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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.

Survival under Assyrian Vassalage

Hezekiah's son Manasseh ascended the throne at the young age of twelve, and went on to reign in Jerusalem for fifty-five years (698–642 BCE), longer than any other dynast of the house of David. Historians as a rule vilify Manasseh, adopting the evaluation of the biblical sources that censure the king for his deviation from the religious reforms instituted by his father and for introducing idols into the Temple. Manasseh is further accused of instituting a reign of terror, shedding the blood of many innocent persons in the capital; postbiblical tradition holds that the venerable prophet Isaiah was among those martyred. The report of Manasseh's evil deeds and apostasy was transparently worked up by the editors of the oldest history of Israel, the book of Kings, to rationalize the later demise of the monarchy and the exile of the nation in terms of God's just management of the world. In the editors' view, Judah's violation of the Mosaic covenant brought deserved punishment, Manasseh's acts being the breaking point. But a more balanced view of Manasseh and his policies can be achieved by setting them against the backdrop of the Near East during the century of Assyrian domination when Judah was subject to Nineveh.

Sennacherib did not return to the west again; the political settlement imposed at the conclusion of the campaign of 701 held for close to a quarter century, into the reign of his son Esarhaddon (681–669 BCE). In 679, the second year of his reign, Esarhaddon marched unchallenged to the border with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, in a show of force meant to demonstrate Assyria's continuing interest in those distant reaches of its empire. An uprising in the Phoenician port of Sidon several years later tested this policy, and the revolt was decisively put down—the city was despoiled and leveled, and its population was deported. A new commercial center named after the king, Kar Ashur-ahi-iddina (“Port Esarhaddon”), was built to replace the former town, settlers from abroad were brought in, and all were placed under the direct administration of a governor appointed by Nineveh. Clearly Assyria would brook no interference with its rule.

All the while, however, the Egyptian king Taharqa (biblical Tirhakah; 690–664 BCE), who may have harbored memories of his defeat in 701, when as a young commander he led the Egyptian forces against Sennacherib, was bent on supporting those elements in Phoenicia and Philistia who were prepared to take a more independent position vis-à-vis Assyria. Esarhaddon saw no other means to protect Assyrian interests in the Mediterranean area than direct confrontation with Taharqa, and he invaded Egypt in 674, only to be repelled. Such a defeat could not be left unanswered—to do so could have meant loss of the west altogether. In fact, while Esarhaddon reorganized for another attempt at taking Egypt, Baal of Tyre, who was bound by treaty to Assyria, and Mitinti of Ashkelon made common cause with Taharqa. Other petty monarchs may also have been enticed into revolt against what they perceived as a weakened Assyria. Three years later, as a prelude to his second invasion of Egypt, Esarhaddon laid siege to Tyre and forced its surrender. Proceeding south, he crossed the desert of the northern Sinai with the help of local Arab rulers and entered Egypt. There he triumphed. Taharqa fled Memphis, leaving behind family and officials, who were taken prisoner and, together with great wealth, carried off to Assyria. The victorious Assyrians established their rule throughout the Nile Valley.

This was the world that Manasseh faced during his first three decades as king, and it is little wonder that as ruler of the diminutive mountain kingdom of Judah he fulfilled his vassal duties on command. Esarhaddon mentions Manasseh among the “twenty-two kings of the west, the sea coast, and overseas” who were called up to provide material for the reconstruction of the royal storehouse at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh; these same vassals took part in the building of Port Esarhaddon. But as expressive of obedience as these activities may seem, there is one blemish on this picture of Manasseh as loyal servant of the empire. A late, reworked biblical passage (2 Chron. 33.11 ) tells of Manasseh's incarceration by Assyrian troops in Babylon and his subsequent return to Jerusalem. Manasseh may have been enticed by Baal of Tyre and by Pharaoh Taharqa to join in their revolt, and when Esarhaddon set out for Egypt, his route took him through the coastal plain of Philistia, very close to the border of Judah. Like the other rebels, Manasseh was arrested on the charge of treason; he was subsequently pardoned and returned to his throne, as were several of the minor rulers in the Nile Delta after the Assyrian victories in Egypt. Less than a decade later, Manasseh appears in Assyrian records once again, together with the twenty-one other western vassal kings, this time providing armed contingents for the Egyptian campaign of Esarhaddon's son and successor, Ashurbanipal (669–627 BCE).

On balance, vassal obedience, which was based on economic submission to imperial goals, had its rewards. The archaeological record contains signs that during the seventh century BCE the Judean countryside recovered under the watchful eye of the Assyrian army. Throughout the territory of the Philistine kingdoms to the west and south of Judah, in areas that had at one time been Judean, fortresses and structures were built following Mesopotamian architectural design; some of their brick walls—as much as 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) thick—still stand as evidence of Assyria's investment in this vital border zone. In the excavated rooms at several sites, imported Assyrian palace ware points to the luxurious lifestyle of the area's residents. Particularly striking is the example of Ekron on Judah's western border, which had been taken by force during Sennacherib's campaign. Excavation at Tel Miqne, the site of ancient Ekron, has shown that the city developed into the region's largest center for olive oil production (the annual yield is estimated at more than a thousand tons) and its domestic residential quarters mirror the city's prosperity. The local religion at Ekron flourished as shown by a recently discovered royal inscription, the first of its kind from a Philistine city, that commemorates the dedication of a shrine to a hitherto unknown goddess by Ikausa son of Padi, king of Ekron. (Padi had been reinstalled by Sennacherib when hostilities ended in 701.) Manasseh, too, was able, no doubt with imperial license, to rebuild Judah's defenses and reconstruct Jerusalem's walls and gates.

The written record complements this picture of growth and resurgence with its own point of view. Especially among the upper class, Judeans adopted foreign customs wholesale. Outlandish dress became fashionable in Jerusalem, as did such alien folkways as “leaping over [the Temple?] threshold” in Philistine manner (Zeph. 1.4–5, 8–9 ). Merchants from Judah plied the routes to Mesopotamia, where the unit weight of Judah, the shekel, was recognized currency in those distant markets; luxury items, along with the profits of this trade, accompanied them on the journey home. Considering the multifarious daily contact with the Assyrian administration and the mixed populations settled throughout the land, it would have been surprising indeed had Judahite culture not absorbed some of the signs of the dominant Assyro-Aramean culture. At Gezer, for example, business transactions were conducted according to standard Assyrian legal practice, as is made clear by the cuneiform sale document of a parcel of land: the owner of the field in question, an Israelite named Netanyahu, impressed his personal seal decorated with typical Mesopotamian lunar symbolism.

King Manasseh seems to have been taken up by this new cultural wave, which found its most glaring expression in the introduction of unorthodox forms of worship at the national shrine:

He erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD.… The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house. (2 Kings 21.3–7 )

More than anything else, this royal sponsorship of what from the perspective of the biblical historians was idolatry determined Manasseh's negative reputation. Some modern commentators have constructed a case partially in Manasseh's defense, justifying the king's acts by invoking the supposed Assyrian policy of requiring subject peoples to adopt the official religion of the empire. According to this view, whether it be the introduction of a new altar in the Temple courtyard by King Ahaz, Manasseh's grandfather, or Manasseh's stationing of sculptured images in the Temple itself, the kings of Judah were in reality following Assyrian dictate. Cuius regio eius religio: a region follows its ruler's religion.

But this exculpatory argument does not survive close examination. Assyrian imperialism was noncoercive in religious matters; vassal kings were not required to worship the imperial god Ashur, and local religions suffered no interference. In fact, Assyria's kings often made public display of their respect for non-Assyrian gods by acknowledging their divinity, and on occasion by offering sacrifice to them. As for the kingdom of Judah, despite its checkered history of relations with Assyria, it remained a vassal state for over a century, free to pursue its native religion.

Manasseh's acts, then, are best understood as representative of the climate of cultural assimilation that swept over many areas of the Near East in the wake of the Assyrian conquest. While the restoration of local sanctuaries throughout Judah may have stemmed from a conservative reaction to the reforms of Hezekiah and his failed political policies, the foreign rituals reportedly introduced during the reign of Manasseh were voluntary adoptions. They were of mixed origin: Baal and Asherah were of Canaanite-Phoenician affinity, whereas the veneration of astral deities and the dedication of horses and chariots to the sun-god had links to Assyro-Aramean practice. Possibly Judah's sorry state throughout most of Manasseh's reign engendered a disenchantment with native Israelite traditions, which in turn abetted the assimilation of foreign ways. Yet this is not to imply that all Judeans subscribed to the king's innovations. Though there is a distinct lack of prophetic composition from this period, the brutal silencing of the opposition—“Manasseh shed very much innocent blood” (2 Kings 21.16 )—teaches otherwise.

Toward the end of Manasseh's long reign, in the sixth decade of the seventh century, Assyria became entangled in an uninterrupted series of wars that put to a severe test its hankering for imperialism. Ashurbanipal had to face his rebellious brother in Babylon and that city's Elamite allies, as well as the ever-restless Arab tribes in the south and west. Egypt, under Psammetichus I (664–610 BCE), aided by Greek mercenaries, freed itself from Assyrian vassalage without encountering miliary reprisal, and may have come to an agreement on the management of imperial interests in Syria. This would account for the tradition, reported by Herodotus, of a twenty-nine-year siege of Ashdod by Psammetichus. At the same time, Assyria faced increasing threats on its northern border as the nomadic Cimmerians and Scythians pushed westward toward Syria. There is, however, evidence for Assyrian military activity in Transjordan and on the Phoenician coast as far south as Acco during this decade; Samaria once again became home to a group of deportees. The Assyrians had not quite yet withdrawn to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. But from a modern vantage point, the sudden interruption of cuneiform documentation after 639 does read like a sign that victorious Assyria had come upon bad times.

Manasseh died in 642 BCE, and his son and successor Amon (641–640) reigned just two years before being assassinated by his courtiers. There is no way of knowing just what prompted this mutiny, and equally strong cases can be made for either foreign or internal affairs. Judah did not lack for political tensions and intrigues. The uprising was soon put down by “the people of land,” that influential segment of the population of Judah, mostly the wealthy, who appeared in times of dynastic crisis to protect the succession rights of the house of David. In the present instance, this conservative grouping of landowners and merchants nominated Amon's son Josiah, who was only eight years old when he ascended the throne, and during the new king's minority the “people of the land” continued to manage the affairs of state.

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