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Hezekiah’s Defeat: The Annals of Sennacherib on the Taylor, Jerusalem, and Oriental Institute Prisms, 700 BCE

Sennacherib Ravages Judah

“As for Hezekiah, the Judean, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid siege to 46 of his fortified cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity …. I led off 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horse, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and counted them as booty.” (Taylor Prism)

Taylor British Museum Prism

Date- 700 BCE

Current Location- British Museum, London; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Oriental Institute, Chicago

Language and Script- Assyrian?; cuneiform

Biblical Verses- 2 Kings 18-13–19-18; Isaiah 36-1–37-8; 2 Chronicles 32-1–22

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria marched against all the fortified towns of Judah and seized them. King Hezekiah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish- “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; and I shall bear whatever you impose on me.” So the king of Assyria imposed upon King Hezekiah of Judah a payment of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was on hand in the House of the Lord and in the treasuries of the palace. At that time Hezekiah cut down the doors and the doorposts of the Temple of the Lord, which King Hezekiah had overlaid [with gold], and gave them to the king of Assyria. (2 Kings 18-13-16)

Israel Museum Prism

General Information-

• At the end of the 8th century BCE, Sennacherib moved the capital of Assyria from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) to Nineveh. Located next to modern-day Mosul, Nineveh has two prominent mounds where archaeologists have concentrated their excavations, Tel Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus, the latter named in Arabic for “the Prophet Jonah” following a tradition that he was buried there. In both areas, Sennacherib undertook a massive building project. Initially, Sennacherib constructed the so-called “Palace without Rival” in the southwest corner of Kuyunjik, after which he refurbished an arsenal in Nebi Yunus that his inscriptions refer to as the “rear palace.”

• As was the practice to commemorate such expansive building projects, Sennacherib had dedicatory inscriptions made with grandiose descriptions of his kingship and of the buildings. What is most important for us is that these inscriptions often include a copy of the king’s annals, which are crucial to knowing the history of the times. It comes as some surprise that apparently some of these inscriptions were not meant for public display; rather, some were placed in the building’s foundations to tell later kings of their predecessor’s glory and to warn them off from destroying the building in the future. In the meantime, they could be seen only by the gods.

Oriental Institute Prism

• The inscriptions were inscribed on either clay barrels or prisms. The barrels are cylinder-like, with a bulging middle, and inscribed lengthwise; prisms had flat faces with inscriptions running parallel to their short edges, or radially. Because barrels were used for shorter inscriptions, later editions of a king’s annals, which were naturally longer, were inscribed on prisms. Impressive examples of such prisms have survived from the last three neo-Assyrian kings- Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. For Sennacherib, we have three particularly impressive examples- the Taylor Prism in the British Museum, the Jerusalem Prism in the Israel Museum, and the Oriental Institute Prism in Chicago. Though we have dozens of copies of Sennacherib’s annals written on various media, most of them are fragmentary and often represent an early edition. These three examples contain the latest, most comprehensive edition of his annals and are virtually complete. Each includes accounts of all eight of his military campaigns conducted between 704 and 694 BCE, giving us an excellent source of information about his reign.

Relevance to Ancient Israel- Of Sennacherib’s eight military campaigns, the most interesting one for biblical scholars is the third one, in 701 BCE, which was partially against Judah and its king, Hezekiah (2 Kings 18–19). Sennacherib’s aim was to quell a revolt in his western provinces, centered in the Philistine city of Ekron. The revolt was fomented by Hezekiah and the Phoenician king Luli, and supported by Sidqia of Ashkelon, another important Philistine city. Sennacherib struck first at Tyre, the Phoenician capital, forcing Luli to flee to Cyprus, where he died. After destroying Ashkelon, further down the Mediterranean coast, the Assyrian army marched into Judah, laid siege to Lakhish and Jerusalem, and eventually cowed Judah into giving a large tribute from the treasuries of the king and Temple. Some early editions of Sennacherib’s annals date to 700 BCE, less than a year after his third campaign occurred, and describe Hezekiah’s tribute in greater detail than the later editions. The earliest known account of this campaign is on the Rassam Cylinder. Archaeologists discovered four well-preserved copies of this barrel cylinder in the foundations of Sennacherib’s “Palace without Rival.” The British Museum also has fragments of dozens of other copies, which likely come from there as well. The foundation work for the “Palace without Rival” was completed in 700 BCE and it seems that numerous copies of Sennacherib’s annals were placed in it.

Circumstances of Discovery and Acquisition-

• Though we possess three impressive copies of the final edition of Sennacherib’s annals (the Taylor, Jerusalem, and Oriental Institute Prisms), none was found in scientifically conducted excavations and the precise circumstances of their discoveries remain unknown. Fortunately, there are internal clues that help us determine their place of origin. Sennacherib’s prisms generally fall into two types- octagonal and hexagonal. There appears to be a connection between their shape and place of origin. At the end of the octagonal inscriptions in the building accounts, there is a description of the construction of the “Palace without Rival.” But, in the hexagonal prisms, the inscriptions end with the building of the Nebi Yunis arsenal. Because these three prisms are hexagonal, we may assume that they had been originally deposited in the arsenal’s foundations. The Taylor Prism came into the possession of Colonel John Taylor, a British diplomat and antiquarian, at Mosul in 1830. It was acquired by the British Museum from his widow in 1855. The Oriental Institute Prism was acquired by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1920 and quickly supplanted the Taylor Prism as the standard version of the annals of Sennacherib. The Jerusalem Prism was acquired by the Israel Museum at a Sotheby’s auction in 1970.

• The Rassam Cylinder was named for Hormuzd Rassam and his nephew Nimroud Rassam. The elder Rassam conducted excavations at the “Palace without Rival” between January 1878 and July 1882 on behalf of the British Museum. Sometime between December 1878 and late 1879, Nimroud discovered four well-preserved copies of this barrel cylinder, three of which are in the British Museum and the fourth in Istanbul.

See also:

In the Path of Sennacherib, Oded Borowski, BAR 31-03, May-Jun 2005.

Posted in: Exodus

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