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MIDDLE EAST EMPIRES and JUDAISM, to the 400s BCE (4 of 6)

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Assyria's Demise and Judah's Independence lost again

Nebuchadnezzar II

Engraving on onyx of Nebuchadnezzar II. He conquered Jerusalem and sent Jews into exile. It is said that he created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Assyria's great empire lasted no longer than would the empires that began in the late nineteenth century – about seventy-five years. The world was too chaotic for anything like an empire that lasted a thousand years.

Assyria weakened itself economically by continuous wars to maintain its empire, including defending against invasions by an Indo-European tribal people, the Cimmerians, who came upon the Assyrians from the northeast. And the Assyrians spent themselves expanding into Egypt and in quelling the rebellions of Egyptian princes.

The Cimmerian menace increased, and more rebellions occurred within the empire. And Assyria was burdened by the expense of maintaining its army. Soldiers had to be paid. Massive numbers of horses had to be cared for and fed. Siege engines had to be moved against rebellious cities.

Egypt was able to break away from Assyrian rule. The Assyrians were then weakened by conflicts over succession, by coups and civil war. During these conflicts, cities in Canaan broke away from Assyrian control and Phoenicia began ignoring Assyrian directives. Other petty kingdoms joined the rebellion against Assyria, and in 623 the well-led Chaldean army drove north from around Sumer and expelled the Assyrians from Babylon.

With the independence of Egypt and Babylon, and a weakened Assyria, the new king of Judah, Josiah – the grandson of Manasseh – declared Judah independent. The hereditary Yahweh priesthood, which had suffered a loss of status during Assyrian domination, seized independence as an opportunity to advance its cause. With the support of Josiah and the zeal of the newly liberated, they moved against the religious influences that had gained ascent during Assyria's domination. They moved against what the Old Testament describes as abominations. The practices of rival worship were forbidden: witchcraft, sorcery, using omens, worshiping images of gods in wood or stone, orgiastic fertility festivals, human sacrifices and temple rituals involving prostitution and homosexuality. Homosexuality was labeled an abomination. The "priests of the high places" competing with Yahweh worship were slaughtered. (2 Kings 23)

The Medes and Chaldeans Expand

Between Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea, tribes of an Indo-European people called Medes had become united under a single king. A later king of the Medes, Cyaxares, reorganized his army and attempted to expand westward against the Assyrians. He allied his army with the Chaldeans, who were now in control of Babylon and Sumer. The Medes and Chaldeans attacked, and together they defeated the Assyrians, overrunning Assyria's capital, Nineveh, in 612. Nineveh's walls were broken by the siege engines that Assyria had introduced centuries before. A community that had existed for more than two thousand years was obliterated. Those who escaped from Nineveh took refuge in Haran, and they fought on, but they were defeated in 609. Such a terrible revenge was taken on the Assyrians that two hundred years later the area was still sparsely populated.

The Medes conquered as far as the Halys River in Asia Minor. The Chaldeans conquered as far as Cilicia and the Taurus Mountains. Meanwhile, with the demise of Assyria, a revitalized Egypt felt free to move into Palestine. And when King Josiah heard that an Egyptian army was coming, he went south with an army to do battle against them, believing that Yahweh would protect him. Instead, he was promptly killed.

The Chaldeans Overrun Judah

The Hebrews continued to suffer the misfortune of living on a bridge of land between imperial powers. The Chaldeans, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, saw Egypt as a rival to be reckoned with. Their army went against the Egyptians in Syria. They drove the Egyptians back to Egypt, and while doing so they conquered Judah. In 587, eleven years later, the people of Jerusalem rebelled against Chaldean rule, and the Chaldeans responded by burning Jerusalem and tearing down its walls. Only remnants of the temple that Solomon built remained, never to be rebuilt. The Chaldeans rounded up about forty thousand from Judah as captives, including political leaders and high priests, and took them to their capital, Babylon, while some people from Judah fled into Egypt or into Arabia, and some went north into Chaldean controlled Mesopotamia.

The Hebrews who fled from Judah and went to Mesopotamia were allowed to settle where they wished and to take up whatever occupation they chose. These Hebrews found in Mesopotamia a prosperity that the priests of Yahweh had claimed that Yahweh would provide them in Judah. Some of these Hebrews became farmers. Some prospered as merchants, rent collectors, contractors or bankers. Some among them adopted local names, converted to the worship of local gods and were content to remain in Mesopotamia permanently.

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.