The name Asshur in the Bible
There are two men and one empire called Asshur (=Assyria) in the Bible, and the names of all of these probably have to do with a venerated deity named Asher. Asshur, Assyria and the Assyrians are not to be confused with:
- The name Aram (ארם), the country directly north of Israel, which in Greek times became known by its present name of Syria (Συρια). Its capital has been Damascus since ancient times. Even though Syria and Assyria are different countries, the Greeks called them both Συρια, which isn't all that strange since several cities and regions in Assyria are known by names that contain Aram; see for instance the names Aram-naharaim and Paddan-aram.
- The quite different name Ashhur (אשחור), belonging to the head honcho of Tekoa (1 Chronicles 2:24)
- The quite similar name Asher (אשר), which belonged to the eighth son of Jacob and second of Zilpah (Genesis 30:13).
- The Asshurim (אשורים), who were a people descending from Abraham and Keturah (Genesis 25:3).
The lesser known man named Asshur is mentioned in the genealogy of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:24), and has no further role in the Bible.
The other man named Asshur was a son of Shem, the eldest son of Noah (Genesis 10:22), and, on the Biblical stage, from him sprang the people called the Assyrians (אשורי), who lived in Assyria, which in the Bible is known simply as Asshur (אשור). Its capital city Nineveh was built by Nimrod, according to the Bible (Genesis 10:11).
Assyria prior to the Biblical record
In the demographical record, the country Assyria started out as a small settlement named Ashur, "built on a sandstone cliff on the west of the Tigris about 35 kilometer north of its confluence with the lower Zab River" (says The Oxford Companion to the Bible). It became an empire in the 19th century BC, but soon dwindled, reemerged in the 14th century during which it even took control over Babylon to its south, but quickly faded again.
Under Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1076 BC) the empire experienced brief and extensive success, but succumbed to the invasion of the Arameans. In 935 BC Assyria began to reconquer its territories lost to Aram, which brought them in range of Canaan, and also created the formidable Neo-Assyrian empire that we hear so much about in the Bible.
Ashurnasirpal II — Shalmaneser III
The foundations of the Neo-Assyrian empire were laid by king Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 BC), who built the city of Calah, which is also known as Nimrud (in the Bible personified as Nimrod), and expanded the until then marginal town of Nineveh.
Ashurnasirpal's son Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC) fought at the battle of Qarqar (853 BC), which entailed a clash between the Assyrian empirical army and a coalition of eleven states headed by king Hadadezer of Damascus, and which included the Arameans, Arabs and Israel under king Ahab.
The Bible omits this battle and we know about it from the Kurkh monoliths, which were found in 1861 in Iraq. These monoliths contain the only (possible) reference to Israel in Assyrian and Babylonian records.
At Qarqar the progression of the Assyrian empire was checked and in the years that followed its power diminished.
In 745 BC, a revolt in Calah led to the assumption of the Assyrian throne by the vigorous Tiglath-pileser III, also known as Pul (745-727), who spent his career in conflict intervention all over the broader region. Even king Ahaz of Judah called upon the intervention of this imperial sheriff, when he found his kingdom besieged by kings Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel (2 Kings 16:7). He embellished his request with a gift made of silver and gold from the temple of YHWH, and Tiglath-pileser responded by capturing Damascus, exiling its people to Kir and executing Rezin (2 Kings 16:9). Still, the Chronicler wryly asserts that Tiglath-pileser's assistance didn't help Ahaz all that much (2 Chronicles 28:21).
As part of the same campaign, Tiglath-pileser also invaded the land of Naphtali in the north of Israel and apparently also the territories of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh on the east (1 Chronicles 5:6, 5:26), and deported the people in what became known as the First Deportation (1 Kings 15:29). King Pekah of Israel was murdered and succeeded by Hoshea, son of Elah, who was made to pay an annual tribute to the king of Assyria.
Shalmaneser V — Sargon II
After six years of paying taxes to Assyria, king Hoshea figured he could get away from it by allying Israel with Egypt. Tiglath-pileser's son Shalmaneser V (727-722) didn't think so, marched on Samaria, besieged it for three years and finally captured it. He imprisoned Hoshea and deported the city's population (2 Kings 17:4-6).
His successor was the usurper Sargon II (722-705 BC), who is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Isaiah 20:1 in reference to the battle of Ashdod. But it was he who deported the rest of Israel in what is known as the Second Deportation. This action effectively ended the northern kingdom of Israel and virtually wiped out the tribes other than Judah and the two nationally absorbed tribes of Levi and Simeon.
Sargon's son Sennacherib (705-681 BC) sacked Babylon, deported its population and besieged Jerusalem in the fourteenth year of the reign of king Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13). King Hezekiah initially bought him off with a tribute of 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold (2 Kings 18:14) but Sennacherib wanted Jerusalem's submission. He sent Rabshakeh and a division of his army to negotiate Jerusalem's peaceful surrender but king Hezekiah wouldn't budge (18:36).
Hezekiah sent his chief of staff Eliakim to the prophet Isaiah, who told him that the Lord had said that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians (19:7, 19:20). When Rabshakeh went to report Hezekiah's refusal to surrender to Sennacherib, he found his king engaged in battle with the army of Libnah and realized that the heat was off Jerusalem (19:8).
Then one night the Lord decimated the Assyrian army by undisclosed means, and Sennacherib went home. He was killed by his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer in the temple of the god Nisroch, and his son Esarhaddon became king in his place (681-669 BC).
King Esarhaddon died of an illness and was succeeded by the great Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC), who expanded the Assyrian empire to its record size. In the Bible he's mentioned only as the king who brought people from outside to Samaria (Ezra 4:10). After his death his empire succumbed to civil war and was left without central reign. Finally, a man named Sin-shar-ishkun (approximately 623-612) took the throne, but within a decade the empire was invaded by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians, who captured the central provinces. The last king of Assyria was Ashur-uballit II (612-609), who ruled in Haran, in the empire's remaining western territories. He had support from Egypt but lost his lands to the Babylonians. The Assyrian empire and its vibrant culture remained forgotten until archeologists of the modern age revived it.
Etymology of the name Asshur
The name Asshur is highly similar to the Hebrew name Asher (אשר) but is spelled with a waw before the resh. But it seems that the name Asshur is thus also related to the verb אשר (asher), meaning to go (straight) on. However, BDB Theological Dictionary reports a connection between our name and the Hebrew verb ישר (yashar), meaning to be level, straight up, just:
NOBSE Study Bible Name List seems to agree with BDB Theological Dictionary and reads Level Plain. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names derives the name Asshur from the verb אשר (asher), meaning to go straight on, and which also yields the name Asher. Jones renders the name Asshur A Step.