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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
Video 4 of 7
The background to that siege was Chizkiah’s choice to rebel against Assyria – not just culturally or religiously, but politically and economically as well. As you might guess, the King of Assyria was not terribly pleased to hear that Chizkiah wasn’t going to be paying tribute to him anymore, and that Assyrian gods were no longer displayed or welcome in Jerusalem. And so, after conquering and exiling the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim, Assyria focused on Judea. That became its next target.
Assyria’s new King, Sancherev, attacks and destroys city after city in Yehudah, eventually arriving at Lachish, probably Judea’s second most important fortress, next to Jerusalem. Sancherev besieges Lachish, and, in a battle of immense ferocity, eventually conquers it. To this very day, by the way, you can see the siege-ramp that Sancherev’s army built to mount the walls and overrun the city. Modern archeologists have found hundreds of arrowheads on the ramp, as well as caves nearby housing the remains of thousands of casualties from the siege.
With Lachish embattled, Chizkiah is now desperate. He sends messengers to Sancherev with apologies for his rebellion, and he promises to pay any amount that Sancherev names in return for suspending the military campaign against Judea.
A message comes back to Chizkiah. It’s going to be three hundred bars of silver and thirty bars of gold. That’s Assyria’s price for peace.
So Chizkiah goes about trying to raise that exorbitant ransom. He cleans out the King’s treasury, but it's not enough. He cleans out the Temple’s treasury, but it's still not enough. Finally, he goes to the doors of the Temple – the doors that he had opened, the doors that he had overlaid with gold – and facing just no other choice, he strips the gold from them. And finally, he gathers that entire monumental ransom amount. He takes the whole pile of looted silver and gold, and he ships it off to Sancherev.
So, if you were Sancherev and you see the caravans coming to Lachish from Jerusalem, laden with all the gold and silver you demanded – you count it up and it's all there – what would you do next?
Well, you’d probably pack up your gear, turn your troops around, and head home. I mean, that was the deal, right?
But Sancherev doesn’t do that. You know, a generation before, gold and silver wasn’t enough for Tiglat Pileser, Assyria’s previous king; he attacked Achaz anyway even after getting all the gold and silver. And now, it would be the same thing with Sancherev: I’ll take your gold and silver, but that’s not going to settle things between us. Sancherev is still going to come after Chizkiah.
So here’s what happens next. An Assyrian delegation, headed by a man named Ravshakeh, shows up at the gates of Jerusalem with a curious message for Chizkiah. Here’s how the text puts it. Vayomer aleihem Ravshakeh, and Ravshakeh said to them, imru-na el-Chizkiyahu, deliver this message to Chizkiyahu, ko-amar hamelech hagadol melech ashur, thus says the great King, the King of Assyria, mah habitachon hazeh asher batachta? What is this trust that you seem to have?
You know, it’s fascinating; Sancherev, he’s got his money, but that just isn’t enough for him. It's almost like he’s offended by Chizkiah’s rebellion, he wants to figure it out. It's like: What got into your head that you were crazy enough to defy me? Because, if you think about it, militarily, what Chizkiah did, it really was crazy. So Sancherev, he suspects some kind of hidden alliance.
Ravshakeh shouts his message to Chizkiah at the walls of Jerusalem: Al-mi batachta ki maradeta bi, in whom do you trust that you had the temerity to rebel against me?
The logical answer would have to be Egypt. I mean, it’s the nearest regional power. So Ravshakeh continues and says: “I know who you’re trusting… it’s that lousy, untrustworthy Pharaoh, isn’t it!”
Egypt, as you may recall from the Book of Exodus, it was the land of the horse and the chariot. Ravshakeh suspects that maybe Pharaoh made a deal with Chizkiah to supply him with horses and chariots. Maybe that would explain why Chizkiah had the guts to rebel.
So Ravshakeh makes this bold taunt: Veatah hitarev na et-adoni et-melech ashur, my master, the King of Assyria, proposes a bet with you. Veetnah lach alpayim susim im-tuchal latet lach rochvim aleihem, I’ll supply you with 2,000 horses if you’re able to put riders upon them.
You know, it’s like: If it’s horses that propelled you to go to Egypt – hey, I’ve got horses for you. You can’t even find riders for all the horses I can give you!
Ravshakeh continues. I’m not going to get into all of his language here, but suffice it to say that he taunts Chizkiah; in modern parlance, we would call it “trash talking.” And you have to understand, all this back and forth, it’s happening in public. Ravshakeh and his Assyrian military delegation, they’re shouting all this at Chizkiah’s representatives, but there are scores of ordinary citizens standing on those walls of Jerusalem, too, and everyone’s listening to the give and take here. So one of Chizkiah’s representatives, a man by the name of Elyakam, he screams back to Ravshakeh. He says, could you please speak in Aramaic to us, and not in Hebrew, the Judeans’ language. I mean, everyone on the wall can hear you!
Elyakam is basically saying: Look, there are women and children here. Could you please speak in a language the masses can’t hear? You’re just frightening everybody.
But Ravshakeh doesn’t care. He screams back at Elyakam: Haal adoneicha veeleicha shelachani adoni ledaber et-hadevarim haeleh, you think you’re the audience? You think my master sent me just to you, just to your master Chizkiah, to speak these words? Halo al-haanashim hayoshvim al-hachomah, no, I’m talking to the people on the wall. Leechol et-tzoatam lishtot et-meimei ragleihem imachem, those people on the wall, the ones reduced to eating their own excrement from famine, the ones reduced to drinking their own urine; that’s who I’m talking to along with you.
To get the real “in-your-face” sense of Ravshakeh’s taunts, you’d have to use the English slang for excrement and urine here. But look, this is a family show, so let’s just politely say that Ravshakeh ignores Elyakam’s request to change languages. He continues to scream in Hebrew.
He yells at the starving, besieged masses: Don’t let Chizkiah trick you! Hahatzel hitzilu elohei hagoyim ish et-artzo? Did the gods of other nations we conquered save them? No, and neither will your God save you.
The King tore his clothes in mourning and sent word to the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps, Chizkiah said, the Living God would hear the words of Ravshakeh and respond to these vicious and blasphemous taunts.
But then Chizkiah says something that makes you maybe raise an eyebrow. He says in his prayer to the Almighty these curious words: God, Your children, bou banim ad-mashber, they’re like a woman who’s in the process of giving birth, and they’ve gotten to this crucial moment in labor. Vekoach ein leled, but she doesn’t have enough strength to successfully deliver the child. What a strange thing to say.
You know, if I were Chizkiah at that moment, I might have compared my Kingdom to someone who had fallen deathly ill. But a woman in childbirth? I don’t know, not so much. It may well be that a woman in childbirth is in danger; but the situation she’s in, is really a joyous one if you think about it. I mean, if she can only manage to complete the birth process, things will be great. Why would Chizkiah use that analogy to describe his people’s predicament?
Unless… unless that’s precisely the situation he thinks they’re in.
Chizkiah seems to be saying something like this: The woman who is having trouble giving birth, it looks like she might be doomed. But that’s not really her whole story. If she’s successful in delivering this child, a whole new life is ushered into the world. It's the most joyous thing imaginable for her, if she can only successfully make it through.
And so it is for us. We look like we might be doomed too. We don’t have enough power to do this on our own. But if You, God, if You can lend us the strength to succeed, there’ll be a whole new life here. A new age of incomparable joy will be ushered in. We need You on our side.
Chizkiah seems to be talking about the knife-edge. It's the best of times, it's the worst of times. We might be doomed, he seems to be saying, but if we’re saved – well then, it's a whole new world. As dark as it seems, this moment could really become the “best of times.”
Chizkiah turns to his countrymen and makes a choice. He tells them that Jerusalem will continue to defy Sancherev, against all odds. He cuts off the springs outside the city to deprive the Assyrians of water. He builds a tunnel through rock to pipe water into Jerusalem. With these measures, the people of Jerusalem are going to withstand the siege as long as they possibly can. And then – then he gathers all the people into Jerusalem’s public square and he declares this to them.
Chizku veimtzu, be strong and courageous, he says. Al tiru veal-techatu mifnei melech ashur, do not be afraid and do not be dismayed as we face the King of Assyria. Umilifnei kol-hehamon asher-imo, as we face his vast armies. Ki-imanu rav meimo, because in truth we have a Greater Force with us than he has with him. Imo ziroa basar, you know, he has the force of flesh and blood, but imanu Hashem Elokeinu leazirenu, but with us is the Lord our God to help us. Ulehilachem milchamotenu, and to fight our battles. Vayisamchu haam al-divrei Yechizkiyahu melech-Yehudah, and the people relied on the words of Chizkiyahu.
Listen to what Chizkiah is saying to his countrymen: Chizku – be strong and courageous. Listen to those words; it’s his name, Chizkiah – “God is my strength.” You know, his name, it really expresses in just a single word what he’s telling his people right now. It’s not crazy for them to stand fast in the face of such overwhelming odds. We’re strong, he tells them, but not for any of the reasons advanced by Ravshakeh. It’s not because Egypt is on our side. They’re not. We didn’t promise Pharaoh allegiance in return for chariots and horsemen. No. We’re strong because imanu Hashem Elokeinu, because God is with us.
But take those words apart. Shorten them. Imanu-Hashem Elokeinu, he says. Imanu-Hashem Elokeinu. Imanu-El. That’s the name his brother was given, the child that was a sign from God to show that it would all be okay. Chizkiah was invoking that sign, the sign that his father had abandoned.
Chizkiah, like his father before him, was facing an invasion, and he had his back pressed to the wall. But Chizkiah would face the invader with a kind of confidence that makes little sense to those who understand only the might that comes from geopolitical alliances. It’s a kind of confidence that Ravshakeh does not understand. It’s a kind of confidence that his own father, Achaz, would not understand.
Chizkiah was staking everything on “Immanu-El”. And, in fact, God was with him.
Sancherev arrives at the walls of Jerusalem with well over 100,000 men and a full complement of siege weaponry. But that very night, an angel of God ventures forth into the Assyrian camp and delivers a silent blow. Dawn breaks, but Sancherev’s troops never wake up from the night’s sleep. Sancherev, confronted with the fact that his vast army is no more, flees back to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, where, as it happens, he is later killed by assassins.
Now, here’s the thing. Chronology is everything here. The Book of Chronicles places these events we’ve just talked about – the siege of Sancherev and Chizkiah’s miraculous victory – as happening right after the glorious, unified Passover celebration that Chizkiah had pulled off. So here’s the question I want to consider with you.
We saw some patterns that had animated the events of Chizkiah’s reign, two patterns, to be precise: Ever expanding concentric circles, and an ever expanding reach backwards in history. The circles.
At each stage, Chizkiah was persuading a larger and larger cohort of people to join him in his celebration. Indeed, the song and joy of each stage was even greater than that before it. And the reach backward in history at each stage, Chizkiah was healing a wound that reached back farther and farther into his nation’s past. He was fixing things.
I want to suggest to you, in our next video, that these patterns actually extend even further, and animate the next great story in Chizkiah’s reign - the story of the King’s last showdown against Sancherev at the walls of Jerusalem.
Let’s take a look.
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