to have been spared—a curious analogy to the Moslem propagandism by the sword: “The cities which did not acknowledge the god Assarac I brought under subjection.” So again: “By the grace of Assarac, the great and powerful god, I fought with them and defeated them: twenty thousand five hundred of their men I slew, or carried into slavery; their leaders, their captains, and their men of war I put in chains.” “I took the city of Arama, which was the capital of the country (Ararat), and I gave up to pillage one hundred of the dependent towns. I slew the wicked, and I carried off the treasures.”

Egypt was by this time the principal object of attention to the Assyrians; and the king deemed it advisable to secure Tyre and other strong cities on the coast before dealing with Hezekiah. This occupied attention many years— for Tyre in particular made a most vigorous and protracted resistance—and meanwhile Shalmaneser had died, and Sennacherib, his son, succeeded. This king prosecuted the war with vigor and overwhelming force, and at length applied himself to the reduction of Hezekiah’s fortresses. This prince was then really alarmed, having seen cause to abandon all hope from. Egypt; and he therefore sent to Sennacherib, humbly acknowledging his fault, and offering to submit to any demand that might be made upon him. The Assyrian required, as the price of his forbearance, three hundred talents of silver, and thirty of gold. This was a heavy sum for Judah to pay, and it was not raised without extreme difficulty. It obliged the king to take all the silver in the house of the Lord, all the treasure in the palace, and even to strip off all the gold with which the doors and pillars of the temple had been overlaid. Whether he was enabled thus to raise the entire sum, is not clear; but it is certain that, after Sennacherib had taken Ashdod, which was regarded as the key of Egypt, he changed his mind, and concluded that it would be unsafe to leave so doubtful a power as that of Judah unbroken in his rear. He therefore resumed his military operations against Judah; and, while engaged in reducing the fortified towns of Lachish and Libnah, sent two great officers—the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief cup-bearer, these being the offices which the names Rabsaris and Rabshakeh imply—with a large force, to demand the unconditional surrender of the king and capital. In that case they were to be left alone till the king returned from the conquest of Egypt, when he promised to transport them to a better land than their own. This is curious as an indication that the application of this well-known policy of the eastern conquerors was set forth as anything but disadvantageous to those brought under its operation. It shows also that it was already notorious that the persons thus expatriated were well treated and much encouraged in the lands to which they were removed. There is, indeed, a marked distinction in the language addressed to  the rulers, and that intended for the citizens. Poor Hezekiah is abused most vilely, and overwhelmed with scorn and insult; while the material advantages to be realized by submission are studiously placed before the eyes of the people. The dignity of independence, the pride of nationality, were of small account in the eyes of these Assyrians. The gasconading language of these commissioners, as recorded in the pages of Isaiah, well marks the arrogant and boastful character of the Assyrians, and is in remarkable conformity with the tone of the inscriptions to which we have already referred—as is also the religious tone and pretence to a divine commission which is advanced. The language used was indeed so insulting and blasphemous that Hezekiah conceived from it that the Lord himself would hear and avenge his own cause, and, encouraged by the prophets, he gathered confidence from that which seemed calculated to intimidate him.

He was, in fact, by this brought into the state of feeling proper to his condition—and which, if he had earlier realized, much distress and anxiety would have been spared to him, and we should have been spared the display of that vacillating indecision which forms the only drawback in the character of this righteous man and excellent king. He certainly ought to have known—and it was not for want of prophetic teaching that he did not know—that a king walking, as he had done, in the paths of righteousness, and striving, as he had striven, to advance the glory of God, was entitled, under the peculiar covenants of the Hebrew theocratic constitution, to expect, and even to demand, the protection of the Divine King of the land and people. No sooner, therefore, did he realize the sufficiency of this—no sooner did he cast himself in entire confidence upon the Lord’s protection—than his heart was cheered by the promise of a great deliverance.