Sennacherib Invades Syro-Palestine

The Assyrian king Sennacherib invaded Syro-Palestine to end a rebellion against Assyrian hegemony. Though his campaign was successful, his army did not take Jerusalem but instead ended the siege of the city and withdrew.

Summary of Event

Sennacherib came to the throne of Assyria (later Mesopotamia) after his father Sargon II died in a war against the Cimmerians in 705 b.c.e. The national states subject to Assyria used the interregnum as an opportunity to rebel against Assyrian domination. Merodachbaladan (Marduk-apal-iddina) declared Babylon’s independence in 704 b.c.e. The states in the west, led by Luli of Tyre (now in south Lebanon) and Hezekiah of Judah (now in Israel), followed suit. Sennacherib first dealt with Babylon (near modern Al Ḩillah, Iraq), bringing it back into the Assyrian orbit and deposing Merodachbaladan by 702 b.c.e. Sennacherib then turned his attention to the west. Sennacherib

Because the rebels in Syro-Palestine made no attempt to concentrate their forces against Sennacherib, he was able to face and defeat them individually. The first to fall was Tyre, in 701 b.c.e. Luli fled in the face of the Assyrian invasion, and Tyre and the cities dependent on it offered almost no resistance. In the Bible (Isaiah 23), the Hebrew prophet Isaiah derided Tyre’s impotence and Luli’s flight to Cyrus. After the fall of Tyre, the anti-Assyrian coalition in Syro-Palestine began to disintegrate. The Phoenician cities, the Transjordanian kingdoms, and most of the Philistine city-states submitted to Assyria. Only Ashqelon (now in Israel) and Judah refused to concede defeat, hoping Egypt’s support would enable them to resist successfully.

After ending the rebellion in Tyre, Sennacherib moved down the Mediterranean coast to deal with Ashqelon. Again, the Assyrian army had little difficulty in subduing that city and its dependencies. Sennacherib deposed Sidqa, Ashqelon’s king, replacing him with Sharru-lu-dari, an Assyrian sympathizer. Before Sennacherib could deal with Judah, he had to face an Egyptian army that came to aid the rebels. He repulsed the Egyptians at Eltekeh (Tell esh-Shallaf, near Yavneh, Israel), although the Egyptians were to threaten the Assyrian army again during the campaign in Judah. After the Egyptian retreat, Sennacherib led his army to Ekron (now in Israel), which submitted without a siege. Before Sennacherib began his campaign in Syro-Palestine, Padi, Ekron’s king, was deposed by an anti-Assyrian faction of Ekron and sent to Jerusalem, where Hezekiah had him imprisoned. Sennacherib reinstated Padi to Ekron’s throne, although it is not clear when this happened.

This drawing of a wall carving shows Sennacherib riding in his war chariot, with warriors following.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

With Ekron neutralized, Sennacherib invaded Hezekiah’s kingdom. The first town that the Assyrians took was Azekah (Tell Zakariyeh). Forty-five other towns and numerous villages in Judah were devastated in the course of the campaign because Hezekiah did not surrender. Sennacherib met significant resistance at three cities: Libnah, Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir), and Jerusalem. The Bible does not mention the fall of Lachish, but the city’s fate is depicted on reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, as noted by scholar James B. Pritchard. While the Assyrian army was dealing with Lachish, Sennacherib sent a delegation led by his chief cupbearer (rabshakeh) to Jerusalem to demand the city’s surrender (2 Kings 18:17-18). Sennacherib most likely wanted to end his campaign without a lengthy siege of Jerusalem that would only delay the inevitable and take Assyrian lives in the process. Certainly he knew of the steps Hezekiah undertook in preparation for an Assyrian siege. The Judaean king reorganized and refitted his army, strengthened Jerusalem’s walls, made access to the city’s water supply possible during a siege, and stockpiled food (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:3, 5, 29, and 35:5-6).

The rabshakeh pointed out the futility of resistance, noting that the cities of Judah had all fallen to Assyrian might, that Egypt was in no position to offer Judah any relief, and that Jerusalem’s own patron deity had abandoned it to Assyria (2 Kings 18:19-37). Because Hezekiah refused to surrender, Sennacherib probably tightened his siege on Jerusalem, boasting that he had Hezekiah imprisoned in his capital “like a bird in a cage,” according to Pritchard. The siege of Jerusalem, however, did not end with the city’s surrender and the deposition of its king. The Assyrians lifted their siege and withdrew.

There are two probable reasons for Sennacherib’s willingness to accept something other than total victory. First, the Egyptian army repulsed by Sennacherib at Eltekeh had reorganized and had begun marching north from Gaza. Second, the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem was seriously degraded by the effects of a contagious disease that swept through its camp. Sennacherib probably concluded that his forces were not sufficient to carry on the siege of Jerusalem and to face the Egyptians, so he decided to end his campaign. Before Sennacherib left for Nineveh, however, he exacted a heavy indemnity from Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13-16).

The Bible and Sennacherib’s annals (written on a clay prism known as the Taylor Prism) do not agree on the timing of the tribute. The Bible asserts that the tribute was given before the siege, whereas Sennacherib asserts that it was delivered to Nineveh after the siege was lifted. The Assyrian and biblical sources fail to concur on several other details of Sennacherib’s campaign in Judah. This lack of consistency has led to the hypothesis that the biblical and Assyrian narratives recount two different campaigns. Although both took place during the reign of Hezekiah, the “first” Assyrian advance on Jerusalem ended after the payment of tribute by Judah to Assyria. It was during a “second” Assyrian campaign in Judah that Lachish and later Jerusalem came under siege. The former fell, but the latter was relieved when the Assyrian army retreated after some disaster in its camp. The two-campaign hypothesis is best exemplified by scholar John Bright, who suggests that the second and unrecorded campaign took place c. 688 b.c.e. Supposedly Sennacherib preserved no record of the second campaign because it ended in a humiliating disaster.

The Assyrian and biblical sources will understandably differ in describing Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. Neither is a historical account in the modern sense of the term. Still, both can contribute to the reconstruction of the events that took place during the Assyrian campaign of 701 b.c.e. The differences in detail do not reflect two different events but rather two different perspectives on the same event. Both the Assyrian and biblical accounts claim success, and both are right to some extent. Assyrian objectives were met because Hezekiah ended his rebellion and paid tribute as a token of his submission to Sennacherib. Assyria remained dominant in all of Syro-Palestine. Still, Jerusalem did not fall, and Hezekiah was not deposed. The Judahite state and the Davidic dynasty continued to exist.


Though the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem was lifted and the city spared, the rebellion cost Judah much. Besides the substantial tribute Hezekiah had to pay to Assyria, he lost effective control over a substantial part of his territory. It is likely that Judah became a city-state consisting of Jerusalem, its immediate environs, and the Judaean wilderness. Lachish was ruled by an Assyrian governor. Edomites probably infiltrated and controlled the southern portion of the Negev, and Sennacherib handed over some Judaean territory in the southwest to the Philistines.

Hezekiah remained a compliant Assyrian vassal until his death in c. 687 b.c.e. He was succeeded by his son Manasseh (r. c. 687-642 b.c.e.), whom the annals of Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s youngest son, describe as “the king of the city of Judah,” reflecting the reduction of Judaean territory following Sennacherib’s campaign. Manasseh’s reign in Jerusalem coincided with the acme of Assyrian hegemony over Syro-Palestine. Manasseh was a loyal Assyrian vassal because political and military realities left him no other choice. He quelled dissent against his pro-Assyrian stance (2 Kings 21:16), continued to send tribute to Nineveh, and introduced Assyrian liturgical practices in the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Kings 21:2-9) to demonstrate his loyalty to his Assyrian masters.

The people of Jerusalem—especially the supporters of the Davidic dynasty—remembered the withdrawal of Assyrian forces before the gates of Jerusalem in 701 b.c.e. as a miraculous sign of the city’s inviolability. When faced with a similar crisis in 587 b.c.e., Jerusalem refused to accept the seriousness of the threat that the Babylonians presented, believing that a miracle would save it from Nebuchadnezzar II, as it had saved it from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35). The Book of Jeremiah reflects the frustration of the prophet who tried, in vain, to lead Jerusalem to recognize the peril that the Babylonians represented.

Further Reading

  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. 4th ed. Introduction and appendix by William P. Brown. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster J. Knox Press, 2000. The classic scholarly account of more than five hundred pages, reissued many times since its original publication in 1956. This edition offers color illustrations, maps, bibliographical references, and indexes.
  • Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis. Studies in Biblical Theology 2/3. London: SCM, 1967. A study of the prophet’s interaction with the royal establishment of Judah during the period of Assyrian domination of Judah.
  • Clements, Ronald E. Isaiah and the Deliverance of Jerusalem: A Study of the Interpretation of Prophecy in the Old Testament. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. An analysis of Isaiah’s understanding of the threat that Assyria posed to Jerusalem.
  • Cogan, Morton. Imperialism and Religion: Assyria, Judah, and Israel in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries b.c.e.
    Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1974. A description of the role of religion in neo-Assyrian militarism and expansionism.
  • Gallagher, William R. Sennacherib’s Campaign to Judah: New Studies. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999. Argues that Sennacherib made one campaign to Judah and that the Assyrian and biblical sources are reliable, producing a coherent picture of the war.
  • Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Text and Pictures. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. This set combines Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, both standard resources on the subject. Includes meticulous illustrations, maps, plans.

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Syro-Palestine, invasion of[SyroPalestine, invasion of]