Old Testament History
|The Rise of Assyria|
|The Last Days of the Northern Kingdom|
|Zechariah and Shallum Menahem Pekahiah Pekah/the Syro-Ephraimitic coalition Hoshea and the end||The Assyrian Crisis and the Southern Kingdom|
|Jotham Ahaz Hezekiah Manasseh Amon|
It is a common historical observation that the Israelite nations, both the United Kingdom and later the two Kingdoms of Israel (North) and Judah (South), came into existence in a vacuum of power in the Middle East. The biblical account presents Israel’s entry and settlement in the land in theological terms without apology. However, from a purely historical perspective (which, of course, is a rather modern rational construct) the tiny nation of Israel flourished from the 12th century to the 8th century BC because there were no other regional powers sufficient to challenge it.
Egypt to the south had already seen its days of glory and was no longer a serious claimant to empire. While there would be brief revivals under a few strong pharaohs, Egypt would never recover the glory days of the great pyramid builders. The Hittite Empire to the North had crumbled long before Israel entered the land, and the Syrians were never strong enough alone to pose any serious threat to Israel. The Israelites gradually subdued or made trading partners the encroaching Sea Peoples, the Phoenicians and Philistines, along the coast to the West. The older kingdoms of Mesopotamia to the North and East had long since disintegrated into warring factions, and no strong leader had yet emerged to weld them into a unified nation. After early conflicts with Canaanite tribes, and in spite of occasional skirmishes with surrounding nations, Israel enjoyed 400 years without major threats of conquest.
Yet, Israel was located in a strategic geographical position on the single narrow strip of arable land at the crossroads between Africa, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. Israel was particularly vulnerable should nations to the North decide to build an empire, because the only land route to the wealth of North Africa and Egypt lay through Israel. This geographical fact even allowed the prophets to use the metaphor "enemy from the North" to refer to any threat to the nation (e.g., Isa 41:25, Jer 1:14-15, Ezek 1:4, 23:24, 38:14-15, Joel 2:20, etc.).
The relative calm ended in the middle eighth century BC. In 745 BC, Tiglath-Pileser III (called Pul in biblical traditions; 2 Kings 15:19) took the throne of Assyria. A shrewd and capable ruler, he quickly managed to forge the warring Assyrian factions into a formidable nation. Soon, Assyria ruthlessly began building an empire, extending control over Babylon and the Medes to the East, defeating the Kingdom of Urartu to the North, and extending control to the West into Eastern Asia Minor, Phoenicia (Tyre), Syria (Damascus), and into northern Israelite territory. (For a detailed history of Assyria, see the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Assyria" [external link]).
The nations of Israel and Judah, for the first time in their history, would now have to deal with a serious military threat to their very existence. Yet, neither nation was in any shape to face such a threat. Here we could again divide the problems up into spiritual and political. But the biblical traditions do not make such an easy division. They interpret what we would understand to be political and military weakness, and inadequate leadership, as a spiritual and moral decay that had undermined the fabric of both nations (See Baal Worship in the Old Testament). However, for our purposes here we will track the events from the perspective of the political leadership of the nations, realizing that the biblical traditions interpret the events through the lens of faithfulness to Yahweh.
Following the relatively stable and prosperous reign of Jereboam II, the northern Kingdom of Israel collapsed into near anarchy. Internal turmoil and power struggles combined with a series of assassinations left Israel in no position to cope with the growing Assyrian menace. And, as the prophets Amos and Hosea pointed out, spiritual decline and Ba’al worship were rampant, factors that further weakened national identity and resolve. At the very time that Tiglath-Pileser III was coming to power in Assyria, marking the rebirth of the Assyrian Empire and the greatest external threat the Israelites had faced since the beginning of the Kingdom, Israel was self-destructing. The Northern Kingdom would never recover.
Zechariah, the son of Jereboam II and the fourth king in the lineage of Jehu, took the throne after the 40-year reign of his father. However, after only 6 months in office he was assassinated by Shallum ben Jabesh who attempted to seize the throne (2 Kings 15:8-12). However, Shallum was likewise murdered after only a month in power by Menahem ben Gadi.
After assassinating his predecessor, Shallum, Menahem began his reign by cruel subjugation of those who opposed him. Israel remembered the atrocities he committed to establish his control (2 Kings 15:16). Although Menahem reigned nearly 10 years, he was a weak ruler. Faced with the prospect of Assyrian invasion, Menahem taxed the wealthy of the Kingdom to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser, thus avoiding a direct invasion. But by so doing, for all practical purposes he had surrendered the nation to the Assyrians and made it a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire. We can only speculate as to the national mood at this point, but the unfolding events suggest that there was strong resentment against subjugation to Assyria.
Mehahem’s son Pekahiah took the throne but was quickly assassinated by one of his officers, Pekah ben Remaliah ("son of Remaliah," Isa 7:1ff, 2 Kings 15:23-26), who then took the throne.
Pekah's assassination of Pekahiah set the nation on a dangerous course. Perhaps pushed to action by Israelite nationalists, perhaps encouraged by other nations wanting to stop the Assyrian advance, Pekah began an aggressive anti-Assyrian program that would prove disastrous. The Northern Kingdom, torn by internal dissension and political intrigue and crippled spiritually by the syncretism with Ba’al worship, was in no condition to launch such a campaign. But Pekah forged ahead with his plans seemingly heedless of the consequences.
Pekah formed a military alliance with Rezin the king of Damascus (the territory of Aram or Syria) to resist the Assyrians. Apparently realizing that even those two combined nations were not enough to withstand Assyria, Pekah tried to recruit others into the rebellion. He made an appeal to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, at this time ruled by Jotham son of Uzziah, to join their efforts. Jotham refused. We are left to speculate as to his reasons for refusing, but in light of the Assyrian threat, it was probably a wise course of action.
At this point Pekah made an incredible decision. With resources already low, Pekah decided with the aid of Rezin to march his army south to Judah, remove Jotham by force, and replace him with a ruler more agreeable to his plans (Isa 7:6). The course of events is not clear, but it appears that other nations such as Edom to the south and the Philistines to the west took the opportunity to side against Judah in order to secure their own positions (2 Kings 16:6, 2 Chron 28:17-18).
As Pekah marched his army to the south, Jotham abruptly died and was succeeded by his son Ahaz who had to face the threat from the combined Aramean and Israelite forces. Pekah actually managed to lay siege to Jerusalem. Here the Chronicles account (2 Chron 28:1-15) differs considerably from the account in 2 Kings (16:5). While the Chronicler tells of a great slaughter, as well as defeat and looting of Jerusalem as punishment for the wickedness of Ahaz, 2 Kings simply says that Pekah could not defeat Ahaz. Since the purpose of the invasion was to replace Jotham (or Ahaz), and that did not occur, it seems that the 2 Kings account is more accurate.
This is not to say that the Chronicles’ account is false. It is entirely possible that there was a great loss of life as Jerusalem was besieged. But it is obvious that the Chronicles account emphasizes far more the negative aspects of the invasion as a vehicle for the theological point that disobedience to God brings consequences (to preserve some sense of justice, the Chronicler notes that the Northerners did not profit from their looting of the city, 2 Chron 28:8-15). The writer of Kings only wanted to say that the invasion ultimately failed and Ahaz remained on the throne of Judah.
Ahaz had appealed to Assyria for assistance in repelling the invading coalition armies. That had its own consequences in the Southern Kingdom (for the impact of this invasion on the Southern Kingdom, see under the reign of Ahaz), but placed the Northern Kingdom and Pekah in imminent peril. The Assyrian King, while not really needing it to act, had an open invitation to invade the Northern Kingdom with support from Judah to the South. The Assyrian armies began to deal one by one with the rebellious nations. In 734, Tiglath-Pileser’s armies decimated the Philistine territories along the coast southwest of Judah, cut off any assistance from Egypt to the south, and then turned back north to deal with Israel. By 733 the Assyrians had taken most of the northern territories of Israel and surrounding areas, and were poised to take Samaria, the northern capital (2 Kings 15:29). Later, they would strike further north and ravage the Syrian territories.
At this point, Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea who took control of the Northern Kingdom. Again, while we have no direct evidence, events suggest that this assassination was an attempt to change policy toward Assyria and save the nation.
Hoshea immediately surrendered the Northern Kingdom to Shalmeneser V (some think this was Shalmaneser IV), the new king of Assyria, and paid tribute (2 Kings 17:1-3). This action probably saved Samaria from destruction, at least for a while, but only put the Northern Kingdom more firmly in the grasp of the Assyrians.
There was no doubt still a faction within Israel that wanted independence. While Hoshea had acted to save what remained of the nation, he eventually saw what he thought was an opportunity to break free of Assyrian control. He made an alliance with Egypt, thinking he could rely on them for military assistance, and withheld tribute from Assyria (2 Kings 17:4). But Egypt at this time was weak and was worthless as a military ally. Shalmeneser’s army attacked the reduced Israelite Kingdom in 724, captured most of the land, and took Hoshea prisoner. Only Samaria remained. It was besieged for 3 years, and was finally taken in 721 (2 Kings 17:5-6). The city was destroyed, the northern Kingdom transformed into a province of the Assyrian Empire, a number of the people taken as prisoners or exiles to Assyria, and other people resettled in the captured territory (2 Kings 17:24-34).
The Northern Kingdom had ceased to exist. Even though there were continued prophetic dreams of a restored and unified Kingdom (e.g., Ezek 37:18-22) it would forever disappear from history. The writer of 2 Kings gives a long theological evaluation of the fall of the Northern Kingdom, attributing their demise to faithlessness to their covenant with Yahweh in worshipping other gods (2 Kings 17:7-18).
The middle 8th century BC was relatively prosperous for both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Even though Jeroboam II’s reign in the Northern Kingdom provided a period of relative peace and prosperity, he continued to allow Ba’al worship to flourish and was therefore seen as taking another step toward disaster for the nation (Amos 7:10-17). During the same period in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Uzziah also proved to be a capable leader providing a corresponding forty year period of peace and prosperity for Judah. (2 Chron 26). Uzziah was one of only five kings of the Southern Kingdom whom the biblical traditions give passing marks as a leader. So, there is some sense of the passing of an era and the dawning of an ominous future in Isaiah of Jerusalem marking the beginning of his ministry as "the year that king Uzziah died" (Isa 6:1).
King Uzziah contracted leprosy during the latter part of his reign, so his son Jotham shared the throne as co-regent for the last years of Uzziah’s rule, although it is likely that Uzziah retained control. Considering the monumental events swirling through the area, very little notice is taken of the reign of Jotham. The accounts in both Kings and Chronicles note a few building projects (2 Chron 27:1-5, 2 Kings 32-35) while the Chronicler adds a victory over the Ammonites that resulted in three years of tribute. Both accounts give him mixed ratings, noting that he tried to follow the practices of Uzziah but did not promote any religious reforms. The Chronicler tends to sanitize Jotham’s reign, omitting any reference to the threat from the alliance of Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel mentioned in Kings (The Syro-Ephraimitic Coalition, 2 Kings 15:37). Since Jotham died just as the armies of Pekah were poised to strike at Jerusalem, it fell to his son Ahaz to deal with this threat.
Ahaz is remembered as one of the worst kings of Judah, not only willing to surrender the country to Assyria for his own survival but also willing to compromise the nation’s commitment to God. Ahaz came to the throne just as the coalition of Syria and Israel was ready to depose his father Jotham and replace him with someone more sympathetic to their anti-Assyrian plans (Isa 7:6) . We do not know all of the motivations that drove Ahaz since much of the biblical account views his actions through the consequences it had both politically and religiously for the Southern Kingdom. But his actions spelled disaster in both areas for Judah.
Ahaz faced the prospect of civil war with the Northern Israelites. No doubt taking advantage of a volatile situation, the Edomites to the south captured Elath, Judah’s port on the Red Sea and forced Ahaz’ army to retreat (2 Kings 16:6). About the same time the Philistines along the southeastern coast, whom Judah had held in check for some time, began raiding into the hill country along Judah’s southern borders. Ahaz, unwilling or unable to wage campaigns on three fronts, began seeking military alliances with other nations. The prophet Isaiah desperately pleaded with Ahaz to trust in the promises of God and not to pursue such a reckless course of action (Isa 7-8). But Ahaz ignored Isaiah, and after overtures to Egypt failed to produce any results, he finally appealed to the Assyrian ruler Tiglath Pileser III for assistance (1 Kings 16:7-10). In effect, Ahaz had willingly surrendered the Southern Kingdom to Assyria .
Assyria needed little excuse to take action, and the events that unfolded led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 BC. While saving his throne and averting the same fate for the Southern Kingdom, Ahaz and Judah were now vassals of the Assyrian Empire. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, where each nation had a patron deity as protector and defender of that country, subjugation of another country meant that the gods of the victor had prevailed over the gods of the other. As vassal of Assyria, Ahaz was compelled to acknowledge the Assyrian gods as his own.
On a trip to Damascus to meet the Assyrian king to pledge his loyalty, and probably to pay homage to Assyrian deities as well, he saw an altar to Asshur the patron deity of Assyria. He made plans of this altar, sent them to Jerusalem, and instructed that the altar be built and placed in the Temple for his use. When he returned from Damascus, Ahaz offered sacrifices on the altar. In addition, he removed some of the furnishings of the Temple and closed the king’s entrance into the Temple at the instructions of the Assyrian ruler (2 Kings 16:10-18). In effect, Ahaz had converted part of the Temple into a shrine to Asshur!
With the king providing such an example, Ba’al worship and all sorts of Canaanite religious practices flourished. Ahaz himself even allowed one of his sons to be offered as a child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3). This era was remembered as one of the worst times of apostasy from God in the Southern Kingdom, rivaled only by the reign of Manasseh. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both scathingly denounced the apostasy and warned of dire consequences for the Southern Kingdom, just as had already happened to the North, if Judah did not repent and return to God (Mic 1:2-16, 3:9-12, Isa 9:8-10:4). But the nation remained captive to Assyrian and Assyrian gods throughout the reign of Ahaz.
As bad as the reign of Ahaz had been, the reign of his son Hezekiah was remembered as one of the best for Judah. Hezekiah came to the throne just as events were heating up again in Palestine. After two decades of Assyrian rule, many of the surrounding nations as well as Judah were anxious to be free of the Assyrians. And there were many faithful followers of Yahweh in Judah, as exemplified by Micah and Isaiah with his group of followers, who found the religious situation under Ahaz intolerable. Hezekiah would quickly be caught up in a series of events that would allow Judah to escape the fate of Samaria and the Northern Kingdom, at least for a while.
The new Assyrian king, Sargon II who came to power about the time Samaria fell in 722/1 BC, was occupied in the northern, eastern, and western provinces of the Assyrian Empire quelling revolts and consolidating his reign. This eased some pressure on Palestine toward the end of the rule of Ahaz. Egypt, who had been weak during for some time, experienced a resurgence of power with a new dynasty around 716-715, and encouraged rebellion against Assyria in Palestine and Syria as a means of establishing a buffer zone between Egypt and Assyria should Assyria again turn ambitious.
Led by Ashdod around 714, several Philistine city-states withheld tribute from Assyria, and surrounding nations were invited to join the rebellion with promised aid from Egypt. We have little information about Hezekiah’s involvement in the rebellion, although it is clear that Isaiah advised him to have no part of an alliance with Egypt (Isa 20). If he sided with the rebels at all, he managed to extricate himself before it was too late. By 712 Sargon had ruthlessly crushed the rebellion since the promised Egyptian aid never came.
However the pressure to purge Assyrian rule and deities from Judah continued to mount. Hezekiah, encouraged to restore the worship of Yahweh by the prophets Isaiah and Micah, began a series of sweeping religious reforms that intended to purge the pagan religious practices as well as to address the social abuses that had been allowed to prevail under Ahaz. The biblical traditions report this as simply an attempt to cleanse the nation of the religious syncretism that Ahaz had allowed to pollute the land (2 Chron 29). But since the altar to Assyrian gods had tremendous political implications, the reforms were hardly purely religious. To remove the Assyrian shrines was the same as rejecting Assyrian rule. While the biblical reports are matter of fact, the reforms probably were done gradually over a period of time rather than a radical break all at once.
In any case, by 704 Hezekiah’s opportunity came. Sargon II was assassinated and Sennacherib (705-681 BC) came to power in Assyria. Typically, outlying provinces attempted to rebel and Sennacherib was immediately spread thin attempting to hold the Empire together. Hezekiah was ready for a break from Assyria and withheld tribute, an open signal of rebellion. Other states in the area joined the rebellion and Hezekiah, in brokering an alliance with Egypt over the objections of Isaiah (Isa 30, 31), became the leader of the revolt. It took Sennacherib until 701 to quiet the other provinces sufficiently to turn his attention to Hezekiah.
Sennacherib marched from the north into Palestine intent on devastating cities that had rebelled. He began along the northwestern coastal area of Phoenicia and the seaport of Tyre, which quickly fell. The defeat of Tyre caused many of the city-states as far away as Moab and Ammon to promptly reassert their allegiance to Assyria. However, the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ekron along with the Kingdom of Judah continued to refuse tribute to Sennacherib. Determined to teach the rebellious cities a lesson, Sennacherib continued his southward march. In a short span of time, he had secured all of the Philistine territory along the coast and turned inland to deal with Hezekiah and Judah. The Assyrians destroyed a great number of towns in Judah and finally laid siege to Jerusalem itself.
At this point, the accounts of the ensuing campaigns of Sennacherib are not clear and there are differing opinions about the precise sequence of events. The debate centers on whether there were two separate campaigns by Sennacherib against Hezekiah, one in 701 and another in 688-687, or only one in 701. The evidence, both from biblical accounts and Sennacherib’s own Annals, which have survived, is unclear. Some suggest that at this time Hezekiah, fearing the worst, sent envoys to Sennacherib and secured a peace treaty at the price of heavy tribute that resulted in Hezekiah stripping the temple of it gold to meet the demands (2 Kings 18:13-16). They suggest that later Hezekiah again rebelled against Assyria around 690 with assistance from the new Egyptian pharaoh Tirhakah while Sennacherib was busy putting down unrest in Babylon (2 Kings 19:9). Since Tirhakah did not become Pharaoh until 690, this would imply a second campaign by Sennacherib subsequent to the 701 incursion.
However, most historians contend that there was only one campaign, with all the above events relating to the siege of Jerusalem in 701. Their perspective is that Hezekiah attempted to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem by sending tribute, but Sennacherib was not satisfied with the offer and was determined to destroy Jerusalem and humiliate Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:17-18). The reference to Tirhakah would then either be an anachronistic reference from a later period, or a reference to Tirhakah as a military leader a decade before he became pharaoh. In any case, the details are not adequate enough from the biblical account to decide with any certainty.
In any case, the primary biblical concern is the devastation of large areas of Judah by the Assyrians and the outcome of the siege of Jerusalem. There are various theories about what happened to end the siege, such an infestation of rats that led to a sudden deadly plague (2 Kings 19:35) or an unexpected recall of Sennacherib to Assyria (2 Kings 19:5-7), but they seem to miss the point of the biblical narrative. The biblical traditions simply remembered that just as it seemed inevitable the Assyrians would take the city, they suddenly left in the middle of the night never to return to the city (2 Kings 19:35-37). Clearly, the biblical traditions attribute this to God, just as Isaiah had promised Hezekiah (Isa 37:33-35). The implication of these events from the biblical perspective is that God spared the city because of the faithfulness of Hezekiah and the reforms that he had instituted in the worship of Yahweh (2 Chron 31:20-21). Even so, both the account in Kings and especially the parallel account in Chronicles note that Hezekiah was not not a model king and had a tendency to pride and self glorification (Isa 39; 2 Chron 32:24-26).
Theological Note: It should not diminish this perspective either theologically or historically to note that the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians would later lead to the dogma of the inviolability of Zion, the idea that God would always under all circumstances protect the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. This assumed that the promise of Isaiah was a timeless and unconditional one. Jeremiah would later face these ideas that presented a tremendous hindrance to his own message, which was precisely the opposite of Isaiah’s: that the city of Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians (note Jer 7:1-11). He would also face false prophets such as Hananiah (Jer 28), who no doubt quoted the words of Isaiah to him with full confidence without considering that there was no righteous king close to the equivalent of Hezekiah and therefore the message from God might be different. It is even possible that these prophets were later disciples of Isaiah who were trying to preserve a tradition for its own sake without standing in the "council" of God (Jer 23:21-22).
It is a sober warning that God’s word for his people might be different at different times. Likewise it warns how easily and dangerously God’s people can assume that what was true in the past must always be true without qualification or consideration of how the condition of the people and their response might affect history. In many ways, it is this same assumption about the work of God in the world that caused problems for Jesus. Ironically, it was the Isaiah tradition itself that challenged the idea of "what has been must be" as it proclaimed God as the God of new things (Isa 42:8-9, 43:18-21).
The last years of Hezekiah’s reign are obscure. If there were two invasions by Sennacherib, then Hezekiah’s entire reign was occupied with the Assyrian threat. If there was only one, the later part of his reign was evidently uneventful, except for some building projects around Jerusalem (2 Kings 20:20, 2 Chron 32:27-32).
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