Who Were the Assyrians in the Bible?

Connecting history and the Bible through the Assyrian Empire.

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Sample of cuneiform writing on clay tablets from the ancient Assyrians. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

It's safe to say that most Christians who read the Bible believe it to be historically accurate. Meaning, most Christians believe that the Bible is true, and therefore they regard what Scripture says about history to be historically true.

On a deeper level, however, I think many Christians feel they have to demonstrate faith when claiming that the Bible is historically accurate. Such Christians have a sense that the events contained in God's Word are significantly different than the events contained in "secular" history textbooks and promoted by history experts around the world.

 

The great news is that nothing could be further from the truth. I choose to believe that the Bible is historically accurate not simply as a matter of faith, but because it matches up amazingly well with known historical events. In other words, we don't have to intentionally choose ignorance in order to believe that the people, places, and events recorded in the Bible are true.

The Assyrian Empire provides a great example of what I'm talking about.

The Assyrians in History

The Assyrian Empire was originally founded by a Semitic king named Tiglath-Pileser who lived from 1116 to 1078 B.C. The Assyrians were a relatively minor power for their first 200 years as a nation.

Around 745 B.C., however, the Assyrians came under the control of a ruler naming himself Tiglath-Pileser III. This man united the Assyrian people and launched a stunningly successful military campaign. Over the years, Tiglath-Pileser III saw his armies victorious against a number of major civilizations, including the Babylonians and Samarians.

At its peak, the Assyrian Empire stretched across the Persian Gulf to Armenia in the north, the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and into Egypt in the south. The capital city of this great empire was Nineveh -- the same Nineveh God commanded Jonah to visit before and after he was swallowed by the whale.

Things began to unravel for the Assyrians after 700 B.C. In 626, the Babylonians broke away from Assyrian control and established their independence as a people once again. Around 14 years later, the Babylonian army destroyed Nineveh and effectively ended the Assyrian Empire.

One of the reasons we know so much about the Assyrians and other people of their day was because of a man named Ashurbanipal -- the last great Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal is famous for building a huge library of clay tablets (known as cuneiform) in the capital city of Nineveh. Many of these tablets have survived and are available to scholars today.

The Assyrians in the Bible

The Bible includes many references to the Assyrian people within the pages of the Old Testament. And, impressively, most of these references are verifiable and in agreement with known historical facts. At the least, none of the Bible's claims about the Assyrians have been disproven by reliable scholarship.

The first 200 years of the Assyrian Empire coincides roughly with the early kings of the Jewish people, including David and Solomon. As the Assyrians gained power and influence in the region, they became a larger force in the biblical narrative.

The Bible's most important references to the Assyrians deal with the military dominance of Tiglath-Pileser III. Specifically, he led the Assyrians to conquer and assimilate the 10 tribes of Israel that had split away from the nation of Judah and formed the Southern Kingdom. All of this happened gradually, with Israel's kings alternately being forced to pay tribute to Assyria as vassals and attempting to rebel.

The Book of 2 Kings describes several such interactions between the Israelites and the Assyrians, including:

In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maakah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria.
2 Kings 15:29

Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death.
2 Kings 16:7-9

Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up to attack Hoshea, who had been Shalmaneser’s vassal and had paid him tribute. But the king of Assyria discovered that Hoshea was a traitor, for he had sent envoys to So king of Egypt, and he no longer paid tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore Shalmaneser seized him and put him in prison. The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria and laid siege to it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.
2 Kings 17:3-6

Regarding that last verse, Shalmaneser was the son of Tiglath-Pileser III and essentially finished what his father had started by definitively conquering the southern kingdom of Israel and deporting the Israelites as exiles into Assyria.

All in all, the Assyrians are referenced dozens of times throughout Scripture. In every instance, they provide a powerful piece of historical evidence for the reliability of the Bible as God's true Word.