One of the few ancient Israelite monarchs to receive nearly undiluted praise in the Bible, King Hezekiah (who reigned from 715 to 686 BCE) was a religious reformer who cracked down on idolatry. He also successfully resisted an Assyrian onslaught by building a new wall around Jerusalem and a high-tech (for its time) tunnel to divert water into the city—both of which have been excavated and can be visited today. More recently, writes Joshua Gelernter, archaeologists have discovered an additional monument to his career:
Hezekiah’s Tunnel, also known as the Siloam Tunnel, is perhaps what [the king] is best known for today. It’s a remarkable thing. It winds its way deep under Jerusalem; it’s 1,500 feet long, and despite an altitude difference of less than a foot between the source spring and the reservoir to which the water is being moved, water is able to flow smoothly from one end to the other.
But what really makes the tunnel remarkable is the way in which it was built. Hezekiah needed his tunnel pronto—so his engineers began carving it out of solid rock at both ends, simultaneously. Where the two teams of tunnel-men met in the middle, an inscription was carved; it’s 2,700 years old, but can still be read (mostly); it lives in a museum in Turkey. . . .
During the years leading up to Hezekiah’s reign, some of the old tribal religions were making a comeback in Israel and Judea, and Hezekiah would have none of it. One of the local pagan gods was Baal. . . . The Bible refers to the despoiling of a shrine to Baal: the king (not Hezekiah but Jehu, a slightly earlier king of Israel) “broke down the house of Baal, and made it a draught-house”—i.e., a bathroom.
This was assumed by many to have been a metaphor. But a few weeks ago, excavations at Lachish found remnants of a pagan altar room, and inside it, a smashed altar, and beside that, seals of Hezekiah, and beside those, in perfect condition, an unmistakable stone-hewn privy. Soil samples taken beneath it suggest it was never used. Hezekiah put it there for the symbolism, evidently. Or maybe as a remark on his esteem of paganism.