by Gordon Franz
In Tractate Sanhedrin, Rabbi Papa (ca. AD 300-375) recounts a story about Sennacherib, king of Assyria, finding a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark. It states: “He [Sennacherib] then went away and found a plank of Noah’s ark. ‘This’, said he, ‘must be the great God who saved Noah from the flood. If I go [to battle] and am successful, I will sacrifice my two sons to thee’, he vowed. But his sons heard this, so they killed him, as it is written, And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adram-melech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword.” This story is recounted in Louis Ginzberg’s classic work, Legends of the Jews, and implies that this is a legendary account. One reason it might have been considered a legend is because Sennacherib was never on, or near, the modern-day Mount Ararat (Agri Dagh). Yet there are plausible historical reasons to believe this story is true and not legendary.
There are three lines of arguments that suggest the historical plausibility of this event. First, at one point in his life, Sennacherib was on the mountain in the Land of Ararat where tradition and ancient history say Noah’s Ark landed. Second, he learned of the story of Noah’s Ark from some Israelites or Judeans with whom he had contact. Third, the strongest, the temple of Nisroch was dedicated to a plank of wood from Noah’s Ark.
Sennacherib Saw Noah’s Ark
Sennacherib would have seen Noah’s Ark during his fifth campaign carried out about 697 BC. This campaign was precipitated by the rebellion of seven cities located on Mt. Nipur, the Assyrian name for Cudi Dagh which were not subject to the Assyrian yoke.
The flat area to the south of Mt. Nipur, today called the Cizre Plain, was a “buffer zone between the Mesopotamian lowlands and the Anatolian highlands”. In antiquity, the Cizra Plain was called the province of Ulluba. In the year 739 BC, after annexing Ulluba, Tiglath-Pileser III built and fortified a city named Ashur-ipisha. The surveyors of the Cizre Plain project have tentatively identified the site located in the center of the plain, Takyan Hoyuk as the site of Ashur-ipisha.
The Assyrians used this agriculturally rich province to supply food for Nineveh and other cities in central Assyria. They would float grain and other foodstuff down the Tigris River on crafts called kalakku. These crafts consisted “of a raft supported by inflated animal skins”.
The Assyriologist Julian Reade, suggested that the original cause of the Mount Nipur expedition [Sennacherib’s fifth campaign] was to punish the inhabitants for sinking loads of grain or stone sphinx colossi in transit to Nineveh. Others have suggested that the mountain villagers were attacking the Assyrian farms on the Cizre plain.
Sennacherib successfully campaigned against the seven cities on Mt. Nipur (Tumurra, Sharim, Khalbuda, Kipsha, Esama, Kua and Kana). To commemorate his victory he placed at least nine sculptured panels near the top of the mountain. Seven were found near the village of Shakh. Two were found near the village of Hasanah. It has been suggested that Tummurra, the chief city of the region, lay under the village of Shakh because of its close proximity to the bulk of the inscriptions. The city of Esama should be identified with Hasanah, located at the foot of Cudi Dagh, because the toponym is preserved in the name of the village, and there too, the village is in close proximity of the inscriptions. I would be most grateful if any of the Turkish archaeologists are aware of any archaeological surveys on Cudi Dagh that could help identify the other five cities that were destroyed by Sennacherib.
The inscriptions on the sculptured panels reveal the ego of Sennacherib. After attributing his victory to the Assyrian gods, he describes himself as “the great king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, and the exalted prince!”. He goes on to describes himself as an ibex, leading the charge up the mountain, through gullies and mountain torrents to the highest summits. The impression one gets from his inscriptions is that he climbed all over the mountain in his conquest of the seven cities.
When Friedrich Bender visited Cudi Dagh in the spring of 1954 he obtained wood samples from an object that might be Noah’s Ark at a level of about 2,000 meters, just below the summit of Cudi Dagh. This location is also near some of the inscriptions that were carved by Sennacherib’s artisans.
Sennacherib would have seen an intact Noah’s Ark. He apparently, according to Jewish tradition, had “relic fever” and brought some wood back to Nineveh with him from Cudi Dagh.
Sennacherib Heard about Noah’s Ark from Israelites or Judeans
How did Sennacherib know that the object he saw was Noah’s Ark? More than likely he heard about the Ark from Israelites or Judeans with whom he had come in contact. There are several possibilities as to their identity. The first possibility is that his mother told him.
In the spring of 1989, Iraqi archaeologists excavated a vaulted tomb (Tomb II) in the North-West Palace at Nimrud, ancient Kalkhu. Inside was a sarcophagus that contained two skeletal remains as well as 157 objects. The two occupants have been identified as Yaba, the wife and queen of Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 BC), and Atalia, the wife and queen of Sargon II (721-705 BC). In a detailed study of these names as it relates to the foreign policy of Assyria, Stephanie Dalley suggests that they were Judean princesses married to the kings of Assyria. She concluded that “Atalya was almost certainly the mother of Sennacherib.”
This is a tantalizing possibility, but is it the case? K. Lawson Younger, in an article discussing the Yahwistic theophoric element in names written in the Neo-Assyrian language, Akkadian, says it is far from certain that the name of Sargon’s queen, Atalia, contains the Yahwistic theophoric element and it is probably best to refrain from too much speculation on the queen’s ethnicity. Ran Zadok concurs with Younger. With these cautions in mind, we probably should look elsewhere for Sennacherib’s contact with Israelites or Judeans.
The second possibility would be an Israelite or Judean soldier in the Assyrian army during Sennacherib’s Fifth Campaign. It is known that the Assyrians incorporated the armies of their defeated foes into their army.
A third possibility how Sennacherib could have come in contact with Israelites or Judeans were those Judeans working on Sennacherib’s “Palace without Rival” in Nineveh. David Ussishkin, the excavator of Lachish, did a detailed study of the Lachish relief in the British Museum. He concluded from the dress that some of the laborers working on Sennacherib’s palace were Judeans, and “quit possibly the men of Lachish.”
John Russell, in his monumental study on Sennacherib’s Palace, points out that Rooms 29, 30, and 33 of the palace were embellished with a special stone panel from Mount Nipur (Cudi Dagh) of polished stones. On the back of one winged lion from Room 33, door p, was an inscription that stated: “Palace of Sennacherib, great king, powerful king, king of the world, king of Assyria: [grain stone], whose appearance is like mottled barley (?), which in the time of the kings, my fathers, was valued only as a necklace stone, revealed itself to me at the foot of Mt. Nipur. I had female sphinxes made of it and had them dragged into Nineveh.” In a study conducted at the British Museum on the slabs that originated at Mt. Nipur, it was determined that the stone was fossiliferous limestone, also known as biopelsparite, and contained microfossils and shell fragments that fit the description of “cucumber seeds” or “finely grained barley.”
The Israelites or Judeans that Sennacherib came in contact would have told him some of the great stories from the Torah. One of the most dramatic being the account of Noah’s Flood and God providing salvation for Noah and his family by placing them in an Ark built by the great patriarch.
The Deity of the Temple of Nisroch Was a Plank from Noah’s Ark
The Bible recounts the death of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in this way: “Now it came to pass, as he [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the house (temple) of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammeleh and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the Land of Ararat.” Archaeologists, Assyriologist, and Bible commentators have been puzzled over the identification of the Sennacherib’s god, or personal divine patron, Nisroch because there is no Assyrian god named Nisroch! Some have suggested that Nisroch might be the god Enlil, whose name was sometimes used as an epithet of the god Ashur, the chief god of Assyria. Or he might be Ninurta the Assyrian god of war. But in both cases the biblical form of the name does not match the forms preserved in Assyrian sources. Others suggest that the name of the god Nisroch (Heb. nsrk) was a corruption of the name Marduk. Yet Lettinga points out: “There is no evidence that Sennacherib especially worshiped the divinity whose city, Babylon, he thoroughly destroyed in 689 BC. Sennacherib does not call Marduk his god but Assur.” But Lettinga goes on to suggest, based on Sennacherib being buried in the city of Assur, that the name Nisroch is a blend of the divinity names Assur and Marduk since Sennacherib had taken the statue of Marduk to a temple in Assur after he destroyed Babylon.
Another commentator, giving sage advice, offered this suggestion: “To date, no Assyrian god by the name of Nisroch is known. However, given the Biblical record for accuracy in the reporting of obscure details of ancient life, it is reasonable to assume that archaeology has simply failed to uncover the data as yet. The implication is that this was the private tutelary [guardian or protector] god of the king.”
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in a footnote on the rabbinic story based on this passage, says: “Because Sennacherib worshiped in the house of Nisroch (the house of the neser – the plank from Noah’s ark that Sennacherib turned into a god), his sons, Adrammelech and Sharezer, came and smote him.” In Aramaic, the word nsr could mean “plank.” In Syriac, it could mean board. Jastrow gives the definition of “board” for “neser” and “nisra.” Instead of looking for an unknown Assyrian or Babylonian god, or saying the name Nisroch is a corruption of some god, we should consider the possibility that the god he worshiped was a plank of wood … wood from Noah’s Ark! Sennacherib had heard the story about the Flood from an Israelite or Judean, but because of pagan influence in his life, he thought that the plank was the god who saved Noah and not the Lord God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth! During his fifth campaign to Mount Nipur Sennacherib came across the remains of Noah’s Ark and brought back a plank and worshiped it as his personal god.
Where was the Temple of Nisroch located? Cogan and Tadmor also state: “Likewise, the location of the Nisroch Temple remains, for the present, enigmatic” (1988: 239). There are several possibilities for the location of this temple. The first would be in Sennacherib’s “Palace without Rival” in Nineveh. A second possibility would be Assur, one of the provincial capitals of Assyria and the city where Sennacherib was buried. Neither city has revealed any evidence for this temple. It has been suggested that Sennacherib was murdered in Dur-Sarruken, a provincial capital about 20 kilometers to the north of Nineveh. Perhaps this is where we should look for the House of Nisroch where Sarruken might preserve the name Nisroch!
It cannot be said with 100% certainty that Sennacherib worshiped wood from Noah’s Ark, but it could be said that the “rabbinic legend” is historically plausible, if not probable. This “legend” has its basis in historical reality. If that is the case, Sennacherib saw Noah’s Ark on Mount Nipur (Cudi Dagh) in the mountains of Ararat / Urartu, because he was never on, or in the area of, Agri Dagh, the (late) traditional Mount Ararat!