Hezekiah and the Assyrian Crisis

The events related to the Assyrian invasion of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem are difficult to determine because the timing and sequence of events as they appear in the book of 2 Kings is difficult to interpret. Assyrian records provide supplementary information that helps determine what happened before, during, and after the invasion of Jerusalem. An item of controversy is the sequence of events related to Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 B.C. This post will address some of the political issues related to Hezekiah’s rebellion against Assyria. My next post will deal with Sennacherib’s invasion and the siege of Jerusalem.

When Hezekiah became king of Judah in 715 B.C., Assyria was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East. During his reign, all of Hezekiah’s actions, his political and economic reforms, and his alliances with Egypt were preparation for his revolt against Assyria.

The siege of Samaria began under the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V (726-722). However, he died just before the city was conquered. The conquest of the Northern Kingdom was finished by Sargon II. When Sargon became king in 722, he incorporated Samaria into the Assyrian empire. He deported 27,290 citizens of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria.

Under Ahaz, Judah had become a protectorate of Assyria and paid tribute to their overlord every year. During the reign of Sargon, Judah continued as a satellite state of Assyria and Hezekiah continued paying the yearly tribute.

When Sargon became king, many nations controlled by Assyria revolted against the empire. Sargon’s attention was required somewhere else, leaving Palestine free to recover somewhat politically. Babylon, under Merodach-baladan (2 Kings 20:12, Isaiah 39:1) revolted against Assyria (720 B.C.).

With the help of the Elamites, Babylon broke free from Assyrian control for twelve years. Urartu, the Assyrian enemy to the north, revolted in 719 B.C. Phrygia, a city in Asia Minor, and Carchemish, a Hittite city in North Syria, revolted against Assyria at this time. Sargon invaded Asia Minor and deported most of the population to other parts of the empire. The Medes, a group of people from the Iranian plateau, revolted in 715 B.C.

Because of political instability in his empire, Sargon was unable to embark on any significant campaign into Palestine for several years following the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. In 716 B.C. Piankhi, an Ethiopian king, became king of Egypt. Piankhi’s policy was to unify Egypt and to extend Egypt’s control to Asia. With the presence of Egypt in Asia, Assyrian vassals in Palestine turned to Egypt for help against Assyria.

Several of the Philistine cities revolted against Assyria in 714 B.C. in what is commonly known as the Ashdod Rebellion. Ashdod withheld its tribute and other Philistine towns also rebelled. Egypt had political interests in this rebellion. According to Assyrian documents, Judah, Edom, and Moab were invited to participate in the rebellion.

Hezekiah was tempted to join the alliance and may have discussed this possibility with Egypt since Isaiah says that Egypt sent ambassadors in what the prophet sarcastically called “vessels of papyrus” (Isaiah 18:1-2). Both the desire for political freedom from Assyria and the requirement of paying the annual tribute to Assyria were strong motivating factors that almost prompted Hezekiah to join this rebellion.

The prophet Isaiah strongly opposed the revolt against Assyria (see Isaiah 20:1-4). According to the text, Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot to demonstrate what would happen to Egypt and Ethiopia and the foolishness of trusting in them for help. Although the text is silent on Hezekiah’s decision, it is clear that he listened to Isaiah’s words and did not participate in the revolt for when Sargon crushed the revolt, Judah did not suffer any reprisal from Assyria.

After Sargon’s decisive demonstration of force, Hezekiah made no other overt act of rebellion against Assyria. As long as Sargon ruled, Judah remained a vassal and paid the annual tribute to Assyria. However, while Hezekiah continued paying the annual tribute, he quietly began his preparations for revolt.

These preparations for a possible revolt included a concerted effort to arm Judah, to prepare for war, and to plan against a siege of Jerusalem. As discussed in a previous post, Hezekiah prepared for his revolt against Assyria by making weapons and setting combat commanders over the people, by preparing storehouses for the harvest, stalls for the animals, by rebuilding the broken walls of Jerusalem, by strengthening the Millo, and by making a water tunnel to bring water into Jerusalem.

In 705 the opportunity for rebellion against Assyria became a possibility. Sargon was killed in a battle and his death motivated several of the vassal nations to revolt against Assyrian domination. When Sennacherib, Sargon’s son, ascended the throne, he immediately took steps to deal with vassal rebellion against his kingdom. Merodach-baladan had revolted against Assyria and regained his throne in Babylon. With Elamite help, Merodach-baladan fought against Assyria until 702 when Sennacherib was able to subdue Babylon. At the same time Sennacherib was fighting against Babylon, rebellion broke out in the west and it was into this situation that Judah was eventually drawn.

It was in the midst of this political upheaval that Merodach-baladan sent messengers to Hezekiah to congratulate him for recovering from his illness (2 Kings 20: 12-19; Isaiah 39:1-8). It is possible that the real purpose of the Babylonian embassy was to gain Judah’s assistance in the Babylonian struggle against the Assyrian stronghold.

Scholars are not in agreement with the purpose of the Babylonian visit. However, since Merodach-baladan was fighting against Sennacherib and Assyrian imperialism, it is possible that he wanted to enlist potential allies or at the very least promote diversionary rebellions to occupy Sennacherib’s attention which would then relieve Assyrian pressure from the Babylonian army.

According to the Deuteronomic historian, sometime after Sargon’s death in 705 B. C., Hezekiah withheld his tribute from Assyria: “He rebelled against the king of Assyria, and would not serve him” (2 Kings 18:7). This act of defiance was an open declaration of rebellion against Assyria.

Hezekiah took action against some of the Philistine cities that refused to join in the revolt (2 Kings 18:8). According to Sennacherib’s inscription, the people of Ekron deposed their king, who was loyal to the Assyrians, and delivered him to Hezekiah who kept him captive in Jerusalem.

Hezekiah sent an embassy to Egypt asking for help. Isaiah opposed this alliance with Egypt and called it “a covenant with death” (Isaiah 28:15). He warned against the revolt by declaring that an alliance with Egypt would bring disaster to Judah:

“Oh, rebellious children, says the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt; Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation” (Isaiah 30:1-3 NRSV).

While Isaiah was successful in stopping Hezekiah from revolting against Sargon during the Ashdod Rebellion in 714 B.C., he was unsuccessful in stopping Hezekiah from revolting against Sennacherib. Scholars have suggested that Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyria came as a result of his illness. Since Hezekiah became very sick and was at the point of death (2 Kings 20:1), it is possible that he became too incapacitated to handle the duties of the kingdom and that his princes and nobles took the initiative to enter into this alliance with Egypt.

It is also possible that the anti-Assyrian faction in his government pressured him to revolt against Assyria and that he was the one who decided to establish the alliance with Egypt. Regardless of the motivation behind the alliance with Egypt, the decision to revolt had been made and there was nothing else to do but to prepare for the coming of Sennacherib and the siege of Jerusalem.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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