A Little Background on Sennacherib


So I said I wasn’t blogging for a while.  This doesn’t count.  I wrote this a few years ago to assert my position given the historical evidences on if Sennacherib campaigned twice in Judah.  This part of the paper provided a great background for the passage we studied today following along with Chris Aiken’s Blog and I thought I would share it here.

You can also find pictures and descriptions of Assyrian Wall Reliefs of Sennacherib’s campaign against Lachish here and photographs of the dig at Lachish here.

I admit I am a little bit of a Biblical Archaeology nerd.

A Little Background on Sennacherib and Judah

The ancient Hebrews witnessed many geopolitical changes in late eighth-century B.C. Palestine.  According to the writer of II Kings, idolatry was rampant throughout the land of Israel.  God had been patient with the Israelites, however, the patience of the Lord had come to an end and he released the Assyrian army against the populace of the Northern Kingdom. [1]

Hoshea, the king of Israel, had come to power in the Northern Kingdom as a vassal to an already powerful Assyria under the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III.  However, in 727 B.C., Tiglath-Pileser III died and Hoshea, along with several other vassals, revolted by not paying tribute.  The new Assyrian King, Shalmaneser V, proved mightier than first suspected and Israel was brought back into submission.  Hoshea remained desperate to remove the yoke of servitude and made an alliance with Egypt. Once again, tribute was withheld.  Shalamanser V marched on Israel and Assyria eventually claimed victory in 722 B.C. under a new king known as Sargon II.  The people of Israel were removed from the land and troubled inhabitants from all over the Assyrian empire were transplanted to Samaria.[2]

Judah, to the South, fared much better.  King Uziah had ushered in a time of stability in the Southern Kingdom.  After Uziah’s death, his son Jortham reigned briefly before being succeeded by Ahaz. After much pressure from Israel and Syria to form an alliance against Assyria, Ahaz closed the temple, stripped it of everything of value, and sent the temple goods to Tigalath-Pileser III as an appeal for help against Israel and Syria.  Tigalath-Pileser III obliged and marched on Israel and Syria, effectively making Judah a vassal state to Assyria in the process.[3]

In 1988, Iraqi archeologists excavating in the Northwest Palace of Assurnasirpal (Nimrud) uncovered a tomb with startling implications.  The palace that was also used by Tigalath-Pileser and Sargon held tombs of female consorts who are believed to be of Hebrew descent.[4] One consort in particular was Tigalath-Pileser III’s chief consort and the Queen Mother of Shalamanser V.[5] This made many leading members of the Assyrian royal family and the Judean royal family cousins.[6] Some scholars presume this extra-biblical evidence explains why Judah was inclined to favor Assyria at a time when Israel was in the throes of rebellion.[7]

Hezekiah became king of Judah in 727 B.C. [8] Just five years later he would witness the fall of Israel into the hands of the Assyrians and the subsequent removal of the northern tribes from their land. Hezekiah sought to restore Judah to the Lord and reopened Solomon’s temple.  He led religious reforms to remove idolatry from Judah and instigated the tearing down of the high places and idols, including the bronze serpent that Moses had set up in the wilderness.  He was successful in conquering some of the neighboring Philistine garrisons and was thus able to expand the kingdom of Judah[9] However, Hezekiah became involved in a local dispute in which a loyal vassal of Assyria known as Padi was deposed from his throne in Ekron and Hezekiah imprisoned him in Jerusalem.[10] Hezekiah also decided at this time to withhold tribute and actively cast his lot against the king of Assyria.[11]

The change in Hezekiah’s foreign policy seems to flow from his religious reforms and the changing political landscape in Assyria.  Stephanie Dalley comments:

“To Hezekiah in Jerusalem it must have looked as if the balance of power was weighed against Assyria.  Embassies from Babylon and Nubia each came to persuade him to turn against his erstwhile ally and join them…Normally a vassal king or client king would have sworn oaths of loyalty to the Assyrian king, in a ceremony accompanied by horrifying rituals of sympathetic magic.  Perjury would be punished by the gods.  But when Sargon in 705 died an unexpected death in battle far from home, it was clear, according to the thinking of the time, that he gods no longer supported the Assyrian dynasty, so its vassals were automatically excused from their oaths of loyalty.  This gave Hezekiah an excuse to turn against Assyria.”[12]

In 705 B.C. following Sargon II’s assassination, Sennacherib had to act quickly to take the throne and affirm his rightful place as the head of the Assyrian empire.  His name, “Sennacherib,” literally means, “Sin has increased (or replaced) the (lost) brothers,”[13]indicating that Sennacherib was not the eldest son of Sargon, but was nonetheless affirmed for his leadership and battle skills.[14] After two immediate and successful campaigns to Tarsus and Babylon, Sennacherib set his sights on an alliance formed against him by Judah, Egypt, and the coastal Philistine cities.[15] Hezekiah’s actions had drawn the attention of Assyria’s newest king.

Sennacherib’s campaign into Judah is a well-documented event in history.  Three books of the Bible (II Kings, II Chronicles, Isaiah), Sennacherib’s annuals, archaeological evidence from the wall reliefs of Sennacherib’s palace, and current archaeological evidences from the dig at Lachish all bear testimony to Sennacherib’s campaign into Judah.[16]


[1] II Kings 17, ESV.

[2] Alfred Hoereth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 335.

[3] Ibid., 336-338.

[4] Stephanie Dalley, “Recent Evidene from Assyrian Sources for Jeudaean History from Uzziah to Manasseh,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no.4 (Jun 2004), 394-395.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 396.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hershel Shanks, “Destruction of Judean Fortress Portrayed in Dramatic Eighth-Century B.C. Pictures: Stunning New Book Assembles Evidence of the Conquest of Lachish,” Biblical Archaeology Review 10, no.2 (March/April 1984).

[9] II Kings 18:1-8, ESV.

[10] Alfred Hoerth, “Archaeology,”343.

[11] II Kings 18:7, ESV.

[12] Stephanie Dalley, “Recent Evidence from Assyrian Sources,” 391.

[13] D.J. Wiseman, “Sennacherib,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 338-339.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 339.

[16] Shanks, “Destruction of a Judean Fortress.”

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