Lachish ostraconTowards the end of the eighth century B.C.E. the kingdom of Assyria became the mightiest empire in the Near East, its primary military and political force and sovereign over most of the region. The Assyrians, as an Eastern Semitic nation, lived in Upper Mesopotamia, near the Tigris River, where the Zagros hills border on the alluvial plain. Today this region is included in the territory of Iraq, around the modern city of Mosul.

A primary factor in the ascendancy of Assyria was its powerful military machine. Much information on the Assyrian army can be gained from the written sources and the bas-reliefs depicting Assyrian campaigns in foreign lands that were discovered in the royal palaces of Assyria. The Assyrian military strategy was to conduct annual expeditions, frequently commanded by the monarch himself. Each campaign was dedicated to another region and aimed at conquering new territories or reestablishing Assyrian hegemony over previously conquered areas.

The rise to supremacy of the Assyrian state had a decisive impact on history of the Land of Israel towards the end of the eighth century B.C.E. Assyrian domination of the country was increased step by step. By 732 Tiglath-Pileser III annexed the northern parts of the Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. By 720 Sargon II had subjugated Samaria, the capital of Israel, annexed the state, and reduced the northern parts of the country to the status of Assyrian provinces in 712 Sargon conquered and annexed the Philistine kingdom of Ashdod, thereby extending the Assyrian sphere of influence nearly to the gates of Egypt.

From 715 B.C.E. Judah was ruled by Hezekiah, one of the most prominent kings of the House of David. During most of his reign Judah enjoyed a period of great prosperity, even though the neighboring kingdom of Israel had just been annexed by the Assyrians. In fact, his political and religious influence seems to have spread beyond the borders of Judah to the former territories of Israel. The prosperity of Hezekiah’s reign is vividly described in II Chronicles 32:27-28:

“And Hezekiah had exceeding much riches and honour: and he made himself treasuries for silver, and for gold, and for precious stones, and for spices, and for shields, and for all manner of pleasant jewels; Storehouses also for the increase of corn, and wine, and oil; and stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks.”

Hezekiah is known for his religious reforms; he strengthened Jerusalem and the temple as the cultic center for the entire Land of Israel, while concurrently abolishing all shrines and sanctuaries outside Jerusalem. Inside Jerusalem ― now a metropolis extending over a large area ― he constructed conduits to bring water into the city, and he undoubtedly strengthened its fortifications.

In 705 B.C.E. Sennacherib ascended the throne of Assyria and was soon faced with rebellion against Assyrian hegemony in various parts of the Empire. An Alliance against Assyria was formed between Judah, Egypt and the Philistine cities in the coastal plain, possibly with Babylonian encouragement and support. Sennacherib met the challenge, and in 701 B.C.E. directed his third campaign to Phoenicia, Philistia and Judah, and succeeded in reestablishing Assyrian supremacy in those regions. Several sources from the Old Testament and Assyrian records inform us of the events of the campaign in some detail. The Old Testament records appear in II Kings 18-19, Isaiah 36-37, II Chronicles 32 and probably Micah 1.

It is clear that upon arriving in Judah, Sennacherib’s attention was focused primarily on the city of Lachish. Lachish was the most formidable citadel in Judah, and its conquest and destruction seemed to be the paramount task facing Sennacherib when he came to crush the military powers of Hezekiah. Lachish is not mentioned in the Assyrian versions of the campaign, but its prominence in the eyes of Sennacherib may be deduced from the fact that he immortalized the conquest of the city in the Lachish reliefs that he later erected in the royal palace at Nineveh. In fact, the conquest of Lachish was of singular importance and a great military achievement, since no other victory was ever recorded by Sennacherib such a lavish display.

The Old Testament tells us that Sennacherib encamped at Lachish and established his headquarters there, at least during part of his sojourn in Judah. This fact is mentioned a number of times:

In II Kings 18:14 and 17, in Isaiah 36:2 and 37:8; and in II Chronicles 32:9. We read that

“After this did Sennacherib king of Assyria send his servants to Jerusalem, but he himself laid siege against Lachish, and all his power with him.”

According to the biblical versions, Sennacherib, while sojourning in Lachish, sent to Jerusalem a task force commanded by three officials, the Tartan, the Rabshakeh and the Rabsaris. The army appeared in front of the walled capital and apparently laid siege to the city. The Rabshakeh presented an ultimatum to Hezekiah which was rejected by the king with active support of the prophet Isaiah. Eventually, Jerusalem was saved, but only by a miracle: (Isaiah 37:36)

Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses

The Assyrian annals corroborate the two basic facts in the Old Testament versions, namely that the Assyrian army challenged Hezekiah in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem was spared. As Sennacherib tells us:

He himself I shut up like a caged bird within Jerusalem, his royal city. I put watch-posts strictly around it and turned back to his disaster any who went out of its city gate.”

Finally, we should note that the impression left by these events on the populace of Jerusalem was apparently so great that the site where the Assyrian task force encamped in front of the city walls was still called the “Camp of the Assyrians” about eight hundred years later, when the Roman army besieged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This we learn from Josephus Flavius, who mentions the place in his account of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans.

Source: David Ussishkin, Excavations at Tel Lachish 1978–1983.