The Words of Ahikar

Ahikar (also spelled Ahiqar) is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 (Charles APOT 1:296 lists parallels between Ahikar and Sirach) and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book is considerably different than any surveyed thus far because it is a part of the context of Mesopotamia rather than the Old Testament. While this is certainly wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. OTP 2:483-484 discusses the possibility of an historical Ahiqar based on cuneiform tablets discovered at Uruk.

Words of AhikarThe name of the book appears and there are several other superficial parallels. The genre of Ahikar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6), although it is possible also to see an affinity to Esther as well in that Ahikar saved a man’s life, then later that man has power over him. The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahikar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The “plot” of the book concerns the retirement of Ahikar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahikar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahikar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahikar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahikar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahikar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahikar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahikar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahikar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahikar lectures him).

The Sayings of Ahikar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point. For example, line 117 says “there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu.” Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

There are a few lines which are reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword (cf., Heb. 4:12, the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword). The parallel is superficial, but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common speech in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in both the Old and New Testament (1 Tim. 6:10, for example).

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