Hezekiah's Foreign Policy
Fifth Act: The set apart city delivered by an act of YAHWEH
A miracle or a providential historical event?
Shortly after the speech by the chief cupbearer before the walls of Yerusalem, Sennacherib himself appeared in person, followed by his army. The inhabitants of the city were filled with terror, for they knew how the Assyrians revenged themselves upon those who had broken their word -they could expect plundering, fire and massacre. But YeshaYahu comforted his fellow-countrymen with these lyrical lines, which he publicly declaimed: This then, is what YAHWEH says about the king of Assyria'
he will let no arrow fly against it,
confront it with no shield,
throw up no earthwork against it.
By the road that he came on he will return;
he shall not enter this city. It is YAHWEH who speaks.
I will protect this city and save it
for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David”
In actual fact the Assyrian troops had no time to begin the attack. This is the Scriptural explanation: That same night the malak of YAHWEH went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. In the morning the besiegers' tents were filled with corpses. Sennacherib hastened to raise the siege and set out on the way back to his capital on the Tigris.
The Scriptural writer saw this as an obvious miracle. YeshaYahu the prophet knew that the set apart city would be delivered by an act of YAHWEH. The honour of this important event reflected, as was right, both on the prophet and on YAHWEH of Yisrael.
Now an explanation of this event is to be found in Egypt when Sennacherib was obliged to take himself off as quickly as possible. What happened was this. In the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus heard from the kohens of the Valley of the Nile a somewhat similar story in which the hasty departure of the king of Assyria was related. The Assyrian armies had just taken up their position before Pelusium, 'at the entrance to the country', the usual gateway for the invasion route leading to the Delta. Field rats 'sent by a god' invaded the tents of the besiegers and devoured the leather of their quivers, bows and shields. Thus the besieging army was unable to fight; they could not even defend themselves and so they were killed in great numbers. Only a very small number was able to set out on the return journey (Herodotus II, 141).
According to Herodotus it was therefore a plague which unexpectedly attacked the Assyrian forces. They were probably concentrated too closely together in enormous camps in which, owing to lack of water, hygienic conditions were of the most primitive kind. In the ancient east the relationship between swarms of rats and the incidence of the plague was well established. It is curious to find that both the Egyptian and Jewish chroniclers should have preserved in scarcely differing forms the memory of the same scourge. It had delivered both nations from the grasp of their formidable common enemy, and both explained the event by set apart intervention.
Sennacherib retired to his own country. The Scriptural account continues: He went into the tabernacle of his god, and there some of his own children struck him down with the sword (2 Divre Hayamim 32:21-22). In actual fact the reign of Sennacherib was to continue prosperously for a long time. His death only occurred some twenty years after these events. In any case, after its twofold defeat before Pelusium and Yerusalem the Assyrian army did not show its face against in Palestine.
The last years of the reign of Hezekiah do not provide much
material for the historian. Regarding his foreign policy we can conclude that on
several occasions he committed gross errors. In the end the city of Yerusalem
emerged impoverished indeed, but, materially at least, safe from the ordeal. It
must be remembered that the region all around the capital had been transformed
into a wilderness. The lesson was a harsh one.