The hexagonal prism detailing the campaign of Sennacherib against Judah
In 721 BCE, the Assyrian army captured the Israelite capital at Samaria and carried away the citizens of the northern kingdom into captivity. The virtual destruction of Israel left the southern kingdom, Judah, to fend for itself in the whirlwind of warring Near Eastern kingdoms. At the time of Samaria's fall, there existed two kings in Judah--Ahaz and his son Hezekiah--who ruled as co-regents. Judah existed as a vassal to Assyria during this time and was forced to pay an annual tribute to the powerful empire.
In 715 BC, following the death of Ahaz, Hezekiah became the sole regent of Judah and initiated widespread religious reforms--smashing the idols the people had worshiped during the reign of his father and leading the Jews toward a renewed relationship with Yahweh. He re-captured Philistine-occupied lands in the Negev desert, formed alliances with Ashkelon and Egypt, and made a stand against Assyria by refusing to pay tribute.
In response, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, attacked the fortified cities of Judah. While Sennacherib was besieging Lachish, he received a message from Hezekiah offering to pay tribute in exchange for Assyrian withdrawal. According to the Tanakh, Hezekiah paid three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold to Assyria--a price so heavy that he was forced to empty the temple and royal treasury of silver and strip the gold from the doorposts of Solomon's temple.
Sometime during the early part of the Assyrian invasion, Hezekiah met with his military staff concerning the possibility that Jerusalem may fall under siege. The staff immediately oversaw preparations for the Assyrian onslaught. In an effort to deprive the enemy of water, the Jews blocked the springs outside the city. Workers then dug a 533-meter tunnel to the Spring of Gihon, providing the city with fresh water. Additional siege preparations included fortification of the existing walls, construction of towers, and the erection of a new, reinforcing wall. Hezekiah gathered the citizens in the square and encouraged them by reminding them that the Assyrians possessed only "an arm of flesh," but the Jews had the protection of Yahweh.
Sennacherib marched on Jerusalem with a large army. When the Assyrian force arrived, its field commander brought a message from Sennacherib himself. In an attempt to demoralize the Jews, the field commander announced to the people on the city walls that Hezekiah was deceiving them, and Yahweh could not deliver Jerusalem from the king of Assyria. He listed the gods of the people thus far swept away by Sennacherib then asked, "Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me?"
The Tanakh relates how Hezekiah clad himself in sackcloth out of anguish from the psychological warfare that the Assyrians were waging. However, the prophet Isaiah assured Hezekiah that the city would be delivered and Sennacherib would be cut down with the sword. The Tanakh states that during the night, an angel of Yahweh brought death to 185,000 Assyrians troops. When Sennacherib saw the destruction wreaked on his army, he withdrew to Nineveh. Jerusalem was spared destruction.
The Hexagonal Prism and Other Sources
A prism detailing the events of Sennacherib's campaign against Judah was discovered in the ruins of Nineveh in 1830. The account dates from about 690 BC and is blatantly self-serving to the Assyrian king. The text of the prism boasts how Sennacherib destroyed forty-six of Judah's cities and trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a caged bird." The text goes on to describe how the "terrifying splendor" of the Assyrian army caused the Arabs and mercenaries reinforcing the city to desert. Intriguingly, the prism does not make mention of the destruction--or even capture--of Jerusalem. It abruptly stops after detailing the siege of the city. This raises the following issue: surely a ruler as narcissistic as Sennacherib would have narrated his conquest of the capital of Judah--that is, unless the city was never conquered. The mass death mentioned in the Tanakh has never been substantiated by any archaeological find, but the abrupt end of the prism account--along with the fact that Assyrian campaigns in the west ceased until the latter part of Esarhaddon's regency--may serve as circumstantial evidence that the Tanakh account is reliable. The Greek historian Herodotus, Chaldean historian Berosus, and Jewish historian Josephus all make reference to the delivery of Jerusalem in their writings, further substantiating the Tanakh account.
The prophecy of Isaiah did not come to pass immediately, but did eventually intersect with Sennacherib. In 681 BC, while worshiping in the temple of Nisroch, the king of Assyria was killed by his own son. He had ruled Assyria for twenty-four years.