War of Words: Sennacherib vs. Yahweh

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of December 13. Enjoy!

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To take advantage of the plethora of idle time spent traveling from Indianapolis to Anderson (and back) each weekday, I have listened to a public library edition of our assigned biblical readings on compact discs for the last two weeks. During this time, no passage has been narrated quite as powerfully as 2 Kings 18-20, wherein Sennacherib of Assyria, through his field commander the Rabshakeh, and Yahweh, through Isaiah, engage in a grandiose war of words. Their back-and-forth taunts and jabs touch on a number of topics: the awesome destructive power of the Assyrian army—and, especially, the gods it has overrun—the doom that awaits a rebellious and weakened Jerusalem, and the bodily by-products its citizenry will be left to consume, followed by Yahweh’s preordination of events and his response to the chest-beating “rage” and “insolence” of Sennacherib (2 Kgs 19:28 NIV). But upon further study, the true beauty of these accounts lies not in their narration, but their deeper exegetical analysis.

To be sure, scholars are befuddled by a number of questions that have arisen from investigating the chapters at hand. For example, it is likely that some liberty has been taken with the timeline of the pericope,[1] and the ebb and flow of messengers and their orations may actually be a marriage of multiple textual traditions.[2] While these problems are decidedly beyond the scope of this reflection paper, it is unavoidable that the Rabshakeh’s speech makes no sense in the context of the passages that immediately precede it, wherein Hezekiah won Sennacherib’s withdrawal from Lachish for an unfathomable sum of, literally, tons of gold and silver (2 Kgs 18:13-16). Miano asks, “Why would Sennacherib send his officials to demand unconditional surrender immediately after Hezekiah made peace with him by way of a substantial tribute?”[3]

That question cannot be sufficiently answered without the escape of an incomplete redaction. Such a conclusion might also add perspective to the narrative’s transition from a broad introductory statement about the fourteenth year of Hezekiah to an inordinate focus on individual speeches. Of this “disproportionate” use of direct address, Fewell notes, “Not only do the character’s speeches contain information crucial to the story, but also the tones of the speeches communicate certain dynamics that could not have been captured by straight narration.”[4] In this light, the Rabshakeh’s comments are nothing short of brilliant, serving to demoralize, humiliate and pierce the people of Jerusalem to the point of capitulation. Indeed, Eliakim, Shebna and Joah deliver the message to Hezekiah with torn clothes, as a sign of extreme sadness or mourning, and Hezekiah describes it to Isaiah as “a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace” (2 Kgs 19:3 NIV).

But perhaps these chapters are constructed in this manner to demonstrate the fallacy of taunting Yahweh, who comes to display his authority and supremacy over Sennacherib. Whereas the Rabshakeh contends that Yahweh is on the side of Assyria (2 Kgs 18:25), the prophecy of Isaiah mirrors and reflects the taunts lobbed against both Yahweh and his people. Yahweh appears to be against anyone who proudly proclaims that they have personally accomplished this or that (2 Kgs 19:23-28; Dt 8:10-20), and therefore “becomes the taunter, the threatener, the punisher and the destroyer.”[5] As Isaiah writes, “Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of man; a sword, not of mortals, will devour them. . . . at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic” (Is 31:8-9 NIV). Apparently, the Rabshakeh’s ability to craft his message with harsh and prideful language is ultimately the undoing of Assyria, which begs the question: Did Babylon learn a lesson from the Rabshakeh and refrain from taunting Yahweh more than a century later?


[1] David Miano, “What Happened in the Fourteenth Year of Hezekiah?” in Milk and Honey: Essays on Ancient Israel and the Bible, ed. Sarah Malena and David Miano (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 113.

[2] Ibid., 114-122.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Danna Nolan Fewell, “Sennacherib’s Defeat: Words at War in 2 Kings 18.13-19.37,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 (Fall 1986), 80.

[5] Ibid., 82.

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