Isaiah 20:1-2  In the year that the commander in chief [Tartan], who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and captured it—2 at that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.

Ashdod was a Philistine city.  They rebelled in 713 BC, and were defeated by 711 BC by the commanding officer [Tartan] of Sargon II’s army.  The only problem was this story was that there was no extra-biblical evidence of Sargon’s existence.  Scholars once believed that either Isaiah was mistaken, or that Sargon was an alternate name for another Assyrian king.  The mystery was resolved in 1842 when Sargon II’s palace was discovered.  Sargon II was a genuine historical figure.  He reigned from 722-705 BC.  The reason scholars did not find any trace of him in the Assyrian records at Ninevah is because his palace was not located in Ninevah, but in Dur Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad,Iraq).  Sargon had moved the capital there.

The palace contained reliefs of Sargon.  One relief portrays Sargon’s capture of Ashdod in 711 BC.  The inscription in room 14 reads:

Iamani[1] from Ashdod, afraid of my armed force left his wife and children and fled to the frontier of Musru which belongs to Meluhha (Ethiopia) and hid there like a thief. I installed an officer of mine as governor over his entire large country and its prosperous inhabitants, (thus) aggrandizing (again) territory belonging to Ashur, the king of the gods. The terror inspiring glamor of the Ashur, my lord, overpowered the king of Meluhha and he threw him (i.e. Iamani) in fetters on hands and feet, and sent him to me, at Assyria. I conquered and sacked the towns Shinuhtu (and) Samaria, and all Israel (Omri-Land Bit Hu-um-ri-ia). I caught, like a fish, the Greek (Ionians) who live on islands amidst the Western Sea.

Sargon and his Tartan

Another relief portrays Sargon together with his Tartan, the chief commanding officer of Sargon’s army.  This is most likely the very same Tartan spoken of by Isaiah.

In 1963 archaeologists also discovered fragments from a monument that was erected at Ashdod reading, “Sargon, king of Assyria, who conquered Samaria and the entire region of Israel, he who made captives of Ashdod.”  This monument was probably erected at the behest of Sargon himself.

Defeat of Samaria/Israel

2 Kings 17:3-6  Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria. And Hoshea became his vassal and paid him tribute. 4 But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. 5 Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (ESV)

In 1847 archaeologists discovered a prism of Sargon dated to the early 8th century BC reading:

At the beginning of my royal rule, I…the town of the Samarians I besieged, conquered (2 Lines destroyed) [for the god…] who let me achieve this my triumph… I led away as prisoners [27,290 inhabitants of it (and) equipped from among them (soldiers to man)] 50 chariots for my royal corps…. The town I rebuilt better than it was before and settled therein people from countries which I had conquered. I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute as is customary for Assyrian citizens. (Nimrud Prism IV 25-41)

Sargon’s prism describes precisely the portrait of the fall of Israel portrayed in Scripture…with one glaring exception: the identity of the Assyrian king who conquered Israel.  According to the Bible it was Shalmaneser V, but according to Sargon II’s annals Sargon himself was responsible.  So who laid siege to Samaria—Shalmaneser or Sargon?

The Assyrian king list indicates that Shalmaneser V only reigned five years, from 727-722 BC.  Of course, 722 BC was the year that the three year siege against Samaria ended and Samaria fell.  While Shalmaneser was definitely the king of Assyria when the siege began just as the Bible describes, perhaps he died and was succeeded just prior to the fall of Samaria, and Sargon finished the task as the new king.  It’s important to note that the Biblical text only names Shalmaneser in connection with the beginning of the siege.  Thereafter it only refers to the “king of Assyria,” allowing for the possibility that a different king of Assyria is in view.  Or perhaps Shalmaneser lived to see the fall of Samaria, but Sargon was his co-regent at the time.  Even if Shalmaneser died shortly after the siege ended and Sargon was not his co-regent, Sargon may have been a commanding officer in the siege prior to becoming king, and thus he felt he could rightly take credit for its military defeat.  Any one of these options resolves the historical conflict.

2 Kings 17.24  And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. (ESV)

Here the author of Kings speaks of the repopulation of Samaria after the Israelites were deported to other lands.  Archaeologists have discovered annals from the 7th year of Sargon’s reign which describe this very event.  The annals read, “I crushed the tribes of Tamud, Ibadid, Marsimanu, and Haiapa, the Arabs who live, far away, in the desert (and) who know neither overseers nor officials and who had not (yet) brought their tribute to any king. I deported their survivors and settled (them) in Samaria.”

Significance:

  1. Confirms the accuracy of Isaiah’s report concerning Ashdod, including the correct title of Sargon’s military commander.
  2. Confirms the Biblical story of the fall of Israel, including the deportation of the Israelites and the re-population of Samaria with foreign peoples.

[1]Azuri was king at time of revolt, but Sargon replaced him with his brother Ahimeti, who was almost immediately usurped by Yamani.

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