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 worshipers as best they could. Victory and defeat therefore registered the power of rival deities as well as the strength of merely human armies. It followed that when the Assyrians began their imperial expansion, each new victory unsettled older religious loyalties and ideas among the peoples they conquered, creating a religious vacuum in the ancient Near East that was eventually filled by the unique response that occurred among the people of Judah.

That response began to take shape when King Hezekiah embraced the view of a party of religious reformers who set out to purify the worship of Jahweh by concentrating it in the Temple. Destroying “high places” in the countryside where other rituals prevailed was part of the program. So was respectful consultation with inspired prophets, among whom Isaiah, son of Amoz, was then the most prominent.

But King Hezekiah did not rely entirely on supernatural help. He also strengthened Jerusalem’s walls and expanded his borders modestly before joining the alliance against Sennacherib. And when the invading Assyrians defeated the Egyptians, he hurried to come to terms with the victors, and had to pay dearly for the privilege of remaining on his throne, handing over various precious materials, including three hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold, some (perhaps most) of which came from the Temple in Jerusalem. But he did retain his throne; and his heirs and successors maintained the little Kingdom of Judah for another century and more by paying tribute to Assyria and carefully refraining from rebellion. Nevertheless, balancing precariously between rival great powers based in Egypt and Mesopotamia did not last forever. Instead, the kingdom’s autonomy collapsed in 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, did what Sennacherib had threatened to do, capturing Jerusalem after a long siege and bringing the dynasty of David to an end, destroying the Temple, and carrying most of the surviving inhabitants off to an exile in Babylon.


As we all know, this was not the end of Jewish history, for the exiled people of Judah did not pine away. Instead they flourished by the waters of Babylon, and reorganized their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipated from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, the revised Jewish faith, tempered in exile, subsequently gave birth to Christianity and Islam, the two most powerful religions of our age, and of course also retains its own, distinctive following around the world and especially in the contemporary state of Israel.

None of this could have come to pass if the Kingdom of Judah had disappeared in 701 BCE as the Kingdom of Israel had done a mere twenty-one years earlier in 722 BCE. On that occasion, the exiles from Israel soon lost their separate identity. By accepting common-sense views about the limits of divine power, they abandoned the worship of Jahweh, who had failed to protect them, and became the “Ten Lost Tribes” of biblical history. In all probability the people of Judah would have met the same fate if the Assyrian army had attacked and captured Jerusalem in 701 BCE and treated its inhabitants as they had treated those of Samaria and other conquered places before. If so, Judaism would have disappeared from the face of the earth and the two daughter religions of Christianity and Islam could not possibly have come into existence. In short, our world would be profoundly different in ways we cannot really imagine.

But figuring out what actually happened before the walls of Jerusalem so long ago is quite impossible. Sennacherib’s boastful inscription carved onto the walls of his palace at Nineveh is a piece of imperial propaganda rather than sober history; and the three biblical narratives that tell the story of how the Assyrians failed to take the holy city were shaped by ideas about God’s miraculous intervention in public affairs that few historians accept today.

Nonetheless, the biblical stories, inaccurate or exaggerated though they may be, were what really mattered. In all subsequent generations, they shaped Jewish memories of what had happened before the walls of the city, and this memory made it plausible to believe that the God of Moses and of David was in fact omnipotent, protecting his worshipers from the mightiest monarch of the day. This episode, as interpreted by the pious party in Jerusalem, in short, was what made monotheism credible as never before—and emphatic, uncompromising monotheism was what fitted the Jewish religion to survive and flourish in the cosmopolitan age that the Assyrian conquests had inaugurated. After all, merely local gods were hard to believe in when every part of the ancient Near East came to depend on what distant rulers, alien armies, and other groups of strangers did, and failed to do. Only God’s universal power could explain public events satisfactorily. Consequently, Jewish monotheism prospered and was able to exercise an ever-widening influence, especially through its two daughter religions, down to our own time.

Religious ceremonies tied to a single, sacred place did not suffice in such a world. But abandoning local, ancestral religion and accepting the gods of alien, imperial rulers whose superior power had been demonstrated by success in war was a craven, unsatisfactory response. Uniquely, the inhabitants of the small, weak, and depend-ent Kingdom of Judah had the temerity to believe that their God, Jahweh, was the only true God, whose power extended over all the earth so that everything that happened was in accordance with his will. The circumstances of the Assyrian withdrawal from the walls of Jerusalem in 701 BCE confirmed this implausible belief, proving God’s universal power to pious and eager believers more clearly and far more convincingly than ever before. This makes it the most fateful might-have-been of all recorded history.

The biblical version of the campaign appears three times over, in II Kings 18-19; II Chronicles 32; and the Book of Isaiah 36-37. The three accounts agree in all the essentials and in some instances even employ the same words and phrases. Let me quote from Isaiah, according to the King James version:

Then Rabshakeh [commander of the Assyrian army sent against Jerusalem] stood and cried in a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria…. Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, the Lord will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad?… Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?

Hezekiah responded to this direct challenge to God’s power by praying:


O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, that dwelleth between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth…. Incline thine ear, O Lord,…and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent reproach to the living God…. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord, even thou only.

Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent unto Hezekiah, saying, Thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it…. For I will defend this city to save it for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.

Then the angel of the Lord went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand; and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib, king of Assyria, departed and went and returned and dwelt in Nineveh. And it came to pass…that his sons smote him with the sword…and Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.

Thus, according to the Bible, God saved his people and destroyed the impious Assyrians by spreading lethal pestilence among them. Such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah were right to rely on God’s power and protection. More than that: it proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth? Who indeed?

Yet doubters remained, as the biblical account of the reign of Hezekiah’s son and successor Manasseh (ruled circa 698-642 BCE) makes clear. King Manasseh continued to pay tribute to the Assyrians throughout his reign and thought it prudent to come to terms with alien gods as well, setting up “a carved image, the idol he had made, in the house of God,” and allowing other heathen forms of worship that, according to the Book of Chronicles, were “evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Moreover, for those of us who are disinclined to believe in miracles, the biblical account of how Hezekiah prepared for the Assyrian attack on Jerusalem contains some tantalizing hints that suggest entirely mundane factors that may have provoked an epidemic among the besieging Assyrians. It is also easy to imagine other pressing reasons why Sennacherib may have decided to refrain from besieging the strongly fortified city of Jerusalem, quite apart from epidemic losses his army may have suffered outside the walls. (Incidentally, the figure of 185,000 deaths from disease must be vastly exaggerated; no ancient army came close to such a size, much less one operating in the barren environs of Jerusalem.)

What really happened therefore remains entirely uncertain. But wondering about how the course of world history was affected by subsequent interpretation of the actual course of events remains enticing. For example: Did King Hezekiah save his throne by foreseeing that the Assyrian army would have difficulty finding enough water for a lengthy siege of Jerusalem? The Book of Chronicles tells us that

when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was come, and that he purposed to fight against Jerusalem, he took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were without the city; and they did help him. So there was gathered much people together who stopped all the fountains and the brook that ran through the midst of the land, saying, Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?

Some modern archaeologists believe that Hezekiah ordered the construction of a six-hundred-foot tunnel that still carries water from the spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam, just outside Jerusalem’s ancient walls. Such a difficult project must have taken a long time and can scarcely be equated with the emergency effort to deny the Assyrians adequate access to water described in the Book of Chronicles. But the tunnel may well have been part of a general effort to improve the city’s defenses undertaken before or after the confrontation of 701.

In any case, one may wonder whether Hezekiah’s effort to “stop the fountains” around Jerusalem compelled Assyrian soldiers to drink contaminated water and thus expose themselves to widespread lethal infections. If so, the fact that Hezekiah and his princes and mighty men foresaw how difficult it would be to find enough drinking water in Jerusalem’s dry and thirsty environs may have had more to do with the Assyrian retreat than the miracle recorded in the Bible.

Until the reign of King Josiah (ruled 634-609 BCE), the pious interpretation of how God had saved Jerusalem and miraculously compelled Sennacherib to withdraw competed with the common-sense view, illustrated by King Manasseh’s policy of introducing heathen worship into Jerusalem as a way of supplementing Jahweh’s limited jurisdiction by appealing to other, more powerful gods as well.

For centuries, Hebrew prophets had denounced such policies, declaring that Jahweh was a jealous God who demanded exclusive devotion and obedience to his will, as revealed through their inspired utterances. As literacy spread, the words of God, delivered through his prophets, and instructing the faithful what to do in public and private matters, were (at least sometimes) written down. Hence, beginning about 750 BCE, the biblical books of prophecy began to accumulate. Priests of Solomon’s Temple, likewise, defended the exclusive power of the God they worshiped, and priestly editors and compilers were presumably responsible for collecting and preserving the sacred texts from which the rest of the Jewish scripture was eventually compiled. Priests and prophets did not always agree, but both championed the exclusive worship of Jahweh and rejected the common-sense religious view that recognized multiple, local gods who struggled against one another just as humans did.

Decisive triumph for the champions of Jahweh came early in King Josiah’s reign, when the Assyrian empire began to collapse, and the pious party persuaded Josiah, while still a boy, to repudiate all the alien cults his father Manasseh had admitted to Jerusalem. Then, while refurbishing the Temple, the high priest “found a book of the law of the Lord, given to Moses.” This, the Book of Deuteronomy, became the basis for a strenuous effort to reform religious practices and bring them into conformity to God’s will as newly recovered.

Thirty-six years later, when the principal successor to the Assyrian empire, King Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, razed the Temple, and carried the Jews away to his capital at Babylon, the pious party of Jahweh had to figure out why God had allowed such a disaster to take place. But by then the idea that God did in fact govern all the world was so firmly established that abandoning Jahweh, as the Israelites had done after 722 BCE, was inconceivable. Instead, long-standing prophetic denunciations of the sins of the Jewish people made it obvious that the Babylonian exile was God’s punishment for the failure of Judah’s rulers and people to observe his commandments to the full. For no matter how strenuous their effort at religious reform had been, even the most pious still fell short of obeying all of God’s prescriptions. Further effort to amend their ways, to discover God’s will by careful study of the sacred scripture, was the only appropriate response. Accordingly, when weekly meetings for reading and meditating upon the meaning of the sacred scriptures became customary among the exiles, Judaism assumed its enduring form. The Jewish religion ceased to be local and became an effective guide to everyday life in cosmopolitan, urban settings, fit to survive and flourish across succeeding centuries into the indefinite future.

It may seem paradoxical to argue that the vindication of Isaiah’s prophecy and of Hezekiah’s religious policy by Sennacherib’s withdrawal was critical for the emergence of unambiguous monotheism in the little Kingdom of Judah, whereas Nebuchadnezzar’s success in carrying through what Sennacherib had merely threatened, instead of discrediting that faith, had the effect of confirming Jewish monotheism, and permitted the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam to arise in later centuries. But so it was, or so it seems to me, although most historians are so much shaped by the world’s subsequent religious history as to be unable or unwilling to recognize how fateful the Assyrian withdrawal in 701 BCE turned out to be.

But, at least for me, pondering how a small company of prophets and priests in Jerusalem interpreted what happened outside the city walls in 701 BCE, and reflecting on how their views came to prevail so widely in later times, is a sobering exercise of historical imagination. So much depended on so few, believing so wholly in their one true God, and in such bold defiance of common sense.

This Issue

September 23, 1999