Located on the west bank of the Tigris (Qal῾at Sherqat), forty miles south of the Upper Zab tributary, Assyria (Ashur) is the designation of a land and then an empire named after the old capital city of Ashur. The Assyrian heartland consists of a roughly triangular stretch of land around the upper Tigris embracing Ashur and the subsequent capital cities Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharrukin (Khorsabad), and Nineveh (Kuyunjik). At the height of its power the Assyrian empire embraced the entire Fertile Crescent, extending from southern Armenia in the north, the Arabian Desert in the south, Egypt in the southwest, and the Persian Gulf in the east. Assyrian political power ended with the fall of Nineveh in 612 bce, although certain elements of Assyrian culture and administrative practices lived on in various parts of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires that succeeded it.
Assyria became a factor in Israelite and Judean history in the ninth century BCE, perhaps under Shalmaneser III and certainly under Tiglath-pileser III, and remained a decisive force, bringing about the fall of Ephraim and its capital Samaria in 722 bce and threatening Jerusalem and Judah until its own fall. Assyria, city and empire, and the kings Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal are mentioned in the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures as well as in the prophecies of Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Obadiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, and the Book of Psalms.
As early as the seventh century BCE the Egyptians and Greeks used Assyria, and a shortened form, Syria, to designate all lands speaking Aramaic, which had become the official language of the Assyrian empire and its successors. This usage is reflected in the rabbinic designation of the Aramaic and late Hebrew script as Assyrian (Ashurit). Later on, Syria became the Greek designation of the Levant, while Assyria was used for Mesopotamia. Ketubbot 10b in the Babylonian Talmud identifies Assyria with Seleucia. The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to Assyria in its Hebrew form, Ashur, and even the attestations in Aramaic texts prefer this form to the Aramaic Attur. Assyria occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls with two distinct meanings, reflecting the biblical meaning on the one hand and the later connotation on the other.
Assyria appears in the Qumran biblical scrolls as it does in the other versions. Noncanonical Psalms B (4Q381 33.8; Prayer of Manasseh, reflecting 2 Chr. 33.10–19), Pesher Isaiahc (4Q163 7.2, a citation of Is. 10.12–13; 4Q163 40.1), and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGn xvii.8; cf. Jub. 9.1) also refer to the historical Assyria as known from the Hebrew scriptures. In these instances Ashur is a descendant of Shem. Describing the division of the earth among Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGn xvii.8) places the portion of Shem “to the west, to Assyria, until it reached the Tigris” (cf. Gn. 10.22 and Jub. 8.11–9.15). Certain nonbiblical passages also refer to Assyria as a descendant of Shem and in its historical borders. Thus, the War Scroll (1QM ii.12) reads “During the sixth and seventh years they shall wage war against all the sons of Ashur, and Persia, and the Eastern peoples up to the Great Desert.”
A special meaning of Ashur, attested exclusively in the War Scroll, occurs in the expression Kittiyyei Ashur, “the Kittim of Ashur” (1QM i.2, i.6, xviii.2, xix.10). This term is an expanded and specialized form of the frequently attested Kittim, who were an enemy descended from Japheth destined to come from the Mediterranean. The Kittim in the Dead Sea Scrolls, once thought to be the Greeks, are now often identified with Rome, and the Kittim of Assyria are a subdivision of this group. Several biblical texts that speak of the historical Assyria are used as a basis for an apocalyptic predication concerning the Kittim (1QM xi.11, “From of old you foretold the moment of the power of your hand against the Kittim: Assyria will fall by the hand of no one, and the sword of nobody will devour it,” based on Is. 31.8). A precedent for such identifications can be found in biblical texts such as Ezekiel 38.17, where the prophecy about Gog and Magog is based on Isaiah 14.24–27, a passage relating to Assyria. The War Scroll (1QM xix.10) reads: “And in the morning at the battlefield will arrive the heroes of the Kittim and the hordes of Assyria and the army of all the nations who gather with them, [and, lo, they are all] dead corpses [because] they fell there by the sword of God”; the expressions “in the morning” and “dead corpses” seem to reflect 2 Kings 19.35 and Isaiah 37.36, while the “heroes of the Kittim” is related to 2 Chronicles 32.21, which expands and refers to “every hero of valor, officer, and prince in the Assyrian camp.” These passages are meant to apply the biblical texts concerning the fall of Sennacherib in the past to the expected demise of the Kittim in the future.
It has been suggested that the use of Ashur as a modifier of Kittim implies that the nature of the Kittian rule will resemble Assyrian domination (cf. Gn. Rab. 16.4: “Rav Huna in the name of Rav Aḥa said: all the empires are named after Nineveh because they adorn themselves at Israel's expense”). It is more likely, however, that the combination of Ashur and Kittim indicates that the Kittim, who occupy the islands of the sea and the Mediterranean coast, have a center to the north of Israel or would invade the land of Israel from the north. In fact, the War Scroll (1QM i.1-2) groups the Kittim of Ashur along with Israel's traditional biblical neighbors, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Philistia, and the “offenders against the covenant.” In this passage, which may have been influenced by Psalm 83.7–9, the Assyrian Kittim are a northern enemy closing a ring around Israel. They are comparable, therefore, to the “nation from the north” mentioned in the prophecies of Jeremiah. Morever, the use of Assyria to designate the land north of Israel is certainly related to the later use of Assyria, or the shortened form, Syria, to designate the lands speaking Aramaic to the west of the Euphrates.
The locution Kittiyei Ashur and the use of the two words in parallelism may be related to the proximity between the two words found in Balaam's last blessing, a text of apocalyptic nature (Nm. 24.23–24). The lines “Ships come from the quarter of Kittim; they subject Ashur, subject Eber” may have been understood by the Qumran community as “Ships will come from Kittim; Assyria will afflict—they [Assyria] will afflict the descendants of Eber.” Note also Isaiah 23.12–13: “Up, cross over to Kittim—even there you shall have no rest. Behold the land of Chaldea—this is the people that has ceased to be. Assyria which founded it for ships … has turned it into a ruin.” Ezekiel 27.6 reads: “From oak trees of Bashan they made your oars; of bat Ashurim from the isles of Kittim … they made your decks”; here the enigmatic bat Ashurim should be read bitashurim, “with boxwood,” but the reading preserved in the Masoretic Text already may have been known to the scribes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
[See also Kittim.]
- Frye, Richard N. “Assyria and Syria: Synonyms.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51 (1992), 281–285.
- Grintz, Yehoshua. “The Men of the Yaḥad, Essenes, Beth-(Es)sene” (in Hebrew). Sinai 32 (1953), 11–43. See especially page 26, note 34.
- Nitzan, Bilhah. Pesher Habakkuk: A Scroll from the Wilderness of Judaea (1QpHab) (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1986. See pages 71–73.
- Steiner, Richard C. “Why the Aramaic Script Was Called ‘Assyrian’ in Hebrew, Greek and Demotic.” Orientalia 62 (1993), 80–82.
- Yadin, Yigael. The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Translated by Batya Rabin and Chaim Rabin. Oxford, 1962. See pages 21–26.
- Zeitlin, Solomon. “The Alleged Antiquity of the Scrolls.” Jewish Quarterly Review 40 (1949–1950), 57–78.
Victor Avigdor Hurowitz