Hezekiah and Sennacherib

Sennacherib
Image: Sennacherib, King of Assyria

In my last post on Hezekiah, I focused on Hezekiah’s attempt at revolt against Sargon II. Probably dissuaded by the preaching of Isaiah, Hezekiah did not participate in the rebellion against Assyria. However, after the death of Sargon in 705 B.C., Hezekiah made preparations for war in an attempt to break away from Assyrian domination.

Assyrian response was not late in coming. After subjugating Babylon around 702 B.C., Sennacherib turned his attention to Syria-Palestine. In 701 Sennacherib marched down the Phoenician coast and easily conquered Sidon. He also was able to subdue Arvad, Byblos, Ashdod, Ammon, Moab, and Edom as these nations reaffirmed their allegiance to Assyria. After establishing his control over these vassal nations, Sennacherib turned his attention to Judah.

Sennacherib’s intent was to conquer Jerusalem. As Sennacherib was approaching Jerusalem, Hezekiah realized that his attempt to stop the Assyrian army would not suceed. While the Assyrian army was besieging Lachish, Hezekiah sent an embassy to Sennacherib in order to surrender himself to the Assyrian king. The Deuteronomic historian describes Hezekiah’s terms of surrender:

“So Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: ‘I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me’” (2 Kings 18:14).

Sennacherib imposed a heavy tribute on Hezekiah. Sennacherib demanded from Hezekiah eight hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. In order to pay the tribute, Hezekiah sent to Sennacherib all the silver and gold he could gather, including as much of the tribute as he was able to raise. According to 2 Kings 15-16, Hezekiah gave the Assyrian king all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the royal treasury. He also stripped the gold from the doors of the temple and from the doorposts of his palace and gave them to the king of Assyria. In addition to the silver and gold, Hezekiah also gave Sennacherib precious stones, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, and his male and female musicians.

Sennacherib described his subjugation of Hezekiah by bragging that he shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage”:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-)ramps, and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls) (combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered (them) booty. 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 leaving his city’s gate. His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them (over) to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the Katru-presents (due) to me (as his) overlord which I imposed (later) upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring splendor of my lordship had overwhelmed and whose irregular and elite troops which he had brought into Jerusalem, his royal residence, in order to strengthen (it), had deserted him, 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) w3ith ivory, nimedu-chairs (inlaid) with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, box-wood (and) all kinds of valuable treasures, his (own) daughters, concubines, male and female musicians. In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his (personal) messenger.” (ANET pp. 287-8)

The remainder of the Biblical narrative about Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem is debatable. Some scholars believe that 2 Kings 18:13 through 2 Kings 19:37 is related to the Assyrian invasion of 701. Other scholars believe that starting with 2 Kings 18:17 through 2 Kings 19:37, the text refers to Sennacherib’s second campaign against Hezekiah.

After taking tribute from Hezekiah, Sennacherib sent three of his officers (2 Kings 18:17) to demand Hezekiah’s unconditional surrender. The Tartan was the chief military officer of the Assyrian army, the Rabsaris was a senior officer of the king of Assyria, and the Rabshakeh was Sennacherib’s chief diplomat.

The Assyrian officers met with three representatives of Hezekiah near the upper pool and in the presence of the Judean soldiers on the wall. The Rabshakeh presented five reasons why Judah should surrender to Assyria (2 Kings 18:20-25). These were the reasons he presented:

1. Mere words are not good strategy for war (v. 20);
2. Egypt was a “broken reed” which could be counted on for support (v. 21);
3. The people could not count of Yahweh because he was angry with Hezekiah since he had destroyed his altars on the high places (v. 23);
4. The people of Jerusalem could not supply two thousand riders even when given horses by Assyria (v. 24);
5. The invasion of Judah was sanctioned by Yahweh himself (v. 25).

Hezekiah’s officers recognized that their situation was hopeless. They requested the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic rather than the language of Judah. The Assyrian officer refused and directed his speech to the soldiers on the wall to emphasize their desperate situation and to undermine their morale.

When the Judean officers returned to Hezekiah to report the words of the Assyrian officer, Hezekiah became deeply distressed. He tore his garments and dressed himself in sackcloth, a garment used to mourn the dead and to express profound distress. Hezekiah sent a delegation to the prophet Isaiah to enquire of the Lord. Isaiah encouraged the king with a message of hope in which the prophet affirmed Yahweh’s willingness to deliver Jerusalem. The Lord would put a spirit in the king of Assyria so that he would hear a rumor and return to his own land where he would be killed (2 Kings 19:7).

In response to Isaiah’s words of reassurance, Hezekiah prayed to Yahweh. In his prayer, Hezekiah appealed to the Lord with words associated with Israel’s wars of deliverance (see 1 Samuel 4:4). Hezekiah asked Yahweh to save his people so that all the world would know that he alone was God. God answered Hezekiah’s prayer through an oracle pronounced by the prophet Isaiah. In it Yahweh promised that the king of Assyria would not come into Jerusalem and that he would save the city. Because of Hezekiah’s faith and trust in Yahweh, he and Jerusalem were delivered from the Assyrian threat.

The deliverance of Jerusalem came through a divine intervention. An angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrians in their camp and as a result, Sennacherib went home to Nineveh without destroying Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35-36). According to Herodotus, a Greek historian, mice destroyed the leather equipment of Sennacherib’s soldiers and a plague caused the high number of deaths. The miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem gave rise to the doctrine of the inviolability of Zion, the view that Yahweh was the defender of Jerusalem and of the Davidic dynasty. After Sennacherib returned home, he was assassinated by two of his sons and he was succeeded by Asharhaddon.

As mentioned before, scholars differ on their interpretation of the events recorded in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of 2 Kings. Those who propose the “one campaign theory” believe that the events recorded above refer to Sennacherib’s campaign against Hezekiah which occurred in 701 B.C. This argument is based on Assyrian records which do not mention a campaign by Sennacherib into Palestine after 701 B.C.

The “two campaign theory” is discussed by John Bright in his book A History of Israel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), pp. 298-309. This view proposes that the text refers to two different campaigns against Hezekiah. 2 Kings 18:13-16 refers to Sennacherib’s first campaign which took place in 701 B.C. After receiving tribute from Hezekiah, Sennacherib returned home.

According to Bright, 2 Kings 18:17 through 19:37 refers to a second campaign, probably in 688 B.C. The two campaign theory addresses the problem of Sennacherib sending an embassy to Hezekiah after receiving Hezekiah’s tribute. It also explains the appearance of the Egyptian king Tirhakah mentioned in 2 Kings 19:9, since according to Egyptian record, Tirhakah began to reign in 690 B.C. Those who reject the two campaign theory, say that the presence of Tirhakah in 2 Kings 19:9 is an anachronism. Although scholars are divided on this issue, I believe the two campaign theory provides a better explanation of 2 Kings 18-19 and takes seriously the mention of Tirhakah in 2 Kings 19:9.

My last post on Hezekiah will deal with his illness and his recovery. Hezekiah began his kingship as an Assyrian vassal and notwithstanding his effort at independence from Assyrian control, he ended his kingship as an Assyrian vassal. However, because of Hezekiah’s piety and trust in Yahweh, Yahweh delivered Jerusalem and preserved the Davidic dynasty, at least for a while. In spite of the conquest and destruction of several Judean cities and the deportation of many people to Assyria, the encouraging note in this helpless situation is that according to Isaiah, God had not given up on Judah yet.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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