Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Did the Ark Defeat Sennacherib?

Jerusalem survived the Assyrian siege. How? Photo by Sander Crombach

An Intriguing Possibility

Recently, a reader reached out to me and asked:

I have a few questions about the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib and the plague that his army developed in just one night [as told in Isaiah, Chronicles, and Second Kings, and probably occurred in 701 BCE].

I’m wondering whether the plague might have been produced by the Ark. We know that it could become radioactive under certain circumstances and I think it is possible that it was used to irradiate the soldiers outside the city. Indeed, no information is available about the type of disease or infection they developed. Possibly, it might be of the same nature the Philistines (and then also the Hebrews) were exposed to some time earlier when they took the Ark from the Hebrews.

However, in order to do so, and not to harm the population inside the walls of Jerusalem, the Ark might have been moved outside the city during the siege. The only way I see this might have occurred is through the tunnels of the water supply network, such as the one Hezekiah is said to have built to guarantee water supply to the city during the siege. Would it have been possible to move the Ark from the Temple to outside the walls through one of the tunnels?

In addition, during the campaign of the Assyrians to Pelusium, that should have been some months earlier than the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, mice in one night devoured and destroyed the armaments of the Assyrians in the camp. And the day after they were defeated by the Egyptians led by Sethos. Do you think that this story, described by Herodotus in Histories, II-141, might be reliable, or maybe can be associated with the plague developed during the siege of Jerusalem, and Herodotus just confused the two things, as many are speculating?

(Edited for Clarity)

First, let me say that any thoughts I have in answering these very interesting questions are in the realm of conjecture, so all I can say is I’ll do my best. I’m sure other scholars would have a multitude of their own answers.

Having said that, here goes!

Now let’s look at the Ark. I posit in my book Talking With God that it became radioactive because of the presence of what the Bible describes as a radioactive cloud, which settled upon the Tabernacle where the Ark was to be used for communication between the Lord and Moses. That the cloud was radioactive is demonstrated by the Bible’s detailed explanation of its effects on people and things that it contacted and the similarity of those effects to radiation burn today, which you can find laid out in my book.

The last time it could be said that the Ark was dosed with radiation from the cloud was during King Solomon’s reign. Solomon brought the Ark into his newly built temple and the cloud appeared over it, but it was so radioactive, the priests couldn’t “minister” there (1 Kings 7:51–8:11). There is no mention of the Ark being used for communication purposes during Solomon’s reign (c. 970–931 BCE). It was during his father King David’s reign (c. 1010–970 BCE) that communication occurred and not afterward. So, if no one could enter the Ark area safely when Solomon was king, one might guess it was just sitting there (you can read more about my thoughts on this on pages 380–381 in my book Talking With God).

The important point here is that Sennacherib began his campaigns around 703 BCE, over 300 years after the beginning of David’s reign, the last time, as we mentioned, that the Ark was used for communicating, and 228 years after Solomon’s reign when the Ark was heavily dosed but not usable. Now, Hezekiah reigned from 729–687 BCE or 281 years after David’s reign began. So, in these cases, while the Ark still existed, its danger most likely faded and it was dangerous only to those who actually came into direct contact with it (to learn more, see page 109 “Mechanism vs. Misconception” in Talking With God). This seemed to be the case with Hezekiah, who suffered from a boil or tumor (Hebrew shechin), probably more accurately translated as a burn. If I’m correct in my thinking here the possibility that the Ark could have affected large numbers of people at the time of the siege seems rather doubtful, whereas it possibly could have affected that one man with what remained of its strength.

Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel, the 8th century BCE water channel cut through the bedrock right under the City of David.
Inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the 8th century BCE water channel cut through the bedrock under the City of David. Credit: Ian Scott / CC BY-SA (

On the possibility of moving the Ark through Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Bible makes no mention of this happening, and, more importantly, the dimensions of the Ark were approximately 52x31x31 inches, whereas the width of Hezekiah’s tunnel at various points is 23.6 inches, too small to allow the Ark to get through. One other point: even if the Ark would be able to get through, it would have contaminated this essential source of drinking water making it impossible for the people to use safely.

The connection with the mice in Herodotus is particularly interesting, and indeed scholars have proposed that the memories of a plague affecting the Assyrian army at either Jerusalem or Pelusium have become muddled over the millennia. Most scholars agree that if the two events are related and, indeed, caused by rodents, then the most likely culprit for the plague would be bubonic, pneumonic, or septicemic plague (which struck Europe so many centuries later as the Black Death). But, it makes no sense that the symptoms of any of the above described three plagues could be related to the original Leviticus orders about so-called “plague”, which said when the area was contaminated with negaph tsawra-at (traditionally translated as plague of leprosy or, by myself, as radiation burn), a person had to have contaminated clothing cut out or burnt or washed, or, depending on the degree of contamination, stones and mortar of the walls of a contaminated house scraped or cast out of the area. Particularly, the three plagues mentioned above killed a person within one or two days of becoming infected, and there was no threat of death with proper treatment in the Leviticus rules. So, whilst a plague could have killed the Assyrians in both cases, it’s more likely to be a biological agent than radioactivity from the Ark.

Thank you for your great questions! I don’t know if this answers all of them, but from a bit of study it’s clear that there are many conflicting views on the subject.

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About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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