The OED defines archaeology as the study of antiquities, or objects that are unearthed or brought to light. Archaeologists study these items to determine what light they shed on our understanding of the places, people and events with which they are associated.
Sometimes people say that archaeology proves the Bible is true or inspired. It is true that the Bible is infallible and it is the inspired word of God, but it is not true to say that archaeology proves that the Bible is true. In fact, it is the other way round – the Bible confirms as true those conclusions made by archaeologists that are consistent with the Bible. When their conclusions match the Bible it adds to our appreciation of the Bible’s message.
Perhaps that seems pedantic, but it is important that we have a clear concept of the hierarchy in these matters. If an archaeologist proposes a theory that does not agree with the Bible then he or she has misunderstood the facts. Subsequent research might clarify the facts. By the same token, however, we do well to allow our understanding of the Bible to be informed and enhanced by the discoveries of archaeologists. We can illustrate this by the example of ancient Assyria.
The Assyrian Empire, with its capital at Nineveh, was one of the great super-powers of the ancient world. Like all great empires it enjoyed a period of unrivalled success before it declined and fell. So great was its fall that it disappeared from sight. Ancient historians referred to Nineveh but for centuries there was no identifiable evidence that it had ever existed.
Nahum, prophesying when Assyria was at its zenith, predicted this mighty power would be utterly destroyed. Writing in about 650BC, when the ascendant Assyria was actively oppressing the Israelites, Nahum predicted that it would be overcome:
But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. What do you plot against the LORD? He will make a complete end; trouble will not rise up a second time. (Nahum 1:8-9)
Nahum’s language is very strong. Ancient historians record that flood was a factor in the overthrow of Nineveh, and there is an allusion to that fact in Nahum 2:6:
The river gates are opened; the palace melts away.
But Nahum 1:8 is figurative language; the flood is a metaphor for an overwhelming army. The result of the conflict will be the “utter end” of Nineveh. Verse 9 says that it shall never rise again. In Nahum 3 there are comments that also make it clear that this would be the utter end of Nineveh:
Your princes are like grasshoppers, your scribes like clouds of locusts settling on the fences in a day of cold– when the sun rises, they fly away; no one knows where they are. (Nahum 3:17)
The mighty power of Assyria was going to fall and would rise no more. That is the clear message of these passages.
A book by Edward Wells published in 1809 entitled An Historical Geography of the Old and New Testament (Volume 1, pages 122-123) said this about Nineveh:
As to the situation of this once most potent city, there are great diversities of opinions concerning it. And (as the learned Bochart has well observed) perhaps the truest opinion is, that the place of its situation is not to be discovered; this being the import of those words in the prophecy of Nahum, chap. i. ver. 8. With an over-running flood will he make an utter end of the place thereof; i.e. God will so destroy the Nineveh, as that not so much as the place where it once stood shall be known to after-ages. And this exposition seems confirmed by chap. iii. ver. 17. of the same prophecy: Thy crowned shall be as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day; but when the sun ariseth, they flee away, and their place is not known where they have been. … Denoting what has now come to pass; that the very place where the kings and princes of the Assyrians once lived in such splendour, should in time be not discoverable.
Mr Wells drew certain conclusions about Nineveh based on his reading of the verses in Nahum that we have just considered and informed by the scientific knowledge available to him at that time. His conclusion that the site of Nineveh would never be discovered seemed reasonable at the time. The interpretation he placed on these verses was not strained or unreasonable. It was, nonetheless, a wrong interpretation. The verses are the inspired word of God and they mean what they say, but what they say was not what Mr Wells thought they said.
About 50 years later in 1856, Austen Henry Layard wrote a book entitled Nineveh and its Remains. It is the first detailed record of the discovery and initial excavations of the site of Nineveh. Layard, and a French archaeologist named Botta, from 1843 to 1847 commenced excavating what proved to be the site of ancient Nineveh. The city was not in fact lost forever; their excavations unearthed a treasure-trove of relics that told us much about the Assyrian Empire and its people.
Knowing as we do now that the site of Nineveh is proven, we can see these verses in Nahum in a clearer light. The verses are no truer than they always were, but the archaeologists have helped us to determine their meaning more clearly. Nahum was saying that the power of Nineveh and its rulers were to be overthrown utterly and absolutely for good – never to rise again. The archaeologists have confirmed that, and much more.
It is unfashionable today to support the plundering of antiquities by European nations to adorn their museums. But in Layard’s day (fortunately!) it was common for these treasures to be packed up and shipped off to London, Paris or Berlin for display. Had this not been the case many of the treasures of Nineveh might still be in Iraq and who knows what might have happened to them. As it is, vast quantities of relics were sent to London and today are displayed in the British Museum, where visitors can see relics like the famous winged lions of Nineveh.
In the British Museum you can walk through recreations of rooms in the royal palaces of Nineveh. The carved walls, which record scenes from Assyrian history, have been re-erected in London. These walls are scorched, evidence of the fires with which the enemies of Nineveh destroyed the city when they captured it in about 610BC. This is consistent with the terms of Nahum’s prophecy about the fall of Nineveh. In chapters 2 and 3 he refers to fire being used to destroy the city:
Where is the lions’ den, the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion and lioness went, where his cubs were, with none to disturb? The lion tore enough for his cubs and strangled prey for his lionesses; he filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh. Behold, I am against you, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard. (Nahum 2:11-13)
Behold, your troops are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has devoured your bars. Draw water for the siege; strengthen your forts; go into the clay; tread the mortar; take hold of the brick mold! There will the fire devour you; the sword will cut you off. It will devour you like the locust. Multiply yourselves like the locust; multiply like the grasshopper! (Nahum 3:13-15)
These verses pick up Assyria’s identification of itself with lions which can be seen in the monuments unearthed by archaeologists. They also clearly show that the city would be destroyed by fire. The archaeologist has confirmed the literal truth of these words. Their discoveries have also shed light on other aspects of Assyrian life that help to clarify the meaning of the Biblical text. For example:
For they are like entangled thorns, like drunkards as they drink; they are consumed like stubble fully dried. (Nahum 1:10)
At the end of this verse there is another allusion to destruction by fire, but earlier the verse focuses on drunkenness. The AV says they would be “drunken as drunkards”.
The RV is even more colourful than the AV: it says “drenched as it were in their drink.” Rotherham is similar, rendering it “drunkards drenched with their drink,” and Henderson gives “thoroughly soaked with their wine”. Heavy drinking was a feature of Assyrian life. As this scene shows, it was a habit that they commemorated in their bas-relief carvings.
On its own this picture might seem relatively innocent, but in its context it confirms the implications of Nahum 1:10. In his book The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, George Rawlinson makes this telling observation:
In the banquet-scenes of the sculptures it is drinking, and not eating that is represented. Attendants dip the wine-cups into a huge bowl or vase, which stands on the ground and reaches as high as a man’s chest, and carry them full of liquor to the guests, who straightway fall to a carouse.
(Volume 1, page 579)
This verse is particularly relevant not just to the culture but also to the fall of Assyria, to which Nahum is referring. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus records that the rulers literally were drunk when the Medes and Babylonians launched their final assault and overthrew the city. This is a case where historian and archaeologist have combined to enhance our appreciation of the accuracy and precision of the Biblical record.
Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah
In Isaiah we have another example of how archaeological discoveries confirm the Bible record. Isaiah 36 to 39 is a record of the invasion of Judah and a siege of Jerusalem by Assyria. The order of the events in Isaiah matches the order recorded by the Assyrians. Verses 1 and 2 record the approach of the invader.
From Assyrian inscriptions we now know that Rabshakeh was a title rather than a name. Literally meaning “chief cup-bearer”, it was an extremely high rank – almost certainly the second highest rank in the Assyrian army. That implies Assyria took this campaign very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that on the walls of palaces in Nineveh they made a carved record of some of the events.
This records the successful campaign against Lachish before moving on to Jerusalem. Verse 2 says the king was at Lachish and sent Rabshakeh from there to Jerusalem. Hence the carvings show Sennacherib at Lachish. When Rabshakeh came to Jerusalem he made a direct appeal to the people trapped inside the city:
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”… Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?'” (Isaiah 36:13-15, 18-20)
The words used depict the conflict as a religious crusade. It was his God against their God. The vain boast of Rabshakeh about the impotence of the Gods of the nations the Assyrians had conquered is consistent with matters recorded in their carvings, as this scene illustrates.
One historian has commented on this characteristic of the Assyrians.
What seems to us simply robbery and massacre was therefore religiously justifiable. The kings enemies were the God’s enemies … Thus each Assyrian campaign was a measure of self-defence, an act of brigandry, but also a crusade. George Roux, Ancient Iraq, page 264
Isaiah is entirely consistent with what we have learnt about Assyria from its relics. There has also been a remarkable archaeological discovery that sheds light on this campaign from the Israelite side. The might and aggression of Assyria led King Hezekiah in Judah to review Jerusalem’s defences and how well it was placed to cope with a siege. 2 Chronicles 32 describes the steps taken by Hezekiah to protect Jerusalem’s water supply:
After these things and these acts of faithfulness, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them for himself. And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his mighty men to stop the water of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?”…This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works. (2 Chronicles 32:1-4, 30)
Verse 4 says many people were engaged in this work. The parallel record in 2 Kings explains what some of these people did:
The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah and all his might and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? (2 Kings 20:20)
The AV speaks of a pool and a conduit; more modern translations such as the NIV confirm that the conduit was a tunnel. This was quite a feat of engineering given the rocky nature of the area. That tunnel and pool still exists in the modern city of Jerusalem. Known as the Pool of Siloam, the tunnel brings water to the pool. The tunnel does not run straight and there are two cul de sacs or dead ends near the centre. These serve no purpose and had always intrigued students.
In 1880 some boys exploring the tunnel discovered an inscription carved into the rock surface inside the tunnel recording or commemorating its completion. The inscription was removed in 1890, being damaged in the process, and is now in a museum in Istanbul. The inscription written in the Hebrew script used at the time of Hezekiah records how two teams working from either end had reached a point where each could hear the noise made by the other team. They were then able to make a slight adjustment and connect the two ends of the tunnel.
The discovery of this Hebrew inscription confirms that Jerusalem was indeed a Jewish city at the time of Hezekiah, even though some Islamic politicians seek to cast doubt on that fact today, and it has explained the peculiarities of the tunnel’s construction. It also helps explain why Hezekiah’s water engineering works required so many men.
That Hezekiah’s preparations for Jerusalem were prudent is obvious from what Isaiah says about the subsequent Assyrian invasion. The campaign went very well for the Assyrians until they reached Jerusalem. In spite of Hezekiah’s preparations the situation seemed hopeless with this massive juggernaut camped outside the city. Isaiah records how Judah turned to God in desperation and God delivered the nation by divine intervention – he slaughtered the Assyrian army:
And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. (Isaiah 37:36-38)
Although so much of this campaign was recorded in carvings found in Nineveh this particular incident is not recorded in the Assyrian annals. If we were of a mind to doubt the authority and reliability of the Bible we might be left to wonder who is correct in a case like this. One party in a war records a particular event and the other does not. Who is to say which of them is telling the truth? The archaeologist has been able to help us in this case, however, because in Egypt they have uncovered relics that record the disaster that befell the Assyrians outside Jerusalem. Of course the Egyptians did not ascribe the miracle to Israel’s God – they claimed it was due to the piety of their Pharaoh! The point is, however, that this is an independent witness that confirms the Scriptural record even though there is a gap in the Assyrian annals.
Presumably Assyrian silence about the disaster is a case of censorship. They did not report bad war news. Isaiah refers to Sennacherib. He made it back to Nineveh, because as the inscriptions and Isaiah 36 suggest he never came up to Jerusalem, but there is no record of Rabshakeh making it home. Presumably he was one of the dead of verse 36.
Archaeologists have also allowed us to fill in the missing details from verse 38. Although the text does not say this explicitly, from the Isaiah record we might assume that the murder of Sennacherib’s by his sons was related to the failure of the campaign in Judah. That is not the case. Sennacherib actually lived and reigned for another 20 years after the disaster outside Jerusalem. Archaeologists have discovered records that tell us his sons murdered him 20 years later and their motive was jealousy. Sennacherib had come to favour his younger son Esar-haddon and his older sons were aggrieved about that. Archaeologists have discovered a document that amounts to Sennacherib’s last will and testament which confirms his bias towards the younger boy. Indeed, as Isaiah says, it was that son who succeeded him on the Assyrian throne. The rebellion of the older sons garnered no support in Nineveh and not surprisingly they fled the city and defected to Assyria’s enemies. Esar-haddon pursued them, overthrew the enemy, and dealt harshly with the conspirators.
Inscriptions from Nineveh help us to understand the blind panic that would have seized Sennacherib’s murderers and would have gripped any nation against whom Assyria came. In a brutal age Nineveh stood out for its excessive brutality. These examples illustrate the point:
Assyrian tolerance or impotence?
Given the culture illustrated by these examples and Rabshakeh’s comments in Isaiah it seems hard to understand why the Assyrians did not react to Josiah’s reformation recorded in 2 Kings 23. Assyrian records that have now been unearthed, however, suggest an explanation.
When King Josiah embarked upon a religious reformation he removed from Judah as much idolatrous worship as possible. This extended to removing a key idol from the Temple:
And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. (2 Kings 23:6)
When the AV was translated in 1611 Nineveh had not been discovered. The translators were unable to determine exactly what it was that was described in verse 6. They translated the object as “grove”, which as it turns out, was not too far wrong, but it always must have seemed unlikely, for how could a grove of trees live in a Temple? When Layard excavated Nineveh he solved the mystery of this word.
What Josiah removed from the Temple was the Assyrian god Asherah, who was worshipped in the form of a tree. You will recall how the Assyrians saw their wars as a conflict between their gods and the gods of the nations they conquered. Evidently the Assyrian overlords had required the Jews to place this Assyrian god in the Temple and it was not until Josiah’s reform that it was removed. The NIV and most modern translations use the name Asherah or something similar in place of grove.
It is curious that there is no record of a response by Assyria to this affront to Asherah. In verse 14 Josiah destroyed other Asherah idols in Judah and in verse 15 even went into what had become the Assyrian province of Samaria and destroyed Asherah idols in that area: still there is no response from Nineveh. Why? From their conduct in Isaiah we might have expected them to be incensed. Probably they were, but they were unable to respond. We now know that at this time Assyria was racked by civil war and military threats from the north, south and east. In fact this civil strife would so weaken the Empire that it would fall in the very near future. When Nahum had prophesied Nineveh was at its zenith. His bold prediction of its collapse must have seemed like wishful thinking. Yet less than 50 years later, weakened by the civil war, the Empire was utterly destroyed. Archaeologists and historians have combined to clarify the meaning of this passage in 2 Kings 23 and explain why Josiah was able to pursue his reforms.
We could go on with examples of how archaeologists have uncovered relics that help us to understand the Bible. We have barely scratched the surface, dealing with just one brief period and the interaction of Assyria with the Bible. Those interested in this theme could consider the amazing excavations carried at Jericho, the case of Tyre, discoveries in Egypt, archaeological records relating to the New Testament and so on. There is a vast amount of very interesting material on which to draw.
What this article does consider, however, is sufficient to make the point that the discoveries of archaeologists confirm that the Bible is a reliable and accurate record. It is God’s inspired word and it is infallible. It means what it says.
We commenced by noting how the Old Testament prophet Nahum prophesied that Assyria would fall and we have seen that it did fall, and that fall was exactly as it had been described in advance by Nahum. That record is only one of many prophecies in the Bible that have been fulfilled to the letter. There are other prophecies in the Bible about the days in which we live. They confirm that the Lord Jesus Christ will soon return to the earth to establish God’s kingdom on earth. This will be a period of great upheaval, but we can survive if we prepare now. Look at what Paul tells Timothy:
…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15)
The Scriptures can be shown scientifically to be reliable. They can make us wise unto salvation. If we wish to survive the crisis that is coming upon the earth soon we need to study the Scriptures and educate ourselves in the way of salvation. And salvation can only come through faith in Christ Jesus. The stones and relics of the past cry out in clear tones that God will work out his will and purpose with the nations. We have the archaeological evidence; we have access to the Bible; the rest is up to us!