The Case of Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah
Author Craig C. Broyles
The Bible has been the world’s bestseller not only because it discloses God and gives meaning to our lives, but also because it's good reading. One of the greatest personal discoveries for readers of the Bible is to step beyond favorite verses and stories and start comparing Scripture with Scripture. To gain God’s panoramic perspective on any biblical event or issue, we must search the Scriptures to assemble the various historical snapshots. In doing so, we appreciate the complexity of biblical events and begin to understand God’s role in them—an intricacy that matches our experience in the 21st-century.
How can we identify God’s activity in our lives? If things go in our favor, do they indicate God’s favor? If life brings us hardships, do they indicate His judgment or discipline? Or, should we trace these circumstances to human choices? God’s revelation does not give us pat answers. Instead, this canonical anthology reflects a complexity of perspectives on divine intervention, which allows us to appreciate God’s panoramic perspective.
The invasion of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, into Hezekiah’s Judah in 701 BC serves as a wonderful illustration of this web of perspectives. The story of King Hezekiah, the prophet Isaiah, and the Assyrian King Sennacherib, should be put on Hollywood’s big-screen, because it is full of drama, intrigue, big battle scenes, and surprising twists of plot.
This crisis is one of the best-documented and most controversial events in the Bible and in archaeology.
A Narrator’s Voice from the Bible: 2 Kings 18–19
Between 735 and 733 BC, a coalition from Damascus and northern Israel threatened to invade Judah (2 Kgs 16:5–18). Judah’s King Ahaz responded by appealing for help from the king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser iii. In doing so, he made Judah a vassal to Assyria. Shortly thereafter when the kingdom of northern Israel attempted rebellion against the Assyrian Empire, “the king of Assyria invaded all the land and … captured Samaria and carried the Israelites away to Assyria” (2 Kgs 17:5–6; 722 BC). The rebellion had failed, but when the Assyrian king Sargon II died in battle in 705 BC, a widespread revolt again erupted in the empire. Among the insurgents was Hezekiah, king of Judah: “He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him” (2 Kgs 18:7).
Hezekiah “saw that there were many breaches in the city of David and . . . counted the houses of Jerusalem, and . . . broke down the houses to fortify the wall” (Isa 22:10). The archaeology of Jerusalem confirms this biblical claim. “When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib [the Assyrian successor to Sargon II] had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem . . . Hezekiah set to work resolutely and built up the entire wall that was broken down, and raised towers on it, and outside it he built another wall” (2 Chr 32:2, 5). Hezekiah also “closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David,” so that the people fortified in Jerusalem could have enough water to get them through the battle (2 Chr 32:3–4; compare 2 Kgs 20:20). This is a reference to “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”—a remarkable piece of engineering that channeled water from the Gihon Spring to within the city walls.
Both the Bible and Assyrian records agree that in 701 BC Sennacherib marched west to subdue the rebel alliance, which included the Phoenician city of Sidon, the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ekron, and the kingdom of Judah. “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them (2 Kgs 18:13). As a result, Hezekiah apologizes to Sennacherib: “I have done wrong (literally, I have sinned); withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear” (2 Kgs 18:14). He eventually pays the demanded tribute, but Sennacherib does not stop here. The full punishment for rebellion against Assyria (2 Kgs 18:7, 20) would mean the removal of Hezekiah from his throne and the deportation of Jerusalem’s citizens from their land (2 Kgs 18:31–32; 19:13). Hezekiah prays (2 Kgs 19:14–19), and Isaiah prophesies that Sennacherib and his army will withdraw and return to their own land (2 Kgs 19:6–7, 32–34). Sennacherib and his army are decimated. The Bible attributes this to “the angel of the Lord” (2 Kgs 19:35). Twenty years later, Sennacherib was assassinated by his son, Adrammelech (19:35–37; 681 BC), an event confirmed by Assyrian records (Context of Scripture 3.95).
Sennacherib on Hezekiah: From Sennacherib’s Prism
“The officials, the nobles, and the people of Ekron who had thrown Padi, their king, (who was) under oath and obligation to Assyria, into iron fetters and handed him over in a hostile manner to Hezekiah, the Judean, took fright because of the offense they had committed. The kings of Egypt, (and) the bowmen, chariot corps and cavalry of the kings of Ethiopia assembled a countless force and came to their (i.e. the Ekronites’) aid. In the plain of Eltekeh, they drew up their ranks against me and sharpened their weapons. Trusting in the god Ashur, my lord, I fought with them and inflicted a defeat upon them. The Egyptian charioteers and princes, together with the charioteers of the Ethiopians, I personally took alive in the midst of the battle. I besieged and conquered Eltekeh and Timnah and carried off their spoil. I advanced to Ekron and slew its officials and nobles who had stirred up rebellion and hung their bodies on watchtowers all about the city. The citizens who committed sinful acts I counted as spoil, and I ordered the release of the rest of them, who had not sinned. I freed Padi, their king, from Jerusalem and set him on the throne as king over them and imposed tribute for my lordship over him.
As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them). I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate. 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 Silli-bel, king of Gaza, and thus diminished his land. I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, their yearly payment.
He, Hezekiah, was overwhelmed by the awesome splendor of my lordship, and he sent me after my departure to Nineveh, my royal city, his elite troops (and) his best soldiers, which he had brought in as reinforcements to strengthen Jerusalem, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver …. He (also) dispatched his messenger to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance.”
—Translation from The Context of Scripture 2.119B, Edited by William W. Hallo & K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden; New York; Köln: Brill, 2000).
A Narrator’s Voice from Assyria: Sennacherib’s Prism
In many regards, the Assyrian accounts confirm the biblical accounts. Sennacherib’s Prism is narrated topically, not chronologically. In the climax, Sennacherib makes this claim regarding Hezekiah: “He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage.” The claims and literary style of the Assyrian records are similar to those in 2 Kgs 18:13–14.
While the biblical and Assyrian accounts agree in many details, Sennacherib casts a different spin on the events. Not surprisingly, Sennacherib attributes unqualified victory to himself. How should we respond to these seemingly contradictory claims of who won and who lost? Should we simply claim that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore the more trustworthy source? That is not enough. If we claim that the God of the Bible acts in human history and experience, then those acts should be verifiable on historical grounds, insofar as data is available. Before we draw any conclusions, we must examine the rest of the evidence.
Some Reflections on the Narrators’ Perspectives
Closer analysis of the Assyrian accounts reveals a pattern in Sennacherib’s treatment of rebellious kings:
- They are deposed (and sometimes humiliated).
- They are replaced.
- Tribute is imposed.
Both the biblical and Assyrian accounts agree that Jerusalem, the capital of the rebellious vassals, is not taken, nor is Hezekiah deposed. Hezekiah pays tribute to Assyria, but it is not delivered personally. The tribute is dispatched by a messenger after Sennacherib’s return to Nineveh. These inconsistencies suggest there is something Sennacherib is not telling us.*
While Hezekiah and the people of Judah were in some measure faithful to the Lord, they also trusted in their own resources, much to the detriment of their faith in Lord. They suffered severe consequences as a result, but in the end, the Lord proved Himself faithful by delivering his holy city from human rage.
Studying the Bible is an adventure, which means it is exciting, but it also means it takes courage. When we defer to the Bible, we deliberately allow it to lead and guide us on a journey we may never have anticipated.
*What Sennacherib is not telling us will be discussed in part two of this article.
Next Week: In God’s Word through Multiple Voices, Part 2
-The Greek historian, Herodotus, presents us with a third-party account.
-Both Isaiah, whose city of Jerusalem is delivered, and Micah, whose hometown in the countryside is not, present two prophetic perspectives.