Around 720 B.C. the Assyrians conquered the northern tribes of Israel and expelled them from their land. But Judah, Israel’s sister nation in the south, miraculously survived the Assyrian invasion and continued for another 130 years.
Although the people of Judah, too, would later succumb to invasion—this time from the Babylonians—they managed to survive their ordeal with their national identity intact, unlike their kinsmen in the kingdom of Israel. After 70 years of exile in Babylon, a remnant of Judah returned to its former land. There descendants of this remnant would remain for another 600 years until the Romans finally expelled them. For nearly 2,000 years the Jews would be dispersed around the world. Finally, in this century, some of their descendants returned to the ancient land of Judah. They named their nation Israel, although “Judah” would have been more historically accurate.
What has archaeology revealed about these resilient people from the southern kingdom? We pick up the fascinating story from the time of Ahaz, who began ruling in Judah some 200 years after the two Israelite kingdoms went their separate ways.
King Ahaz’s Clay Seal
“In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his father David had done” (2 Kings 16:1-2 2 Kings 16:1-2 1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah Ahaz the son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign.
2 Twenty years old was Ahaz when he began to reign, and reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem, and did not that which was right in the sight of the LORD his God, like David his father.
American King James Version×).
Ancient Near Eastern kings and other officials stamped their documents with special seals. As a result archaeologists have been able to identify the clay seals of two of the kings of Judah: Hezekiah and Ahaz. The two seals belonging to Hezekiah are not well preserved, but the one of King Ahaz of Judah is in beautiful condition. In 1996 archaeologists confirmed its authenticity. Just as people today use signatures to validate documents such as checks and contracts, in ancient times authorities stamped their official documents with seals that were typically carved from semiprecious stones. Sometimes the seals were placed on a ring, called a signet.
The most common material used for documents at that time was papyrus. “Papyrus documents were closed by rolling them and tying them with a string,” explains Tsvi Scheider, assistant librarian at Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. “A lump of wet clay was then placed on the knot and stamped with the seal … After the clay dried, the papyrus was stored in an archive (see Jeremiah 32:10-14 Jeremiah 32:10-14 10 And I subscribed the evidence, and sealed it, and took witnesses, and weighed him the money in the balances.
11 So I took the evidence of the purchase, both that which was sealed according to the law and custom, and that which was open:
12 And I gave the evidence of the purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah, the son of Maaseiah, in the sight of Hanameel my uncle’s son, and in the presence of the witnesses that subscribed the book of the purchase, before all the Jews that sat in the court of the prison.
13 And I charged Baruch before them, saying,
14 Thus said the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Take these evidences, this evidence of the purchase, both which is sealed, and this evidence which is open; and put them in an earthen vessel, that they may continue many days.
American King James Version×)” ( Biblical Archaeology Review, July-August 1991, p. 27).
The resulting clay imprint, or bulla, bore the seal’s impression. Although the papyrus, of organic matter, would eventually disintegrate, the clay bullae often survived. Since Israel lay at the intersection of three great empires—Egypt, Assyria and Babylon—it experienced frequent wars. Conquering armies often burned enemy cities to the ground. Almost everything would perish—except for some of the clay seals, which, when baked in such fires, turned hard as pottery.
Thousands of years later, as they have conducted excavations in such cities, archaeologists have sometimes discovered the remains of royal archives. Occasionally they even stumble onto a cache of clay seals that point to the origins and purpose of the original documents.
Robert Deutsch, writes about Ahaz’s seal: “The king whose seal is impressed in this well-preserved piece of reddish-brown clay is King Ahaz of Judah, who ruled from 732 to 716 [B.C.] … This lump of clay, called a bulla, was used to seal a papyrus document. We know this because the back of the bulla still bears the imprint of the texture of the papyrus … On the left edge of the front of the bulla is a fingerprint that may well be that of King Ahaz himself! …
“The seal contains not only the name of the king, but the name of his father, King Yehotam [Jotham]. In addition, Ahaz is specifically identified as ‘king of Judah’ … The Hebrew inscription, which is set on three lines …, translates, ‘Belonging to Ahaz (son of) Yehotam, King of Judah’ … The Ahaz bulla has been examined by a number of preeminent scholars … All agree that the bulla is genuine” ( Biblical Archaeological Review, May-June 1998, pp. 54, 56).
Thus the existence of another biblical king is verified through archaeology.
Sennacherib Captures Lachish
Shortly after the fall of the northern Israelite kingdom, the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, descended on Judah. His assault came around 700 B.C., during the reign of Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah.
The Bible summarizes this invasion and Hezekiah’s reaction. “And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. Then Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king in Lachish, saying, ‘I have done wrong; turn away from me; whatever you impose on me I will pay’ ” (2 Kings 18:13-14 2 Kings 18:13-14 13 Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them.
14 And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, I have offended; return from me: that which you put on me will I bear. And the king of Assyria appointed to Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.
American King James Version×). However, even though Hezekiah promised to pay Sennacherib handsomely if he would spare Jerusalem, the Assyrian king decided to conquer the city.
We not only have the biblical account of this history, but also the Assyrian records—accounts that closely parallel the Bible version.
A century and a half ago archaeologist Henry Austen Layard discovered the ancient city of Nineveh and Sennacherib´s palace. There he found a graphic depiction of Sennacherib´s invasion of Judah carved in a series of stone panels adorning the palatial walls.
Moshe Pearlman describes the find: “The gems of Sennacherib’s palace for biblical scholars were a series of thirteen slabs of wall reliefs depicting Sennacherib seated upon a throne on a hill-slope before a besieged city amidst the landscape of what was evidently meant to be the land of Judah. The reliefs (which may be seen in the British Museum) are clearly recognizable as a dramatic thirteen-part story in pictures of Sennacherib’s campaign in this southern Israelite kingdom … In a panel facing the king is a cuneiform caption: ‘Sennacherib, king of the Universe, king of Assyria, sat upon a throne and passed in review the booty taken from the city of Lachish’ ” ( Digging Up the Bible , 1980, p. 96).
In effect, the biblical narrative is frozen in frames in Sennacherib’s wall depicting the conquest of the city of Lachish. The Bible enlarges our view by adding an account of the letter sent at that time to Sennacherib from a desperate King Hezekiah. Judah’s king pleaded for forgiveness and offered any payment to avoid Jerusalem’s destruction.
A careful study of the panels depicting the taking of Lachish includes grisly details. “There sits the Assyrian monarch,” writes Pearlman, “richly attired, observing his army attacking a fortified city which is stoutly defended. His battering rams are being pushed up towards the walls over ramps, and are covered by archers, sling-throwers and spearmen to keep the defenders at bay. In one panel prisoners are being impaled by Assyrian soldiers; in another they are being flayed. Moving out of the city under guard is a long procession of captives, and carts laden with booty” (p. 96).
In the 20th century, archaeologists have excavated Lachish and corroborated the precision of the biblical and the Assyrian accounts of the conquest. “The magnitude of Layard’s discovery was given an added dimension some eighty years later when excavations unearthed the very stratum of ancient Lachish that was stormed by Sennacherib’s forces. Arrow-heads and sling-shots used by the Assyrians in that battle were among the finds, and from the remains of the shattered city it was possible to reconstruct the plan of its defensive fortifications. They virtually matched those depicted in the reliefs on Sennacherib’s palace walls. Thus, Lachish is a superb example of archaeological discovery joining ancient records in a word and picture to enrich the background of an episode in the Bible” (p. 97).
These exquisitely detailed contemporary finds from Assyria, along with the excavations of Lachish, dramatically corroborate each other and confirm the accuracy of the biblical account.
The Prism of Sennacherib
The archaeological evidence of the invasion does not end there. Another discovery sheds light on Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. In 1919 the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago purchased a 15-inch clay cylinder, called the Prism of Sennacherib or the Taylor Prism. The artifact testifies of eight of Sennacherib’s military campaigns. Regarding the third, the narrator describes Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and the subsequent siege of Jerusalem.
The account reads: “As to [Judah’s king] Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid siege to forty-six of his strong cities, walled forts and to countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps, and battering-rams brought thus near to the walls, combined with attack by foot soldiers … [Hezekiah] himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage” (James Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, 1958, pp. 199-201).
Sennacherib boastfully begins his description of the siege. His language leads the reader to expect that the Assyrian monarch captured Jerusalem, just as he had taken 46 other strongholds during his campaign. But the account turns curiously quiet. Sennacherib ends the account bragging about the tribute money paid by Hezekiah, a poor consolation prize. Sennacherib concludes: “Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring splendor of my lordship had overwhelmed, … did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with talents of gold, … talents of silver … and all kinds of valuable treasures, his (own) daughters … In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his messenger” (p. 201).
What really happened? Although the Assyrian records are awkwardly silent, the Bible completes the story: “And it came to pass on a certain night that 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” (2 Kings 19:35-36 2 Kings 19:35-36 35 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.
36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelled at Nineveh.
American King James Version×).
“The one city he sought to subdue, but failed,” says Pearlman, “was Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, where Hezekiah’s spirit of resistance was much strengthened by the tough advice of the prophet Isaiah [see Isaiah 36-37]. Doubtless he would have wished the centerpiece of his wall decorations to have depicted the fall of Jerusalem. Instead, judging by the prominence given to Lachish, this must have been the scene of the fiercest fighting, and he evidently regarded its capture against stubborn defense as his most outstanding victory in this land”—instead of Jerusalem, which escaped ( The Ancient Near East, p. 97).
The Assyrian report describes only the siege of Jerusalem. Something incredible must have occurred for the mighty Assyrians, who had conquered many powerful empires, to prevent the fall of Jerusalem.
A Possible Explanation
Sennacherib’s defeat is not only recorded in the Bible; the Greek historian Herodotus gives an account of Sennacherib’s humiliation in his History. He attributes the miraculous defeat to mice overrunning the camp and wreaking great havoc. “An army of field-mice swarmed over their opponents in the night … [and] gnawed through their quivers and their bows, and the handles of their shields, so that on the following day they fled minus their arms and a great number fell” (Book 2:141).
The story about the mice might appear as fanciful myth. However, it might bear a kernel of truth. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also mentions Sennacherib’s defeat, explaining that it was caused by a plague. He cites an earlier historian who had written: “Now when Sennacherib was returning from his Egyptian war to Jerusalem, he found his army … in danger [by a plague], for God had sent a pestilential distemper upon his army; and on the very first night of the siege, a hundred fourscore and five thousand, with their captains and generals, were destroyed” ( Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, Chapter I, Section 5).
Some speculate the mice may have been carriers of the plague. If so, this would not be the only such historical example. Mice were responsible for carrying the black plague in the Middle Ages and just as easily could have transported this deadly malady into the Assyrian camp. The Bible states simply that the destruction came from God and does not mention specifics.
Even the biblical description of the death of Sennacherib is confirmed by discoveries in ancient Assyrian archives. “Now it came to pass, as he [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the temple of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place” (2 Kings 19:37 2 Kings 19:37And 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.
American King James Version×).
The Assyrian account of Sennacherib’s death is the same. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains: “According to Esarhaddon’s records, his father Sennacherib had named him over his brothers as successor. ‘To gain the kingship they slew Sennacherib their father,’” forcing Esarhaddon to hasten back from a military campaign to claim the throne (1988, Vol. 4, p. 396, “Sennacherib”). A parallel Babylonian account also mentions this assassination.
Thus we see confirmed even a tiny detail from the biblical account.
Hezekiah’s Siloam Inscription
Another aspect of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem is well worth noting. Assyrian tactics called for surrounding the targeted city, shutting the inhabitants off from any outside source of food and water to starve them into submission before a final and decisive direct attack. While Sennacherib was busy plundering Judah’s other cities, Hezekiah began a desperate building project to provide the city a secure water source before the Assyrians could lay siege to the capital.
“And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, and that his purpose was to make war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his leaders and commanders to stop the water from the springs which were outside the city; and they helped him” (2 Chronicles 32:2-3 2 Chronicles 32:2-3 2 And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was come, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem,
3 He took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were without the city: and they did help him.
American King James Version×). “… Hezekiah also stopped the water outlet of Upper Gihon, and brought the water by tunnel to the west side of the City of David” (verse 30).
Long after the Assyrian menace, this tunnel lay forgotten and undisturbed for centuries. Then, in 1880, two Arab boys were playing near the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem when one fell in. Swimming to the other side of the small body of water, he came under a rock overhang. There in the darkness he noticed a small passageway. After further investigation by the authorities, the biblical tunnel of Hezekiah’s time was discovered anew. In the tunnel they even discovered an inscription in Hebrew made by the workers commemorating their amazing engineering feat during Hezekiah’s time.
It reads: “And this is the account of the breakthrough. While the laborers were still working with their picks, each toward the other, and while there were still three cubits to be broken through, the voice of each was heard calling to the other, because there was a [split, crack or overlap] in the rock to the south and to the north. And at the moment of the breakthrough, the laborers struck each toward the other, pick against pick. Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool for 1,200 cubits. And the height of the rock above the heads of the laborers was 100 cubits” ( Biblical Archaeology Review, July-August 1994, p. 37).
The “Siloam Inscription,” as it came to be called, resides in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, taken there by Turkish authorities who ruled Jerusalem at the time. Israeli authorities claim it as a national monument and desire its return to Jerusalem.
The Bible vs. Fables
All these accounts lead us to several important conclusions.
• They call into question claims of critics that the Bible is merely a collection of myths, fables and other fiction. Extrabiblical records, like those from Assyria, consistently confirm the biblical accounts.
• These biblical narratives could not have been written centuries after the fact as many critics claim. The incidental details preserved in the Bible could have been known only by the people living during the events described.
• Finally, a spiritual guiding force must be inspiring the biblical accounts, for they always seem to match what independent sources describe. The truths are never obviously exaggerated or distorted as is the case in the historical records left by scribes and narrators with transparent national interests or personal agendas.
• The Bible narrative rings true. Unlike secular accounts, which exaggerate their heroes’ accomplishments, the Bible stands as a believable report. It describes both the strengths and weaknesses of its leading characters. Its truths are not exaggerated or distorted as is the obvious case with records left by scribes and narrators with transparent national interests or personal agendas.
Even if archaeology is an imperfect science incapable of providing all the answers, it continues to independently verify the veracity of the biblical record.
In the next installment, we will continue our examination of archaeology and the kingdom of Judah. GN