Israel and the Assyrians

From the disruption of the Israelite Monarchy (c. 922 bC) until the fall of the Northern Kingdom two centuries later, two primary factors influenced the history of Syria-Palestine. One, as discussed in preceeding lectures, was the rapid rise to power of the Arameans of Damascus. The otheer, seen to be partly concomitant with it, was the ominous advance of a newly awakened Assyria, whose encroachments upon the west led to the most perpelexing changes in the state of affairs in Syria. Now the Arameans were engaged in bitter warfare against the Israelites, now in alliance with them against the Assyrians. Now Israelites or Arameans were in league with Assyria or with one another against the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

In the period following Hazael's death (c. 801 bC), Israel was able in an astonishing manner not only to regain the former prestige and power it had enjoyed under the Omrides, but also to reach the peak of its wealth and the period of its greatest territorial expansion. This was made possibleby victories over the Arameans and an extended hiatus in the Assyrian advance in the west. But the Assyrian lull was only the stillness that preceded the storm, which was eventually to break with such violence as to sweep away both Damascus and Israel as well.

Israel and the Decline of Damascus

However, before Assyria's protracted withdrawal from central and south Syria, Adadnirari III (805-782 BC) was able to strike a terrific blow at Damascus which was sufficiently crippling to enable the Israelites to throw off the shackles the Arameans and fastened upon them and to regain their former boundaries. On the inscribed stele of this Assyrian king (discovered in 1905) Adadnirari writes:

Against Aram [Syria] I marched. Mari', king of Aram, in Damascus his royual city, I shut up. The terrifying splendor of assur [the national god of the Asyrians]...overwhelmed him and he laid hold of my feet, he became my vassal. 2300 talents of silver, 20 talents of gold, 3000 talents of coper, 5000 talents of iron, colored woolen and linen garments, an ivory bed, an ivory couch...his property and his goods, in immeasurable quantity, in Damascus, his royal city, in his palace, I received.

By the enigmatic appelation Mari' ("my lord") the Assyrians evidently refer to Hazael toward the latter end of whose reign there was a decisive weakening of Aramean power, rather than to his son and successor, Benhadad II. In any case, there are no grounds for inserting another king named Mari' either before or after Benhadad II. The "name" is rather to be construed as "the title which had replace dthe royal name in current language" and which in this instance was employed by Adadnirari III for Hazael, since it is difficult to place Hazael's death earlier than 801 BC.

Joash and Benhadad II. The task of restoring Israelite fortunes was reserved for Joahaz, the twefth king of Israel (c. 801-786 BC), who "took again out of the hand of Benhadad, the son of Hazael, the cities which he had taken out of the hand of Joahaz his father by war. Three times did Joash smite him, and recovered the cities of Israel" (2 Kings 13:25).

Benhadad II, accordingly, signally failed to protect the Syrian conquests his father Hazael had won in the south. Joash's vigorous restoration of the Israelite state, indicated not only by his Aramean successes but also by important victories won in a war with Amaziah of Judah (2 Kings 13:12; 14:12), clearly put Benhadad II on the defensive, at least insofar as Israel was concerned.

Benhadad II and Zakir of Hamath. Although Aramean power suffered in southern Syria, the prestige of Benhadad II displayed remarkable vitality in the north, as shown by the important stele of Zakir, king of Hamath, discovered in 1903 at modern Afis southwest of Aleppo in northern Syria. This important monument, published by the discoverer H. Pognon in 1907, makes a significant reference in lines four and five to Benhadad II. Under the Aramaic form of the name, "Barhadad, son of Hazael, king of Aram" is presented as heading a coalition of twelve to eighteen kings against "Zakir, king of Hamath and Lu'ash". The operations of the confederacy, in which only seven of the kings take part, as Zakir expressly mentions, are directed against Hazrek (biblical Hadrach of Zechariah 9:1), the capital city of Lu'ash, a north Syrian principality southwest of Aleppo, and north of Hamath on the Orontes.

The real cause of the attack of the hostile coalition under Benhadad II was the merger of two powerful and independent states, Hamath and Lu'ash. This political move so upset the balance of power in Syria, and was attended with such a seriious threat to the autonomy of Damascus and other Syrian states, that they were ready to go to war in order to break it up. Benhadad iI especially had reason to be made sensitive to any added threat to Syrian power since his losses to Israel in the south had seriously curtailed his sway in that direction. Moreover, Zakir's victory over the coalition, in the celebration of which he set up his stele, furnished another indication of declining Aramean might.

Jeroboam II and the Subjugation of Damascus. The successes of Joash against Syria were continued with uninterrupted achievement by his son Jeroboam II (c. 786-746 BC). This notable era of Israel's expansion and prosperity was made possible as much by Assyria's comparative weakness and inaction in the west during Jeroboam II's long reign as by the rapid decline of Damascus.

In the brief notices in the Book of Kings the "might" of Jeroboam is stressed and "how he recovered Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah, for Israel" (2 Kings 14:28) and how "he restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath unto the sea of the 'Arabah" (2 Kings 14:25). This meant the conquest of Damascus and the extension of Israelite sway at least to the souternmost extremities of Hamath to the north, called "the approaches to hamath." Since the days of the conquest, this point had been recognized as the accepted northern boundary of the promised land (Josh. 13:5), realized in the period of Israel's greatest territorial control in the Davidic-Solomonic era (2 Sam. 8:5-11) and restored as a result of Jeroboam II's military successes.

In the case of Damascus, Jeroboam's victories embraced the actual subjugation of the city and not a mere tributary relationship, as Alfred Jepsen supposes. The biblical notices dealing with Jeroboam's military prowess plainly imply such a conquest, and it is supported by other lines of evidence proving the extraordinary prosperity of Jeroboam's reign.

Excavations at Samaria have confirmed the splendor of the Israelite capital in the eighth century BC. Jeroboam II refortified the city with a double wall, reaching to as much as thirty-three feet in width in exposed sections, comprising fortifications so substantial that the Assyrian army took three years to capture the city (2 Kings 17:5). The more splendid palace, built of limestone and boasting a strong rectangular tower and an extensive outer court, which has hitherto been assigned to Ahab, almost certainly belongs to Jeroboam II. The jasper seal of "Shema, servant of Jeroboam", discovered by Schumacher at Megiddo, is to be identified with Jeroboam II, as is now epigraphically certain. The lifelike and magnificently executed lion, which appears on it, furnishes evidence of the state of art during this era.

In addition to archeology, Amos' prophecies shed light on the increased commerce and wealth of Jeroboam's realm with consequent luxury and moral decline. Tribute from a greatly augmented territory flowed into the coffers of Samaria and created a very wealthy class, consisting largely of the ruling strata and court favorites. Glaring social and economic inequalities were fostered by the selfish and unscrupulous conduct of the rich (Amos 2:6, 8:6).

Simple dwellings of unburned brick gave way to "houses of hewn stone" and Ahab's ivory palace (decorations only are meant) was imitated by many of the wealthy of the land (Amos 3:15, 5:11, 1 Kings 22:39). Luxurious feasts were the order of the day (Amos 6:4-6). Religion degenerated into mere ritualism devoid of righteousness and morality (Amos 4:4, 5:5, 8:14).

As Amos had foreseen, this unhealthy prosperity, engendering a false sense of security and erected upon a flimsy foundation of mral and social injustice, was not destined to be permanent. The house of Jeroboam was to be visited with the sword (Amos 7:9) and the people were to be carried into captivity (Amos 5:27), predictions which the next quarter of a century was to justify fully. Somewhere around 746 BC Jeroboam died a natural death, but after a brief reign of only six months his son and successor, Zechariah, was murdered by an usurper. This initiated a period of sharp decline and destructive civil war.

Israel and the Advance of Assyria

After the reign of the famous queen Semiramis and her son Adadnirari III (810-783 BC), the power of Assyria declined. Shalmaneser IV (782-733 BC), Ashurdan III (722-755 BC) and Ashurnirari V (754-745 BC) were weak rulers and offered no peril to the west. Under their preoccupation with problems at home, Jeroboam II of Israel was able to extend his power in Syria almost unchallenged.

Menahem and Tiglathpileser III. Precisely about the time of Jeroboam II's death and the assassination of his son shortly afterward, momentous events were transpiring in Assyria. A great warrior and statesman (in his day he was called a tyrant. Now that he is dead he is called a statesman. Now you know the definition of a statesman: a dead politician), Tiglath pileser III (745-727 BC) ursurped the throne. Like his famous predecessor Tiglathpileser I (c. 1114-c. 1076 BC), a mighty conqueror wose name he assumed and who first lifted Assyria to the status of a great power, Tiglathpileser III brought the moribund Assyrian Empire to vigborous life.

In Babylon, where he was also recognized as king, the new empire builder was known as Pulu (perhaps his original name before he assumed the title of Tiglathpileser?). It was as Pul that he was popularly known to the Israelites. Under this name he is mentioned as exacting tribute from Menahem (c. 745-738 BC), who succeeded to the throne of Israel after Shallum, the murder or Jeroboam's son Zechariah, had reigned only one month. The biblical account runs this way: "There came against the land Pul, king of Assria; and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand" (1 Kings 15:19).

It is interesting to note that this same event is mentioned in the annals of the great Assyrian king: "As for Menahem, terror overwhelmed him, like a bird, alone he fled and submitted to me. To his place I brought him back and...silver, colored woolen garments, linen garments...I received as his tribute."

Rezin and the Resurgence of Aramean power. The civil confusion and weakness incident upon the death of Jeroboam gave Damascus opportunity to shake off Israelite control and to assume sufficient importance to appear once more in contempoarary sources. Rezin (c. 750-732 BC), the last Aramean king to rule at Damascus, appears in the Annals of Tiglathpileser III as "Rasunnu of Aram". With "Menihimmu" (Menahem) of "Samerina" (Samaria) and the kings of Tyre, Gebal (Byblus), Carchemish (Qarqar), Hamath, etc., Rezin is mentioned as paying tribute to his Assyrian overlord early in the reign of Tiglathpileser III, evidently in this third year (742 BC).

Azariah of Judah and the Assyrian Peril. Tiglathpileser III's westward advance in 743 BC, as a result of which both Menahem of Israel and Rezin of Damascus eventually had to pay tribute, had called forth a new Syrian-Palestinian coalition to stem the tde. The natural leader of such an alliance was Judah under Azariah (c. 783-742 BC), who headed by far the strongest and most ifluential state in Syria-Palestine at the time. Tiglathpileser, moreover, makes clear reference in his Annals to Aziriyau of Yaudu (or Yaudi) in connection with what is obviously such a coalition.

Azaraiah's disappearance from the Assyrian records with no mention of his fate, except that the far-reaching coalition he headed was smashed by the military prowess of Tiglathpileser III, would indicate that he died shortly afterward, probably not later than 742 BC, and in any case before the Assyrians could take punitive action against him.

Pekah and Rezin's War Against Ahaz. The speed with which the defeated allies came to terms with the invading Assyrians and the subsequent events of the reign of Ahaz (c. 735-715 BC) show that Israel and Damascus on the one hand and Judah under Azariah on the other, had merely been foul-weather friends, as Ahab and Benhadad I more than a century earlier had been. When burdensome Assyrian tribute in the intervening years necessitated the formation of a new coalition to throw off the oppressor's yoke under Pekah of Israel (c. 735-732 BC), the Israelite king found a ready ally in Rezin of Damascus, if indeed the latter was not the real promulgator of the new combination, as Alfred Jepsen argues.

Tiglathpileser's campaign in Urartu in Armenia (737-735 BC) created a breathing space for the consolidation of a Syrian-Palestinian coalition. Under pressure from Israel and Syria such Palestinian states as Philistia and Edom joined the new alliance. Ahaz of Judah, however, remained adamant. to cripple the Southern Kingdom as an effective opponent or to force Ahaz into the anti-Assyrian league, Pekah and Rezin invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:5; Isaiah 7:1-9).

Reduced to dire extremity and ignoring the encouraging anouncement of the impending doom of Damascus and Samaria, Ahaz dispatched an embassy with tribute to summon the aid of Tiglathpileser (2 Kings 16:7-8). In an inscription recroding the payment of tribute by various vassal states of Syria-Palestine, including the kings of Hamath, Arvad, Moba, Gaza, Ashklelon, Edom, and others, occurs "Iauhazi [Jehoahaz, i.e., Ahaz] of Judah." Tribute is mentioned as consisting of "gold, silver, lead, iron, tin, brightly colored woolen garments, linen, the purpole garments of their lands...all kings of costly things, the products of the sea and the dry land...the royal treasure, horses, mules, broken to the yoke..."

Jehoahaz ("The One Who Possesses Yahweh"), the more formal name employed by the Assyrians, was evidently considered by the pious Judahites to be entirely inappropriate for so week a character, noted for his idolatry. Thus, they preferred to refer to this wicked ruler simply as "Ahaz", meaning "One Who Possesses"). Besides "making his son pass through the fire", and practicing other non-Jewish rites (2 Kings 16:3-4), Ahaz's bent toward paganizm is illustrated by his importation of the type of altar he saw when he went to pay homage to Tiglathpileser at Damascus (2 Kings 16:10-16).

Tiglathpileser III and the Fall of Damascus. Ahaz's plea for aid against Israel and Damascus must have fitted in well with Tiglathpileser's own ambitions in Syria-Palestine. His response, certainly dictated by perceived self-interest, took the form of a campaign to Philistia in 734 BC. It was a move evidently aimed a splitting the allies, isolating Damascus, opening a way through northern Israel to the coastal plain, and effecting contact with Ahaz.

In all probability it was on this expedition to the Philistine plain that Tiglathpilesser III overran Israel, taking "Ijon, Abel-beth-maacha, Janoah, Kadesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee -- all the land of Naphtali..." (2 Kings 15:29), and deported the inhabitants to Assyria. However, the emperor's own record of the event obviously including that of 734 BC, leaves the exact date uncertain. His claim is:

...the wide land of Naphtali, in its entirety, I brought within the border of Assyria. My official I set over them as governor.

Again, he says:

The land of Bit-Humria (House of Omri)...all of its people, together with their goods, I carried off to Assyria.

Bit-Humria or "House of Omri" had been the common Assyrian name for the country of Israel ever since the days of King Omri, founder of a famous dynasty over a century previously. Such a wholesale deportation of peoples to prevent future uprisings was a notorious feature of Tiglathpileser's administration. On one occasion he boasts of carrying off "30,300 people...from their cities" and placing them in another province. On another occasion he speaks of displacing 1223 people.

With Israel duly castigated by the loss of its northern territories, Tiglathpileser now turned to Damascus to punish the other prominent rebel, Rezin. Events center there in the next two years (733-732 BC) when punitive military action is mentioned "against the land of Damascus" in the Assyrian Eponym lists.

Despite the mutilated and fragmentary condition of Tiglathpileser's records dealing with the siege and fall of Damascus, the salient facts stand out clearly. The Assyrian achieved the overthrow of the city and the Aramean state of which it was the capital, a feat his predicessors had vainly tried to accomplish for more than a half century. The clash with Rezin clearly resulted in the shattering of Aramean power.

In the long siege of Damascus, of which little is known, for not even Tiglathpileser's description of it is extant, King Panammu of Samal, a loyal Syrian tributary of the Assyrian monarch, sacrificed his life. This fact supplies a hint of just how intense the struggle was. The city finally fel in 732 BC. Making due allowance for hyperbole on the part of the Assyrian records, the destruction of the region around Damascus must have been horrendous. Tiglathpileser reports that five hundred ninety-one towns of the "sixteen districts of Aram I destroyed like mounds left by a flood. Hadaru, the father's house of Rezin of Aram [where] he was born, I besieged, I captured. Eight hundred people, together with their possessions...I carried off."

The concise but comprehensive biblical notice closely links the fall of Damascus with Ahaz's appeal and payment of tribute to Tiglathpileser. "And the king of Assyria listened to him...and went up against Damascus and took it, and caried its people captive to Kir, and killed Rezin" (2 Kings 16:9). The death of this the last of the Aramean kings who ruled for almost two centuries at Damascus was reported on a tablet of Tiglathpileser found and read by one of the early pioneers in Assyriology, Sir Henry Rawlinson. Unfortunately, however, this important document was lost without leaving a trace of its fate, when it was left behind in Asia. With Rezin's death the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus passed away forever.

Israel and the Triumph of Assyria

Tiglathpileser's far-reaching conquests and ruthless administration made him master of all the Westland. In a list of his western tributaries he mentions among many otehrs the kings of Gebel (later Byblus), and Arvad on the Mediterranean coast; the kings of Hamath, Ammon, Moab, Ashkelon, "Iauhazi [Jehoahaz] of Judah, Kaush-malaku of Edom...[and] Hananu [Hannon] of Gaza."

Tiglathpileser also controlled Israel. When Pekah was assasinated, the Assyrian emperor placed Hoshea on the throne (2 Kings 15:30), obligating him to pay heavy tribute to Assyria. This also was duly recorded in the imperial inscriptions. "Paqaha [Pekah] their king, they deposed and I placed Ausi' [Hoshea] over them as king. Ten talents of gold...talents of silver, as their tribute I received from them and to Assyria I carried them."

Shalmaneser V and the Siege of Samaria

Tiglathpileser III died in 727 BC and was succeeded by his son Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC). On a fragment of a small cylinder in the British Museum is recorded the only text extant concerning this particular monarch's reign. At least it is an interesting bit of writing. The inscription is evidently a memorial cylander placed in Nabu's temple at Borsippa in Babylonia to commemorate Shalmaneser's restoration of the ediface afterit had been severely damaged by flood. "...its damage I repared and strengthened its structure."

In the Old Testament, on the other hand, there are two prominent references to Shalmaneser V and to the part he played in the final overthrow of Samaria during the reign of Hoshea. The first recounts that "Shalmaneser king of Assyria," after imprisoning Hoshea for conspiracy with So [Sibe], a petty king on the eastern frontier of the Delta, "went up to Samaria and besieged it three years" (2 Kings 17:3-6).

The second Biblical notice connects the beginning of Shalmaneser's siege of Samaria with the fourth year of Hezekiah's reign in Judah. "And at the end of three years they [the Assyrian] took it [the city]....And the king of Assyria carried Israel away unto Assyria, and put them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes" (2 Kings 18:9-11). It is noteworthy that neither of these two passages states that Shalmaneser himself actually took the city, since it was actually taken by his successor.

Sargon II and the Collapse of Samaria

Israel's capital-fortress held out stubbornly for three years under the relentless pressure of Assyrian arms. Before the overthrow was actually accomplished, Shalmaneser V had been succeeded on the throne of Assyria by Sharrukin II (721-705 BC), an usurper and a general in the army, who assumed the ancient and venerable name of Sargon (Sargon of Agade, founder of the great Semitic empire in Babylonia in the twenty-fourth century BC). Mention of Sargon II in Isaiah 20:1 in connection with his capture of Ashdod, an event recorded in his annals, was, until the advent of modern archeology, the only place in extant literature where hisname was known.

Now, of course, thanks to the work of Paul Emile Botta (and others), the French consular agent at Mosul, who discovered Sargon's palace at Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin or "Sargonsburg") in 1843, and more recent explorations at the site by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Sargon II is one of the best known of Assyrian emperors. In the Khorsabad annals of his regim, the monarch lists the fall of Samaria as the outstanding event of the first year of his reign:

At the beginning of my rule, in my first year of reign....the people of Samaria...27,290...who lived therein, I carried away...

In Sargon's so-called "Display Inscription" at Khorsabad, which summarizes the principal events of the first 15 years of his reign, he says:

I besieged and captured Samaria, carrying off 27,290 of its inhabitants. I gathered 50 chariots from among them. I replaced the deported inhabitants with new imigrants. Finally, I set my officers over them and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king.

With the fall of Samaria the Northern Kingdom came to an abrupt end. Assyria was triumphant in the Westland.