Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? Divided Monarchy, Part 2, The Reign of Hezekiah of Judah

In our last article, we noted several kings of Israel and Judah who were mentioned by name in various extra-biblical ancient Near Eastern writings. Of those kings singled out was Heze-kiah, son of Ahaz, who reigned from 716–687 B.C.1 Hezekiah’s time was in many ways the true golden age of the kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem ex-perienced unprecedented expansion in population and infrastructure during his reign, and the ordinarily back-woods role of Judah in international perspective changed dramatically as Jerusalem and its environs were thrust into the limelight during this turbulent time of ancient Near Eastern politics. What is more—indeed, what is primary from the biblical perspective—is that Judah experienced a time of theologi-cal reformation under Hezekiah.

Since the time of the first narrowly Judean king, Rehoboam, the Judean kings continued to relate to Yahweh much like the kings of Israel: they engaged in religious syncretism either via outright idolatrous state-sponsored practice, or else by passive failure to remove idolatrous shrines throughout the kingdom. Often in the books of Kings we read of Judean kings referenced with statements like “And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kings 8:18; 16:3) or “But the high places were not taken away” (1 Kings 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35). With Hezekiah, however, all this changes. In the midst of a depressing litany of Judean royal religious failure, we finally read:

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. (2 Kings 18:3–5)

Thus Iain Provan writes of Hezekiah: “We are now presented with a king who is not merely similar to David in the way that Asa . . . and Jehoshaphat . . . were, but resembles him more closely than any Davidic king so far. This is the king for whom we have been waiting, the second David who reforms Judean worship and makes it what it should be.”2 In this article, we will consider what archaeologists have uncovered relative to both Hezekiah’s political and religious acts.

Evidence of Hezekiah’s Religious Reforms

The biblical city of Arad has been identified with the site of Tell ‘Arâd, a location in the northeast section of the Beersheba Valley, about 17 miles due south of Hebron and about 18 miles straight east of Beersheba. Two structures are identifiable: a “lower city” dated to the Early Bronze Age (and thus Canaanite in origin), and an “upper city” consisting of an Iron Age military fortress. Though there is some disagreement about the precise date for the founding of the fortress, most archaeologists believe it to be Israelite/Judean. Not only are the fortifications of this fort impressive, it also contained enormous water cisterns allowing soldiers to survive in the arid climate for a long period of time without needing to access the nearby well. Furthermore, a cache of eighty-five Hebrew ostraca (written in ink on broken pieces of pottery and usually called “The Arad Letters”) were found in the 1960s. These mostly contain ration lists and instructions for soldiers defending the area from Edomite intruders, but they are a very useful corpus of texts for linguists who wish to understand how Hebrew was written by professionals in the kingdom of Judah.3

What is most significant about the Arad fortress, however, is the presence of a small temple. This temple had a three-part structure like that of the Jerusalem temple, though it was broader in its architecture. Rather than being long and thin as was the Jerusalem temple, it was short and wide. Nevertheless, it had an open-air courtyard with a sacrificial altar (constructed, incidentally, with uncut fieldstones likely in an effort to adhere to the instructions of Exodus 20:25 and Deuteronomy 27:5–6), an inner “holy place,” and a niche set at the back representing a “most holy place.” What is peculiar, however, is that this niche contained two incense altars and two stele/standing stones. Thus this official Judean temple exhibits what we know so well of this period of Judah’s history: religious syncretism.

When archaeologists began work on the Arad fortress in the 1960s, however, they noticed something peculiar about this temple. Whereas the site had been attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt on several occasions (evidenced by destruction layers and rebuilding layouts that differed from what preceded), the temple was taken out of use in what appears to be a peaceful, intentional manner. The altar, the incense altars, and the stele were all dismantled, laid on the ground, and buried. From this point on, though the building still stood within the fortress, it appears that it was now used not for worship but for storage or some other mundane purpose. Based on what was discovered in these excavations, this dismantling took place shortly after Hezekiah’s accession to the throne and appears to be a concrete example of Hezekiah’s reforming efforts described in 2 Kings 18:4! Interestingly enough, excavations at Beersheba uncovered the remains of a four-horned altar that had been dismantled at approximately the same time and reused as part of a wall. Thus it seems that Beersheba too had a syncretistic shrine whose fate was similar to that of the Arad temple.

Though some have sought to dismiss 2 Kings 18:4 as fictional, pietistic rhetoric, the finds at Arad and Beersheba seem to exhibit the aftermath of an historical religious reform.4

Hezekiah versus Sennacherib: The Evidence from Lachish

In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah and besieged several fortified cities. Hezekiah, seeking to come to an agreement with Sennacherib rather than risk the horrors of a drawn-out siege, sent a message to the Assyrian monarch, who was with his army at Lachish (2 Kings 18:14, 17; 19:8; 2 Chron. 32:9; Isa. 36:2; 37:8). While the historical events associated with this invasion are discussed extensively by historians,5 one find at Lachish is perhaps most fascinating for our purposes.

Biblical Lachish is identified with the remains at Tell ed-Duweir, a massive site in the Shephelah (the hilly, transitional zone between the southern Judean highlands and the Philistine coastal plain6) about 26 miles to the southwest of Jerusalem, which has remains dated back to the Neolithic period. At the time of the Israelite settlement, Joshua and his army laid siege to a significant Canaanite fortress at Lachish (see Josh. 10), after which point the site was inhabited by the Israelites. During the height of Judean power, the so-called palace fort that stood at the center of the city of Lachish housed a significant administrative complex and stables that are estimated to have held about one hundred horses and fifty chariots (cf. Mic. 1:13).

While Scripture does not recount the details, Sennacherib’s successful siege of Lachish was one of his most celebrated victories. He commemorated this event by commissioning a series of reliefs (carved wall-mounted murals) that depicted siege engines climbing a manmade ramp and making attacks on the city’s walls, soldiers leading out captives, and even gruesome execution scenes. These reliefs adorned the walls of Sennacherib’s palace at the city of Nineveh and, having been uncovered by archaeologists in the mid-1800s, are now on display at the British Museum in London. But in addition to pictorial representation of the events of Sennacherib at Lachish, the site of Tell ed-Duweir also contains the only known remains of an Assyrian siege ramp. At the southwest corner of the mound, a location deemed by all excavators to be its weakest point, the Assyrian army began to construct a ramp out of large boulders, held together by plaster and smoothed to al-low soldiers and siege engines to ascend the ramp to undermine the walls. When the Assyrian army finished the ramp, they discovered that the Ju-dean defenders of Lachish had built a counter-ramp just inside the walls, forcing the Assyrians to either give up their siege or build their ramp even higher. Sennacherib chose the latter, and archaeologists have located the place where the extension was added to their ramp.

Though the defenders were well prepared for the siege (hundreds of royal storage jars were found in situ from this period), they were unable to withstand the onslaught of the Assyrian war machine. Numerous arrowheads, sling stones, helmets, and armor were found during excavations of the ramp, and a mass burial was found on the west side of the mound containing some fifteen hundred dumped skeletons. (Those interested in medical practice in ancient Israel will find it interesting that three of the skulls found had been trepanned, and one of the skulls exhibited bone regrowth showing that the brain surgery had been successful and the patient lived for some time until his eventual death.7) And though the Bible does not describe the grisly defeat of Lachish, preferring instead to speak of Sennacherib “leaving” Lachish (2 Kings 19:8; Isa. 37:8), we know from archaeology a bit more about the events of his presence at the site during the invasion of Judah.

Hezekiah versus Sennacherib: Preparation for the Siege of Jerusalem

Though we have just considered some of the events surrounding Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, archaeology also reveals some of Hezekiah’s preparations for the siege (cf. 2 Chron. 32:2–8). Second Kings 18:7 recounts that Hezekiah rebelled against the king of Assyria. This event fits well within the events following the death of Sargon II (d. 705 B.C.); numerous revolts broke out across the Assyrian empire forcing Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, to rein in the rebellion. No doubt aware that his rebellion against Assyria would not be given a free pass, Hezekiah began fortifying Jerusalem for the almost certain retaliation of the Assyrian successor. We will consider three examples of Hezekiah’s preparations for the return of the Assyrians.

The Broad Wall. In 1969–1970, Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad discovered a 7-meter-thick wall in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. This enormous “broad” wall was dated to the final years of the eighth century B.C. and was constructed via eminent domain: it runs right through houses from the period and reuses many of the stones from those houses. The broad wall, however, was built some distance from the original core of Jerusalem: the city of David. The existence of this wall points to two major events, both related to the Assyrians. First, it shows that Jerusalem experienced a population boom in the late eighth century B.C. due to the Assyrian destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C. (when numerous elites from the northern kingdom fled to Jerusalem to take up residence there and avoid exile). The city grew from an estimated population of some eight thousand residents in the 800s (B.C.) to some thirty thousand residents by the late 700s (B.C.).8 Second, it shows the efforts of Hezekiah to prepare hastily to defend this increased population. One of the events recorded in 2 Chronicles 32:5 is the strengthening and expanding of Jerusalem’s wall complex: “[Hezekiah] set to work resolutely and built up all the wall that was broken down and raised towers upon it, and outside it he built another wall, and he strengthened the Millo in the city of David. He also made weapons and shields in abundance” (italics added). That the broad wall was constructed through existing houses and neighborhoods shows that it was built in haste. The Assyrians were coming and time was of the essence, so what dictated the path of the wall was not accommodation to the existing neighborhoods of the city but maximum defensibility. The broad wall enabled Hezekiah to protect this large population.

The Siloam Tunnel. When Jerusalem was limited to the city of David, the thin strip of land between the Kidron Valley and the (now filled-in) Central/ Tyropoean Valley, a small spring that emptied into the Kidron Valley to the east, the Gihon Spring, supplied the water needs for the population. But with the expansion of the city to the west, the water supply needed to be redirected. Thus during this same period (the final years of the eighth century B.C.), a tunnel was cut through the rocks, channeling the Gihon spring through the hill to a pool south and west of its location, within the walls of the newly fortified city.

Several ancient records recount this project. First, the Bible speaks of it in 2 Chronicles 32:30: “Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David.” Here we read especially of the original eastward flow being “closed” and redirected west. Second Kings 20:20 notes how he also constructed a pool which would have allowed the citizens to more easily access this water from safely behind the walls. Second, when the Siloam tunnel was excavated in the late 1800s, an inscription was found carved in the wall. The inscription, apparently commissioned by the tunnel workers themselves, reads as follows:

This is the record of how the tunnel was breached. While [the excavators were wielding] their pick-axes, each man towards his co-worker, and while there were yet three cubits for the brea[ch], a voice [was hea]rd, each man calling to his co-worker; because there was a cavity in the rock (extending) from the south to [the north]. So on the day of the breach, the excavators struck, each man to meet his co-worker, pick-axe against pick-[a]xe. Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of one thousand and two hundred cubits. One hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the excavators.9

This monumental feat of civil engineering was aided by a crevice in the bedrock that allowed two teams of workers to dig towards one another, meeting at the mid-point of the tunnel, as described in the inscription. When more than twenty-five hundred years of silt build-up was removed during excavations in 1880, the archaeologists were able to locate this point of meeting. Visitors to Jerusalem today can even walk through the tunnel (in cold, knee-deep water) and see the same thing. But what this shows is another feature, discovered by archaeologists, further enabling us to see how Hezekiah prepared for the siege.10

The LMLK Jars. From the final years of the 700s, a particular pottery type exploded onto the scene in Jerusalem and some surrounding fortified Judean centers. These were large storage jars, capable of holding approximately 45 liters/12 gallons, each with a distinctive stamp, impressed on the jar handle before the pottery was fired, reading the letters LMLK. In Hebrew, this is pronounced le-melek, and translated “Belonging to the King.” While scholars have debated what precisely these jars were used for, several factors point toward their use in stockpiling supplies for the Assyrian invasion. First, large caches of these jars were found (Lachish is a prime example), showing that their usage involved setting apart a large amount of food in one particular area. Second, the seals indicate that the jars have some connection to official administration of the kingdom. Third, the seals appear to have been somewhat carelessly made when compared with other stamp seals, giving the impression that they were produced in haste.11 (Remember what we noted about the hasty construction of the broad wall.) The consensus view among archaeologists is thus well stated by Philip King and Lawrence Stager:

As part of the preparation for Sennacherib’s invasion, Hezekiah produced storage jars stamped with the letters lmlk (“belonging to the king”) on their handles. . . . They are associated with Sennacherib’s conquest in 701 [B.C.], but scholars dispute their function. Some connect them with military organization of provisions for withstanding the Assyrian attack. Others relate them to the products of royal estates, especially olive oil and wine.12

Regardless of the precise use of these jars, their occurrence at this point in history under the auspices of the Judean crown fits well within what we know of Hezekiah’s preparations for Sennacherib’s invasion (1 Chron. 32:1–5).

Hezekiah was a fascinating figure. Though he was a complicated man who seems to show mixed degrees of spiritual maturity over the course of his life, God used him mightily in reforming the kingdom of Judah, if only for a time. Hezekiah’s son Manasseh would serve as the point of no return for Judah as the coming exile could not even be averted by the further reforming work of King Josiah (cf. 2 Kings 21:11–15; 23:26). Archaeology has given us a glimpse of Hezekiah’s legacy, showing us concretely what his reforms looked like (as we saw with Arad) and how he prepared to resist the Assyrian war machine.

1. Though the broad contours of the chronology of the divided monarchy are clear, there are some fine points that are debated. The standard work for a foray into this topic is Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).


2. Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 252.

3. A selection of the Arad Letters can be read in English in James M. Lindenberger, Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 118–24.

4. For more on the Arad temple, see Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 303–4. Hess also discusses the Beersheba altar in the same publication (300–301).

5. For a good overview, see Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 422–33, 444–46.

6. Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, rev. and enl. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), 25–26.

7. G. Ernest Wright, “Judean Lachish,” Biblical Archaeologist 18, no. 1 (1955): 9–17.

8. See William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 68.

9. Translation by K. Lawson Younger from William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture, Vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 145–46.

10. Though he disputes Hezekiah’s role in commissioning the tunnel, a detailed description of the features of ancient Jerusalem’s water system in its totality can be found in Ronny Reich, Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem’s History Began (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2011).

11. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 B.C.E., Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 455.

12. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 247.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.