Jews, Exile, and the Murashu Archive of Nippur

In May of 1893, while clearing collapsed debris from a room overlooking the ancient ruins of Nippur, a group of Kaffej workmen made a startling discovery. Buried beneath the rubble they discovered a number of clay tablets.[1] The excavators quickly worked to clear the debris and within a few hours recovered a total of seven hundred and thirty tablets buried beneath layers of rubble.

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 B.C.E. – during the reigns of the Persian kings Artexerxes I and Darius II (coinciding with the Biblical account of Ezra and Nehemiah).

Although not commonly known about, the Murashu archive provides invaluable information for multiple areas of study, including the History of Ancient Finance and Commerce, Biblical Studies, Linguistics, Paleography, Onomastics, Archaeology, and more.

An Interesting Twist

The bulk of the inscriptions, aside from a usual cylinder seal impression here and there, are in Cuneiform – similar to other Near Eastern Archives. Yet many of the tablets bear a second inscription or endorsement – a paleo-form of Aramaic – a Semitic and alphabetic language that would eventually replace Cuneiform as the Lingua Franca of the ancient world.

The Paleography of the texts reveals the development of the Cuneiform script – becoming more simplified and abbreviated over time (degeneration).[2] With the simplification of the Cuneiform, we simultaneously witness the development of Aramaic.

Additionally, we see a large number of foreign names and titles introduced into the Babylonian sources. The bulk of “borrowed” words are Semitic in origin due to a growing number of West-Semitic peoples introduced to the Nippur Region.

Jewish Exiles and Biblically Influenced Names

According to Michael David Coogan:

Names [containing] –yaw do not occur in Neo-Babylonian sources before the [Israelite] 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.[3]

A large number of these Jewish exiles were carried away by Nebuchadnezzar and settled in the region of Nippur. In fact, an unusually large number of Jewish names known from the Hebrew Bible (especially from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), eventually find their way into Cuneiform texts and inscriptions, including the Murashu archive.

The prophet Ezekiel also mentions in multiple places “the community of the exiles by the Chebar Canal (for example, see Ezek. 1:1)”

These references suggest that the growing number of Jewish exiles began to hold positions of prestige, and conducted business like everyone else. Some references seem to support that a few Jews may even have amassed great wealth which would support the Biblical claim to 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).

Despite the distance of time and space, these clay tablets still speak of a story long forgotten. For within the Murashu archive is a wealth of knowledge. Despite their having been recovered now for over 100 years, much work is still to be done. Further study needs to be carried out on the texts, those that produced them, and their influence for us today. Indeed, William Goetzmann of Yale University was on to something when he connected the Murashu archive to that “of a modern mystery full of intrigue.”[4]

[1] H.V. Helprecht, The Babylonia Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A: Cuneiform Texts, vol. ix, 1898. p 13.

[2] Hilprecht, Ibid. 16.

[3] Michael David Coogan. West Semitic Personal Names in the Murashu Documents, (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 119.

[4] William N. Goetzmann. Financing Civilization, (Taken from a chapter excerpt posted online – 11.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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8 Responses to Jews, Exile, and the Murashu Archive of Nippur

  1. says:

    Fantastic. Thank you for highlighting this information. The minimalists have been getting too much attention with a negative portrayal of historical evidence for Biblical history. I will also keep the Murashu archive in mind as I get into Ezekiel studies. Derek Leman

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Derek,Thanks for stopping by. Indeed, the minimalists have been getting quite a bit of attention lately. However, there is also much that can be supported archaeologically. A professor of mine noted that the history of Israel is quite supported up to the divided monarachy. It is really there (around David and Solomon) that it starts to get a little more complicated. But, "complicated" does not = 'fiction.' That is why I also appreciate many of the blogs you have been posting lately which also look deeper into many of these ideas.

  3. mhlanga willard says:

    The murashu archive surely shows that the Jews were absorbed in the Babylonian exile but ma question is , why then does the book of Psalms chapter 137/ 138 potray that the jews were crying in Nippur as they remembered their mother land….JUDAH.

    IT SEEMED AS IF THE Murashu family treated everyone fairly,, there was wealth, there was commerce, trade and they even allowed other foreigners to marry there. now if so is Psalms true about this evidence or shall we trust the evidence on the tablets found in Nippur

    • mhlanga willard says:

      the murashu archive was more than a jewish record. Jews married there and even had the Babilonian names which shows that the Jews where happy about the way they where living there. after all, some of the Jews did not want to return back to their land after the stipulated time they wrer suppposed tospend there was over. WHY? THIS IS A CLEAR INDICATION THAT NIPPUR WAS WEL FOR THEM.

      • Rabbi Joshua says:

        Hello mhlanga,

        Both accounts, from the Book of Psalms and the Murashu archive, provide a wider and clearer perspective. Not only were there Jews (especially immediately after the expulsion) who longed to return to Israel, but over time, there were also many others who did well in exile. We often forget that the number of Jews who returned under the edict of King Cyrus (as depicted in the biblical accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah) were only a small number of those in exile. Most Jews actually chose to remain in Babylon.

        So the Psalm you refer to describes the experience of the immediate exiles, as well as the those who yearned to return to Israel. Whereas the Murashu archive describes the evolving situation for Jews in exile over time, and their situation (which for many, gradually got better). This helps us understand why the vast majority of Jews chose to remain in exile.

        It is similar to the situation of Jews today. Although there is a modern State of Israel, and Jews can return to live in our ancient homeland, the majority of Jews still live and choose to remain outside of Israel. And there are many reasons for this.

        Reality is always a bit more complicated than we often first assume.

        I hope this helps.

  4. Ellie says:

    Rabbi Joshua,
    Were you able to find exactly what the Murashu tablets have to say about the Chebar River. This seems to be the convincing evidence that Ezekiel was near Babylon instead of near the Khabur River which is a tributary to the Euphrates and is a location where the Israelites were taken by the Assyrians. An argument for the latter location, this would explain why Daniel and Ezekiel never seem to have communicated with each other.

  5. Nate lopez says:

    Hello. Is it true that some names containing yahu in the start of the name were found as well like exmple: yahulakim etc. Thanks

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