This article was first published in the October 2002 ABR Electronic Newsletter. A more extensive version can be found here: Nahum, Nineveh and Those Nasty Assyrians.
In the summer of 2002, I had the privilege of spending three days in the British Museum in London. Wow, what an experience! I have been studying and teaching archaeology for over 25 years and never had the opportunity to see that many objects on display that have Biblical connections. The British Museum publishes an excellent book by T. C. Mitchell entitled The Bible in the British Museum. ABR devoted a whole issue of Bible and Spade. to some of the Biblical objects in this museum (Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 2000).
A friend of mine, Dr. Carl Laney, advised me to plan to spend at least three days in the museum in order to see all the objects. I wrote him when I returned home and said three days was not enough!
The main interests of my visit were the objects in the Assyrian Rooms. I had worked for five seasons at Tel Lachish and was anxious to see the famed Lachish Relief from Sennacherib's Palace at Nineveh. I was awestruck at seeing this relief for the first time. Another important object was the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. This obelisk had one panel with King Jehu of Israel bowing down before Shalmaneser.
Yet, the rooms I was most interested in were the ones containing the bas-relief of Ashurbanipal II (ruled 668-627 BC), the last great king of Assyria. Several years ago, I preached through the book of Nahum. As always, I try to illustrate my sermons with archaeological discoveries relating to the text. In my studies, I was surprised at the number of references to objects in the British Museum. When I visited the rooms with the reliefs, I was not disappointed. With the book of Nahum opened before me, most of the word pictures in the book could be illustrated, in one way or another, from the reliefs of Ashurbanipal II.
The prophet Nahum predicts the fall of Nineveh in the mid-7th century BC, several decades before the city actually fell in 612 BC. When he prophesied, the Neo-Assyria Empire was at the height of its power.
One room in the museum is devoted to the lion hunts of Ashurbanipal II. Lions were a problem around Nineveh, so the king wanted to prove his prowess by leading the lion hunts to help control the lion population in the area. The kings of Assyria also likened themselves to lions.; The first object is a relief that depicts Ashurbanipal killing a lion with a sword. Associated with this relief is an inscription that says, "I, Ashurbanipal, King of the Universe, king of Assyria, in my lordly sport. They let a fierce lion of the plain out of his cage and on foot ... I stabbed him later with my iron girdle dagger and he died." Ashurbanipal must have had a big ego calling himself the "king of the universe." However, Nahum records the LORD of Hosts, the true King of the Universe, as saying, "I am against you [Nineveh]. 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 be heard no more" (2:13). In a reversal of fortune, the hunter [Assyria] will now become the hunted [by the LORD]!
On other reliefs, the Assyrians depict themselves as beheading their enemies, skinning them alive and dismembering them. One relief even has vultures plucking the eyes out of the dead enemy soldiers. Truly, the soldiers of Nineveh lived up to their reputation as a "bloody city" (3:1).
The second object is a relief with a garden scene showing Ashurbanipal reclining on a coach sipping wine with his consort that captures the brutality of Ashurbanipal. He and his consort are celebrating the defeat of the king of Elam, whose decapitated head is hanging by a ring from a coniferous tree in the garden. The palm tree to the left of the tree with the head of the king of Elam has one locust perched on the top of the tree and a bird swooping down as if to catch the locust and eat it. One art historian suggested that the single locust depicts the last remnant of the Elamite army that Ashurbanipal had described as a "dense swarm of locusts."; In a reversal of fortune, Nahum predicted that the Assyrian army would be like locusts that "flee away, and the place where they are is not known" (3:17).
The third object is a relief that portrays the fall of an Egyptian fortress along the Nile River in 663 BC. The late Prof. Yigael Yadin cautiously identified this city as Thebes. As the Assyrians are burning the city, they are leading the captives out of the city in two groups. A group of captured Egyptians stands off to one side watching the Ethiopian captives being led out of the city. Nahum mentioned both ethnic groups that defended No Amon, also known as Thebes (3:8, 9).; As I looked at the relief and read Nahum, I was drawn to the Egyptian children on the relief. Did they know the fate that Nahum predicted would await them? He said the young children would be "dashed to pieces" by the Assyrians (3:10)!; Fortunately, the Assyrian artist did not depict this barbaric brutality on the reliefs.
The final object is a cuneiform clay tablet with the number "BM 21,901." This tablet, a Babylonian chronicle of Nabopolassar, recounts the wars of the Babylonians from 616-609 BC, and included the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC. Part of the inscription says, "[They] launched a powerful attack on the city and in the month of Abu the city was taken. They made great [slaughter] of the princes. ...They took a heavy weight of booty from the city and the temple [and turned] the city into a mound and a ruin"... The prophet Nahum predicted this attack years before it happened, as did the prophet Zephaniah (2:13-15).
Dr. David Dorsey, in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, summarized the book of Nahum this way:
Introducing the book with the awesome vision of Yahweh's avenging arrival is equally riveting. This opening vision is an effective attention-getting device, and it also introduces the issue of the cause of Nineveh's fall, to which Nahum will subsequently return. Nineveh is going to fall because Israel's God, Yahweh, has declared it to be guilty, and he has arrived in his terrifying might to carry out its punishment. Yahweh controls the destinies of all nations; he holds all nations accountable for their actions; and he will ultimately right all wrongs. The people of Israel, who had been crushed by the mighty forces of wicked Assyria, needed to know these truths (page 305).