The Assyrian monarch Sennacherib’s military campaign against King Hezekiah of Judah is one of the best-documented and most discussed events in the history of ancient Israel. The late-eighth-century B.C.E. encounter is reported in both Kings (2 Kings 18-13–19-37) and Chronicles (2 Chronicles 32-1–23). It is likely the backdrop for several prophetic teachings (for example, Isaiah 1-4–9, 22-1–14; Micah 1-10–16). In addition, we have a detailed cuneiform account of the campaign in the annals of Sennacherib (his third campaign).1 We even have a relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh depicting his conquest of Lachish,2 a visual account complemented by archaeological finds from the site south of Jerusalem.3

One might think that with this wealth of data, scholars would have arrived at a satisfactory reconstruction of the course of events, the battles and their results. But scholars have not reached a consensus because of the contradictions in the Biblical and Assyrian accounts regarding the outcome of the campaign. According to the Bible, Sennacherib withdrew after his army was decimated by Yahweh’s angel (2 Kings 19-35), while Sennacherib’s annals claim that Hezekiah surrendered and paid the Assyrian king an extremely large tribute.

For close to a century and a half, scholars have debated these conflicting accounts. Several historians have suggested a novel way to resolve this contradiction- They surmise that the reports relate to two separate campaigns- one in 701 B.C.E., in which Sennacherib emerged as victor and collected a large tribute from Hezekiah as the price for his remaining in office; and a second campaign sometime after 688 B.C.E., in which Sennacherib suffered a major setback in the land of Judah.4

In a recent article in BAR, William Shea, a scholar of ancient Near Eastern studies, sought to defend this two-campaign theory.a On closer examination, however, it is indefensible.

Unfortunately, the Assyrian annals from 689 B.C.E. until Sennacherib’s assassination in 681 B.C.E. have not survived—or at least they have not yet been found, if indeed any were written. Since Assyrian sources cannot confirm a second campaign in Judah, some scholars, including Shea, have sought support in Egyptian sources. In 2 Kings 19-9 the Egyptian pharaoh Taharqa is said to have engaged the Assyrian army in the Judahite Shephelah.b Since Taharqa did not ascend the throne until 690 B.C.E., the Biblical report, it has been argued, must refer to an Assyrian military campaign in Judah after 690 B.C.E. Supporters of the two-campaign theory contend that this was a military campaign led by Sennacherib sometime before his assassination in 681 B.C.E.—a campaign not specifically mentioned in the Bible.

A recently published fragment of a stela records Taharqa’s victory over an enemy whose name is missing. All we know is that the defeated enemy possessed cattle, engaged in the production of honey, and was resettled by the Egyptian pharaoh in villages. In his publication of the text, Egyptologist Donald Redford of Pennsylvania State University compares a number of phrases in the new fragment to passages in other documents from Taharqa’s reign and proposes identifying the enemy as “some Libyan group” that, as other texts indicate, was defeated and impressed into the king’s service5

In his BAR article, Shea asserts that this new text “provides Egyptian evidence in support of the two-campaign theory.” His claim that the defeated enemy was Sennacherib, however, looks like an a priori assumption made in search of evidence to support the two-campaign theory rather than an objective effort to interpret the new text. The Taharqa stela tells us that the defeated enemy forces arrived with their families and possessions to be taken captive to Egypt. It is ludicrous to imagine the mighty Assyrian army marching in defeat to the coastal plain of Israel with the soldiers’ families and possessions in tow! Whoever Taharqa defeated, it was certainly not the Assyrian army of Sennacherib.

Rather than reaching for straws to resolve the historical quandary, it is best to interpret the Biblical text as recounting a single campaign of Sennacherib waged in 701 B.C.E. A critical evaluation of some elements of the Biblical record shows them to be late and legendary; therefore, this account cannot be accepted as evidence. But the most damning judgment of the two-campaign theory is that it is simply impossible given the widely accepted history of the seventh century B.C.E.
We begin with the Biblical texts.6

As is widely acknowledged, the account in Second Kings of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah draws on a number of sources, distinguished by their style and themes.7 The Deuteronomistic authorc arranged his material so that it might convey a didactic message. This sometimes required that he abandon strict chronological arrangement.8

Three literary units are detectable in 2 Kings 18-13–19-37-

Unit 1 (2 Kings 18-13–16)- This is a chronicle-like report of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, the capture of Judah’s fortified cities, Hezekiah’s surrender and the payment of a heavy tribute to Sennacherib. The details of that payment (verse 16) may have been copied from a Temple source.

Unit 2 (2 Kings 18-17—19-9a, 36–37)- This describes negotiations regarding Hezekiah’s possible surrender. The Assyrian rabshakeh, the head of a high-level delegation, faces his Judahite counterparts. The rabshakeh raises the following points- (a) Egypt, a “splintered reed staff,” on whom Hezekiah has been relying, cannot be counted on for serious help, and the weak Judahite army by itself is no match for the superior host of Assyria; (b) the God of Israel has called upon Sennacherib to attack Judah; (c) the fate of the Judahite exiles will not be all that bad, as Assyria will resettle the deportees in a land as good as Judah. Hezekiah is overwrought by these demands and turns to the prophet Isaiah to intercede with Yahweh on his behalf. Isaiah offers a word of comfort and encouragement- Sennacherib will withdraw and return home, and there he will be felled by divine will. In the end, Sennacherib returns to Nineveh, where he is assassinated by two of his sons.

Unit 3 (2 Kings 19-9b–35)- Sennacherib sends a message to Hezekiah, saying that Hezekiah’s God is as powerless as the gods of the nations that Assyria has already conquered. Hezekiah hurries to the Temple to pray for deliverance, emphasizing Sennacherib’s blasphemy against Yahweh. Isaiah appears and, in a lengthy poetic prophecy (2 Kings 19-21–34), scoffs at the arrogance of the Assyrian king, who claims to have conquered the world from the Nile Valley to the northern forests by his own might, forgetting the true ruler of all. Though three years of hard times will follow the Assyrian onslaught, Isaiah prophecies, in the end Jerusalem and the Davidic king will be saved because they enjoy Yahweh’s protection. That very night, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers are slaughtered by an angel of the Lord.

Although some have argued that these three units come from a single writer who witnessed the events and that they should be read as a continuous report, this approach requires considerable interpolation. For example, the gap found between 2 Kings 18-16 and 18-17—between the surrender of Hezekiah in verse 16 and the appearance before Jerusalem of the rabshakeh demanding surrender in verse 17—may be bridged only by assuming that Sennacherib had a change of heart and rejected Hezekiah’s offer of tribute and now demanded the city’s total surrender, or that he had resumed hostilities for some other reason. To suppose this was originally one continuous narrative also requires dismissing the stylistic differences of each unit of the story.
Before suggesting how the Biblical text can be accounted for, let us return to evaluate the cuneiform inscription of Sennacherib.

The account in Sennacherib’s annals was composed about half a year after the end of the campaign—in other words, some time in 700 B.C.E.—as the date in the colophon of the version known as the Rassam cylinder indicates.9 The annals describe, in literary, nonchronological sequence, the reconquest of the rebel states in the west, from Phoenicia down to Philistia and along Egypt’s border. According to the annals, western rulers either fled before the power of Assyria’s army (as did Luli, king of Sidon), surrendered without a fight (like the kings of Transjordan) or suffered humiliating defeat (like the kings of the Philistine cities). The Assyrian army turned back an Egyptian auxiliary force that had come to aid the rebels and took some of its men and equipment as spoils. The annals treat Sennacherib’s operations in the kingdom of Judah separately from those in other areas of combat. The Assyrian annal writer devoted a large amount of space to describing these operations, which points to the importance he attached to Judah’s position in the western coalition against Assyria. Most likely, Hezekiah was the driving force behind the uprising. And although Hezekiah was not removed from the throne after his submission, as was so often the case with defeated monarchs, the annals clearly state that he was forced to surrender and to pay a vast tribute to Sennacherib. Moreover, territory in the Shephelah was divided among the Philistine city-states loyal to Sennacherib.10

Can this Assyrian report and the three Biblical traditions refer to a single campaign? Nothing really prevents us from such a conclusion. We need only consider the perspectives of the various accounts in order to appreciate that we are dealing with the testimonies of diverse witnesses.
The Assyrian annals and Unit 1 in the Bible are in basic agreement- Sennacherib brought Hezekiah to his knees; Hezekiah rendered tribute to Sennacherib and thus was permitted to retain his throne.
Unit 2 of the Biblical account centers on one particular episode—the speech made by the head of the Assyrian delegation, the rabshakeh, and the impression it made on those who heard his striking rhetoric. This episode reflects the realities of political negotiations that were part of Assyrian foreign policy. But this account cannot have been set down in writing before 680 B.C.E., the year of Sennacherib’s assassination, because the concluding factual details concern the identity of Sennacherib’s murderers and their place of refuge. The reference to Taharqa as “king of Egypt” in this unit is an anachronistic designation employed by a writer after Taharqa’s rise to the throne in 690.d

Unit 3 is the latest of the Biblical testimonies. In this prophetic narrative, Hezekiah is portrayed as a pious king who prays to Yahweh in the Temple. He has no need for the intercession of a prophet. Isaiah is Yahweh’s messenger; he delivers a promise of punishment for the proud and arrogant Assyrian king A reference to the Assyrian conquest of Egypt, which occurred nearly three decades after Sennacherib’s campaign and which was led by his successor Esarhaddon and, later, by Ashurbanipal, indicates that Isaiah’s original prophecy has been embellished by later updating. The legendary ending of the Biblical passage—the decimation of the Assyrian army that brought about the salvation of Jerusalem, Yahweh’s city, and of Hezekiah, the scion of David—probably developed in the circle of the faithful who understood that something miraculous had occurred years before. Whereas so many of the major cities in the ancient Near East had been humbled by the might of Assyria, Jerusalem had withstood Sennacherib’s attack.

Moreover, the broader historical context makes contemplation of a second campaign by Sennacherib in the early seventh century out of the question. Had Sennacherib been defeated in a second campaign decades after 701 B.C.E., as suggested by the two-campaign theory, the history of the seventh century would have to be rewritten. Assyria ruled the Near East for almost all of the seventh century. If Sennacherib had been defeated between 688 and 681 B.C.E., as argued in the two-campaign theory, it would mean that Judah, as well as the entire west, must have been reconquered at some time later in the seventh century. There is no indication anywhere that this occurred. Esarhaddon, son and heir of Sennacherib, certainly did no such thing. Indeed, his recorded appearance in the border area of Philistia in the early part of his reign was more like a state visit.11 Furthermore, Manasseh, Hezekiah’s heir, appears as a submissive vassal of Assyria from the start, with no record of his having been forced into this position. This was true of all the kings in southern Syria and Phoenicia, for they had all been roundly defeated by Sennacherib two decades earlier, in 701 B.C.E. These vassal kingdoms did not rebel against him again, and so were not the objects of additional military activity.

One further fact- In 689 B.C.E. Assyria was at the height of its power, as demonstrated by the impressive military campaign it waged against Babylonia. To put an end to his “Babylonian problem” once and for all, Sennacherib decided upon the unprecedented step of not only ravaging Babylon, but utterly wiping it off the face of the earth. As he states in a cuneiform inscription carved in rock near Bavian (northeastern Iraq), “I made its devastation greater than that of ‘the Flood.’ So that in future days, the site of that city, its temples and its gods, would not be identifiable, I completely destroyed it with water and annihilated it like inundated territory.”12 If Sennacherib was capable of doing this to the venerable city of Babylon, would any western monarch in his right mind have chosen to rebel against him a year or so later?

The defense for Sennacherib’s one and only campaign to Judah rests its case.

a. William H. Shea, “Jerusalem Under Siege,” BAR 25-06.

b. “Shephelah” is the Hebrew term for the foothills between the coastal plain and the Judean highland. See Harold Brodsky, “The Shephelah—Guardian of Judea,” Bible Review, Winter 1987.

c. Most scholars believe that one school of authors was responsible for most of Deuteronomy and for Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

d. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen compares this to modern anachronistic reporting that “Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926.” See “Late-Egyptian Chronology and the Hebrew Monarchy,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 5 (1973), pp. 225–231.

1. See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (ANET) (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 287–288.

2. See Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), pls. 371–374; and David Ussishkin, The Conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib (Tel Aviv- Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv Univ., 1982).

3. See “Lachish,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 4 vols. (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1993), vol. 3, pp. 897–911.

4. John Bright’s Excursus 1 in A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia- Westminster, 1981), pp. 298–309, remains a masterful defense of this position.

5. See Donald B. Redford, “Taharqa in Western Asia and Libya,” Eretz-Israel 24 (Avraham Malamat volume) (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society), pp. 188*–191.*

6. Many of the following points were presented in Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings, Anchor Bible 11 (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1988), pp. 240–251.

7. These are ably set out in Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis, Studies in Biblical Theology, 2nd ser., vol. 3 (London- SCM, 1967), pp. 69–103.

8. For example, the matter of Hezekiah’s illness, related in 2 Kings 20-1–11, preceded the Assyrian invasion, as is clearly implied in verse 6.

9. The Rassam cylinder, named after its discoverer, Hormuzd Rassam, contains reports of Sennacherib’s first three campaigns. Though known for over a century, it has only recently been fully treated in Eckart Frahm, “Einleitung in die Sanherib-Inschriften,” Beihefte zur Archiv für Orientforschung 26 (1997), pp. 51–61.

10. See Harold Brodsky, “The Shephelah—Guardian of Judea,” Bible Review, Winter 1987.

11. Pritchard, ANET, p. 303- entry for the second year, concerning the town of Arza.

12. See now the translation of the Bavian rock inscription by Cogan in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden- Brill, 2000), p. 305.