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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Assyria and the End of Israel

Close to the year 745 BCE, Jeroboam II in the north and Uzziah in the south reached the end of their reigns. In that year Tiglath-pileser III, referred to as “Pul” in the Bible, entered upon his reign over Assyria. From as early as about 738, Tiglath-pileser's tribute lists give the name of a ruler of Syria, which equates with Rezin of the Bible. In the south, Egypt was experiencing a period of internal strife; one power center was at Sais in the delta, whose ruler Tefnakht is probably the king called “So” in 2 Kings 17.4 . Israel and Judah were in the midst of a brewing storm.

Turmoil in Samaria must have arisen over how to participate in the constantly changing power game. Six kings sat on the throne of Israel between 747 and 722, only three of them for any length of time and none for over a decade. Precise chronological details are elusive; for example, the twenty years assigned Pekah cannot be squared with Assyrian information. The sequence: Jeroboam's son Zechariah lasted six months, struck down by the usurper Shallum, who lasted one month. Menahem ousted Shallum and reigned close to ten years; Menahem's son Pekahiah succeeded him, only to be overthrown by a military captain named Pekah. (Pekah and Pekahiah are forms of the same name; did Pekah assume his predecessor's throne name?) Hoshea killed Pekah and reigned for nine years, to the fall of Samaria.

Things were more stable in the south; Jotham, regent for Uzziah, continued on the throne until about 735 BCE and was succeeded by his son Ahaz, who held the throne until about 715. (There is controversy about the chronology; Ahaz's reign may have fallen a decade earlier, and Hezekiah may have begun his reign about 727 to 725—no synchronisms for this period help resolve the question.)

Tiglath-pileser III ruled Assyria from 745 to 727. He campaigned westward repeatedly during that time. Assyrian policy of conquest took one of three tacks, all of them ruthless. Frequently the policy worked on a three-stage progression: seek voluntary submission of local rulers; conquer by force if voluntary submission does not happen; punish any recalcitrance or rebellion by taking over governmental control and deporting local leadership, while substituting populations drawn from other locales. Menahem voluntarily submitted and sent tribute to Tiglath-pileser, as at this stage did Tubail (or Hiram—Assyrian annals and inscriptions differ on the name) king of Tyre and Rezin of Damascus in 738/737.

The account in 2 Kings 15.19–21 indicates the economic impact. Menahem's tribute was 1,000 talents (a talent was roughly 50 kilograms [110 pounds]) of silver, which “he exacted from Israel, that is, from all the wealthy” at the rate of 50 shekels a head. Since 50 (or perhaps 60) shekels is a mina and there are 60 minas in a talent, this computes to at least 60,000 people who had to contribute. If we take Jeremiah 32.9 as the guide, 50 shekels was three times what Jeremiah had to pay for his family's field in Anathoth—no paltry amount. That 60,000 people could be thought of as “wealthy” in Israel raises its own set of issues. If it means there were that many landholders in mid-eighth-century BCE Israel, we must be cautious in estimating the proportion of “wealthy” to “poor and needy.” What is more likely is that everybody (“Israel” in 2 Kings 15.20 ) was reckoned “wealthy” for the purposes of exaction, an economic hardship disastrous for those on the margin. That alone would have created popular opposition, which doubtless played its part in Pekah's conspiracy against Menahem's son Pekahiah.

Tiglath-pileser enlisted voluntary submission, or compelled it, in the west until about 738 BCE, and contended with threats to his north and east for three to four years after that. Assyrian public records combine with biblical accounts to portray what happened between 735 and 732. Rezin assembled a rebellious coalition including Pekah of Israel, and sought to involve Judah. The DH places their first efforts at the end of Jotham's reign (2 Kings 15.37 ), but the pressure came when Ahaz had succeeded Jotham during 735 ( 16.5–9 ). The coalition attacked Jerusalem, probably in 734, but Ahaz took the course of sending an advance tribute to Tiglath-pileser, requesting him to intervene.

Tiglath-pileser probably never intended otherwise. In 734 he campaigned across the middle of Syria to the Phoenician coast, conquering city after city from Byblos southward and ending by securing the frontier city of Gaza and the boundary with Egypt. That in itself may have been enough to frighten the Syrian-Israelite coalition into pulling back from Jerusalem. The Chronicler presents an alternative picture, claiming that Syria and Pekah separately wrought havoc in Judah, but that Ahaz's invitation to Assyria was occasioned by attacks from Edom in the south and Philistia on the west. Whatever the precise course of events in Judah, Tiglath-pileser's annals combine with 2 Kings 16.9 to report fighting with Syria in 733 and 732, ending with the fall of Damascus and the death of Rezin.

For Pekah, the end came at this time also. Hoshea killed him and silenced the anti-Assyrian voice in Samaria. Meanwhile, Tiglath-pileser applied the third stage of Assyrian policy to the entire north of Israel's territory, turning them into the Assyrian provinces of Megiddo, Dor, and Gilead (2 Kings 15.29 ) and deporting their populations. Hoshea was left with the central hill country, over which the Assyrian king claimed to have appointed him.

The impact on Judah, notably on Ahaz and his “pro-Assyrian” circle, was brought home to Jerusalem by Isaiah. Isaiah is presented in the book named for him as a figure of prominence in Jerusalem. As with other prophets, he has a following ( 8.16 ) and enjoys customary access to the king. The book's superscription, and the retrospective in chapter 6 of his inaugural prophetic vision, dates his first activities to the end of the reign of Uzziah; but narrative encounters show him at work with Ahaz and then, after a gap of time, with Hezekiah. The account of his confrontation of Ahaz served as the gathering point for chapters 7–11 .

With “the house of David” ( 7.2 ) quaking before the threat of the alliance of Pekah and Rezin, Isaiah realized that he was divinely commissioned to confront King Ahaz. Isaiah bore a message and a symbolic act, the latter taking the form of Isaiah's son Shear-jashub, whose name has a deliberately ambiguous meaning: “a remnant shall return/only a remnant shall return,” both a threat and a promise. Isaiah's message: the conspiracy being developed by Rezin and Pekah will not succeed; neither fear nor resist it. If you want reassurance that this is so, ask for a sign—and if you are too pious to ask for a sign, you will get it anyway. A son has already been conceived by one known to us both (the queen? the prophet's wife?) whose name is the assurance, Immanuel, “El is with us.” By the time that child has been weaned, the threat of the Syro-Ephraimite conspiracy will have been put down by Assyria.

Isaiah's message would have amounted to counsel not to take such measures as sending to Assyria for help. As noted above, Assyria would probably have come to punish rebels anyway, and to set the boundary with Egypt. The rest of the collection in Isaiah 7–11 is a rich amalgam of prophetic interpretation of what went on from 732 to 722 and a projection of the prophet's commitment to the political control of Israel's deity, even over Assyria itself. To unravel the dates of the various oracles in this portion of the book would be futile, but one point is inescapable: what is about to happen, or has happened, to Samaria is a direct lesson to the kings of Judah. Failure to heed the lesson brings disaster on Judah as well. Accounts of the progression of disaster in the north serve as warnings to Judah ( 9.8–10.4 ). Portrayals of what a truly faithful king and kingdom would look like are positioned to fortify warning with hope ( 9.2–7; 11.1–9 ). Interwoven with all this we hear the prophet's personal frustration as warnings go unheeded—hence his decision to lapse, with his disciples, into silence and waiting ( 8.16 ). Whether or not the prophetic counsel worked to change the policy of Judah's king Ahaz, the option proclaimed by the prophet and cherished by those who thought like him is as much a part of Judah's history as is the reality of what the pro-Assyrian party opted to do.

The conspiracy did fail, and within a decade the axe fell on Samaria. For a while, into the reign of Shalmaneser V (727–722 BCE), Hoshea paid tribute to Assyria. But at some point Hoshea sensed an opening and sought help from the Saite dynasty of Egypt (2 Kings 17.4 ). The move cost him his throne and his people their land. The rebellious act brought Shalmaneser roaring back to the west to besiege Samaria. For over two years, Samaria held out, while Assyria ravaged the countryside. Then, in 722, the city fell—probably to Shalmaneser, although neither the DH nor the Assyrian record is quite clear on the agent of destruction and deportation. Shalmaneser's successor Sargon II claims credit in his own inscriptions, and possibly a sequence of events unfolded complex enough to involve several stages of conquest. The DH here reaches one of its climactic points, and pauses to draw the lessons in 2 Kings 17.7–18 . A second historian in the Deuteronomic tradition added verses 19–20 to bring the point to bear upon Judah. Then, in verses 21–23 , the first DH summarizes the whole: from Jeroboam I to Hoshea, the course of events had been developing disastrously, never reversing Jeroboam's religious sin, and, though challenged by prophetic voices, had finally led to exile.

The epitaph of the northern kingdom was augmented by the remarkable portrayal in 2 Kings 17.24–33 , which depicts the Assyrian policy of population exchange and provides a valuable vignette of religious phenomenology. The new populations did not know the governing religious reality of the territory and needed instruction from the indigenous priesthood. A knowledgeable priest, who had been taken into captivity, was sent back to live at Bethel. “He taught them how they should worship the LORD.” The result for the DH was built-in syncretistic religion as a way of life.

The year 722 BCE brought an era to an end. Judah stood in suspended animation, awaiting what Assyria would have in store for it. Israel was in ruins, its leadership deported and its remaining population left to the agonies of deprivation and of occupation by people alien to their ways. Sargon's accounts speak of either 27,280 or 27,290 exiles and of the capture of chariots (50 in one inscription, 200 in another). He also claims to have rebuilt Samaria “better than it was before.” The archaeological evidence suggests the devastation: at Tirzah, Shechem, and Samaria the wreckage speaks eloquently, emblemized by the fine Assyrian seal found in the collapsed ruins of House 1727 at Shechem. The silence of the written sources for what followed in the north is deafening. The consequences for Judah become the story of the next chapter of this volume.

It was just two centuries from Rehoboam's action at Shechem to the fall of Samaria. A monarchic experiment under David and Solomon had envisioned a realm of peace and prosperity stretching from Dan to Beer-sheba, in harmony with surrounding peoples. The Deuteronomic Historian portrays the division of this unity with deep sadness, a tone of bewilderment. The fault lies with the people's unfaithfulness to a deity who sought justice and peace. Israel bears the brunt of the critique, while Judah bears its share. The Chronicler, giving more attention to Judean failures, clings to hope in the Davidic promise, but shares the sadness.

The events alone, even without the prophets' yearnings and the editors' evaluations, convey a sense of lost opportunity. Justice and rectitude might have prevailed. More perhaps than is usually recognized, the ways in which the division of the monarchy is presented in the Bible and even in the annals of other nations of the period—the Moabite Stone, the Assyrian inscriptions, the Dan stela—inform the reflections of historians of other eras and places as they ponder the human pilgrimage.

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