Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nebo-Sarsekim (Jer. 39:3)

In Jeremiah 39:3, several Babylonian officials are named: "Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim the Rab-saris, Nergal-sharezer the Rab-mag" (NRSV). Translations of these difficult names differ, and the NIV has "Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official."

A recent discovery of a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum confirms that the second official was "Nebo-Sarsekim" (Akkadian Nabu-sharussu-ukin, "Nabu has established his king"). The discovery of a named biblical figure in an ancient Babylonian tablet is pretty interesting news, although it doesn't confirm the inerrancy of the whole bible, as some would have it. On the other hand, it is more evidence (if any were needed) that the historical parts of Jeremiah are reliable.

Jim West is among the debunkers of the discovery, stating, "No one has ever argued that there was no Babylonian of that name." Not so; many, if not most, recent expositors have argued that the "Sarsekim" of the Masoretic Text is a textual corruption, and that the text must be emended to make sense.

For instance, in the standard Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, we are given two ways of approaching "Sarsechim": as a textual error for "Nebushazban" (Jer. 39:13), or as a corruption of "sar sukiyyim", glossed as "supervisor of the African slaves." The first option is followed by BHS; the second has little to recommend it. Both can now be safely discarded.

Thanks to archaeology, the first two names can be reconstructed with certainty. In 1930, another tablet had given us the identification of the first name as Nergal-shar-usur prince of Sin-magir or Simmagir. The new discovery gives us Nabu-sharusu-ukin rab sha-reshi. My guess would be that Nebushazban should be substituted for the second "Nergal-sharezer" in 39:3, giving us three officials:

Nergal-shar-usur simmagir
Nabu-sharussu-ukin rab-shareshi
Nabu-shezibanni rab-mugi

Nergal-sharezer (prince of) Simmagir
Nebo-sarsekim chief eunuch
Nebushazban the rab mugi [this term for a high official is still not clear]

It is interesting that only the NIV, of modern translations, correctly understood that there were three officials in 39:3. In the Jerusalem Bible, for instance, "Sarsekim" has been emended out of existence.

There is still a problem in reconciling 39:3 with 39:13, where Nebushazban is the chief eunuch and Nergal-sharezer is the Rab-mag. I presume that this verse is the one that needs emendation. In view of the new discovery, it would seem that v. 13 is more corrupt than v. 3, and should be emended to agree with it — exactly the opposite of what was thought to be the case only a few weeks ago. Ain't biblical archaeology fun?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: See E. Dalglish, "Samgar-Nebo," Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:947-948.


bulbul said...

Ain't biblical archaeology fun?
Amen to that!
Any chance of a picture of the tablet yet?

Duane Smith said...

There is a picture of the obverse at

John Hobbins said...


your thoughts are in accord with discussion elsewhere among informed Bible bloggers.

You might wish to take a look at my post and Chris Heard's posts on the tablet, along with the comments thereto by Charles Halton and Kevin Edgecomb.

After you do so, you will also be in a position to correct some material errors in your post.

John Hobbins

EMC said...

John, are you always this pompous?

slaveofone said...

Everyone is talking about the NIV and something else...but did no one see the translation by the NET bible?

John Hobbins said...


for a full accounting of English translations of Jeremiah 39:3, check out the article entitled "Nebo-Sarsekim Tablet" in Wikipedia.


sorry to come off that way. My apologies.

I believe it's good practice, however, to take into account what others have written on a given matter, when one is writing up a comment of one's own. I'm sure you agree. I should have just asked if you had read the posts and comments on the tablet available elsewhere in biblioblogdom, in particular, those which are found on Chris Heard's blogs and others to which he links.

I will post again on the tablet tomorrow, and try to formulate matters in a more helpful way.

John Hobbins

EMC said...

Thanks John. But it's just a blog, not a journal article. Random thoughts, not research. If I had to take account of everyone else's blog before I put something up, I'd spend all my time reading and none writing. As it is, I don't have the time to read many blogs (the ones I do are listed on the right), not even the (no doubt) excellent ones you mention.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for adding your scholarship to the online posts on this discovery. I have a question - or a request for information - of you or any other reader. Has anyone seen a discussion of this tablet and previous theories based on the cantillation marks (I have seen on the Masoretic linking of Samgar and Nevu, but not the cantillation)?

In short, what I am seeing there based solely on cantillation is: Nergal and Saretzer can be one or two people, Samgar Nevu is one word, but may be either one person - or linked with the next to form "Samgar Nevu SarSachim Rav-Saris" as one person, or Samgar Nevu may be one person and SarSachim Rav Saris another, and Nargel Saretzer Rav-Mag the last. The tablet would then clarify that Samgar Nevu SarSachim Rav-Saris is one person, speaking from the point of view of cantillation.

I know as well about all the issues of using Masoretic influences including cantillation, and about just how much we can read into this tablet.

Thank you!

Christopher Heard said...

Ed, why does either verse need emendation? Do we have good evidence that there could only be one Rab-saris/Rab-[sa-]resi at a time?