Mark Leuchter, «Jeremiah’s 70-Year Prophecy and the ymq bl/K##Atbash Codes», Vol. 85 (2004) 503-522
Jeremiah’s famous 70-year prophecy (Jer 25,11-12; 29,10) and
the atbash codes (Jer 25,26; 51,1.41) have been the subject of much
scholarly discussion, with no consensus as to their provenance or meaning. An
important inscription from the reign of Esarhaddon suggests that they be viewed
as inter-related rhetorical devices. The Esarhaddon inscription, written in
relation to that king’s extensive building program in Babylon, contains both a
70-year decree and the Akkadian Cuneiform parallel to the Hebrew Alphabetic
atbash codes, claiming that the god Marduk had inverted the 70-year decree,
thus allowing Esarhaddon to rebuild the city. This inscription was likely well
known to the members of the Josianic court and the elite of Judean society who
were carried off to Babylon in 597 B.C.E. This suggests that Jeremiah’s 70-Year
prophecy and the atbash codes were employed to direct the prophet’s
audience to the Esarhaddon inscription and its implications with respect to
Babylonian hegemony as a matter of divine will.
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510 Mark Leuchter
Esarhaddonâ€™s inscription legitimizes his building policy in
Babylon, an effort geared to secure Assyrian hegemony through
diplomacy in sharp distinction to the actions of his father Sennacherib,
who devastated the city in 689. Commencing the building program 11
years after Sennacherib completed his campaign, the inscription
establishes the divine ordination of Esarhaddonâ€™s efforts, making him
the bearer of Mardukâ€™s will and presenting the building policy as the
restoration of Babylonâ€™s sanctity (23). The manner in which this process
is realized is through a literary feature of the inscription itself, with the
cuneiform symbol representing the number 70 inverted to appear as
the symbol representing the number 11. Though it is clearly a text
generated by Esarhaddonâ€™s court scribes, the impetus of inversion is
ascribed to Marduk himself (24).
Esarhaddonâ€™s inscriptions (such as the one cited above) dramat-
ically re-envisioned the relationship between Assyria and Babylon,
two nations of a common culture that nevertheless had battled each
other for centuries regarding political dominance in Mesopotamia.
Whereas Esarhaddonâ€™s predecessors had attempted to subdue Babylon
by force â€” and Sennacheribâ€™s devastation of the city in 689 provides
the classic example of this long standing policy â€” Esarhaddonâ€™s great
innovation rested in an attempt to unify the political and religious
predilections of the two nations under his auspices. Though the
inscriptions geared for his own Assyrian audience deploy the prideful
language typical of Akkadian monarchic self-aggrandizement, the
related texts meant for Babylonian audiences attempted to mend the
rift by suggesting that Esarhaddon represented their best interests (25).
It is difficult to avoid seeing uncanny similarities between
Esarhaddonâ€™s inscription and the Jeremianic material under considera-
tion. Both texts deal with a divine decree concerning a 70-year
repression, and both texts rely upon scribal methodology to invert the
decree. In the case of the Esarhaddon text, the inversion takes place
with the cuneiform symbol itself; the atbash code in the Jeremianic
text represents an analogous method applied to the Hebrew alphabetic
(23) The theological and propagandistic aspects of this passage have been
discussed by L.K. HANDY, â€œThe Role of Huldah in Josiahâ€™s Cult Reformâ€, ZAW
106 (1994) 40-46.
(24) HANDY, â€œThe Role of Huldahâ€, 41-42.
(25) For a detailed analysis of Esarhaddonâ€™s diplomatic policies, see B.N.
PORTER, Images, Power Politics. Figurative Aspects of Esarhaddonâ€™s Babylonian
Policy (Philadelphia 1993).