Ranked among the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time is the unearthing of the ancient Assyrian Empire.
Assyria first appeared as an empire early in the second millennium B.C. The remains of a ziggurat, or temple tower, from that era still stand near the site of its ancient capital.
In the ninth century B.C., Assyria developed into an aggressive and powerful empire. By this time, about 40 years after the reign of Solomon, Israel had split into two distinct kingdoms—Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12:16-24 1 Kings 12:16-24 16 So when all Israel saw that the king listened not to them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to your own house, David. So Israel departed to their tents.
17 But as for the children of Israel which dwelled in the cities of Judah, Rehoboam reigned over them.
18 Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem.
19 So Israel rebelled against the house of David to this day.
20 And it came to pass, when all Israel heard that Jeroboam was come again, that they sent and called him to the congregation, and made him king over all Israel: there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only.
21 And when Rehoboam was come to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah, with the tribe of Benjamin, an hundred and fourscore thousand chosen men, which were warriors, to fight against the house of Israel, to bring the kingdom again to Rehoboam the son of Solomon.
22 But the word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God, saying,
23 Speak to Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the remnant of the people, saying,
24 Thus said the LORD, You shall not go up, nor fight against your brothers the children of Israel: return every man to his house; for this thing is from me. They listened therefore to the word of the LORD, and returned to depart, according to the word of the LORD.
American King James Version×). Led by able and ruthless monarchs, the Assyrians began to menace and conquer their neighbors. They eventually subjugated the whole of the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to Egypt. By the late eighth century they crushed the kingdom of Israel.
About this same time they also invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, conquering its major cities and besieging its capital, Jerusalem (Isaiah 36:1-2 Isaiah 36:1-2 1 Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defended cities of Judah, and took them.
2 And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem to king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.
American King James Version×). The Bible records the boastful words of the arrogant Assyrian monarch, Sennacherib, as he tried to intimidate and humiliate Hezekiah, king of Judah (Isaiah 36:4-10 Isaiah 36:4-10 4 And Rabshakeh said to them, Say you now to Hezekiah, Thus said the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein you trust? 5 I say, say you, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom do you trust, that you rebel against me? 6 See, you trust in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; where on if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him. 7 But if you say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, You shall worship before this altar? 8 Now therefore give pledges, I pray you, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you be able on your part to set riders on them. 9 How then will you turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master’s servants, and put your trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 10 And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.
American King James Version×).
Did the biblical stories involving this empire really happen, or are they fables? Remember, many scoffers at one time disputed even the very existence of the Assyrian Empire. But it was no myth. As the debris of centuries was removed from Nineveh, one of the empire's capitals, dramatic proof of the Assyrian invasion was laid bare.
Assyrian records of these events quote King Sennacherib of Assyria boasting of his devastating invasion of Judah: “Forty-six of [Hezekiah's] strong walled towns and innumerable smaller villages…I besieged and conquered…As for Hezekiah, the awful splendor of my lordship overwhelmed him” (Erika Bleibtreu, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January-February 1991, p. 60). Sennacherib noted that he had made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage” (Magnus Magnusson, Archaeology and the Bible, 1977, p. 186).
The biblical record agrees with Sennacherib's account of the Assyrian invasion and notes the desperation of the kingdom of Judah as the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, their last surviving stronghold. However, the Bible continues the story where the Assyrian records are silent. With Jerusalem facing imminent destruction, the people of Judah, led by King Hezekiah, prayed fervently to God (Isaiah 37:15-20 Isaiah 37:15-20 15 And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, saying,
16 O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, that dwell between the cherubim, you are the God, even you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth: you have made heaven and earth.
17 Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which has sent to reproach the living God.
18 Of a truth, LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations, and their countries,
19 And have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them.
20 Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you are the LORD, even you only.
American King James Version×) and were miraculously delivered against overwhelming odds.
Sennacherib, the warrior king, had bragged about his humbling of Hezekiah, trapping him in Jerusalem as he surrounded and prepared to storm the city.
Although Sennacherib painstakingly recorded the cities he captured and destroyed, one city is conspicuously absent—Jerusalem. He speaks only of besieging Hezekiah in the city—not of taking it or Judah's king. What happened? The Assyrians, like other great empires of the time, left no records of their military defeats. As the Bible reports, disaster befell them as they waited to storm Jerusalem's walls:
“And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:35-36 2 Kings 19:35-36 35 And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelled at Nineveh.
American King James Version×).
Sennacherib himself would later ignominiously die at the hands of two of his sons. “Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the temple of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword ” (verse 37). Assyrian records also confirm this assassination. Sennacherib's son Esarhaddon took his father's place, but the Assyrian Empire soon peaked and fell into decline. Assyria had been an instrument to punish Israel for its repugnant sins (Isaiah 10:5-6 Isaiah 10:5-6 5 O Assyrian, the rod of my anger, and the staff in their hand is my indignation.
6 I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
American King James Version×). In turn, the Assyrians were punished for their sins (verse 12). Nineveh, the capital city, fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C. About 50 years after its peak, this voracious empire collapsed and virtually vanished from history.
By the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, no physical evidence of Nineveh could be seen. Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-180), a Greek writer, lamented: “Nineveh has perished. No trace of it remains. No one can say where once it existed” (Magnusson, p. 175). Such a lack of visible remains led some scholars of the 19th century to express skepticism that Nineveh or any part of the Assyrian Empire even existed, much less dominated a significant part of the world.
Indeed the only historical source in those days that verified the existence of the empire was the Bible. The Old Testament histories and prophecies spoke about Assyria. Jesus proclaimed the existence of Nineveh as a historical fact (Matthew 12:41 Matthew 12:41The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
American King James Version×). Yet some scholars disputed the testimony of Jesus and the prophets—that is, until “one spectacular decade in the middle of the nineteenth century…[when] Austen Henry Layard and Paul Emile Botta rediscovered in northern Iraq the ancient remains of three Assyrian cities [including Nineveh] and evidence of the military panoply that had crushed all resistance from the Tigris to the Nile. The Assyrian empire…in all its awesome power had been resurrected through archaeology” (Magnusson, p. 175).
The skeptics were silenced. There was nothing they could say. The excavations at Nineveh and other cities in the area yielded a staggering wealth of historical evidence including “tens of thousands of tablets” containing “an immense amount of data” ( The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, Vol. 1, “Assyria and Babylon,” p. 275). The Bible had been right all along.