Captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile, detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE), part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq) by Unknown Assyrian artist

Unknown Assyrian artist

Captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile, detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE), part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq), 700–692 BCE, Gypsum wall panel relief, The British Museum, London, 1856,0909.14, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Assyria Rejoicing

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During the period of the prophetic oracles of First Isaiah (c.740–700 BCE) including the one recorded in Isaiah 5, the Assyrians carted away exiles from Israel’s Northern Kingdom. The fall of Samaria took upwards of twenty years to complete, beginning under Tiglath-Pileser III (c.745–27 BCE), and finished off by Assyrian Kings Sargon II (c. 722–05 BCE) and Sennacherib (705–681 BCE).

The British Museum in London houses a classic example of contested history in its preservation of a gypsum wall relief that documents, from the Assyrian perspective, the Northern Kingdom’s fateful end. With victorious horses and chariots arrayed before him, the enthroned Assyrian king, whose face was perhaps deliberately damaged when Nineveh later fell to the Babylonians (and is further to the right of the detail shown in this exhibition), is attended by servants waving palm fronds. The king observes the capture of Lachish, a town between Mount Hebron and the coast. Israelite prisoners with stylized beards and hair—some clothed, some naked—are presented, then executed, before him. The cuneiform inscription reads, ‘Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish. I give permission for its slaughter’.

Literary accounts recording the trauma of this episode from the perspective of Israel survive in the Bible. Israel’s historian remembers not only its own destruction, but also its wartime successes. During Assyria’s failed siege on Jerusalem, for example, the historian records:

The angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh. (Isaiah 37:36–37; cf. 2 Kings 19:35–36 NRSV)

There is no dispute, however, that Assyria had earlier conquered Samaria:

In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:6 NRSV)

The ten tribes of Israel were lost, and Assyria rejoiced.

 

References

Birch, Bruce. 1991. Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Sweeney, Marvin A. 2005. The Prophetic Literature, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon Press)


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