Cambyses’ Conquest of Egypt Is Ascribed to Nebuchadnezzar
The narrative in Jeremiah 40–44 gives the prophet Jeremiah a central part in the events following the destruction of the temple (586 B.C.E.). According to this narrative, after the assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, the governor of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, the remaining Judahites debate whether to stay and hope for the best or to escape to Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah delivers a message from YHWH that the people must stay, but he is overruled, and the people run away to Egypt, dragging Jeremiah with them.
Stones for Nebuchadnezzar’s Future Throne
Once they arrive, Jeremiah receives another prophecy from YHWH:
ירמיה מג:ח וַיְהִי דְבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ בְּתַחְפַּנְחֵס לֵאמֹר. מג:ט קַח בְּיָדְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וּטְמַנְתָּם בַּמֶּלֶט בַּמַּלְבֵּן אֲשֶׁר בְּפֶתַח בֵּית פַּרְעֹה בְּתַחְפַּנְחֵס לְעֵינֵי אֲנָשִׁים יְהוּדִים.
Jer 43:8 And the word of YHWH came to Jeremiah in Tahpanhes: 43:9 “Get yourself large stones, and embed them in mortar in the brick structure at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes, with some Judeans looking on.”
YHWH then explains the symbolism of the act:
ירמיה מג:י וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל עַבְדִּי וְשַׂמְתִּי כִסְאוֹ מִמַּעַל לָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר טָמָנְתִּי...
Jer 43:10 And say to them: Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried,
This fits generally the practice known also from Mesopotamian sources, that following a successful military campaign, the leaders would sit outside the conquered city, whose plunder was paraded before them.
Casting His Net
The verse continues:
ירמיה מג:י...וְנָטָה אֶת (שפרורו) [שַׁפְרִירוֹ] עֲלֵיהֶם.
Jer 43:10 …and he will spread his shafrir over them.
Shafrir is a hapax legomenon, i.e., a word that appears only once in the Bible. Commentators long understood it as a derived from שׁ.פ.ר, “to be pleasing/beautiful” (in Aramaic). Thus, shafrir was thought to be a description of a beautiful, majestic pavilion spread over the throne of King Nebuchadrezzar, or as the royal throne itself.
The 19th century discovery of Akkadian—the Eastern Semitic language spoken in Assyria and Babylonia—opened up a new understanding of this word. As noted by Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (1886–1973), the Akkadian verb šuparruru, means “to spread” and thus the Hebrew shafrur/shafrir, is likely a thing that is spread, such as a net. Furthermore the Akkadian sapāru, meaning net, appear with verbs describing their casting or spreading (as akkadian šuparruru), or rather the result of this action – the covering of the subject (as akkadian katāmu). For instance, a royal inscription of King Tiglath-Pilesar III of Assyria notes:
The people of Pequd, like a net (sapāri) I covered them [=I conquered]. I massacred them. A great booty I plundered.
Similarly, the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal declared:
The net (sapār) of the great gods, my lords, which one cannot escape, covered them. None escaped.
Thus, following Tur-Sinai, it is suggested that the second clause should be translated “And he will spread his net over them (=the Egyptians),” i.e., he will capture or conquer Egypt.
Jeremiah’s use of the borrowed term shafrir suggests that the author was familiar with this term and its use from Akkadian literature. As the king is depicted as sitting before the conquered city, watching a parade of booty, the metaphor of casting his net may be meant to reinforce this image.
Destruction of Egypt and Its Temples
The message continues by introducing more details about Nebuchadnezzar’s attack:
ירמיה מג:יא (ובאה) [וּבָא] וְהִכָּה אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם...
Jer 43:11 He shall come and attack the land of Egypt…
This phrase reads like a new opening, referring to Nebuchadnezzar coming to Egypt when v. 10 already has him sitting in Pharaoh’s city. Notably, this same phrase is the opening of a parallel prophecy in Jeremiah about the Babylonian conquest of Egypt:
ירמיה מו:יג הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא לָבוֹא נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל לְהַכּוֹת אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Jer 46:13 The word which YHWH spoke to the prophet Jeremiah about the coming of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon to attack the land of Egypt:
As the message continues, we get a distinct shift in style from delicate, figurative, quasi-poetic language, to prosaic and explicit language, as YHWH describes the terrible destruction of the Babylonian conquest:
ירמיה מג:יא...אֲשֶׁר לַמָּוֶת לַמָּוֶת וַאֲשֶׁר לַשְּׁבִי לַשֶּׁבִי וַאֲשֶׁר לַחֶרֶב לֶחָרֶב.
Jer 43:11 …giving those who are destined for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are destined for captivity, to captivity, and those who are destined for the sword, to the sword.
The phrasing has a clear parallel in an early chapter in Jeremiah, where YHWH threatens the Judah with the very same fate:
ירמיה טו:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אִם יַעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה וּשְׁמוּאֵל לְפָנַי אֵין נַפְשִׁי אֶל הָעָם הַזֶּה שַׁלַּח מֵעַל פָּנַי וְיֵצֵאוּ. טו:ב וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ אָנָה נֵצֵא וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר לַמָּוֶת לַמָּוֶת וַאֲשֶׁר לַחֶרֶב לַחֶרֶב וַאֲשֶׁר לָרָעָב לָרָעָב וַאֲשֶׁר לַשְּׁבִי לַשֶּׁבִי.
Jer 15:1 YHWH said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to intercede with Me, I would not be won over to that people. Dismiss them from My presence, and let them go forth! 15:2 And if they ask you, ‘To what shall we go forth?’ answer them, ‘Thus said YHWH: Those destined for the plague, to the plague; those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine; those destined for captivity, to captivity.”
This use of stock phrasing in verse 11, along with the shift in styles, has been long explained as part of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic redaction of Jeremiah, referring to how the prophetic oracles were reworked to fit with the style and view of the Deuteronomistic school, related in some way to those who composed/edited the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings).
In this case, it seems likely that the original prophetic oracle was simply about a Babylonian conquest of Egypt and had nothing to do with Jeremiah’s objection to Judahites fleeing there. The addition of verse 11 may have smoothed out the insertion of this passage (Jeremiah 43:8–13) into its present place, as part of the redaction of the sequence in Jeremiah 37–44 (compare for example Jeremiah 42:17).
The prophecy would now be understood as directed also against the remnant of Judah that had migrated to Egypt, as opposed to against Pharaoh and the Egyptians themselves. But this verse is not the only supplementary text here.
Burning Egyptian Temples and Plundering them
The prophecy continues by explaining how Nebuchadnezzar will also burn the Egyptian temples and take away their gods as captives:
ירמיה מג:יב וְהִצַּתִּי אֵשׁ בְּבָתֵּי אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם וּשְׂרָפָם וְשָׁבָם...
Jer 43:12 He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive…
The phrase “I will set fire to” using the root י.צ.ת is a standard formula in Jeremiah. For example:
ירמיה לב:כט וּבָאוּ הַכַּשְׂדִּים הַנִּלְחָמִים עַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת וְהִצִּיתוּ אֶת הָעִיר הַזֹּאת בָּאֵשׁ וּשְׂרָפוּהָ...
Jer 32:29 And the Chaldeans who have been attacking this city shall come and set this city on fire and burn it down…
And yet, this passage (together with verse 13) is different in style and content: the phrase וּשְׂרָפָם וְשָׁבָם “he shall burn them and carry them away captive” is unique to this passage, and the parallel references in Jeremiah relate to the burning of cities or palaces rather than temples.
Covering the Land of Egypt
At this point, the prophecy shifts back to the delicate, poetic style of verse 10:
ירמיה מג:יב ...וְעָטָה אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כַּאֲשֶׁר יַעְטֶה הָרֹעֶה אֶת בִּגְדוֹ...
Jer 43:12 …and enfold the land of Egypt as a shepherd covers himself in his garment…
The biblical passage seems to signify totality of dominion. In Sumerian and Akkadian, verbs indicating covering and clothing also carry a metaphorical sense of “overcoming, subjugating, dominating.” For example, Ashurbanipal’s statement regarding his dominion over the land of Elam:
I have covered [= subjugated] all the land of Elam as the rising of a great storm).
In light of this, the verb עטה may be translated as “to cover,” and the clause וְעָטָה אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם as “He will cover the land of Egypt.” In other words, Nebuchadnezzar will subjugate the land of the Nile. The image in the continuation of the verse of a shepherd enveloping himself in his mantle is to be interpreted in a similar vein.
The use of verbs of covering and clothing denoting subjugation occurs in a figurative phrase that is also very common in Akkadian and other Semitic languages—namely, “cover as a garment” (katāmu + kīma şubati). The verbs of covering signifying domination and the existence of an image of enveloping clothing in this sense in Mesopotamian literature all suggest that the sentence should be understood as metaphorically depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s total dominion over Egypt, his reach extending over the whole territory like somebody who covers himself with a garment.
Furthermore, in Akkadian literature we find together images of casting nets and covering with a garment. For example, in a prayer to Marduk appealing for the driving out of a disease, where the supplicant describes how the illness has taken over his frame, and he is enveloped in his aches and pains as in a net or mantle. In Ludlul bel nēmeqi, a classic Akkadian wisdom text, the images form a parallelism:
The alû-demon has covered my body as with a garment, sleep covers me like a net.
The Hebrew scribe’s familiarity with this trope suggests Mesopotamian influence, possibly via Babylonian propaganda, which the biblical writer reshaped to put YHWH in control.
The two metaphorical images of covering, net and mantel, parallel each other and were originally together, but were separated by the redaction depicting the slaughter of Egyptians and the burning of temples. This is clear from the anticlimactic flow of the passage that after describing the slaughter of the inhabitants and burning of their temples, returns to something as abstract as “enfolding/covering Egypt like a shepherd in a garment.”
Nebuchadnezzar Leaves, but Continues Destroying Temples
The prophecy then declares that, having plundered Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar will leave, implying that the text is describing a raid, and not the permanent subjugation of Egypt:
ירמיה מג:יב ...וְיָצָא מִשָּׁם בְּשָׁלוֹם.
Jer 43:12 …And he shall depart from there in safety.
The sounds very much like a conclusion, since Nebuchadnezzar is now leaving, so the conquest is at an end. And yet, the prophecy continues in the next verse with a repetition and even expansion of the burning temples motif:
ירמיה מג:יג וְשִׁבַּר אֶת מַצְּבוֹת בֵּית שֶׁמֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּי אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם יִשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ.
Jer 43:13 He shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.
This returning to the theme of burning temples after Nebuchadnezzar ostensibly leaves strongly implies a redaction.
The Two Layers of Jeremiah 43:10–13
When considered together with the stylistic problem with the passage, we can identify the two layers in this passage (redaction in red italics):
ירמיה מג:י וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל עַבְדִּי וְשַׂמְתִּי כִסְאוֹ מִמַּעַל לָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר טָמָנְתִּי וְנָטָה אֶת (שפרורו) [שַׁפְרִירוֹ] עֲלֵיהֶם. מג:יא (ובאה) [וּבָא] וְהִכָּה אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לַמָּוֶת לַמָּוֶת וַאֲשֶׁר לַשְּׁבִי לַשֶּׁבִי וַאֲשֶׁר לַחֶרֶב לֶחָרֶב. מג:יב וְהִצַּתִּי אֵשׁ בְּבָתֵּי אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם וּשְׂרָפָם וְשָׁבָם וְעָטָה אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כַּאֲשֶׁר יַעְטֶה הָרֹעֶה אֶת בִּגְדוֹ וְיָצָא מִשָּׁם בְּשָׁלוֹם. מג:יג וְשִׁבַּר אֶת מַצְּבוֹת בֵּית שֶׁמֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּי אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם יִשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ.
43:10 And say to them, “Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his net over them. 43:11 He shall come and ravage the land of Egypt, giving those who are destined for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are destined for captivity, to captivity, and those who are destined for the sword, to the sword. 43:12 He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and enfold the land of Egypt as a shepherd wraps himself in his garment; and he shall depart from there safely. 43:13 He shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.
The core poetic layer, given “at the entrance to Pharaoh’s house,” describing Nebuchadnezzar’s victory over Egypt, on a par with the prophecies relating to the Babylonian triumph in Jeremiah (ch. 46) and Ezekiel (ch. 29). Historically, Nebuchadnezzar did lead several campaigns against Egypt, but never succeeded in conquering it. This core layer was probably composed in the Neo-Babylonian period, sometime during Nebuchadnezzar’s long reign (605–562 B.C.E.) when such an eventuality was possible.
The supplementary layer, describing the violence that will be unleashed against Egypt, and the fiery destruction of its temples and their plundering. The repetition of the temple burning motif (vv. 12a and 13) reflects its centrality for the redactor, and points us to a specific period in history when this actually took place.
The Persian Conquest of Egypt Under Cambyses
In 525 B.C.E., King Cambyses II of Persia launched a campaign against Egypt, which he conquered. The most well-embedded element in the historiographical tradition relating to this conquest—a tradition preserved in numerous Greek sources (Herodotus, Strabo, and Diodorus)—is his destruction of the Egyptian temples, which were burnt, razed, and plundered.
This tradition is reflected also in an Aramaic letter sent from Elephantine to Judah in the time of Darius II, which complains that their (Judahite) temple was recently destroyed, the temple’s pillars smashed, and its remains set in fire:
They came to the fortress of Elephantine with their weapons, broke into that Temple, demolished it to the ground, and the stone pillars which were there—they smashed them … all of (these) which, with the rest of the fittings and other (things), which were there—all (of these) they burned with fire. (lines 8–12)
The letter than looks back at the time of the Persian conquest, contrasting the lucky fate of the Judean temple, which Cambyses spared, with the unfortunate fate of Egyptian temples, which he destroyed:
And during the days of the king(s) of Egypt our fathers had build that Temple in Elephantine the fortress and when Cambyses entered Egypt he found that Temple built, and they overthrew the temples of the gods of Egypt, all (of them), but did not damage anything in that Temple. (lns 13–14)
The Greek historian, Diodorus recounts that while the buildings of the oldest temple in Thebes had “survived down to rather recent times, the silver and gold and costly works of ivory and rare stone were carried off by the Persians when Cambyses burned the temples of Egypt” (Bib. hist. 1.46.4). Similarly, the church father Jerome notes on Daniel 11:7–9 the removal of the Egyptian idols to Persia during Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt.
It is thus reasonable to argue that the description of burning temples in vv. 12a and 13 reflect, not a fantasy from the Neo-Babylonian period of what Nebuchadnezzar will do, but the actuality of Cambyses’ burning, razing, and plundering of the temples of Egypt during his campaign.
The Obelisks of Heliopolis
The smashing of the obelisks of Heliopolis (וְשִׁבַּר אֶת מַצְּבוֹת בֵּית שֶׁמֶשׁ; v. 13) is a distinctive element associated with Cambyses, which appears in Strabo’s depiction:
The city is now entirely deserted; it contains the ancient temple constructed in the Egyptian manner, which affords many evidences of the madness and sacrilege of Cambyses, who partly by fire and partly by iron sought to outrage the temples, mutilating them and burning them on every side, just as he did with the obelisks.
Thus, the widely-circulated account of Cambyses’ exploits fit hand-in-glove with the description of the conquest of Egypt in the redactional layer. This complements the literary analysis offered above which showed how this layer cannot be part of the original, Neo-Babylonian-period strand.
The Goals of the Redaction
The “update” (part of) the prophecy was likely added after the account regarding Cambyses’ conquest of Egypt had become spread, likely sometime during the fifth century B.C.E. The redaction expands upon the earlier figurative prophecy about Nebuchadnezzar (that did not materialize) with Cambyses’s conquest as a concrete actualization of the prophecy.
Taking an abstract prophecy, concretizing it with specifics, and connecting it to a real event in history, are intertwined exegetical devices commonly applied to prophetic literature. This approach is characteristic of both inner-biblical exegesis and ancient Jewish interpretation that focuses on prophecy, such as the Qumran pesharim.
In sum, unlike the original stratum, which deals with the political situation during Jeremiah’s lifetime (and reliance on Egypt rather than Babylon), the emphasis is now transferred to the religious consequences of the fall of Egypt and its gods in the Persian period. The traumatic (for the Egyptians) account of Cambyses’ vicious treatment of Egyptian temples was understood in Judah as embodying YHWH’s judgment against Egypt and their gods. This perception then found its way into Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the conquest of Egypt during the days of Nebuchadnezzar.
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Prof. Ronnie Goldstein is an Associate Professor at the Department of Bible in the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies. His research focuses mainly on the interpretation of biblical literature and its historical context, and the cultural interactions between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern literature. Goldstein is one of the editors-in-chief of the academic journal Tarbiz, and is the author of, The Life of Jeremiah: Traditions about the Prophet and Their Evolution in Biblical Times (2013). He is currently working on a commentary to First Isaiah for the Mikra LeYisrael series.
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