Lachish: King Sennacherib and Hezekiah

    One biblical event archaeology has certainly confirmed is the siege of Lachish (Lah HEESH). Ancient Lachish was an important city during the time of King Hezekiah. Beautiful date palms and vineyards surrounded its walls, walls that would prove no hindrance to the Assyrian King Sennacherib.


    Lachish is not a popular site for tourists to visit in Israel, but it was the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah next to Jerusalem. It was even bigger than Jerusalem then. It was situated in the Judean hills near the Via Maris, the way of the sea, a trade route joining Egypt to the northern reaches of Mesopotamia (derek hayyâm in Isaiah 9:1). Jerusalem may have been the capital of Judah, but Lachish was its economic center.


    Sennacherib saw it as a great addition to his collection of enslaved cities that built his empire. With torturous, brutal efficiency I won't mention here, he fortified his empire in a southerly direction. You see regions were rebelling with hopes of throwing off Assyrian rule and the Kingdom of Judah was one of them.


    Before we visit Lachish, let's take a closer look at Sennacherib.


    Sennacherib was the son of Sargon II. He was not the oldest son and therefore, not expected to be king. But then his older brothers died. His name means he replaced his brothers.


    Sargon II and Sennacherib had a curious relationship. While Sargon II let his son take care of daily chores round about the palace, he never invited him on military campaigns like other kingly dads.


    Sennacherib spent ten years supervising the building of his father's capital city at present day Khorsabad while he himself lived at Nineveh. This role as more of an official than a military leader in Assyria did nothing for his résumé. But he became king anyway because Dad couldn't live forever, right?


    And Dad died a fateful death. He died in battle which would seem respectable except that his body was never recovered. The superstitious populations of Mesopotamia saw this as a curse. The Assyrians had been judged. His son had never led a military campaign. These facts emboldened neighboring countries to revolt against the Assyrian Empire.


    Sennacherib was shaken at his father's death. His capital city had just been finished and he had laid the foundation stone with an inscription that stated the gods had promised him he would live there in enjoyment many years. Had the gods judged him? It is said Sennacherib thought his father was killed because he had ignored Ashur the god of Assyria.


    As the new king, Sennacherib quickly proved two things. One, he had a knack for ticking people off and two, the rumors about his inability to fight were false.


    First Sennacherib declared himself king over Babylon without respecting their chief god Marduke. He didn't even take the time to visit it as its new king. Perhaps he didn't want to make the same mistake as his father and honor Marduke. But the Babylonians were offended. Then an enemy of his father decided to rebel and take back Babylon. This man's name was Merodach-Baladan, meaning something like Marduke gave me a son. Babylonians already knew this guy.


    Merodach was a tribal chieftan who had gained the country of Elam's support to take over as king of Babylon during Sargon II's reign. But he fell out of favor after ten years, and Sargon II defeated him. Sargon II then went and lived at Babylon for a time. While Sargon II had defeated Merodach's first uprising, he let him escape to Elam (Persia). A mistake Sennacherib needed to correct and quickly.


    Merodach-Baladan killed the sitting king and the Babylonians preferred him over Sennacherib so they did nothing. Merodach was a friend to King Hezekiah (Isaiah 39). Whoever his friends were and whatever his connections, other rulers began copying his actions. It was do or die for the new Assyrian king.


    Almost as soon as Sennacherib became king he had rebellions. Superstitions surrounding his father's death may not have helped, but he eventually decided to end imaginings of freedom from Assyrian rule. He did it with a heavy, murderous hand so torturous that some cities surrendered to limit the horrific events the arrival of the Assyrian army promised. He says he rode on horseback and had his chariot lifted by ropes in difficult terrain. When it was too steep for a horse, he climbed (Daniel David Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib University of Chicago Press  Lines 69-70 pg 26). This new king was determined to hang on to his empire.


    Merodach-Baladan and Hezekiah escaped Sennacherib's hit men, but not without incident.


    Merodach ran for his life, fleeing to the Mediterranean coast and finally to the Persian Gulf. He died a natural death there. Earlier in his reign, Hezekiah had seen the advance on Samaria and the Northern Kingdom's fall to the Assyrians. Now ten years later they were back. Conquering Judah's cities one by one, forty-six of them, on the way to Jerusalem. Hezekiah sent gold, silver, gems, ivory furniture, his musicians, his daughters, his harem and the rest of the loot Sennacherib lists in his records ( Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib  pg 34) to try and stop the slaughter of  the Kingdom of Judah.


    But not before Sennacherib's army had laid siege to Lachish, conquered it, killing over a thousand people, torturing others and taking captives. Then Sennacherib sent his general to Jerusalem with a message for Hezekiah.


    Sennacherib was proud of his victory at Lachish. But he didn't have long to gloat. He left Lachish to fight at Libnah. His general camped outside Jerusalem. But Sennacherib lost his army. The Bible says 185,000 men. Hezekiah survived safely within Jerusalem's walls by the hand of God in a miraculous rescue. "And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses" (2Kings 19:35).


    Scholars dispute the numbers but it had to be a significant loss because Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and there was no second assault. All he could say was he had shut up Hezekiah like a caged bird in Jerusalem. He also had a limestone relief made to commemorate his victory at Lachish and displayed it on the wall in his palace. He says he captured 200,150 people (Luckenbill, line 24, pg 33).


    But again, he didn't gloat for long. He wanted revenge on Elam for its support against him. He had put his oldest son on the throne in Babylon in place of Merodach-Baladan (Luckenbill, lines 72-74, pg 35).  He states that he made all the land submit to his son (Luckenbill, line 12, pg 77).  He even began a building project for his son to have a city of his own. But while Sennacherib was terrorizing Elam, the king of Elam with Babylon's help kidnapped this son and must have killed him.


    Sennacherib was tired of Babylon it seems. It had caused him so much trouble and then the death of his son, the one in whom he had invested so much to be the next king. He killed the Elamite king's son and then completely destroyed Babylon, including its temples (Luckenbill, pg 84).  He says he overwhelmed it like a hurricane (Luckenbill, line 44, pg 83). He carried off Marduke and brought his idol to Nineveh. He replaced the worship of Marduke with that of Ashur.


    The Assyrians were shocked. They didn't want to offend Babylon's gods. Sennacherib scrambled to invent a story that explained his actions using the goddess Tiamat. It didn't fly, so Sennacherib set his efforts on building  Nineveh into a city Assyrians could be proud of.


    But things were beginning to get shaky in his family. He had named his second oldest son, Arda-Mulissu, heir to the throne and changed his mind years later. The son pleaded to be reinstated to no avail. Instead Sennacherib picked his younger son, Esarhaddon. But the older son was popular, so to be safe Esarhaddon was sent away in exile. While away, he wisely gathered an army.


    Esarhaddon might have been safe but Sennacherib was not. The Bible says while Sennacherib was worshipping his god, his sons murdered him. Arda-Mulissu is called Adrammelech in Hebrew. "And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead" (2Kings 19:37).


    Like his father, Sennacherib's death rattled the Assyrians and left his son shaken. According to scholars  and his own records, Esarhaddon was plagued by mistrust or paranoia for the rest of his life.


    As for Sennacherib, he is remembered because of his confrontation with Hezekiah and the prophecies Isaiah spoke about him. He probably wouldn't appreciate he is most famous for his defeat. Lord Byron wrote a poem about him anyway.


    The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

    And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

    And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

    When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.


    Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

    That host with their banners at sunset were seen;

    Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath flown,

    That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

    from The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron.


    You can read translations of Sennacherib's writings yourself by researching the Taylor Prism, the Bellino Cylinder of Sennacherib, the Oriental Institute Prism, and the Jerusalem Prism. You can also read Daniel David Luckenbill's book The Annals of Sennacherib online here.

    In the next post we will talk about the siege at Lachish.


    Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay



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