When Isaiah first became a prophet (ca. 742 BC), Egypt was divided in numerous petty states, each led by a different Libyan chieftain.1 At that time, Judah and Israel were locked in strife with each other and, on occasion, with the Aramaean groups to the north2 and the Philistine and Phoenician groups to the west. To the east, Mesopotamia was peopled by descendants of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Amorites, and Kassites (who had each ruled Babylon in previous millennia),3 five Chaldean tribes,4 and at least forty Aramaean tribes,5 and the dominant power in the Near East was Assyria. By the time of Jeremiah (626–580 BC), just over one hundred years later, the entire political landscape of the Near East had changed. These changes had a significant impact on the political landscape in Lehi's day. The picture that emerges, even the simplified form presented here, is vast in its scope and complex in its details.6
Isaiah maps out the political landscape in his own day (740–701 BC) by delineating various international powers and lifting up burdens of doom against them, prophesying that they would be overwhelmed by Assyria.7 These nations include Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, the desert of the sea, Dumah, Arabia, the Hizayon valley, Tyre, and Israel.8 Judah was the exception, as it was to be spared rather than conquered. Isaiah describes the conquests of Assyria (Isaiah 2–12), which was the chosen weapon to conquer all these kingdoms, and conquer it did.
In hindsight, the overall prophetic picture presented by Isaiah seems more logical than remarkable.9 The king of Israel, Menahem (745–737 BC), had paid substantial tribute to Assyria as early as the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC; 2 Kings 15:19–20). The significant fragmentation of the various states in the Near East is sufficient to explain why Assyria, driven by ambitious and ruthless rulers, was the dominant empire of Isaiah's day. Furthermore, "the Assyrian military machine was skilled in crushing revolts of cities or of relatively sedentary populations (which could seldom muster sufficient manpower or resources to cope with an Assyrian onslaught)."10 Yet the ambition and ruthlessness of the rulers and the proficiency of the troops, in and of themselves, do not explain the success of the Assyrian empire. Previous empires had conquered territory only to have the allegiance of the conquered states shift with the slightest change in policy or personal loyalty. The genius of the Assyrian empire was to break the will of the conquered people by uprooting them from their homes and deporting them en masse to other areas of the empire.11 The result was an eventual allegiance to the empire into which they had been absorbed rather than to the ancestral homeland.12 The Babylonians learned this lesson from the Assyrians and applied it against Judah and Jerusalem to spectacular effect (the Jews who compiled the Babylonian Talmud around AD 700 lived in and remained loyal to Babylon fourteen hundred years later under Muslim rule). Assyria also defeated the coalitions of various states by knocking out members piecemeal when coalition forces were unavailable to assist or were squabbling among themselves.13
One might wonder where the Egyptians were when the Assyrians were conquering everything in sight. During Isaiah's day, however, the Egyptians were no longer the united monarchy that they once had been. By 1080 BC.14 Egypt was in the hands of invading Libyan tribes. Beginning with the reign of Seti I (1291–1279 BC), Libyans began to invade and infiltrate Egypt,15 principally in the Delta,16 and "within 250 years of the beginnings of Libyan migration to Egypt, the whole country was ruled by them."17 During the Twenty-first Dynasty, the Egyptian Delta was divided into a series of principalities ruled by a chief of the Meshwesh/Ma or Libu.18 Even the noted high priest of Thebes, Herihor (1075 BC), had children with Libyan names,19 showing his ethnic origin. Although the Libyan rulers adopted a veneer of Egyptianization, their essential core remained Libyan,20 and they still regarded themselves as Libyan over five hundred years later.21 The chief of the Ma (the highest title of a Libyan ruler) is still attested as late as the middle of the reign of Psammetichus I (664–656 BC),22 four hundred years after the Libyan invasion. The importance of the Libyan invasion for the Old Testament can hardly be overrated: Egypt's Libyan rulers were usually too busy quarrelling among themselves to muster an army to invade anyone else—a common occurrence when Egypt was united both before and after preexilic Israel—and this allowed Israel and later Judah to exist as nations in the first place. Without the invasion of these blond-haired, blue-eyed, North African Libyan tribes, there would have been no kingdom of Israel, no kingdom of Judah, no fulfillment of land covenants to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and consequently no Bible (or Book of Mormon) as we know it.
In 738, in response to the rebellion of Azriyau of Yaudi, the Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser III annexed the Aramaean state of Unqi.23 Shortly afterwards, during the reign of Pekah in Israel (736–732 BC), Tiglath-pileser took a number of cities in northern Israel captive,24 and Ahaz of Judah (735–715 BC) paid tribute to Assyria with many of the treasures from Solomon's temple (2 Kings 16:7–9), refashioning the altar of that temple on Assyrian lines (2 Kings 16:10). In the midst of this Assyrian land grab, the Nubian or Kushite pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty conquered Egypt from the south, beginning with the conquest of Piye (sometimes called Pianchi)25 in 728 BC, which reunited that country.26 In about 724, Tiglath-pileser's successor, Shalmaneser V, annexed the Aramaean states of Sam'al and Quwe.27 In about 721, Shalmaneser took Israel after a three-year siege (2 Kings 17:3–6). Sargon II of Assyria annexed the Aramaean states of Hamath in 720,28 Carchemish in 717, and Gurgum in about 711. The state Kummukhi, which had already absorbed Milid, was annexed to Assyria in 709 under Sargon II.29 In 701 Sennacherib struck against Judah, besieging Hezekiah in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18–35; Isaiah 36–37)30 and finally retreating after feints by the Egyptians under then general, later pharaoh, Taharqa.31
Unable to deal with the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Chaldean tribes in southern Mesopotamia,32 Sennacherib went on the offensive in 694 BC, building a fleet and sailing to attack the Chaldeans in the swamps north of the Persian Gulf. After five days in a tempest, the fleet reached the Elamite coast and attacked the Elamites and Chaldeans there. Meanwhile, the Elamites attacked Babylon, starting an uprising and capturing Assur-nadin-shumi, Babylon's governor and Assyria's crown prince.33
After a five-year siege, Sennacherib conquered Babylon in 689 BC.34 Sennacherib—furious over Babylon's betrayal of his son and heir, Assur-nadin-shumi, into the hands of the Elamite king, Hallushu-Inshushinak (694 BC), and the city's stubborn rebellion (which had seen two successive kings, Nergal-ushezib and Mushezib-Marduk)—looted the city, smashed or captured its idols, filled its streets with corpses, dispersed its survivors, burned it completely (demolishing its houses, temples, and walls), filled its canals with the debris, and turned it into a swamp "in order that it would not be possible to recognize the site of that city and (its) temples in the future."35
In 681 Sennacherib was murdered by his second son, Arda-Mulishshi, who, outmaneuvered by his brother Esarhaddon, failed to gain the throne and fled to Urartu (Ararat),36 a recalcitrant state on the northeastern border of the Assyrian empire probably led at that time by Rusa II.37 Urartu controlled major trade networks around Assyria from Elam to the North Syrian Aramaean states, to the Aegean, and to the Black Sea through the Taurus, Zagros, Pontic, and Anti Caucasus Mountains38 via an elaborate system of mountain routes and fortifications around Lake Van that favored the individual or small group above the army.39 Esarhaddon continued his conquest down the Levantine littoral, conquering Egypt in 677 and 671 BC. Esarhaddon also appointed his two sons, Assurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin, to govern Assyria and Babylon respectively, appointments that were to have disastrous consequences for the Assyrian empire. Esarhaddon died in 669 BC while campaigning in Egypt.40 His son Assurbanipal conquered Egypt in 666 and again in 663 BC.41
Ironically, one of the effects of the Assyrian conquest of Egypt was its reunification under Psammetichus I.42 Psammetichus, who had started as a political vassal of Assyria,43 once the Assyrian military left, took over the country by 656 BC.44 Although of Libyan descent himself,45 learning from previous experience of the factious nature of the Libyan-style rule of Egypt, Psammetichus emphasized his pharaonic titles, rather than his office as chief of the Ma (a tribal title that previous Libyan rulers had made more important than Pharaoh), and demoted all other chiefs of the Ma to be subordinate to the harbor masters (which had previously been a much lower office).46 Psammetichus also eliminated regional script variations by making the Demotic script—the standard business script in the Egyptian Delta where he resided—the official script of the realm,47 as opposed to the Theban cursive hieratic now called "abnormal hieratic."48 Psammetichus's reformation of Egyptian was to have important consequences ever after.
Psammetichus, however, relied more on Greek mercenaries to unify Egypt49 and less on the native Egyptians, who had been frozen out of military rank advancement since the Libyan conquest.50 Because the Egyptian military was a mercenary rather than patriotic force, it was not reliable and its characterization as a "broken reed" is well-merited.51 Time after time, whenever there was a crucial campaign against a foreign force, the Egyptian forces crumbled.
In 652 BC, a few years after the successful revolt of Egypt from the Assyrians and after Babylon had mustered sufficient resources, Babylonian ruler Shamash-shuma-ukin broke his oath that he had previously made "not to discuss, propose, or perform any act against [his brother] Ashurbanipal [in Assyria]."52 It took four years for Assurbanipal to suppress the revolt.53 The Babylonian revolt inspired other vassals to attempt to throw off the yoke, including the coastal cities of Usu and Acco, which Assurbanipal duly suppressed in 648 BC after the Babylonian threat was gone.54 Assurbanipal appointed Kandalanu to govern Babylon in Shamash-shuma-ukin's stead, which he did for the next twenty years.55
A crucial turning point in the history of the Near East was the fall of Assyria, which shifted the balance of the super powers to Babylon. After the deaths of Assurbanipal and Kandalanu and a year of "insurrections in Assyria and Akkad, [in which] . . . hostilities and warfare continued,"56 Nabopolassar ascended to the throne of Babylon. He spent the first few years subduing the Assyrians.57 In 616 BC, to combat the increasing threat of Babylon, the Egyptians and the Assyrians joined forces but were defeated.58 In 614 BC Cyaxares the Mede took Assur, and two years later (612 BC), Nineveh fell to Cyaxares and his Median hosts, accompanied by the Babylonian army and Scythian raiders.59 Soon afterwards, in 610 BC, Psammetichus I died and Necho II assumed the Egyptian throne.60 In 609 Assur-uballit II was struggling to maintain the rule of his country and summoned Necho II for help since it was in Egypt's interest not to have a strong Babylon capable of attempting what the Assyrians had so recently done. In Jerusalem, King Josiah, whether he opposed the alliance of Egypt and Assyria or because he was pro-Babylonian, set out to oppose Necho and was slain at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29–30). While Necho was away in a vain attempt to help the Assyrians, the kingdom of Judah chose Josiah's son Jehoahaz to rule, but three months later, a returning Necho deposed him in favor of his older brother Eliakim, whom he renamed Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:31–37). The Scythian horsemen then swept down the Levantine coast; Jeremiah apparently thought that their coming would destroy Jerusalem and fulfill his prophecies, but they only sacked Ashkelon and passed by Jerusalem, giving Jeremiah a temporary crisis of faith.61 In 606 BC the Egyptians again marched against Babylon, crossed the Euphrates at Carchemish, and defeated the Babylonians.62 This action caused Nabopolassar to send his son Nebuchadnezzar against the Egyptians, and he roundly defeated them at Carchemish (605 BC).63 Babylon thus became the master of the Near East and then attacked Egypt's allies, including Judah. The international bully in Isaiah's day had been Assyria, a nation that was still a rising star; but in Lehi's and Jeremiah's day its star set and was completely destroyed. The entire international landscape had changed.
Economic concerns and trade routes had an impact on foreign political policy. To the north, during the time period of the Assyrian empire (745–627 BC), Urartu controlled important Anatolian trade routes that effectively circumvented the Assyrian empire.64 Some of those trade routes went through the Aramaic-speaking Aramaean states of northern Syria.65 To the west, the seafaring Phoenicians were the dominant trade power on the Mediterranean, based in Sidon and Tyre with trade contacts and colonies as far as the Iberian Peninsula.66 From the east, Assyria wanted to shut down or take over the Urartian trade routes because they levied taxes on the passage of goods.67 Thus the Assyrians attacked both Urartu as well as the Aramaean states at the other end of the trade routes. At the same time, they also tried to gain control over the Phoenician cities that controlled so much of the Mediterranean trade.68 Judah stood at the end of the frankincense trail from Arabia to the south, after which the routes continued north,69 and the government in Jerusalem gained some income by taxing the caravans.70 Southwest of Judah, Egypt served as a conduit for goods from locations further south in Africa71 to the Aegean, Greece, and the Near East (see Isaiah 45:14).72 As evidence of international connections and contacts during this age, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Egyptian, Akkadian, and Aramaic scribes who served the Assyrian court at Nimrud.73
Curiously, while the Assyrians and Babylonians were the dominant powers in Lehi's century, Judah looked instead to Egypt for cultural influences in artwork, religion, and script.74 Cylinder seals found in Jerusalem, especially royal cylinder seals, were often decorated with Egyptian and Egyptianizing motifs;75 only a few cylinder seals from the preexilic period use Babylonian or Assyrian motifs.76 "An examination of the overall Egyptian(izing) artifact proportions from cultic, mortuary, occupation, and combined contexts at Syro-Palestinian sites yields clear peaks in Egyptian activity during LB 1B (1450–1400 BC), LB 2B to Iron 1A (1200–1150 BC), early Iron 2B (925–850 BC), and late Iron 2B to Iron 2C (750–600 BC)."77 Egyptian amulets proliferated in Judah at this time.78 Judah also borrowed Egyptian numbers79—which are normally called "hieratic" even though the same symbols are also used in Demotic—and Egyptian terms for measurement, such as the hin (Egyptian hnw) and ephah (Egyptian ip.t). Judah's prophets continually warned her about relying on Egypt,80 but the people decided to take the culturally and politically convenient route, which in the long run proved to be anything but convenient.
The Near East in the time periods of Lehi and Jeremiah was a complex and complicated place. The sheer variety of political events, posturing, and positions; the number of ethnic and national groups; and the intricacies of feinting and subterfuge politically and militarily all show that Jeremiah's characterization of the area as a "seething pot" (Jeremiah 1:13) was apt. Lehi, because he heeded the warning voice that something wicked this way comes, escaped to a brave new world, while most of the rest of Judah fell into the toil and trouble of that cauldron's bubble.