Babylon: Myth and Reality (Nov 13, 2008-Mar 15, 2009) is an exhibition that changed my life – even though I had never seen it.
It was my father who visited this British Museum exhibition and brought home the catalogue (“the Babylon book”). Shortly after this, in 2010, I volunteered to teach the Book of Daniel to a class of thirty-seven 8th graders in Jerusalem, and where I was teaching as an undergraduate student-teacher. Using the resources I learned about through this book, I inspired these adolescents who were previously intimidated by the mostly-Aramaic book. This experience had made the book approachable to them, and the importance of archaeology for me – tangible.
At the end of the year, we celebrated with Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gates of Babylon – on a cake designed by yours truly.
End-of-year celebration, after learning the Book of Daniel. Jerusalem, 2010
The next part of this story was completely unexpected. Since those student-teacher days, I’ve been teaching professionally in the US for six years, and often guiding tours near the two real Ishtar Gate lions on display at the Met. Academically I’ve gone back to school, completing an M.Ed in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and currently studying for an MA in Ancient Jewish History at Bernard Revel Graduate School (Yeshiva University). It is in this context that I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Dr. Michael Seymour, co-author of the Babylon book.
Dr. Seymour moderated a symposium for The World Between Empires Met exhibition (Mar 18-Jun 23, 2019). This spectacular exhibition shows the complexities of life, religion, commerce and identity in the region between Roman and Parthian Empires; the two superpowers of the late Second Temple period to the 3rd century CE.
This was only possible thanks to my professor at Revel, Steven Fine, inviting students to the symposium.
During that symposium, I was reminded of how my journey began 9 years ago. But it was only later, as I was guiding a private tour in the World Between Empires, that I recognized Dr. Seymour as he spoke to a group, and introduced myself. We kept in touch, met again when I was guiding students, and finally sat down for an early Friday morning coffee at the museum.
We sat and told lots of stories about shared interests. It was a fascinating conversation, and hopefully just the first of many.
Dr. Seymour is an assistant curator in the Met since 2011, when he began work on the exhibition Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (Sep 22, 2014-Jan 4, 2015). This was the very first exhibition I saw, on my very first Met visit.
I had brought along my copies of the Babylon and World Between Empires books, which are now autographed in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
We never know who we will touch and how we will make an impact. Whether it’s something we say, an act of kindness that we do, or a book that we write.
The impact that Dr. Seymour had on my life in turn had an impact on my students’ learning, on my career path, and down the line – on countless other lives which were inspired and invigorated because of some old rocks someone dug out of the dirt in Ancient Babylon!
Returning customers, especially for the same tour, is very encouraging. Both pictures are of today’s group at the Metropolitan Museum.
The right-hand picture is of returning customers from last year. Mrs. Gitta Neufeld, head of educational development at Allegra Franco School of Educational Leadership (second from right) attended my tour in June 2017, and hired me as a teacher at Allegra Franco. I am looking forward to beginning my second year teaching there.
Take it from her:
(amidst the hustle and bustle of the Met’s closing hours – this is being cleaned up slightly, but bear with us for 22 seconds!)
“And in that day…the strayed who are in the land of Assyria…shall come and worship G-d on the holy mount, in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13)”
The mystery surrounding the vanishing of the Ten Tribes and their current whereabouts is nowhere near unraveled. Although recent studies into the topic have picked up the gauntlet, it is still shrouded in mystery.
Even the legends we have about their whereabouts are mysterious, or perhaps even mystical: Somewhere beyond the magical Sambation River , named for its impassable torrential currents which only settle on the Sabbath, effectually undermining any attempt to cross it during the week— as the Lost Tribes beyond it are all Sabbath-observant. Thus, they are in effect cut off from the rest of civilization. Google Earth, anyone?
While I cannot comment on that tradition, I would like to revisit the story of the exile itself, and raise some questions and usable aspects for a conversation about the Ten Lost Tribes.
In my first article in this series, “Wine and Prophecy: The Rebirth of Shomron”, I discussed the basic biblical narrative. From passages of Assyrian and Babylonian chronologies, as well as verses in Jeremiah and in the Talmud, it appears that the story isn’t as simple as it seems.
In this article, I will explore three areas:
- Factoids from Assyrian and Babylonian records.
- Lost or amongst us?
- What hat did they wear? Implications towards religious practice.
Assyrian and Babylonian Records
First Waves of Assyria
The appearance of Assyria on the Biblical scene is very early on, and helps us relate to the names of important cities pertinent to excavations in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology: Babylon, Akkad (Akkadian), Nineveh, Kalah (Calah, Kalhu, etc), Uruk (Erekh), etc:
Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.
He was a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d.”
The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Kalneh in the land of Shinar.
From that land Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Kalah, and Resen between Nineveh and Kalah, that is the great city. (Gen 10:8-12)
A visit to any major museum containing Assyrian or Babylonian artifacts is bound to have references to some of these cities, which are the biblical setting of many stories.
First Mention of the Kings of Israel
The Assyrian Empire came on the scene before the Kingdom of Israel became subjugated to, and ultimately destroyed by, the Assyrian Empire in stages. For example, King Menahem, who ruled in Samaria a few years before the first exile, paid tribute to Tiglath Pileser III (II Kings 15:19-20), which appears on a royal stele in the Israel Museum. But this is from when the Assyrian Empire started expanding quickly and aggressively, of what is called the Neo-Assyrian Empire period.
In Assyrian record, earlier kings of Israel are mentioned paying tribute to the kings Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, when Assyria was not in this expansion phase, but merely had dominance over some areas in Syria, which was short-lived (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 242-244).
In the Assyrian Kurkh Monolith, attributed to Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, currently in the British Museum, Ahab King of Israel appears, and the House of Omri.
In the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, also in the British Museum, King Yehu prostrates before the king (image below), escorted by tribute bearers. Both these kings lived roughly a century before the Neo-Assyrian Empire came on the scene.
Phoenicia and the Rebellion of Israel
The Neo-Assyrian involvement with Israel and Judah came when, according to II Kings 16:5, Kings Rezin of Aram (Damascus) and Pekah of Israel formed a coalition against King Ahaz of Judah. Their coalition was intended to block Ahaz from joining the Assyrian Empire and to keep out its foreign influence, a move which had devastating consequences to both Aram and Israel.
Ahaz became vassal to Assyria (ibid, 7), and thus saved his skin from the attack of the former two kings. However, what is not mentioned in the Biblical account is that there was another king involved in this coalition (Cogan, M. p. 67-72): Hiram of Tyre. 
The Phoenician King, bearing a similar name to the earlier Hiram who assisted Solomon in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 5:15), was no newcomer on the scene. The kingdoms of Israel and Phoenicia were allies since back in Ahab’s time, who married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal of Tyre (I Kings 12:31). Besides building a house of worship for the Phoenician god Baal (ibid), Ahab also built himself an ivory house (II Kings 22:39). Fragments of ivory have been excavated in Ahab’s capital in ancient Samaria, known as the “Samaria Ivories”.
Back to our story – King Pekah of Israel is killed in a coup, and Hoshea assumed the throne (II Kings 15:30). According to Assyrian records, Hoshea was confirmed by Tiglath Pileser as king and vassal (Cogan M. p.72-76).
Hoshea rules Samaria for nine years (II Kings 17:1-6), while subjugated to Shalmaneser V. He is later caught sending an envoy to Egypt – a clear act of rebellion against Assyria – and is ultimately destroyed along with the deportation of the remainder of the Ten Tribes.
The surprise is that there was another king who takes credit for the capturing of Samaria. A king who is only mentioned once in the Bible, in relation to a campaign to Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1): Sargon II.
Sargon, who assumed the throne after Shalmaneser V, claims to have captured Samaria and been involved in the deportation process (Cogan p. 90-102). Even Babylonian chronicles attribute this capturing to him (Cogan, M. p. 209-211, 214). The subject of Sargon’s involvement in the region, and the way he records his campaign, is fascinating. For this article, as a segue into the next topic, I note just one point. While the initial campaign of Assyria Samaria, and its deportation, was initiated by Shalmaneser, it was clearly taking place over a prolonged period of time, in which at least one more king, if not several, were involved.
Lost or Amongst Us?
How long did it take to deport the Ten Tribes?
Mass deportation, while having existed earlier in Assyria, is a hallmark of Neo-Assyrian conquests. Different levels existed, from the deportation of specialist craftspeople to assist in various building projects, to deportation of entire regions – depending on its level of defiance (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 230-236).
This practice had several strategic benefits to the Assyrian Empire, while providing labour and people to build and inhabit its new cities. It reduced the opposition in the peripheral territories, as rebellious populations were resettled in foreign environments where they needed imperial protection against local hostility. Moreover, they would not escape, as they were unfamiliar with the country. Nor did they have the territorial imperative of fighting for their homeland. Nor did they have an organic group of their countrymen who would band together, as they were dispersed over wide areas, to either side of the Assyrian Empire’s homeland (according to Prof. Ran Zadok of Tel Aviv U.).
Furthermore, the territories of deported people were selectively resettled with other groups when they were crucial for trade or for the production of goods. This means that deportation was done very strategically, based on the skills of the deportees, and the necessities of the empire. For example, an area best suited for agriculture would be settled by agrarian peoples, and not by nomads.
And lastly, the supervision and feeding of large numbers of people during a voyage of several months must have required enormous organization, surprisingly not recorded for us.
All of this points to an important fact: Deportation was a gradual, and expensive, bureaucratic and administrative process. The deportation of the Ten Tribes could not have been carried out all at once, and while the area was being repopulated with foreigners who will come to be known as the Samaritans (II Kings 17:24-34), it is highly likely that members of the Ten Tribes continued to inhabit their homeland for decades after the destruction.
As mentioned in my previous article, the Seder Olam attributes the deportation to Sennacherib.
The book of Ezra describes how, during the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Samaritans requested to assist in its building, noting that they have been integral to this land from the time of Esarhaddon (Ezra 4:2) – the successor of Sennacherib; while other nations’ presence is attributed to the last of the mighty Assyrian Kings – Ashurbanipal (ibid. 10)
All of this may help us understand how Jeremiah could fathomably have identified members of the Ten Tribes, and brought some of them back.
Jeremiah (3:6-26) describes a mission in which the prophet was sent to the north to bring back the lost tribes.
“Go, make this proclamation toward the North, and say: Turn back, O Rebel Israel—declares G-d. I will not look on you in anger, for I am compassionate—declares G-d; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”
Rav Yehuda Landy suggests that this was possible during the reign of Josiah King of Judah , since the Assyrian Empire was on a decline (p. 111). But this all points to a curious discussion about the preservation of some of the tribes in the nick of time. 
Are the Ten Tribes completely lost?
It is possible that those who remained suspended, awaiting deportation, had some interaction with, or influence from, Judea.
King Hezekiah (II Chro. ch. 30) sent invitations to Ephraim and Manasseh to join him in the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem, and some accepted the invitation, even staying in Judea.
The Talmud in Pesachim 4a  discusses how a person’s manner of speech may reveal an innate tribal association. (Writing this right after the public Torah reading of Vayechi, which describes the blessings of the various tribes, this seems quite timely.)
A certain man would regularly say whenever involved in conflict: Adjudicate my case [dunu dini]. The Sages said: Learn from it that he descends from the tribe of Dan, as it is written: “Dan will judge [ya-din] his people like one of the tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:16).
The tribe of Dan was one of those exiled, as was Zebulun:
A certain man would regularly walk and say: The bushes on the seashore are cypresses, i.e., items located by the sea are more beautiful than those found in other places. They examined his lineage and found that he descends from the tribe of Zebulun, as it is written: “Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore” (Genesis 49:13).
All of these reveal some cracks in the notion that they are completely gone. But the mystery of the vanishing of the majority of their contingencies, still remains one of the big mysteries of Jewish History.
What Hat did They Wear? Implications towards Religious Practice
If you were to go on an expedition to find the Lost Tribes, what would you look for? What traditions, rituals or stories would you expect to find, that might shed light on Jewish origins?
Wait, Jewish origins?
After 2,000 years, we have grown used to identifying ourselves as Jews—of Judah.
What would the other Ten Tribes think of that?
Remember that the Ten Tribes succeeded from the Kingdom of Judah, actively denouncing any association with the Kingdom of Judah (I Kings 12:16). In fact, a member of the Kingdom of Israel would have probably taken offense at being called “Jew”.
“Are you talking to me?”
“I’m not from Judah—how dare you? I’m from Zebulun / Dan / Naphtali / Gad / Asher…”
Two kingdoms, geographically separated, ideologically unassociated, and often at war—for over two centuries. We are talking about different entities. And speaking of religion, the Kingdom of Israel on the surface seems to be a largely secular-oriented kingdom [Disclaimer: The Talmud and Midrashic literature record many significant interactions, discussions and events from the Kings of Israel, and the populace of Northern Israel demonstrating how they were very much in dialogue with tradition and religious practice. I would not dare subtract from that, and hope to do it better justice in the future]. The foreign influences, political marriages—the subject of much prophetic rebuke—and far-reaching trade and conquests, distinguished Israel from the more traditional Judah, with the Temple of Solomon in its capital, Jerusalem.
As for the Temple: For a long period of time, the kingdom of Israel forbade the pilgrimage to the Temple, seeing it as a threat to its own stability. 
And what is Judaism, if not a ritualistic “survival kit” for Jews in the diaspora, maintaining its adherers’ association with their land and tradition while in exile, with no land nor sovereignty. Most of what we would call religion, be it standardized prayers, blessings or rituals, and even the codification of the Oral Law into the Mishna and Talmud, were created after the Assyrian Exile, primarily by people of Judah.
And to really drive the point home. The method of Assyrian deportation was carefully constructed to insure that repopulated groups do not congregate in any meaningful way that would enable rebellion. The exile itself was so aggressive and abrupt, what means of scholarship would have survived in any form, and with the time required, to enable it to contemplate a religion?
All of that considered, what percentage of the society was learned enough to maintain a strong identity?
The Babylonian Exile was largely tranquil, once Jews settled in Babylon. Jews had a lot of autonomy, and scholarship was maintained, with the wherewithal to contemplate this newfound existence without a land or a Temple.
So what would you find, if you were to identify a descendant of any of the Tribes?
It is not clear, but the likelihood of finding anything that would be recognizable to us is highly unlikely . That is probably why the Return of the Ten Lost Tribes is the stuff of Messianic proportions.
The fate of the Ten Tribes is tragic, indeed. And in direct proportion, so is the rebuilding of their land.
This is why the rebuilding of Shomron today is so bewildering, marvelous and miraculous.
In the spirit of this past week’s public Torah reading, which describes the death of Rachel on the road, foreshadowing the exile of her children. But there is still home, and her children will indeed come back home again.
Thus said G-d: A cry is heard in Ramah— Wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.
Thus said G-d: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor —declares G-d: They shall return from the enemy’s land.
And there is hope for your future —declares G-d: Your children shall return to their home. (Jeremiah 31:14-16)
 Cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah, 469.
 See also Cogan’s book Bound for Exile, Jerusalem: Carta 2013, which is a continuation of The Raging Torrent, and which focuses on the material about the exiles in their respective locations.
Note on the second edition of The Raging Torrent, for the connoisseur: There are significant differences between Cogan’s first and second editions, in terms of the sources used for Assyrian royal documents. I have asked the author about it. Prof. Cogan told me that Luckenbill’s two volume book included translations of the documents that were known in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was published in 1926-1927. However, more studies have emerged over the following decades and many more documents published, requiring revised translations. That is why he instead used Leichty for Esarhaddon, and more.
 Cf. Talmud Megillah 14b.
 The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:3) discusses the place of the Ten Tribes in the world to come, and the possibility of their return. Rashi points out that Jeremiah only brought back some of them.
 Translation taken from sefaria.org.
 Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the Olympics, contemporary with this period of time. The Olympics were panhellenistic rituals in honor of Zeus and Hera. Greek cities which were at war with each other, would lay down their arms, and compete for glory, through sports!
 I owe thanks to Rabbi Joey Dweck for this perspective.
Cogan, M. The Raging Torrent, Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. Second Updated & Expanded Edition. Carta, Jerusalem (2008).
לנדי, י. ואלה דברי ימי ירמיהו. תקופת ירמיהו הנביא: סקירה היסטורית, גיאוגרפית וארכיאולוגית
קולמוס הפצת ספרים, ירושלים (2016).י
Van de Mieroop, M. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 B.C. Second edition. Blackwell Publishing (2007).
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Summer Public Tanach Tours are over
Public tours will resume shortly, and a schedule will be posted soon.
It has been a long summer, with nearly 20 Tanach and Jewish History tours running at the Met. The summer Public Tanach Tour series is now complete, and we are gearing up for the year.
Follow Torah Intermedia to learn about upcoming tours, lectures and programs, as well as articles and reviews.
Thank you so much for an amazing tour of the MET with my children! You were so engaging with my children and managed to still fill the rest of the tour for us adults with lots of meaningful content! I will recommend you to anyone looking for a great tour guide of the MET and specifically a Jewish tour. You were great!!!
“Our extended family, ranging in age from 7 to 65, enjoyed a wonderful tour of the Met with Nachliel. He planned scavenger hunts, decryption games, and more to keep the younger crowd interested while engaging the adults with his vast knowledge. The tour brought the museum to life. I highly recommend it!”
Thank you Nachliel providing us all a great understanding of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and their connection to Tanach!
We so enjoyed having Nachliel as our guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our group had been studying rabbinic materials about idolatry and Nachliel helped bring those issues to life through the Met’s collections. His comfort both with the ancient and classic sculpture we looked at as well as his fluency in Bible and rabbinic literature were terrific!
“Fascinating…Truly eye opening into the world we only hear about. The connection of Ancient Artifacts and the Tanach is explained and put into perspective, especially in this troubled time. This tour only reinforces our Historical connection to the Holy Land of Israel”
Jeff and Chery Klein from Monsey, NY. Participated July 23
This your is a great way to be introduced to the history of the Ancient Near East! It’s very comprehensive and spans a pretty good range of time. I also loved that it was grounded (corroborated) by passages of Tanakh. I loved seeing the intersection between the written record of history and Torah! Personally, I would have loved to spend more time on the text itself, but it’s hard to do it all in under two hours. I recommend this for anyone who’s interested in the A.N.E.!
Malka Rappaport from Crown Heights, NY. Participated Wednesday, July 12
Powerful presentation of the era of kings – Regional Kingdoms and Empires…the separation of Israel and Judea and eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian diaspora. Nachliel is a passionate guide and very informed and well traveled in order to present his material.
Notes were very well researched and presented. This tour was made even more powerful during the period of the three weeks between Tammuz and Tisha b’Av.
– Aliyana Wasserman, Rosanne Koenigson from Edison, NJ. Participated Sunday, July 16
“I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and have been through the Metropolitan Museum of Art…many times. Nachliel made me feel like I was touring these wings for the first time.”
“Nachliel is exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about his twin loves – Torah and Archeology. He showed us the importance of contextualizing II Melakhim and Yirmiyahu in its Ancient Near Eastern setting…We moved at a rapid-fire pace…”
Gear up for the summer with a
Tanach Tour at The Met!
Sunday afternoon, June 18
Join us at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as we go through the final chapters of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, during the First Temple period, until its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
See fascinating artifacts that bring these civilizations to life, learn about the dilemmas we faced during these times, and understand their historic context.
- Tour is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes
- Materials are provided, but bringing your Tanach is recommended
- Tour is limited to 25-30 participants at a time
For your convenience, you may check the FAQ section, which includes information about arrival, parking, kosher food, as well as a link to the source sheet which I hand out at the Met.
Book your reservation now!
Call or text: 929-233-0950 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nachliel put together an interactive and informative program in the MET. It was a great experience to see firsthand some of the artifacts that our biblical ancestors saw, as presented to us in the Tanach. It was especially moving to stand under the Ishtar Gate, the same gate our ancestors entered through as they were exiled from Jerusalem to Babel during first temple period, circa 586 BC.
Rav Nachliel led my ninth grade Jewish History students on an eye – opening tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Assyrian, Egyptian, and Babylonian wings. It was important to me that my students gain the requisite background knowledge to more deeply understand the Second Temple Period…Rav Nachliel was professional and thorough and provided an enriching and worthwhile learning experience. I highly recommend a museum tour guided by Rav Nachliel.
Magen David Yeshivah Celia Esses High School, Brooklyn, NY
Nachliel’s knowledge, energy and understanding of the art was thorough, colorful and rich. Through an intimate knowledge of history as well, he was able to vibrantly relate manifestations of ancient history to modern cultural events. A history lesson through art would have been satisfying enough, but Nachliel’s added touch of historical events as they relate to modern culture, and his willingness to respond to many questions, often tangential, brought the tour to unexpected heights
Ezra and Deborah Safdieh
I went with Nachliel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on several occasions. Nachliel is enthusiastic about Torah and archaeology, explaining Tanach and teachings of Chazal in a very engaging manner, passionately bringing Torah to life through the history and the archaeology that we explored together.Indeed, I too look forward to join him on future programs…
I really liked going to the MET with Nachliel. We saw lots of amazing things together. We should go again soon!
The combat of wild animals was a dominant and persistent theme throughout ancient Near Eastern art. The lion was a traditional symbol for the deities of war and destruction-and also, ironically, of love. The bull, noted for its sexuality and brute strength, was associated with the gods of storms, chaos, and fertility. In art, combat between such powerful animals may have symbolically represented the increasing and unresolved conflicts in nature. This fits into an overall background theme stretching to the earliest Mesopotamian cultures of order over chaos, the urbanization and civilization subduing the wild, a constant fight which the kings and gods had to lead. This particular composition was repeated over and over again at either end of the grand staircases at Persepolis. [Based on a plaque on display at Boston MFA]
The Lion King
Throughout the ancient world, lions were symbols of strength, power, ferocity, and most importantly – of kingship.
Biblical and Midrashic literature are fraught with mentions of lions in many different contexts. The lion has seven names in Hebrew, and its various aspects are used in prophecy and metaphor. Oftentimes, it is used to describe an enemy, the most prominent of which is Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.
This short article is not attempting to cover the length of the fascinating mentions and usages of the lion in Jewish literature. That has already been expertly done in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (Slifkin, 2015), and I highly recommend reading it. Rabbi Dr. Slifkin covers many fascinating insights about lions, both zoological and conceptual, which are beyond the scope of this article.
What I offer here are a few valuable tidbits for educational purposes, highlighting connections and providing food for thought. I link artifacts relating to the main antagonists of the late First Temple through Persian periods, with Biblical references tying them to lions. Finally, I will end with a treat from my hometown of Jerusalem.
Assyria – The Lion’s Den
What has become of that lion’s’ den, that pasture of great beasts, where lion and lion’s breed walked, and lion’s cub—with none to disturb them? [Where is] the lion that tore victims for his cubs and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his lairs with prey and his dens with mangled flesh? I am going to deal with you —declares the Lord of Hosts: I will burn down her chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your great beasts; I will stamp out your killings from the earth, and the sound of your messengers shall be heard no more. (Nahum 2:12-14).
On the surface, this is an allegory, a metaphor to the great and mighty Assyrians who feared no one. The impact of Nahum’s prophecy would have been most impactful if it was said while Assyria was still at its height. According to the Seder Olam Rabba (20:2), Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Menashe, who ruled for 52 years (II Kings 21:1).
At this time, Assyria was indeed at the peak of its strength, both under Esarhaddon (ca. 681-669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-631 BEC). Both of them were involved with Judah on some level, but mostly with Egypt.
A further description in Nahum 3:8-10 refers to the destruction of Thebes and exile of Egyptians (possibly the Nubians), which was done once by Esarhaddon and twice by Ashurbanipal. This would narrow down the time in which he prophesied. For more on Assyrian involvement in Egypt, see my article Taharqa, Sennacherib and Hezekiah – the Untold Story.
After the events of 701 BCE, Sennacherib returned to Assyria. Instead of making Judah a vassal, as he had intended (II Chr. 32:1-2), he merely taxed it heavily. You can see more about how that was documented both in Assyrian records and in the Bible in this video by Megalim Institute.
While Assyria did not annex Judah, its culture and idolatry were heavily influential upon it. This can very well explain the constant shift in the kingdom with relation to issues of idolatry and the purging thereof. This would also be the milieu in which Nahum, as well as other prophets, dealt with it.
In any event, it is clear that Nahum was speaking either in the time of Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal. As for our perspective, it is archaeology which makes a connection between the prophecy of Nahum to the Assyrians per se; certainly, at the time his words were delivered the metaphor was very clearly associated with Assyrian Kings and their practices. Lion hunts were popular pastimes of Assyrian kings, and their portrayal through art was a way of emphasizing the king’s bravery and skill:
In ancient Assyria lion-hunting was considered the sport of kings; symbolic of the ruling monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people, and to control and subdue the chaos of nature. The sculpted reliefs in Room 10a illustrate the sporting exploits of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) and were created for his palace at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq).
The hunt scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian Art. They depict the release of the lions, the ensuing chase and subsequent killing [based on description from www.britishmuseum.org]
Ashurbanipal hunting lions, relief from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq, ca. 645-635 BCE. Gypsum, 5′ 4″ high. Image credit: British Museum, London.
Be sure to check out many more such reliefs when you visit the British Museum, in room 10a. For your convenience, their reference is: ME 124781, ME 124850-ME 124870, ME 124874- ME 124878, ME 124883-ME 124887, ME 124921
Exile: The Lions of Babylon
Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster. The lion has come up from his thicket: The destroyer of nations has set out, has departed from his place, to make your land a desolation; Your cities shall be ruined, Without inhabitants. (Jeremiah 4:6-7)
Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – ca. 562 BCE). Arguably the most formidable and notorious of all Biblical “bad guys”. Midrash rates him as even more terrible than Sennacherib, and he is mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. While there are several portrayals of him during his rule, he is most famous for destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE – putting a stop to the rebellious Kingdom of Judah with one final blow. Jews around the world and throughout history have grown up hearing his name, as the destruction is lamented annually on the fast day of the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av).
The impact Nebuchadnezzar has left on the Jewish people is undeniable. Babylon was the first official exile of Israel as a sovereign nation into the diaspora. Without a homeland and a Temple to center their lives around, Jews lamented the loss of Jerusalem by the Rivers of Babylon. Diaspora became a reality, and religion evolved to supplement the lack of a land and a Temple, and thus “Judaism” was born.
Getting back to the lions, it wasn’t over for the Jews in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar held Jews in his court, gave them Babylonian names (Daniel 1:7), and even had a rather close relationship with Daniel. And to all of them – including those Jews who were marched into Babylon – the connection to lions would have been clear as day. This is because of Nebuchadnezzar’s building operations.
Imagine, seeing what the exiled Jews of Judah saw with their very own eyes. It can be very moving. When you see those lions, you are looking at the same bricks and images seen by Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. What impact did these lions have on them? What imagery did these lions bring up in their appreciation or fear of the works of Nebuchadnezzar?
Nebuchadnezzar was a great builder, and much of the silver in his treasury was spent on rebuilding Babylon to luxurious and lofty new heights. Records of his industriousness include one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. So far, the garden has not been found, but nevertheless it is a subject for art and legend. However, before it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, there was one more of his buildings on that list, and that is the Ishtar Gate. A gate of magnificent blue and other vibrant colors, it was decorated with glazed bricks with the images of 120 lions, dragons, and bulls, representing the gods Ishtar, Marduk and Adad, respectively.
Originally from the modern city of Al Hillah, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, this gate has been excavated between 1902-1914, and painstakingly reconstructed to its current state in the Pergamon Museum, where it is on display today. Several of the figures are in museums around the world. So far, I have seen two lions and a dragon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one lion in the Boston MFA. There are a few more in museums around the world, including the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada (the video on the page is recommended) and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The former was actually excavated in Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room, which means that the Biblical characters mentioned above probably spent a lot of their time very close to it.
Another lion-related antagonist who is part of the Babylonian Exile, is Nebuzaradan. So terrible was he, that in comparison to Nebuchadnezzar, he is called a lion, while Nebuchadnezzar becomes a bear.
“He is a bear lying in wait for me” (Lamentations 3:10) – this refers to Nebuchadnezzar; “a lion in hiding” – this refers to Nebuzaradan (Eikha Rabba 3:4).
Lions and bears, oh my!
When contrasted with Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar is compared to a bear rather than a lion. The reason for this is that the lion is a more ferocious predator than the bear (Slifkin, pp. 86).
Nebuzaradan was the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard, who personally oversaw the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the Jews. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) goes into gruesome detail of how he butchered countless priests and school children, an act which was seen as revenge for the murder of the prophet Zechariah son of Jehoiada (II Chronicles 24:20-22). This event is also canonized in the lamentations of the destruction, recited on the Ninth of Av, annually.
Nebuzaradan, according to Midrash, is the Arioch who we meet in the book of Daniel (2:15, 24). The name Arioch is similar to the word for lion, Ari, and why is he called a lion?
Nebuzaradan is Arioch. And why is he called Arioch? Because he would roar over the captives like a lion (ari), until they reached the Euphrates. (Eikha Rabba 5:5)
Exile by the Mouth of the Lion
The imagery of lions is strongly associated, not only with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon itself (e.g. Daniel 7:4), but with the state-of-being of exile, per se. Though the Kingdom of Israel has already been in exile for over a century, to the Kingdom of Judah – whom the Jews today are most likely descended from – Babylon was the first real encounter of exile. It was the first time that the “Jewish People” had to contemplate what it means to be “Jewish” without being a sovereign nation on their own land. Essentially, “Judaism” as a practice, religion, or identity, was born from the Babylonian Exile.
Israel ben Moses Najara (Yisrael Najara), a 16th century liturgical poet, preacher, Biblical commentator, kabbalist, and rabbi of Gaza, composed one of my favorite Sabbath songs – “Yah Ribon”. Written entirely in Aramaic, it incorporates and paraphrases several key verses and ideas from the book of Daniel. This includes Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and how Daniel addresses the King when presenting a solution to his dreams. The refrain “Yah Ribon Olam ve’Almaya, ant hu Malka, Melekh Malkhaya” [roughly translated “Oh God, Master of the World and the Universe, Thou Art the King, King of Kings”], is very similar to the way in which Mesopotamian kings are referred to, both in scripture and archaeologically.
- For example: “You, O king—king of kings, to whom the God of Heaven has given kingdom, power, might, and glory” (Daniel 2:37).
- “Artaxerxes king of kings…” (Ezra 7:12).
- In archaeology, a famous example is Cyrus the Great in his (mistakenly called) “Human Rights” Cylinder: “I am Cyrus, King of the Universe, the Great King, the Powerful King, King of Babylon…the Great King” – from thebritishmuseum.org
All of this makes it very appropriate for the theme of the song which is the experience of Jews in Exile. A stanza describing the prayer for redemption of Jews from Exile, roughly translated, goes:
Oh God, with Whom resides Glory and Might /
Redeem Thy Flock from the Mouth of the Lion /
And Deliver Your people from amidst the Exile
Redemption “from the Mouth of the Lion” in Midrashic literature is seen as a measure-for-measure in terms of…lions. Oh, my!
There are many Midrashic analogies attributing the character of lions to Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple in Jerusalem, Judah, the fall of Babylon, God Himself, and the ultimate redemption from exile. Perhaps my favorite Midrash is the following:
This one is compared to a lion: “Judah is a young lion” (Gen. 49:9), and this one is compared to a lion: “The first was like a lion” (Dan. 7:4).
The kingdom of Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel, who comes from the tribe of Judah. (Bereishit Rabba 99:2)
“Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel” – this is referring to his interpretation of the Writing on the Wall (Dan. 5). While Daniel is from the tribe of Judah – who is compared to a Lion – he had a vision of Babylon as the head of a lion (Dan. 7:4). It is interesting that Daniel himself is iconic for his relationship to lions.
The fifth chapter of Daniel tells the tale of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den by king Darius the Mede. Parenthetically, this is a classic case of discrepancy between the Biblical record and the historic record. In the Bible, there is no mention of Nabonidus, who was the successor of Belshazzar. Instead, we hear about a Darius the Mede, who took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two, and ruled for a single year (Dan. 5:30). Whether Darius the Mede is in fact Cyrus, or possibly the Median king Astyages, is unclear. Darius the Mede does not appear in any historical source other than the Bible and the Talmud. It may be that no artifacts or buildings carrying his name were left behind because of his short reign. (Landy, pp. 11)
Persia: Surrounded by Lions
In Midrashic analogy, the Persians are represented by the Bear (Slifkin, p. 112-4), based on Daniel’s visions (7:5). However, the imagery of lions was quite prevalent in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Several items with lions on them have been found with inscriptions connecting them to Darius, Cyrus, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.
Perhaps the most complex and difficult issue in Biblical chronology is the organization and identification of the Persian kings in relation to archaeological discovery. Included in this, is the identification of King Achashverosh from the book of Esther. Several prominent historians have dealt with this question and it warrants an entire article of its own, thereby, way beyond the scope of this article.
The images shown in this section are for the purpose of exploration and to piqued the readers interest, and in this section I will be treating King Achashverosh, briefly, from a Talmudic and philosophical point of view. So why King Achashverosh? Because, according to the Talmud (Megillah 15b, below), he is compared to a lion by none other than Queen Esther:
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?
Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.
Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog. Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me. (Psalms 22:2, 17, 21-22)
This was the essential prayer of Queen Esther, before entering to plead to the king on behalf of her people:
On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace. (Esther 5:1)
Rabbi Levi said: Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence left her.
She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”…perhaps You have left me because in my prayers I called him a dog, as it is stated: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my only one from the hand of the dog”.
She at once retracted and called him in her prayers a lion, as it is stated in the following verse: “Save me from the lion’s mouth”.
Esther, it seemed, didn’t have much choice in the matter. Her life was intertwined in a play of power and politics which had potential to change the course of her people’s history, as well impact her place in her own family line (Esther 4:14). Esther was a descendant of King Saul (Megillah 13b), who lost his throne through refraining from the proper action to annihilate the Amalekite King Agag (I Samuel 15:9), ancestor of Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1).
The turning point in the story of Esther comes from an understanding she attained with regard to how she treated the antagonists in her life. Calling the oppressor a dog is belittling and demeaning. Calling the oppressor a lion, acknowledges an appreciation of greatness, but also of the dynamic of her opportunity to grow through this. The latter cannot be achieved while belittling the challenge at hand, as difficult as it may be, and that is why she lost her “Divine Spirit” when she refused to acknowledge her oppressor. When she rose to the occasion, she indeed brought about a salvation and a change which inscribed her name on this historic event celebrated annually with the festival of Purim.
Lions of Judah and Judaism
Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? (Gen. 49:9)
Walking out of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate towards City Hall, and throughout the city, you will see many representations of lions. Rooted in city tradition, the capital of Judah’s biblical inheritance, the modern emblem is indeed a lion. The new emblem as seen on the Jerusalem Municipality website celebrates fifty years to the city’s liberation in 1967. The older, classic emblem is still visible in many places throughout the city:
Several stone lions are parts of building facades, on rooftops, and engraved in Jerusalem stone. How many lions have you spotted in Jerusalem?
Well, just driving through the city between February through September 2003, you would have seen at least a dozen lions of different color and design, painted by young, experienced artists, and placed in public locations throughout the city. It was quite a sight to see. Some were just plain beautiful, while some had religious and even political themes. I recall one x-ray lion which had a heap of human bones in its belly, and an arrow pointing to them with the word “Daniel”. Below are pictures from the presentation in City Hall, before their relocation throughout the city:
Later on, they were auctioned off to private owners, yet several still remain in prominent public places, such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Misgav Ladach Street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City at the top of the stairs going down to the Western Wall, and at the entrance to City Hall:
Sometime during 2009, I had the privilege of being hired to do maintenance work for two lions placed in the Jewish Quarter. For around five years I was their caretaker – I say caretaker and not painter, because there was much more to taking care of them than painting them. I covered some of that experience in my art blog. I must have heard hundreds of tour guides explaining – or asking me to explain – the significance of the lions to Jerusalem.
Besides being a hallmark of the city of Jerusalem, the lion is also popular in synagogue and Torah scroll ornamentation. This is because the lion stands for more than the holy city, but also for various components in the city itself, from times of old.
“Ah, Ariel, Ariel, City where David camped! Add year to year, Let festivals come in their cycles! (Isaiah 29:1)
As the prophet, Josiah laments and consoles Jerusalem for the upcoming oppression (possibly) by Sennacherib. He calls the city “Ariel”, which in Hebrew means “Lion of God”. The imagery of the lion is clearly associated with Jerusalem, which is in the portion of Judah. It is not only in metaphor however, but in architecture as well. This verse comes to hint at the structure of the main sanctuary in the Temple:
The Sanctuary was narrow in the back [the eastern side] and wide at the front [the eastern side], like a lion, as it says, “Ah, Ariel [lit. Lion of God] Ariel, the city where David camped.” (Isaiah 29:1) Just as a lion is narrow in his back and wide in front, so too was the Sanctuary narrow in the back and wide in the front. (Mishnah Middot 4:7)
There is a curious connection between the concept of service and lions. Even today, when there is no temple service, the Jewish tradition is that the three daily prayers correspond to the main offering times in the Temple services. The classical Code of Jewish Law known as Shulchan Aruch, by Rabbi Joseph Caro, opens with the following words:
One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator, so that it is he who awakens the dawn.
This is based on the Mishnaic imagery of animal characteristics which should be emulated in our daily practice.
Yehudah ben Teimah says: Be brazen like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the Will of your Father Who is in Heaven. (Mishnah Avot 5:20)
But there is something deeper than simply emulating the might and strength of a lion, which can basically mean “early to bed, early to rise”. In fact, the essence of the inclination to invest in a relationship with the Creator is represented by the lion.
Quite surprisingly, this was learned through an attempt to eliminate the inclination for idolatry, during the Second Temple. According to the Talmud (Yoma 69b), the sages during the Second Temple realized that after all the trouble that idolatry caused during the First Temple, it was simply not worth the risk. Clearly metaphorical, the imagery used to describe the Inclination for Idolatry – and where it resided – were shocking:
In response to the indication of divine acceptance, they observed a fast for three days and three nights, and He delivered the Evil Inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies.
Consider the implications: Idolatry played a central role in the moral disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel, and the ultimate destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. And its essence resided in the Holy of Holies – the Sanctum Sanctorum. What irony!
The sages were aware of this interdependence from the very start, and knew that eliminating that inclination came at a terrible price: The Service of the Creator around the Temple and the Altar, were predicated on a natural, evolutionary drive. It is no coincidence that some form of worship has been found in just about every culture in the world throughout history. This inclination was now, somehow, maimed. And that means that service became no longer intuitive and visceral, but rather intellectual. It is institutionalized.
In contrast, the drive and desire for service used to be so powerful, they had to be restrained.
Prayer is now an intellectual practice. And intellect removes us from experience, and presents a great challenge in an era where attention spans are significantly changing, due to incessant sensory stimulation. I am sure there is hardly a Jewish educator today who does not feel the challenges of engaging children in prayer. How does one encourage children who are so young and full of energy and compulsion to move, to engage in the intellectual, institutionalized side of Judaism?
I’ll finish with a treat.
Following the theme of decorating Jerusalem with lions, here is another example I was somewhat involved in.
For years, my mother has been an activist for the quality of life for residents of the Old City. There is an artist named Solomon Souza, who recently carried out a beautiful series of graffiti on shop doors throughout the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. This was featured in several news articles, including a YouTube video which I may have shared on social media. My mother asked me for the link to the video, so she could find the artist and contact him about doing some more art in the old city. Below is a taste of the result:
 The Assyrian Exile of the Ten Tribes occurred in three installments around the year 722 BCE. There are qualitative differences between the exiles and how they are perceived today. However, that is beyond the scope of this article.
 For example, see Shemot Rabbah 23:6, Shemot Rabbah 29, Pesikta Rabbati 33, Midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana 13:15, Yalkut Midrashei Teiman. I credit Rabbi Slifkin for making it so easy to find all of them in his wonderful book:
 Slifkin, page 66-72.
 In Hebrew, the word for eating and consumption by fire are interchangeable. E.g. Leviticus 9:24, 10:2.
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 26b.
 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1.
 II Kings 17:7-23.
 Parenthetically, it is curious that the people whom the Assyrians brought in order to repopulate Samaria, who did not know how to properly follow “the law of the God of the Land”, were attacked by lions (II Kings 17:24-27). These people converted (it surely was not called Judaism at the time), accepting the Law of the Land, and are sometimes referred to as “Converted by (fear of) Lions”, roughly translated (גרי אריות).
Slifkin, N. The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. The Biblical Museum of Natural History / Maggid Books / OU Press (2015).
Landy, Y. Purim and the Persian Empire. Feldheim Publishers (2010).