It is a rich and fertile land, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates as they descend from the mountains. The people living there would develop a fighting force which instilled dread and fear throughout the ancient Near Eastern world. They would redefine what an empire looked like and prove the catalyst for the dominance of empires over the Middle East for almost 2700 years. Assyria dominated the ancient Near East until it was humiliated in drastic and shocking fashion. The Assyrians had served YHWH’s purposes; they would eventually obtain a blessing in Christ.
Asshur is identified as the son of Shem, the son of Noah, in Genesis 10:22; in Genesis 10:8-12 Nimrod the son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah, a mighty warrior before God, was credited with expanding his empire from Babylon/Shinar into Assyria, building Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen. According to archaeologists the land which would become known as Assyria saw major cities established by the middle of the third millennium BCE. Assyria was known as Subartu to the Sumerians, and they did claim to expand their power and influence over the area of Assyria in the 2500s BCE; nevertheless, the names which begin the Assyrian King List from this time are Semitic in origin, all suggesting some basis in fact for the stories preserved in the Genesis record.
Abraham lived during the days of what has become known as the Old Assyrian Empire which grew and maintained control over a large portion of northern Mesopotamia and would have exerted influence over Haran (ca. 2025-1750 BCE; cf. Genesis 11:31-32). The power of Assyria would be reduced by the invading Mitanni, leading to a period of relative weakness and decline.
During the days of the judges Assyrian power and strength re-asserted itself in what is known as the Middle Assyrian Empire (1392-1056 BCE). The Assyrians destroyed the Mitanni Empire and took its place among the grand empires of the Late Bronze Age. In response the Hittites and Egyptians, who had been at enmity, established an alliance. The 13th century BCE Assyrian kings Shalmaneser I and Tukulti-Ninurta I defeated both the Hittites and the Babylonians; they imposed direct rule over Babylon. As the other kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age collapsed, Assyria maintained a dominant position. Only with the invasion of Arameans into the Levant in the 11th century BCE would Assyrian power again wane, although remaining a strong and well-defended kingdom in its own right.
The Assyria we find most often in Scripture is what is deemed the Neo-Assyrian Empire, begun with Adad-nirari II in 911 BCE, and enduring until the destruction of Nineveh in 609 BCE. Throughout this time a pattern would develop: a strong king would arise and would exert his authority over Assyria’s neighbors; kings afterward would then have a platform on which to make even greater incursions. Nevertheless, at some point a weaker king would come to the throne: internal instability would abound, and client kinds would reassert independence. Later another strong king would ascend, and the cycle would begin anew.
Shalmaneser III fought against Hadadezer of Aram and Ahab of Israel at Qarqar in 853 BCE, likely to a draw; the “Black Obelisk” from later in his reign testifies to Jehu as king of Israel around 841 BCE. Within three generations Assyria would again suffer a time of internal instability; during the latter end of this period Jonah would have traveled to Nineveh.
All that would change with the ascent of Tiglath-pileser III to the Assyrian throne in 745 BCE. Ahaz king of Judah hired Tiglath-pileser III against the Arameans and the Israelites; in 732 he would eliminate Aram as a going concern and conquered most of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 15:29, 16:6-20). Tiglath-pileser III established the first professional army and instituted the policies of direct governance of client states and the practice of exiling recalcitrant peoples to differing parts of his empire. His reforms paved the way for the bureaucratic administration of empires which would mark the next 2,700 years.
Tiglath-pileser III’s son Shalmaneser V would begin the siege of Samaria which would eliminate the Kingdom of Israel as a going concern; the likely usurper Sargon II would complete it (2 Kings 17:3-6). Sargon II’s son Sennacherib would invade Judah and surround Jerusalem; the Rabshakeh’s speech around the walls of Jerusalem did not contain many idle boasts, for by this time the Assyrians had conquered almost all of Mesopotamia, the Levant, and parts of modern day Turkey (2 Kings 18:9-19:37, Isaiah 36:1-37:38). “Sennacherib’s Prism” maintained a record of the events according to Sennacherib’s perspective, celebrating the conquest of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem; that he did not claim to have conquered the city is quite telling. Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon would conquer Egypt, destroying the Kushite Empire, and re-settle the land of Israel with exiles from Mesopotamia (cf. Ezra 4:9-10). Esarhaddon’s son Ashurbanipal reigned at the height of Assyrian power and influence (ca. 669-627 BCE). He was literate and scholarly, rare for the time; he would build a fantastic library of Mesopotamian literature, knowledge, and wisdom in Nineveh.
In a world full of brutal wars and violence, the Assyrians became infamous for even greater effectiveness in violence and cruelty. Their military was feared around the ancient Near Eastern world. At home the Assyrians enjoyed a fertile land that did not require the intense irrigation of Babylon to its south and which proved a bit more temperate. As befitting those who sat upon the northern portion of Mesopotamia, Assyria was a major trading center and both influenced and were influenced by southern Mesopotamia and the Levant around them. Asshur was their primary god; they served the host of Mesopotamia, but also Aramaean gods as well. Assyrian language was a dialect of Akkadian, but Aramaic grew to become widespread because of the exiling of Aramean people and the embrace of Aramaic as the language of diplomacy by Tiglath-pileser III, which it would remain until the days of the Greeks. And yet the Assyrian leaders saw themselves primarily as the inheritors of the great powers which had ruled over Mesopotamia all the way back to Sargon of Akkad.
Isaiah and Nahum predicted a humiliating fall for Assyria; everyone was shocked by how quickly it would come to pass. After Ashurbanipal’s death Assyria entered a period of instability and weakness at an inopportune time. Cyaxares of Media attacked in 615 and destroyed Kalhu/Calah/Nimrud; in 612 a grand coalition attacked Nineveh and destroyed it, killing its king in street fighting. The final Assyrian king Ashur-uballit II would fall in 609 BCE; Egypt attempted to prop up the remnants of the state against Chaldean Babylon until its defeat at Carchemish in 605 BCE, at which point the Assyrian Empire was eliminated as a going concern.
The land of Assyria would be made part of empires built using its models and reforms: the Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, and then under successive Islamic empires until becoming part of modern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The God of Israel had promised a blessing for Assyria as part of the people of God with Egypt and Israel (Isaiah 19:23-25); it would come to pass in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ which took firm root in Assyrian lands in the second century and afterward. As the Nestorian Church of the East, Assyrian Christianity remains until this day, still using the Bible in Syriac, preserving the last vestiges of Assyrian culture.
Assyria had been the rod of YHWH’s anger, a terrifying power which maintained great influence over the ancient Near East for almost two millennia (cf. Isaiah 10:5). Yet YHWH, not Assyria, was not all-powerful; as she had been lifted up and humiliated many, so in turn she also would be humiliated in the same way. We have learned much about ancient Mesopotamia from the libraries found in her ruins; a fitting testimony both to Assyrian pretense and her ultimate end. Ezekiel’s description of Assyria for Egypt was, and remains, telling: a great nation greatly humiliated and cast down to Sheol (Ezekiel 31:1-18). No nation is indestructible; all nations eventually collapse into dust. God is Sovereign, and His purposes will remain forever. May we put our trust in God in Christ and find life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry