Monday, October 13, 2014

Sennacherib Cylinder confirms Biblical record

"Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.” (2 Kings 18:13)

The Bible provides an account of the siege of Jerusalem by Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Judah’s King Hezekiah. In fact, it is mentioned in several locations in the Old Testament: Isaiah 36-37, II Kings 18-19, and II Chronicles 32. The siege occurred in the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign, which placed it around 701 B.C. However, there was no extra-Biblical evidence of these events, so critics could dismiss the account as Hebrew mythology – until 1830.

British Colonel R. Taylor was excavating in the area of Nineveh in northern Iraq, now Nebi Yunus, in 1830 when he found a six-sided baked clay document, or prism, about 38.5 cm in height. The cuneiform writing records an account of Sennacherib’s third campaign, which involved the destruction of 46 cities in Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. (The entire cylinder describes eight military campaigns, only one of which involves the Jews.)

As the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem, the Bible records that Hezekiah sent a message to Sennacherib: “’Withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.’ So the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house ... and gave it to the king of Assyria.” (2 Kings 18:14-15)

Column 3 of the prism records similar events: “As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke … (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him … As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him ... In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver … which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.”

Aside from the standard exaggerated aggrandizement of the king's exploits, some additional detail regarding the tribute exacted by Sennacherib can be found in the cylinder’s writing. The primary details in the descriptions of the events in both accounts are in agreement. Then, a funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem. After the Assyrian army surrounded Judah's capital city and prepared for invasion, they simply turned around and went home without an explanation mentioned in the cylinder. The Bible, however, provides further details. God spoke through Isaiah the prophet, who told King Hezekiah: “’He (Sennacherib) will not come to this city or shoot an arrow there; and he will not come before it with a shield or throw up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he will return, and he shall not come to this city,’ declares the Lord.’” (2 Kings 19:32-33)

The book of Isaiah continues regarding the ultimate fate of Sennacherib which are, not surprisingly, not found on the clay cylinder: “Then the angel of the Lord went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, all of these were dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. It came about as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that … his sons killed him with the sword ...” (Isaiah 37:36-38)

Though historians and scholars may dismiss the supernatural explanation provided in the Bible, a written account by the enemy and invading army certainly lends credence to the historicity of the battle. This is yet another example of later evidence confirming what the Bible had written thousands of years before.

(photo courtesy of the British Museum.)

[1] The Taylor Prism, The British Museum online, accessed 8 Oct 2014.
[2] Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 272-274.
[3] Sennacherib Prism, University of Texas, Translation Adapted from Luckenbill (1924:23-27).