Reassessing the Bûr-Saggilê Eclipse

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INSIGHT: The Journal of the Prophecy Society of Atlanta Volume 2, Number 3 - July, 2012

Reassessing the Bûr-Saggilê Eclipse

by Dan Bruce

(Portions of this article are being updated and will be posted here soon.)
The Kurkh Monolith identifies Ahab of Israel as a participant in the coalition that fought against the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar. The Black Obelisk states that Qarqar took place in the sixth year of Shalmaneser, which is traditionally identified as the year 853 BCE by counting back in time the ninety eponyms (assuming one for each year) listed on the Assyrian Eponym Canon between the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse, which Sir Henry Rawlinson placed in 763 BCE, and the Battle of Qarqar that occurred in the sixth year of Shalmaneser. The new kingdoms chronology in my book, Sacred Chronology of the Hebrew Kings (the entire book is available for reading online at no charge on my website, click here and see the kings chronology displayed graphically in Chapter Two, specifically see the part describing the reign of Ahab on pages 22-23), indicates that Ahab reigned from 904-883 BCE and that the Battle of Qarqar happened in 883 BCE, not 853 BCE. So, there is a thirty-year difference between the chronology of Ahab at Qarqar in my book, derived solely from the biblical text, and the traditional date for Ahab at Qarqar derived by scholars from calculations based on Rawlinson’s identification of the date for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse. Which is correct? The answer depends on the placement of the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse in history, and that is subjective, a matter of interpretation.

The only mention of the eclipse is recorded in the Assyrian Eponym Canon, in the tenth year of Ashur-dan III during the eponymy when a man named Bûr-Saggilê was limmu (the title of the official appointed by the Assyrians to preside over the New-Year religious celebrations, and the name used to denote important events during the entire year), and reads as follows:

“During the eponymy of Bûr-Saggilê, governor of Gūzanā, revolt in Libbi-āli; in Siwan, eclipse of the sun”1
That brief inscription provided the only data Rawlinson had available for making his identification of 763 BCE as the year of the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse. Notice that the inscription does not say whether the eclipse was total, as Rawlinson assumed, or partial, an equal possibility, nor does it say where the observation was made (Nineveh was assumed by Rawlinson and by your author). It simply says that a “bent sun” (your author's interpretation) was observed, that it happened in the month of Siwan (Simanu), which always occurred in the proleptic Gregorian months of May-June, and that it happened when Bûr-Saggilê was the limmu. That is all that can be known for sure from the ancient Assyrian records.

The 763 BCE date chosen by Rawlinson featured a partial solar eclipse of 0.987 magnitude. It was observable in Assyria, and occurred on June 15, 763 BCE. However, there is another possibility, an eclipse visible in Nineveh twenty-eight years earlier—a partial solar eclipse of magnitude 0.737 that occurred on June 24, 791 BCE—and it also totally agrees with the above textual description used by Rawlinson to identify his eclipse. No doubt, some will object that the 763 BCE eclipse, with its greater magnitude (almost a full eclipse), was the more spectacular choice to have been recorded in the Canon. However, the magnitude is irrelevant, since the only requirement is that the person named Bûr-Saggilê had to have been limmu at the time of the eclipse, something equally possible for either eclipse from our viewpoint today since the years when Bûr-Saggilê lived are not known, and were unknown by Rawlinson as well.

As for the 791 BCE eclipse, it was certainly spectacular enough to be recorded in the Canon. It displayed a crescent sun diminishing as it set (see Diagram 2.2 above). The sight of the sun being eclipsed as it was setting must have been impressive. Rawlinson’s 763 BCE eclipse was at its maximum during mid-morning, so it would have dimmed the land (but not totally darkened it, in appearance the land being illuminated as in the first minutes after sunrise), then after a brief period everything would have returned back to normal daylight brightness. In the 791 BCE event, though, maximum eclipse occurred at sunset. The ancients watching the sun set and eclipse simultaneously would have had all night to ponder if it would reappear whole the next morning. That reaction by them is speculation on my part, of course, but the point being made is that the 791 BCE eclipse was certainly noteworthy enough to warrant being recorded by the scribes. Adding additional support for preferring the 791 BCE date is the fact that the chronology of the Assyrian kings, when adjusted twenty-eight years back in time by using that date as the year for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse, more closely aligns with the harmonized chronology of the Hebrew kings presented in my book in almost all instances.

However, moving the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse back twenty-eight years does not achieve exact alignment between the Hebrew and Assyrian chronologies in every instance. One more adjustment of two years is necessary, since Assyrian inscriptions claim that Ahab was defeated at Qarqar in Shalmaneser III’s sixth regnal year, saying:

[from the Kurkh Monolith] “I destroyed, devastated [the king of] Karkar ... [he] brought twelve kings2 to his support; they came against me to offer battle and fight: 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, and 20,000 soldiers belonging to Hadad-ezer of Damascus; 700 chariots, 700 cavalry, and 10,000 soldiers belonging to Irhuleni of Hama; 2,000 chariots, and 10,000 soldiers belonging to Ahab, the Israelite3
[and from the Black Obelisk] “In my sixth year, I crossed the Euphrates ... and received gifts from all the kings of Hatti. At that time Hadad-ezer of Damascus, and Irhuleni the Hamathite, along with the kings of Hatti and the seacoast, relied on each other’s strength and came out against me to engage in battle ... I fought with them and was able to defeat them.”4

Adding twenty-eight years to the traditional dates for the reign of Shalmaneser III yields

881 BCE as his sixth regnal year, which is two years after the death of Ahab according to the chronology in my book that assumes Ahab died in the same year as the Battle of Qarqar, that is, in 883 BCE. Thus, Shalmaneser’s reign must be moved back two more years, but can such an adjustment be justified from Assyrian history? Yes, it can be. Shalmaneser’s eldest son, Ashur-danin-pal, led a revolt in his father’s final years, usurping the throne for possibly as long as five years. It took Shalmaneser’s younger son, the future king Shamshi-adad IV, two years after Shalmaneser’s death to dethrone his brother.5 Apparently, no eponyms were recorded during the brothers’ two-year contest for the throne, or, if they were recorded by Ashur-danin-pal, the victorious Shamshi-adad essentially considered his brother’s rule to be illegitimate by erasing any eponyms he may have appointed during the struggle. So, that two-year correction moves the reign of Shalmaneser III back to 889-854 BCE, which allows his sixth year to coincide with Ahab’s death in Syria6 at Qarqar/Ramoth-gilead in 883 BCE.

Inserting the twenty-eight years before the traditional dates for the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745-727) can be explained chronologically by the rise of the empire of Urartu and its expansion southward during this period of history. Urartu, under Argishti I (r. 785-753) and his son Sarduri II (r. 753-735), expanded its empire as far south as northern Syria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, writing two-hundred years later, recorded a similar invasion of the same area by the Scythians circa 620 BCE, supposedly followed by a 28-year period of Scythian rule over Assyria and points south all the way to Egypt. Some scholars have doubted the veracity of the length of the Scythian rule based on the fact that they were a nomadic people, not capable of extended rule over such a vast fixed territory. That scholarly speculation raises another possibility, namely, that Herodotus conflated the Scythian invasion with the earlier invasion by Urartu, incorrectly assigning twenty-eight years of Urartun rule to the Scythians.

Of course, adding twenty-eight years to the dates of Assyrian kings who reigned prior to Tiglath-pileser III based on the Bible’s chronology raises questions about his identity and length of reign. Did Tiglath-pileser rule over the southern part of Assyria under the biblically specified name Pul (see 1 Chronicles 5:26), beginning in 773 BCE during Urartun domination of the north as assumed in this book, and then begin to reign under the throne name Tiglath-pileser III over all of Assyria at a later date, in the year 745 BCE after the Urartuns had been defeated and driven out of Assyria? Or, was there a king named Pul who reigned prior to Tiglath-pileser, but who is unknown to Assyriologists? Or, is there yet more data buried on undiscovered cuneiform tablets that will one day shed more light on that period of Assyrian history? Whatever the case, one thing is certain. The chronology for the Hebrew kings has been fixed in time by the more accurate Bible chronology, so Assyrian chronology must conform to it.

At least one scholar claims that Rawlinson’s 763 BCE date for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse is unambiguously verified by a Babylonian eclipse in the first year of king Mukin-zeri, saying:

“Therefore it may be helpful to present independent astronomical evidence for the dating of Assyrian kings and thereby of the Eponym List ... In a collection of Babylonian lunar eclipses, an eclipse in Month 1, Year 1 of king Mukin-zeri is mentioned. By the structure of the text, the date of this eclipse (not visible in Babylon but calculated in advance) may unambiguously be established as April 9, 731 B.C. However, it is known that Mukin-zeri fought against Tiglath-pileser III and that his first regnal year coincided with the 14th year of the Assyrian king. This evidence is provided from the Babylonian Chronicle. Thus, the 14th year of Tiglath-pileser III is identified as 731/730 B.C.”7
The description of the Mukin-zeri eclipse is detailed on a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum [BM 35769 (= LBAT 1414)] that says:
"Year 1 Ukin-zer, month I, [lunar eclipse] which passes (sa DIB). (Began) at 1,0 (i.e., 60) degrees after sunrise."8

On that tablet, the Babylonian astronomers predicted that a lunar eclipse on April 9, 731 BCE, would “pass,” which was their way of saying that it would not be observable in Babylon. NASA records confirm that a partial lunar eclipse did occur over the Pacific Ocean on that date (see Diagram 2.3 below). If that eclipse was the eclipse predicted for Mukin-zeri’s first year, the one equated with Tiglath-pileser III’s fourteenth year, then it does, by validating that the first year of Mukin-zeri and the fourteenth year of Tiglath-pileser III occurred in 731 BCE, confirm the traditional chronology that has the reign of Tiglath-pileser beginning in 745 BCE. However, that Babylonian eclipse from 731 BCE does not provide any direct information at all about the year when Bûr-Saggilê was limmu in Nineveh, and thus it can neither confirm Rawlinson's date for the eclipse associated with him nor does it invalidate the biblically-supported assumption that Tiglath-pileser ruled over part of Assyria using the name Pul starting in 773 BCE, and it does not invalidate in any way this article’s main chronological proposition that the year for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse was 791 BCE, not Rawlinson’s widely-accepted 763 BCE date.

eclipse 731 bce.jpg
In my chronology of the Hebrew kings, 791 BCE is the year used for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse, and then the traditional dates for the Assyrian kings are adjusted as required to align them with my book’s Bible-based Hebrew kingdoms chronology. Prior to Tiglath-pileser III, reigns are moved back in time twenty-eight years. The extra years are inserted before the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, who is assumed to have reigned over part of Assyria using the name Pul during a time of civil war (and no eponyms) beginning in 773 BCE, then to have reigned over all of Assyria as Tiglath-pileser III after 745 BCE. Additionally, to account for the two-year usurpation of the throne by the king's son Ashur-danin-pal after the death of Shalmaneser III, when once again no eponyms were recorded, the reigns are moved back two more years, beginning with the reign of Shalmaneser III. Those adjustments allow the Assyrian regnal chronology to synchronize exactly with that of the Hebrew kings, which is fixed in time from the Bible by using 961 BCE as the year when the kingdom of United Israel divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It also makes any assumption of error in the biblical text unnecessary, as is the case when harmonizing the reigns of the Hebrew kings using the date for Ahab derived from calculations based on Rawlinson's incorrect 763 BCE date for the Bûr-Saggilê eclipse. For both reasons, an adjusted Assyrian chronology that conforms to the Hebrew chronology is preferred, that preference being based on the belief that the biblical chronology provides a better documented and more accurate ancient timeline.

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1 Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), p. 171.

2 The mention of the twelve kings on the Kurkh Monolith is a reference that has puzzled scholars since only eleven kings are mentioned by name. Your author thinks it possible that the phrase “twelve kings” is a mistaken reference to the tribal heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. The combined armies of the northern and southern kingdoms were arrayed against the king of Syria at Ramoth-gilead. If that battle was considered part of or associated with the Battle of Qarqar by the Assyrian scribes, the field commanders (tribal heads) of the armies of the twelve tribes could well have been interpreted as twelve distinct kings.

3 D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (The University of Chicago Press: 1926); p. 200-252; language and place names updated by Alan Humm.

4From the Black Obelisk, translation by Alan Humm (truncated, full translation available on his website at

5 H. R. Hall, The Ancient History of the Near East (London: Methuen & Co.; 1913; p. 455).

6 The geographical term “Syria” is used generically in this article to refer to the region generally known today as Syria and denoted in the King James translation by various names, primarily Damascus, Aram, and Syria.

7 Dr. Hermann Hunger, “About the Dating of the Neo-Assyrian Eponym List” (Altorientalische Forschungen, volume 35; 2008); p. 323-325; excerpt condensed from English translation.

8 F. Richard Stephenson, Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation (Cambridge University Press, 1997); p. 122.

© 2012 Dan Bruce All Rights Reserved. ~ Page

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