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1. Introduction and Historical Background of the Eighth Century

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Interpreting Prophecy

There are a number of difficulties in interpreting OT prophecy. The reasons for this are several. The first is the question of the type of literature. Much of the prophetic literature is in poetic form, and one is always struggling to sort out what is to be taken literally (normal, expected meaning) and what is figurative. We will try to stay as literal as possible in the interpretative process. Even where symbols, metaphors, and parables are employed, there is not too much difficulty understanding the literal meaning behind the figure.

An even larger difficulty is ascertaining when the prophecy will be fulfilled. As a rule of thumb, we should look back into history to see if an event has happened. If so it may well be that was the fulfillment. If the language of the prophecy is such that it has never been fulfilled, we should look to the eschatological future for its fulfillment. (Cf. Chapter 20 of Isaiah which is a prophecy concerning Egypt. The first part was no doubt fulfilled in the attack and conquering of Assyria. The language of the second part is stereotypical and eschatological. A similar pattern is found in Luke 10 (see also Matt. 10). There Jesus sends out the seventy. The first part of the chapter pertains to that time, but the second part is eschatological.)

Historical Background of the Eighth Century

Five writing prophets ministered during this important century: Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. This century was dominated politically by the Assyrians, but the far-reaching spiritual impact came from little known men from fairly obscure kingdoms called Israel and Judah.

Historical background is essential for a proper understanding of the setting and message of these prophets. There are times when that background cannot be ascertained, but to the extent that it can be known, the understanding of the prophet’s message is enhanced. Amos is the first writing prophet who directs his message to Israel. Hosea follows on his heels; then the great statesman-prophet Isaiah and his contemporary, Micah.

The upper Euphrates valley has a very complex history. Many different peoples over many centuries intruded, settled, mixed and fought with whoever preceded them. These people came to have a very important influence on God’s covenant people. To better understand the events affecting the OT people and the prophets who spoke to them for God, two major groups will be discussed: the Arameans and the Assyrians.

The period of the transition from judges to kings in the history of Israel (c. 1100 B.C.) was a significant period in the entire Mediterranean area. Smith says of this period:

“The last two centuries of the second millennium B.C. [1200‑1000] had witnessed in western Asia and the Levant ubiquitous disturbances which caused a new distribution of political power. The Egyptian empire had declined, the Hittite had collapsed. Troy had fallen, the days of Cnossus and of Mycenae were over. When things have settled down and the scene‑shifting is complete, we find Assyria (which had relapsed into obscurity after a brief emergence) occupying the centre of the stage. Phrygia, and Lydia, and Greek Ionia become the important powers in western Asia Minor. In European Greece the Achaeans have ceased to be the principal power; they have been replaced by the Dorians. In Syria and Palestine we meet with a number of minor peoples and states—Phoenicia, Damascus, Israel, Judah, Moab, Edom, and others.”1

The new Assyrian power that came to “occupy center stage” arose again about 1000 BC. This new kingdom period of Assyrian history (900‑600) dramatically affected the eighth century Israel/Judah and the message of the prophets.

Before going on with Assyrian history, it is necessary to examine a group that began to show up in the North West about this same period of time. These people were called Arameans by Semites but the Greeks referred to them as Syrians (perhaps from the Semitic word for Tyre, Tsur, hence Tsuria). (Likewise the languages will be referred to as Aramaic and Syriac.)

The presence of Aramaic names for rivers and mountains argues for their presence north of Syria from early times. Sometime at the beginning of the first millennium, they began to move in large numbers into the NW area of the Euphrates and even made their way down to the Persian gulf. This was not a cohesive movement, but a drifting of nomadic tribes with a similar dialect and religion. They posed a large threat to the Assyrians and probably should be credited with bringing the Middle Assyrian period to a close. They settled around the Khabur river, as far south as the border of Babylonia, and the Chaldean tribes (Bit Yakin), who are also Aramean, settled in the marsh lands north of the Persian Gulf (see map below). These Chaldeans eventually infiltrated the Babylonian peoples and founded the NeoBabylonian Empire in 625 B.C.

One group of Arameans consolidated their power and made Damascus their capital. These are the ever‑present Syrians in the Bible. David conquered the Aramean coalition that came against him, placed garrisons in Damascus, and probably thereby unwittingly contributed to the ability of Assyria to rise again. The Aramaic language became the lingua franca (trade language) from about the eighth century because the people were so widely spread throughout the area (Cf. Isa. 36:11). Even during the Indo‑European Persian period, Aramaic was the official language of the empire (hence, sections of Daniel and Ezra are Aramaic, and the script used for the Hebrew Bible is Aramaic).

As the Aramaic groups settled down and formed solid political entities, the Assyrians began to reassert their control of the west. During the ninth century, they conducted almost yearly campaigns over a period of sixty years and established dominance around the Khabur and Balikh rivers.

Biblical contact with the Assyrians came in the ninth century when a coalition of kings (Arameans and others) which Ahab joined fought Assyria. This coalition was an effort to assert independence in the west from the Assyrian overlordship. The account of this battle is found in Shalmaneser III’s annals and is dated at 853 B.C. The Assyrians claimed victory, but they did not return for some time and it took several battles before they were completely triumphant. This happened in 841 B.C. and Jehu, king of Israel, and other kings were forced to come to Nahr el‑Kelb to pay tribute. This event was recorded on Shalmaneser’s black obelisk.2

Assyria declined somewhat at the end of the ninth century, but Adad Nirari III (810‑783 B.C.) marched west in his fifth year and defeated Damascus.3 This removed for a time the pressure of Syria on Israel. Later, the Assyrians were too occupied to keep up the pressure, but Damascus and Hamath were battling for control of their area allowing Israel and Judah a respite for new growth.4

The mighty Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727) brought his country back to great heights. He campaigned in the west from 743-738. There he encountered a certain Azariah in Syria, defeated him and destroyed much of his territory.5 Some scholars have a problem accepting Azariah as the biblical one, but Bright says that it would be exceptional to have two kings and two territories with the same name in the same period of time.6 The devastation spoken of in Isaiah 1 is therefore possibly the result of this attack from Assyria, and so, early on, Judah came under the shadow of this eastern scourge.7

Tiglath‑Pileser III put pressure on the northern kingdom of Israel as well. Of King Menahem, the Bible says, “There came against the land Pul [Tiglath‑Pileser, Pul was his Babylonian name],8 the King of Assyria, and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand” (2 Kings 15:19). Tiglath‑Pileser III’s annals say, “[As for Menahem, I ov]erwhelmed him [like a snowstorm] and he . . . fled like a bird, alone, [and bowed to my feet(?)]. I returned him to his place [and imposed tribute upon him, to wit:] gold, silver, etc. Israel [Omri land], all its inhabitants (and) their possessions I led to Assyria.”9 When Pekah allied himself with Rezin, King of Syria, against Ahaz of Judah, Ahaz sent to Tiglath‑Pileser for help (2 Kings 16:5‑8). Another deportation of Israel is mentioned in 1 Chron. 5:5,6. Apparently a number of incursions were made against Samaria and people were carried off each time.

Tiglath‑Pileser had put Hoshea on the throne,10 but Shalmaneser V (726‑722 B.C.) “found conspiracy in Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to So king of Egypt, and offered no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year” (2 Kings 17:3‑4). “And it came to pass . . . that Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria, and besieged it. And at the end of three years they took it . . . and the king of Assyria carried Israel away unto Assyria, and put them in Halah . . . and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 18:9‑11).

Sargon II (722‑705 B.C.), in his inscriptions at Khorsabad, claims to have captured Samaria and led off the captives of Israel. “I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it. I formed from among them a contingent of 50 chariots and made remaining [inhabitants] assume their [social] positions. I installed over them an officer of mine and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king.”11 This does not agree either with the biblical data or Shalmaneser V’s annals quoted above. As Finegan suggests, Sargon may have come to the throne on the heels of the defeat of Samaria and carried out the deportation begun by Shalmaneser.12

Sennacherib (705‑681 B.C.) came west and conquered the fortified cities of Judah and besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 18). Hezekiah paid him tribute. It was in preparation for this kind of attack that Hezekiah had the tunnel dug which bears the famous Siloam inscription (2 Chron. 32:1‑8). “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered [them] by means of well‑stamped [earth]-ramps, and battering‑rams . . . Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving his city’s gate. His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them [over] to Mitinti, king of Ashdod.”13 This is part of an extended account found on a prism inscription. Sennacherib fails to note that he did not conquer Jerusalem. Hezekiah entertained ambassadors from the newly arising neo‑Babylonian empire as part of an anti‑Assyrian conspiracy.

The decline of Assyria was swift and decisive. The Babylonians, under Nabopolassar, joined with the Medes and Scythians. After a series of victories, they invested Nineveh, the great capital, and it fell in 612 B.C. The Assyrians fled to Haran in the west where the Egyptians joined them in an effort to prop them up against the Babylonians. The Babylonians won this battle under Nebuchadnezzar in 609 and began to take over the southern half of the Assyrian empire.

Historical Summary

Adad-Nirari III

(805 B.C.) defeated Damascus.

Jeroboam II; Uzziah (Azariah)

Tiglath-Pileser III

(732) defeated Damascus (Isaiah 7; Ahaz).

Shalmaneser V

(722 B.C.) defeated and began to deport Samaria.

Sargon II

(722 B.C.) completed the deportation of Samaria.

(711 B.C.) fought Ashdod (Isaiah 20).

Sennacherib

(701 B.C.) defeated Lachish and threatened Jerusalem (Isaiah 36-37; Hezekiah).

(689 B.C.) defeated and destroyed Babylon.


1CAH, 3:1.

2CAH, 3:13‑14.

3ANET, 281‑282: “In the fifth year (of my official rule) I sat down solemnly on my royal throne and called up the country (for war). I ordered the numerous army of Assyria to march against Palestine. I crossed the Euphrates at its flood. As to the numerous hostile kings who had rebelled in the time of my father Shamshi-Adad (V) and had wi[th held] their regular (tributes). . . . I received all the tributes [. . .] which they brought to Assyria. I (then) ordered [to march] against the country Damascus. I invested Mari’ in Damascus [and he surrendered]. One hundred talents of gold (corresponding to) one thousand talents of [silver], 60 talents . . . [I received as his tribute].”

4See Hans Wolff, “Joel and Amos” in Hermeneia, a Critical and Histyorical Commentary on the Bible, Philidelphia: Fortress Press, 1977, p. 89.

5ANET, 282: Tiglath-Pileser says “[In] the (subsequent) course of my campaign [I received] the tribute of the kin[gs . . . A]zriau from Iuda in . . . countless, (reaching) sky high . . . eyes, like from heaven . . . by means of an attack with foot soldiers. . . . He heard [about the approach of the] massed [armies of] Ashur and was afraid. . . . I tore down, destroyed and burnt [down . . . for Azr]iau they had annexed, they (thus) had reinforced him . . . like vine/trunks . . . was very difficult . . . was barred and high . . . was situated and its exit . . . I made deep . . . I surrounded his garrisons [with earthwork], against. . . . I made them carry [the corvee-basket] and . . . his great . . . like a pot [I did crush . . .] (lacuna of three lines) . . . Azriau . . . a royal palace of my own [I built in his city . . .] tribute like that [for Assyrian citizens I imposed upon them . . .] the city Kul[lani . . .] his ally . . . the cities . . . . . . 19 districts belonging to Hamath and the cities in their vicinity which are (situated) at the coast of the Western Sea and which they had (unlawfully) taken away for Azariau, I restored to the territory of Assyria. An officer of mine I installed as governor over them. [I deported] 30,300 inhabitants from their cities and settled them in the province of the town Ku[. . .]; 1,223 inhabitants I settled in the province of the Ullaba country.”

6Bright, History of Israel, 252.

7For a defense of the idea that Azariah of Judah headed up an anti-Assyrian coalition, see Tadmor, “Azarijau of Yaudi” Scripta Hierosolymitana 8 (1961): 232-271. However, Israelite and Judaean History, Old Testament Library. Edited by John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller. London: SCM Press, 1977 says, “Recently, Na’aman [Nadav Na’aman. “Sennacherib’s ‘Letter to God’ on His Campaign to Judah,” BASOR CCXIV (1974) 25-39] has shown conclusively that the fragment presumably mentioning Azriau king of Yaudi actually belongs to the time of Sennacherib and refers not to Azariah but to Hezekiah. In Tiglath-Pileser’s annals there are two references to an Azariah (in line 123 as Az-ri-a-[u] and in line 131 as Az-r-ja-a-í) but neither of these make any reference to his country. Thus the Azriau of Tiglath-pileser’s annals and Azariah of the Bible should be regarded as two different individuals. Azriau’s country cannot, at the present, be determined.” Na’aman separates the country (Yaudi) from the name Azriau (p. 36). Also p. 28 on line 5 where the original transcription was “[I]zri-ja-u mat Ja-u-di” he reads “ina birit misrija u mat Jaudi However, Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (OROT), p. 18, is less dogmatic. He says “Hence we cannot certainly assert that this Azriau (without a named territory!) is Azariah of Judah; the matter remains open and undecided for the present and probably unlikely.” See Also CAH, 3:35-36.

8See J. A. Brinkman, “Merodach-Baladan II” in Studies Presented in Honor of Leo Oppenheim, Chicago: Oriental Institute of the Univ. of Chicago, 1964, p. 12.

9ANET, 283, 84.

10ANET, 284.

11ANET, 285.

12Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, 1959, p. 210.

13ANET, 288.

Related Topics: History, Prophets