Taharqa, Sennacherib and Hezekiah – The Untold Story

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Cover image: King Taharqa leads his queens through a crowd during a festival (Art by Gregory Manchess) Source: Draper 2008

Sometimes the Bible can be misleading. Sometimes.

I would like to discuss an example which demonstrates how a well-documented story, with rich archaeological remains, overshadows a major story. A story which seems to be trivial, almost meaningless, when one reads through the Biblical account.

I hope that this article inspires the reader, especially if she/he is a Biblical Studies teacher, to give more weight to the broader context and archaeological remains, which illuminate a very important story.

Many people know the famous story of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, described in II Kings 18:13 – 20:37, as well as in Isaiah 36-37, and II Chronicles 32. In short, Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem, devastates the kingdom of Judah, challenges Hezekiah in Jerusalem, but does not succeed. He ends up returning to Assyria and is later murdered by his sons, who escape to neighboring Urartu (“Ararat”), and his son Esarhaddon succeeds him. That’s just about it.

One of my favorite educational resources for the classroom is the Megalim Educational Institute of the City of David, Jerusalem. They have great videos in both English and Hebrew (with and without subtitles). Here is a sample video about the famous Sennacherib Prism:

But what happened after that? The Bible tells us one thing, and history and archaeology tell us much more. This story has such rich archaeological remains, many of which can be visited, seen and touched in Israel, and in museums around the world. The more prominent of these are:

  • The Broad Wall – which is literally underneath the house I grew up in, in the Old City.
  • Hezekiah’s Water Cistern, aka Hezekiah’s Tunnel – should be included in your next visit to Jerusalem, especially if you are with children.
  • The Lachish Reliefs – and the actual site of Lachish – which I talk about in several of my previous articles.
  • LMLK Jug Handles, as well as a personal seal of King Hezekiah. The connection of these artifacts to the narrative has several approaches, and some (Professor Oded Lipschits, TAU) attribute the LMLK jug handles to Ahaz – the first Judean king to voluntarily become vassal to Assyria.

Assyria and the Black Pharaohs

Black Pharaohs Taharqa.jpg

There is much more to the story. In a trivial looking verse (found in an almost identical verse in Isaiah 37:7), the Bible tells us as follows:

And [the king of Assyria] learned that King Tirhakah (Taharqa) of Kush (Nubia) had come out to fight him; so he again sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying… (II Kings 19:9)

In short, Sennacherib was sidetracked by a skirmish with a nebulous King of Kush, and sent his messengers to Hezekiah saying “It ain’t over yet!” or “I’ll be back!”

But that did not happen. Sennacherib goes back home, and that’s all we ever hear from Assyria in our area. Indeed?

To better understand what is missing from this story, and the impact it had on the region, we need to backtrack and see who Taharqa is, and what is the Kingdom of Kush. I will indulge for a bit in the Biblical appearance of the Kingdom of Kush, or Nubia – modern day Sudan, south of Egypt and along the Nile. I hope that this will spur enough curiosity for the reader to further look into this and convey it to whomever will be willing to hear.

The Rivers of Eden

The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is. The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli

The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Kush. (Genesis 2:11-13)

What we find here is a primal description of the building blocks of civilization. We have the Nile, which is called here Gihon (See Rashi), along which develops the land of Kush. A fascinating discussion would be, why do we need to hear about Kush in such primal a description?

The other land is called Havilah. If it is correct to say that it is the source of Lapis Lazuli, then it would probably be in the area of Afghanistan. However, Lapis Lazuli was a treasured commodity which in ancient times was only available to the powerful and the rich. It was rare, and came from far away – Afghanistan and then there is the mention of the “gold of that land which is good”. Such a strange thing to mention.

So we have Gold, and Kush, given special attention in a primal description of the fall of Man from Eden.

Kush, the man

Kush is one of the sons of Ham, from the three progenitors of the seventy nations, according to Biblical tradition (Gen. 10:5-12). Another fascinating discussion would be to just compare what we know today, from history and archaeology, with the entire Biblical description there. But that is another article for another time.

From these the maritime nations branched out. [These are the descendants of Japheth] by their lands—each with its language—their clans and their nations.

The descendants of Ham: Kush, Mizraim (Egypt), Put, and Canaan.

The descendants of Kush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.

I am tempted to continue the list, because of the fascinating relationships to Canaan, Assyria, Babylon and more. But we have to on point.

Taharqa, Hezekiah and Esarhaddon

When Sennacherib King of Assyria said to Hezekiah “I’ll be back” – he didn’t come back to Jerusalem. But his son, Esarhaddon, came back to the region – big time. Esarhaddon was the first enemy to ever invade Egypt.

assyria invading by sea.jpg
Wall panel depicting soldiers crossing a river floating on inflated animal skins. Assyrians ca 860 BC, Nimrud, northwest palace. British Museum

We will get back to what Assyria did to Egypt. But before that, we need to give the proper attention to Egypt of the time, and how they have to do with the King of Kush.

So what was going on in Egypt? And what does this have to do with Taharqa?

Egypt, leading up to this time, was going through political instability. It is therefore called an “Intermediate” period. This particular period of instability is known as The Third Intermediate Period.

This instability allowed the powerful southern kingdom of Kush, or Nubia, to seize the throne of Egypt. So when the Bible says that “Taharqa King of Kush” came out to fight Sennacherib – he was in fact fighting the adjacent Kingdom of Egypt, under the rule of the Kushites.

Why were they fighting Sennacherib?

The Bible does not tell us much, but archaeology fills in the gaps.

King Hezekiah rebelled against the Assyrian empire, which means that he stopped paying taxes (II Kings 18:7). What we don’t know from the Bible is that Hezekiah not only rebelled by discontinuing his taxes to Assyria. From Egyptian and Assyrian sources, we know that the Egyptian army was led by Nubian crown prince Taharqa (690-664 BCE), who joined the kingdom of Judah against the Assyrians, though the king at the time was Shebitqu (702-690 BC). The confusion as to who was king at the time can be attributed to the fact that the “the existing narrations were drawn up at a date after 690 BC, when it was one of the current facts of life that Taharqa was king of Egypt and Nubia” (Kitchen 2003, 159-60).

Before we continue the story, I would like to show you some amazing things I have seen this past week in an Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit. You can read more about the exhibit here.

Gold and the Gods – MFA Exhibit

Gold is a very important commodity in the ancient world, and he who has gold, has power. We saw that the Bible mentions “gold that is good” in the land of Havilah as part of the primal description of the development of civilization. While Havilah may be further south of Nubia, or to the east, gold was definitely a hallmark of the power of Nubia.

The Land of Nubia was an important source of gold, and the Nubians were expert craftsmen, making remarkable jewelry which demonstrates a high level of sophistication, skill and ingenuity (based on the words of Yvonne J. Markowitz, Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry). The exhibit offers around 100 pieces, which constitute the richest exhibit of Nubian jewelry outside of Khartoum, and there is much that can be learned from them: Their usage, manufacturing, fashion and style, as well as intercultural influences. For example, we can see that the Nubians adopted, to varying extent, many aspects of the Egyptian culture, burial ritual and religion. Here are some pictures I took at the exhibit:


Of course, as a Bible Studies teacher, I went there with the hopes of finding something I can hold onto, put into a Biblical context. I went there hoping to see something from Taharqa – and I was not disappointed. Below are three articles which relate to Taharqa:

  1. (bottom) Nuri, gold foil, Napatan period, reign of Taharqa (690-664 BC).
  2. (top left) Statuette of Taharqa himself. This would probably be the inspiration for the National Geographic illustration above. Since there are several other images of Taharqa in different museums, such as the Louvre, or the Brooklyn Museum – I wasn’t so surprised. But the next piece made the entire visit worth it.
  3. (top right) Personal Ring of King Taharqa.


The Invasion of Egypt

Hezekiah made a disastrous miscalculation when he decided to rebel against Assyria, but the Egyptian-Nubians made an even more fatal mistake, because their interference in Assyrian affairs would eventually lead to the collapse of their dynasty. While Sennacherib’s war against the Egyptians was the first of its kind, it was short-lived, and as we know from the Biblical account, he turned back home and was assassinated by his sons, and succeeded by Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). But the story did not end there, and in fact, the Nubian involvement in Assyrian affairs had led to the collapse of their dynasty.

Just a few years later, in 674 and 671 BC, Esarhaddon attempted two invasions into Egypt, the first was unsuccessful, but the second one was. Assyria’s victory was commemorated on an alabaster tablet known as Esarhaddon’s Victory Stele (image below). In the stele, it reads:

“I cut down with a sword and conquered…I caught like a fish (and) cut off his head…I conquered Egypt (Musur), Paturi[si] and Nubia. Its king, Taharqa (Tarqú), I wounded five times with arrowheads and ruled over his entire country…” as well as deporting “all Nubians from Egypt”

Assarhaddon_Berlin_012008 (1).jpg
Image by Neithsabes – own work, public domain. Https://commons.wikimedia.org/a/index.pho?curid=5527429

But Taharqa was not an easy person to kill, and he lived on, attempting to seize the throne again. This led to more invasions. Esarhaddon’s successful invasion was followed by two more invasions by his son, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), which exacted the heaviest damage and destruction on Egypt in its history. These invasions are documented in numerous Assyrian historical texts. After deporting the Nubians (the Assyrians clearly differentiated between the Nubians and the Egyptians), they appointed Nekau I, who would become the progenitor of the Egyptian Native 26th Dynasty, and beginning the Late Period.

To summarize this article. There is always more than meets the eye. A few innocent looking words can hide within them a treasure of information, which may be critical to understanding the entire story. Here, the text and the archaeology merge to add so much more to a story which we previously thought can’t get any better: Assyria taunts Hezekiah and ends up leaving, and they lived happily ever after…or did they?

The broader geopolitical game had dire consequence on Egypt, and consequently on Judah.

Egypt continued to play an important role with the Kingdom of Judah. As Necho II and Psamtik II venture north to aid Assyria against Babylon in the Battle of Carchemish (605 BC), King Josiah of Judah interferes with Necho II, gets killed, and the Egyptians end up interfering with the Kingdom of Judah. After their loss in Carchemish, Babylon took over what Egypt controlled in the area, and thus took control of Judah, leading to its destruction. Even after its destruction, some Jewish renegades escaped to Egypt, and were killed there (Jeremiah ch. 42-44). There were also better times for the Jews of Alexandria in the time of the Talmud, but it relates to who was in charge in Egypt, and how that came to be.

As for Egypt: Once the Assyrians successfully invaded Egypt, it was just a matter of time until the later nascent Empires learned the trick: Persia, Greece and Rome did the same, and brought an end to one of the world’s most powerful and ancient civilizations.



Kitchen, Kenneth A. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eardmans.

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