The story of Biblical history now shifts to the south, and very soon after the northern kingdom ceased to exist the southern kingdom came to be led by one of the key figures in ancient Israelite history. Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz to the throne when Ahaz died in 727 B.C.E. Hezekiah ruled for three decades, until 697 B.C.E., and he embarked on bold courses on two fronts- he introduced major reforms to religious practice that had a significant impact on Israelite religion and he took a defiant stand against Assyria, a stand from which he would quickly have to retreat. We are fortunate that we have ample records of Hezekiah’s actions, both from the Bible and from other sources. The Bible records the events of Hezekiah’s rule in the Book of Kings and in the Book of Chronicles, the Bible’s two accounts of Israel’s royal history, and in Isaiah 1-33, in which we get the prophet’s view of the events surrounding Hezekiah and the prophet’s own thoughts and advice to the king. We have further evidence in the form of inscriptions, ranging from a major inscription—the Siloam Inscription, which documents the work of the laborers who dug a water tunnel in preparation for an Assyrian attack—to humble jar handles stamped with the word lemelekh (“belonging to the king”), which may have contained supplies stored in preparation of the Assyrian attack. In addition, we are fortunate to have an extensive record of the Assyrian viewpoint, which was preserved not only in their annals but also in visual form on grand reliefs carved on the walls of the royal palace.
The Bible views Hezekiah, thanks to his religious reforms, in a very positive light. 2 Kings 18-1-8 credits Hezekiah with removing bamot (“the high places” or altars that served as local shrines), breaking down pillars that indicated that a particular place was to be treated as holy, cut down the asherah (which may have been a sacred tree or pole and which may have represented a consort to Yahweh, the Israelite God) and destroyed the Nehustan, the snake that Moses himself is said to have fashioned out of bronze. Except for the Nehushtan, all the cult objects destroyed by Hezekiah had long been condemned by the Bible, which explains why the Bible views Hezekiah so favorably. It should also be noted that the cult objects Hezekiah destroyed were not a part of Assyrian religion; Hezekiah’s religious reforms, therefore, should not be seen as part of his later revolt against Assyria. On the contrary, scholars believe that the religious reforms occurred early in Hezekiah’s reign, suggesting that they were a priority for him; his revolt against Assyria did not happen until late in his rule.
For two decades, Hezekiah seems to have been content to be a vassal to Assyria, but for reasons that are not clear, he began to chafe under the domination of that great power when Sennacherib succeeded his father Sargon II to the throne in 705 B.C.E. Hezekiah’s attempt to wriggle free of Assyria came at an odd moment- Assyrian rule was strong in the west, the area that included Judah, so much so that the era is called by historians the age of the Pax Assyriaca. Indeed, Hezekiah’s revolt was the only time that Sennacherib had to send his army west to quell an uprising.
Hezekiah was not alone in attempting to free his kingdom from the Assyrians. At the death of Sargon, Babylon rebelled in the east; in the west, Sidon, Ashkelon, and Ekron also rebelled. Egypt, no doubt hoping to regain territory it had previously lost to Assyria, supported the revolt.
Sennacherib responded by systematically attacking each of the rebellious states. He first quelled the revolt in Babylon and then turned his attention to the west. He subdued Sidon and then marched south along the coast; Ashkelon and then Ekron succumbed to his mighty army. Hezekiah was Sennacherib’s sole remaining adversary.
Sennacherib’s devastating foray into Judah is recorded in 2 Kings 18-13-19 to 19-37 and in the Assyrian records; the two corroborate each other to a great degree. Bible scholars have noted that the Biblical account contains two distinct sections; the first (2 Kings 18-13-16) summarizes the havoc caused by Sennacherib, leading Bible scholars to suggest that it is based on a source familiar with the events. The rest of the Biblical account emphasizes the role of the prophet Isaiah and his view that Hezekiah not surrender to Sennacherib. Because of this viewpoint, scholars have tended to dismiss the historical reliability of this section of the Bible’s account, but recent studies—noting Assyrian language and outlook contained in the account—have suggested that even this portion of the Biblical narrative is based on a direct knowledge of the events.
Sennacherib boasts in his annals of destroying 46 cities in Judah, including the fort-city of Lachish. In addition, the siege and capture of Lachish and the subsequent expulsion of the city’s inhabitants are depicted on wall reliefs in the royal palace at Nineveh. It seems that Lachish served as Sennacherib’s base of operations for his campaign against Judah; the Bible, early in its account, notes that Hezekiah sent a conciliatory note to Sennacherib at Lachish.
Both the Biblical and the Assyrian accounts make clear that Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem—Sennacherib boasts that he had trapped Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage”—but neither indicate for how long. In the end, Hezekiah was able to save Jerusalem, and his rule, by paying a stiff ransom. He withstood Sennacherib’s siege no doubt thanks in good part to the precautions he had taken before Assyria’s attack on Judah. 2 Chronicles credits Hezekiah with rebuilding Jerusalem’s city wall, adding a second wall around the city, and strengthening the millo (apparently a fortified area at the north end of the City of David, between the royal palace and the Temple).
Perhaps the most significant precaution Hezekiah took was to build a tunnel to shunt water from the Gihon Spring, Jerusalem’s perennial source of fresh water and which lay outside the city’s walls in the Kidron Valley, to a pool inside the city. Now known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the rock-cut channel snakes 1,750 in an S-shape beneath the city; it was built by two teams of tunnelers who began at opposite ends and worked their way to meet in the middle. How they accomplished this engineering feat is still a mystery.
The cutting of the tunnel was commemorated, perhaps by the chief of the project, in an inscription chiseled on the wall face about 20 feet from the southern end of the tunnel. It reads, “While the stonecutters were still yielding the axe, each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, they heard the sound of each man calling to his fellow, for there was a fissure in the rock to the right and to the left. And on the day of the breaking through, the stonecutters struck each man towards his fellows, axe against axe, and the waters flowed from the source of the pool for 1,200 cubits.”
Hezekiah’s preparations allowed him to withstand the siege, but not to escape unscathed from Sennacherib. He was forced to pay a very high ransom—he had to empty his treasury and strip gold from the Temple entrance–and to declare himself a vassal of Assyria. For his part, Sennacherib must have felt that destroying Jerusalem was not worth his while; he had conquered the other kingdoms in the west, and Hezekiah was no longer a threat.
If Hezekiah was one of the Biblical authors’ favorite figures, his son Manasseh was one of their most reviled. He succeeded his father to the throne in 697 B.C.E. and ruled for the unusually long span of 55 years; he wielded power, however, over a very small kingdom that was under the heel of Assyria.
Manasseh appears in the Assyrian annals as one of several rulers who supplied material to the empire, but the Bible’s ire towards him is not due to his service to Assyria but to his religious practices. Where the Bible lauds Hezekiah and Manasseh’s grandson Josiah for their religious reforms, their bile towards Manasseh was caused specifically because he opposed such reforms. The harrowing passage in 2 Kings 20-11-14 even goes so far as to blame Manasseh for the calamity that awaited Judah, its destruction by the Babylonians- “Because King Manasseh has committed these abominations … I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears it will tingle … I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will cast off the remnant of my heritage, and give them into the hand of their enemies; they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies.”
It is important to note that, just as Hezekiah’s religious reforms were not a reaction against Assyrian religious practices, so too Manasseh’s counter-reforms were not an attempt to import Assyrian religion into Judah. Rather they were designed to return Israelite religious practice to the way they were in the days of King Ahaz, Manasseh’s grandfather, and before the reforms of Hezekiah. Specifically, Manasseh rebuilt the high places—the local shrines throughout the kingdom—that Hezekiah had destroyed ((2 Kings 21-3).
Manasseh’s actions were taking place in an era of great regional political turmoil. The Assyrian throne changed hands in 681 B.C.E. when Sennacherib was assassinated; following a power struggle, his youngest son Esarhaddon became king. Assyria then entered a period when it was wrestling with Egypt for dominance in its western lands, the area that included Judah. Manasseh, like other rulers under the domination of Assyria, provided troops to the empire to help fight Egypt.
Despite aid from its vassal states, the Assyrian empire was reaching its breaking point. Revolts in its eastern territories, particularly by the Babylonians in 652 B.C.E. would prove its undoing. During this period of upheaval, Manasseh may have entertained ideas of escaping from Assyrian domination. 2 Chronicles 31-14 records that Manasseh built an outer wall around the City of David and placed military officers in charge of cities throughout Judah. He may have made these efforts to prepare for an Assyrian attack in retaliation for withdrawing his vassalage to Assyria. It is ironic that Manasseh, whom the Bible portrays in so different a light than his father Hezekiah, nonetheless made the same effort—the building of another wall—that his father did, and for the same reason. Manasseh’s wall may have been identified by archaeologists.
The disintegration of the Assyrian empire provides the background for Judah’s own imminent demise. Manasseh’s long reign was followed by the very short reign of his son Amon (642-640 B.C.E.), who came to a bloody end in an assassination whose motivation remains murky. Amon was succeeded on the throne by his Josiah, who was only eight years old at the time. The first decade of Josiah’s rule is shrouded in mystery; Judah may have been rule by a regent (perhaps Josiah’s mother) or by a group of men who had engineered Amon’s murder. In any case, the Bible’s account of Josiah reign does not begin in detail until he is 18 (in 622 B.C.E.), and then it is primarily interested in his religious reforms.
The most central aspect of Josiah’s reforms, like those of Hezekiah’s before him, was the idea that the worship of the God of Israel could only take place in the Jerusalem Temple and be conducted solely by that temple’s priesthood. According to the account in 2 Kings 22, the cause of the reform was the discovery in the Temple by the High Priest Hilkiah of “the book of the law.” Scholars now believe that the book found was a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy; they believe that because of the strong similarities between Josiah’s reforms and the religious instructions contained in Deuteronomy. The most prominent of these are the condemnation of poles, pillars and high places that had been held to be sacred by many in Judah.
Josiah was as ambitious politically as he was religiously. He seems to have harbored a desire to extend his rule back into the former lands of the Northern Kingdom, and he may also have sought to expand his territory westward, to the former Philistine lands, as shown by an inscribed Hebrew potsherd from the time of Josiah’s reign that was discovered in Yavneh Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, in 1960.
By the time of Josiah’s reforms, Assyria was facing a two-pronged assault, from the Babylonians and the Medes. The two upstart powers captured Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, in 612 B.C.E., though Assyria managed to hold on as a greatly reduced power until 609 B.C.E.
It was against the backdrop of Assyria’s waning power that Josiah met his untimely end. For reasons still not clear to historians, Egypt seems to have decided to aid Assyria, perhaps hoping to share power in Syria and Palestine. For whatever reason, in 609 B.C.E. Pharaoh Necho II marched north with a large army. For equally unclear reasons, Josiah also decided to move north, and he crossed paths with Necho at Megiddo, located at a strategic pass in northern Israel; 2 Kings 23-29 records that “when Pharaoh Necho met him at Megiddo, he killed him.” It is not even certain whether there was a battle; it could be that discussions between the two kings turned suddenly ugly and that the powerful ruler of Egypt simply decided to do away with a nuisance.
For a brief time, Necho dominated Syria-Palestine; in Judah, he deposed Josiah’s son Jehoahaz in favor of another of another son, Jehoiakim. Egyptian rule was short-lived, however. In 605 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar took charge of the Babylonian army and twice defeated the Egyptians in key battles, first at Charchemish and then at Hamath. This left Babylon in control of the western lands and left it poised for further attacks against Egypt. It was a situation in which Judah would be caught in the middle, with devastating consequences for it.
Nebuchadnezzar would certainly have continued south with his conquests, but the death of his father in the summer of 605 B.C.E. required him to return home and accept the throne of Babylon; he would rule until 562 B.C.E. His conquests were delayed only shortly, however. In 604 he returned to the western lands and devastated the Philistine coastal city of Ashkelon. Officials in Jerusalem were concerned enough to declare a public fast (Jeremiah 36-9) and Jehoiakim soon agreed to become a vassal of Babylon, an arrangement that would last for three years.
In early 600 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar suffered one his few military defeats at Migdol, in the Nile Delta, and returned to Babylon. Pharaoh Necho seized the opportunity to mount a campaign of his own and captured Gaza. Jehoiakim decided to cast his lot with Egypt and ceased paying tribute to Babylon. It would prove to be a very costly mistake.
In the winter of 598/597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem; as it happened, Jehoiakim had died shortly before the siege and was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin. Jerusalem did not hold out long, surrendering in Adar (March) of 597. Nebuchadnezzar was relatively kind to Judah. He spared Jerusalem and only took Jehoiachin and members of Judah’s ruling class (about 8 to 10 thousand of them) into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar placed Mattaniah, a son of Josiah and the uncle of Jehoiachin, on the throne of Judah (and changed his name to Zedekiah).
Things were not to remain calm for long, however. Necho’s successors in Egypt asserted themselves in Syria-Palestine, a revolt took place in Babylon in 594 B.C.E. and Zedekiah attempted to rally several nations against the great power. Nebuchadnezzar put a quick end to that by marching into Palestine. In about 590, however, Egypt again tried to assert itself in the region, and Zedekiah rebelled against his Babylonian overlords. Once again, in early 587 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar marched on Jerusalem and began an 18-month-long siege of the city. Babylon’s military maneuvers are known to us in part from inscribed potsherds recovered at Lachich that record the increasing desperation in Judah at the expected onslaught.
The Babylonians broke through the city’s walls in July 586 B.C.E. Zedekiah tried to escape at night but was captured; Nebuchadnezzar ordered a particularly gruesome end for him- Zedekiah’s sons were killed in his presence, and he was then blinded and sent into exile. Jerusalem’s Temple was put to the torch the following month and a limited number of people were sent into exile.
Nebuchadnezzar moved the regional capital from Jerusalem to nearby Mizpah and named Gedaliah as governor. Gedaliah did not last long; he was assassinated by a champion of the Davidic royal line named Ishmael. The remnants of the local leadership, expecting a vicious Babylonian response, fled to Egypt; they took with them the prophet Jeremiah, who had in earlier days been jailed for his diatribes against those who opposed Babylon.