After the death of Sargon II, the king who conquered Samaria, Sennacherib, his son, became the new king of Assyria. Sargon had left his son a large empire. Sargon died in 705 B.C. When Sennacherib became king, he faced uprisings all over the empire. After ascending the throne, Sennacherib led two campaigns against Assyrian enemies in the north. A few years after he became king, Sennacherib led his forces toward Syria and Palestine.
Among the vassals who revolted against Assyria was Hezekiah, king of Judah. In preparing to revolt against Assyria, Hezekiah sought help from Egypt. He also took steps to regain independence by refusing to pay the vassal tribute. According to 2 Kings 18:7, Hezekiah “rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him.”
Hezekiah’s plan to revolt against Assyria was motivated by the promises of help from Egypt and Babylon. Hezekiah made a covenant with Egypt, a covenant which the prophet Isaiah called a “covenant with death” (Isaiah 28:18). Trusting in the military help from Egypt (Isaiah 30:1-7; 31:1-3), Hezekiah refused to pay the annual tribute to Assyria.
Sennacherib responded swiftly. First, he subdued many rebellious vassals who had rebelled against him. Then, he came against Hezekiah. According to Assyrian records, Sennacherib destroyed forty-six fortified cities of Judah and deported their population to other parts of the Assyrian empire. As for Hezekiah, Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem and kept him in the city “like a bird in a cage.”
It was at that time, that Sennacherib sent a message to Hezekiah. Mario Liverani, in his book, Israel’s History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2005) relates Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib’s message. In his book, Liverani (p. 148) quotes the annals of Sennacherib to express Hezekiah’s reaction:
“As to Hezekiah, the Judean, he did not submit to my joke.”
At a first reading, it seems that Hezekiah was being very ungrateful. Sennacherib sent him a joke and instead of accepting Sennacherib’s joke, Hezekiah refused it.
I wonder why Hezekiah rejected Sennacherib’s joke. As it is well known, some people just don’t know how to tell a joke, and maybe Sennacherib was one of those individuals. But, when one reads the joke Sennacherib imposed on Hezekiah, one understands the reason Hezekiah was not smiling.
During the invasion, Sennacherib conquered the strong cities of Judah and countless small villages in their vicinity. Sennacherib conquered the fortified cities of Judah and sent the surviving population into exile, a total of 200,150 people, young and old, male and female.
Sennacherib presents a triumphal account of his victory against Hezekiah:
As to Hezekiah, the Jew, . . . I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches inlaid with ivory, nimedu-chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, boxwood and all kinds of valuable treasures, his own daughters and concubines.
The tribute Sennacherib demanded from Hezekiah was no joke. It was so excessive that Hezekiah did not have enough silver and gold to pay the tribute; he gave all he had and paid the remainder in kind.
So, where is Sennacherib’s joke? The joke is only in a bad translation of Liverani’s book. The book was translated from Italian into English and the translators made a horrible mistake. Instead of translating: “as to Hezekiah, the Judean, he did not submit to my yoke,” the translators translated: “as to Hezekiah, the Judean, he did not submit to my joke,” thus, playing a joke on the readers.
Translating from one language to another is difficult. For this reason, translators must be very careful not to introduce into the text a foreign concept or a wrong message due to a faulty translation. I am sure the “joke” was unintentional, but for readers who may not be familiar with the annals of Sennacherib, the “joke” is not a joke at all.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary