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The Sennacherib/Taylor Prism PDF Print E-mail

"The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
- Lord Byron

Thus began the famous poem by Lord Byron poeticizing the infamous destruction of Sennacherib's army. This account of Sennacherib's clash with Hezekiah and the God of Israel has from the beginning inspired awe and wonder and become a story of great fascination to many. And interestingly enough there have been several accounts and artifacts of historical value which have been found that give details about this period in time during Sennacherib's rule which corroborate the Biblical story. One such artifact is the Taylor Prism.

The artifact known as Sennacherib's Prism, or the Taylor Prism, is a 38cm tall, hexagonal prism containing a personal account of Sennacherib written in cuneiform, in which he boasts of his exploits against his enemies. Sennacherib was an Assyrian king who laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C. and executed a military campaign in Palestine to put down insurrections against Assyrian rule and attempts to break off vassalship to Assyria. At the time Judah was under the rule of Hezekiah who was a rather strong King among the neighboring nations, and possibly provoked Sennacherib's wrath when the Philistines overthrew their own King Padi (King of Ekron - appointed by Assyria) and had him imprisoned in Jerusalem during Hezekiah's reign. This could have been viewed as an attempt to throw off Assyrian vassalage and defer preference to the king of Judah, as a military ally against Assyria. This account though of Assyria's invasion into Palestine is one of the most well documented events in history and has many avenues of corroboration and has spurred many discussions about the details of the amazing sequence of events as recorded in the Bible.

Let's first look at the Bible's account of the event that the Taylor Prism also records:

The Bible records the story of Sennacherib in the book of 2 Kings as thus:

(Chapter 18) 13 Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them. 14 Then Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, "I have done wrong. Withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear." So the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king's house.
17 Then the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rab-saris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah with a large army to Jerusalem
28 Then Rabshakeh stood and cried with a loud voice in Judean, saying, "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria.
31 'Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria, "Make your peace with me and come out to me, and eat each of his vine and each of his fig tree and drink each of the waters of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live and not die." But do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you, saying, "The LORD will deliver us."

(Chapter 19) 5 So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah. 6Isaiah said to them, "Thus you shall say to your master, 'Thus says the LORD, "Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. 7 "Behold, I will put a spirit in him so that he will hear a rumor and return to his own land And I will make him fall by the sword in his own land."'"
35 Then it happened that night that the angel of the LORD went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead. 36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home, and lived at Nineveh. 37 It came about as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer [his sons] killed him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat And Esarhaddon his son became king in his place.


The Taylor Prism:

THe Taylor Prism

Now observe Sennacherib's account on the prism:

As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up seige-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him- the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery.

His cities, which I had despoiled, I cut off from his land, and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli, king of Gaza, I gave (them). And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts-gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. 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. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.

Notice how there are three main correlations between those accounts: Hezekiah did not surrender to Sennacherib or "submit to [his] yoke" (he heeded the words of Isaiah), Sennacherib besieged Judah and seized 46 of its cities (except for Jerusalem), and Hezekiah tried to appease Sennacherib by paying him a lot of tribute, though still refusing to submit to him and surrender Jerusalem. Also there is a small correlation between the tribute amounts, though Sennacherib records the extra tribute that he exacted from Hezekiah in silver along with (as both record) exactly thirty talents of gold. But also note that Sennacherib never says that he took Jerusalem, though he boasts about the "terrifying splendor of [his] majesty". This is because a catastrophe struck the Assyrian's camp, which was surrounding Jerusalem.

There are three main extra-biblical explanations given for this catastrophe, two being historical accounts (from Herododus and Berosus, both quoted by Josephus) and one the product of modern speculation:

1. Herodotus, from the perspective of an Egyptian legend, recorded that mice gnawed through the soldiers quivers, bowstrings, and shield-straps, making them vulnerable to their enemies (Antiquities 10.1.4).

2. Josephus also quoted Berosus who recorded: "Now when Sennacherib was returning from his Egyptian war to Jerusalem, he found his army under Rabshakeh his general in danger [by a plague], for God had sent a pestilential distemper upon his army; and on the very night of the siege, a hundred fourscore and five thousand, with their captains and generals, were destroyed." (Antiquities 10.1.5).

3. The third, more modern, speculation is that a meteor struck the Assyrian camp, but is unlikely, and contradicts the Biblical and historical accounts.

But it is clear that in history something devastating happened to the Assyrian army that caused Sennacherib's campaigns around the Mediterranean to cease and cause him to return to his own land.

The Bible was even correct on how Sennacherib died. A clay tablet that now resides in the British Museum records: '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.' Josephus, once again, comes through on this topic and also records: "Being in great fear for his whole army, he fled with the rest of his forces to his own kingdom, and to his city Nineveh; and when he had abode there a little while, he was treacherously assaulted, and died by the hands of his elder sons, Adrammelech and Seraser, and was slain in his own temple, which was called Araske. Now these sons of his were driven away on account of the murder of their father by the citizens, and went into Armenia, while Assarachoddas took the kingdom of Sennacherib." And this proved to be the conclusion of this Assyrian expedition against the people of Jerusalem. (Antiquities 10.1.5). There is amazing correlation between these multiple historical accounts and the Bible. Thus we can see that the story of Sennacherib in 2 Kings is soundly set in historical fact.

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