The land of Assyria was centred on the Tigris River in north-western Mesopotamia. Originally the land was known as Asshur, after the descendants of Asshur (son of Shem, son of Noah), who were among the early settlers in the region. Over many centuries they were joined by migrants from other regions in the neighbourhood, with the result that the race that developed was a mixture. The people were known by the name of the land, Asshur, and this name developed into Assyria. Among Assyria’s chief cities was Nineveh, which later became the capital (Gen 10:11- 12,22). Assyria was one of the great nations of the ancient world, but it did not extend its power into Palestine till after the rise of a new dynasty about 900 BC. Assyria then set out to become the dominant power in the region, and after a series of conquests of other nations it turned its attention to Syria and Israel. On one occasion God sent his prophet Jonah to preach to the Assyrians so that they might repent and be saved from a threatened invasion (Jonah 3:1-10). God was preserving Assyria to be his means of punishing Israel (Isa 10:5). The history of Assyria as it concerns the Bible story may be summarized according to its kings, many of whom are mentioned in the Bible. In the following summary, ‘Israel’ refers to the northern part of the divided Israelite kingdom, ‘Judah’ to the southern part.

Kings of Assyria

Tiglath-pileser III, also known as Pul (who reigned 745-727 BC), was the first Assyrian king to launch a major attack on Israel, but he withdrew after taking a bribe from the Israelite king, Menahem. Menahem’s action was really a form of submission to Assyria, and it placed Israel under Assyrian influence (2 Kings 15:17-20). The prophets predicted that Assyria would soon conquer Israel completely (Hosea 10:5-8; Amos 7:17). The next king of Israel, Pekah, then combined with the king of Syria, Rezin, to attack Judah. Their aim was to take control of Judah and force it into a three-part alliance that might be able to withstand Assyria. But Judah’s king, Ahaz, appealed to Assyria for help, and Assyria responded by conquering Syria and much of Israel (in 732 BC; 2 Kings 15:29,37; 16:1-9; Isa 7:1-9; 8:4; 17:1-3). Shalmaneser V (727-722 BC), in response to a rebellion by another Israelite king, Hoshea, overran Israel and attacked the Israelite capital, Samaria. The siege had been in progress three years when Shalmaneser died (2 Kings 17:1-5). Sargon II (722-705 BC), the new king of Assyria, wasted no time in bringing the siege to a triumphant conclusion. He crushed Samaria and took the people into captivity. This marked the end of the northern kingdom, Israel (in 722 BC; 2 Kings 17:6). In the meantime the southern kingdom, Judah, because of the disastrous policies of Ahaz, had fallen under the domination of Assyria and was forced to pay it heavy taxes (Isa 7:17; 8:5-8; 20:1-6). Sennacherib (705-681 BC) met opposition from Judah when the new Judean king, Hezekiah, refused to pay further taxes (in 701 BC; 2 Kings 18:7).

When Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem, Hezekiah repented of his rebellion and offered to pay whatever the Assyrians demanded. Sennacherib took a large sum of money, but he deceived Hezekiah by refusing to lift the siege. Hezekiah appealed desperately to God for help, and God replied by miraculously destroying a large part of the Assyrian army. Sennacherib escaped home to Nineveh, but some time later he was assassinated (2 Kings 18:13-19:35). Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), son of Sennacherib, succeeded his father as king (2 Kings 19:36-37). He was one the greatest kings to rule over Assyria. Soon after coming to the throne, he asserted his power over the weakened Judah (now ruled by the evil Manasseh) and over the more powerful Babylon (2 Chron 33:11). Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC) continued the work that his father had begun in expanding Assyrian power. Under him the Assyrian Empire spread to an extent it had never known before. After Ashurbanipal’s death, Assyria’s Empire began to crumble. Babylon was rising to power, and with the establishment of a new Babylonian dynasty in 626 BC, the Assyrians were soon driven out of Babylon. The Babylonians went from conquest to conquest, till in 612 BC they destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, as foretold by God’s prophets. Nahum, in particular, rejoiced to see a fitting divine judgment fall on such a cruel and ruthless oppressor (Nahum 1:1; 3:1-7; cf. Isa 10:12; Zeph 2:13; see also NINEVEH). Some in Assyria made an attempt at resistance but it did not last, and within three years Assyria ceased to be a nation.

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