Taylor_british_museum_prismIn the years following the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., cities in the southern kingdom of Judea began to prosper. They not only expanded, but the quality of architecture and urban planning improved enormously. Archaeological evidence suggests significant social stratification, accumulation of wealth, and a sharp increase in writing. The luxury trade from Arabia continued and by all accounts, Judea greatly profited. This improved economic climate captured the attention of Assyria, where Sargon II and his successor Sennacherib expected to receive handsome tribute of gold and spices from their vassal Judea. For several years, the memory of the Israelite deportation and Samaria’s fall sufficiently motivated Judea to follow through with these payments.

Around 700 B.C.E., however, King Hezekiah of Judea grew increasingly recalcitrant about paying tribute. The prophet Isaiah condemned the tributary relationship with Assyria, and the Bible describes how Isaiah won the king’s ear (2 Kings 19). As a result, Hezekiah flatly refused to continue paying tribute to Assyria and influenced the neighboring Philistine city-state of Ekron to follow suit.

Ekron, which bordered the kingdom of Judea, boasted an impressive olive oil industry. Hezekiah assisted a group of Ekronites to depose their king, Padi, who was loyal to the Assyrians. Hezekiah imprisoned Padi in Jerusalem, while a usurper replaced him in Ekron and stopped the city’s olive oil shipments to Assyria. Sennacherib could not ignore this resistance, and in 701 B.C.E., he launched a violent campaign of terror against Judea.

Sennacherib’s own account of the conflict survives in his cuneiform annals from ca. 701 B.C.E. The annals depict the conquest of Lachish, the second largest city in Judea after Jerusalem. Sennacherib’s reliefs graphically depict the brutality of the Assyrian assault as Assyrian infantry and archers attack the city walls amid a dense hail of arrows. Judean women and children were marched off before the eyes of the Judean men who were being tortured and executed. Sennacherib’s annals claim that 200,000 Judeans were deported from their homeland, and the fate of these deportees likely paralleled that of the Israelites two decades earlier.

Unlike his victory at Lachish, ‘s siege of Jerusalem ultimately failed. Both Sennacherib’s Prism, a six-sided stone pillar with inscriptions from ca. 701 B.C.E., and the Bible document this event. The Bible contends that an angel descended upon the Assyrian army and struck down 180,000 of the soldiers (2 Kings 19-35). In his prism, however, Sennacherib, claims he never intended to capture Jerusalem. Instead, he preferred to keep Hezekiah trapped within the walls of Jerusalem, in “his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Hezekiah rerouted Jerusalem’s water supply through what has come to be known as the Siloam Tunnel (or Hezekiah’s Tunnel). The water supply previously lay outside the city’s walls, and in order to provide safe access to the spring, this tunnel was constructed during the siege.

Although he lost the battle, Sennacherib did exact a heavy fine from Hezekiah, much of it tribute already owed. Despite such discrepancies, much of the historical documentation recorded on Sennacherib’s Prism clearly supports biblical accounts.

Sennacherib’s Prism – 701 BCE

Stone’s Report of Assyrian Military Exploits Contradicts Bible’s Version

Like the Lachish Relief, Sennacherib’s Prism portrays the military exploits of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. The three Sennacherib Prisms are some of the most important archaeological finds relating to the Bible. Most importantly, all three were discovered in readable condition. The Prism text deals primarily with Sennacherib’s military campaigns, especially his 701 B.C.E. campaign into Judea. The Prisms attest to the brutality depicted in the throne reliefs found in his royal palace in Nineveh. The cuneiform text of the Prisms boasts of Sennacherib’s destruction of Judea and his dealings with Hezekiah, the Judean king. There is a discrepancy however, between the ways Sennacherib recounts the outcome of the siege and how it is set forth in the Bible. The Bible describes how Jerusalem was saved by an angel who attacked the Assyrian army and struck down 180,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 19-35).

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