John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. The scattering of Israel is a frequent theme in the scriptures. Most Bible readers are well acquainted with the deportation of the Ten Tribes of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the removal of the inhabitants of Judah to Babylon in 586 B.C. But few understand why Israel and Judah were deported instead of just put under tribute. One man was primarily responsible for this policy: an Assyrian king named Tiglath-pileser III.
Tiglath-pileser reigned from 744 to 727 B.C. His immediate predecessors had fought enemies on all sides—the Babylonians to the south, the Hurrians of Urartu (later Armenia) to the north, the Aramaeans to the west, and the Medes and others to the east. In order to consolidate Assyrian power, Tiglath-pileser began, in 737 B.C., a series of sociopolitical reforms, all of which had military overtones. These included the establishment of a standing army, the reorganization of the provinces and annexation of conquered territory, institution of a postal and reporting system, and deportation of prisoners of war.
In the ancient Near East, war between two peoples was often considered to be war between the gods they worshipped. Most battles were therefore conducted according to direction from oracles, whose advice was usually derived from the examination of sacrificed animals or observation of signs found in nature. It was by means of these omens that the deities were believed to command their earthly representatives, the kings.
But while an Egyptian god, for example, might be credited with a victory over a Canaanite or Syrian city, the victorious deity would not necessarily have been thought of as the new god over the conquered territory. (See 2 Kgs. 18:33–35.) Each country’s gods were considered to be indigenous, with no power outside their own land but much to be reckoned with in their own domain. This is why the Israelite prophets had such a difficult job eradicating the worship of the Canaanite deity Baal, a practice into which many Israelites fell after entering the land of Canaan.
In fact, one of the messages of the book of Jonah for the ancient Israelites was that the Lord is God of the whole earth, not just one territory, and that it was not possible to escape his dominion by fleeing to a far country. (See Jonah 1:3, 10.) And there are several other interesting examples in the Bible. We find the Syrians mistakenly believing that they could defeat the Israelites in the lowlands because, as they said, “Their gods are gods of the hills.” (1 Kgs. 20:23, 28.) Also, the Syrian general Naaman, after his cure of leprosy by the power of the Lord, brought home sacks of earth from Israel so that he might stand on it while worshipping the deity whose ground he believed it was. (See 2 Kgs. 5:17–18.)
Because rebellion against the Assyrian king was often the result of omens seen by local priests in outlying territories, Tiglath-pileser felt that in many cases he could crush rebellion best by deporting conquered peoples. Finding themselves in a new land, where their ancient gods had no power, the captive people would lose all hope of being led to freedom from their Assyrian conquerors. Meanwhile, their homelands would have been resettled by another conquered people, making it even more unlikely that the captives could ever hope to recover their former position.
The kingdom of Israel, comprising the Ten Tribes, was one of the earliest nations to feel the effects of Tiglath-pileser’s policies. Indeed, Tiglath-pileser himself recorded how he annexed a portion of Israel and deported its people—a fact confirmed in 2 Kings 15:29 [2 Kgs. 15:29] (see 1 Chr. 5:6) and in 1 Chronicles 5:26 [1 Chr. 5:26], where he is also called by his Babylonian name, Pul (see 2 Kgs. 15:19). His successor, Shalmaneser V, conquered the rest of the land but died at the siege of the Israelite capital, Samaria. Consequently, it was his successor, Sargon II, who deported a large number of the people and brought in captives from other lands to replace them. (See 2 Kgs. 17:3, 5–6; 2 Kgs. 18:9–11.) Sargon left an inscription detailing the captivity of the Ten Tribes, recording in particular the deportation of 27,290 people from Samaria alone.
The people brought into Israel by Sargon turned to a mixed worship and intermarried with the remnants of the Israelites, thus forming the Samaritan community. (See 2 Kgs. 17:23–34.) The hostility existing between Samaritans and Jews at the time of the return of some of the Jews from Babylon (see Ezra 4) and in the days of Jesus (see John 4:9; John 8:48; Luke 9:52–53) is thus traceable to Tiglath-pileser’s policy of deportation of troublesome peoples.
Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, fully intended to deport the people of the kingdom of Judah as well (see 2 Kgs. 18:31–32), but he was thwarted in his attempt. Judah’s deportation was delayed for a hundred years, until the Babylonians conquered them. Adopting Tiglath-pileser’s deportation policy, Nebuchadnezzar II carried the inhabitants of Jerusalem and other Judean cities captive to Babylon. (See 2 Kgs. 25:10–21.)
The Babylonian captivity left a population void in the southern part of Judah, which was soon filled by an influx of Edomites, descendants of Esau (Edom), from across the rift valley to the southeast of the Dead Sea. Known to us in later texts as Idumeans, they—along with the Samaritans to the north—resisted the return of the Jews from Babylon during and after the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia. Finally, in the second century B.C., the Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism in time of war. From these converts came the family of Herod the Great, who, though not of Jewish ancestry, became king of the Jews. Herod’s close ties to Rome made Jewish rebellion against outsiders impossible until the time of Christ and afterward.
Seen in this light, Tiglath-pileser’s deportation policy has had a far-reaching impact. It influenced the scattering of Israel, and hence the gathering; and in influencing the cultural and religious diversity of the region, it has shaped political factors whose influence has been felt even in modern times.