Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Kingdom of Judah Until the Time of Sennacherib

Posted by foryourfaith on September 3, 2010


The kingdom of Judah consistently found itself caught between mighty empires far to the north in Mesopotamia and far to the south in Egypt.

Sister States?

Rehoboam came to the throne when he was forty-one years old, following the death of Solomon. Rehoboam ruled for seventeen years in Judah. There are few details abut his reign, except an account of his actions when Israel split off from Judah, an account of his actions in connection with Shishak’s invasion from Egypt, and a note that there was constant warfare between Israel and Judah, that is, between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

The time between Solomon’s death in about 930 BCE and the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE is referred to as the Divided Monarchy. This period of 350 years is treated largely by the Bible as a period of moral decline and religious laxity. The history of Israel is dealt with in a fairly cursory manner, and the history of Judah fares only a bit better.

The Bible clearly considers Israel and Judah to be sister states, that is, two branches that share the same ethnic, cultural, and religious roots and that emerged from a larger Israelite kingdom. Residents of both kingdoms worshipped the same god, spoke a similar language, and wrote using the same script.

But the latest archaeological data doesn’t fit this picture. There are differences in everything from pottery traditions to architectural styles in the two kingdoms. Israel and Judah, although close geographically, had different climates and topographies. Pottery traditions changed more slowly in Judah, in part because Judah lay off the beaten path of the main trade routes, and it was these trade routes that brought new styles, techniques, and technology to Israel.

The kings of Israel built more monumental architecture than their counterparts in Judah. Israel’s rulers were looking for ways to impress and intimidate their subjects, in part because they were in contact with other kingdoms across the ancient Near East. Even at the height of its power, Judah never commanded the economic resources or population necessary to pursue such grandiose architectural projects.

In terms of cultural and political development, settlement patterns, and climate, both Ammon and Moab, across the Jordan river, fulfilled the role of sister state to Israel better than Judah. In fact, Judah had more in common with Edom, across the river in southern Jordan, than it did with Israel, so scholars and archaeologists question the portrayal of the Divided Kingdoms just as they question the Bible’s portrayal of the United Monarchy.

Development of the Kingdoms

This was a critical time in the ancient Middle East, as national boundaries were being decided. Today, archaeology is helping to reconstruct the jockeying for power that was taking place throughout the region. There are numerous military powers of the day, and people like Ahab and Omri in Israel had to deal with them, as did the kings of Judah, albeit a little later.

Israel developed into a full-blown state in the ninth century BCE. Judah finally followed in the eighth century BCE, taking off only when Israel collapsed in the year 720 BCE, in part because refugees from Israel fled south to Judah and settled there, bringing with them technology and new ideas for architecture. In short, recent investigations have led many scholars to conclude that there was a gap of about a century and a half between the time that Israel and Judah became full-fledged states.

Until recently, most biblical archaeologists took the biblical description of Judah and Israel at face value. They showed Judah as being a fully developed state as early as the time of Solomon. But recent evidence published by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed shows that accomplishments attributed to Solomon should be down-dated by a century or more. Finkelstein, Silberman, and other archaeologists have argued that the early kings of Judah were not the equal of the kings of Israel, that no trace of literary activity has been found in the tenth century, or even in the ninth century, and that monumental inscriptions and personal objects with names of individuals appear in Judah only two hundred years after the time of Solomon.

Sudden Expansion

Similarly, archaeological surveys indicate that until the eighth century, the population of the highlands (the hills in Judah) was about one-tenth the population found in similar highlands in the North. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, ten were in the North; only two were in the South.

Judah underwent a long, gradual development over hundreds of years, in large part because it had limited economic potential. It was isolated geographically and was tradition bound. But with the rise of the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia and their attacks on Israel, Judah began to expand.

The year 734 BCE saw a rather complex political situation. The king of Israel was a man by the name of Pekah. The king of Aram, that is, of Damascus in Syria, was named Rezin. The two conspired to attack Judah and lay siege to Jerusalem, whose king at the time was Ahaz. Threatened by the kings of Israel and Aram, Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser III, the Neo-Assyrian king who had already attacked Israel. Ahaz emptied out the treasury in Jerusalem to pay the necessary bribe. It worked; Tiglath-Pileser went away.

After the year 720 BCE, with the conquest of Samaria, the capital city of Israel, and the fall of all Israel, Judah found itself surrounded by Neo-Assyrian provinces and vassals. The royal citadel of Jerusalem was transformed in a single generation from the seat of an insignificant local dynasty into the political and religious nerve center of a regional power, both because of its dramatic internal developments and because thousands of refugees from the conquered Kingdom of Israel fled south.

Excavations conducted in Jerusalem have shown that, at the end of the eighth century BCE, Jerusalem underwent an unprecedented population explosion. Its residential areas expanded from the former narrow ridge on the east to cover the entire western ridge as well, as the city doubled in size. A formidable defensive wall was constructed to include these new suburbs. In a matter of decades, Jerusalem went from a modest highland town of about ten or twelve acres to a huge urban area of a hundred and fifty acres of densely packed houses, workshops, and public buildings.

In demographic terms, the city’s population may have increased as much as fifteen times. Finkelstein and Silberman state that a similar picture of tremendous population growth emerges from the archaeological surveys conducted outside Jerusalem, in its hinterland. In the districts south of the capital city, relatively empty countryside filled with new farming settlements. What had been sleepy little villages became real towns. Lachish, south in the Shephelah, is a good example. Until the eighth century, Lachish was a relatively modest town. Then, sometime after 720 BCE, it was surrounded by a formidable wall and transferred into a major administrative center – and it became the second most important city in Judah.

In the Grip of the Neo-Assyrians

Judah experienced a tremendous social evolution. There are archaeological indications of state formation, monumental inscriptions, seals and seal impressions marking private property, royal inscriptions for the administration, masonry and stone capitals used on public buildings, mass production of pottery vessels and other crafts, and central workshops and distribution throughout the countryside. Middle-sized towns served as regional capitals and large-scale industries in olive oil and wine pressing, which shifted from private production to state industry.

Evidence of burial customs suggests that there was a new elite in the social structure. Elaborate tombs were cut into the rock of the ridges surrounding the city of Jerusalem. Many of these are extremely elaborate, with ceilings and architectural elements, and there is no doubt that these were sued for the burial of the noble class.

Where did the wealth and movement toward full state formation come from? Finkelstein and Silberman have argued that Judah was integrated into the economy of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. King Ahaz of Judah had already started cooperating with the Neo-Assyrians, but the most dramatic changes came after the collapse of Israel. Wealth began to accumulate in Judah, especially in Jerusalem, where the kingdom’s diplomatic and economic policies were determined. Jerusalem became the administrative and religious capital of a powerful kingdom.

The Book of 2 Kings states that Hezekiah rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. In these early years of Sennacherib, who came to the throne in 705 BCE, Hezekiah participated in a widespread revolt against Assyrian rule. He withheld the payment of his tribute to Assyria, but the revolt was quickly suppressed by Sennacherib and the Neo-Assyrians in the year 701 BCE.

The account of Sennacherib’s campaign is found in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, as well as in Sennacherib’s own account. Jerusalem was surrounded. An Assyrian general, speaking of his king, addressed the people and offered them two options: surrender or die. The Assyrian general’s arrogance provoked Hezekiah to pray and ask for divine assistance in defending Jerusalem. According to the Book of Isaiah, an angel of God was sent out that very night and killed one hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrians. When the people of Jerusalem awoke the next morning, the city was surrounded by dead soldiers. Sennacherib retreated back to his capital, Nineveh, where he was subsequently killed by his sons while praying.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

The Assyrian attack on Jerusalem was no surprise to Hezekia. He clearly saw it coming. According to Sennacherib’s own records, the Assyrians conquered forty-six cities in Judah before attacking Jerusalem. Jerusalem was well protected, though, so Sennacherib decided to subdue the city by siege. Hezekiah had no doubt prepared for the siege by laying in vast stores of food. But water presented a more difficult problem. The city’s water supply lay outside the city, near the floor of the Kidron Valley. Hezekiah solved this problem by building a tunnel that led under the city, from the spring to a pool known as the Siloam Pool on the other side of town. Hezekiah’s Tunnel was dug through 1,750 feet of solid rock.

This is an amazing story of engineering done almost three thousand years ago, and it is a story that ranks right up there with the biblical story of Hezekiah’s triumph, in which God struck down the Neo-Assyrian army in a single night. Exactly what took place there is not known, but it can be concluded from archeology and the biblical account that Sennacherib was not able to capture Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Indeed, what probably happened is that he was bribed and released Jerusalem from the siege on the condition that it would pay tribute every year.

Attack at Lachish

The other major city that Sennacherib attacked in 701 BCE was the city of Lachish, which was the second most important city in Judah. Unlike Jerusalem, however, Lachish was not able to hold out and was attacked and destroyed by Sennacherib. There are no fewer that four independent accounts of its destruction: first, the biblical account; second, an account by Sennacherib himself; third, an account in pictures that Sennacherib put up in his palace at Nineveh; and fourth, the archaeological evidence.

Lachish was the scene of excavations for many years, directed in large part by David Ussinshkin of Tel Aviv University. Archaeology makes clear that the Assyrians mounted their siege of the city from the southwest, which makes sense topographically. They built a large siege ramp, up which they could push their war engines up against the walls of the city. The Judeans defending the city built a counter-ramp; archaeologists have discovered both the Assyrian siege ramp and the Judean counter-ramp.

Back at Nineveh, Sennacherib’s capital city, the battle of Lachish was depicted in scene after scene carved into stone, beginning with the phalanxes of infantry marching toward the battle and ending with the deportation of the conquered Judeans.

These reliefs show that Lachish ultimately fell, and that the defenders were deported or killed. After the capture of Lachish, Sennacherib made his way to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem, in turn, did not fall. Jerusalem probably paid a bribe to Sennacherib and was allowed to continue as the capital city of Judah. However, this would not be the last time that Jerusalem came under attack from a foreign power, and, in fact, the days of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah were numbered.


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