Hezekiah: a Story, a King, a Legacy

Courtesy of Eilat Mazar, Photo: Ouria Tadmo

Hezekiah: a Story, a King, a Legacy

A chronicle told by the Bible, validated by archaeology

The archaeologists worked furiously, deep within the ancient dump. Such places are treasure troves to those interested in the past—almost nothing provides such a clear picture of a society as a garbage pit full of the various knick-knacks, odds and ends that show a snapshot of how an ancient civilization once functioned. And this dump was special. It was a 2,700 year-old fill, located squarely within the ancient royal Ophel of Jerusalem.

As one of the workers emptied a trowelful of dust and rocks into a bucket, little did he know that he had just transported from the ground what would be among the greatest discoveries ever made in Jerusalem. One of the greatest single items, surely, ever discovered throughout all Israel. And as that bucket was carefully sifted—first a dry sifting, and then a wet—even after the tiny, precious object buried within was discovered and cleaned, nobody paid it much attention. Nobody fully realized what it really was, what it said. And so for five years, it was boxed away, waiting. As other incredible discoveries came to light from the Ophel through the intervening years, little did anyone realize that one discovery far more significant had already been found, just waiting to be understood. 

The Hezekiah bulla (Courtesy of Eilat Mazar, photographer Ouria Tadmor)

Finally, five years on, an epigraphist opened up the little box and examined the object more closely. To her surprise, she noticed a subtle part of the ancient script that had been overlooked by the initial reading—a mere dot, a punctuation mark, which separated two words that had originally been presumed as one. All of a sudden, the real meaning of the script jumped out. It read:

BELONGING TO HEZEKIAH, [SON OF] AHAZ, KING OF JUDAH

But this small, royal seal (or bulla) of King Hezekiah wasn’t the first validation of this king’s existence. It wasn’t even the first bulla found bearing his name. Others had been around on what is known as the “antiquities market.” But without knowing their provenance, no one could know for sure whether or not they were forgeries. Now, straight from the raw earth, within a layer untouched for 2,700 years, a genuine seal impression was uncovered through careful scientific excavation. And the discovery of this seal shows that its parallels on the antiquities market are surely genuine as well.

Some believe that the Bible is a largely fictional book, perhaps with only a few names and cities that have been validated through archaeology. This is simply untrue. Hundreds of biblically significant artifacts have been found throughout the last century and an half—and particularly in the last few decades. Many dozens of biblical figures—kings, pharaohs, officials, prophets—have been substantiated through archaeology.

Not only does archaeology validate snippets of the Bible, but more accurately, entire stories. Such is the case with King Hezekiah—one of Judah’s greatest rulers. In this article we’ll explore his life and deeds, as told by the Bible and validated throughout by archaeology.

A True Story of a Real King

To get some context about the life of Hezekiah, we must look first to his father, King Ahaz. While this man is evidenced through reference on Hezekiah’s own bulla, a bulla belonging to King Ahaz has also been found—albeit only on the antiquities market. It is, though, considered by authorities to be almost certainly genuine. It reads: “Belonging to Ahaz, son of Yehotam [Jotham], king of Judah.”

Ahaz’s seal from the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection, London

This man was despicable. He ascended the throne after his father Jotham, a righteous man under whom the nation was richly blessed. Ahaz plunged the nation back into idolatry. He personally sacrificed his children (2 Chronicles 28:3), shut down service in the temple, and established places of pagan worship all over the country. As a result, God brought catastrophic curses down on the southern kingdom of Judah. The Syrians besieged the nation. The northern kingdom of Israel besieged them. A desperate Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria, Tiglath Pileser, for help—delivering precious gold and silver stripped from the temple (2 Kings 16:7-9).

Buried within the ancient annals of Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser, we find corroboration of this account in the Summary Inscription. Dating to this time period and listed under the long version of his name, we find “Jehoahaz of Judah,” recorded as having delivered tribute to the Assyrian king. He is listed together with a number of regional kings as having delivered gold, silver and other precious objects—just as the Bible describes. Evidently, however, the king of Assyria provided no meaningful aid to Ahaz in return (2 Chronicles 28:21). The precious tribute proved pointless.

Ahaz died in a land devolved into war and paganism. He wasn’t given the honor of being buried in the royal sepulchers (verse 27). And his 25-year-old son Hezekiah—spared from the fate his siblings faced within the sacrificial furnaces—inherited the crown.

Summary Inscription 7 of Tiglath-Pileser III provides the earliest definitive mention of Judah. (British Museum)

A Righteous Turn

King Hezekiah immediately changed the way things were done in Judah. He reopened the temple right away. He reestablished the positions of the priests and Levites. He systematically destroyed idols all over Judah (2 Kings 18:4, 22). One example of this sort of destruction dating to Hezekiah’s time period has been found at Tel Lachish. A pagan shrine room adjacent the city gate was found vandalized, with the altars in the room having had their horns (or corners) smashed off (itself a deeply symbolic act, Amos 3:14). Besides this, the room was further desecrated with the installation of a toilet seat within the room. This symbolic act, which was most likely done as part of Hezekiah’s purges, has biblical precedent:

And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them. And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house [public toilet] unto this day. Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel. (2 Kings 10:26-27)

Jehu had been an earlier ruler over the northern kingdom of Israel. The material evidence of this act, then, confirms a “tradition” of showing utter contempt toward pagan worship—a tradition preserved to the time of Hezekiah.

Workers of the Lachish expedition remove the ancient toilet from the area (Israeli Antiquities Authority/Igor Kragerman)

But why did Hezekiah so immediately steer the nation from paganism to righteousness? He must have intended to do so while his father was still alive. Perhaps his mother, Abi (2 Kings 18:2), was a righteous example. Perhaps knowing or even seeing his siblings incinerated before his father’s perverse deities had hardened Hezekiah’s resolve toward a different way. Most likely, it was the simple fact of blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience that dedicated Hezekiah to God (Deuteronomy 30:19). He had been alive while his righteous grandfather Jotham reigned. He would have been able to see the blessings that came upon the land. And he would have been able to compare that lifestyle with the depravation of his father’s reign, and the resulting barrage of curses that befell the nation.

So there was great joy in Jerusalem: for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there was not the like in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 30:26)

He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. (2 Kings 18:5)

Blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience—a black-and-white law of life that Hezekiah had seen in stark effect during the reigns of his grandfather Jotham and his father Ahaz. He knew it would work. And so Judah began to regain regional stability. The Philistines were quelled (2 Kings 18:8). Hezekiah removed from Judah the yoke of the Assyrians that his father had subjected the nation to. The northern kingdom of Israel, which had besieged Judah during the days of Ahaz, were no longer a problem for Hezekiah—they were being themselves besieged by the Assyrians. The kingdom of Judah had entered a new age.

But things were going to change.

The Downfall of Israel and Woes for Judah 

Around 720 B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire dealt the northern kingdom of Israel a deathblow. Assyrian invasions had crippled Israel over the course of a decade, but the final nail in the coffin came at the hand of King Shalmaneser. After a three-year siege, the Israelites were carried away captive and replaced with a people who would become known as the “Samaritans” (2 Kings 17). The Assyrian defeat of Israel is heavily attested to through archaeology and in secular sources.

The Taylor Prism, which mentions Sennacherib’s incursion into Judah (David Castor)

The burgeoning might of the Assyrian Empire would later become a big problem for Judah, about a decade after Israel’s fall. During the intervening time, Judah continued to enjoy the fruits of Hezekiah’s obedience and righteous rule.

By the end of the eighth century B.C., Sennacherib ascended the Assyrian throne, and problems began to mount in Judah. The Assyrians, arrogant with their victory over the northern kingdom of Israel, began overthrowing Judean cities. Evidently, many Jews in the population still clung to their old ways of idolatry. There is also reason to believe that Hezekiah began to rely heavily on the Egyptians for safety (2 Kings 18:21).

King Sennacherib wrote about his campaign against these Judean cities, on what is today known as the Taylor Prism:

As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured 46 of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams … I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen and sheep.

Example of the LMLK inscription stamped on a vessel handle (public domain)

A series of artifacts feasibly relating to these Assyrian campaigns against Israel are known as the LMLK seals. These are royal seals that were stamped into the handles of clay storage vessels. Each stamp bore the term “LMLK” (or “belonging to the king”), along with the name of one of four different cities. Thousands of these LMLK jar handles have been documented, dating to the time of King Hezekiah. There is debate as to what they were for—theories largely center around some kind of preparation for this Assyrian siege. Perhaps these official vessels were for the collection of military rations or pre-war taxes.

Whatever physical preparations were made for the Assyrian invasion, they don’t seem to have made much difference. The Assyrians freely entered Judah and began hastily sweeping through its cities. The most well documented Assyrian campaign during this period was against the city Lachish.

The Destruction of Lachish

Lachish was the second-most important Judean city, after Jerusalem. This large, elevated fortress was located southwest of Jerusalem. Around 701 B.C., King Sennacherib’s forces besieged the city:

After this did Sennacherib king of Assyria send his servants to Jerusalem, (but he himself laid siege against Lachish, and all his power with him,) …. (2 Chronicles 32:9)

Archaeological finds have revealed much about this siege. A massive siege ramp can been seen at Tel Lachish even today. Scattered along the ramp, more than 1,000 iron arrowheads were discovered, along with sling stones strewn about the city.

Remains of the Assyrian siege ramp at Lachish. (Wilson44691/creative commons)

The “Lachish Reliefs” graphically depict the horrors of the siege. Archaeologists discovered this large series of wall carvings at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. From left to right, the reliefs display the gradual conquering of Jerusalem by Assyrian forces: the siege ramp with siege machines atop, masses of soldiers attacking the city, prisoners impaled on pikes, prisoners with their throats cut. Moving beyond the siege in the carved timeline, one can see the long lines of captive Israelites and goods that are taken before the Assyrian king. Text on the carving reads: “Sennacherib King of the Universe, King of Assyria, sits on a throne and the spoils of Lachish are paraded before him.”

Hezekiah tried desperately to stop Sennacherib’s rampage. He “sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, I have offended; return from me: that which thou puttest on me will I bear” (2 Kings 18:14). Hezekiah had already distanced himself from God, and was looking to appease the Assyrian king with goods in exchange for his departure. Sennacherib demanded 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold. Hezekiah obliged, by stripping “all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord,” and giving up treasures from the palace in Jerusalem.

Lachish siege inscription. Left hand side inscription states: “”Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish (Lakhisha). I give permission for its slaughter.” (oncenawhile/creative commons)

Sennacherib recorded receiving this tribute from King Hezekiah on the Taylor Prism:

Fear of my greatness terrified Hezekiah. He sent to me tribute: 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, ivory and all sorts of gifts, including women from his palace.

Thus we see direct correspondence between the biblical account and Sennacherib’s records. Thirty talents of gold were requested (as per 2 Kings 18:14), and that is what he received. However, the Bible states that 300 talents of silver were requested, and Sennacherib’s inscription states he received 800. Why the apparent discrepancy? One explanation is that the 800 talents may have referred to the combined weight of the following objects in the sentence—not just silver, but also the precious stones and ivory. There are other possible explanations as well.

Needless to say, by doing this, Hezekiah had followed exactly in the footsteps of his father, Ahaz—stripping the temple to pacify an Assyrian monarch. He even forced women living in the royal palace into the clutches of the brutal Assyrians. It is clear that Hezekiah had slipped a long way from his faithful obedience and trust in God. Hezekiah should have known better than to follow the example of his father in attempting to placate an Assyrian king with riches. He ended up with the same result: The enemy refused to be pacified. The Assyrians hoarded their newly received riches and remained encamped at Lachish, now turning their attention toward Jerusalem.

Target: Jerusalem

Hezekiah, upon realizing Sennacherib’s intent to conquer Jerusalem, called an emergency meeting with his princes and advisers. They quickly decided that Jerusalem’s precious, sole water source—the Gihon Spring—was too vulnerable to being cut off by a besieging enemy, and decided to reroute it deep within the city (2 Chronicles 32:3-4, 30; 2 Kings 20:20). Thus began the frantic burrowing of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This tunnel has been discovered and is today perhaps the greatest tourist attraction of the original ancient site of Jerusalem—the City of David.

Inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel (Ian Scott/creative commons)

This tunnel snaked from the Gihon Spring (along the eastern edge of the City of David) deep through the bedrock to the southern base of the city. The incredible, 530-meter-long tunnel was dug from both ends, with the digging teams somehow meeting up in the middle (scientists can only speculate how this was achieved—perhaps they followed a fissure in the bedrock). Amazingly, the exit point of the tunnel is only 30 centimeters lower than the origin point—a gradient of 0.6 percent—allowing for a gentle, even flow of water. Within the tunnel, an inscription stone was discovered describing the feat of the excavators. It recounts that as the two parties slowly pickaxed their way toward each other, they began to hear voices from the other team calling out. The script on the engraving has been confirmed as being of the style of writing used during Hezekiah’s time period.

Replica of the Siloam inscription. The original is currently on display at the Istanbul Museum (public domain)

Other measures were taken to safeguard Jerusalem’s defenses (2 Chronicles 32:5-6). Walls were rebuilt. Weapons were mass-produced. Officers were set over the people.

And most significantly, we see real evidence of Hezekiah turning humbly to God for help.

Diplomacy had been useless. Riches had been exhausted. Hezekiah knew that all he had to fall back on was God. Gathering the people of Jerusalem together, he delivered to them a stirring address:

Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him: with him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles. (2 Chronicles 32:7-8)

Sennacherib’s Tirade, God’s Response

King Sennacherib sent his commander, Rabshakeh, from the Assyrian base at Lachish to deliver a terrifying message against Jerusalem. The commander, having a good grasp of the Hebrew language, loudly declared Sennacherib’s threats against Jerusalem. He warned the population not to follow Hezekiah’s example in believing God would save them. He assured peace and prosperity if the people came out of the city and surrendered. On the heels of this diatribe, Sennacherib wrote to Hezekiah (while his army had temporarily departed for a battle against Libnah), denigrating the God Hezekiah relied upon and assuring the destruction of Jerusalem if the nation did not peacefully surrender (2 Kings 19; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 37).

In response, Hezekiah sent desperate correspondence to the Prophet Isaiah, asking for his advice. Isaiah reassured Hezekiah that the Assyrians would not so much as shoot an arrow against Jerusalem, nor lift up a shield before the city (Isaiah 37:33). God, he said, would defeat the Assyrian army. As the Assyrians reassembled their forces against Jerusalem, Isaiah joined the Jewish king in praying that God would intervene to stop this physically unstoppable power.

Late at night, in the camp of the Assyrians, men began inexplicably dropping dead. One by one, soldier after soldier fell slaughtered by a being they could neither see nor defend themselves from. By the time morning dawned, watchmen within the city of Jerusalem looked speechlessly out at the silent camp of the Assyrians: 185,000 corpses lay strewn outside the walls (2 Kings 19:35). God had miraculously delivered His people! The Assyrians had been massacred at the hand of an angel—and all Sennacherib could do was return to Nineveh, humiliated.

Humility, though, was not something the boastful King Sennacherib was very good at. The Taylor Prism, as quoted above, was written after the events of this catastrophic campaign against Jerusalem. Of course, Sennacherib could not bring himself to mention what had befallen his troops in Jerusalem—he stops just short of that. His inscription continues:

As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashdod, Ekron and Gaza.

Sennacherib never mentions having captured Jerusalem—because he couldn’t. He stops just short of mentioning why. And frankly, as self-gloating as the Taylor Prism inscription is, surely it would have caused some Assyrians to wonder why he didn’t take Jerusalem. Why go to the effort of constructing fortresses around Jerusalem, only to leave and spare the city? What was the point? Just to temporarily stop anyone coming in or out? Clearly, even without the gaps filled in by the Bible, one can see from Sennacherib’s description that something major is missing in his account of what happened in Jerusalem.

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The violent Sennacherib would suffer a violent end. 2 Kings 19:37 records:

And it came to pass, as [Sennacherib] was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.

This too, it turns out, has been confirmed through archaeology. A Babylonian inscription reads: “On the 20th day of Tebet, his sons revolted against him and they killed their father, Sennacherib … Esarhaddon, his son, became king.” Another ancient Babylonian letter, although somewhat damaged, contains the following sentence: “Thy son Arda-Mulissi is going to kill thee.” Arda-Mulissi, the same Adrammelech of 2 Kings 19:37, was the son of Sennacherib. Evidently, he teamed up with his brother Nabu-sarru-usur (biblical Sharezer) to kill their father—which they did while he was worshiping. Esarhaddon, third in line to the throne yet who had already been named successor by Sennacherib, took over control of Assyria. It is fair to say that a lot of jealousy was felt by Arda-Mulissi, who himself was second in line to the throne, yet was overlooked by his father in favor of Esarhaddon. Thus Sennacherib’s self-exaltation and glory ended with an ignominious death.

Sickness, Revival, Sin, Repentance

The Bible details that after the Assyrian expeditions in Judah were concluded, Hezekiah fell horribly ill. Perhaps the sheer stress of the events was partly responsible for the king’s condition. Whatever it was, Hezekiah was near to death as the Prophet Isaiah declared to him: “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live” (2 Kings 20:1). Upon hearing those words, Hezekiah turned and poured out a tearful prayer to God for deliverance. This prayer so moved God that He turned around the departing Isaiah and instructed him to proclaim to Hezekiah that his life would be prolonged 15 more years. As a sign of God’s promise, Isaiah presented two options to Hezekiah: that the shadow on his father’s sundial would either move forward or backward 10 degrees.

And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz. (2 Kings 20:10-11)

This was an astronomical miracle. The Earth’s rotation momentarily reversed! And in doing this, God demonstrated the power at His disposal to fulfill the comparatively paltry task of healing this small human being.

By all accounts, this healing was not necessary just for Hezekiah’s own well-being, but also to produce an heir. Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, would begin his reign at the age of 12 (2 Kings 21:1). Hezekiah had been allotted 15 more years after his illness; he thus must have needed that time to produce this heir. Tradition states that Manasseh’s mother was the daughter of the Prophet Isaiah.

It is to this time that the Hezekiah bulla, described at the top of this article, can be most appropriately attributed. The bulla displays a winged sun—as do the LMLK seals—yet this one is different. Instead of displaying proud, upswept wings (as also seen on some of Hezekiah’s bullae on the antiquities market), the wings on this bulla are swept downwards. This most likely symbolizes the divine protection and healing Hezekiah received after his life-threatening sickness. The Prophet Malachi makes a reference to this same imagery: “But unto you that hears my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings …” (Malachi 4:2). Added to this imagery is the depiction of two ankhs on both sides of the bulla. These famous symbols represent life. Considering the combined imagery, this bulla surely must be attributed to Hezekiah’s later years, his illness and healing.

Hezekiah’s Final Years

The events recorded during Hezekiah’s added years indicate another turn from God. The newly recovered Hezekiah was flattered to receive well-wishing ambassadors from the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan. The ambassadors of the king (identified in ancient Babylonian history as Marduk-apal-addina II) were shown around Jerusalem by the giddy Hezekiah. All the Jewish riches—even throughout the wider dominion—were shown to the ambassadors by the naïve King Hezekiah. It was during this encounter that “God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31).

Merodach-baladan on the left, also known as Marduk-apal-addina II; from the Berlin Museum (public domain)

After the Babylonians had left, Isaiah approached the king. He queried Hezekiah about what the men had said and where they were from. Ignoring his first question, Hezekiah affirmed that the men were from a “far country”—from Babylon. After Isaiah pressed further, Hezekiah responded that he had shown the ambassadors all of his treasures. Isaiah responded:

Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (Isaiah 39:6-7)

2 Chronicles 32:25 also briefly mentions Hezekiah’s post-illness turn for the worse.

But Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem.

Yet again though, Hezekiah turned himself around. The following verse describes how he humbled himself, along with the inhabitants of Jerusalem. As a result, God richly blessed his final years, and the kingdom of Judah grew in strength and renown. And Hezekiah was able to produce an heir—his son Manasseh. Hezekiah was buried with full honors “in the chiefest of the sepulchres of the sons of David: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did him honour at his death” (verse 33).

Manasseh, though, turned out to be perhaps the most loathsome ruler in Judah’s history. His penchant for child sacrifice brings to mind the deeds of his grandfather, Ahaz. His communion with demons through witchcraft and sorcery also ranked among his many sordid deeds (2 Chronicles 33:6). Tradition states that he even had the Prophet Isaiah sawn in half. And so the sin-cycle of Judah continued to another generation.

Yet perhaps Manasseh’s deep, impassioned repentance later in his life was thanks to the example he learned from his father, the great King Hezekiah …

The Bible Story, the Archaeological Validation

And so we come full circle to more “modern” times. It was during the 1800s that biblical archaeology came into vogue—the idea of searching for material artifacts contemporary with the known biblical history. It was an idea running counter to the growing interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution. From those early days, the odd biblical name turned up, a city here and there, piecemeal discoveries matching biblical descriptions.

Archaeological Park on the Ophel, at the southern wall of the Temple Mount (Watch Jerusalem)

These days, there are more biblical skeptics then ever—yet there is far more evidence than ever. Hundreds of names, cities and general artifacts have been found validating not just snippets of the Bible, but entire stories. Certainly such is the case with King Hezekiah—one of Judah’s greatest kings, whose exploits to this day are taught, preserved and remain the subject of continual scientific discovery.

As archaeologists all over the Holy Land continue to sift through trowelfuls of precious earth, we wait for the next major discovery. Or maybe, it has already unwittingly been made, just waiting to be properly translated.

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Jossef Avni June 5, 2017 4:57 pm

A very good historical article that helped me to recognize better the similarities between the Bible and the archeological artifacts. Thanks 🙏