Christians uphold that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) is the inspired Word of God, inerrant and accurate. Invariably most churches’ statement of faith (or doctrinal basis) start with their belief in the Bible as God’s Holy and inspired Word – the final authority on all matters pertaining to faith and practice.
However, in today’s atheistic and humanistic society the Bible is increasingly seen as irrelevant and inaccurate, an old stone-age book of fairy-tales for weak-minded bigots. It makes strong statements condemning homosexuals as ‘evil,’ purportedly supporting slavery and on people – in general – as inherently and fundamentally evil, needing a ‘saviour’ to rescue them from a fictional ‘hell’ to an equally-fictional ‘heaven’.
Moreover, as a basis for these accusations, the Bible is mocked by sceptics for its outrageous and impossible claims of events that took place in history; such as: six-day creation, a global flood, feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread, people walking on water and being raised from the dead.
Christians have responded to these claims in a number of different ways. One argument is that archaeological records prove the Bible – names and places mentioned in the Bible are also mentioned in other records from the time, therefore the rest of it must be true. Archaeology has produced article after article, concurring (although not always so clearly) with the Biblical record. Many places, once previously only noted in the Bible (such as those in Genesis 10) have been found to be real.
Undeterred, sceptics debunk that argument. Just because a real place or person is mentioned, doesn’t mean the rest of what a document says is true. The fact that Baker Street (a real place) is mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes novels doesn’t make Holmes and Dr Watson real people. They also refute much of the ‘evidence’, claiming it disproves the Bible rather than proving it.
Arguments and debates change and develop over time, with attacks on the Bible coming from all angles, as new evidence for the Bible comes to light.
These arguments are arguably weakening over time. Critics once said (and sometimes still do) that the entire Bible was untrue – a book of old fairy-tales, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah never existed and neither did King David, King Josiah or anyone else. As more and more evidence to the contrary is unearthed by archaeologists (such as an old 9th-century BC inscription referring to the ‘House of David’ and other references to kings of Israel and Judah), the date of its supposed composition is pushed further back.
Now, a common argument flouted by critics is that the Old Testament was made-up by Ezra or some other Jewish priest in the 5th century BC, or sometimes King Josiah in the 7th century. Some critics concede that these kingdoms maybe did exist, but on a much smaller scale. In addition, their focus has turned to the earlier part of Israel’s history; pre-9th century BC, where evidence is extremely sparse, standing in stark contrast to the rich findings we now have available post-9th century.
Critics won’t give you an inch, if their previous theory doesn’t match up; they just invent a new one, admitting that ‘perhaps it did happen,’ but in a natural way – anything to deny the power of God.
This is a clear change in tune from previous statements. There is much evidence I could talk about that refutes this, and the arguments (on both sides) are much more complex (although I’ve tried to do them justice), but that would take a long time – there are many more arguments against the Bible, some stronger than others. Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson’s book Evidence for the Bible is an excellent, honest and detailed archaeological resource for critic and Christian alike.
Archaeology concurs fantastically with the Bible (although why should Christians be surprised?), including names and places, as well as world events, prophecies and much more.
Ultimately of course, archaeology, on its own, can never prove the Bible. It all boils down to faith in God. This is the fundamental point, without belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent God; the Bible is just a bunch of meaningless stories and outrageous claims (Jesus walking on the water can never be proved), even if it is right on its geography and history. God is omnipotent, He can do anything in any way He wants, by natural or super-natural means. If He wants to make a donkey talk, it’ll talk, if He wants to turn water into wine, He can. Liberal or non-literal interpretations of the Bible clearly miss the bus here, they totally misunderstand who God is.
Anyhow, in this backdrop, I wish to briefly discuss one such claim that the Bible makes: the slaying of 185,000 Assyrian soldiers overnight by the Angel of the Lord, as mentioned in 2 Kings, Isaiah and 2 Chronicles.
Clearly a preposterous notion! Or is it…?
Let me set the scene… It is approximately 701 BC…
Sennacherib has been king for a few years and, now in his early forties, has sealed his reign by brutally putting down a number of uprisings and rebellions across the vast Assyrian empire. He has embarked on a number of ambitious projects, including building up his capital city Nineveh and moving vast swathes of his subjects (possibly up to half a million) around the empire, mixing them together, to dispel any sort of united nationalism or religion which might cause a rebellion, and indeed did – running an empire is a tricky business. This policy included the recently conquered Israelite kingdom (Samaria). This is described in 2 Kings 17, and ultimately resulted in the mixed bloodlines and consequent disharmony of Jew and Samaritan evident in New Testament times.
The map below gives you an idea of the sheer scale and size of the empire he inherited, reaching its greatest extent some thirty years later. The southern kingdom of Judah is seen as a small pocket of yellow.
Strategically, this doesn’t make sense – why would the Assyrian king, with all the vast armies at his disposal not take over this small insignificant yellow splodge in the middle of his map, a potential threat to the security of his empire? The fact is he tried and failed.
Judah was effectively a loose-vassal-state under the Assyrian king, paying a regular tribute, and had been doing so for years. Other nations such as the Phoenicians and Philistines followed a similar procedure, in return for protection and a little autonomy. Previously Ahaz, King of Judah had complained to the King of Assyria about the Philistines and Edomites, raiding Israelite territory.
Now under King Hezekiah’s reign, Judah had been carrying out a number of reforms, culling idol worship and other such practices. He also had the cheek to withhold his tribute to the Assyrians. With a lot of guts he pushed back Assyrian-vassals the Philistines to the Gaza area in an effective military campaign. His engineers dug a 1750ft tunnel, at a 0.6% gradient, under Jerusalem, to channel water into the city, to ensure it could withstand a siege (a remarkable feat of engineering, an inscription marking the event exists). And to cap it all off – made overtures to the Egyptian and Babylonian kings (who were themselves rebelling against Assyria), Assyria’s enemies.
Irked at this pithy little tin-pot King chucking his weight about, Sennacherib set out to teach him a lesson.
In 701 BC, Sennacherib embarked on a grand tour of destruction and tyranny throughout his empire, quashing would-be revolutionaries. Feeling in the mood, he advanced through Judah, taking city after city, killing Israelites left, right and centre. Hezekiah, at sixes and sevens, realised his mistake and in blind panic attempted to pay off the angry Assyrian by stripping the temple of all its gold and gifting it to Sennacherib, who was then encamped at Lachish.
Sennacherib’s response was ‘nothing doing.’ He accepted the gold and continued his advance. Or rather, his men under his ‘supreme commander,’ he had a campaign to fight against the Egyptians and Ethiopians, who were marching towards them, probably to come to Hezekiah’s assistance.
The key fortified cities of Judah were destroyed (including Azekah) with much bloodshed. When they came to Lachish, 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, having encamped around the city with their vast army they sent a series of threatening messages to the determined inhabitants within its walls. Then the Assyrian commander (the Rabshakeh) proceeded to have a shouting match with some of Hezekiah’s officials. Having rubbished them, their plight and their God, and their many weaknesses, the Assyrians prepared to attack. Things were getting a bit sticky for the plucky defenders.
Meanwhile, Hezekiah did what all good leaders do, when faced with a crisis – he found a quiet spot (the House of the Lord), away from the panic and fear in the city, to pray and there poured out his contrite heart to the Lord. Something he should have done, right at the start.
Hezekiah then consulted old Isaiah the prophet, beseeching him to pray. The Lord’s response was immediate, “He’ll hear a rumour and go back home.”
The Rabshakeh found that his king was warring against a number of his enemies, having left Lachish. With one last lenghty and blasphemous threat, delivered by way of a letter, he left.
I simply love the next bit. Hezekiah received the letter, knowing that the threats therein were still very real. He took it and ‘spread it before the Lord.’ There was nothing he could do and he knew it, the matter was all in the Lord’s hands.
Hezekiah’s prayer is worth repeating, he praises his God and with the right motives, asks the Lord to intervene and thereby glorify His name:
“Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.
“It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.” (2 Kings 19:15-19).
The Lord answered through the prophet Isaiah. His prophecy was remarkable:
“[Sennacherib] will not enter this city
or shoot an arrow here.
He will not come before it with shield
or build a siege ramp against it.
By the way that he came he will return;
he will not enter this city
declares the Lord.
I will defend this city and save it,
for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.” (2 Kings 19:32-34).
The Lord then reaped judgement upon the invaders. In one single night, the Bible tells us 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died at their camp, by the hand of the Angel of the Lord. A tragic price to pay. With a huge chunk of his army gone, Sennacherib had no choice but to return home.
Later, Sennacherib himself was assassinated (about 681 BC), whilst paying homage to his idols of wood and stone.
Therefore, Sennacherib paid the price for his arrogant blasphemy.
Time for a reality check?
So that’s the claim that the Bible makes. Theres no two ways about it, or room for a different interpretation. An absurd claim surely?
Like many civilisations, the Assyrians were good record keepers, even if their records and histories did somewhat exaggerate their victories and social and military prowess, making themselves out to be invincible.
Two Assyrian sources, and accounts written by Herodotus and Josephus on these cataclysmic events are available to us today; the story they tell is quite interesting.
The vast ‘Lachish Reliefs’ (2.5m tall, 18.9m long) are a masterpiece of Assyrian artwork. They graphically depict the Assyrian siege of Lachish, and are well worth viewing in the British Museum.
The Sennacherib Annals (etched into stone prisms, consisting of tales of great Assyrian military victories) composed a few years later, while the subject was still alive, are suspiciously quiet about what happened at Jerusalem. They go into great length detailing how he laid siege to ’46 strong cities’ of Judah; but Sennacherib makes no mention of his defeat, which isn’t really surprising. Instead, to save face, he chose to big-up his victory at Lachish, as fantastically depicted on the Lachish Reliefs, claiming to have taken hundreds of thousands of prisoners. He adds that he left Hezekiah trapped in Jerusalem, like a ‘bird in a cage’; but nothing is said of Jerusalem’s conquest.
If Sennacherib had conquered Jerusalem, the jewel in the crown of Judah, then surely he would have gloried in his victory and made mention of it in his records. With the city there for the taking, his ‘invincible’ army would have had no difficulty taking the city. The fact that he highlighted the victory at Lachish to such a great extent, and omitted any such victory at Jerusalem, smells distinctly fishy. Hezekiah is the only king mentioned by Sennacherib that he doesn’t claim to have captured.
The 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus, not particularly known for his accuracy (whilst he’s sometimes called the ‘Father of History’, another not-at-all-flattering title frequently flung at him is ‘Father of Lies’), related a tale somewhat similar to what actually happened. In his Histories he describes in a garbled way how in a fight against the Egyptians, Sennacherib’s Assyrian army’s equipment was destroyed suddenly by hundreds of mice, then themselves being routed by the Egyptians. This is also noted in Babylonian records from the time.
Josephus, the 1st century AD Jewish historian (who sometimes got stuff wrong too – don’t they all!), lays into Herodotus’ inaccurate account, and instead, suggests the Assyrian army was killed by a plague.
From a human perspective it’s understandable these two historians got it a bit wrong. Herodotus wrote almost two hundred years after the event (having probably never read the holy book of a tin-pot little country), and Josephus nearly seven hundred years after. The fact that he knew of the Assyrian army’s defeat, suggests it DID happen. As we all know, like the game of Chinese Whispers, stories are passed on from generation to generation, turning into legend, stuff is added and taken away, but the semblance of truth often remains. Take the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, for example – their stories probably originated in truth, the form of which we don’t know. What we have now is a jumbled mix of legends, great to read (especially the Roger Lancelyn Green editions – my favourite as a youngster!), but not in the least bit accurate.
How ever historians choose to record it; we can clearly see the hand of God at work, in protecting the small nation of Judah, as he promised (2 Chro. 21:7), small and irrelevant in the world’s eyes, but nonetheless special in God’s sight.
Lord Byron’s famous poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib, does this more justice, the first and third verses saying:
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.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foes as he passed.
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.
The full poem can be read here. Sober stuff.
Unlike the Assyrian sources, the Bible is totally impartial. It doesn’t exaggerate, or view events through rose-tinted glasses, white-washing the failures. You’ve only to read the next chapter to see Hezekiah fall into sin again. The Bible’s all about how bad Israel is, in such a way that it could only, ultimately, come from God.
Unlike Herodotus and Josephus, the Bible is completely inerrant. Throughout thousands of years, the Word of God has remained so, and will continue to do so, no matter how people try to snuff it out.
The challenge is – if the Bible is accurate with its history, even with such supernatural events as the destruction of the Assyrian army, then, it’s surely not unreasonable to suggest it’s accurate with regard to God?
The Bible states that all mankind has sinned against God, thereby falling far short of His glory. Yet God is so loving as to send His Son to die for the world, so that all can be saved from His righteous wrath. That is the one single message of the Bible, throughout, from Genesis to Revelation. If you haven’t already, read it for yourself!
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s argument (known as ‘Pascal’s Wager’) was ‘that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage in believing otherwise.’ Whilst this might seem a tad weak (‘best be on the safe side, you’ve got nothing to lose’), whatever your view of God and the Bible, God exists, and if you’re not ransomed in Jesus Christ, then the Bible has bad news for you. This makes the ‘Good News’ so much better! The Wrath of God is turned into the Glory of God, and we can become Children of God, joint-heirs with Jesus Christ of the glorious future, with the Lord, that awaits us…
Forever with the Lord!
Amen, so let it be!
Life from His death is in that word
Here in the body pent,
Absent from Him I roam,
Yet nightly pitch my moving tent
A day’s march nearer home.
So when my latest breath
Breaks through the veil of pain,
By death I shall escape from death,
And life eternal gain.
That resurrection word,
That shout of victory:
Once more, “Forever with the Lord!”
Amen, so let it be!
2 Kings 17-20
2 Chronicles 29-32
Anderson, C. and Edwards, B. (2013) Evidence for the Bible. London, Day One Publications.
Evans, J.A. (1968) ‘Father of History or Father of Lies; The Reputation of Herodotus’, The Classical Journal, 64(1), pp. 11–17.
Henry, M. (1992) Matthew Henry’s Commentary On the Whole Bible
Herodotus (1972). Book II, The Histories 2.141. (trans. de Selincourt, A., rev. Burn, A.), London, Penguin, pp. 185-6.
Leston, S. (2014). Illustrated Guide to Bible Battles. Uhrichville, Barbour Publishing.
Mark, Joshua J. (2014). “Sennacherib,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 15, 2014. http://www.ancient.eu /sennacherib/.
Pascal, B. (n.d.) The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal. London, JM Dent & Co.
Saxtorph, N. (1972). Warriors and Weapons of Early Times. London, England: Blandford Press.
Titus Flavius Josephus (1896). Book X, Antiquities of the Jews, The Works of Josephus. (trans. Whiston, W.), London, George Routledge & Sons, pp. 238-9.