Lord Byron and History

By Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., aka Doctor Faith, on Feb. 20, 2017

A number of years ago I gave a talk on George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) entitled “Lord Byron and History.” I spent some time describing his involvement in the Greek struggle for independence against the Ottoman Turks, culminating in his death from a fever in April 1824 just as his Byron Brigade was about to launch an attack on the strategic fortress of Lepanto at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. To this day, Lord Byron is revered as a national hero in Greece.

Most of my talk dealt with his poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” one of a number of Byronic poems set to music by Isaac Nathan in his “Hebrew Melodies,” a collaboration that turned out to be financially profitable for both of them. Some of Nathan’s melodies were part of the liturgy used in London’s Sephardic synagogues. Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” for instance, was written to be sung to the mystical hymn Lecha Dodi (“Come My Beloved”), written by the 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Halevy Alkabetz and considered one of the finest pieces of religious poetry. Nathan subsequently emigrated to the land down under, where he earned the title of “the father of Australian music.”

“The Destruction of Sennacherib” is Byron’s poetic version of 2 Kings 18-19. Never heard of Sennacherib? Well, his reign as king of Assyria (705-681 BCE) was sandwiched between two monumental historical events: the Assyrian annihilation of Israel in 722 BCE and the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE.

The first half of the 8th century BCE was a good time for Israel. Under Jeroboam ll, the country prospered and enjoyed military successes. Meanwhile, to Israel’s east, Assyria was in the doldrums, weakened by plagues, droughts, and famine. Things began to change when Tiglath-Pileser lll came to the throne in 745 BCE. In his lifetime, he would conquer most of the world known to the Assyrians.

With the death of Tiglath-Pileser in 727 BCE, his son Shalmaneser V assumed the throne. In 722 BCE, he completed the conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel begun by his father; and the Israelites he scattered about the empire together with those his father had deported ten years earlier became known as the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. He died that same year, 722, to be succeeded by his brother, Sargon ll (reigned from 722 to 705 BCE).

Sennacherib, Sargon ll’s son, became king (705-681 BCE) and proceeded to develop Nineveh, the seat of his government, into one of the grandest cities of the ancient world. His palace would have rivaled Windsor Castle. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, thought to have been built by Nebuchadnezzar ll for his homesick wife, Amytis of Media, are now known to have been built by Sennacherib in Nineveh.

King Hezekiah of Judah had allied himself with Egypt against Assyria, and in 701 BCE, Sennacherib, with an army of over 200,000 men, invaded Judah: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,” is Byron’s opening line in “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”  The Assyrian king devastated the countryside on his march to Jerusalem, carrying off more than 200,000 Judahites (Jews). There are two versions of what happened next: the biblical, which is the version Lord Byron follows, and Sennacherib’s.  

Sennacherib’s army surrounded Jerusalem and was ready to begin its assault on the city, waiting only for daybreak (according to the poem). But when the sun came up, the battlefield lay strewn with Assyrian dead, 185,000 in all, without an arrow being shot or a spear thrown from within Jerusalem’s walls. The biblical account says Sennacherib was defeated by “the angel of the Lord.” We would say a pestilence, perhaps cholera or typhus, decimated the Assyrian force, but certainly not in one night as the poetic version has it: “Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown/That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.”

The Assyrian version was quite different. Sennacherib’s Prism, a six-sided prism made of red baked clay, standing 38 centimeters high and 14 cms. wide dated to 689 BCE, included the statement: “Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage.” Sennacherib exacted heavy tribute from an apologetic and contrite Hezekiah and returned victoriously to Nineveh.

For Hezekiah and the Judahites, it was a great victory for their god, Yahweh, over the Assyrian gods: “And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword/Hath melted like wax in the glance of the Lord!” This is the way people of that time viewed reality: gods determined the outcome of human events.

The prophet Isaiah had encouraged Hezekiah to remain strong in the face of Sennacherib’s threats to destroy Jerusalem and carry off its inhabitants, as his grandfather, Tiglath-Pileser, and uncle, Shalmaneaser V, had done with Samaria and the Israelites. “And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said, O LORD God of Israel…thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth” (2 Kings 19:15).

And the LORD God of Israel did deliver the Jews out of the hands of Sennacherib, who retreated back to Nineveh with the remnant of his army, reminiscent of Napoleon and what was left of his Grand Armee retreating from Moscow in the Russian winter of 1812.

But 2 Kings 19:15 is itself a redaction, a clever bit of historical propagandizing. Some later editor put those monotheistic words in the mouth of Hezekiah. The time is the tail end of the 8th century BCE, and at that stage of their religious development the Jews are at best henotheists, not monotheists. Henotheism is defined as the worship of one god in particular but recognizing the existence of other deities. The “monotheistic movement” that would culminate in the crystallization of Judaism would have to wait until the time of Deutero-Isaiah in the 6th century BCE.

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