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In 705 bc, the brilliant warrior King Sargon II of Assyria died far from home, fighting against forces led by the otherwise-obscure Eshpai the Kullumaean. He was the only Assyrian king to be slain in the field, and his death in battle represented a serious blow to Assyrian prestige. Armed with what they called ‘the overpowering divine weapon — guidance from the gods — a succession of Assyrian kings had conquered many nations. Sargon II’s unprecedented demise shattered that myth of Assyrian invincibility. Now many nations squirming under the yoke of Assyrian hegemony saw Sargon II’s death as an opportunity to rebel.

Thus when Sargon II’s son Sennacherib came to the throne in 704 bc, revolts were sprouting everywhere in his empire. Those restive states hoped that the hitherto-untested new monarch would not be a match for his militant father or his powerful grandfather, Tiglath-Pileser III. Among the first to rebel in 705 bc was King Hezekiah of Judah. And were it not for the fateful interaction between Hezekiah and Sennacherib, the landscape of modern civilization would be much different.

Despite the militaristic tradition he had inherited, Sennacherib was more than just another Assyrian king bathed up to his neck in blood. He also accomplished a mammoth renovation of his capital city, Nineveh, situated on the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. He crowned Nineveh with extensive gardens and aqueducts and was in fact the first town planner in the Western world. Sennacherib’s varied interests and activities show he was a determined and complex man. Nevertheless, he wasted little time in shoring up the threatened flanks of his empire.

Hezekiah, in raising the standard of Judah in revolt, must have thought the new king would have his hands full. He certainly was in good company. The insurgent dependencies of Assyria included some of the Philistine city-states, Judah’s neighbors — and ancient enemies — to the south; Phoenicia (now Lebanon); parts of Asia Minor (Turkey); and most significant, Babylon. Hezekiah also relied heavily on the great power of the south, Egypt, to defend him against the great power of the north.

Sennacherib reigned when the Assyrian empire was at its peak and could field armies of 100,000 or more. But he still faced a formidable enemy coalition. To Sennacherib, crushing the revolt in Judah was less important than his repeated campaigns against the sacred — but perpetually disaffected — city of Babylon, which for cultural, religious and strategic reasons he regarded as the greatest prize. Sennacherib thus marched first to what is now southern Iraq to face down the wily Babylonian King Merodach-Baladan, who was assisted by warlike Chaldean tribes and a powerful ally in Elam, which is now part of southern Iran. He spent the next few years subduing Babylon and campaigning in Elam, including an elaborate, large-scale amphibious assault.

It was not until 701 bc that Sennacherib’s army moved westward through Syria. Arriving in Phoenicia, he made short work of the rebellious Luli, king of Sidon. He installed his own client king, Tuba’lu, in Luli’s place. The cities of Tyre and Sidon fell without a fight, and the cities in their orbit surrendered. Maritime Phoenicia was the key to the Mediterranean trade from which Assyria sought to profit. The territory of Philistia also held special importance for the Assyrians, because control over that region allowed them to trade directly with Egypt, as Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II, mentioned in his records.

Judah’s importance to Assyria was geographic — it was located between Phoenicia and Philistia. The kingdom itself was of negligible value, but the Assyrians believed that their gods had given them a mission to conquer the world. In defying that mission and challenging Assyrian pride, King Hezekiah too would have to be made an example.

Hezekiah’s decision to revolt seems strange because in the process of wreaking havoc on Israel, Tiglath-Pileser III had saved Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, from certain doom. When the kings of Aram and Israel allied against Judah, Ahaz had sent for help, paying Tiglath-Pileser for his aid. As the Hebrew Bible goes on to tell it — and Assyrian records confirm — Tiglath-Pileser swooped down on Judah’s enemies to save the day for Ahaz.

Hezekiah, however, had a different temperament than his father. The Hebrew Bible describes Ahaz’s apostasies at length, alleging that the king passed his son through fire like the abominations of the nations. Ahaz is depicted in 2 Kings 16 as a man who went out of his way to stray from the tenets of traditional religious beliefs. Hezekiah, in contrast, is one of but two kings of Judah that the authors of the books of Kings praise unstintingly (the other being Josiah, late in the 7th century bc). Hezekiah won strong praise for his piety (in 2 Kings 18:3-6), and it is accounted part and parcel of his virtue that the Lord being with him, he went forth to war and achieved success in rebelling against the king of Assyria, whom he would not serve, as stated in 2 Kings 18:7.

Thus if we follow this retrospective judgment, it is Hezekiah’s religious orientation — one of the intangibles of history — that distinguished him from his father and led him to revolt, supported enthusiastically by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 38:4-8). The resulting conflict, then, was regarded as a holy war by both sides.

Hezekiah may have been pious, but he was no fool. He fortified Jerusalem and its walls as perhaps none of its caretakers had done before. Indeed he began his preparations as early as 712 bc, when Sargon II was campaigning in the region. Isaiah (22:10-11) disparaged those efforts: You have made a written tally of the houses of Jerusalem, and razed [some of] them to fortify the wall. You constructed a reservoir between the two walls instead of the old pool, not putting your faith in its Maker….

From a military point of view, the strengthening of the wall and the creation of a tunnel that would bring water from outside the walls were indispensable steps for the defense of Jerusalem. The only monumental inscription that survives from Judah was found in Hezekiah’s water tunnel. It gives a sense of the last moments in the construction of the tunnel, when workmen, hastening in the face of the Assyrian threat, wielded pickaxes from opposite directions. When they met, water flowed through for the first time in the city’s history.

While Hezekiah refused to be intimidated by the Assyrian advance, Sennacherib recorded that eight kings of the West (Syria-Palestine), a collection of kings from Phoenicia in the north to Edom and Philistia in the south, came to pay him homage and offer tribute after the Assyrians marched on Sidon. In regard to the Philistines, Sennacherib wrote: As to Sidqa, king of Ashkelon, who did not submit to my yoke, him I exiled and I brought to Assyria the gods of his household, himself and…all the royal family. I placed over the people of Ashkelon Sharru-lu-dari, son of Rukibtu, their previous king.

We see from this example and others that it was a matter of standard Assyrian policy to replace disloyal vassals with kings more loyal to them. That meant that even if the Assyrians decided not to raze Jerusalem, as Sennacherib later did to Babylon, Hezekiah ran the risk of being forcibly unseated from his throne, with the dynasty of the House of David ending ignominiously after 300 years. Although the stakes must have been painfully evident to Hezekiah, he stood his ground in Jerusalem. Hezekiah’s daring is indicated by the prominent role he played in the Padi affair, a revolt that Sennacherib described, but that went unreported in the Hebrew Bible. When the nobles and people of Philistine Ekron dethroned their king, Padi, for adhering to his oath of fealty to Assyria, they brought the king in chains to Jerusalem, where Hezekiah kept him in prison. It is mentioned in 2 Kings 18:8 that Hezekiah conducted a successful campaign against Philistine territories that retained allegiance to Assyria, which may have led to the people of Ekron delivering the faithful Padi to Jerusalem and Hezekiah for confinement.

Before the Assyrian monarch could retrieve and reinstate his loyal vassal, he had to face the combined forces of Egypt and its Ethiopian allies on the plain of Eltekeh. We know that the Assyrians faced an enemy in battle formation, complete with chariots, but a detailed account of the ensuing battle is lacking. Yet Sennacherib’s claim of complete victory is convincing because he was able to continue pursuing his campaign unhampered by further Egyptian interference. Without missing a step, the Assyrian armies marched against and took the cities of Eltekeh and Timnah. The Egyptian army’s failure to even seriously delay the Assyrian high commander’s progress merited his later mocking reference to it as a broken reed when he laid siege to Jerusalem.

Soon the persistent and patient Sennacherib was able to attack and take the offending Ekron. Then he sent to Jerusalem for the faithful vassal, Padi. Hezekiah dared not refuse. Released from captivity in Jerusalem, Padi was reinstated in Ekron and a tribute was imposed on the city.

By that time, all of Hezekiah’s other immediate neighbors — Ammon, Moab and Edom — had sensibly made submission to Sennacherib. The stage was set for the Assyrian assault on Judah, the last holdout against Assyrian rule in the entire region of Syria-Palestine.

There is indirect evidence that Hezekiah, perhaps because of his father’s history, was viewed as a loyal vassal of Assyria before the revolt. When the Assyrians were suspicious of a vassal, they placed a special official at court to keep watch and guard, along with a small military garrison. They did not do that in Jerusalem.

Sennacherib recorded that when he attacked Judah he had already successfully laid siege to 46 walled cities and conquered countless small towns and villages. In a lament, the prophet Micah (1:8-16) lists some of the towns destroyed. Taking pride in Assyrian siege craft, Sennacherib mentioned how his army penetrated fortifications using ramps, battering rams, mines, breeches and siege engines. In the course of his rampage through Judah, Sennacherib reported taking 200,150 people prisoner as spoils of war, and that is still considered a realistic figure today.

The palace reliefs depicting the siege of Lachish, now in the British Museum, show the Assyrians maneuvering siege engines up ramps, protected by archers who are covered by shields. Lachish was Hezekiah’s second greatest citadel, commanding the approach to Philistia. We know that this ancient city, a Canaanite site long before Judah came into being, was almost as strongly fortified as Jerusalem. The field drawings depicting the siege of Lachish would later be translated into stone in Nineveh and prominently displayed.

During the siege of Lachish, the Assyrian army employed battering rams and built a siege ramp that was described as being of awesome dimensions to surmount the walls. The Judeans resisted fiercely, building their own defensive ramp within the city. The Assyrian reliefs show the defenders attacking the battering rams with hurled torches. The excavators of Lachish found hundreds of arrowheads and other missiles, including the charred wood of the torches that the defenders had flung at the Assyrians.

The Assyrians also employed naked terror. One relief shows three men impaled in plain sight of the city wall. A cave near the city contains the mass grave of thousands of people slaughtered by the Assyrian army.

The biblical account, 2 Kings 18:13-15, of Sennacherib’s campaign to Judah begins: During the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, mounted an attack on all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them. Hezekiah, king of Judah, sent [word] to the king of Assyria at Lachish saying, ‘I have sinned. Desist from [attacking] me and I will pay whatever you impose on me.’ And the king of Assyria imposed on Hezekiah 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold.

From this, we learn that Hezekiah did take a leaf from his father’s book in trying to influence an Assyrian king through a cash payment. More important, we see that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib into abandoning the siege of Lachish. Though the Assyrian king accepted the money, he did not desist from his campaign, and his army did not withdraw from around Lachish, as Hezekiah hoped. When the city surrendered, the Assyrians entered and slaughtered a large percentage of the populace.

Nor did Hezekiah’s silver and gold deter Sennacherib from surrounding Jerusalem with his army, shutting Hezekiah up like a bird in a cage, as Sennacherib phrased it, and sending a high-level delegation to parley with Judean officials on the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17). The biblical account, the most vivid and journalistic in the books of Kings, gains even more credibility in the light of a general’s letter written 30 years earlier to King Tiglath-Pileser III, describing how a delegation with similar arguments tried to bring his siege of Babylon to a bloodless conclusion.

The Jerusalem delegation consisted of three high officials. Two, drawn from either the royal family or the high nobility, were the cup bearer and the Turtanu. Second-in-command to the king, the Turtanu may have served here as a field marshal.

In contrast to these aristocrats stood the lower-ranked chief eunuch. Eunuchs from Assyrian times to the late years of the Ottoman Empire were high officials recruited from outside the nobility to limit the aristocratic accumulation of power that might ultimately undermine the authority of the king.

It was thus a delegation of the highest level that approached the walls of Jerusalem for a confrontation that would echo down the dusty years of ancient history to the present day. Although the Hebrew Bible never mentions the use of interpreters, it was standard practice for the Assyrians to use them. Another possibility is that the chief eunuch was an Israelite deportee who acted as mouthpiece for the other negotiators.

Overlooked by historians dealing with Sennacherib’s campaign is a passage from a prayer to Shamash, the sun god and god of justice. The writer inquires, Will they take the city through an oath ceremony, or through friendliness and cordial peace negotiations, or through any clever ruse devised for taking a city?

This passage confirms that the Assyrians were eager to take a city without bloodshed if they could, and bring it into the Assyrian orbit by peaceful means. That is why they sent the high-level team to parley with the Judean officials. The oath to which the passage referred was the oath of fealty — the one to which Padi of Ekron was faithful — that Assyrian vassals were obliged to take. That inquiry to the sun god does much to explain the course of events in and around Jerusalem.

Having taken Hezekiah’s baksheesh, a sum the king of Judah raised by literally stripping the temple of its precious metals, Sennacherib sent a powerful army from Lachish to surround Jerusalem, blocking all traffic from the city and making Hezekiah no better — again according to Sennacherib’s boast — than a caged bird.

In 2 Kings 18:18-22, the conversation between the Assyrian high officials and their Judean counterparts took place with the people of Jerusalem listening to the parley (Assyrian kings styled themselves as Great King in their inscriptions). The Assyrian cup bearer told them to pass word to Hezekiah that the Great King of Assyria asked: What is this assurance that you place confidence in? Merely in the words of your mouth have you enunciated planning and strength for war. Now, on whom have you relied that you rebelled against me? Right now, see how you have leaned on the staff, this broken reed, Egypt, on which a man will support himself and it will penetrate his palm and pierce it. So is Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to all who rely on him.

The cup bearer adds, And if you should say to me, ‘We rely on the Lord, our God.’ Surely, it is He whose official sanctuaries and his altars Hezekiah removed and said to Judah and Jerusalem before this altar (of the Temple in Jerusalem) alone shall you worship.’ This allusion to Hezekiah’s religious reform is not surprising. The Assyrians were gifted with superb intelligence in the field, and employed spies extensively.

The cup bearer’s God is on our side speech, though in the best tradition of Assyrian psychological warfare, failed to open the gates of Jerusalem. After an Assyrian threat — Now, is it without the Lord that I have advanced against this sacred site to lay waste to it? The Lord commanded me to advance upon it and lay it waste! — the terrified Judean officials begged the Assyrians to speak in the language of diplomacy, Aramaic, rather than Judean Hebrew, so that the people manning the wall would not be able to follow their words. Naturally, the Assyrians refused.

The rest of this masterful speech continues this propagandistic mixture of history, theology and naked threat. At the speech’s conclusion, Eliakim the steward, Shebna the scribe and Joach the state secretary go off to report to the king, rending their garments in the biblical equivalent of wringing their hands.

Hezekiah summed up the situation in a few Hebrew words: For children are coming to the edge of the womb, yet the strength to give birth is lacking.

With all seemingly lost, the prophet Isaiah gave his reply to Sennacherib: Thus says the Lord to the king of Assyria: he shall not enter this city. He shall not shoot an arrow there, nor advance a shield in it, nor shall he heap up a siege-ramp.

According to 2 Kings 19:35-37, this prophecy was speedily fulfilled when a plague smote the Assyrian army, destroying it and leaving Sennacherib to slink back to Nineveh to meet a well-deserved death at the hands of his own sons. Here, the plague imagery symbolizes the divine wrath that in the biblical view drove Sennacherib away.

In fact, the Assyrians lived on. Certainly Jerusalem’s fate hung in the balance. Then word reached Sennacherib that Babylon had again risen in revolt. He abandoned the siege. Before he left, he extracted from Hezekiah a far greater tribute and gifts of overlordship not listed in the books of Kings, a tribute he listed in detail in his annals, and which was delivered in full directly to Nineveh over a period of years.

Going back to the sun god worshipper’s list of nonviolent methods of taking a city, it seems certain not only that Jerusalem made a punitive payment of tribute agreed upon with Sennacherib, but also that Hezekiah must have submitted to the oath ceremony mentioned in the Assyrian document. Having received full submission — Hezekiah is likened to a slave — Sennacherib could move on to deal with Babylon while declaring his campaign to Judah successfully concluded.

Contrary to 2 Kings 19:36-37, Sennacherib was not murdered immediately upon his return to Nineveh. In fact, his reign spanned another two decades, until 681 bc. Yet, in that time, his army never revisited Jerusalem, indicating that matters there stood to his satisfaction.

Sargon II, Sennacherib’s father, also recorded punishing a disobedient vassal savagely, but having mercy on that vassal afterward and leaving him on the throne. Sennacherib’s campaign did the same. It punished Judah severely by destroying the country. Sennacherib tormented Hezekiah by pulling in the noose gradually while Hezekiah stood there, helpless to save his people, 200,150 of whom were captured alive. There are no reliable statistics on those who were killed. Had Babylon not revolted again, it is probable Jerusalem would have shared the destruction that befell Babylon at Sennacherib’s hands in 689 bc.

With the hindsight of 2,700 years, we can see that Sennacherib’s campaign to Judah was a fateful moment in history. Had he demolished Jerusalem or even deported its inhabitants, that would have been the end of the state of Judah. Without Judah, there would have been no Judaism, hence no Christianity or Islam, and the resulting world would bear little resemblance to our own.

This article was written by Philip Stern and originally published in Great Battles: Antiquity’s Greatest Clashes. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!