From  the  book  by  the  same  name

ARCHEOLOGY   and  a  Miracle

Reading Between the Cracks

The excessive skepticism of many liberal theologians stems not from a careful evaluation of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against the supernatural 1

—Millar Burrows

I gained a new insight into biblical interpretation when I learned to read the "white spaces" in the Bible. Normally, of course, we would read the words on the page, but there is more there than meets the eye! The white spaces are what is not written, yet oftentimes there is a possibility that something occurred between those words of text on the page. This is what people call "reading between the lines."

An example of reading this way may be found in Genesis 4:17. There we read that "Cain had relations with his wife." Where did she come from? If we rely only on the words written on the page of this text, we would conclude that there were only people alive on earth and the other three were Cain's par-[Adam and Eve] and his brother Abel. However, we read in Genesis 5:4 that Cain's parents "had other sons and daughters" over an 800-year period. So by reading between the lines, we can understand that when Cain married it was to one of his sisters or cousins. Scripture is selective about what it says, so sometimes we have to fill in the gaps based on comparative texts or our knowledge of historical events. These are what fill the white spaces of our Bible.

When we turn to archaeology and deal with the stones, we must change the metaphor. Rather than reading between the lines, we must read between the cracks! One of the values of archaeology is that it can supply historical details that are lacking in the biblical text. By allowing us to "read between the cracks," archaeology helps us to coordinate biblical and historical facts about people, places, and events that would otherwise be unknown, and thereby certify uncertain passages.

Miracles in the Bible

Perhaps no passages are considered more "uncertain" in our skeptical age than those that concern the miraculous. In relation to archaeology and the miraculous, W.R Albright once observed:

Though archaeology can thus clarify the history and geography of ancient Palestine, it cannot explain the basic miracle of Israel's faith, which remains a unique factor in world history. But archaeology can help enormously in making the miracle rationally plausible to an intelligent person whose vision is not shortened by a materialistic world view.2

The Bible is not only a record of history but also of the miraculous in history. However, most archaeologists see miracles as an expression of religious faith, not something that can be validated in real history. But is it possible that in the realm of miracles, archaeology could also help us read between the lines and affirm what was thought to be impossible to certify in the realm of history? In order to answer this question, let's first consider the nature of miracles in the Bible.

The Nature of Miracles in the Bible

When people think of miracles related to the Bible, they usually think of the burning bush seen by Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. These would be classified as "first-class" miracles—that is, extraordinary events that manifest divine intervention in human or natural affairs. These should be kept separate from "second-class" miracles, which represent the common grace of God given for the daily living of our lives.

The Frequency of Miracles in the Bible

The frequency with which first-class miracles appear in the Bible also needs to be understood. Many people have the notion that the Bible is a collection of fairy tales because they assume that the miraculous appears on every page. But when we look for miracles in the Bible we find that they happen quite infrequently and only at certain designated periods of history. In fact, there are only four brief periods during which such activity occurred: 1) during the time of Moses and Joshua (1441-1370 B.C.) when God was establishing His nation; 2) during the time of Elijah and Elisha (870-785 b.c.) when God was establishing His prophets; 3) during the time of Daniel (605-538 B.C.) when God was establishing His people in exile; and 4) during the ministry of Jesus and His apostles (a.d. 28-90) when God was establishing His church.3

In each of these times, miracles occurred during pivotal periods of historical transition and national establishment. Miracles were given as a necessary sign to inaugurate each new era, to authenticate God's message and messengers, and to instruct those who observed the events. Given the thousands of years God has been dealing with man, it is surprising that He has been so restrained in His use of the miraculous. However, the sparsity of miracles is not meant to diminish the miraculous, but to emphasize that miracles have specific purposes. Many, if not most, of the miracles seen in three of the four transitional periods were associated with judgments on Israel's enemies (Egypt, idolatry, Babylon). Only during the fourth period, the time of Jesus and the apostles, were miracles primarily confirmatory.

Let's now take, as an example, a miracle that occurred during the reign of King Hezekiah, which took place during the second of our designated periods of miracles (the prophets). Does archaeology offer any historical support for the Bible's theological statement of the miraculous?

Examining a Miraculous Event

The Key Characters

Hezekiah—A Man of Construction

The reign of King Hezekiah itself was nothing less than miraculous. He came to the Judean throne in 715 B.C. as the godly son of one of history's most ungodly fathers, Ahaz. His legacy of godliness was that he was the greatest of the divided monarchy's reforming kings. He began his career of reform by returning Israel's worship to a centralized place as God had commanded—the Jerusalem Temple (2 Chronicles 29-31). To assure the religious revival Hezekiah wanted to bring about, he rooted out idolatrous practices throughout his realm, and even destroyed the last vestiges of Judean syncretism that had centered on the veneration of the ancient copper snake that Moses had made and had by now become a religious relic with the name "Nehushtan" (2 Kings 18:3-6). Snake cults were common in the ritualistic religions that influenced Israel,4 as discovered at Tel-Miqne (Ekron), where a miniature golden snake from Hezekiah's time was discovered. Hezekiah knew that even though this sacred object had once been a symbol of salvation (Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14), now it was a sign of sin.

Hezekiah's strengthening of Judah spiritually and politically led to the need for increased construction, particularly in the city of Jerusalem. During his reign he expanded the city onto the Western Hill, primarily to incorporate the refugees from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrian king Sargon II (2 Chronicles 30:25). These ranks would swell even more as Sargon's successor Sennacherib attacked the Southern Kingdom and dispossessed its peoples. At first, however, Hezekiah's peaceful rule was unopposed. He had won a military victory over the Philistines, confining them to their old home along the Mediterranean coastal plain. With an even greater show of strength, he forged an alliance with Egypt and ended the payment of tribute to Assyria, which had begun with his fathers. For a time Hezekiah's resistance seemed successful. But then the Assyrian overlord Sennacherib came to reclaim his honor and the tribute owed by his vassal province.

Sennacherib—A Man of Conquest

At this time in history the ancient Near East had become a neighborhood ruled by might, and the mightiest and the bad-dest of the boys on the block were the Assyrians. One look at the graphic portrayals on archaeological reliefs that depicted their enemies' headless and handless corpses; their captives Being blinded, impaled, or flayed alive; or the lucky ones being led off to exile with hooks through their jaws is convincing enough to conclude that the Assyrians were not an enemy one wanted to annoy. And Sennacherib, as their king, enforced this kind of brutality.5 The Assyrian reliefs depicting the Lachish siege show Sennacherib enthroned and proudly surveying this scene of carnage, impalement, and capture. In addition, an Assyrian winged-bull inscription from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh boasts, "I laid waste the large district of Judah..." while on the Lachish relief itself he proclaimed, "Sennacherib, king of the world...." Therefore, from the Assyrian perspective, Hezekiah's rebellion had pitted him against the world, and his plight was threatened to be earth-shattering!



The Plight

In 701 B.C. Sennacherib advanced against "all the fortified cities of Judah and took them" (2 Kings 18:13). Archaeological confirmation of this exists in the form of a monumental Assyrian relief made to commemorate his victory over one of these cities—Lachish. As previously mentioned, this relief was found preserved on Sennacherib's palace walls at Nineveh (see chapter 4). After Sennacherib took Lachish, nothing stood in the way of making the march against Judah's capital, Jerusalem. Hezekiah was not ignorant of the inevitable. At first Hezekiah tried to placate Sennacherib by paying his "back taxes" (2 Kings 18:14-16). However, failing to appease Sennacherib, Hezekiah adopted a more prudent plan to postpone his people's plight-— the results of which have been revealed by archaeology. 

When the Assyrian siege began, Hezekiah began an industrious program to secure Jerusalem's defenses. Two obvious problems faced Hezekiah: the need for better fortifications, and the need to prevent being cut off from the natural resources that sustained the city. The Assyrian "Rab-shakeh" (a high official)6 addressed this latter fear when he said to the people of Jerusalem, "Is not Hezekiah misleading you to give yourselves over to die by hunger and by thirst...?" (2 Chronicles 32:11). Hezekiah addressed the latter need in an exceptional manner.

Hezekiah's Water Tunnel

Hezekiah was certain that Jerusalem would be cut off from its main water supply, the Gihon Spring, the source of which lay unprotected deep in the southern end of the Kidron Valley outside the old City of David. Hezekiah managed to divert its waters by stopping the upper outlet and directing its flow to the western side of the city (see 2 Chronicles 32:2-4,30). This was accomplished by an incredible feat of engineering that even modern engineers marvel at today. Hezekiah secretly carved through solid limestone a 1,750-foot tunnel underneath Jerusalem. This connected the Gihon Spring with the present-day Pool of Siloam, located within the walls at the city's southwestern

59. Author's daughter Eleisha inside Hezekiah 's Water Tunnel.

corner. The Bible tells us about this feat (2 Kings 20:20), but not how it was accomplished. However, when a local exploration of the tunnel was made in 1880 (by boys swimming at the site) an inscription was discovered about 20 feet from the exit, where the tunnel is almost 15 feet high. Now called the "Siloam Inscription," this eighth-century account of the tunnel's construction fills in the "white spaces" of the biblical story.7 It tells how two crews of workmen armed with picks completed their assigned task:

... And this was the account of the breakthrough. While the laborers were still working with their picks, each toward the other, and while there were still three cubits to be broken through, the voice of each was heard calling to the other, because there was a crack (or split or overlap) in the rock from the south to the north. And at the moment of the breakthrough, the laborers struck each toward the other, pick against pick. Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool for 1,200 cubits. And the height of the rock above the heads of the laborers was 100 cubits.

I have walked the length of this irregularly cut serpentine tunnel more than 30 times and it still amazes me. The pickmen did not go in a straight line but weaved in an S-shaped path, which increased the length of their route by more than 65 percent. Various attempts have been made to try and explain how the pickmen, without the aid of a compass or tools, could have perfectly met each other.8 But for now it is still considered a mystery—and a miracle. Regardless of how his workmen did it, Hezekiah's tunnel was a lifesaver for Jerusalem. Now remained the job of securing his fortifications.

Hezekiah's "Broad Wall"

As the Assyrians approached Jerusalem, Hezekiah made last-hour preparations to resist Sennacherib's impending siege by fortifying the newly expanded, but weaker, western hill of the city. The Bible records these efforts of Hezekiah, noting that "he took courage and rebuilt all the wall that had been broken down, and erected towers on it, and built another outside wall" (2 Chronicles 32:5). Some of the fortification structures mentioned in this verse have been found in excavations in the Jewish Quarter.9 One of the towers and a section of its rebuilt wall were discovered still preserved to a height of about six feet. The new "outside wall" that Hezekiah built was discovered by Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad during his excavations in the Jewish Quarter (1969-1982). Today this wall is called the "Broad Wall" because of its immense width (23 feet). This extreme thickness was necessary to withstand the terrible battering rams of the Assyrian army. This wall originally stood about 27 feet high and ran from the northern area of the Western Hill to the south, then westward toward the present Jaffa Gate. It then continued southward along the edge of the slope above the Hinnom Valley until it swung east to meet the southern tip of David's City at the place where Jerusalem's three main valleys met.10 The construction of this massive wall reveals the people's desperation to ward off the Assyrian onslaught at all costs. And cost was a factor, for the Broad Wall was hastily built by using stones that came from people's houses. This fact is also recorded of Hezekiah in Scripture: "You saw that the breaches in the wall of the city of David were many... you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you tore down houses to fortify the wall" (Isaiah 22:9-10,). Here, then, is dramatic archaeological evidence of the great fear King Hezekiah and all the people felt when faced with the Assyrian advance. When I stood on this wall I reflected on how much pain these frightened people must have felt as they ripped apart their own homes in a desperate gamble to withstand a seemingly omnipotent power. What hope could they possibly have against a foe that had already captured or destroyed all the other cities they had gone against up to now? Yet, the biblical story reminds us that when our strength is gone, there is God. Realizing there was no other refuge than the God whose own covenant had sworn to preserve the penitent, the king abandoned his pursuit for greater protection and instead went (with the prophet Isaiah) to prayer (2 Chronicles 32:20).

Hezekiah's Miraculous Prayer

When Hezekiah prayed, he both repented for God's people and resorted to God's promise (in the Davidic covenant). God had spared Jerusalem once before when its sin had brought destruction (2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15), and Hezekiah believed that God could be entreated to do it again (see Isaiah 37:6-7,21-38). By contrast, the Rab-shakeh had told Jerusalem that there was no use in looking to God because He had been unable to save any of the other cities of the Northern or Southern kingdoms from Sennacherib (2 Chronicles 32:15; Isaiah 36:18-20). As a result, Isaiah the prophet brought this word from God: "I will defend this city to save it for My own sake and for My servant David's sake" (2 Kings 19:34; Isaiah 37:35). God promised that He would "put a spirit in [Sennacherib] so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land. And I will make him fall by the sword in his own land"(2 Kings 19:7). The familiar account of what happened next to fulfill this promised miracle is recorded in the parallel texts of Kings and Isaiah:11.

Then it happened that night that the angel of the Lord went out, and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when the men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home, and lived at Nineveh. And it came about as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 b.c.) told a similar story about Sethos, an Egyptian whose god was said to have sent field mice at night to eat the Assyrian army's quivers, bowstrings, and shield handles while they were camped at Pelusium. The result was that the next morning the army was unarmed and most of the soldiers were killed or retreated.12 This account has led some scholars to suggest a confusion of traditions and that the biblical account may be reflecting a sudden outbreak of a virulent vermin-induced plague that slew the Assyrians. Other scholars believe Sennacherib reigned another 20 years after his failed attempt to conquer Jerusalem and engaged in other military exploits.13 However one interprets the event, one thing is certain: After Hezekiah's prayer, Sennacherib was never again in Judah! Something happened which so shook this mighty monarch that he kept his distance until the day of his death. The historical details of his death by assassination in 681 B.C. are recorded in another archaeological discovery, the Babylonian Chronicle which states: "On the 20th of the month of Tebet, his son killed Sennacherib, king of Assyria, during a rebellion."14 Although this Babylonian tablet generally confirms the biblical account, Jerusalem's salvation from the hands of Sennacherib is a fact confirmed by the Assyrians themselves.

61. The Taylor Prism, preserving Sennacherib's account of his seige against Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah.

Surveying the Evidence of the Miraculous

Today, five whole or fragmentary copies of Sennacherib's annals exist in which we can read his own report of the Assyrian assault against King Hezekiah. These annals were recorded on a six-sided clay prism inscribed in Assyrian cuneiform. Because it was discovered (at Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh in 1830) by the British Colonel R. Taylor, it is known as the "Taylor Prism," and other copies in other holdings are known as the "Nimrud Prism" and the "Oriental Institute Prism."15 Although historians and scholars may dismiss the miraculous explanation given in the Bible, they cannot deny the witness of an enemy's testimony carved in stone. In leaving his record for those who would follow and preserve his memoiy, Sennacherib put His best face forward and inscribed the facts for all time:

As for Hezekiah, the Judean who did not submit to my yoke, I surrounded and conquered forty-six of his strong-walled towns and innumerable small settle-ments around them by means of earth ramps and siege-engines and attack by infantry men I brought out from them and counted 200,150 people of all ranks—
He himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. Fear of my lordly splendor over whelmed that Hezekiah. The warriors and select troops he had brought in to strengthen his royal city Jerusalem, did not fight. He sent his messengers to pay tribute and do obeisance.

An Archaeological Argument from Silence

What can we observe in Sennacherib's account of his siege against Jerusalem? 

First, we find his affirmation that Jerusalem was surrounded without any hope of rescue or escape. Sennacherib had exacted tribute from King Hezekiah and had militarily shut him up "like a bird in a cage." Second, we find his confirmation that while he had surrounded Jerusalem, he could not conquer the city. The best he could say was that he besieged it-—nothing more! And we can be sure that if he could have said more he would have, for his list of conquests both precede and follow his attack on Jerusalem. It was not the Assyrian way to record a disaster, so in the typical fashion of a Near Eastern monarch who could only boast for posterity but never admit a failure, Sennacherib's silence speaks volumes.

The historical enigma of Sennacherib's only defeat in all of Israel has not escaped the scholars. One writer attempting to understand Jerusalem's successful escape from the Assyrian siege could make only this observation: "... although we don't know for sure what broke the siege, we do know that the Israelites inside managed to hold out."16 However, by reading between the lines—or the cracks—we can set the stones side by side with the Scriptures and receive an answer. In this case, the archaeological record complements the Bible, and the Bible supplements the archaeological record. The annals of Sennacherib reveal that the siege happened just as the Bible said. It followed the devastation of Judah and put Hezekiah beyond the means of all human hope. At this point the Bible supplies the reason for Sennacherib's silence: God did a miracle. No better explanation has been offered, either by the Assyrians or the scholars!

A Tribute to the King of Miracles

King Hezekiah of Judah learned one of the most important lessons that any child of God can learn: "those who honor Me I will honor" (1 Samuel 2:30). Hezekiah had feared the truth of God rather than the taunts of the Rab-shakeh. By fleeing to God rather than fleeing from Sennacherib, Hezekiah gave honor to the God of Israel in whom he trusted. And God honored His covenant with His people (whom Hezekiah represented), and saved the nation. It seems that God also permitted Hezekiah to be honored as well. In his life he received special honor (2 Chronicles 32:23), as well as at his death. In a biblical epitath to the king we read, "So Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the upper section of the tombs of the sons of David; and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem honored him at his death" (2 Chronicles 32:33).

How was Hezekiah honored at his death? There may now be archaeological evidence to answer this question. In the region west of Jerusalem there exist strange earthen mounds known as tumuli. Tumuli are artificial hills of dirt and stone (shaped like small volcanoes) that were apparently erected as memorials to deceased kings or noblemen.17 They were constructed following a special ceremony that occurred sometime between the death and final burial of the one honored. The memorial service involved having people meet around a fire in what was called a "burning" (see 2 Chronicles 16:14; 21:19). The people attending the ceremony brought vessels with spices and foods offered in honor of the deceased (see Jeremiah 34:5; 51:25).18 The latest excavator of the tumuli, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, illustrates for us what such a ceremony would have been like:

I could imagine the ancient people of the Kingdom of  Judah one month after the burial of the king gathering together in thousands—the elderly, the women, the children, the warriors, the administration, everybody. They spread upon the hills in this vicinity and in the middle some of the priests organized the ceremony in which they burned a large fire in memory of the deceased monarch, chanted some laments, and gave a last word, as is mentioned in the Bible. At the end of the ceremony, each of the participants took a basket with some stones and dirt and poured it upon the place where the ceremony took place and piled up a whole mountain in memory of the deceased monarch.19

At the conclusion of the event the area would be covered over to form the tumulus. Outside of Jerusalem there are some 20 tumuli still extant,20 and the largest of these contained remains which most likely connect it to the time of Hezekiah's reign, according to Barkay:

I excavated this one during a very cold winter in Jerusalem, working during snowy days with frozen fingers. We excavated only at the edges and to our amazement we took out of the ground several pottery pieces with seal impressions upon them inscribed lamelek ("belonging to the king"). These are well established and the date of them is well known-—-they belong to the time of King Hezekiah, to the late eighth century B.C. Now, of course the date of each of these tumuli is different, they are not all of the same date.21

Barkay has proposed that these tumuli are memorials to the 21 kings of Judah. If so, this largest of the individually dated tumuli (tumulus 4) should rightly belong to Hezekiah, the greatest of the Judean kings. Therefore, it may indeed explain the heretofore uncertain reference about giving honor to Hezekiah as stated in 2 Chronicles 32:33. If so, tumulus 4 was a tribute to Hezekiah's leadership by the people of Judah. This is the conclusion of Gordon Franz, who assisted in the excavation of the site: "This mound would be left for a memorial to a king who did great things for his God and people-—-a king who is truly worthy to be honored."22 No doubt a part of this honor was in grateful remembrance for the miraculous deliverance that God had wrought through the prayers of His godly king—a miracle that the stones (reading between the cracks) still shout.




Keith Hunt