“I Was the King’s Cupbearer” (Nehemiah)

July 20, 2017

Nehemiah, whom God used to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (444 BC), served during the administration of the Persian King Artaxerxes (464-423 BC). Nehemiah states, “For I was the king’s cupbearer” (Nehemiah 1:11).

Drinking Cup. Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Professor Edwin Yamauchi has some helpful information on what it would have meant to be a “cupbearer”:

“Cupbearer” (mašqeh is a Hiphil participle of the verb šaqāh) literally means “one who gives (someone) something to drink.” It occurs twelve times in the OT in the sense of “cupbearer,” e.g., in 1 Kings 10:5 and 2 Chronicles 9:4 of Solomon’s attendants. In the Joseph story it occurs nine times (Gen 40:1–41:9), but its significance is obscured by the KJV and the RSV, which translate the word “butler.” That the cupbearer could have other responsibilities as well is indicated by Tobit 1:22: “Now Ahikar was cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts, for Esarhaddon had appointed him second to himself.” For archaeological evidence of Persian wine services, see P.R.S. Moorey, “Metal Wine-Sets in the Ancient Near East,” Iranica Antiqua 15 (1980): 181ff.
Varied sources suggest something about Nehemiah as a royal cupbearer:

1. He would have been well-trained in court etiquette (cf. Dan 1:4–5).

2. He was probably a handsome individual (cf. Dan 1:4, 13, 15; Jos. Antiq. XVI, 230 [viii.1]).

3. He would certainly know how to select the wines to set before the king. A proverb in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Qamma 92b) states: “The wine belongs to the master but credit for it is due to his cupbearer.”

4. He would have to be a convivial companion, willing to lend an ear at all times.

5. He would have great influence as one with the closest access to the king, able to determine who was able see his master.

6. Above all Nehemiah had to be one who enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the king. The great need for trustworthy court attendants is underscored by the intrigues endemic to the Achaemenid court. Xerxes, father of Artaxerxes I, was killed in his own bedchamber by Artabanus, a courtier (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job. Vol. 4, p. 683).

H.G.M. Williamson notes:

Royal cupbearers in antiquity, in addition to their skill in selecting and serving wine and their duty in tasting it as proof against poison, were also expected to be convivial and tactful companions to the king. Being much in his confidence, they could thus wield considerable influence by way of informal counsel and discussion. Texts and pictures from many Ancient Near Eastern sources (including Achaemenid) supporting this statement have been helpfully collected by Yamauchi, ZAW 92 (1980) 132–42. The portrayal fits admirably with the sequel in chap. 2. It may be noted also that the office of cupbearer could be combined with other important offices. (Word Biblical Commentary, Ezra, Nehemiah. Vol. 16, p. 174).

Click image for larger view.


Odeion at Troy

April 1, 2016

Ancient Troy has been made famous by Homer’s Iliad. Troy is located within the province of Çanakkale, located in extreme western Turkey. Troy’s extensive remains are the most significant and substantial evidence of the first contact between the civilizations of Anatolia and the Mediterranean world. This past Spring, 2015, we were able to visit Troy. Among the fascinating ruins there was the Roman Odeion, a small theater where concerts, lectures and other events took place.

Roman Odeion at Troy, Turkey. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Roman Odeion at Troy, Turkey. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

The skene, stage building included a larger-than-life statue of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). Also, a sculpted head of Augustus was found at the odeion, causing some to surmise that this may have been erected in honor of his visit here in 20 BC. Beyond the odeion at the back you can see a portion of the fortification wall of Troia VI.

The Roman odeion is in Troy’s Level IX. Over the centuries there were nine levels of occupation.

Cross-section of Troy, showing 9 occupation levels. Istanbul Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Cross-section of Troy, showing 9 occupation levels. Istanbul Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin. 

Wikipedia has this helpful chart:

Troy I 3000–2600 BC (Western Anatolian EB 1)
Troy II 2600–2250 BC (Western Anatolian EB 2)
Troy III 2250–2100 BC (Western Anatolian EB 3 [early])
Troy IV 2100–1950 BC (Western Anatolian EB 3 [middle])
Troy V: 20th–18th centuries BC (Western Anatolian EB 3 [late])
Troy VI: 17th–15th centuries BC
Troy VIh: late Bronze Age, 14th century BC
Troy VIIa: c. 1300–1190 BC, most likely setting for Homer’s story
Troy VIIb1: 12th century BC
Troy VIIb2: 11th century BC
Troy VIIb3: until c. 950 BC
Troy VIII: c. 700–85 BC
Troy IX: 85 BC–c. AD 500

Biblical significance: It was here at Troy (Ilium) at the temple of Athena that Xerxes (Ahasuerus) of the book of Esther sacrificed 1,000 head of cattle en route on his march through the Hellespontine region towards Greece. This was 480 BC.

We have previously posted on Troy here.


Q&A re: Persian Chronology in Ezra 4

May 3, 2012

A friend writes to ask that I help with the following question:

In Ezra 4-5, we read of the opposition that the Jews faced in the rebuilding of the temple. We read of Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes as the kings in Persia.

When Ezra jumps from Darius to Ahasuerus, is he jumping forward in history to the Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes that reigned from about 486-424, or are those titles for the son of Cyrus, Cambyses, who reigned immediately following Cyrus? Clarke suggests that these were titles for Smerdis, who reigned between Cambyses and Darius.

Is there any way to figure it out conclusively?

Here is what I believe to be the best explanation to the text:

Ezra 4:5 states that the enemies “hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.”  At that point the record goes on to mention Ahasuerus (v.6), who is to be identified as Xerxes (see NAS ft. nt.).  This is the Persian king who took Esther as queen (Xerxes reigned 486-464 B.C.).  The next verse, Ezra 4:7, then says, “And in the days of Artaxerxes..,” who is the Persian king in the days of Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king (reigned 464-423 B.C.).   Ezra 4:23 makes reference to a document of King Artaxerxes. So why are these kings who reigned after Darius (522-486 B.C., under whose reign the temple was rebuilt) mentioned here?  It seems the best answer is that the current opposition which stopped (for several years) the rebuilding of the temple furnished the occasion for the writer to list similar efforts made by enemies of God’s people to hurt and halt His work including the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  As Fensham noted, the author “is referring in this chapter in chronological order to the hindrances placed in the way of the Jews to rebuild the temple and the wall of Jerusalem.  When he discussed the problems of the building of the temple in 4:1-5, it reminded him of later similar troubles with the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, and so 4:6-23 has been inserted, almost parenthetically, before the argument of the building of the temple has again been taken up in 4:24ff) (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, p.70).  “…the author of this chapter enumerated the different hostile actions against the Jews…” (ibid.71).   This explanation was earlier given by Keil in the 19th century (Vol.4, p.46), who went on to say, “v.24, so far, then, as its [subject] matter is concerned, belongs to the following chapter, to which it forms an introduction (ibid.47).

The Oriental Institute Museum has an impressive collection of Persian artifacts which relate to the biblical period.

Bull from Palace at Persepolis. Dates to Persian Kings Xerxes and Artaxerxes I. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

The accompanying info sign dates this bull to the reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes (Xerxes married Esther and made her queen; Artaxerxes was king during the days of Nehemiah) and goes on to state:

Paris of guardian figures commonly protected the entrance to important buildings in the ancient Near East.

This highly polished stone head originally belonged to one of two guardian bulls flanking the portico of the hundred-column hall at Persepolis.

[This head] which weights approximately ten tons, was transported to Chicago and restored by Mr. Donato Bastiani, a member of the Oriental Institute Museum technical staff.

The two bulls were carved in the court style typical of the Achaemenid Empire. The ears and horns, which had been added separately, were not found.

Click image for larger view.