In May of 1893, while clearing collapsed debris from a room overlooking the ancient ruins of Nippur, a group of local workmen made a startling discovery. Buried beneath the rubble they found a large number of clay tablets. Their exciting discovery caused a great tumult among the expedition from the University of Pennsylvania.
Located in modern Iraq, Nippur was one of the earliest and most influential religious and cultural centers in ancient Mesopotamia, and continued to be an important city down to Parthian times. Some authorities identify Nippur with biblical Calneh (mentioned in Genesis 10:10, Amos 6:2, and possibly Isaiah 10:9).
The excavators quickly worked to clear the debris, carefully searching the entire room. Within a few hours, a total of seven hundred and thirty tablets had been uncovered beneath the layers of rubble. All the tablets were carefully gathered and stored in the expedition’s fortified camp, known as the “castle.” After further examination of both the room in which the texts were found and the contents of the archive, it became apparent that the location had once been used as a business archive by the wealthy and influential Murashu family of Nippur who lived in the 5th century bce, during the reigns of the Persian kings Artaxerxes I and Darius II (c. 464–404 bce, coinciding with the Biblical accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah). According to William N. Goetzmann, the financial and political role of the Murashu clan in late Mesopotamian society “reads like a mystery story full of intrigue, scandal, and a web of secret financial deals.”
The Murashu Family
The Murashu clan were influential landowners and agricultural managers involved in lending and banking in and around the ancient city of Nippur, which was centrally located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
The Murashu firm included Murashu, son of Hatin, three sons, three grandsons, and their respective agents. The name muraššû means “wildcat” in Akkadian. The large private residence of the powerful family sat atop a hill overlooking the Innana temple precinct, across the central canal from the religious district. During the three-generation height of the Murashu firm, Nippur was a prosperous and influential economic center.
The archive primarily consists of business transactions, including lease agreements for land, cattle, and equipment, and the sale of sowing materials.
Between 1889 and 1900 a team was assembled to excavate in Nippur under the direction of H.V. Hilprecht and J. Peters. The expeditions collected thousands of texts, which are still housed at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and continue to be studied by Assyriologists. The discovery of the Murashu archive was part of the third season of excavations in 1893.
The archive consists of some 880 clay tablets and unassociated fragments. Additionally, “twenty small, sealed, anepigraphic clay tags, presumably originally attached to perishable inked parchment documents, were found together with the tablets.”
The texts themselves date from 455 to 403 bce and deal with diverse undertakings such as payment of taxes, land management, and the granting of loans to be repaid at a high rate of interest. According to Ronald Wallenfels:
Land and water rights were leased by the firm from local owners of “bow lands,” fiefs held on condition of military service and payment of taxes. Most of these properties were then sublet, along with livestock, seed, and other necessary equipment, to tenants of the firm. The firm also issued mortgages to landowners who received loans against pledges of their real property.
Although this corpus of cuneiform tablets is not widely known, it provides an important trove of information relevant to a wide range of disciplines, including the history of ancient finance and commerce, biblical studies, linguistics, paleography, onomastics, archaeology, and beyond. The documents were written by a number of different hands, and in a variety of places around Nippur and its neighboring vicinities. The tablets are made of especially pure and soft clay, and molded and baked with greater care than was usual.
Language and Paleography
The bulk of the inscriptions are in the Akkadian language, but written using cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks created by a stylus or blunt reed. The tablets also include occasional cylinder seal impressions—similar to other ancient Near-Eastern archives.
According to Wallenfels, however, “at least fifty of the tablets also bear a second inscription or endorsement in Aramaic, either inked or lightly incised on the tablet surface, summarizing the content of each tablet.” Aramaic is a Semitic and alphabetic language that would eventually replace Akkadian as the lingua franca of the ancient world. The Murashu archive contains some of the earliest Aramaic inscriptions, attesting to Aramaic’s already widespread use in the 5th century bce, and its infiltration into more official arenas of society such as commerce, trade, and finance.
The paleography of these texts is also notable. The cuneiform is identical to other known neo-Babylonian tablets, yet also reveals a constant development in the script over time—becoming more simplified and abbreviated. According to Hilprecht, “Traces of this development or degeneration are clearly visible in the texts.” Along with the simplification of the cuneiform we simultaneously witness the development of Aramaic. The earlier texts reveal variations in Aramaic scripts, which became more unified over time.
The use of both languages within a single archive, however, is not surprising, as southern Mesopotamia had always been a land of many tongues. Linguistically we see this exemplified in the large number of foreign names and titles introduced into Babylonian sources. These foreign words help further our understanding of ancient languages. The bulk of borrowed words within the Murashu archive are Semitic in origin. But according to Michael David Coogan, “The majority of non-Semitic names are Persian or Egyptian; [and] these are easily identified by their non-Semitic patterning.” The infiltration of additional Semitic words corresponds with the growing presence of West-Semitic peoples introduced to the Nippur Region, who previously had not been known.
Jews and the Murashu Archive
It is well attested that a large number of Jewish exiles carried away by Nebuchadnezzar were settled in the region of Nippur. James D. Purvis notes, “copies of contracts made by Jews and other documents concerning Jews testify to the existence of Jewish communities in 28 settlements in the Nippur area.”
The biblical prophet Ezekiel mentions in multiple places “the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal.” This fact is introduced right away in the opening verse of the book: “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God” (1:1 NJPS). Evidence for Jewish settlement in the Chebar region (in Akkadian, naru kabari), is also known from a number of other cuneiform inscriptions discovered at Nippur.
An unusually large number of Jewish names known from the Hebrew Bible (especially from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah) eventually found their way into cuneiform texts and inscriptions, including the Murashu archive. Yah (or yaw), one of the Israelite references for God, is often found within Israelite personal names. According to Coogan, “Names [containing] yaw do not occur in Neo-Babylonian sources before the Exile, and their increasing frequency in the late sixth and fifth centuries can reasonably be associated with the gradual emancipation and increased prosperity of Judean exiles in Mesopotamia.”
Furthermore, as William M. Schniedewind adds:
These texts, written in Aramaic and Akkadian, mention about eighty distinctively Jewish personal names (Shabbatai, Minyamin, Haggai). These people are presumed to be descendants of the Judean exiles who were still living in Babylonia in the late fifth century B.C.E. (i.e., in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah).
Some names, like Ḫanana (חנן, Chanan), Minaḫḫimmu (מנחם, Menachem), Miniamini (מנימין, Minyamin), or names compounded with īlī (אֵל, El) are attested elsewhere in Jewish contexts, but do not guarantee their bearers at Nippur were Jewish. They may have been Arameans or members of another West Semitic group living in Babylonia. However, undisputed evidence for the presence of Jews is furnished by such names as Aḫiyama (אחיה, Ahiyah, Aiyyah), Yaḫulakim (יהולכם, Yeholakhem), Yaḫulunu (יהולינו, Yeholanu), and Yaḫunatanu (יהונתן, Jonathan, Yehonatan), which are compounded with the Tetragrammaton or with some form of this name. We can also include names such as Shabbetai son of Haggai.
Purvis comments, “With the exception of some members of the royal Judahite family and aristocracy, the people . . . were settled on deserted agricultural land. . . . Their status probably did not permit them to be landowners; more likely, they were land-tenants on royal estates.” He goes on to write, there is “evidence that the Babylonians settled Jewish deportees at or near the sites of ruined, abandoned cities, perhaps as part of a program to develop unused land resources.” Some exiles may have also been conscripted into military or imperial services.
According to Schniedewind:
The neo-Babylonian empire required the deportation of massive populations for its building programs. Robert McCormick Adam’s archaeological survey of central Mesopotamia discovered pronounced increases in the population of the region. He concluded that these increases were due to massive involuntary transfers of people from the Babylonian conquests. These transfers apparently included three separate deportations of Judeans to Babylon (Jer 52:28–30). The Babylonians seem to have tried to rehabilitate this desolate region by populating it with captives. We now have Babylonian texts that confirm that at least some of the Judean exiles were deported to the central Euphrates region. Babylonian sources suggest that these exiles lived together in a “Judean village.” They were not citizens of the empire; they were isolated in a type of labor camp.
Purvis argues (along with other scholars), that “the people did not live in ‘captivity’; they were settled on deserted agricultural land where they were free, as Jeremiah says, to ‘build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.’ ”
Biblical descriptions of the exile hardly suggest that the experience was benign. Smith-Christopher has compiled what he calls the “lexicography of trauma” from biblical literature. Here he points to the frequent use of words like “bonds” (môserâ; Nah 1:13; Isa 52:2; Ps 107:14) and fetters (zîqqîm; Nah 3:10; Isa 45:14; Ps 149; Jer 40:1) to describe the exile. The terms for imprisonment and bondage become metaphors for it. Moreover, the slavery in Egypt becomes an increasingly important historical metaphor for the experience of the Babylonian exiles.
It is indeed difficult to imagine the situation and trauma experienced by the exiles when they first arrived. A number of biblical citations capture this despair. Yet over time, the vast number of references to Jewish settlement in and around Nippur suggest that these exiles became embedded into society over time. Coogan notes that Jews appear in the archive as agriculturists, fishermen, sheepherders, and co-creditors of contracts. Many eventually held positions of prestige and conducted business like everyone else. According to Purvis, “Records indicate that Jews had prospered in agriculture, in trade and in banking during the century after their settlement there.” Some references seem to indicate that a few Jews may have even amassed great wealth, which would support the biblical account of large contributions of silver, gold and precious goods towards the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 1:5–6 and 2:68–69).
This eventual absorption into society, as reflected within the Murashu texts, also contributed to assimilation among this exiled community. According to Coogan, “observable changes in Israelite onomastic patterns took place at the time of the Exile.” This is exemplified by the eventual adoption of non-Jewish names (however, often these were neutral in that they did not contain allusions to foreign deities). And aside from Hebraized Babylonian names, Akkadian names were also introduced, as found later in the Biblical text. This was clearly another influence of the Babylonian exile.
The Murashu archive is more than just a dusty collection of ancient financial documents. It provides a wealth of information and its application to so many different fields of study is itself intriguing.
For biblical and Jewish studies these clay tablets provide a small window into what life was like particularly for the descendants of Jewish exiles in the late 5th century bce. The names, descriptions, and agreements help us understand what became of these exiles and how their lives transpired and took shape. We already know that most Jews did not return to Israel when allowed to do so under the edict of Cyrus the Great in 538 bce. Those who remained helped establish a vibrant Jewish community in Babylon that thrived into the modern age. But what did that life initially look like? What did people do to earn a living? What did they name their children? How were they received into the wider society? Elements of the Murashu archive help provide answers to those questions. Even if brief and incomplete, they offer pieces to a puzzle, that when put together, create a bit of a picture of Jewish life in ancient Mesopotamia.
This archive also influences our understanding of the development and use of Akkadian, Cuneiform, and Aramaic. It also sheds light on commerce and trade, and ancient society in and around Nippur.
The Murashu archive has been recovered now for nearly 130 years, but there is still much work to be done. Further study needs to be carried out on these texts and the people that produced them. And despite the distance of time and space, these clay tablets still speak of a story long forgotten.
Joshua Brumbach is the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, adjunct instructor of Jewish Studies at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI), and the author of two books and numerous articles. He is currently pursuing a DHL in early rabbinic literature at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, holds a MA in Jewish Studies from MJTI, a BA in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Biblical Studies from UCLA, and is ordained by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council.
1 H.V. Hilprecht, The Babylonia Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A: Cuneiform Texts, vol. ix (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1898), 13.
2 Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 69.
3 William N. Goetzmann, “Financing Civilization.” From a chapter excerpt posted online, http://viking.som.yale.edu/will/finciv/chapter1.htm#wall%20street, 11, accessed 6/3/20.
4 Ronald Wallenfels, “Murashu Family and Archive.” Wiley Online Library, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah01139, accessed 6/3/20.
5 “Murashu’s Sons.” Encyclopedia.com, accessed 6/3/20.
6 Mark W. Chavalas, “Assyriology and Biblical Studies: A Century and a Half of Tension,” in Mesopotamia and the Bible, ed. Mark W. Chavalas and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 31.
9 “Murashu’s Sons.” Encyclopedia.com.
11 Onomastics is the study of the history and origin of proper names, especially personal names.
12 Hilprecht, 13.
14 Hilprecht, 16.
15 Hilprecht, 16.
16 Michael David Coogan, West Semitic Personal Names in the Murashu Documents (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 3.
17 James D. Purvis, “Exile and Return,” in Ancient Israel, ed. Hershel Shanks (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1999), 207. Coogan, 119.
18 Purvis, 207.
19 Coogan, 119.
20 William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 147.
21 “Murashu’s Sons.” Encyclopedia.com.
22 Purvis, 205.
23 Purvis, 205.
24 Purvis, 207.
25 Schniedewind, 147–48.
26 Purvis, 205.
27 Schniedewind, 148.
28 Purvis, 207.
29 Coogan, 10.
30 Purvis, 207.
31 Purvis, 207.
32 Coogan, 123.