God's Word through Multiple Voices: Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah

Craig C. Broyles

In the Jan–Feb 2009 issue of Bible Study Magazine, Dr. Craig C. Broyles discussed the Greek Historian Herodotus’ account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and the prophetic perspectives of Isaiah and Micah. This built upon his discussion in the Nov–Dec 2008 issue of the record of the events in 2 Kgs 18–19 and Sennacherib’s own account in a prism discovered in his palace. In this issue, Dr. Broyles tells us how we should respond to these diverse, discrepant accounts, and reflects on what these events tell us about the prophetic word of God.

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.

A Biblical Perspective on Hezekiah's Decisions

Second Kings 18:7 appears to commend Hezekiah’s decision to join the rebellion (“And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him”). The prophet Isaiah, however, condemns Jerusalem’s rulers for forming a coalition of rebellion with Egypt. Isaiah promotes the idea that Yahweh will “protect Jerusalem,” and cause “the Assyrian [to] fall by a sword, not of mortals” (Isa 31:5, 8; also see 30:31). Even though Judah has “deeply betrayed” the Lord, Isaiah promises their rescue (Isa 31:5–6). Meanwhile, Micah laments Sennacherib’s invasion as divine judgment (Mic 1:12).

How should we respond to this diversity and these discrepancies? Should we call them contradictions and dismiss the Bible as merely a human document? Or should we assert more forcefully that the Bible is God’s Word and concede that the resolution is simply unknown to us? First, we must not get defensive but rather take courage. If we have the conviction that the Bible is the word of God then we should believe that it is fully trustworthy—when properly interpreted—and can endure any legitimate scrutiny. Second, we should endeavor to be “noble-minded” like the Jews in Berea who were “examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11 NASB).

To come to terms with the perspective of 2 Kings we must examine the basis of the narrator's claims more closely.

Scholars often call the writer of 2 Kings the Deuteronomistic Historian because his judgments of the kings of Israel and Judah are based on the book of Deuteronomy, especially chapter 12. His assessment that Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” is because he “broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole” (2 Kgs 18:3–4; compare 18:22), just as prescribed in Deut 12:3.

His comment that Hezekiah “rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him” (2 Kgs 18:7) is contrasted with the failure of his predecessor, King Ahaz, who constructed a pagan altar for the Jerusalem temple in deference to “the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 16:10–18). From this Deuteronomic perspective, resistance to pagan idolatry becomes fused with independence from a foreign, pagan state.

The claim that Hezekiah “prospered” (literally, “succeeded;” 2 Kgs 18:7), even when “he rebelled against the king of Assyria,” must be seen in comparison to the king of northern Israel, Hoshea, who likewise rebelled. In Hoshea's case, “the king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria” (2 Kgs 18:11); whereas, in Hezekiah's case, his refusal to serve under Assyrian control and insistence on maintaining his throne and most of his people, was followed by the Assyrian repulsion from Jerusalem. This insertion of 18:9–12, which is repetition from 17:5–8, into the story of Hezekiah confirms this interpretation.

Sennacherib's Prism

Hezekiah’s “success” is mitigated just a verse later: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them” (2 Kgs 18:13). Hezekiah then apologizes to the Assyrian king and agrees to pay whatever tribute is imposed, including “silver” and “gold” from “the temple of the Lord” (2 Kgs 18:14–15). In addition, both Hezekiah himself (2 Kgs 19:4) and Isaiah (2 Kgs 19:30–31) refer to “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah.” Although the storyline in 2 Kings precedes the miraculous rescue of Jerusalem in center stage (2 Kgs 18:17–19:37), 2 Kgs 18:13–16 are important verses that might go overlooked. But other passages elsewhere in the Bible, namely Micah’s lament for these destroyed cities of Judah, make sure that the readers of the Bible do not forget those outlying towns that were not as fortunate as the capital city of Jerusalem (Mic 1:1–16). Sennacherib’s Prism claims that he had taken captive “200,150 people” and had “diminished his land.” And the wall relief of the siege of Lachish in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh graphically illustrates the cruel terror with which the Assyrians repay their rebels, as does the archaeology of Lachish itself.

Theological Reflections on Hezekiah's Decisions

Our “examining of the Scriptures” brings into sharp relief an essential point for responsible interpretation of the Bible. If we merely quote chapter and verse, presuming this represents God’s entire perspective on any given issue, then we misrepresent the Word of God which is often presented through many words, as well as diverse passages in the Holy Scriptures.

The events surrounding Hezekiah’s rebellion against the Assyrian Empire and Sennacherib’s invasion testify powerfully to the consequences of ignoring Yahweh’s prophetic word, on the one hand, and to Yahweh’s faithfulness during the eleventh hour, on the other hand. We can well imagine Hezekiah’s dilemma. On the one side he has his political and military advisers, and on the other, the prophet Isaiah. At stake are the lives and territory of the kingdom of Judah. Trusting in Yahweh may seem the obvious choice while reading the Bible, but if we were living in the midst of the realities and complexities of a vassal state¹ rebelling against a ruthless empire—with its siege machines and threats of mass burials—we too may have made the decisions Hezekiah did. As today, the decision that befits faith and common-sense wisdom may not be clear.