Mark W. Chavalas: Bible proves to be historical document

By Mark W. Chavalas
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

So begins Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” an epic poem about one of the most infamous enemies of the Jews in the Bible. Did the Assyrian really “come down” and attack Judah, as the Bible relates?

When Byron wrote in 1815, the only evidence for the event was from the Bible, primarily from II Kings 18-19. Hezekiah, king of Judah, had to endure a devastating invasion of his kingdom in 701 B.C. by Sennacherib, ruler of the largest empire in history at that time.

Though Sennacherib was successful in capturing Judah’s fortified cities and forcing Hezekiah to pay a hefty tribute, the city of Jerusalem and the Davidic royal line were miraculously spared because of God’s mighty hand. Furthermore, the Assyrian army was annihilated by the Angel of the Lord.

A generation after Byron, however, A.H. Layard found among the ruins of Nineveh an Assyrian account of the same event, which helped to revolutionize our understanding of the Bible as a more than a didactic storybook, but a series of books which had reasoned historical narratives.

Henry Rawlinson’s 1861 translation of the Assyrian account depicted Sennacherib’s version of the war (excerpts given here): “As for Hezekiah, the Judahite, who had submitted to my yoke, I surrounded 46 of his walled towns … and conquered them by means of earth ramps and siege engines. 200,150 people of all rank, I brought out as spoil. … He himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I put watch-posts around him, and made it impossible for anyone to go out of his city … He had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city, 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver.”

The two accounts agree on Hezekiah’s capitulation, the conquest of his satellite towns, and the hefty monetary payment imposed on the Jewish king. However the Assyrians failed to mention the conquest of Jerusalem in their annals, and instead had a “Lachish room” in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, commemorating his conquest of the most important Judean fortress town.

In the 1930s, James Starkey found archaeological evidence at Lachish of destruction over the whole town, including much charcoal debris. Furthermore, he found a siege ramp with heaped stones — the only one archaeologically attested in Israel. There is no doubt that the destruction was from the Assyrian invasion. In fact, the enemy dumped decapitated Jewish skulls over the side of the city wall, and then proceeded to add insult to injury by tossing pig bones on top of the human remains.

However, there was a perplexing issue. The Bible in II Kings 18 related a long dialogue between the Rabshekah, an Assyrian official, who was intimidating Judeans on the Jerusalem city wall to surrender. It was long considered to be a fictitious interchange until British excavators in the 1950s uncovered clay tablets from the Assyrian city of Calah describing the very same thing occurring between the Assyrians and the city of Babylon — trying to convince the city to capitulate without warfare.

The biblical account was shown to be historically plausible by this series of companion texts.

Interestingly, the same event concerning Sennacherib may be corroborated by a completely unrelated source, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived over two centuries later. He recounts in his Histories a campaign of Sennacherib against Egypt (Book II.141).

In this case, the Assyrians were defeated by a plague of field mice that infested the troops and weaponry. Perhaps the Egyptians, like the Judeans, understood that a divine deliverance saved them from destruction by Sennacherib.

With the discovery of the Assyrian annals, the Bible entered into the realm of history in the minds of interested readers. Never again was it to be taken as simply a moral devotional tale. It now had historical “flesh and bones” to it, with real actors who could be placed in real historical and archaeological contexts.

Indeed, as Byron wrote, “The Assyrian came down” as confirmed by other historical and archaeological discoveries.

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