The Reign of King Hezekiah

The thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah, or the next-to-last of what is regarded as Isaiah I, starts with the words: “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death.” There follows the story of Isaiah coming to Hezekiah with the words: “Set thine house in order—for thou shouldst die and not live.” Hezekiah, upon hearing the message, turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord. “The grave cannot praise thee, death canot celebrate thee, they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” In a little while Isaiah returned, brought a lump of figs to place on the boil erupted on the body of the sick king, and said in the name of the Lord: “I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.”

Hezekiah asked the seer: “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” Isaiah’s answer was:

And this shall be a sign unto thee from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he hath spoken. Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun-dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.
I have discussed the nature of the event in Worlds in Collision (“The Year -687”) and do it again in the present volume. Here, however, the concern is with a chronological problem, albeit minor, dealing with the reign of Hezekiah and the order of the events of that time.

It is stated that Hezekiah reigned twenty-nine years (II Chron. 29:1; II Kings 18:2); that Hoshea, the last king of Israel, started to reign in Samaria in the twelfth year of Ahaz, father of Hezekiah (II Kings 17: 1); that Ahaz reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem (II Chron. 28: 1); that in the third year of Hoshea, Hezekiah began to reign (II Kings 18: 1); that Hoshea reigned in Samaria nine years (II Kings 17: 1); but that already in the fourth year of Hezekiah “which was the seventh year of Hoshea” Shalmaneser cama against Samaria and besieged it (II Kings 18: 9); that the siege of Samaria endured three years (II Kings 17: 5); that at the end of these three years, in the ninth year of Hoshea, which was the sixth of Hezekiah, Samaria fell (II Kings 18: 10); that in the ninth year of his reign Hoshea was captured, fettered, and put in prison (II Kings 17: 9), probably in Assyria.

The accepted date for the fall of Samaria is -722. The calculations, mostly based on cuneiform data, by which this was figured out, were not retraced in the course of this reconstruction. Sargon reigned seventeen years, beginning with the fall of Samaria in his first year. Consequently if Samaria fell in -722, Sennacherib mounted the throne in -705. This is also the accepted date for the beginning of his reign.

In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah Sennacherib came “against all the fenced cities of Judah and took them” (II Kings 18: 13). It was during Sennacherib’s third campaign, or his first against Judah. Sennacherib ceased to write his annals (Taylor Prism) after his eighth year.

The Scriptural data cited here are generally in good agreement one with others, and if there is any possible disagreement it amounts to no more than one or two years, and this could be adjusted by one of the devices usually applied by commentators for minor discords in texts.

But a problem amounting to a decade or even decades comes to light if Hezekiah was already on the throne in Jerusalem three full years before the fall of Samaria, or in -725. Reigning for twenty-nine years, he must have ended his reign and life in -696. These figures, or small variants of them, are also accepted by a few scholars.(1) But if Sennacherib invaded Judah in -701, and this should be Hezekiah’s fourteenth year, then this king of Jerusalem must have started to reign in -715, or seven years after the accepted date for the fall of Samaria(2), and there is a disagreement of ten to eleven years. Could it be that Hezekiah after the fall of Samaria was not yet a sole ruler but a co-ruler with Ahaz, his father, and those years should not count in the twenty-nine, assigned to him as king? Or should the date of the fall of Samaria be lowered? The problem connected with Hezekiah’s reign is not limited to this issue alone.

When Hezekiah fell sick he was promised a grace of fifteen years. The figure fifteen is not arbitrarily chosen. In Worlds in Collision it was brought out that the turbulent events of that time were caused by repeated close approaches of the planet Mars that repeat themselves till today at the same fifteen-year period, called “favorable opposition” (favorable for observation); only twenty-seven centuries ago this phenomenon was much more pronounced—the opposing celestial bodies were at such encounters closer to each other.(3)

As elsewhere in this volume the nature of the paroxysms and the subsequent calendric changes are discussed (and in Worlds in Collision records of these phenomena were collected from many ancient civilizations, in East and West), I will keep here to the subject only insofar as it concerns the chronological problems under scrutiny. The midrashim explain that on the memorable day of Hezekiah the sun retarded to set by the same amount, namely ten degrees (maaloth in Hebrew is preferrably “degrees” and more so when applied to the sundial) by which it speeded up to descend on the sundial built by Ahaz—and, further, that this phenomenon of acceleration of the sun reaching the horizon took place on the day Ahaz was brought to the grave. Since Sennacherib came toward all the fenced cities in Hezekiah’s domain in his (Hezekiah’s ) fourteenth year, and Sennacherib, according to his own descriptions and reliefs, was tarrying in Palestine, besieging Lachish and reducing many places one by one to his yoke, it is well thinkable that Jerusalem under the “proud Judean, Hezekiah” besieged like “a bird in a cage” submitted to pay tribute when nearly fifteen years of Hezekiah on the throne had passed (Sennacherib records that before the campaign he consulted astrologers and was told to be sure of the protection of the gods; rabbinical sources also tell that he consulted astrologers before going toward Jerusalem, and he was cautioned to hurry, and not to tarry, but he tarried. The promise to the sick Hezekiah of a fifteen year period of grace intends to convey to the reader of the Scriptures that such grace came really into fulfillment. But that would mean that Hezekiah was permitted to live another fifteen years, and to stay altogether twenty-nine on the throne, or reach his fifty-fourth year—he mounted the throne at twenty-five.

Everything just told seems in good agreement but for several things. First, three separate texts in the Scriptures, and so also Herodotus in his history of Egypt, tell of an unusual debacle suffered by the Assyrian army under Sennacherib. He won the battle of Eltekeh, close to Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, against Sethos and Ethiopian generals, and properly recorded it; he continued warfare and carried it east into Elam, southeast into Babylon, west into Anatolia, north into the Caucasus, and beyond.

The realization that Sennacherib came again to Palestine on his ninth campaign was intially made by Rawlinson in 18~~, and with years gained an almost universal acceptance. It means that the Scriptural records in its versions of II Kings, II Chronicles, and Isaiah, needs to be regarded as an amalgam of reports of two campaigns by the same king to the same country, but nearly fifteen years apart. I have dwelt on this in Worlds in Collision and again elsewhere in the present volume. The debacle that overtook the Assyrian host occurred at the second invasion of Palestine, it being also the second confrontation with the Egyptian allies of Hezekiah together with Tirhaka, king of Ethiopia.

Herodotus, too, told of only one campaign of Sennacherib, met by Sethos on the Palestinian frontier, when nature intervened. In Worlds in Collision I brought out the fact, neglected by the commentators of the Scriptures and of Herodotus alike, that the story of the sun having changed the rising and setting points four times since Egypt became a kingdom is included in Herodotus immediately following the story of the debacle Sennacherib’s army suffered. The phenomenon of the sun returning on the sundial is described in all three biblical sources in the same context of Sennacherib’s debacle. The Assyrian king for his part refrained from all military activity in the last seven or eight years of his life, and spent his time prostrated before the image of the god Nergal, the planet Mars, and was assassinated in that position by two of his sons.

It appears that the descriptive chapters in the book of Isaiah, and, accordingly, the passages in Kings and Chronicles, require an emendation in the sense of transposition of chapters or passages.

The sickness of Hezekiah from which he was healed by Isaiah belongs to the time of the first invasion by Sennacherib. Should this episode be retained for the second invasion, Hezekiah’s life and reign would extend to fifteen years past -687, and even starting the reign at the lower date of -715, he would need to remain on the throne much longer than the twenty-nine years, given both by Kings and Chronicles. This means that Hezekiah died during the second invasion by Sennacherib, or shortly thereafter. The words “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death” which start chapter 38 of Isaiah would make more sense if the chapter were placed earlier and generally if the Scriptures discerned between the two campaigns of Sennacherib to Palestine.

The visit of the ambassadors of Merodach-Baladan of Babylon, who sent presents to Hezekiah on the occasion of his having recovered from his illness, seems to have occurred not after Sennacherib’s debacle, but much earlier. As the political situation suggests, the visit of the ambassadors and Hezekiah’s showing them his treasures in gold and otherwise seems misplaced: Hezekiah paid tribute in gold (30 talents) and silver (300 or 800 talents) to Sennacherib on his first campaign to Palestine, and he stripped his palace and the temple—besides, he must have remained in awe of Sennacherib to entertain ambassadors of the king of Babylon, Sennacherib’s enemy. It would look better if the arrival of Merodach Baladan’s envoys took place after the solar disturbance that coincided with Hezekiah’s mounting the throne—the funeral day of Ahaz, his father. At that time Hezekiah had not yet impoverished his treasury by the tribute to the Assyrian king.

The scholarly opinion held that the second campaign of Sennacherib against Palestine-Egypt could not have occurred before -689, the year Tirhaka mounted the throne.(4)


  1. See for instance, Nadav Na’aman in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (April, 1974), p. 32, note 28: “I have adopted here the dates of 727 - 696 B.C. [or -726 to -695] for the reign of Hezekiah.”

  2. This is the solution proposed by Thiele, who regards the source used by the compiler of the Second Book of Kings to have erred in relating the fall of Samaria with the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign.

  3. At 14 year intervals, now more than 15 year.

  4. If to harmonize the involved chronological problems the debacle of Sennacherib’s army needs to be placed fifteen years earlier (not in -687 but in -701), and the first invasion in -715, and the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign in -729, then I would need to change the date for the last global catastrophe from -687 to -701 or -702.