The Annals of Sargon II (Isaiah 10)

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Illustration: Human-headed sphinx (in le Louvre) from Sargon II’s palace

The siege and destruction of Samaria are attributed in the Bible to Shalmaneser V (ruled 726-722 B.C., 2 Kings 17:1-6). Since the Assyrian king died in the same year as Samaria’s capitulation, however, the deportation of the city’s inhabitants and its resettlement with foreigners were most likely carried out by Shalmaneser’s successor, Sargon II (ruled 722-705 B.C.).

Prior to 1847, “Sargon king of Assyria” was known only from Isaiah 20:1. Since his name did not appear in classical sources, scholars concluded that Sargon of the Bible was not a bona fide king but rather an alias for some other Assyrian ruler. Iroically, however, Sargon was the first name of an Assyrian king to be deciphered from Assyrian inscriptions when, in 1847, his vast palace of more than 200 rooms and 30 courtyards was excavated at Khorsabad in northern Iraq. The excavations also revealed reliefs and inscriptions on the walls comprising the annals of this Assyrian king. Now, thanks to the discoveries of archaeology, we now know much about Sargon and the other kings of the Assyrian empire.

Sargon II ruled from 721 to 705 B.C. He was probably a usurper without rightful claim to the throne; thus he dubbed himself “Sargon”, which literally means “The king is legitimate”, a name recalling Sargon I, a great Assyrian king of antiquity. His usurpation of the throne led to such intense internal discord that outlaying regions took the opportunity to reassert their independence from their overlords. The king of Hamath led a rebellion in the west that included the cities of Arpad, Damascus and Samaria. Sargon II qickly responded, conquering the insurgents at the Battle of Qarqar in 720 B.C. He then proceeded south to Egypt, marching through the territories of Israel and Judah along the way.

Sargon II campaigned in the region of Canaan three times (in 720, 716 and 712/711 B.C.), in the process turning Israel into an Assyrian province and Judah into a vassal state. In 720 B.C., following the defeat of Samaria by Shalmaneser V, Sargon boasted about having deported 27,280 Israelites to Assyria. In 712/711 B.C. he turned his attention to the area of Philistia. According to 20:1 he sent his commander-in-chief to capture the city of Ashdod. Assyrian records verify that Sargon remained in his capital at Khirsabad: He stayed “in the land” ostensibly to supervise the construction of his palace. Not only is the Ashdod campaign documented in the Assyrian annals, but fragments of an Assyrian victory inscription were discovered in excavations at Ashdod itself. Moreover, a mass grave from the time of the Assyrian conquest yielded the remains of approximately 3,000 individuals, many of them decapitated.

The Bible, as indicated earlier, mentions Sargon II by name only in 20:1 a passage in which his capture of Ashdod is highlighted. It seems, however, that Isaiah also had Sargon’s campaigns in mind when he composed Isaiah 10. In describing the pride of the Assyrian monarch, the prophet wrote about previous Assyrian victories over Carchemish, Hamath, Arpad, Samaria and Damascus (10:9). In prophesying God’s future punishment of Assyria, Isaiah cited the recent abuses of Assyrian power to emphesize the Lord’s justice.


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