Joseph and Esarhaddon of Assyria

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

beschey-joseph

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

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.

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Subscribers: 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 subscriber yet? Join today.
 


 
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.
 


 

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.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 16, 2016.
 


 

Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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3 Responses

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  • Ken says

    It seems like the story of Joseph came first. While the story of Esarhaddon may be true, at first view is sounds like historical fiction.

  • Wes says

    Although I often have to wonder how many tales of Israelites in Egypt seem to be veiled references to concerns raised in living in Mesopotamia, I would like to examine the following assertion about “deeds that are offensive to God and mankind” performed by the sons of Sennacherib. I maintain that it was the result of deeds performed by Sennacherib that were offensive to God or the people of Assyria.

    From above:

    ..”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 [ my sources below: Cilicia or Tabal]. 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.”
    ——
    “Ancient Iraq”, a Penguin paperback history, 2nd edition 1980, by French medical doctor and assyrianologist Georges Roux is an easily accessible account of Sennacherib’s demise with numerous source notes, particularly what is covered on pages 322-324. From 324 onward there is an account of what Esarhaddon does in expiation for sin (Page 325: “The first act of the new monarch [Esarhaddon] was to atone for Sennacherib’s sin by rebuilding Babylon”). To be brief [ page 324: “The gread gods of Sumer and Akkad could not leave such a crime unpunished”], the destruction by siege and flooding of Babylon described by Isaiah in chapter 14. Referencing the Babylonian Chronicle as published in Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicle, by Grayson in1975.

    According to Roux on page 322:
    Sennacherib avenged himself on Babylon and dared to accomplish the unthinkable: he destroyed the illustrious and sacred city, the second metropolis of the empire [after, I presume, Nineveh] the “bond of heaven and earth” which his forebears had always treated with infinite patience and respect:

    Quoting the Sennacherib in the Chronicles

    “As a hurricane proceeds, I attacked it and, like a storm, I overthrew it.. Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare and with the corpses I filled the streets of the city…The city itself and its houses, from their foundations to their roofs I devastated, I destroyed, by fire I overthrew… In order that in future even the soil of its temples be forgotten, by water I ravaged it, I turned it into pastures [ Does this ring familiar?].
    “To quiet the heart of Ashur, my lord, that peoples should bow in submission before his exulted might, I removed the dust of Babylon for presents to the (most) distant peoples, and in ithat Temple of the New Year Festival (in Assur) I stored up some in a covered jar.”

    Roux concludes about Sennacherib, saying that “on the 20th day of Tebet ( January 681 BC), Sennacherib while praying in a temple met with the end he deserved.”

    Which takes us back to the original article and the comparisons to the story of Joseph – but with quite different interpretation of the motives of the brothers involved. Or else who was at fault before God.

    How could this happen? Well, it depends on how you play the game of Biblical archeological review. We have loads of archeological data from Assyrian records written in stones, tablets or obelisks, but not much of it has been submitted as evidence, unless it was via Kings or Chronicles. Yet should it be included, we get a different perspective and we do a great deal to reduce the odds that we are simply chasing our tails – or is it tales?

  • Jose says

    Some times, I fill that the autors of this articles, are trayin to diminish the word of GOD,
    or a least to put doubt in the maind of readers.
    I always felt the what the BIBLE says is the ultimate autority. acording to the declarations
    of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Jhon 5:39 and 2st. 3:16-17

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