The history behind a little-known biblical story
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.
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.
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.
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.
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