Sennacherib’s Snare

Museum of Biblical History Staff • 08.25.2015

The Museum's Replica of the British Museum's Taylor Prism, which dates to ca. 700 B.C.

The Museum’s Replica of the British Museum’s Taylor Prism, which dates to ca. 700 B.C.

One of the best documented events written of in the Bible is Sennacherib’s third campaign, during which he invaded the eastern Mediterranean coastline, including the nation of Israel, in 701 B.C.  History tells us that Sargon II, emperor of Assyria fell in battle in 705 B.C.  Seeing this as an opportunity, the people of the Mediterranean coast began to plot a revolt against Assyria; yet the prophet Isaiah warned: “Rejoice not, O Philistia that the rod that struck you is broken, for from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.” (Isaiah 14:29 – ESV)  Despite his warning, in 701 B.C. the Philistines revolted.  Tyre and Sidon also joined in the rebellion; and once the Egyptians sent an army led by Taharqo (Tirhakah according to the Bible), Judah’s king Hezekiah joined in as well.  Sennacherib’s response to this would soon come to mean his greatest triumph, and yet the most embarrassing campaign deterrence in history.  Yet despite the campaign’s remarkable documentation, what exactly happened in the midst of this campaign has become a topic of some controversy among scholars.  What exactly happened to Sennacherib’s army in 701 B.C.?  In this brief narrative, we will examine the key sources of information on the event’s details, and see if we can shed some light on what exactly happened here.

In response to the revolt, Sennacherib launched a massive campaign against the entire rebellion, beginning his attack from the north, defeating Sidon and moving southward in bloody conquest that is almost comparable to Sherman’s March to the Sea.  The soldiers of Tyre, the Philistines, and the Egyptians took their stand at the Philistine city of Eltekah, near Ekron.  Sennacherib’s army overwhelmed them and he then continued his conquest, leveling many major Philistine cities.  He then turned his gaze on Judah; crushing its 46 fortified cities, and surrounding Jerusalem with enemy territory – or as he himself wrote: “. . . [Hezekiah] himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage” (Cogan, 303).  In 2 Kings 18-19, the Bible tells us that while Sennacherib was putting Lachish under siege (one of the 46 fortified cities of Judah), he sent a message to Hezekiah, as well as another later.  Both of these messages were intended to convince Hezekiah to surrender Jerusalem to him.  The first was given through three messengers.  In accordance with the word of the prophet Isaiah (19:6-7), Sennacherib heard a rumor that Taharqo had escaped Eltekah, regrouped his army in Egypt, and was coming to face him again.  He then sent his second message in the form of a letter.  Isaiah responded to the letter, saying “. . . [The LORD] will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (v.34).

Within the Museum’s main gallery stands erect a replica of the famed “Taylor Prism,” as provided us by the British Museum.  The Taylor Prism is one of three original copies of the same event, discovered in 1830 at Nebi Yunus – the ancient ruins of Nineveh.  It was acquired by Col. R. Taylor, and brought to the British Museum.   The other two copies, which all date to ca. 691 B.C., are now in Jerusalem and Chicago  (Mitchell, 66).  It is a hexagonal prism made of baked clay, and records Sennacherib’s account of this fantastic event.    Within its text, the prism describes his conquest of the region and the spoils of war he received.  But even more fascinating is what it doesn’t say.

The Bible tells us in 2 Kings 19:35-36 that the night Isaiah gave the above prophecy to Hezekiah, an angel of the Lord slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, prompting Sennacherib’s return to Nineveh; never himself to return to the region in conquest.  2 Chronicles 32:21 expounds on this number, saying that those who met their demise were the army’s mighty warriors, commanders, and officers.  While the Taylor Prism does not speak of this, we find confirmation from two other sources.  Herodotus claims that the Assyrian army met the Egyptians at Pelusium, and that field mice came and ate the leather of their weaponry and shields, as well as their quivers so that they had no defense against the Egyptians.  He also claims they were sent by the Greek god Hephaestus, in response to the prayers of the pharaoh (Herodotus, 185).  Josephus quoted from a famed Babylonian historian by the name of Berossus concerning what happened, saying that a “pestilential distemper” had been sent by God upon the Assyrians.  He goes on to say, “and on the very first night of the siege, a hundred fourscore and five thousand, with their captains and generals, were destroyed” (Josephus, 267).

What exactly happened here?  Here we have three accounts which speak of these events, giving slightly different versions of the details of what happened to Sennacherib’s army: which one is correct?  This is the work of the historian – to attempt to bring several reports together in harmony; but they don’t always match perfectly.  We can certainly confirm that Sennacherib abandoned his campaign without ever himself returning: but the big question is, why?  It is interesting that all three accounts speak of God sending something to destroy much of the Assyrian army.  It is furthermore interesting that he never returns to the region to finish his conquest.  What would cause him to abandon his greatest campaign, never to return?  Why do so many other ancient historians point to a disaster as the cause?  For those who believe in the Bible; the explanation is simple as God’s own words: “Because you [Sennacherib] have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.” (2 Kings 19:28)

Works Cited

Cogan, Mordechai. “Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem.” Hallo, William W. The Context of Scripture: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Vol. II. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 302-304. Print.

Herodotus. The Histories. Markham, ON: Penguin, 1980. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus . Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000. Print.

Mitchell, T.C. The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence. New York: Paulist Press, 2004. Print.