skip to content

SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Nathan MacDonald, Reader in the Interpretation of the Old Testament

Nathan MacDonald is University Reader in the Interpretation of the Old Testament at the University of Cambridge. He will be speaking about Ashurbanipal, the Bible and the modern world - the subject of a new British Museum exhibition - on 24th October.


Question: What drew you to studying the Old Testament?

Nathan MacDonald: I grew up in a family that attended church every Sunday and I was fascinated as a child by the many Old Testament stories. When I was about seven I set about reading the King James Version of the Bible from the beginning (these were pre-Harry Potter days!). I made it as far as the book of Job - about halfway through the Old Testament - before petering out. I’ve no idea how much I understood of what I read, probably very little. But it left me with the impression that it was deeply puzzling literature with no end of interesting problems.That fascination has always remained and when I began the theology tripos it was Hebrew and the Old Testament papers that seemed the most attractive.


Q: What is your main research focus?

NM: When I was a student, the Old Testament prophets were what especially interested me. I began to see the insights that historical study could provide. But when I began my PhD I focussed on the book of Deuteronomy, a hybrid legal-rhetorical text that was influential on the prophets. As a result, I found myself developing interests in other legal texts, and increasingly ritual texts. These days the kinds of things I am interested in are the Israelite priesthood and its history, and anything to do with ritual and the temple cult. The most important texts are those in the first half of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch and the historical books. It feels like I’ve come round full circle: I’m that seven year old once again, puzzled by these odd texts and never able to make it to the book of Job and beyond.


Q: What are the main things people should know about Ashurbanipal's rule?

NM: Ashurbanipal was the ruler of the Assyrian empire at its zenith in the seventh century BCE. The Assyrian empire was arguably the first great imperial power, ruling territory that stretched across the Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to Iran. Ashurbanipal succeeded to an empire that his father and grandfather had extended significantly and he consolidated those conquests during a reign of about 40 years. His successors were unable to maintain the empire he ruled and, within a couple of decades of his death, the Assyrian empire had been overwhelmed and its empire taken over by a resurgent Babylonia.


Q: Where is Ashurbanipal mentioned in the Bible?

NM: Ashurbanipal appears only once in the Bible. In Ezra  4.10 a memory is preserved of someone described as ‘the great and noble Osnappar’ who had relocated populations from what is now Iran to the former territory of the kingdom of Israel. This is already 200 years after Ashurbanipal’s reign and we can see how he still had a formidable reputation.


Q: Is the fact that he is mentioned in the Bible only once significant?

NM: A number of other Assyrian kings are mentioned in the Bible, often in relation to contemporary events, and not the distant historical memory that we find in Ezra 4.10. The minimal impression that Ashurbanipal made is probably due to the fact that the major Assyrian advances into Palestine had occurred at the end of the eighth century. During this time the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel had fallen and was absorbed into the Assyrian empire, and the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah had submitted to Assyrian overlordship and become a vassal nation. In the following century, the Judahite kings do not seem to have tried to resist Assyrian rule and Judah enjoyed the benefits of the pax Assyriaca. As a result, the historical texts in the Hebrew Bible say relatively little about this period.


Q: Did his impact on Jewish and Christian theology differ?

NM: The pax Assyriaca brought Judah into contact with the sophisticated cultural sphere of Mesopotamia with its millennia-old literary traditions. Mesopotamian literature and practices began to have an influence on Judahite scribes. One particular instance is the Judahite appropriation of the vassal treaty and loyalty oaths. The Assyrians imposed loyalty oaths upon some of their vassals, and it would appear that Judahite scribes appropriated this literary form, but repurposed it. They imagined the relationship they had with their national deity, YHWH, as a treaty relationship. Their god - not the Assyrian king - was the imperial power, and had imposed upon them a relationship of loyalty and obedience. Obedience to YHWH would be rewarded and disobedience would be punished. In biblical translations this idea is usually translated as ‘covenant’, but it is the same word for making an agreement or treaty.

The application of this political idea as a theological metaphor appears to have been entirely novel. It must have mapped onto Judahite ideas of God and their relationship to him very well because this idea gets taken up throughout the Hebrew Bible and gives rise to a theology of covenant. This influences later Jewish and Christian thinking and, in some branches of Christian theology, covenant becomes a central theological idea.


Q: What was Ashurbanipal’s  influence on modern political thought?

NM: Directly Ashurbanipal has no influence on modern political thought, but this idea of covenant becomes extremely important in the early modern period through Reformed Protestants who make covenant the central organising idea of their theology. Ideas of a national covenant and of a contractual arrangement between rulers and ruled were to be especially influential in English and American political thinking. The roots of some of these ideas is complex, but the covenant theology of the Bible is one important strand. Tracing this history reminds us that the Bible has long been the bridge between the modern world and the very ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, albeit a very odd one!


Q: To what do you attribute renewed interested in the Assyrian empire?

NM: I think the Assyrians will always attract interest, especially in Britain, given the wonderful treasures of their culture that are held by the British Museum. The destruction of that heritage, and indeed many other ancient heritages, because of the instability in Iraq does remind us of the fragility of an important part of the world's cultural heritage and the need to preserve it.


Q: Do you think the British Museum exhibition will help to address general lack of knowledge about this period?

NM: When I visit the Museum I’m struck by how busy the room full of Egyptian sculpture is in comparison to the adjacent rooms with Assyrian antiquities. The exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for the museum to tell the story of the Assyrian empire and also its discoverers like Henry Rawlinson and Austen Henry Layard.