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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

History (III): The Divided Monarchy and the Exile

Only as the Assyrians expanded westwards from their homeland in the area of modern Mosul in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE did they come into contact with the biblical world and give us independent evidence. The Assyrian documentation is extremely important, for two reasons. First, their royal inscriptions increased in length and historical detail as they became more powerful and took over more territory. Some such inscriptions even offer year-by-year detailed records, and they all date from the reign of the ruler whose exploits are being described. Though they are official documents of the king for his glorification, with appropriate caution they can be used as reliable sources. The rare outright defeats are not recorded as such, and in some reigns there was editorial rearrangement for clarity of presentation, but on the whole they offer reliable fact. Secondly, the Assyrian documents of the first millennium BCE provide us with a reliable chronology. Events were dated by a state officer called a līmu, who held office for one year only, and the king himself held this office in the first or second year of his reign. Lists of these officers were compiled for purely practical purposes, though some copies also add a brief note giving the most important event of each year as indicated by the līmu's name. One such note is of a solar eclipse in a given month which ties down the whole sequence with modern time-reckoning. There are rare scribal errors in these lists, but one or two years at the most is involved. Also there are Assyrian king lists giving the names of the kings and their years of reign, probably extracted from the lists of līmu officers, but providing further valuable material for reconstruction of the history of the period. On these bases it is possible to reconstruct a more or less exact sequence of events from c.900 to 612 BCE, when the Assyrian empire fell.

Israel became involved in Assyrian history from the time of King Ahab onwards, and while there are some problems in reconciling the two sources, Assyrian and Hebrew, much is made clearer by the extra-biblical material. For example, deporting populations, which the Assyrians did to the northern Hebrew kingdom, was a normal practice. The Assyrians lacked any civil administration to hold down conquered peoples, so they switched populations around to deprive them of patriotic spirit as they were forced to settle in new environments.

The Assyrian empire fell to Medes and Babylonians, but the latter succeeded the Assyrians as the great power in the ancient Near East. Unfortunately, their royal inscriptions contain very little history, and they had no system of annual līmu officers. However, since they dated events by year of the reigning king, king lists were compiled for practical reasons, but no complete lists for the late Babylonian empire have survived. Annalistic chronicles were composed with events briefly recorded, but while these are generally reliable and important, only part of the period is covered by what has survived. The very day on which Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar is recorded in one of these chronicles. Despite this lack of complete records, a fair amount of this period can be reconstructed historically, and it provides a clearer perspective on both historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament, though the period was quite short: 612–539 BCE. The Babylonian captivity began in this period.

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