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Notebook: Assyria (1)

The land of Assyria, which in Old Testament times grew to be a dominant power in that part of the world we now know as the Middle East, and which had dealings with Israel, is first mentioned in Scripture as being located in the area through which flowed one of the four rivers coming from the river that flowed out of Eden. This river "went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted and became into four heads" (Gen 2.10). These "four heads" are described: "The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold" (Gen 2.11), "And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates" (Gen 2.13-14). "Assyria" is translated by some as Asshur (see JND), but the same word throughout the Old Testament Scriptures is translated "Assyria". Keil and Delitzsch comment, "Hiddekel occurs in Daniel 10.4 as the Hebrew name for Tigris; in the inscriptions of Darius it is called Tigrâ (or the arrow, according to Strabo, Pliny, and Curtius), from the Zendic tighra, pointed, sharp, from which probably the meaning stormy (rapidus Tigris) was derived. It flows before, in front of, Assyria, not to the east of Assyria; for the province of Assyria, which must be intended here, was on the eastern side of the Tigris". The only other mention of Assyria in Genesis notes that the north-eastern extent of the area in which the descendants of Ishmael lived was "as thou goest toward Assyria" (Gen 25.18).

The geographic location of the Assyrian Empire

Over the long history of Assyria the borders were not completely static. As with any empire there were times of change involving expanding and decreasing boundaries. After the expansion of the original city state, the core of the empire lay to the north-east of Israel and covered lands that are now part of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The courses of the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, run through this area.

The status of Assyria changed on a number of occasions from being a vassal state to becoming a powerful empire and then losing it again and becoming subject. That cycle took place on more than one occasion.

Reasons for having an interest in Assyria

But why should believers today have any interest in an empire that has long since disappeared? The first reason is that Assyria was instrumental in the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel and in its subsequent demise. The commencement of the pathway to Israel’s humiliation was when "Pul the king of Assyria came against the land: and Menahem (king of Israel) gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand" (2 Kings 15.19). Due to the sin of Israel Assyria was sent by the Lord against them, as Isaiah the prophet confirms: "O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger…I will send him against an hypocritical nation" (Is 10.5-6).

The second reason is that Assyria is mentioned in prophecies yet to be fulfilled. "In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria" (Is 19.23-24). "The ‘highway’ will go through Israel: Egypt and Assyria will be united with Israel. This will be a total reversal of history…It must be remembered that at present, these territories are Islamic. They will not only be united: they will be united in the service of Jehovah".1

The Akkadian Empire

The earliest empire known in the area which was later dominated by Assyria is the Akkadian Empire. This came from a kingdom whose capital was Akkad, the site of which is not known. A minor official, Sargon, had rebelled and taken the throne of the kingdom of Kish with a view to establishing an empire. He became known as Sargon the Great and conquered territories in the Fertile Crescent and beyond. His sceptre held sway from the Persian Gulf in the south to the Mediterranean in the west and out beyond Ur of the Chaldees in the east. From this city, many years later, Abraham travelled "not knowing whither he went" (Heb 11.8). It is considered that Ur became one of the largest cities in the ancient world with a population of approximately 65,000.2 It is of more than passing interest to note that Ussher’s date for Abram’s (as his name was at that time) departure from Haran was 1921 BC (Gen 12.1).

After the death of Sargon the Great the empire was held together by his successors for about one century, but eventually it was overrun and the area was broadly divided into two parts, Assyria in the north and Babylon in the south.

Asshur - the city

The city from which the Assyrian empire grew is supposed by some to be named after Asshur, the son of Shem (Gen 10.22). Some confusion has arisen on the basis of the belief that there was another man named Shem who was the son of one of Ham’s family line, Nimrod (Gen 10.1). It must be observed, however, that Asshur is not stated to be a son of Nimrod. He was a son of Shem who moved north during the time when Nimrod was establishing his kingdom that ultimately become Babylon. Asshur gave his name to the city that he built which was the original capital of Assyria, a city represented by the mounds of Kalah Sherghat, on the west bank of the Tigris.3 The capital later moved to the city of Nineveh.

Early Assyrian Period History

Nothing is written in Scripture regarding the early history of Assyria. We are, therefore, dependent on the considerable material unearthed by archaeologists. The city state of Asshur became an important centre of trading, and established merchant outposts in key surrounding areas. The wealth which this brought the city further enhanced its authority. The main thrust of the trading outposts was towards the area which we now know as Turkey.

Rule in the city was carried out by a council of elders, an annually elected consul, after whom the current year was named, and by a king who ruled on the hereditary principle. In this way Asshur enlarged its rule and influence, with the extended kingdom becoming known as Assyria.

Asshur, however, was conquered by Shamshi-Adad (1813-1791 BC), as part of the expansionist policy of the Amorite tribes. As a consequence of this policy the territories ruled by this monarch occupied the north of Mesopotamia. Conflict, however, continued and ultimately Hammurabi of Babylon added Asshur to his realm. This monarch ruled Asshur through local kings who were under his control. At this time Babylon ruled a considerable part of the area known as the Fertile Crescent, but after Hammurabi’s death (1750 BC) the kings who succeeded him were unable to maintain their authority over the empire and its territories were lost.

Middle Assyrian Period History

The power of Assyria declined and in the 15th century BC it became a vassal state again for a period of approximately 200 years. The accession to the throne of Tiglath Pileser I (1115-1077 BC), who established the first Assyrian Empire, changed matters dramatically (see map overleaf). He defeated a people called the Mushki, who were moving into Asia Minor and who faced him with an army of 20,000. As this was the main area for the mining of iron ore, the Mushki were a danger to trade and commerce. Tiglath Pileser was a mighty general who established his rule as far as the Mediterranean and in the process defeated Babylon in battle. Twice, at the head of his armies, he entered Babylon and although he did not annex it to his empire he thus displayed the excellence of his military prowess.

The religion of Assyria was wholly idolatrous. "In Akkadian mythology, Anshar (also spelled Anshur), which means ‘sky pivot’ or ‘sky axle’, is a sky god. He is the husband of his sister Kishar. They might both represent heaven (an) and earth (ki). Both are the second generation of gods; their parents being the serpents Lahmu and Lahamu and grandparents Tiamat and Apsu. In their turn they are the parents of Anu another sky god".4

To be continued.

1 John Riddle. What The Bible Teaches: Isaiah; p.239.

2 T Chandler. Four thousand years of urban growth.

3 Easton’s Bible Dictionary.

4 Wikipedia - Anshar.


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