Today we marked the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet with a fast. According to tradition, on this day the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II made a siege on Jerusalem in 588 B.C.E. This offensive will end 18 months later in the summer of 586 B.C.E. with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. But Nebuchadnezzar II was not the first to surround the city with intent to capture it. Around the year 700 B.C.E., almost 120 years before Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, also comes to capture Jerusalem.
We tend to focus on Sennacherib’s campaigns in today’s Israel, maybe because there are no Babylonians around to remember Sennacherib’s advances against them. Babylonia was a much larger threat to Assyria and most of the military campaigns were there.
Meanwhile in Judah, spurred on by the Egyptians (the superpower to the south) and tumult in Babylon, King Hezekiah of Judah refused to pay tribute to the Assyrians. Refusing to pay off the Assyrians was risky business. Sennacherib was a brutal winner in the military arena. Usually, a rebel monarch was killed; soldiers had their hands, fingers, noses and ears chopped off and their eyes put out. The treatment was so brutal and terrifying that most rulers surrendered to the Assyrians without a fight.
When Sennacherib had defeated the uprising in Babylonia and placed a puppet on Babylon’s throne, he was free to turn his attention elsewhere – to Judah and the surrounding nations occupying the Levant. Sennacherib’s predecessors had already decimated the northern tribes – the Kingdom of Israel, carrying most of the residents off into exile.
Some nations did dare to rebel against the Assyrians. The Philistines in Ekron and Gaza did not surrender and neither did King Hezekiah of Judah. The Assyrians came against the coast first, along the main road, and decimated the Philistines and the Judeans in the lowlands.
When the important Judean city of Lachish fell, Hezekiah readily paid tribute to the Assyrians. The ransom is described in the Bible (II Kings 18:14) – 30 talents of gold ($2 million in today’s currency), 300 talents of silver (worth $11 million), and luxury items. Even all these treasures were not enough to sway the Assyrian king from setting his sights on Jerusalem.
Hezekiah knew that it was only a matter of time until Sennacherib reached Jerusalem. At the time, the city had swelled with refugees. Even though the Assyrians portrayed their conquest of the Kingdom of Israel as complete victory with all the residents being sent to exile, nothing in history is 100%. Anyone who could run away, did, and they ended up coming to their cousins in Judah, and specifically to the capital of Jerusalem.
The city could not accommodate the multitudes of refugees and they set up refugee camps on the Western Hill, today’s Mt. Zion, Armenian Quarter, and Tower of David. In order to prepare for the oncoming siege, King Hezekiah made many improvements in Jerusalem: renovated water supply, stocking of food and weapons, and rebuilding the city wall to include the refugee camps. Parts of this wall are found today in the Jewish Quarter and within the Tower of David complex under the name “the Broad Wall”. Most look at the wall and think that the name of the wall is due to its massive size. The dimensions, however, are standard for city walls of the time of Hezekiah. The better explanation is that this wall turned Jerusalem from a small, narrow city to a broad one which encompassed all who looked for refuge within her borders.
Jerusalem would be saved at this time from the Assyrians, who were defeated by the angel of God, an epidemic and/or a political crisis.
Today, when we mourn over the beginnings of the capture of Jerusalem, and the population which was pushed out of Jerusalem during the Babylonian conquest, it is important to remember this prior commitment by King Hezekiah to insure sure that Jerusalem would be a broad city protecting all its inhabitants – long-time residents and refugees alike.