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Bible Dictionaries

People's Dictionary of the Bible

Assyria

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Assyria (as-syr'i-ah). A great empire of western Asia, founded at a very early date probably the oldest on the Euphrates, and is traced to Asshur, Genesis 10:10-11, who built Nineveh, Rehoboth (?), Calah, and Resen. Assyria proper, the northern (Babylonia the southern portion), had about the same territory as Kurdistan. The empire at times covered a far larger extent of territory, and in its prosperity nearly all of western Asia and portions of Africa were subject to its power. According to Prof. F. Brown, "the Babylonio-Assyrian territory was about 600 miles from northwest to southeast, and in the widest part 300 miles from east to west, including Mesopotamia." The Persian Gulf formerly extended about 130 miles further to the northwest than it does now, the gulf having been filled up by mud borne down by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There are immense level tracts of the country, now almost a wilderness, which bear marks of having been cultivated and thickly populated in early times. Among its products, besides the common cereals, were dates, olives, cotton, mulberries, gum-arabic, madder, and castor-oil. Of animals, the bear, deer, wolf, lynx, hyena, antelope, lion, tiger, beaver, and camel were common. The fertility of the country is frequently noted by ancient writers.

History. Of the early history of Assyria little can be said. Profane historians differ; and scripture gives but scanty information. The deciphered inscriptions are revealing more, but are not yet folly examined; new ones are coming to light every year. Babylon is older than Nineveh; it was the beginning of Nimrod's empire, but not content with the settlements he had acquired, he invaded the country called Asshur from the son of Shem, and there founded cities afterwards most famous. Genesis 10:8-12. So far the sacred record would seem to teach us. But that it mentions an early Assyrian kingdom is not certain. Certain eastern monarchs are named, Genesis 14:1; Genesis 14:9, as pushing their conquests westwards, but there is a record of a Chaldean but not of an Assyrian king among them. Says Prof. Brown: "We find mention in the inscriptions of Persia (Parsua), Elam (Elamtu), with Susa (Shushan, cf. Nehemiah 1:1, etc.), its capital, and Media (Mada), with Ecbatana (Agamtanu = Achmetha, Ezra 6:2), its capital, and Armenia (Urartu = Ararat, 2 Kings 19:37), and the land of the Hittites (Chatti), who, we thus learn, as well as from the Egyptian inscriptions, had their chief seat far to the north of Damascus—Carchemish (Gargamish), their capital, being on the Euphrates, not far from the latitude of Nineveh (modern Jerabis). The river Habor (Chabur), of 2 Kings 17:6, is a river often named that flows into the middle Euphrates from the northeast, and Gozan (Guzanu) (ib.) is a city and district in the immediate vicinity. These are but a few of the important identifications." At first the Assyrian empire was confined within narrow limits; it became at length, by the addition of neighboring districts, a formidable state. Left partially under the sway of their own chiefs, who were reduced to vassalage, they continually had or took occasion for revolt. This led to the deportations of captives, to break the independent spirit of feudatory states, and render rebellion more difficult and hopeless. The Assyrian empire, at its widest extent, seems to have reached from the Mediterranean Sea and the river Halys in the west, to the Caspian and the Great Desert in the east, and from the northern frontier of Armenia south to the Persian Gulf. Abraham came from Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees), according to Genesis 11:28; Genesis 11:31; Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7. "The only known Ur situated in the territory of the Chaldeans is the city of Uru, lying on the right bank of the Euphrates, far below Babylon, whose site now bears the name Muqayyar (Mugheir). The identification of this with the biblical Ur Kasdim has been disputed, but the arguments against it are not conclusive, and no other satisfactory identification has been proposed. We are therefore entitled to hold that the Hebrews were, from the beginning of their history, under the influence not only of the common stock of Shemitic endowments, customs, and beliefs, but also of those that were specifically Babylonian." After Abraham, for nearly 1200 years, we have no record of the contact of Hebrews with Assyrian or Babylonian peoples. In the ninth century, b.c., Nineveh and Assyria push into Hebrew territory. Shalmanezer II. encounters Benhadad of Damascus, and probably Ahab of Israel. The dark cloud threatening Israel and Judah from Assyria for their unfaithfulness to God is described in strains of solemn warning. Sometimes "the nations from far" are spoken of; and their terrific might and mode of warfare are detailed without naming them. Isaiah 5:26-30. Sometimes in express words the king of Assyria is said to be summoned as the Lord's executioner, and the desolation he should cause is vividly depicted. Isaiah 8:17-22. Samaria would fall; and her fall might well admonish Judah. Judah should deeply suffer. The invader should march through her territory; but the Lord would effectually defend Jerusalem. Isaiah 10:5-34. The Assyrian king, in the might of his power, subjected the ten tribes, and carried multitudes of them into the far east; he passed also like a flood over the country of Judah, taking many of the cities throughout her territory; and in his presumptuous boldness he conceived that no earthly power could resist him, and even defied Jehovah, the God of Jacob. But the firm purpose of the Lord was to defend that city to save it. The catastrophe is related with awful brevity: "Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and four score and five thousand; and, when they arose early in the morning, behold they were all dead corpses." Isaiah 37:1-38. The Assyrian empire attained afterwards probably its greatest power and widest extent. But it was doomed.

In later Persian times "the Ahashwerosh (Ahasuerus) of Ezra 4:6 and the book of Esther is Xerxes, the son of Darius, b.c. 486-464; and the Artachshashta (Artaxerxes) of Ezra 4:7-8; Ezra 4:11; Ezra 4:23, etc., Nehemiah 2:1; Nehemiah 5:14, etc., is the son of Xerxes, Artaxerxes Longimanus, b.c. 464-420. Ezra 4:7-8, etc., is thought by many to refer to the false Smerdis, the pretended brother of Cambyses, who in b.c. 522 reigned eight months; but the difficulty in supposing both that he had the name Artaxerxes ana that Artaxerxes in the different passages does not refer to the same persons is too great." Finally, in "Darius the Persian," Nehemiah 12:22, we have a reference to Darius Codomannus, b.c. 836-330. He who rules justly in the world would destroy Assyria (which had been long before warned by Jonah), as Assyria had destroyed other kingdoms. Accordingly, in the prophecies of Nahum and Zephaniah, we find denunciations predicting the entire downfall of this haughty power. The language is fearfully precise. Nahum 1:1-15; Nahum 2:1-13; Nahum 3:1-19; Zephaniah 2:13-15. The work of destruction seems to have been effected by the Medes and Babylonians. Assyria fell, and was never again reckoned among the nations; the very places being for long centuries unknown where her proudest cities had stood. The people.— The excavations which have been so successfully prosecuted have supplied a fund of information as to the manners and habits of the Assyrians. The sovereign was the despotic ruler and the pontiff, and the palaces contained also the temples. With no limitation of the monarch's power, the people were kept in a servile condition and in moral degradation. The conquered provinces being placed under the authority of dependent princes, insurrections were frequent; and the sovereign was almost always engaged in putting down some struggle for independence. War was waged with ruthless ferocity. Cities were attacked by raising artificial mounds; the besieging armies sheltered themselves behind shields of wicker-work, and battered the defences with rams. In the field they had formidable war chariots. And the sculptures exhibit the modes of cruelty practiced upon those that were subdued. They were flayed, they were impaled; their eyes and tongues were cut out; rings were placed in their lips; and their brains were beaten out with maces. Comp. Ezekiel 26:7-12. The Assyrians worshipped a multitude of gods. Asshur (probably the Nisroch of the Scriptures, and the eagle-headed deity of the sculptures), was the chief. But there were 4000 others, presiding over the phenomena of nature and the events of life. The architecture of the Assyrians was of a vast and imposing character. In the fine arts they made considerable proficiency. Their sculptures are diversified, spirited, and faithful. They had, however, little knowledge of perspective, and did not properly distinguish between the front and the side views of an object. Animals, therefore, were represented with five legs; and sometimes two horses had but two forelegs. The later sculptures are found to be better than the earlier. The Assyrians were skilled in engraving even the hardest substances. They were familiar with metallurgy, and manufactured glass and enamels; they carved ivory, and varnished and painted pottery. They indulged in the luxuries of life. Men wore bracelets, chains, and earrings, flowing robes ornamented with emblematic devices wrought in gold and silver; they had long-fringed scarfs and embroidered girdles. The vestments of officials were generally symbolical; the head-dress was characteristic; and the king alone wore the pointed tiara. The beard and hair were carefully arranged in artificial curls; and the eyebrows and eyelashes were stained black. Of the women there are few representations. The weapons of war were richly ornamented, especially the swords, shields and quivers. The helmets were of brass, inlaid with copper. The chariots were embellished, and the horses sumptuously caparisoned. Their literature was extensive—grammars, dictionaries, geographies, sciences, annals, panegyrics on conquerors, and invocations of the gods. Little, however, can be expected from a series of inscriptions, dictated by the ruling powers, who did not hesitate sometimes to falsify the records of their predecessors. The wealth of Assyria was derived from conquest, from agriculture, for which their country was favorably circumstanced, and from commerce, for which they had peculiar facilities. The recent explorations have brought to light immense libraries illustrating the habits and life of a cultured people, recording their history on clay tablets, 2000 years before Abraham. The ruins are a splendid monument in testimony of the truth of prophecy and of Scripture.

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Bibliography Information
Rice, Edwin Wilbur, DD. Entry for 'Assyria'. People's Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/rpd/a/assyria.html. 1893.

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