When God rescued King Hezekiah, part 2
Archaeology confirms the biblical account—Hezekiah’s preparations in Jerusalem
In part 1 of this series, we saw that archaeology has provided abundant support for the Bible’s account of Assyrian king Sennacherib’s attack on the kingdom of Judah in 701 BC (described in 2 Kings 18–19). In particular, there is a wealth of physical evidence that Sennacherib conquered many of Judah’s walled cities, including the key site of Lachish. Now, we consider the actions Hezekiah, king of Judah, undertook to preserve his capital and his kingdom.
Capital countermeasures—Hezekiah’s fortifications in Jerusalem
By God’s grace, Jerusalem did not suffer the same fate as Lachish, and therefore no evidence of destruction is to be found in the capital. Even so, archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem have supported other aspects of the biblical narrative. For example, prior to Sennacherib’s attack, Hezekiah had made some strategic architectural changes to his capital. According to the parallel account of these events in Chronicles, Hezekiah strengthened the city’s fortifications through repairs as well as new construction.
He set to work resolutely and built up all the wall that was broken down and raised towers upon it, and outside it he built another wall, … (2 Chronicles 32:5)
This verse is significant, because the author of Chronicles composed his book long after Hezekiah’s time, and the earlier record in 2 Kings does not mention these specific building activities.1 Yet, despite the skeptical stance that some scholars take toward Chronicles, the passage accords well with archaeological excavations. As Philip King and Lawrence Stager admitted:
The Chronicler was often questionable as a reliable historical source, dependent as he was on other biblical sources such as the Deuteronomistic Historian(s) and the prophets. He gained some credibility, though, when Nahman Avigad discovered the ‘Broad Wall’ and dated its construction to the late eighth century BCE.”2
The Broad Wall (figure 2.1) is mentioned twice in the book of Nehemiah (3:8; 12:38). It is called ‘broad’ because its builder—most likely Hezekiah—made it to be extremely wide, in order to withstand enemy battering rams. The section exposed by Avigad in the 1970s is 40 m (130 ft) long and a whopping 7.5 m (23 ft) thick. It is not as well constructed as a different, earlier section of Jerusalem’s city wall which some have attributed to Solomon, indicating that it may have been built somewhat hastily, perhaps as Hezekiah was anticipating the approach of the Assyrian army. Curiously, archaeologists found that a number of newer homes were demolished in order for this wall to be built right over their foundations.3 This unusual find is likewise consistent with the wall being built because of a looming threat, and it may be the occasion to which Isaiah 22:10 refers: “you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall.”
Less than 90 m (300 ft) to the north, Avigad also uncovered what is now called the ‘Israelite Tower’ (figure 2.2), which he believed was part of a city gate. The excavated part of this tower is preserved to a height of 8 m (27 ft). It is composed of the same type of unhewn stones as the Broad Wall, although some say that it is part of a different fortification system and date it to be slightly later than the Broad Wall.4 It was either built by Hezekiah or his son Manasseh.
Another city wall section that is attributed to Hezekiah was discovered in 1999, on the eastern side of the ridge called the City of David. This was an outer wall that Hezekiah added to the pre-existing inner wall. The inner wall was located about 36 m (120 ft) further up the hillside, to the west of where the outer wall was built. This outer wall, like Avigad’s tower, exhibits similar masonry to the Broad Wall. Plus, it has its own rectangular protrusion that juts out about 2 m (6 ft) from the rest of the wall, and some have suggested that this could also be one of Hezekiah’s towers.5
More preparations—Jerusalem’s waterworks
Strengthening the city’s fortifications was not all that Hezekiah did. The Bible describes how he reconfigured Jerusalem’s water supplies, at least partly on account of Sennacherib, as the following passages attest.6
And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his mighty men to stop the water of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?” (2 Chronicles 32:2–4)
This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. (2 Chronicles 32:30)
… he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city … (2 Kings 20:20)
Archaeology corroborates these texts as well. The Gihon Spring, located on the east side of the city, was the main source of Jerusalem’s water. Hezekiah apparently stopped up a number of places the water had previously been diverted through a number of man-made tunnels and channels, and he redirected the water to the west side of the city.7,8 Today, in Jerusalem, one can walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel (figure 2.3) which was dug beneath the City of David for this very purpose. The tunnel meanders underground for 533 m (1720 ft) through solid rock, connecting the Gihon in the northeast to a reservoir on the southwestern side of the hill (figure 2.4). Amazingly, over that distance, the slope of the floor drops only about 30 cm. The exact positions of the original reservoir and the nearby city walls are not known with certainty, but some scholars believe the pool was situated between the two city walls. Hezekiah may have carved this tunnel specifically to protect the city’s water source from Sennacherib or to simply reroute water to the rapidly expanding western part of the city, or both.
Inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel, near the southern end, an ancient inscription was found that explains how the tunnel was carved. This Siloam Inscription (figure 2.5), which dates by paleography to Hezekiah’s time, says that digging proceeded from both ends, and the workers met in the middle. This is an amazing accomplishment, especially considering how the tunnelers meandered under the city. How exactly they achieved this and why they dug in this manner are as yet unanswered questions.
At the southern outlet, the water emptied into the Pool of Siloam. Over the centuries, this pool was reconstructed several times. The Siloam Pool from Jesus’ time was discovered in 2004, but archaeologists have not yet found the Siloam Pool which preceded it—the one constructed by Hezekiah. Israel Finkelstein has suggested that it may lie just beneath the Roman-era pool, so perhaps future excavations will uncover it.9
Next, archaeology has validated the biblical terms used for the Assyrian officials who confronted Hezekiah. From Lachish, Sennacherib sent some of his high-ranking men, together with a delegation of his army, to Jerusalem. They presented a message to Hezekiah as a means of intimidation. Three Assyrian officers are listed: “the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh” (2 Kings 18:17).
In the early 1800’s, these titles were obscure and puzzling to Bible commentators. But all three terms have since been found in ancient Assyrian records. The Assyrian Eponym List (figure 2.6), for example, mentions the Tartan—the senior military commander who ranked next to the king.10 It also mentions the slightly lower-ranked Rabshakeh, which means ‘chief of princes’. The Rab-saris, another of the king’s close officials (possibly chief eunuch), is mentioned in a small contract document.11 While some mysteries remain about the exact duties performed by these officers, the preservation of their titles is one of many examples where the details in Scripture, though otherwise lost from historical memory, have been verified by archaeological discoveries.
In the biblical account, the Rabshakeh is the chief spokesman. In his appeal to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, he engages in a bit of trash talking against Hezekiah and even against God Himself.
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. … And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?’” (2 Kings 18:28–33)
But the Lord did deliver Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrians. The key miscalculation the Assyrians made was that “they spoke of the God of Jerusalem as they spoke of the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of men’s hands” (2 Chronicles 32:19).
Rather than personally interact with the Assyrian officials, Hezekiah sent three intermediaries to negotiate:
And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. (2 Kings 18:18)
Have any artifacts been recovered that testify to the existence of these officials? Quite possibly. First, Shebnah, this secretary of Hezekiah, may be the same Shebna who is chastised in Isaiah 22.
What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock? Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. (Isaiah 22:16–17)
This chapter in Isaiah was apparently written after Hezekiah did his remodeling work in Jerusalem (vv. 8–11), but prior to the encounter with the Assyrian officials in 2 Kings 18. This is because, at the time to which Isaiah 22 refers, Shebna is said to be “over the household” (v. 15)—a position which God says would be taken from him and transferred to Eliakim (vv. 19–21). This transfer must have taken place by the time of their interaction with the Rabshakeh since, in 2 Kings 18:18, Eliakim is the one who is now “over the household” (i.e., palace).
In any case, several inscriptions have been found that refer to a high official from Hezekiah’s time named Shebna.12 Two bullae (clay seal impressions) have surfaced that date to the 8th century BC and belonged to “Shebna, servant of the king.” The first was recovered from Lachish (figure 2.7) and the second is unprovenanced. Also, archaeologists discovered an ancient tomb carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley which had an inscription on the lintel, above the entrance. The text, though damaged, records the ending of the name of a high official who was buried there (figure 2.8). Though the first part is missing, it could be reconstructed as a form of the name Shebna, and it specifically says he was “over the house,” the very position Shebna once held according to Isaiah 22:15. The writing can be dated to approximately the time of Hezekiah. Thus, even the tomb referred to in the Isaiah passage may have been found.
What about Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, who took over Shebna’s position? While archaeologists have not found direct evidence of Eliakim, they seem to have found his brother, who was also one of Hezekiah’s officials. The evidence for this brother comes from another apparently authentic but unprovenanced bulla, now housed in the Israel Museum (figure 2.9). It bears the words: “Belonging to Yehozarah, the son of Hilkiah, servant of Hezekiah.”13
The Prophet Isaiah
After the negotiations failed, Hezekiah sent his three officers to request prayer from Isaiah the prophet (2 Kings 19:2–4). On multiple occasions, the biblical text describes how Isaiah reassured Hezekiah that he did not need to fear the Assyrians. Sennacherib would not capture Jerusalem, Isaiah prophesied, but would instead return to his own land and be killed.
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. (2 Kings 19:32–33)
In 2017, archaeologist Eilat Mazar (1956–2021) found what she believes may be the seal of the prophet Isaiah (figure 2.10).14 Her team unearthed a bulla in Jerusalem, just 3m (10 ft) from where the bulla of Hezekiah was found in 2009. The seal undoubtedly contains the name Isaiah, and it may even refer to him as “prophet.” But since the edge of the seal is worn away, making the final Hebrew word uncertain, the conclusion is not guaranteed. Still, since Isaiah and Hezekiah were contemporaries who had personal interactions, there is a good chance this seal did belong to the biblical prophet. It certainly belongs to the right time and place, and the inscription is suggestive.
Aid from Egypt and Cush
While Hezekiah was seeking assistance from Isaiah and offering up his own prayers to heaven, Sennacherib was informed of an additional threat against him. Perhaps his boast that the Egyptians would not be able to help Judah (2 Kings 18:21) was a bit premature.
Now the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Cush, “Behold, he has set out to fight against you.” (2 Kings 19:9)
Cush was the nation just south of Egypt, in the region of Nubia, or modern Sudan. At this time in history, the Cushites had taken control of Egypt, or at least part of it—becoming the pharaohs of the 25th dynasty. Eventually, Tirhakah himself became Pharaoh. As can be seen from his sphinx (figure 2.11), Tirhakah (also spelled Taharqa) had double cobras on his crown, representing his rule over both nations—Egypt and Cush together.
In his Annals, Sennacherib also mentions that, during this military campaign (his third), he battled against the combined forces of Egypt and Cush. He claimed that the inhabitants of the Philistine city of Ekron, who were in league with Hezekiah,
… formed a confederation with the kings of Egypt (and) the archers, chariots, (and) horses of the king of the land Meluḫḫa [Cush], forces without number, and they came to their aid.
In the plain of the city Eltekeh, they sharpened their weapons while drawing up in battleline before me. With the support of the god Aššur, my lord, I fought with them and defeated them. In the thick of battle, I captured alive the Egyptian charioteers and princes, together with the charioteers of the king of the land Meluḫḫa.15
Despite the surface-level agreement between Sennacherib’s account and the Bible, many scholars have criticized the biblical reference to Taharqa, claiming that it introduces several chronological problems. For one thing, the most plausible reconstructions of Sennacherib’s third campaign indicate that he defeated the Egyptian and Cushite armies at Eltekeh prior to his raid on Judah, not after he had attacked Lachish. Also, some have argued that Taharqa was only a general, not yet king at the time of Sennacherib’s campaign, and that the reigning pharaoh was instead Taharqa’s older relative Shabaka.16 Third, it has even been claimed that Taharqa was only nine years old in 701 BC—too young to lead an army.
However, to the first point, while it is likely true that the battle at Eltekeh preceded Lachish, Taharqa may have simply regathered his remaining troops to go after Sennacherib a second time. After all, as Kenneth Kitchen pointed out, a new vulnerability presented itself when Sennacherib’s forces were split between Libnah and Jerusalem.17
As for the second point, there are several possible solutions. First, the Bible may refer to Taharqa as king even if he was not yet king at the time of the events described. He could easily have been given that appellation in the text when it was written since he was known to have later become king. Another possibility is that there were multiple kings ruling simultaneously in different parts of Egypt and Cush, as this was common during the 25th dynasty. The Bible does not call Taharqa the king or Pharaoh over Egypt, only the king of Cush. So it may be that he was already a king in Cush even while Shabaka ruled as Pharaoh. In fact, Robb Andrew Young says that Taharqa is emphasized over his predecessor in the contemporary documents from Cush. Shabaka is “all but absent from the Nubian record, while the Ethiopian king list names Taharqo as ruler during the crucial year in question.”18
Third, it is simply mistaken that Taharqa was a child at this time. As Kitchen and others have pointed out, that claim was due to a misreading of the Kawa stela IV.19 Taharqa’s true age at this time was closer to twenty, old enough to command an army.20
Despite the interpretive challenges, what the Bible says about the participation of Egypt and Cush in this conflict is consistent with the testimony of other ancient sources.
While there is always some ambiguity in the available evidence, and scholars continue to debate how best to interpret it, many archaeological puzzle pieces have been found that serve to corroborate the overall biblical picture of Hezekiah’s reign and his confrontation with the Assyrians. But the story does not end there. If Egypt and Cush did not ultimately save Hezekiah, how did Jerusalem avoid capture? Does archaeology similarly support the remainder of the biblical account? These are questions that will be addressed in part 3.
References and notes
- While not as specific, a possible reference to these same repairs does occur in Isaiah 22:9–10. Return to text.
- King, P.J., and Stager, L.E., Life in Biblical Israel, p. 219, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2001. Return to text.
- Rosovsky, N., A Thousand Years of History in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, Biblical Archaeology Review 18(3), May/June 1992. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., Dismissing the Myth of a Flood of Israelite Refugees in the Late Eighth Century BCE, ZAW 126(1):12, 2014. Return to text.
- Shanks, H., 2,700-Year-Old Tower Found? Biblical Archaeology Review 26(5):39–41, September/October 2000. Return to text.
- See also Isaiah 22:9–11. Return to text.
- Shanks, H., Everything you ever knew about Jerusalem is wrong (well, almost), Biblical Archaeology Review 25(6):20–29, November/December 1999. Return to text.
- Although the 8th century date of the tunnel has recently been disputed by archaeologists Reich and Shukron, many scholars still reasonably attribute the tunnel to Hezekiah. See Shanks, H., Will Hezekiah Be Dislodged from His Tunnel? Biblical Archaeology Review 39(5):52–61, September/October 2013. Return to text.
- Shanks, H., The Pool of Siloam Has Been Found, but Where Is the Pool of Siloam? Biblical Archaeology Review 43(1):50–55, January/February 2017. Return to text.
- Cheyne, T.K., and Black, J.S. (eds.), Encyclopaedia Biblica, p. 4903, Norwood Press, Norwood, MA, 1903. Return to text.
- Mitchell, T.C., The Bible in the British Museum, p. 77, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 2004. Return to text.
- Deutsch, R., Tracking Down Shebnayahu, Servant of the King, Biblical Archaeology Review 35(3):45–49, May/June 2009. Return to text.
- ‘Signature’ of King Hezekiah’s Servant Recovered, Biblical Archaeology Review 1(4):19, 32, December 1975. Return to text.
- Mazar, E., Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature? Biblical Archaeology Review 44(2):64–73, 92, March 2018. See also Robinson, P., The prophet Isaiah’s signature? 26 April 2018, creation.com/isaiah-signature. Return to text.
- Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period (RINAP) 3, Sennacherib Chicago/Taylor Prism, 2:78–3:6. Return to text.
- One example is Redford, D.B., Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, pp. 258, 353, Princeton University Press, NJ, 1992. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K.A., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 41, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2003. Alternatively, perhaps Taharqa was not truly advancing at all, and Sennacherib had received misinformation. The biblical text may be understood to mean that it was nothing more than a false “rumor” (2 Kings 19:7), which distracted Sennacherib from engaging Hezekiah. Return to text.
- Young, R.A., Hezekiah in History and Tradition, p. 75, Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2012. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K.A., Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, pp. 83–84, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1966. Return to text.
- Hoffmeier, J.K., Egypt’s role in the events of 701 BC in Jerusalem, in Vaughn, A.G., and Killebrew, A.E. (ed.), Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period, pp. 230–232, Society of Biblical Literature, Boston, MA, 2003. Return to text.
- Finkelstein, I., Migration of Israelites into Judah after 720 BCE: An answer and an update, ZAW 127(2):197–204, 2015. Return to text.
- Finkelstein, I., The two kingdoms: Israel and Judah, in Finkelstein, I., and Mazar, A., The Quest for the Historical Israel, p. 154, Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 2007. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., When and How Did Jerusalem Become a Great City? The Rise of Jerusalem as Judah’s Premier City in the Eighth–Seventh Centuries B.C.E., BASOR 341:40, 2007. Return to text.