Why Did the Assyrians Fail to Conquer Jerusalem?

Alan Potter

Ancient and Classical Middle East
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The Assyrian Threat to Palestine

David conquered Jerusalem in the late-11th century BCE to became the first Jewish monarch to rule the kingdom of Judah. A direct descendant of David called Hezekiah became the Judean king in 715 BCE, and the very survival of Jerusalem depended upon how he coped with the overwhelming external threat to the city.

During the 8th century BCE, the era of far flung international empires began as Assyria expanded in all directions, including south-westwards to the Mediterranean coastline. Gaza became an Assyrian port and denoted the newly agreed Egyptian/Assyrian boundary.

Damascus was overrun in 732 BCE and ten years later the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel ceased to exist, as much of Syria and Palestine became Assyrian provinces. Judah maintained its national identity, but was effectively one of a number of regional satellite states paying tribute to Assyria.

As Judah’s prince regent and then king, Hezekiah had witnessed Assyrian campaigns to suppress rebellions in Syria and Palestine during 720, 716 and 713-711 BCE. The last of these culminated in the appointment of Assyrian governors to various Philistine cities with their inhabitants being declared Assyrian citizens. Judah was now almost completely encircled by Assyrian forces of one kind or another.

Hezekiah’s Preparation for War

King Hezekiah, depicted in a 17th century painting. Image Credit: Public Domain.

Many of the seemingly innocent administrative changes and natural reforms instigated by Hezekiah point towards careful preparations for eventual war against Assyria.

Hezekiah had witnessed sufficient spontaneous neighbouring uprisings fail at great cost to the insurgents. He knew that he had to lay careful groundwork to ensure that he had any chance of success against the might of Assyria and would certainly have wished to avoid the fate of the ruler of Hamath, who had been flayed alive as a warning to others contemplating rebellion.

A new tax system ensured food reserves and supplies with the merchandise stored in jars and sent to one of four of Judah’s district centres for storage and redistribution. On the military front, Hezekiah made sure that weapons were in good supply and that the army had a proper chain of command. Numerous towns and cities in the surrounding countryside were fortified and Jerusalem’s defences were strengthened with the introduction of elite special forces.

Jerusalem’s only enduring water supply was the Gihon Spring, situated at the foot of the eastern slope of the city. Hezekiah’s strategy for dealing with the commodity that neither aggressors nor defenders could survive without was to divert the water from the Gihon Spring.

His artisans carved an “S” shaped tunnel through one third of a mile of bedrock from the Gihon Spring to a huge ancient rock-cut pool known as the Pool of Siloam, on the southern slopes of Jerusalem’s old City of David. Hezekiah strengthened the eastern wall of Jerusalem utilizing stones from nearby houses and he built an additional wall to enclose and protect the Pool of Siloam.

Remnants of the wall built by Hezekiah prior to the Siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Image Credit: Public Domain

Refugees, seeking safety from the various conflicts with the Assyrians had been flooding into Jerusalem for many years. Although there was some settlement to the north, steep valleys precluded any major developments to the east and the south of Jerusalem. There was, however, substantial migration to the west, and new suburbs emerged on Jerusalem’s sparsely populated Western Hill.

Hezekiah encompassed the Western Hill within new city walls that extended westwards from the Temple Mount, which housed Solomon’s Great Temple. To the south Hezekiah’s new defensive wall enclosed Mount Zion, before eventually inclining eastwards to the City of David. Jerusalem’s defences were now complete.

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In c.703 BCE, Hezekiah had met with a delegation from Babylon, prior to an anti-Assyrian insurrection by the Babylonians. Perhaps co-incidental, but whilst the Assyrians were preoccupied with hostile uprisings in its northern territories, Hezekiah began his rebellion, supported by other Syrian and Palestinian leaders and with the promise of Egyptian assistance.

The Assyrians put down the Babylonian insurgency and in 701 BCE moved to reassert their authority in Palestine. The Assyrian army travelled along the Mediterranean coast, receiving tribute from the kings who knew better than to resist, and vanquishing those that did not readily acquiesce.

The cities of Sidon and Ashkelon were amongst those forced to capitulate and have their kings replaced by new vassal monarchs. Egyptian bowmen and chariots, supported by Ethiopian cavalry, arrived to engage the Assyrians, but failed to have any meaningful impact.

“Jerusalem Delivered from Sennacherib”, woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860. Image Credit: Public Domain.

The Assyrian War Machine enters Judah

The Assyrians entered Judah and laid waste to several cities and walled forts and countless villages before sending envoys to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem. Hezekiah responded by making a futile attempt to buy off the Assyrians with the treasure held in the Temple and his palace. The Assyrian records relate how they besieged Jerusalem making Hezekiah a prisoner like a bird in a cage.

Despite the cajoling of the Assyrians, Hezekiah, with moral support from the prophet Isaiah, refused to surrender, although he offered to accept any terms imposed by the Assyrians if they withdrew, which indeed they did.

Huge numbers of Judah’s population were deported or at least displaced and the Assyrians imposed excessive tribute liabilities upon Hezekiah. Additionally, a more even local balance of power was brought about by a redistribution of much of Judah’s territory to neighbouring city-states.

The Old Testament attributes Jerusalem’s salvation to divine intervention and whilst it is possible that a plague infected the Assyrian army and acted as a catalyst for their departure, this is probably no more than a retelling of a folk story by the compilers of the Old Testament.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible & Ancient Religion at Exeter University. Her research is primarily focused on ancient Israelite and Judahite religions, and portrayals of the religious past in the Hebrew Bible. She is interested in biblical traditions and religious practices most at odds with Western cultural preferences.Listen Now

Egypt would always be a greater threat to Assyria than the Palestinian kingdoms and therefore it served Assyrian interests to have buffer territories in place and Assyrian security was enhanced by allowing a subservient Judean state to continue to exist.

Furthermore, although the Assyrians possessed the manpower and the weaponry to conquer Jerusalem, to do so would be a lengthy process and entail prohibitive expenditure in terms of fatalities, injuries and loss of equipment. With their objectives achieved, it was therefore entirely logical for the Assyrians to depart, leaving a seriously ill Hezekiah to recover and continue as king of Judah for a further fifteen years.

The History of Jerusalem: It’s Origins to the Middle Ages by Alan J. Potter is now available for preorder at Pen and Sword Books.

Alan Potter