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Nebuchadnezzar Fails to Conquer Egypt So Jeremiah’s Prophecy Was Updated

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Nebuchadnezzar Fails to Conquer Egypt So Jeremiah’s Prophecy Was Updated

Jeremiah’s prophecy (ch. 46) that Nebuchadnezzar will conquer Egypt never materializes. As a result, a later scribe updated the prophecy to refer to Nebuchadnezzar’s brief raid of Egypt during the civil war between Pharaoh Amasis and Pharaoh Apries in 567 B.C.E.

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Nebuchadnezzar Fails to Conquer Egypt So Jeremiah’s Prophecy Was Updated

Jeremiah in the Ruins of Jerusalem, Horace Vernet, 1844. Wikimedia

Nebuchadnezzar Defeats Egypt at Carchemish

The book of Jeremiah describes how the Babylonians defeat the Egyptian army in the battle of Carchemish—a northern city by the Euphrates River—in the fourth regnal year of Jehoiakim (605 B.C.E.). In that battle, the Egyptians attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the Babylonian army from taking control of what was left of the Assyrian kingdom in the west:

ירמיה מו:ב לְמִצְרַיִם עַל חֵיל פַּרְעֹה נְכוֹ מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר הָיָה עַל נְהַר פְּרָת בְּכַרְכְּמִשׁ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בִּשְׁנַת הָרְבִיעִית לִיהוֹיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה.
Jer 46:2 Concerning Egypt, about the army of Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which King Nebuchadrezzar[1] of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah.

The prophet continues by taunting the Egyptians with their defeat:

ירמיה מו:ג עִרְכוּ מָגֵן וְצִנָּה וּגְשׁוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה. מו:ד אִסְרוּ הַסּוּסִים וַעֲלוּ הַפָּרָשִׁים וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ בְּכוֹבָעִים מִרְקוּ הָרְמָחִים לִבְשׁוּ הַסִּרְיֹנֹת.
46:3 Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle! 46:4 Harness the horses; mount the steeds! Take your stations with your helmets, whet your lances, put on your coats of mail!
מו:ה מַדּוּעַ רָאִיתִי הֵמָּה חַתִּים נְסֹגִים אָחוֹר וְגִבּוֹרֵיהֶם יֻכַּתּוּ וּמָנוֹס נָסוּ וְלֹא הִפְנוּ מָגוֹר מִסָּבִיב נְאֻם יְ־הוָה. מו:ו אַל יָנוּס הַקַּל וְאַל יִמָּלֵט הַגִּבּוֹר צָפוֹנָה עַל יַד נְהַר פְּרָת כָּשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ.
46:5 Why do I see them terrified? They have fallen back; their warriors are beaten down, and have fled in haste. They do not look back — terror is all around! says YHWH. 46:6 The swift cannot flee away, nor can the warrior escape; in the north by the river Euphrates they have stumbled and fallen.[2]

This was the first battle fought by the crown prince of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, while his father, the great warrior and founder of the Neo-Babylonian Kingdom, Nabopolassar, lay dying back home. Nebuchadnezzar’s army soundly defeated the troops of Pharaoh Necho II. The success is described in the Babylonian Chronicles:

[The twenty-fir]st [year], the king of Akkad (=Nabopolassar) (remained) in his country. Nebuchadnezzar, his eldest son, the crown [pri]nce, [mu]stered [the army of Akkad], took the leadership of his troops, marched on Car[che]mish on the bank of the Euphrates, crossed the river [to meet the army of Egypt], which had its quarters in Carchemish, and [joined battle with it]. They fought, and the army of Egypt beat a retreat before him; he [de]feated and destroyed it until it was completely annihilated.

Nebuchadnezzar then chased down and slaughtered the remainder of the Egyptian army:

The Akkadian troops overtook the survivors of the army of E[gypt who] had escaped the defeat and whom the weapons had not reached and [deci]mated them in the district of Hamath. Not one man [returned] to his country.[3]

Over the next two years, Nebuchadnezzar would swoop down on the Levant, destroying the Philistine city of Ashkelon, and making Judah, formerly an Egyptian vassal, into a Babylonian vassal. Having taken control over the Levant away from Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar finds himself on the border with Egypt, with only the Sinai as a buffer, poised to conquer it.

Jeremiah Predicts Nebuchadnezzar’s Triumph Over Egypt

Following his description of the battle of Carchemish, Jeremiah prophecies that Nebuchadnezzar will invade 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:

Jeremiah further predicts that Babylonia will utterly destroy Egypt:

מו:יד הַגִּידוּ בְמִצְרַיִם וְהַשְׁמִיעוּ בְמִגְדּוֹל וְהַשְׁמִיעוּ בְנֹף וּבְתַחְפַּנְחֵס אִמְרוּ הִתְיַצֵּב וְהָכֵן לָךְ כִּי אָכְלָה חֶרֶב סְבִיבֶיךָ.... מו:יח חַי אָנִי נְאֻם הַמֶּלֶךְ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת שְׁמוֹ כִּי כְּתָבוֹר בֶּהָרִים וּכְכַרְמֶל בַּיָּם יָבוֹא. מו:יט כְּלֵי גוֹלָה עֲשִׂי לָךְ יוֹשֶׁבֶת בַּת מִצְרָיִם כִּי נֹף לְשַׁמָּה תִהְיֶה וְנִצְּתָה מֵאֵין יוֹשֵׁב.
Jer 46:14 Declare in Egypt, proclaim in Migdol, proclaim in Noph and Tahpanhes! Say: Take your posts and stand ready, for the sword has devoured all around you!... 46:18 As I live—declares the King, whose name YHWH of Hosts—As surely as Tabor is among the mountains and Carmel is by the sea, so shall this come to pass. 46:19 Equip yourself for exile, fair Egypt, you who dwell secure, for Noph shall become a waste, desolate, without inhabitants.

The oracle continues in this vein and ends with:

ירמיה מו:כג כָּרְתוּ יַעְרָהּ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה כִּי לֹא יֵחָקֵר כִּי רַבּוּ מֵאַרְבֶּה וְאֵין לָהֶם מִסְפָּר. מו:כד הֹבִישָׁה בַּת מִצְרָיִם נִתְּנָה בְּיַד עַם צָפוֹן.
Jer 46:24 They shall cut down her forest—declares YHWH—though it cannot be measured; for they are more numerous than locusts, and cannot be counted. 46:24 Fair Egypt shall be shamed, handed over to the people of the north.[4]

Ezekiel Also Prophesies Egypt’s Destruction

Jeremiah’s contemporary, Ezekiel, who was exiled along with King Jehoiachin by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.E., and spent the rest of his life in Babylon,[5] also prophecies Egypt’s destruction. Spanning four chapters (Ezek 29–32), Ezekiel rails against the arrogance of Pharaoh, who will soon be cut down to size:

יחזקאל כט:י לָכֵן הִנְנִי אֵלֶיךָ וְאֶל יְאֹרֶיךָ וְנָתַתִּי אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְחָרְבוֹת חֹרֶב שְׁמָמָה מִמִּגְדֹּל סְוֵנֵה וְעַד גְּבוּל כּוּשׁ. כט:יא לֹא תַעֲבָר בָּהּ רֶגֶל אָדָם וְרֶגֶל בְּהֵמָה לֹא תַעֲבָר בָּהּ וְלֹא תֵשֵׁב אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה.
Ezek 29:10 Assuredly, I am going to deal with you and your channels, and I will reduce the land of Egypt to utter ruin and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, all the way to the border of Nubia. 29:11 No foot of man shall traverse it, and no foot of beast shall traverse it; and it shall remain uninhabited for forty years.
כט:יב וְנָתַתִּי אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם שְׁמָמָה בְּתוֹךְ אֲרָצוֹת נְשַׁמּוֹת וְעָרֶיהָ בְּתוֹךְ עָרִים מָחֳרָבוֹת תִּהְיֶיןָ שְׁמָמָה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וַהֲפִצֹתִי אֶת מִצְרַיִם בַּגּוֹיִם וְזֵרִיתִים בָּאֲרָצוֹת.
29:12 For forty years I will make the land of Egypt the most desolate of desolate lands, and its cities shall be the most desolate of ruined cities. And I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them throughout the countries.[6]

A Reasonable Prediction

While Egypt was a force to be reckoned with, many people living then would have believed that Babylonia could defeat them, just as earlier Mesopotamian kings did. In 671 B.C.E., the Assyrian King Esarhaddon invaded northern Egypt, defeated the 25th dynasty Kushite Pharaoh Taharqa in battle and sacked Memphis. His son Ashurbanipal twice invaded Egypt—in 667 B.C.E. again defeating Taharqa, and in 663 B.C.E. defeating Tantamani, Taharqa’s successor—and conquered Thebes as Nahum (3:8–10) gruesomely describes.

Although Jeremiah and Ezekiel believed Babylon would accomplish what Assyria had accomplished decades earlier, they were mistaken.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaign against Egypt: 601/600 B.C.E.

Nebuchadnezzar attacked Egypt in his fourth regnal year (601/600 B.C.E.). Pharaoh Necho II, in anticipation of this attack, had spent considerable resources massively fortifying the eastern entrances to Egypt at Tell el Qedwa and Tell el-Ghaba on the Pelusiac estuary of the Nile, as well as the gate and fortifications of his capital city, Tanis (biblical Zoan). He thus succeeded in stopping the invasion cold, forcing Nebuchadnezzar’s army to retreat. Even the Babylonian Chronicle—which tends to avoid explicitly mentioning a defeat—has trouble spinning this campaign as a success:

In the month Kislev he (Nebuchadnezzar) took his army's lead and marched to Egypt. (When) the king of Egypt heard (the news) he m[ustered] his army. They fought one another in the battlefield and both sides suffered severe losses (lit. they inflicted a major defeat upon one another). The king of Akkad and his army turned and [went back] to Babylon.[7]

In the fifteen or so years that followed, control over the Levant swayed between Egyptian domination and Babylonian domination.[8] Only once Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in re-establishing Babylonian hegemony over the Levant, did he turn his sights once again against Egypt.

While we do not have the Babylonian Chronicles for Nebuchadnezzar’s regnal years 12–43, we know from other sources of at least two further attempts to conquer Egypt—in 582 B.C.E.[9] and 567 B.C.E. respectively; perhaps there were others. Babylonia, however, never succeeded in taking Egypt, which remained an independent power until it was conquered by the Persians under Cambyses in 526 B.C.E.

The prophecy in Jeremiah 46:13–24 may predate Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Egypt in 601 B.C.E., though it is possible that it knows about this failure but envisions a later successful conquest that never materialized.

The “Kings of Egypt”: A Strange Prophecy Concluding the Chapter

The initial verse of Jeremiah’s final prophecy about Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Egypt in this chapter repeats the word “Pharaoh,” and oddly mentions Egypt’s “kings” in plural:

ירמיה מו:כה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִנְנִי פוֹקֵד אֶל אָמוֹן מִנֹּא וְעַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל מִצְרַיִם וְעַל אֱלֹהֶיהָ וְעַל מְלָכֶיהָ וְעַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל הַבֹּטְחִים בּוֹ.
Jer 46:25 YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, said: See, I am bringing punishment upon Amun of Thebes, and upon Pharaoh, and Egypt and her gods and her kings, and upon Pharaoh and those who trust in him.

This verse is problematic. Egypt generally has one king, the Pharaoh. In fact, the move from Pharaoh to “kings” in the verse is just one of several cases where the same detail is told twice, once with a noun in the singular, and then again with a noun or noun-phrase in the plural. Thus, YHWH threatens to punish:

  • Pharaoh and Egypt’s kings;
  • Amun of Thebes (the chief god of Egypt) and Egypt’s gods;
  • Egypt itself and those who rely on Pharaoh.

It is likely that the original specific text, focusing on the punishment of singular entities, has been supplemented. The duplication of the word “Pharaoh” marks a resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme) and at the same time, may be a way of emphasizing “kings” in the plural (Pharaoh and another Pharaoh). This same doubling (but without a Wiederaufnahme) is reflected in the opening of the following verse:

ירמיה מו:כו וּנְתַתִּים בְּיַד מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשָׁם וּבְיַד נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וּבְיַד עֲבָדָיו וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן תִּשְׁכֹּן כִּימֵי קֶדֶם נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
Jer 46:26 I will place them into the hands of those who seek their life, and into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and his officers. Afterward Egypt shall be inhabited as in the days of old, says YHWH.[10]

According to this, the destroyer of Egypt will be “those who seek their life,” a general statement, alongside the specific “Nebuchadnezzar and his people.” Again, the general statement seems to be redactional.

If we separate out the redactional layer (red italics) from the original prophecy, we get:

ירמיה מו:כה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִנְנִי פוֹקֵד אֶל אָמוֹן מִנֹּא וְעַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל מִצְרַיִם וְעַל אֱלֹהֶיהָ וְעַל מְלָכֶיהָ וְעַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל הַבֹּטְחִים בּוֹ. מו:כו וּנְתַתִּים בְּיַד מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשָׁם וּבְיַד נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וּבְיַד עֲבָדָיו וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן תִּשְׁכֹּן כִּימֵי קֶדֶם נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
Jer 46:25 YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, said: See, I am bringing punishment upon Amun of Thebes, and Pharaoh, and Egypt and her gods and her kings, upon Pharaoh and those who trust in him. 46:26 I will place them into the hands of those who seek their life, and into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and his officers. Afterward Egypt shall be inhabited as in the days of old, says YHWH.

The original text, in black, reads very smoothly and is not repetitive. But why was the prophecy redacted in this way? How does it make the oracle any more historically accurate? One clue is the phrase בְּיַד מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשָׁם, “into the hands of those who seek their lives,” which is a very strange phrase in context, but appears in a slightly different form in another of Jeremiah’s oracles.

Jeremiah Prophesies Apries’ Downfall

Like most prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah does not follow a chronological order. While chapter 46 begins with an oracle set in 605 B.C.E., chapter 44 is a long prophecy spoken after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and the assassination of Gedaliah, when a group of Judahites, including Jeremiah, fled Judah and moved to Egypt:

ירמיה מד:א הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר הָיָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ אֶל כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּמִגְדֹּל וּבְתַחְפַּנְחֵס וּבְנֹף וּבְאֶרֶץ פַּתְרוֹס לֵאמֹר.
Jer 44:1 The word which came to Jeremiah for all the Judeans living in the land of Egypt, living in Migdol, Tahpanhes, and Noph, and in the land of Pathros:

Jeremiah begins by telling the people that YHWH will destroy them for their idolatry just as he destroyed Jerusalem (vv. 2–14). The people respond that it was the fact that they stopped burning incense to the Lady of Heaven that brought about the destruction and thus it was necessary to restart this practice (vv. 15–18). Jeremiah retorts that this is false, and that YHWH will indeed destroy them utterly, and to prove his point, he offers a sign (note the phrasing in bold):

ירמיה מד:כט וְזֹאת לָכֶם הָאוֹת נְאֻם יְ־הוָה כִּי פֹקֵד אֲנִי עֲלֵיכֶם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ כִּי קוֹם יָקוּמוּ דְבָרַי עֲלֵיכֶם לְרָעָה. מד:ל כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה הִנְנִי נֹתֵן אֶת פַּרְעֹה חָפְרַע מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם בְּיַד אֹיְבָיו וּבְיַד מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי אֶת צִדְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה בְּיַד נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל אֹיְבוֹ וּמְבַקֵּשׁ נַפְשׁוֹ.
Jer 44:29 And this shall be the sign to you—declares YHWH—that I am going to deal with you in this place, so that you may know that My threats of punishment against you will be fulfilled: 44:30 Thus says YHWH, I am going to give Pharaoh Hophra (=Apries), king of Egypt, into the hands of his enemies, and into the hands of those who seek his life, just as I gave King Zedekiah of Judah into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, his enemy who sought his life.

Jeremiah here does not say that Nebuchadnezzar will destroy Apries, but only that Apries’ enemies will. This fits with the historical circumstances of Apries’ death.

The Egyptian Civil War

In 570 B.C.E., after Apries led a failed campaign against the Dorian Greek invaders in Libya, a group of soldiers mutinied against him, and declared their general Amasis to be Pharaoh. A stela of the usurper, crowned Pharaoh Amasis (Ahmose) II,[11] found in Elephantine, narrates how in his first regnal year, 570 B.C.E., Amasis II defeated Apries and his Greek mercenaries, in a battle fought in the Western Delta.

The next episode recorded on this same stela, narrates how in Amasis II’s fourth regnal year, March 567 B.C.E., Apries tried to retake control over Egypt, apparently by forming an alliance with Nebuchadnezzar himself. In this attempt, two contingents invaded Egypt simultaneously: An Asiatic (=Babylonian) contingent proceeded on land through the Sinai marching on the Way of Horus (the coastal road), and the other contingent, composed of Apries’ Greek mercenaries (and/or Asiatics), arrived on ships.

The navy sailed in the month of March during the winter season, encountered a hailstorm and capsized. Many warriors drowned, including Pharaoh Apries, whose body was recovered among the casualties drifting in the water.[12] The Asiatic (Babylonian) infantry forces were repulsed.

Although Jeremiah’s prophecy about Apries is presented as a prediction, it was likely written after the events it describes, by someone familiar with what took place in 567 B.C.E., what scholars call Vaticinium ex eventu, Latin for “prophesy after the event.”

The Kings of Egypt and the Civil War

As noted, the prophecy regarding the fate of Pharaoh Apries “in the hand of those who seek his life” in chapter 44 is reminiscent of the phrase about Egypt being given “into the hands of those who seek its life” in the redacted verse in chapter 46. This suggests that the redaction of that passage is from the same hand as the author of chapter 44, and that the redactor wishes to recall the fate of Apries.

This explains the plural מְלָכֶיהָ, “kings,” of Jeremiah 46:25: the only time in which 26th-dynasty Egypt had “kings” (plural) was during the civil strife between Apries and Amasis in 570–567 B.C.E.

Nebuchadnezzar’s One Brief Success

In the Amasis II stela, the Pharaoh swears an oath by the gods, vowing to defeat and massacre those who ravaged cities and nomes (=districts) within Egypt (col. 15).[13] It is thus clear that the Babylonians initially succeeded in gaining a foothold in Egypt, though Amasis soon repelled the invaders.

This is confirmed by a fragmentary cuneiform text (BM 33041)[14] from Babylonia, dating to Nebuchadnezzar’s thirty-seventh year (23.4.568–12.4),[15] 567 B.C.E., the same year as the invasion described in the Amasis II stela. Although broken and difficult to reconstruct decisively, the cuneiform text mentions Egypt, the King of Egypt, possibly Amasis, a battle, and something occurring in the midst of Egypt (l. 18).

In other words, in this invasion, with the help of Pharaoh Apries, Nebuchadnezzar succeeds in entering Egypt for a short time and inflicting some damage. While this cannot fairly be called a conquest of Egypt, it is the closest Nebuchadnezzar ever came to that goal.

Updating Jeremiah’s Prophecy

Nebuchadnezzar’s limited success explains the logic of the update in Jeremiah 46:25–26. The earlier layer of the prophecy implied, like other such prophecies in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, that Nebuchadnezzar would utterly defeat the Egyptians, just as Jeremiah explicitly predicted in the previous verses (46:13–24). While this did not come to pass, a later scribe, familiar with the events of 567 B.C.E., recast the prophecy to be about Nebuchadnezzar’s success during the time of the two kings, something which did, indeed, occur, if on a very short-term basis.[16]

This was the only successful attempt of several by Nebuchadnezzar where he conquered any Egyptian territory, thus it was the best candidate for such an update. Given that this same scribe also wrote the prophecy in chapter 44 about the death of Pharaoh Apries at the hands of his foes, it seems likely that both texts, the prophecy about Apries and the two-kings update, were composed shortly after this event, which was seen by at least one scribe as a proof for the truth of Jeremiah’s initial words.[17]

Published

August 8, 2022

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Last Updated

December 1, 2022

Footnotes

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Prof. Dan’el Kahn is Professor of Bible and Ancient Near East in the University of Haifa's Department of Biblical Studies. He holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology and the History of Israel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he focused on Egypt's 25th dynasty. He is the co-editor of Treasures on Camels' Humps (Magnes 2008); Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature (Brill, 2009); The Ancient Near East in the 12th-10th Centuries BCE (Ugarit Verlag, 2012), and the author of Sennacherib's Campaign Against Judah: A Source Analysis of Isaiah 36–37 (Cambridge, 2020).

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