Category: Who were the Assyrians in the Bible?


The Assyrians were the inhabitants of a country that became a mighty empire dominating the biblical Middle East from the ninth to the seventh century BC. They conquered an area that comprises what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In the seventh century BC, Assyria occupied and controlled the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The capital of Assyria was Nineveh, one of the greatest cities of ancient times. Excavations in Mesopotamia have confirmed the Bible’s description that it took three days’ journey to go around this city (Jonah 3:3). The Assyrians were a fierce and cruel nation who showed little mercy to those they conquered (2 Kings 19:17).

The Assyrians were a thorn in the side of Israel. Beginning in 733 BC under King Tilgath-pileser, Assyria took the Northern Kingdom’s land and carried the inhabitants into exile (2 Kings 15:29). Later, beginning in 721 BC, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser besieged Israel’s capital, Samaria, and it fell three years later (2 Kings 18:9-12). This event fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that God would use Assyria as the “rod of His anger” (Isaiah 10:5-19); that is, the Assyrian Empire was implementing God’s judgment against the idolatrous Israelites. The sovereign God takes full credit as the source of Assyria’s authority (compare Isaiah 7:18; 8:7; 9:11; and Daniel 4:17). Secular history records that in 703 BC Assyria under King Sennacherib suppressed a major Chaldean challenge.

Given the Assyrian threat against Israel, it is understandable that the prophet Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3). When he eventually arrived in the Assyrian capital, Jonah preached God’s impending judgment. After hearing Jonah’s message, the king of Assyria and the entire city of Nineveh repented, and God turned His anger away for a time (Jonah 3:10). The grace of God was extended even to the Assyrians.

In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, in 701 BC, the Assyrians under Sennacherib took 46 of Judah’s fortified cities (Isaiah 36:1). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem—the Assyrian king engraved upon his stele that he had the king of Judah caught like a caged bird in his own country.

However, even though Sennacherib’s army occupied Judah up to the very doorstep of Jerusalem, and even though Sennacherib’s emissary Rabshakeh boasted against God and Hezekiah (Isaiah 36:4-21), Assyria was rebuffed. Hezekiah prayed, and God promised that the Assyrians would never set foot inside the city (Isaiah 37:33). God slew 185,000 Assyrian forces in one night (Isaiah 37:36), and Sennacherib returned to Nineveh where he was slain by his own sons as he worshiped his god Nisroch (Isaiah 37:38).

In 612 BC, Nineveh was besieged by an alliance of the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians, and the city was so completely destroyed that even its location was forgotten until British archeologist Sir Austen Layard began uncovering it in the nineteenth century. Thus, as the Babylonian Empire ascended, Assyria dropped off the pages of history.

Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was destroyed in 612 B.C. by the Medes. This was in fulfillment of the prophet Nahum’s prediction that God would completely destroy the city (Nahum 1). A number of factors combine to determine both the date and manner of Nineveh’s destruction.

During the prophet Jonah’s day, Nineveh was spared by God’s compassion in response to their repentance (Jonah 3). This happened in 760 B.C.

The book of Nahum was written after the destruction of the Egyptian city of Thebes (Nahum 3:8). That event took place in 663 B.C. when it was conquered by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Therefore, Nineveh was still standing at that time. There is some evidence that Nahum wrote shortly after the destruction of Thebes, because Judah was still under Assyrian control during the time of his writing. This was the situation during the reign of Manasseh (697-642 B.C.) but not during the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.). In addition, the city of Thebes returned to power in 654 B.C., meaning that Nahum likely wrote before then. So, Nahum can be dated between 663 and 654 B.C. Therefore, Nineveh must have been destroyed after 654 B.C. but no later than 612, when the Medes are mentioned as the conquerors of the city.

An ancient account called The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle reveals an account of this time period, providing firsthand, extra-biblical documentation. The translation (with some missing text) reads as follows:

“The king of Akkad mustered his army and marched to Assyria. The king of the Medes marched towards the king of Akkad and they met one another at […]u. The king of Akkad and his army crossed the Tigris; Cyaxares had to cross the Radanu, and they marched along the bank of the Tigris. In the month Simanu [May/June], the Nth day, they encamped against Nineveh.

“From the month Simanu until the month Âbu [July/August] -for three months- they subjected the city to a heavy siege. On the Nth day of the month Âbu they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sin-šar-iškun, king of Assyria, died. They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap The [lacuna] of Assyria escaped from the enemy and, to save his life, seized the feet of the king of Akkad.

“On the twentieth day of the month Ulûlu [14 September 612] Cyaxares and his army went home.” (From http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nineveh/nineveh02.html#Fall.)

Based on this account, it is clear that the siege of Nineveh came at the hands of the king of Akkad and the king of Media during the summer of 612 B.C. Three months later, the city fell. The king of Assyria died, and the city was plundered until September 14 when the invading army departed. By 605 B.C. the Assyrian Kingdom officially ended, and Babylonia was on the rise.

Despite Nineveh’s great power, the city fell just as Nahum had prophesied. It would not be until the 1800s that archaeologists would excavate portions of the ancient city. Nineveh had indeed been “hidden,” as Nahum predicted long ago (Nahum 3:11).