Image: Beheading by Assyrian Soldiers
No one likes war, but war is a reality that has existed in human society from the dawn of civilization. With no exception, one characteristic of wars is the extreme violence that goes on in the battlefield. Wars cause much anguish, disruption, destruction, and an untold number of lost lives.
In warfare, nations use different techniques to achieve their goal, which is victory against their enemies. In antiquity, as well us in modern times, nations develop policies of intimidation and terror in order to force submission by their opponents. These acts of uncontrolled violence strike fears in the hearts of those under siege.
In wars, soldiers cast aside their inhibition, their sense of humanity, and take the lives of men, women, and children. Their actions express the horrors of war and the paroxysms of violence that are present in conflicts between nations.
One of the most violent nations in antiquity was the Assyrians. Their records and monuments preserve the evidence that they were a brutal and violent nation. Assyrian reliefs show prisoners being impaled, Assyrian soldiers flaying captured soldiers, beheadings, mutilation, and dismembering.
In wars some of the most vulnerable victims are the women and children. On one Assyrian monument, women and children are portrayed with their lifted arms, lamenting the violence and the destruction of their city. Archaeologists have uncovered many mass graves in places where battles occurred and one common feature of these mass graves was the presence of bones of women and children who were buried along with the men killed in battle.
One of the most violent and brutal conducts in times of war was the Assyrian practice of ripping open pregnant women in order to expose their fetus. In his article, “‘Ripping Open Pregnant Women’ in Light of an Assyrian Analogue,” Mordechai Cogan quotes an Assyrian poem, probably dated to the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076), in which the poet praises the actions of the victorious king. On one section of the poem, in which the poet relates the victory of the Assyrian king against his enemy, reads as follow:
He slits the wombs of pregnant women
he blinds the infants
He cuts the throats of their strong ones.
In commenting on the words of the poet describing the acts of the victorious king, Cogan wrote: “Out of the entire catalogue of the horrors of war, he singled out the attack upon the defenseless women and children; and this in order to impress upon all that the cruelest of punishments awaits those who sin against Assyria’s god” (1983:756).
This terrifying practice, the disembowment of pregnant women, was a form of psychological warfare. It was Assyria’s way to show Assyria’s enemies the consequences of revolting against the empire. In case of rebellion by vassals, the Assyrians would bring reprisal by enforcing their rule with violence and brutality.
However, the biblical record shows that the practice of ripping open pregnant women was also the practice of war of other nations in the ancient Near East.
When the prophet Elisha anointed Hazael to be the next king of Damascus, Elisha wept aloud when he saw how Hazael would cause violence and horror against the women of Israel. When Hazael saw the prophet weeping, he asked: “‘Why does my lord weep?’ [Elisha] answered, ‘Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women’” (2 Kings 8:11-12).
In his oracle against the Ammonites, Amos said the Lord would punish them because of their violence against the women of Gilead: “Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory” (Amos 1:13).
In his oracle against Israel, the prophet Hosea pronounced a judgment against the Northern Kingdom. The judgment would be an Assyrian invasion that would bring untold terror and violence against the inhabitants of Samaria: “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16).
In discussion this inhumane practice during siege warfare, Cogan wrote: “Acts of horror such as these, performed during the course of war, are documented throughout history, and no specific age or people can be pointed to as having had a patent on atrocity” (1983:755).
Cogan’s words, that “no specific age or people can be pointed to as having had a patent on atrocity,” can be seen in the fact that one king in Israel also committed such an atrocity.
The writer of the book of Kings says that Menahem, after he became king of Israel, invaded Tappuah to punish them for not supporting him. Most texts read “Tiphsah” (2 King 15:16 NIV), a city near the Euphrates River. However, the text should be read “Tappuah,” a town located in the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua 17:8).
During the invasion, “Menahem punished Tappuah, all the inhabitants of the town and of its whole district, because on his way from Tirzah they did not let him in. He punished them even to ripping open all the pregnant women” (2 Kings 15:16 NAB).
In his description of Menahem’s act, Josephus wrote:
Menahem, the general of his army, . . . made himself king, he went thence, and came to the city Tiphsah; but the citizens that were in it shut their gates, and barred them against the king, and would not admit him;
but in order to be avenged on them, he burnt the country round about it, and took the city by force, upon a siege; and being very much displeased at what the inhabitants of Tiphsah had done, he slew them all, and spared not so much as the infants, without omitting the utmost instances of cruelty and barbarity; for he used such severity upon his own countrymen, as would not be pardonable with regard to strangers who had been conquered by him.
And after this manner it was that this Menahem continued to reign with cruelty and barbarity for ten years.
Josephus was so appalled at the cruelty and barbarity Menahem used against his own countrymen that he said such a practice would be unforgivable even if it were done against foreign enemies.
Such are the barbarities of war.
But, there is hope. The Bible says that when the Messiah comes, there shall be peace among the nations: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Cogan, Mordechai. “Ripping Open Pregnant Women” in Light of an Assyrian Analogue.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983): 755-757.
Herzog, Chaim and Mordechai Gichon. Battles of the Bible. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 1997.