Sancheriv's Campaign and Assyrian Sources

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The story of Sancheriv's campaign against Yehuda is one of the most documented events in Tanakh.  Both Biblical and Assyrian sources speak of the attack in multiple places, and archaeological finds provide further material evidence of the campaign. On the whole, the sources complement and elucidate each other, though there are points of difference as well. Together, they provide the reader with a fuller understanding of the momentous battle.

Historical Background

Assyria was the major power in the Ancient Near East in the 8th century BCE, conquering lands near and far. Its vanquished territories were forced to pay tribute and often rebelled.  To quell such insurrections, Assyria embarked on punitive campaigns and instituted a policy of population displacement.  Thus, when Hoshea, the last king of Yisrael, failed to pay tribute, the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser,1 besieged and conquered Shomeron, exiling its inhabitants.2

Yehuda, in the meantime, had maintained a policy of appeasement, saving it from the fate of its neighbors.3 However, in the middle of Chizkiyahu's reign, for reasons not shared in Tanakh, Chizkiyahu changed tactics and rebelled as well. The decision was likely related to the death of Shalmaneser's successor, Sargon II, in 705. The Assyrian king had died in battle and his corpse was never taken to burial. This was interpreted by the generation as an omen, and rebellions sprouted up throughout the kingdom, starting with Merodakh Baladan of Bavel in the west.4  Soon after, those in Syria-Palestine (including Chizkiyahu) attempted to throw off the Assyrian yoke as well,5 leading to the decision of Sancheriv (the next Assyrian king) to campaign in the area.

Biblical Sources

Tanakh discusses Sancheriv's campaign at length in Melakhim II 18-19, Yeshayahu 36-37, and Divrei HaYamim II 32.6

  • Melakhim II – The account in Melakhim II is the fullest of the three sources, sharing how Chizkiyahu rebels against Assyria, leading Sancheriv to retaliate in the fourteenth year of Chizkiyahu's reign.7 Sancheriv captures the fortified cities of Yehuda, prompting Chizkiyahu to send him a large tribute so that he would not attack Yerushalayim. For unknown reasons, the tribute did not have the desired effect8 and emissaries of Sancheriv returned to the city to convince the people to surrender.9  Chizkiyahu then asks the prophet Yeshayahu to pray to Hashem, and is told not to fear, for Sancheriv would return to his land and die there.10 Though a brief respite is granted when the Assyrians are forced to deal with a Kushite threat, the Assyrians promise to return.   This prompts Chizkiyahu to pray, leading to miraculous intervention. An angel strikes the Assyrian camp, killing 185,000 people and causing them to retreat.11
  • YeshayahuYeshayahu's version of the campaign is almost identical to that of Melakhim, leaving out only the discussion of Chizkiyahu's original tribute. Other passages in the book further highlight the destruction wrought by Assyria or speak of the miraculous salvation, though Sancheriv himself is not explicitly mentioned.12
  • Divrei HaYamim II – The account in Divrei HaYamim, though relatively brief,13 provides information regarding Chizkiyahu's preparations for Sancheriv's attack that is lacking in the other Biblical sources. It tells how Chizkiyahu fortified the city walls,14 made shields and weapons, appointed military captains, and encouraged his soldiers.15 His most well known act is his plugging of the springs outside the city and diverting the water through "Chizkiyahu's tunnel".16 This ensured that the enemy could not benefit from the water,17 while  Israel could sustain itself throughout a prolonged siege. 

Extra-Biblical Sources

Sancheriv's campaign is well documented in Assyrian sources, as it is described in detail in the Assyrian annals and also portrayed pictorially in the Lakhish reliefs found in the palace of Nineveh.  Archaeological finds provide further evidence of the campaign:

  • Assyrian Annals – Copies of Sancheriv's annals have been preserved on three monumental prisms18 known as the the Taylor Prism,19 the Jerusalem Prism,20 and the Oriental Institute Prism.21 The inscriptions are almost identical22 and constitute the latest and most comprehensive editions of the annals.23   According to the inscription, Sancheriv's campaign was an attempt to quell rebellions in Tzidon, Ahskelon, Ekron and Yehuda.  The four had formed a coalition against Assyria, with expectation of aid from Egypt. Chizkiyahu is mentioned in two sections.  In the context of the insurrection of Ekron, we are told that the Philistines overthrew their king, who had been a loyal vassal to Sancheriv, and "handed him over to Hezekiah, the Jew" for safekeeping.  Later, Sancheriv tells of the invasion of Yehuda. He boasts of having laid siege to 46 cities, taking 200,150 captives, imprisoning Chizkiyahu in Jerusalem, and plundering the towns.  The account ends with a description of the extensive tribute paid to Sancheriv by Chizkiyahu.
  • Azekah Inscription – This tablet was discovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal,24 and the Inscription describes Assyria's besieging and destroying of Azekah in the time of Chizkiyahu.25 It connects the event to Chizkiyahu's prior annexation of a Philistine city, whose name is not legible on the tablet. Scholars debate whether the inscription speaks of the reign of Sancheriv or of the earlier reign of Sargon II:
    • Campaign of Sancheriv – According to N. Na'aman,26 the tablet describes the campaign of Sancheriv in 701 BCE,27 and complements the descriptions found in both Tanakh and the annals.  It reveals that, as part of his preparations for the rebellion, Chizkiyahu had annexed certain Philistine cities28 to ensure their loyalty during the revolt. Moreover, it suggests that Azekah was the first of the "46" Judean towns to fall after Sancheriv attacked the Philistines.29 
    • Campaign of Sargon II – G. Galil,30 in contrast, suggests that the tablet speaks of Sargon II's campaign against Ashdod in 712 BCE.31  Before the campaign, Yamani, king of Ashdod, had sent a letter32 to Edom, Moav, Peleshet, and Yehuda, asking them to send word to Egypt to take part in a coalition against Assyria.33  In response, Sargon sent an army to punish Ashdod.34  According to Galil's interpretation of the inscription, Sargon then campaigned against Yehuda as well, conquering Azekah as a warning not to act against Assyrian interests. As such, the inscription suggests that even before 701 BCE, Chizkiyahu had played with the idea of rebellion and already tasted the wrath of Assyria.
  • Lakhish Relief – Sancheriv recorded his siege and victory over Lakhish, apparently the second biggest city in Yehuda,35 in a series of wall reliefs that cover an entire room in his palace in Nineveh.36 Together they tell the story of the battle.  One panel depicts the Assyrian soldiers, some holding long spears, others armed with bows and arrows, and yet others with slingshots. Another section of the relief highlights the siege engines and battering rams used in the attack.  The relief then depicts the defeated Judeans, some fleeing, some tortured, some killed, and others deported into exile. The Assyrians carry the looted booty, including huge goblets and even furniture. A final scene portrays Sancheriv on his throne, as prisoners bow in submission, or are executed, before him.  An inscription reads "Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, set up a throne and the booty of Lakhish passed before him."
  • Excavations at Lakhish – Extensive excavations at Tel Lakhish were carried out  between 1973 and 199437 under the direction of Prof. D. Ussishkin.  The archaeological finds from these digs provide further material evidence of the campaign.  One of the most significant finds was an Assyrian siege ramp, above which were extensive fortifications.38 The ramp and defenses appear similar to the depictions on the relief,39 and attest to the severity of the attack.   Another discovery was a series of jugs whose handles contained a seal with the imprint "למלך" and date to the reign of Chizkiyahu.  Ussishkin theorizes that these were storage vessels produced by Chizkiyahu's government as part of preparations for the Assyrian attack.40

Relationship Between the Sources: Points of Contact

In several instances, the background provided by the annals sheds light on verses in Tanakh whose significance (or relationship to the rebellion) might otherwise be less apparent.

I. Scope of the Rebellion – While Tanakh initially gives the impression that Chizkiyahu was acting alone, the Assyrian sources clarify that his insurrection was part of a much larger series of rebellions.  In light of this, certain verses take on new meaning:

  • "הוּא הִכָּה אֶת פְּלִשְׁתִּים" – Immediately after stating that Chizkiyahu rebelled against Assyria, Melakhim shares that he smote the Philistines.  From reading Melakhim alone, one might have thought that this was unconnected to the rebellion.  More likely, though, the verse refers to Chizkiayhu's role in organizing the coalition against Assyria.  From the annals it is known that in an effort to strengthen the alliance, he helped the people of Ekron overthrow their king who had been Sancheriv's loyal vassal.  This verse suggests that he also attacked other Philistine regions to ensure that they sided against Assyria.41
  • Egypt's role – From Melakhim, one might have thought that it was mere coincidence (or Divine intervention) that Egypt attacked Assyria specifically while Yehuda was under threat. The Assyrian sources, however, attest to the crucial role played by Egypt in the coalition and how the rebel nations depended on their aid. Ravshakeh's comment, "עַל מִי בָטַחְתָּ כִּי מָרַדְתָּ בִּי. עַתָּה הִנֵּה בָטַחְתָּ לְּךָ עַל מִשְׁעֶנֶת הַקָּנֶה הָרָצוּץ הַזֶּה עַל מִצְרַיִם",  is not a mere taunt but aptly reflects the rebels' assumption that Egypt would intervene on their behalf.42
  • Merodakh Baladan – It is possible that the visit of Merodakh Baladan43 to Chizkiyahu in Melakhim II 20 is also related to the rebellions against Assyria.44 Though he ostensibly visited due to Chizkiyahu's sickness, it is possible that his real intention was to sway Chizkiyahu to make an alliance45 and aid him in his attempt to topple Assyria.46

II. Scope of the Campaign – Sefer Melakhim barely speaks of the devastation wrought on Yehuda as a whole, preferring to focus on the fate of Yerushalayim.47 The material finds and Sancheriv's claim of smiting 46 cities (even if hyperbolic), however, testify to the high degree of destruction in the country.48  This might bear on one's interpretation of several undated prophecies in Yeshayahu and Mikhah which describe Yehuda in ruins, and support claims that they refer specifically to the era of Sancheriv.

  • Yeshayahu 1's description of the ravage done to Yehuda and Yerushalayim's lone status would appear to match the era: "אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ ... וְנוֹתְרָה בַת צִיּוֹן כְּסֻכָּה בְכָרֶם כִּמְלוּנָה בְמִקְשָׁה כְּעִיר נְצוּרָה."‎49
  • Yeshayahu 29's discussion of the besieged city of Jerusalem and its miraculous salvation similarly appears to refer to Sancheriv.
  • Mikhah 1 describes the devastation of Yehuda and Yerushalayim "כִּי אֲנוּשָׁה מַכּוֹתֶיהָ כִּי בָאָה עַד יְהוּדָה נָגַע עַד שַׁעַר עַמִּי עַד יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם" and can easily refer to Sancheriv's campaign.

Relationship Between the Sources: Discrepancies

Scholars note two main apparent contradictions between Tanakh and the Assyrian sources, one relating to the outcome of the battle and one relating to the timing of the Egyptian attack:

I. The Outcome of the Battle

Though both Tanakh and the Assyrian annals agree about the basic facts of the campaign (Sancheriv attacked Yehuda, captured many of its cities, reached Yerushalayim, and was paid a large tribute),50 they differ greatly regarding the outcome of the battle.  Only Tanakh records the miraculous salvation of Yehuda and defeat of the Assyrians.  The annals, in contrast, imply that Sancheriv was the victor.

Prof. H. Tadmor51 suggests that a close study of the literary structure of the annals reveals that in reality the two sources do not contradict at all: 

  • Schematic  structure of the annals – Tadmor points out that the annals were written according to certain set formulas52 in which description of conquered territories always included discussion of the same four components: 1) the fate and punishment of the enemy king, 2) the capture and destruction of the capital and other cities, 3) replacement of the king by a loyal vassal, and 4) payment of tribute.53  These four elements are indeed found in Sancheriv's description of his conquest of Tzidon, Ahskelon, and Ekron, but, significantly, they are not all present in the discussion regarding Yehuda. 
  • The exception: Yehuda – In the description of the attack on Yehuda, Chizkiyahu is not said to be captured or killed, only imprisoned in his royal residence, "like a bird in a cage."54 There is no mention of the destruction of the capital city or of replacement by a loyal vassal, only a very elaborate description of the tribute given. Tadmor posits the obvious explanation for the unique account: Sancheriv did not portray a complete victory because there was none;  in the end Yerushalayim was not vanquished and Chizkiyahu was not ousted.
  • Compensating for the missing victory – Prof. Tadmor suggests that Sancheriv found himself forced to compensate for a reality that did not match a literary formula designed to relay total victory.  The king, thus, attempted to obscure the truth, playing with his formulaic structure.  Chizkiyahu is made a prisoner, but in Jerusalem. Loyal vassals are given control, but rather than replacing the king, they rule only over the smaller towns.  Most telling, though, is that Sancheriv appends to his annals an extensive and unparalleled description of the tribute paid by Yehuda,55 as if listing all the material gains will hide the fact that Yerushalayim itself was not won.
  • The Lakhish relief – When deciding to commemorate his campaign in pictures, Sancheriv chose to depict his conquest of Lakhish specifically. This, too, suggests that it, rather than a conquest over Yerushalayim, was his biggest victory.56  As no other conquests from the campaign merit such a grand commemoration, Tadmor suggests that the entire artistic endeavor might have been an attempt to cover up the fact that Yerushalayim was not defeated.

II. Egypt's Intervention

A second point of contrast between the annals and Tanakh relates to the chronology of the conflict between Assyria and Egypt.  According to Tanakh, the Assyrians left to deal with the Egyptian-Ethiopian threat during their campaign against Yehuda, while the annals present Egypt-Ethiopia as intervening earlier, when Assyria was fighting the Philistines in Ekron.

  • G. Galil57 suggests that the contradiction is easily resolved if one posits that the annals are not written chronologically, but rather topically.58  The historiographer recorded the history of the campaign region by region, even though events certainly overlapped. Thus, the battle with Egypt mentioned in the annals in the context of the Philistines is identical to that mentioned in Tanakh, and occurred only after Sancheriv had approached Yerushalayim.59
  • N. Na'aman,60 in contrast, suggests that Egypt went to aid the coalition on two different occasions, and the battle at Eltakeh, described in the annals, is not identical with the approach of Tirhaka mentioned in Tanakh. Though Assyria had forced Egypt to retreat after they came to assist the Philistines, they did not pursue them, allowing Egypt to regroup, get reinforcements, and return to fight after Assyria attacked Yehuda.61

Significance of the Story

Upon reading Tanakh one wonders at the press space given to Sancheriv's attack. While the initial conquest of Yerushalayim is described in all of 5 verses in Sefer Shemuel, Tanakh devotes a full 5 chapters to this battle!  The above discussion helps the reader understand why.  At stake in this battle was the very existence of the Kingdom of Yehuda. Had it been conquered (and given our knowledge of the rest of the campaigns, this was a very likely possibility), its fate would have been like that of Israel and the rest of the region – deportation and the loss of any independent identity.  Hashem's miraculous intervention not only saved Yerushalayim, but preserved Yehuda's national and religious identity.62