Ahikar (Achior)

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Hero of a story found in several forms and in many places of the ancient Near East. The story itself is accompanied by a long series of maxims typical of the wisdom literature of that part of the world [see wisdom (in the bible)]. This article treats first of the story, then considers the relationship between the Ahikar of the story and the Achior of the Books of Tobit and Judith.

Ahikar of the Aramaic Story. The narrative portion of the text relates the experiences of Ahikar who was purportedly chancellor and adviser of the Assyrian Kings Sennacherib (705682 b.c.) and Esarhaddon (681670). Being childless, he adopted a nephew, Nadan (Nadab), to whose education he devoted much time and effort. Thanks to this careful grooming, Nadan was chosen his uncle's successor. Once established in power, Nadan forgot his benefactor and eventually became so antagonistic toward him that he had him condemned to death. By a clever ruse, however, Ahikar escaped execution and found safe refuge in a cave.

Sometime later, the pharaoh of Egypt sought the aid of Esarhaddon in his quest of a man wise enough to solve several profound riddles (such as how to construct a castle in the air). Esarhaddon turned to Nadan, but he declined the challenge, whereupon the king sorely regretted having consented to Ahikar's execution. At this propitious moment, the executioner presented himself and told how the doomed man had been spared. Ahikar was found; he readily solved all the riddles and was promptly restored to power. Nadan was flogged and cast into prison where he died miserably.

As might be expected, the 142 maxims that accompany the story are sage observations on such matters as education, obedience, filial respect, gratitude, and retribution. Both the story and the maxims enjoyed extraordinary popularity, as is evidenced by the traces of those that have been found in such varied sources as the Arabic Thousand and One Nights, the Greek edition of Aesop's Fables, the quran, and the Bible.

The oldest known text of the story is a fragmentary Aramaic version found among the Elephantine Papyri and dated in the late fifth century b.c. (tr. by H. L. Ginsberg, J. B. Pritchard, Ancient and Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton 1955] 427430). Other texts are available in Syriac, Arabic, and other languages (see F. C. Conybeare, J. R. Harris, and Agnes S. Lewis, The Story of Ahikar from the Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Greek and Slavonic Versions, 2d ed., Cambridge 1913).

Scholars generally agree that the original story was written in Aramaic, in an Akkadian (Mesopotamian) milieu, perhaps as early as the seventh century b.c. and certainly no later than the sixth century b.c. They vary considerably, however, on their estimate of its historical reliability. All admit a degree of literary embellishment; some maintain that the essential elements of the narrative should be accepted as factual. This position has been strengthened by a text recently discovered at Uruk in which there is reference to a certain "Ahuqar" who was royal adviser under Esarhaddon. [Text first published by J. J. van Dijk. See report by J. C. Greenfield in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 82 (1962) 293].

Ahikar and the Achior of Tobit and Judith. A certain Achior is mentioned in four passages of the Book of tobit. He is presented as chief administrator and royal adviser ("keeper of the seal") under Esarhaddon and is claimed as Tobit's nephew (1.2122) and friend (2.10). Both Achior and his nephew, Nadab, were among the guests at Tobias's wedding (11.18), and explicit mention is made of Nadab's ingratitude and disgrace (14.10). In view of these striking similarities there can be little doubt that this Achior is to be identified with Ahikar of the Aramaic Story. Moreover, the spelling of the name in the Greek text ['Αχι(α)χαρος] eliminates any difficulty on that score.

Some scholars have suggested that the story of Tobit was in fact a mere adaptation of the Ahikar story. However, a careful reading of Tobit reveals almost no similarity between the themes of these two works. In Tobit, there are no riddles to be solved and, more important, there is no ungrateful nephew; rather, there is a most obedient son. There is some slight evidence of literary influence (e.g., 4.17); beyond that, one can say only that the author of Tobit wished to associate his hero with a famous sage who had also known adversity and was rewarded at the end.

In the Book of judith, one of the main characters is an Ammonite leader called Achior (Αχιωρ). He expounds at length on the theological implications of Israel's history for the benefit of a skeptical Holofernes (5.521), is scorned and reproached for his efforts (6.213), and is forced to share Israel's lot (6.1421). Thus he shares eventually in her victory also (14.610). There does not appear to be any demonstrable connection between this Achior and the Ahikar of the Aramaic Story.

Bibliography: Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 1:198207. a. e. goodman, in Documents from Old Testament Times, ed. d. w. thomas (London 1958) 270275. t. nÖldeke, Untersuchungen zum Achiqar-Roman (Berlin 1913).

[d. r. dumm]