As any good atheist would have done more than 40 years ago, I ridiculed the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. How could anyone believe what the Jews wrote about their national history when they were just trying to promote their own brand of “religion?” Why should I believe them?
The problem with that line of thinking, I discovered, was what to do about the histories of other ancient nations that gave credibility to many of the historical records in the Old Testament? Were the historians of other countries who served other gods somehow joined in the Jewish conspiracy to promote the one God of Israel? That didn’t seem logical to me, so I looked deeper into several archaeological discoveries to see if I could find the truth. Could archaeology have the answer to my challenge to “Convince me there’s a God?”
[I am not including any archaeological discoveries made after May of 1971 since I was investigating the claims of Christianity between January and May of 1971.]
Israel is one of the oldest nations and peoples in the world, dating back to the beginning of the 2nd Millenium with God’s call to Abram to leave his Chaldean homeland and move his family to Canaan. In the years that followed, the descendants of Abram through Isaac and Jacob dealt with many peoples and countries, both large and small.
We’ve already looked at Israel’s interactions with the Philistines and Hittites, so we now turn to Assyria. It is first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 2:14. Nimrod, the great kingdom builder of Genesis 10, is identified as the builder of many cities in Mesopotamia.
“Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.’ And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (that is the principal city).” Genesis 10:8-12
The map of Nimrod’s expanding kingdom included much of the Middle East. Assyria was a major player in the northern part of the kingdom (now part of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey). It was both a regional and major power during the years from the 3rd millennium to 1st millennium BC. Assyria rose to prominence during the 1st millennium under kings like Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal. What can we learn about Israel through Assyrian archaeology?
The Taylor Prism
Let’s begin with the Taylor Prism. It stands just 15 inches high in its special location in the British Museum in London, England. Archaeologists believe the six-sided clay prism is about 2,700 years old and records some of the achievements of King Sennacherib of Assyria between 704-681 BC. Included in those achievements is Sennacherib’s conquering of more than 40 cities in Judah.
“As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps, and battering-rams brought thus near to the walls combined with the attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out of them 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them booty. 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 leaving his city’s gate. His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them over to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the katrû-presents due to me as his overlord which I imposed later upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring spendor of my lordship had overwhelmed and whose irregular and elite troops which he had brought into Jerusalem, his royal residence, in order to strengthen it, had deserted him, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches inlaid with ivory, nîmedu-chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, boxwood, and all kinds of valuable treasures, his own daughters, concubines, male and female musicians. In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his personal messenger.” (J.B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 2nd ed., Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955 … 3rd ed. 1969)
This event was also recorded in the Hebrew Bible. It follows reforms in Judah by King Hezekiah.
“Thus Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and true before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, in the law and in the commandment, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart. So he prospered. After these deeds of faithfulness, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and entered Judah; he encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them over to himself. And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, and that his purpose was to make war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his leaders and commanders to stop the water from the springs which were outside the city; and they helped him. Thus many people gathered together who stopped all the springs and the brook that ran through the land, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?’ And he strengthened himself, built up all the wall that was broken, raised it up to the towers, and built another wall outside; also he repaired the Millo in the City of David, and made weapons and shields in abundance. Then he set military captains over the people, gathered them together to him in the open square of the city gate, and gave them encouragement, saying, ‘Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid nor dismayed before the king of Assyria, nor before all the multitude that is with him; for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.’ And the people were strengthened by the words of Hezekiah king of Judah. After this Sennacherib king of Assyria sent his servants to Jerusalem (but he and all the forces with him laid siege against Lachish), to Hezekiah king of Judah, and to all Judah who were in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says Sennacherib king of Assyria: ‘In what do you trust, that you remain under siege in Jerusalem? Does not Hezekiah persuade you to give yourselves over to die by famine and by thirst, saying, ‘The Lord our God will deliver us from the hand of the king of Assyria’? Has not the same Hezekiah taken away His high places and His altars, and commanded Judah and Jerusalem, saying, ‘You shall worship before one altar and burn incense on it’? Do you not know what I and my fathers have done to all the peoples of other lands? Were the gods of the nations of those lands in any way able to deliver their lands out of my hand? Who was there among all the gods of those nations that my fathers utterly destroyed that could deliver his people from my hand, that your God should be able to deliver you from my hand? Now therefore, do not let Hezekiah deceive you or persuade you like this, and do not believe him; for no god of any nation or kingdom was able to deliver his people from my hand or the hand of my fathers. How much less will your God deliver you from my hand?’ Furthermore, his servants spoke against the Lord God and against His servant Hezekiah. He also wrote letters to revile the Lord God of Israel, and to speak against Him, saying, ‘As the gods of the nations of other lands have not delivered their people from my hand, so the God of Hezekiah will not deliver His people from my hand.’ Then they called out with a loud voice in Hebrew to the people of Jerusalem who were on the wall, to frighten them and trouble them, that they might take the city. And they spoke against the God of Jerusalem, as against the gods of the people of the earth—the work of men’s hands. Now because of this King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, the son of Amoz, prayed and cried out to heaven. Then the Lord sent an angel who cut down every mighty man of valor, leader, and captain in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned shamefaced to his own land. And when he had gone into the temple of his god, some of his own offspring struck him down with the sword there. Thus the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all others, and guided them on every side. And many brought gifts to the Lord at Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations thereafter.” 2 Chronicles 31:20 – 32:23
I was experienced enough as a journalist to know that opposing sides have differing views of who won and lost, but it’s interesting to note in the non-biblical history of King Sennacherib that he was killed by one or more of his sons (see Encyclopaedia Britannica), just as the Hebrew Bible recorded. While there is some debate among scholars about which son or sons killed the king, the Hebrew Bible records that it was Adrammelech and Sharezer and that their brother Esarhaddon became king.
“Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the temple of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place.” 2 Kings 19:37
What about the Bible’s mention in 2 Chronicles about Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish? Is that supported by any archaeological find? It is, on what’s known as Sennacherib’s Wall. Archaeologist Henry Layard discovered the wall in Nineveh in the mid-1840s and wrote extensively about it several years later (The Monuments of Nineveh, 1849; Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Characters, 1851; and Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh, 1853). Sennacherib’s wall about his victory of Lachish took up almost 70 linear feet and included the king’s attack on the city gate using battering rams.
Given the great pride and detail of Sennacherib’s defeat of Lachish, it’s interesting to note no archaeological finds concerning Sennacherib’s defeat of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. If Sennacherib had conquered Jerusalem, it would seem that the Assyrian king would have made much of that in an even larger wall and more prisms. The Old Testament records Sennacherib’s defeat by the supernatural God of Israel and his return “shamefaced to his own land.”
[Read more about Sennacherib’s defeat in Isaiah 37]
More archaeological finds from other ancient nations in our next post that support many historic details recorded in the Hebrew Bible as I continue to share what convinced me to leave atheism for theism more than 40 years ago.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”