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Book 4. Sacred History or Phoney History?






The peoples of Assyria and its mother country, Babylonia, have the same religion, language, literature, and civilization. The Babylonians were a mixed Sumerian and Semitic race but the Assyrians were more purely Semitic, albeit mixed with some degree of Indo-European from the various Aryan invasions. The Aryans tended to remain only the rulers, however, rather than arriving in mass to swamp the native population, which therefore remained fairly purely Semitic, although the Aryan rulers introduced many Indo-European words into western Semitic vocabularies. The very name Assyria and the name of their god, Assur, look suspiciously like the Indian word, Surya, for a sun god. Whether the name Assyria is derived from that of the god, Assur, or vice versa, is not known.

Assyria occupies the northern and middle part of Mesopotamia, situated between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The southern half, extending as far south as the Persian Gulf, is Babylonia and Chaldea. Assyria originally occupied a scant area of triangular shaped land between the Tigris and Zab Rivers, but later it conquered countries as far north as Armenia, Media in the east, northern Syria and the country of the Hittites in the west, and Babylonia and Elam in the south and southeast, occupying the entire Mesopotamian valley.

By the Hebrews, it was known under the name of Aram-Naharaim, “Aram of the Two Rivers” to distinguish it from Aram (Syria) proper, although the Hebrew name should probably be read as a plural, “Aram of the Rivers” or, if it is the supposed plural of majesty, “of the Great River”—Euphrates. In later Old Testament times, it was known as Assur. By the Greeks and Romans it was called Mesopotamia and Assyria, by the Aramaeans, Beth-naharim, “the house (country) of the rivers,” by the Egyptians Nahrina, by the Arabs Athur or Al-Gezirah, “the island,” or Bain-al-nahrain, the “country between the rivers”—Mesopotamia.

Assyria is mountainous and well watered, especially in the northern part. Limestone and, in some places, volcanic rock form the basis of its fertile soil. Its southern part is more level, alluvial, and fertile. Its principal rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates, which have their source in the Armenian mountains and run almost parallel as far south as Babylonia and Chaldea, flowing into the Persian Gulf. There are other minor rivers and tributaries, such as the Khabur, the Balikh, the Upper and Lower Zab, the Khoser the Turnat, the Radanu, and the Subnat. Assyria owes its existence, life, and prosperity to the Tigris and Euphrates, as Egypt does to Nile. The principal cities of Assyria are:
Assur whose site is now marked by the mound of Kalah-Shergat, on the right bank of the Tigris.
Calah, the eastern bank of the Tigris and at its junction with the Upper Zab, a city built (c 1280 BC) by Shalmaneser I, who made it the capital of Assyria in place of Assur. Its site is nowadays marked by the ruins of Nimrud.
Nineveh, represented by the villages and ruins of the modern Kujunjik and Nebi-Yunus, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, opposite Mosul. Nineveh was undoubtedly one of the most ancient cities of Assyria, and in the time of Sennacherib (seventh cent BC) it became the capital of the empire, and the centre of the worship of Ishtar, the Assyro-Babylonian Venus, who was called Ishtar of Nineveh, to distinguish her from Ishtar of Arbela. In the Jewish scriptures the city of Nineveh is known from the prophets, and especially as the theatre of Jonah’s mission.
Dur-Sharrukin, or Dur-Sargon (“Sargon’s Fortress”) built by Sargon II (eighth cent BC), the founder of the Sargonid dynasty, was made first the royal residence of Sargon, and afterwards became the rival of Nineveh. It is the modern Khorsabad.
Arhailu, or Arbela, famous in Greek and Persian annals for the decisive victory won by Alexander the Great over the formidable army of Darius, king of Persia and Babylon (331 BC).
Nasibina, or Nisibis, famous in the annals of Nestorian Christianity.
Harran, a merchant city, known for the worship of Sin, the moon-god, and the final capital of the rump of Assyria.
Ingur-Bel, the modern Tell-Balawat.
Tarbis, the modern Sherif-Khan.


Sources of Assyro-Babylonian History

These may be grouped as:

  1. The Jewish scriptures, 2 Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah, Nahum, Jeremiah, Jonah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, as well as fragments of information in Genesis 10, 11, and 14.
  2. The Greek, Latin, and Oriental writers. The Chaldeo-Babylonian priest and historian Berosus, who lived in the days of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and continued to live at least as late as Antiochus I Soter (280-261 BC), wrote in Greek a great work on Babylonian history, called Babyloniaca, or Chaldaica, but it has perished and only a few excerpts from it have been preserved in Greek and Latin writers. The writings of Polyhistor, Ctesias, Herodotus, Abydenus, Apollodorus, Alexander of Miletus, Josephus, Georgius Syncellus, Diodorus Siculus, Eusebius, and others are often thought legendary and unreliable by biblicists—especially Ctesias who lived at the Persian court in Babylonia—and even their quotations from Berosus are distrusted.
  3. The monumental records and remains of the Assyrians and Babylonians themselves, monuments and inscriptions discovered in the nineteenth century in Babylonia, Assyria, Elam, and Egypt, which form an excellent and a most authoritative collection of historical documents.


The Assyriologists

In 1849, Sir Henry Layard, the pioneer of Assyro-Babylonian explorations, remarked, in the preface to his classical work entitled Nineveh and its Remains, how a case in the British Museum, hardly three feet square, had previously enclosed all that remained of Nineveh and Babylon, with the exception of a few cylinders and gems preserved elsewhere. In fifty years in the nineteenth century, the exploration of Assyria and Babylonia had yielded the secrets of Mesopotamia—the priceless libraries of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, their historical annals, civil and military records, state archives, diplomatic correspondences, textbooks and school exercises, grammers and dictionaries, hymns, bank accounts and business transactions, laws and contracts, and extensive collection of geographical, astronomical, mythological, magical, and astrological texts and inscriptions. The assyriologist, professor A H Sayce, was so impressed he wrote:

The indebtedness of European culture to the valley of the Euphrates is becoming more and more apparent.


However, the purpose of the original assyriologists was not to show indebtedness of the west to Mesopotamia but to prove the historical accuracy of the bible. Victorian England was a country in which 60 per cent of the population attended church on a Sunday and all households had a bible. Yet it was was facing challenges to traditional religious authority through the industrial revolution, the revelations of natural science, and the higher criticism of the bible. The reaction of the religious ruling class was to set out to prove the bible. The founders and pioneers of Assyro-Babylonian explorations were Emile Rotta (1842-45 AD), Sir Henry Austen Layard (1840-52), Victor Place (1851-55), H Rassam (1850, 1878-82), Loftus (1850), Jules Oppert, Fresnel and Thomas (1851-52), Taylor (1851), Sir Henry Rawlinson, M de Sarzec and George Smith.

These men began their assyriological investigations confident in the literal historical accuracy of the biblical narratives. The Ussherite dates printed in most Protestant bibles were perceived as useful benchmarks, but, since the numbers were based on fallible human reason, not divine revelation, they were subject to correction when challenged by pertinent extra-biblical sources, like the Assyrian eponym canon. Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions of an historical nature for the most part were dealt with as if they were factually above reproach, except when any data about “biblical” Assyria were jeopardized. No hermeneutic of suspicion about the Assyrian royal inscriptions would be exercised until the twentieth century.

Steven W Holloway of Saint Xavier University, Chicago says all of the first generation of assyriologists sought to harmonize the discoveries of the Neo-Assyrian Empire with the Assyria enshrined in the Old Testament. Sayce was confident they had done so, and was to pronounce the discoveries in Mesopotamia to be the death of the higher criticism!

All the archaeological research and discoveries would have been useless if the language of Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions had not been deciphered and studied. These inscriptions were all written in a language, and by means of characters, which threatened to defy all human skill and ingenuity to decipher. The language had been forgotten, and its writing seemed so bewildering that the earlier European explorers mistook the wedge shaped characters (whence their name “cuneiform”) for bizarre ornamental decorations.

The discovery, and decipherment of the old Persian inscriptions at Persepolis and the Behistun rock by Rawlinson opened the way for the decipherment of the Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions. The principal credit belongs to Rawlinson and especially to Hincksn. The acute and original researches of these scholars were successfully carried out by other Semitic scholars and linguists no less competent, such as E Schrader and Fred Delitzsch in Germany, Ménant, Halévy, and Lenormant in France, Sayce and G Smith in England.

Jules Oppert, appointed Professor of Assyrian philology and archaeology at the Collège de France in 1869, published many articles on the chronology of biblical kings as well as commentaries on Esther and Judith. The gifted linguist, Edward Hincks, served as Rector of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, for 55 years. He was the first scholar correctly to identify “Jehu son of Omri” in the “Black Obelisk” inscription, and also made lively contributions to the biblical chronology debate.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a British career soldier and diplomat, published dozens of articles that dealt with “biblical” Assyria in the light of Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions. In the early days of decipherment, Rawlinson confidently harmonized biblical, classical and historical Assyria into a rich tapestry of scriptural affirmation, constantly evolving with the latest revelation from the “monuments.” Texts and images alike verify the bible:

I do not doubt but that I shall be able to point out the bands of Jewish maidens who were delivered to Sennacherib, and perhaps to distinguish the portraiture of the humbled Hezekiah.


When Rawlinson was baffled by his failure to read correctly the royal Assyrian name of Shalmaneser in the cuneiform inscriptions, and influenced by 2 Kings 17:3-6’s apparent attribution of the destruction of Israel to that king, he harmonized the royal inscriptions of Sargon—which spoke of the conquest of Samaria and the deportation of the Israelites—with the exploits of Shalmaneser recounted in Josephus and the Old Testament. He resorted to the traditional biblicist expedient of harmonizing the two people—Shalmaneser was a biblical alias for Sargon.

Eberhard Schrader, Professor of Old Testament at Zürich, Giessen, Jena, and Professor of Oriental Languages at Berlin, the father of Assyriology in Germany, published in 1872 what was among the most accessible sources of nineteenth century Assyriological research for Old Testament specialists. Arranged as a commentary by canonical order of biblical books, chapters, and verses, Schrader walked the reader through the Jewish scriptures, stopping wherever comparative philology, mythology, geography, or historical examples could shed light.

George Smith’s 1872 London lecture on the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic appeared in the 1873 issue of the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology as “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge.” It captured the middle class thirst for biblical confirmation of Genesis. The epic was only partially recovered, however. The Daily Telegraph footed the bill for Smith to dig in the Mesopotamian ruins until he found the missing portions of the cuneiform tablet, and, against all rational odds, he did it. He published the text the following year.

These precious tablets and monuments these Victorian worthies uncovered and attracted such attention are scattered in all the public and private museums and art collections of Europe, America, and Turkey. The total number of is over three hundred thousand tablets, cylinders, and cuneiform inscriptions have so far been discovered. If published, they would cover 400 octavo volumes of 400 pages each. Little of it has, even now, but but even this is many times as much literature as there is in the Old Testament. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Imperial Museum of Berlin and the University of Pennsylvania have each of them tens of thousands of tablets, and Istabul has thousands more. In the opinion of Assyriologists, much the largest part of the Assyro-Babylonian literature and inscriptions are still buried in Iraq, the place that western Christian leaders want to dispose of with nuclear bombs. Are they afraid of Saddam or what might be found under the sand?

Sources of Chronological Data

H C Rawlinson believed himself able to solve the puzzle of the lengths of the reigns of the Assyrian kings, and began in 1862 with a series of articles devoted to Assyrian and Babylonian chronology. During the Neo-Assyrian era, calendar years were named after a fixed rota of officials, comparable to the use of the names of Greek archons and Roman consuls for the same purpose. These eponyms were systematically recorded in lists, or canons, sometimes with notices of military or political events. Sources of information on the chronology of Assyria are:
The Eponym Lists which covers the entire period from the reign of Adad-nirari II (911-890 BC) down to that of Assurbanipal (669-625 BC). The eponyms, or limmu, were like the eponymous archons at Athens and the consuls at Rome. They were officers, or governors, whose term of office lasted but one year, to which year they gave their name, so that if any event was to be recorded, or a contract drawn in the year, say 763 BC, the event is registered “in the year of Pur-Shagli,” who was the limmu, or governor, in that year.
Another source is found in the chronological notices scattered throughout the historical inscriptions, such as Sennacherib’s inscription engraved on the rock at Bavian, in which he tells us that one of his predecessors, Tiglath-pileser reigned about 418 years before him, about 1107 BC, or that of Tiglath-pileser himself, who tells us that he rebuilt the temple of Anu and Ramman, which sixty years previously had been pulled down by king Assurdan because it had fallen into decay in the course of the 641 years since its foundation by king Shamshi-Ramman. This notice, therefore, proves that Assur-dan must have reigned about the years 1170 or 1180 BC. So also Sennacherib tells us that a seal of king Tukulti-Ninib I had been brought from Assyria to Babylon, where after 600 years he found it on his conquest of that city. As Sennacherib conquered Babylon twice, once in 702 and again in 689 BC, it follows that Tukulti-Ninib I must have reigned over Assyria in any case before 1289 BC, and possibly a few years before 1302 BC.
Another chronological source is to be found in the genealogies of the kings, which they give of themselves and of their ancestors and predecessors.
Further valuable help may be obtained from the so-called Synchronous History of Babylonia and Assyria, which consists of a brief summary of the relations between the two countries from the earliest times in regard to their respective boundary lines. The usefulness of this document consists mainly in the fact that it gives the list of many Babylonian and Assyrian kings who ruled over their respective countries contemporaneously.


Rawlinson had access to four overlapping canon lists. Combined, they covered the late tenth century to the beginning of Assurbanipal’s reign in the seventh century. The Assyrian eponym canon not only allowed the sequence of kings from the previously obscure ninth century monarchs to the resplendent Assurbanipal of the lion-hunt sculptures to be worked out, but it also gave information on how many years the monarchs occupied the throne. In 1872, the German academic, Schrader, published an accurate synoptic transliteration of the canons complete with dating.

The Language and Cuneiform Writing

Babylonians were to the Assyrians as the Greeks were to the Romans, always more literate, most people being able to read and write. Because the Assyrians were not a literate people as a whole, like the Babylonians, they had a class of scribes to do their writing for them.

The Assyro-Babylonian language (Akkadian) belongs to the Semitic family of languages, and in respect to grammar and lexicography offers no more difficulty to the interpreter than Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic. Assyrian is “very closely related to Hebrew, as closely related in fact as two strongly marked English dialects are to one another,” in Sayce’s words. Only Phoenician, which is practically the same as Hebrew, is closer to it, and Aramaic is similar, but Arabic and the other dialects of the South-Semitic group are slightly more distant. Assyrian has a larger vocabulary and literature than Hebrew.

The principal difficulty of Assyrian is its complicated system of writing. Assyrian is written not alphabetically, but either syllabically or ideographically. The same ideographic signs came to have also the phonetic value of syllables, without losing their primitive ideographic value. Writing was on soft clay with a pointed stylus and made wedge shaped marks (hence the name “cuneiform” from the Latin, cuneus, a wedge) that were arranged to make characters.

So, the wedges, arranged singly or in groups, either are ideograms and stand for complete ideas or words such as ka, bar, ilu, zikara, or they stand for syllables, open or closed, simple or compound, but any character can have more than one syllabic value and as many as five or six. A sign like  =|  may be read syllabically as ud, ut, u, tu, tam, bir, par, pir, lah, lih, hish, and his—ideographically as umu “day,” pisu “white,” and as Shamash, the Sungod.

This was difficult and embarrassing even to the Assyro-Babylonians themselves and is still the principal obstacle to the correct and final reading of many cuneiform words and inscriptions. To reduce the inconvenience, the Assyro-Babylonians placed other characters, called determinatives, before many of these signs to show their use and value in the sentence. Before all names of gods either a sign meaning divine being was prefixed, or a syllabic character (phonetic complement which indicated the proper phonetic value with which the word in question should end) was added after it. Reading Assyrian is still difficult. There are about five hundred of these different signs used to represent words or syllables.

Assyriologists think the cuneiform system of writing originated with the Sumerians, the primitive non-Semitic inhabitants of Babylonia, who taught it to the Semitic Babylonians and Assyrians. The Phoenicians similarly taught the Greeks the Semitic Phoenician alphabet, and the Germans adopted the Latin.

When Semitic speakers eventually replaced the Sumerian speakers, Sumerian was retained like classical Greek and Latin because it was used in religious services, and so it became the religious and scholarly language. Sumerian rituals and hymns were chanted, while an Akkadian translation allowed them to be understood. The language of Babylonia and Assyria was, therefore, written in Sumerian characters. This cuneiform system of writing was adopted also by the Medians, Persians, Mitannians, Cappadocians, ancient Armenians, and others.

The unspoken Sumerian language continued in use for rituals, which had to be conducted meticulously correctly to be effective, a conservative factor making for preservation of custom well beyond its normal sell-by date. The idea of a sacred or magical language came from the retention of Sumerian as a sacred language after Akkadian became the spoken language.

Different styles of cuneiforrn writings have been noted. The Persian style is a direct simplified, derivative of the Babylonian introduced by the Achaemenians. Instead of a combination of as many as ten and fifteen wedges to make one sign, the Persian style never more than five, and frequently only three. Instead of writing words by syllables, sounds alone were used. The syllabary of five hundred signs was reduced to forty-two, and the ideographic style was abolished.

A language spoken in the northwestern district of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Orontes, is known as Mitanni, which has been adapted to cuneiform characters. In the inscriptions of Mitanni, the writing is a mixture of ideographs and syllables just as in Mesopotamia. Tablets from Cappadocia are another modification of the ordinary writing found in Babylonia. They are written in a corrupt Babylonian. The tablets from Ugarit were found to have been written in an alphabetic cuneiform that might have preceded the Phoenician alphabet.

The material on which the Assyro-Babylonians wrote their inscriptions might be stone or metal, but usually was clay abundant in Babylonia. Thus two varieties of wedge-writing developed, one for being cut into stone and so for important statements of law and the official historical records, called lapidary, the other was cursive, occurring commonly on legal and commercial clay tablets. In Assyria, a special variety of cuneiform developed that is easily distinguished from the Babylonian by its greater neatness and the more vertical position of its wedges.

The clay was carefully prepared, finely ground, moistened, and moulded into a tablet whose size was about 15 cm by 6 cm in area and about 2-3 cm thick, its sides curving slightly outwards. The characters were impressed on the prepared surface, and while still soft, with a stylus, the writing often standing in columns, and carried over upon the back and sides of the tablet. The clay was quite frequently moulded also into cones and barrel-shaped cylinders, having from six to ten sides on which writing could be inscribed.

In Babylonia, these tablets or cylinders were then dried in the sun. The Assyrians baked their tablets in a furnace making them even harder and more permanent, a process which rendered the writing practically indestructible, except by deliberate breakage. On the cost side, they had to be smaller to minimize the danger of them cracking in the kiln. Assyrian scribes therefore perfected the art of writing in a minute script that required the use of magnifying lenses for them to work and read their efforts. These lenses have been unearthed.

Unlike all other Semitic systems of writing (except the Ethiopic, which is an adaptation of the Greek), that of the Assyro-Babylonians generally runs from left to right in horizontal lines, although in some early inscriptions the lines run vertically from top to bottom like the Chinese. These two facts are evidence of the non-Semitic origin of the cuneiform system of writing.

The Puzzle of Pul

The Assyrian king Pul, who received tribute from Menahem of Israel in 2 Kings 15:19-20, posed no special difficulty prior to the decipherment of the royal Assyrian annals. Among biblical commentators and historians of the ancient world writing before 1850, Pul was universally recognized as the first Assyrian conqueror to trouble Israel, followed immediately by Tiglath-pileser (III).

In 1852, Hincks read “Menahem of Samaria” as tributary to the king whose sculptures had been reused in the Southwest Palace of Nimrud. This decipherment permitted Layard a year later to publish an engraving of an Assyrian king on his chariot with the caption, “Bas-relief, representing Pul, or Tiglath-pileser” The identification, made before the cuneiform name of the king could actually be read, proved to be correct.

While the events enumerated in the translations of the badly mutilated inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III seemed to corroborate the military history of biblical Assyria, king Pul proved too entrenched in the scholarly imagination for the first assyriologists not to find him in the monuments. Through a false reading of the royal Assyrian name Adad-nirari III as Phal-lukha, and by equating this with biblical Pul, Rawlinson absurdly linked the name Semiramis of Greek legend with Israelite history.

In cuneiform script, Tiglath-pileser’s name usually required five or more different characters for its representation. The Assyrian name for Tiglath-pileser does not correspond to Pul, as even the most enthusiastic assyriological tyros were forced to admit. Publication of the Assyrian eponym canon, begun in 1862, failed to break the suspense. Pul could not be found in the Assyrian records. Numerous explanations were put forward to king Pul:

  1. The Assyrian eponym canon is flawed—Pul was skipped in a forty-odd year hiatus.
  2. The compiler of the Assyrian eponym canon was a blunderer.
  3. Pul was a Chaldean suzerain whose reign was skipped by the Assyro-phile canon authors.
  4. Pul is to be identified with an eighth century monarch preceding Tiglath-pileser whose name appears in the Assyrian eponym canon.
  5. Pul and Tiglath-pileser are identical.
    H C Rawlinson and Schrader


Schrader’s identification in the 1870s of the scriptural and Ptolemaic canon entity Pul with the scriptural and cuneiform entity Tiglath-pileser III (known as Tiglath-pileser II at the time) wins almost universal acceptance. This identification was anticipated a decade earlier by H C Rawlinson. Unlike Schrader, Rawlinson never expressed his opinion about the positive correlation as an unqualified statement, waffling over the possibility that biblical Pul was a general of Tiglath-pileser. Schrader’s lucid prose exposition, on the contrary, left no room for equivocation. The scholarly consensus from 1875 to the present, that Pul was another name by which the contemporaries of Tiglath-pileser knew him, may be correct, and biblical Assyria more or less equals historical Assyria. Since Pul corresponds to Tiglath-pileser, the historical integrity of the bible is perceived as intact, and the Assyrian eponym canon will be used henceforth by biblical pundits fearlessly, and recklessly, to date biblical and related historical events.

What would the exegetes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have done with Sargon, mentioned only once in Isaiah 20:1, had his name stubbornly refused to be read in the cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria. The initial failure of assyriology to confirm the reality of king Pul touched a nerve in bible-fearing Europe, sparking a twenty year hunt through textual and archaeological sources for the missing king. Schrader’s solution, harmonizing biblical higher criticism and assyriological spadework was later canonized by William Foxwell Albright and his disciples as the American School “backgrounds method.” The biblicists desperately want biblical exegesis to remain essentially static, and constantly feel assaulted by modernity.

Religion and Civilization

The religion and civilization of Assyria derived from Babylonia and were almost identical with them. Assyrian architecture, art, science, and literature, temples and palaces were modelled upon those of Babylonia, although built of stone rather than bricks. In sculptural decorations and in statuary more richness and originality were displayed by the Assyrians than by the Babylonians. It seems to have been a hobby of Assyrian monarchs to build colossal palaces, adorned with gigantic statues and an infinite variety of bas-reliefs and inscriptions showing their warlike exploits. Assurbanipal’s library shows that Assyrian religious literature was identical to that of Babylonia. The Assyrians adopted Babylonian doctrines, cults and rites, making only the slightest modifications to make them suitable in the northern country. The chief difference was that the Assyrian principal god was Assur whereas in Babylonia it was Marduk. The principal deities—there are many minor ones—of both countries are:

  1. The three chief deities
    Anu, the god of the heavenly expanse
    Bel, the earth god and creator of mankind
    Ea, the god of humanity par excellence, and of the water
  2. Ishtar, the mother of mankind and the consort of Bel
  3. Sin, firstborn son of Bel, the father of wisdom personified in the moon
  4. Shamash, the sun-god
  5. Ninib (Ninurta), the hero of the heavenly and earthly spirits
  6. Nergal, chief of the netherworld and of the subterranean demons, and god of pestilence and fevers
  7. Marduk, originally a solar deity, conqueror of storrns, and afterwards creator of mankind and the supreme god of Semitic Babylonia
  8. Adad, or Rimmon, the god of storms, thunders, and lighting
  9. Nebo, the god of wisdorn, to whom the art of writing and sciences are ascribed
  10. Girru-Nusku, or, simply, Nusku, the god of fire, as driving away demons and evil spirits
  11. Assur, the consort of Belit, and the supreme god of Assyria.


The Assyro-Babylonian religion, civilization, and literature has exercised an immense and unsuspected influence upon the origin and development of the literature, and the religious and social institutions of the ancient Hebrews. Assyriology has not strikingly confirmed the strict veracity of the biblical narratives, or demonstrated the fallacies of higher criticism, as professor A L Sayce, and others once contended, but allows the Jewish scriptures to be studied in their correct historical background.

Simo Parpola (Archaeology Odyssey 1999) explains that the Assyrian king was a son of God, a model of human perfection, a sacred institution, and essential to the people’s salvation. A common motif of Assyrian royal iconography—in architecture, on seals and weapons, and on jewelry—was a palm growing on a maountain. Earth was linked to heaven by a sacred tree. The palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) in Kalhu (Calah, Nimrod) had over 400 images of the sacred tree. Directly behind the royal throne, the tree appeared under the winged solar disk of Ashur, the supreme god, and flanked by two images of the king. When seated on his throne, the king sat in the tree. Sumerian kings, about 2000 BC, were called “palm trees”. In the Jewish scriptures, the king of Babylon dreamt of a tree growing in the middle of the earth, its top reaching the sky, and is told by the prophet:

That tree, O king, is you.
Daniel 4:10-22


Inanna or Ishtar, the divine mother of the king, planted the cosmic tree. The Assyrian Father-Mother-Son triad of Ashur, Ishtar and the king suggests the Christian Trinity, where the Son, according to Athanasius, is “the self same Godhead as the Father, but that Godhead manifested rather than immanent”.

Ninurta seems to be the judging summer sun that decides men’s fates. The Assyrian kings saw themselves as protectors of justice in this same way, and aimed to emulate Ninurta, who mythologically fought and defeated evil—any threat to the kingdom. He meets these forces in the “mountain” or the “foreign land”, defeats them and returns to the side of his father and mother, where he remains as the Judge. This heavenly myth justifying the earthly king reminds us of the Christian ascension of Christ to the right hand of his Father as the judge over the living and the dead. Ninurta also recalls the archangel Michael, the “Great Prince”, the slayer of the Dragon and the holder of the celestial keys, in Jewish apocalyptic and apocryphal traditions. Ninurta, as the king, was god in human form, the “perfect man”, god’s earthly regent. Parpola writes:

The sun is the primary symbol of the supreme god, Ashur. The blinding brilliance of its disk symbolized the absolute purity, holiness and righteousness of god as opposed to the darkness of the world, associated with evil, ignorance, injustice and death. The sun’s unwavering, absolutely straight path across the skies, its merciless heat and the triumphant return of light after the winter solstice symbolized god’s irresistible victory over wickedness and evil. Finally, the eternal return of the seasons symbolized the eternity of god and kingship as a divine institution eternally regenerating itself, notwithstanding the bodily death of the king.


The Assyrian king was the “sun” or the “very image of Shamash”, the sun god. The word “king” was written as 20, the sacred number of the sun god. A god could not reside in an unworthy body, so the king had to aim to be, or seem, perfect. A perfect king, filled with the divine spirit, would be just and keep cosmic harmony, bringing his people divine blessings, prosperity and peace. An imperfect king ruled without the divine spirit, and so unjustly, disrupting cosmic harmony, drawing down divine wrath and cauing the people miseries, calamities and war.

Colossal supernatural beings in the shape of a bull, lion, eagle and man, symbolizing the four points of the Zodiac—called “cherubim” by the Jews—guarded the gates of the royal palace. These are the four guardians of the divine throne in Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:76, and symbolize the four Christian evangelists, Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (bull) and John (eagle). Priests with buckets of holy water purified everyone who entered the palace, and others filled the air with purifying incense. The king’s attendants and guards were eunuchs whose asexuality matched that of the angels.

The king ruled through a state council composed of eight cabinet ministers, “the assembly of men of renown”. To reach perfection in decision making and to eliminate human error, the king made no important decision without consulting his cabinet, but he took responsibility for whatever was decided, and all resolutions of the council were issued in his name alone.

The will of the gods was checked by extispicy—examining the entrails of animals—before any important decision was enforced. The king had teams of these augurs and astrologers to advise him. The gods communicated their pleasure or displeasure through signs transmitted in dreams, portents and oracles. Apart from reading the signs sent by the gods, the royal scholars protected the king against disease, demons, and witchcraft, so the meaning of these signs became a great school of scholarship. Before the seventh century BC, omen texts had been collected by scribes in handbooks. A collection could take up many tablets and was named from the first words of the first tablet just like the Jewish names of the books of scripture.

Any sign of divine displeasure required immediate action. The royal archive of Nineveh, excavated in the nineteenth century, contained correspondence from priests and scribes, addressed to the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, about the observation and interpretation of omens, and the interpretation and rituals needed to ward off harm.

Twice or thrice we watched for Mars today but we did not see it. It has set. Maybe the king my lord will say as follows: “Is there any ominous sign in the fact that it set?” I answer: “There is not.”
From Issar-Shumu-Eresh
If in Kislimu from the first day to the thirtieth day Venus disappears in the east: there will be a famine of barley and straw in the land. If the moon becomes visible on the thirtieth day: there will be frost, variant: rumour of the enemy. If the moon becomes visible in Sabatu on the thirtieth day: an eclipse of all lands will take place.
From the Chief Scribe


It was a precarious profession, however, if the astrologer did not impress the king:

May the king of the world, my lord, not abandon me! Every day I approach the king because of my hunger, and now he assigned me to making bricks, saying “Make bricks!” May the king my lord not abandon me so that I do not have to die!
From Tabiya


Sometimes an omen required an apotropaeic ritual and a substitute king had to be chosen, who would take upon himself the curse on the king and the land, and die in his stead. But meanwhile the king had to prove his redemption by special ritual acts that were exacting. Blamelessly executing the daily ritual acts of kingship fulfilled the king’s main duty to maintain divine order—the kingdom itself.

To appoint a successor, the king consulted the divine will through his augurs and, if favourable, appointed the son who displayed the greatest abilities in his education as crown prince. On an auspicious day the prince was introduced into the royal palace and presented with the royal diadem. From now on the prince was a prince regent, equal in essence to his father, fit to exercise kingship and assume royal power should his father die.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of the legendary king of Uruk who sought eternal life, is the path of the king to spiritual perfection. Each of its twelve tablets deals with a particular god of the Assyrian pantheon in the order in which they appear in the Assyrian sacred tree, starting from Nergal, the god of the underworld and sexual power at its root. At the end of the quest, Gilgamesh meets his dead friend, Enkidu, and learns about life after death. In tablet six, Gilgamesh kills the Bull of Heaven, like Mithras. He is made divine and appointed as Judge of the dead, like Jesus:

Gilgamesh, perfect king, judge of the Anunnaki, administrator of the netherworld, lord of the dwellers-below, you are a judge and have vision like God. You stand in the netherworld and pronounce final judgment. Your judgment is not altered, your word is not despised. You question, you inquire, you judge, you weigh, and you render the correct decision. Shamash has entrusted verdict and decision in your hands. In your presence kings, regents and princes bow down.


When Assyria fell, scholars who had served the Assyrian emperor were employed with the Median and neo-Babylonian kings, so the Assyrian tradition continued through the neo-Babylonian empire and into the Persian period. The Persians continued Assyrian culture.


Continue: History of Assyria




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