The Image of Assyria in Isaiah 2:5-22: The Campaign Motif Reversed

By Aster, Shawn Zelig | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Image of Assyria in Isaiah 2:5-22: The Campaign Motif Reversed


Aster, Shawn Zelig, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


In 1983, Peter Machinist published an essay entitled "Assyria and its Image in the First Isaiah." (1) In it, he demonstrated that many passages in First Isaiah describe Assyria in language closely parallel to that of the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions. These parallels are highly specific, and point strongly to the probability that the author of the First Isaiah was familiar with both the ideas found in Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions and the stereotypical phrases and characteristic language found in them.

Based on these parallels, Machinist concluded that "Isaiah's knowledge of Assyria was gained not merely from actual experience of the Assyrians in Palestine, but from official Assyrian literature, especially of the court." (2) Judeans would have been exposed to such literature, probably in its oral form, in one of three settings. The first, as suggested by Machinist, was the presence of Judeans in the Assyrian capitals. Judean embassies were sent to the Neo-Assyrian capitals to deliver tribute at least as early as 734 B.C.E. (3) They continued to make these journeys until at least 712 B.C.E. (4) When visiting the Assyrian capitals, the tribute-bearers were conducted through the palaces, in order to subject them to what art historians have called the "program" of Assyrian palaces. (5) The program was a series of artistic images, often accompanied by cuneiform captions, presented in a logical and predetermined sequence, designed to impress Assyrian imperial ideology upon foreign emissaries. The emissaries would thus be encouraged to convince the potentates they represented to maintain their allegiance to the empire. Assyrian escorts may have explained the texts and pictures to the visitors, ensuring the intended impact. (6) This type of exposure would apprise visitors of the central concepts in Assyrian imperial ideology, but it is doubtful whether it would have apprised them of specific motifs.

A second possibility is through the establishment of rock reliefs and royal stelae by the Neo-Assyrians in the lands adjacent to and surrounding Judah, several of which were cut or erected during the campaigns of Sargon II. (7) The Assyrian practice of establishing such stelae to commemorate specific victories is discussed by Morandi, who categorizes the stelae according to the occasion of their establishment. (8) The function of such stelae was to ground more firmly Assyrian sovereignty in newly conquered areas by inculcating the local population with Assyrian imperial ideology. The text they contained would have been explained to the local political leaders by Assyrian military or administrative personnel at the time of its inscription, probably in Aramaic. This exposure to the text of the stele would have created an awareness of the motifs and diction typical of Assyrian royal inscriptions. This awareness may have persisted in the collective memory of the local population, but without it being reinforced by Assyrian personnel, it would eventually have waned.

A third possibility, evidence for which has emerged since Machinist's article, is the extensive Assyrian administrative presence in territories bordering on Judah from 720 B.C.E. on. (9) Assyrian administrators would have ensured an ongoing exposure of Judeans to Assyrian imperial ideology and the language in which it was expressed. Assyrian administrative practice in the southern Levant involved the establishment of secondary administrative centers at locations astride major roads, outside of the provincial capitals. (10) Two of these administrative centers (Tel Hadid and Gezer) were within a day's journey of Jerusalem. (11) It seems unlikely that the Assyrian administrators in these locales would have eschewed contact with the Judean political leaders. The language in which this ideology was expressed is the language known to us from Assyrian royal inscriptions. (12) This third possibility most easily accounts for the familiarity of the author of Isaiah with the language familiar to us from Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions. …

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