Who was Nebuchadnezzar?

In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar is best known as the king who conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried the people of the Jews captive to Babylon.

Of all the heathen monarchs mentioned by name in the Scriptures, Nebuchadnezzar is the most prominent and the most important. The prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and the last chapters of Kings and Chronicles centered about his life, and he stands preeminent, along with the Pharaohs of the oppression and the exodus, among the foes of the kingdom of God. The documents which have been discovered in Babylon and elsewhere within the last 75 years have added much to our knowledge of this monarch, and have in general confirmed the Biblical accounts concerning him.

1. His Name:

His name is found in two forms in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadrezzar. In the Septuagint he is called Ναβουχοδονοσόρ , Nabouchodonosór , and in the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) Nabuchodonosor . This latter form is found also in the King James Version Apocrypha throughout and in the Revised Version (British and American) 1 Esdras, Ad Esther and Baruch, but not Judith or Tobit.

This change from "r" to "n" which is found in the two writings of the name in the Hebrew and the Aramaic of the Scriptures is a not uncommon one in the Semitic languages, as in Burnaburiyash and Burraburiyash, Ben-hadad and Bar-hadad (see Brockelmann's Comparative Grammar , 136,173, 220). It is possible, however, that the form Nebuchadnezzar is the Aramaic translation of the Babylonian Nebuchadrezzar. If we take the name to be compounded of Nabu-kudurri-usur in the sense "O Nebo, protect thy servant," then Nabu-kedina-usur would be the best translation possible in Aramaic.

Such translations of proper names are common in the old versions of the Scriptures and elsewhere. For example, in WAI , V, 44, we find 4 columns of proper names of persons giving the Sumerian originals and the Semitic translations of the same; compare Bar-hadad in Aramaic for Hebrew Ben - hadad . In early Aramaic the ṣ had not yet become t (see Cooke , Text-Book of North-Sem Inscriptions , 188 f); so that for anyone who thought that ḳudurru meant "servant," Nebuchadnezzar would be a perfect translation into Aramaic of Nebuchadrezzar.

2. Family:

The father of Nebuchadnezzar was Nabopolassar, probably a Chaldean prince. His mother is not known by name. The classical historians mention two wives: Amytis, the daughter of Astyages, and Nitocris, the mother of Nabunaid. The monuments mention three sons: Evil-merodach who succeeded him, Marduk-shum-utsur, and Marduk-nadin-achi. A younger brother of Nebuchadnezzar, called Nabu-shum-lishir, is mentioned on a building-inscription tablet from the time of Nabopolassar.

3. Sources of Information:

The sources of our information as to the life of Nebuchadnezzar are about 500 contract tablets dated according to the days, months and years of his reign of 43 years; about 30 building and honorific inscriptions; one historical inscription; and in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Kings. Later sources are Chronicles, Ezra, and the fragments of Berosus, Menander, Megasthenes, Abydenus, and Alexander Polyhistor, largely as cited by Josephus and Eusebius.

4. Political History:

From these sources we learn that Nebuchadnezzar succeeded his father on the throne of Babylon in 604 BC, and reigned till 561 BC. He probably commanded the armies of Babylon from 609. BC. At any rate, he was at the head of the army which defeated Pharaoh-necoh at Carchemish on the Euphrates in 605 BC (see 2 Kings 23:31 ; 2 Chronicles 35:20 ff). After having driven Necoh out of Asia and settled the affairs of Syria and Palestine, he was suddenly recalled to Babylon by the death of his father. There he seems quietly to have ascended the throne. In the 4th year of Jehoiakim (or 3rd according to the Babylonian manner of reckoning ( Daniel 1:1 )), he came up first against Jerusalem and carried away part of the vessels of the temple and a few captives of noble lineage.

Again, in Jehoiakim's 11th year, he captured Jerusalem, put Jehoiakim, its king, into chains, and probably killed him. His successor, Jehoiachin, after a three months' reign, was besieged in Jerusalem, captured, deposed, and carried captive to Babylon, where he remained in captivity 37 years until he was set free by Evil-merodach. In the 9th year of Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar made a 4th expedition against Jerusalem which he besieged, captured, and destroyed (see Jer 52). In addition to these wars with Judah, Nebuchadnezzar carried on a long siege of Tyre, lasting 13 years, from his 7th to his 20th year.

He had at least three wars with Egypt. The first culminated in the defeat of Necoh at Carchemish; the second in the withdrawal of Hophra (Apries) from Palestine in the 1st year of the siege of Jerusalem under Zedekiah; and the third saw the armies of Nebuchadnezzar entering Egypt in triumph and defeating Amasis in Nebuchadnezzar's 37th year. In the numerous building and honorific inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar he makes no mention by name of his foes or of his battles; but he frequently speaks of foes that he had conquered and of many peoples whom he ruled. Of these peoples he mentions by name the Hittites and others (see Langdon, 148-51). In the Wâdy -Brissa inscription, he speaks of a special conquest of Lebanon from some foreign foe who had seized it; but the name of the enemy is not given.

5. Buildings, Etc.:

The monuments justify the boast of Nebuchadnezzar "Is not this great Babylon that I have built?" (Daniel 4:30 ). Among these buildings special emphasis is placed by Nebuchadnezzar upon his temples and shrines to the gods, particularly to Marduk, Nebo and Zarpinat, but also to Shamash, Sin, Gula, Ramman, Mah, and others. He constructed, also, a great new palace and rebuilt an old one of his father's. Besides, he laid out and paved with bricks a great street for the procession of Marduk, and built a number of great walls with moats and moat-walls and gates. He dug several broad, deep canals, and made dams for flooding the country to the North and South of Babylon, so as to protect it against the attack of its enemies. He made, also, great bronze bulls and serpents, and adorned his temples and palaces with cedars and gold. Not merely in Babylon itself, but in many of the cities of Babylonia as well, his building operations were carried on, especially in the line of temples to the gods.

6. Religion, Etc.:

The inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar show that he was a very religious man, probably excelling all who had preceded him in the building of temples, in the institution of offerings, and the observance of all the ceremonies connected with the worship of the gods. His larger inscriptions usually contain two hymns and always close with a prayer. Mention is frequently made of the offerings of precious metals, stones and woods, of game, fish, wine, fruit, grain, and other objects acceptable to the gods.

It is worthy of note that these offerings differ in character and apparently in purpose from those in use among the Jews. For example, no mention is made in any one of Nebuchadnezzar's inscriptions of the pouring out or sprinkling of blood, nor is any reference made to atonement, or to sin.

7. Madness:

No reference is made in any of these inscriptions to Nebuchadnezzar's insanity. But aside from the fact that we could scarcely expect a man to publish his own calamity, especially madness, it should be noted that according to Langdon we have but three inscriptions of his written in the period from 580 to 561 BC. If his madness lasted for 7 years, it may have occurred between 580,567 BC, or it may have occurred between the Egyptian campaign of 567 BC and his death in 561 BC. But, as it is more likely that the "7 times" mentioned in Dan may have been months, the illness may have been in any year after 580 BC, or even before that for all we know.

8. Miracles, Etc.:

No mention is made on the monuments (1) of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar recorded in Daniel 2 , or (2) of the image of gold that he set up, or (3) of the fiery furnace from which the three children were delivered (Daniel 3 ). As to (1), it may be said, however, that a belief in dreams was so universal among all the ancient peoples, that a single instance of this kind may not have been considered as worthy of special mention. The annals of Ashur-banipal and Nubu-naid and Xerxes give a number of instances of the importance attached to dreams and their interpretation. It is almost certain that Nebuchadnezzar also believed in them.

That the dream recorded in Dan is not mentioned on the monuments seems less remarkable than that no dream of his is recorded. As to (2) we know that Nebuchadnezzar made an image of his royal person ( ṣalam sharrutiya , Langdon, XIX , B, col. x, 6; compare the image of the royal person of Nabopolassar, id, p. 51), and it is certain that the images of the gods were made of wood (id, p. 155), that the images of Nebo and Marduk were conveyed in a bark in the New Year's procession (id, pp. 157,159, 163,165) and that there were images of the gods in all the temples (id, passim ); and that Nebuchadnezzar worshipped before these images.

That Nebuchadnezzar should have made an image of gold and put it up in the Plain of Dura is entirely in harmony with what we know of his other "pious deeds." (3) As to "the fiery furnace," it is known that Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, says that his own brother, Shamash-shumukin, was burned in a similar furnace.

The failure of Nebuchadnezzar to mention any of the particular persons or events recorded in Dan does not disprove their historicity, any more than his failure to mention the battle of Carchemish, or the siege of Tyre and Jerusalem, disproves them. The fact is, we have no real historical inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, except one fragment of a few broken lines found in Egypt.


IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.