Damien F. Mackey
A Consideration of the Agent of destruction of
King Sennacherib of Assyria’s army of 185,000.
Some scriptures attribute this great victory for the kingdom of Judah to an angel of the Lord.
2 Kings 19:35: “That very night the LORD’s messenger went out and killed 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When they got up early the next morning, there were all the corpses”.
2 Chronicles 13:21 gives this slightly different version: “And the LORD sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria”.
Isaiah 37:36: “Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!”
1 Maccabees 7:41 Judas Maccabeus likewise, in a prayer, attributes it to angelic intervention: “Lord, the Scriptures tell us that when a king sent messengers to insult you, your angel went out and killed 185,000 of his soldiers”. (Cf. 2 Maccabees 15:22: “Judas said: Lord, when Hezekiah was king of Judah, you sent your angel, who killed 185,000 of King Sennacherib’s men”).
The prophet Isaiah, earlier, had been somewhat more cryptic.
Isaiah 31:8: “And the Assyrian shall fall by the sword, not of man; and the sword, not of men, shall devour him; and he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall become subject to taskwork”.
Whilst Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) will name Isaiah himself as a ‘rescuer’ of King Hezekiah’s Judah in the face of the Assyrian threat:
During [Hezekiah’s] rule, Sennacherib moved on Jerusalem, commissioned the field commander, and departed. The field commander attacked Zion, and made great boasts in his arrogance. Then the people’s hearts and hands were shaken, and they were in agony like a woman who is in labor. They called upon the Lord who is merciful, reaching out their hands to him. The holy one at once heard them from heaven, and he rescued them through Isaiah.
Differently again, Judith – the Jewish (Simeonite) heroine – will claim, in her victory song, that she herself had been the Lord’s agent.
Judith 16:5. “But the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman”.
What are we to make of all of this?
This famous incident has provoked a whole lot of interpretations and hopeful explanations, going right back to antiquity. I wrote briefly on this as follows in my university thesis:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
A Rout Involved
Some think – based on the Hebrew word רַעַשׁ in Isaiah 29:6; sometimes translated as “blast” – that 185,000 Assyrian soldiers must have been destroyed instantly, on the spot. Perhaps by an angel of the Lord (cf. Isaiah 37:36). Or perhaps, as Velikovsky had argued, by a cosmic collision … his unique interpretation of רַעַשׁ.
For Herodotus, the agent of the army’s demise was a plague of mice. [Histories, Book 2, p. 185. Herodotus may in fact have picked up the idea of mice from the Book of Judith, according to which the Assyrian soldiers likened the emboldened Israelites to “mice, coming out of their holes” (14:12, Douay version); a typical Assyrian simile. The Greek version of the Book of Judith has “slaves” instead of “mice”].
[End of quote]
Putting it All Together
Despite the impression given by some of the above accounts of the incident, “killed 185,000 men”, “killed 185,000 of his soldiers”, “killed 185,000 of King Sennacherib’s men”, common sense, I think, would tell us that – even in the greatest of catastrophes – every single person (here the sum total of Sennacherib’s army) does not die. So I would immediately prefer the version given in 2 Chronicles 13:21, whereby the angel “cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria”.
This is confirmed by Isaiah 31:8, which tells of a rout and later servitude of the enemy soldiers: “… and he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall become subject to taskwork”. And it is confirmed again in the victory song of Judith herself – a rout involving much slaughter (Judith 16:11-12):
When my lowly ones shouted,
and my weak ones cried out,
The enemy was terrified,
screamed and took to flight.
Sons of maidservants pierced them through;
wounded them like deserters’ children.
They perished before the ranks of my Lord.
The “one hundred seventy thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry, not counting the baggage and the footsoldiers handling it, a very great multitude” of Assyrians of Judith 7:2, an overall total of 182,000 plus, equates strikingly to the 185,000 men of Sennacherib’s defeated army. This was the massive army upon which the people of Bethulia and its environs had gazed down in horror (Judith 7:4): “When the Israelites saw this horde, they were all appalled and said to each other, ‘Now they will lick the whole country clean. Not even the loftiest peaks, the gorges or the hills will be able to stand the weight of them’.”
For, as we learn from the Book of Judith, it was Bethulia opposite Dothan, in northern Israel, and not in Jerusalem, that the Assyrian army had massed and was routed. Sirach, telling of Isaiah’s rescuing of Judah, was referring to Sennacherib’s earlier successful invasion, right against Jerusalem itself.
Isaiah 31:8 uses the word “Ashur” (אַשּׁוּר), variously translated as “the Assyrian” or “the Assyrians”, and probably intending both Sennacherib’s ill-fated commander-in-chief and his massive army.
Judith, on the other hand, whose primary purpose had been the assassination of the commander-in-chief of the Assyrian army – which action became the catalyst for the Judaean victory – will focus part of her victory song on the downfall of “Holofernes” (16:6-9):
For their hero did not fall at the young men’s hands, it was not the sons of Titans struck him down, no proud giants made that attack, but Judith, the daughter of Merari, who disarmed him with the beauty of her face.
She laid aside her widow’s dress to raise up those who were oppressed in Israel; she anointed her face with perfume,
bound her hair under a turban, put on a linen gown to seduce him.
Her sandal ravished his eye, her beauty took his soul prisoner and the scimitar cut through his neck!
For more on this “Holofernes”, see my:
The slaughter in the Book of Judith had started in the camp of the Assyrians, and this accords with the information given in 2 Chronicles 13:21 “… angel … cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria”.
It was in fact, according to Judith’s careful plan of it, a rout (14:1-4):
Judith said, ‘Listen to me, brothers. Take this head and hang it on your battlements.
When morning comes and the sun is up, let every man take his arms and every able-bodied man leave the town. Appoint a leader for them, as if you meant to march down to the plain against the Assyrian advanced post. But you must not do this.
The Assyrians will gather up their equipment, make for their camp and wake up their commanders; they in turn will rush to the tent of Holofernes and not be able to find him. They will then be seized with panic and flee at your advance.
All you and the others who live in the territory of Israel will have to do is to give chase and slaughter them as they retreat’.
Judith had not only started the ball rolling. She had worked out the battle strategy as well.
But it was all based upon her total trust in God.
So, before she acts, she prays and fasts (Judith 9).
The ‘angel’ factor, common to the accounts given in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles and Isaiah, and also I and II Maccabees, is suitably accommodated in the Douay version of the Book of Judith, according to which God’s angel, Judith’s protector, was the agent of the “victory” and of Israel’s “deliverance”. Thus Judith tells (13:20-21):
‘But as the same Lord liveth, his angel hath been my keeper both going hence, and abiding there, and returning from thence hither: and the Lord hath not suffered me his handmaid to be defiled, but hath brought me back to you without pollution of sin, rejoicing for his victory, for my escape, and for your deliverance.
Give all of you glory to him, because he is good, because his mercy endureth for ever’.
Judith well knew that God alone could bring about such a victory against all odds (8:17-20):
‘… we should ask God for his help and wait patiently for him to rescue us. If he wants to, he will answer our cry for help. We do not worship gods made with human hands. Not one of our clans, tribes, towns, or cities has ever done that, even though our ancestors used to do so. That is why God let their enemies kill them and take everything they had. It was a great defeat! But since we worship no other God but the Lord, we can hope that he will not reject us or any of our people.’