Who was Ahikar?

Also spelled Ahiqar, Ahikar is Tobit’s nephew (Tobit 1:21-22) and an example of a faithful Jew living in the Assyrian empire.

Tobit 1:21-22 (NRSV) But not forty days passed before two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat, and his son Esar-haddon reigned after him. He appointed Ahikar, the son of my brother Hanael over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration. 22 Ahikar interceded for me, and I returned to Nineveh. Now Ahikar was chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria; so Esar-haddon reappointed him. He was my nephew and so a close relative.

Ahikar 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. Fragments appear in the Elephantine documents. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book was “still being copied in Arabic as late as the eighteenth century and in Syriac as late as the end of the nineteenth “(Lindenberger, 492).

Words of Ahikar

Elephantine Papyrus of Ahikar Photo Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

While the book is wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. The genre of Ahikar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6) and there are parallels to Esther (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 Ahikar 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, Ahikar 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 (line 117, there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu, Akkadian for lion). Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

Several sayings can be describe as supporting the word of the king, as expected from someone who served the empire for many years. For example, “Quench not the word of a king; let it be a balm [for] your [hea]rt. A king’s word is gentle, but keener and more cutting than a double-edged dagger.”(100-101). “The k[ing]’s tongue is gentle, but it breaks a dragon’s ribs. It is like death, which is invisible” (105-106).

There are a few lines reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword, compared to Hebrews 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 in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in the Old and New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10, for example). Line 171, “If a wicked man grasps the fringe of your garment, leave it in his hand” is similar to Matthew 5:40, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

Although Ahikar has not left his mark on the literature of the Second Temple period quite like Daniel or Tobit, he is another example of a faithful Jewish exile who finds success serving a pagan king, is persecuted unfairly, yet God protects and prospers him.

Why are stories like Daniel, Esther, or Nehemiah so popular during this period? What do they have to say to the Hellenistic Jew living far from Jerusalem?

 

Bibliography: J. M. Lindenberger, “Ahiqar: A New Translation and Introduction,” ITP 2:479-507; James C. Vanderkam, “Ahikar/Ahiqar (Person),” ABD 1:113; Vanderkam, “Ahiqar, Book of,” ABD 1:119.

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