Who Were the Assyrians in the Bible?

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The Bible references many different peoples who interacted with the Israelites in the ancient world. One of the most politically important groups was the Assyrians, who played a key role in the history of Israel. Ancient Assyria was a powerful empire that kept written records of its own, and this allows historians to examine the historical relations between the Assyrians and the Israelites from both groups’ points of view.

1 The Assyrian Empire

The Assyrians were one of the great powers of ancient Mesopotamia, rivals of the Babylonians. Their empire, which lasted from the 20th to the seventh centuries B.C., was centered on the cities of Assur, Nineveh and Arbela in what is now northern Iraq. Their religion revolved around worship of three major gods, one for each of the empire’s central cities. The Assyrians had a strong economy and powerful military that allowed them to dominate various surrounding countries.

2 Relationship With Israel

The ancient Kingdom of Israel was located to the west of central Assyria, and relations between the two powers alternated between friendly and hostile. By the eighth century B.C., the southern Israelites had split off into the separate Kingdom of Judah, whose king Ahaz sided with Assyria when it invaded Israel in the 730s B.C. The northern part of Israel was absorbed by the Assyrian Empire, but the city of Samaria in its south remained independent for 10 more years before it too was defeated.

3 Causes and Effects of the Invasion

The Bible says that the king of Judah requested Assyria’s invasion in order to help in his own conflict with Israel, but Assyrian records describe it as part of a larger strategy to dominate trade in the Mediterranean region. Some Israelites were forcibly resettled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire, and became the “lost tribes of Israel.” Today’s Jewish people trace their history to the Kingdom of Judah, which remained allied with Assyria until the empire was defeated by Babylon in 612 B.C.

4 Significance in the Bible

Most of the Bible’s discussion of Assyria is simply a description of its history in relation to the Israelites. However, the prophets did seek to explain the reasons for the events, and the Bible tells of several prophecies regarding the Assyrians that later came to pass. According to the prophets, Assyria’s attacks on Israel were part of God’s punishment for the Israelites’ lack of faithfulness. The Assyrians were in turn punished by God for their brutal aggression, leading to the destruction of their empire. Both Jews and Christians have come to see the history of Assyria and Israel as a story of how God keeps his word and punishes the unjust.

5 Assyrians Today

Just as modern Jews trace their lineage back to the ancient Israelites, there is a modern Assyrian ethnic group that claims direct descent from the Assyrians of the Bible. The modern Assyrians are a minority in the Middle East, as well as in other parts of the world where they have migrated more recently. Their ancestors converted to Christianity in ancient times, and they are now mostly a Christian people. Many of them still speak Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and Arabic, which would also have been spoken by Jesus himself.

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.