Exiled

Archaeological discoveries in Assyria are teaching us a lot about the exile there of the Lost Tribes of Israel. They give us the basis for example for a more poignant interpretation of the book of Jonah. In fact that fascinating book turns out to be about the exile.

The Anguish of Jonah

During the centuries of its long existence the Assyrian Empire had its ups and downs. We now know that the first half of the 8th century B.C.E. was one of the downs; threatened from without, divided within, the Empire was in danger of collapse.(1) The visit of the prophet Jonah to Nineveh, later the capital of Assyria, came at just the right time.(2) His message of repentance (Jonah 3:4) was heard and the city was saved. Then in the second half of the 8th century the resurgent Empire turned around and conquered Israel, deporting most of its citizens. Was that fair or just? When God sent an Israelite prophet to save the Assyrians from destruction, was it planned that they would then turn against His nation? Most Biblical commentators, unaware of the chronology, have totally ignored the question. They have simply seen in the story of Jonah an expression of God’s concern for gentiles.

Certainly God has repeatedly given evidence of such concern, e.g., in the promise to Abraham that all the families of the Earth would be blessed through him. (Gen. 12:3) But the time had not yet come for that blessing to the gentiles to be fulfilled. And Jonah’s mission appears far too unique to be reduced into that framework. After all, gentile empires have risen and fallen many times in history. Yet this is the only occasion on which an Israelite prophet was ever sent to save one, or to save any other gentile institution for that matter. Indeed the Assyrian Empire itself collapsed in the following century without any sign of divine concern that we know of; no Israelite prophet was sent to save it then.

The question naturally arises whether there could have been some special reason for preserving that particular Empire at that particular time. Might the Lord have been considering some practical application of Assyrian power? Could the divine intervention have been aimed mainly at preserving Assyria for its future role vis-à-vis Israel? Even in its weakness, Assyria was the strongest power of its day—certainly strong enough to push Israel around. Already it extended to Lebanon just north of Israel. This may be the import of the explanation given to Jonah in the last line of this very short book, when God refers to

...Nineveh that great city wherein are more than 120,000 persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand and also much cattle. (Jonah 4:11)

What does this statement mean? It makes little sense to pick out Nineveh for salvation just because there were a lot of ignorant people living there. Such people were plentiful almost every- where—the Babylonians for instance were just as unenlightened and more numerous. And this interpretation completely breaks down when it is applied to the cattle. Was Jonah sent to save the beasts because of their large number?!?

The explanation is much easier to understand if we recognize that manpower was a yardstick of military strength in that era, and livestock a measure of wealth. God may have valued Assyria for the strength and resources which could be used to move Israelites around. For this kind of rough work its ignorance may also have been an asset: an ignorant giant.

And why was Jonah so upset about his mission? Why did he desperately try to sail away in the opposite direction? To understand the book in depth you really have to focus on the emotion. If Jonah had come only to be a blessing to the gentiles as most commentators suggest, why would he be so distressed when he saw the Assyrians repenting? Why not be encouraged by the sight? What wrenched from his heart such a cry of anguish?

Therefore now 0 Lord take I beseech thee my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live! (Jonah 4:3)

This protest is about as strong as anyone can make. Did the success of his mission terrify him because he was so frightened of Assyrian power? Did he mortally fear that it would be used against Israel? Such an interpretation better fits the facts in the book of Jonah.(3) God’s concern for the gentiles is taken up in other places in the Bible, but it is not the main concern in the book of Jonah. The book is about accepting God’s leadership even when you don’t understand it.

This purpose is further illustrated to Jonah when God has a gourd plant grow up to give him temporary shade from the burning sun. The next day a worm is sent to destroy it. (Jonah 4:6-7) Note that Jonah was “glad of the gourd,” because of its utilitarian value—it was “a shade over his head.” Similarly, he became “angry for the gourd” (v. 9), because he had been deprived of its utility—“the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted” (v. 8). Is this not a graphic illustration of the overall theme of this book? God had raised Assyria up for a specific purpose—the conquest and exile of the Israelites, and He desired to spare the Empire until that purpose could be accomplished. These events may seem like frightful disasters; but they were part of God’s plan for Israel prepared long in advance. There is a grand design.

Why the Assyrians Deported People

Another characteristic of the Empire that would make it useful in God’s plan was its practice of exiling subject peoples. More lenient than the Romans, the Assyrians did not massacre rebels. They were likely to impale the leaders, but the rest of the people just got transferred. Assyrian official texts give the names of hundreds of localities from or to which rebel populations were exiled.(4) The practice had been going on for centuries, more widely and more frequently in the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (middle of the 8th to middle of the 7th centuries B.C.E.). This was just the period when the Empire reached its greatest extent, bringing Israel under its sway.(5) Since the Israelites were suspected of trying to recover their independence (II Kings 17:4), exile was the natural consequence.

Actually deportation meant only a change of location, not a change of ethnic identity. The Empire was not a melting pot of nations. The Assyrian authorities recognized and preserved the identity of the peoples which they led away. Social and military strength was fostered by keeping families and communities together. In this way the Assyrians were trying to encourage deported peoples to continue their normal way of life in the lands to which they had been transferred. The idea was to reduce the temptation to run away.(6) In changed geographical surroundings it was hoped that patriotic longings for the homeland would weaken, so that loyalty to the Empire might take its place. In their new homes farmers received allotments of land.(7) Some were put into labor battalions for public works, and many were conscripted for military service. Others continued their previous occupations as artisans, scribes, and so forth.(8)

The good life that the Assyrians were offering was explained by one of their officials during the siege of Jerusalem. What he said was,

Make an agreement with me ... until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and of honey, that ye may live and not die. (II Kings 18:31-32)

Today we know he was telling the truth. Actually, the Jerusalemites were able to reject this particular offer (II Kings 19:35-36), but elsewhere in Israel many people were compelled to go. Apparently what they found was satisfactory. How satisfactory may be seen in the size and durability of the Israelite colony in Assyria; it lasted centuries after the Empire had passed away. When the descendants got a chance to return to Israel they nearly all chose to remain.

Deporting the Israelites

Assyrian forces invaded Israel several times during the latter half of the 8th century B.C.E. The strength of Israel was no longer as great as it had been when the kingdom was united. Now it was divided into two kingdoms, often at war with each other, Israel (sometimes called Ephraim) in the north and Judah in the south. Between 734 and 732 B.C.E., under the leadership of Tiglath-Pileser III, the invaders campaigned in Transjordan where some of the Israelite tribes then lived. The Assyrians “carried them away even the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh and brought them unto Halah and Habor and Hara and to the river of Gozan.” (I Chron. 5:26) Ten years later the succeeding King of Assyria(9) “took Samaria [part of the Northern Kingdom] and exiled Israel to Assyria and placed them in Halah and in Habor on the river of Gozan and in the cities of the Medes.” (II Kings 17:6; cf. 18:11) Thus some of the places where the Israelites were resettled are named in the Bible; but scholars are not fully agreed where all of these named destinations are. It is most probable that they are north and east of Israel, close to the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Scholars do agree on the location of Media, the destination which turned out to be the most important for the Israelites. It is the mountainous area of the southeastern Caucasus, where the modern states of Iraq, Persia, and Turkey converge in what is now called Kurdistan.

Twenty years later another successor, Sennacherib, campaigned in Judah. He failed to take Jerusalem (II Kings 18:13-19:37; Isaiah 36-37),(10) but “he came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.” (II Kings 18:13; Isaiah 36:1) What happened to the citizens of these captured cities in Judea the Bible does not say. But a record of Sennacherib does report laying siege to

...forty-six cities, walled forts, and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-)ramps and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls, combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches, as well as sapper work. I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting....(11)

Thus Israelites were exiled not only from the Northern but from the Southern Kingdom as well. The deportations from the Northern Kingdom were more complete. In the south Judah continued to exist, but in the north the Ten Tribes disappeared. “There was none left but the tribe of Judah only.” (II Kings 17:18) Archaeological findings show that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was substantially depopulated.(12) From this point on the Bible focuses primarily on the story of Judah.

The distances traveled were great—first north then east to Ashur and beyond. With their cattle and other belongings men women and children had to walk or ride 600 miles or more. Official Assyrian art has preserved images of deportees on the road. Other peoples were brought in from the East to occupy the area in Samaria vacated by the Israelites. It was written of Tiglath-Pileser III:

The daughters of the East
He hath brought unto the West,
And the daughters of the West
He hath brought unto the East. (13)

The population transfers into Samaria are mentioned in the Bible too. It is consistent with Assyrian practice that the peoples involved were not a heterogeneous mixture of inhabitants of the Empire; they consisted of ethnic groups which retained their identities as Babylonians, Elamites, etc. (II Kings 17:24-41; Ezra 4:9)

It is reasonable to assume that the pattern was the same for the Israelite deportees. From the fact that the places they went to were known in Jerusalem (see the quotations above), it may be inferred that groups arrived in each of those places and sent word of their whereabouts. At that point they still retained their identity. Another evidence is the long duration of the Israelite colony in Media. It shows that a large number of the deportees were able to stick together. We may deduce that God’s plan for the Lost Tribes was not to lose them through dispersion in Assyria.

Comings and Goings in Media

In course of time Media became the main center for the Israelite community. Why this was so is not wholly clear. One factor could have been the quest for greater personal safety in the mountains at a comfortable distance from the imperial capital. The story in the apocryphal book of Tobit(14) may be typical. It tells of a pious Israelite who had been deported to Nineveh. His religious practices there aroused hostile reactions among the Assyrians, putting his life in danger. So he sent his son Tobias to visit other Israelite exiles in Media; and Tobias eventually settled there. Perhaps others fled there too for similar reasons. More than a century after the exile, Ezra wrote to the deportees in Media inviting them to come back. The Persians had conquered the area, and their king had authorized the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. According to Josephus, Ezra sent the news from Babylon

...to his countrymen who were in Media. When they learned of the King’s orders, ...many of them came to Babylon out of longing to return to Jerusalem. But the Israelite nation as a whole remained in the country. Therefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans while the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now ... countless myriads whose number cannot be estimated. (Josephus, Antiquities, XI, 31, 1)

Thus a large Israelite community was still there in the time of Josephus—eight centuries after the deportation. At about the same time their presence there was confirmed in the Talmud: in Sanhedrin 11a it is recorded that Rabban Gamaliel II of Jerusalem wrote about the religious calendar “to our brethren the exiles in Babylon and to those in Media.”

New arrivals sometimes augmented the numbers of the Israelite community there, at the time of the Babylonian exile early in the 6th century B.C.E., for instance; also after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century C.E.; and on other occasions. Conversely the community was reduced by the departure of migrating groups, especially after the collapse of the Assyrian Empire in 605 B.C.E., about a century after the exile. According to Armenian historians, some of the exiles moved to Babylon where they would presumably have joined the large Jewish colony there.(15) Others apparently went to Persia, mingling with the Jews who were also moving there from Babylon. These may have been among the many Jews present in the 5th century B.C.E. (Esther 3:8).(16) Some of their descendants are no doubt there to this day. Others from Persia are said to have moved on to Afghanistan.(17)

A large number remained in Media for l,400 years, until the victorious arrival of Islam in the 7th century C.E. Some may then have been given the choice of conversion or death. Others fled north to the Empire of the Khazars (Kuzari). It seems likely that these refugees were involved in the remarkable adherence of a large proportion of the Khazars to Judaism in the next century.(18) The subsequent history of these Israelites would have become part of that of the Ashkenazic branch of Jewry. Still others succeeded in evading conversion to Islam without leaving. These are the modern Jews of the Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia. According to traditions and ancient historical records, they are descendants of the Israelite exiles.(19) Many of these are living there as Jews while others have moved to Israel in recent decades.

Thus, it can be seen that all of these groups retained their identity. They were never lost. They and their descendants seem always to have called themselves Jews. The prophecy about the Lost Tribes cannot apply to them:

Then said God, “Call his name Lo-ammi;(20) for ye are not My people and I will not be your God.” (Hosea 1:9)

Nor does the next line:

Yet the number of the children of Israel(21) shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered; and it shall come to pass that, instead of that which was said unto them: “Ye are not My people,” it shall be said unto them: “Ye are the children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1)

None of these groups has become all that numerous. Nor do we know of any developments in their religious history to date that would fit this prophetic description.

From archaeological finds and other sources there is mounting evidence of an earlier migration, before those listed above. This was a group which broke out on the eastern frontier of the Empire in the final decade of the 8th century—not very long after arriving there. Unlike the other groups this one did not go north, east, or south; it headed west around the northern border of the Empire in an effort to fight its way home. Although it was powerful enough to conquer several small countries in Turkey it could not break through the imperial forces to reach Israel. Driven across the Bosporus it ended up in western Europe. Subject there to sustained brainwashing over many generations it came close to losing its identity. Its story thus looks quite different from that of the other Israelite deportees. The evidence deserves careful analysis to see what it can reveal about the journey westwards and also about the extent to which the religious experience of this group matches the prophecy.

Copyright © 1995 by John Hulley.

(1) H. W. F. Saggs, The Might that was Assyria, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984, pp. 79-84. [back]

(2) Jonah, son of Amittai, is mentioned in II Kings 14:25 as a prophet in the time of Jeroboam II, who reigned in the first half of the 8th century. [back]

(3) It is also the favored interpretation of some Jewish commentators, e.g., Abarbanel. [back]

(4) Bustenay Oded, Mass Deportations and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1979, pp. 19-22. [back]

(5) Successive additions to the Empire are shown in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 16, “Mesopotamia.” [back]

(6) Oded, supra, pp. 23-25, 35-36. [back]

(7) Ibid., pp. 59, 62-67, 70-72. [back]

(8) The Assyrians have received some bad press. Cf. Oded, pp. 54-59, 91-107; Encyclopedia Judaica, “Exile, Assyrian,” p. 1036. [back]

(9) Regnal dates (B.C.E.) of Assyrian monarchs in the period under consideration were: [back]

  • Tiglath-Pileser 745-727 Sennacherib 704-681
  • Shalmaneser V 726-722 Esarhaddon 680-669
  • Sargon II 721-705 Ashurbanipal 668-626

(10) Jerusalem’s woes began a century later, when its people were taken to Babylon. (II Kings 25:1ff.) [back]

(11) The Prism of Sennacherib, translation in James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, Princeton, 1958, p. 200. [back]

(12) N. Na’aman, “Population Changes in Palestine Following the Assyrian Deportation,” Cathedra (in Hebrew), Dec. 1989. Cf. W. G. Dever, “Abel-Beth-Ma’acah: Northern Gateway of Ancient Israel,” Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies, L. T. Geraty and L. G. Herr (eds.), U.S.A., 1986. [back]

(13) Oded, supra, p. 27. [back]

(14) Included in the Septuagint version of the Bible; the book may have been written in Media. See Encyclopedia Judaica, “Tobit, Book of,” p. 1185. [back]

(15) Encyclopedia Judaica, “Caucasus,” p. 257. [back]

(16) See Encyclopedia Judaica, “Persia.” [back]

(17) Encyclopedia Judaica, “Afghanistan.” [back]

(18) Encyclopedia Judaica, “Khazars,” p. 947. [back]

(19) Cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, “Armenia,” p. 474; “Caucasus,” p. 257; “Georgia,” p. 423; and “Mountain Jews,” p. 478. Aristocratic Christian families in Armenia and Georgia, including the royal family of the former, also trace their genealogies to these deportees. [back]

(20) Hebrew, Lo-ammi, “not my people.” [back]

(21) Referring, of course, to the Northern Kingdom. [back]

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