In the ninth century B.C.E., the kingdom of Assyria became the mightiest empire in the Near East, its primary military and political force and sovereign over most of the region.
From 727 B.C.E. Judah was ruled by Hezekiah, one of the most prominent kings of the House of David. During most of his reign Judah enjoyed a period of great prosperity, even though the neighboring kingdom of Israel had just been annexed by the Assyrians. In fact, his political and religious influence seems to have spread beyond the borders of Judah to the former territories of Israel. The prosperity of Hezekiah’s reign is vividly described in II Chronicles 32:27-28: “And Hezekiah had exceeding much riches and honour: and he made himself treasuries for silver, and for gold, and for precious stones, and for spices, and for shields, and for all manner of pleasant jewels; Storehouses also for the increase of corn, and wine, and oil; and stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks.” Hezekiah is known for his religious reforms; he strengthened Jerusalem and the temple as the cultic center for the entire Land of Israel, while concurrently abolishing all shrines and sanctuaries outside Jerusalem. Inside Jerusalem ― now a metropolis extending over a large area ― he constructed conduits to bring water into the city, and he undoubtedly strengthened its fortifications.
In 705 B.C.E. Sennacherib ascended the throne of Assyria and was soon faced with rebellion against Assyrian hegemony in various parts of the Empire. An Alliance against Assyria was formed between Judah, Egypt and the Philistine cities in the coastal plain, possibly with Babylonian encouragement and support. Sennacherib met the challenge, and in 701 B.C.E. directed his third campaign to Phoenicia, Philistia and Judah, and succeeded in reestablishing Assyrian supremacy in those regions. Several sources from the Old Testament and Assyrian records inform us of the events of the campaign in some detail. The Old Testament records appear in II Kings 18-19, Isaiah 36-37, II Chronicles 32 and probably Micah 1.
According to the biblical versions, Sennacherib, while sojourning in Lachish, sent to Jerusalem a task force commanded by three officials, the Tartan, the Rabshakeh and the Rabsaris. The Assyrian army appeared in front of the walled capital and apparently laid siege to the city. The Rabshakeh presented an ultimatum to Hezekiah which was rejected by the king with active support of the prophet Isaiah. Eventually, Jerusalem was saved, but only by a miracle: “Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (Isaiah 37:36)
The Assyrian annals corroborate the two basic facts in the Old Testament versions, namely that the Assyrian army challenged Hezekiah in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem was spared. As Sennacherib tells us: “He himself I shut up like a caged bird within Jerusalem, his royal city. I put watch-posts strictly around it and turned back to his disaster any who went out of its city gate.” Finally, we should note that the impression left by these events on the populace of Jerusalem was apparently so great that the site where the Assyrian task force encamped in front of the city walls was still called the “Camp of the Assyrians” about eight hundred years later, when the Roman army besieged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This we learn from Josephus Flavius, who mentions the place in his account of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans.