The Bible in the British Museum
In my last post (“O Assyrian, the Rod of Mine Anger!“) I looked at many artefacts showing the span of Assyrian history intersecting Biblical accounts. We looked at the Assyrian kings mentioned in Scripture down through the captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
In this article, I want to look in detail at yet another item from this period in Room 6 in the Museum, the Astartu Panel. If you ever visit the Museum, don’t miss Room 6! (See Ancient Royal Propaganda as well as my last article.)
This large (almost 2 metre square) stone wall panel from Tiglath-Pileser’s palace in Nimrud portrays the first major captivity of Israel after they entered the Promised Land. Showing Tiglath-Pileser and his armies capturing a city, it is inscribed with the name “Astartu” — the city called “Ashtaroth” in the Old Testament, east of the Jordan River in the territory of the tribe of Manasseh.
The History of Ashtaroth
After he had slain Sihon the king of the Amorites, which dwelt in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, which dwelt at Astaroth in Edrei:
The Bible first mentions Astaroth (elsewhere spelled “Ashtaroth”) as the capital of Og, king of Bashan. Joshua (9:10; 12:4; 13:12) said it was where Og lived and reigned.
Og was a very powerful king. Psalm 136 is just one of many passages listing God’s great deliverances for His people. Three things appear in these accounts over and over — deliverance from Pharoah of Egypt, and the victories over Sihon and Og. Og ruled 60 high-walled cities and “a great many” unwalled villages (Deuteronomy 3:4-5). He was important and his capital would have been a significant city.
And half Gilead, and Ashtaroth, and Edrei, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan, were pertaining unto the children of Machir the son of Manasseh, even to the one half of the children of Machir by their families.
When the land was divided among the tribes, Ashtaroth was part of the territory given to the half tribe of Manasseh east of Jordan.
I Chronicles 6:71
Unto the sons of Gershom were given out of the family of the half tribe of Manasseh, Golan in Bashan with her suburbs, and Ashtaroth with her suburbs:
The sons of Gershom were Levites, priests. Because the priests did not have their own territory, the tribes gave them places to live among them. Ashtaroth in Manasseh became a city of the priests — again, an important place.
Astartu = Ashtaroth?
How do we know the city which the Assyrians called “Astartu” was Ashtaroth in Israel? Certainly, the names are similar (we wouldn’t expect an exact match, considering the language differences). But there is more than the name similarity.
This close-up of the upper right-hand corner is typical Assyrian triumphalism — captured slaves taken from a conquered city, in this case escorted by an Assyrian with a mace. The small bags they carry are all they could take to their new life of slavery in a distant land. (They wouldn’t have anything of value — such things were now the property of some Assyrian soldier.)
The apparel and headgear (especially) are distinctive. The turbans are slightly pointed, with the point flopped backwards. Similar clothing (and headgear) appears on other Assyrian sculptures, showing slaves from Israel and Judah. These are Israelites — so Astartu is one of the cities conquered in Tiglath-Pileser’s campaign against the northern kingdom.
This close-up of the upper half of the panel gives two more clues. Above the slaves, it shows sheep being led away. The Assyrians took enough livestock as spoil from this city and its surroundings that they chose to show it on their sculpture as a reminder.
Why did the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh settle to the east of Jordan (including Ashtaroth)? Numbers 32 tells the story, particularly this verse:
…a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle:
Specifically, they had sheep:
Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep….
Not only is Astartu a city of Israel, the sheep may hint at the land east of Jordan.
Next, look in that picture, left of the sheep and the captives. The city is walled and apparently had towers — an important place (maybe a city of priests?). You can see it was built on a rounded hill, known as a tell. T.C. Mitchell (source below) wrote, “The city is shown on a typical tell, which would have grown up over centuries of building and rebuilding; a process in which the walls of delapidated buildings would have been demolished so that the rooms were filled with rubble — stumps of walls remaining buried — and then the next buildings erected on the levelled remains.”
Astartu was an old city, with centuries of building and rebuilding, on a large enough tell that the Assyrians thought it worth showing on their sculpture. Ashtaroth was very old, significant from before the time of Moses, and thus would have been on a notable tell by the time of Tiglath-Pileser.
When we try to match the picture of Astartu to the Biblical description of Ashtaroth, we have an old city (check), an important city with walls (check), in Israel (check), in a sheep-producing area, probably trans-Jordan (check), with a similar name (Astartu / Ashtaroth). Both Assyrian and Biblical records say Tiglath-Pileser invaded Israel, including the east side of the Jordan — so he and his army are in both the picture and the Biblical account. It all adds up.
What Was Happening at Ashtaroth?
Matching our engraved stone wall panel from Assyria, our Biblical account tells exactly what happened in the territories east of the Jordan River.
II Kings 15:29
In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.
Tiglath-Pileser came from the north and east and took Naphtali, and Galilee — and Gilead. Gilead sometimes referred to a particular part of trans-Jordan, but often (as here) described the entire territory of Israel east of Jordan — including Ashtaroth.
I Chronicles 5:6
Beerah his son, whom Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria carried away captive: he was prince of the Reubenites.
In the lineage of the leaders of Reuben, the head of the tribe became a mere slave in the land of Assyria. Reuben, of course, was one of the tribes that settled east of Jordan, near Ashtaroth, in the land taken by Tiglath-Pileser.
Why did it happen?
I Chronicles 5:25-26
25 And they transgressed against the God of their fathers, and went a whoring after the gods of the people of the land, whom God destroyed before them.
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.
They sinned against their God, and followed the gods of the people of the land. Sadly, many Christians today do the same, effectively idolising today’s common gods — pleasure, entertainment / leisure, money, fame, etc.
Tiglath-Pileser III himself sat in his chariot outside Ashtaroth, while his soldiers killed, brutalised, and enslaved the inhabitants. As long as it increased his wealth and power, what did he care for his victims?
The Astartu Panel is fascinating in the way it matches the Biblical record, but it also carries a warning for believers. You may not find a blood-thirsty tyrant like this at your door, but if you follow today’s idols it isn’t going to end well. God loves His people too much to let them destroy themselves, and if you persist, the road can get very rough.
Companion post: “O Assyrian, the Rod of Mine Anger!”
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