The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Assyriology and the Old Testament
The science of Assyriology (the interpretation of the cuneiform inscriptions), which has originated and developed with such marked rapidity within the past fifty years, stands in intimate relations with the Old Testament. The history, philology, and archeology of Assyria are valuable aids to the student of the ancient Hebrews. The most salient allusions in Assyriology to events and customs mentioned in the Old Testament may most conveniently be divided into the following periods: viz., the antediluvian, the patriarchal, the Egyptian, the early regal, the last century of Assyria, and the new Babylonian.
The Antediluvian Period:
The Genesis records of the antediluvian period are paralleled by a number of traditions and customs found in the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. These are: (1) Thoroughly Semitic traditions of the creation of the world and of life; (2) traces of the observance of a seventh day, not unlike the Hebrew Sabbath; (3) references to a sacred garden; (4) possible similarities between the cherubic guardians of Eden and the colossi of Babylonia; and (5) remarkable resemblances between Genesis and the Babylonian traditions of the Deluge.
The Patriarchal Period:
The remarkable list of nations enumerated in Genesis 10 is helpfully elucidated by the ethnological revelations of the cuneiform records. Ur of the Chaldees has been definitely located at the modern mound Mugheir, on the right bank of the Euphrates, about one hundred and fifty miles above the Persian gulf, though in ancient times it is supposed to have been a seaport city. The patron deity of Ur, as of Harran, to which Abram migrated, was the moon-god Sin. Abram's journey to the West-land was made along one of the regular caravan routes of that day. The fourteenth chapter of Genesis has also received interesting confirmation of its historical basis in the facts: (1) That such raids as are there mentioned were made many centuries before Abram's day, and (2) that names discovered on the monuments, if not identical with those of this chapter, contain some of their elements.
The Egyptian Period:
The discovery at Tell el-Amarna in 1887 of more than three hundred cuneiform documents—correspondence between the kings of Asia and Egypt—belonging to the fifteenth century B.C. has disclosed some startling facts. It is learned from these that the civilization of Babylonia had swept westward as far as Egypt, and had so impressed itself upon its western subjects that its language was adopted as the medium of diplomacy. These letters also reveal with considerable detail the political and social conditions and relations in western Asia in this hitherto obscure period. A glimpse is obtained of the peoples who were settled in Canaan, and who constituted the background of the earliest settlements of Israel in this land. Joshua's conquests were made in the face of strong cities and great fortifications.
The Early Regal Period:
Though the early influence of Babylonia-Assyria is evident in the life and customs of the Hebrews in Canaan in the time of David and Solomon, its first direct and potent bearing is seen in the treaty made by Ahab with Benhadad (1 Kings 20:26-34). This was a wise stroke of statesmanship on the part of Ahab, in that it put the Syrian army in the foreground to withstand the invasion of the oncoming hosts of Shalmaneser II. of Assyria. Damascus and the Syrian army now became Ahab's advance guard. The full import of this mysterious league is seen within a few years at the battle between Shalmaneser II. and the combined allies of the West. At the famous battle of Karkar (854 B.C.) Shalmaneser II. had to face among other forces "1, 200 chariots, 1, 200 horsemen, 20, 000 men of Ben-hadad of Damascus, . . . 2,000 chariots, 10,000 men of Ahab of Israel." The Old Testament does not mention this battle, nor is any intimation given of its disastrous results. This same Assyrian king, in his records of a campaign twelve years later (842 B.C.), says: "At that time I received the tribute of the Syrians, the Sidonians, and of Jehu, the son of Omri." According to this statement, the kingdom of Israel was probably still paying the tribute originally levied on the defeated Ahab. "Jehu, the son of Omri," was doubtless used in the sense of "successor " on the throne of Israel.
Within a few years Shalmaneser II. turned his attention to other quarters; and the new king of Damascus, Hazael, entered upon ambitious designs in the West. It was not until 797 B.C. that another Assyrian king, Adad-nirari III., grandson of Shalmaneser II., set out on a western campaign. He conquered Damascus, and brought to his feet Samaria, Edom, and Philistia, and made them tributary provinces of Assyria. The power of Syria was so broken by this campaign that she never recovered her former strength, nor thereafter proved so formidable an enemy of Israel. Assyria's political power gradually receded toward the Tigris; and the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah were left free to expand until they reached the limits of the Solomonic kingdom.
The Last Century of Assyria:
After forty years of comparative peace and prosperity (783-743), the two kingdoms heard a rumor of the approach of Assyrian hosts. Tiglath-pileser III. (Pul) crossed the Euphrates; and he recounts "nineteen districts of the city of Hamath, together with the towns in their circuit, situated on the sea of the setting sun [the Mediterranean], which in their faithlessness had joined faith with Azariah, I restored to the territory of the land of Asshur." In another fragment it is stated that this was "Azariah the Judean." In his list of kings paying tribute are found Hiram of Tyre, Rezon of Damascus, and Menahem of Samaria (2 Kings 15:19). In one of these campaigns, at the end of a two years' siege, Damascus fell (732 B.C.), and Samaria likewise experienced the vengeance of the Assyrian king. One of the king's records says: "Pekah, their king, they overthrew; Hoshea, I appointed over them" (compare 2 Kings 15:30). In a list of petty tributary kings of the east coast of the Mediterranean sea, Tiglath-pileser mentions Ahaz of Judah. In all, this monarch of Assyria mentions in his fragmentary annals three kings of Israel and two kings of Judah.
Records of Sargon II.
The next definite statement relating to the Old Testament is found in the records of Sargon II. In the first year of his reign (722 B.C.) he says: "The city Samaria I besieged, 27,290 of its inhabitants I carried away captive; fifty chariots in it I took for myself; but the remainder [of the people] I allowed to retain their possessions." The depopulated territory was repopulated, according to his own records as well as those of the Old Testament (2 Kings 17), by the importation of peoples from several foreign countries. This combination of strange races formed the basis of the later Samaritans. This Sargon II., mentioned but once in the Old Testament (Isaiah 20:1), was a shrewd and powerful monarch. He carried out a successful campaign against Ashdod of Philistia, as one of the chief cities involved in a wide-spread coalition to throw off the yoke of Assyria (compare Isaiah 39). The foe was completely routed; and Sargon proceeded to Babylon and completed his victory.
Upon the death of Sargon II. (705 B.C.), his son Sennacherib ascended the throne. His first movement affecting Palestine occurred in 701 B.C.; and he gives an admirable record of the whole campaign. He pressed forward from Nineveh to the Mediterranean sea, and thence down the coast-line to Philistia, where he encountered determined resistance. He overran the land of Judah, captured forty-six of its strong fortresses, and carried off 200,150 captives. Hezekiah, king of Judah, was shut up in Jerusalem. Lachish and Libnah were taken after siege, and the Egyptian ally of Judah appeared on the scene. Sennacherib met, and claims to have defeated, their great army, but apparently took no advantage of his victory. Strangely enough, Sennacherib's next statement is to the effect that Hezekiah sent tribute, etc., after him to Nineveh. No mention is made of any disaster or of his return. It is interesting in this connection to note that, although Sennacherib reigned twenty years after this (to 681), he records no further movements toward the west. In a Babylonian chronicle it is recorded that "Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was murdered by his own son in an insurrection" (compare Isaiah 37:38). As a result of this uprising, Esarhaddon seized and held the throne, and ruled from 681 to 668 B.C.
In a list of twenty-two vassal kings on the Mediterranean coast, Esarhaddon mentions Manasseh of Judah. His son and successor, Assurbanipal (668-626 B.C.), likewise mentions the same king in his list of vassals. In 647 a general revolt against the king of Nineveh probably included Manasseh, who was carried to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11-13). Upon his submission he, like Necho of Egypt, was restored to his throne. This closes the contact between Assyria and Judah, and leaves upon the known documents of Assyria the names of ten kings of Israel and Judah.
The New Babylonian Period:
The great founder of the new Babylonian empire was Nebuchadnezzar. The inscriptions amply confirm the Old Testament pictures of his greatness and devotion to the gods of his land. He was a shrewd general, a wise administrator, and a world-wide conqueror and ruler. Babylon was his throne, and the civilized world his realm. The captive Jews were his subjects, and served as his menials and vassals. The close of his forty-three years' reign was followed by a period of anarchy, until Nabonidus (555-538 B.C.), the last king of the declining Babylonian monarchy, secured the throne.
The rise of Cyrus in the East presented a new problem. Tribes, peoples, and kingdoms fell before him until he reached the walls of Babylon. Its population, weary of neglect during the reign of Nabonidus as well as of his faithlessness to the great gods of the city, threw wide open the city gates to welcome the advent of so benevolent and liberal a ruler. Cyrus paid his devotions to the gods of the land, and implored them to aid and promote his plans. Cyrus' decree, authorizing the Jews to return to Jerusalem, was in full accordance with the general policy inaugurated throughout his realm—a policy designed in every way to conciliate his subjects.
Other Points of Contact:
In addition to this vast mass of historical data illustrative of the Old Testament, there is found much valuable material. The archeological facts of the Old Testament are invested with a new interest; the geography of those old lands is now a new theme; the chronology of Israel's history, always difficult, has lost some of its uncertainties; and the ethnography of the early settlements has already become a fascinating study. The linguistic and exegetical value of the cuneiform documents is far beyond the most sanguine expectations of scholars. Altogether the science of Assyriology has opened up to the student of the Old Testament a new world which he must explore before he can appreciate many of its most interesting parts.
- For discoveries: Botta, Monument de Ninive, 1847-50;
- Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains, 1849;
- Nineveh and Babylon, 1853;
- Loftus, Chaldœa and Susiana, 1857;
- G. Smith, Assyrian Discoveries, 1875;
- Ausgrabungen in Sendschirli, 1893;
- J. P. Peters, Nippur, 1897-98;
- Rassam, Asshur and the Land of Nimrod, 1897;
- Rogers, History of Babylonia and Assyria, 1901, 1:1-348.
- On Monuments relative to the Old Testament: J. F. McCurdy, History, Prophecy, and the Monuments, 1894-1901;
- Sayce, Higher Criticism and the Monuments, 1894;
- F. Vigouroux, La Bible et les Découvertes Modernes, 5th ed., 1889;
- Ball, Light from the East, 1899;
- Price, The Monuments and the Old Testament, 3d ed., 1902;
- Schrader, Die Keilinschriften und das A. T. 2d ed., 1901;
- Delitzsch, Babel und Bibel, 1902.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Assyriology and the Old Testament'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/assyriology-and-the-old-testament.html. 1901.