Lachish PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Historical outline to 701 BC
The Siege
The long aftermath
Revolt against Babylon
Tour of the Tell
Logistical note


Sennacherib's hesitation (701 BC) and the revolt against Babylon (587-586 BC)

This section on the great drama that preceded the revolt of 586 BC owes much to Othmar Keel .

After devastating Lachish and the rest of the Shephelah, why didn't Sennacherib go up and take Jerusalem? An Assyrian king would not ordinarily leave the rebel leader on his throne! The Bible offers explanations. Isaiah sends word to Hezekiah that Sennacherib will hear a rumor (about rebellion at home?) and withdraw to Nineveh (2 Kings 19: 5). A few verses later, following a prophecy by Isaiah against Assyria, we find this (2 Kings 19: 35-36):

"That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand 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."

Some readers accept this account, others call it legendary. In any case, the Assyrian army must have been exhausted, especially after battling an Egyptian force, followed by the resistance it encountered in Judah. To Sennacherib, Jerusalem may not have seemed worth the extra effort. It offered few natural resources and was far from what mainly interested him: the road to Egypt. New to his throne, he may have worried about a renewal of rebellions at home or about overextending his lines. When Jerusalem did not surrender in response to verbal threats (a resistance made possible by the city's new water tunnel), he probably figured that the aim of deterrence could be sufficiently served by a painful tribute, which he got:

"(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. …. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts—gifts for my majesty. …. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city." (From Sennacherib's prism, translated by Daniel D. Luckenbill.)

After the devastation of the Shephelah, Jerusalem was indeed left "like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege" (Isaiah 1:8). The kingdom shrank to an impoverished city and its mountain hinterland, where refugees had gathered. Hezekiah died 8 years after the defeat and was succeeded by his 12-year-old son Manasseh.

Manasseh kowtowed to Assyria, introducing its cults. The kowtowing led to economic revival. Although the Shephelah was lost, Manasseh took advantage of the pax assyriaca to develop industry and commerce in the Negev along the trade route from Arabia to the coast, as well as on the shore of the Dead Sea. His reign lasted an extraordinry 54 years. 2 Chronicles, a late 4th century work, explains his longevity and success as consequences of heartfelt repentance (2 Chron. 33: 10-17). But 2 Kings, written closer to his time, mentions no repentance; quite to the contrary, it attributes the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem to the earlier "sins of Manasseh" (2 Kings 24:3).   

Jerusalem's economic revival lulled Judahites into forgetting the years of misery that had followed Hezekiah's revolt. What stood out in memory, rather, was the fact that Jerusalem alone had survived. This fact engendered a belief that God would protect Jerusalem and the Temple, as expressed in Psalm 48: "Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain….God is in her citadels; he has shown himself to be her fortress….God makes her secure forever …."

In the wider world meanwhile, in 664 BC, Ashurbanipal of Assyria conquered the northern part of Egypt. He'd overextended himself, and ten years later the Egyptians dislodged him. He was then forced to put down revolts on all fronts. By 638, when Manasseh's 8-year-old grandson, Josiah, became king of Judah, the Assyrians were tied up fighting against the newly rising Babylonians. They had ceased to be a vital force in Jerusalem.

During repairs to the Temple around 621 BC, a book of laws turned up. It was part of what we today know as Deuteronomy. On hearing its contents, Josiah undertook a religious reform (for which we have archaeological evidence). Now, in Deuteronomy it is written that if the people of Israel obeyed God's commandments they would prosper (for example, Deut. 11: 13-17). In line with this faith, Josiah undertook to enlarge and strengthen the kingdom. He built military bases to guard the ways to Jerusalem. In the devastated Judahite Shephelah, these included Azekah, Maresha, and Lachish.

But Josiah misread the political map. He seems to have thought that Assyria's withdrawal had left a vacuum. Yet Egypt was ambitious, and Babylon was rising. Egypt's policy was to use the vestige of the Assyrian army as a buffer against Babylon. When Pharaoh Neco II marched with his army through the mountain pass to Assyrian-held Megiddo in 609, Josiah "went toward him"—and was killed (II Kings 23: 29). 

The event contradicted Deuteronomy: Here at last was a good king, and this had happened to him!  The trauma of that death at Megiddo would lead to the prophecy of Armageddon ("the mountain of Megiddo," Revelation 16:12-16). 

Enter Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In 604 he became master of the land bridge. Judah's King Jehoiakim acceded to his demand for tribute. But when Nebuchadnezzar failed to take Egypt, he looked weak, and the Judahite urge to sovereignty simmered again.

Despite the memory of Josiah's death, the century-old belief in God's defense of Jerusalem became a pillar in the platform promoting rebellion. Against this national monotheism of the pro-rebellion party stood universal monotheists, exemplified in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They viewed Nebuchadnezzar as God's tool and came out against revolt. Ezekiel's actions in Ezekiel 4 and 5, convey the message that because of its sins, Jerusalem had lost divine protection until further notice (Ezekiel 21:24). As for Jeremiah, his message went: "Do not trust in deceptive words like these: "The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh! The temple of Yahweh!" Instead do justice to the alien, the widow, and the orphan (Jeremiah 7:4-7). Prior to the revolt of 597, Jeremiah dictates his prophecies to Baruch, his scribe, who reads the scroll to the people gathered at the Temple. It is then brought to King Jehoiakim, who has it read aloud while he warms himself by the stove (it is December). After each three or four columns, the king has the scroll brought over, cuts the columns out and tosses them into the fire.

In response, the Lord bids Jeremiah: "Tell Jehoiakim king of Judah, 'This is what the Lord says: You burned that scroll and said, "Why did you write on it that the king of Babylon would certainly come and destroy this land and wipe from it both man and beast?" Therefore this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim king of Judah: He will have no one to sit on the throne of David; .... I will bring on ... those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened'" (Jeremiah 36:29-30).

After the death of Jehoiakim and the dethroning of his successor, Nebuchadnezzar installs the latter's uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Relying on the ideology of the pro-rebellion party, as well as Egypt, Zedekiah too withholds tribute, and once more the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem. Zedekiah sends officials to Jeremiah requesting an oracle. Recalling how Sennacherib had failed to take Jerusalem, they say to him (Jeremiah 21: 1-7):

"'…Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is attacking us. Perhaps the Lord will perform wonders for us as in times past so that he will withdraw from us.' But Jeremiah answered them, 'Tell Zedekiah, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands….."'" And a few verses later, to the people as a whole: "See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives."

The pro-rebellion party condemned Jeremiah as a traitor (as he would no doubt be condemned today). They did not manage to have him killed, but they won the debate. Zedekiah revolted, and events unfolded as foretold. Toward the end, "the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah that were still holding out—Lachish and Azekah. These were the only strongholds left in Judah" (Jeremiah 34:7). This biblical verse is echoed in the fourth of 21 letters discovered at Lachish in the form of ostraca . It reads in part: "And he has been told that we are waiting for the fire signals from Lachish, according to all the instructions given by my lord. For we cannot see Azeqah." (Yadin's contrary theory.) At least five ostraca turned out to be sherds from the same jar. Most seem to have been addressed to one Ya-ush, perhaps the commander, and to have been sent by one Hoshaiah, an officer in a nearby base—maybe Maresha. From Maresha one can see Lachish, and as the letter says, one cannot see Azeqah (it is blocked by a hill 40 meters higher). On the other hand, from Lachish one could conceivably make out the beacons of Azeqah at night. Another ostracon speaks of sending to Egypt for aid. Still another quotes an unnamed prophet saying, "Be on guard!"

As Jeremiah had foretold, Jerusalem was conquered, the temple destroyed, and the upper-class survivors exiled. Yet despite the defeat, the faith that God would protect Jerusalem was destined to revival. Centuries after the Babylonian catastrophe, it persisted in the futile revolts against Rome, which were undertaken in the belief that God would intervene. Nor have we heard the last of this faith. It has a deep background, to be sure, in the Yahweh wars from the time before the monarchy, when circumstances were such that faith did indeed produce victory.