From the Assyrian Conquest of Israel to the Fall of Babylon
By all accounts, Judah's century-long vassaldom to Assyria had its beginnings in the reign of Ahaz (743–727 BCE). After half a century of sporadic appearances in Syria, Assyria had renewed its sustained westward drive to the Mediterranean coast under the vigorous leadership of Tiglath-pileser III (745–727). The Assyrian monarch was clearly bent on a policy of imperial expansion and incorporation. His early wars were confined mostly to northern Syria, but by 734 Tiglath-pileser was drawn to campaign against a coalition of rebellious vassals that included Tyre, Aram-Damascus, and Israel. Ahaz had come under pressure to join the rebel cause, but as he wavered the coalition set out to force the issue, laying siege to Jerusalem with the intention of replacing him with a more compliant ruler (2 Kings 16.5, 7–9; Isa. 7.1–6 ). The neutrality urged on him by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 7.4–6; 8.1–8 ) seemed ill-advised, and in the end Ahaz decided to submit to the Assyrian yoke. Ahaz's abject message to Tiglath-pileser says it all: “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16.7 ). This move, and the king's responsibility for Judah's new status, are strongly criticized in the biblical book of Kings: it was the servile plea from Ahaz to Tiglath-pileser for protection that was Judah's undoing. But from the Assyrian point of view, Tiglath-pileser would have moved against the anti-Assyrian element even without Ahaz's submission. Intimidation and the fear of entanglement, exhibited so markedly by Ahaz, were to dominate relations between Judah and Assyria over the next hundred years. And the gifts that accompanied the plea for aid were only the first of a continuous stream of tax and tribute payments exacted by Assyria's rapacious rulers.
A side feature of Israel's new political status was the opening of the kingdom to the cultural trends and fashions of other regions of the Near East. We are told that Ahaz had an altar erected in the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem, modeled after one he had seen in Damascus during an audience with Tiglath-pileser. The traditional offerings were transferred to the new, larger altar, and the original bronze altar was set aside for the king's private use (2 Kings 16.10–16 ). This has sometimes mistakenly been seen as an act of compliance, either imposed or desirable, with Assyrian imperial norms. But Assyria did not impose its forms of worship on vassal states, nor did it interfere in their internal affairs, as long as imperial obligations were acknowledged and met. Incorporation into the provincial system of the empire was another story, to be recounted below in connection with Samaria.