A Woman, the Bible, and Babylon, 560 B.C.

These mid-August days, some 2500 years ago, witnessed a violent turn-about in power — regicide followed by a week of king-less days. Imagine for a moment the uncertainty, the chaos. Imagine the mother of the assassinated king. Still alive, for the time being — a foreigner in a court conflicted about its cosmopolitan nature, a court leaning toward xenophobia. She fled.

The overturn of thrones was itself not unusual. But the ripples it sent would wash up against shores for thousands of years to come and as far away as our own. After all, this was Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the texts that would become the Bible were beginning to take shape with the thoughtful care and no doubt spirited debate of exiles far from home, committed to tradition, and dedicated to their God.

The assassinated Babylonian king is still remembered, indeed celebrated, as the one who had released the Jewish king from the Babylonian prison, “spoke kindly to him,” and finally granted that decades-incarcerated foreign monarch honor and respect (1 Kings 25:27-30). In some Bibles, the Babylonian king has the unfortunate name of Evil-Merodach, a form of Amel-Marduk, also not an easy name for us to manage today.

His mother was Amytis, once a princess of Media. In other words, she came from a world away, from the moutainous region that is now northern Iran. When she moved to Babylon to marry Nebuchadnezzar, she missed that lush mountain home so badly, the legends tell, that Nebuchadnezzar sought to replicate it in dry, flat Babylon — voila, the hanging gardens.

It may have been on August 7, 560 BC that an ambitious and high-ranking Babylonian whose family was as Babylonian as they come, for generations among its most elite, a Babylonian who had married the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, mustered others concerned about the foreign element in Babylonia’s halls of power and killed the young half-breed king, Amel-Marduk. Amytis fled, returning to mountainous Media, her desire fulfilled in the most heart-breaking way. The new king, Neriglissar, was installed on August 13.

What exactly happened to the Jews in Babylon in the years of Amytis’ absence is hard to tell. But her return to Babylon spelled their liberation in one of the most important moments in human history. For Amytis became Cyrus’ second wife — Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, her nephew, the one who conquered Babylon in 539 BC. It was he who allowed the Jews to return to Judah and there to rebuild their temple and reinstate traditions of worship. And it is Cyrus who gets the final word in the Hebrew Bible (2 Chronicles 26:23). Without him, we may never have had a Bible.

Or should I say, “without her”? After all, when Cyrus conquered Media, he had to marry the deposed king’s daughter, Amytis, who also happened to be Cyrus’ aunt… and knew Babylon inside and out. The widow of Nebuchadnezzar and mother of a Babylonian king, Amytis surely interacted with the Jews of Babylon as well as with other peoples, exiled from other lands. If all this is so, might not she have played a role in informing Cyrus about that land? Cyrus was an intelligent, creative, extraordinary leader. Wouldn’t he have taken advantage of Amytis’ knowledge of Babylon and its peoples?  Might Amytis have advised him about how best to manage them?

Maybe.

There are huge gaps in our knowledge about Cyrus and about that ancient world, especially its women. Historians closest to the events disagree (including details that I’ve included above). As a scholar of the ancient Near East, I despaired of ever being able to manage a responsible nonfiction treatment of the time and its characters… that didn’t end up being simply a catalogue of qualifications. After years of research and reams of notes, I finally had to accept what specialists far more knowledgeable than I had been saying all along: there’s not enough, and what’s there cannot always be depended upon.

Enter historical fiction. For there is also so much — so much information, and from so many resources. It’s certainty that’s lacking. Out of the mass of sometimes competing claims, the archeological record, ancient inscriptions and more, thousands of details form an intriguing network of possibilities. Among the possibilities that exist are tantalizing implications (and more than enough soap-opera drama). One of the most nagging of the questions that it has raised for me is this: do we owe the Bible’s survival to a Persian woman who had been, for a time, the queen of Babylon?

A version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post August 9, 2013.

Comments

  1. Great post! I really like your point of view and how You write :)

  2. What a fascinating piece — how fun to imagine the role Amytis might have had. I’ve just been reading Daniel, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about those kings of Babylon, and how amazing it is that they were able to see miraculous things happen in front of them and then learn from them, and not just learn from them, but recognize that God is the living God, and this is something special to pay attention to. Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t throw Daniel in jail or arrange for his death for daring to suggest that the king might go crazy and not be on his throne, or that his kingdom wouldn’t last forever — the Israelite kings certainly didn’t manage to deal even nearly that well with negative prophecy and they already believed in the God giving them bad news (through the prophets). It is an interesting question whether a woman could have played a role/been a bridge in those glaringly odd responses to the Lord by those two Babylonian kings. There really is so much scope for imagination in the biblical record (I’ve actually been working on an imaginative retelling of the story of David and Saul as a young adult novel series — so much fun, and so much work). Thank you for raising these questions :-)

    • Kristin Swenson says:

      There certainly is much for the imagination. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how long it took me — after loads of research and a great deal of writing — to consider the very real possibility that Cyrus would have taken seriously the input of a wife who had decades of personal experience with and in Babylon. Now it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have! Thanks for your comments.

  3. I rather fancy that Esther was Queen to Astyages, Amytis’s sister. Have you ever considered that possibility?

    • Kristin Swenson says:

      Interesting! Indeed, even the few references we have to these women don’t all agree. And there is so much unsaid that a number of possible relationships exist. I hadn’t considered Esther’s connection to Astyages, as the biblical story situates her in Persia. That’s an interesting twist. I do imagine that Amytis and Mandane (Cyrus’ mother) were sisters, and in my most recent revision of the historical novel, identical twins.

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