“From Adapa to Enoch” by Seth Sanders

Seth Sanders. From Adapa to Enoch. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 167. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2017, 280 pp..


From Adapa to Enoch places the scribal cultures of Judah and Babylon into dialogue, focusing both on their distinctive elements and their shared Aramaic culture. So, he begins by offering an over of the seminal studies of scribal culture by Carr, Van der Toorn, and Milstein. He contends that these major studies do not capitalize on dated cuneiform literature. Such literature shows not only how literary texts were edited, “but for what their editors and users thought about their material, evidence for how they were used and what they meant to people” (p. 10). Following, Sanders illustrates how Heinrich Zimmern’s claim about the importance of Enmeduranki for Enoch is not based in comparison of the two texts. Zimmern’s conclusions, though, are still a staple of how people tend to construe Judean and Babylonian scribal cultures. So, noting the development in how we have come to understand Babylonian apocalyptic thought, provides his base claim: he argues for a Judean scribal culture of reinvention and a Babylonian scribal culture of continuity, and how comparison of these scribal cultures help “illuminate the historically specific creativity of each culture” (23).

Chapter One begins by freshly analyzing “the Mesopotamian evidence on ascent to heaven from the earliest to latest sources, placing both texts and images in historical context” (27). These figures he analyzes are Etana, Dumuzi, and Adapa. Of these three, Dumuzi, he concludes, is relatively insignificant. Similarly, Etana is am important figure; however, literary and culture value of Etana fades after the OB period. Adapa, though, thrives and changes from OB Sumerian texts to Seleucid texts. Such developments occur within a variety of historical contexts. Notably, the texts upon which he draw are not only literary texts; rather, they include ritual and historical texts. So, Sander’s analysis is particularly strong because it draws on a variety of genres. Based on this evidence, he offers an outline of how ancient traditions were developed and transformed into new genres by scribes. Succinctly put, the figure of Adapa began as an ideal moderl for ritual performance/exorcism in the OB period, and he developed into the an important figure for scribal families by the Hellenistic period.

Expanding on the issue of how sages and scribes could claim to have “been” Adapa, Chapter Two explores ancient scribal ontology and epistemology. It considers how scribes/scholars defined themselves in relation to the cosmos. Notably, he comments on European metaphysical assumptions: “To understand Mesopotamian ritual attitudes it will help to bracket European metaphysical assumptions about supernatural presence, and instead attend more precisely to the claims of Mesopotamian texts using the tools of linguistics and anthropology”(72). So, starting with Adapa as a phenomenological starting point in exorcist ritual, he notes that the figure Adapa is donned as a ritual mask. Because this 2,000-year-old idea is evidence for how Mesopotamians talked about themselves, Sanders engages with it. For, in doing so, “it is possible to detail the positions that a ritual participant took in interacting with tradition, and the sense of his place in the cosmos from which the participant spoke and acted in religious contexts” (74). And the question being asked is of divine presence. Consequently, he briefly notes that the tangibility of divine presence (or lack thereof) is our own problem. Ancient scribal ontology was more semiotic. On this basis, (1) the phrase “I am Adapa” by exorcists in Etukū Lemnūtu and (2) the physicality of essence (ME; melammu) indicate the ‘mask’ of Adapa expressed a real, physical essence. By wearing this mask, the exorcist was anabled to animate the principle. He spoke, then, with the principals power and authority without being responsible for the words.

To address how the exorcist met with the divine assembly in the ritual framework, he exames the formula mannam lušpur (“Whom shall I send?”). In an OB incantation, it closes the divide between the divine helper and victim. Yet, when re-arranged in the 1st millenium Maqlû ritual, the exorcist becomes the one who speaks “in a role of divine knowledge and power such that he can elicit cosmic judgement against this evil force and set the universe back in order” (89). Sanders then relates this back to the issue of the divine assembly. Similar to how an exorcist bears a mask in order to suppress his authorship, a divine invites the council to earth. Subsequently, he acts as the judge, even though authority is diverted to Šamaš/Adad.

From a historical angle, this personae was carried by the king; however, scribes assumed the prerogative after native kingship fell. So, scribes became the new royalty with regard to the location of the divine assembly. Sanders notes that divination texts only place such assembly in the proximity of the person doing divination. This, though, is the norm: most divine assemblies meet in Nippur or Babylon. So, by recognizing Mesopotamian ontology and how the universe was structured linguistically, Sanders note two major historical shifts regarding the figure of Adapa. First, while Adapa is first understood as a kingly figure, he comes to be understood as a scribal figure after the fall of native kingship. Second, the theme of ascent to heaven (i.e. Adapa) shifts from generic myth to more personal forms. Even with the unique historical developments, each shift still recognized the “revelation” was normal for the ritualists. A similar development is found within Judean literature during the Persian period.

Shifting from Babylon to Judah, Chapter Three examines how Judean scribes of Ezekiel created new ways of divine transmission of knowledge. This new way was divine knowledge via measurements, a consequence of the hand of the lord seizing Ezekiel. Unlike pre-exilic literature, Ezekiel is the only book to describe the process, or experience, of seeing God. The scribe, though, is careful not to talk about actually seeing God. So, by noting the development of the phrase ‘word of Yahweh’ in Jeremiah from a dramatic event to an open-quote marker (Ezekiel), Sanders suggests this shift can “provide us with a window on an emerging scribal technique, and the attitude toward divine speech it implies” (112). After re-asserting the necessity of a non-Western ontology, he argues that Ezekiel’s language itself may be a way of mediating God’s presence. He argues that this is precisely what the text is designed to do.

Having established that the ‘word of Yahweh’ is more or less not pragmatic in Ezekiel, he consider the role of “the hand of the Lord.” Of the seven appearances of the phrase, each case “is a way of talking about physical events in the world – a world that includes Ezekiel’s person but extends out from it” (123). He concludes this on the basis of the usages and medical background of the phrase qāt ili  or qāt DN “hand of a god/god X.” Notably, the final usage of the phrase ‘hand of the Lord’, Ezekiel is given a new way to transmit knowledge. Rather than communicate visions, he communicates acts of measurements, which subsequently express torah via the temple. Thus, ‘exact knowledge, transmitted through measuring, will allow the Temple and the law to be revealed to Israel” (126). Such a development is important because it represents a movement towards heavenly measurement found in later Judean literature like the Astronomical Book of Enoch, the Temple Scroll, and Songs of the Sabbath  Sacrifice. So, in short, Ezekiel mediates divine presence through numerical measurements and “the hand of the Lord.”

Having established how Ezekiel mediates the presence of Yahweh, and so a sort of early Judean science, Chapter Four shifts into how that plays out in Enoch. In particular , he focuses on how Judean science, namely systematic exact knowledge of the physical world, came to be in the Astronomical Book of Enoch. While texts like Deuteronomy reflect a key assumption of Mesopotamian astral sciences, Aramaic literature breaks with this tradition. Enoch, which is Aramaic literatures, illustrates this shift. The shift incorporates Babylonian astral sciences, where science is “a system of exact knowledge of the physical world” (137). Such a shift in Judean literature, though, has a biblical precedent. In priestly literature, Sanders notes three major division: cosmos, tabernacle, and body. In these divisions, only the tabernacle and body are framed as being revealed. So, Sander’s argues that Enoch is continuous with early priestly literature because it focuses primarily on the revelation of temple and body.

Furthermore, just like how temple and body are revealed in priestly literature, Enoch, frames the revelations with the passive of a causative verb. This indicates that mode of knowledge was based on “God revealed X.” So, revelation is equivalent to scientific knowledge in Enoch. This further suggests that Enoch stands in continuity with biblical traditions and that it should be understand as a new Judean science: revealed science.

His analyses make more evident shared things between Judean and Babylonian scribes. First, although Judeans practiced differently, both groups understood knowledge of the physical world on the basis of a cosmos made of signs. Second, the movement to associate scholars with legendary figures for both scribal cultures occurred during the 6th century BCE, with the death of native kingship around 587 and 539. So, just as Babylonian scribal culture shifted towards cosmic numbers, so did Judean scribal culture. The remaining question, though, is how Aramaic scribal culture functioned as a medium between Babylon and the southern Levant. Chapter Five seeks to answer this question.

In Chapter Five, Sanders traces the historical relation between Babylonian and Judean writers. In particular, he does this through a detailed survey of Aramaic as “a major medium of East Semitic-West Semitic exchange from the Iron Age onward” (156). Prior to analysis and implications of each piece of empirical evidence for West-Semitic adaptation of Mesopotamian texts in Judah, he notes the most evident and commonly recognized examples of textual adaptation. These texts, he notes, reframe something into a narrative. Likewise, Second Temple period Aramaic is typically numerical, which is found in Judean texts. Third, he notes points of literary adaptation between late Judean Aramaic scribes and Mesopotamian scribes.

He then shifts to the first survey of plausible instances exemplifying Mesopotamian tropes and texts adapted into West Semitic contexts. He offers 8 dateable texts which illustrate contact between people within Mesopotamian and West-Semitic contexts. These texts, he argues, indicate the spread of Mesopotamian context to West-Semitic contexts (via Aramaic) in three main channels of communication: “court chanceries, the oral performance of political and legal rituals, and the widespread use of documentary scribes” (188). Through a set of colophons in late scholarly texts, and analysis of relevant data, Sanders suggests that, amongst Aramaic scribes, Mesopotamian scholarly texts on parchment were considered valid, original literary documents. This suggests that Mesopotamian science documents were circulated on parchment by the Seleucid period. Consequently, this exemplifies a clear process by which Mesopotamian elements may have been translated from Aramaic and then into Hebrew.

This allows Sanders to make some important observations about Aramaic scribal culture. First, Aramaic literature of the Persian and Hellenistic periods celebrates a wide variety of cultures and exploits. In other words, it is more cosmopolitan than ethnic because it primarily recalls historical memories as far back as the NA and Egyptian empires. Second, the medium of Aramaic writing replaced the historically predominant medium, namely clay cuneiform. The result of these factors was the explosion of Aramaic scribal culture, which circulated freely, with no material markers of Babylonian identity. In other words, it functioned as scholarly language between Judean and Babylonian scribes.

Having clearly demonstrated the relationship between Judean, Aramaic, and Babylonian scribal cultures, Chapter Six focuses primarily on Judean scribal culture. It asks how Judean scribes expressed their values. That is to say, he examines how Judean scribes oriented themselves to the cosmos. Often times, this was expressed through ‘being god-like’. So, he applies the models of exact evidence of the world (i.e. Judean science) to early Judean literature, focusing on how Judean literary texts provided ritual models for readers and writers. In light of his previous analyses, a productive approach to texts like the Qumran “Self-Glorification Hymn” may be accomplished via tracing its historical relationship to texts with the myth of ascent. Texts like the Hadayot, Sanders notes, utilize the same strategy as Enoch: people are caused to see. So, at Qumran, one studies in order to prepare himself to receive revealed science. This divine role within the Qumran “Self-Glorification Hymn” was underwritten by two major myths. First was the adoption of Moses’ shining face, namely the transformed state of an enlightened sage which parallels the Mesopotamian notion of melammu, and of the term maskilim (from Daniel) in Qumran texts as normative. The second myth is that of light-bearing being who attempt to usurp God’s throne (found in the Epic of Baal; Is. 14:12-14; Ez. 28:6-9); however, the Qumran text reverse the myth: rather than restric proximity to Yahweh, the rhetoric suggests that it was now possible for humans to be in the proximity of God.

Subsequently, he explores how those underwritten myths reflect a broader, dualistic, and concrete understanding of the cosmos, which was essentially a form of Judean science. Notably, these interpretations of earlier myths and texts developed into institutionalized roles. Likewise, language was “part of the ontological framework by which the universe was built” (225). Such realities like divine-light only needed to be realized in religious practice.

In summary, Sanders sets out clear evidence for the relationship between Adapa and Enoch as the scribal heroes of their respective scribal communities; however, he is careful to consider how each scribal hero was unique to their culture. This idea of a scribal hero shared between Babylonian and Judean scribes was likely a result of shared Aramaic scribal culture. Furthermore, the notions of divine presence likely spread to Judean scribes via the “parchment period,” a period during which Aramaic was a primary, common means of knowledge. So, Judean scribes began to explore this issue as a result of the exile. This result in ideas which eventually culminated into a focus on specific measurements, a form of Judean, apocalyptic science. So, by the end of the 1st millennium, Judean scribes shared with Babylonian scribes the notion of a “semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways” (235). For Judeans, this was expressed as narratives, while Babylonians expressed this via cuneiform collections.


Sanders work move forward scholarship about Babylonian and Judean scribal culture in a substantial way, particularly, how the geographically distinct scribal cultures exchanged ideas. Although previous scholars have commented on the role of Aramaic scribal culture, Sanders offers a thorough and convincing argument for the physical means of transmission from Babylon to Aramaic to Judean. Especially in this regard, his analyses will be a primary reference for many years to come.

Furthermore, his ability to connect major theoretical issues with philological rigor is particularly skillful. I refer to his discussion regarding divine presence. Divine presence in Judah and Mesopotamia are both illustrated thoroughly and convincingly. His model is a starting point for any future work on divine presence.

Ultimately, the book is excellent. He is thorough, rigorous, and engages with the texts and theories well. That said, there were a two minor points on which he did not capitalize. These will be brief. First, during his discussion about melammu and the mask of light, there was not reference to Shawn Zelig Aster’s Unbeatable Light (AOAT 384, 2012). To not engage with a text like that is surprising because Aster’s volume is so important.

Second, in Chapter 3 Sanders discusses the role of the “hand of the Lord” in Ezekiel. One thing which he does not capitalize on, though, is variations of the phrase. For example, in Ezekiel 39:21 says: “I set my kbwd among the nations and they shall see my judgement, which I established, and my hand, which I established among you.” It may have be productive to explore how variations of the phrase are applied to figures other than Ezekiel, something I will be doing for a presentation on Psalm 29. This, though, is not too significant of an issue.

Overall, though, Sanders’ arguments pack a punch because they are dripping in philological inquiry, solid theoretical foundation, close textual analyses, and a creative mind. I highly recommend this book to anybody doing any work in Hebrew Bible and Judean literature.




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