“Despite the fateful part he played in Judah’s history, Nebuchadrezzar [Nebuchadnezzer is sometimes referred to this way] is seen in Jewish tradition in a predominantly favorable light,” wrote Henry W. F. Saggs, the late Assyriologist, toward the end of his Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Nebuchadrezzar II (c. 630—c. 561). “It was claimed that he gave orders for the protection of Jeremiah, who regarded him as God’s appointed instrument whom it was impiety to disobey, and the prophet Ezekiel expressed a similar view at the attack on Tyre.”
That’s a far cry from the corresponding entry for Nebuchadnezzar by Emil G. Hirsch, Ira Maurice Price, Wilhelm Bacher, and Louis Ginzberg in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which notes that the Babylonian king was called “evil” (rasha) in several Talmudic references—like Megilah 11a, Chagigah 13b, and Pesachim 118a, for example.
In a section devoted exclusively to the king’s cruelty, Hirsch, Price, Bacher, and Ginzberg add that Nebuchadnezzar refused to let the exiled Jews rest from their walking for even a minute for fear that they would pray and that those prayers might be answered. And he tore up Torah scrolls, formed them into sacks, and filled those bags with sand and made the exiled people carry them as they walked. This is all besides the countless Jews murdered under the king’s orders.
So, would the real Nebuchadnezzar please stand up? Could the same figure—particularly such a controversial person—really be evil and cruel on the one hand, and viewed in a “predominantly favorable light” on the other?
Although it’s tough to dismiss Saggs’ expertise, my hunch is that either he may not have been familiar with the references in the Babylonian Talmud, or he was looking at other sorts of sources, like historians or works of biblical criticism. That said, it’s often informative to look at how controversial figures are depicted in art, and those visual conceptions can often shed new light on those characters.
The chances are very good that you are reading this article either on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet itself, or shortly thereafter, so it’s also a good time to consider not only the figure of Nebuchadnezzar—who laid siege to Jerusalem beginning on the 10th of Tevet—but also the ways in which he has been immortalized in art.
Perhaps the most famous is William Blake Nebuchadnezzar, a series of prints that dates to 1795. In his series, Blake depicts the bearded and longhaired Babylonian king crawling on all fours—no doubt depicted in his period of madness described in the book of Daniel. And mad Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly is. The man has been reduced to beast, as Blake surely rendered the king’s legs and muscles ambiguously so they could also be read as fur. And, Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly has claws for toenails.
Further, Blake’s murky background—perhaps a reference to the tree from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which Daniel interpreted as foretelling the seven years of insanity—weighs down on the king-beast’s shoulders, rather than lifting him up. The weight of the world—and perhaps Nebuchadnezzar’s sins as well—threatens to crush the madman. But those who know a bit about Blake, who had complicated ties with Jewish and Christian mysticism and invented his own prophets, won’t be surprised to learn that his Nebuchadnezzar is more complex than just a madman playing a beast.
By focusing on just the king, Blake monumentalizes him. Nebuchadnezzar is unclothed (like an animal would be), unkempt, and poorly manicured. But he is also posing, and he looks out at the viewer with an expression of shock, fear, and pain. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the unbalanced man-beast; it’s also difficult not to see him as a tragic, or fallen, hero. Perhaps Blake had a sense of the different ways in which Jewish and Christian traditions viewed his subject, and he depicted the Babylonian monarch in that context.
Another famous depiction of Nebuchadnezzar’s story—though it doesn’t in fact represent the king—is Rembrandt’s etching of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which he created as part of a commission of Old Testament subjects for the Jewish publisher Menasseh ben Israel’s Piedra Gloriosa. In addition to the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, Rembrandt depicted Jacob’s ladder, David and Goliath, and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. Per Daniel 2, the “frightening” icon had a head of gold, silver arms, copper thighs, and iron and clay legs and feet. As Nebuchadnezzar watched, the idol disintegrated and was dispersed by the wind.
Rembrandt often looked to the Bible and Jewish and Christian biblical interpretations for inspiration for his art, and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is no exception. The idol has a prominent base, and one can just make out the stone that has shattered the sculpture’s legs, per Daniel 2. And, as Michael Zell, a professor at Boston University, explains in his book Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, Menasseh asked Rembrandt to inscribe each limb of the idol with the name of a kingdom that persecuted the Jews: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Babylonia appears on the sculpture’s head; Persia and Medes on the arms; Greece on the navel; and Rome and Mohammedans on the legs. The stone, then, represents the Messiah, who will destroy the persecutors.