Biblical Archeology

Inscribed Stones and a Biblical Text. The archeologist's spade early provided three confirmations for a single text.

Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of Ministry.


A casual reading of Isaiah 20:1 and 2 seemingly offers little of significance other than the time a particular message came to the prophet Isaiah. In the light of archeological discovery, however, we have in this brief passage three specific examples of ancient inscriptions con firming or illuminating a Biblical reference.

The passage says, "In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, (when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,) and fought against Ashdod, and took it; at the same time spake the Lord by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying ..." (Isa. 20:1, 2).

King Sargon

The text specifically names Sargon as the king of Assyria. For centuries this was the only place in all of literature where the name of this king occurred. Consequently, many scholars questioned that such a king had ever existed, and the accuracy of the Bible account. The true facts came to light amid very interesting circumstances.

With the deciphering of the trilingual inscriptions on the Behistun rock (an arduous feat accomplished by Henry Rawlinson over a ten-year period; it was completed about 1845), it became possible to read the ancient cuneiform language of Mesopotamia. This event triggered an interest in the ruins of that ancient civilization, and the French Government sent Paul Emile Botta to Mosul, where, in addition to his duties as French consul, he was to search out ancient remains.

Arriving in 1840, Botta spent the first couple of years frequenting local shops and going from house to house inquiring about antiquities and securing whatever he could. Finally, with a crew of workers he began digging in the nearby mound of Kuyunjik, believing it to be the site of the ancient city of Nineveh. After several fruitless months, his attention was diverted to the mound of Khorsabad, fourteen miles to the north. There his digging was successful from the beginning. Huge walls covered with strange reliefs came to light. In his enthusiasm, Botta sent the news to Paris and the world "I believe that I am the first to discover sculptures that can be truly identified with the period when Nineveh was at its height."

Meanwhile the digging continued with still more spectacular results. Botta was convinced he had unearthed ancient Nineveh. The five volumes giving his report, published in 1849, bore the daring title "Monuments of Nineveh."

The city, however, was correctly identified as Dur Sharrukin, with its pal ace of Sargon II, the Assyrian king referred to in Isaiah 20:1. No longer could the existence of Sargon, king of Assyria, be questioned. This became the first in stance of an ancient inscription confirming a Biblical passage. Today huge reliefs, colossal winged bulls, and other remains from Sargon's palace may be seen in the great museums of the world, the first of them transported to the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1846 by a French man-of-war.

From 1929 to 1935 the University of Chicago dug at Khorsabad, and today in the Oriental Institute Museum of Chicago can be seen a huge stone bull from one of the gateways of the palace. Measuring sixteen feet square, it was brought to America in 1929. Reliefs of captives being taken into Assyrian captivity with their horses can also be seen.

We are reminded that it was King Sargon who led his armies against the hill city of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, besieged it, and took the tribes into captivity. In his famous "Display Inscriptions," Sargon summarized the first fifteen years of his reign. He reports, "I besieged and captured Samaria, carrying off 27,190 of the people, who dwelt therein. Fifty chariots I gathered from among them. I caused others to take their portion. I set my officers over them and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king."

The fall of the city of Samaria, re corded in 2 Kings 17:5 and 6, was the result of a three-year siege, begun by Shalmaneser V (who died in the process) and completed in about 722 B.C. by Sargon, who had usurped the throne.

Conquest of Ashdod

According to Isaiah 20:1, Sargon also fought against Ashdod, "and took it." Victor Place, who replaced Botta at Khorsabad, uncovered in the king's pal ace fourteen barrel cylinders with historical records. These and other annals mention many of the people and places met frequently in the Bible record of this period. Of special interest is the record of Sargon's capture of Ashdod, con firming the Biblical text. The Assyrian inscription reads: "In a sudden rage I did not . . . assemble the full might of my army . . . but started out toward Ashdod . . . with those of my warriors who even in friendly areas never leave my side . . . I besieged . . . conquered the cities Ash dod, Gath, Asdo-dimmu ..."

Excavations at the Philistine city of Ashdod, about two miles south of Joppa, began in 1922 and have continued through the years. The ancient acropolis covered some twenty acres and the lower city at least seventy acres. As expected, when the excavators, under the direction of M. Dothan, came to the appropriate level of occupation, they found evidence of the destruction by Sargon. Among these were secondary burial pits with groups of skeletons and bones—the remains of some 3,000 individuals who probably died during the conquest of the city.

Also found in the area of the acropolis were three fragments of a basalt stele memorializing Sargon's conquest of the city at that time. The stele, written in Assyrian cuneiform, was of the same type found also at the Assyrian capital city of Dur Sharrukin. Thus the Isaiah text has received further confirmation.

Who was Tartan?

Yet a third point of significance ap pears in the Isaiah passage. The verse says, "In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod ..." But who was Tartan? In the translation of the text it was assumed that Tartan was the name of a person. Through the study of the Assyrian inscriptions, however, it was discovered that tartan was actually a title meaning "commander in chief," and thus it is rendered in most modern translations. The Revised Standard Version reads, "In the year that the commander in chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it..."

Isaiah used the right title for an Assyrian officer of that day. Obviously, he was writing against the background of the times referred to. It should be noted that the Assyrian people disappeared from history after the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.

Thus we have seen how archeology has provided three distinct points of confirmation for a single text. Isaiah correctly named the king of Assyria as Sargon, even though to modern scholars it seemed that no such king existed. Second, he named a particular city that the king captured, the city of Ashdod, an identification that has been remarkably confirmed through excavations at the site. Finally, he used the correct Assyrian army title, "commander in chief."

The spade has been rightly called the handmaiden of the Bible. Because of the work of the archeologists we can read our Bibles in the context of the culture of the times and with added confidence in its reliability.


This article is adapted from the script of a slide program, "The Birth of Archeology in Mesopotamia," one in a series of eight dealing with archeology and the Bible. For information on these and other slide/filmstrip programs write: MINISTRY, 6840 Eastern Ave., NW., Washington, D.C. 20012.

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Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of Ministry.

August 1979

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