The Babylonian Officials Who Oversaw the Siege of Jerusalem
The Babylonian Chronicles and the Siege of Jerusalem
Akkadian sources, written on clay tablets in cuneiform script, greatly improve our understanding of the decline and fall of the Kingdom of Judah. These extra-biblical texts afford us the opportunity to understand the events—still commemorated on the Jewish calendar today—as part of what we might call the geo-political scene in the early Neo-Babylonian period. A set of cuneiform texts known as the Babylonian Chronicles record, practically year-by-year, major events from 741 B.C.E. through the end of the second century C.E.
The Babylonian texts document significant parts of the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar and his father, Nabopolassar. Under these kings, Babylonia re-emerged from under Assyrian domination and eventually expanded to dominate the regions to its north and west. The siege and fall of Jerusalem can, therefore, be viewed through the lens of broader historical developments.
The fifth of these Babylonian Chronicles contains one of the most important correspondences between biblical and extra-biblical historical records. It mentions how, in his seventh year (Spring 598- Spring 597 BCE), the King of Babylon
Besieged the city of Judah (i.e. Jerusalem) and on the second day of the month of Adar, he captured the city and seized the king. A king of his own choice he appointed in the city and taking the vast tribute, he brought it into Babylon.
This notice mirrors the Hebrew Bible’s “exile of Jehoiachin” or “exile of the craftsmen and the smiths,” which preceded the final destruction by some eleven years (see 2 Kings 24:8–17), and which ended with the exile of the royal family and the installation of Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as a Babylonian puppet monarch (Nebuchadnezzar’s “king of his own choice”).
Unfortunately, the text breaks off shortly after this notice, and the next surviving chronicle begins in 557 B.C.E., a date much after the final destruction of Jerusalem. There are, however, valuable Akkadian sources that complement the biblical account in other ways, filling in these missing years.
These Akkadian sources are administrative, rather than historical, which means that their purpose is closer to modern day accounting than to chronicling events. And yet, these records can improve our understanding of history, and even our reading of biblical verses, such as Jeremiah’s somewhat obscure list of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials.
Nebuchadnezzar and His Officers Watch the Siege
Jeremiah 39:1-2 describes Nebuchadnezzar’s final siege of Jerusalem (commemorated to this day in the Fast of the Tenth of Tebet) and breaching of the city defenses on the ninth of Tammuz (commemorated in the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz). Verse 3 then lists the officers who are overseeing the siege with Nebuchadnezzar:
ירמיה לט:ג וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ כֹּ֚ל שָׂרֵ֣י מֶֽלֶךְ־בָּבֶ֔ל וַיֵּשְׁב֖וּ בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַתָּ֑וֶךְ נֵרְגַ֣ל שַׂר־אֶ֠צֶר סַֽמְגַּר־נְב֞וּ שַׂר־סְכִ֣ים רַב־סָרִ֗יס נֵרְגַ֤ל שַׂר־אֶ֙צֶר֙ רַב־מָ֔ג וְכָל־שְׁאֵרִ֔ית שָׂרֵ֖י מֶ֥לֶךְ בָּבֶֽל׃
Jer 39:3 All the officers of the king of Babylon entered, and took up quarters at the middle gate—Nergal-sarezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim the Rab-saris, Nergal-sarezer the Rab-mag, and all the rest of the officers of the king of Babylon. (NJPS)
Nebuchadnezzar’s Four Officers
According to Jeremiah 39:3, “all” of the Babylonian officers arrived and sat at the city gate. Sandwiched between the two general notices are words that apparently specify the names of particular officials. Exactly how many officers arrived at Jerusalem’s gate?
The NJPS translation (above), mostly following the Masoretic presentation as it appears in standard Hebrew Bibles today, counts four names. According to this rendering, the last two names are listed together with their positions, and the first two with only their names:
- nergal saretser – נֵרְגַ֣ל שַׂר־אֶ֠צֶר
- samgar-nebu – סַֽמְגַּר־נְב֞וּ
- sar-sekhim rab-saris – שַׂר־סְכִ֣ים רַב־סָרִ֗יס
- nergal saretser rab-mag – נֵרְגַ֤ל שַׂר־אֶ֙צֶר֙ רַב־מָ֔ג
Masoretic tradition uses the dash known as a maqqep to join together the words samgar-nebu, sar-sekhim, rab-saris andrab-mag into one unit. According to this, the above list has a total of eight words.
The NJPS understands two of these eight words as titles, indicated by the insertion of the English article “the” into the translation: “the Rab-saris” and “the Rab-mag.” This interpretation makes sense because both of these pairs of words begin with the word rab, an element that commonly occurs at the beginning of titles. In fact, both titles are attested in Akkadian sources.
Nergal Sar-Etzer the Rab-Mag
The second title, Rab-mag, is equivalent to the Akkadian rab mugi, a title that refers to “a high military official.” Once we accept that the title rab mag/rab mugi occurs at the end of our list, then we expect the name of the person bearing this title to precede these words. In fact, the NJPS translation combines the two words that come before the title rab mag/rab mugi, and gives this official the name “Nergal-sarezer the Rab-mag.”
Although the Masoretic text does not combine the two words Nergal and Sar-etzer, the NJPS’s combination is reasonable. The name Nergal-sar-etzer, in Akkadian Nergal-šarru-uṣur (meaning: Oh Nergal, preserve the king!), is well attested in Babylonian records from the time of Nebuchadnezzar. This very same name also begins the list in our verse. (In fact, Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, who took the throne after the death of Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Amel-Marduk, had this name. It is even possible that he is one of these two men.)
Thus, our list ends with the name and title of one Nergal-sar-etzer/Nergal-šarru-uṣur the rab mag/rab mugi.
Nergal-Sar-Etzer the Simmagir
What about the first Nergal-sar-etzer/Nergal-šarru-uṣur in the list? According to the NJPS, we do not know his title. Instead, his name is followed by another name, Samgar-nebo, joined by a dash that reflects the Masoretic maqqep.
Nevertheless, here the NJPS seems to be mistaken. The first element in this supposed name, “Samgar,” is likely the Akkadian word, simmagir, which, in the Neo-Babylonian period, was a title for a high official.
In fact, a list of officials in the court of Nebuchadnezzar himself includes one man named Nergal-šarru-uṣur, the simmagir. This would be exactly equivalent to the information in Jeremiah 39:3, with the name Nergal-sar-etzer/Nergal-šarru-uṣur, followed by the title samgar/simmagir.
Nebu Sar-Sekhim the Rab-Saris
Accepting this equivalence requires us to separate between the words joined in both the Masoretic text and the NJPS translation, samgar/simmagir and nebu (nebo in the NJPS). Nebu, is the name of the Babylonian deity Nabû, which commonly occurs at the beginning of Babylonian names, such as Nebuchadnezzar (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur, “May Nabu protect my first-born son.”) Following this, we have another pair of words, sar-sekhim, which the NJPS renders as a single name, Sarsechim, who bears the title Rab-saris (שַׂר־סְכִ֣ים רַב־סָרִ֗יס).
The title Rab-saris itself is well attested in Akkadian rab ša rēši, which can be translated as “chief courtier.” In 2007, the Austrian Assyriologist Michael Jursa, working in the British Museum’s vast cuneiform collections, re-discovered a tablet that records the receipt of gold forwarded to the Esaggil temple in Babylon on 18 Shebat, Year 10 of Nebuchadnezzar, or March 1, 594 B.C.E. The man forwarding the gold is one Nabû-šarussu-ukīn (meaning, “Nabû has established his king”), therab ša rēši.
Based on this remarkable discovery, we can re-read Jeremiah 39:3, and join the words Nebu-sar-sekhim into the name of this very same official. Nabû-šarussu-ukīn, the rab ša rēši, of the Babylonian temple receipt is none other than Nebu-sar-sekhim, the Rab-saris, of Jeremiah 39:3.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Three Officers
The Babylonian administrative records allow us to correct the Masoretic tradition, and to identify three officials, each with his title, who came to oversee the destruction of Jerusalem:
- Nergal-šarru-uṣur, the simmagir – נֵרְגַל[־]שַׂרְאֶצֶר סַמְגַּר
- Nabû-šarussu-ukīn, the rab ša rēši – נְבוּ[־]שַׂר־סְכִים רַב־סָרִיס
- Nergal-šarru-uṣur the rab mugi – נֵרְגַל[־]שַׂרְאֶצֶר רַב־מָג
What is more, in the first two cases, the Babylonian records refer to exactly the same names and titles as those in the Hebrew Bible. This makes it very likely that the texts refer to the very same people.
Setting up a Throne at the Gates
The verse with the list of officers paints a portrait of what Nebuchadnezzar and his officials are doing during the siege:
ירמיה לט:ג וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ כֹּ֚ל שָׂרֵ֣י מֶֽלֶךְ־בָּבֶ֔ל וַיֵּשְׁב֖וּ בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַתָּ֑וֶךְ…׃
Jer 39:3 All the officers of the king of Babylon entered, and took up quarters at the middle gate…
The verse depicts the Babylonian officers “taking up quarters,” more literally, “sitting” (וַיֵּשְׁבוּ) at one of Jerusalem’s gates. This echoes the prophecy near the very beginning of the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet is told:
ירמיה א:טו כִּ֣י׀ הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵ֗א לְכָֽל מִשְׁפְּח֛וֹת מַמְלְכ֥וֹת צָפ֖וֹנָה נְאֻם יְ-הוָ֑ה וּבָ֡אוּ וְֽנָתְנוּ֩ אִ֙ישׁ כִּסְא֜וֹ פֶּ֣תַח׀ שַׁעֲרֵ֣י יְרוּשָׁלִַ֗ם וְעַ֤ל כָּל חוֹמֹתֶ֙יהָ֙ סָבִ֔יב וְעַ֖ל כָּל עָרֵ֥י יְהוּדָֽה׃
Jer 1:15 For I am summoning all the peoples of the kingdoms of the north — declares YHWH. They shall come, and shall each set up a throne before the gates of Jerusalem, against its walls roundabout, and against all the towns of Judah.
One purpose of the verse, then, is to signal the fulfillment of the prophet’s prediction; what he said would occur indeed came to pass. Additionally, the verses’ shared image of enemies “sitting” or “setting up thrones” at the gate might have been familiar to an ancient audience.
The King Overlooks His Conquest
Just over a century prior to the events the verse here describes, an Assyrian king, Sennacherib, decorated his palace with engraved pictures of his devastating siege of a different Judean city, Lachish. There, Sennacherib himself sits on his throne, at the entrance to the city, overseeing its destruction.
Based on this picture, we cannot say that Sennacherib, or, for that matter, the Babylonian officers, actually sat at the entrances to the cities they besieged. Even so, the picture is valuable because it gives us a sense of what a siege “looked like” in the mind’s eye of an ancient author. To the author and his audience, even a century later, the conventions of a siege included the leader of the enemy camp enthroned at the gates of the besieged city. Both Jeremiah’s prediction and the narrative of its fulfillment invoke this convention.
In light of all this, we conclude that the information in Jeremiah 39:3 is true to life. It sets the siege and destruction scene as an ancient audience would have expected it, with important officials seated at the gate. And, when it assigns parts to Babylonian officials, it captures, in some form, their names and titles.
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July 2, 2018
July 31, 2020
Dr. Shalom E. Holtz is associate professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Neo-Babylonian Court Procedure (Cuneiform Monographs 38; Leiden: Brill, 2009) and Neo-Babylonian Trial Records (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014).
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