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Catherine McDowell (PhD, Harvard) teaches Old Testament for Gordon-Conwell's Charlotte campus. She previously taught at Wheaton College and was a teaching fellow at Harvard. Along with numerous articles, she has contributed to the NIV Archaeological Study Bible and is the author of The Image of God in the Garden of Eden

Austen Henry Layard

Austen Henry Layard

In the mid-1840s the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard made a spectacular discovery. In the throne room of King Sennacherib's Southwest Palace at Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq, today) Layard uncovered a series of beautifully carved stone reliefs that told a grisly tale of siege, capture, and destruction.

The first few panels of the stone reliefs were missing but the remaining 12, arranged in chronological order around the walls of Sennacherib's throne room, depicted the Assyrian army attacking a fortified city with battering rams driven up an impressive siege ramp while archers and stone slingers took aim at the men on the wall. The citizens under attack fired back with arrows, stones, and firebrands, but the city was captured, plundered, and burned.

The panels adorning the right side of Sennacherib's throne room showed defeated families leaving the city in mourning clothes while others were cruelly impaled outside the walls. Some pled for mercy from the Assyrian soldiers while others were brutally slaughtered. An Assyrian commander briefed King Sennacherib as he observed the battle from a royal throne stationed between the city and the temporary Assyrian military camp behind him.

Layard soon realized that the battle depicted on these stone reliefs was none other than the siege of Lachish mentioned in 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-37! The year was 701 B.C. Hezekiah, king of Judah, had revolted against his Assyrian overlord. Sennacherib was on the warpath, and a fierce battle was raging over this royal Judean city second only to Jerusalem in prestige.

The Siege of Lachish

According to the biblical account, Hezekiah was forced to pay excessive tribute, which included the precious gold from the doors and doorposts of the LORD's temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:14-16). Sennacherib also sent representatives from Lachish to Jerusalem in an attempt to convince Hezekiah to surrender his capital, and to terrify the people living there (2 Kings 18:17-37). In the midst of great distress, Hezekiah sought the LORD (2 Kings 19:14-19), who, through the prophet Isaiah, vowed to protect Jerusalem and punish the arrogant and cruel Assyrians:

Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David. (2 Kings 19:32-34; see also 2 Kings 19:20-37)

Further Evidence: The Taylor Prism

There are two additional key historical “witnesses” to the battle between Sennacherib and Hezekiah. The Taylor Prism is a hexagonal stone that Sennacherib inscribed with the details of his campaign, including his confrontation with Hezekiah:

As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them). I took out 200, 150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate. His cities which I had despoiled I cut off from his land and gave them to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron and Ṣilli-bel, king of Gaza, and thus diminished his land. I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, their yearly payment. He, Hezekiah, was overwhelmed by the awesome splendor of my lordship, and he sent me after my departure to Nineveh, my royal city, his elite troops (and) his best soldiers, which he had brought in as reinforcements to strengthen Jerusalem, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, choice antimony, large blocks of carnelian, beds (inlaid) with ivory, armchairs (inlaid) with ivory, elephant hides, ivory, ebony-wood, boxwood, multicolored garments, garments of linen, wool (dyed) red-purple and blue-purple, vessels of copper, iron, bronze and tin, chariots, siege shields, lances, armor, daggers for the belt, bows and arrows, countless trappings and implements of war, together with his daughters, his palace women, his male and female singers. He (also) dispatched his messenger to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance.

It is worth noting that Sennacherib does not claim to have captured Jerusalem. We know that God defended his holy city, just as he had promised (2 Kings 19:32-34). Rather than admit failure, however, Sennacherib put a “positive” spin on it by claiming that he locked up Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage."

Excavation of Lachish

The final historical witness to the battle for Lachish is Lachish itself. The site was excavated in the 1930s by a British team led by James Starkey and in the 1970s and 1980s by an Israeli team from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Exploration Society. The evidence they uncovered corroborated the biblical and Assyrian written accounts--this once-grand royal Judean city, fortified by a massive double wall and enormous gate complex that protected extensive residential quarters and a large central fortress or palace, had indeed been destroyed in 701 B.C. by the Assyrians. The remains of the Assyrian siege ramp were found, as were hundreds of iron arrowheads, thick layers of burnt debris, smashed pottery, dozen of sling stones and pieces of Assyrian armor. In several nearby caves excavators discovered the skeletal remains of more than 1,500 people, likely citizens of Lachish who perished in the battle.

The Bible and Archaeology

The biblical accounts, Sennacherib's written and pictorial records, and the excavated remains from Lachish provide us with a rare glimpse from multiple angles of an important historical event in the lives of God's people during a time of national crisis. The picture that emerges is one that gives us great confidence in the historicity of the biblical report, and in a God who hears and responds to the prayers of his people.

We do well to remember that God has actually intervened in human history--in real time, in real space, and in the lives of real men, women, and children. The battle of Lachish did not take place in Middle Earth nor in Narnia (no disrespect to Tolkien or Lewis!). It happened in the land of Judah, in the fourteenth year of the reign of King Hezekiah. Lachish did indeed fall, but, by God's grace and according to his promise, Jerusalem was spared. Even Sennacherib had to admit it!

See Archaeology Today

If you are ever in London, be sure to stop by the British Museum where you can see the Lachish reliefs and the Taylor Prism (among many other artifacts and works of ancient art related to the Bible) for yourself!

In the meantime you can look at the British Museum website for photos and more information:

Taylor Prism

Unfortunately there is not much to see at Lachish (in Israel) today, but the excavation results have been published in several places. You can read about those results and see some impressive images here:

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Ryan M. Reeves, PhD

Ryan M. Reeves is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus. He and his wife Charlotte have three children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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