What should we make of the Old Testament descriptions of divine intervention? In particular, what about those instances where we read of angels fighting the enemies of Israel? These passages can be uncomfortable for modern readers, sounding as they do more like fiction than history. But I think that there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Take, for instance, the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah right at the turn of the eighth century B.C. Isaac Kalimi, a biblical scholar at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, calls it “definitely the best documented event of the history of Israel in the First Temple period.” We can understand what happened here by looking at four sources: the biblical account, the Assyrian account, the Greco-Egyptian account, and the Babylonian account.
The biblical account
Let’s start with what Scripture says. The second book of Kings tells how the Judean king Hezekiah “rebelled against the king of Assyria, and would not serve him” (18:7). Initially, the rebellion goes disastrously for the Judeans:
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold (18:13-14).
The Assyrians are not satisfied with tribute and continue to press onward towards the capital, Jerusalem. The terror of the mighty Assyrian army is captured by Lord Byron at the opening of his 1815 poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib”:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Nor are these troops the only reason the Judeans have to be afraid. Sennacherib also sends his vizier, the Rabshakeh, to threaten Judah and to mock God. The Rabshakeh first tells the Judeans that relying on Egypt (Hezekiah’s powerful ally) is like relying on a “broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it” (18:21). He then claims that they cannot rely upon God either, because he is angry with Judah for Hezekiah’s religious reforms, and the Rabshakeh claims God personally told the Assyrians to invade (vv. 22-25).
The Rabshakeh’s speech is classic psychological warfare whose aim is to dishearten the Judeans. But the prophet Isaiah assures the king that the message is untrue. When the Rabshakeh’s speech doesn’t work, King Sennacherib follows up with his own letter, mocking God outright instead:
Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. And shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations which my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Tel-assar? (19:10-12).
Taking the letter into the Temple, Hezekiah prays that God will save his people, and thereby show that (unlike the gods of the various pagans conquered by the Assyrians), the God of Israel is the true God (vv. 14-19). God responds through the prophet Isaiah, saying:
Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall 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 the sake of my servant David (vv. 32-34).
So far, there’s nothing particularly challenging: even a nonbeliever can easily accept that the Assyrians might mock the god of an enemy nation, that this would sit poorly with the king and people of that nation, and that the prophet of that god might not take this sitting down. But then the passage continues: “And that night the angel of the Lord went forth and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh” (vv. 35-36).
This is the part of the story at which modern readers—even religious ones—are likely to balk. In a seventeenth-century painting of the scene by Peter Paul Rubens, we see the heavens open and angels hurtling violently downward toward terrified Assyrians. An illustration in an medieval French Bible, meanwhile, shows an angel on foot, with sword drawn, about to slay three unarmed, cowering Assyrians.
Are we really to believe that a witness to this event would have seen something like this? To answer that question, let’s turn to the other sources.
The Assyrian account
On the Assyrian end, we have Sennacherib’s Annals, which were written during the Assyrian king’s lifetime, perhaps only a few years after the Jerusalem campaign. These annals were government propaganda, designed to encourage morale and depict the king’s glory. As the Finnish scholar Antti Laato points out, there’s a pattern of “propagandistic falsification” in the Assyrian telling of things, particularly in their dishonest treatment of Assyrian setbacks and losses (setbacks that we know of from other sources).
As one might expect, most of the accounts are of Sennacherib’s glorious victories. But the text regarding his war against the Judeans is odd:
As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged 46 of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. . . . He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with armed posts, and made it unthinkable [literally, “taboo”] for him to exit by the city gate. . . . I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, his yearly payment.
He, Hezekiah, was overwhelmed by the awesome splendor of my lordship, and he sent me after my departure to Nineveh, my royal city, his elite troops [and] his best soldiers, which he had brought in as reinforcements to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, [etc.].
The Israeli Assyriologist Hayim Tadmor suggests that the lengthy description of the tribute that Hezekiah allegedly sent is compensating for the lack of victory: the capital wasn’t conquered (indeed, the Assyrians don’t claim to have even laid siege to the capital), and Hezekiah remained alive and defiant. In the other accounts of Assyrian conquests, we find them conquering enemy capitals, with Sennacherib boasting of rival kings coming to “kiss my feet.”
But here, we hear of the Assyrians taking the smaller Judean cities, knocking the Judeans back to Jerusalem, and then . . . unexpectedly going home? Laato asks, “What caused this sudden withdrawal from Jerusalem? Sennacherib does not say.”
The Greco-Egyptian account
But the Greek historian Herodotus does say. Or at least, he offers a third perspective based on that of the Egyptian Pharoah Sethos. Herodotus calls him a “priest of Hephaestus” (probably Ptah) and tells how his army refused to march against the Assyrians. And so:
The priest, in this quandary, went into the temple shrine and there before the god’s image bitterly lamented over what he expected to suffer. Sleep came on him while he was lamenting, and it seemed to him the god stood over him and told him to take heart, that he would come to no harm encountering the power of Arabia: “I shall send you champions,” said the god.
Thus, “those Egyptians who would follow him” marched to their eastern border, where they faced off with the Assyrians. But “during the night,” the Assyrians “were overrun by a horde of field mice that gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed fleeing unarmed the next day.”
One way of reading this is literally. But New Testament scholar Jack Finegan suggests another:
The mention of mice may well indicate that it was plague that struck Sennacherib’s army, since mice are a Greek symbol of pestilence and since rats are carriers of the plague. Perhaps this is the real explanation of the disaster referred to in 2 Kings 19:35 as a smiting of the army by an angel of Jehovah, for plague and disease elsewhere in the Bible are regarded as a smiting by an angel of God.
Finegan is probably right to see this as a plague reference, but there’s no reason to posit this as “the real explanation” as if it refutes divine (and angelic) intervention. Like their Egyptian neighbors, the ancient Israelites saw no contradiction between saying “disease did this,” “an angel did this,” and “God did this.” They recognized that angelic activity was often invisible to the unaided human eye (see, e.g., Numbers 22:31: “then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face”). And they realized that one of the ways that God’s angels might act was through disease and pestilence (2 Sam. 24:10-17), just as St. John describes the fourth horseman of the apocalypse as “given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).
So, whether the Assyrians fell to “wild beasts” (field mice!) or pestilence or both, it remains true that the Assyrians mocked the God of Israel and were suddenly turned back from Jerusalem by what both the Egyptians and Judeans recognized as divine intervention, something that struck them overnight. In none of the accounts do we find that the Judeans (or Egyptians) are struck by this mysterious plague.
The Babylonian account
This brings us to the fourth perspective, that of Berosus, a Babylonian historian of the third century B.C. His writings are lost to us, but he is quoted at length by Josephus (a Jewish historian from the first century A.D.) as saying:
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 first night of the siege a hundred fourscore and five thousand, with their captains and generals, were destroyed. So the king was in a great dread, and in a terrible agony at this calamity; and being in great fear for his whole army, he fled with the rest of his forces to his own kingdom, and to his city Nineveh.
That’s remarkably consistent with the biblical account (in describing God striking down 185,000 Assyrians overnight), and with the Egyptian/Greek description (in seeming to ascribe the cause of death to pestilence).
Drawing upon these four perspectives, what can we say? King Sennacherib of the Assyrians was the most powerful ruler in the known world, such that both Hezekiah and even the armies of the Pharoah were terrified of him. At first, it looked like he would put Hezekiah’s rebellion down easily. But after he mocked the God of Israel, his army was struck down by the angel of the Lord.
How? Probably not by chasing individual Assyrians around with a sword (even if it makes for compelling art). Rather, it was probably through a powerful pestilence that hit the Assyrians—and hard—overnight, before they had time to set up siegeworks. So powerful was this overnight demonstration of divine power that the Egyptians would later claim it happened on their own borders, brought about by their own god (in contrast to the other three sources).
By the next day, Sennacherib and the other survivors turned tail and fled back to Nineveh. Or, as Byron put it:
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still! . . .
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!