At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it,and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign (2 Kings 24:10-12 ESV)
On that night the king could not sleep. And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king(Esther 6:1 ESV)
Recovering ancient sources that record the same events preserved in the Bible provide a treasure house of information for the biblical historian. They often illuminate, clarify and offer external confirmation of the historicity of the biblical accounts. Similarly, they comprise additional voices that speak across the centuries, giving us priceless information about biblical events personalities and events. Such was the case when small groups of ancient Babylonian tablets appeared on the antiquities market of Iraq between ca. 1876 and 1902. These rather inconspicuous clay tablets, now known as the Babylonian Chronicles, greatly aid in our understanding of the turbulent final decades of the Kingdom of Judah (ca. 609-586 B.C.)
The Babylonian Chronicles are archival cuneiform texts written in a terse, compact style on clay tablets that offer brief, chronological accounts of the reigns of kings, including revolts, military and religious activities. Some of these archival records are contemporary accounts, while others report older events or share traditions from the distant past. Writing styles vary between formal, meticulously detailed annals, disjointed extracts from more detailed sources and two columned summary chronicles focusing on major events (Millard 1964: 32-33; Waerzeggers 2012: 286). The Horn Museum tablet exemplifies the latter typology.
Relevance to the Biblical Account
The Babylonian Chronicles have great importance for Old Testament history. For example, the Horn Museum tablet contains a highly summarized Babylonian account covering major events from 605-595 B.C. The report includes Jerusalem’s capitulation in 597 B.C. in the face of an overwhelming Babylonian force encamped opposite the city walls (e.g., Wiseman 1956: 32-35, 72-74; 1985: 32-36; Grayson 1975: 20,102; 2 Kings 24:1-17; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10; cf. Jeremiah 24:1; 29:2; 37:7-9). With reference to Jerusalem, the tablet states: “In the seventh year, the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad(Nebuchadnezzar) mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land(the Levant), and encamped against(besieged) the city of Judah(Jerusalem) and on the second day of the month of Adar he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice(heart), received its heavy tribute and sent(them) to Babylon”(Wiseman 1956: 33, 72-73). The capture of the city of Judah (Jerusalem) in this summary account clearly demonstrates its geo-political importance at the time and gives a precise date of March 16, 597 B.C. for the event (e.g., Arnold 2004: 93). Moreover, this tablet offers important chronological aids in correlating biblical texts with Babylonian sources during the years 606/5-595/4 BC, such as the death of Babylonian king Nabopolassar, the accession of his son Nebuchadnezzar as king, the Battle of Carchemish (Jeremiah 46:2) and the siege of Ashkelon. These events undoubtedly had a formidable psychological impact upon Judah (Wiseman 1956: 23-32, 66-71; 1985: 12-31; Grayson 1975: 19-20, 99-102, 282; Oates 1986: 126-131; Arnold 2004: 91-99; cf., 2 Kings 24:1-7; Jeremiah 36:9).
The Horn Museum Babylonian Chronicle tablet (96.0010), measuring 8.25 cm in height and 6.19 cm in width was skillfully cast from a mold made from the original tablet in the British Museum:
The unprovenanced British Museum tablet (BM 21946), purchased in 1896, possibly originated from illicit digs around Borsippa (Waerzeggers 2012: 291). Finally published 60 years later by Wiseman (1956: 23-37, Plates 5, 14-16), this tablet and others precipitated a flood of articles and studies comparing the biblical record with this new data (e.g., Freedman 1956; Horn 1957; 1967; Malamat 1956; 1968; Noth 1957; Thiele 1956). A subsequent edition by Grayson (1975: 99-102 and Plate 16), who labeled the tablet as Chronicle 5, updated the corpus. Additional tablets from these chronicles have since appeared (e.g., Leichty and Walker 2004). Orley Berg donated this Babylonian Chronicle tablet to the Horn Museum in 1996.
Well known from other Near eastern cultures, most notably Assyria, these ancient chronicles or annals demonstrate the importance of preserving a written history, whether penned in annalistic or summary form. Most importantly, the biblical texts themselves often cite annalistic or other archival sources such as court or prophetic histories in their theological presentation of Israel’s often-tumultuous relationship with God. Most notable among these are the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (e.g., 1 King 14:19) and Judah (e.g., 1 Kings 14:29), the Annals of King David (1 Chronicles 27:24), the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41) and the Book of Shemaiah and Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 9:29).
As a postscript, the Horn Museum collection includes roughly 3,000 Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. Among them is a humble Babylonian produce receipt (51.0006) for 10 measures of dates as payment, dated to the ninth day of Sivan (a month on the Hebrew calendar; Esther 8:9), in the 19thyear of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (June 19, 586 BC). Ironically, this is precisely the same year Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and took Judah’s population as captives to Babylonia, where the Jews lived until the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC, finally allowed them to return to Judah and Jerusalem.
Arnold, Bill T.
2004 Who Were the Babylonians? Archaeology and Biblical Studies 10: Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Freedman, David N.
1956 The Babylonian Chronicle. The Biblical Archaeologist19/3: 49-60.
Grayson, A. Kirk
1975 Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. Reprinted 2000. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Horn, Siegfried H.
1957 Cuneiform Tablet sheds light on Daniel’s Captivity. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 134/26 (June 27): 7-8.
1967 The Babylonian Chronicle and the Ancient Calendar of the Kingdom of Judah. Andrews University Seminary Studies5: 12-27.
Leichty, Erle, and Walker, Christopher B.F.
2004 Three Babylonian Chronicle and Scientific Texts. Pp. 203-212 in From the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea: Studies on the History of Assyria and Babylonia in Honour of A.K. Grayson,edited by Grant Frame and Linda S. Wilding. PIHANS 101. Leiden: The Netherlands Institute for the Near East.
1956 A New Record of Nebuchadrezzar’s Palestinian Campaigns. Israel Exploration Journal 6: 246-256.
1968 The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Historical-Chronological Study. Israel Exploration Journal18: 137-156.
Millard Alan R.
1964 Another Babylonian Chronicle Text. Iraq26: 14-35.
1980 Review of Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles,by A. Kirk Grayson. Journal of the American Oriental Society 100: 364-368.
1957 Review of Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum, by Donald J. Wiseman. Journal of Semitic Studies2: 271-273.
1986 Babylon. Ancient Peoples and Places. Revised edition. London: Thames and Hudson.
1988 The Greatness that was Babylon: A Sketch of the Ancient Civilization of the Tigris- Euphrates Valley. Great Civilization Series. Second edition. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
1995 Babylonians. Peoples of the Past 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma.
Thiele, Edwin R.
1956 New Evidence on the Chronology of the Last Kings of Judah. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research143: 22-27.
2012 The Babylonian Chronicles: Classification and Provenance. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 71: 285-298.
Wiseman, Donald J.
1956 Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum. London: Trustees of the British Museum.
1985 Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon. The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1983. Oxford: Oxford University.