The Case of Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah
Author Craig C. Broyles
The case of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s invasion into Hezekiah’s Judah in 701 BC is one of the best-documented and most controversial events in the Bible and in archaeology.
In last week's post, Dr. Craig C. Broyles discussed the differences between how Sennacherib's invation of Judah is recorded in 2 Kgs 18-19 and Sennacherib's own account. In this post, Dr. Broyles analyzes the Greek Historian Herodotus’ third-party account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah (2 Kgs 18–19), as well as Isaiah and Micah’s prophetic perspectives on the event.
A Historian’s Voice from Greece: Herodotus’ Histories
Herodotus was a Greek historian of the fifth century BC. Regarding his narrative about Sennacherib, he claims to “have relied on the accounts given … by the Egyptians.” Both Isaiah’s prophecy and the narrative of 2 Kings are in agreement that what causes Sennacherib to “turn” and withdraw from Jerusalem is a “report” that Egyptian forces were approaching him (2 Kgs 19:6–9a; compare, 2 Kgs 19:28, 33). The Assyrian account and this one from Herodotus agree that during Sennacherib’s campaign he engaged in battle with Egypt. Both the Bible and Herodotus’ Egyptian source concur that the Assyrians suffered a dramatic and unexpected setback, so that “they abandoned their position and suffered severe losses during their retreat” (Herodotus). The Bible attributes this setback to “the angel of the Lord” (2 Kgs 19:35), Herodotus to “thousands of field-mice.” While acknowledging the ultimate agent of this reversal, it is tempting to think of some sort of plague befalling Sennacherib’s troops as its immediate cause. Though based only on circumstantial evidence, such an event would also help us to fill in the apparent gaps in Sennacherib’s own account, wherein his failure to take Jerusalem and depose Hezekiah is inconsistent with his treatment of other rebels.
Herodotus on the Egyptians and Sennacherib: From Herodotus, Histories 2.141
Next on the throne after Anysis was Sethos, the High priest of Hephaestus. He is said to have neglected the warrior class of the Egyptians and to have treated them with contempt, as if he had been unlikely to need their services. He offended them in various ways, not least by depriving them of the twelve acres of land which each of them had held by special privilege under previous kings. As a result, when Egypt was invaded by Sennacherib, the king of Arabia and Assyria, with a great army, not one of them was willing to fight. The situation was grave; not knowing what else to do, the priest-king entered the shrine and, before the image of the god, complained bitterly of the peril which threatened him. In the midst of his lamentations he fell asleep, and dreamt that the god stood by him and urged him not to lose heart; for if he marched boldly out to meet the Arabian army, he would come to no harm, as the god himself would send him helpers. By this dream the king’s confidence was restored; and with such men as were willing to follow him—not a single one of the warrior class, but a mixed company of shopkeepers, artisans, and market-people—he marched to Pelusium, which guards the approaches to Egypt, and there took up his position. As he lay here facing the Assyrians, thousands of field-mice swarmed over them during the night, and ate their quivers, their bowstrings, and the leather handles of their shields, so that on the following day, having no arms to fight with, they abandoned their position and suffered severe losses during their retreat. There is still a stone statue of Sethos in the temple of Hephaestus; the figure is represented with a mouse in its hand, and the inscription: “Look upon me and learn reverence.” Up to this point I have relied on the accounts given me by the Egyptians and their priests.
—Translation from Herodotus, The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Penguin Books, 1954).
A Prophetic Voice from Jerusalem: Isaiah
The accounts surrounding Hezekiah’s rebellion against the Assyrian Empire and Sennacherib’s invasion powerfully testify to the consequences of ignoring Yahweh’s prophetic Word, as well as to Yahweh’s faithfulness in the eleventh hour. 2 Kings 19:6–7 and 19:20–34 (and the parallel accounts in Isa 37:6–7 and 37:21–35) contain some of Isaiah’s prophetic oracles embedded in a narrative context, datable to the crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion, which testify to this.
Essential to Hezekiah’s attempt to “rebel” against “Assyria” is his prior coalition with “Egypt,” as noted in the Assyrian official’s speech in the historical narrative of 2 Kgs 18:19–24. Thus, we should search for passages in Isa 1–39 which use both the proper nouns “Assyria” and “Egypt.” When we do, we discover a key oracle in Isa 31 (also see Isa 30:1–7).
Isaiah on Hezekiah and the Assyrian King
When we turn to Isaiah’s datable oracles in 2 Kgs 19 (compare Isa 37) we step chronologically forward into the midst of the crisis.
2 Kings 19:6-7 NRSV (compare, Isaiah 37:6–7):
“Isaiah said to them [the servants of king Hezekiah], “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’”
2 Kings 19:22, 32–34 NRSV (compare, Isaiah 37:23, 33–35):
“Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and haughtily lifted your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! …” 32Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. 33By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. 34For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
The interests of this oracle closely match those of the narrative in 2 Kgs 18–19:
1. The downfall of Assyria
2. The rescue of Jerusalem
3. A military coalition with Egypt
Our searching of the Scriptures thus yields a significant discovery: we have gained a decidedly different perspective on King Hezekiah from his portrayal in 2 Kings. There the general assessment is that “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kgs 18:3), but here he is among those who “have deeply betrayed” the Lord by seeking to ensure national security by means of a military alliance, rather than by trusting in the Lord.
In several other oracles collected in Isa 28-33 the prophet pronounces “the word of the Lord” that soundly condemns “the rulers of this people in Jerusalem” (including Hezekiah, though not named) for engaging in a “treaty” of alliance with “Egypt” (Isa 28:14–15; 38:8). A similar condemnation is found in Isa 22:8–11: while Jerusalem “collected the waters of the lower pool,” “made a reservoir,” and “broke down the houses to fortify the wall,” they “did not look to” the Lord. These oracles appear to precede Sennacherib’s actual invasion and the datable oracles of Isaiah contained in 2 Kgs 18–19 and Isa 36–37, which are pronounced in the midst of the crisis. The prophet’s reasons for condemning attempts at forming a “rebel coalition” are clear.
1. Rebellion against the powerful Assyrian empire is impractical: “Egypt’s help is worthless” (Isa 30:7).
2. The rulers of Jerusalem have misguided theological priorities: they act “without asking for my counsel” (Isa 30:2), and they “do not look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 31:1).
3. They lack theological vision: “the Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mt. Zion and … protect Jerusalem … The Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of mortals” (Isa 31:4–5, 8).
Isaiah on Making Allies with Egypt
Isaiah 31:1–8 NRSV
“‘Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! … 3The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together. … 5the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.’ 6Turn back to him whom you have deeply betrayed, O people of Israel. … 7Then the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of mortals.”¹
By searching the Scriptures, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we learn something remarkable. Although Isaiah had staunchly opposed Jerusalem’s political maneuvers to ally with Egypt, he now—in the eleventh hour—pronounces an oracle for Jerusalem’s rescue! While God may have His ideal will that His people trust Him to deal with Assyria in His own way and in His own time, He does not abandon them when they choose a political expedient. In spite of their distrust, He comes to their rescue.
A Prophetic Voice from an Outlying Town: Micah
Micah’s account of this story is quite different from Isaiah’s. In Mic 1:8–16, the prophet laments the devastation that has come to twelve cities of Judah, several of which lie in the Shephelah region, including his own hometown of Moresheth (Mic 1:1). While the historical context is not specified, the echoes of Sennacherib’s invasion are suggestive. It is apparent for several of the cities that a “conqueror” (literally, a “dispossessor”) has overrun them, giving reason for “lamentation” and “wailing.” But the reference that “disaster has come down … to the gate of Jerusalem” implies that the capital has only suffered a blockade. The closing words, “for they [i.e., the inhabitants of these cities] have gone from you into exile,” make perfect sense in light of Sennacherib’s own claims: “I took out 200,150 people … His cities which I had despoiled I cut off from his land and gave them to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron and Ṣilli-bel, king of Gaza, and thus diminished his land.”
What is particularly striking is Micah’s theological perspective on these events: “disaster has come down from the Lord.” He regards Sennacherib’s invasion as divine judgment! His theological viewpoint is as different from Isaiah’s (where Sennacherib is portrayed as an arrogant mocker of the Lord; e.g., 2 Kgs 19:22–23, 27–28) as is his social location. Perhaps this is because Isaiah’s hometown is spared during the invasion, but Micah’s is not.
Some Reflections on the Perspectives
To appreciate God’s panoramic perspective of people and events we must view them through the variety of human perspectives in the Bible. The narrator in 2 Kings approves of Hezekiah’s rebellion against the Assyrian empire and portrays its climax as Jerusalem’s deliverance. Isaiah of Jerusalem strongly condemns his political maneuvers and instead promotes faith in Yahweh. In the end, he prophesies Jerusalem’s deliverance. The prophet Micah of Moresheth, whose hometown lies near Lachish and shared its captive fate, laments Sennacherib’s devastation of Judah and perceives in it that “disaster has come down from the Lord.”
God has His “ideal will” (as exemplified in Isaiah’s initial oracles in Isa 28–33), which offers much promise and a better way. God’s people may fall short of His “ideal will” and forfeit the blessings associated with it. But even so, God does not simply leave them to their own devices. He also has his “concessionary will,” which offers a measure of blessing and may even save them from some of the consequences of their wrong decisions (as exemplified in Isaiah’s later oracles in 2 Kgs 19; compare, Isa 37).
Next Week: In God’s Word through Multiple Voices, Part 3
-How we should respond to these diverse, discrepant accounts.
-Conclusions about what these events tell us about the prophetic word of God.
¹The emphasis in this translation was placed by Craig C. Broyles.