Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek

Nebuchadnezzar – 15 litres/20 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

An artist’s impression of the Ishtar gate in Babylon built by Nebuchadnezzar II

Nebuchadnezzar II looms large in Biblical and Jewish tradition as the great Babylonian tyrant who comes ravishing down from the north to conquer Jerusalem and take the Hebrews into captivity in a Godless land.

He famously dreamt of a man made of various metals (interpreted by the prophet Daniel as representing different empires, many yet to come) and went mad for a while and ate grass like an ox.

Again, these, like so much in the Bible, are stories to be taken with a pinch of salt but Nebuchadnezzar, a real, historical figure, had more concrete achievements to his name such as the building of the beautiful blue walls of Babylon with its Ishtar Gate, inlaid with golden lions, bulls and flowers and, though again it is disputed, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World and built to cheer up one of his homesick wives.

He also destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and took its people into servitude.

Just as the Assyrians had formed a new empire in the 10th century BC after a rocky end to the Bronze Age, so Babylon rose again from near obscurity sometime in the 7th century.

At this time Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, threw off three centuries of Assyrian rule and with his Median and Persian allies sacked Nineveh in roughly 612 BC.

The Babylonians went on to consume the Neo-Assyrian Empire, assimilating it and making it their own, which brought them into contact with the Kingdom of Judah, still preserving a fragile position as a quasi-autonomous client state.

In 601 BC Nebuchadnezzar made war on the Egyptians but his invasion was a failure. This led a number of his client states in Syria and the Levant to rebel, including the Kingdom of Judah.

Nebuchadnezzar put down these revolts, capturing Jerusalem for the first time in 597 BC. In that instance he contented himself with merely deposing the rebellious king, Jeconiah, and putting up a new, more compliant one, Zedekiah, in his place.

The incident is related not only in 2 Kings but also in Nebuchadnezzar’s own chronicle where it states: “In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar, 598 BC] in the month Chislev [November/December] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti [Syria and southern Anatolia so called after the ancient Hittites] he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adar [16 March] he conquered the city and took the king [Jeconiah] prisoner. He installed in his place a king [Zedekiah] of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent forth to Babylon.”

Like Salmanazar in Israel before him, Nebuchadnezzar takes away some of the troublesome elite into captivity and is content to leave it at that.

Yet, 10 years later, Zedekiah also chances his arm with a rebellion, throwing in his lot with the Pharaoh Hophra. This time Nebuchadnezzar was not so benevolent. He invested Jerusalem and after a four month siege, according to 2 Kings, took it in 587 BC.

The wretched Zedekiah was captured and saw his sons executed in front of him before his eyes were put out. The greater part of the Judean nobility, their priests and craftsmen, perhaps some 10,000 people in all, were taken off to slavery in Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar appointed a captain, Nebuzaradan, to destroy Jerusalem stone by stone, which he does and it is the end of the first great temple constructed by Solomon some 400-500 years before.

Interestingly though, it is stated very clearly in 2 Kings that Nabuzaradan: “Left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen,” to be watched over by the Babylonian governor, Gedaliah, we are told.

It is something of a hint as to the importance and spread of viticulture in the ancient Near East. Judah was to be a bread (and wine) basket province of the Babylonian Empire, its autonomy under the Davidic kings completely destroyed, never to be truly recovered. Future kings of Judah/Israel were only ever subjects to mightier empires; the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantines and Turks.

It gives added, even slightly prophetic, poignancy then to the words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” the kingdom that was and, seemingly, would never be again.

And the knowledge of what would be the fate of Babylon, at the hands of Cyrus, makes his acclamation by the Jews the more understandable, as it fits neatly with that psalmic lamentation’s closing lines: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

2 Responses to “Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek”

  1. Ian campbell says:

    What a fascinating series of articles. We don’t know the author’s name but he is a historian who also knows his Bible. And it’s always good to know that drinking has never gone out of fashion!

  2. Ian campbell says:

    Sorry! The author’s name is Rupert Millar.

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