(Sen·nachʹer·ib) [from Akkadian, meaning “Sin [the moon-god] Has Restored the Brothers to Me”].
Son of Sargon II; king of Assyria. He inherited from his father an empire of great strength but was obliged to spend most of his reign subduing revolts, particularly as regards the city of Babylon.
Sennacherib appears to have been serving as a governor or general in the northern region of Assyria during his father’s reign. After his succession to the throne, this region evidently caused him little trouble, his difficulties coming chiefly from the S and the W. The Chaldean Merodach-baladan (Isa 39:1) abandoned his refuge in Elam, into which Sennacherib’s father Sargon had driven him, and now proclaimed himself king of Babylon. Sennacherib marched against him and his Elamite allies, defeating them at Kish. Merodach-baladan, however, escaped, going into hiding for another three years. Sennacherib entered Babylon and set Bel-ibni on the throne as viceroy. Other punitive expeditions were thereafter effected to keep in check the peoples in the hill countries surrounding Assyria.
Then, in what Sennacherib refers to as his “third campaign,” he moved against “Hatti,” a term evidently referring at that time to Phoenicia and Palestine. (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, p. 287) This area was in a state of general rebellion against the Assyrian yoke. Among those who had rejected such domination was King Hezekiah of Judah (2Ki 18:7), though there is no evidence to show that he was in coalition with the other kingdoms in revolt.
In Hezekiah’s 14th year (732 B.C.E.) Sennacherib’s forces swept westward, capturing Sidon, Achzib, Acco, and other cities on the Phoenician coast, and then they headed south. Frightened kingdoms, including those of Moab, Edom, and Ashdod, are listed as now sending out tribute to express submission. Recalcitrant Ashkelon was taken by force along with the nearby towns of Joppa and Beth-dagon. An Assyrian inscription accuses the people and nobles of the Philistine city of Ekron of having handed their king Padi over to Hezekiah, who, according to Sennacherib, “held him in prison, unlawfully.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 287; compare 2Ki 18:8.) The inhabitants of Ekron are described as having petitioned Egypt and Ethiopia for help to stave off or thwart the Assyrian attack.
The Bible record indicates that at about this point Sennacherib attacked Judah, laying siege to and capturing many of its fortified cities and towns. Hezekiah now sent word to the Assyrian at Lachish offering to pay the sum of tribute Sennacherib might impose. (2Ki 18:13, 14) Sennacherib’s capture of Lachish is presented in a frieze showing him seated on a throne before the vanquished city, accepting the spoils of that city brought to him while some of the captives are being tortured.
The Bible account does not indicate whether King Padi, if in reality a captive of Hezekiah, was now released, but it does show that Hezekiah paid the tribute demanded by Sennacherib of 300 silver talents (c. $1,982,000) and 30 gold talents (c. $11,560,000). (2Ki 18:14-16) Now, however, Sennacherib sent a committee of three officers to call upon the king and people of Jerusalem to make a capitulation to him and, eventually, submit to being sent off into exile. The Assyrian message was particularly disdainful of Hezekiah’s reliance on Jehovah. Through his spokesman, Sennacherib boasted that Jehovah would prove to be as impotent as were the gods of the lands that had already fallen before the Assyrian might.—2Ki 18:17-35.
The Assyrian committee returned to Sennacherib, who was now fighting against Libnah, as it was being heard “respecting Tirhakah the king of Ethiopia: ‘Here he has come out to fight against you.’” (2Ki 19:8, 9) Sennacherib’s inscriptions speak of a battle at Eltekeh (c. 15 km [9.5 mi] NNW of Ekron) in which he claims to have defeated an Egyptian army and the forces of “the king of Ethiopia.” He then describes his conquest of Ekron and his restoration of the freed Padi to the throne there.—Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 287, 288.
Jehovah Defeats Sennacherib’s Army. As for Jerusalem, though Sennacherib sent threatening letters warning Hezekiah that he had not desisted from his determination to take the Judean capital (Isa 37:9-20), the record shows that the Assyrians did not so much as “shoot an arrow there, . . . nor cast up a siege rampart against it.” Jehovah, whom Sennacherib had taunted, sent out an angel who, in one night, struck down “a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians,” sending Sennacherib back “with shame of face to his own land.”—Isa 37:33-37; 2Ch 32:21.
Sennacherib’s inscriptions make no mention of the disaster suffered by his forces. But, as Professor Jack Finegan comments: “In view of the general note of boasting which pervades the inscriptions of the Assyrian kings, . . . it is hardly to be expected that Sennacherib would record such a defeat.” (Light From the Ancient Past, 1959, p. 213) Yet, it is of interest to note Sennacherib’s version, as found on what is known as the Sennacherib Prism, one preserved in the British Museum (Taylor Prism) and one in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. In part he says: “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, breaches 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 [Hezekiah] I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. . . . His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them (over) to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza. . . . Hezekiah himself . . . did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches (inlaid) with ivory, nimedu -chairs (inlaid) with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, boxwood (and) all kinds of valuable treasures, his (own) daughters, concubines, male and female musicians. In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his (personal) messenger.”—Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 288.
This boastful version inflates the number of silver talents sent from 300 to 800, and doubtless it does so with other details of the tribute paid; but in other regards it remarkably confirms the Bible record and shows that Sennacherib made no claim that he captured Jerusalem. It should be noted, however, that Sennacherib presents the matter of Hezekiah’s paying tribute as having come after the Assyrian’s threat of a siege against Jerusalem, whereas the Bible account shows it was paid before. As to the likely reason for this inversion of matters, note the observation made in Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Bible Dictionary (1936, p. 829): “The close of this campaign of S[ennacherib] is veiled in obscurity. What he did after the capture of Ekron . . . is still a mystery. In his annals, S[ennacherib] locates at this point his punishment of Hezekiah, his raiding of the country of Judah, and his disposition of the territory and cities of Judah. This order of events looks like a screen to cover up something which he does not wish to mention.” The Bible record shows that Sennacherib hurried back to Nineveh after the divinely wrought disaster to his troops, and so Sennacherib’s inverted account conveniently has Hezekiah’s tribute being paid to him through a special messenger at Nineveh. It is certainly significant that ancient inscriptions and records show no further campaign by Sennacherib to Palestine, although historians claim that his reign continued for another 20 years.
The Jewish historian of the first century C.E., Josephus, claims to quote the Babylonian Berossus (considered to be of the third century B.C.E.) as recording the event thus: “When Senacheirimos returned to Jerusalem from his war with Egypt, he found there the force under Rapsakes in danger from a plague, for God had visited a pestilential sickness upon his army, and on the first night of the siege one hundred and eighty-five thousand men had perished with their commanders and officers.” (Jewish Antiquities, X, 21 [i, 5]) Some commentators attempt to explain the disaster by referring to an account written by Herodotus (II, 141) in the fifth century B.C.E. in which he claims that “one night a multitude of fieldmice swarmed over the Assyrian camp and devoured their quivers and their bows and the handles of their shields,” thus leaving them unable to carry out an invasion of Egypt. This account obviously does not coincide with the Biblical record, nor does Herodotus’ description of the Assyrian campaign harmonize with the Assyrian inscriptions. Nevertheless, the accounts by Berossus and Herodotus do reflect the fact that Sennacherib’s forces met up with sudden and calamitous difficulty in this campaign.
Sennacherib’s troubles had not ended, however, and following his return to Assyria he had to quell another revolt in Babylon, provoked by Merodach-baladan. This time Sennacherib placed his own son, Ashurnadinshumi, as king in Babylon. Six years later Sennacherib embarked on a campaign against the Elamites, but they soon retaliated by invading Mesopotamia. They captured Ashurnadinshumi and placed their own king on the throne of Babylon. Several years of struggle for control of the region followed, until finally the enraged Sennacherib took vengeance on Babylon by leveling it to the ground, an unparalleled act in view of Babylon’s position as the “Holy City” of all Mesopotamia. The remaining years of Sennacherib’s reign were apparently without major incident.
Sennacherib’s death is considered to have come some 20 years after his campaign against Jerusalem. This figure is dependent on Assyrian and Babylonian records, their reliability being subject to question. At any rate, it should be noted that the Bible account does not state that Sennacherib’s death occurred immediately upon his return to Nineveh. “Later on he entered the house of his god” Nisroch, and his sons, Adrammelech and Sharezer, “struck him down with the sword,” escaping to the land of Ararat. (2Ch 32:21; Isa 37:37, 38) An inscription of his son and successor, Esar-haddon, confirms this.—Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, by D. Luckenbill, 1927, Vol. II, pp. 200, 201; see ESAR-HADDON.
Building Works. The Assyrian Empire thus saw no particular expansion under Sennacherib. He did, however, carry out an ambitious building project in Nineveh, which he had restored to its position as the capital city. The vast palace he erected there was a complex of halls, courts, and rooms of state covering an area 450 m (1,500 ft) long by 210 m (690 ft) wide. He brought in water from 48 km (30 mi) away, constructing a causeway over the Gomel River, known as the Jerwan Aqueduct. Its waters contributed to the irrigation of gardens and parks, as well as to the filling of the city’s encircling moat, thereby strengthening the city’s defenses.