New Book by Dever

In Novermber, a new book by William Dever will be published. Here is the description with a link: “William G. Dever offers a welcome perspective on ancient Israel and Judah that prioritizes the archaeological remains to render history as it was—not as the biblical writers argue it should have been. Drawing from the most recent archaeological data as interpreted from a nontheological point of view and supplementing that data with biblical material only when it converges with the archaeological record, Dever analyzes all the evidence at hand to provide a new history of ancient Israel and Judah that is accessible to all interested readers.” (LINK)


Academic Publishing and “Accessible” Information

As I spent a few minutes exploring new publications by Routledge, I came across an interesting series. It is titled Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. Here is the description:

“Routledge is pleased to present an exciting series, Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. These figures from antiquity are embedded in our culture, many functioning as the source of creative inspiration for poets, novelists, artists, composers and filmmakers. Concerned with their multifaceted aspects within the world of ancient paganism and how and why these figures continue to fascinate, the books provide a route into understanding Greek and Roman polytheism in the 21st century.

These concise and comprehensive guides provide a thorough understanding of each figure, offering the latest in critical research from the leading scholars in the field in an accessible and approachable form, making them ideal for undergraduates in Classics and related disciplines.

Each volume includes illustrations, time charts, family trees and maps where appropriate.”

(Click here for link; bold text added for emphasis)

While this volume may be good for undergraduates, I still question whether or not it is actually accessible. The cost of the first volume, entitled Ishtar, is $149.95. The eBook is $49.95. In my mind, this is not accessible. Instead, it is limited to those who have access to a university library or a large amount of money. Perhaps, then, Routledge should be careful in applying the description “accessible,” for few will actually be able to read it due to its cost.

I should note, though, that I recognize how much work can go into editing volumes. Even so, it is nothing but self-deception to pretend that a book of this cost will be accessible to many people. If scholars truly want knowledge and information to be accessible, they should find venues to disseminate the information.

“The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Religions. General editor Eric Orlin. NY, New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 1054.Religion

In a day and age when new encyclopedias seem to be published every other day, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (henceforth referenced to as REAMR) is a breath a fresh air. Unlike many specialized encyclopedias, REAMR attempts to offer a general overview of a wide variety of cultures and practices relevant to the Mediterranean. These entries provide a cross-cultural perspective, noting unique and distinct elements of particular topics. Similarly, authors for entries were instructed to focus on writing for the Religious Studies field who did not share that specialty. In other words, a scholars writing an entry about the Hebrew Bible would assume the reader is within the field of Religious Studies; however, it should be oriented to a non-specialist in that particular field, such as a scholar of Islamic Studies.

This was, I think, successful for the most part. Although there were a few problematic entries, they generally presented the information in a clear and concise manner. Because the academic environment encourages inter-disciplinary scholarship, this volume offers an entry point into sub-fields distinct from ones own. Furthermore, the volume covers from the Bronze Age up to Late Antiquity. In terms of the traditions, it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. So, the volume includes, though is not limited to, Judaism, Roman religion, Greek religion, Persian religion, Ugaritic religion, Canaanite religion, Egyptian religion, South Arabian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Thus, in terms of its diversity of represented religious traditions, this REAMR is distinguished from other encyclopedias.

Before I offer notes on particular encyclopedia entries, I have one primary criticism of the volume. The beginning of the volume comments on the issue of defining the category of religion: “The term religion is itself disputed, as a number of recent discussions have highlighted. Because we realized early on that we would need to include many headwords to provide cultural background that might not be strictly religious (such as Hellenistic Age), we decided that it was not necessary to offer a specific definition of “religion” in order to exclude material felt to be “non-religious”. (xvii)” They continue by noting that religion was often times not seen as a distinct category from social or cultural. In principle, this decision makes sense.

Even though it is difficult to define religion, the editors of REAMR missed an opportunity. For an entry titled “Religion” could have at least offered a succinct overview of the history of scholarship, problems, and various ways of defining ‘religion.’ This criticism, though, is minor. Even so, the volume is incredibly valuable as a whole. While individuals probably will not purchase this volume, there are two groups in particular for which is will be helpful: small organizations in need of a thorough dictionary on ancient Mediterranean religions [1] and universities with a small library budget. Regarding the latter, the volume is $285 as an eBook (Hardback $408). Because REAMR covers such a wide range of traditions and time periods, though, it is well worth the investment. As far as I am aware, few encyclopedias offer such a comprehensive overview of Mediterranean religious traditions at that price.

Following, I will offer notes on specifics within the volume:

  • Some contributions were unnecessarily lengthy. For example, the entry on ‘Conversion’ is about four pages. So, it seems more like a lengthy argument regarding the topic of Christianity and conversion than an overview/succinct explanation of conversion. Similarly, the following are too lengthy, each for differing reasons: ‘Gnosticism’, ‘Imperial Cult’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Jupiter’, ‘Sacred Law’ (6 pages), ‘Mithraeum’, ‘Orphism’, ‘Revelation of John’, and ‘Women’.
  • One contribution is particularly exemplary in terms of providing a broad overview of a major religion topic: ‘Cult Statue’. Although three pages long, it does an excellent job at offering an overview of cult statues in Mesopotamia, Egypt/Northwest Semitic areas, and Greece/Rome (See also the entries on ‘Domestic Religion’, ‘Myth’)
  • The entry on ‘Figurines’ is far too lengthy as an entry. More problematic, though, is that it seems hyper-focused on Greek figurines. It only briefly mentions ancient Near Eastern figures.
  • The entry on ‘Purity’ is far too focused on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Purity in other contexts is ignored.
  • The beginning of the volume has a series of maps and a chronology. The chronology places the following side-by-side: Near East, Judea, Egypt and North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, and Italy. Both the maps and chronology are particularly helpful for understanding the broader world events within specific time periods.

Even with these critiques, the volume is excellent. REAMR offers a broad overview of many religious traditions and cultures. Because of this, it is a valuable addition to libraries, in particular to small schools with low budgets. The value of REAMR is well worth the cost.

Typos: pg. 321: “… resemble AGNES” martyrdom.”; pg. 87 “… The Arabization of the Near East let to a decline…” (presumably “led” to a decline); p. 334, ‘Ezra, Vision of’ (the caps formatting is funky).

[1] I make this comment based off my experience visiting a local NPR station. At it, a few encyclopedias were sitting around. I suspect that the were used as general references for reporting on any relevant issues.

On the Meaning of “To Make a Covenant”

What does it mean to “make a covenant”? Often times, people recognize that a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It is a type of treaty between a stronger party and a weaker party. In the Hebrew Bible, those two parties are Yahweh and Israel. A more literal translation of the text, though, would be to “cut a covenant.” Growing up I’ve heard many explanations for why the Hebrew text uses a verb meaning “to cut.” One explanation is that a covenant is “cut” with regard to tablets on which are the ten commandments. In other words, Yahweh “cut” a covenant by writing on stone and cutting the stone out of the mountain. For a while, this was satisfactory. There is, though, a more likely explanation. Here, I hope to demonstrate how the underlying concept behind “cut a covenant” is that of sacrificing an animal.

Because the Hebrew Bible was developed and composed within the ancient Near East, it is helpful to look toward other literary evidence from (1) the Near East more broadly and (2) more localized evidence. One text from the 8th century BCE offers such evidence. It is from the ancient Near East more broadly because it was produced by the Neo-Assyrian empire. It is more localized because the treaty is between the Neo-Assyrian empire and a king in Syria-Palestine. As an Aramean king, it was local too a certain extent because the Hebrew Bible speaks about interaction between Arameans and Israel. This means they would have experience intercultural exchange and shared ideas between their respective cultures. Thus, the treaty may help us to better understand notions of “covenant” because the Hebrew Bible and treaty are within a similar geographic region (Syria-Palestine), time period (8th century BCE), and there is evidence for interaction between Aramean kings and Israel.

The Neo-Assyrian Treaty

The treaty is between a Neo-Assyrian king and an Aramean king in Northern Syria (Arpad). It dates from about the 8th century BCE. The Neo-Assyrian king is Assur-nerari V. The Aramaean king is Mati’-ilu. In the treaty, the sovereign figure, Assur-nerari V, demands the support of subordinate figure, Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. In order to cement the treaty, they bring out a lamb: “[This lamb] has been brought to conclude the treaty of Aššur-nerari, king of Assyria with Mati’-ilu.”

The text, though, is careful to note that the lamb is not for sacrifice or a basic meal; rather, the lamb seems to symbolically represent  Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. Rather than acting upon the lamb, the treaty compares head of the lamb to Mati’-ilu:

This head is not the head of a spring lamb, it is the head of Mati’-ilu, it is the head of his sons, his magnates and the people of [his la]nd. If Mati’-ilu [should sin] against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is c[ut] off, and its knuckle placed in its mouth, [] the head of Mati’-ilu be cut off…” (SAA II 02, lines 21-28).

Likewise, the shoulder of the lamb is compared to Mati’-ilu:

This shoulder is not the shoulder of a spring lamb, it is the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, it is the shoulder of his so[ns, his magnates, and the people of his land. If Mati’-ilu] should sin against this[treaty], so may, just as the shou[lder of this spring lamb] is torn out and [placed in], the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, of his sons, [his magnates] and the people of his land be torn out and [placed] in[]” (SAA II 02, lines 29-35).

In other words, the head and shoulder of the lamb are metaphorically Mati’-ilu. In order to cement the treaty, the parties slaughter this lamb. This is the treaty says “just as the shoulder of this spring lamb is torn out.” In both cases, the treaty seems to symbolically represent the consequences of breaking the treaty. The slaughter of the lamb is a representation of what will happen to Mati’-ilu if he opposes the Neo-Assyrian empire.

From Neo-Assyrian Treaty to Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

Previously, we discussed how a Neo-Assyrian text utilizes the cutting of an animal in order to vividly illustrate the consequences of breaking the treaty. If one breaks a cut covenant, they will be destroyed and cut like the animal. One narrative in the Hebrew Bible which expresses a similar sentiment is Genesis 14-15. In Gen. 14:22-24, Abram (Abraham) expresses his devotion to Yahweh:

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share” (NRSV).

In this passage, Abram declares his dedication to Yahweh, who is the superior figure. While Mati’-ilu agrees to support the Neo-Assyrian empire in the treaty, Abram is demonstrated as supporting the deity Yahweh. Furthermore, this occurs after Abram defeats a series of tribal leaders. In Near Eastern thought, military victories were often understood as evidence of support from the divine realm. Whereas the treaty is an agreement to be dedicated to the Neo-Assyrian empire, Gen. 14 illustrates that Abram is dedicated to the deity. Both texts express the same notion of supporting the superior with whom a treaty is made, albeit in different ways. Gen. 14 occurs in the genre of a narrative, while Neo-Assyrian text occurs in the genre of a treaty/covenant.

In Gen. 15, Yahweh makes a series of commitments to Abram. Abram responds with a question: “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (NRSV; Gen. 15: 8). So, in accordance with the will of Yahweh, Abram gathers animals for sacrifice and he cuts them. This serves as a way to cements the treaty/covenant between Yahweh and Abram. Likewise,  the lamb serves as a way to cement the treaty/covenant between the Neo-Assyrian empire and Mati’-ilu.

What Genesis 15 doesn’t express clearly, though, is the underlying significance of Abram’s cutting of the animals. In light of treaty between Assur-narari V and Mati’-ilu, the cutting may be representative of what happens if the subordinate party, namely Abram, does not uphold his side of the treaty. Although the text is not necessarily implying that Abram will be cut like the animals if he breaks the treaty, the Neo-Assyrian treaty at least suggests a possible explanation for why an animal would be “cut” in context of a covenant or treaty.



SAA 02 002. Treaty of Aššur-nerari V with Mati’-ilu, King of Arpad (AfO 8 17+)


Memorizing Akkadian Vocabulary with Images

One of my greatest challenges in Elementary Akkadian was memorizing vocabulary. I need to have it memorized and internalized, though, by the time I begin Intermediate Akkadian. So, this summer I’m working on a project which may be of value for anybody using A Grammar of Akkadian by John Huehnergard.

I am using Quizlet to make flashcards of the chapters. One set will be chapters 1-5, another chapters 6-10, another 11-15, etc. For each word in the vocabulary section, I’m including the word, a basic definition, and a picture. I hope that including the picture with the word will help me to learn the vocabulary and internalize it.

If you’re interested in using it, here is the link: Chapters 1-5Chapters 6-10, Chapters 11-15, Chapters 16-20, Chapters 21-25, Chapters 26-30

NOTE: Chapters 1-5 are different from Chapters 6-10. In 1-5, the English is next to the picture, while in 6-10, the Akkadian is next to the picture. The remaining flashcards, namely chapters 11-38, will have the Akkadian next to the picture.

Created Order, the Deity, and Humanity

At the latest, the Hebrew Bible was compiled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. In other words, over 2200 years separate us from the cultures in which the Hebrew Bible was compiled. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible reflects traditions as far back as the 11th centurie BCE. So, nearly 3000 years separate us from some aspects of the cultures and traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible. This vast distance of times can make it difficult to understand what is happening in a text of the Hebrew Bible. After all, people living in ancient Syria-Palestine, or the ancient Near East more generally, did not see the world the same way as us. 

I hope to demonstrate this by offering a Psalm as a case study. In it, I want to show how many people in the ancient world understood created order, the divine realm, humanity, and politics to be intrinsically intertwined, if not the same things. This may be strange in a culture where people constantly refer to the separation between state and religion. In the ancient world, political was religious and religious was political.

Following is my own translation of verses (vss.) 2-5 of Psalm 89:

(2) The devotion of Yahweh is eternal; I sing to it from generation to generation. I make known your fidelity with my mouth (3) For I have declared: eternal devotion will be built; (in) the heavens you will establish your fidelity in them.

(4) I have cut a covenant with my chosen one; I have been sworn to my servant David. (5) Until eternity, I will establish your offspring; and I will build your throne from generation to generation – Selah.  

In vss. 2-3, a person is speaking the 1st person. The individual speaks towards Yahweh. In vss. 4-5 the speaker is Yahweh. Yahweh first speaks about his covenant with David. Following, he speaks towards the Davidic dynasty.

In order to illustrate how the various spheres overlap (divinity, created order, and humanity), I will first show where they appear within this small selection of verses. Regarding Yahweh, the deity, it is clear that he plays a role in this Psalm. He acts in such a way that demonstrates his fidelity and devotion. The human speaker even declares Yahweh’s fidelity and devotion. What exactly, though, does Yahweh do in order to demonstrate his fidelity and devotion as a deity?

Verse 3 is a helpful avenue to explore, as it assists in working out how the ancient author may have understood his world. In vs. 3 devotion is built and fidelity is established in the heavens. Both of these concepts, though, are abstract. In other words, they have no material reality. If vs. 3 is meant to recognize Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity, his actions must have some material benefit to humanity, not just a feeling of devotion and fidelity. When we consider how ancient Judeans may have seen the world, though, it becomes clear why vs. 3 exemplifies Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity.

As early as 1910, biblical scholars realized that ancient Judeans may have seen the sky as a real structure. Genesis 1:6 references the firmament, namely the sky. The word used to describe the firmament has to do with flattening a material like metal. Consequently, Genesis 1:6 may demonstrate that some ancient Judeans thought the sky was a large, metal structure above them (Driver 1910, 21; Speiser 1964, 7).

If this imagery is at play in Ps. 89:3, it offers insight into the logic of the writer. Devotion is “built” and fidelity is “established” in the heavens because Yahweh has built the sky and established the heavenly structure. Consequently, the heavenly structure holds back the pre-creation, primeval waters (Genesis 1:1-2).  In other words, a deity literally built a structure which (1) prevents a return to the primeval waters and (2) protects all humanity.

If this is the world view of the Psalmist, then it is quite reasonable for Yahweh’s devotion to be demonstrated through devotion being built and his establishing the heavens, namely the sky. Created order is sustained by the deity, which in turn allows humanity to live. What better way to show devotion and fidelity than to prevent a massive flood through building the sky?

While it clear that the divine realm, humanity, and created order are connected in some regard, how does it relate to politics?

Vss. 4-5 detail Yahweh’s covenant with David. Vs. 4 specifies that he made a covenant. Vs. 5 details how Yahweh will establish and build David’s line. Notably, vs. 5 uses the same words as in vs. 3. In vs. 3, “establish” and “build” are used in context of Yahweh’s building a giant structure, namely the sky. In vs. 5, those same verbs are used to describe Yahweh’s commitment to enable the line of David to maintain its places on the throne. In other words, Yahweh commits to supports the line of David in its political endeavors. He makes this commitment in the same way that he upholds the dome structure above humanity, namely the sky.

Use of the same words to describe (1) Yahweh’s upholding the sky and (2) covenant to the line of David suggests they are correlated. Although it is difficult to tell to extent to which they are correlated in these particular verses, one thing is clear: Yahweh’s role in created order is used to legitimize and justify the political authority of the Davidic line. In turn, David is to act as a special servant to the deity.

This sort of relationship between a king-figure and deity is consistent with other regions, groups, and Empires throughout the ancient Near East. Notably, though, it was not an issue to people in the ancient world. To them, it was completely normal for a king to be supported by the a deity, a deity who supported created order itself. In turn, it was completely normal for a king to serve the deity as a particularly special servant.

These roles, though, were one and the same. To be legitimized by the deity in political terms was also to be legitimized by the deity in religious terms. This legitimization of kingship was often times supported by recognition that the sponsoring deity also kept creation in order.

Many texts in the Hebrew Bible reflect the aforementioned notions. With this awareness, we should be careful to immediately assume that something is either religious or political. In many cases, it is both. They are one and the same. If we don’t work with this notion, we do a disservice to ancient Judeans. They were a people group who, like any culture, should have their own autonomous and independent voice. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to hear and understand what their world was like and what they have to say.