Hezekiah's Reforms and the Revolt against Assyria

By Oded Borowski

Hezekiah enjoyed great wealth and fame. He built treasuries for silver, gold, precious stones, spices, shields, and other costly things; and barns for the harvests of grain, new wine, and oil; and stalls for various kinds of cattle, as well as sheepfolds. He amassed a great many flocks and herds; God had indeed given him vast riches (2 Chr 32:27-29).(1)

The Bible treats Hezekiah very sympathetically. Why? How different was Hezekiah than other kings of the House of David? On several occasions, the Bible mentions or describes the religious reforms instituted by Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:4, 22; Isa 36:7; 2 Chr 29:15-19; 30:14; 31:1; 32:12). The record strongly indicates that the reforms were well planned and were not the result of impulsive action. As Miller and Hayes observe, the descriptions of Hezekiah's religious reforms clearly indicate:

a deliberate effort on the part of the Judean king to centralize worship in Jerusalem. Centralization of the cult would have been a drastic move, opposed by some, but intended to make the population dependent upon Jerusalem and thus upon Hezekiah and the capital city (Miller and Hayes 1986:357).

A second telling event in the reign of Hezekiah was his revolt against Assyria (2 Kgs 18:13-19:37; 2 Chr 32:1-23; see also Isa 36-37:37).2 Were the two significant events at all related?

There are great difficulties in affixing the chronology of the reign of Hezekiah (727-698 bce) and the precise order of events within it (Miller and Hayes 1986:350-51). However, while centralizing the cult could benefit the capital city, the religious reforms were most likely part of Hezekiah's grand scheme which included preparations for the revolt against Assyria to regain independence. Creating a new order through reforms placed Hezekiah in total control of the economy, the food supplies, and the other materials necessary for the upcoming revolt. Thus, Hezekiah's religious reforms must be examined in relation to his revolt against Assyria; they were only one element in his ambitious plan of returning to the glorious days of his ancestors.(3)

The turn of events in the fourth quarter of the eighth century bce had taught Hezekiah a few lessons:

Among these must have been the recognition that unsuccessful revolts were costly enterprises, that unplanned, spur-of-the-moment rebellions were almost doomed from the beginning, and that help from Egypt could be counted upon only if that country possessed a stronger and better organized administration than had been the case with the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Dynasties (Miller and Hayes 1986:353).

To understand the relationship between the reforms and the revolt, it is important to look at 1) the nature of the reforms and their possible chronology; 2) the results of the reforms as gleaned from archaeology; and 3) the archaeological remains of Hezekiah's revolt against Assyria.

The Nature of the Reforms and Their Possible Chronology

Hezekiah initiated his reforms in the first year of his reign when he repaired the doors of the Temple, purified the Temple and its furnishings, and re-instituted the cult "according to the rule prescribed by David, by Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet" (2 Chr 29:25). At that time, he could not have foreseen the extent of the reforms.

At a later date, as part of his overall scheme, Hezekiah extended an invitation to the inhabitants of the former Kingdom of Israel to join those of Judah in the celebration of Passover. Although the specific date is not given, this event could have happened only after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (722 bce) and before the attack by Sennacherib (701 bce).

Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the house of the LORD the God of Israel. The king and his officers and all the assembly in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month ( 2 Chr 30:1-2).

This could not have been done if the Northern Kingdom still had its own king and shrines.

Assembling in Jerusalem encouraged the people to further Hezekiah's reforms:

It was a very large assembly that gathered in Jerusalem to keep the pilgrim-feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month. They began by removing the altars in Jerusalem, and the incense-altars they removed and threw into the wadi of the Kidron (2 Chr 30:13-14).

They were inspired by the Levites and the priests who worshipped with unrestrained fervor "to keep the feast for another seven days, and they kept it with general rejoicing" (30:23). Following that:

all the Israelites present went out into the towns and the cities of Judah and smashed the sacred pillars, hacked down the sacred poles, and demolished the shrines and the altars throughout Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had made an end of them all (2 Chr 31:1).

This description makes it apparent that their actions were basically taken against all public places of worship.(4)

This reform must have happened before the revolt and the subsequent attack on Judah by Sennacherib. In Rabshake's speech to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, he argues that:

if you tell me that you are relying on the LORD your God, is he not the god whose shrines and altars Hezekiah has suppressed, telling Judah and Jerusalem they must worship at this altar in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18:22; also Isa 36:7; 2 Chr 32:12)?

Following the destruction of the shrines by the impassioned Israelites and Judahites, they began to bring their offerings to Jerusalem:

As soon as the king's order was issued to the Israelites, they gave generously from the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, oil, and honey, all the produce of their land; they brought a full tithe of everything. The Israelites and Judeans living in the towns of Judah also brought a tithe of cattle and sheep, and a tithe of all the produce as offerings dedicated to the LORD their God, and they stacked the produce in heaps. They began to deposit the heaps in the third month and completed them in the seventh (2 Chr 31:5-7).(5)

With this development, Hezekiah accomplished what he set out to do, namely concentrate the economic power, which previously was shared with the other shrines, in one place, Jerusalem.

To facilitate the accumulation and distribution of supplies, "Hezekiah gave orders for storerooms to be prepared in the house of the LORD, and when this was done the people faithfully brought in their contributions, the tithe, and their dedicated gifts" (2 Chr 31:11-12). Furthermore, to fend off opposition and secure the support of the priests and Levites, "Eden, Miniamin, Jeshua, Shemaiah, Amariah, and Shecaniah in the priestly cities and towns assisted him in the fair distribution of portions to their kinsmen, young and old alike, by divisions" (2 Chr 31:15). For the revolt, he needed all the help he could get from all quarters, and since most of the resistance to the economic centralization would have come from the priesthood of the abolished shrines, Hezekiah ordered that supplies be given to those in the outlying places.

As for the priests of Aaron's line in the common lands attached to their cities and towns, in every place men were nominated to distribute portions to every male among the priests and to everyone among the Levites who was on the register (31:19).

By granting supplies to the local priests and securing their support, Hezekiah assured them that his reforms did not intend to deprive them of their livelihood.

When the revolt finally broke out, the local population must have been behind Hezekiah because otherwise there would not be any reason for Sennacherib's claim (see below) that he "laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them)" (ANET:288). Only loyalty to Hezekiah would have moved the people in the outlying towns and villages to stand up to Sennacherib's attack.

The Results of the Reforms as Gleaned from Archaeology

Can archaeology illuminate this chain of events? Are there any remains that illustrate Hezekiah's reforms? Are there any remains illustrating the revolt and its outcome?


While presently there is no way to investigate what happened in the Solomonic Temple, there are archaeological remains suggesting the accuracy of the biblical description concerning the abolishment of other shrines. In 1973, during the excavations at biblical Beersheba, the remains of a four-horned altar were found embedded in a restored storehouse wall dated to the eighth century bce. Aharoni, the excavator of the site, suggested that the altar was dismantled during Hezekiah's reforms (Aharoni 1974).6 The reuse of the altar stones in the repair of the storehouse suggests that the two activities were closely related in time and space. The biblical account of the event makes much the same correlation, linking the abolition of the shrines to large contributions of foodstuffs by the Israelites and the construction of storage facilities by Hezekiah.7 Somewhat later, after the discovery of a "Hellenistic temple," Aharoni suggested that the Judahite public shrine must have been located where the adjacent "basement house" was uncovered. Aharoni claimed that the latter replaced the former (Aharoni 1975a:163), basing his suggestion on the theory of continuity of sacred space. However, as Fowler has convincingly demonstrated (Fowler 1982:8-9), there is no archaeological evidence to support the location of the Beersheba Iron Age II shrine at the site of the "basement house."

While the remains of the altar, supported by biblical references, show the existence of a cult center in Beersheba, their association with Hezekiah's reforms depends on the date for the end of Stratum II. Unlike Aharoni, Yadin located the site of the altar and the bamah (high place) in Building 430, which is adjacent to the gate (Yadin 1976), and dated their destruction to Josiah's reforms. Because of the proximity to the storehouses, I agree with his suggested location for the shrine. However, the material in Stratum II is identical with Lachish Stratum III (see below). Since Lachish III was destroyed by Sennacherib's campaign in 701 bce, the end of Beersheba II has to be dated to the same time. Thus the dismantling of the altar cannot be dated to Josiah's reforms8 but belongs to Hezekiah's. The use of the altar stones in repairing the storehouse is an illustration of the construction activities undertaken by Hezekiah for the storage and distribution of foodstuffs to the priests (Chr 31:15, 19) and for the rebellion.9


Another site that yields supporting evidence for Hezekiah's reforms is Arad, also excavated by Aharoni. Inside, at the northwest corner of the Iron Age II citadel rebuilt by Hezekiah as part of his preparations for the revolt (Stratum VIII), a temple was uncovered (Herzog, Aharoni, and Rainey 1987). According to the excavators,10 the sacrificial altar was put out of use and buried in fill during the life of Stratum VIII. The rest of the temple continued to exist into the next stratum (Stratum VII), when it was finally taken out of use (Herzog 1981). These activities can be associated with the religious reforms undertaken by Hezekiah and Josiah, respectively. When the sacrificial altar was buried, the storeroom was rebuilt and two more storage structures were added (Herzog et al. 1984:19). However, they might not have been built "to serve as stores for the temple" as suggested by the excavators, but rather for the revolt. Interestingly, while the sacrificial altar at Arad was abolished, the incense altars continued to be used until their burial "[o]ut of respect for their sanctity" in Stratum VII (Herzog et al. 1984:22).11

Tell Halif

The survival of the incense altars at Arad is quite important for understanding the nature of Hezekiah's reforms and their place in his grand scheme. Tell Halif, a site relatively close to Beersheba and Arad, yielded some additional data. During the 1992 season, among the remains of Stratum VIB in Field IV, excavators uncovered a shrine room in a four-room house12 adjacent to the city wall that can be considered part of the casemate system (for stratigraphical details see Jacobs 1994a).13 The shrine room, which occupied the ground floor of the rear, broad room of the house, was established in the second phase of the house use. In its first phase, the room served domestic purposes. To prepare it for its new function, the room went through several modifications, finally possessing the dimensions of 1.25 m x 7 m with a doorway on its south side. Jacobs (1994a) suggests that some architectural modifications, such as the blocking of doorways and building additional walls, added to the insulation of the room and heightened its "sacredness." However, it is possible that what appears as foundations for additional walls are remains of benches. Jacobs (1994b) maintains that this shrine room was built and managed by women.

The shrine room contained many household clay vessels, stone and bone implements, pieces of pumice, and an arrowhead which might have been intrusive-the result of military activities which brought an end to this stratum. The material culture assemblage and carbonized remains of grape pips, cereals, legumes, and fish bones suggest that food was kept in the room. Whether it was merely consumed or used as part of the cultic activities is impossible to determine. Food preparation was done outside the room, as evident by the oven found there. The room also contained several artifacts which could be termed cultic. These included a white-painted, molded head of a female pillar figurine (Astart?), and a ceramic fenestrated incense stand with a broad bell-shaped base. This wheel-made object has a cylindrical body with rectangular and circular openings, and it seems originally to have had attached to its top a bowl for incense burning. On each side of this censer stood a rectangular, carved limestone block with beveled edges and smooth faces.14 Since no traces of burning were discerned on the narrow end of the blocks, the presumed top, it is possible that the blocks were either masseb™t or that bowl-like vessels, inside of which incense burning took place, were placed on top. Jacobs (1994a; 1994b) observes that a smooth, flat stone, splintered by heat, was found near the two blocks and might have served as an offering table. The location and character of this structure strongly suggest a private shrine belonging to the owners of the house in which it was found.(15) The structure belongs to Stratum VIB which was terminated at the end of the eighth century bce in a great conflagration, brought on by a military action as evident from the weapons (e.g. arrowheads and sling stones) found throughout the site. The ceramic repertoire is identical to Lachish III (see below) and forces the conclusion that the site was destroyed during Sennacherib's campaign in the region.(16)

The evidence shows that the shrine was in use until the destruction of the four-room house by military action. This means that Hezekiah's reforms did not interfere in its operation. Is it possible that because it was a private shrine the king did not consider it a threat to the centralization of the economy? Did the king allow the continuation of worship in shrines as long as incense burning, and not sacrifices, was involved?

Nineveh and Tell ed-Duweir

Additional evidence for this series of events comes to us from Mesopotamia. A set of reliefs found in Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, now on display at the British Museum, describes the siege and fall of Lachish. The identification of the city shown in the relief with Lachish is unmistakable because it is made by an inscription, "Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, sat upon a n”medu-throne and passed in review the booty (taken) from Lachish (La-ki-su)" (ANET:288). Sennacherib's reliefs can lend support to the idea that King Hezekiah allowed the continuation of cultic practices even in public places as long as only incense burning, not sacrifices, was carried out. In what is referred to as Segment IV of the reliefs (Ussishkin 1982:77, 84), two of the Assyrian soldiers carrying booty clearly hold sizable incense burners in their arms (Ussishkin 1982:107).17 If placed on the ground, these censers would reach above the hips of the soldiers carrying them. Their size and position in the depicted procession, together with other items of public or stately nature, strongly suggest that they were made for public use, most likely in the cult center at Lachish.18 If this assumption is correct, then it appears that incense burning was carried out at Lachish after Hezekiah's reforms and down to the last moments of the city's independence. This means that Hezekiah did not intend to abolish completely all worship outside Jerusalem, but wanted to curb it and limit its extent to the areas that did not involve contributions in kind.

The site of Tell ed-Duweir in the Shephelah in southern Judea is identified by most scholars as biblical Lachish. Archaeological work by two expeditions, one led by J. L. Starkey in the 1930s and the other by D. Ussishkin in the 1970s and 1980s uncovered remains that presently most scholars agree belong to the level destroyed by Sennacherib. This is a very important point, since the assemblage belonging to Level III at Lachish, the layer attributed to the 701 bce destruction, is used as comparative material for other sites occupied and destroyed during that period. The material culture recovered at Lachish Level III helps date strata in the region, as for example at Beersheba, Arad, and Tell Halif, where levels containing a similar assemblage are now assigned the date 701 bce for their destruction. This assemblage also helps delineate the area under Hezekiah's influence which was devastated by Sennacherib's army.

The Archaeological Remains of Hezekiah's Revolt Against Assyria

The reforms were only one aspect of the preparations for the revolt.19 By centralizing the cult in Jerusalem, Hezekiah achieved the concentration of economic power that provided food supplies which were collected by the central authority and were distributed to the participating cities and towns. The distribution of foodstuffs seems to be illustrated by the lmlk (royal; belonging to the king) stamped jars found in many Judahite sites of the late eighth century bce. For quite some time, an argument persisted concerning the date and purpose of the lmlk stamps. The excavations at Lachish demonstrated conclusively that the lmlk jars date to the time of Hezekiah (Ussishkin 1976). While their purpose is still not fully understood, most scholars agree that they must have been used in the distribution of supplies in preparation for the revolt. The same, or similar, vessels were possibly used in the distribution of supplies to deposed priests (see above).20 Plotted on a map, the distribution of lmlk stamped jar handles indicates the extent of Hezekiah's influence before the revolt (Na'aman 1991:23-33).

One more piece of archaeological evidence related to Hezekiah and his rebellion against Assyria owes its identification and date in part to biblical references. 2 Kgs 20:20 reports that "he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the cityÉ" and 2 Chr 32:3-4 adds that he planned with his officers and his mighty men to stop the water of the springs that were outside the cityÉand they stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?"

It must have been quite a feat because in 2 Chr 32:30 states that, "This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David." Most scholars agree that this waterwork should be identified with the tunnel on the eastern side of the City of David which carries the water of the Gihon spring to a pool at its southern end. An inscription found near the outlet of the tunnel and dated paleographically to the eighth century bce, strengthens the identification of the tunnel which is now known as Hezekiah's Tunnel.(21)

Some of what we do not know about the revolt from the biblical sources can be illuminated by Assyrian records, which mention this event in great detail. The most detailed Assyrian account is contained in the Oriental Institute's Prism of Sennacherib which presents the final edition of the Annals of Sennacherib. In his account, Sennacherib describes not only Hezekiah's role in leading the rebellion, but also the punishment he inflicted upon him which included total destruction of vast parts of the kingdom.(22) The destruction caused by the Assyrians is well attested in the archaeological record of several sites.


Hezekiah's religious reforms and his revolt against Assyria were part of a grand scheme to restore the glory of the old Davidic monarchy. In spite of it being well planned, Hezekiah's uprising or rebellion against Assyria was a disaster.23 The reforms were only a prelude to the revolt; they were not an end but a means. They were accompanied by overtures to the inhabitants of the extinct Northern Kingdom, who by that time were without leadership, and by the distribution of supplies to defrocked priests, steps that were aimed at securing every possible support. Centralizing the cult in Jerusalem gave Hezekiah control over the economy, something that was badly needed for the success of the revolt. Storage facilities, lmlk stamped jar handles, and destruction layers, are all evidence for the revolt and its devastating results as depicted in Sennacherib's reliefs and recorded in his Annals. Nevertheless, the Bible did not forget Hezekiah's attempts to restore the Davidic glory.


1 Translation used is that of The Revised English Bible (REB).

2 Other biblical references that are interpreted as describing this event or its aftermath appear in Micah 1.

3 Halpern (1991:20) suggests that Hezekiah started planning for the revolt "shortly after 712." It is possible that certain steps, such as securing aid from other political entities, were taken later in his reign, but the idea of gaining back full independence seems to have occurred to him upon ascending the throne.

4 As for what happened to private shrines, see below.

5 The Israelites started bringing in their agricultural contributions after Shabu'oth (Feast of First Fruit/Feast of Weeks=Pentecost) and completed after Succoth (Feast of Tabernacles), which is during the harvesting and ingathering season (see Borowski 1987:31-44).

6 The cult center of Beersheba is acknowledged by the eighth century prophet Amos (8:14). Fritz (1993) claims that the altar at Beersheba, as well as the one at Arad, was not used for animal sacrifices. Gadegaard (1978) also argues unconvincingly that the altar at Arad was never used for burnt offering. To sacrifice an ´ol‰, one does not need an altar that can accommodate a whole animal as big as a bull. To lift and place a whole bull on the altar was technically impossible unless the animal was slaughtered on the altar itself. To slaughter an animal on the altar requires a restraining apparatus, something that is not mentioned or found anywhere.

7 Incidentally, a snake engraved on the altar is reminiscent of the bronze serpent, Nehushtan, that supposedly had been made by Moses (Num 21:4-9) and kept in the Temple until the serpent was destroyed by Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:4).

8 Yadin relies heavily on the phrase "from Geba to Beersheba" (2 Kgs 23:8) for dating the dismantling of the altar to the time of Josiah (Yadin 1976:8-9). This phrase could have been used in its formulaic sense to encompass all of Judah despite the lack of settlement at the site. However, Holladay (1987:256) suggests a possibly much earlier date for the altar, "late tenth-early ninth centuries."

9 See below for the role of the lmlk jars in the preparation for the revolt.

10 The debate concerning the stratigraphy of Iron Age Arad has not been resolved yet (see for example Mazar and Netzer 1986 and Ussishkin 1988) and only a final publication of the results will clarify the sequence of events. Therefore, the remarks concerning the Arad shrine should be viewed with caution. Another debate concerns the function of "the sacrificial altar" (see above, note 6). According to Aharoni (1968:19) "many pits with burnt bones and the burnt skeleton of a young lamb, lacking the head" were found close to the Stratum XII altar, originally at the same location of the Stratum VIII altar. The principle of "continuity of sacred space" suggests that the latter altar served the same function.

11 Not dismantling the incense altars is strange in light of what is said in 2 Chr 30:14. But see below for Tell Halif and Lachish. Haran (1993) claims that incense burning was practiced only in the Temple in Jerusalem and the so-called "incense altars" were used for other types of sacrifice, such as grain. His treatment of the subject is limited to stone altars and does not include clay "incense stands" or "censers." Gitin, who presented a corpus of these altars (1989), continues to refer to these objects as "incense altars" (1993) and convincingly argues (1992) that they were used for burning incense.

12 For the definition of "shrine," see Holladay 1987:282, n. 1 and discussion on p. 268.

13 An Iron Age I shrine room was excavated in a similar location at Tell el-´Umeiri (Clark 1994:146).

14 Dimension of the blocks are: (1) Object 2103: 14.5-20 cm wide, 26 cm high; (2) Object 2054: 16.2-17.5 cm wide, 25 cm high (Jacobs 1994a).

15 Although Holladay (1987:274) suggests that such paraphernalia is associated with "establishment" cult places. For a description of an early Israelite house shrine, its cult and rituals, see Judg 17; 18:3-6, 13-27, 31.

16 Two lmlk stamped jar handles and many lmlk-type jars found at Tell Halif serve as indicators for its participation in the revolt. See below.

17 In the caption to fig 83, Ussishkin (1982:107) refers to these objects as "chalices."

18 For the existence of a cult center in Lachish Stratum V, see Aharoni 1975b:26-32. Aharoni suggests that parts of the cult center were in use until, at least, the end of Stratum III. The Hellenistic temple discovered on the site of the earlier Israelite high place attests to the continuity of the sacred space.

19 For a description of the preparations for the revolt, see Halpern 1991:21-26.

20 Halpern (1991:23-25) suggests that they were used for supplying the professional soldiers rather than any other element of the local population.

21 For the latest on the method of construction, see Gill (1994).

22 See ANET:287-288.

23 Although Hezekiah did not succeed in his attempt to regain complete independence and restore the "glorious old days," he planted this idea in the mind of Manasseh who also was unsuccessful. It was left to Josiah "to carry through the far reaching reforms for which Manasseh [and Hezekiah; my addition] had evidently begun to prepare the infrastructure" (Rainey 1993:162).


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