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.