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Who Were the Tower Builders? – part III


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Cheshvan 15 5781
We discussed in the past two weeks two tower builders, Nimrod and Nevuchadnetzar. Now it is time to discuss the third, Sargon II, King of Assyria (Ashur). Sargon II seized power during the time of the Assyrian siege on Samaria. He is mentioned by name in Tanach only once, at the end of the prophecies of Yeshayahu about various regional nations, as the one who ordered the capture of Ashdod (Yeshayahu 20:1).

The timing connects Sargon II to the period of Chizkiyahu, King of Yehuda. Melachim (II, 18:9-11) tells that during the fourth year of Chizkiyahu, Shalmenesar was the king of Ashur who put Samaria under siege and eventually conquered it and exiled the people. The pasuk starts writing about the conquest, attributing it to the king in singular. However, the Massorites taught us that the vowels at the end of the pasuk refer to the conqueror in the plural. Modern archeology has clarified that our tradition was hinting that at that time, Shalmenesar died, and Sargon II finished the conquest and exiled the Israelites to distant lands. His name was apparently withheld due to the concept of "the names of the wicked will rot."

At the time of the navi Yeshyahau, the most powerful enemy was the Neo-Assyrian empire. At this time they returned to the "glory" of Nimrod, the ancient leader seated in Ninveh. Their military prowess was augmented by their infamous cruelty, which intimidated rivals. It is puzzling that in the whole section in which Yeshayahu prophesizes about several nations, Assyria, the most prominent nation of the time, who had a huge impact on Bnei Yisrael, was left out. On the other hand, there are two prophecies (one long, one short) about Bavel! Bavel, at that time, was part of the Assyrian empire, not independent. They were certainly not a power, which occurred only at the time of King Yoshiyahu.

There are actually several indications that the prophecy about Bavel really refers to Assyria. The navi warns about deserved punishment corresponding to the nation’s cruelty (Yeshayahu 13:9-19). It speaks also specifically about the cruelty of its king and the punishment he would receive, including the famous pasuk: "I will rise up on the stage of clouds, I will be like a deity" (ibid. 14:4-20). Right afterward, the pasuk (ibid. 24-25) says that "I will break Assyria in My land, and on My mountains, I will pummel it." This is what happened to Assyria, in the time of Chizkiyahu.

The haughty and cruel Sargon II was killed in battle in a distant land and was not even brought to grave. He who built a tower and wanted to "replace Hashem" laid like an animal carcass in the field, delighting his many enemies.

So why was the prophecy about Assyria attributed to Bavel? In Ninveh, they attributed Sargon II’s fall to the fact that he did not sufficiently follow the idols of Assyria but had a preference toward Babylonian idols. Yeshayahu followed his ancestor Avraham by calling out that Hashem is Ruler of the world and taught that Sargon II, who would not admit it, would be reduced to a lowly mortal. He was punished not for preferring Babylonian idols but for his arrogance and cruelty. Again, a descendant of Avraham taught the world the truth.

While the ego of world leaders makes big news, we should focus on humility and unity, as befitting the children of Avraham.
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