This article was originally published by The Mennonite

It matters who tells the story

The Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided

There is no such thing as values-free reporting, politics or history.

If some miracle of time travel allowed reporters from Fox News, National Public Radio and your preferred Christian magazine all to witness the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C., they probably would file three very different stories of the event. Our time-traveling
journalists would all observe several hundred thousand Assyrian troops, under the command of King Sennacherib of Assyria, approaching Jerusalem with unfriendly intent. But even if the journalists all pledged to present just the facts, their stories would differ. They would emphasize different aspects of the episode. They would ascribe developments to different causes and would reflect different values and allegiances.

The Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided
The Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided

Actually, we do have three ancient versions of the Sennacherib story. Differences in those accounts can help us understand political polarities that sometimes strain relationships today at family reunions, church institutions or congregational potlucks. Political differences become especially heated when fanned by fears of terrorism, economic instability or religious extremism.

Jerusalem and national security

Despite genuine threats to modern America, our national security is far less precarious than that of Judah under King Hezekiah (ca. 715–687 B.C.). In 722 B.C. the Assyrians devoured Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, after a three-year siege. The 10 northern tribes of Israel disappeared into exile, never to emerge again in history.
Now in 701 B.C., the Southern Kingdom of Judah trembled as Assyria closed a noose around their capital of Jerusalem. King Sennacherib of Assyria was more interested in defeating the mighty armies of Egypt than in capturing a tiny Jewish nation. But Sennacherib wanted Judah as a tax-paying vassal state in the Assyrian orbit, and it angered him when Hezekiah resisted and tried to align with Egypt.

The following are three different accounts of how events unfolded:

1. As told by Jews: an angel saved Jerusalem
In 2 Kings (18:13–19:37) we have the biblical account of Sennacherib’s response to Hezekiah’s rebellion. The Assyrian captured all fortified cities of Judah except Jerusalem, then demanded that Hezekiah send him a huge sum of money. Intimidated, Hezekiah stripped gold from the temple in Jerusalem and otherwise plundered national wealth to make the payment. Not satisfied, Sennacherib sent his troops to Jerusalem with this sneering message: “On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me? See, you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff.”

Sennacherib even claimed that Yahweh, the God of the Jews, had ordered him to take Judah and destroy it. Assyrian deputies tried to influence popular opinion in Jerusalem by publicly proclaiming, “Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, Yahweh will deliver us. Have any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?” A frightened Hezekiah tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth and went to the temple to pray. He sent advisors to consult the prophet Isaiah, who replied with this message: Do not be afraid; Yahweh will cause Sennacherib to return to his own land.

In the temple, Hezekiah prayed, “O Lord our God, save us … so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you … are God alone.” Isaiah sent a second encouraging oracle to Hezekiah: Sennacherib will not come into Jerusalem or shoot an arrow there or build a siege ramp against it. “For I will defend this city to save it,” Yahweh said. The biblical account ends with this decisive turn of events:

That very night the angel of Yahweh set out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; when the morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home and lived at Nineveh. As he was worshiping in the house of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword” (2 Kings 19:35–37).

From the Jewish perspective, Sennacherib’s army was literally stopped dead by an act of Yahweh.

2. As told by Sennacherib: I caged Hezekiah like a bird
How might Sennacherib have reported his foray into Palestine? We have his version recorded on a six-sided clay prism (ca. 690 B.C.) now at the Oriental Institute in Chicago [see photo]. The hexagonal tablet tells how the “terror-inspiring splendor” of Sennacherib’s “lordship” overwhelmed regional coalitions during eight military campaigns. These campaigns took place throughout the Near East, and Sennacherib says this about his ventures in Syria-Palestine:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke. … I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought thus near to the walls combined with the attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as [trenches]. …

[Hezekiah] himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving his city’s gate. … Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the … presents due to me as his overlord … to be delivered annually.

Sennacherib claims that he forced the Judean king to send 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver to Assyria, along with a long list of treasures, including Hezekiah’s own daughters and palace women. According to the Assyrian record, Sennacherib had great success against the Jews. Nothing about an angel of the Lord striking down 185,000 of his troops.

3. As told by Herodotus: the gods sent mice
The Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484–425 B.C.) provides a third account of Sennacherib’s fortunes. This version places the decisive turning point of the Assyrian campaign in the Nile River delta rather than at Jerusalem. Herodotus tells how King Sethos of Egypt panicked as Sennacherib’s army moved into his country. Sethos entered a temple of the god Hephaestus to lament and pray.

“In his lamentation he fell asleep,” Herodotus says, “and dreamt that he saw the god standing over him and bidding him take courage, for he should suffer no ill” from the army of Sennacherib. “Myself,” the god promised King Sethos, “will send you champions.”

Nelson Kraybill's daughter Laura views the Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided
Nelson Kraybill’s daughter Laura views the Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided

Like the account in 2 Kings, Herodotus credits divine intervention—by a different god—for Sennacherib’s decision to abandon his military campaign. As the Assyrians encroached on Egypt, the champions appeared:

One night a multitude of field mice swarmed over the Assyrian camp and devoured their quivers and their bows and the handles of their shields likewise, insomuch that they fled the next day unarmed, and many fell.

Herodotus notes that still in his day—more than two centuries after Sennacherib’s invasion—there was a statue of King Sethos in the temple of Hephaestus in Egypt. The king had a mouse in his hand and an inscription on the statue read, “Look on me, and fear the gods.”

Which story is true?

So which of these accounts is true? Perhaps all three are largely factual, but three different sets of values and allegiances shaped how the stories got told. The biblical account values historic Jewish faith, assuming that Yahweh is in control of history. The author centers the story on Jerusalem, believes Yahweh answers prayer and reflects a certainty that someday rulers who arrogantly defy Yahweh will be humbled and punished.

Sennacherib on a bas relief at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided
Sennacherib on a bas relief at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Photo provided

Sennacherib’s account reinforces the Assyrian king’s own prestige and glory. The clay tablets betray a trust in military might, highlighting the “terror-inspiring splendor” of the Assyrian ruler. Abject allegiance to the Assyrian empire is expected, and anyone who does not submit to the yoke will get crushed. Material wealth is a measure of success, and Sennacherib chortles over the tribute payments he received from Judah.

As a Greek, writing two centuries after the events, Herodotus had less personal stake in the story than did biblical or Assyrian authors. Herodotus nevertheless reveals that he values the gods—even Egyptian gods. He believes that gods intervene in history to make even field mice turn world events. He honors the memory of the Pharaoh who stood up to Assyrian aggression. Jerusalem matters so little to Herodotus that it does not even get mentioned in the story of Sennacherib abandoning his campaign in Palestine.

Who tells the news we get today?
If the same event in ancient history got told in such differing ways, perhaps we should consider who is telling the stories we hear today of current events. It is not sufficient simply to trust that a given news source provides “just the facts.” Which facts, and how are they put together into a coherent narrative? What values and allegiances shape the selection of facts and the telling of the story?

When I was a child, there were three TV networks in the United States, and those three delivered news to most Americans. Now there are hundreds of TV channels and thousands of websites and blogs and any number of print publications. In this fragmented communication environment, it is easy to find sources of information that reinforce opinions and values already held by the consumer. Even news sources that claim to be balanced and include a spectrum of voices will find ways to give the last word or to make one side of the argument look ignorant. Some channels of communication constantly stoke fear or political conflict as a form of entertainment or as a way to boost ratings.

Christians should think critically about the motives and agenda that shape the news we receive. We should pay particular attention to reporters and commentators who build bridges of understanding rather than increase polarities or stoke hatred. The same concerns should inform which political parties or candidates we support and which histories we trust. There is no such thing as values-free reporting, politics or history; all have underlying values and allegiances.

Values Christians should seek
Regardless of the ideological stance of information sources or political candidates we favor, we should never give them unquestioning support. Our first allegiance is to Jesus and the gospel, not to some other entity. Even politicians, reporters or historians who claim to be Christian may advance positions that are contrary to the gospel.
In evaluating news sources or political positions, Christians should look for values. These may include the following:

1. Concern for global, not just national interests. As Christians, we give allegiance to the worldwide reign of God rather than to just one country.

2. A preference for nonviolent ways of solving conflict. Followers of Jesus should not champion military or coercive solutions.

3. Respect for people of other opinions and religions. Sneering and fear-mongering have no place in Christian witness.

4. Compassion for those who suffer at the margins. Christians should care about immigrants, the homeless, victims of bigotry and other vulnerable people.

5. Stewardship of the physical world. Biblical people should respect God’s creation and be informed about global warming and depletion of the earth’s resources.

6. Commitment to preserving human life.

Followers of the Lamb should not support killing in war, killing in the womb or killing by capital punishment.

No news source, politician or historian will match all the values that we see in Jesus, but some come closer than others. Some channels of information sound like Sennacherib, others sound like Herodotus, and a few resonate with the gospel.
It is healthy for Christians to get news and editorial comment from a variety of perspectives and sources. We may find it possible to scan several national or international newspapers or to read both liberal and conservative religious magazines—even if we get most of our news from a preferred point on the bias spectrum. Always we must measure what we learn against the high standard set by Jesus.

J. Nelson Kraybill is author of Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010)
J. Nelson Kraybill is author of Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010)

For believers to gain such critical interpretive skills, the church needs prophetic teaching and preaching that instills gospel values—including the value of professing Christ as Lord and inviting others to know him. We need this formation in values and mission more than we need advocacy for particular news sources or political platforms. Then the people of God must look to Scripture, to promptings of the Spirit and to the Christian community for discernment in how to read signs of the times.

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