Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

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