Under Siege: Past and Present
Jul 27, 2020 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler
Under Siege: Past and Present
What the siege of Jerusalem teaches us about the Covid-19 siege.
When the Babylonians, and later the Romans, wanted to conquer Jerusalem, they did not mount a direct assault. The city, fortified with thick walls, was too strong for that. Instead they laid siege to the city. No one could enter or leave. After a period of time, starvation weakened the populace. And that led to infighting among the different political groups. By the time the enemy actually attacked and breached the walls, the defenders were too weak to resist.
A siege works in four stages: 1) it prohibits movement in and out, which leads to 2) people lacking basic necessities, which leads to 3) internal strife and civic unrest, which leads to 4) inability to defeat the enemy when it finally invades the city. Before the Roman army besieged Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jewish capitol was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with a population of 100,000 and massive stores of grain and water. But as the siege proceeded, the Jews became even more divided into what modern parlance would call “left” and “right.” Extremists set fire to the grain storage in an effort to radicalize the moderates to fight the Romans. Starvation and internal strife so weakened the populace that by the time the Romans broke through the walls, the bonds between the Jewish inhabitants had already been severed, leading to the destruction of the Holy Temple on Tisha B’Av.
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid siege to the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid siege to the world. Physical movement is restricted, with the borders of many countries closed, and whole populations prohibited from leaving their homes. The virus’s toll has been severe, with some 16,000,000 people infected and over 645,000 dead to date. Efforts to stave off the disease by lock-downs have created financial havoc. An untold number of businesses have gone bankrupt and whole industries face collapse, as the unemployment rate surges. As in the sieges of old, populations suffering for lack of their basic necessities degenerate to infighting and civic unrest. Domestic abuse has soared. This is how people act when they feel that there’s no way out.
Here in Israel, we saw miraculous results during the first wave of Covid-19. With a population size similar to New York City and Switzerland, as of April 20, Israel had 172 deaths, contrasted to 6,100 in New York City and 1,401 in Switzerland. Around that time, Israel was rated one of the safest countries in the world in terms of Covid-19.
But the word “miracle” was never mentioned. We Israelis gave credit to our Prime Minister and to our societal self-discipline, since we are used to dealing with catastrophic threats.
During this second wave, however, the Covid-19 siege has weakened and divided us. With 33,159 active infections and another 255 deaths since the start of the second wave, the country is vociferously divided between those calling for a lock-down and those insisting that the financial debacle will have a worse human cost than the disease. Every night protestors against the government – small groups, but vocal – take to the streets. The government itself is divided as to which measures to impose. On the same day that the Minister of Health threatened a total lockdown, the Knesset Coronavirus committee opened everything, including public pools and gyms.
The Siege that Didn't Succeed
In the 8th century B.C.E., the mighty Assyrian Empire, which had conquered today’s Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, decided to conquer the land of Israel. It defeated the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sending its inhabitants into exile (which have become known as the “Ten Lost Tribes”). Several years later the Assyrian army marched south to the smaller and militarily weaker Kingdom of Judah, comprising only two tribes. Sennacherib and his army laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.
The situation looked bleak, but the Prophet Isaiah prophesized that the city would not fall. The king of Judah at the time was the righteous King Hezekiah. In the British Museum today is a clay hexagon from that period describing Sennacherib’s military victories. It includes an inscription boasting of the siege of Jerusalem: “Hezekiah, King of Judah, I locked in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage.”
The siege, however, did not succeed. The Bible (Kings II, 19:14- 19) describes how King Hezekiah went to the Holy Temple and prayed:
Hashem, God of Israel, … You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the world. You made heaven and earth. … Hear the words of Sennacherib that he has sent to insult the living God! Indeed, Hashem, the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations and their land. … Now, Hashem our God, save us please from his hand, then all the kingdoms of the world shall know that You alone are God.
That very night God struck the Assyrian camp with a devastating plague. The few troops that survived, and Sennacherib himself, fled back to Assyria. The Kingdom of Judah flourished for another 115 years.
From Hezekiah we learn that prayer can break a siege. Turning to God, who controls world history, is the road to redemption. When the Babylonians threatened Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E., the Jewish ruler turned to political alliances with Egypt to save the nation. Despite the Prophet Jeremiah’s remonstrations that only God can save, misplaced faith in political and military solutions led to the siege and fall of Jerusalem.
Of course, claiming that God can break a siege begs