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Prophets and the Royal Court in the Ancient Near East

Adda Seal-detail

Biblical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are often seen relating divine messages to kings and members of the Israelite and Judean royal court. This interaction is not entirely unique to the Levant.

Were divinely commissioned messengers active in other ancient Near Eastern cultures?

There are hints that divinely commissioned messengers were active in Assyria before the reign of Sennacherib (704–681), during the time when Isaiah is thought to be most active. Firm evidence for the practice is attested during the reign of his son Esarhaddon (680–669) and grandson Aššur-banī-apli (669–631), and there may be good reason for this. Esarhaddon’s rise to power was marked by political intrigue, attempted coups, and the inauspicious death of his father at the hands of his brothers. All of this suggested a deep disconnect between the royal house and the gods (one that Isaiah uses adeptly to his own ends to stress the need for piety in Judah). In this environment of religious uncertainty, it was in Esarhaddon’s interest to engage every method of divination available to him to justify his reign and guide his actions. This included consulting more traditional, technical forms such as liver and gallbladder reading (extispicy), but also putting heavy stock in less secure, mercurial forms such as prophecy. Indeed, Esarhaddon was so reliant on this latter form of communication with the gods, that he states in multiple texts that favorable signs appeared when he ascended the throne and that he received reassuring messages from the maḫḫê (ecstatics) of the gods and goddess Ištar.

That maḫḫê are cited in the succession narratives of Esarhaddon attests to the value of their communications. The specific mention of the goddess Ištar demonstrates that she was indispensable in legitimating the king’s accession. One of our key sources for Neo-Assyrian prophecy is a tablet concerned entirely with justifying Esarhaddon’s right to the throne. In each of the messages contained on the tablet, Ištar of Arbela, a warrior form of Ištar, proclaims through a variety of seemingly arbitrary people, that the king is the legitimate heir, that she reconciled the people of Assyria and her gods to him, and that she routed out his enemies in the court and on the battlefield. Thus, religious doubt is alleviated by the goddess, and Esarhaddon, and by extension the people of Assyria, are made calm through the divine words as relayed through the prophets. Additional Neo-Assyrian attestations for divine messages are few, but they tend to be along the same lines, originating usually with Ištar, but sporadically with the god Aššur or a different deity.

What other evidence do we have for divinely commissioned messengers?

The prophetic words of warrior Ištar, in the guise of Annunītum, are also attested on tablets that date to the reigns of the eighteenth century BCE Amorite rulers of Mari and two tablets discovered at Ešnunna from the same time period also seem to contain prophecies. In all of these tablets, a multitude of deities, particularly forms of Adad and Dagan, are recorded as speaking through either arbitrary persons or a class of prophet called āpilum/āpiltum (spokespersons). Whereas Esarhaddon put heavy stock in divinely commissioned messengers, these tablets indicate that prophecies were validated through technical forms of divination, suggesting that the messages were received with skepticism. These earlier attestations for prophecy are also entirely concerned with royal matters; however, the Neo-Assyrian corpus does contain a few tantalizing references to average persons consulting a certain class of prophet called the raggimu/raggintu (proclaimers).

In short, whereas the Bible presents prophecy as rather expected procedure, in the greater ancient Near East, throughout its long and rich literary traditions, prophecy it attested in only two highly delineated corpuses, from two very disparate time periods, originating at very different locations. This has led some to conclude that the cuneiform prophecies are highly circumscribed, as in the Neo-Assyrian case, where only the reassuring prophecies would have been written down. Dire warnings of the type of Isaiah and Jeremiah proclaimed may have existed, but the supporters of Esarhaddon would never have allowed for their preservation.

  • Ilona Zsolnay is an Assyriologist whose progressive research combines traditional philological inquiry into Mesopotamian literature, writing, and social systems with cutting-edge theory and lateral approaches. Zsolnay has published widely and is the editor of several volumes, including Seen Not Heard: Composition, Iconicity, and the Classifier Systems of Logosyllabic Scripts (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2022) and Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity (Routledge, 2016).