June 20, 2024
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Archaeology and the Assyrian Kings

We have many inscriptions of the kings of ancient Assyria (Iraq). It is interesting to compare them to what is written in Tanach.

1. At 2 Kings 18: 9, we are told that in the fourth year of the Judean king Hezekiah, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser besieged the city of Samaria (=Shomron) and its king Hoshea for three years. The next verse states that Samaria was taken at the end of three years. Finally, verse 11 mentions the places that the king of Assyria carried the Israelites to.

These three verses imply that Shalmaneser was the king who captured Samaria. (See similarly 2 Kings 17:3-6.) But we have an inscription from the next king, Sargon II, stating: “I surrounded and captured the city of Samaria; 27,290 of the people who dwelt in it I took away as prisoners.”

A widespread explanation is that Shalmaneser began the siege, and Sargon II concluded it and captured Samaria after the death of Shalmaneser. (Shalmaneser reigned from 727-722 B.C.E. Sargon II reigned from 722-705 B.C.E. He is not mentioned in this chapter. From Assyrian sources, we learn that he was not the son of Shalmaneser.)

(The references in Tanach to Shomron=Samaria are references to a city. It was built by Omri in the ninth century B.C.E. and became the capital of the northern kingdom.)

2. 2 Kings 18:13-15 tells us about the next king Sancheriv. (He was the son of Sargon II.) In the 14th year of Hezekiah he came against the fortified cities of Judea and took them. But he did not take Jerusalem. The Tanach tells us that Hezekiah was willing to pay a tribute to Sancheriv in the amount of 30 ככר of gold and 300 ככר of silver. (This was an extremely large tribute. Verse 18:16 reports that Hezekiah had to cut off gold from the doors and doorposts of the Temple.) It has been suggested that Sancheriv was taking the tribute as a temporary measure while he prepared for his ultimate advance on Jerusalem.

Here is a small portion from the annals of Sancheriv: “But as for Hezekiah the Judean who did not bow in submission to my yoke, forty-six of his strong walled towns and innumerable smaller villages in their neighborhood I besieged and conquered… He himself I shut up like a caged bird within Jerusalem…” Sancheriv then mentions a payment by Hezekiah of “30 kakkaru of gold and 800 kakkaru of silver.”(OK, a difference on a “small” detail.) Another inscription has: “I laid waste the wide district of Judah and made the overbearing and proud Hezekiah, its king, bow submissively at my feet.” Implicitly agreeing with Tanach (see below), the Assyrian records nowhere claim that Sancheriv destroyed Jerusalem.

3. At 2 Kings 19:37, we are told that Sancheriv was killed by two of his sons, Adramelech and Sharetzer. An Assyrian inscription has him being killed by one son, who is not named, during a rebellion. Based on further inscriptions, the Assyrian names of the sons involved were Arda-Mulissu and Nabu-shar-usur. The instigator of the rebellion was the former.

Material about Sancheriv is found in three places in Tanach: 2 Kings, chaps. 18-19, Isa. chaps. 36-37 and 2 Chron., chap. 32.

***

Now let us look at the end of the Sancheriv story in Tanach. The year is 701 B.C.E. Sancheriv was ready to invade Jerusalem, but a miracle occurred. According to 2 Kings 19:35, an angel of God went into the Assyrian camp at night and killed 185,000 men. There is no explanation given about how they were killed. With his army gone, Sancheriv withdrew.

The fifth century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus tells the following story in his “Histories,” at II, 141. “King Sanacharib” and his army were ready to battle the Egyptians. But at night a multitude of field mice swarmed over the Assyrian camp and devoured their quivers and bows and the handles of their shields, and they fled the next day unarmed.

Is this a different event than what is described in Tanach? Or is this just the story in Tanach, in a different version? Scholars are divided on this issue.

Herodotus also wrote that, prior to the planned attack, the Egyptian priest had gone to the temple shrine and bewailed to his god the peril that threatened him. His god appeared to him in a dream and told him to have courage. “Myself will send you champions,” said the god. This reminds us of what is found in Tanach: At 2 Kings 19:1 Hezekiah went to the Temple to pray. He also sent messengers to the prophet Isaiah and Isaiah assured him that God would save him. See 2 Kings 19:6-7 and 20-34.

But one piece of evidence that we are not dealing with the same story is the continuation of the story in Herodotus: “And at this day a stone statute of the Egyptian king stands in Hephaestus’ temple, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect: ‘Look on me, and fear the gods.’” This sounds like Herodotus is recording a story that truly occurred in Egypt and not just a legend that may have occurred anywhere. But with Herodotus (the “Father of History,” also known as the “Father of the Lie”) one can never be sure.

***

The comparison between the story found in Herodotus and the story in Tanach reminds me of the story in our Haggadah where five Sages (but not R. Gamliel) are mesubin in Bnei Brak and talking about “Yetziat Mitzrayim” the entire night until their students come and tell them it is time for the Shema of Shacharit. This story is not found outside the Haggadah. But in the Tosefta (Pes. 10:8) we have a story of R. Gamliel and the elders who were mesubin “be-beit Beitus ben Zunin be-Lod “ and were studying “hilchot ha-Pesach” the entire night until kerot hagever. They then raised up [the closed windows], gathered together and went to the beit ha-midrash.

Are these stories of two different Sedarim where there were different topics for the Seder night? Or is this the same story in a different version? We will never know. My hunch is the latter.

***

Regarding the tradition that Sancheriv’s army was killed by the angel on the first night of Pesach, this derives from a homiletic interpretation of “va-yehi ba-laylah ha-hu” at 2 Kings 19:35. See Shemot Rab. 18:5 and 18:12, Shir Ha-Shirim Rab. 1:12:3, and Panim Acherim, version 2, sec. 6. See also Rashi and Radak to Isa. 30:29. For a tradition regarding the incident occurring on the night of the 16th, see Rashi to Isa. 30:32. (This verse includes the word תנופה.) For further material, see C. Milikowsky, comm. on Seder Olam, pp. 382-83.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is an attorney and a Jewish history scholar. These are not conflicting traditions. (Please visit his website at www.rootsandrituals.org.)

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