The Greatest Might-Have-Been of All

What if Sennacherib, King of Assyria, had conquered Jerusalem in 701 BCE when he led his imperial army against a coalition of Egyptian, Phoenician, Philistine, and Jewish enemies, and handily defeated them all? This, it seems to me, is the greatest might-have-been of all military history. This may be an odd thing to say about an engagement that never took place; yet Jerusalem’s preservation from attack by Sennacherib’s army shaped the subsequent history of the world far more profoundly than any other military action I know of.

From Sennacherib’s point of view, the decision not to press the siege of Jerusalem to a conclusion did not matter very much. The Kingdom of Judah was only a marginal player in the Near Eastern balance of power, being poorer and weaker than his other foes. And the King of Judah had been well and truly punished for having dared to revolt against the Assyrians. For as Sennacherib declared in an inscription on the walls of his palace at Nineveh that recorded the victories of the entire campaign, his army had occupied no fewer than forty-six walled places in the Kingdom of Judah and compelled Hezekiah, King of Judah, to shut himself up in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.”

But unlike other rebellious rulers in the area, Hezekiah did retain his throne, and the worship of Jahweh in the Temple of Solomon continued uninterrupted. Sennacherib’s victory over the Kingdom of Judah was therefore incomplete, a fact whose consequences were far greater than he or anyone else at the time could possibly imagine.

Let me explain. Hezekiah began his reign in a time of acute uncertainty. Shortly before, or perhaps shortly after, he ascended the throne and became Jerusalem’s thirteenth ruler of the house of David, the neighboring Kingdom of Israel, comprising the larger and richer part of David’s kingdom, met irretrievable disaster when an Assyrian army, commanded by Sargon II, captured the capital, Samaria, and carried off thousands of survivors to distant Mesopotamia. Strangers came at Assyrian command to cultivate the emptied fields; but they left the city of Samaria a shattered ruin.

Did this mean that the God of Moses and of David, the self-same God still worshiped in the Temple that Solomon had built for him in Jerusalem, was no longer able to defend his people? Or had God punished the Israelites and their rulers for disobedience to his will as made known in sacred scriptures, continually refreshed and brought up to date by the inspired words of his prophets?

The question was urgent, and all the more portentous because, if one took the second view, the God of Moses and of David had used the mightiest ruler of the age as an instrument for punishing his people, even though the Assyrians worshiped other gods and did not even pretend to honor God’s commandments. This ran counter to common sense, which held that the gods worshiped by each different people protected their …

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