One of the maddening things about the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that it is not corroborated by many other primary sources. There is no Egyptian evidence, for instance, that the Hebrews were ever enslaved in Egypt – and no archaeological evidence that 100,000 of them were wandering around the Sinai Desert for forty years. Some scholars even dispute the existence of King David. But as we move forward in time some events are attested in other sources. Two of my favorites are below – and they provide very interesting examples of differing perspectives on the same event. The first takes place in 701 BC, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the kingdom of Judah and besieged Jerusalem (his predecessor Shalmaneser had already defeated and deported the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC).
2 Kings 19: King Sennacherib sent messengers to Hezekiah with this word: “Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’ Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them?… Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God… That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
“185,000 men” is probably an exaggeration, but we can be pretty certain that this actually occurred, for one of the documents dug up at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the nineteenth century was Sennacherib’s Annals, recorded in Akkadian cuneiform on three hexagonal clay prisms. The relevant bits:
As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were at his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually.
“Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, [and] surrounded him with earthwork.” And…? The reader is expecting a third clause, something about taking Jerusalem, putting the inhabitants to the sword, and razing the Temple. But no such thing is mentioned! Cleary he didn’t manage to take Jerusalem for some reason – and a plague breaking out among his men is as likely a reason as any. (I doubt that it had much of a long-term effect on his state, though, and as he brags he did quite a bit of damage to Judah otherwise.)
It was the Babylonians, of course, who succeeded where the Assyrians failed, who took Jerusalem in 587 and then deported its inhabitants to Babylon as slaves. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539, he famously allowed the Jews to return home. Here is what the book of Ezra has to say about it, the first of our second pair of documents:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.
If you think that it’s odd that Cyrus should be so inspired by Yahweh, the God of the Jews… you’re probably right. From the Kurash Prism, a more direct source for the king’s motivations:
I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth… whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.
No mention of the Jews or their God at all! Instead, Cyrus is working to please Marduk, the god of the Babylon he has just conquered – and he ordered everyone to return to their former habitations, not just Jews.
Methinks that the author of Ezra has succumbed to the very human desire to believe that It’s All About Me.