Review of “The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries” by Uri Gabbay

Uri Gabbay. The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries. In Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 82. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Uri Gabbay is a Senior Lecturer in Department of Archaeology/Ancient Near East and School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University. Since 2009, much of his work has been in the area of Akkadian commentaries. This volume, though, is the first attempt to write a comprehensive description of the terminology used in Akkadian commentaries and how they function.

Like any volume, the Introduction offers a brief introduction to what Mesopotamian commentaries are and how to approach them, for which he suggests three steps: identify the base text (i.e. subject of the commentary), identify motivations behind comments (i.e. textual difficulties), and identify the technical terminology. Gabbay focuses on the third step, which enables one to better understand the hermeneutical process of Akkadian commentators. Subsequently, he offers a brief discussion of important terms: canonical (i.e. attributed to divine authority), hermeneutical technique versus hermeneutical motivation (i.e. methods employed versus solving problems in the base text), and exegetical terminology (i.e. reasoning and exegetical terminology employed in the comment).

One of the greatest strengths of the Introduction is the framing of commentaries not as speculation or expansion; rather, commentaries “respond to a problem in the base text,” both minor lemma problems and more extensive context problems (9). In other words, although signs are polysemous, polysemy is primarily employed to make a text more coherent.

One point of possible contention, though, is Gabbay’s employment of the category “canon,” which he essentially defines as a text which has “an interpretive and study tradition” (4). While “canon” can be productive in some cases, particularly for later commentaries, it seems reasonable to assume that the status of a “canon” would have functioned with various nuances, depending on the period and region. To draw from Biblical Studies, the Hebrew Bible was technically a “Canon” in the 5th century BCE (compilation with subsequent expansion in the DSS and Second Temple Period literature), 2nd century BCE (list of the “official” books in Sirach), and 2nd century CE (Rabbinic period). In each period of the Hebrew Bible’s canonicity, though, “Canon” had very different valencies. By analogy, one would expect the “canonical” texts of Mesopotamia to have similar valencies throughout various periods (Neo-Assyrian, Late Babylonian, etc.). Therefore, “Canon” may be used to describe the base text of commentaries; however, nuances of particular periods must be considered. For focus on these nuances may impact how we interpret the exegetical terminology and comments without commentary texts.

Furthermore, Gabbay’s categorizations of “Canon,” terms like coherence, discussion of hermeneutics, etc., would have been strengthened by including matters of literary theory. By not considering the relationship between his claims and literary theory, a wide gap is left in his introductory material.

Chapter One examines exegetical terminology reflective of the Sitz im Leben. Such terminology, suggests Gabbay, points to a scribal context wherein oral lessons were written by students, to be later combined with written sources. Many exegetical terms employed in oral lessons and student responses reflect the Sitz im Leben as a learning environment lead by the teacher-scholar. The terminology itself is divided amongst four sections: Sitz im Leben of study process, learning environment (i.e. the lesson), 2nd person references, and Sitz im Leben of commentary compilation. Together, his description of terminology related to the Sitz im Leben is helpful for reconstructing a hypothetical learning environment.

Problematic is that Gabbay suggests a hypothetical learning environment on the basis of terminology alone. As he notes later, though, Babylonian, Late Babylonian, late Achemenid and early Hellenistic, and Neo-Assyrian exegetical terminology function similarly in various contexts, different densities of terminology are present in their respect periods and geographic regions (269-274). Therefore, Gabbay’s hypothetical learning environment is an oversimplified model. A nuanced model based on (a) terminology and (b) region/period would have been more precise and useful for future historical reconstructions.

Chapter Two presents exegetical terminology which addresses the meaning individual words and phrases via definition. Such definitions are either equations or descriptions. Gabbay asserts that equations are reflective of the lexical genre, whereas descriptions are reflective of lexical texts and the descriptive genre in texts like abnu šikinšu and šammu šikinšu. Overall, the presentation is helpful, especially for future studies on Akkadian commentaries and hermeneutical methods.

There is, though, one issue. Gabbay’s description of the Glossenkeil is over simplified. He claims in Chapter One that “textual variants are often indicated by Glossenkeil” (75). Then, in Chapter Two, he suggests two interpretations of the Glossenkeil: it separates two equated words or “corresponds to a verbal formula that was pronounced during lessons to indicate the relationship between the terms in a lexical equation” (85). Although convenient for his overall focus on exegetical terminology, the claim is problematic, inasmuch as it fails to provide any evidence or argument for his understanding of how a Glossenkeil functions within the texts. It may be preferable to interpret the Glossenkeil as a disjunctive marker. For, it can function syntactically in such a variety of manners that limiting the Glossenkeil to a single function is may be problematic. For example, he discusses a commentary on Sagig, wherein part of the text reads: “A = water, GUR = return; thirdly: (agurru, “baked brick,” refers to) a pregnant woman” (pp. 182-183;  [A : me-e] : GUR : ta-a-ra šal-šiš MUNUS.PEŠ4). In the commentary of Sagig, there is a Glossenkeil between A and , and GUR and târa. There is also a Glossenkeil between and GUR, though. While it may function to mark some sort of relationship between A: and GUR:târa, it is equally plausible that it simply functions as a disjunctive marker, distinguishing between the two lexical equivalences. This reading is preferable simply due to the ambiguity of Glossenkeilen. For, this reading takes into account the ambiguity of the Glossenkeil and forces one to carefully consider the function of it in its respective context.

Having described terminology which defines individual words and phrases, Chapter Three addresses terminology of contextualization terminology: “a process of discovering or constructing a context that will allow the interpreter to make sense of a lemma that is difficult to understand in isolation or in its immediate context, or to harmonize contradictory texts” (127). Such interpretation takes three forms: specification (clarification o the base text), changing the literal meaning of a lemma, and reasoning (“the process of identifying premises and drawing conclusions” (127)). Terminology employed, then, are primarily “prepositions and conjunctions that indicate the logical relationships between various signifiers” (128). Essentially, Gabbay categorizes the terminology which serves to makes sense of the base text by re-framing it.

As with Chapter Two, Gabbay’s cataloguing of exegetical terminology will be helpful for other studies. And considering the ambiguity of Akkadian commentary series, it would not be particularly surprising to find divergent interpretations of texts and how terminology functions within the texts. Even so, his arrangement is helpful nonetheless.

Although more of a cursory concern, there is an absence to any modern literary theory. Discussion this subject may be helpful in arranging the exegetical terminology and its uses. For example, while discussing the term libbū with textual citations, he references a Sagig commentary, wherein the commentator employs an omen from Šumma-ālu. In doing so, Gabbay suggests that the commentator reinterprets asirtu (concubine) in terms of esēru (to confine), inasmuch as the commentator claims asirtu actually refers the confining of a patient in his bed (p. 133). This method of interpretation is reflective of intertextuality. Closer attention to valencies of intertextuality (i.e. awareness of how a scholar cites material for interpretation) may have enabled Gabbay to analyze exegetical terminology in such a way that allowed one to more clearly see how various scribes themselves conceptualized authoritative texts and their relationship to them.

Chapter Four presents techniques and terminology which reflect awareness of “the nature and character of the text….  The action of interpretation itself and the commentator himself” (169). It is not entirely clear, though, how Gabbay decided what belonged to this category and what did not.

For example, he claims that the terminology kakku sakku (“sealed and shut”) in an explanatory text indicates a relationship between the comb/mirror of a goddess and the Corpse star. Said relationship is supposedly based on a “general ancient scholarly tradition” (179; 180n48). If this is the case, perhaps the terminology kakku sakku should fall under its own category. For, the relationship between elements A and B is suggested to be a general scholarly tradition. So, employing of kakku sakku is more of a reference to previous scholarly tradition than simply a comment on the nature or character of said text. If this is the case, Gabbay should work to expand his descriptive categories in the future, so that phrases like kakku sakku may be more adequately presented.

Chapter Five presents the variety of phrase with the verb qabû which function hermeneutically. Through this description, he suggests that the Mesopotamian worldview understood divine utterances to be present in the form of texts or “canon.” In a sense, this was the “divine word,” began commenting upon in the NA period.

Although the notion of a Mesopotamian “logos” is intriguing and may be a good course of research for future scholars, Gabbay’s treatment of the topic is not substantiated well. First, having focused primarily on qabû in Akkadian commentaries, briefly touching on its use outside of commentaries, any claim for a Mesopotamian “logos” must be substantiated by a systematic analysis of qabû in all Mesopotamian literature. Second, in attempting to paint a broad brushstroke of what constitutes a Mesopotamian “logos,” he does not distinguish between time period and region. As previously mentioned, further analysis in these regards would benefit all of his conclusions.

Finally, the Conclusion reflects on why his analyses matter. First, he suggests that the exegetical terminology points to a strong culture of scholasticism amongst scribes. Second, he carefully notes that, while exegetical terminology illustrate the hermeneutical process, the hermeneutical process may still occur within the exegetical terminology. Thus, Gabbay’s outline of exegetical terminology, and therefore the hermeneutical process, will be helpful for interpreting texts, especially commentaries, inasmuch we now have a better sense of a Mesopotamian hermeneutical framework. Finally, he briefly reflects on the spread of exegetical terminology. In doing so, he provides a summary of how Akkadian exegetical terminology may have developed.

Although intriguing, such analysis of the spread of exegetical terminology via geography, time period, and colophon should have played a bigger part in Gabbay’s analysis. For example, rather than dividing between the chapters as he did, it may have been more productive to categorize terminology by region and time period, subsequently considering the extent to which they informed each other or overlap.

Overall, The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries is a helpful volume for scholars, particularly those interested in Akkadian commentaries. And while he does offer thorough coverage of Akkadian exegetical terminology, this reviewer is left wondering if more substantive conclusions may have been achieved by arranging terminology on the basis of region, period, and attentiveness to intertextuality. Even so, there is no doubt that this will be a valuable volume for the future, especially as studies on Akkadian commentaries are on the rise. For, it also includes two concise and useful appendices on exegetical terminology in divinatory literature and early Hebrew literature.

*The publisher provided a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


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.

On the Mahābhārata: Similar Material

kurukshetraIf you have been following recent posts, you’ll know that many of my recent posts have considered the Mahābhārata and the Hebrew Bible in light of each other. Here, I will explore a similar thing, namely parallel material. Although each parallel is by no means developed, I hope these comparisons will eventually shed light on the uniqueness of each idea/story and the similarities between the stories.

First, the Mahābhārata contains much material considering the idea of what is, in Judaism, called the Levirate marriage. In the Mahābhārata, there are various accounts of a brother (a) impregnating the wife of his brother (b). They do this because the brother (b) dies. His family lineage, though, must live on. In the Hebrew Bible, Levirate marriage is also a major issue. In Ruth, we see a very clear case of Levirate marriage, or something like it. We also see it in the narrative of Zelophad’s daughters. While I don’t think the texts are in anyway historically related, they do address similar issues in similar ways. I’d like to explore the nuances of each text and how they conceptualize the idea of a levirate marriage.

Second, as I wrote previously, there is a tale in the Mahābhārata that is similar to Moses, Cyrus, and Sargon. A child is placed on the water or given to another person. In turn, they are raised outside of their “assigned” class. Although outside of their assigned class, they tend to acquire some sort of great wisdom, knowledge, or capability. Generally, at least in my little amount of research, scholars mention the similarity to Moses. There is an absence, though, of comparative analysis concerning all the figures: Karna (Mahābhārata), Moses, Cyrus (Persian King), and Sargon (Akkadian King). I’d like to explore the nuances and similarities between each of these accounts.

I have no idea what study of these things could yield; yet, it may be fruitful for both Biblical Studies and the History of Religions.

UPDATE (January 12, 2017): Some work has been done to compare the origin stories; however, there is still very little work done. In particular, there is little work done which explores the question of historical developments. Available work focuses on the origins as myths. How, though, do these myths fit into a historical context? That is my question.

Re-Discovering the Darkness of the Biblical Flood Account: Brief Comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 8

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

As I suggested in my previous blog post and as is well-established in scholarship, the Hebrew Bible is within the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean region. It is culturally related to societies in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Assyria, and others. Because it is embedded within that environment, there are certain words and narratives for which we are unable to fully grasp the significance. Before I explore my example within the Hebrew Bible, allow me to provide a modern example.

Imagine that 2,000 years in the future a person discovers a newspaper. This newspaper contains an descriptive article about Donald Trump’s political stance. It is dated to June, 2016. While the person who discovers the article may understand how Trump is understand from one perspective, without other sources, such as other articles, books, blog posts, etc., the person will never fully appreciate the depth of the article. In order to do this, the person must explore literature which is culturally related to the topic of Trump. Only then can they begin to fully grasp the article about him.



Likewise, the Hebrew Bible can sometime only be fully understood in light of other, culturally related texts. One account in particular is the flood account, which finds an amazingly similar parallel in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, written c. 2100 BCE (Tablet XI; read it for free here). But first, Genesis 7. As the flood begins in Genesis 7, we see several phrases for which modern readers may easily miss the significance:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open… The Flood continued forty days on the earth… When the waters had swelled such more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered… all the flesh that stirred on the earth perished… All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out… they were blotted out from the earth

– Genesis 7:11-23, Jewish Study Bible

Any keen reader recognizes the darkness in this passage in terms of the destruction of the entire earth. Perhaps some readers may even recall that death, originally introduced in Genesis 3, has been moved to an entirely new level: the destruction of humanity. What the

modern reader misses, though, is one major cultural element only apparent to those situated within the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu: the divine realm[1].


In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), we read about how the gods caused, and reacted to the Flood:

Just as dawn began to glow
there arose from the horizon a black cloud.
Adad rumbled inside of it,
before him went Shullat and Hanish,
heralds going over mountain and land.
Erragal pulled out the mooring poles,
forth went Ninurta and made the dikes overflow.
The Anunnaki lifted up the torches,
setting the land ablaze with their flare.
Stunned shock over Adad’s deeds overtook the heavens,
and turned to blackness all that had been light.
The… land shattered like a… pot.
All day long the South Wind blew …,
blowing fast, submerging the mountain in water,
overwhelming the people like an attack.
No one could see his fellow,
they could not recognize each other in the torrent.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
‘The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!’
The gods–those of the Anunnaki–were weeping with her,
the gods humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief(?),
their lips burning, parched with thirst.

Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), at Academy for Ancient Texts

Note a few things within this passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Several gods are depicted as violently beginning the flood, allowing the dikes to overflow, releasing a torrent of rain, submerging the mountains in a way akin to an attack. Eventually, the gods are unable to recognize each other in the chaos: “No one could see his fellow, they could not recognize each other in the torrent.” Following this phrase, the Flood account indicates that all of the gods cowered in fear, retreated to heaven, wept, and sobbed.

Although it is too much to claim that the ancient Judahite who compiled/wrote Genesis 7 was fully aware of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is reasonable to claim that, to a certain extent, the divine conflict which occurs during the epic is present in the conceptual, cultural, and historical weight of the language of Genesis 7. Consequently, when reading Genesis 7, we should remember the weight of what the text means by Flood. It is not merely about the death and destruction of all humanity, a conflict between humanity and divinity. When we peel back the layers of Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern culture, it becomes apparent that the Flood incites fear within the divine beings, causing them to retreat into the heavenly realm due to terror.

Remembering this when we read Genesis 7 allows to be more understanding of reality of the Flood. The Flood, in the mind of the author, is a horrific, terrifying occurrence. Beyond the realm of earth and destruction of all life, the Flood casts a dark shadow within the divine realm and divine beings therein.

[1] There is absolutely more than one element; however, for the sake of time and interest, I am focusing on one element.


“Hidden Riches” by Christopher B. Hays

Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.


Christopher Hays (Fuller Theological Seminary) provides a succinct and clear introduction and sourcebook for comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature. Having found its origins in his work as a master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary in a class about direct engagement with primary texts, he works to elucidate and make alive the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Part one provides a helpful introduction to both his work and the history of comparative studies. Chapter one explores how, poetically put, he hopes that people learn to breathe oxygen of the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, resulting in a clearer and sharper image of the Hebrew Scriptures (4). Of course, his analysis is not intended to be “liberal”, “secular”, “evangelical”, or “conservative”; rather, it is intended to discuss the academic issues in a manner honest to scholarship and also provide discussion questions which may further one’s own studies. Furthermore, Hays provides, and does not assume, critical issues surrounding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a point that permits one to fully grasp his analysis from any level. At last, he provides primary texts with authoritative translations, and an up-to-date bibliography by which one may study certain topics further.

Chapter two explores the history of comparative studies and surrounding issues. Namely it covers the earliest discoveries of “Orientalists” in from the European colonialism of the 17th century to the decipherments of Ugaritic and Akkadian in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following, Hays summarizes the methodological approaches of various scholars as they regarded the uniqueness of the Bible. Based off the work of William W. Hallo, he argues for comparative studies as from a contrastive approach that decenters “the Bible in order to grasp the way it takes part in a much larger cultural matrix” (36). In effect, Hays notes that one may know the biblical text for the first time (37).

The next four sections of the book, the remaining chapters, cover the Pentateuch, former prophets, latter prophets, and writings. Within each section are certain pieces of literature for comparison. For example, in chapter seven, Hays compares the Laws of Hammurabi and the Covenant Code. While more texts are available through the world, he only selects one or two texts and provides a bibliography for further study and more primary texts. Each selection is complete with a Bible reading and at least one primary source reading. Following each primary source, Hays discusses the critical issues surrounding the texts and illustrates how certain ancient Near Eastern literature elucidates elements within the Bible. In his comparative analysis’ he presents the full views of subjects without adhering to any point of certainty. In essence he does well to compare the texts without asserting biblical superiority, an easy possibility for confessional scholars.

While each chapter was effective in their presentation of the text and historical critical issues, there were a few points where potentially valuable information was lost. First, in Enuma Elish, Table VII, Hays excludes many of the fifty names for Marduk. For an undergraduate or masters student seeking to understand such a portion of text, it creates an inconvenience by which one must seek another translation. While his exclusion of Anshar’s sending Ea and Anu to defeat Tiamat or the repetition of Tiamat’s preparation is reasonable, exclusion of Marduk’s fifty names leave out a treasure trove of data regarding how people viewed their highest deity.

Also, aside from the chapter divisions by genre type, there is no further systematization to help one retain concepts found throughout the literature and analysis presented. In essence, Hays operates differently from John Walton (2006) who provides his own analysis of the ancient Near East, the cognitive environment, and categories for understanding. For the undergraduate reader, Hays work alone is inadequate in that while his comparative analysis is fantastic, there is not enough detail to help the reader organize information to retain. With this work, one should be accompanied by something like Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

Beyond these two critiques, Hidden Riches was a joy to read for the neutrality. Again in contrast to Walton, Hays writes for a less conservative audience and provides one with the primary resources and guidance, the discussion questions, to consider the information independently. Though dense at some moments, Hays makes clear the various text critical issues, not assuming one already knows the issues. Additionally, he, as determined by his methodology, maintains respect of both the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient texts. Theological assertions about the Hebrew Scriptures are rare and, if present, only utilized as a comparison of Hebrew religions and ancient Near Eastern religions.


In sum, Christopher Hays’ exquisite work opens the literature of the ancient Near East to graduate and undergraduates alike. Although he doesn’t directly provide categories to help illustrate the cognitive environment, the nature of his methodology for comparative studies allows one to finish reading his work with a sense of the ancient genres within which the Hebrew Scriptures are located. As a result of reading Hays work one begins to be able to grasp the cultural matrix and complex dynamics between ancient Israel and its neighboring groups.