Are the “many nations” (Ezekiel 26) more than Nebuchadnezzar's multi-national army?

  • Our question

    Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon, and in 586 B.C. he and his forces laid seige to a coastal city called Tyre (consisting of a mainland part and island part). And in fact, that Nebuchadnezzar would do this was purportedly prophesied by Ezekiel in the Bible (Ezekiel 26). Our question here is about what Ezekiel meant in verse 3, when it says many nations would come against Tyre. Some want to say the entire prophecy only had Nebuchadnezzar in mind, and that the many nations were in fact the various constituents of his mult-national army (i.e. from other peoples that were conquered). Defenders of the prophecy want to say that in fact the “many nations” are more than Nebuchadnezzar's forces. Are defenders correct in saying the prophecy has more than Nebuchadnezzar's army in mind? This will help us determine whether Ezekiel's prophecy on Tyre was actually fulfilled.

“Yes, after all…
  • Ezekiel expects the “many nations” to contain naval assaulters.1 This is relevant because Ezekiel would not (and textually did not) expect Nebuchadnezzar to engage in any naval attacks.2

    1. This would obviously seem required in order to take the prestigious island of Tyre (which was at least half a mile out to sea). Granted, Alexander found a loophole a couple hundred years later, but it is not something the Tyrians or anyone else would have expected of Nebuchadnezzar (and it seems neither Nebuchadnezzar nor his generals did think of it). As articulated by Yaacov Nir, what Alexander did was a flourish of military brilliance and “one of the most difficult marine engineering tasks of that era...[“The City of Tyre, Lebanon and its Semi-artificial Tombolo” Geoarchaeology 11 (1996): 235.]
    2. Like all his contemporaries, the author of Ezekiel would have known that Nebuchadnezzar simply had no navy with which to siege the island, over half mile out to sea. In fact, Ezekiel would have been especially acquainted with this fact since he was a prior captive of Babylon.
  • Nebuchadnezzar is textually just one of “they”

    Textually, “He” (Nebuchadnezzar, personifying his nation) is distinguished from “they” (the "many nations" which would destroy Tyre). This is relevant because, insofar as “he” is most naturally understood as one of “they,” Nebuchadnezzar's army is to be considered only one of the “many nations.”

    1. Outside this chapter, neither the phrase “the nations” nor “many nations” has ever referred to Nebuchadnezzar's army, yet his army is discussed often enough that one might have expected to see this if it were a natural way for Ezekiel to describe attacks from Nebuchadnezzar. For whatever it is worth, the only other time "many nations" is used in anywhere near this context, it refers to a literal multitude of nations: “When your wares went out from the seas, You satisfied many nations;” (Ez 27:33)
  • “Waves” implies a series of nations

    “Waves” of “many nations” (v3) implies that they will come in successive bouts. This is relevant because one cannot “bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves” if the one wave, Babylon, was to finish her off (both coastal and insular).

    1. One might try to argue that “bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves” was fulfilled through Nebuchadnezzar's attack simply in virtue of his attacking Tyre's coastal district in presumably successive episodes or bouts (with breaks in between). However, this is a decidedly strained interpretation relative to how most or all readers naturally come away understanding it at first blush: many nations as different waves would attack Tyre.
“No, after all…
  • The LXX says they're the same

    The LXX (Septuagint) rendering says the “many nations” in Ezekiel 26's prophecy are Nebuchadnezzar's multi-national army. (For example, “[he is] a concourse of very many nations”). This is relevant because the LXX better represents the original prophecy here.

    But wait, couldn't it simply be that a later scribe wrongly assumed it was Nebuchadnezzar's army, personally feeling it was the simpler explanation (see) and attempted to clarify it accordingly?1

    1. Rather than the LXX, the Masoretic Text (i.e. the Hebrew text from which we translate most all of our Old Testament) clearly represents the original. We know this for two reasons: Lectio difficilior potior principle ("the harder reading is stronger"): Copyists are more likely to simplify, expound on, and smooth out a text they find troublesome or obscure. Consequently, one of the most widely recognized criteria in the field of textual criticism is that, when comparing two competing readings, the shorter and more difficult is more probably the original. This is relevant because the Masoretic Text is both the shorter and the more difficult. The LXX version is a blatantly interpretive copy of the Masoretic Text. Consider these two examples:

      I. Masoretic Text: “thus says the Lord GOD, 'Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring up many nations against you... (v7) Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses, chariots, cavalry and a great army.” 
      One might here assume Nebuchadnezzar's “great army” was the "many nations" (a common and easy mistake if one isn't paying attention). Unfortunately, because the Masoretic text could easily leave the reader wondering who the "many nations" are in addition to Nebuchadnezzar's “great army,” a helpful scribe could be excused for attempting to clarify that they are in fact one and the same. Verse 7 in the LXX does just that, specifically saying “he is... many nations”; a textbook-worthy example of what well-intentioned scribes do to smooth out the text for readers.

      LXX Text
      : "Nabuchodonosor king of Babylon from the north: he is a king of kings, with horses, and chariots, and horsemen, and a concourse of very many nations."

      II. Masoretic Text: He will slay your people... they will make a spoil of your riches and a prey of your merchandise, break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses, and throw your stones and your timbers and your debris into the water.” 
      The Masoretic text is ostensibly inconsistent here. It mingles "he" and "they" in a way conducive to the ostensible misunderstanding outlined above. Noice that again the LXX comes to the rescue and alleviates what the scribe feels is an obscurity, consistently using "he" for the readers sake.

      LXX Text
      : “he shall slay thy people... he shall prey upon thy power, and plunder thy substance, and shall cast down thy walls, and break down thy pleasant houses: and he shall cast thy stones and thy timber and thy dust into the midst of thy sea.

  • “It's all Nebuchadnezzar” is the simpler explanation

    To say it was simply Nebuchadnezzar's army that was to attack Tyre would be the simplest explanation of the data. This is relevant because when explaining data, the simplest explanation tends to be best (Occam's razor).

    But wait, the simple explanation is only best with all other things being equal. In this case however, the explanation fails with respect to other explanatory virtues.1 Saying that more “nations than Nebuchadnezzar's are prophesied to attack Tyre” is necessary, in light of the three arguments above.

    1. A simpler explanation is only clearly preferred ceteris paribus (i.e. all other things being equal); simplicity is only one of multiple explanatory virtues that get weighted when inferring to the best explanation. In the current case, interpreting Ezekiel's prophecy such that it only refers to Nebuchadnezzar's army is severely inferior in both explanatory scope and power.