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Sins of Omission
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Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Wendy Wippel

Hezekiah, ruler of the southern kingdom (Judah) when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom (Israel), avoided Israel's fate by a little fortuitous engineering and a lot of faith.  The so-called "scholars" question the Biblical account, though in essence it's confirmed by Judah's enemy.  But not by what he said.  By what he didn't.

First a little background:  It's 721 BC, and a charming fellow by the name of Sargon is King of Assyria.  And (like seemingly all those ancient kings) he's pretty sure he's the perfect guy to rule the ancient world. In 721 BC he happens to have his bull's-eye on the northern kingdom of the Hebrews, Israel, and before the year is out he succeeds in conquering the Israelite capital at Samaria. He thereupon rounds up the citizenry, takes them captive, and marches them through the Khyber Pass into obscurity. 

(Said citizenry thereafter known as the lost tribes.)

Judah (then under Hezekiah's father, Ahaz), not wishing to share the fate of their unfortunate cousins, readily agreed to pay tribute to the Assyrian king. Under this arrangement Assyria and Judah have a truce--albeit an uneasy one--for quite a few years.

But in 705 BC, the situation changes. In 705 BC, Sargon dies, and Hezekiah, now himself King of Judah, sees an opportunity to throw off the hateful Assyrian yoke. With no one on the throne in Assyria, there's a power vacuum. Hezekiah recruits Babylon and Egypt as allies.

And he stops sending money.

Shortly, however, Sennacherib (Sargon's son) is made regent. And the new King of Assyria, is, to say the least, not amused, and he has inherited more than the throne from his father. He also, has a drive to rule the neighborhood. Hezekiah has made his first target a no-brainer, and Sennacherib gathers his forces and begins to Jerusalem. 

What happens next, the face-off between Hezekiah and Sennacherib-- recorded by Herodotus, Josephus, the Bible, and Assyrian records, as a start -- is called one of the most well documented events of the Iron Age. As Sennacherib's forces advance, Hezekiah, not willing to sacrifice his people, offered to pay tribute in exchange for the withdrawal of Sennacherib's forces from the Judean cities already under attack. Hezekiah, in fact, stripped the temple of its gold and other treasures and delivered it to Sennacherib as promised.

Sennacherib yawned. His forces kept coming. 

They eventually arrived at Jerusalem, and circled the city for the inevitable siege. (2 Chronicles 32:1) Hezekiah, a good King as well as an able military strategist, began preparing Jerusalem to survive.

First, he blocked the springs outside the city to deny water accessibility to their attackers.

“Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water? (2 Chronicles 32:4-5 NIV)

He then had his forces dig a tunnel from the spring of Gihon into the heart of the city, increasing water supply inside the gates. (II Kings 20:20) He also strengthened the existing walls and built new walls and towers.

Last but not least, he gathered the citizens of Jerusalem and exhorted them to trust in the Lord:

"he gathered them together to him in the open square of the city gate, and gave them encouragement, saying, Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid nor dismayed before the king of Assyria, nor before all the multitude that is with him; for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” (2 Chronicles 32:7-8)

"And the people were strengthened by the words of Hezekiah king of Judah." (2 Chronicles 32:38 NKJV) 

Sennacherib, however, had his own P.R. campaign in mind, a nasty affair that culminated in the arrival of the Assyrian version of Jay Carney at the city walls with this message:

"Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you; nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord, saying, “The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”’… Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’” (2 Chronicles 32:15-20)

Sennacherib's message spooked Hezekiah, afraid that his men would desert.  A messenger was sent to Isaiah, and this message to Isaiah returned:

Thus you shall say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”’ (Isaiah 37:5-7)

Then things got ugly.  Sennacherib sent a lengthy message to Hezekiah, taunting him with the unbroken record of the Assyrian empire and its conquest.  Isaiah records what happened next:

"Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. Then Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, saying: “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God. Truly, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands,…Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord, You alone.” (Isaiah 37:14-20)

God then sent another message to Hezekiah through Isaiah:

Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: ‘He shall not come into this city, Nor shoot an arrow there, Nor come before it with shield, Nor build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, By the same shall he return; And he shall not come into this city,’ Says the Lord. ‘For I will defend this city, to save it For My own sake and for My servant David’s sake.'

Funny. Both the biblical account and the Assyrian account claim victory.  The biblical account tells us records the deliverance of the citizens of Judah:

The angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh. (Isaiah 37:33-37)

The Assyrian account, recorded on the Taylor Prism (on display at the British Museum) records Sennacherib's version of events. In it he boasts that his armies conquered 46 walled cities and too many smaller cities to count.  He says he captures 100,150 people and their livestock.  And finally, it says that his siege shut up Hezekiah, in Jerusalem, like a "caged bird".

Conspicuous by its absence is any description of an actual conquest of Jerusalem, confirming. They shut Hezekiah up in the city, but they didn't destroy it.  The absence of Assyrian gloating over Jerusalem's defeat, by its absence testifying to the veracity of the Biblical account.

Not surprisingly, the Babylonian historian Berossus also recorded that a disease befell the Assyrian army. He also records 180,000 men lost.  As did the Persian historian Herodotus.

And remember the specific prophecy Isaiah made regarding the fate of Sennacherib?   That he would return home but die at home by the sword?

Numerous ancient historical records record the death of the great king Sennacherib. He left Judah to conquer and plunder Babylon, left Babylon to attack Egypt, but eventually returned to Assyria unharmed, as prophesied.

And his sons killed him. (For desecrating Babylon.)

As also recorded in Scripture:

Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword. (Isaiah 37:38)

"God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19)

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: Of Barracks and Bigots

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