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Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #10 Assyrian Lachish Reliefs

Setting the Stage

In 930 BC the unified country of Israel split into two kingdoms.  The northern kingdom is known as Israel.  The southern kingdom is known as Judah.  200 years later, in 720 BC, Israel is destroyed by Assyria (modern day Iraq).

With Israel destroyed Assyria turns its gaze toward destroying Judah.  2 Kings 18:13 says, “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.”

2 Kings 18:17 states, “The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”  The prize of Judah would be the destruction of Jerusalem.  Conquering Boston would be a victory but defeating Washington, D.C. would be even greater.  Sennacherib drives one of the most powerful armies of all human history toward Jerusalem.  The Assyrian commander tells the people of Jerusalem, “Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria?”

Hezekiah prays fervently for deliverance.  He sends a delegation to Isaiah the prophet for counsel.  Isaiah tells him not to worry Jerusalem will NOT be destroyed by the leading world power, God will intervene.  This is just one of the myriad stories found in the Bible.  Is this story accurate?  How can a story from nearly 3,000 years ago be trusted as completely true?  Does archaeology support or deny the accuracy of 2 Kings 18 and 19?

The Discovery

We know from Assyrian history, outside the Bible, there was a king named Sennacherib.  His reign was from 704-681 BC.  We know Sennacherib moved the capital of the Assyrian empire from a city named Dur Sharrukin to Nineveh.  He then built an amazing palace.  He actually named his palace, “The Palace without Rival.”  John Malcolm Russell explains, “The walls of some seventy rooms in this structure were lined with limestone slabs carved in low relief with scenes commemorating Sennacherib’s royal exploits.”  For nearly 2,500 years the palace lay buried and forgotten.

In 1847 Sennacherib’s palace was discovered by the British diplomat and amateur archaeologist Austin Henry Layard.  Layard’s discovery drew a huge amount of attention.  Inscriptions discovered within the palace removed any doubt this was indeed Sennacherib’s famous palace.   The finds were magnificent.  The main focus of the excitement came from a room archaeologists labeled, “Room XXVI.”

Layard found the walls of this room covered with limestone 8 feet tall and 80 feet long wrapping around all four walls.  Every inch of the room’s walls powerfully depicted only one scene in history, Sennacherib’s defeat of the southern kingdom city of Lachish.  Remember in 2 Kings 18:17, “The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”

The piece of art identifies itself as the battle of Lachish and provides detailed chronological information about the battle.  Some women are seen walking down siege ramps; while possibly their husbands are being impaled by the Assyrians.  We see what the women of Lachish were wearing the day of the battle; we see the type of facial hair worn by the men.  We see the type of military equipment and military techniques the Assyrians used to defeat Lachish and threaten Jerusalem.  The relief gives us stunning play-by-play detail of the destruction of Lachish.

Do you see all the little dome-shaped objects in the background?  What are they?  Each one represents a soldier’s helmet.  They are depicting in art a vast sea of soldier’s helmets, representing the immensity of the Assyrian army.

Provenance

The Provenance, or history, of the Lachish Relief is without dispute.  The relief did not appear mysteriously on the black market.  The dig of Sennacherib’s palace was well-documented and the relief clearly discovered from within the city of Nineveh and specifically in Room XXVI of Sennacherib’s palace.   Even though Austin Henry Layard was an amateur archaeologist at the time of the discovery, the discovery has a strong provenance.  Furthermore, leading archaeologists have been able to examine the relief and confirm its authenticity and importance.

Significance

Why would Sennacherib cover a room in his palace with scenes from this one battle?  That’s where it gets really interesting.  Archaeologists have been able to determine this room was a waiting room for people getting ready to see Sennacherib.  Many of the people getting ready to see the emperor were kings or dignitaries in their own land.  These powerful people, as they waited to meet with Sennacherib, would be able to see the power of the king and the fate of those who would resist his rule.

The discovery is significant on many levels, here are but a few:

  1. The discovery confirms Israel as a powerful/important nation in the 8th century BC.  If you want to show yourself as powerful to other kings/dignitaries you will mention someone powerful whom you defeated.  No one is impressed if you steal candy from a baby.  Yet if you steel candy from an Ultimate Fighting Champion, you have my attention.  Many critics argue the nation of Israel was not great during the time of the kings (David, Solomon, etc…).  Critics will say Israel was a sparsely populated country full of poor farmers.  The Assyrian relief, in support of the Bible, proves Israel was a powerful country during the period of the kings.
  2. Sennacherib uses 8 feet-by-80 feet of wall space to brag about destroying Lachish.  Why didn’t he instead use that prime real estate to brag about destroying Jerusalem?  Jerusalem would have been the ultimate prize to brag about, Lachish is generally regarded as the second most important city of Judah behind Jerusalem.  Destroying Jerusalem would have meant destroying the temple of the God of Israel.  A message would be sent throughout the world telling people the god of Assyria is greater than the God of Israel.  Since the relief depicts Lachish instead of Jerusalem it is obvious Sennacherib did not destroy Jerusalem.  The biblical account is accurate; Lachish was destroyed not Jerusalem.  In additional support to my first point, Sennacherib is boasting to other kings about destroying the second most influential city in Judah.
  3. The destruction of Lachish is the most widely documented event from the Old Testament.  The story is explained in four independent sources from the same era: 1) In the Bible; 2) In Assyrian cuneiform prisms (another discovery shown in picture at left) accounting the same events, 3) In archaeological excavations at the site of Lachish; and 4) In the monumental reliefs discovered in Nineveh.
  4. The discovery supports the construction of another archaeological marvel: Hezekiah’s Tunnel.  Sennacherib’s army thought they had cut off all sources of water to Jerusalem.  It would be a matter of a couple weeks until the people fled Jerusalem in need of water.  The joke was on them.  Hezekiah, without modern tools, had constructed a tunnel inside Jerusalem through 1750 feet of solid rock in order to reach an underground water supply.  The tunnel wasn’t discovered in modern times until 1837.  I have had the amazing privilege, with water up to my knees, of walking through all 1750 feet of the tunnel constructed to survive Sennacherib’s siege.

The Assyrian Lachish Relief is the 8th century BC’s equivalent of finding an HD video taken during a war that occurred during the Old Testament.  The HD video completely supports the biblical account making this one of the ten most significant biblical discoveries in archaeology of all time.

As we continue down our Top Ten list the significance of our discoveries only grow.  What do you think of the Assyrian Lachish reliefs?  Feel free to join the conversation by commenting on this discovery.

17 Responses to “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #10 Assyrian Lachish Reliefs”

  1. C. M ichael Patton July 4, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    That is awesome. What a trip it would have been to Wade through those tunnels.

    Way to go in explaining the significance of this find. Thanks for the time you put into this.

  2. I would love to see Room XXVI! Such a find simply gives me goose bumps.

  3. In relation to the siege of Jerusalem,

    Sennacherib’s Prism, which details the events of Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah, boasts how Sennacherib destroyed forty-six of Judah’s cities, trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a caged bird.” The text goes on to describe how the “terrifying splendor” of the Assyrian army caused the Arabs and mercenaries reinforcing the city to desert. The prism goes on to state that Jerusalem surrendered and Hezekiah gave the Assyrian king large quantities of money as tribute, resulting in the Assyrians victoriously returning home.

  4. I honesty have had some of my most profound “God moments” when I hear stories of discoveries like this. It’s not like I need the Bible *plus somethings else; it’s just that I have such an excitement for history that these kinds of things can make me feel directly connected to God and his plan throughout history. Kudos!

  5. It’s noteworthy that the biblical account, which states that Sennacherib did not destroy the city of Jerusalem, is attested by Assyrian Prism accounts.

    In the “Taylor Prism,” Sennacherib boasts:

    “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-) ramps, and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls) (combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered (them) booty. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.”

    Source: James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press.

    Sennacherib spins it well, saying he made Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” but he’s unable to say he defeated Jerusalem.

  6. Perhaps Hezekiah pulled a French maneuver and gave in to protect the capital. 2 Kings 18:14-16 indicates that the king paid a tribute of 300 talents of gold and silver. The Assyrian version of events stops there. So the invasion of Judah and siege of Lachish are well attested but we are left with a single source for a Jewish victory at Jerusalem.

    So we do not have HD video that “completely supports the biblical account.” Just most of the Biblical account.

    Do we have more evidence for the breaking of the siege other than 2 Kings vs the cuneiform prisms?

  7. The more complete Assyrian version of events [emphasis added]:

    ” .. and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape… Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures, a rich and immense booty… All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government.”

    Thus saith the Holy Wiki!

  8. Scott F,

    Yes, Greek historian (I think) Herodotus writes of an account of the siege of Jerusalem where something like a plague of rats devours the Assyrians’ bows andleather, devasting the army, or something like that. Very bizarre, but is comparable to the Bible’s record.

  9. Hey Casey.

    Unfortunately YHWH doesn’t get the credit for this one. The story is actually associated with the Assyrian invasion of Egypt:

    “Next morning they commenced their fight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themselves. There stands to this day in the temple of Vulcan, a stone statue of Sethos, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect – ‘Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods.':

  10. So it is in reference to Egypt. I guess some still connect these stories given the parallels involved, but I agree you can’t say with any confidence they referene the same event.

  11. Amazing. How did King Hezekiah dig a tunnel that long through a rock without any modern sophisticated tools???

  12. As part of a 1 day retreat I am spending the day at the British museum so will get to see this. Thanks for the post, will be helpful.

  13. I love reading about the archaeological discoveries, but responses by naysayers always come, with purported facts against. This always reminds me that ultimately, it is faith that is our guide, not “facts.” If you have faith in God and Bibilical accounts, then facts supporting the Bible ring true; if you have faith that God does not exist or that Biblical accounts are myth, then the “facts” against ring true. It always comes down to faith.

  14. Well done, Sir! Please do numbers 11 – 20 now.

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