Three accounts have been left by the Assyrian monarch himself of his campaign against Israel and Judah. The most famous is the six-sided prism known as the Taylor Prism. Sennacherib described in detail how he came against the cities of Israel and then Judah, and ‘Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem his capital city like a bird in a cage.’
Many smaller towns and villages fell. The might of all Assyria was marshalled against Hezekiah. But the Taylor Prism does not record the defeat of Hezekiah or the fall of Jerusalem as one would expect. Sennacherib returned to Nineveh his capital city. The boastful account ends not in triumph but with an anticlimax. What had happened? What made Sennacherib withdraw at the last moment?
“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. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt in Nineveh.” (2 Kings 19:35-36)
In addition to the evidence of Sennacherib’s own account, in 1938 the archaeologist Starkey found a mass grave outside the city of Lachish, which Sennacherib had conquered and which was the base for the Assyrian move to Jerusalem. In the Lachish grave were two thousand human skeletons evidently thrown in with great haste. Here was the reason for Sennacherib’s sudden withdrawal.
The palace at Nineveh was decorated with massive stone wall panels depicting the siege of Lachish. These are attractively arranged in the Lachish Gallery in the British Museum and can be seen as they would have appeared in their original positions. They provide a detailed background to the Bible account.
The Bible account of Sennacherib concludes with these words –
“So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh. And 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.” (2 Kings 19:36-37)
The same event was recorded for the library at Nineveh and the clay tablet of the record is now in the British Museum.
‘On the twentieth day of the month Tebet Sennacherib king of Assyria his son slew him in rebellion… Esarhaddon his son sat on the throne of Assyria.’
This is one of the many independent confirmations of details in the Biblical records.
The Assyrian period of history can provide many similar examples of confirmation. The British Museum publication, ‘Illustrations of Old Testament History’ by Barnett gives many examples. The soldier-prince Pul (11 Kings 15:19) or Tiglath-pileser, his general Rabshakeh (11 Kings 18:17) or Rab-shaqu, have left their names in monuments and inscriptions. A limestone relief from Nimrud portrays the surrender of Ashtoreth in Gilead with the name clearly labelled in cuneiform script.
Shalmaneser, too, left a wealth of monuments and inscriptions, a number of which mention the monarchs of other nations.
A study of the period gives us a very great confidence in the accuracy of the Biblical records. We can look at carvings and statues of monarchs mentioned in the Bible. Scholars have translated accounts of the campaigns and treaties and details of the private lives of the great men of the period – and these confirm the Bible narrative.
Because archaeology has shown that the Bible records are accurate in some of the smallest details, we can have confidence in the reliability of the writers. We should be prepared to consider carefully the writings of the Bible as a whole.
THE TAYLOR PRISM
The text records the expeditions of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, about 705-681bce.
1. The defeat of Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon, & the sack of the city.
2. The conquest of Ellipi & subjugation of the Medes.
3. An invasion of Judah & siege of Jerusalem.
4. A second campaign against Merodach-baladan, who was deposed in favour of Sennacherib’s son Assur-nadin-shum.
5. A campaign in the countries to the north-west of Assyria.
6. An expedition to the Persian Gulf & the defeat of the Elamites.
7. A final expedition to Elam & the conquest of the allied Babylonians & Elamites.