The failure of the Assyrian king Sennacherib to capture Jerusalem is one of the more baffling events recorded in the Bible. Even the ancients couldn't explain why the Assyrians, who had rolled over the region and were known for their might and cruelty, did not crush the Judahite capital and kill its king, Hezekiah. What happened 2,700 years ago?
The only source of information on biblical times, the bible aside, is Assyrian and Egyptian records. On the upside, the extra-biblical records were usually contemporary to the actual events. On the downside, they may have been as colored by propaganda as scripture is by religion. To elucidate what happened when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, it's worth cross-checking all these sources.
All these sources agree that by the time Jerusalem and Hezekiah faced the Assyrian battalions in 701 B.C.E., the Assyrians already controlled much of the Near East, but after some of the local kings had ceased paying their annual tribute, King Sennacherib's forces swept westward to re-assert control and bring them to heel. City after city along the Phoenician coast fell. Frightened kings hastened to submissively send tribute. Recalcitrant cities such as Ashkelon were taken by force. Then the Assyrians reached Jerusalem.
The weird thing is that they accepted tribute, left, and let Hezekiah, no toady of Assyria, live. Almost three millennia later, people are still arguing how that came to pass.
When Sennacherib came to power in 705 B.C.E., he inherited an empire in flames.
Under his father Sargon II, the Assyrian army had been beaten back by rebels in Tabal, today central Turkey. Following Sargon's II's death that year, civil unrest spread like wildfire inside the empire.
To consolidate his rule, Sennacherib went campaigning. First he secured his rear, vanquishing unrest. That done, in 701 B.C.E. Sennacherib embarked on what he called his "third campaign." His first objective in the westward drive was to secure Phoenicia. Most of the coastal cities surrendered at the mere sight of his forces.
But not all kings surrendered and offered tribute. The rulers of Ekron, Gaza and King Hezekiah of Judah balked.
The Hebrew sources for what ensued are 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Micah, and Isaiah. We also have the annals of Sennacherib; reliefs found in the Assyrian city of Nineveh (Iraq) and remains of a siege found in Lachish (Israel); Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., and 600 years later, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus.
A very badly frightened king
The Assyrians describe Sennacherib's third campaign in the Annals of Sennacherib and the Rassam Cylinder, a ten-sided artifact 49 centimeters in height found in Nineveh and written in cuneiform, which among other things gloats about plunder taken during the campaign. The Assyrian sources are the oldest and most contemporary historical record of the campaign: the earliest, the Rassam cylinder dates to 700 B.C.E. other versions of Sennacherib's annals dates to 694-689 B.C.E.
There are some holes in the Assyrian tale. The Assyrians say Jaffa was part of the Ashkelon kingdom, but the two cities were far apart and Ashdod – run by a different king altogether - lay between them. Finally, the Assyrians claimed to have taken 200,150 captives from Judah, which sounds a tad far-fetched.
Of course, the purpose of ancient record-keeping was not accuracy per se, but to convey a message. In this case: Backed by the god Ashur, the Assyrian king overpowered rebels and subdued Judah (Israel had already become part of the Assyrian provincial system under Sargon in 720 BCE); kings who refused to bow before them were ousted, and replaced with vassal kings. Rebellious leaders were punished horribly. On the Judahite king:
"[Hezekiah] I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage" (Translated from the annals of Sennacherib by Mordechai Cogan, The Raging Torrent 125, 2nd edition, Jerusalem 2018).
The Assyrians portrayed King Hezekiah of Jerusalem, a principal enemy, as a coward quailing before the Assyrian might, as toothless as his god Yahweh, who failed to prevent the Assyrians from capturing 46 of his strongholds. Sennacherib sneered that Yahweh would prove to be as impotent as the gods of other lands that had already fallen (2 Kings 18:17-35, Isaiah 36:2-3).
Among Sennacherib's victories was the powerful Judahic city of Lachish. Apparently cowed by the loss of Lachish, "caged" Hezekiah delivered a vast ransom: 30 talents of gold, worth $2 million today, silver (the Assyrians say 800 talents, the Bible says 300 – which would have been worth around $11 million), luxury items – and his daughters and women.
In the terms of the time, that meant the gods of Assyria were mightier than the neighbors'. The Judahic version naturally cast the sparing of Jerusalem in a different light, as a proactive deed of the deity: Yahweh sent an angel who struck down 185,000 Assyrians in a single night, and Sennacherib fled (2 Kings 19:35-37. Isaiah 37:33-37. 2 Chronicles 32:21).
"this is what Jehovah says about the king of Assyria: He will not come into this city, Or shoot an arrow there, Or confront it with a shield, Or cast up a siege rampart against it" – 2 Kings 19:32
Up against god himself
After the fall of Lachish, Hezekiah pays the tribute demanded by Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:14-16) Ergo, Sennacherib continued to assail Judah after its king had capitulated (2 Kings 19:8-9). Why would the Assyrian king do that?
The people of Judah angered Jehovah by worshipping Baal, bringing divine vengeance upon their heads (2 King 17:16-17). Assyria was merely Yahweh's rod to administer that discipline:
“The Assyrian, the rod to express my anger and the staff in their hand for my denunciation!” – Isaiah 10:5
And that, dear reader, could explain why Sennacherib, after taking the tribute from Hezekiah, continued to attack Judah. Yahweh made him do it.
In that light, King Hezekiah's efforts to fight bolster Jerusalem's defenses, to forge military alliances against the Assyrians and finally, to buy them off, were foredoomed: only Yahweh could settle the score with the Assyrians.
But Yahweh did that very thing too, according to the Bible.
Angel vs. bacteria
The Bible also says 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died in one night while besieging Jerusalem. That decidedly beefy number could stem from misinterpretation of the original Hebrew. Or, did Yahweh get involved after all on the Judahic side as well?
Divine intervention in and of itself is a theme in the Old Testament (Exodus 11:4-12:29, 2 Samuel 24:15-17). The Prophet Samuel describes an angel bringing pestilence against the Israelites. Some scholars think "angel of god" is biblical euphemism for "epidemic". Others simply dismiss the verse as purely theological, and unhistorical.
Alan Millard, emeritus professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic languages at Liverpool University, thinks that scholars who simply dismiss the account as purely theological, are simply ignorant of the attitudes of ancient people.
“Assyrian and other royal inscriptions do ascribe the unexpected to divine intervention, even when we might say it was ‘just the weather’. An Egyptian pharaoh said the god Amun overruled the winter weather that might have prevented a princess from the Hittites in Turkey from reaching Egypt. Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib’s grandson, told of fire falling from heaven at the command of the god Assur to destroy an invading army,” he told Haaretz.
By and large the biblical and Assyrian accounts harmonize on many core events. Crucially, both accounts agree that Sennacherib did conquer Lachish, and overran almost all of Judah but not Jerusalem. Leaving gods out of it, there could be other explanations for Jerusalem and Hezekiah's survival. Such as, mice.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in the 1st century C.E., later connected the dots:
“When Senacheirimos returned to Jerusalem from his war with Egypt, he found there the force under Rapsakes in danger from a plague, for God had visited a pestilential sickness upon his army, and on the first night of the siege one hundred and eighty-five thousand men had perished with their commanders and officers” - Jospehus, Ja. 10.17.21
Something terrible happened to the terrible Assyrians as they camped outside the Jerusalem walls, resulting in their defeat.
Something terrible also happened to the Assyrians in Egypt, according to Herodotus:
"During the night a horde of field mice gnawed quivers and their bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed, fleeing unarmed the next day" - Herodotus 2.141
Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., tells that Sennacherib marched to Egypt with a force of Arabians and Assyrians. The Egyptian soldiers were petrified but the god Ptah visited the king and priest, Sethon, in a dream and promised he would prevail. Heartened by the divine vision, Sethon gathered a band of merchants, craftsmen and traders and camped at Pelusium, a city in the Nila Delta, to face Sennacherib. They won, the Assyrians lost.
That bit about omitting soldiers and bringing along tradespeople could be ancient hyperbole for "look how we weak defeated the strong," and if anything, supports belief that some battle really did happen.
It's also plausible that mice could bring down an army. If 185,000 Assyrians suddenly upped and died, mouse-born plague is a possibility. But that was in Jerusalem and Herodotus is describing the Egyptian defeat.
Possibly two stories of two different Assyrian humiliations – in Jerusalem and Egypt – became confused over the centuries. It seems implausible that the mighty warriors were brought to their knees time and again by loquat-sized rodents.
Something fishy in the state of Judah
There is a common thread in the Assyrian, biblical and Herodotus' accounts: divine intervention in the affairs of mortals. Sennacherib's annals talk of "the utter dread" of the weapon wielded by their god Ashur.
The Assyrians do not specify what kind of weapon Ashur used. Herodotus and the Bible are clearer on this point: Yahweh's weapon was an angel of death.
To the ancients, the gods ruled the world and settled the affairs of men. The ancient kings and priests mediated with the invisible higher powers on behalf of the people. Thus the personal annals of kings gave credit, or justified their actions, in the name of the gods.
Theoretically, the Assyrian account should be more reliable on Sennacherib's campaign into Judah, because it is contemporary and should theoretically be more accurate; also Herodotus' and the biblical accounts incorporated diverse material from various ages and origins and are therefore less credible. But though contemporary, the Assyrian account was as god-struck and saturated with propaganda as anybody else's.
Writers of yore weren't fussed about a story being "true." A chronicler would say King A conquered a city and King B was defeated. A royal annalist would say that King B offended God and therefore was punished by allowing King A to seize his city.
Throughout Sennacherib's drive into the Levant, the Assyrians' clear-cut policy was to quash rebellious kings and replace them with loyalists. The Assyrians were infamous through the ancient world for their cruelty. Warrior monarch Ashurnasirpal describes:
“I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, . . . and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. . . .
"Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers(?), of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts (tree trunks) round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire . . . Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace. . . . The rest of them [their warriors] I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.” –– Translated by Daniel .D. Luckenbill, Ancient records of Assyria and Babylonia, Chicago
No wonder people were terrified of them and resistance would crumble. No wonder the Phoenician coastal cities surrendered without hesitation at the mere sight of the Assyrians; no wonder the Phoenician king fled overseas.
No wonder Hezekiah instantly paid heavy tribute after Lachish fell.
Since Assyrians were not famed for having a live-and-let-go policy for their enemies, questions emerge about what on earth happened in the Judah campaign.
Why did Sennacherib change policy? Why didn't he dethrone the rebellious king Hezekiah and replace him with a loyal subject? Why wasn't Jerusalem captured like the other capital cities?
At the end of the day, it had to be that murine or other calamity struck the Assyrian camp and the Assyrians had to break off the campaign (Herodotus 2, 2 Kings 19:35-37, Isaiah 37:33-37, 2 Chronicles 32:21). That is the only feasible explanation why the Assyrians didn't conquer Jerusalem. They were simply incapable.
To deliberately show leniency to rebels would have made Sennacherib look weak, resulting in more uprisings.
Sins of the father
However, that Jerusalem rout must have been a hideous embarrassment, which leads us to the seemingly unrelated fact that the Assyrian palace in Nineveh has inscriptions boasting about the victory at Lachish, while the annals omit the whole thing. Now let's connect some dots.
It was not the custom of the Assyrians to record their defeats on the palace walls of Nineveh. Defeat indicated divine disapproval. Sargon's sudden death in Cappadocia (Turkey) was viewed as a bad omen, a divine punishment, throughout all of the Assyrian Empire, resulting in uprisings.
Sennacherib knew this and went to great pains to overcome the sins of his father. One measure was to abandon the capital city Sargon built at Khorsabad and commission a new palace at Nineveh.
The vast palace Sennacherib erected in Nineveh covered an area 450 meters by 210 meters. Among other things it portrayed taking spoils from Lachish:
Sennacherib, king of the universe, king of Assyria, seated upon a armchair; the spoils of Lachish passed before him”-– Mordechai Cogan, The Raging Torrent 135 (2nd edition, Jerusalem 2018)
Every foreign or domestic dignitary seeking audience with the king would have seen the relief. Why? Because it showed that the campaign into Judah hadn't been a complete fiasco.
The Assyrians were not above altering historical records as expedient. Sennacherib's sixth campaign against the Elamites is recorded as victorious, but he omits mentioning that right afterwards the Elamite king struck back, venturing as far as Babylon and capturing the Assyrian viceroy.