Thinking back through the news of the past year, a small and largely overlooked event offered to believers a gift that’s worth celebrating.
It all has to do with a gift from a certain Babylonian named Nebo-Sarsekim, who was not one of the wise men. He offered gold to his god, but it wasn’t to Jesus, as he lived six centuries earlier.
It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of Nebo-Sarsekim, even if you’ve read Jeremiah 39:3, where he is mentioned as one of Nebuchadnezzar II’s high officials who accompanied him during the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
His name appears in a list of Babylonian officials that has been misread by most translations, which mistakenly tag “nebo” to the end of the preceding word (Samgar), rather than rightly regarding it as a prefix to the following word (Sarsekim). A better reading, adopted by the New International Version and the New English Translation (also known as the NETBible), gives the officials’ names as “Nergal-sharezer of Samgar” and “Nebo-sarsekim,” who is described as a “rab-saris,” meaning “chief officer,” along with another high official named “Nergal-sharezer.”
And why should we care? It was announced last summer that a researcher in the British Museum, poring through the thousands of cuneiform tablets from Babylon in the museum’s archives, found a small tablet that served as a receipt from that very official (you can find another story here).
The tablet was first uncovered in 1870, in the ruins of ancient Sippar (on the outskirts of modern Baghdad), where there was a huge temple to the sun. Nebo-Sarsekim had contributed more than a pound and a half of gold to the temple of Esangila, and a priestly accountant provided an official receipt that also attested to the delivery-person’s faithfulness.
The tablet is dated to the tenth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, which would have been two years after the Babylonians’ first sacking of Jerusalem, when they deported King Jehoiachin and took all the gold from the temple (2 Kings 24:13). Some have speculated that the Nebo-Sarsekim’s gift to the temple of Esangila may have come from his share of spoil from the temple in Jerusalem. There’s no evidence for that other than the convenient date, but an interesting thought nevertheless.
The tablet, which was brought to light by visiting researcher Michael Jursa of Vienna, who recognized that the Babylonian name “Nabu-sharrussu-ukin” — could have been transliterated into Hebrew as “Nebo-sarsekim” (for comparison, the king known in English-via-Hebrew as Nebuchadnezzar [or Nebuchadrezzar] is called “Nabu-kudurri-utser” in Babylonian).
As Jer. 39:3 describes Nebo-sarsekim as a “chief officer” of Nebuchadnezzar, the clay tablet describes Nabu-sharrussu-ukin as the “chief eunuch.” In the ancient world, high officials with intimate access to the court were typically made eunuchs.
And why is this such a gift? The little tablet does not prove for us the accuracy of the entire Old Testament, but it does provide independent support for the historical validity of an ancient character who was otherwise unknown outside of the Bible.
For those of us who get excited about the Old Testament, the extra-biblical confirmation of a very minor biblical character is a big deal, and a welcome gift.
For those who might find it interesting, the full translation of the text is: “(Regarding) 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.“
Almost 2,700 years after the gold was first given, it becomes a new gift to believers, and all because Nebo-Sarsekim saved his receipts.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.