P.S. Evans, The Invasion of Sennacherib in the Book of Kings: A Source-Critical and Rhetorical Study of 2 Kings 18–19

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Evans, Paul S., The Invasion of Sennacherib in the Book of Kings: A Source-Critical and Rhetorical Study of 2 Kings 18–19 (VTSup, 125; Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2009). Pp. xiv+230. Hardcover. €93.00 / US$138.00. ISBN 978-90-04-17596-9.

This volume is a slightly revised version of Paul Evans' 2008 doctoral dissertation. Evans provides a fresh assessment of the use of source-critical and narrative-critical approaches for understanding the story of Sennacherib's 701 B.C.E. invasion during the reign of King Hezekiah. The work ranges across the entire Hezekiah narrative in Kings, though its primary focus rests upon a close examination of 2 Kgs 18:13–19:37. Evans also examines the relationship of 2 Kings 18–19 to Assyrian sources and the Deuteronomistic History (DH) before setting out a methodological proposal for using narrative texts in historical study.

The introductory chapter briefly lays out the state of current historical research on 2 Kings 18–19, highlighting the key role of the Stade-Childs[1] source-critical analysis, which discerned two sources in the biblical account: Account A (2 Kgs 18:13–16) and Account B (2 Kgs 18:17–19:37), which is further divided into two units (B1—18:17–19:9a, 36; B2—19:9b–35). Evans then briefly explores the uses of the Hezekiah-Sennacherib narrative in historical reconstruction and in understanding the process of the composition of the DH, before laying out his own methodology for examining this passage. Ultimately, Evans seeks to highlight the inadequacy of traditional source-critical approaches to historical reconstruction and the values of narrative-criticism as a basis for historical understanding. Thus, Evans seeks not to provide an all-encompassing reconstruction of Sennacherib's 701 B.C.E. invasion but “to determine more clearly what evidence the biblical account in 2 Kings provides for the historian” (p. 37).

Chapter One tests the Stade-Childs analysis of the Hezekiah-Sennacherib narrative and finds the supporting arguments of unequal value. Evans found that some source-critical criteria lacked authentication (e.g. stylistic differences, divergent perspectives), while the strongest evidence for multiple sources rested upon parallels between the B1 and B2 accounts. Evans then proceeds with his own, alternate source-critical analysis, positing that the use of a similar methodology should produce similar results (p. 64), though given the differing assumptions among interpreters about the nature of the biblical text and how to apply the method, one might rather expect diversity. Evans uncovers two independent traditions (labelled א and ב), which are themselves composed of multiple other sources (some labelled rather tongue-in-cheek J, E, P, D). Yet Evans finds even his own analysis lacking, rightly suggesting that source-critical methodology may be “more in the category of art than science” (p. 85), though a similar assessment may be made of rhetorical analyses, which sometimes also produce differing interpretations.

Chapter Two uses a variety of rhetorical-critical (or more commonly, narrative-critical) tools like plot structure, characterization, and the use of Leitwörter and type-scenes to show how 2 Kgs 18:13–19:37 may be read as a unified, coherent, literary whole. It is somewhat curious, however, that point of view is not directly included in the analysis, particularly when comparing the Rabshakeh's speech with the oracles of Isaiah or Hezekiah's prayer. The combined effect of Evans' analysis is cumulatively convincing, though some arguments are stronger than others. For example, Evans notes how an ABBAAB chiastic structure using the verbs “hear” (שמע) and “return” (שוב) cuts across (and thus unites) 2 Kgs 19:7–9, which is typically adduced as the “seam” between the B1 and B2 sources (pp. 119–121). Such a chiastic structure may indeed be found in 19:7–9, but the presence of additional, intervening verbs (מצא in v. 8, יצא in v. 9, and שלח in v. 9) suggest that this is not a “tight” chiasm. Moreover, as the chiasm would have forced hearers to pick out this rather complex structure from among other verbs, one might also wonder if Evans' exclusion of the verb שמע in 19:6 from the chiasm is somewhat arbitrary. Its proximity to the three other uses of שמע in the chiasm at least raises the question of whether the original audience would have been able to differentiate it from the subsequent uses of the verb in the proposed chiasm.

Perhaps Evans' most provocative and stimulating contribution comes when he applies a close reading strategy to the Hezekiah-Sennacherib narrative in his third chapter. The appearance of Sennacherib's emissaries in Jerusalem after 2 Kgs 18:15–16 suggests that Hezekiah had paid the tribute imposed by Sennacherib, which seems confusing at first. However, Evans insightfully points out that mention of Hezekiah's payment of gold is not explicitly related. Its absence in the narrative prompts the visit of the Assyrian emissaries in the immediately-following verse and so mitigates the necessity of seeing 18:17 as the beginning of a different source (pp. 143–51).

Evans also argues, contrary to the Assyrian sources, that 2 Kings 18–19 does not describe the presence of a besieging force against Jerusalem, noting that the חיל כבד, “large army” (18:17a), which accompanies the Assyrian emissaries, may also denote a small military continent (cf. 2 Kgs 6:14, 19–20). Moreover, Dtr would have been guilty of portraying Isaiah as a false prophet (cf. 2 Kgs 19:32–34) had Sennacherib besieged the city (p. 160). Additionally, the account contains none of the vocabulary associated with siege warfare. Given the ideological commitment within Assyrian annals of not intimating any hints of failure and Dtr's emphasis on fulfilled prophecy, Evans' arguments are cogent. However, the biblical intimation of an Assyrian siege of Jerusalem may yet remain open, as an admittedly difficult, roughly contemporary prophecy in Mic 4:14 [ET 5:1], may refer to an Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.[2]

The fourth chapter applies these observations to a reconstruction of the events described in 2 Kings 18–19. Evans acknowledges that the Hezekiah-Sennacherib narrative is a theological work, but one must then “assess the ideology of the various events purported to have occurred according to 2 Kings 18–19 rather than assess the ideology of the various ‘sources’” (pp. 173–74). The Hezekiah-Sennacherib account in 2 Kings then finds support (with some differences) when viewed against Assyrian sources, but is also shown to contain reliable material not relayed in Assyrian sources (e.g., the defeat of the Assyrian army). Evans concludes by highlighting the value of a rhetorical approach for not only appreciating the role of 2 Kings 18–19 within the DH, but also its usefulness in assessing the message of the passage and thus its role in historical reconstruction.

The contribution of this work lies at multiple levels. Evans' close reading of 2 Kings 18–19 provides many helpful and insightful observations on both the structure and the logic of the text, paying close attention to what is both explicitly stated, and what is implied in the text. Contrary to many rhetorical and narrative-critical studies, which shy away from questions of historicity, Evans not only shows the compatibility of such approaches with historical reconstruction, but makes a strong case for the methodological priority of such analyses for uncovering Dtr ideology, which then facilitates a judicious and effective historical analysis. This is an important work whose significance extends beyond only those interested in reading the Hezekiah-Sennacherib narrative well to those wrestling with reading the ideology of the DH and the use of biblical texts in an effective historical methodology.

Gordon Oeste, Heritage Theological Seminary

[1] Bernhard Stade, “Miscellen: Anmerkungen zu 2 Kö. 15–21,” ZAW 6 (1886): 156–89; Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (SBT 2/3; London: SCM, 1967), 69–103. reference

[2] Cf. Charles S. Shaw, The Speeches of Micah: A Rhetorical-Historical Analysis (JSOTSup 145; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 136–37, 139; Bruce Waltke, A Commentary on Micah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 263, 296–98. reference