News of an exciting find has been making the rounds of the media and biblioblogdom. It seems to me that what has been missing so far in treatments of the find is sufficient background in Assyriology to understand, not the tablet, but some of the ins and outs of the biblical text it supposedly confirms (according to some), or is more or less irrelevant to (according to others). I have read the posts by Chris Heard, Claude Mariottini, Jim West, Doug Chaplin, and Peter Kirk. This post takes its own way. I trust it will be found helpful.
Jeremiah 39:3 is rife with textual difficulties. The correct interpretation of the names and titles contained in it has eluded biblical scholars in the past because the obvious place to go to clarify its problems, the corpus of texts studied by Assyriologists, is little studied by them.
Assyriology is a field of study the advances of which have had a very uneven impact on the study of the Bible and translations thereof. Jeremiah 39:3 is a case in point, but it is by no means the only one. It is truly a case of: the harvest is bountiful, but the workers are few.
In light of all we know about personal names and official titles of the Neo-Babylonian era, three names and three titles are discernible in the garbled text Jer 39:3 contains. With names and titles given according to the pronunciation they would have had at the time, Jer 39:3 is to be understood as follows:
All of the officers of the king of Babylon made their entry, and occupied the middle gate – Nergal-šarri-uṣur governor of Sinmagir, Nabu-šarrussu-ukin the Rab-ša-rēši, Nergal-šarri-uṣur the Rab-mugi, and all the other officers of the king of Babylon.
The personal name Nergal-šarri-uṣur, the name of both the first and third official, is known from neo-Babylonian sources. Nergal-šarri-uṣur son-in-law of Nabu-kudurri-uṣur (= the Nebuchadrezzar of Jer 39:1) ruled Babylonia from 560 to 556 bce. It is possible that the Nergal-šarri-uṣur who served as governor of Sinmagir for Nabu-kudurri-uṣur (605-562 bce) according to this text in the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (Jer 39:2: 586 bce), and said son-in-law of said Nabu-kudurri-uṣur who later ruled in his stead, are one and the same person. Nergal-šarri-uṣur governor of Sinmagir also appears in a prism fragment preserved in Istanbul. The prism dates to Nabu-kudurri-uṣur's seventh year. A fine discussion of the text of the prism fragment is provided by David Vanderhooft, The Neo-Babylonian Empire and Babylon in the Latter Prophets (HSS 59; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999) 92-97.
The best way to construe Sinmagir or Simmagir when used in reference to high officials in Akkadian is disputed. As Kevin Edgecomb pointed out in offline correspondence, Sinmagir appears as the name of a king in the famous Sumerian King List. The best explanation I have heard so far - and it is Kevin's - is that 'of Sinmagir' is short for 'governor of (the house of) Sinmagir.' The phrase attested elsewhere, šanû ša sinmagir, would then mean ‘the deputy of the governor of Sinmagir.’
The personal name Nabu-šarrussu-ukin follows a well-attested pattern and was attested before the discovery by Michael Jursa of a tablet including the name. As David Vanderhooft remarked, “A certain Nabû-šarrūssu-ukīn held the office of rēš šarri under Amel-Marduk in 561 B.C.E.” (The Neo-Babylonian Empire and Babylon in the Latter Prophets [HSS 59; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999] 151). It is possible that this is the same individual named as present in Jerusalem 25 years earlier according to Jeremiah 39:3. For details of Jursa's tablet discovery among the many that have yet to be collated and published in the mass in possession of the British Museum, go here.
The tablet includes both the name and the title “Nabu-šarrussu-ukin the Rab-rēši [short for rab-ša-rēši],” is dated to the tenth year of Nabu-kudurri-uṣur, and is, in all probability, the very same person referred to in Jer 39:3. Rab-ša-rēši (rab-sārîs, a loanword, in Hebrew) is a well-attested title for a royal official, and is often translated “chief eunuch.” Said translation, however, is considered misleading by some scholars. Discussion of the issue is not possible here.
The title of the last person to be mentioned, another Nergal-šarri-uṣur, is ‘Rab-mugi,’ another high official of some sort. The title is well-attested in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian documents. See CDA, p. 215.
It does not matter what translation of the Bible you have (I checked NRSV, NIV, REB, NJB, NAB, and NJPSV): they all contain misinterpretations of one or more names and/or titles contained in Jer 39:3. Still, it must be observed: anyone with training in Assyriology could have come to the same, basically irresistible conclusions outlined above, which I came to. If I am the first to do so, I would be surprised.
Until now, the one missing piece of the puzzle was the exact name underlying –nebu Sarsechim in MT Jer 39:3 and Nabousachar in LXX Jer 46:3. Theoretically, an Assyriologist steeped in onomastica might have come up with the correct interpretation before Jursa’s discovery of the name Nabu-šarrussu-ukin on a tablet of the British Museum. [UPDATE: David Vanderhooft, cited above, did come to this conclusion in the 1990's. For details go here.]
Bible scholars knowledgeable in Assyriology are rare birds. The reverse is also true.
In all probability, as said before, the ‘Nabu-šarrussu-ukin the chief eunuch’ of Jer 39:3 and the ‘Nabu-šarrussu-ukin the chief eunuch’ of Jursa’s tablet are one and the same person. For an identical conclusion, see Kevin Edgecomb's comment to Chris Heard's post. To suggest otherwise is a function of pre-understandings brought to bear on the text.
On the one hand, it is sensible to expect that in a case like Jeremiah 39, names and titles may have become garbled in the course of the textual transmission. In fact they have, big time. On the other hand, it is reasonable to expect that said names and titles nevertheless go back to reliable sources, oral or written. Jeremiah 39 is a pretty straightforward narrative, with theological and nationalistic biases by all means. But there are no imaginable theological or nationalistic reasons why an author would have invented names and titles for the high officials of Nebuchadnezzar’s army who presided over Jerusalem’s destruction.
Jursa’s tablet clarifies a mess of a text in the Hebrew Bible. For an identical conclusion, see Kevin Edgecomb's comment to Chris Heard's post. To suggest instead that it clarifies nothing at all, or that there was nothing to be clarified in the first place, just “confirmed” or “proven right,” misses the boat.
UPDATE: see now Chris Heard's new post, which aligns nicely with the above, and Peter Kirk's second comment here. SECOND UPDATE: Charles Halton's comment below and another post by Chris Heard. THIRD UPDATE: Kevin Edgecomb's post, which includes a helpful review of an excellent book by John H. Walton. FOURTH UPDATE: offline, Kevin Edgecomb has convinced me that 'of Sinmagir' is to be understood as 'governor of Sinmagir.' I have modified my post accordingly. Here is a summary of his argument.
Bibliography: CDA = A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian (ed. Jeremy Black, Andrew George, and Nicholas Postgate; SANTAG 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 22000).
 Its text is thoroughly garbled in all three traditions in our possession (MT Jer 39:3; LXX Jer 46:3; Josephus, Antiquities X, 135), just in different ways.