Monday, November 05, 2018

Kings of Assyria and the Book of Isaiah--Lecture Part 1

Kings of Assyria and the Book of Isaiah

Lecture for Lutheran Theological Seminary-Nyamira, Kenya. Part 1.


The Assyrian Kings play a prominent role in the Bible.

This presentation is intended to give concrete examples of how modern historical research touches upon the text of the Bible, particularly the book of Isaiah. It is written to give students a clearer understanding for the benefits of and for the limits of both Biblical interpretation and historical research used in the interpretation of the ancient world and of the book of Isaiah in particular.

Scope of Assyrian History


The history of the Assyrian empires is commonly divided into four periods by modern historians.
  • Early Assyrian period (2450-1906 BC)
  • Old Assyrian period (1905-1931 BC)
  • Middle Assyrian period (1380-912 BC)
  • Neo-Assyrian period (912-608 BC)
Of these periods the Neo-Assyrian period is relevant to the immediate historical context of the book of Isaiah. In the 12th century to the 10th century BC the ancient world seems to have experienced a wide spread change. Historians today call this the Bronze Age Collapse. While Assyria was able to retain its national character, it was reduced in size and influence throughout the ancient Near-East.

Assyria struggled with competing interests within the royal court. In the 8th century Tiglath Pileser III seized the throne, instituting reforms which re-established Assyria as an expansive military empire. This expansion continued through the time of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BC. These two kings expanded into northern and southern Egypt. During this time Babylon grew more independent of Assyria.

During Ashurbanipal’s reign internal turmoil weakened the empire. After his death c. 631/627 BC civil wars raged throughout Assyria. In its weakened state Assyria was harried by a variety of external attacks. The Battle of Carchemish (c. 605 BC) was Assyria’s last stand. They had attempted to enlist the support of Egypt. Pharaoh Necho II was delayed by the forces of King Josiah of Judah at the battle of Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29, 2 Chronicles 35:20–27). Because of the delay Assyria did not get the military assistance it needed and fell to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

A Note on Dates

Dates assigned to events should be taken as reasonable suggestions. The dates given are not the basis for interpretation. They are the result of interpretation.

When scholars date events in the ancient world there are a number of warnings of which the reader should be aware. This process is called Chronology. There are several approaches to chronology. These approaches rely on different sets of data as evidence, and they rely on different methods. For most historians the goal is to be able to impose dates from our current calendar system and epoch backward upon events known from texts and people who did not reckon time by Gregorian Calendar standards.

The Gregorian Calendar is a set of time measurement rules that were originally implemented by the Pope Gregory XIII in AD 1582. These rules are still not universally observed. Even so, it was not until the 20th century that most countries adopted the Gregorian Calendar for civil purposes. The Gregorian Calendar kept the BC/AD anchor for the epoch as defined by Dionysius Exiguus in A.D. 525. The calculations for this epoch were intended to place the incarnation of Christ and His birth as the founding event for the epoch.

The difficulty in figuring out the year of Christ’s incarnation (calculated from conception or from birth) has lead most historians to accept that our epoch based on Dionysius is probably incorrect by 4 to 6 years— thus we have the odd, but common, statement that Christ was probably born in 4 B.C.

There are two basic types of chronology: 1) Relative Chronology, and 2) Absolute Chronology.

Relative chronology seeks to establish the order of events without reference to absolute dates from our modern calendar. The events in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles of the period of Isaiah provide quite a bit of information as to the order of events, but not always. In some cases we have statements of which year an event took place. But the year is with reference to another event. 2 Kings refers to years of reigns in both the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. One might think this should make the ordering of events more precise. Often it does. In other cases this brings up new issues.

Absolute chronology seeks to establish, as far as possible, to put a precise date from our modern Gregorian Calendar upon events in the ancient world. One of the main tools for this is modern astronomy. In practice this means that some ancient texts mention astronomical events: eclipses of the sun, of the moon, conjunctions of planets, etc. For example: Mathematical models are made based on the orbits of the earth and the moon as they are known today. Using these models calculations are made backward in time to identify when and where solar or lunar eclipses would have taken place. Where these calculations seem a reasonable match with an event recorded in an ancient text and absolute date is assigned to the ancient event.

Both relative and absolute chronology are based on the interpretation of three kinds of information: 1) The Biblical Text, 2) Ancient Inscriptions, and 3) Modern Astronomy. 

The Biblical Text and Chronology

Any student of the Bible who has worked to understand the sequence and duration of the reigns of the kings of Judah and Israel can appreciate the complexities of the effort. The Bible does not answer many questions about dating and chronology that we might wish had been answered. Different believing scholars have offered different solutions to the puzzles of the chronology of the Hebrew Kings. Some of their solutions create more puzzles about what happened when. One particular issue in the time of Isaiah is establishing the years that King Uzziah of Judah reigned.

Ancient Inscriptions and Chronology

Dates in ancient history are tentative. Ancient inscriptions have come down to us with a wide variety of literature and information. Some of these are lists of kings and events with notes on years that events happened. Comparison between these different lists and other inscriptions which mention the same events often leads to links with other names and events, sometimes from different cultures and languages. The chronologist seeks to place these events from various lists into a reasonable order. The chronologist also tries to establish relative dates using the date information these documents contain. The process is complex, requiring the knowledge of many different styles of writing, languages, regional calendar systems, as well as the accurate identification of place names, and personal names. One example in the time of Isaiah is whether or not Uzziah interacted with Tiglath-Pileser III.

The dating and chronology from the ancient world is the result of interpretation of these inscriptions, some of which are still in contention. Added to this complexity is the revision of previous understanding by incorporating new information from newly discovered inscriptions. 

Modern Astronomy and Chronology

Modern astronomy is the primary tool used to establish absolute dates for the events of the ancient Near-East. While this might seem a straightforward empirical way to establish dates there are some important things to know about the limits of the use of astronomy for establishing ancient dates.

In order to astronomically date an event recorded in a text one must have the text interpreted correctly.

So, for example: during the reign of King Amaziah of Judah Amos 8:9 declares:

וְהָיָ֣ה׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה
וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ בַּֽצָּהֳרָ֑יִם
וְהַחֲשַׁכְתִּ֥י לָאָ֖רֶץ בְּי֥וֹם אֽוֹר׃

And it shall come to pass in that day, says the Lord Yahweh;
I will make the sun enter at noon,
And I will cause darkness on the land in a day of light.

The King James Version interprets the second line:

I will cause the sun to go down at noon,

The use of the verb וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י from בּוֺא is often used in the Qal to refer to the sunset. For example, Ecclesiastes 1:5 וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ “The sun rises and the sun goes.” However, Amos 8:9 is the only example of the verb בּוֺא used in the Hiphil with reference to the sun.

Does this text refer to a miraculous noon time setting of the sun, to a solar eclipse, or to some other miraculous work?

The Limmu List (Assyrian Eponym List, more below) has a line that is translated:

During the eponymy of Bur-Saggile, ... in Simanu eclipse of the sun.

The Assyrian text:

Ina li-me IBur-dSa-gal-e … ina itusimāni dšamaš attalû ištakanan

The word for “eclipse” attalû is very well established on the basis of a large number of examples from other inscriptions (CAD v2:505-509). So the only remaining issue of interpretation regards when in the year the month of Simanu took place in the city where this text was written. In regard to this the textual evidence points generally indicates the month of Simanu was usually declared somewhere between the early part of May to the early part of June. Because the local calendars were lunar, religious, and political there is some great flexibility as to when this month was declared in a particular year.

This brings us to the use of modern astronomical calculations. On the basis of current understanding of the movements of the earth and moon modern scholars make a mathematical model to calculate when solar eclipses would have taken place, and which of them would have affected the area from which the record comes. Calculations based on these models assume that there was no outside agency, natural or supernatural, which could have affected the dates, times, and locations of eclipses. One such event in the biblical record, The Sign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-11,Isaiah 38:1-8), may have serious implications with respect to this chronology. But that particular miracle is invisible to this method. The mathematical models are based on the assumption that nothing natural or supernatural influenced the timing of these eclipses.

On the basis of these assumptions 41 solar eclipses affecting the area of modern Baghdad, Iraq are calculated for the 8th century BC. Of those only 7 are calculated to have taken place at the correct time of the year. From these only 3 were of a significant magnitude of .500 or greater.
  • An eclipse is calculated to have taken place on June 24, 791 BC affecting the area about 6:25 pm reaching maximum eclipse magnitude of 0.538 after sunset in the area.
  • An eclipse is calculated to have taken place on May 5, 770 BC affecting the area at 12:35 pm reaching maximum eclipse magnitude of 0.667 at 1:55 pm and ending at 3:12 pm.
  • An eclipse is calculated to have taken place on June 15, 763 BC affecting the area at 9:25 am reaching maximum eclipse magnitude of 0.864 at 10:48 am and ending at 12:17 pm.
Once these calculations have been made a comparison of these dates with surviving inscriptional literature shows evidence of a pattern that synchronizes fairly well. The best candidate is the third eclipse, which by our Gregorian Calendar rules would likely have taken place on June 15, 763 BC. This eclipse has been called The Assyrian Eclipse, or the Bur-Sagale eclipse (from the name in the Limmu List). And this event is the single most important for establishing the current absolute chronology for this period of history.

But as with any historical work, new findings can cause revision of the current understanding of the dates, events, and locations which are now considered established history. This does not affect the veracity of the book of Isaiah or the rest of the biblical text. 

Sources for Lists of Assyrian Kings

The information we have about Assyria, its history, and its kings from outside the Bible is expansive, limited, and subject to adjustment and reinterpretation. The information is expansive because thousands of inscriptions and other documents have been discovered archaeologically. The documents come from Assyria, Egypt, and many other kingdoms. These documents also cover topics from a wide spread of time. The information is limited due to the fact that the documents that survive to us are not comprehensive in covering all periods. The texts that we have tend to cluster around a limited number of topics, periods, and regions. And while we have many texts, the information they give us about the topics they do cover is sometimes very spotty and incomplete. The documents are subject to adjustment and reinterpretation because most of the texts about the early periods actually come from relatively late periods. Also, the discovery of other texts can force a reinterpretation and adjustment of our current understanding of the text we have now.

Outside the Bible there were very few sources about Assyrian kings before the decipherment of Assyrian Cuneiform writing in the 1850s. The lists of Eusebius of Caesarea's Chronicle (c. 325 AD) and a list in the Excerpta Latina Barbari were two of the main sources for information. But the lists of the Assyrian kings would not be known widely until the 1930s and later.

There are three clay tablet version now available to us of the Assyrian King List. The oldest tablet (the SDAS King List) dates to the 8th century BC. This list ends with Shalmaneser V, the king over Sargon who conquered the Northern Kingdom during the reign of king Ahaz of Judah (2 Kings 17).

Another source is the Assyrian Eponym List, also called the Limmu List. A Limmu is an official who was selected during the spring New Year festival and after whom the new year was named. Thus these are eponyms. Ten copies survive for the period during which Isaiah was active. This is translated as list #9 in Glassner.

In addition to the king lists and the Limmu List there are also many other inscriptions and tablets which have survived and are now published. We will refer to some of these sources when we discuss each king.

Our list will consist of Assyrian kings who reigned during the time of those kings mentioned in Isaiah 1:1. These are:
  • Uzziah (r. 767–750 BC) 2 Kg 14:21-15:31, 2 Chr 26, Is 1:1; 6:1
  • Jotham (r. 750–735 BC) 2 Kg 15:7, 32-38, 2 Chr 27
  • Ahaz (r. 735–716 BC) 2 Kg 16-17, 2 Chr 28, Is 7
  • Hezekiah (r. 729/716 – 697/687 BC) 2 Kg 16:20; 18:1-20:21, 2 Chr 29-32, Is 20:1; 36-39

The kings of Israel that were contemporary include [using Albright’s dates]:

  • Jeroboam II (r. 786–746 BC) 2 Kg 14:23-15:7
  • Zechariah (r. 746 BC – 745 BC) 2 Kg 15:8-12
  • Shallum (r. 745 BC) 2 Kg 15:13-16
  • Menahem (r. 745 to 738 BC) 2 Kg 15:17-22
  • Pekahiah (r. 738 BC – 736 BC) 2 Kg 15:23-26
  • Pekah (r. 737 – 732 BC) 2 Kg 15:27-16:20
  • Hoshea (r. 732–721 BC) 2 Kg 17

Resources


I. J. Gelb "Two Assyrian King Lists," from Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 209-230
https://archive.org/details/Gelb19371982SelectedWritings/page/n83
Glassner, Jean-Jacques Chroniques Mésopotamiennes (1993), translated as Mesopotamian Chronicles, (2004).
Luckenbill, Daniel David. The Annals of Sennacherib. Oriental Institute Publications 2. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1924. https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/oip2.pdf
Poebel, A. “The Assyrian King List from Khorsabad.” - Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1942, Jul, Vol. 1, No. 3: 247-306; 1942, Oct, Vol. 1, No. 4: 460-492; 1943, Jan, Vol. 2, No. 1: 56-90.
Digitized by the Center for Adventist Research, James White Library, Andrews University.
https://archive.org/details/A.PoebelTheAssyrianKingListFromKhorsabad1942/page/n1
Steinmann,  Andrew E “The Chronology of 2 Kings 15-18.” JETS 30/4 December 1987 pp. 391-397.
https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/30/30-4/30-4-pp391-397-JETS.pdf  
Thiele, Edwin R. The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. 2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.

Eclipse Table for the 8th Century BC

Resources on The Assyrian Eclipse:

Table is from the following:


Solar Eclipses visible from Baghdad, IRAQ

All times are displayed in local time using the value from the Time Zone field in Section 1 (you must add 1 hour if Daylight Saving Time is in effect)
A time followed by "(r)" means the event is already in progress at sunrise. Similarly, a time followed by "(s)" means the event is still in progress at sunset. In such cases, the times and circumstances given are for sunrise or sunset, respectively. The times of sunrise and sunset are calculated when the Sun's lower limb touches the horizon.
Latitude: 33° 21' 00" N
Longitude: 44° 25' 00" E
Altitude: 33.8m
Time Zone: 03:00 E
Negative years are equivalent to the year BC minus 1 year (See: Dating Conventions ).
Calendar Date
Eclipse Type
Partial Eclipse Begins
Sun Alt
Maximum Eclipse
Sun Alt
Sun Azi
Partial Eclipse Ends
Sun Alt
Eclipse Mag.
Eclipse Obs.
-799-Jun-04
P
06:24:41
18
07:02:56
26
080
07:43:58
34
0.191
0.097
-798-Nov-18
P
11:14:43
38
12:11:23
39
186
13:08:38
36
0.11
0.042
-797-Nov-07
P
09:16:28
30
10:43:43
40
159
12:18:23
42
0.448
0.326
-790-Jun-24
P
18:25:29
07
19:05(s)
0(s)
299
19:05(s)
0(s)
0.633(s)
0.538(s)
-787-Oct-17
P
08:31:33
28
09:19:13
36
130
10:09:45
43
0.215
0.115
-784-Aug-16
P
18:46:42
01
18:51(s)
0(s)
290
18:51(s)
0(s)
0.061(s)
0.018(s)
-783-Feb-09
P
12:42:42
39
13:52:12
35
207
14:56:23
27
0.405
0.291
-777-Apr-04
P
12:33:23
58
14:08:42
48
229
15:34:56
33
0.63
0.534
-776-Mar-23
P
15:53:50
27
16:34:48
19
254
17:13:10
11
0.133
0.056
-776-Sep-16
P
14:05:28
50
14:39:24
44
242
15:12:05
38
0.104
0.04
-774-Jan-31
P
09:41:35
25
10:51:41
33
155
12:05:49
37
0.438
0.326
-771-Nov-19
P
14:45:44
24
15:50:10
13
237
16:48:23
03
0.269
0.156
-770-Nov-08
P
13:15:11
38
14:47:28
26
229
16:09:43
12
0.514
0.396
-769-May-05
P
12:35:01
68
13:55:58
56
241
15:12:31
41
0.729
0.667
-765-Aug-17
P
05:28:46
02
06:18:27
12
078
07:12:40
23
0.324
0.207
-764-Feb-10
P
10:06:36
30
11:25:08
38
163
12:44:33
39
0.769
0.719
-762-Jun-15
P
09:25:39
56
10:48:46
72
121
12:17:48
78
0.882
0.864
-757-Sep-17
P
11:11:21
60
12:15:09
62
188
13:17:17
57
0.263
0.156
-755-Jan-31
P
09:26:11
23
10:22:39
30
148
11:22:51
36
0.286
0.178
-754-Jul-16
P
05:22:00
05
06:16:32
15
072
07:16:43
27
0.563
0.459
-750-May-05
P
05:18(r)
0(r)
05:18(r)
0(r)
074
05:51:23
06
0.501(r)
0.388(r)
-748-Sep-07
P
08:00:33
30
08:49:11
40
107
09:40:49
49
0.19
0.096
-744-Dec-20
P
13:03:19
31
13:46:40
28
207
14:27:08
24
0.066
0.02
-743-Dec-09
P
09:53:30
27
11:42:15
34
175
13:34:37
30
0.772
0.689
-740-Oct-08
P
06:01(r)
0(r)
06:01(r)
0(r)
094
06:30:59
06
0.479(r)
0.371(r)
-736-Jul-26
P
15:02:49
49
16:12:39
34
275
17:14:43
22
0.528
0.419
-732-May-15
P
12:09:40
73
13:02:42
67
227
13:55:33
58
0.135
0.058
-730-Sep-18
P
18:07:27
01
18:13(s)
0(s)
276
18:13(s)
0(s)
0.088(s)
0.03(s)
-729-Mar-14
P
12:22:10
51
13:30:30
47
208
14:35:29
39
0.448
0.337
-723-May-06
P
07:08:06
23
08:16:42
37
097
09:35:00
53
0.564
0.457
-722-Apr-25
P
09:22:17
47
10:22:27
58
130
11:26:36
66
0.194
0.098
-720-Mar-04
P
11:15:31
45
11:31:39
46
163
11:47:50
47
0.018
0.003
-717-Dec-22
P
16:01:15
10
16:21:36
06
236
16:41:29
03
0.027
0.005
-716-Dec-10
P
14:53:42
20
16:19:06
07
237
16:57(s)
0(s)
0.634
0.53
-713-Oct-10
P
14:51:52
34
15:35:13
26
246
16:16:26
18
0.213
0.115
-710-Mar-14
P
10:59:28
47
12:09:02
51
178
13:18:28
48
0.57
0.479
-708-Jul-17
P
07:36:18
31
08:32:57
43
089
09:35:31
56
0.404
0.293
-705-May-17
P
17:35:33
13
17:58:27
09
285
18:20:36
04
0.059
0.017
-704-May-05
P
17:52:29
08
18:35(s)
0(s)
287
18:35(s)
0(s)
0.482(s)
0.364(s)
-703-Oct-19
P
12:01:40
49
13:35:09
42
216
15:01:32
29
0.825
0.774
-701-Mar-05
P
10:42:45
42
12:03:54
48
175
13:24:38
45
0.776
0.73
A time followed by "(r)" means the event is already in progress at sunrise, while a time followed by "(s)" means the event is still in progress at sunset. In such cases, the times and circumstances given are for sunrise or sunset, respectively.


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