Isaiah 36 – Sennacherib Taunts Hezekiah & Hezekiah Against the Assyrians

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, “shut up Hezekiah like a caged bird.”  I would think that meant he put him in prison, but that can’t be because then he wouldn’t be able to pay the big tribute that he had to pay. 

Now I’m wondering…

 1 Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defensed cities of Judah, and took them.

Taylor Prism
Sennacherib’s Annals are the annals of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. They are found inscribed on a number of artifacts, and the final versions were found in three clay prisms inscribed with the same text: the Taylor Prism is in the British Museum, the Oriental Institute Prism in the Oriental Institute of Chicago, and the Jerusalem Prism is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Taylor Prism is one of the earliest cuneiform artifacts analysed in modern Assyriology, having been found a few years before the modern deciphering of cuneiform.

The annals themselves are notable for describing his siege of Jerusalem during the reign of king Hezekiah. This event is recorded in several books contained in the Bible including Isaiah chapters 33 and 36; 2 Kings 18:17; 2 Chronicles 32:9. The invasion is mentioned by Herodotus, who does not refer to Judea and says the invasion ended at Pelusium on the edge of the Nile Delta.

36:1-39:8 – much of chapters 36-39 is paralleled, sometimes verbatim, in 2 Kgs 18:13-20:19.  The compiler of 2 Kings may have used Isa 36-39 as one of his sources, or both may have drawn on a common source.  Chapters 36-37 describe the fulfillment of many predictions about Assyria’s collapse, while chapters 38-39 point toward the Babylonian context of chapters 40-66.

“Fourteenth year of king Hezekiah” – 701 B.C., the 14th year of his sold reign.  Hezekiah ruled as a sole king from 715 to 686 but was a co-regent from c. 729.

“Sennacherib” – reigned over Assyria from 705 to 681.

“All the…cities” – in his annals, Sennacherib lists 46 such cities.

2 And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.

“Lachish” – an important city about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem that guarded the main approach to Judah’s capital from that quarter.

3 Then came forth unto him Eliakim, Hilkiah’s son, which was over the house, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, Asaph’s son, the recorder.

“Over the house” – in charge of the palace.

“Shebna” – see 22:15.

“Scribe” – perhaps equivalent to secretary of state.

“Recorder” – an official position also associated elsewhere with “scribe”.

4  And Rabshakeh said unto them, Say ye now to Hezekiah, Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?

5 I say, sayest thou, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom dost thou trust, that thou rebellest against me?

“Rebellest” – by refusing to pay the expected tribute.

6 Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.

“Broken reed” – Egypt is compared to a reed again in Eze 29:6-7.

“Egypt” – Hezekiah had been under pressure to make an alliance with Egypt since 715 B.C. or earlier.

7 But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?

“High places and…altars” – Hezekiah had destroyed these popular shrines often dedicated to Baal worship.

8 Now therefore give pledges, I pray thee, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them.

“Two thousand horses” – a sizable number for any army.  Horses and chariots were highly prized.

“Riders” – probably charioteers, since cavalry was not employed by these nations this early.

Seal Bearing Name of Judean King Found in Jerusalem
Impression with ‘Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king of Judah,’ unearthed next to Temple Mount, is decorated with Egyptian motifs.

Archaeologists deciphered a seal impression bearing the name of the 8th century BCE biblical King Hezekiah recently found during excavations next to the Old City of Jerusalem.

The bulla, a stamp seal impression, was one of dozens found in recent years in a royal building in the Ophel, excavation leader Dr. Eilat Mazar said at a press conference held at the Mount Scopus campus, and bears the name “Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king of Judah,” an 8th century Judean ruler.

Mazar called the artifact “the closest as ever that we can get to something that was most likely held by King Hezekiah himself.” She said that the bulla “strengthens what we know already from the Bible about [Hezekiah].”

The bulla in question used to seal a papyrus scroll and an impression of the fibers was preserved on the inverse, Mazar said, suggesting the seal once enclosed a document signed by the king himself.Hezekiah ruled the kingdom of Judah from around 715 and 686 BCE. During his reign the kingdom was invaded by the ascendant Assyrian Empire and the capital, Jerusalem, was besieged by the army of King Sennacherib. The Book of Kings II 18:5 says of Hezekiah that “after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among them that were before him.” He’s also mentioned in the annals of Sennacherib.

9 How then wilt thou turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master’s servants, and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?

10 And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.

“The LORD said unto me” – the Lord had used Assyria to punish Israel’s turn to be judged.  Pharaoh Neco claimed God’s approval on his mission according to 2 Chr 35:21.

11  Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews’ language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.

“Syrian language” – Aramaic, the diplomatic language of that day.

12  But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words?  Hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?

“Eat…dung…drink…piss” – a crude way of describing the horrors of famine if Jerusalem was to be besieged.

13 Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.

14 Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you.

15 Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.

16 Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye everyone the waters of his own cistern;

“Make an agreement…present” – the Assyrian king is demanding the surrender of the city and the payment of tribute.

‘”His vine…his fig tree” – symbols of security and prosperity in the best of times.

17 Until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.

“Came and take you” – the Assyrians deported rebellious people’s to reduce their will to revolt.

18 Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?

36:18-20 – the commander’s words echo the boasts of the proud Assyrians in 10:8-11.

19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad?  Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?

“Sepharvaim” probably located in northern Aram (Syria) not far from Hamath.  Residents of Sepharvaim were deported to Samaria, though they still worshiped the gods Adrammelech and Anammelech.

“Samaria” – the Assyrians assumed that each people had its own gods and so didn’t  associate the God of Judah with that of Samaria.

20 Who are they among all the gods of these lands that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?

“Held their peace” – the Assyrians had hoped that the masterful; psychology of vv. 4-20 would produce panic.21 But they held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king’s commandment was, saying, Answer him not.

22  Then came Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, that was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rabshakeh.

Hezekiah Against the Assyrians

Military campaigns
Sargon was beset with widespread rebellions by the beginning of his rule. Marduk-apla-iddina II, a chieftain of the Chaldean tribes in the marshes of the south, declared himself king of Babylon and was crowned king in 721 BC. In 720 BC, Sargon and Marduk-apla-iddina met in battle on the plains east of Babylon, near the city of Der.

Marduk-apla-iddina was supported by the Elamite king Humban-Nikash I. The Elamite troops were able to push back the Assyrian army, and he retained control of the south and the title of king of Babylon. The three kings concluded a treaty to stabilize their relationship, a détente that would last ten years.

In 717 BC, the Syro-Hittite state of Carchemish on the upper Euphrates rebelled. Carchemish was a small kingdom situated at an important Euphrates crossing. Sargon violated existing treaties in attacking the city, but with the wealth seized was able to continue to fund his army.

In 716 BC he moved against the Mannaeans, where the ruler Aza, son of Iranzu, had been deposed by Ullusunu with the help of the Urartuans. Sargon took the capital Izirtu, and stationed troops in Parsua and Kar-Nergal (Kishesim). He built new bases in Media as well, the main one being Harhar which he renamed Kar-Sharrukin.

In 715 BC, others were to follow: Kar-Nabu, Kar-Sin and Kar-Ishtar — all named after Babylonian gods and resettled by Assyrian subjects.
The eighth campaign of Sargon against Urartu in 714 BC is well known from a letter from Sargon to the god Ashur (found in the town of Assur, now in the Louvre) and the bas-reliefs in the palace of Dur-Sharrukin.

The reliefs show the difficulties of the terrain: the war-chariots had to be dismantled and carried by soldiers (with the king still in the chariot); the letter describes how paths had to be cut into the intractable forests. The campaign was probably motivated by the fact that the Urartians had been weakened by incursions of the Cimmerians, a nomadic steppe tribe. One Urartian army had been completely annihilated, and the general Qaqqadanu taken prisoner.

The Inscription of Sargon II at Tang-i Var pass near the village of Tang-i Var, Hawraman, Iran
After reaching Lake Urmia, he turned east and entered Zikirti and Andia on the Caspian slopes of the Caucasus.

When news reached him that king Rusa I was moving against him, he turned back to Lake Urmia in forced marches and defeated a Urartian army in a steep valley of the Uaush (probably the Sahend, east of Lake Urmia, or further to the south, in Mannaea country), a steep mountain that reached the clouds and whose flanks were covered by snow.

The battle is described as the usual carnage, but King Rusas managed to escape. The horses of his chariot had been killed by Assyrian spears, forcing him to ride a mare in order to get away, very unbecoming for a king. Sargon plundered the fertile lands at the southern and western shore of Lake Urmia, felling orchards and burning the harvest. In the royal resort of Ulhu, the wine-cellar of the Urartian kings was plundered; wine was scooped up like water. The Assyrian army then plundered Sangibuti and marched north to Van without meeting resistance, the people having retreated to their castles or fled into the mountains, having been warned by fire-signals. Sargon claims to have destroyed 430 empty villages.

After reaching Lake Van, Sargon left Urartu via Uaiaish. In Hubushkia he received the tribute of the “Nairi” lands. While most of the army returned to Assyria, Sargon went on to sack the Urartian temple of the god Haldi and his wife Bagbartu at Musasir (Ardini).

The loot must have been impressive; its description takes up fifty columns in the letter to Ashur. More than one ton of gold and five tons of silver fell into the hands of the Assyrians; 334,000 objects in total. A relief from Dur-Sharrukin depicted the sack of Musasir as well (which fell into the Tigris in 1846 when the archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta was transporting his artifacts to Paris). Musasir was annexed.

Sargon claims to have lost only one charioteer, two horsemen and three couriers on this occasion. King Rusa was said to be despondent when he heard of the loss of Musasir, and fell ill. According to the imperial annals, he took his own life with his own iron sword.

In 713 BC, Sargon stayed at home; his troops took, among others, Karalla, Tabal and Cilicia. Persian and Mede rulers offered tribute.

In 711 BC, Gurgum was conquered. An uprising in the Philistine city of Ashdod, supported by Judah, Moab, Edom and Egypt, was suppressed, and Philistia became an Assyrian province.

Sargon II
Sargon II was an Assyrian king. A son of Tiglath-Pileser III, he came to power relatively late in life, possibly by usurping the throne from his older brother, Shalmaneser V. Sargon II suppressed rebellions, conquered the Kingdom of Israel, and, in 710 BC, conquered the Kingdom of Babylon, thus reuniting Assyria with its southern rival, Babylonia, from which it had been separate since after the death of Hammurabi in 1750 BC.

The Neo-Assyrian pronunciation of the name was presumably /sargi:n(u)/ or /sarga:n(u)/; the spelling Sargon is based on the Biblical form of the name (סרגון), mentioned in Isaiah 20:1. The regnal number is modern, applied for disambiguation from the Old Assyrian king Sargon I and the still-older Akkadian ruler Sargon the Elder.

After a lengthy co-regency with his father, Ahaz, Hezekiah ascended to the throne of Judah in 715 B.C., six years after the northern kingdom had fallen to Sargon II  of Assyria.

He promptly restored the long-neglected temple and invited the remnant of the northern tribe to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.   In the beginning of his reign Hezekiah remained the loyal subject of the Assyrian king, refusing to revolt when the Philistine states did so in 711 B.C.

However, when Sargon died in battle in 705 B.C., the transfer of power to his successor, along with internal pressures from the Assyrian heartland, occasioned many of Assyria’s vassals, including King Hezekiah, to attempt to regain their independence.  Sennacherib ascended to the Assyrian throne facing rebellion on all sides.

In 701 B.C., Sennacherib laid siege to Lachish, which guarded access to Jerusalem and its rebellious king.  Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute at this time and released Padi, the pro-Assyrian king of Ekron, from prison in Jerusalem, while Sennacherib gave some cities of western Judah to loyal Philistine kings.

Nevertheless, Sennacherib sent forces to besiege Jerusalem, demoralize its people and try to persuade them to hand over their king (2 Kgs 18:19-35; 2 Chr 32:10-19; Isa 36:4-20).

The prophet Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah by prophesying the deliverance of Jerusalem and the return of Sennacherib to his own land.  The angle of the Lord entered the Assyrian camp, slaying 185,000 soldiers (Isa 37:36).

Sennacherib’s own record boasts that he had shut up Hezekiah like a caged bird but doesn’t explain how the siege ended.  Sennacherib did in fact return to Nineveh where he was later assassinated by two of his sons. 

Differences in the Bible and Assyrian accounts of Sennacherib’s dealings with Hezekiah have led many scholars to posit the theory that Sennacherib led two campaigns against Jerusalem: one in 701 B.C. and the other sometime between 688 and 681 B.C.

According to this proposed reconstruction of events, the first siege of Jerusalem would have ended when Hezekiah sent tribute to Nineveh (2 Kgs 18:14-16).  Later, Hezekiah may have withheld tribute and relied upon Egypt as an ally powerful enough to resist Assyria.

This may have roused Sennacherib to a second siege of Jerusalem, which ended when the Lord decimated the Assyrian army overnight.

Regardless of whether we accept the theory of one Assyrian campaign against Jerusalem or two, it is certain that Hezekiah went to great lengths to prepare and fortify his nation for the onslaught;

He protected Jerusalem’s water supply, channeling the Gihon spring through the city and building a wall and additional towers to prevent access to the spring from without (2 Chr 32:5; cf. the reference to the two walls Isa 22:11).

What is known as the Broad Wall was added to the western hill of Jerusalem, and an outer wall was added to the eastern side of the city expanding Jerusalem’s area four-fold to accommodate refugees from northern Israel and western Judah.

Hezekiah stopped up water sources in outlying areas, fortified many Judahite cities and manufactured armaments.

Hezekiah’s efforts to safeguard Jerusalem against prolonged sieges may be evidenced by the countless jars discovered throughout ancient Judah.  These jars, bearing the Hebrew letters Lmlk (:belonging to the king”) and dating in the time of Hezekiah, suggest that he was preparing and equipping storehouses of food and supplies throughout the land.

Although Sennacherib inflicted dire casualties upon Judah, the Lord delivered the city form the hand of the Assyrian monarch.  God’s protection, along with Hezekiah’s preparation for war (and we know who prompted King Hezekiah to do that), proved successful against a fearsome foe.

Since Hezekiah like a caged bird, I wonder what the prisons were like way back then?