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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Age of Hezekiah: Glory and Defeat

Ahaz's son Hezekiah (727–698 BCE; this is an alternate chronology to that used in chapter 6 ) came to the throne in Jerusalem just about the time that Samaria embarked on the path of rebellion against Assyria that would eventually lead to its demise. After several encounters and a lengthy siege, Shalmaneser V (727–722) brought Samaria to its knees in the winter of 722. Only in 720, however, was the city's rebellious military and political leadership finally subdued by Sargon II (722–705); he retook the now largely destroyed city, deported its population, and organized the territory into an Assyrian province. Sargon then moved down the coast and fought off an Egyptian corps that had arrived at Raphia at the gateway to the northern Sinai Peninsula, razing the town and carrying off thousands.

The kingdom of Judah was spared the direct effects of the Assyrian onslaught on Israel, but the harsh measures meted out were not lost upon Hezekiah, who for the present adopted the policy of compliance with the vassal demands of Assyria that had been adopted by his father, Ahaz, less than a decade earlier. Yet despite the tax and tribute payments—which must have been onerous (even though no records survive of the amounts involved)—the kingdom of Judah seems to have enjoyed the benefits of association with an imperial power. Judah after all bordered the Philistine entrepôts on the southern Mediterranean coast, the transshipping hub of the Arabian trade that passed through the Negeb desert. Hezekiah amassed great wealth, a process fostered by a sweeping reorganization of his kingdom. Newly constructed or refortified royal store-cities gathered in the produce of herd and field, and in the capital state reserves of spices and aromatic oils and of silver and gold, not to mention the well-stocked arsenal, won international renown. Evidence of this vital economic and military activity can be found in the many jar handles impressed with stamp seals, which have been unearthed at dozens of sites in Judah. The seals consist of the phrase belonging to the king (in Hebrew, lmlk), the name of one of four administrative centers (Socoh in the Shephelah, Hebron in the hill country, Ziph in the Judean wilderness, and Mamshet [pronunciation uncertain] in the Negeb), and the royal insignia, the two-winged solar disk or the four-winged beetle that Judah's kings had borrowed from Egypt. The storage jars on which these sealings appear presumably contained provisions that had been dispensed from the royal stores.

There are also indications that this period was one of rapid demographic growth in Judah. Archaeological surveys of the Judean hill country have uncovered several dozen new settlements founded toward the end of the eighth century BCE, and excavations in Jerusalem have shown that the capital's developed area tripled or even quadrupled at the same time. Two of the city's new neighborhoods are known by name, the Mishneh (“Second” Quarter) and the Maktesh (“Mortar” or “Valley” Quarter). Many if not most of the new settlers were probably refugees from the territories to the north and west that had been annexed to the Assyrian empire.

In religious affairs as well, Hezekiah took an active role as a reformer. Though the evidence is disputed, it seems that for the first time in Judah's history the king, with the tacit support of the priesthood, set out to concentrate all public worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Local sanctuaries throughout the kingdom, the infamous “high places” that had served as the focal points of local ritual since earliest times, were shut down. An indication of what must have taken place at these sanctuaries was recovered by the excavators of ancient Beer-sheba, where the large stone blocks of a sacrificial altar were found embedded within the wall of a building; they had been used secondarily as construction material after the dismantling and desanctification of the altar. But whether the closure of the high places actually made the populace more dependent on the capital is questionable. Moreover, the king's reform seems to have had another focus. His acts included the removal of ritual accoutrements that, though long associated with Israelite traditions, seemed to the authors of the reform essentially pagan. Stone pillars and Asherah-poles that had often been planted alongside the altars were eliminated, and even the Nehushtan, the venerated brazen serpent with a putative Mosaic pedigree that stood in the Jerusalem Temple, was removed from its honored position and smashed to pieces. All of these moves may have been inspired by a spirit of repentance urged by the reformers, who could point to the destruction of the northern kingdom as an object lesson: only by observing the demands of the Mosaic law for worship devoid of all images and concentrated at a single chosen site could Judah's future be secured. These radical changes did not meet with universal approval, and with Hezekiah's passing the status quo ante returned.

Not to be overlooked in all this activism is the literary output that flowed under royal sponsorship. Wisdom teachers had had entrée to the Jerusalem court from its earliest days, and now at Hezekiah's direction this circle set about copying and collecting Solomonic sayings, thus preserving for later generations the image of Solomon as the wisest of men (see Prov. 25.1 ). Other literature, with roots in northern Israel, made its way south with the Israelite refugees who fled the Assyrian wars in search of a new home in Judah. Among these were such works as the popular tales of the wonder-working prophets Elijah and Elisha, collections of the sayings of prophets such as Hosea, and the nucleus of the material that was to become the book of Deuteronomy. In Jerusalem these traditions were accommodated and eventually included in the canon of sacred scripture that grew up there. It may have been during these heady days of Hezekiah's first decade of rule that there was composed an early version of the Deuteronomic History, the narrative history of Israel in the land that eventually comprised the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

Prophets of another kind were active in Judah in the last quarter of the eighth century, the most prominent being Isaiah son of Amoz. This proud Jerusalemite served as the occasional counselor of both King Ahaz and King Hezekiah, but his pronouncements were directed for the most part to Israel in its entirety, the “house of Jacob.” Like his contemporary Micah from the lowland town of Moresheth, he introduced Judeans to the kinds of teachings developed by Amos and Hosea, prophets who had been active in the northern kingdom prior to the fall of Samaria. A hallmark of these literary prophets—a more apt designation than the customary “classical prophets”—was their call for societal reform. A new kind of idolatry had taken root in Judah: the worship of material gains. Isaiah observed that a great rift had opened between Judah's influential wealthy and the neglected populace, whose cause he took up:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you.… Ah, you who call evil good and good evil… who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!… Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people.

(Isa. 5.8, 20, 23, 25 )

The prophet decried the piety of the privileged who had been led to believe that correct ritual observance was all that was needed; in God's name he rejected their pretense:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile.… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

(Isa. 1.12–17 )

Micah put it succinctly:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic. 6.8 )

Sacrifice could no longer guarantee the common weal. The new prophetic standard for national well-being elevated morality to the level previously occupied by ritual obligations alone; the responsibility of the individual to pursue justice as taught in the Mosaic law was extended to the entire nation, henceforth seen as collectively accountable for the ills of society.

Isaiah's message also had a universal aspect. In his vision of a new world in days to come, all nations would make pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. There, in this house of instruction, they would be taught the ways of the Lord, thus ushering in an age of universal peace:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Isa. 2.4 )

For the present, Assyria's victories were prophetically interpreted as God-sent punishments for the godless. But that rod of the Lord's anger would in turn be punished for its shameless pride and boasting self-acclaim. In his mind's eye, Isaiah foresaw a time when the Assyrian empire would be united in the worship of the one God:

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Isa. 19.23–25 )

Because of their unorthodox message, more than once these visionaries found themselves confronting a hostile audience. Amos was banished from Bethel by its high priest, who branded as sedition his prophecy of the impending punishment of Israel's leaders (Amos 7.10–12 ). On the other hand, Isaiah seems to have remained a keen social critic of his compatriots for over three decades, continually calling Judah's ruling classes into line. Micah too fared well; Hezekiah was won over by the prophet's somber prediction of Jerusalem's destruction. A century later, when the mob threatened Jeremiah for his message of doom, some people still remembered the similar words of Micah and their positive effect on Hezekiah (Jer. 26.1–19 ).

Throughout most of Hezekiah's reign, tensions remained high between Assyria and the states along the Mediterranean. Sargon continued to consolidate his hold. The Assyrian presence on the coast, as far as the border of Sinai, was reinforced by resettling foreign captives in an emporium in which Assyrians and Egyptians “would trade together” (Sargon prism inscription from Nimrud, col. 4, ll.46–50 ), a remarkable free-market policy for its time. Even the nomads of the desert, who were major players in the movement of overland trade, were integrated within the imperial administration.

Yet significant as these developments may have been, they did not bring stability; rebellion, an ever-ready option, broke out whenever the Assyrian overlord seemed inattentive or weak. In 713 Sargon replaced Azur, the upstart ruler of Ashdod (an important Philistine city on the southwest coast of the Mediterranean), with his brother, an Assyrian loyalist. He in turn was ousted by Yamani, who sought to lure other vassal kingdoms in the southern region, among them Judah, to his side. At about this time, emissaries of Merodach-baladan (the biblical rendering of Mardukapal-iddina), the Chaldean king of Babylonia, arrived in Jerusalem; ostensibly, they had come on a courtesy visit to inquire of Hezekiah’s health, which had recently been failing. Merodach-baladan was a known foe of Assyria with a record of rebellion, and conceivably while in Jerusalem his envoys discussed diplomatic and perhaps even economic relations between Judah and Babylonia. Sargon himself did not lead the army that came to restore order in Ashdod; rather, it was his army commander who in 712 attacked and captured Ashdod as well as several neighboring Philistine towns, carrying off rich spoil and numerous prisoners. Ashdod was reorganized as an Assyrian province, a first for the region. There is reason to believe that Azekah, a town on the border of the Shephelah of Judah, was also attacked; a fragmentary Assyrian report describes the storming of this well-positioned fortress. Whatever the details, Hezekiah survived this blow and somehow avoided more serious Assyrian reprisals. He had to bide his time as a humbled vassal a bit longer before he would try again to free his kingdom.

His moment came in 705 BCE, when the Assyrian empire was shaken by Sargon II's death on the battlefield while campaigning in distant Anatolia. That mighty Assyrian king, infamous for his merciless use of force, a man who redrew the map of the Near East by uprooting entire populations, was himself denied a final resting place. He is the only ancient Assyrian monarch not to have been interred in royal fashion. In a mock eulogy, the Israelite prophet Isaiah expressed the relief surely felt by many upon receiving the news:

Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who would not let his prisoners go home? All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb; but you are cast out, away from your grave, like loathsome carrion, clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword, who go down to the stones of the Pit, like a corpse trampled underfoot. You will not be joined with them in burial, because you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people.

(Isa. 14.16–20 )

In the wake of Sargon’s untimely end, rebellions erupted throughout the empire, from Babylonia as far as the Persian Gulf and along the Mediterranean coast down to the Egyptian border. As the new Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (705–681 BCE) fought to subdue the Chaldean rebels and their Elamite allies directly south of Assyria, Hezekiah took the lead in organizing the southern Syrian states against him. These included the Phoenician port of Sidon and its holdings down the coast to Acco, as well as Philistine Ashkelon and Ekron and the smaller towns under their rule. As on many previous occasions, Egyptian aid was promised, this time by the new pharaoh Shebitku (702–690 BCE) of the Nubian Dynasty 25, who was ready to pursue an active role in western Asia against Assyria. Hezekiah pressed for maximum participation in the rebel cause, to the point of using military force against holdouts. At Ekron, where those who called for armed resistance were in the majority, its pro-Assyrian king Padi was removed and imprisoned in Jerusalem. Other small kingdoms, such as Ashdod, Ammon, Moab, and Edom, may have toyed with the idea of joining the rebels, but they promptly dissociated themselves when Sennacherib finally appeared on the scene.

Preparations in Judah for the anticipated Assyrian reprisal concentrated on reinforcing Jerusalem’s defenses, especially the residential quarter that had recently grown up on the city’s western hill. Isaiah looked askance as the king’s engineers “counted the houses of Jerusalem and … broke down the houses to fortify the wall” (Isa. 22.10 ). A short run of the massive (7 meters [23 feet] wide) fortification wall constructed at that time has been excavated in the Old City of Jerusalem. In the “lower city,” the “city of David,” the Siloam Tunnel project was completed, guaranteeing a sure water supply in case of a siege. A winding tunnel running 533 meters (1,750 feet) from the Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley to the “Lower Pool” within the city’s walls was dug through the limestone bedrock of the hill beneath the city. An appreciation of the difficulties encountered by the workmen can be read in the inscription chiseled on a wall within its recesses:

While [ ] (were) still [ ] the axe(s) toward one another, and while there were still three cubits to be [tunneled, there was heard] a voice calling to his fellow, for there was a fissure (?) in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And on the day when the tunnel was cut through, the stonecutters struck toward one another, ax against ax. The water flowed from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock was 100 cubits above the heads of the stonecutters.

Not until 701 BCE, more than three years after he had ascended the throne, did Sennacherib set out to quell the rebellions in the west. Unlike most chapters in Israelite history, the events of that year are particularly well documented. The sources consist of biblical texts from both royal and prophetic sources, an account in Sennacherib’s annals, and an inscribed wall relief from the Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh; this rich trove, together with archaeological evidence, enables us to reconstruct the course of events in considerable detail.

Sennacherib marched his troops down the Mediterranean coast, meeting little resistance from the rebels in Sidon. The latter’s king having fled to a safe haven in one of the city’s overseas colonies, Sennacherib installed a new king, who shouldered Assyrian vassaldom. Continuing south toward Philistia, the Assyrians took Ashkelon and its environs and deported the royal family; a member of a rival line was set on the throne. At this juncture an Egyptian expeditionary force under the command of Taharqa, later to become pharaoh, engaged the Assyrians. The combined Egyptian and Nubian cavalry and chariot corps were no match for Sennacherib’s army; many were taken prisoner before they could escape the rout. The cities of Eltekeh, Ekron, and Timnah in the Shephelah were the next to fall, setting the stage for the attack farther inland on the line of fortresses that guarded the roads up to the Judean hill country. Sennacherib’s scribes described the scene:

As for Hezekiah the Judean, who had not submitted to my yoke, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cites and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and by applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them). I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil.

Among the walled cities to fall to Sennacherib was the mighty fortress at Lachish, whose storming has been immortalized on an engraved relief that was prominently displayed in the king’s palace at Nineveh. The expansive montage depicts the multiphased Assyrian assault on the city, whose defenders are shown desperately hurling stones and torches on the attackers from the wall. Excavations at the site have recovered the remains of a counterramp within the city opposite the Assyrian ramp on the outside, heaped up just in case the wall would be breached by the attacking forces. The Assyrian artist included later stages of the battle in his relief; engraved below the besieged city is a row of impaled Judeans, suffering the punishment meted out for treason. A long line of refugees is shown exiting the city gate on their way to pass in review before Sennacherib, who had set up his command post at the foot of the high mound of Lachish.

While these battles for control of the Judean Shephelah raged, Sennacherib also set about negotiating with Hezekiah for his submission, no doubt in an attempt to cut his losses and to complete the campaign in the quickest possible time. As a warning of things to come, Jerusalem was brought under siege:

As for Hezekiah the Judean … I locked him up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate.

Simultaneous with the physical pressure, Sennacherib dispatched a high-level team of ranking Assyrian officers to meet their Judean counterparts at the upper pool on the Fuller's Field road to the north of Jerusalem's city walls. In the carefully crafted speech reported in 2 Kings 18.19–35 , the Rab-shakeh, an Assyrian official who is presented as having more than just a working knowledge of Hebrew, turned to the defenders on the city wall and warned them of the consequences they would suffer if they continued to resist. Nothing and no one, he claimed, could thwart Assyria's sure victory, especially since the God of Israel had ordered the attack! In his shock over these uncompromising demands, Hezekiah sought the advice of Isaiah, whose counsel urged calm confidence in the Lord's protection of the city and its Davidic king.

In the end, it seems that negotiations led to a formula of surrender. Hezekiah would retain his throne, with Judah resuming its vassal status and the yearly payment of dues and tribute; a large indemnity, beyond the normal spoils of war, was to be transferred to Sennacherib; extensive sections of the kingdom—those captured during the fighting—were to be parceled among the Philistine city-states loyal to Assyria (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron). An onerous settlement, but one that saved Hezekiah and Jerusalem.

Later generations, looking back on the attack on Judah in that year, viewed it as perhaps the most fateful event in the kingdom's three-hundred-year history to that point. Had Jerusalem fallen, Judah would have gone the way of the northern kingdom of Israel and especially its capital, Samaria—to exile and extinction. That Sennacherib struck a compromise with Hezekiah, given the strategic upper hand held by the Assyrian army throughout the land, seemed inconceivable. Sennacherib was not beyond the most ruthless punishment of rebellious cities: a decade or so later he would literally wipe Babylon from the map. Some Judahites (as Byron illustrates in his poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib”) understood this break with the customary imperial practice as a miracle: the hand of the Lord, the God of Israel, had saved Jerusalem. Champions of Jerusalem's cause told of the annihilation of the vast Assyrian army that had camped outside the city's walls (2 Kings 19.35 ), and they pointed to Sennacherib's assassination, though some twenty years after the siege of Jerusalem, as just due for the blasphemous words he had uttered against the Lord.

The seventh century opened for Judah with its monarch and its population in the most dire straits. The prophet Isaiah is once again our informant, as he addressed the nation:

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land.

(Isa. 1.7 )

The most that the man of God could promise those who daily faced the ravaged countryside was that, within three years, life would resume its regular cycle of sowing and reaping, planting and eating (Isa. 37.30 ). Within three years, Hezekiah died, the despair of defeat and the destruction that he brought on Judah accompanying him to his grave.

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