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This Christian Journey:

 

Sennacherib’s Siege of King Hezekiah

Dr. Walter D. Huyck Jr. D.Min.

www.thischristianjourney.com

 

2 Kings 18.13-16

This essay, on part of a three part written work, was written in partial fulfillment of a doctoral level study in Old Testament History.  It addresses the topic of a possible contradiction found within the text of the Bible and extra-biblical evidence that helps us understand the biblical record.

In 2 King 18.13-16 the Bible records the invasion of the Assyrian king Sennacherib of the southern tribes of Judea.  While there is agreement concerning the fact of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judea during Hezekiah’s reign, there is general debate concerning the details of this or these invasion(s).  Lester Grabbe notes, “Sennacherib’s third campaign represents a classic intersection between the biblical text and external evidence.  Nine papers from the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History (year 2000) offer a diversity of perspectives on historical method and the evaluation of comparative realms of evidence.”[1]  It appears that there is debate about whether the biblical and extra biblical accounts come together to form a united and authoritative historical account concerning Sennacherib’s invasion(s).

William Shea notes at least part of the debate when he writes,

“The suggestion that Sennacherib campaigned against Judah twice was introduced into the literature by G. Rawlinson in 1858, and the extensive bibliography on this proposal published by H.H. Rowley a century later found scholarly opinion still almost evenly divided on it.  Assyriologists and Egyptologists presently favor the one-campaign theory because only one campaign is mentioned in Sennacherib’s known annals.  W.F. Albright and his students generated considerable support for the two-campaign theory among biblical scholars, but with Albrights death some of this support appears to be waning.”[2]

 So, at least part of the debate revolves around the biblical record of Sennacherib’s invasion as compared to the Assyrian record of the same invasion(s).

Certainly, the debate does not revolve around a lack of evidence for the invasion(s).  Amihai Mazar notes, “The siege of Lachish and its conquest by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E are perhaps the best documented events for the period of the Monarchy.”[3] A large wall relief in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh records the siege and the battle in detail.  Of this relief Mazar writes,

“The Assyrian siege operations are also illustrated in detail: battering rams were hauled to the city walls on built-up siege ramps.  The wooden and leather rams were intensively attacked by the Judeans with torches, while the Assyrians defended them by pouring water on them and returning fire with slingstones and arrows.”[4]

 The archaeological evidence found at Lachish demonstrates the intensity of the battle.  The Assyrians attacked the city at its southwestern corner by building a ramp that gave their battering rams access to the city wall.  Within the city at the same wall location another ramp was found which was designed by the defenders to somehow counter the Assyrian attack.  At the site of the battle hundreds of iron arrowheads, slingstones, and heavy weight stones were found.  A fragmentary chain was found that is thought by some to have been a part of a battering ram or perhaps was used by the defenders to catch and stop the ram’s horns, a suggestion made by Yigail Yadin. 

For the inhabitants of Lachish their efforts to defend their city did not succeed.  Mazar writes, “The biblical and Assyrian documentation of its conquest have been completed by archaeological discoveries, the most dramatic of which was the mass burial of thousands of massacred people discovered in a cave outside the city.  The buildings of Stratum III city were found burnt.”[5]  Lachish fell to Sennacherib and the result was devastating for the people of the city.

According to 2 Kings 18.13-16 as a result of this Assyrian victory Hezekiah sued for peace and paid heavy tribute to Sennacherib.  Apparently, this tribute was accepted, John Bright notes, “Sennacherib demanded a drastically increased tribute, obliging Hezekiah to strip the Temple and royal treasury in order to raise it.  This, together with other presents, including some of Hezekiah’s daughters as concubines, was subsequently delivered to Nineveh.”[6]  According to scholars on one side of the debate, after receiving this tribute Sennacherib retired from Jerusalem to deal with rebellions in the Babylonian regions and would return at a later time to deal with Hezekiah’s rebellion and the Egyptian force that would come to Hezekiah’s aid.  As a result of this return, this school notes that Hezekiah was divinely delivered and Sennacherib returned home without conquering Jerusalem.

This second siege is thought to be recorded in 2 King 18.17-19.37.  This passage records further event surrounding king Hezekiah and the Assyrian king Sennacherib, after Hezekiah had paid the tribute required.  It records Sennacherib’s arrival at Jerusalem to lay siege to Hezekiah’s capitol.  The question arises, why would Hezekiah pay the heavy tribute if Sennacherib were going to just invade Jerusalem anyway?  Secondly, accounts recorded in Sennacherib’s records indicate that he was victorious in his siege against Hezekiah, while the biblical record indicated that he was defeated by an angel of the Lord.  How could Sennacherib be victorious and defeated at the same time?

Rodger Dalmin discussed Sennacheirb’s claim to have conquered and taken captive a massive number of Judean’s in his conquest.  In this discussion Dalmin summarized both Bustenay Oded and Stephen Stallmen as follows. [7] Bustenay Oded noted that Sennacherib claimed to have taken captive 200,150 people as a result of his war with Hezekiah in B.C. 701.  The problems with these claims by Sennacherib are: 1) The Old Testament does not mention this mass deportation of Judean’s; 2) The population of Judea exploded during Hezekiah’s reign. 

Stephen Stohlman argued that 200,150 Jews deported by Sennacherib would have made this a huge deportation consisting of more Jews than deported from Israel in B.C. 722.  This claim of deportation by Sennacherib raises some interesting questions: 1) Did the deportation really happen? 2) If it happened why didn’t the Old Testament record it? 3) Could the number of deportees be an exaggeration by the Assyrians? 4) If it is an exaggeration, then would this demonstrate that some kind of deportation occurred? 

Stohlman noted that there are four extra biblical copies of Sennacherib’s claim to have defeated Hezekiah and all four copies are very similar to each other.  While many of the claims listed by Sennacherib appear to follow the biblical account, and while there may have been some Jews deported by Sennacherib, 200,000 people were probably not deported.  Stohlman noted that all of the population of a conquered country were usually counted in the booty and that Sennacherib probably counted the entire population as a part of the deportation even though they were never really exiled.  This is in keeping with 2 Kings 18.31-32 where Sennacherib told Hezekiah that if he would surrender he would be allowed to live on his own land until a latter time when he would be carried off into captivity.

So the dual invasion account develops the historical record as follows.  In the days following the Lachish conquest, and possibly developing during this siege, Sennacherib found himself dealing with pockets of rebellion throughout his empire. 

These pockets of rebellion required Sennacherib to lead his armies out of Judea to deal with these rebellions.  As a result of these rebellions Hezekiah apparently decided to sue for independence and called for help from Egypt.  As a result Hezekiah’s rebellion would eventually bring Sennacherib’s armies back to Hezekiah in Jerusalem again.  Of this second conquest John Bright writes,

“It appears (II Kings 18:17; 19:8) that Sennacherib again appeared on the coastal plain and began, as before, to reduce the frontier fortresses of Judah (Lachish, Libnah), at the same time blockading Hezekiah once more in Jerusalem.  Meanwhile Tirhakah (ch. 19:9) was marching to Hezekiah’s aid.  Sennacherib, wishing to conclude matters in Judah before facing the Pharaoh, and knowing that there was not time to reduce Jerusalem by siege and assault, sent his commanding general to Hezekiah demanding surrender.  But Hezekiah, fully aware that surrender would mean the end of Judah and the deportation of its population (ch.18:13f.), preferred to die fighting.”[8]

  Ronald Harker noted that an inscribed hexagonal column was found in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, which was completed in B.C. 689, nearly twelve years following the first invasion that vanquished Lachish. [9]  The column contained in part an account of Sennacherib’s second siege of Hezekiah in Jerusalem, as suggested by John Bright.  In discussing this battle, Walter Williams notes, “Sennacherib claimed to have shut Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird shut up in a cage.”[10] 

However, Sennacherib’s siege at Jerusalem would not go as well as his conquest at Lachish.  The Bible records that king Hezekiah pleaded with God for help, and as a result received His divine intervention.  The Old Testament claims that the Angel of the Lord killed 145,000 in the Assyrian camp and saved Jerusalem.  According to a Greek historian, Heroditus, the Assyrian campaign was really a part of a desire by Assyria to invade Egypt.  When the Assyrian Army faced the Egyptian forces in Palestine their camp was over run by mice during the night.  The mice ate through the weapons and shields of the Assyrian army who were then forced to flee without their weapons, and as a result many Assyrian soldiers died.  Heroditus is known to tell tall tales and then try to pass them off as history.[11]

Therefore the debate surrounding Sennacherib’s invasion of Judea and Jerusalem revolves around the interpretation of these historical events.  Many scholars argue that Sennacherib records only one invasion of Judea, however, it should be remembered that there were at least two monuments erected by Sennacherib: 1) the wall relief recording the siege at Lachish; 2) the column recording the siege of Hezekiah in Jerusalem.  The Assyrian accounts of the mass deportation of captives from Judea must be explained historically, as well as the biblical and Greek accounts of Sennacherib’s miraculous defeat when he came against Hezekiah and Egypt in Judea.

 

Conclusion

In light of all the historical information surrounding Sennacherib and Hezekiah it appears that a dual campaign fits well into all of the evidence available.  It makes sense that Sennacherib would claim to have shut Hezekiah up in Jerusalem as a bird during his second campaign some years after receiving heavy tribute from Hezekiah. However, it does seem to make good historical sense for Hezekiah to pay heavy tribute to Sennacherib and then be immediately attacked by his armies.  It appears that the dual campaign position appears to present the best explanation for the historical evidence.

 

Footnotes

 

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