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Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Magnificent Exhibit

It was a most magnificent exhibit at New York’s grand Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2014. Entitled “From Iberia to Assyria,” the exhibit featured an all-star cast of leading artifacts from the ancient Middle East assembled from artifacts from leading museums from around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Louvre in Paris.

On the day I took three of my children to view this once-in-a-lifetime assembly of relics of great importance from the ancient world, there was also a group of students from a certain yeshiva high school who were brought to see the exhibit and were led by a professional guide. I happened to be near the group when I overheard the guide talking about the celebrated “Sennacherib Prism” that records Sancheirev Melech Ashur’s conquests, including that of most of Yehuda.

Sennacherib Prism vs. Sefer Melachim

Melachim II Perakim 18 and 19 recounts what is often referred to as “the great smite.” After conquering and wreaking terrible havoc upon most of the cities of Judea, including the second-most-prominent city of Judea, Lachish, the Assyrians set siege on Yerushalayim. It looked extremely bleak for the Jews, but Yeshayahu HaNavi promised salvation. Finally, after Chizkiyahu HaMelech’s intense tefillah, on the night of Pesach (as Ashkenazim state in the post-Seder poem “VaYehi BaChatzi HaLayla”), the 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died overnight.

The Sennacherib Prism, after describing how he viciously conquered almost all of Yehuda and exiled more than 200,000 Jews (!!), notes that he trapped Chizkiyahu in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” No mention is made of the overnight elimination of his vast army.

The Misguided Resolution

The tour guide, who was wearing a kippah and seemed to present himself as an Orthodox Jew, offered an appalling resolution of the discrepancies. He said that both documents seek to promote their respective deities. Sancheirev promotes his god by describing his siege on Jerusalem in positive terms, as does the Jewish version.

A Rebuttal

Upon hearing this emerge from the guide, I was tempted to engage the guide in debate, but my three children urged restraint. They wisely felt it would ignite an unhealthy and ineffective confrontation and that I would be intruding on another institution’s educational setting. I did, however, soon afterward write to a senior faculty member from that school noting my concern that an Orthodox institution would present to their students the notion that Tanach is distorted to promote the agenda of aggrandizing our God, without even including a traditional alternative understanding. The faculty member shared my dismay and promised to address the situation with the school’s administration.

The substantial response is as follows. Sancheirev’s record of his military exploits contains, as is typical of ancient royal records, only flattering records of his campaigns. Tanach is unique in that it records our failings and flaws in a brutally honest fashion. As noted by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, the fact that the Torah records the faults and fiascos of its heroes and of its people is an expression of the authenticity of the Torah.

In the specific instance of Sancheirev’s invasion of Yehuda, Melachim I Perek 18 records the devastation wreaked upon Yehuda. Each year on Shabbat Chazon we hear Yeshayahu HaNavi’s unforgettable description (Yeshayahu Perek 1) of the Assyrian vanquishing of so much of Yehuda “Atzechem Shemama, Areichem Serufot Eish,” your land is desolate, your cities are burned to a crisp. Had the Tanach been distorted to glorify Hashem (heaven forfend), why would we record this terrible destruction as well as the later and greater Babylonian destruction?

Resolving the Contradiction

Da’at Mikra provides a satisfying and straightforward harmonizing of Sefer Melachim and the Sennacherib Prism. Sancheirev boasts that he trapped Chizkiyahu like a bird, which clearly fits with the vivid description of the Assyrian siege in Melachim I Perakim 18 and 19. However, the Sennacherib Prism does not record that Sancheirev actually conquered Yerushalayim. It specifically states he conquered 46 Judean cities but does not recount that he did so in regard to Jerusalem.

Sancheirev is loath to record his retreat and great loss in Jerusalem, but his omission of its conquest in his annals speaks volumes. Moreover, he decorated his palace in Nineveh with huge bas-reliefs of his conquest of Judah’s second-most-prominent city, Lachish (as recorded in Melachim I 18:14). These bas-reliefs are currently on display in the British Museum in London and a replica is hung on the walls of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Why did Sancheirev make such a big deal about his conquest of Lachish? Had he conquered Jerusalem, wouldn’t he have made a big deal of his conquest of the much-more-prominent city of Jerusalem? Rather, his grandiose display of his conquest of Lachish serves as mighty testimony of his failure to subdue Jerusalem, in harmony with that which is recorded in Sefer Melachim.

A Natural Occurrence?

Someone asked me why we assume the overnight deaths of the Assyrian soldiers were due to the intervention of Hashem. After all, military encampments are notoriously subject to widespread death due to disease (as occurred in the American military winter encampment Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the American Revolution in 1777).

My response is why Jerusalem is the only great city that Sancheirev sought to but failed to conquer. Why did a great plague break out in the Assyrian camp and decimate its soldiers only at Jerusalem and not at any other city? This unique event points to divine intervention on behalf of the righteous Chizkiyahu HaMelech.

Conclusion

In the Modern Orthodox community we believe in exposing our children to not only Torah sources but (to distinguish between kodesh and chol) also to other worthwhile material. When studying Tanach it is indeed of value to expose students to external sources that enrich our understanding of the powerful spiritual messages of Tanach. However, it is quite another thing to hire an authoritative figure who presents the Tanach as “biased” and inaccurate (chas v’shalom) without even presenting a traditional Torah response. With the aid of potent Orthodox tools such as the Da’at Mikra commentary to Tanach, we can and must do better.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.