The name ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘(the land) between the rivers’ and reflects the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Aram‐naharaim (Aram of the two rivers), the area of the upper and middle Tigris and Euphrates, the location of places associated with the Patriarchal traditions such as Haran (for example, Gen. 11: 31 ) and Nahor (Gen. 24: 10 ). The term came to refer to the whole of the Tigris–Euphrates region, including the area where the rivers join and become one before reaching the Persian Gulf. Although rain does fall in the area, fertility depended to a considerable extent on the waters of the rivers (see below). The Tigris and Euphrates have changed their courses through the Mesopotamian plains over the years, but the pattern of ancient settlement can be seen in the presence of numerous mounds containing buried cities which were once located near a river or on a canal. The Tigris and Euphrates have their origins in the high mountain regions of Armenia (Urartu). Two important tributaries of the upper Euphrates were the Balikh and the Habor. Two major tributaries of the upper Tigris were the Upper (or Great) Zab and the Lower (or Little) Zab. Further south were the Adhaim and the Diyala. The Tigris and Euphrates share with the Nile the feature of an annual inundation which would begin in the spring and, as it receded, leave behind rich deposits of fertile soil. So, as with Egypt, the origins of ordered society are to be connected with the need to cooperate in the preparation and upkeep of irrigation channels, dams, canals, etc. Sometimes these inundations would occur with such destructive force that the surrounding countryside would be laid waste. This phenomenon doubtless lies behind the stories of a great deluge which had their origin in this area. Evidence of the effects of flooding have been found in a number of excavations, including Kish, Ur, and Shuruppak, the last of which is recorded as the home of the hero of the Mesopotamian flood traditions. A Sumerian flood tablet found at Nippur calls the hero Ziusudra. Later stories call him Atrahasis and, in the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim. These graphic flood descriptions may well have been based on personal experience.
Water control was a continuing necessity in the economy of the region. The area from the vicinity of ancient Eshnunna and modern Baghdad as far south as ancient Ur and Eridu, a distance of over 200 miles (320 km), could be irrigated. Further north, one of the most impressive of public water works was the aqueduct and associated canal built to supply the city of Nineveh with water by Sennacherib, king of Assyria—just one of a number of hydraulic works constructed at his instigation.
The regions of Sumer and Akkad lay in the alluvial plain of Mesopotamia, Sumer to the south and Akkad to the north. Excavations suggest that the early cities in Akkad were relatively small and the region rather sparsely settled, in contrast with Sumer which was politically and culturally prominent earlier than Akkad. The more extensive cultivation of Akkad did not begin until after 2000 BCE, with the construction of extensive irrigation channels. The terms Sumer and Akkad continued to be used long after the periods of Sumerian and Akkadian domination. So, for example, Cyrus the Persian called himself ‘king of Sumer and Akkad’. Subsequently, Babylonia in the southern plains covered largely the area of the former Sumer and Akkad, and Assyria lay to the north in a more mountainous region. Further north still, from the 16th to 14th centuries, was the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni.
Biblical allusions to Mesopotamia are numerous, and include some of the first stories encountered in the Book of Genesis. The Tigris and Euphrates are said to have been two of the four branches of the river which flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2: 14 ). The biblical flood traditions (Gen. 6–9 ) are clearly related to the Mesopotamian flood stories. (A later version of the Mesopotamian story, reported by Berossos, has the Ark coming to rest in Armenia which is identical with the mountains of Ararat (Urartu) of the biblical account.) The ‘land of Shinar’ (Gen. 11: 1 ) is probably the region of Sumer and Akkad, and Babel (Gen. 11: 9 ) is Babylon, and the story may owe its origins to reminiscences of the construction of ziggurats or temple‐towers by the Sumerians. Abraham and his family are said to have travelled from Ur in southern Mesopotamia to Haran in the north (Gen. 11: 31 ). There is a reference in Genesis 14: 1 to a King Amraphel of Shinar (see the chapter on ‘The Patriarchs in Canaan’ ). Isaac's wife, Rebekah, is said to have come from Aram‐naharaim, more specifically Paddan‐aram (Gen. 24: 10, 25: 20 ), and it was there that Jacob went to find a wife (Gen. 28: 6 ).
The biblical narrative suggests that the first of the judges, Othniel, delivered the Israelites from a certain King Cushan‐rishathaim of Aram‐naharaim (Judg. 3: 7–12 ). It has been suggested that the element ‘Aram’ here is a corruption of the name ‘Edom’, and that naharaim is a later gloss. Another possibility is suggested by the fact that rishathaim means ‘of double wickedness’. Perhaps this was a story to illustrate the activity of the ‘judges’, presenting an archetypal evil king said to come from the region of the enemies par excellence of the people of Israel and Judah, the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
Information about contacts between the Assyrian kings and the lands of the east Mediterranean coast, and with the kings of Israel and Judah in particular, often comes from Assyrian records and includes incidents not mentioned in the Bible. (This is not surprising since the purpose of the biblical writers was not to provide complete annals of the Assyrian contacts with Israel and Judah.) Noteworthy examples include the fact that King Ahab of Israel was part of a coalition which fought against Shalmaneser III in the battle of Qarqar, on the River Orontes, in 853, and that King Jehu submitted to Shalmaneser in c.841. The latter episode is recorded on the ‘Black Obelisk’, which depicts Jehu kneeling before Shalmaneser, while behind him stand Israelites bearing tribute. Sometimes the biblical writer may refer to an episode without providing the details which the modern reader might expect. In 2 Kings 13: 5 , what matters to the writer is to claim that God provided a ‘saviour’, giving the credit to God rather than to the person who may lie behind the epithet, Adad‐nirari III. His records say that he campaigned against Damascus and Philistia, and that various territories, including the ‘land of Omri’ (that is, Israel), recognized his overlord‐ship.
The biblical account has a number of references to contacts with Assyria during the latter half of the 8th century BCE, the period which included the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria. 2 Kings 15: 19–20 records that King Menahem had to submit to the authority of, and pay tribute to, King Pul of Assyria. This was the great Tiglath‐pileser III, whose own records report how Menahem fled but how he returned him to the throne and imposed tribute on him. The narrative also tells how Ahaz of Judah purchased the help of Tiglath‐pileser against King Rezin of Damascus and King Pekah of Israel, prompting an Assyrian attack on Damascus (2 Kgs. 16 ). This paved the way for a subsequent invasion of Israel, culminating in the capture of Samaria, which the biblical account credits to King Shalmaneser V (2 Kgs. 17: 1–6 ). This may accord with a reference in the Babylonian Chronicle, but the reading of the relevant place name as ‘Samaria’ has been disputed. Shalmaneser's successor, Sargon II, who campaigned in the Mediterranean coastlands, certainly claimed the credit for this feat. A later campaign of Sargon in which Ashdod was captured is mentioned in Isaiah 20.
The activity of Sargon's successor, Sennacherib, is also mentioned in the biblical account. He is said to have captured all the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kgs. 18: 13 ); his own annals record the taking of 46 cities and the besieging of Jerusalem. Sennacherib's siege of Lachish, where Hezekiah of Judah is said to have visited him (2 Kgs. 18: 14 ), is commemorated in a set of reliefs which decorated his palace at Nineveh (see on ‘Lachish’). The biblical account records a miraculous delivery of Jerusalem when ‘the angel of the LORD set out and struck down one hundred and eighty‐five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians’ (2 Kgs. 19: 35 ). The fact that this is not mentioned in Sennacherib's own account has led to the suggestion that it belonged to a later campaign or else that the account was legendary or fictional. But Sennacherib's account does not say that he actually captured Jerusalem, and states that the tribute which Hezekiah paid was sent later to Nineveh. It is therefore possible that he was forced to withdraw from Jerusalem, perhaps because of an outbreak of plague, something which it is perhaps not surprising that he would not want to record in his annals, and that Hezekiah paid tribute to forestall another invasion. The biblical writer may have placed the paying of tribute before the siege of Jerusalem in order to present a more theologically significant account, highlighting God's deliverance of the city.
Other references to contacts with Assyria in the biblical narrative are in 2 Chronicles 33: 10–13 which suggest that Manasseh was taken captive to Babylon by the ‘commander of the army of the king of Assyria’; the king is not named, but the reference may be to Esarhaddon. King Ashurbanipal is mentioned as ‘Osnappar’ in Ezra 4: 10 .
Just as Assyria was responsible for the downfall of Israel, so in turn Babylon was to be Judah's nemesis. In the days of Sennacherib of Assyria, King Merodach‐baladan of Babylon is recorded as having made approaches to Hezekiah of Judah (2 Kgs. 20: 12–19; Isa. 39 ). The account of Josiah's ill‐fated attempt to stop Pharaoh Neco's advance to bolster the forces of the king of Assyria (2 Kgs. 23: 28–30 ) does not mention that the context was the growing threat of Babylon. But Nebuchadrezzar's advance south along the east Mediterranean coastlands, mentioned in his own chronicles, is reflected in the biblical accounts (2 Kgs. 24: 1; see also Jer. 35: 11 ). Jehoiakim's revolt is perhaps to be associated with an unsuccessful attack on Egypt by the Babylonians. Nebuchadrezzar besieged Jerusalem, and took the young king Jehoiachin, the queen mother, and other leading citizens into exile, along with treasures from the Temple, and placed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah (2 Kgs. 24: 10–17 ). When Judah subsequently revolted, probably inspired by Egypt, Jerusalem was again besieged and captured, and the Temple destroyed. Zedekiah was taken in chains to Babylon, with another group of exiles and yet more plunder from the Temple (2 Kgs. 24: 20b–25: 21; Jer. 52: 3b–27 ). Gedaliah was placed in charge in what remained of Judah (2 Kgs. 25: 22–6 ). Jeremiah 52: 30 mentions a third deportation five years later. Nebuchadrezzar's son, Amel‐marduk (called Evil‐merodach in the biblical account) elevated Jehoiachin above other captive kings (2 Kgs. 25: 27–30; Jer. 52: 31–4 ). The territory which had belonged to Judah remained under Babylonian control until the Persians became the dominant power in the Near East.
The exile in Babylon was the context of the activity of the prophet Ezekiel, and part of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40–55 ) is widely held to have originated in Babylon and been primarily addressed to the Jewish exiles there.
Mention has already been made of the likelihood that Mesopotamian traditions influenced certain biblical stories such as the Flood and the Tower of Babel. This is also true of other accounts, including the first creation story in Genesis 1: 1–2: 4a , which has certain affinities with (and certain fundamental differences from) the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. In considering how similarities between some Hebrew and Babylonian ideas might have arisen, a number of possibilities might be suggested. One would be that they reflect common ancestry. The biblical writers are at pains to claim that their ancestors came from Mesopotamia and, if there is truth in that claim, then it might be surprising if they did not have some ideas in common, even though they may have developed differently. But it is also possible that the Jews in exile in Babylon came into contact with Babylonian traditions and were tempted by Babylonian religion, given the apparent failure of their own God to protect them. It may have been important for the biblical writers to stress that it was their God who created the universe, sent the flood, and confounded Babel.