Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar1), son of Nabopolassar the Chaldean, was the Babylonian ruler who reigned over much of the civilized world in 604-562 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar is notorious for decimating the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, exiling the vast majority of its denizens to Babylon, and destroying the first Holy Temple.

His Rise to Power

Despite being a man short in height (a “little person”2), Nebuchadnezzar had soaring ambitions; he dreamed of dominating the world3 and made no attempt to keep it a secret. As he traveled through towns and states, he was frequently mocked, “Can a man like this reign over the entire world?!”4

But Nebuchadnezzar rose to power with the ferocity of a roaring lion5 and struck fear into the hearts of men.6 As chief military officer for his father, King Nabopolassar, he was no stranger to the art of war and savagery. The Talmud teaches that throughout his reign, “No laughter emerged from the mouth of any creature.”7 In fact, the Talmud notes that Nebuchadnezzar cast such dread upon people during his lifetime, that when he died and appeared in Purgatory, intense fear overcame all who were there, fearing that he had arrived to assert his rule over them!8

Nebuchadnezzar declared himself a deity9 (“I will liken myself to the Most High”10), and before long he had become the world superpower (“Moshel b’Kipah).11 His most fearsome general, Nebuzaradan, carved the king’s likeness into his chariot and trembled in fear of his master even when he was far away.12

Not only were vast swaths of the civilized world subordinate to Nebuchadnezzar, the prophecy of Jeremiah yields the startling disclosure that he was granted dominion over the Animal Kingdom as well: “Now, I have given these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant,13 and even the beasts of the field I have given to him to serve him.”14

It is thus said of Nebuchadnezzar that he would ride on the back of a male lion as a snake was tied to its15 head.16

His Relationship With G‑d

Although Nebuchadnezzar bowed to the sun17 and other idols,18 he did not deny the existence of G‑d. As he said to Daniel, “Truly, your G‑d is the G‑d of the gods and the Master of the kings.” But he made the classic error of thinking that G‑d had abdicated His direct involvement with the universe and delegated it to other deities.19 Nevertheless, while serving as chief scribe of the Babylonian ruler Merodach-Baladan, Nebuchadnezzar took great care to record the acknowledgment of G‑d at the opening of the missives he penned.20

His Immorality

The effects of circumscribing the One G‑d to a plane divorced from the physical reality were readily evident in his morally corrupt and contemptible behavior. His sadistic tendencies drove him to bring about the slow, torturous death of Hiram, king of Tyre,21 but not before raping his queen (who was his own mother22) before his eyes.23 The Talmud reveals that he would cast lots each day to determine which of his imprisoned kings he would sodomize.24

Conquest of Israel and Judea

Babylon had been engaged in a territorial struggle with the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho for control of Syria,25 with Babylon seeking conquest of all lands south of the Euphrates including Egypt.26 Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptian forces at Charchemish27 on the Euphrates and pursued Pharaoh’s armies in their retreat through Hamath in central Syria. After returning to Babylon briefly to mourn his father’s death, Nebuchadnezzar marched unopposed through Greater Syria, and set his sights on subordinating the Land of Israel.

In his second28 year of reign, Nebuchadnezzar subdued and destroyed the fortified city of Ashkelon, after which he consolidated his rule over the Land of Israel. All the monarchs of Syria and Israel, including King Jehoiakim of Judah, were compelled to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar (an especially bitter pill to swallow for Jehoiakim who was appointed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho,29 arch-enemy of Nebuchadnezzar).

After three years of subordination to Nebuchadnezzar, Jehoiakim attempted to cast off the yoke of Babylon and pledge allegiance to Egypt.30 The rebellion was quashed and Jehoiakim was “bound . . in copper chains” to be brought to Babylon,31 but died a gruesome death after32 being dragged through the streets outside Jerusalem where his corpse was then tossed.33

The reign of his eighteen-year-old son Jehoiachin34 was cut short after only three months,35 when Nebuchadnezzar descended upon Jerusalem, taking all of its dignitaries and tens of thousands of others into captivity.36 He also plundered all the treasures of the Temple and the king’s palace and hauled them off to Babylon.37 Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Zedekiah to the throne, and subjugated the neighboring empires—including Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Zidon—to Zedekiah.38 His reign lasted for 11 years until he, too, conspired with the Egyptians39 and revolted against Babylon40 despite having vowed to remain loyal to Nebuchadnezzar.41

Crushing Response to Rebellion

Nebuchadnezzar had always been wary of interfering with the Holy Temple and did not believe that G‑d would permit the destruction of Jerusalem. To ascertain the Divine intention, Nebuchadnezzar enlisted the services of a sorcerer. Nebuchadnezzar shot several arrows towards various kingdoms, and when all the arrows broke other than the one he shot toward Jerusalem, he interpreted it as a sign that he would be victorious.42

The sign notwithstanding, Nebuchadnezzar feared that he would share the same fate as Sennaccherib43 who was miraculously defeated many years earlier, so he set up his headquarters in Riblah (today on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon) and dispatched his chief executioner, Nebuzaradan, to vanquish Judea.44 Nebuchadnezzar warned Nebuzaradan that he would risk defeat if he allowed the Jews time to repent for their evil ways. “Do not allow them to pray,” he instructed.45 “Drive them out as though they are being pursued by a lion.”46 Indeed, their first respite was when they reached the rivers of Babylon.47

The Destruction of the Holy Temple

Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem for two years, and finally penetrated its walls on Tammuz 9.48

He had outfitted Nebuzaradan with 300 mules laden with iron axes that could cut iron. All but one were broken in the attempt to breach one of Jerusalem’s gates. After initially considering retreat, Nebuzaradan heeded a Heavenly voice that encouraged him to make one final attempt. With the remaining ax, it gave way.49

He proceeded to destroy the Holy Temple, the king’s palace, and all its residences by fire.50 The day he entered51 the Sanctuary, say the Sages, was the day his rival, Darius, was born.52

Although Zedekiah initially managed to flee through an underground passageway leading to Jericho, he was captured and hauled off to appear before Nebuchadnezzar.53 While there, Nebuchadnezzar slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons in his presence, blinded him, bound him in chains, and sent him to Babylon.54 According to the Midrash, Nebuchadnezzar confiscated King Solomon’s throne55 and attempted to preside over Zedekiah’s fate while sitting on it, but was prevented from doing so.56

Among the exiles were Jewish youths whose beauty was so striking that they overshadowed the sun. Nebuchadnezzar had them executed and their bodies trampled upon to prevent the Chaldean women from beholding their beauty and desiring them.57 An elaborate attempt at escape by 80,000 young priests ended in tragedy.58

As the Jews arrived in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar spared no effort to humiliate them. He had them parade along the riverbank, chained and naked, as he observed from a royal ship on the water. When he noticed the nobility walking without any burdens on their backs, he instructed them to sew bags out of the parchments of the Torah scrolls, fill them with sand and foist them onto their shoulders. The cries of the people who witnessed this pierced the Heavens.59

Dreams, Idols, and Beasts

The narratives surrounding Nebuchadnezzar’s attempts to ensnare the Jews in the practice of idolatry, the insanity that plagued him for seven years, his charitable deeds towards the Jewish poor, and other stories, have been chronicled in a parallel article on the life of Daniel.

His Death

Nebuchadnezzar died in the year 3364 (397 BCE) and was succeeded by his son Evil [pronounced Eh-vil] Merodach whose reign extended for 23 years. He was followed by King Belshazzar who ascended the throne in 3387 (374 BCE).

After his demise and burial, Nebuchadnezzar’s corpse was exhumed and pierced by his enemies’ swords,60 fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, “You were . . of those pierced by the sword, who descend to the stones of the pit, like a trampled corpse.”61

"Servant of G‑d"

In the prophecies of Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as “My Servant” (“Avdi”),62 implying that he acted on G‑d’s behalf.63

Addressing the problem of referring to Nebuchadnezzar as “My Servant,” the Talmud teaches that G‑d wished to preempt the error the Jews would make, thinking that they had been “sold” by G‑d to the nations of the earth, and that G‑d had abandoned them. “Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed be He,” says the Talmud, “preemptively called Nebuchadnezzar His slave. With regard to the halakha concerning a slave who acquires property, to whom does the slave belong and to whom does the property belong? They both belong to the master, in this case, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”64

The Divine Presence in Exile

The Sages of the Talmud teach that even when the Jewish people are exiled, G‑d ensures that they are subjugated by a nation of prominence, “so that the nations do not say, ‘G‑d has delivered His people into the hands of a lowly nation.’”65 Thus, prior to their exile, the enemy nation rises to prominence, as the verse states,66 “Her adversaries have become the head.”67

Chassidic teachings explain the inner dimension of this phenomenon. A nation rises to become a superpower when the Divine Presence manifests itself in its midst. Inasmuch as the Divine Presence accompanies the Jewish people while they are in exile, and by Divine design the Jews were destined to be exiled by Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar ascended to the height of power so that the Jews, and by extension, the Divine Presence, could be exiled by a superpower rather than a lowly people. 68