History Crash Course #21: Assyrian Conquest
The Assyrians conquer northern Israel and vanquish the nation with exile.
At a time when the Jewish people of the northern kingdom of Israel are weakening spiritually, as well as physically and militarily, the Assyrians are growing stronger.
The Assyrians at this time occupy the territory immediately north -- what is today's Syria, Iraq, and Turkey -- and they are continuing to build their empire.
If you go the British Museum in London, you can see some fascinating Assyrian artifacts from this period.
You can see there the four sided Black Obelisk of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. The Obelisk depicts the tribute paid by King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel to Shalmanaser III, king of Assyria. You can also see a relief from the walls of the magnificent palace at Nineveh, Assyria's capital city.
That palace belonged to King Sennacherib, and the relief shows the siege of the Israelite city of Lachish; it was conquered by Sennacherib, who then boasted about it on his palace walls. The British stripped the relief from the Nineveh palace and brought to the British Museum.
The dates that you will find inscribed in the British Museum (and in other history books and other museums housing Middle Eastern artifacts) do not agree with Jewish dating that we are following in this series. This is because this series relies on the traditional Jewish dating system for ancient history -- that is for the dates "before the common era," -- BCE. The Jewish dating system and the Christian dating system vary by as much as 164 years for the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian periods, but by the time we get to the Roman period (i.e. the Christian year 1) the discrepancy disappears. (1)Why?
While it is beyond the scope of this book to present a detailed explanation of the various chronologies of the ancient world, we will explain briefly the dominant dating systems used by modern historians.
The Jewish dating system is taken primarily from a book called Seder Olam Rabba, dating back to the 2nd century CE and attributed to Rabbi Yosef ben Halafta. The sources for the dates in Halafta's book come from rabbinic traditions recorded in the Talmud as well as numerous chronologies written in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach).
It is also essential to remember that traditional Jewish chronologies, (since the beginning of the Jewish calendar almost 6,000 years ago) have always been based on absolute and highly accurate astronomical phenomenon: the movement of the moon around the earth (months) and the earth around sun (years). A combination of an unbroken tradition of the Hebrew Bible and an accurate, astronomical, time-based system, gives traditional Jewish chronology a high degree of accuracy, especially when it comes to the major events of Jewish history.
Contrary to what you might think, the chronology used by modern historians is far from exact. It was not until the 20th century that the entire world recognized one universal calendar system -- the Christian calendar (also known as the Gregorian calendar). If we go back in time however, the calendar situation is far more chaotic. Accurate historical records were almost unheard of and every empire used its own calendar system which was often based on totally different criteria. With no unbroken historical traditional and no universally accepted standard for how to calculate time, there is no non-Jewish equivalent to Seder Olam Rabba nor for the Jewish calendrical calculation system passed down from antiquity.
So how do we get the chronology that historians use today?
Historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked backward and pieced it together. This was done primarily through comparing what little historical records survived from ancient Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt, together with archaeological finds, various scientific dating methods and major astronomical phenomenon such as a solar eclipse.
Because there are margins of error in virtually all of these methods and much is open to interpretation, significant debates erupted between different scholars which continue to this day. Therefore, the chronologies used by modern historian are by no means 100% accurate and you will often find disagreements amongst various scholars as to the exact dates of major ancient events and dynasties.
Because this series is written from the traditional Jewish perspective, and because Jewish chronology makes a stronger case for historical accuracy, we have chosen to use the traditional Jewish dates.
Today there are a number of renowned scholars also challenging the modern chronology and even attempting to reconcile it with the Jewish chronology. Amongst them is British scholar Peter James who writes:
By re-dating the beginning of the Iron Age in Palestine from the early 12th century BCE to the late 10th, a completely new interpretation of the archaeology of Israel can be offered: One which is in perfect harmony with the biblical record. (Centuries in Darkness by Peter James; Rutgers University Press, 1993, p. 318.)
With that in mind, we can continue the story.
NORTHERN KINGDOM FALLS
In 6th century BCE, Assyrian king Tiglathpileser III strengthens Assyria and establishes it as a great empire to be reckoned with. (Eventually, Assyria will even challenge the mighty Egypt.) He also introduces a very interesting way of dealing with conquered peoples. It's called exile . To pacify the lands they invade, the Assyrians take the indigenous people, move them someplace else, and bring others to take their place. By the time the exiles figure out where they are, decades pass and they don't remember to rebel any more.
Starting around 575 BCE, as a way of pacifying the northern kingdom, Tiglathpileser takes over the lands belonging to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, and exiles them.
Then, Shalmanaser V, another Assyrian emperor, takes over the lands belonging to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, and exiles them.
Finally in 556 BCE Sargan II, one of the great emperors of Assyria, completes the job, and the whole northern part of the country ceases to exist as a Jewish state.
In the ninth year of [the reign] of Hoshea, the King of Assyria took Samaria and exiled the Israelites to Assyria, and he settled them in Halah at the [River] Habor, at the River Gozan, and in the cities of Media. And so it was that the Israelites sinned against the Lord their God ... they worshipped other gods and followed the customs of the nations ... God had issued warnings in Israel and Judah through the hand of all the prophets of any vision saying "Repent from your evil ways and observe My commandments and decrees..." But they did not listen and they stiffened their neck...Then God became very angry with Israel and removed them from His Presence; none remained except the tribe of Judah alone (2 Kings 17:6-18)
The important and obvious lesson to be learned from this quote is that why the superficial reason for the fall of the Northern Kingdom was linked to the geopolitical realities of the ancient Near East, the real cause was violation of the Torah.
With the Jews driven out, who takes their place?
The Assyrians bring in a bunch of people from someplace else, who -- because they are now living in Shomron or Samaria -- come to be known as Samaritans.
The Samaritans are people who more or less adopt Judaism, but not properly or for the right reasons. Because their conversion is not complete or sincere, they are never accepted by the Jewish people, and they're very resentful.
Indeed, the Samaritans have a long history of animosity towards the Jews, and while many people are familiar with the story of the "good Samaritan" from the Christian gospels, in Jewish consciousness (and history) the Samaritans are rarely considered good.
Today there are only about 600 Samaritans left, their cult site is in Mount Grizim, which is right next to the city of Shechem, called Nablus in Arabic.
THE LOST TRIBES
Meanwhile the Jewish people of the north have settled in various locations throughout the Assyrian empire. What happens to those ten tribes? They assimilate and are known today as the ten lost tribes.
There are numerous people throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia who claim to be descended from the ten lost tribes. Today there are a number of people who have dedicated much time and effort to locating the lost tribes of Israel. One such person is Dr. Tutor Parfitt of London University. He has made it his specialty to track and trace different exotic peoples who claim to be of Jewish origin. He has written a book called "The Thirteenth Gate," and he's researched the people who claim to have Jewish connections. (2)
It's amazing how many people, many of whom know nothing about Judaism, claim to be descended from Jews. For example, many of the Pathans, Muslim fundamentalists who reside in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, claim to be descended from the ten lost tribes.
There is a Midrash that says the ten lost tribes live "over the River Sambatyon," which is a mystical river that flows all week with sand and stones but "rests" on Shabbat.
We have a concept that at the end of days, all the lost Jews will come back. The great sage, the Vilna Gaon, taught that converts are lost Jewish souls who are trying to find their way back to the Jewish people.
But for now, the ten tribes are gone.
With the Jewish people dispersed from the northern kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians set their sights on the southern kingdom. But this one will not prove so easy.
1)The classic example is the date given for the destruction of the 1st Temple by the Babylonians. Traditional Jewish chronology gives the date as Jewish year 3338 equal to 422 BCE while secular histories give the date as 586BCE-a difference of 164 years. The source of this discrepancy is the based on conflicting opinions as to the number of kings who reigned during the Babylonian-Persian period. For a much more detailed discussion of this topic see: Jewish History in Conflict (get rest of citation)
2) Tudor Parfitt, The Thirteenth Gate-Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson) 1987.