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The Battle for Jerusalem and the Origin of Fake News — 2700 Years Ago

Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 11:02 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Sennacherib Prism,
Oriental Institute, U. of Chicago


How can you tell what is true and what is not in the Hebrew Bible (the “Tanakh”)? How can you separate fact from fiction and fable? In some instances, science can help. For instance, both geological and archaeological records confirm that the whole earth was not submerged in flood waters during the last six thousand years, and evolutionary biology demonstrates that all land animals and birds do not owe their existence to creatures that were on a vessel floating on those mythical waters. Similarly, we know that the Sun did not stop in the sky for twenty-four hours during a battle at Gibeon, for that would have meant that the Earth ceased to rotate during that period of time, which, in turn, would have caused cataclysmic consequences neither reported in the story nor elsewhere. (See Gen. 7:6-8; Josh. 10:12-14.)

From a modern perspective, then, it is reasonably easy to identify some biblical stories that are not factually accurate. They may well contain worthy moral or other lessons, but as factual recitations of actual occurrences, they fail.

At the same time, there are other stories in the Tanakh that seem quite plausible, even contemporary in their nature. How can we tell if they are historically true or historical fiction or simply imagined? One such story concerns the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (pronounced Seh-NACK-er ib) during the reign of the Judahite king Hezekiah about 2700 years ago. 

The Setting at the Crossroad of Continents

Seemingly from its origins, millennia ago, Jerusalem (like much of the rest of the ancient land of Canaan) was blessed and cursed by being located near the southwestern portion of a strip of land known as the Fertile Crescent. Beginning in present day Iraq, the Crescent extended north and west along the great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, into what is now Syria and Turkey, and then descended south and west encompassing land on both sides of the Jordan River. Further to the south and west lie Egypt and the Nile Delta.

The location of the Fertile Crescent was critical because, among other things, it supported agriculture, trade and the development of great civilizations. It was also the passage way between the continents of Asia and Africa. Not surprisingly, it was the scene of constant conflict, as empires rose and fell elevating and devastating smaller kingdoms, city states and tribes along the way.

Assyria Asserts Itself

One of the cycles in that waxing and waning of empires began in the Thirteenth Century B.C.E. with the demise of Pharaoh Ramses II. The Egyptian Empire, which previously reached deep into and beyond Canaan, began to decline. Over a period of time, the withdrawal of Egyptian presence and influence allowed the people native to the land of Canaan and those who migrated there to begin to establish their own cultural, tribal and national identities. Then, and there, a confederation of tribes emerged under the banner Israel, ultimately claiming a common history and destiny, a common religious tradition and a common polity. Egypt’s withdrawal, and the demise by the Twelfth Century of a power in the North known as the Hittites, also allowed an opportunity for another great northern power, the Assyrians (who had their own periods of strength and weakness) to expand to the South.

Assyria’s recovery began in the latter third of the Tenth Century B.C.E. By the middle of the Ninth Century, Assyria under Assur-Nasipal II and Shalmaneser III became a fierce and dominant power. Assyrian writings contained in artifacts like the Monolith of Shalmaneser (also known as the Kurkh Stela) and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, both now at the British Museum in London, seem to some to indicate the engagement of the Assyrians with the kingdom of Israel. The Monolith, a six foot limestone writing, arguably identifies King Ahab of Israel in northern Canaan as a major participant in a coalition that fought with the Assyrians in the Syrian city of Qarqar. Similarly, the Black Obelisk, a black limestone sculpture also about six feet high, has been read as depicting the Israelite King Jehu paying tribute to Shalmaneser III. The biblical Book of Kings (“BOK”) also notes the invasion of Israel by the Assyrians and the payment of tribute during this time period. (See, e.g., 2 Kings 15:17-20.) But then, toward the end of that century, Assyria, too, began to decline again.

With the rise of Tiglath-Pileser III in the Eighth Century B.C.E., Assyria’s strength was such that it was able to initiate a fatal fight with Israel. BOK mentions the situation briefly, noting the capture by Assyria of substantial territory and the deportation of its inhabitants to Assyria, such a dispersal being consistent with Assyrian policy towards defeated peoples. (See 2 Kings 15:29.)

To the south of Israel lie the Kingdom of Judah, and Tilgath-Pileser exerted influence on Judah as well. King Ahaz assumed the throne of Judah between 743 and 727 B.C.E. at the age of twenty. (See 2 Kings 16:2.) Early in Ahaz’s reign, King Pekah of Israel allied with the Aramaen King Rezin to march on Judah’s capital, Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah counseled Ahaz to be “firm and calm” and rely on YHWH (the name of God in  Judah), for then the enemy would not succeed. (See Isaiah 7:4-9.) Instead, according to the Book of Kings, Ahaz, claiming to be his “servant” and “son,” sent gold and silver to Tilgath-Pileser and pleaded for his assistance. The Assyrian king did, in fact, come to the aid of Ahaz. He not only took Damascus, the capital of Aram, from Rezin, he killed him as well. (See 2 Kings 16:1-9.) Jerusalem was saved for the moment.

Subsequently, Tilgath-Pileser’s successor, King Shalmaneser V “marched against” a new king of Israel, Hoshea, and forced him to pay tribute to and become a vassal of Assyria. Hoshea then apparently tried to appeal to Egypt for help and stopped paying tribute to Assyria. From the Assyrian perspective, this was an act of treachery and Sargon II completed the work of his two predecessors. Samaria, the capital of Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria c. 721-20 B.C.E. Again the Book of Kings records that Israelites were deported to various areas controlled by Assyria, even beyond the Assyrian capital in Nineveh, near present day Mosul, Iraq, to Media, now in northwestern Iran. (See 2 Kings 17:1-6.)

Hezekiah Assumes the Throne of Judah

Not long after Israel fell, Ahaz died and his son, Hezekiah was anointed King of Judah. The dates of his ascension (whether 727 B.C.E. or 715 B.C.E.) are in some dispute (see, e.g., here), and we will not attempt to resolve that issue now. For our purposes what is crucial is that Hezekiah differed significantly from his father in his approach. For instance, where Ahaz accepted his position as a vassal of Assyria and paid tribute to it, Hezekiah sought national independence.

Hezekiah recognized that the destruction of the Northern Kingdom created several challenges and opportunities for Judah. Each was exacerbated by the inflow of tens of thousands of migrants moved from Israel into Judah generally and into Jerusalem in particular. Archeologist Israel Finkelstein and author Neil Asher Silberman have written that the population of Judah which had consisted of a “few tens of thousands” dispersed across only some “villages and modest towns” blossomed to 120,000 individuals in “about three hundred settlements of all sizes . . . .”  (The Bible Unearthed, Free Press 2001, at 245.) The increased population affected Jerusalem in particular, which grew from “about one thousand to fifteen thousand” in a few decades and expanded from a small town of “about ten or twelve acres to a huge urban area of 150 acres, of closely packed houses, workshops, and public buildings.” (Id. at 243.)

Ironically, an expanded Jerusalem was especially vulnerable to any attack by Assyria. If it was to be able to defend itself, the capital needed both to strengthen its walls and secure its water supply. According to Near Eastern archeologist and anthropologist William Dever, in the mid to late Eighth Century Judah undertook both tasks. (See also, 2 Chron. 32: 1-5.) In his book The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel (Eerdman’s 2012), Dever confirms that an “enlargement of the city wall,” called the Broad Wall, has been found and dated to the mid to late 8th Century. (At 351.)  And broad it was, reaching 23 feet wide in places.

Even more impressively, Hezekiah is credited with directing the construction of a tunnel project designed to bring water which was then sourced at the Spring of Gihon located outside of the existing walls of the city to reservoirs within the city walls. Starting from both ends of the tunnel, workers dug through over 1700 feet of bedrock in the most primitive of conditions. Yet they met as planned in the middle of the tunnel! And water could flow from the Gihon Spring to the Siloam Pool. It was, as Dever has described it, a project “engineered with amazing expertise.” (Id., at 349.) Some doubts have been raised as to whether the tunnel was in fact begun by one of Hezekiah’s predecessors, but the Book of Kings does not address such matters.

The Book of Isaiah suggests that the prophet both opposed rebellion against Syria (see Isaiah 20:1-4) and the efforts to strengthen the city. Presumably speaking of Hezekiah, Isaiah noted that he identified deficiencies in the city’s fortifications and acted to improve them, but also that the king did so by pulling down existing houses, no doubt disrupting the lives of numerous residents. Moreover, while the king “constructed a basin” for the waters newly directed into the city, he “gave no thought to Him who planned it; . . . took no note of Him who designed it long before.” (See Isaiah 22: 9-11.) In other words, Isaiah complained that Hezekiah was insufficiently confident in God’s plan and protection.

The influx of people with similar but not the same traditions as the Judahites created another predicament, one which necessitated, spurred, or at least provided an excuse for the initiation of a wide range of reforms which could unify the now enlarged and more religiously diverse population. Where Ahaz had made offerings “under every leafy tree,” and even erected a copy of an altar he saw in Damascus, Hezekiah abolished rural shrines and posts and centralized worship in the temple in Jerusalem. (See 2 Kings 16:4, 10-13; 18:4.) In short, Hezekiah was a political and religious nationalist.

The Rebellion against Assyria

In or around 705 B.C.E., Sargon II was killed in battle away from Nineveh. It was the first time that an Assyrian king had met such a fate. (See here, at 1/15.) The demise of Sargon yielded two related consequences: a power struggle in Nineveh and restlessness and rebellion in Assyria’s vassal states. From Babylon in the southeast to numerous kingdoms to the west and southwest, kings were ceasing to pay tribute to Assyria and talking about forging alliances against the Assyrians. Hezekiah, despite the debt Judah owed Assyria for saving it from the joint attack of Israel and Aram, was one of those kings.

Hezekiah knew that he would need allies, or at least have to neutralize his neighbors. BOK reports that Hezekiah “overran Philistia as far as Gaza and its border areas, from watchtower to fortified towns.” (2 Kings 18:8.) The conquered communities included Ekron, one of the five capitals of the greater Gazan pentapolis. (See Josh. 3:3.) Apparently, Padi, the King of Ekron remained loyal to Assyria, so Hezekiah removed him and brought him in chains to be imprisoned in Jerusalem.

Sennacherib and the Assyrian Empire Fight Back

Within a year or so, Sennacherib emerged as the successor to Sargon II and launched a series of military campaigns designed to reassert Assyrian hegemony. Eight military campaigns of Sennacherib are reported on each of three virtually identical six-sided clay artifacts, called prisms. Each prism was about 38 cm high and each of the six panels on each prism was between 7 and 8 cm in width. Each prism contains about 500 lines written between 691 and 689 B.C.E. in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script. The first of the prisms to be discovered was found in Nineveh in 1830. Known as the Taylor Prism, it is currently at the British Museum. A second version, called the Sennacherib Prism, is housed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The third is at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

In 1924, Daniel David Luckenbill, a professor of Semitic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, translated the text of the Sennacherib Prism. That translation, along with Luckenbill’s historical analysis and related sources and records, was published under the title The Annals of Sennacherib and is available at online in its entirety here. (Many thanks to those who made it available to the public at no cost.)

The first of Sennacherib’s campaigns was directed against Babylon, Assyria’s most formidable foe and the one of any consequence closest to Nineveh. Over the course of several years, Sennacherib defeated the Babylonian king and his allies in Chaldea (near the Euphrates delta and along the Persian Gulf, in today’s Iraq) and Elam (now part of southwestern Iran). (See Annals, at 38-39/214.)

Around 701 B.C.E., in his third campaign, Sennacherib turned west and attacked kingdoms in “Hittite-land” and along the Mediterranean coast. In each instance, these were areas that were in rebellion against Assyria or Judah’s allies or both. Sennacherib started in Phoenicia by removing the King of Sidon (in present day Lebanon) and replacing him with a friendlier ruler. (See Annals, at 43/214.) Then, and although the order of the campaign is recited summarily, he seems to have headed both south along the Mediterranean coast through land formerly held by Israel and into Philistia and also east beyond the Jordan River and the Dead Sea to pacify Ammon, Moab and Edom. (See Annals, at 44/214.)

Hezekiah’s influence over Philistia proved short lived as Sennacherib secured promises of fealty and tribute from numerous local kings, including rulers of Ashdod and Joppa. When the King of Ashkelon would not kiss his feet, literally or figuratively, Sennacherib simply took him and his family to Assyria, and, as was the usual custom, replaced him with a more pliant sovereign. (See Annals, at 44/214.) When Ekron not only resisted, but called on reinforcements from Egypt and Ethiopia, Sennacherib defeated them all and hung the bodies of rebellious Ekronite governors and nobles on stakes spread around the city. He then then sent a messenger to Jerusalem demanding the release of former King Padi. Hezekiah complied. (See Annals, at 45-46/214.)

Judah was now effectively isolated. Nothing stood in the way of an Assyrian attack on it and its capital, Jerusalem.

Sennacherib’s Assault on Judah

According to the Sennacherib Prism, the Assyrian King entered Judah and laid siege to and took “46 of (Hezekiah’s) strong, walled cities, as well as the small cities in their neighborhood, which were without number, by leveling with battering-rams, and by bringing up siege-engines, by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels and breaches . . . .” Sennacherib claims to have driven out “200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep, without number, (which he) brought away from them and counted as spoil.” (See Annals, at 46-48/214.)

The archeologist Dever doubts that there were 46 walled cities in Judah to be destroyed (above, at 360), but even if Sennacherib’s exploits were exaggerated, the dramatic destruction wrought by his campaign is amply evidenced by the archeological excavations that Dever has identified. (See Ibid.) Finkelstein and Silberman concur, observing that “(t)he devastation of the Judahite cities can be seen in almost every mound excavated in the Judaean hinterland.” (Finkelstein and Silberman, above, at 260.) And even the biblical account acknowledges, tersely but without dispute, that “King Sennacherib of Assyria marched against all of the fortified towns of Judah and seized them.” (2 Kings 18:13.)

Before confronting the capital, however, Sennacherib decided to attack Judah’s second strongest fortification, Lachish, about 35 miles to the southwest of Jerusalem. The Tanakh relates nothing of the battle at Lachish, but large gypsum wall reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace, which were discovered and excavated around 1845-47 by British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, tell a detailed story. Currently housed in the British Museum, the wall reliefs depict a clash between the well-armed Assyrians, supported by battering rams, and their outmanned opponents, who were mainly archers, torch hurlers and stone slingers. The battle ended with the comprehensive rout and ruin of Lachish by the Assyrians. The enormity of the Assyrian victory can be seen on wall reliefs that depict Judahites alternatively impaled on spears or spikes, bowing in submission to their captors or being carted off to Assyria. (For more details, see here.)

Lest anyone think that the tale told in the Sennacherib Prism and vividly illustrated in the wall reliefs is fanciful exaggeration, archeologists have found corroborating evidence, not just in the ashes of a city set on fire, but in caves near Lachish which contain mass graves for “about fifteen hundred people – men, women, and children . . . .” (See Finkelstein and Silberman, above, at 262-63.)

With the surrounding territory now firmly in his control, Sennacherib was now able to initiate Assyria’s siege of Jerusalem. Of Hezekiah, Sennacherib claimed: “. . . like a caged bird, I shut (him) up in Jerusalem, his royal city. Earthworks I threw against him, – the one coming out of the city gate, I turned back to his misery, . . . .” And, having “cut off (Hezekiah) from his land,” Sennacherib then returned territory Hezekiah had conquered to neighboring kings. (See Annals, at 47/214.)

The Terms of Settlement

Having confined Hezekiah, Sennacherib also claimed that the “terrifying splendor of [his] majesty overcame” the Judahite king and that mercenaries which Hezekiah had procured to defend Jerusalem “deserted him.” Consequently, Hezekiah “dispatched his messengers” in order to “accept servitude” and “pay tribute.” The tribute, by Sennacherib’s reckoning included “30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large sandu-stones, house chairs of ivory, elephant hide, elephant teeth (tusks), ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, (and) his male and female musicians, . . . .“ (See Annals, at 47-48/214.)

The Book of Kings similarly states that Hezekiah sent a messenger to Sennacherib who was reportedly camped in Lachish. The message contained a concession that Hezekiah had “done wrong” and an acceptance in advance of “whatever” Sennacherib would impose on him. According to Kings, the penalty assessed was “a payment of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.” It states that Hezekiah delivered “all the silver that was on hand in the House of the lord and in the treasuries of the palace.” Moreover, Hezekiah cut down the doors and doorposts of the Temple of YHWH, which [he] had overlaid (with gold) and gave them to the king of Assyria.” (See 2 Kings 18:14-16.)

While different than the tally recited in the Sennacherib Prism, notably in the omission of the transfer of daughters and other personnel, this is still corroboration of a substantial payment by Hezekiah. Determining the true value of weights and measures in ancient Judah is problematic, of course, but respectable scholars believe that a talent weighed just over 75 pounds. (See Jewish Study Bible (Oxford 2004) at 2105.) If so, this would mean that Hezekiah sent over a ton of gold and ten tons of silver to Sennacherib. Exchange rates vary over time, but clearly this was an enormous transfer of wealth from Judah to Assyria.

A Dramatic Change

At this point in its telling, though, BOK interjects a new and fascinating story. It suggests that Sennacherib was not satisfied with his booty and sent two high ranking officials, supported by a “large force” to meet with Hezekiah. The king, in turn, sent the palace executive officer, a scribe and a recorder to meet them. The Assyrians, speaking not in Aramaic, which was then the international language of commerce and diplomacy, but instead talking in Yehudit, the vernacular of the common folk who were listening to this conversation, then threatened war. They taunted the Judahites about their lack of lack of military strength, asserted that any reliance on Egyptian protection was misplaced and boldly claimed that the Judahite God, YHWH Himself, told the Assyrians to destroy Judah. Reaching directly to the public, the Assyrians further argued that the Judahites should not listen to Hezekiah, lest the Assyrians destroy the city and take the people away. (See 2 Kings 18:19-35.)

The story in BOK takes pains to relate how seriously the establishment took these threats. Hezekiah’s messengers reportedly rent their cloths before they returned to the king. So did Hezekiah, who also rent his clothes and even “covered himself with sackcloth . . . .” (See 2 Kings 19:1.)

Hezekiah also sent his team to the prophet Isaiah for counsel. Once again, Isaiah urged his king not to rely on foreign forces, this time the Egyptians, and, instead, to have faith in YHWH who would shield and protect Jerusalem. (See Isaiah 30:1-7; 31:1-3.) Then, claiming to speak the word of God, Isaiah advised the messengers that God “will delude (Sennacherib); he will hear a rumor and return to his land, and (God) will make him fall by the sword in his land.” (2 Kings 19:6.)

According to BOK, further negotiations ensued. Sennacherib’s officials learned that their king had left Lachish and attacked Libnah, just north of Lachish. At the same time, reportedly, the Nubians had also decided to engage Sennacherib. (See 2 Kings 19:8-9.) Perhaps they believed that Assyria was overextended. Perhaps Hezekiah had rejected Isaiah’s advice and made a side deal with an outside force.

As told in BOK, Sennacherib directed that one more message, another threat, be extended to Hezekiah. (See 2 Kings 19:10-13.) Hezekiah took the letter from the messengers and, seeking divine guidance “went up to the House of YHWH and spread it out before YHWH.” (2 Kings 19:14. Subsequently, he received a lengthy message from Isaiah. Isaiah assured Hezekiah, in the name of God, that Sennacherib would neither enter Jerusalem nor “shoot an arrow at it, or advance upon it with a shield, or pile up a siege mound against it.” Instead, he would “go back by the way he came; (and) not enter (the) city.” (See 2 Kings 19:32-33.)

Sennacherib Does Not Enter Jerusalem  

The story in BOK concludes in remarkable fashion. It relates that the night following the transmission of Isaiah’s message to Hezekiah, 185,000 Assyrians camped outside of Jerusalem died, were “struck down” by “an angel of YHWH.” (See 2 Kings 19:35.) This allegedly causes Sennacherib to retreat and return to Nineveh where he stayed and was then killed by two of his sons and succeeded by a third son, Esarhaddon. (See 2 Kings 19:36-37.) If true, this story would seem to confirm the viability of YHWH’s promise to maintain forever a Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Kings 11:32, 36; 2 Kings 8:19.)

For its part, Assyrian records contain, not surprisingly, no mention of any mass slaughter of troops during the campaign against Judah. And in stark contrast to the situation at Lachish, there has been no discovery to date of any mass grave or other indication of the demise of such an army near Jerusalem. For instance, there has been no report of the recovery of a single sword, shield, bow or arrow, much less the tens of thousands of them, which might have been left by the dead Assyrian troops and which, if recovered, could have served to enhance a weak Judahite military.

Moreover, while the Tanakh would have you believe that the decimation of the Assyrian army led to the assassination of Sennacherib, there is no record of any of the subjugated peoples under the Assyrian thumb rising at the time to take advantage of a defeated and depleted Assyrian military. To the contrary, the Sennacherib Prism and other Assyrian records indicate that while Sennacherib did not return to Judah again, he engaged in multiple military campaigns elsewhere after leaving Judah. (See, e.g., Annals, at 48-61/241.) And, while it is true that he was killed by two of his sons, and succeeded by Esarhaddon, the assassination did not occur until about 681 B.C.E., some twenty years after the siege of Jerusalem.

The Mingling of Fact, Fiction and Faith      

What are we to make of these two versions of a significant historical event? Clearly, the main features of the invasion and siege by Assyria are corroborated by the reports in the Tanakh. A larger, stronger power threatens a smaller, weaker polity, secures substantial treasure from a cowed king, but does not enter the gates of the targeted capital and ultimately departs.  The reports differ on some details, for instance with respect to the nature of the tribute paid by Hezekiah to Sennacherib, but the primary differences relate to the reasons for the Assyrian failure to attack Jerusalem and the fate of the invading army and the king of Assyria himself.

Today, we are all too familiar with the phenomenon sometimes called fake news. While it comes in various flavors, at its core fake news is the dissemination of information which is either false or substantially misleading, but still designed to appear as accurate and trustworthy, all for the purpose of influencing the person who receives the information.

We also tend to think that fake news is a recent invention. But, in fact, fake news with respect to political (and other) events has a long history. The differing versions of the siege of Jerusalem around 701 B.C.E. may be two of the, if not the, earliest examples. Reviewing the reports in this light, may help us understand why they differ as they do because the Sennacherib Prism and the stories in the Tanakh were written for quite different purposes and handled in dramatically different fashion.

The Sennacherib Prism and its two siblings were monuments to the vanity of the king of Assyria, written presumably at his behest shortly after the events described in them. In contrast to the wall reliefs depicting the victory at Lachish, the prisms were not intended for public consumption, either by distribution or display. Rather, as was the custom, they were placed in areas thought to be protected and secure, like a vault or foundation block, within a government building. While they were artifacts extolling the king, and surely were written in a manner to please his ego, they were to be preserved for posterity and available for reading only by subsequent kings or the Assyrian gods.

The timing of the creation of the story in the Book of Kings regarding the siege of Jerusalem, and their authorship, is less clear. Some contend that the biblical story is a mix of two (or more) invasions by Sennacherib. Perhaps. Clearly, certain features of the story could have been written at or near the time of the main events, but the conflation of the story of the siege and Sennacherib’s assassination could not have been written, or added, until he was murdered decades after the siege. And, at least two hands are visible in the writing. As Duke bible scholar Marc Zvi Brettler points out, just after the segment about the booty paid by Judah to Assyria (2 Kings 18:13-16), not only does the “tone and content” of the material change for the duration of the story, so does the Hebrew spelling of the name Hezekiah indicating that a new author was involved in drafting the text. (See Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford 2007), at 125-26.)

Moreover, the siege story was just part of a larger collection of the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. As such, it was undoubtedly at least edited over a long period of time up to and even after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in around 587 B.C.E.

The current scholarly consensus places the BOK together with the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Samuel in a collection called the Deuteronomic History, works bound together by similar language and reflecting a singular point of view. Rather than attempting to provide a factual recitation of actual events, the authors were looking back, probably from the time that the kingdom of Judah was near collapse or had collapsed, and trying to respond to the catastrophe.

Yale bible professor Christine Hayes teaches that the Deuteronomic History is an attempt to “respond to the first major historical challenge to confront the Israelite people and the Hebrew religion.” (See Lecture 14, towards the end.) The destruction of Jerusalem, and the Temple within it, as well as the forcible exile of the royal family to Babylonia, raised fundamental theological as well as political problems. Divine promises respecting an eternal Davidic monarchy, the inviolability of Jerusalem and the greater homeland itself had seemingly all been broken. Was it because YHWH, the Creator God and the God of History, was now impotent or faithless?

The genius of the Deuteronomic Historian (a term meant to include all who contributed to the final text) was an interpretation of events that preserved the integrity of YHWH by characterizing the demise of Israel and Judah as punishment for the sins their disobedient, primarily idolatrous, kings. It was, in short, not just historical fiction, but purposeful historiosophy. And, crucially, it was, writes Ziony Zevit of the American Jewish University, “relevant to the post-destruction communities in Judah and Babylonia” not only explaining their situation, but demonstrating “the power of God, the validity of His covenant with Israel, and His meticulousness in maintaining it.” (Jewish Study Bible, above, at 670.)  This reconciliation raised its own problems, to say the least, but, as Hayes, points out, it allowed the exiles in Babylonia to avoid both “despair and apostasy,” and even to view their captors as God’s agents so that they could look forward to a day of return and redemption. (See Lecture 15, near the beginning.)

In sum, facts were mixed with fiction and faith in order to serve the authors’ agenda. Hezekiah, though he failed utterly to protect any part of Judah outside of the walls of Jerusalem, saw his lands reallocated to kingdoms he had conquered previously and ransomed away what gold and silver was in the capital, even stripping the Temple, was characterized as doing “what was pleasing to YHWH,  . . . .” “He trusted only in YHWH the God of Israel; there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those before him.” (See 2 Kings 18: 3, 5; but see, 2 Kings 23:25.)

In the years to come, others would try to explain how Jerusalem managed to avoid destruction. Luckenbill, for instance, notes that several hundred years after the event, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that field mice devoured the quivers, bowstrings and shield thongs of the Assyrians and much later the British poet Lord Byron attributed the matter to some unspecified Assyrian discomfiture. (See Annals, at 26/214.) We may never know for sure.

Perhaps some skirmish distracted Sennacherib. (See here.) Or, given the enormity of the booty gained, and the logistical challenges in transporting it over 700 miles back to Nineveh, he simply took yes for an answer and calculated that there was nothing more to be gained that would be worth the loss of an Assyrian soldier. If Sennacherib thought so, his prudence benefitted Assyria, at least for a while. After Hezekiah’s death, Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, reverted to his grandfather’s approach both in terms of domestic religious practice and foreign policy.  Judah once again became a vassal of Assyria. The Book of Kings provides a litany of Manasseh’s outrageous apostasies, but makes no mention of either war or economic duress, suggesting that his fifty-five year reign was one of relative peace and prosperity. Of course, BOK gives Manasseh no credit for such results, only finding his conduct “displeasing to YHWH, (for) following the abhorrent practices of the nations that YHWH had dispossessed before the Israelites.” (2 Kings 21:2.)

Two Lessons from a Prism and a Scroll

The story of Hezekiah and Sennacherib may be considered more historical fiction than fake news, but regardless of label it was an early example of intentional textual manipulation of recorded reality and creative copy, of inclusion and omission. And it serves to teach us at least two important lessons.

First, as the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramatically demonstrated over 166 years ago, historical fiction can be very powerful and persuasive. Surely it was in the case of the Deuteronomic History. The theocratic system advocated by the Deuteronomic Historian may lack present appeal, as very few Jews today would like to see a Third Temple rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted, but it received a positive reception among at least a critical mass of Fifth Century B.C.E. Judahites.

Moreover, if it is questionable whether Judaism as we know it would have developed had not Cyrus allowed the exiled Judahites to return to their ancestral home, and it is, surely proto-Judaism would not have had any chance to survive and grow had not the Deuteronomic Historian provided the intellectual and emotional literature of the Deuteronomic History and its program of one people in one land  under one God with one law. Without the rationale the Historian offered, who is to say that the defeated and dispersed Judahites would have been able to maintain their cohesiveness and their faith such that they would be motivated to return when the opportunity to do so arose?

And further proof of the power of the story is that we are still thinking about it today. We do so not because the dream of the Historian was fully realized, because it was not. For over four hundred years after the return of Judahites and the building of a Second Temple, with the exception of a period of troubled years of rule by the Hasmonean family, Judah (subsequently called Judea) remained controlled by foreign powers: Persians, Greeks, Seleucids and Romans.  Yet the underlying theme of the Deuteronomic History resonated.  Indeed, the Deuteronomic History became part of the foundational history of the Jewish People.

A second key lesson of the story, and one applicable to both fake news and historical fiction, is that the essence of the story is not to be found in the names and dates and activities described in the text, but in the recognition that the author had a purpose in writing as he did. In order to understand and evaluate what is being said we do need to know (or try to know) who said it and why. We need to consider the source and the author’s agenda. This was the prime, and capitalized, directive at the old City News Bureau of Chicago: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT. Texts we encounter need to be met with critical thinking. We need to ask questions, and then ask more questions, testing premises, noting inconsistencies and anachronisms, and seeking confirmation, corroboration or contradiction. This is true for tales in the Tanakh and, as it is sometimes written, it is true “even until this day.”  (See, e.g., Deut. 2:22.)



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2 Responses to “The Battle for Jerusalem and the Origin of Fake News — 2700 Years Ago”

  1. […] made him a prisoner, like a bird in a cage.”– King Sennacherib of Assyria on King Hezekiah in […]

  2. Solomon says:

    Good article for what it offers.  Some of the steps of logic are a bit too fanciful for me to follow, but I've always been very conservative and cautious before jumping to conclusions.  

    For instance, the main arguments offered about why the author doubts the slaughter occurred:

    -no swords or shields found outside Jerusalem.   To which, pardon me, we must remember this was a battle 2700 years ago and the Jews were probably not in a position to let 180000 swords and pieces of armor go to waste!  Imagine if it happened today in modern times.  Do you think the victorious army would just let the swords and armor and machines sit there for 2700 years and rot?   That argument falls flat.   

    -Sennacherib went on subsequent campaigns.   A loss of 180,000 troops would have been large, but not insurmountable for the Assyrian total forces.   The Jews themselves had far, far greater armies than this in certain generations, and were not nearly as expansive as Neo-Assyria.  While it is a large figure, to be sure, it is still nothing compared to the total Assyrian forces, which still would have been at Sennacherib's disposal.   What is more, he would have had extreme motivation to re-group quickly and get some more positive news circulating to help smooth what happened outside Jerusalem.   You can bet it was bad press for him and he would have wanted a new news cycle to turn as soon as possible.  

    -Finally, the writers of the BOK and all of "Deuteronomic History" as you put it, were all usually extremely transparent about embarrassing things committed by their people, their heroes, and occurring to their people.   This is one of the things that, for me, gives their writings such natural credibility.   Abraham abandon's his wife to Pharaoh, Sarah abuses Hagar, Jacob schmoozes his own father horrifically and steals, in a way, the covenant, Judah sleeps with a prostitute (in his mind), committing fornication, Noah gets drunk after an incredible work of God, Moses murders and loses his temper multiple times, Samson is a complete playboy, and even Hezekiah gets arrogant (2 Chron) after his victory and gets rebuked by God (using Isaiah!), and then gets rebuked again by God again for his dealings with the Babylonian envoys.  None of the details I've mentioned above advance the kind of agenda discussed in this article.  None of those details were necessary.   Editors could have easily edited them out.   They could have easily sterilized the accounts of their ancestors and their heroes.   But they didn't.   It's all there in it's ugly, raw, transparency.   This is the problem I have with narratives that the entire canon was made up with a post-exilic agenda of propping up hope for the Jews or fitting it all together somehow.  Then why include all the dirt and grime, even on the best and brightest of the figures?  It doesn't read like a narrative constructed with such human agendas.   It doesn't read like historical fiction.   It makes it refreshingly credible.  It is a set of accounts written by Jewish people, showing how incredibly dense and stubborn and wicked they have been, including their leaders, right from the beginning.   If this account was written and preserved and passed along by enemies of the Jews, I could see a motive there.   But since we know it was written by Jews and preserved by Jews, it takes on incredible credibility.  I am not Jewish myself and that's my read on it.    I don't come to the table with a default anti-supernaturalism or a need for it to be true history.   I just come with curiosity and a questioning spirit, as the above article encourages.   And this is my read on it.   I see no terminal hurdles from logic or history to anything in the Hezekiah account as recorded in BOK.   I am open to them, and have been scouring articles such as this one.  But I still see people making logical mountains out of molehills.  No swords found anywhere in the area?   Evidence of telescoping?    All of history requires telescoping.   Sometimes 100 years will pass between two verses.  The text doesn't say he immediately was killed.  It just ends the account of Sennacherib the same way it does with literally every other major figure in BOK, with a brief statement of their death and burial.   Take the death account of Hezekiah himself in 2 Chronicles.  The Chronicler lists the visit of the envoys in 2 Chron 32:31, and then states that he died and was buried on the hill where the tombs of David's descendants are (32:33).  Was this the Chronicler trying to imply that Hezekiah's death was immediately caused by his sin with how he welcomed the envoys and meant to imply it was immediately after that event?   Of course not.   We need to be more cautious with the logical steps we take.   Even the pausing of the sun in the sky, the author says, "We know this couldn't have happened because it would have meant the earth stopped rotating"– again, these are major assumptions being made about an event, that, on its own plain surface would clearly have required a clear molecular manipulation and intervention on a cosmic scale, by a being who is quite intelligent and informed about the orbit of planets and the requirements needed to avoid their, oh I don't know, sudden catastrophic collapse.   I feel like we all need to do penance for some of the assumptions we make when we assume the Creator himself would be as silly as we are.  And I'm not even Catholic.   IF (I make no assumptions) there is an intelligent being capable of manipulating molecules, who designed and sustained this amazingly complex universe, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't make an "oops" that big.   He's not an 11-year old with superpowers.   He would, by nature, make Einstein look like a 4-year old.   I'm not saying He even exists, but just using logic, if he designed all this, that would be the level of intelligence he would (logically) need to have.   We have to be more critical both with supernaturalism and with anti-supernaturalism.   Logic and science don't require or demand half of what they are often quoted as requiring.   Well, I keep scouring for more.   And I do appreciate the work that went into this article.

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