Did Sennacherib attack twice?

Now that so much attention is being focused on the new excavations around the Gihon Spring and Hezekiah’s Tunnel—which was built as a defense against a siege by the Assyrian leader Sennacherib—it may be time to look at the siege itself. Specifically, was there one attack in 701 B.C., or were there two attacks, the second of which did not occur until 688 B.C.? And if there were two attacks, was Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which carries water from the Gihon Spring to the other side of the city, built in anticipation of the first or the second?

The idea that Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.) campaigned against Judah twice has been around at least since George Rawlinson proposed it in 1858. More recent advocates of this interpretation include such leading scholars as William Foxwell Albright, John Bright and Siegfried Horn.1 The theory stems from tensions within the Biblical text- The first part of Hezekiah’s reign is described in 2 Kings 18. There we learn that one of Sennacherib’s predecessors, Shalmaneser V (727–722 B.C.), had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and deported its citizens (2 Kings 18-10–11). Then in the 14th year of Hezekiah, king of Judah, “King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them” (2 Kings 18-13). Hezekiah pleaded with his adversary to withdraw, offering to pay whatever tribute Sennacherib demanded. Sennacherib’s terms were harsh- 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold (2 Kings 18-14). Hezekiah had no alternative but to agree. To meet the demand, Hezekiah even stripped the Temple of its silver and gold (2 Kings 18-15–16).a

Then something strange happens in the text- Beginning in 2 Kings 18-17, we are told that messengers from Sennacherib came to Jerusalem to tell Hezekiah that he is foolish to resist, that his reliance on Egypt is a weak reed, that he cannot mount even 2,000 horsemen and that Israel’s God Yahweh is, in fact, on Sennacherib’s side (2 Kings 18-17–25). Ignoring Hezekiah’s plea, the messengers speak directly to the populace of Jerusalem, urging them to make peace with Sennacherib (2 Kings 18-26–35). The prophet Isaiah predicts that Sennacherib’s siege will be unsuccessful (2 Kings 19-5–7).

What’s going on here? Hezekiah has already made his peace with Sennacherib and has agreed to pay an enormous tribute. So why does Sennacherib send messengers to demand Hezekiah’s capitulation? Hezekiah has already surrendered.

After Sennacherib’s messengers leave, Hezekiah goes to the Temple to pray, and Isaiah brings him the word of the Lord- “[Sennacherib] shall not come into this city … I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (2 Kings 19-32–34).

Wait a minute. We just read that Hezekiah had agreed to Sennacherib’s terms of surrender—the payment of tribute. Yet here he seems to be resisting the attack. And indeed, just as Isaiah prophesied, Sennacherib’s siege is unsuccessful. According to the text, the Lord strikes down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night. Sennacherib then goes back home to Nineveh, where, in 681, his own sons murder him (2 Kings 19-35–37).

The historicity of Hezekiah’s submission and agreement to pay tribute to Sennacherib is confirmed in Sennacherib’s annals of 701 B.C. Both the Biblical account and Sennacherib’s annals agree that Sennacherib conquered many Judahite cities, that he did not conquer Jerusalem, that Hezekiah, in the words of the annals, “did obeisance” and that the Judahite king paid tribute. There is only a small difference in the amount of the tribute- The Bible lists it as 30 talents of gold and 300 talents of silver; in the annals it is 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver.

The Biblical narrative that begins in 2 Kings 18-17, however, clearly presents a very different picture. Could it be describing a second siege?

Those scholars who opt for the one campaign theory (primarily Assyriologists and Egyptologists, rather than Biblical scholars) do so largely because only one campaign is described in Assyrian texts. We have Sennacherib’s annals from 705 to 689 B.C., and they mention only one campaign to Judah. However, Sennacherib’s annals for the period from 688 to 681 B.C. are, for the most part, missing. A second campaign could have occurred during that time. Hezekiah died in 686 B.C. according to most Biblical chronologies, so a second campaign would have to have taken place before that, in 688 or 687.

Apart from the Biblical text, there are a number of other indications that there was a campaign by Sennacherib after the one in 701 B.C. In the latter part of the Kings narrative, which I believe describes the second campaign, Sennacherib sends messengers to threaten Hezekiah and to attempt to demoralize the people. When the messengers return from Jerusalem, we are told, one of them learns that the Assyrian king is now off fighting against Libnah (a Judahite town north of Lachish), indicating that Lachish had already fallen. The Biblical text is not entirely clear, but it appears that at this time Hezekiah was allied with King Tirhakah of Ethiopia (2 Kings 19-9). We know from Egyptian inscriptions that Tirhakah did not become king of Ethiopia (or Nubia; Cush in Hebrew) until 690 B.C.2 So the attack on Jerusalem described thereafter in Kings could not have occurred before 690 B.C.3

Recently, a new text of Tirhakah was published that provides Egyptian evidence in support of the two-campaign theory.4 In this text, Tirhakah claims a military victory against an (unfortunately) unnamed opponent, but (fortunately) the event can be precisely dated- It occurred before the Great Flood of the Nile. This well-known flood can be dated from other texts of Tirhakah to 685/4 B.C. Who is the unnamed opponent? No other military campaign of Tirhakah is known from the period between 690 (when he assumed the throne) and 685, except the reference in 2 Kings 19-9 to his fighting against the king of Assyria. The new Tirhakah text indicates that this would have occurred between 690 and 685 B.C. In the Biblical account, Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem is mentioned immediately after the reference to Tirhakah’s engagement with the king of Assyria. Therefore the siege referred to at this point in the Biblical text must also have occurred sometime between 690 and 685 B.C. In short, the Egyptian evidence now seems to support a second campaign by Sennacherib in 688 B.C.

Additional evidence comes from the great Assyrian reliefs in the throne room of Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, which picture the great king’s victory over the Judahites at Lachish, 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Sennacherib’s reliefs vividly depict the Assyrian attack on the city and accurately represent the city’s double wall, the city gate, even the governor’s palace—all confirmed by archaeological excavations at the site. But something extremely important is missing from the reliefs—the great siege ramp that the Assyrians used to conquer the city. It is completely absent from the relief showing the southern end of the city, where the ramp was found in all its splendor by excavators.b Instead, the relief shows wooden ramps, over which the Assyrian siege engines were pushed up against the city walls during the attack. In the relief the ramps appear to both the right and the left sides of the city gate (see the cover of this issue). The planks over which the siege engines were pushed, however, are no substitute for the great siege ramp that was built for the final conquest of the city. Since the great siege ramp does not appear in this scene, it could not have been built by the time of the depicted siege. What the reliefs show here is the first campaign, the Assyrian attack on Lachish in 701 B.C. This was broken off when Hezekiah paid the required tribute. Note that the Bible specifically refers to Lachish in connection with Hezekiah’s submission after the first campaign- “King Hezekiah of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, ‘I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear’” (2 Kings 18-14). In the reliefs at Nineveh, Sennacherib propagandized this into a great military conquest, which it was not. When the Assyrians came back on their second campaign in 688 B.C., they built the great siege ramp and the city finally fell and was destroyed.

The two-campaign theory fits nicely with the new archaeological evidence from the ongoing Reich-Shukron excavations that are being reported with breakneck speed in BAR.c We now know that Hezekiah built a second wall at least around the eastern side of Jerusalem near the floor of the Kidron Valley; he also dug the remarkable tunnel that is still a major tourist attraction. It is highly unlikely that he could have done all this before the Assyrian attack in 701 B.C. Hezekiah would not have known that Sennacherib was coming until the Assyrians started west in the spring of 701 B.C. because until that time the Assyrian king had been occupied in the east. Could Hezekiah have built this impressive wall (and the additional wall, known as the Broad Wall, still visible in the Old City of Jerusalemd), as well as dug his remarkable tunnel, in the few months between the time that he learned the Assyrian army was headed toward him and that Sennacherib arrived at Jerusalem? Not likely. A much more reasonable scenario is that after Hezekiah obtained temporary relief by agreeing to pay tribute in 701 B.C., he undertook a long-term project to supplement the city’s fortifications and to protect the city’s water supply in case the Assyrians returned. His work was completed in time for the second Assyrian campaign in 688 B.C.

Another Biblical text is directly relevant- In 2 Chronicles 32 we have a parallel description of Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem. The chapter begins with a sentence telling us that Sennacherib invaded Judah, an introduction that parallels 2 Kings 18-13 (and Isaiah 36-1). The account in Chronicles, however, like the account in Isaiah, omits any reference to Hezekiah’s suit for peace and his agreement to pay tribute. The account of Sennacherib’s messengers coming to Jerusalem to demoralize the people and of the ultimate siege and miraculous deliverance begins in 2 Chronicles 32-9. I want to focus here on the four verses (2 Chronicles 32-2–5) that describe Hezekiah’s preparations for the city’s defense against Sennacherib’s attack-

When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his warriors to stop the flow of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the wadi [riverbed] that flowed through the land, saying, “Why should the Assyrian kings come and find water in abundance?” Hezekiah set to work resolutely and built up the entire wall that was broken down, and raised towers on it, and outside it he built another wall; he also strengthened the Millo in the City of David, and made weapons and shields in abundance.

The Chronicler is sometimes chided for his inaccuracy regarding historical details. In this case, however, he could not have been more accurate. The “broken down” wall that Hezekiah rebuilt is the great Middle Bronze Age wall that defended Jerusalem from about 1700 to 700 B.C. This wall has long been known; parts of it were uncovered by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1960s and by Yigal Shiloh in the 1980s.5 The outer wall, however, has just now been discovered by Reich and Shukron. And the towers that the Chonicler mentions were also unknown until the recent excavations by Reich and Shukron. In the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible, which I have quoted, we are told that Hezekiah “raised towers on it [the inner wall]”—but this is not exactly what the Hebrew text says. The RSV translators knew this was a mistranslation, so they appended a footnote at this point that informs the reader that the Hebrew text actually says “and raised on the towers.”6 But this seemed to make little sense to the RSV translators, so instead of following the original Hebrew here, they tell us, they worked instead from the Latin Vulgate.e Apparently neither the translators of the Vulgate nor those of the RSV could conceptualize freestanding towers outside the city wall, so they emended the text to make the towers part of the wall, as towers often are. But the Chronicler got it right. He knew that two walls protected the city and that a complex of large fortified freestanding towers (he even uses the plural) guarded Jerusalem’s water supply. The Reich-Shukron excavations have uncovered a massive tower over the Gihon Spring and another, possibly one of a pair, over an adjacent pool. The Chronicler also knew that Hezekiah had built the outermost wall and that he had restored and fortified the towers and the earlier inner wall that lay inside it.

The Chronicler’s knowledge of these walls should not be surprising. We have long known the accuracy of his description of a second wall built on the north side of the city—the Broad Wall, revealed during the late Nahman Avigad’s excavations in the Old City in the 1970s. Finally, as the Chronicler tells us, Hezekiah further secured the city’s water supply by building his famous 1,749-foot-long tunnel- “This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32-30). Reich and Shukron tell us they are not sure why Hezekiah built this tunnel, since water was already available inside the outer city wall, which ran outside the Gihon Spring, near the base of the Kidron Valley. But this area would be vulnerable if Sennacherib were to capture the towers and penetrate the recently discovered lower wall. So Hezekiah, in effect, cut it off at the pass; he led the water directly from the Gihon Spring through his tunnel to an outlet on the other side of the city. So even if Sennacherib breached the outer wall, the water supply would still be safe.

One final note, regarding the illustrious Siloam Inscription, which was engraved in the wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel near the southern outlet in commemoration of the completion of the tunnel. A recent paleographical study has noted that “certain diagnostic characteristics associated with cursive script are present in both the Siloam Tunnel Inscription and seals from the late seventh century. Moreover, these developed cursive traits are absent in the distinctive letters noted above from the late eighth-century peg of letters found on the official seal impressions.”7 While paleographical analysis cannot date an inscription to a particular year, this does indicate that the inscription would date to 688 B.C. as easily as to 701 B.C.

When Hezekiah initiated these defensive preparations, he may not have known whether Sennacherib was coming back or when, but nevertheless, he wanted to be prepared. Hezekiah was right- Sennacherib did return—probably in 688 B.C., but he did not conquer the city. Eventually the Assyrian siege was lifted. Hezekiah’s efforts to protect the city may have contributed to discouraging the Assyrians, who gave up and returned home.

A Long, Long Time Ago …

920 B.C. After Solomon’s death, his kingdom is divided into two states- Israel in the north and Judah (with Jerusalem as its capital) in the south.

732 B.C. Assyria, led by Tiglath-Pileser, conquers and annexes northern parts of Israel.

727 B.C. Shalmaneser V becomes king of Assyria. Hezekiah becomes king of Judah. For two decades Judah will remain an ally of Assyria.

722 B.C. Shalmaneser V dies while besieging Samaria, then the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel. His successor, Sargon II, conquers and annexes Israel by 720 and exiles the people.

705 B.C. Sargon dies, sparking hope throughout the empire that Assyrian power will diminish. Sennacherib ascends the throne of Assyria.

701 B.C. Hezekiah revolts, prompting Sennacherib to attack Judah. Jerusalem, Lachish and 44 other cities are besieged, but Jerusalem is spared after Hezekiah pays tribute.

701–688 B.C. Hezekiah builds a second city wall and Hezekiah’s Tunnel to better protect Jerusalem and its water supply from future Assyrian attacks, according to author Shea.

694 B.C. Sennacherib completes palace at Nineveh, including reliefs commemorating his (first) siege of Lachish.

690 B.C. Tirhakah becomes pharaoh of Ethiopia and Egypt.

688–681 B.C. Sennacherib’s annals are missing or incomplete.

688 B.C. Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem again, according to Shea. This time the city withstands the siege.

686 B.C. Hezekiah dies.

681 B.C. Sennacherib is killed by his sons.

In Modern Times…

1838 American explorer Edward Robinson becomes the first person in modern times to crawl through Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

1847–1851 Austen Henry Layard uncovers Lachish reliefs in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh.

1929 American archaeologist William F. Albright identifies Tell ed-Duweir, 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, as ancient Lachish.

1932–1938 British excavator James Starkey initiates the first excavations at Lachish.
Discoveries include the outermost city wall, two city gates and a palace-fortress. The dig comes to an abrupt end in 1938, with Starkey’s murder.

1973 Renewed excavations at Lachish by the Israeli archaeologist David Ussishkin reveal remains of the massive Assyrian siege ramp.

1970s Excavating in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, Nahman Avigad discovers Hezekiah’s “Broad Wall”—built outside the city wall on the northern side of Jerusalem.

1999 In Jerusalem, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron discover sections of a second city wall that enclosed the Gihon Spring in the days of Hezekiah.

a. Curiously, this episode is omitted from the duplicate account in Isaiah 36. Isaiah 36-1 repeats 2 Kings 18-13 verbatim. Then it skips 2 Kings 18-14–16, the entire description of Hezekiah’s suit for peace and his agreement to pay tribute to Sennacherib. The text then continues by quoting 2 Kings 18-17ff. (Isaiah 36-2ff.). Isaiah was apparently interested in emphasizing God’s deliverance, rather than Hezekiah’s submission and tribute. But the historicity of this submission is confirmed in Assyrian annals (James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East in Texts, 3rd ed. [Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969], pp. 287–288).

b. On Lachish, see the following BAR articles by David Ussishkin- “Answers at Lachish,” BAR 05-06; “Defensive Judean Counter-Ramp Found at Lachish in 1983 Season,” BAR 10-02; “Lachish—Key to the Israelite Conquest of Canaan?” BAR 13-01. See also Hershel Shanks, “Destruction of Judean Fortress Portrayed in Dramatic Eighth-Century B.C. Pictures,” BAR 10-02.

c. See Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” BAR 25-01; and the previous articles in this issue.

d. See Nitza Rosovsky, “A Thousand Years of History in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter,” BAR 18-03.

e. The Vulgate is Jerome’s late-fourth-century translation of the Christian Scriptures from Hebrew into Latin, the “vulgar,” or widespread, language of the day—hence the name.

1. W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd ed. (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1957), p. 314 n. 53; John Bright, A History of Israel, 2nd. ed. (Philadelphia- Westminster, 1972), pp. 296–308; Siegfried H. Horn, “Did Sennacherib Campaign Once or Twice Against Hezekiah?” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 4 (1966), pp. 1–28.

2. R.A. Parker, “The Length of the Reign of Amasis and the Beginning of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty,” Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Kairo 15 (1957), pp. 208–212.

3. It has been suggested that perhaps Tirhakah accompanied the Egyptian foray into Philistia in 701 B.C. as a prince or general and that he was subsequently given the title of king by the (later) Biblical writer, who knew about that development by the time he was writing.This solution does not work because Tirhakah tells us in his Kawa inscriptions that he first went down the river (north) from Nubia to Egypt when his brother Shebitku was king (M. Frederick L. Macadam, The Temples of Kawa- I. The Inscriptions [Oxford- Oxford Univ. Press, 1949], pp. 14–21). In 701 B.C. Shabako was the reigning king; Shebitku did not come to the throne until 698 or later. Thus Tirhakah could not accompany the troops to Asia as a prince in 701 because he had not yet come to Lower Egypt by that time.In response to an article I published including this chronological point (William H. Shea, “Sennacherib’s Second Palestinian Campaign,” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 104 [1985], pp. 401–418, esp. 415–416), Frank Yurco argued that there must have been an overlapping co-regency between Shabako and Shebitku (Frank J. Yurco, “The Shabaka-Shebitku Co-regency and the Supposed Second Campaign of Sennacherib Against Judah- A Critical Assessment,” JBL 110 [1991], pp. 35–45, esp. 39, 45). As Yurco points out here, Shabako came to the throne in 713, the earliest date in his inscriptions, and ruled for at least 15 years. Thus he ruled until at least 698; hence the necessity for the creation of this supposed co-regency. This would move the dates for Shebitku higher (earlier), thus permitting Tirhakah to go with the army in 701. As Yurco admits, however, there is no direct evidence from Egyptian reliefs or inscriptions for the existence of such a co-regency. It is simply a modern invention to solve a problem in an ancient text.

4. Donald B. Redford, “Taharqa in Western Asia and Libya,” Eretz Israel 24 (1993), pp. 188–191. See Shea, “The New Tirhakah Text and Sennacherib’s Second Palestinian Campaign,” AUSS 35 (1997), pp. 181–187. Lines 10 and 11 of this text tell of the victory that he claimed- “They were destined for a severe and grievous blow, the work of my hands … I had no compassion on the least of them nor [on the most influential of them?]. (Soon they were) fleeing before me with fear pulsating through their limbs … I forced (?) his confederates to the ground all at once.” From this victory Tirhakah claims to have brought back captives to Egypt, where he settled them to work for him. This he tells of in line 13. Then comes the reference to the high Nile in line 14, “The inundation came as a cattle-thief, although for many years (it had been in) abeyance.” This high Nile can be dated to Tirhakah’s 6th year, according to Kawa Stela V (Macadam, Temples of Kawa, pp. 22–32). The quotations of the inscription here are taken from Redford, “Taharqa in Western Asia.”

5. For the Middle Bronze Age wall on the east side of Jerusalem, see Kathleen M. Kenyon, Royal Cities of the Old Testament (New York- Schocken Books, 1971), pp. 24–32. Also see Hershel Shanks, “The City of David After Five Years of Digging,” BAR 11-06.

6. This does not appear in all editions of the RSV.

7. Andrew G. Vaughn, “Paleographic Dating of Judean Seals and Its Significance for Biblical Research,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 313 (1999), p. 58.