Tiglath Pileser III was the first Assyrian king named in the Bible. He is called Pul which was his name before he seized the throne and adopted a throne name, Tiglath Pileser III. The north tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were conquered by Tiglath Pileser III and made into Assyrian provinces. The prophet Isaiah refers to the darkness and gloom that overcame these northern provinces at this time and looks forward to the birth of a King who will bring honor to these humbled regions. In Isaiah 9:1, the birth of a child is foretold who will be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!” See below for more in depth historical background to Isaiah’s prophecies recorded in Isaiah 7 – 9:8.
Most of the reliefs from Tiglath Pileser III’s palace at Nimrud are damaged. However, several interesting reliefs were recovered that show the Assyrian king attacking Syrian cities.
The Capture of Astartu
Lower Panel: Assyrian king, Tiglath Pileser III, rides his chariot. Upper Panel: the capture of the Syrian city of Astartu.(744-727 BC) Relief was located in the South-west palace in Nimrud, but was reused by King Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). Relief best viewed in full screen mode.
Soldiers Carry Away Captured Gods
Central Palace in Nimrud (circa 728 BC) (British Museum WA118931 + 118934) Relief best viewed in full screen mode.
Assyrian soldiers are carrying images of the gods on makeshift poles. These statues would have been robbed from the temples of Syrian cities. The gods were carried off to Assyria where they were placed in Assyrian temples. The propaganda value of this is that the gods of the enemy city were angry with their people and therefore abandoned their temple to go to Assyria where they were better treated. The idols were not forgotten. Letters have been found from conquered cities pleading with the Assyrian king to return a cult image to the city. In some cases, the Assyrian king did so. The inverse also happened where a king could boast that he had recovered the statue of a god of goddess that had been carried away by the enemy many centuries previously.
Tiglath Pileser III Stands over Captured Enemy
Nimrud, Central Palace, re-used in South-West Palace. (British Museum WA 118933) Relief best viewed in full screen mode.
Historical Background for the Syrio-Ephraimitic Crisis
The ascension of Tiglath Pileser III marked a new period of Assyrian expansion. In the early days of the reign of King Ahaz, Judah was threatened by an alliance between Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria. It is generally assumed that Rezin and Pekah’s primary goal in attacking Judah was to bring Judah into an anti-Assyria coalition by placing Ben-Tobeel on the throne in Jerusalem (Isa 7:6). Based on a reference to “the Land of Tabel” in the Assyrian letter (ND 27773) it is possible that Ben-Tobeel was a local governor in the Trans-Jordan. (B. Oded, Historical Background) The attempt by Ben-Tobeel to claim the throne in Judah with the support of Aram is comparable to the already successful palace coup made by Pekah – a ruler who also seems to have originated from the Trans-Jordan and received support from Aram.
Although the Bible does not say anything about an anti-Assyrian alliance, the existence of such an alliance is implied by Assyrian summary inscriptions that record a rebellion against Assyria that included Hiram of Tyre, Pekah of Israel, Rezin of Damascus, Hanunu of Gaza, Mitinti of Ashkelon and Samsi queen of the Arabs. (Raging Torrent No. 12, 13, and 14). Ahaz was one of the few rulers in the region who did not join the rebellion. If Ahaz was the odd man out, then it is understandable why he would be singled out for attack. This explains why Edom and Gaza also seem to have joined the attack on king Ahaz. (2 Chronicles 28)
This is the background for Isaiah’s prophecies recounted in Isaiah 7:1-9:7. Isaiah warns Ahaz not to fear Israel and Aram nor to enter into an alliance with Assyria. Rather, Ahaz must trust in God! Ignoring Isaiah’s counsel, Ahaz sent tribute to Tiglath Pileser III (TP III) to gain support from Assyria against Israel and Aram (2 Kings 16:7). This payment is likely the same one recorded in an Assyrian document. (RT No. 11) This inscription also records payments made by Philistia and the Transjordan. Noticeably absent from this tribute list are the kings of Syria and Israel, probably because they remained in rebellion against Assyria.
It is not clear when Pekah and Rezin formed an alliance against Judah but it likely occurred before the 734-732 campaign of TP III to Palestine. It is generally agreed that the motivation of Pekah and Rezin for attacking Judah was to bring Judah into an alliance against an ever more menacing Assyria. On the other hand, B. Oded offers a much different reconstruction of the events surround the Syro-Ephraimitic Crisis by arguing that the catalyst for the attack of Pekah and Rezin on Judah was not the looming threat of Assyria but rather stemmed from a long standing conflict of interest in the Trans-Jordan. (B. Oded, Historical Background) Oded argues that it is a mistake to assume that Judah was a weak or secondary power during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham and Ahaz. Judah and Israel enjoyed peaceful relations during the reign of Uzziah that allowed them to share spheres of influence in the Transjordan. After the death of Jeroboam II and the dissolution of the northern kingdom, Uzziah assumed complete control of the Transjordan and exerted influence as far north as Damascus. This explains why Uzziah’s name appears in an Assyrian annal text that records a battle between Assyria and an anti-Assyrian coalition led by ‘Azriyau’. If Oded is correct in identifying the ‘Azriyau’ of the inscription with Uzziah (also called Azariah, cf. 2 Kings 15:17 ) then it is likely that Uzziah’s successors, Jotham and Ahaz, continued to exert control over parts of the Trans-Jordan – even as Aram began to re-exert influence in the region.
However, the identity of ‘Azriyau’ with Uzziah in the region of Hamath is problematic. Oded’s reconstruction lost an important piece of supporting evidence when a fragment (6205) that was once thought to belong to the annal text and mentions a king from ‘the land of Yaudi, has since been connected with another annal fragment dating to the reign of Sargon or Sennacharib. (Cogan and Tadmor, 2 Kings – ABC) Although it can no longer be said with certainty that the Azriyau mentioned in the annals of Tiglath Pileser III is the Uzziah of the Bible, it nevertheless remains a possibility. Azriyau does look like a Yahwistic name, and there was Judean king with that name who might well have exercised control of the regions that had once been ruled by Jeroboam II. Thus the alliance of Assyrian alliance, but against Jotham, the father of Ahaz, in order to regain hegemony in the Trans-Jordan. This interpretation is supported by 2 Kings 15:37:
Now the rest of the acts of Jotham and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? In those days the LORD began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah. (2Ki 15:36-37 ESV)
According to the Assyrian annals, the campaign of TP III penetrated as far south as the ‘brook of Egypt’. It is not known whether TP III moved this far south in response to a looming threat from Egypt or whether his primary goal was to secure Philistine seaports and overland trade routes. If Ahaz was the king of a regional center of power, as Oded suggests, then it is not impossible that he was able to influence the actions of TP III in the western Levant. The payment of Ahaz was more than tribute – it was a bribe. This explains why Isaiah calls the army of Tiglath Pileser III a ‘razor that is hired beyond the River.’ (Isa 7:20) In either case, both Biblical and extra-Biblical sources agree that Ahaz was one of the few kings in the region who did not take part in a rebellion, that Ahaz sent money to TP III, and that at some point in the years 733/732, TP III turned his attention towards Damascus and flattened it.
According to the Eponym Chronicle, the siege of Damascus lasted two years. After it fell, TP III turned Syria into a province under the control of an Assyrian governor. In response to the defeat of Damascus, the inhabitants of Samaria removed Pekah from the throne and made Hoshea king in his stead. Two very broken fragments list the towns in the Upper and Lower Galilee conquered by TP III during his campaign of 734-732 and the number of captives taken from each. The names of the towns that were destroyed are difficult to decipher but it remains striking testimony to the devastation wrought by TP III on the Galilee in 733-732. The text further states that TP III “utterly destroyed” the “[… 16 districts of the land of Bit- [Humria].” (RT no. 17) The regions of Israel directly impacted by TP III’s invasion are also listed in the book of Kings. (2 Kings 15:29)
It is within the context of the destruction of these northern regions, the tribal allotments of Zebulun and Naphtali, that the words of Isaiah are best understood.
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. (Isa 9:1-2 ESV)
Cogan, M. (2008). The Raging Torrent. Jerusalem, Carta.
Cogan, M. and H. Tadmor (1988). II Kings : a new translation. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday.
Cohen, C. (1979). Neo-Assyrian Elements in the First Speech of the Biblical Rab-Shaqe, Tel Aviv University
Oded, B. (1972). “The Historical Background of the Syro-Ephraimite War Reconsidered.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34: 153-165.