In Hezekiah’s Tunnel

One of the most interesting figures in the bible is King Hezekiah—reformer, builder, and entirely historical, attested to in a passel of extra-biblical sources. New sources have been excavated over the last few weeks.

Archaeologists place Hezekiah’s reign as stretching from 715 (or ’16) to 686 BC. Hezekiah was king of the southern of the two Jewish kingdoms—Judea, corresponding to central Israel and the southern lobe of the West Bank. He dramatically expanded Jerusalem’s power and its population, and helped reunite the 12 tribes, despite their being spread over his kingdom and the Kingdom of Israel to the north. He refused to continue playing tribute to Assyria, so Assyria’s King Sennacherib invaded, and laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege is discussed in a number of ancient sources; an ancient Assyrian tablet recording Assyria’s campaign in Ethiopia says this about it: “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities … and conquered them … Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.”

Hezekiah prepared for Assyria’s wrath at his non-tribute by forming an alliance with Egypt. When Assyria invaded, Egypt (evidently) refused to honor the alliance, so Hezekiah was forced to prepare for war against a vastly stronger enemy. In fact, the first thing he did, as Assyria started to raze Judea’s towns, was pay Assyria an enormous peace settlement, to bring the war to a swift end. Assyria accepted the settlement, but continued the war.

At this point, Hezekiah did two things. The first was build a massive wall, the so called “Broad Wall,” which, despite being 2700 years old, can still be seen today in the Old City of Jerusalem (you know, the part the UN says Jews are illegally settling.) To go with the wall—according to 2 Chronicles—”when Hezekiah saw the Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?’ they said.” 2 Kings adds some detail: “Hezekiah made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city.”

That tunnel—Hezekiah’s Tunnel, also known as the Siloam Tunnel—is perhaps what Hezekiah is best known for today. It’s a remarkable thing. It winds its way deep under Jerusalem; it’s 1,500 feet long, and despite an altitude difference of less than a foot between the source spring and the reservoir to which the water is being moved, water is able to flow smoothly from one end to the other.

But what really makes the tunnel remarkable is the way in which it was built. Hezekiah needed his tunnel pronto—so his engineers began carving it out of solid rock at both ends, simultaneously. Where the two teams of tunnel-men met in the middle, an inscription was carved; it’s 2,700 years old, but can still be read (mostly); it lives in a museum in Turkey.

It says, in part; “This is the story of the tunnel … while the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut … the voice of a man called to his counterpart … and on the day of the tunnel being finished the stonecutter struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax, and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits, and 100 cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters.”

That last remark—100 cubits overhead—is especially telling: The height of stone over the tunnel changes constantly, as the city undulates above it. This indicates the two teams of stonecutters knew exactly where they were when they met.

(Incidentally, in Israel you can walk the tunnel, if you don’t mind your feet getting wet.)

So, Hezekiah was a builder, and under his rule, Jerusalem was a remarkable place. In the end, Sennacherib was assassinated (by one of his sons) before he was able to complete his conquest of Judea, and the Jews lived on to fight another day. However …

On his way to Jerusalem, Sennacherib destroyed a number of other Jewish settlements, including a town called Lacish. If you go to Lacish today, you can see the Assyrian siege ramp used to capture it. Like so many biblical sites in Israel, it’s under constant archeological study, and something very interesting has just been discovered.

The original raison d’être of Judaism was stamping out the savage, barbarous, pagan levantine religions. (You might say that Judaism was the civilized man’s answer to human sacrifice.) During the years leading up to Hezekiah’s reign, some of the old tribal religions were making a comeback in Israel and Judea, and Hezekiah would have none of it. One of the local pagan gods was Ba’al (the name Hannibal—as in Hannibal of Carthage—means “grace of Ba’al.”) Ba’al was sometimes worshiped by the roasting of children on brazen altars, and was thus unpopular with Jews. The bible refers to the despoiling of a shrine to Ba’al: the King (not Hezekiah but Jehu, a slightly earlier king of Israel) “broke down the house of Ba’al, and made it a draught-house”—i.e., made it a bathroom.

This was assumed by many to have been a metaphor. But a few weeks ago, excavations at Lacish found remnants of a pagan altar room, and inside it, a smashed altar, and beside that, seals of Hezekiah, and beside those, in perfect condition, an unmistakable stone-hewn privy.

Soil samples taken beneath it suggest it was never used. Hezekiah put it there for the symbolism, evidently. Or maybe as a remark on his esteem of paganism.

Anyway—another page of the Bible turns out to be based in historical fact. Always interesting.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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