Thursday, March 02, 2017

Gen Eds H9b: Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians

The second post in the ninth unit of world history, a unit I've called, "Waves of Conquest."

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
1. So Darius and Xerxes, kings of Persia, tried to invade Greece in the early 400s BC. Thankfully they failed. Prior to Alexander the Great, Persia was the predominant power of the world. From 539BC to 331BC, Persia was the largest empire up to that point in history. Then in 331BC, Alexander defeated the Persians, for a fleeting moment creating an even larger empire.

The year 539 was when Cyrus, king of Persia, (ca. 600-530), conquered the empire before his, namely, the Babylonians. Students of the Bible may know the name Cyrus, as he is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Isaiah 45:1 praises him, even calls him God's anointed. The reason is the fact that he allowed, even seemed to encourage the Jews of Babylon to return to Jerusalem after their decades-long captivity.

Cyrus' policy was to allow the various regions under his rule (satraps) to pursue their own cultural ways. Perhaps he thought that empowering the leadership of Israel would secure the loyalty of one small corner of his far flung empire. According to Ezra and Chronicles, he even supported the rebuilding of the temple. [1] So in 538, Sheshbazzar was appointed governor and returned to Jerusalem with about fifty thousand people, according to Ezra 2:64-67.

It took over twenty years for the temple to be built. By that time Zerubbabel was the governor and Joshua was the priest. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah both date from this time and both were on the sidelines as cheerleaders for its rebuilding, despite the objections of neighbors who had gained power in the time after the city's destruction. Nevertheless, in 516BC, the temple was rebuilt and open for business. Thus began the "Second Temple Period" of Jewish history, a period that would last until the Romans destroyed the temple again in AD70.

2. The empire that Cyrus established is called the "Achaemenid" empire. After Cyrus, his son Cambyses ruled briefly, but he was followed by Darius I (522-486BC), who is also mentioned in the Bible. [2] It was Darius I who made it as far as Greece in the attempt to quell rebellion against him along the western coast of Turkey (the Ionian coast). But he was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon.

By one estimate, Darius controlled 44% of the world's population, in that sense the largest empire of world history. [3] He established Aramaic as the lingua franca or business language of his realm. It was during his reign that the Jerusalem temple was finally rebuilt.

3. After Darius I came Xerxes I (486-65BC), who is likely the husband of Esther in the Bible. It was Xerxes who fought against the Greeks at Salamis and Plataea, definitively losing to the Greeks at both. Xerxes was assassinated by one of the commanders in his bodyguard, but his son Artaxerxes was able to regain control.

4. Artaxerxes I (465-24) succeeded his father to the throne. He was the king who commissioned Ezra to return to Judea and set in order the laws of Israel (Ezra 7:13-28). In the past, some have suggested that it was actually Ezra who organized the materials of the Pentateuch into their current form as the law commissioned by the king. Nehemiah would go to Jerusalem later in the reign of Artaxerxes (ca. 445) and would rebuild the wall surrounding Jerusalem, finally making it a fully functioning city again.

Seven more Persian rulers came and went in the time between Artaxerxes I and the conquest of Alexander the Great.

5. Before the Persians rolled over the Ancient Near East, the Babylonians had ruled the roost. Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians in 539BC. Meanwhile, the Babylonians defeated the empire before them, the Assyrians, in 612BC. So their rule of the world, at least this time around, was really less than a hundred years.

We might call the Babylonian empire of this time the "neo-Babylonian empire," for Babylon had been a kingdom once before around the time of Abraham. Babylon was situated in what is now Iraq, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The Assyrian capital was Nineveh, about 300 miles north of Babylon, where Mosul is today.

The Assyrians, the empire before the neo-Babylonian, had destroyed Babylon in 689BC. Then they had rebuilt it. [4] But it would not be long until the Babylonians had the final say.

6. Jews and Christians of course remember the Babylonians as the ones who destroyed Jerusalem in 586BC. Later, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem again, Jews and Christians would use "Babylon" as a code name for Rome (e.g., Rev. 18; 1 Pet 5:13). The best known of the kings from this brief window in history was Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562), mentioned in the book of Daniel.

The battle in which he defeated the Egyptians, the battle of Carchemish, is mentioned in Jeremiah 46:2 (605BC). In 597 he conquered Jerusalem, but he did not destroy it until 10 years later when king Jehoiakim rebelled. The prophet Jeremiah had of course counseled the king to submit to Babylonian authority. He is called the weeping prophet and is the putative voice of Lamentations.

Nebuchadnezzar took the most prominent individuals of Jerusalem captive back to Babylon, along with many others. Psalm 137 is a lament psalm written from captivity there.

7. The defeat of the Assyrians in the late 600s BC was so welcomed by those in Judah that the prophet Nahum prophesied in celebration of Assyria's defeat. Israel had been made up of two kingdoms for several hundred years, a kingdom in the north (Israel) and a smaller kingdom in the south (Judah). In 722BC, the Assyrian king Shalmanezer V (727-22BC) destroyed Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 17).

We refer to the northern tribes from this point on in history as the "ten lost tribes of Israel." Only Judah and Benjamin remained in the south. Those who survived in the north were either assimilated into the Assyrian empire or generally lost their Israelite identity. Assyria was known to "mix and match" people from the territories it conquered. It was not until around 100BC that Galilee was re-conquered by Jerusalem and resettled with Jews. [5] Meanwhile, Samaria retained its own Pentateuch and form of Israelite religion.

Two kings after Shalmanezer V, Sennacherib (705-681BC) would attempt to take Jerusalem in the south as well. The Old Testament records how King Hezekiah held out against Sennacherib's siege (1 Kings 18-19; Isaiah 36-37), with the prophet Isaiah delivering him God's word. Hezekiah, however, had dug a tunnel to water, which you can still visit today. This allowed him to hold out, and all that Sennacherib could write in his annals was that he had "shut up Hezekiah like a bird in a cage."

Before Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons, he would destroy Babylon in 689BC, while conducting a major renovation of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire.

These years of the Assyrian empire, from 911-612BC, are usually called the time of the neo-Assyrian empire. It would continuously expand under kings like Ashurnasirpal II (883-59BC) and Shalmanezer II (859-24BC). Under Tiglath-Pilesar III (745-27BC), the world would get its first standing army, and Aramaic would become the business language (lingua franca) in most of the world.

  • No kingdom lasts forever. They come and go.
  • Sometimes God delivers his people. Sometimes he doesn't.
Next Week: History 10a: Ancient Egypt

[1] See Ezra 1:1 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.

[2] In Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah. It is unclear who "Darius the Mede" refers to in the book of Daniel.

[3] "Five Empires That Were Close to World Domination."

[4] Esarhaddon (681-69BC), son of Sennacherib rebuilt it.

[5] The Hasmonean king, descendant of the Maccabees, Alexander Jannaeus.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for clearing this up.