Sennacherib vs. Hezekiah
(The Untold "Rest of the Story" From the Assyrian Archives)
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24 September 2002 Updated and Revised
Chronology of events:
705/704 BCE Sargon II dies in battle, his body not recovered for burial (Calah is the Capital)
704 BCE Sennacherib becomes king of Assyria, makes Nineveh his Capital
Hezekiah receives Merodach-Baladan's envoys (Isa 38:5; 39:1-4)
703 BCE Sennacherib runs Merodach-Baladan out of Babylon, to Elam
701 BCE Sennacherib devastates Judah, defeats Pharaoh Shabaka at Eltekeh, Palestine
(and Taharqa who may have been present as a princely co-commander)
700 BCE Sennacherib puts down rebellion in Babylonia, chases Merodach-Baladan to Elam
697 BCE Shabaka, king of Egypt, dies; is succeeded by Shebitku
690 BCE Taharqa becomes king of Egypt
689 BCE Hezekiah dies; Sennacherib destroys Babylon in this year (cf. Isa 21:9)
681 BCE Sennacherib assassinated, Esarhaddon becomes King of Assyria (cf. Isa 37:38)
674 BCE First Assyrian invasion of Egypt is repulsed
671 BCE Esarhaddon conquers Egypt (cf. Isa 19:4; 20:3-5; 37:25)
666 BCE Assurbanipal, son of Esarhaddon, reinvades Egypt, defeats Taharqa
664 BCE Taharqa dies, succeeded by Tanwetaman
663 BCE Assurbanibal again invades Egypt, defeating Tanwetaman, and sacking Memphis
539 BCE Cyrus the Persian captures Babylon, allows Jews to return to Judah (Isa 45:1-13)
Isaiah 1-39 can be dated to ca. 689 BCE as we are told Hezekiah has 15 more years to live (Isa 38:5, he died in 689 BCE). Another internal "marker" suggests 681 BCE OR LATER based on the mention of Esarhaddon succeeding his father, Sennacherib, upon the latter's assassination by his two sons (Isa 37:3-38). An even later period may be indicated by the statement that the Assyrian king has boasted of drying up Egypt's streams with the sole of his foot (Isa 19:4-10; 37:25) which would suggest 671 BCE when Esarhaddon conquered Egypt. Another "marker" is the mention of Cyrus who is to overthrow Babylon (Isa 44:28; 45:1-13), setting free God's people, allowing them to return to Judah, Babylon's fall to Cyrus being dated to circa 539 BCE.
We are informed that God will deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the Assyrian king. He will not enter the city nor advance upon it with a shield or pile up a siege mound against it (Isa 37:33).
"He shall not enter this city; He shall not shoot an arrow at it, or advance upon it with a shield, or pile up a siegemound against it." (Isa 37:33 TANAKH. Philadelphia. The Jewish Publication Society. 1988)
Unfortunately for Isaiah's claims, the Assyrian account of the "sparing" of Jerusalem exists in the archives of Sennacherib. The Assyrian reords contradict Isaiah's claims. I guess it boils down for the reader as to whom to believe, Isaiah? or Sennacherib?
"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." (p.200, "Sennacherib (704-681 BCE): The Siege of Jerusalem." James B. Pritchard, Editor. The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.1958)
So, Sennacherib claimed to have erected a siege mound ("earthwork") about Jerusalem, hindering movement from Jerusalem's gate, _contra_ Isaiah's claim.
Isaiah claims that God will not allow Jerusalem to fall to the Assyrian king, he will spare it. We are told that God will cause the Assyrian King to "hear a rumor," which will delude him, causing him to return to his land (Isa 37:7). I find this a strange statement on Isaiah's part, as we are later told that the reason the Assyrian king leaves is because God's angel destroys overnight 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, whereupon, the King breaks camp and returns to Nineveh, and while praying to his god, his two sons assassinate him, Esarhaddon becoming his successor (Isa 37:36-38). The succession of Esarhaddon is dated to 681 BCE according to Assyrian annals.
"Thus said the Lord: Do not be frightened...I will delude him: He will hear a rumor and return to his land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his land." (Isa 37:6-7 TANAKH)
"That night an angel of the Lord went out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and the following morning they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and retreated, and stayed in Nineveh. While he was worshipping in the temple of his god Nisroch, he was struck down with the sword by his sons Adrammelech and Sarezer...his son Esarhaddon succeeded him as king." (Isa 37:36-38 TANAKH)
The Assyrian account makes no mention of why Jerusalem wasn't taken. Sennacherib does, however, state that Hezekiah paid a penalty tribute for rebelling against him, 30 talents of Gold and 800 talents of silver. What is most interesting is that Sennacherib states that the tribute was sent to him, AFTER HIS RETURN, TO NINEVEH:
"Hezekiah...did send me LATER, TO NINEVEH, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver..." (pp.200-201, "Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) : The Siege of Jerusalem")
Hezekiah was told by Isaiah "in a poem," that The Assyrian would not take the city:
"Fair maiden Zion despises you, she mocks at you; Fair Jerusalem shakes her head at you. Whom have you blasphemed and reviled? Against whom made loud your voice and haughtily raised your eyes ? Against the Holy One of Israel!...I know your stayings and your goings and comings, and how you have raged against Me, because you have raged against Me, and your tumult has reached My ears, I will place My hook in your nose and My bit between your jaws; and I will make you go back by the road by which you came." (Isa 37:22-29 TANAKH)
The "contempt" for the Assyrian king from Isaiah's "little ditty" is obvious! There's a problem however, why would Hezekiah STILL FEAR the Assyrian king AFTER God's angel had destroyed 185,000 soldiers, causing the Assyrian retreat to Nineveh? Sennacherib says that Hezekiah LATER sent the tribute to him while he was at Nineveh! Surely, if an angel of the Lord had really destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers Hezekiah would have been "heartened" by God's act and he would have witheld the tribute not daring to affront his God by removing the gold from the Temple's doors (2 Ki 18:16). Hezekiah would have "thumbed his nose" at Sennacherib, and kept the tribute and would have taunted the Assyrian to the effect of, "If you show your face around here again my God will destroy another 185,000 of your men, so don't come back looking for any tribute!"
We are told that Hezekiah followed after the Lord with all his heart. What a strange way for God to show his appreciation by having Sennacherib come and take most of Hezekiah's kingdom away from him!
"In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz of Judah became King...HE TRUSTED ONLY IN THE LORD THE GOD OF ISRAEL; THERE WAS NONE LIKE HIM AMONG ALL THE KINGS OF JUDAH AFTER HIM, NOR AMONG THOSE BEFORE HIM. HE CLUNG TO THE LORD; HE DID NOT TURN FROM FOLLOWING HIM, BUT KEPT THE COMMANDMENTS THAT THE LORD HAD GIVEN TO MOSES." (2 Ki 18:1, 5-6 TANAKH)
In addition to the gold and silver sent _later_ to Nineveh, Isaiah forgets (?) to mention Hezekiah's daughters taken as hostages along with his concubines (wives), and that his troops _deserted him_ and went over to the Assyrian enemy! Also note that Hezekiah is portrayed below as Sennacherib's SLAVE _contra_ the biblical portrayal of Hezekiah no longer being a slave because God has overthrown the Assyrian yoke of servitude by destroying the Assyrian army at Jerusalem!
"His towns which I plundered, I took away from his country, and I 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 with ivory, nimedu chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant hides, ebony-wood, boxwood and all kinds of valuable treasures, his own daughters, concubines, male and female muscians. In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his personal messenger." (pp. 200-201, Pritchard)
Following the death of Sennacherib, the story of Hezekiah's illness, recovery and reception of Merodach-Baladan's envoys occurs. This story is out of historical sequence. The internal clue is the statement that Hezekiah's prayer has been answered, God will give him another 15 years to live. As Hezekiah died ca. 689 BCE, add 15 yrs, and we have 704 BCE for the arrival of Baladan's envoys, then in 701 BCE Sennacherib appears to ravage Judah for Hezekiah's rebellion.
Why is this story (Isa 38:4; 39:1-8) out of historical sequence? It should have preceeded Sennacherib's invasion (Isa 36:1). I suspect that the writer of Isaiah wanted a "happy ending," not only has the haughty Assyrian king been defeated by God, he has been slain, and Hezekiah recovers from a deadly illness and praises God for everything. Hezekiah, noted for his righteousness (2 Ki 18:5-6), is allowed to think he will have peace for the remaining years of his life, the Assyrian threat is over. God is portrayed as fulfilling his promise, that he would fight personally at Jerusalem and trample underfoot the Assyrian upon the mountains of Jerusalem, freeing his people of the Assyrian yoke:
"The Lord of Hosts has sworn this oath: As I have designed, so shall it happen; What I have planned, that shall come to pass: To BREAK ASSYRIA IN MY LAND, TO CRUSH HIM ON MY MOUNTAIN. AND HIS YOKE SHALL DROP OFF THEM..." (Isa 14:24-25 TANAKH)
"So the Lord of Hosts will descend to make war against the mount and hill of Zion. Like birds that fly, even so will the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting and rescuing...Then Assyria shall fall, not by the sword of man; a sword not of humans shall devour him...Declares the Lord who has a fire in Zion, who has an oven in Jerusalem." (Isa 31:4-9 TANAKH)
In reality, if the Assyrian account is to be believed, it wasn't over, Hezekiah's daughters and concubines (wives) were hostages at Nineveh. He never rebelled again.
What about "the rumor" Sennacherib heard, that caused him to return to Nineveh (Isa 37:7)? He left Judah in 701 BCE, and we find him the following year on the offensive in Babylonia/Chaldea against Merodach-Baladan. Perhaps "the rumor" was that Merodach was stirring up rebellion again while the Assyrians were beseiging Jerusalem? They lifted the siege, when offered heavy tribute, Hezekiah's daughters and concubines, and perhaps (?) took Hezekiah's army which had deserted him with them, to employ them as a conscript vassal army against the Chaldeans and Merodach-Baladan.
So, Jerusalem was spared not because an angel destroyed an Assyrian army, but because Sennacherib was satisfied that Hezekiah was no longer a military threat, and his army was now needed in Chaldea against that "ever-scheming" Merodach-Baladan.
It is most unlikely that the generation who witnessed Hezekiah's troops _deserting_ him, and his sending his daughters and concubines to Nineveh, AFTER Sennacherib's return, would have been convinced that God spared Jerusalem by sending his angel of death to devastate an Assyrian army, securing Judah's freedom from Assyrian oppression.
Critical scholars have noted that there may be two authors for the Book of Isaiah. The latter author is called Deutero-Isaiah, and he is dated ca. 540 BCE as he describes Cyrus about to take Babylon in that year. I suspect that the whole Book of Isaiah was probably written by Deutero-Isaiah, but that he probably had access to the "failed prophecies" of the 8th century BCE Isaiah and incorporated/edited them into a different format. Thus the Book of Isaiah's account of Jerusalem's being spared by God's personal destruction of the Assyrian army could have been concocted in 540 BCE with no one around to contradict its portrayal of the events, no one that is, except the royal Assyrian archives of Sennacherib which reveal the "more probable" chain of events.
Hezekiah's reign is dated by some scholars as circa 715-687 B.C. Sennacherib's reign was circa 705 B.C.-681 B.C. That is to say, 6 years _after the death_ of Hezekiah, his tormentor, Sennacherib, is assassinated. Hezekiah never rebelled again against his Assyrian master. Sennacherib had Hezekiah's daughters and concubines (wives) as hostages in Nineveh to assure his obedience and he had deprived Hezekiah of the ability to amass enough wealth to re-outfit another Judaean army, much of his wealth-producing farm land being given to other loyal non-rebelling kings.
In the end however, the choice has to be yours dear reader, who's story is more believable, Isaiah's or Sennacherib's?
If Isaiah's, why would Hezekiah, out of fear, send _LATER_ to Nineveh, the gold from the doors of the Temple (an act which would "affront" God), silver, and his daughters and concubines, when God had demonstrated that he would intervene to protect his people from the Assyrians?