The Story of Sennacherib
A. J. Mattill, Jr.
1. The Story of Sennacherib in Sacred Scripture. A. 2 Kings 19:32-37: (32) In 701 BC/BCE, after King Scennacherib of Assyria invaded Judea, the Lord said to Hezekiah, king of Judah, “I promise that Sennacherib won’t get into Jerusalem, or shoot an arrow into the city, or even surround it and prepare to attack it. (33) As surely as I am the Lord, Sennacherib will return by the way he came and will never enter Jerusalem. (34) I will protect it for myself and for my servant King David.” (35) That same night the Lord sent an angel to the camp of the Assyrians, and the angel killed 185,000 of them. And so the next morning, the camp was full of dead bodies. (36) Later King Sennacherib went back to Assyria and lived in the city of Ninevah. (37) One day Sennacherib was worshipping in the temple of his god Nisroth, when two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him with their swords. —Adapted from Contemporary English Version.
B. 2 Chronicles 32:20-21: (20) When King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Jerusalem, King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah asked the Lord for help. (21) The Lord heard their prayer and sent an angel who killed every soldier and commander in the Assyrian camp. Sennacherib returned to Assyria, completely disgraced. Then one day he went into the temple of his god, where some of Sennacherib’s sons killed him—Adapted from Contemporary English Version.
C. Isaiah 37:36: (36) The Lord sent an angel to the camp of the Assyrians, and the angel killed 185,000 of them, all in one night. The next morning the camp was full of dead bodies.—Adapted from Contemporary English Version.
D. 2 Maccabees 8:19, 15:22. Twice the Books of Maccabees refer to the angel’s slaughter of 185,000 of Sennacherib’s soldiers. Roman Catholics, but not Jews and Protestants, regard the Books of Maccabees as inspired Scripture.
E. Psalm 76. Some scholars think that Psalm 76 is based on the slaughter of Sennacherib’s army: (1) You, our God, are famous in Judah and honored in Israel. (2) Your home is on Mount Zion in the city of peace. (3) There you destroyed fiery arrows, shields, swords, and all the other weapons.
F. The Targum (the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible) says, “The Word of the Lord sent Gabriel to do this execution, and it was done in lightening, and in the passover night, the night in which the angel destroyed the first-born of Egypt.”
2. The Superstitions of Sennacherib’s Story. Superstition One: Belief in God. The story is based upon the action of the Lord God Almighty which killed 185,000 men. But multitudes of thinking people have given up belief in God because close observation of the violent universe in which we live is strong evidence that the universe is pointless, building and destroying without purpose. The fact that half of all known species are parasites feeding on the other half also argues against the existence of a God worthy of our love and worship. Add to that the pain suffered by animals and humans, pain from diseases, pain from cruel actions by man and beast, and pain inflicted by Mother Nature through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and storms.
Pointlessness. Parasites. Pain. The God who killed thousands of Assyrians is a figment of man’s imagination. See “Almighty Abba” in my Sweet Jesus, Volume Two, 2004, pp. 5-7. published by The Flatwoods Free Press, 750 Lum Fife Road, Gordo, AL 35466-3357.
Superstition Two: Belief in Angels. The imaginary Lord supposedly sent an imaginary angel to slay Sennacherib’s soldiers. It’s highly probable that angels no more exist than does Superman. When we see an angel, it’s nothing but a hallucination. For a detailed account of angels see “Jesus and Angels,” in my Sweet Jesus, Volume Three, 2006, pp. 98-106, published by The Flatwoods Free Press, 750 Lum Fife Road, Gordo, Al 35466-3357.
Circumventions. To circumvent the many objections to supernatural explanations of the deaths of 185,000 soldiers, some rationalists ascribe the Assyrian calamity to a pestilence caused by field mice gnawing the bow-strings of the Assyrians. Possibly it was the bubonic plague. Thus the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (fifth century BC/BCE), tells of two armies opposite one another. “There came in the night a multitude of field mice, which devoured all the quivers and bowstrings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning they commenced their flight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themsleves” (The History of Herodotus, 2.141).
Some think that the powerful natural agent God employed was the hot pestilential wind, the simoon, which is said to have suddenly destroyed travelers and even whole caravans. Cambyses, king of the Medes, lost 50,000 men by one of these dreadful winds. Some interpreters throw up their hands in despair and admit that we really can’t reconstruct what happened.
3. A Specimen of Senseless Slaughter. Some of us are shocked by the Lord’s cold-blooded action in sending an angel to kill 185,000 human beings. Instantly these brave soldiers were turned into dead corpses. Yet some believers find no fault with the angel’s/God’s deadly action, for it completely vindicates the power and legitimacy of Hebrew religion! All those lives were sacrificed for God’s glory and Zion’s safety. But let’s try to put things in perspective by looking at some of the Lord’s other killings:
God sent Noah’s flood to drown all but eight people (Genesis 6:10, 17-18). The Lord killed Er for his evil conduct (Genesis 38:7) and his brother Onan for violating the law of Deuteronomy 25:5-6 (Genesis 38:8-10). God’s holy war of the conquest of Canaan terminated the lives of 21,000,000 men, women, and children (according to Exodus 12:37; Deuteronomy 7:1-6), an incredible blood bath. The Lord sent fire which burned up 250 rebels (Numbers 16:35). Because the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, the Lord sent a plague which killed 14,700 of them (Numbers 16:41-50). The Lord destroyed the Rephaim and the Horites (Deuteronomy 2:20-22).
The Lord killed 50,070 men for looking into the covenant box or ark (1 Samuel 6:19). The Lord struck Nabel and he died (1 Samuel 25:38). The Lord struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark (covenant box) (2 Samuel 6:6-7). The Lord sent an angel to spread a horrible disease everywhere in Israel, and before it was over, 70,000 people had died (2 Samuel 24:15). The Lord killed the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, drowned the pharaoh of Egypt and his army, and killed kings Sihon and Og (Psalm 136:10-22). God also killed Ananias and Sapphira when they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). How can anyone worship a warrior God who kills, kills, kills (Exodus 15:3)?
Let us recall that on August 6, 1945, the United States of America dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which killed from 75,000 to 80,000 persons. Many of the survivors were crippled, burned, or victims of radiation sickness. On August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed some 35,000 persons and more than that were injured. There we have a total of 115,000 deaths from two atomic bombs, compared with 185,000 people killed by one angel at Jerusalem. Wow! One angel more deadly than two atomic bombs!
Conclusion. However we evaluate the story of Sennacherib, we can all credit it with inspiring Lord Byron’s immortal poem of 1815, The Destruction of Sennacherib:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green, That host with their banners at sunset were seen: Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown, That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide, But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride; And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf, And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale, With the dust on his brow, and the rust on his mail; And the tents were all silent—the banners alone—The lances unlifted—the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail, And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal; And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword, Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!