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The Boasts of Sennacherib

Over the last couple centuries, archeology has opened a number of windows into the cultures and literature of the Ancient Near East. This has increased our insight into the historical context of Holy Scripture and our ability to read Scripture as ancient literature. In the mid-1800's, the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC) was discovered at Nineveh and became a major addition to Ancient Near Eastern studies. A clay prism was also found, dubbed the Taylor Prism, which contained six paragraphs of cuneiform written in Akkadian. Two more such prisms were found, nearly identical to the Taylor Prism. Dates on the prisms show that two were written in 691 BC and the last in 689 BC.

Each recounts the annals of King Sennacherib of Assyria (705–681 BC). Eight military campaigns are recorded in vivid, often gruesome detail. The point is a kind of ancient political propaganda, used to solidify royal power. The third campaign notably includes the invasion of Judah in 701 BC and the siege of Jerusalem under King Hezekiah. Scripture records the events in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37, and Isaiah 36:1-37:38.

Here you have the introduction from the prism, and excerpts of the third campaign. As you read, reflect on passages of Scripture that are similar, and reflect on the challenge made by this king and his empire against the LORD, the house of David, and Israel. The translation is adapted from that of Daniel David Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib. Oriental Institute Publications 2 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1924).

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Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favorite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt;

the god Assur, the great mountain, an unrivaled kinship has entrusted to me, and above all those who dwell in palaces, has made powerful my weapons; from the upper sea of the setting sun to the lower sea of the rising sun, he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare, leaving their homes and flying alone, like the sidinnu, the bird of the cave, to some inaccessible place...

In my third campaign, I went against the Hittite-land. Lulê, king of Sidon, the terrifying splendor of my sovereignty overcame him, and far off into the midst of the sea he fled. There he died. Great Sidon, Little Sidon, Bît-Zitti, Zaribtu, Mahalliba, Ushu, Akzib, Akko, his strong, walled cities, where there were fodder and drink, for his garrisons, the terrors of the weapon of Assur, my lord, overpowered them and they bowed in submission at my feet. I seated Tuba'lu on the royal throne over them, and tribute, gifts for my majesty, I imposed upon him for all time, without ceasing... As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up seige-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him— the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery. His cities, which I had despoiled, I cut off from his land, and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-bêl, king of Gaza, I gave (them). And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts—gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.

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The language of the introduction describing the virtues of Sennacherib is language usually reserved for God in Scripture. Psalm 89 approaches this language when describing the Davidic king, but carefully roots wisdom, power, and glory in the God of Israel. Isaiah comes close to this language when speaking of the King Messiah as well, especially in chapters 9 and 11, anticipating the divinity of Jesus, the Son of God, the son of David.

The challenge is stark. Do we worship Assur or the LORD? Do we ally ourselves with the house of Sennacherib or the house of David? Are the Assyrians triumphant or the Hebrews? Do I listen to Psalm 2 and 110, or to this Assyrian propaganda?

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