The son of Nabopolassar; became king of Babylon in 604
Nebuchadnezzar's first notable act was the overthrow of the Egyptian army under Necho at the Euphrates in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (Jer. xlvi. 2). It is entirely reasonable to suppose that at the same time he descended upon Palestine and made Jehoiakim his subject (II Kings xxiv. 1). This campaign took place in 605. The next year Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylon; and he ruled for forty-three years, or until 561. Jehoiakim served him for three years, and then rebelled. He doubtless incited the neighboring tribes (ib. verse 2) to persecute Judah and bring its king to respect his oath. In 598 Nebuchadnezzar himself came westward, took Jehoiakim (II Chron. xxxvi. 6) and probably slew him, casting out his dead body unburied (Jer. xxii. 19, xxxvi. 30), and carried captive to Babylon 3,023 Jews (Jer. lii. 28). He placed Jehoiachin, the dead king's son, on the throne. Three months were sufficient to prove Jehoiachin's character (Ezek. xix. 5-9). He was taken with 10,000 of the best of the people of Jerusalem and carried to Babylon. His uncle Mattaniah, whose name was changed to Zedekiah, was put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar in 597.
Egypt was continually intriguing with southwestern Asia, and was now courting the friendship of Zedekiah. This became so noticeable that Judah's king made a journey to Babylon in the fourth year of his reign (Jer. li. 59), probably to assure Nebuchadnezzar of his loyalty to him. But by the ninth year of his reign Zedekiah became so friendly with the Egyptians that he made a league with them and thereupon rebelled against the King of Babylon. With due despatch Nebuchadnezzar and his army left for the Westland. He placed his base of action at Riblah in the north, and went southward and laid siege to Jerusalem. By some message the Egyptians learned of the siege and hastily marched to the relief of the beleaguered ally. The Babylonians raised the siege (Jer. xxxvii. 3-5) long enough to repulse the Egyptian arms, and came back and settled about Jerusalem. At the end of eighteen months (586) the wall yielded. Zedekiah and his retinue fled by night, but were overtaken in the plains of the Jordan. The king and his sons were brought before Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah; the sons were slain, and the king's eyes bored out; and he was carried in chains to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar caused Jerusalem to be destroyed, and the sacred vessels of the Temple to be carried to Babylon. He placed Gedaliah in authority over the Jews who remained in the land. In the twenty-third year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar's captain of the guard carried away 745 Jews, who had been gathered from those scattered through the land. Nebuchadnezzar entered Egypt also (Jer. xlvi. 13-26; Ezek. xxix. 2-20), according to his own inscriptions about 567, and dealt a severe blow to its supremacy and power.
The representations in the Book of Daniel of Nebuchadnezzar's greatness are doubtless correct; and there is reason for believing that he was the great builder and glorifier of his capital. He was succeeded by his son Evil-merodach.
Nebuchadnezzar, the "wicked one" ("ha-rasha'"; Meg. 11a; Ḥag. 13b; Pes. 118a), was a son—or descendant?—of the Queen of Sheba by her marriage with Solomon ("Alphabet Ben Sira," ed. Venice, 21b; comp. Brüll's "Jahrb." ix. 9), and a son-in-law of Sennacherib (Targ. to Isa. x. 32; Lam. R., Introduction, 23, says "a grandson"), with whom he took part in the expedition of the Assyrians against Hezekiah, being one of the few who were not destroyed by the angels before Jerusalem (Sanh. 95b). He came to the throne in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim of Judah, whom he subjugated and, seven years later, killed after that king had rebelled. Nebuchadnezzar did not on this occasion go to Jerusalem, but received the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem at Daphne, a suburb of Antioch, informing that body that it was not his intention to destroy the Temple, but that the rebellious Jehoiakim must be delivered to him, which in fact was done (Seder 'Olam R. xxv.; Midr. 'Eser Galuyyot, ed. Grünhut, "Sefer ha-Liḳḳuṭim," iii.; Lev. R. xix.; comp. Jehoiakim in Rabbinical Literature).Holds No Oath Sacred.
According to Josephus ("Ant." x. 6, § 3), the King of Judah voluntarily received Nebuchadnezzar and his army in the city; but Nebuchadnezzar treacherously broke the compact between them, and massacred the king together with the strongest and most beautiful inhabitants of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar then carried away into captivity 5,000 Judeans and 7,000 of the other tribes, including all the nobles and scholars of the city (Josephus, l.c.; Seder 'Olam R. l.c.; Midr. 'Eser Galuyyot, l.c.).
When he celebrated his triumph in Babylon and told his subjects how he had made Jehoiachin king in the place of his rebellious father Jehoiakim, they reminded him of the proverb: "A poor dog has no good progeny." Nebuchadnezzar then returned to Daphne, where he received the Great Sanhedrin and told it that he desired to take King Jehoiachin to Babylon. When it delivered the king to him, Jehoiachin was cast into prison for life (Lev. R. xix. 6; comp. Seder 'Olam R. l.c.; Yer. Sheḳ. vi. 49a; and Jehoiachin in Rabbinical Literature). The King of Babylon again showed how little sacred an oath was to him; for, although he had pledged his word that he would not harm the city, he carried captive to Babylon a large number of the inhabitants (Josephus, l.c. x. 7, § 1) together with the Ark of the Covenant (Seder 'Olam R. l.c.). Although a voice from heaven uttered for eighteen years these words in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, "O wicked servant; go and destroy the house of your master, since his children no longer obey him," yet the king was afraid to obey the command, remembering the defeat which Sennacherib had suffered in a similar attempt. Nebuchadnezzar asked the advice of different oracles, all of which warned him not to undertake the expedition against Jerusalem (Lam. R. l.c.). Furthermore the Ammonitesand the Moabites, Israel's "wicked neighbors," gave inducements to Nebuchadnezzar to come by saying that the Prophets announced Judah's downfall. They allayed the king's fear lest God might send the same fate upon him that He had upon Sennacherib, by saying that God had now abandoned Israel, and that there were left among the people no pious ones able to turn away God's anger (Sanh. 96b). Nebuchadnezzar decided on his expedition against Jerusalem only after God showed him how He had bound the hands of Michael, Israel's guardian angel (Midr. Ekah Zuṭa, p. 70); and even then Nebuchadnezzar did not lead the expedition himself, but gave it into the hands of Nebuzar-adan (Pesiḳ. R. 26 [ed. Friedmann, p. 130b]; Sanh. 96b, above; comp. Eccl. R. on Eccl. x. 7, to the effect that Nebuchadnezzar, seated on a horse which was led by Michael, entered the Holy of Holies.
At Daphne, from which place Nebuchadnezzar followed the operations before the walls of Jerusalem, he received the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem with great honors, asking the members to read and explain to him the Torah. Sitting on seats of honor, they began their explanations. When, however, they came to the section on the dispensation from vows (Num. xxx. 2 et seq.), the king cried out in anger: "I believe it was you who released King Zedekiah from his oath to me." He then commanded that the scholars leave their seats and sit on the ground (Lam. R. ii. 10; Ned. 65a; comp. Zedekiah in Rabbinical Literature; "Chronicles of Jerahmeel," x. 10: "the great Sanhedrin . . . who were slain by Nebuchadnezzar"). Zedekiah, the captive king, was also brought to Daphne, where Nebuchadnezzar took him to task, saying that, according to divine and human law, Zedekiah had merited death, since he had sworn falsely by the name of God, and had rebelled against his suzerain (Pesiḳ. R. l.c. [ed. Friedmann, p. 131a]).Nebuchadnezzar's Cruelty.
Nebuchadnezzar was most merciless toward the conquered people. By his command the exiles on their way to Babylon were not allowed to stop even for a moment, as the king feared that they would pray during the respite granted them and that God would be willing to help them as soon as they repented (Lam. R. to v. 6; Pesiḳ. R. 28 [ed. Friedmann, p. 135a]). Nebuchadnezzar did not feel safe until the exiles reached the Euphrates, the boundary-line of Babylon. Then he made a great feast on board his ship, while the princes of Judah lay chained and naked by the river. In order to increase their misery he had rolls of the Torah torn and made into sacks, which, filled with sand, he gave to the captive princes to carry (Pesiḳ. R. l.c. [ed. Friedmann, p. 135a]; Midr. Teh. cxxxvii.; comp. Buber's remark ad loc. and Lam. R. v. 13).
On this occasion Nebuchadnezzar ordered the singers of the Temple to add their music to his feast; but they preferred to bite off their fingers, or even to be killed, rather than to play their sacred music in honor of the Babylonian idols (Pesiḳ. R. 31 [ed. Friedmann, p. 144a], 28 [136a]; comp. Moses, Children of). He heartlessly drove the captives before him, entirely without clothing, until the inhabitants of Bari induced him to clothe them (Pesiḳ. R. l.c. [ed. Friedmann, p. 135b]). But even after the heavily burdened Jews finally reached Babylonia they had no rest from the tyrant, who massacred thousands of youths whose beauty had inflamed the passion of the Babylonian women—a passion which did not subside until the corpses were stamped upon and mutilated (Sanh. 92b; comp. Ezekiel in Rabbinical Literature). Nebuchadnezzar carried to Babylon, together with the Jews, cedar-trees which he had taken from Lebanon (Lam. R. i. 4), and millstones which he made the captive youths bear (l.c. v. 13). Even the Jews who had sought refuge from the Babylonians in Ammon and Moab or in Egypt did not escape Nebuchadnezzar, who, on conquering Egypt, carried all the Jews in that country, including Baruch and Jeremiah, to Babylonia (Midr. 'Eser Galuyyot, ed. Grünhut, l.c. iii. 14; Seder 'Olam R. xxvi.). Nebuchadnezzar was equally victorious in his expedition against Tyre, whose king, Hiram, his stepfather, he dethroned and put to a painful death (Lev. R. xviii. 2; Yalḳ., Ezek. 367).
Nebuchadnezzar, moreover, not only was a cosmocrat, ruling all the earth (Meg. 11a et passim), but he subdued the world of animals also, his charger being a lion, on whose neck a snake hung quietly (Shab. 150a, above). His godlessness was commensurate with his power; he was given, among other vices, to pederasty, which he, as with the other kings, also tried to commit with the pious Zedekiah, but was prevented by a miracle from doing so (Shab. 149b; see also Jerome on Hab. ii. 16). He was so greatly feared that as long as he was alive no one dared laugh; and when he went down to hell the inmates trembled, asking themselves whether he would rule them also (Shab. l.c.). In his arrogance he considered himself to be a god, and spoke of making a cloud in order to enthrone himself like God on high (Mek., Beshallaḥ, Shirah, 6 [ed. Weiss, p. 47a, b]); but a heavenly voice cried to him: "O thou miscreant, son of a miscreant, and grandson of the miscreant Nimrod! Man lives seventy years, or at most eighty (Ps. xc. 10). The distance from the earth to heaven measures 500 years; the thickness of heaven measures as much; and not less the distance from one heaven to the other" (Pes. 94a, below; Ḥag. 13a et passim).Behavior Toward Israelites.
The lot of the Jews was naturally a very sad one during Nebuchadnezzar's reign; and even Daniel, as well as his three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were pages at court, were often in peril of their lives. This was especially the case when the king tried to force the three pages to worship the idol at Durah, and they, upon their refusal to do so, were thrown into the fiery furnace. However, the miracle performed in their behalf (comp. Azariah in Rabbinical Literature; Ezekiel in Rabbinical Literature) induced Nebuchadnezzar to join in praising God; and he was so carried away by his songs that had he continued he would have surpassed David, but an angel forced him to desist (Sanh. 92b). Yet this did not prevent him from massacring all the 600,000 Jews who had obeyed his command and worshipedthe idol, and whom he reproached for not having followed the example of the three pious men and trusted in God (Pirḳe R. El. xxxiii.).
He finally received his well-merited punishment; for God changed him into an animal, as far as his appearance, intellect, and language were concerned. He appeared to the people with his upper half as an ox and the lower half as a lion, and as such he killed many villains. Through Daniel's prayers the seven years of punishment decreed for Nebuchadnezzar were changed to seven months; and after the king had lamented his sins for forty days, had lived in the caves for another period of forty days, and had herded for the same length of time with the beasts of the forest, God took mercy upon him and allowed him to return to his throne. He repented and did penance for the next seven years, subsisting, on the advice of Daniel, on vegetable food. The affairs of the government he gave into the hands of seven judges, who held office for one year each. At the expiration of this period he wished to make Daniel one of his heirs; but the latter refused with the words: "Far be it from me to exchange the heritage of my fathers for that of one uncircumcised" ("The Chronicles of Jerahmeel," ed. Gaster, lxvi. 1-2; see also the passage quoted in the introduction, p. 106).Among the Animals.
According to another version, Nebuchadnezzar really spent seven years among the animals, during which time his son Evil-merodach ruled as king (see, however, Josephus, l.c. x. 10, § 6); but when he returned he cast this son into prison for life. Therefore after Nebuchadnezzar had died and the nobles of the realm came to the son to swear fealty to him as their king, he did not dare listen to them until they brought the corpse of his father, so that he could convince himself that the latter really was dead (Lev. R. xviii. 12). Others say that Evilmerodach himself exhumed the body of his father, because the people believed that Nebuchadnezzar was not really dead—that he had simply disappeared as he had once before, and that they would be severely punished by him if at his return he found that they had invested another king. The body of the dead monarch was therefore dragged through the city so that the people might see it (Targ. Sheni, beginning; Jerome on Isa. xiv. 19; see also "The Chronicles of Jerahmeel," lxvi. 6; a shorter version is given in Seder 'Olam R. xxviii.). This was the shameful end of Nebuchadnezzar, after a reign of forty years (Seder 'Olam R. l.c. 45; Pesiḳ. R., ed. Buber, xxvii. [ed. Friedmann, p. 168b, 40]; Josephus, l.c. x. 11, §§ 1, 43).
That Nebuchadnezzar, in spite of all his wickedness, was chosen by God to rule over Israel and all the earth, was due, according to some, to the fact that he was a descendant of Merodach-baladan, to whom God granted, as a reward for a pious deed, that three of his descendants, namely, Nebuchadnezzar, his son Evil-merodach, and Belshazzar, should become world-rulers (Pesiḳ. R., ed. Buber, ii. 14a; comp. Merodach-Baladan. According to another rabbinical legend, Nebuchadnezzar was the secretary of Baladan. The latter wrote a letter to Hezekiah (II Kings xx. 12) in Nebuchadnezzar's absence, who, on his return, was informed of its contents, which began as follows: "Greetings to the king Hezekiah, to the city of Jerusalem, and to the great God." "What!" exclaimed Nebuchadnezzar, "you call Him the great God, and yet you mention His name at the end, whereas it should be at the beginning!" Nebuchadnezzar then ran after the messenger, to take the letter and rewrite it. God, therefore, rewarded him with the rulership of the world; and if the angel Gabriel had not kept Nebuchadnezzar from overtaking the messenger, his power would have become still greater, and the Jews would in consequence have suffered still more at his hands.