The Bible in the British Museum
Walk into Room 6 of the British Museum. It seems you are in the days of Ahab and Ahaz, the end of Israel’s Northern Kingdom, the time of Israel’s captivity and Judah’s terror, as the fearsome armies of Assyria came in, ordained by God to punish His people for their idolatry.
This winged lion is one of a pair from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Over 10 feet high, they were intended to make you feel they were constructed for a mighty king — exactly how they do make you feel. (As with others from the Museum, you can click through the picture to a larger one on their site.)
To Trample in the Mud
The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.
The Assyrian armies brought fear from the north into the Promised Land. The terrifying expansion of their empire is visualised on this map from Wikimedia Commons (for a larger image, click through it to the original, then again on the map there to zoom in).
The tiny yellow area is Hezekiah’s Judah — all around him fell to this military machine.
Isaiah told God’s people not t0 trust Egypt’s protection from Assyria, and the map shows how accurate was that warning, as Assyria penetrated south of Thebes in Egypt.
So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.
Assyria would destroy Syria (ruled by Rezin) and Israel (ruled by Pekah, the son of Remaliah), and march through Judah, bringing destruction and terror, but would not completely destroy Judah (the waters would reach the neck, but not go over the head).
4 For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.
5 The LORD spake also unto me again, saying,
6 Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son;
7 Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks:
8 And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel.
A cruel and violent people, the Assyrians enslaved and killed wantonly. Nahum 3 recounts some of their evils, and called Nineveh a “bloody city.” A people already feared, when the Lord called them “the rod of Mine anger,” it must have brought terror to Judah.
5 O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine 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.
This power, who trampled people in the mud, is the dreaded nation found in rooms 6-10 in the British Museum. If you get a chance to visit, do not miss these rooms! They may have more Scripture-related artefacts than any other rooms in the Museum.
This early king encouraged the brutality which characterised later Assyrian armies. One monument said, “Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.” What a nice guy!
Ashurnasirpal made Nimrud (Calah in Genesis 10) his capital. Both the winged lion above and this massive stone lion (also in Room 6) were his.
This bronze band is also in Room 6. It is from the gates of the palace of Shalmaneser III in Balawat, near Nimrud. It shows one of Shalmaneser’s campaigns.
Shalmaneser III was not mentioned in the Bible (it mentions Shalmaneser V). But Shalmaneser is interesting in Biblical archaeology because of the people he names on two of his monuments — Jehu, Ahab, and Benhadad of Syria. I wrote about these in an earlier article in this series (Ancient Royal Propaganda). Both monuments were from Nimrud and are in Room 6 in the Museum.
Pul / Tiglath-Pileser III
We now move forward about 80 years to find another Assyrian monarch who played a key role in Biblical history — and Tiglath-Pileser III was trouble on a large scale. He was a usurper, originally a general named Pul or Pulu, who killed the existing royal family, claimed to have a royal father, and took a recognised Assyrian throne name.
What is the best way for a usurper to consolidate his hold on power? Kill lots of enemies and bring home slaves and booty to appease the masses. This king seems to have adopted that policy with relish.
The large wall panel to the left, of a bull with a man’s head, is from his palace in Nimrud. It is on display in Room 8 in the British Museum.
This wall panel (two pieces, lately on tour in Toronto) shows his brutal war tactics. An Assyrian is beheading an enemy. They numbered enemy dead by counting severed heads — lovely people! Other bodies are being stripped.
They impaled captives on stakes to cause terror. A surrendering enemy on the wall is killed (as were wounded enemies). They gloried in brutality, displaying it in their palaces. Such was the enemy God warned would come if His people rejected Him. (More descriptions here and here, additional enlargeable pictures here and here.)
Pul / Tiglath-Pileser and Scripture
This king’s records name three kings of the northern kingdom, Menahem, Pekah, and Hoshea. They also name “Jehoahaz” (Ahaz) king of Judah.
Tiglath-Pileser is named in Scripture several times. II Kings 16:7-10 describes how Ahaz, when Syria and Israel leagued against Judah, sent to him for help. He crushed Syria and took much of the northern kingdom, including east of the Jordan and some of the north (II Kings 15:29; 16:9; I Chronicles 5:6, 26). II Chronicles 28:20 says Ahaz did not benefit by his alliance with Tiglath-Pileser, who “distressed him” — Scripture does not elaborate.
Pul is named twice. In II Kings 15:19 he invades Israel (at an earlier date than the Ahaz-inspired invasion) and requires tribute from Menahem of Israel. The other verse is I Chronicles 5:26, which we understand better because of archaeological discoveries:
I Chronicles 5:26
And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, unto this day.
This appears to mention two kings, but says “he” (not “they”) took captive the people of trans-Jordan. Now we understand why, since archaeological finds show that Pul was his original name and Tiglath-Pileser was his throne name. The verse tells of one king, not two, giving both his names and telling what he did. Archaeology clarifies this verse for us and confirms the Biblical accounts of his names, his invasion of Israel, and of Assyrian brutality.
This son of Tiglath-Pileser reigned only five years, and few articles in the Museum bear his name. This bronze lion weight from his reign was found at Nimrud.
He was crucial in Biblical history, for he destroyed Israel (the northern kingdom). Shalmaneser is named and his campaign described in II Kings 17 and 18:9-12.
Shalmaneser died at the end of the campaign, and his successor claimed credit for taking Samaria. Perhaps he died because of his arrogance as described in Isaiah 10. God might use the Assyrians to punish His people, but they also would pay a price for their pride, cruelty, and arrogance. II Kings 18:9 says Shalmeneser besieged Samaria, but (somewhat oddly if he was still in charge of the siege) verse 10 says “they” (not “he”) took it. Similarly, chapter 17:3-6 uses language consistent with a change in the Assyrian monarchy just before the fall of the city. So the Biblical record would fit well with the possibility that Sargon was reigning by the time the city fell.
Room 10c holds two huge winged bulls, 15 feet high. Sargon II, the next king, built a new capital called Dur-Sharrukin (“fortress of Sargon”), now known as Khorsabad. Room 10c (for the Khorsabad period, before the capital moved to Nineveh) has multiple Sargon articles, as does Room 10a, the Lion Hunt room.
Scripture names Sargon once, in Isaiah 20:1. Sargon was once unknown, and older Bible commentaries speculated that “Sargon” was another name for “Sennacherib.” Some sceptics said the Bible was simply wrong in naming Sargon.
Sargon existed. Look left and you’ll see him! Want to claim Isaiah was in error? You have to argue with two winged bulls weighing 16,000 kg. The Museum lists 143 items related to him on their website (most of those on display are in 10a and 10c, but at least one is in Room 55).
Sargon ruled after Shalmaneser V. Perhaps his half-brother, he may have killed him to seize the throne near the end of the siege of Samaria. He deported the 10 tribes of Israel as described in II Kings 17, and resettled the land with people from whom came the Samaritans of the New Testament. Archaeological records show this kind of deportation and resettlement was standard Assyrian policy.
Like his predecessors, Sargon was brutal, cruel, and evil, and he died a violent death. He was succeeded by his son, Sennacherib, who is mentioned repeatedly in Scripture, and who may be the person on the right, facing Sargon, in the wall panel pictured here.
Some great powers use propaganda to portray themselves as magnanimous and wanting to be peaceable. The Assyrians portrayed themselves as powerful, cruel, and violent. They were not seeking allies, not trying to “win hearts and minds,” they terrorised all around into submission, with actions to match their propaganda. For a long period in Israel’s history, the Bible portrays them as a cruel and deadly enemy.
Many artefacts in the British Museum show the reality of that portrayal, and confirm other details of the Biblical account. On point after point, the Biblical record meshes beautifully with the archaeological discoveries of the last 175 years, whether it be the names of kings previously unknown, the accounts of their campaigns, the monarchs and officials, the brutality of their methods, or various other details.
Lord willing, I’ll have more to say on the Assyrians in upcoming articles in this series. After all, we haven’t even looked at Sennacherib, Tartan, Rabshakeh, Astartu, or Lachish. More to come!
Companion post: “He Carried Them Away” — Ashtaroth / Astartu
Sources for the British Museum series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum