Joseph and Esarhaddon of Assyria

Brother rivalry in the story of Joseph in the Bible and in the life of King Esarhaddon


Brother rivalry in the story of Joseph: Flemish artist Balthasar Beschey depicts the moment when brother rivalry turns vicious in the story of Joseph in the Bible in this 18th-century painting, Joseph Sold by his Brothers.

A father prefers one of his younger sons to his older sons. The younger son is promoted—to the envy of his older brothers—and the older brothers turn against him. When an opportunity presents itself, they manage to depose him. The younger brother ends up in a foreign land—dispossessed of his rights as heir. However, rather than wasting away in this foreign place, he thrives. Eventually, he rises to a high political office, and his original rights as an heir are restored.

Does the above paragraph describe the story of Joseph in the Bible or the life of King Esarhaddon of Assyria? The answer—rather surprisingly—is both.

Eckart Frahm, Professor of Assyriology at Yale University, probes the many similarities between Joseph and Esarhaddon in his article “Surprising Parallels Between Joseph and King Esarhaddon” in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Not only are there the obvious connections, but there are even more parallels when one delves into the textual evidence.

The story of Joseph appears in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, and the account of Esarhaddon’s rise to power is chronicled in the Assyrian text Nineveh A. Both Joseph and Esarhaddon are the younger sons of their fathers, and both deal with brother rivalry because their fathers favor them over their older brothers. In both of these instances, the brother rivalry is so intense and bitter that Joseph and Esarhaddon are forced to leave the land of their birth. While Joseph is sold as a slave by his brothers and taken to Egypt, Esarhaddon flees the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and takes refuge in the West for his own safety. Further, both of their fortunes are eventually restored. Beating incredible odds, they both rise to powerful positions: Joseph becomes second-in-command in Egypt, and Esarhaddon becomes king of Assyria.

In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.


Esarhaddon of Assyria: This basalt stele from Sam‘al (modern Zincirli in Turkey) depicts King Esarhaddon of Assyria. Similar to the story of Joseph in the Bible, Esarhaddon dealt with brother rivalry before he became king of Assyria.

While the story of Joseph is familiar to many, the story of Esarhaddon is not as well known. Eckhart Frahm summarizes the Assyrian tale of brother rivalry below:

Esarhaddon reports with unusual candor [in Nineveh A] that he was not the oldest son of his father and predecessor Sennacherib. Esarhaddon had a number of elder brothers. Nonetheless, at some point Sennacherib decided to make Esarhaddon his heir apparent. Liver divination undertaken in the name of the sun-god Šamaš and the weather god Adad confirms the appointment. And both the people of Assyria and Esarhaddon’s brothers swear loyalty to the new crown prince.

The brothers, however, are not happy with this course of events. Jealous and full of resentment, they conspire against Sennacherib’s new succession designation. Sennacherib is affected by their machinations and finally distances himself from his newly minted heir. Secretly, however, Sennacherib continues to wish that Esarhaddon will become king after him. In the meantime, Esarhaddon leaves the capital Nineveh and takes refuge in an unspecified safe location somewhere in the West. Soon after, the brothers “go mad” and commit “deeds that are deeply offensive to the gods and mankind”—a thinly veiled allusion to the fact that, as other sources indicate, they murdered Sennacherib … But the brothers are not to reap any rewards from their actions. Esarhaddon returns to Assyria with a small army, chases the regicides away and, encouraged by prophetic oracles, ascends the Assyrian throne.

What do all of the parallels between the two accounts mean? Are the similarities no more than chance—just two tales of brother rivalry, exile and restoration? Or did one of these stories borrow from the other?

While there are many similarities between the accounts of Joseph and Esarhaddon, there are also some significant differences, such as the resolution. Whereas Joseph forgives his brothers and saves their lives, Esarhaddon does not reconcile with his offending brothers. Although their exact fate is unknown, Esarhaddon’s older brothers flee Nineveh and seek refuge with the king of Urartu. They live as exiles for the rest of their lives—unforgiven by Esarhaddon and unwelcomed in Assyria. This and other parts of departure between the two accounts show that one tale is not an exact copy of the other—despite their many similarities.

For an analysis of the comparisons between the stories of Joseph and Esarhaddon, read the full article “Surprising Parallels Between Joseph and King Esarhaddon” by Eckart Frahm in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Surprising Parallels Between Joseph and King Esarhaddon” by Eckart Frahm in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Learn more about Esarhaddon in the BAS Library:

Erika Bleibtreu, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1991.

Michael B. Dick, “Worshiping Idols,” Bible Review, April 2002.

Victor Hurowitz, “Solomon’s Temple in Context,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2011.

Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2014.


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  • Paul says

    You can do it, Mr. Shanks, we’re all pulling for you to take your ship back from these pirates who censure me in the hope that we can avert a curse over the land (Malachi 4:6). Just remember your eponymous ancestor, “the mighty one of Jacob” (Genesis 49:24) and muster all your strength like a comic book superhero in the face of adversity and say to yourself, “I…will..act…my age!”

  • Paul says

    The reign of Sennacherib is described in only negative terms by the author of the book of Tobit whose main character was among those deported from the tribe of Naphtali in Galilee to Ninevah where he found favor with the Neo-Assyrian King Shalmaneser V, but not his successor Sennacherib and Tobit had to flee for his life, returning home only after Esarhaddan’s succession (Tobit 2:1). Shalmaneser V was the king who conquered the kingdom of Samaria and some of the people were exiled to the city of Gozan on the Khabor River, or “in Habor at the river Gozan” (2 Kings 17:6), and the area’s mixed population of Hurrian and Semitic people are reflective of the cultural blend of textual sources that comprise the foundation of the material found in the book of Genesis, in the region known as Naharin in Egyptian sources before it was known as Mitanni and it was also destination for the Pharaoh’s hunting expeditions during the 18th Dynasty, another possible connection to Joseph who likely would have spent more time practicing his archery (Genesis 49:23-24) than worrying about starting his own dynasty.

  • Paul says

    Well it certainly is mind-boggling how the revision of the dating of Genesis from its inception during the early Israelite monarchy period to some period centuries later opens the narrative with an insightful perspective with these allusions to contemporaneous history and you wouldn’t know how compelling the evidence is unless you read the full article that is crammed with data that places you in a vortex circa early 7th century B.C.E. at the beginning of a “like Nimrod a mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9) epic saga that the author of the latter half of Genesis compiled by using a technique familiar to the authors of Exodus with Aaron and Moses not themselves relying on the magical arts of the Egyptians but instead using the wise men and the sorcerers and magicians in a polemic against them and now we have the story of the patriarch Joseph set against a backdrop of the behind-the-scenes intrigue between rival heirs to the throne, as it is written, “…and E’sar-had’don his son began to reign in place of him” (2 Kings 19:37).
    Along with the fact that Joseph has a chapter named after him in the 12th sura of the Koran he is the most mentioned character in the Koran that goes beyond the Bible in praising his attribute of chastity that in Jewish mysticism is the attribute known as “zedek” or righteous, that is, taken in the context that Joseph never rose beyond the position of second-in-command to Pharoah, which is an attribute of “malkhut” or kingdom, and that could have a potential negative import in the Kabbalistic tradition not unlike the distinction between what is Pharaoah’s and what is God’s (Mark 12:17).
    So the fact that Esarhaddan as a prince was in exile in the same region from where the partriachs came, “beyond the river” (Joshua 24:2), or the Euphrates, and the city of Uru is mentioned in Esarhaddan’s annals recording the first of his military campaigns launched from his base in Hanigalbat, a region formerly known as Mitanni and Naharayim that roughly includes the region between the Balikh and Khabor rivers north of the upper Euphrates. It is thought by some scholars that the region referred to as “Aram Naharayim” (Genesis 24:10, 27:43) or “Aram of the two rivers,” includes “Ur of Kasdim” (Genesis 10:31), a city northwest of Haran. The article in the current issue of BAR states on page 48 the significance of the patriarch Jacob’s association with this city and that “Haran may also have the ancestral home of Sennacherib’s wife Naqi’a” and that Esarhaddan “invested heavily” in Haran’s temples having been “crowned there a second time in 671 B.C.E.”

  • Kevin says

    You can’t know when the Pentateuch was first written, with what we have. And even with the oldest examples we do have, it is a copy. Every argument would be full of fallacy. To say these books did not exist before this and this time is insane. It can also, more than likely, make one look the fool with possible future findings. Obviously, if going by the text, it was certainly much older than Josiah (and they most obviously knew what it was in their time) II Kings 22:8.

  • Ben says

    I think that there is some confusion here, Mr. Roth. I wrote that no one believes that the entire Pentateuch as such was written during the Babylonian Exile. At least, no knowledgeable scholar does that I am aware of. All that those “Higher Criticism” scholars claim who support the (now antiquated, usually heavily modified and for very many largely discredited) “Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis” is that the allegedly separate documents were all edited and sorted out into a single Pentateuch (or Hexateuch) during the Babylonian Exile. But they admit and even generally insist that the supposed “J, E, P and D” documents, and their ancillary modifications or sub-documents, predated, sometimes by many centuries, the Babylonian Exile.

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