The Prism of Sennacherib

By Stan Cox

The Prism is dated to approximately 689 B.C. and contains in its text the annals of King Sennacherib, son of Sargon II, one of the kings of Assyria who reigned from 701-681 B.C.  The Prism is believed to have been excavated from the mound at Kuyunjik, at the modern location of Mosul, Iraq, and was purchased by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago where it has resided since 1919.

According to the Oriental Institute the inscriptions on the object contain the following:

On the six inscribed sides of this clay prism, King Sennacherib recorded eight military campaigns undertaken against various peoples who refused to submit to Assyrian domination. In all instances, he claims to have been victorious. As part of the third campaign, he besieged Jerusalem and imposed heavy tribute on Hezekiah, King of Judah — a story also related in the Bible, where Sennacherib is said to have been defeated by “the angel of the Lord” who slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 18-19).1

A picture of the prism and pertinent facts concerning its discovery and procurement by the University of Chicago, as well as full transcripts of the six columns can be found at the Oriental Institute’s site on the Internet.2

Significance of the Prism

The significance of Sennache- rib’s prism to Bible believers cannot be overstated. The object corroborates in several particulars the biblical account of Assyria’s invasion of Judah, and subsequent siege of the city of Jerusalem. This event is recorded in the Old Testament in 2 Kings, chapters 18 and 19. This siege took place during the reign of King Hezekiah, who reigned in Judah from approximately 728 to 699 B.C.

Concerning King Hezekiah, the inspired record says,

He trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; he prospered wherever he went. And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him (2 Kings 18:5-7).

While it cannot be expected that Sennacherib would admit to any defeat at the hands of the God of Judah in his annals, the prism does validate the biblical account of Assyria’s siege of Judah. Note the following parallels: (The translation of the prism is supplied by Daniel David Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib. Oriental Institute Publications 2. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1924).

1. Sennacherib destroyed many of the cities of Judah. As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them (Prism).

This claim parallels the Biblical account. “And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them” (2 Kings 18:13).

2. Sennacharib laid siege on Jerusalem as well, but did not take the city. Instead, he exacted tribute from Hezekiah, and withdrew. This failure to take the city is related on the Prism in terms flattering to King Sennacherib. 

(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city . . . I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts — gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him . . . To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers (Prism).

Again, the Prism corroborates the biblical account: 

Then Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; turn away from me; whatever you impose on me I will pay.” And the king of Assyria assessed Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold (2 Kings 18:14). 

The text relates the oppressive nature of this tribute, as Hezekiah was compelled to “strip (-ped) the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord, and from the pillars” to pay the tribute to Sennacherib.

What is understandably absent from Sennacherib’s account of the campaign is that in the continued siege of the city the hand of the Lord intervened. “And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses; all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:35-36). The fact that the Prism would not record such an ignominious defeat is not surprising. However, the fact that Sennacherib in his “splendor” and “majesty” was unable to take the city gives us sufficient cause to trust the biblical account. As Lord Byron, in his poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” proclaimed:

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves off the forest when autumn hath blown,     That host on the morrow laid withered and strown. 


The Prism of Sennacherib is one of a host of archaeological witnesses which serve to corroborate the biblical text. They show the Bible to be accurate historically, and reinforce its internal claims of inspiration. As Christians we can have confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the biblical text. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (2 Tim. 3:16a).


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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p20  January 4, 2001