Only 175 years ago, in 1846, knowledge of the ancient Near East had been completely lost through the vicissitudes of time—illuminated only by the Bible and a few classical sources. In 1851, only five years later, a young Englishman, Austen Henry Layard, could boast that the progress of work in Mesopotamia had yielded more than 50 cuneiform names of kings, nations, cities, peoples, and gods mentioned in the Old Testament. What followed was an explosion of information, and it was only the beginning of a discipline that would eventually span the globe. Today that evidence has multiplied and expanded, particularly for one of the central events recorded in three books of the Bible (2 Kings 18; 19; 2 Chron. 32; and Isa. 36; 37)—the campaign of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, against Judah and its key cities, Lachish, and Jerusalem.
The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., as prophesied by Isaiah, and now, some 20 years later, only Judah stood between the aggressive Assyrian empire and their goal of conquering Egypt. The Assyrian king Sennacherib approached the kingdom of Judah with his enormous army. Initially Hezekiah paid tribute to Sennacherib, hoping to avoid a direct confrontation (2 Kings 18:13-16), but in time Sennacherib returned and positioned himself against Lachish (Fig. 1), the second most important city of Judah and one that guarded the main road leading up from the south to Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:9). The threat had become reality.
In August 1849 the British explorer and archaeologist Austen Henry Layard returned to the capital city of Nineveh. He had been working at several sites for some time, including Babylon. But this summer he would make the fabulous discovery of Sennacherib’s massive palace “without rival.” The excavated palace consisted of 71 rooms with colossal reliefs depicting his various campaigns and accomplishments. The focal point of the ceremonial wing of the palace, which was entered from a courtyard through a series of rooms flanked by enormous, winged bull colossi with the face of the king, was a room that became known as the Lachish room. Here Layard removed 12 large, sculptured relief slabs and shipped them to the British Museum in London.1 The alabaster slabs depict in detail the siege, attack, and destruction of Lachish, with a siege ramp against the city and eight battering rams with foot soldiers, archers, and slingers moving against it (Fig. 2). The final panels show spoils and prisoners paraded and being killed before the king, who watches from his pavilion opposite the city. The siege of Lachish was the largest and most detailed Assyrian military depiction found in any Assyrian palace. Its prominent position might have been chosen so that a “visitor might justifiably conclude that the surrender of Lachish was the high point of the western campaign.”2
The British expedition to Lachish had uncovered the Assyrian siege ramp in the 1930s, but it was David Ussishkin’s Tel Aviv University (1974-1994) excavations that would identify the ramp. Built of stones and construction material weighing between 13,000 and 19,000 tons, it was estimated that if a worker could have carried 45 kilograms an hour over a distance of 300 meters, 10,000 workers could have completed the siege ramp in about 18 days. Inside the city, a counter ramp was rapidly built by the defenders to strengthen the city walls. The Nineveh reliefs depict the intense assault against the city as battering rams were pushed up the siege ramp. Defenders on the walls are shown throwing down firebrands, bricks, and stones to deter the attack, but all to no avail.
From 2013 to 2017 Southern Adventist University codirected with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem the Fourth Expedition to Lachish(Fig. 3). Each year more than 100 staff and volunteers from 14 different countries came to excavate the ancient city. In all of the excavated areas the massive destruction by the Assyrians was evident. In a row of elite houses built near the palace courtyard extensive burnt mudbrick collapse from building walls were excavated until the floors were reached. Arrowheads, iron scales of Assyrian armor, and sling stones as depicted in the Nineveh reliefs were uncovered in the destruction debris. The mass of pottery crushed on the floors testifies to the complete destruction. Among the pottery were Judean lmlk (Hebrew “for/to the king”) storage jars, which were extensively used in the kingdom for tax collection and distribution. The royal seals bore the city names Hebron and Socoh.3 The fire became so hot that calcified lime became affixed to the exterior of the vessels and could not be removed. After the defeat of Lachish, Jerusalem was next.
Sennacherib sent his Rabshekah, the vizier, to Jerusalem to offer terms of engagement. “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘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” ’ ” (Isa. 36:13-15).
Should Hezekiah accept the terms of surrender offered and be led into captivity like the northern kingdom of Israel? Instead he took his greatest crisis to God. “And so it was, when King Hezekiah heard it, that he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. Then he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests, covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz” (Isa. 37:1, 2). Four people are mentioned in these two verses: the king, Hezekiah; his chief steward, the head of the household, Eliakim; Shebna the scribe; and Isaiah the prophet.
In 2014 as Southern was excavating the elite houses, two seal impressions were found in a dipper juglet in the Assyrian destruction debris (Fig. 4). Seals were used like ancient signatures to authenticate and validate documents. The seal impressions come from the same seal and read, “(Belonging) to Eliakim, son of Yehuzarach” (Fig. 5). We compared our seal impressions with another seal at the Hecht Museum, Haifa University, which reads, “(Belonging) to Yehuzarach, son of Hilkiah, servant of Hezekiah.” Putting the two pieces of evidence together, we suggest that our seal impressions belonged to Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. The Bible simply skipped a generation, identifying Eliakim with his more prominent grandfather Hilkiah. There are many other biblical examples where individuals are referred to as the “son” of a more distant ancestor. If this is the case here, then Eliakim, son of Yehuzarach is, in fact, Eliakim, (grand)son or ancestor of Hilkiah, the head of the palace as described in Isaiah.4
On December 2, 2015, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced a significant discovery, a seal impression with the inscription “(Belonging) to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king of Judah.” This impression was found in 2009 during the Ophel excavations directed by Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, near the Royal Building. Three years later, on February 22, 2018, the Hebrew University announced another significant discovery, a seal impression with the inscription “(Belonging) to Isaiah [the] prophe[t].” Both of these impressions were first ide
ntified during the preparation of the final report volume of the excavations (Fig. 6).5 The two impressions of Hezekiah and Isaiah were found less than 10 feet apart in the same room. If the identifications are correct, this is the first time a biblical prophet’s seal has been uncovered, and because of its location right next to Hezekiah, both individuals are shown to be contemporaries. This means that Isaiah did live in the eighth century B.C., while the events occurred. Shebna’s seal was also discovered at Lachish. This means that all four people mentioned in Isaiah 37:1, 2 have been confirmed in recent archaeological work in Israel.
God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer is immediately communicated by 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’ ” (Isa. 37:33-35).
Several clay prisms found in Assyria record Sennacherib’s campaigns: “As for Hezekiah of the land of Judah, I surrounded and conquered forty-six of his fortified cities and small(er) settlements without number . . . as for him, I confined him inside the city of Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage” (Fig. 7).6 But there is no elaborate description of Jerusalem’s destruction as one might expect in these boisterous accounts. The Bible affirms that Sennacherib’s armies laid siege to Jerusalem, but that very night the angel of the Lord struck down the Assyrian army. Not one survived, and Sennacherib returned home to his capital at Nineveh (Isa. 37:36, 37). The silence regarding Jerusalem is deafening. The focal point of Sennacherib’s palace emphasized elaborately the king’s victory at Lachish, perhaps because it remained the most important city conquered, while the Bible emphasizes the deliverance of Jerusalem and mentions Lachish only in passing.
So why did Lachish and perhaps 46 other Judean cities fall? Two pieces of independent evidence provide at least some clues. The Nineveh reliefs depict Sennacherib seated and receiving the spoils of the battle at Lachish. Two Assyrian soldiers carry large incense stands over their shoulders, suggesting that there might have been a temple or a significant place of worship at Lachish, when there should have been only one temple in Jerusalem (Fig. 8). In our excavations in 2014 we discovered that every house in the elite zone contained a small female figurine, known as a Judean Pillared Figurine. Many have associated these with the worship of the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah. Could it be that the religious reforms of Hezekiah did not spread as widely into the kingdom as once thought? This might explain the judgments brought through the Assyrians against Judah, while the prayer of Hezekiah saved Jerusalem.
Michael G. Hasel is director of the Institute of Archaeology and Lynn H. Wood Archaeological Museum and professor of Near Eastern studies and archaeology at Southern Adventist University. He served as codirector of surveys and excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, Socoh and Lachish.