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J U N E 2 0 0 3
Ancient Assyria, located in what is now northern Iraq, is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible as attacking the inhabitants of Israel and raiding Babylon and Syria. Read about Assyrian history and religion and the details of their wars in the region.
Each issue carries an imprimatur from theArchdiocese of Cincinnati.Reprinting prohibited
The Assyrians by Elizabeth McNamer
As one enters the Middle Eastern section of the British Museum in London, one is immediately confronted by two powerful, towering statues of winged bulls with human heads. These 30-foot-high artifacts were brought from Assyria in the middle of the 19th century by archaeologist Henry Layard. The museum contains numerous other statues of assorted winged creatures, obelisks and stone slabs engraved with scenes of prisoners being hanged from poles or impaled on stakes; young men and women being flayed alive; captured slaves led in procession under heavy guard; archers aiming their bows; blazing torches being thrown at the enemy; battering rams attacking fortified city walls. A glance at these sculptures leaves no doubt that the people who created them were dedicated to war. The Bible mentions the Assyrians over 170 times and never favorably. They are presented as fierce, invincible warriors who regularly swooped down from the north, terrified the inhabitants of Israel, demanded exorbitant tributes and, satiated, went back home. We read of the terrified King of Judah and his people plundering the temple and their own homes to make payments to keep the Assyrians at bay, but "all to no avail" (2 Chr 28:21).From about 1300 b.c.e. Assyria encompassed the land in the upper part of the Tigris River in what is today northern Iraq. The territory consisted of rolling plains, mountains to the north and east, semi-desert to the south and west, with some agricultural settlements. The Assyrians regularly raided the rich agricultural lands in Babylon and Syria.They took their name from the god Ashur and their king served as Ashur’s high priest and was regarded as his governor on earth. But as a secular ruler, it was also the king’s duty to maintain and extend the borders of the land of Ashur.Divided KingdomsDuring the time of the united kingdom, there was little to fear from the people to the north. Assyria was still asleep. David and Solomon’s kingdoms lived in relative peace, although excavations at Meggido show that they were always prepared for war.With the death of Solomon (922) the kingdom divided into two, Judah in the south and the kingdom of Israel in the north. For the first 50 years, there was constant civil war. The smaller kingdom of Judah had many advantages: only one tribe to rule, a tradition of kingship, Jerusalem itself, and the Temple of Solomon. The northern kingdom fared badly: diverse tribes, no tradition of kingship and no temple. But Israel did have fertile and green lush lands. Owing to assassination, there was a rapid turnover of kings in the north. Of the first five, only one died a natural death. The fifth, Zimri, who had murdered his predecessor, had a reign of seven days before he too was murdered.The books of Kings and Chronicles record the history of this period, but since these books were written at a later date and by a southerner, one can expect some bias. Things did improve when an army general, Omri, took over as king in 876, built the capital at Samaria and solidified his kingdom by forming political marriages.For most of its 200-year existence, the kingdom of Israel lived a perilous existence. Religiously it was a jumble. Shrines were set up at Bethel and Dan, worship of pagan gods took over, and sacrifices—some human—on "high places" were not uncommon. While they still regarded themselves as a covenanted people, worship of Yahweh was on the decline. At the same time, rumblings from their northern and western neighbors demoralized them.The Assyrians AwakeIn the beginning, the north had remained relatively quiet. Assyria lay like a young lion, occasionally giving a roar when disturbed by neighbors. But in 880 b.c.e. the lion became fully awake when an ambitious new king ascended the throne. His name was Ashurnasirpal II. He adopted a new god, Ninurta, and spent the first few years of his reign building his capital city of Nimrod. Then, after celebrating its completion, he stormed with his model army across Lebanon to the Mediterranean where "he washed his weapons in the sea." En route, he crushed many city-states and returned to Nimrod laden with treasures extracted from them and recorded all of this in carved bas-reliefs on his palace walls.While the little kingdom of Israel was not affected by this particular campaign, it was obvious that before long, Assyrian designs would affect them. As far as we know, the first time that the Assyrians became directly involved with Israel was in 853 b.c.e. when Ashurnasirpal’s son Shalmaneser III advanced through Syria to Palestine. Local rulers, who hitherto had little love for each other, formed an alliance to oppose him. King Ahab of Israel contributed 200 chariots and over 10,000 men to fight. It was futile. Shalmaneser had an inscription made of his great victory: "They rose against me for a decisive battle....I slew 14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them like Baal when he makes a rainstorm pour down. I spread their corpses, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered soldiers...with their corpses, I spanned the Orantes before there was a bridge."In the first year of the reign of King Jehu of Israel, 841, Shalmaneser again came through Damascus, destroyed numerous towns and demanded tribute from all including Jehu. The incident is not mentioned in the Bible but is represented in four panes of the Black Obelisk, a four-sided stele recording the Assyrian deeds. It shows the Israelite king Jehu, bowed in obeisance offering tribute. One panel displays the tribute being brought in by a parade of slaves, and it is described in cuneiform caption over the procession: silver, gold, a golden vase, a golden dish, golden goblets, golden buckets, tin, wooden hunting spears. Shalmaneser returned to his capital to enjoy his hoard and start further campaigns in other places.The Great ProphetsFor some 50 years, the Assyrians held off from Israel. In that breathing space of a half-century, Israel entered a time of relative prosperity. Trade expanded and Samaria became a great center of wealth. But the affluence did not filter down to the poor. The king and the upper class lived in luxury. The vast majority of people groveled in poverty. The covenant with Yahweh was ignored and the worship of Baal, the pagan god of fertility, became the vogue. Pagan rituals and temple prostitution were practiced. Freed from foreign threats, the people paid little attention to domestic issues.The prophet Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, and never one to mince words, denounced the prosperity: "Proclaim this in the strongholds of Assyria, / in the strongholds of the land of Egypt; / Gather from the mountains of Samaria, / And see the great disorder within her, / The oppression in her midst. / For they know not how to do what is right, says Yahweh, / Storing up in their strongholds what they have exorted and robbed. / Therefore, thus says Yahweh: / An enemy shall surround the land, / And strip you of your strength, / And pillage your strongholds" (Amos 3:9-11).Amos predicted that God would use other nations to bring Israel to her senses. He warned of impending catastrophe, but few paid attention. His prophecy would seem to be fulfilled a generation later.The prophet Hosea was the other prophet of doom for the north. His is a prophecy in action. He married a prostitute, Gomer (symbol of Israel). He announced Yahweh’s divorce from Israel (Hosea 2:4-7). His three children by Gomer are given prophetic names: Jezreel "I will punish the house of Jehu"; Loruhama "I no longer feel pity for the house of Israel"; Loammi "You are not my people."The Onslaught BeginsThe lion in the north began its roar again with the accession of King Pul (Tiglath Pilaser III) in 745. This energetic man undertook a widespread expansion of the Assyrian Empire. He first conquered Babylon to the south and then set his sights west and south on the Levant. Terror-struck small rulers joined forces to try to stop him. Israel, Damascus, Ammon, Moab, Edom forgot that they were enemies in view of this new threat. King Ahaz of Judah (wisely or unwisely) refused to join them. The consortium responded by attacking Judah. King Ahaz then appealed to the one he knew would be anxious to help him, Tiglath Pilaser himself. It didn’t take long for Tiglath to come bursting down through Syria. In three campaigns carried out between 734 and 732, Tiglath Pilaser III overtook the land and destroyed major cities like Hazor and Meggido. Carved pictures of him in his flowing beard and robe, truncated hat, and shaded by an umbrella, show him accepting the homage of subjected states.There was no resisting the Assyrian army. They were well trained and disciplined mercenaries. They arrived by the thousands led by their standard bearers, and their king surrounded by his bodyguards. Then came the cavalry, infantry soldiers, and corps of engineers, artists, and demolition squads. Many ancient cities came to an end during his campaigns: Meggido, Hazor, and the city we now call Bethsaida.Excavations there show this great city fought valiantly but was overcome, and the city was set fire to in the spring of 732. So hot was the fire that it melted the brick. Experts so far have been unable to ascertain what was added to the fire to cause this, although we do know that the Assyrians regarded as sacred their bitumen wells at Hit. Tantalizingly, one large panel of an Assyrian wall, now in the British Museum, shows a city being destroyed. A battering ram is shown penetrating a double city wall with turreted towers which enclose a palm tree. Could this be Bethsaida? We have discovered a double fortified wall there and know that palm trees grew in this region. They did not grow in Assyria or farther north. Women and children are seen being driven away from the city in ox-drawn carts (there are no men left); cows and sheep are being driven away by the captors and two scribes are making notes of the spoils. Assyrian arrowheads have been found at the site.Mass DeportationDeportation of captured people became the policy under Tiglath. Israel was made a province of Assyria with Samaria as capital and a governor appointed there. The kingdom of Israel was at an end. There was some intermarriage between the vestiges of Israel and the Assyrians. These people turn up later as the Samaritans. Foreign colonists were brought in, and for another 600 years Galilee would be known as "Galilee of the Gentiles."King Ahaz of Judah had not sided with the consortium against Tiglath, but this did not guarantee safety. Judah was made a vassal of Assyria, forced to pay money each year. Ahaz’s son Hezekiah tried to free himself from this bondage in 705 when the old king of Assyria died. He fortified Jerusalem, building a magnificent tunnel through sheer rock to ensure that water would be brought into the city. But the fierce Sennacherib "came down like a wolf on the fold" and surrounded Jerusalem. The Book of Isaiah (chapters 36—37) tells us what happened. A plague wiped out half of the Assyrian army and the rest left in panic. But all of the other cities of Judah were destroyed. Sennacherib mentions that he trapped King Hezekiah of Judah "like a bird in a cage" and he covered a whole room in his palace with scenes of his conquest of Lachish, the second-largest city in Judah. Hezekiah was forced again to pay large sums of money to Assyria to maintain his throne. The giving of tribute to Assyria continued for another half a century. King Manasseh, the longest-ruling king of Judah (55 years), was taken off in chains to Assyria for refusing to pay until he pledged loyalty to them (2 Chr 33).Like all bullies, Assyria wore itself out. In 612, combined forces from Egypt and Babylon destroyed the state. The mighty lion was dealt a death blow and roared no more. Nahum records it for us: "O King of Assyria, your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to father them. There is no assuaging your hurt, and your wound is grievous. All who hear the news of you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?" (Nahum 3:18-19). Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch and a frequent contributor, spends time in the Middle East each summer working at the archaeological dig at Bethsaida. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.
MY REPLY TO HER ARTICLE:
To the Editor
RE: June 2003 N0603 Issue
It is especially disturbing to me that I feel compelled, during these difficult times we live in, to lodge a complaint against Elizabeth McNamer for the extremely biased article she wrote entitled, "The Assyrians." I could not even finish the second paragraph of her article before I was confronted by her blanket condemnation of the Assyrians and even that was clothed in an outright lie. The very first sentence of the second paragraph of her article, begins, "The Bible mentions the Assyrians over 170 times and never favorably."
Is she trying to convince me that she is a fourth-rate scholar or just that she is an Assyrian-hater? I quote from the Bible (New Catholic Edition), Isaiah, Chapter 19, verses 23-25: "When that time comes, there will be a highway between Egypt and Assyria. The people of these two countries will travel back and forth between them, and the two nations will worship together. When that time comes, Israel will rank with Egypt and Assyria, and these three nations will be a blessing to all the world. The Lord Almighty will bless them and say, "I will bless you, Egypt, my people; you Assyria, whom I created; and you, Israel, my chosen people." ELIZABETH, IS THIS A FAVORABLE OR UNFAVORABLE MENTION?
As an Assyrian and a Roman Catholic I am outraged and extremely indignant. I thought that, "ALL HAVE SINNED AND COME SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD." I guess I am wrong, it is just my people, the Assyrians, who to this day still speak leshana'd yimma, Aramaic the language that our Lord spoke. We are a Christian people who were converted during the first century by Mar Toma, St. Thomas. We have a history filled with missionaries and martyrs for the Faith. Somehow Ms. McNamer conveniently left out the positive, preferring instead to accentuate the negative. We are a people without a country and in Diaspora. We have suffered pogroms and persecutions down through the centuries that defy description, but I can refer you to the books that will lay it all out in plain and simple language, viz., in one word the TRUTH!
Historians have a duty to tell both sides of the story. Elizabeth McNamer is telling only one side of the story and it is a story which is spreading hatred of a Christian people by other Christians. I am horrified by her article. My parents came to this country as refugees to escape certain death and now I find that my people are confronted by others of my own faith who are spreading hatred of my people right here in America and in my own Catholic faith. My wife who is also Assyrian and was born in Baghdad, Iraq came to this country with her parents when she was twelve years old to escape persecution of Assyrian Christians in Iraq; now we have both found that it has followed us to America.
There is no refuge in America for my people. There is no refuge in the American Catholic Church for my people. Where would you like us to go now? Should we all gather together and march like Lemmings into the Sea?
You have pierced my heart and the hearts of my people,
MY EMAIL TO THE ARCHDIOCESE:
Reverend Joseph Kruszynski
Director for Evangelization
Archdiocese of Chicago
Dear Rev. Kruszynski,
Please forgive me for directing this to you, but I have been unable to find an email address for any other members of the Catholic Clergy in Chicago that can help me with this problem. Perhaps you can forward this to the proper authorities for me. I have already contacted the author of the article in question, which has been distributed in at least one Parish on the North side of Chicago, but I have not received a response from her.
The article I am referring to is a four-page handout called, "ScripturefromScratch," (the June 2003, N0603 Issue), authored by, Elizabeth McNamer, and which carries an Imprimatur by the Most Reverend Carl K. Moeddel, V.G., Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Feb. 18, 2003. This article is posted on the Internet at the following address: http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/SFS/an0603.asp
I am certain that the Archdiocese of Chicago knows that there is a large Assyrian community in the the Chicago Metropolitan area. As a Roman Catholic and a member of the Assyrian community, I am outraged at this article which has apparently been distributed in several parishes throughout Chicago. The Assyrian people, whose, leshana'd yimma (mother tongue) is Aramaic (the language our Lord spoke) were converted to Christianity by Mar Toma, St. Thomas, in the first century and have been suffering persecution and death to this day, for their faith. One of the first hate crimes committed in Chicago in the aftermath of 9/11 was the firebombing of an Assyrian Church on the north side of the city. I simply cannot understand how my own Church could be so insensitive as to promote further prejudice and hatred of my people in light of these circumstances.
I wrote the following response to Ms. McNamer after reading a copy of the article given to me by a Deacon in one of the parishes where it was distributed. Here is my response to Ms. McNamer from whom I have yet to receive a reply:
I INSERTED A COPY OF MY REPLY HERE AND THEN CONCLUDED AS FOLLOWS:
Reverend Kruszynski, I am very sorry for having to bring this matter to the attention of the Church and especially for directing it to you, since it is unrelated to the department you head. I cannot let this matter rest, however, until I receive a satisfactory response from someone in the Chicago hierarchy and a retraction with a formal apology is made by Elizabeth McNamer in her publication. If I do not receive a response to this complaint, I will seek redress for my people in a more public forum, which I would hope could be avoided for the sake of the Church which has been scandalized enough, of late.
A DAY LATER I FINALLY RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING REPLY FROM MS. MCNAMER:
I am sorry that you found my article on the ancient Assyrians so
Surely you are aware that the Assyria I wrote about came to an end
in the 6th century b.c.e.The people from whom you are descended are
quite a different nation. Syria was the first country to embrace
Christianity. The contributions made by Syrian Christians are
considerable. I went to there a few years ago just to hear Aramaic
spoken and to visit some of the early Christian sites.It is such a
pity that so few scholars have delved into the early Christian church
in that part of the world. There are dozens of archaeological sites
just crying out for someone to explore them. Unfortunately few
westerners speak the language.
You indeed have every reason to be proud of your
ancestors.Unfortunately, few Christians survive there since it was
converted to Isalm in the 7th century.
Do forgive me if I have caused you pain. I have many Syrian friends
who are kind, outgoing,loving generous people. They in no way
reflect the ancient Assyrian kings. I have seen much of the damage
Tiglath Pilazer 111 inflicted on Israel and one visit to the British
Museum will convince you of their cruelty.
I THEN REPLIED TO HER REPLY AS FOLLOWS:
Dear Ms. McNamer,
Now you are adding insult to injury by calling me a Syrian. This is the typical condescension that I would expect from an academic who thinks they know everything and cannot admit that which they do not know. I am well versed in my history and no matter how much you or others try to distort, bend or change it to fit your personal interpretation, the truth will out. You are not the first revisionist to claim that the descendents of the Ancient Assyrians died with the destruction of Nineveh. There is ample proof, historically and in scripture, that we survived and that God has preserved us to fulfill His purpose just as Isaiah prophesied. I might also add that, Nahum, stated that the people of Assyria were scattered in the mountains. This is precisely where my people have lived since the fall of Nineveh. The Assyrian Empire may have come to an end in 612 B.C., but the Assyrian people did not. I don't care what you believe. You can believe whatever you like, but the Assyrian community in the Chicago Metropolitan area has suffered enough from people like you who are more concerned about their own agendas than the people who are affected by their subtle prejudice. One of the first hate crimes committed in Chicago during the aftermath of 9/11 was the firebombing of an Assyrian Church. I don't know how many parishes your four-pager was distributed in, but I'll bet you that most of the people who read it, now despise Assyrians.
You made a reference to Tiglath Pileser as though all Assyrians were demons because of his exploits. It is strange indeed that you condemn the Ancient Assyrians based on a particular period of their history and a specific figure from that period. Perhaps on that basis we could justify the wholesale blanket condemnation of every historical nation that has ever existed. My point is precisely this: your article was a blanket condemnation of all Assyrians. It wasn't a balanced picture of their very long history. You could find nothing good to say about the Assyrians, not one thing. And you totally ignore the cruelty of others, including the Hebrews (have you ever read how they slaughtered men, women and children). Are you aware that they practiced child sacrifice? I am a strong supporter of Israel and the Jewish people. I never bring up to others the negative aspects of their history, but you are hell-bent on creating a totally negative picture of my ancestors and distributing it throughout the parishes of Chicago. Your reply is dismissive, condescending and arrogant.
You make no reference to the humility of the Ninevites when they put on sackcloth and ashes after God sent Jonah to preach repentence to them. Even Jesus, made reference to the Ninevites when He said that "On the Judgment Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you (the Pharisees) because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach; and I tell you there is something here greater than Jonah." May I remind you that the Assyrians had a rich recorded history going back over a thousand years and they made extensive contributions to civilization, contributions that are still untapped to this day. The cuneiform tablets uncovered in Assyria are an invaluable resource for historians and there is nothing that compares to them throughout the entire Middle East. This is just one of countless contributions by the Assyrians.
I cannot accept your non-apology or your continued insulting manner. I will inform the Assyrian organizations and the Archdiocese of Chicago regarding this matter until this issue is redressed and resolved in a proper manner.
I AM NOW AWAITING HER REPLY TO MY REPLY AND ALSO FOR A REPLY FROM THE ARCHDIOCESE. I WOULD APPRECIATE ANY COMMENTS OR SUGGESTIONS FROM CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS FORUM.
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