Assyria's End

Contacts between Israel and Assyria during its last century illuminate the Scripture record.

William H. Shea, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Following Sennacherib's death in 681 B.C., two strong kings, Esarhaddon (681- 669 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (669-626 B.C.), ruled Assyria through most of that century. Then the Assyrian Empire fell into pieces after two decades of chaotic internal politics. This concluding article in the series on Israel and Assyria will deal with several points of contact be tween the Biblical text and both Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, as well as a brief view of the fall of Nineveh and the subsequent demise of Assyria as a political entity. Thus the relations between the two Hebrew kingdoms and Assyria as they have been discussed in this series of articles are brought down to the time when Assyria is no more.

Esarhaddon's succession

Both the Bible and an inscription of Esarhaddon refer to his irregular accession to the throne of Assyria. "Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead" (2 Kings, 19:36, 37, R.S.V.).*

The juxtaposition of this verse with the encounter between Hezekiah and Sennacherib (chaps. 18, 19) appears to imply that Sennacherib was assassinated soon after he returned to Nineveh. However, Hezekiah died in 686 B.C. and Sennacherib in 681 B.C., five years or more after the main events of 2 Kings 18 and 19.

Esarhaddon was not the eldest son, yet Sennacherib apparently named him as his successor. Says Esarhaddon's inscription: "I was indeed their youngest brother among my elder brothers, but my own father . . . has chosen me . . . saying: 'This is the son to be elevated to the position of a successor of mine.' "

Sennacherib's older sons assassinated their father in an evident attempt to circumvent Esarhaddon's succession. He tells of his brothers' efforts to take over the kingship but does not say that they killed their father: "Thereupon, my brothers went put of their senses, doing everything that is wicked in the eyes of the gods and mankind, and continued in by William H. Shea their evil machinations. They even drew weapons in the midst of Nineveh, which is against the will of the gods, and butted each other—like kids—to take over the kingship."

Esarhaddon's brothers carried out their plot while he was away on a military campaign. Consequently he had to march on Nineveh with his troops when he received word of the assassination. "Ishtar, the lady of battle, who likes me to be her high priest, stood at my side breaking their bows [of the troops of his brothers], scattering their orderly battle array. And then they spoke among themselves: 'This is our king.' Upon her lofty command they went over in masses to me and rallied behind me. . . . The people of Assyria who had sworn an oath by the life of the great gods on my behalf, came to meet me and kissed my feet. But they, the usurpers, who had started the rebellion, deserted their most trustworthy troops when they heard the approach of my expeditionary corps, and fled to an unknown country."

Esarhaddon and Manasseh

The regnal years recorded in 2 Kings for the kings of Judah through the seventh century B.C. total ten years more than the figures indicated by well-fixed dates from Assyria and Babylon. The discrepancy is most reasonably attributed to a coregency between Hezekiah and Manasseh from 696 to 686 B.C. The 55 regnal years attributed to Manasseh in 2 Kings 21:1 began when he was installed as coregent with his father Hezekiah, which means that he ruled until 641 B.C., a period spanning the whole of Esarhad don's reign in Assyria and more than half the reign of his successor, Ashurbanipal. Hence we should not be surprised to find Manasseh named in the inscriptions of both these kings. Esarhaddon lists him among those kings of the west who had to provide building materials for his pal ace: "I called up the kings of the country of Hatti [Syro-Palestine in general] on the other side of the [Euphrates] river. . . . Together twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seashore and the islands; all these I sent out and made them transport . . . building materials for my palace." Manasseh, king of Judah, appears in the list of the twenty-two kings.

Assyria had a three-step foreign policy toward the peoples it subjugated: First, they were to pay tribute. As long as they paid, all was well. The army marched through some portion of the empire each year to stimulate such payments and to ensure the loyalty of the political entities in that area. Second, those political entities who did not remain loyal were re conquered. At this stage some rebels would be executed, while others, including hostages from the nobility and royalty, would be departed, and the king would be replaced with a pro-Assyrian ruler. Finally, if a city-state or kingdom persisted in rebellion, its cities would be destroyed and part of its population executed, while the rest would be deported. By uprooting the population from their land, the Assyrians hoped to quench rebellion. Esarhaddon is mentioned in the Bible (Ezra 4:2) as one of the kings who settled foreign deportees in Samaria.

As noted in a previous article, large numbers were deported from Samaria when it fell, and later from Judah in Sennacherib's time. In Ezra 4:2 we see the reverse process—deported peoples from other countries were brought in to settle the former territory of the northern kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans in the time of Zerubbabel spoke of "Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here."

Ashurbanipal and Manasseh

With Assyrian power at its peak and Judah at its weakest, Manasseh became abjectly subservient to Ashurbanipal. When the latter passed through Judah on his way to subjugate Egypt, he demanded contingents of troops from the kings in the west, including Manasseh. "In my first campaign I marched against Egypt and Ethiopia. Tirhakah king of Egypt and Ethiopia . . . forgot the might of Ashur . . . and put his trust in his own power. . . . During my march to Egypt twenty-two kings from the seashore, the islands, and the mainland . . . [the list that follows includes Manasseh of Judah], servants who belong to me, brought heavy gifts to me and kissed my feet. I made these kings accompany my army over the land, as well as over the sea route, with their armed forces and ships."

Ashurbanipal is mentioned in Ezra 4 under the name of Osnappar (certain phonetic shifts between the two languages involved explain this Hebrew form of the name). Ashurbanipal is credited here, like Esarhaddon, with having settled deportees in Samaria—"The Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River" (Ezra 4:9, 10).

An interesting episode in the life of Manasseh that may be related to Ashurbanipal is described in 2 Chronicles 33:11-13: "The commanders of the army of the king of Assyria . . . took Manasseh with hooks and bound him with fetters of bronze and brought him to Babylon. And when he was in distress he entreated the favor of the Lord his God. . . . And God received his entreaty and heard his supplication and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom."

This unnamed king of Assyria could have been either Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal. However, from the mention of Babylon (verse 11) as the place to which Manasseh was taken, and from certain Assyrian and Babylonian texts, we can suggest the following as a reasonable setting for this incident.

Esarhaddon, hoping to avoid another fight between brothers at his death, decreed that one son, Ashurbanipal, should be king of Assyria and another, Shamash-shum-ukin, king of Babylon. He ensured his succession by covenant with some of the subject peoples involved, and the arrangement worked reasonably well for a decade and a half. But war eventually broke out between the brothers, lasting from 652 to 648 B.C. and ending with the defeat of Shamashshum-ukin at Babylon. The victorious Ashurbanipal could then turn his attention to those vassal kings who had taken the opportunity to rebel or who were suspected of having disloyal tendencies. To bring them to the site of his most recent victory over a powerful enemy and to have them pledge allegiance to Assyria in full view of that conquest would be a deterrent to future rebellion. This situation would provide a logical reason for bringing Manasseh to Baby- Ion, instead of Nineveh, to pledge loyalty to Ashurbanipal.

The return of Manasseh to his throne in Jerusalem is paralleled by a similar experience of Necho I. When Ashurbanipal conquered Egypt in the campaign mentioned above, he reconfirmed the Delta princes as local rulers. When, however, they rebelled after he left, Ashurbanipal's officers in Egypt rounded them up and sent them to Nineveh. The monarch picked Necho alone to return home to Sais, in the western Delta, to be his effective ruler in that area, "Those kings who had repeatedly schemed, they brought alive to me to Nineveh. From all of them I had only mercy upon Necho and granted him life. I made a treaty with him. ... I sent with him and for his assistance, officers of mine as governors. I returned him to Sais as residence, the place where my own father had appointed him king."

Manasseh has the unenviable reputation of being the worst king ever to sit upon the throne of Judah or of Israel. Some scholars have suggested, in excuse for his apostasy, that the Assyrians to some extent forced their religion upon him. Recent study has indicated, how ever, that Assyrian foreign policy left subject peoples free to worship their own gods. In that case there is no political excuse for Manasseh's religious apostasy.

The fall of Nineveh

Until recently the precise date of Ashurbanipal's death was in doubt. However, Nabonidus' inscriptions at Haran have now pinned down the date to 627/626 B.C. Nabonidus' mother, a priestess of the moon-god Sin who lived to the age of 104, tells in her inscription how many years she lived under each king. This information, correlated with what was already known about Ashurbanipal's reign, pinpointed the date for his death. When he died, Babylonia immediately broke away from Assyria, and Nabopolassar, the father of the famous Nebuchadnezzar, set himself up as its independent ruler. Two more kings ruled Assyria after Ashurbanipal Ashuretillu-ili and Sin-shar-ishkun, but their dates, relationships, and the territory they controlled are not clear.

Obviously a quick decline of Assyria had set in, and the end was only a matter of time. In 614 B.C. the Medes attacked Nineveh, only to turn away and conquer the city of Ashur instead. Says Nabopolassar's chronicle: "The Mede . . . en camped against Ashur. He made an at tack upon the town. . . . He inflicted a terrible massacre upon the greater part of the people." The final blow fell two years later (612 B.C.) in the joint Medo-Babylonian attack on Nineveh: "[Nabopolassar] the king of Babylon and [Cyaxares] the king of the Medes . . . met each other. They marched along the bank of the river Tigris and . . . against Nineveh . . . they encamped. From the month of Sivan to the month of Ab ... a strong attack they made upon the city, and in the month of Ab [the city was captured], a great defeat of the chief people was made. The great spoil of the city and temple they carried off and turned the city into a ruin-mound and heaps of debris."

This event was referred to by the Biblical prophet Nahum: "Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away. 'Halt! Halt!' they cry; but none turns back. Plunder the silver, plunder the gold! There is no end of treasure, or wealth of every precious thing. Desolate! Desolation and ruin!" "Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria; your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them. 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?" (chaps. 2:8-10; 3:18, 19).

The last vestige

Sin-shar-ishkun, king of Assyria, apparently was killed when Nineveh fell, in 612 B.C., according to a broken passage in Nabopolassar's chronicle. In 610 B.C. the Medes and Babylonians attacked the remaining Assyrians who had retreated to the city of Haran and set up a small "rump" kingdom under Ashur-uballit in the upper Euphrates Valley. The Assyrians retreated across the Euphrates to Carchemish. There, the next year, Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt came to aid Ashuruballit. In an unsuccessful attempt to retake Haran, their combined armies attacked the Babylonian garrison across the river, but it held out until help came from Nabopolassar.

The Babylonian account of Egypt's aid to the Assyrians throws light on the translation of a Bible passage. It was this same year (609 B.C.) in which Josiah of Judah died trying to intercept Necho at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29) when the latter was on his way north to aid the Assyrian king. The King James Version renders this verse: "In his [Josiah's] days Pharaoh-nechoh king of Egypt went up against the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates." The Revised Standard Version, on the other hand, translates it: "In his [Josiah's] days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria, to the river Euphrates." The difference lies in the rendering of the preposition involved. Prepositions are difficult to translate; one must select one meaning from a number of possible meanings. The Hebrew preposition here generally means "over, on, upon," or "to, unto." In specific military contexts, such as this passage, it commonly means "against." The K.J.V. translators employed the usual meaning because they had no way of knowing that Necho was going up to Carchemish, not "against" the Assyrian king but "to him" for a joint attack on Babylonian-held Haran. This bit of history has helped clarify the meaning of this Bible verse.

Ashur-uballit and the Assyrians at Carchemish are never heard of again. When the Babylonians attacked Carchemish in 605 B.C., only the Egyptians are mentioned. The Assyrians had disappeared from history. The Babylonians took Carchemish and thus came into possession of all Syria-Palestine. A new colossus now occupied center stage in the ancient Near East, and this was the power with which the kingdom of Judah henceforth had to deal.


For the inscriptions of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J, B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University, 1955).

For the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon, which assured the accession of Ashurbanipal and Shamash- shum-ukin to their respective thrones, and for the inscriptions of Nabonidus from Haran, see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Supplement, edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University, 1969).

For Nabopolassar's Chronicle see D. J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (London: British Museum, 1956).

For the" chronology of the coregency between Hezekiah and Manasseh see E. R. Thiele, Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).

For a denial that there was any pressure upon Manasseh to accept Assyrian religious practices see M. Cogan, Imperialism and Religion: Assyria, Judah and Israel in the 8th and 7th Centuries B.C. (Missoula: Scholar's Press, 1974).

For a general history of Assyria including the reigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, see H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn, 1962).

For a more detailed study of the relations between Judah and Assyria in the seventh century see W. W. Hallo, "From Qarqar to Carchemish," The Biblical Archaeologist 23 (I960): 33-61.


* All texts in this article^are quoted from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.



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William H. Shea, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1980

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