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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514 Mark Leuchter
formed between the prophet and the Jerusalem scribal circles that would
have been responsible for the Deuteronomic texts and who would have
certainly been well versed in Assyrian modes of discourse (38). Finally,
the language in Jeremiahâ€™s call narrative draws from Akkadian royal
terminology, a feature visible also in passages from Deutero-Isaiah who
wrote while immersed in Mesopotamian literary culture (39).
The issue thus arises: would Jeremiahâ€™s exilic audience, living
under the iron fist of Babylon, have recognized an allusion to an
Assyrian inscription that dated from almost a century earlier? All
evidence suggests that this was indeed the case. Esarhaddonâ€™s policy
of rebuilding Babylon, as massive and significant an undertaking as it
was, would have been well known throughout the Assyrian empire. As
discussed above, many of the texts bearing witness to his program
seem to have been composed with the broader public in mind (40). The
acceptance of Esarhaddon by a culture as ancient and venerated as
Babylon would have indeed been an accomplishment worth celebra-
ting and publicizing, as it ended a long history of violent adversity
between Assyria and Babylon and presented Esarhaddon as the
ultimate Mesopotamian monarch. The foundation inscriptions
Esarhaddon commissioned for his building projects hermetically
infused the monarchâ€™s presence into the very core of Babylonâ€™s socio-
cultic infrastructure, but the public display of these inscriptions made
certain that all of Esarhaddonâ€™s subjects would be aware of his glory
as the bearer of divine will (41).
Given the degree to which Assyrian literary culture influenced
Judahâ€™s religious literature in the late 7th century, it is reasonable to
suppose that Esarhaddonâ€™s 70-year inscription was well known among
the Judean literati (42), which certainly would have included Jeremiah
(38) Cf. Jer 26,24; 32,6-15; 35,4; 36; 43,3; 45; 51,59-64. On the association of
these scribes with the Deuteronomic circles, see J.A. DEARMAN, â€œMy Servants
The Scribes: Composition and Context in Jeremiah 36â€, JBL 109 (1990) 417-420.
For the familiarity of these scribes with Assyrian literary patterns, see above (re:
(39) SOMMER, â€œNew Lightâ€, 655. See also S.M. PAUL, â€œDeutero-Isaiah and
Cuneiform Royal Inscriptionsâ€, Essays in Memory of E. A. Speiser (ed. W.W.
HALLO) (New Haven 1968) 180-186.
(40) PORTER, Images, Power, Politics, 105-116.
(41) For the likelihood that the foundation inscriptions were indeed composed
for public reading, see PORTER, Images, Power, Politics, 112-113.
(42) See HANDY, â€œThe Role of Huldahâ€, 45-47, for the strong parallels
between the account of Josiahâ€™s reform and the Esarhaddon inscription, though
HANDY views the Josiah account as a strictly literary creation without any