BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Assassination of Sennacherib

The history behind a little-known biblical story

the assassination of Sennacherib

Relief from the Palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh showing two horsemen. Courtesy The Met, public domain.

The assassination of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, is presented in the Bible as God’s divine justice against an evil king. Outside of the Bible, however, this was one of the most significant events in the history of the ancient Near East. Collecting records and references from contemporary and later sources, historian Christopher Jones has provided a renewed look at this event and its aftermath in the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History, allowing for the most complete recreation of events to date.

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Assassinating Sennacherib

On January 22, 680 BCE, Sennacherib was assassinated in his capital city of Nineveh during a coup spearheaded by several of his own sons. While the biblical account of the event takes up only a few verses (Isaiah 37:37–38; 2 Kings 19:37; 2 Chronicles 32:21), Assyrian documents from the time provide a much fuller picture of the turmoil surrounding Sennacherib’s death. By examining letters, records, and even the names of Assyrian officials, Jones, an expert on the Neo-Assyrian Empire, has been able to tentatively reconstruct the events leading up to the king’s assassination.

Sennacherib

Relief from the Palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh showing a high ranking official, possibly a crown prince. Courtesy The Met, public domain.

By the time of his death, Sennacherib had achieved great success, expanding and strengthening the empire that had been left to him by his father, Sargon II. Indeed, Sennacherib’s military campaigns in the Levant led him to be one of the most frequently mentioned non-Israelite kings in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, the near constant turmoil and conflict of Sennacherib’s reign also led to great tragedy, including the death of his eldest son and heir, Assur-nadin-šumi, during a rebellion in Babylon. Following this death in 694 BCE, Sennacherib briefly elevated his son Urad-Mullissu (biblical Adrammelech) before he changed his mind and named his younger son Esarhaddon as his new heir. This was not an unheard-of situation in Assyria, as Sennacherib’s own name (literally, “Sin has replaced the brothers”) tells us that Sennacherib was not the firstborn son of Sargon. However, this decision would eventually cost Sennacherib his life.

With the young Esarhaddon off in the western portion of the empire—likely the dynasty’s ancestral home of Dur-Katlimmu (modern Tell Sheikh Hamad)—several of Esarhaddon’s brothers began a coup. After convincing a large number of Assyria’s elite chariot forces, as well as many of the Nineveh’s senior officials, the brothers assassinated their father, Sennacherib.

While a few scholars had previously suggested that Esarhaddon coordinated the assassination, this was almost certainly not the case. Instead, as documented in several letters from the time, Urad-Mullissu was likely the ringleader, intending to take by force the throne that his father had denied him. A few references indicate that the brothers also likely attempted to assassinate Esarhaddon but failed.

According to the biblical account (Isaiah 37:37–38), the assassination of Sennacherib was carried out in the temple of the god Nisroch by Adrammelech and Sharezar. While Adrammelech is likely a defective spelling of Urad-Mullissu, there is no consensus among scholars on the character of Sharezar, which is likely a defective spelling of the name of one of the other brothers. The god Nisroch is likewise unknown and could have been a minor deity such as Nusku, or even a wordplay on the name of a particular god, which is lost to translators today.

 

A Battle for Power and the Decline of the Empire

Following the assassination of Sennacherib, Assyria was thrown into a brief but chaotic power struggle. Having likely survived an assassination attempt, Esarhaddon swiftly began to build support for his ascent to the throne. Based on letters and inscriptions from the time, it appears that Esarhaddon first launched a massive propaganda campaign that was intended to compel regional governors and temple institutions to back his claim on the throne. As the named heir, Esarhaddon relied heavily on his official status as the chosen of the gods.


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The campaign was clearly successful, as only a little over a month later Esarhaddon had gathered enough forces to march from Dur-Katlimmu to Nineveh. By the time he reached his destination, having likely fought several battles on the way, his victory was already at hand. As the biblical account tells us (and several Assyrian letters corroborate), Esarhaddon’s brothers and many of their supporters fled the country, heading north towards the kingdom of Urartu. Esarhaddon entered Nineveh on March 12, 680 BCE, the unquestioned ruler of the Assyrian Empire.

Esarhaddon’s ascension to the throne, however, was not the end of the story of the assassination of Sennacherib. Although managing to restore order, Esarhaddon could not undo the damage done to the empire. Indeed, the events of his father’s death had a profound impact on Esarhaddon himself, who spent much of the later parts of his reign attempting to solidify his own succession, elevating his younger son Ashurbanipal to the position of heir apparent over his elder son Šamaš-šumu-ukin. But his decision would prove disastrous, as only a few decades after Esarhaddon’s death, Šamaš-šumu-ukin utilized his position as king of Babylon to stir up a bloody civil war against his brother Ashurbanipal, plunging the empire into turmoil yet again.

Although Assyria maintained hegemony in the Near East for nearly a century after the assassination of Sennacherib, the political and psychological effect of the event would continue to be felt until the final fall of the Assyria Empire in c. 610 BCE, splintering the empire and pitting brother against brother.

 


Read more in the Bible History Daily:

Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh

What Is Akkadian?


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Assyrian Palace Discovered in Ashdod

Gilgamesh—Like You’ve Never Seen Him Before

Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death

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1 Responses

  1. wdk says:

    It is significant to note: If one looks up Isaiah in an outside source the estimate is:
    “between 740 BC and c. 686 BC”. Hence, Sennacherib had died about 6 years after Isaiah was presumed to have passed on according to some sources. The verses at the end of chapter 37 connect two disparate events with respect to time: the siege of Jerusalem when Sennacherib’s army gave up on the siege of Jerusalem (circa 701 BC) and Sennacherib’s death 680 BC, an interval of two decades. Yet this same entry appears in Kings II: 35-37. And an identical account of the illness and cure of King Hezekiah. The narrative of Kings II continues until the siege and sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (589 to587 BC). Chronicles provides more details of both sieges. Some of these details are introduced into the book of Isaiah chapter 38 and 39 lifted from Chronicles II, interspersed with hymns or poems attributed to Isaiah.
    Yet one of these messages, chapter 45, was praise of the annointed one Cyrus, who released Judea from Babylonian bondage.

    My point is that it is difficult to nail down historical occurrences in Biblical chronicles in the Bible without taking into account the collection as a whole, and recognizing some editing done on it as well. If identical text appears in Chronicles and the writings of Isaiah, then it is likely editors at a later date ( e.g., after Cyrus) included commentary in Isaiah. And often they reflected the concerns of that later era rather than those of a writer closer to the time the events occurred.
    There are, of course, many things retained from Isaiah’s era in the text. Some of the passages are cryptic at first pass. But one of the underlying issues among the parties involved in Sennacherib’s murder was the siege and destruction of Babylon in 689 BC. In one Assyrian account (Sennacherib’s):

    Sennacherib’s own account of the destruction reads:

    “Into my land I carried off alive Mušēzib-Marduk, king of Babylonia, together with his family and officials. I counted out the wealth of that city—silver, gold, precious stones, property and goods—into the hands of my people; and they took it as their own. The hands of my people laid hold of the gods dwelling there and smashed them; they took their property and goods.
    I destroyed the city and its houses, from foundation to parapet; I devastated and burned them. I razed the brick and earthenwork of the outer and inner wall of the city, of the temples, and of the ziggurat; and I dumped these into the Araḫtu canal. I dug canals through the midst of that city, I overwhelmed it with water, I made its very foundations disappear, and I destroyed it more completely than a devastating flood. So that it might be impossible in future days to recognize the site of that city and its temples, I utterly dissolved it with water and made it like inundated land.”

    And in addition to Sennacherib’s words, there are Isaiah’s verses in Chapter 14: On the death of the king of Babylon. Especially verses 22-23. “I shall sweep it with the broom of destruction, the haunt of hedgehogs, a swamp.”

    It also appears, taking Assyrian writings and history into account, that this was a crisis for two societies. Sennacherib had destroyed a religious center Babylon and his sons were troubled by this curse as well. When one of the sons Esarhaddoon succeeded to the throne, one of his immediate efforts was to reverse the act of desolation – of 70 years. And the restoration continued as a major effort of his reign.

    To the modern reader, one could infer that Isaiah was predicting the destruction of Babylon, but it had already occurred within his lifetime as a result of a long and bitter Assyrian- Babylonian feud. And Babylon never experienced anything quite the like after Sennacherib’s work. The wanderings of the Tigris Euphrates had more effect on its fate – since Alexander and others occupied it later. Babylon appears to be a mailing post in the New Testament to some minds, unless Peter was alluding to Rome.

    But in summary, Babylon’s destruction by Sennacherib is given short change in Biblical analyses.
    If nothing else, it was an indicator of how desperate were the straits when Jerusalem was besieged by the same. He spread desolation. And his sons in rebuilding the site were atoning for a religious sacrilege in the their own reckoning – as that of the people over which they intended to rule (e.g.., see Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux) As for Cyrus moving on Babylon, he occupied with little resistance and used it as a capital. And the book of Isaiah has fond words for his arrival in chapter 45 whomever the words can be attributed to. I say this despite growing up living with Babylon’s destruction as a pervasive metaphor for our own society’s risk of destruction ( e.g. Pat Frank’s novel portraying the effects of nuclear war “Alas, Babylon” ), but though we all risk catastrophe in one form or another, I conclude that the model or presumed history was based on false premises. And that the sons of Sennacherib had Babylon’s destruction much on their mind when they moved against him – and subsequently changed his edicts and policies.

Write a Reply or Comment

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1 Responses

  1. wdk says:

    It is significant to note: If one looks up Isaiah in an outside source the estimate is:
    “between 740 BC and c. 686 BC”. Hence, Sennacherib had died about 6 years after Isaiah was presumed to have passed on according to some sources. The verses at the end of chapter 37 connect two disparate events with respect to time: the siege of Jerusalem when Sennacherib’s army gave up on the siege of Jerusalem (circa 701 BC) and Sennacherib’s death 680 BC, an interval of two decades. Yet this same entry appears in Kings II: 35-37. And an identical account of the illness and cure of King Hezekiah. The narrative of Kings II continues until the siege and sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (589 to587 BC). Chronicles provides more details of both sieges. Some of these details are introduced into the book of Isaiah chapter 38 and 39 lifted from Chronicles II, interspersed with hymns or poems attributed to Isaiah.
    Yet one of these messages, chapter 45, was praise of the annointed one Cyrus, who released Judea from Babylonian bondage.

    My point is that it is difficult to nail down historical occurrences in Biblical chronicles in the Bible without taking into account the collection as a whole, and recognizing some editing done on it as well. If identical text appears in Chronicles and the writings of Isaiah, then it is likely editors at a later date ( e.g., after Cyrus) included commentary in Isaiah. And often they reflected the concerns of that later era rather than those of a writer closer to the time the events occurred.
    There are, of course, many things retained from Isaiah’s era in the text. Some of the passages are cryptic at first pass. But one of the underlying issues among the parties involved in Sennacherib’s murder was the siege and destruction of Babylon in 689 BC. In one Assyrian account (Sennacherib’s):

    Sennacherib’s own account of the destruction reads:

    “Into my land I carried off alive Mušēzib-Marduk, king of Babylonia, together with his family and officials. I counted out the wealth of that city—silver, gold, precious stones, property and goods—into the hands of my people; and they took it as their own. The hands of my people laid hold of the gods dwelling there and smashed them; they took their property and goods.
    I destroyed the city and its houses, from foundation to parapet; I devastated and burned them. I razed the brick and earthenwork of the outer and inner wall of the city, of the temples, and of the ziggurat; and I dumped these into the Araḫtu canal. I dug canals through the midst of that city, I overwhelmed it with water, I made its very foundations disappear, and I destroyed it more completely than a devastating flood. So that it might be impossible in future days to recognize the site of that city and its temples, I utterly dissolved it with water and made it like inundated land.”

    And in addition to Sennacherib’s words, there are Isaiah’s verses in Chapter 14: On the death of the king of Babylon. Especially verses 22-23. “I shall sweep it with the broom of destruction, the haunt of hedgehogs, a swamp.”

    It also appears, taking Assyrian writings and history into account, that this was a crisis for two societies. Sennacherib had destroyed a religious center Babylon and his sons were troubled by this curse as well. When one of the sons Esarhaddoon succeeded to the throne, one of his immediate efforts was to reverse the act of desolation – of 70 years. And the restoration continued as a major effort of his reign.

    To the modern reader, one could infer that Isaiah was predicting the destruction of Babylon, but it had already occurred within his lifetime as a result of a long and bitter Assyrian- Babylonian feud. And Babylon never experienced anything quite the like after Sennacherib’s work. The wanderings of the Tigris Euphrates had more effect on its fate – since Alexander and others occupied it later. Babylon appears to be a mailing post in the New Testament to some minds, unless Peter was alluding to Rome.

    But in summary, Babylon’s destruction by Sennacherib is given short change in Biblical analyses.
    If nothing else, it was an indicator of how desperate were the straits when Jerusalem was besieged by the same. He spread desolation. And his sons in rebuilding the site were atoning for a religious sacrilege in the their own reckoning – as that of the people over which they intended to rule (e.g.., see Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux) As for Cyrus moving on Babylon, he occupied with little resistance and used it as a capital. And the book of Isaiah has fond words for his arrival in chapter 45 whomever the words can be attributed to. I say this despite growing up living with Babylon’s destruction as a pervasive metaphor for our own society’s risk of destruction ( e.g. Pat Frank’s novel portraying the effects of nuclear war “Alas, Babylon” ), but though we all risk catastrophe in one form or another, I conclude that the model or presumed history was based on false premises. And that the sons of Sennacherib had Babylon’s destruction much on their mind when they moved against him – and subsequently changed his edicts and policies.

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