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The Bible’s description of how Esarhaddon became Assyria’s king, confirmed by archaeology

Image of Esarhaddon from his Victory Stele
Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP/Wikipedia/Creative Commons 4.0

Though secularists like to discount the Bible by portraying it as a collection of myths, even its smallest, seemingly insignificant details are proving to be historically accurate.

In a few passages, the Bible refers to Esarhaddon, an Assyrian King who ruled between 681-669 BC. The son of Sennacherib, he is considered one of the greatest kings of the Assyrian empire.

In 2 Kings, we are told that Esarhaddon came to the throne after his older brothers assassinated their father:

37 One day, while he [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son succeeded him as king. (2 Kings 19:37 NIV)

The lead-up to this started when Hezekiah became king of Judah and refused to continue paying tribute to the Assyrian empire. As a result, King Sennacherib invaded Judah to bring them back into line.

What followed is confirmed several times in the archaeological record.

The invasion involved the sacking of several smaller cities in Judah, including Lachish (2 Kings 18:13). Initially, Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib to stop him from attacking Jerusalem, but that failed and as the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem, Hezekiah began to call upon the Lord (2 Kings 19:1-2).

Isaiah had a prophetic word for Hezekiah stating that Sennacherib would not enter Jerusalem and, in fact, the Assyrian King wouldn’t even set up siege ramps against the city. God would cause Sennacherib to return to Assyria, where he would be killed by the sword (2 Kings 19:6-7).

And, before Sennacherib could launch his attack, the angel of the Lord struck the Assyrian army with a plague killing 185,000, forcing Sennacherib to retreat back to Assyria (2 Kings 19:35-36).

Though there was no mention of a plague wiping out the Assyrian army in Assyria’s archaeological records, this is not surprising, because the Assyrians looked upon sickness as a judgment from their gods.

This even resulted in Assyrian kings hiding personal sicknesses from their citizens, because it meant the gods no longer favoured them.

If they were doing this, it is not surprising they would not include a record of sickness wiping out their army in the official records.

But Sennacherib’s failure to destroy Jerusalem is indirectly referred to a couple of times.

Sennacherib’s prism describing his invasion of Judah

First, we have a small clay prism documenting Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, where we are told:

Assyrian prism describing King Sennacherib’s defeat of Judah. Credit: Daderot/Wikipedia/Public Domain

As for Hezekiah, the Jew, who did not submit my yoke, 46 of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small cities in the neighborhood, which were without number, by leveling with battering rams and by bringing up siege engines, by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels and breaches, I besieged and took (those cities). 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. Himself, like a bird in a cage I shut up in Jerusalem his royal city.

Not only does Sennacherib mention Hezekiah’s name, confirming his existence, but he describes destroying several of Judah’s cities.

But the Assyrian King only gloats about having trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage.

This was certainly true, confirmed by Hezekiah’s desperate prayer, but oddly the prism does not mention the sacking of Jerusalem.

The Lachish relief

Then in a massive relief constructed of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, we see a depiction of the siege of Lachish.

This is rather embarrassing since Lachish was a minor Judean city and the real prize was Jerusalem. If Sennacherib was bragging about Lachish, obviously he had failed to sack Jerusalem.

In this relief found in Niniveh, King Sennacherib orders the descruction of Lachish. The relief reads: “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish (Lakhisha). I give permission for its slaughter” Credit: oncenawhile/Wikipdeia/Creative Commons 3.0

The story behind Sennacherib’s death

And finally, there is the story behind Sennacherib’s death that the Bible says took place when he was assassinated by two sons, and Esarhaddon became king.

And this is historically accurate as well.

Assyrian archaeological records, including Esarhaddon’s annals, stated that Sennacherib had initially appointed his oldest living son, Arda-Mulissu, as crown prince and the designated heir to the throne.

However, for some unknown reason, Arda-Mulissu fell out of favor, and Sennacherib appointed Esarhaddon, his youngest son, as the crown prince instead.

Esarhaddon described the anger of his older brothers when he was designated the next king:

Of my older brothers, the younger brother was I. But by decree of [the gods] Ashur and Shamash, Bel and Nabu, my father exalted me, amid a gathering of my brothers he asked Shamash, “is this my heir?” and the gods answered, “he is your second self”.

And then my brothers went mad. They drew their swords, godlessly, in the middle of Nineveh. But Ashur, Shamash, Bel, Nabu, Ishtar, all the gods looked with wrath on the deeds of these scoundrels, brought their strength to weakness and humbled them beneath me.[10]

Realizing that Esarhaddon was probably in danger of being killed by his brothers, Sennacherib sent his youngest son to the western part of his empire.

With Esarhaddon gone, Arda-Muissu and another brother, Nabu-shar-usur, turned their anger on their father and assassinated him while he was worshipping in a temple, exactly how the Bible described it.

When Esarhaddon heard what happened, as the heir apparent he was able to muster an army, forcing the two brothers to flee. For the next six weeks, Esarhaddon was embroiled in a civil war, which he eventually won.

In her paper, The Trials of Esarhaddon: The conspiracy of 670 BC, Karen Radner writes that despite his success, Esarhaddon suffered from depression, paranoia, and a rash that covered his whole body including his face.

Since the Assyrians believed sickness indicated the gods no longer supported you, the royal officials hid his declining health by forcing the people to bow to the floor and wear veils when they approached the king.

So, that leaves the last missing archaeological detail, what caused Sennacherib to withdraw, before sacking Jerusalem?

READ: The Bible’s Accuracy Vindicated … Again AND Esarhaddon: Wikipedia AND Why Did Sennacherib Create Two Accounts of His Siege of Lachish?

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