There is some debate as to whether there were one or two invasions of Judah by Sennacherib. What has lead to this debate? If we look at these story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah as is portrayed in the records, there is something quite strange about it. King Hezekiah, now allied with Egypt and the other client kingdoms ceases paying tribute to Assyria. Sennacherib invades Judah to re-establish his control. Seeing all his allies have been defeated, Hezekiah recants of his rebellion and offers to pay the outstanding tribute. Sennacherib agrees and takes possession of the tribute. The next thing we have is the story of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem. The question that has puzzled historians is – if the purpose of Sennacherib’s invasion was to re-establish control and tribute from Judah, why after achieving his purpose did he then go on to besiege Jerusalem? There are other things which do not quite add up. For instance, when he is besieging Jerusalem, Sennacherib , has to lift the siege to go off and defeat an Egyptian army. One of the leaders of this army is listed as being Tirhakh, King of Ethiopia. However, from Egyptian records we know that he didn’t actually come to his throne until 690 BCE and so therefore couldn’t have been a battle 11 years earlier. We also know from Egyptian sources that Tirkakh went on an external military campaign sometime between 690 and 685 BCE. Although the identity of his opponents is not identified, it would be reasonable to suppose that he had marched north into Judah to aid his allies against Assyria. This evidence, therefore, would put the siege of Jerusalem sometime in the period between 690 and 685.
The two invasion hypothesis, goes something like this. Following the death of Sargon, Egypt and the client kingdoms align themselves against Assyria. In 700 to 701 Sennacherib restores control over Syria, the city states of Phoenicia and Philistia and the territory of Samaria. Judah now stands alone. Hezekiah, realising his desperate position reaffirms his loyalty to the Assyrian throne, and pays a huge tribute which Sennacherib accepts and returns to Assyria. Around 688 BCE Hezekiah goes back on his word, Sennacherib invades again and besieges Jerusalem. The outcome of this siege is that the Assyrians get plague in their camp and have to retreat, without any positive outcome.
If we now go back to Lachish, we have to ask the question – if there were actually two Assyrian invasions which one lead to the destruction of the city? It is in fact very difficult to come to a firm conclusion. We do know that Sennacherib was at Lachish in 701 BCE, since it is from here that he sends his messengers to Hezekiah demanding the tribute and his reaffirmed loyalty. Had the city already been destroyed, had he merely captured it or was he merely camped outside it. The sources are unclear. Assyrian records for the 701 campaign claim the capture of ‘46 strong cities plus walled forts and countless villages’. I wonder if this is an exaggeration. Remembering that Judah at this time was a relatively weak nation with an largely agricultural economy, I doubt that there were 46 cities in Judaea and certainly up until today nothing like that number have been identified. To further complicate the problems the Assyrian annals for the years 688 to 681 have never been discovered and so can throw no further light on the chronology of Sennacherib’s campaigns in Judah. There is an argument that in fact Lachish was not destroyed until the 688 campaign based on the idea that the re-fortification described by Finkelstein is more likely to have happened in the years between 701 and 688, than in the years before 701. The argument states that Hezekiah having realised his error in 701 sought to further fortify his cities, knowing that the agreement of 701 would only be temporary and it was the completion of this and his other preparations, such as improving the water supply to Jerusalem, which set the date for him to rebel again. Israel Finkelstein, one of the leading Israeli archaeologists, writes that Hezekiah had created a ‘formidable fortification system consisting of a sloping stone and development. Halfway down the slope of the mound and the massive brick wall at his crest with a huge Bastion and a six chambered gate.’
An argument for the destruction of Lachish in 701 is that Sennacherib’s new Palace in Nineveh was completed in 694. One of the rooms in that palace contains a set of wall reliefs which show the capture and destruction of Lachish. If these are contemporary with the building of the Palace, then clearly the battle and destruction must have happened in the 701 campaign.