A Monolith of Defiance: King Hezekiah (c.715–686 BCE)’s Efforts to Fortify Judah - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

A Monolith of Defiance:

King Hezekiah (c.715–686 BCE)’s Efforts to Fortify Judah


Eric A. Curry

Armstrong State University



Hailing from the Levant, an area “whose ancient civilization both parallels, and is distinct from, that of Egypt and Mesopotamia…(and) in its present geopolitical landscape comprises Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine,” the Siloam Inscription dwells at the heart of much debate with regards to the accurate dating of the inscription, the nature of its discovery, and the historical context surrounding its inception.[1]  With the cautious readings and analysis of biblical texts, epigraphic sources, Assyrian accounts, and various archeological and material remains expounded by radioisotope dating, the Siloam Inscription appears to denote the construction of Hezekiah’s Tunnel during a time of urgent wartime preparations.


Siloam inscription
Photo by Tamar Hayardeni

Though the tunnel in which the Siloam Inscription had been etched was discovered in 1837, the inscription itself would remain unnoticed until 1880.  After a man slipped while walking through the tunnel and while rising back to his feet noticed what resembled writing on the wall, the Siloam Inscription, finally revealed, no longer remained obscured by the darkness and high water levels in the shaft. With the ancient Hebrew text heavily obscured by lime and the difficulty on the part of the decipherer to discriminate between cracks in the rock and actual letters, the first attempt at translating the inscription proved fruitless.  Nonetheless word of the discovery spread around Jerusalem, and in the following year of 1881, A. H. Sayce endeavored to forge a revised transcribing of the Siloam Inscription after applying an acid to remove the lime and a series of squeezes were lifted of the text.[2]


The Siloam Inscription differs greatly from a typical dedication of a building project from the region and time period, as it makes no mention of a king that commissioned the undertaking in the first place, contrary to the biblical account of King Hezekiah in 2 Kgs. 20:20: “As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?”[3]  Since the inscription does not commit itself to a specific deity or reigning monarch at the time of its dedication, Simon Parker argues that while King Hezekiah may have commissioned the tunnel (as the biblical record states), the inscription was most likely written independently of the royal scribes and “that the inscription was produced by or for the ‘civil engineer’ who planned and supervised the project…he would have been proudest of the measurements, and he would have been most interested in recording these things and most anxious that such a record be inconspicuous and that his name not be displayed on it.”[4]  Indeed the inscription remained well hidden in its dim location a few meters inside the tunnel etched around the height of the waterline.


Expanding on Parker’s claim that the chief engineer would have most likely sanctioned the inscription after the completion of the tunnel, Graham Davies asserts that the handwriting resembles a more cursive form of writing as opposed to a more ceremonial or proper style of writing that was common among building dedications at the time.  Davies also remarks that the obscure and esoteric nature of both where the text is located in the tunnel and the verbiage chosen to portray an anonymous person, culminate in representing a sense of pride amongst the workers of their accomplishments.  The rather specific and detail-oriented measurements and emotional enthusiasm over the completion of the tunnel also embody the knowledge base of an engineer’s expertise with regards to trying to establish the author of the text.[5]


Eventually weighing the possibility of an engineer in Judah writing the inscription himself or hiring a scribe unaffiliated with the monarchy, Davies contends, “Therefore, I propose that the engineer(s) of the Shiloah Tunnel project hired a professional scribe to write an inscription.”[6]  While an analysis of the paleography of the Siloam Inscription suggests that it was written under the command of a chief engineer and not King Hezekiah, radiometric dating, the biblical account, and archeological evidence of the buildup of defenses encompassing the reign of Hezekiah, all verify the same explanation that King Hezekiah may not have ordered the scribing of the Siloam Inscription, but he did indeed demand the digging of the Siloam Tunnel which housed the inscription.[7]


Hezekiah by unknown artist, 17th cen.
Image produced by David Castor

Ascending the throne as king of Judah in 716 BCE, Hezekiah’s initial policies and reforms established various strategies, programs, and improvements to deter and defend Judah from a likely Assyrian offensive that would eventually come to fruition circa 701 BCE.  Ever mindful to avoid rousing Assyrian suspicions of his intent to revolt, Hezekiah’s religious reforms and internal improvements set the stage for Judah to rebel against Sennacherib, leader of the Assyrians.  While systematically strengthening the religious purity and resolve of his people, and the physical fortresses and defenses of the kingdom in which they lived, Hezekiah’s feat of staving off an Assyrian onslaught remain detailed in several descriptions encompassing the likes of biblical texts, epigraphic sources, Assyrian accounts, and various archeological and material remains.[8]


Foreseeing the urgent need to refortify the defenses of Jerusalem in advance of a potential invasion, Hezekiah’s primary anxiety rested with the securing and maintaining of a source of water located outside the walled-in city called the Gihon Spring.  Resulting from the hasty construction of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Gihon Spring now funneled water from its source situated outside the city into the Pool of Siloam, a reservoir within the city.  Simultaneously ensuring a constant and adequate amount of water for the inhabitants of the City of David, the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel and the sealing off of the cave from which the waters of the Gihon Spring originated, safeguarded the water supply from potential use or corruption by the enemy outside the walls.  This crucial tunnel enabled Hezekiah and his population to live under siege for an extended duration and arguably comprised the reason for Jerusalem’s successful standoff against the Assyrian attackers as portrayed in the biblical account: “After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities, thinking to conquer them for himself. When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him.  They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?’ they said. Then he worked hard repairing all the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it. He built another wall outside that one and reinforced the terraces of the City of David. He also made large numbers of weapons and shields (2 Chronicles 32:1–5).[9]


The Assyrian invasion of Judah was a response to a number of tribal revolts that erupted after the death of Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II in 705 BCE.  In the face of a two-pronged assault on Assyrian domination of the Levant, the Egyptians and Babylonians championed the cause of revolt and incited rebellion against the Assyrians in Philistia and Judah.  Heavily influenced and coerced by Egypt, the city of Ashkelon in Philistia took to outright revolt as Hezekiah, influenced by the Babylonians, eventually prepared to join in the chaos aimed towards the Assyrian regime.[10]


Assyrian Empire and Judah. Source: Wiki

In 701 BCE after swiftly and effectively crushing the threat posed by the Babylonians, Sennacherib overpowered the rebels in Philistia and forced the Egyptians to withdraw.  Eventually marching into Judah to stifle the aura of insurrection and extract the tribute that the leadership of Hezekiah had deprived of him, Sennacherib successfully attacked and overran forty-six cities in the region, most notably the strategic administrative city of Lachish.  Highlighting his triumphant victory over Lachish in the Nineveh relief, a large stone relief in Sennacherib’s former palace located in modern-day Iraq, the graphic portrayals within the relief depict the various siege engines, earthworks, archers, and tactics employed that ultimately broke Lachish and presumably the other Judean cities during Sennacherib’s campaign.[11]  Hezekiah’s construction of barricades to counter Sennacherib’s massive arsenal and battery of siege weapons, proved calculating and prudent as ultimately Jerusalem would not fall to Sennacherib’s military superiority even though Sennacherib boasted: “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities…Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.”[12]


Though the tunnel remained out of enemy hands, and the city heavily fortified against Assyrian intrusion, Hezekiah realized they could not hold out forever, and would most likely face the same fate as Lachish and the other besieged cities in Judah. Therefore, fully realizing Jerusalem’s plight, Hezekiah succumbed to Sennacherib yielding, “ I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.”[13]  Initially pleased with a subservient dispatch from Hezekiah, “Sennacherib exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.”[14]  This gesture of placation emptied the royal treasury, palace, and Temple of Jerusalem of their precious metals according to 2 Kings 18:14; however, Sennacherib only desired more.


After receiving the first offering of tribute, Sennacherib’s aide and messenger, Rabshakeh, dispatched in order to gain more tribute and favor for his master, approached the walls of Jerusalem and met with Hezekiah’s advisors.  Rendered unable to compromise and make a settlement, the riled Rabshakeh yelled from outside the walls in Hebrew so that the defenders and occupants inside could hear and fathom his propaganda.  Insisting that Hezekiah had betrayed and lied to his people by proclaiming that Yahweh would protect and lead his people to victory, Rabshakeh exclaims: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria’ (Isaiah 36:2).”[15] Eventually rhetorically asking what had become of the deities of the cities and lands the Assyrian’s had conquered, placing special emphasis on Israel, Rabshakeh adjourns the meeting and is successful in inserting mental war games into the minds of King Hezekiah’s aides and the other onlookers.[16]   


Blaming the religious reforms Hezekiah had enacted in order to protect the city of Jerusalem from an Assyrian invasion, Rabshakeh’s serpent tongue had twisted the popular view of Hezekiah’s religious policies briefly against him as he had previously abolished various temples, such as the Temple of Arad as the archeological record suggests.[17]  The eradication of idolatry and polytheism in Judah arose as Hezekiah’s method “to restore the force and purity of the Hebraic religion and cleanse it of the idolatrous practices that had been prevalent in his father's reign.”[18]  Yet, under the guidance of the prophet Isaiah, the people of Jerusalem regained hope and were validated in their refusal to surrender and open the gates as Isaiah avowed, “He (Sennacherib) shall not come into this city…By the way that he came, by the same he shall return.”[19]


The biblical account gives a miraculous explanation for the sparing of Judah by Sennacherib.  Hezekiah’s faithfulness to his god and obedience to the fundamental laws, which his religious reforms centered around returning his kingdom to, satisfied the commandments set forth in Deuteronomy 12:1–32.[20]  Therefore, the religious reforms Hezekiah instituted acted as a means to gain the favor of Yahweh in order to protect Jerusalem, to which Hezekiah had restored religious purity.  In comparison, Israel to the north of Judah is described as falling to sin, idolatry, and forsaking their true god, which angered their lord and in retribution, Israel is conquered and later annexed by Assyria for their punishment.  Viewed in the Bible as a pious king in the same vein as a second David, Hezekiah and Jerusalem are spared by god.  It is important to note that Miller and Hayes indicate that while the Bible is a good basis for grasping and understanding sources, one must consider that the Bible is highly steeped in religiosity, a heavily pro-Judean text, and possibly a composite source itself pulling information together from several expanses.[21]


In comparing the biblical record to the archeological evidence of Hezekiah’s preparations for the Assyrian invasion, 2 Chr. 32:28 states, “He also made buildings to store the harvest of grain, new wine and olive oil; and he made stalls for various kinds of cattle, and pens for the flocks.” [22]  These stores of grains, wine, and olive oil were often stored in jars imprinted with a “lmlk seal” or royal stamps that indicated the goods in storage were “of, to, or belonging to, the king.”[23]  The need for surplus food and supplies makes sense in anticipation of an invasion that could last a long duration of time.  The influx of refugees into the city of Jerusalem also indicates that the state needed to help provide for the displaced in order to maintain stability in the wake of an attack.  State control of the food supply (lmlk jars) and water supply (Hezekiah’s Tunnel) indicate a clear decision on the part of Hezekiah to provide for the masses of refuges, civilians, and his army defending the city.


A wall built under Hezekiah's reign
Photo by Lior Golgher

Attesting in particular to the construction of Hezekiah’s Tunnel as an effort intended to counter the Assyrian invasion by providing a constant water supply, the Siloam Inscription in conjunction with the biblical narrative formulate a symbiotic explanation for the tunnel’s unique inception.  The fact that the Siloam Inscription itself states that it was created by two different working parties mining towards each other at the same time represents a possible time constraint, and the hastily dug nature of the tunnel itself supports this notion of crews working to accomplish the task quickly while still being effective.  Expounding on recently conducted radioisotope dating of the tunnel only furthers the cause of dating the tunnel to the time period of Hezekiah and of comprising one of Hezekiah’s many tactics to bolster the defenses of Jerusalem in response to the Assyrian threat.  As summarized by Frumkin and Shimron: “We conclude that ST (Siloam Tunnel) is a major technological advance in tunneling techniques: (a) for the first time a long tunnel without intermediate shafts was constructed; (b) this was achieved by precise leveling and acoustic communication; (c) the tunnel was plastered in its entirety, clear testimony that the engineers were aware of the physical drawbacks of carving a water tunnel in karst terrain. The radiometric dating of the plaster and covering flowstone, corroborated with the biblical narrative and the Siloam Inscription, pinpoint ST technological advance to about 700 BCE.”[24]


The fact that Jerusalem remained intact whilst the rest of Judah lay scattered in disarray was a testament to the fortifications, food and water supply, and weapons Hezekiah funded and established.  Nonetheless, the biblical, Assyrian, and archaeological records all suggest that King Hezekiah made a conscious effort to fortify his cities: with food, as evinced by the number of lmlk jars uncovered in Lachish;[25] water, as proven by the Siloam Tunnel; and finally, the construction of walls and other defenses presented in the biblical account with the added support by Nahman Avigad and his discovery of the Broad Wall in Jerusalem.  Avigad’s excavations at the Broad Wall have revealed that, “…there is no doubt that the Siloam pool was enclosed within the fortifications of Jerusalem since Hezekiah’s time.”[26]  All of these sources combine into placing the Siloam Inscription into the broader context of Hezekiah’s early reign as King of Judah and as one of his schemes to deflect the intensity and impact of an Assyrian offensive into Judah.



About the author

Eric is from Fort Myers, Florida and currently a history senior at Armstrong. After graduating this May, he will start his adventure in Shanghai, China to teach English.


Recommended citation

Eric A. Curry, “A Monolith of Defiance: King Hezekiah (c.715–686 BCE)’s Efforts to Fortify Judah,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 4, no. 1 (April. 2014).




1 Suzanne Richard, “Archaeology of the Near East: The Levant,” Encyclopedia of Archaeology (2008), http://www.credoreference.com/entry.do?id=10240867 (accessed November 15, 2012).

2 Graham Davies, “A Literary Analysis of the Shiloah (Siloam) Tunnel Inscription,” in On Stone and Scroll: Essays in Honour of Graham Ivor Davies, trans. Klaas Smelik (Boston: De Gruyter, 2011), 104.

[3] 2 Kings 20:20 New International Version.

[4] Simon Parker, Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies On Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible (Ipswich, MA: Oxford University Press, 1997), 39, https://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?vid=2&hid=109&sid=b19f496d-9514-46d8-be3c231f15439a38%40sessionmgr111&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=nlebk&AN=23527 (accessed November 15, 2012).

[5] Davies, “A Literary Analysis of the Shiloah (Siloam) Tunnel Inscription,” 105–6.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Thomas Maugh II, “Radioactive Dating Confirms Biblical Account of Tunnel & Aqueduct Built by King Hezekiah,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 2003: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Radioactive-dating-confirms-biblical-account-of-2557905.php (accessed November 15, 2012).

[8] Joan Comay, “Hezekiah,” Who's Who in the Old Testament, Routledge (2002): http://library.armstrong.edu:2074/entry/routwwot/hezekiah (accessed November 15, 2012).

[9]  2 Chronicles 32:1–5 (NIV).

[10] Nadav Na'aman, “Sennacherib's 'Letter to God' on His Campaign to Judah,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 214 (April 1974): 33–4, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1356102 (accessed November 15, 2012).

[11] G. Ernest Wright, “Lachish: Frontier Fortress of Judah,” The Biblical Archaeologist 1, no. 4 (December 1938): 28, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3209236 (accessed November 15, 2012).

[12] James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), 287–88.

[13] 2 Kings 18:14 (NIV).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Isaiah 36:2 (NIV).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Philip King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 314.

[18] Joan Comay, “Hezekiah.”

[19] 2 Kings 19:32–33 (NIV).

[20] Deuteronomy 12:1–32 (NIV).

[21] J. Maxwell Miller and John Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 410–21.

[22] 2 Chr. 32:28 (NIV).

[23] J. Maxwell Miller and John Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 413.

[24] Amos Frumkin and Aryeh Shimron, “Tunnel Engineering in the Iron Age: Geoarchaeology of the Siloam Tunnel, Jerusalem,” Journal of Archaeological Science 33, no. 2 (February 2006): 237, http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxygsu-arm1.galileo.usg.edu/science/article/pii/S0305440305001688 (accessed November 16, 2012).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Yigal Shiloh, “The City of David Archaeological Project: The Third Season, 1980,” The Biblical Archaeologist 44, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 170, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3209607 (accessed November 16, 2012).


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