Category Archives: Levant (Mesopotamia, Canaan…)

Not the best name for this category. Alternative? Refers to all literature from Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Syria, Phoencia-Canaan/Palestine, Egypt. Includes works about this literature.

Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s look a little more closely at the parallels between the Judean literature (canonical and pseudepigraphical) and that of Mesopotamia to see what might have been going between them. It’s one thing to say that we can see signs of Mesopotamian written records in Judean writings but a critical question to ask is by what means, how, the one came in contact with and influenced the other. That is the particular question Seth Sanders explores in chapter 5 of From Adapa to Enoch. I will highlight a few of the points he raises.

Esarhaddon Inspires Yahweh

Here is an adaptation of the chart from pages 171-172:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 13

You shall not hear or conceal any, … word which is not seemly nor good to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord, either from the mouth of his enemy or from the mouth of his ally, or from the mouth of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins, his family, members of his father’s line,  
Prophets or diviners

(2) If there should arise in your midst a prophet or oneiromancer who provides a sign or portent, (3) and should the sign or portent – concerning which he had spoken to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) so that we may worship them” – come true: (4) Do not heed the oracles of that prophet or that oneiromancer … (6) And that prophet or that oneiromancer shall be put to death, for he fomented conspiracy against Yahweh …

Family members

or from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters,
Family members

(7) If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own self,
Prophets or diviners

or from the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic, a diviner, or from the mouth of any human being who exists; you shall come and report (it) to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria … VTE § 10

Incitement to rebellion punished by instant death

If anyone speaks rebellion and insurrection to you, to kill … Ashurbanipal the [great prince] designate, son of Esarhaddon, …
If you are able to seize them and kill them, then you shall seize them and kill them! VTE § 12

Incitement to apostasy punished by instant death

entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known … –
(9) Do not assent to him or give heed to him! Let your eye not pity him nor shall you show compassion nor condone him
(10) – but you shall surely kill him! (Deut 13:2-10)

Did the author of the Deuteronomy passage have a copy of the vassal treaty before him? It is unlikely. It does not appear so. Deuteronomy is evidently not a translation at any rate.

Were these simply ancient Near Eastern clichés? Furthermore, while the Hebrew-Assyrian parallels have long been assumed to derive from historical contact, questions remain about the social and physical locations of contact, especially if the thesis of literary translation is unsustainable. A convincing account requires a plausible, well-documented mode of transmission.

Examining whole parallel passages side by side in light of known patterns of textual transmission in the ancient Near East suggests that rather than cuneiform and papyrus, the relationship between the two texts can most plausibly be explained by memory transmission, based on the oral performance of the curses in a ceremony of the sort required in VTE. (p. 173)

From pages 174-175: read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3d … Metaphors of Exodus and Lion Dens Become History

Continuing from Chap 3c . . . .

The Exodus: Metaphor Preceded “History”

Other examples of changing names and wordplay:

The narrative can even culminate in the bestowing of a new name, or make the point that the change of name is itself the central point, along with all that it signifies:
Isaiah 62:1-4

for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
. . . .
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
. . . .
No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah [=My Delight is in Her]
and your land Beulah [=Married]

As mentioned earlier, Philo found much of interest in the names assigned to biblical characters, especially when names were changed. Noteworthy was the pattern of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and the fact that the first and third had name-changes but that the middle one, Isaac, remained Isaac throughout. This was seen by Philo to point to Isaac being the central character to which we all must aspire. Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel — these figures were “becoming”, progressing; Isaac represented a timeless ideal for all.

Recall from earlier posts Charbonnel’s discussion of assonance as part of the word-play that moulded the meaning of the narrative. Further examples:

Jeremiah 1:11-12

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree [שָׁקֵ֖ד] =šā·qêḏ],” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching [שֹׁקֵ֥ד = šō·qêḏ] to see that my word is fulfilled.”

Amos 8:1-2

Thus hath the Lord God shown unto me: And behold, a basket of summer fruit [קָ֑יִץ = qā·yiṣ].

And He said, “Amos, what seest thou?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then said the Lord unto me: “The end [הַקֵּץ֙ = haq·qêṣ] is come upon My people of Israel; I will not again pass by them any more.

Another instance where narratives resonate through the level of text predominating over literal meaning is found in a comparison of Noah and Moses. Noah was saved in an ark, a very large boatתֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ; Moses was saved in a basket lowered into the Nile — תֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ. Comment by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in Mystères de la Bible,

Noah and Moses were not saved because they were protected by a boat, but because they entered into the universe of language, they were protected by the same word. (A wild and woolly paraphrase. I do not have access to Ouaknin’s book.)

Let’s look at another case. See here how the language of military conquest and release becomes the history of an Exodus from Egypt. NC cites passages from Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel, though she does so from the French publication. I quote sections from the English-language text, pp. 277-279 in which he shows how an image of exodus from a foreign kingdom was a common metaphor before our well-known Pentateuchal story was composed. Liverani uses the traditional eighth-century dating of the early prophets.

The Exodus Motif

. . . The sagas of the ‘patriarchs’ offered an inadequate legitimation, because they were too remote and were localized only in a few symbolic places (tombs, sacred trees). A much more powerful prototype of the conquest of the land was created by the story of exodus (sē’t, and other forms of yāsā’ ‘go out’) from Egypt, under the guidance of Moses, and of military conquest, under the leadership of Joshua.

The main idea of the sequence ‘exit from Egypt –> conquest of Canaan’ is relatively old: already before the formulation of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, the idea that Yahweh had brought Israel out from Egypt is attested in prophetic texts of the eighth century (Hosea and Amos). In Amos the formulation has a clearly migratory sense:

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9.7).

In Hosea, the exit from Egypt and return there are used instead as a metaphor (underlined by reiterated parallelism) for Assyria, in the sense of submission or liberation from imperial authority. Because of its political behaviour, and also for its cultic faults, Ephraim (= Israel, the Northern Kingdom, where Hosea issues his prophecies) risks going back to ‘Egypt’, which is now actualized as Assyria:

Ephraim has become like a dove
silly and without sense;
they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria (Hos. 7.11).

Though they offer choice sacrifices
though they eat flesh,
Yahweh does not accept them.

Now he will remember their iniquity,
and punish their sins;
they shall return to Egypt (Hos. 8.13; see 11.5).

They shall not remain in the land Yahweh;
but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food (Hos. 9.3).

Ephraim…they make a treaty with Assyria,
and oil is carried to Egypt (Hos. 12.2 [ET 1]).

In these eighth-century formulations, the motif of arrival from Egypt was therefore quite well known, but especially as a metaphor of liberation from a foreign power. The basic idea was that Yahweh had delivered Israel from Egyptian power and had given them control – with full autonomy – of the land where they already lived. There was an agreed ‘memory’ of the major political phenomenon that had marked the transition from submission to Egypt in the Late Bronze Age to autonomy in Iron Age I.

We should bear in mind that the terminology of ‘bringing out’ and ‘bringing back’, ‘sending out’ and ‘sending in’, the so-called ‘code of movement’, so evident in Hosea, had already been applied in the Late Bronze Age texts to indicate a shifting of sovereignty, without implying any physical displacement of the people concerned, but only a shift of the political border. Thus, to take one example, the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma describes his conquest of central Syria in the following way:

I also brought the city of Qatna, together with its belongings and possessions, to Hatti… I plundered all of these lands in one year and brought them [literally: ‘I made them enter’] to Hatti (HDT 39-40; cf. ANET, 318).

And here is another example, from an Amarna letter:

All the (rebellious) towns that I have mentioned to my Lord, my Lord knows if they went back! From the day of the departure of the troops of the king my Lord, they have all become hostile (EA 169, from Byblos).

Egyptian texts also describe territorial conquest in terms of the capture of its population, even if in fact the submitted people remain in their place. This is an idiomatic use of the code of movement (go in/go out) to describe a change in political dependence.

But when, towards the end of the eighth century, the Assyrian policy of deportation began (with the physical, migratory displacement of subdued peoples), then the (metaphorical) exodus from Egypt was read in parallel with the (real) movement from Israel of groups of refuges from the north to the kingdom of Judah (Hos. 11.11). The inevitable ambiguity of the metaphor of movement gave way to a ‘going out’ which was unambiguously migratory, though it maintained its moral-political sense of ‘liberation from oppression’. The first appearance of this motif occurs, significantly, in the Northern kingdom under Assyrian domination.

Thus in the seventh century the so-called exodus motif took shape in proto-Deuteronomistic historiography. The expression ‘I (= Yahweh) brought you out from Egypt to let you dwell in this land that I gave to you’ (and similar expressions) became frequent, as if alluding to a well known concept. Evidently this motif, influenced by the new climate of Assyrian cross-deportations, and the sight of whole populations moving from one territory to another, was now connected to the patriarchal stories of pastoral transhumance between Sinai and the Nile Delta, to stories of forced labour of groups of habiru (‘pr.w) in the building activities of the Ramessides, and to the more recent movements of refugees between Judah and Egypt: such movement was therefore no longer understood as a metaphor, but as an allusion to an actual ‘founding’ event: a real ‘exodus’, literally from Egypt.

Just as in Hosea the Exodus motif already provided a metaphor for the Assyrian threat, so in prophetic texts of the exilic age the exodus became (more consistently) a prefiguration of the return from the Diaspora – at first, fleetingly, from the Assyrian, to a (still independent) Jerusalem; then firmly, from the Babylonian disapora:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As Yahweh lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As Yahweh lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land’ (Jer. 23.7- 8; 16.14-15).

(Liverani, 277 ff)

Law and History Made from Word Games

read more »

How to Become a Divine Messenger — continuing Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

–o–

Masks are powerful things. They can change your personality. Well, the word persona originally meant mask, a mask worn by an actor. I once attached a cut-out of a face of a leading political figure to a stick and held the face up in front of my own and walked through busy streets doing whatever as part of a political protest. Without the mask there is no way I could have acted the way I did. Acted. Actor. Mask. But we know it’s all pretence.When ancient Mesopotamian exorcists wore masks there was less sense of pretence. The mask brought one into the presence of gods.

We have seen the texts in which the exorcist claims, I am Adapa! Seth Sanders asks the obvious question:

But how seriously may we take these claims?

He gives a hint to the answer in his next sentence:

In fact there are deeply rooted semantic connections in Sumerian between essences, emblems, and masks.

me

The Essence of Things: me

Sanders reminds his readers of what “is well known”. Caution: he means “well known” to scholarly readers. This is not a book for the everyday lay reader. There is no clear introductory definition of apkallu, a key term throughout, and an outsider like myself only picks up his meaning from context and double checking via Google. Even abbreviations are not explained, it being evidently assumed readers will not need to be told that CAD refers to the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. To grasp the full flow of his argument I sometimes find myself having to renavigate earlier parts of a chapter from points that are explicitly identified as salient in its conclusion. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog: to take such “hidden learning” from the ethereal halls of academia and give plebs like me an opportunity to know what “they are saying up there.”

As is well known, the Sumerian me represent the divine powers essential to the constitution and functioning of a host of institutions belonging to the spheres of culture and religious life. But in fact every element of the universe was understood as having its own distinctive me – its essence. As Cavigneaux as well as Oppenheim himself showed, the term reaches back into the earliest written texts. Already in the earliest connected Sumerian texts of the mid-third millennium we find the me nam-nun-kam, literally, “me of princeliness” and me nu-hal-hal and [me] nu-ha-lamme of that which cannot be destroyed.” Woods argues [unpublished paper] that the word is likely derived from the Sumerian verb “to be,” with which it shares the same phonological shape, leading to a relationship “that which is” > “essence.” (Sanders, 80)

So far so good. Essences are abstract. But there’s more. They are also very concrete.

The me, the essences, can be picked up, held up, stolen from someone and given to another, ridden, knocked over, hidden, “or stuck in a corner”. There is evidence that the term was also once synonymous with the idea of self or one’s person — and hence possessed by all entities.

Just an aside here. One thing that comes to mind is how the biblical god is able to have “his glory” occupy the temple or go before Israel as if, though it is obviously a part of the very self and being of the god, it can also somehow be separated and occupy its own space. Ditto for his “name”. This does not seem to be quite the same concept being discussed here but it certainly appears to be related in some way.

The term me is part of another word, melammu, a “burning or radiant me” = “radiance, supernatural awe-inspiring sheen (inherent in things divine and royal).” But it can be removed from those who possess it, too, and the language used is that of removing a cloak or a crown in which the awe-inspiring sheen and terror is housed. Concepts of self could be attached to objects such as a crown or a mask.

What is most distinctively Mesopotamian about this concept of the self, then, is that it is an alienable essence. Inextricably bound with identity, it is nonetheless material and mobile – it can be taken. The me-lam, burning or radiant me, . . . a numinous radiance or blinding mask of light, is similarly both a mark of inherent divinity or magnificence and an alienable object that can be snatched away or handed off (Oppenheim 1943, Cassin 1968).

The universe itself, or rather, “the me [translated in this context as “plans”] of heaven and earth”, is kept in order by the powers of the seven divine fish-like sages or apkallu. (Mere human descended apkallu do not have such powers but only “great understanding”.) (pp. 53-55) As per a protective ritual:

1-2 Incantation: Uanna, who completes the plan of heaven and earth,
3^1 Uanneduga, endowed with broad mind,
5 Enmeduga, ordained with a happy fate,
6 Enmegalamma, formed in a house,
7 Enmebulugga, who grew in a field,
8 Anenlilda, incantation-priest of Eridu,
9 Utuabzu, who ascended to heaven:
10-11 They are the seven brilliant Purâdu-fish, Puradu-i’ish of the sea;
12-13 Seven apkallü formed in the river, who keep the plans [= me] of heaven and earth in order.
14-15 Nungalpiriggal, apkallu of Enmerkar, who brought Ishtar down from heaven into the Eanna.
16-17 Piriggalnungal, formed in Kish, who angered Adad in heaven so that
18-19 he did not let there be rain or vegetation in the land for three years.
20-23 Piriggalabzu, formed in Adab, who hung his seal on a Seal-fish and thus angered Enki in the Abzu so that a fuller struck him with his own seal.
24-27 Fourth, Lu-Nanna, two-thirds apkallu, who drove a dragon out of the Eninkiag-nunna, the Istar temple of Shulgi.
28-29 Four apkallu of human descent, who Lord Enki endowed with broad understanding.
30 Ritual action: Before the seven Purâdu-apkallu who are striped with plaster and black paste,
31 which are drawn on the wall of the side of the sanctuary, you recite (the above).

But to return to the exorcist who wears a mask, another persona, that of a divine being . . . . read more »

Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2 . . . .

We come now to chapter 2, “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes.

If we want to understand how ancient scholars related to their universe, their revealed texts and revealers, the best collections of sources we have, spanning two to three thousand years up to the first century CE, are the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. In the next chapter Sanders begins to compare Judean texts.

In this chapter (2) Sanders examines the nature of the cosmos among these ancient scribes and how they went about understanding, studying and acting on it.

In addition to the texts, there is the visual imagery of divine beings, divine sages or apkallu, to help us with our inquiry.

We have images of a patient (sick, hence possessed or inflicted by a demon) surrounded by superhuman fish-apkallu standing where exorcists would be positioned.

We have royal inscriptions of the enthroned king framed by bird-apkallu maintaining cosmic order from the seat of royal power.

Scholarly participation in supernatural presence was not confined to exorcism: the economists and political scientists of their day, diviners summoned the gods to meet together in divine assembly so that the diviner could be present to hear and transmit their verdict for the country’s future. (Sanders, 72)

“Medical practice” and “political advisors” were thus the more practical pursuits of scholars. But what are the boundaries between science and what we would relegate to mumbo-jumbo in their world? And did the scholars or scribes really become, in their own minds, supernatural sages (apkallu)? Did they really believe they could journey to heaven and meet with the gods?

At this point we find an interesting connection with another book I have been posting about. It is interesting to compare the concepts of early Judean scribes to their Hebrew text — see the two posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter 2, The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text and A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language. Seth Sanders writes,

If cuneiform was the secret of Mesopotamian scribes, the ultimate decipherer of this secret was the semi-human sage Adapa, at once the symbol and the patron saint of the scribe. Probably the single most popular mythic hero in Mesopotamian literature, Adapa beat out even Gilgamesh. As Michalowski notes, “no other hero of a canonical text is so often encountered in other compositions.” This is not surprising, since he would have been so sympathetic to the scribes who produced those compositions. He is supposed to have authored omen collections, fathomed the deepest secrets of words and magic, and broken the wings of the South Wind by the sheer power of his speech. He was of paramount importance to the people who created cuneiform culture.

Adapa is crucial as a phenomenological starting point in our comparison of scribal heroes. As the best-documented ancient Near Eastern figure who ascends to heaven, negotiates with gods, transmits revelation, and fights demons to heal the sick he is simultaneously the closest thing Mesopotamia has to Moses, Enoch and the shaman of North Asian societies. Seen horizontally, from a view of cultures side by side, he represents a broad comparative type: the mediator, who moves between the worlds of gods and humans. (Sanders, 73. My bolding in all quotations)

Adapa is a figure of knowledge and power (see the previous post in this series). He is also worn as a ritual mask. And as we saw in the previous post, his function changes over time as political circumstances change.

In order to grasp something of the way the natural and divine worlds were conceptualized in Mesopotamian culture we need to set aside our dualistic notions of spirit powers and entities. To us, the spirit realm stands against the natural world, yet such a division between the two needs to be set aside, Sanders emphasizes at length. We think of God and spirit beings as not found literally in physical manifestations like idols of stone, or in natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms.

Mesopotamian texts and images portray the divine beings interacting with, present with, humans, both occupying the same space, and in some cases the human speaker actually claims to be the divine Adapa himself.

I am Adapa sage of Eridu [= location of watery source of secret knowledge]
I am the man [= servant] of Asalluhi [= the god of exorcism]
Enki [= creator and master of the demons causing the illness] the great lord has sent me to cure the man in his illness!

In what sense did the speaker understand himself to be Adapa?

Francesca Rochberg

Advances in understanding the Mesopotamian view of the supernatural vis a vis the natural world have come, Sanders explains, through exploring more deeply the nature of Mesopotamian science. And here I take a detour to have a closer look at some of the sources Sanders calls upon, work by the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg.

Before the “World of Nature”

Imagine not having a concept of “the natural world” or “nature”. We take the concept for granted and that makes it difficult for us to appreciate that it has not always existed.

A key insight has come from the history of science. Exploring Mesopotamian scholars’ criteria for meaning and truth, Francesca Rochberg has shown that cuneiform scholarship tended to see the material world as composed of signs: reality itself is semiotic. Such an ontology does not presuppose a purely non-linguistic physical nature in opposition to culture, and in fact the history of science has shown that an explicit concept of nature is not necessary to all scientific inquiry, citing ancient China and Mesopotamia as cases where forms of science thrived without it (Lloyd 2012:64).  (Sanders, 77)

What were the “subjects” of interest to Mesopotamian scholars?

Various forms of divination: astronomy and astrology, examination of sheep’s entrails, lexical texts (lists of synonyms, grammatical forms, etc.), diagnostic and therapeutic medical texts, magical texts, incantations . . . read more »

Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2

Continuing our discussion of From Adapa to Enoch (Seth Sanders), begun at Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea . . . .

In the previous post we saw the earliest account of a return journey to heaven was that of Etana. Etana ascended to heaven with the aid of an eagle he mercifully restored after it had treacherously broken a divinely sanctioned oath, secured a lasting dynasty on earth, and after his death became an immortal figure in the underworld and one to whom living persons could regularly appeal.

Etana was the “first king”, but his central role as a ritually significant figure was relatively shortlived. Another figure, a wise and learned scribe, replaced him as the mythical power behind the king and the source and power of the scribal elites.

(Sanders’ focus is on return journeys to heaven, not the one-way ones where someone (e.g. Damuzi) goes up to become a star or constellation. The significance of the return journeys is that the traveller brings acquires some special gift or message that puts them in a mediating position to benefit (or curse) other mortals.)

So we come to the story of Adapa.

Adapa in the Old Babylonian Period (ca 1800-1600 BCE)

The earliest known reference to Adapa is a ritual text relating to the exorcism of demons; most interesting is that this text is similar to the latest known reference to Adapa from, probably, the first century AD, another ritual text curing disease through exorcisms. The significance of that lies in the text being part of a “canon” that was long preserved and used for study and rituals by the scribal class.

I take liberties in copying Sanders’ text without the scholarly qualifications and omissions:

The Earth Lords, the Earth Ladies, Enkum and Ninkum!…
I am Adapa sage of Eridu, I am the man of Asalluhi.
To cure the man in his illness, Enki [=Ea] the great lord sent me.

Ea/Enki was the god of magic and secret knowledge, and Adapa was given the same occult gifts.

The ritual text informs us that Adapa was not merely a distant figure but that the exorcist, the one performing the exorcism, identified with Adapa. He spoke as Adapa the words of Adapa. Mesopotamian scribes or ritual specialists could, in their confrontation with the demon causing the disease, become the supernatural being Adapa and speak as Adapa.

The Myth of Adapa and the South Wind

The narrative myth syncs with the above ritualistic text. The earliest (Sumerian) form of the myth of Adapa in outline.

  1. Primordial time: after the Flood had destroyed the land
    • inventions of canals, agriculture, kingship
    • South Wind brought blessings
    • but a time of ignorance: no-one knew how to give or follow orders
  2. Adapa, a sage, was the devotee of the god Ea [=Enki], in Eridu.
  3. Adapa went fishing to supply his master’s temple
  4. He navigates without rudder or pole, until . . .
  5. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind
  6. Adapa cursed the South Wind breaking his wings with his word
  7. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  8. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    • he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz/Dumuzi and Gizzida/Ningishzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    • he was to refuse the bread of death and the water of death that Anu would offer him, but he should accept the clothing and oil of anointing.
  9. At first all goes well and Adapa is given a throne, but then . . .
  10. Anu offers Adapa bread and water: Anu has been so impressed by Adapa that he offers him bread and water of immortal life, not death; but Adapa, recalling his instructions from Ea, fears the banquet of death and declines the offer.
  11. Anu orders Ea (presumably through Adapa) to restore the South Wind’s wings and sends down to earth the incantation that will keep the South Wind in its ordained place.
    (We have here the origin of Adapa’s power over demons and healing; and further, the origin on earth, through Adapa, of “the cosmic principles of culture and order”.)
  12. The narrative concludes with a ritual prayer against the South Wind responsible for bringing disease to a patient.

The very words of Adapa have power. Adapa brings to the world, on his return from heaven, the secret knowledge of the words that have power over the elements, over illness, and their demonic causes. Adapa is the epitome of wisdom and secret knowledge. Ritualist, exorcists, will call upon his name, identify with Adapa himself and claim to speak his very words, to restore health, and, as we will see, to master the elements more broadly.

Adapa and the Assyrian Kings

The first king to cite Adapa in a public monument was Sargon II, conqueror of Israel. Sargon compared himself directly not with the mighty Gilgamesh but with the supremely wise Adapa:

The king: open-minded, sharp-eyed, in all matters the equal of the Sage, who became great in counsel and wisdom and grew old in understanding.

Sennacherib’s Annals boasted

Ea gave me broad understanding, endowed me with vast knowledge equivalent to that of the Sage Adapa.

Esarhaddon inscribed his claim to be

Rival of the Sage Adapa, who Prince Ea endowed (with wisdom).

Assurbanipal in particular promoted himself as an epitome of scholarly knowledge and access to “hidden cosmic secrets”. He documented his presence in the temples and “among the council of scholars”:

I grasped the work of the Sage Adapa, the hidden treasure of the whole scribal art.

Assurbanipal exalted the scholarly feats of the king to an unprecedented level:

The intellectual image of Assurbanipal depicted in his inscriptions is tied to a new state-sponsored project that modified and expanded scribal culture. As Frahm notes (1997:280), this period witnessed an explosion of commentaries and ritual texts. While accidents o f preservation may explain the number of such texts, it does not explain the appearance of whole new discursive forms such as the “cultic commentary”; a significant feature of these new forms is their sheer difficulty. The difficulty of the materials may derive from their in-group nature. (p. 45)

Sanders writes

Adapa is the mythic figure to whom the king is most often compared. The king’s deeds are like those of Adapa, his wisdom rivals that of Adapa, even his mother’s health is like that of Adapa. (p. 66)

The great building projects of the Assyrian kings, his conquests, were all evidence of the god-given qualities of the king, the qualities of Adapa himself. Adapa represented the authority, the wisdom, the intellectual prowess of the king.

Assurbanipal’s boast to have mastered all written knowledge provides a propagandistic self-conception modeled on the ideal figure of the sage. The profile includes rivalry with a supernatural intermediary figure, schooling in cosmic secrets, the decipherment of encoded messages, and presence in the counsel of the learned. It may be compared to the more limited propagandistic description of Nebuchadnezzar I as descended from Enmeduranki, a Sumerian king described as performing extispicy and lecanomancy . . . . Nebuchadnezzar does not claim any divinatory ability for himself, but retrojects this ability into an invented past. It is significant, then, that Assurbanipal’s scholars also utilize this type of ancestral ideology, claiming that the king is descended from a sage and Adapa . . . . As the Neo-Assyrian kings adopted scribal features, they also thereby further politicized the figure of the scribe. (p. 46)

The Scribal / Adapa Revolution

After the Persian empire swept away the Babylonian kings the Mesopotamian scribal class that had existed to support those kings accordingly found a new role and status for itself. read more »

Heavenly Journeys, from Babylon to Judea

I am looking forward to sharing some of the research of Seth L. Sanders published in From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon (2017). I sought out the book in expectations that it would open to my understanding the ancient thought-world that lies behind our own religious heritage. Sometimes we will hear that a biblical person or trope has a parallel of sorts in ancient Mesopotamia yet give little thought to the fact that the time gap between the two can be half a millennium or more. How can we meaningfully speak of an influence between A1 and A2 if they are separated by such a span? Besides, how credible is it to imagine different cultures, languages, races, being so frozen within a common umbrella culture that never changes so that a story of a hero’s heavenly journey in Babylonia can have the same meaning and function as another hero’s heavenly journey many centuries later and hundreds of miles distant?

Sanders hopes to find answers to those sorts of questions. How was it that a story of a heavenly journey by Enoch in Hellenistic era texts echoed similar stories in Mesopotamia 500 or even 1000 years earlier? And it didn’t just end with Enoch. Paul, we know, also spoke of experiencing a heavenly journey, and we will see in these posts that his letters spoke of other experiences for all those “in Christ” that have remarkable correspondences with the experiences of Enoch and his predecessors and with the scribal elites who read and used these texts.

I said I sought out the book. The book appeared in my mail box a few weeks after I had requested a review copy from Mohr Siebeck. I heard nothing back from them but I presume it was them who forwarded the book to me. So for that I’m thankful.

I have mentioned the literature of the heavenly journeys of sages. Hellenistic era Judea and Babylonian-Assyrian era Mesopotamia also shared literature of exegetical commentaries and astronomical science.

If these changes are part of a shared development in the intellectual life of the region, shifts in a common ancient Near Eastern scribal culture, why do they only appear in Judea so much later, under the new conditions of Hellenism? Ancient Near Eastern scribal culture spans more than 3,000 years, far-flung cities and empires, and many languages and writing systems. The risk of examining it as a whole is there may not be a whole – at least, we will be better able to tell once we have seen it intimately, at specific moments, in particular forms. (p. 1)

Before addressing some of Sanders’ criticisms of past approaches to similarities between Iron Age Mesopotamian and Hellenistic Judean literary cultures I choose to start with the earliest known story of a heavenly journey from Mesopotamia. read more »

Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales

Just for fun, as an appendix to the previous post, here are other stories of heroes being carried up into the heavens by eagles. Some appear to inspire aspirational thoughts of heavenly things while others warn of the hubris that felled Satan.

In that previous post I linked to (and briefly outlined) a story of Etana but for the sake of completeness let’s look at that starting point once more, this time with Aro’s description.

Akkadian Etana Myth

An eagle and a snake make a holy covenant that neither of them will harm the other. In spite of this, the eagle later devours the young of the snake and is punished by the Sun-God. Some kind of atonement is provided by the hero Etana who is looking for the “plant of birth” in order to obtain offspring. The eagle is willing to carry him to heaven upon its shoulders. The plan does not seem to lead to a successful completion, because Etana is frightened by the terrible height. He seems, however, to have obtained the plant, because other fragments of the epic presuppose that he sired a son. What interests us here is the idea of “space-travel” with an eagle and the conversation between Etana and the eagle:

The eagle says to him, to Etana:
“See, my friend, how the land appears!
Peer at the sea at the sides of E[kur]!”
“The land … a mountain,
the sea has become like waters of [. . . . ]”
When he had born him aloft a second league,
the eagle says to him, to Etana:
”See, my friend, how the land appears!”
“The land has turned to a gardener’s ditch.

Etana and the eagle arrive at the heaven of Anu, and there is a break in the text; after that they presumably rise even higher. The conversation is continued on similar lines: e.g. the sea looks after one league’s flight like an enclosure, after two leagues the land is like a garden and the sea like a trough. At last Etana cannot see anything, and he is panicked: “My friend, I will not ascend to heaven.” The eagle descends with enormous speed to the ground.

(Aro, 25f)

Illustrating a version having griffins (eagle-lion hybrids) carrying Alexander aloft.

Alexander the Great’s Ascent

From the origins of Sumerian civilization to the end of the Persian period, this tale must have been read and repeated throughout Western Asia. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and ruled Babylonia, it was transferred to him. The legend of the Ascension of Alexander spread throughout the ancient world and has descended to modern times in endless versions, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Old French. Representations of Alexander’s ascent on eagles yoked together are found on tapestries, on illuminated manuscripts, painted on walls of palaces, and even in sculptures of Christian cathedrals. A Jewish scribe of the fourth century A.D. refers to it in the Talmud.

“Alexander the Macedonian wished to ascend in the air. He mounted, mounted, until he saw the earth as a cup and the sea as a caldron.”

Here follows a resume of the earliest Greek versions. Arrived at the extremity of the earth, Alexander desired to discover where the vault of Heaven reposed on the earth. His soldiers selected two great birds, which he caused to be without food for three days. He then put them under a yoke, and attached the hide of a bull to the yoke. A basket was fastened to the yoke, into which he climbed, having a long spear. To the end of this spear he attached the liver of a horse. The liver he held high above the heads of the hungry birds; in their eagerness to reach it they carried him upward. He ascended until the air became icy cold. Here he was halted by a bird-man who said to him:

“Alexander, thou art ignorant of terrestrial things, why desirest thou to understand those of Heaven? Return quickly to earth, and fear lest thou be the prey of these birds. Look upon the earth below.”

Seized with fear Alexander looked downward, and the earth looked like a threshing floor, surrounded by a serpent, which was the sea. He descended successfully “by the mercy of supreme Providence,” but landed seven days’ journey from his camp. Saved from famine by a satrap he received a guard of soldiers and reached his camp.

(Langdon, 173f)

Nimrod’s Ascent

In Islamic legends told by the commentators of the Qur’an, especially at-Tabar!, the same story is told about Nimrod (ar. Namrūd), and utilized to explain the words of Surah 14,46:
read more »

A Hero’s Flight to Heaven on the Back of a Bird — Understanding the Parallels

Etana ascending on an eagle

I was completely sold on Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch after reading William Brown’s review of it back in 2017.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review of ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review: Reviewing Publications, History, and Scripture (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

After my first quick racing through the book I feel confident enough to say that Brown’s review is pretty much spot on. As I pore through the chapters more slowly and methodically, following up footnotes and other references, I am finding a growing number of points I would like to address in some depth here on this blog. They won’t be completed quickly, and the first post won’t even be about a central point of Sanders’ specific thesis per se; it will be a generic point of methodology — or of fundamental validity of argument in relation to parallel narratives.

The oldest known ascent to heaven in the ancient Near East is the story of Etana, a legendary early Sumerian king who rode to heaven on the back of an eagle in search of a magic herb that could help him produce an heir. (Sanders, p. 28)

The story begins with the eagle making a pact with a snake, a story that is set out in detail at The Myth of Etana (Ancient History Encyclopedia) by Joshua J. Mark. The eagle breaks his promise to the snake and is punished by having his wings damaged, disabling him from flight. Etana finds the eagle in distress and helps him back to strength while the eagle this time returns the kindness by helping Etana to find what he needs in the heavens, a plant that would guarantee his ability to produce a royal heir. So the eagle carries Etana up to the heavens on his back.

You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and here’s why:

The Etana story has strong connections with a widely diffused myth and needs to be seen in historical context if it is to reveal anything about Mesopotamian written culture. A hero’s flight to heaven on the back of a bird is a widespread motif that appears in classical, Persian, Islamic, and even twentieth-century Finnish sources.2 (Sanders, p. 29)

Finnish? Here is the reference cited by Jussi Aro of Helsinki. It is from #537 in Antti Aarne’s The Types of the Folktale:

537 The Marvelous Eagle Gives the Hero a Box which he must not open.

I. The Speaking Eagle. A man aims to shoot an eagle, when suddenly the bird begins to speak like a human being [B21I.3]. The man spares him.

II. The Grateful Eagle. The bird has a wing broken. The man cares for it for three years and wastes all his property by feeding the bird. Finally the eagle recovers and will repay the man for his kindness [B380, Q45].

III. The Journey by Air. The bird then carries the man on his back across the sea [3552] to his kingdom [B222], and intimidates him three times by nearly dropping him into the sea (the hunter has once aimed three times with his gun at the bird). . . . .

Aro comments:

Can we be sure that the fairy-tale motifs mentioned above really go back to ancient Mesopotamian sources and that they have been transmitted either orally or in a literary form for some four thousand years? I think we can. It is true that the fairy-tale versions of the Lugalbanda-Anzu story differ from the original: the hero does not feed or decorate the young but saves them fwm a dragon or a snake; the latter versions are of course more logical and expressive. But still the modern versions preserve many charactedstic features of the original: there is the lonely place, the tree, the bird’s nest with the young, the bird’s suspicions when returning to the nest, the role of the young in appeasing the bird, the help bestowed by the bird on the hero, etc. The most characteristic feature of the Etana-motif again is the speculation on space-travel and the successively diminished appearance of the earth that is described preferably by a dialogue between the bird and the hero between two persons in the primitive spaceship. In this episode there is a bit of old Mesopotamian “science-fiction that has subsequently been turned in Hellenistic and later literature into a warning against hybris and in the folk-tales to a mere embellishment of the story. (Aro, p. 28)

That’s one perspective. But consider Sanders’ comment:

These parallels emphasize a fact crucial for the comparison of ancient scribal products: narratives may resemble each other independently of historical and cultural context. The fact that the Finnish and Islamic versions can easily be described in terms close to the Mesopotamian story reminds us that literary resemblance has limited inherent significance by itself.3 It is impossible to understand a narrative historically on its own; we must understand what it meant to its audiences over time. (p. 29)

And footnote 3:

The similarity of such stories in distinctly separate cultures requires us to abandon the question of whether one form “should be traced back” to the other or is “just coincidence;” either way, absent any historical relationship or comparison of social contexts, the similarity is “just coincidence.” That is, the retention itself is so isolated that, without a concrete social or historical explanation of the similarity, it appears unintelligible and random. (my emphasis)


Aarne, Antti. 1973. The Types of the Folktale; A Classification and Bibliography. Translated by Stith Thompson. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Aro, Jussi. 1976. “Anzu and Simurgh.” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by Barry L Eichler, 25–28. Kevelaer : Butzon & Bercker.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review: ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

Mark, Joshua J. 2011. “The Myth of Etana.” In Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/article/224/the-myth-of-etana/.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.