Sennacherib's Hexagonal Prism

Iraq: Nineveh
Neo-Assyrian Period
Reign of Sennacherib, (689 BC)
Baked clay, inscribed
38.0 cm H, 14.0 cm W
500 Lines of Writing (cuneiform)
Purchased in Baghdad, 1919
OIM A2793

Sennacherib's Prism Reveals King Hezekiah

This six-sided hexagonal clay prism, commonly known as the Taylor Prism, was discovered among the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. It contains the Annals of Sennacherib himself, the Assyrian king who had besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC during the reign of king Hezekiah. On the prism Sennacherib boasts that he shut up "Hezekiah the Judahite" within Jerusalem his own royal city "like a caged bird." This prism is among the three accounts discovered so far which have been left by the Assyrian monarch of his campaign against Israel and Judah.

Who was Sennacherib?

Sennacherib in Akkadian means "Sin (moon god) has multiplied the brothers". Sennacherib was one of the most powerful monarchs in the history of the world. He was king of Assyria, and the son of Sargon. He inherited the vast empire from his father, and ascended the throne on the twelfth day of Ab (July-August), 705 B.C. Sennacherib was the king who had besieged Jerusalem during the reign of king Hezekiah of Judah.

Colonel Taylor, Hormuzd Rassam and Henry Austen Layard

The Taylor Prism was discovered among the ruins of ancient Nineveh by Colonel Taylor in 1830. Of all Assyrian documents that have come down to us not one is in better preservation than this.

Henry Austen Layard later found the Royal Palace of Sennacherib and many other archaeological treasures. The work of Layard was continued here and at other sites until 1847. In 1849 he began another exploring expedition which lasted three years. Layard had become popular in Britain as he gave persuasive scholarly accounts of his discoveries to the public, making remarkable comparisons with the Bible.

In 1878 Hormuzd Rassam (Assyrian Archaeologist 1826-1910) had resumed work for the British Museum at Nineveh after Henry Austen Layard's excavations in 1845 for the British Museum at the Mounds of Nimrud. There were clay tablets discovered in great quantities: and Rassam, without knowing it, unearthed at Nineveh a portion of the famous library of Assurbanipal (688-26 B. C.).

The palace at Nineveh was decorated with massive stone wall panels depicting the siege of Lachish. These can be seen today at the Lachish Gallery in the British Museum.

Taylor Prism Purchased by the Oriental Institute

In 1919 J. H. Breasted purchased the Taylor Prism for the Oriental Institute in Chicago from a Baghdad antiquities dealer

Specifications of the Prism

Language: Akkadian (Cuneiform)

Medium: Clay prism

Dimensions: 38cm high, 13.3cm wide (top) 14cm wide (bottom)
the width of the six panels are: 8, 7.6, 7.52, 8, 7.3, 7.7cm
the hole at the top is 2.3cm
the hole at the bottom is 2.5cm

Length of Writing: 6 columns; 500 lines

Approximate Date: 689 BCE

Dates of Sennacherib's reign: 701?681 BCE

Biblical Reference: 2 Kings 18:13-19:37; Isaiah 36:1-37:38

Location of Discovery: mound at Kuyunjik (in modern Mosul, Iraq)

Current Location: Oriental Institute Chicago, Illinois

Inventory Number: A2793.

Close up look at the Cuneiform

The Account Recorded on the Prism

"On the six inscribed sides of this clay prism, King Sennacherib recorded eight military campaigns undertaken against various peoples who refused to submit to Assyrian domination. In all instances, he claims to have been victorious. As part of the third campaign, he beseiged Jerusalem and imposed heavy tribute on Hezekiah, King of Judah-a story also related in the Bible, where Sennacherib is said to have been defeated by "the angel of the Lord," who slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (II Kings 18-19)." - Oriental Institute

Here is an exact rendering of Sennacheribs haughty introductory declaration about himself and his third campaign:

Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favorite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, an unrivaled kinship has entrusted to me, and above all those who dwell in palaces, has made powerful my weapons; from the upper sea of the setting sun to the lower sea of the rising sun, he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare, leaving their homes and flying alone, like the sidinnu, the bird of the cave, to some inaccessible place...

In my third campaign, I went against the Hittite-land. Lul?, king of Sidon, the terrifying splendor of my sovereignty overcame him, and far off into the midst of the sea he fled. There he died. Great Sidon, Little Sidon, B?t-Zitti, Zaribtu, Mahalliba, Ushu, Akzib, Akko, his strong, walled cities, where there were fodder and drink, for his garrisons, the terrors of the weapon of Assur, my lord, overpowered them and they bowed in submission at my feet. I seated Tuba'lu on the royal throne over them, and tribute, gifts for my majesty, I imposed upon him for all time, without ceasing.

From Menachem, the Shamsimurunite, Tuba'lu the Sidonite, Abdi-liti the Arvadite, Uru-milki the Gublite, Mitinti the Ashdodite Budu-ilu the Beth Ammonite, Kammusu-nadbi the Moabite, Malik-rammu the Edomite, kings of Amurru, all of them, numerous presents as their heavy tribute, they brought before me for the fourth time, and kissed my feet.

But Sidka, the king of Ashkelon, who had not submitted to my yoke, the gods of his father's house, himself, his wife, his sons, his daughters, his brothers, the seed of his paternal house, I tore away and brought to Assyria. Sharru-lu-dari, son of Rukibti, their former king, I set over the people of Ashkelon, and I imposed upon him the payment of tribute: presents to my majesty. He accepted my yoke. In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoil.

The officials, nobles, and people of Ekron, who had thrown Padi their king?bound by oath and curse of Assyria? into fetters of iron and had given him over to Hezekiah, the Judahite?he kept him in confinement like an enemy? their heart became afraid, and they called upon the Egyptian kings, the bowmen, chariots and horses of the king of Meluhha [Ethiopia], a countless host, and these came to their aid. In the neighborhood of Eltekeh, their ranks being drawn up before me, they offered battle. With the aid of Assur, my lord, I fought with them and brought about their defeat. The Egyptian charioteers and princes, together with the Ethiopian king's charioteers, my hands captured alive in the midst of the battle. Eltekeh and Timnah I besieged, I captured, and I took away their spoil.

I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. The inhabitants who rebelled and treated (Assyria) lightly I counted as spoil. The rest of them, who were not guilty of rebellion and contempt, for whom there was no punishment, I declared their pardon. Padi, their king, I brought out to Jerusalem, set him on the royal throne over them, and imposed upon him my royal tribute.

As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up seige-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him? the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery. His cities, which I had despoiled, I cut off from his land, and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-b?l, king of Gaza, I gave (them). And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts?gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers..

Complete translations of the records of Sennacherib can be found in Daniel D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, vol. 2, and in James Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1950).

The Biblical Comparison

The best way to see the accuracy of the Biblical account with this record on Sennacherib's Prism is to compare 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 and Isaiah 36:1-37:38 with the last paragraph on the above account.

A Mystery of History

After comparing the Biblical account with that of the Sennacherib Prism one Scripture stands out above all of the rest, which remains a mystery even to today. It is also recorded in the Book of Kings along with the Book of Isaiah. It is the part where Isaiah gives a Word from the Lord just after King Hezekiah's awesome prayer.

Isa 37:33-38 "Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: 'He shall not come into this city, Nor shoot an arrow there, Nor come before it with shield, Nor build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, By the same shall he return; And he shall not come into this city,' Says the LORD. 'For I will defend this city, to save it For My own sake and for My servant David's sake.'" Then the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses--all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh."

This miracle cannot be substantiated by archaeological discoveries for a reason of which only God knows, but all of the pieces seem to fit together because even today no one has determined exactly why Sennacherib did not even enter Jerusalem with his great army once it was besieged. After reading his campaigns on his Prism it would seem that this was the thing he had intended to do, and with all anxiety.

Another revealing fact is this: At this point in time there was an abrupt discontinuance of Assyria?s western invasions. Professor George Rawlinson of Oxford noted:

Sennacherib during his later years made no expedition further westward than Cilicia; nor were the Assyrian designs against Southern Syria and Egypt resumed till toward the close of the reign of Esarhaddon (Historical Illustrations of the Old Testament, 1873, p. 145).

Herodotus and Josephus on Sennacherib's Campaigns

Herodotus, the father of ancient Greek history, records what is probably an Egyptian legend (that grew out of this historical event); he suggests that Sennacherib?s fighting force was greatly reduced when in one night, a plague of field mice gnawed the quivers, bowstrings, and shield-straps of his soldiers, thus making them suddenly vulnerable to their enemies (cf. Edersheim, Bible History, VII, p.155).

Josephus quotes the Chaldean historian Berosus as follows:

Now when Sennacherib was returning from his Egyptian war to Jerusalem, he found his army under Rabshakeh his general in danger [by a plague], for God had sent a pestilential distemper upon his army; and on the very night of the siege, a hundred fourscore and five thousand, with their captains and generals, were destroyed (Antiquities 10.1.5).

But the account of his death may give us some sort of distant light as to this miracle and the possibility of his great army being utterly routed.

Sennacherib Murdered by his own sons.

One interesting note worth investigating further is where the Bible records what happened to Sennacherib once he had returned to Nineveh, without his great army.

In reviewing the background of this situation King Hezekiah was intensely concerned about the armies of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. He sent his servants to inquire of the prophet Isaiah just exactly what the Lord was saying that he needed to do. Once his servants had found Isaiah, he said:

2 Kings 19:6-7 "And Isaiah said to them, "Thus you shall say to your master, 'Thus says the LORD: "Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land."

The book of Kings goes on to record what had actually happened to Sennacherib once he returned to his capital, Nineveh.

2 Kings 19:37 Now it came to pass, as he (Sennacherib) was worshiping in the temple of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place."

This exact same account was unearthed, having been recorded on a clay tablet, now in the British Museum.

'On the twentieth day of the month Tebet Sennacherib king of Assyria his son slew him in rebellion... Esarhaddon his son sat on the throne of Assyria.'

This clay tablet along with 2 Kings 19:37 was the last recorded mention of Sennacherib, the powerful Assyrian monarch who once ruled the world.

The Evidence of Archaeology

The evidence of archaeology helps to give us:

1. Confidence that the places and people mentioned in the Bible are accurate, even though those places and people existed thousands of years in the past.

2. Confidence that the details of the Biblical accounts have not changed over the centuries since it was written as we have a "fixed fact" in history.

3. Confidence that everything that the Lord speaks will be fulfilled in its time.

Isa 46:8-10 "Remember this, and show yourselves men; Recall to mind, O you transgressors. Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, 'My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,'

Written by Rusty Russell (Bible History Online)