“Look into the liver”: archeology illustrates a particular biblical verse


“For the king of Babylon stands at the crossroads, at the head of the two roads, to use divination; he shakes the arrows back and forth, he questions the teraphim, he looks in the liver “ (Ezekiel 21:26).

Are you looking in a liver? It is a strange passage of scripture written by the prophet Ezekiel. But it is one that has now been well illustrated, thanks to archaeological research (a filling term used to describe the foundation of biblical archeology, such as a scientific investigation “for biblical illustration”).

Babylonian liver tablet

Administrators of the British Museum

Arguably the best “illustration” of Ezekiel 21:26 (verse 21 in the King James version) is in the British Museum, in the form of a peculiarly shaped piece of clay covered with holes and scriptures. . This artifact is known as the “liver tablet”.

Dating from the ancient Babylonian period (circa 1900-1600 bce), this tablet would come from the Babylonian city of Sippar (in the present province of Baghdad, in Iraq). This is a clay model of a sheep’s liver, apparently used as a training device for students studying to become a baru priest.

Sheep liver

Uwe Gilles

The ancient Babylonians, believing that their gods knew the future, believed that these gods left clues available in order to predict that future, namely clues contained in the liver of an animal. The Bible states that “life… is in the blood” (Genesis 9: 4; Leviticus 17:11) – which has been proven today, with the understanding of oxygenating the bloodstream. The Babylonians believed that the liver was the source of this blood, hence the essence of life.

With a little mental gymnastics, then, it made sense to the Babylonians that the selection and slaughter of the right sheep (or chicken) and analysis of the liver could determine future events.

The baru The priest presented a certain question, and depending on the position of certain imperfections or the shape of the liver, an answer was given. The British Museum model shows the implication of a certain defect in one of the 55 different sections. Large amounts of notes have been preserved concerning omens relating to livers.

As the British Museum writes of this artifact: “One of the most popular means of prediction was an omen of the liver, in which the sheep was killed and its liver and lungs examined by a specialist priest, the baru. … The baru played an important role in decision-making at all levels, but particularly where the king was concerned. No military campaign, construction work, appointment of an official, or questions of the king’s health would be undertaken without consulting the baru.

Let us return to Ezekiel, who describes the decision-making processes of the king of Babylon: “For the king of Babylon stands at the crossroads, at the head of the two paths, to use divination; he shakes the arrows back and forth, he questions the teraphim, he looks into the liver. In his right hand is the spell Jerusalem, to place rams, to open the mouth for slaughter… ”(Ezekiel 21: 26-27). The Babylonian king, mentioned here just before the fall of Jerusalem, is offered a binary choice – a decision “at the crossroads,” two paths before him, whether or not to advance on Jerusalem. To decide, one of the methods he uses is to “look into the liver”, probably with the help of his baru. The fact that the “lot” ended up “in his right hand” meant that the answer was to go and attack Jerusalem.

Divinatory livers, exhibited at the Louvre

Public domain

From this passage, Matthew Henry’s commentary states, “The resolution to which he has been brought about by this.” Even through these sinful practices, God served his own purposes and ordered him to go to Jerusalem. As verse 28 says: “And it will be to them like a false divination … but it recalls iniquity, that [Jerusalem] can be taken.

The Babylonian Liver Tablet is therefore a fascinating piece of “Bible illustration”, which can be easily viewed in the Mesopotamian section of the British Museum. And in another way, it is an illustration of the absurd and groping devotion of the ancient world to an insane superstition, also described in the Bible (and located at the same time, just before the destruction of Jerusalem): “[B]e not dismayed by the signs of heaven; For the nations are appalled. Because the customs of the people are vanity…. [T]hey are quite brutal and foolish: The vanities by which they are educated are only a stock…. [The] the melted image is a lie, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, a work of illusion; At the time of their visit, they will perish.

“Jacob’s portion is not like this; For he is the first of all things… The Lord of hosts is his name ”(Jeremiah 10: 2-3, 8, 14-16).


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