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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 62, 2014

ISAAC KALIMI AND SETH RICHARDSON (eds), Sennacherib at the Gates of Jerusalem: Story, History and Historiography (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 71; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014). Pp. xii + 548. Hardback. ISBN 9789004265615. €181.00 RRP.

Sennacherib at the Gates of Jerusalem has three parts plus an Introduction. It is concerned with the story, history and historiography of Sennacherib’s attack on Judah and encampment at, but not capture of, the city of Jerusalem. Insights from Assyriologist, Archaeologists, and Egyptologists feature as does the way Sennacherib was presented in later tradition.

Part One, “I Will Defend This City to Save It,” has four chapters. First, Isaac Kalimi considers Sennacherib’s Campaign in Chronicles, highlighting the differences from the latter’s Biblical sources. In 2 Kings there are two views why Jerusalem survived: (1) because of Hezekiah’s payment of tribute (2 Kgs 18:13–16), and (2) because an angel smote the Assyrian army (2 Kgs 19:35). Only the second appears in the Isaianic account and it is the miraculous element that the Chronicler adopts, for in his account not only Jerusalem but Judah too is unharmed. This was due to the piety of Hezekiah whose reward was a longer life and material benefits; thus presenting a message to the Chronicler’s contemporaries. Sennacherib, by contrast, suffered the dissolution of his forces, soon followed by death. Second, Mordechai Cogan examines the Assyrian cuneiform documents relating to Sennacherib’s campaign with the aim of isolating the facts from the literary-ideological framework in which they are embedded. Later editions of the annals contain some additions to, and some shortening of, what appears on the Rassam cylinder, the earliest account, which itself has some gaps in the campaign and the ordering of events. Through deduction, Cogan discerns a widespread alliance against Assyria that included Hezekiah of Judah. Third, David Ussishkin investigates what archaeological excavations have indicated, particularly in relation to Lachish and Judah. Both were heavily fortified but Lachish was destroyed, as were settlements in the Shephelah. Ussishkin thinks this was intended to show the might of the Assyrian forces and cow Hezekiah into submission. Jerusalem, he opines, was never intended for destruction by Sennacherib. Fourth, Jeremy Pope considers the intervention by Egypt whose motivation has been much discussed. Pope, adopting Braudel’s assertion that individual events are better understood within the context of the Longue Duré, considers the Cushite dynasty’s long-term approach to foreign affairs. Trade, particularly in copper and cedar, was important and helped to legitimise the dynasty’s rule in Egypt, thus providing it with greater security. In addition, Cushite knowledge of the terrain north of Egypt was vague. Intervention in the southern Levant then was likely to have been motivated by the protection of trade and its borders rather than expansion.

The second part, “Weapon of Assur,” consists of three essays. The first by Echart Frahm seeks to assess what influenced Sennacherib’s personality and how that, in turn, affected the course of events. He looks at his family background, his childhood and youth, his time as Crown Prince, the traumatic death of his father, Sargon, and how it affected the beginning of his reign, whether his leaving Jerusalem intact was a decision influenced by a woman in his life, the Babylonian rebellion and the death of his son, whether he was a feminist, his ‘engineering’ interest and ‘engineering’ of political, social and religious structures and finally, his sons and killers. The second essay by F. Mario Fales discusses the road to Judah in the context of Sennacherib’s political and military strategy. He sees it as in line with Sargon’s foreign policy: any impulse towards independence in the Levant was squashed, subservience restored and immense tribute extracted. Fales’ view is that there was no need for Sennacherib to destroy Jerusalem because Hezekiah was sufficiently weakened and volunteered tribute. The third essay investigates the sources of Assyrian intelligence. It delineates the vocabulary used and the ways in which intelligence was gathered as well as the personnel involved. The main networks were soldiers in Assyrian outposts, regional governors and their administration and vassals who were bound by treaty to divulge what they heard. How these facets were developed and what was in place by the time of the campaign in Judah are also addressed. Sennacherib is shown to have been involved in intelligence gathering from the time when he was a crown prince.

Part Three, entitled “After Life,” concerns the way that Sennacherib was viewed in later literature. The five essays in this section are: “Memories of Sennacherib in Aramaic Tradition” by Tawny L. Holm demonstrates that the way in which Sennacherib was viewed depends on the origin of those telling the story; “Sennacherib’s Campaign and its Reception in the time of the Second Temple” by Gerbern Oegema shows that the historiographical approach to Sennacherib preceded the apocalyptic one; “Sennacherib in Midrashic and Related Literature: Inscribing History in Midrash” by Rivka Ulmer demonstrates there was a retelling of the biblical story but with the addition of details that conform to later tradition or wishful thinking; “The Devil in Person, the Devil in Disguise: Looking for King Sennacherib in Early Christian Literature” by Joseph Verheyden considers whether Luke 21 and the fall of Jerusalem depicted there have as background Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem as well as how Sennacherib is portrayed in patristic tradition; “The First ‘World Event’: Sennacherib at Jerusalem” by Seth Richardson asks what the appeal was about the story of Sennacherib at Jerusalem for it to be used as a basis for Volksgeschichte in many societies in late Antiquity (433). Richardson finds that the later stories were largely independent of one another but that they all had their birth in peripheral imperial environments and/or diasporic communities. A king was not the hero, rather a wise counsellor, and themes of magic, flight and hiding appear in historically inaccurate stories that enabled cultural forgetting. The Sennacherib story, says Richardson, was “an ur-event … (for) historical change in the world of men, effected by men—had for the first time become an open possibility” (505).

Sennacherib at the Gates of Jerusalem: Story, History and Historiography is a book that is to be highly recommended. The chapters provide many new insights, both actual and psychological, into what happened in 701 BCE and the events and motivations that lay behind the withdrawal of tribute, the Assyrian campaign and the sparing of Jerusalem. The ‘after life’ of the event and its re-shaping in later traditions and cultures is also significant and those chapters provide an insight into the eras and people that produced them. Minor errors are at a minimum, although there are some.

Review by
Monash University