And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
These lines from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” were recently quoted to me by one of my relatives who houses a tremendous store of memorized poetry. The poem is Byron’s vision of the siege of Jerusalem, a historical event that is now well understood because the actual annals of Sennacherib were discovered in 1830. The Akkadian version of Hezekiah’s revolt and the subsequent siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE match the statement in 2 Kings 18 that declares Hezekiah bought off Sennacherib, thus sparing his kingdom. The biblical version then goes on to add the event eulogized by Lord Byron that an angel was sent after a prophecy of Isaiah and the Assyrian army fell decimated outside Jerusalem. The latter event is not historically accurate, but it is much more poetic. Who would write a poem about a king paying off his enemies?
The Bible is comfortable with conflicting accounts of events, sometimes laying them side-by-side without comment, supposing that the reader is bright enough to see the obvious contradictions and draw the relevant conclusions. With the birth of Christian Fundamentalism in the 1920s, however, the myth of biblical inerrancy was born. In a world rendered in shades of gray, a distinct comfort lies in having answers in black and white. The Bible, considered the exact (if sometimes dodgy) words of God himself, could not be other than one hundred percent historically accurate. This version of history distorts what actually happened to what must have happened.
Lord Byron, notorious sinner that he was, seems to have been closer to the biblical spirit when he penned his famous poem. Glorying in the bravado of a warrior God who lays waste an entire army without lifting a sword or spear is fanciful, if breath-taking, poetic license.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d,
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
bears a grandeur lacking in “Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.”