Biblical Law and Contemporary Law: Some Thoughts on Copyright Law, Facts, and History

I spent a chunk of time at work last week reading about copyright and fair use laws. Unsurprisingly, the laws surrounding copyright and fair use are quite complex and situational. Particularly interesting to me was the conversation about public domain, “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copy right, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it” [1]. Simply put, people can use public domain material in their content because the material itself belongs to the public.

Laws, for example, are considered public domain. In a 2002 case [2], a court ruled that an entity cannot sue for copyright infringement regarding laws, such as building codes. The court justified this ruling by noting that “when a model code is enacted into law, it becomes a fact—the law of a particular local government” [3]. The fact in this context, though, is somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, the Supreme Court doesn’t explicitly call laws fact; however, laws parallel census data, scientific facts, historical data, and biographical data inasmuch as “they may not be copyrighted and are part of the public domain available to ever person” [4].

This framework—namely, the modern US legal conceptions of law in relation to data and facts—raise interesting issues regarding biblical and ancient Near Eastern law: To what extent have modern US legal conceptions of law and copyright impacts how we approach and think about the function and creation of law (broadly construed) in the ancient Near East? More specifically, how does contemporary copyright law impact studies regarding things like innerbiblical exegesis, Pentateuch studies, law in the Hebrew Bible, redaction criticism (et. al), and in light of Milstein’s recent work, ancient law more broadly? (Literary studies undoubtedly play a huge role, as well as other methodologies. Still, identifying how this particular issues impacts conclusions and studies, if at all, might be a worthwhile endeavor.)

While I can’t answer these questions here, these questions are part of the reason why I appreciated Sara Milstein’s book Making A Case. Rather than framing biblical texts through a distinctly modern legal framework, her work takes into greater consideration how the Hebrew Bible fits with broader historical trends. In doing so, her approach to biblical law moves beyond other approaches that contemporary law impacts to a great extent.

The problem of copyright and public domain in US law likewise raises another question: To what extent did facts exist in ancient Near Eastern law? And how did different ancient communities draw the line between fact and opinion, if at all? Again, I have no answer to this question, but the issue is worth thinking about. (At least I think the issue is worth considering.)


[2] Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc., 293 F. 3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002).



Mesopotamian Monday: Shalmaneser in Ararat

Shalmaneser III (c. 858 – 824 BCE) was a Neo-Assyrian king, known for his military incursions into Syria, Anatolia, and (possibly) the Urartian kingdom. The Urartian kingdom is possible because one of the texts contains records of his incursion into Urartu. This text is traditionally titled Shalmaneser in Ararat.

This text describes the campaign of an Assyrian king into Urartu. Lambert, Grayson, Foster, and others take this Assyrian king to be Shalmaneser III [2]. Identification of the Assyrian king as Shalmaneser III, though, is not necessarily obvious. After providing discussion of the historical issues surrounding this campaign, Reade comments: “Clearly the date and the historical validity of the campaign described in STT 43,” namely Shalmaneser in Ararat, “remain arguable” [2].

The historical validity of the text is problematic, in particular, because the text is a poetic account. As a poetic account, it is first-and-foremost literature, not historical documentation. So, in what follows, I will describe the text while paying close attention to the literary structure of it.

Following Foster’s division, the text may be divided into five sections. First, a narrator invokes Aššur, Ištar, Anu, and a few other deities, who are said to approve of Shalmaneser III. Subsequently, brief reference is made to Shalmaneser III’s success concerning his incursion into northern Syria (lines 7-10). By referencing this incursion as having happened, it may strengthen the legitimacy of Shalmaneser’s speech/actions or provide a historical time-frame for the time at which the poetic account takes place (or perhaps both).

Second, lines 11-24 contain a speech by Shalmaneser III to his general and officers.

Third, the people of Assyria ‘shout’ something, providing encouragement to the king [3]. What we have thus far, then, is an interesting development within the first half of the text:

Shalmaneser III / His general (11-16)
Shalmaneser III / His officers (17-25)
Assyrian people / Shalmaneser III (26-30)

This brief overview suggests that the text moves from a specific individual to a broader group. Only after this does the text transition into battle (lines 31-32 mark the transition; lines 33-60 describe the battle), which is the fourth section.

Now, description of the battle is spoken by Shalmaneser III, the most drawn out, uninterrupted speech in Shalmaneser in Ararat. Its length, at least in comparison to the short speeches in lines 11-30, suggests that it is the most central aspect to the poem. This is reinforced by the fact that it is narrated in the style of Assyrian royal inscriptions.

Thus, what appears to happen is a sort of crescendo in terms of the amount of people. Shalmaneser III speaks to a specific individual, to a small group of important military leaders, and then Assyrian people revere Shalmaneser III. In each case, though, Shalmaneser III is the central character in the text. Moreover, the shift to Assyrian people revering Shalmaneser III is significant because it is in the very center of the text, making for a nice structure wherein the Assyrian praise marks a shift from Shalamaneser III preparing to Shalmaneser III going on the campaign.

Finally, the fifth section suggests a festival for Ištar of Arbela upon Shalmaneser III’s return to Aššur after the campaign. 

What is readily apparent in this text, then, is the centrality of Shalmaneser’s speech and actions. For, each section either features a past action of, speech by, or speech revering Shalmaneser III:

Speech about (lines 1-9)
Speech by (lines 10-25)
Speech revering (lines 26-32)
Speech by (lines 33-60)
Speech about (lines 61-65)

In short, this poetic account of an alleged incursion by Shalmaneser III fronts Shalmaneser’s speech as a way of legitimizing his role as the king of Assyria. Although the historical validity of the text is questionable, it is, nonetheless, reflective of an era wherein Mesopotamian kings enjoyed bragging about their exploits in order to strengthen their legitimacy as divinely ordained kings.


[1] W. G. Lambert, “The Sultantepe Tablets, VIII. Shalmaneser in Ararat,” in AnSt 11 (1961), 143-158; Kirk Grayson, RIMA 3, 84; Foster, Before the Muses, 3rd Edition (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pg. 779.

[2] Julian Reade, “Shalmaneser or Ashurnasirpal in Ararat,” in SAAB 3 (1989), 97.

[3] The text in these lines is unclear. Grayson, RIMA 3, 84, suggests shouted, whereas Foster, pg. 780, suggests heard. On the basis of the genre, ‘shouted’ is preferable. This will be explained below.




Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

In my spare time, I am working on writing an article about ancient Israelite and Judean religion. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. It is difficult because saying something about ancient Israel comes with a lot of modern baggage. So, these are some notes from a large encyclopedia, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. One thing which I’d like to draw out is that even when we do speak of ancient Israelite religion, we must remember that religion and politics operated in the same social sphere. Communicating this historical reality will be one of the greatest challenges in writing this definition/article.

Administration of the State in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, Gosta W. Ahlstrom, pp. 587-603)

  • c. 1500-1000 BCE, Palestine and Transjordan was primarily a mixture of West Semitic ethnic groups.
  • 12th-11th centuries see the increase of Canaanite settlements
    • Canaanite is not an ethnic term, just about those who live in the country.
  • Majority of Israelites were originally “Canaanites”, part of that diverse group people who settled in the region.
  • KEY: Idea of twelve-tribe is a “historiographic reconstruction” (588).
    • When writing, be sure to define this.
    • Accoridn got WIliam Foxwell Albright, history through the Bible “is a pious fiction.”
    • NOTE FOR SELF: This is a good way to problematize how we look at ancient Israelite religion in the first place. It demands that we be aware the HB reflect old tradition, though usually not completely accurately.
  • Government was a tribal system; Ahlstrom claims that no institution of elected official developed. Of course. But we need to remember that as a tribal system, they did have a voice, often time over other kings in a West Semitic context. Cf. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew.
  • We could also see the old rulers as theoocratic rulers, but this is problematic as the term carries too much negative baggage when presenting to a large audience of general readers.
  • “To promote and support the ruler’s position in such as development, a kingship ideology anchored the ruler and his power in the divine will, and thus legitimized his might” (590).
    • Cf. Ps. 2:7, 45:6 (King is addressed as elohim), 89:26 (adoption formula for a god adopting a king); Is. 9:6-7 (who will inherit the dominion of Yahweh), etc.
  • Broadly speaking, this is shared throughout ANE (591).
    • King Keret was son of the god El, Assyrian king was the son of a god. Esarhaddon is the son of Ninlil and Shamash. Shulgi, a Sumerian king, is the son of the goddess Ninsun. etc.
  • In a West Semitic context especially, one individual god was usually the main god (591). He writes, “The temple was an expression of the deitiy’s cosmos and domain. Nation and religion were the same. The reality was that in order for a nation to be ruled and governed according to the deity’s will, it had to have a “deputy” divinity choisen, namely, the king (591).”
    • Cf. Sanders on this for more details unique to a West Semitic context.
  • Theological kingship was part of ancient Israel’s heritage as it emerged as a unique and long lasting contending among the various ethnic groups categorized as Canaanites. (Loosely based off of 592; I expanded the details the words of Gosta).
  • Enthronement of a king was a religious activity (593). It involved the following:
    • Selecting a king and proclaiming affirmation of king via religious oracle, anointing, victory, ride a donky to place of investitutre, born of or adopted as the son of Yahweh, proclaimed with eternal dynasty, people acclaim, and a banquet!
  • King was in charge of building a temple, as demonstrated through various inscriptions throughout Syro-Palestine (596).
    • Panamu of Sam’al, Azatiwata of the Karatepe inscription, Mesha of Moab, Solomon, kings of Israel.
    • This temple building, a religious and political activity, had economic implications. Land was bought, people were hired, and animals were sold for sacrifice (596).
  • State Cult (597-598)
    • Responsible for liturgical contact between deity, the foundation of the nation.
    • Again, “religion and state were one.”
    • Accordingly, the “king had supreme authority over the state religion and its cult” (597); however, that doesn’t mean others had a significant say in matters of religion.
    • Roles of state cult, in a West Semitic context, on behalf of people:
      • Offer sacrifices and burn incense
        • 1 Samuel 15, 1 Kings 3 (one thousand burnt offerings), 1 King 9:25 (Sacrifice 3 times per year.
      • Temple building and cult paraphernalia
        • 1 Kings 6-8 (Solomon builds temple), 1 Kings 16:32 (Ahab puts up religious symbol of a Phoenician Baal.
      • Ordering cultic meetings (?)
        • Seems unsubstantiated.
      • Organize and run the cult.
        • Jeroboam did this at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12)
  • “Realizing that kingship would not be restored, the only way to retain the kingship concept was to divorce it from an earthly king and, in agreement with an old ideology, proclaim Yahweh as king, ruling no longer throuh his deputy the eartlhly king but through the priesthood. In this way one could come to grips with the idea of being a people not governed by an indigenous king. The theogcratic ideal or dogma became anchored in a remote time in order to acquire the prestige of something primeval” (602).


Over the next week or two, I will take notes for the following chapters: Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel by William G. Dever (605-614), Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Hector Avalos (615-631), and Private Life in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mayer I. Gruber (633-648). Part VIII of these volumes also have five other important chapters: Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel y Mark Smith (of course), Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient IsraelDeath and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew ThoughtWitchcraft, Magic, and Diviniation in Canaan and Ancient Israel, and Prophecy and Apocalyptics in the Ancient Near EastArt and Architecture in Canaan and Ancient Israel may also be a helpful article to read.

Although this is a lot of reading for a single, short work on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, it is imperative that an article (especially like this) be thorough. At the same time, it is important to be able to present the nuances while, at the same time, presenting the history of ancient Israelite religion in an understandable and comprehensible way.

Forthcoming Book Alert: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible

Although it will not be published for quite a while, I am looking forward to a forthcoming publication from de Gruyter: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible by Martti Nissinen. For those who are not aware, Martti Nissinen is well known for his work with Near Eastern literature and prophecy. One of his books was, in fact, one of the first academic books which I ever read. So, he is very much the reason why I do what I do today.

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.


“From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah” by Jonathan S. Milgram

Jonathan S. Milgram. From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah: Tannaitic Inheritance Law in its Legal and Social Contexts. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 164. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2016, 201 pp..

Jonathan Milgram’s erudite study on tannaitic inheritance law contextualizes rulings on inheritance within the framework of the ancient Near East, Greek, and, most importantly, Roman law, which is contemporaneous with tannaitic law. Through a comparative legal approach, he explores how the legal collections “overlap conceptually, procedurally, and on occasion, even terminologically” (7). Naturally we are inclined to point towards biblical antecedents for the development of certain aspects within tannaitic law. Fundamental to Milgram’s thesis, though, is the lack of scriptural exegesis in tannaitic law discussing issues of inheritance. In other words, “new laws not only drop archaic biblical institutions but also embrace new methods that the rabbis observe” (27). Below I provide a summary of his arguments accompanied by my commentary.

Milgram first introduces standard methodological concerns: brief discussion of theories of legal development, ultimately focusing on the comparative legal approach; a framework for the relation between ancient law and the socio-economic environment of the tannaim; and a summary of his sources and proceeding arguments. In short, he sets out “to demonstrate the degree to which tannaitic inheritance laws are likely the product of their ancient legal, social, and economic contexts” (38)(Introduction). While it is good that Milgram utilizes such a broad set of ancient legal codes and demonstrates exceptional understanding of them through a comparative legal approach, his overall conclusions may have been sturdier with inclusion of the social and economic histories of the various ancient laws. For, inclusion of social and economic histories of ancient laws would have uncovered the relationship between law (ancient laws) and reality (social and economic histories). Such patterns within history would perhaps offer more cemented conclusions and legitimization for Milgram’s argument.

Establishing the origins of partibility, methods for disposing of assets, and capacity for transferring property in tannaitic law, Milgram claims the components do not originate in biblical law; rather, they emerge from the adaptation of Roman legal vocabulary and conceptualization within a nuclear family in an urbanized setting with private landholding patterns (Chapter One). For, biblical law fails to distinguish between inheritance and gift and no rabbinic scriptural exegesis exists for the inheritance laws, both primary aspects driving his arguments. Ancient Near Eastern and Roman laws of inheritance function, though, in a similar way as tannaitic Law. Roman law, though, is most similar because of the legal conceptualizations of mattanah (Latin: donatio) and yerushah (Latin: hereditas). While already established as parallel terms, Milgram’s analysis furthers the importance of their relationship by using them to highlight the tannaitic social and economic context. Additionally, through philological-historical analysis meant to highlight the distinction between gifting and inheriting in tannaitic law, he suggests mBB 8:5 contains evidence for a tannaitic approach which permits testate succession, as opposed the more commonly accepted intestate succession. Through highlighting these various similarities to Roman law and uncovering a suppressed tannaitic approach, Milgram demonstrates well the possibility that his observations affirm the impact of the social and economic reality of the rabbis upon tannaitic law.

Moving on to the question of possible origins for tannaitic flexibility in firstborn inheritance law, Milgram demonstrates how the legal flexibility developed due to the cultural heritage and contemporary horizons, even to the point of declaring no firstborn. In terms of cultural heritage, the flexibility of firstborn inheritance seems to develop from ancient Near Eastern and Biblical sources, sources which evidence flexibility in the status and inheritance of the firstborn. Only with more contemporary horizons of Greek and Roman legal writings, though, does tannaitic law fully develop due to an (1)urbanized tannaitic Palestine and (2) absence of firstborn allotment among Greeks and Romans. Within this chapter, clarification as to what constitutes biblical law in Milgram’s approach would have helped to clarify some of his arguments. For, in some interpretations, law is just as much the patriarchal narratives as it is the book of Deuteronomy.

In an exploration of testate succession in Tannnaitic law, Milgram thoroughly explores for the nearest legal parallel of testate succession in tannaitic law (Chapter Three). Accordingly, he argues that R. Yohanan ben Beroka introduces testate succession for agnates. After examining ancient Near Eastern and Greek parallels, these traditions are excluded as possibly connected because they tend to include adoption, something absent in tannaitic inheritance law. Only in Roman legal discourse, sui heredes, do we see a reasonable parallel. While Milgram emphasizes the context of contemporary Roman law, thereby further establishing the influence of Roman law upon tannaitic law, highlighting appropriation of the biblical model, as a partial antecedent to tannaitic law, into the tannna’s own Roman-Palestine, socio-political context is necessary. Consider his comment about R. Yohanan ben Beroka: “In that sense, the tanna remains fiathful to a fundamental tenet of the biblical model: the land remains in family hands” (95). Based on this, perhaps tannaitic testate succession may be, in part, an appropriation of biblical tradition, albeit a conjectural suggestion.

Shifting to inheritance by daughters, Milgram argues three major principles of tannaitic inheritance law (collection of an inheritance share, receipt of a dowry, and maintenance) possibly developed in a context of Roman law (Chapter Four). While the “cultural valuation of daughters” is evident in both Roman and tannaitic culture, actions of Romans, as opposed to law, demonstrate the valuation and tannaim legislation demonstrates valuation. Additionally, his analysis of mBB 8:4, one tannaitic tradition approaches sons and daughters as equal in inheritance.

Following this discussion, Milgram considers inheritance by wives. With the lack of biblical precedent and scriptural interpretations for tannaitic innovations of collection of maintenance and residence or payment of the ketubbah debt as two approaches to widow’s benefits, he argues the tannaitic law developed via local practices which rabbis may have observed and via ancient legal traditions from throughout the region (Chapter Five). A statement within the chapter raises, though, a question of his framework and, consequently, methodology. In short, he claims the Bible was authored in an ancient Near Eastern context (139). Although this is absolutely true, it fails to consider the whole picture. Scholars recognize the influence of Greek ideas and culture upon the development of biblical traditions. Thus, more serious consideration of the (possible) relationship between Greek and biblical traditions might enable a better understanding and timeline of the development of legal tradition in the Mediterranean.

Additionally, Milgram’s treatment of Ruth is poor. While it would be reasonable to conclude upon the fact that Naomi is a sort of trustee for future sons, he notes “the possibility of polemics in Ruth… impairs our ability to penetrate in what way… the book is representative of historical law or local custom” (140). This view, unfortunately, is very limited. In his recent commentary about the book of Ruth, Jeremy Schipper illustrates why Ruth should not necessarily be read as a polemic text. Milgram should have further engaged with Ruth. For such a rich repository of questions and issues of inheritance as found in the book of Ruth, the lack of discussion of Ruth is disappointing.

Having illustrated how tannaitic inheritance law was possibly influenced by contact with Roman law and cultural heritage of ancient Near Eastern and Greek law, he entertains the issue of how Jewish is Jewish inheritance law. As he puts it, “we are witness to competing and conflicting traditions that are, at times, interwoven with one another, waiting to be discovered and mined for the richness they add to the complex web of tannaitic inheritance traditions” (146).

As a result of Milgram’s study, we more clearly observe the relationship between Roman, Greek, and ancient Near Eastern laws and tannnaitic traditions. He does this by revealing various tannaitic traditions throughout his work, traditions previously unobserved. In short, he allows us to better understand tannaitic law within its ancient, legal context. Hopefully future scholars will further elucidate the complex web of laws from Jewish traditions and other ancient legal tradition and how they possibly influence each other. For the scholar who does this, Milgram’s monograph is an important reference.

“Masculinities and Third Gender” by Ilan Peled

Ilan Peled. Masculinities and Third Gender: The Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 435. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2016, 333 pp., 109.00 €. 

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Ugarit-Verlag for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

In his first published monograph, Ilan Peled tracks the phenomenon of persons born male whose masculine identities were considered ambiguous. Consequently, Peled classifies these people as third gender. Through the monograph he explores several ambiguous figures: gala, kalûkulu’uassinnukurgarrû, lu-sag / ša rēši, and a few less known third gender figures. Third gender, as a byproduct of socialization, and the concept of hegemonic masculinity, and thereby subordinated masculinities, are his two primary methodological approaches. Importantly, his argument places stakes in several fields: Gender Studies, Sociology, Assyriology, Biblical Studies, and Anthropology.

Titel713Chapter One briefly examines aeteological Mesopotamian myths in order to (1) illustrate the place of third gender figures within narrative and hymnic texts, and (2) to demonstrate how the figures parallel real life, as further discussed in later chapters. Chapter Two surveys the gala, kalû, and kulu’u, highlighting the gala/kalû as having emerged originally as performers of lamentation, eventually attaining an important role in the king’s court and cultic practice, and the kulu’u primarily as effeminate males. One argument of Peled is of particular importance: the gala/kalû were not always castrated or part of a lower class.

In Chapter Three, Peled examines attestations of assinnu and kurgarrû from a variety of genres. He suggests the close relationship between the two figures, assinnu as feminine and sexual and kurgarrû as masculine and militant, represented the dual character of Ištar. One argument is particularly valuable. After discussing relationship between assinnu and prophecy, Peled notes that “The Mari texts are the only Mesopotamian records to illustrate any relation between third gender figures and prophecy, and even there this relation is slight” and “It seems that their functions were restricted in most cases to cultic performance” (Peled, 2016, pp. 174-175), converging with Ilona Zsolnay’s point that assinnu were “far from being gender-bending prophets who enter mantic states to bond with a loving form of the goddess Ištar”. In contrast, though, he does not consider the assinnu “a special class of warriors” (Zsolnay, 2013, p. 98).

In Chapter Four, Peled examines attestations of lu-sag and ša rēši from three perspectives: chronological survey of titles, attestations of castration, and a clinical perspective. For those castrated lu-sag and ša rēši, Peled distinguishes the eunuchs from other third gender figures, for they often functioned in important palace positions. Chapter Fives examines seven less known third gender figures separately because there are so few attestations of them.

Finally, Peled summarizes and concludes his work, simplifying subordinated masculinities to three categories: cult personnel, palace attendants, and general concepts. For each category, he provides a possible explanation for the origins of that particular third gender categorical figure. These subordinated masculinities, argues Peled, were institutionalized by men of hegemonic masculinity in order to maintain power and define themselves. By utilizing the concept of hegemonic masculinity, Peled suggests that those of subordinated masculinities became the third gender, boundary breaking, non-normative men. Even as boundary breaking figures, they survived as “an integral stratum within the structure of their society… which contributed a great deal to social stability” (Peled, 2016, p. 294).

Through Masculinities and Third Gender, Peled’s interpretations are minimalistic, remaining relatively close to the original text and avoiding unnecessary speculation. The result is a major re-consideration of older works as “limited and circumstantial” (Peled, 2016, p. 136). For example, unless it is clearly present, Peled argues against all third gender figures as being castrated members and of lower status. In this manner his work is extremely valuable, pushing against many tendencies when scholars interpret third gender figures.

Likewise, the depth of lexical analysis is immeasurably valuable and will be a fundamental text for future social history studies. For the “book forms a historical-philological study… more than an overall discussion of pure social history” (21). While some may find the lack of “pure social history” problematic, it is nonetheless a wonderful contribution to the greater discussion of social history in ancient Mesopotamia.

On a more critical note, there was something off about his methodology, which he acknowledges. He primarily uses two theories: third gender and hegemonic masculinity. Rather than allowing masculinities subordinated to the hegemonic masculinity to remain masculinities, he pushes these into the third gender category. Third gender as a concept, though, encompasses what is neither male or female. It is a unique category, not necessary for figures on the feminine-masculine spectrum. This lack of clarity regarding his methodological framework in this regard does not take away from the overall analysis and conclusions; however, clarifying his definitions and methodology, especially third gender, would strengthen his overall argument. Likewise, elucidating the connection between third gender and subordinate masculinities would strengthen his overall argument.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this work. In particular, those involved in the history of gender, ancient Near Eastern history, and Biblical Studies may find special significance in Peled’s work. His erudite analysis engages with a range of texts in order to elucidate the origins and role of major gender-ambiguous figures throughout a broad spectrum of ancient Near Eastern history. No doubt this is fundamental legwork to future gender studies in ancient Mesopotamia.

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“The Materiality of Magic” edited by Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer


Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer (eds.). The Materiality of Magic. Morphomata Volume 20. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015, pp. 443. 

In the last two decades, scholarship about magic has thrived; however, in the midst of everything, there has been little focus on the material aspect of magic. In particular, what is the relationship between the person and the material? What role does the material play in magic?  Rather than approaching “the social, intellectual or philological side of magic” (9), the volume engages primarily with the material approach, the product of a conference in Cologne in May 2012. While many of the articles contribute to these three approaches (social, intellectual and philological), the primal approach in this volume is the materiality of magic.

Needless to say, magic is a debated term and concept. So, each articles offers fresh insights on how we should define magic and continues with valuable discussion of historical periods ranging from ancient Egypt to the post-Medieval era. Jan N. Bremmer kicks off by Bremmerproviding a the basic goal of the volume and a succinct consideration of defining magic, namely a goal of a material approach to magic and magic as a fuzzy concept understood differently based on the circumstances. Although there is nothing particularly new or innovative about the preface, it is helpful for readers who may be unaware what it is to approach magic in terms of materiality. Simply put, Bremmer’s preface is an excellent primer before engaging with the material.

Jacco Dielman sketches the history of textual amulets in pharaonic Egypt and focuses on the relationship between the material utilized and how that material affected the amulet’s format and handling. Beyond the sketch of history, he highlights how the materials used for amulets developed. One major result of his contribution is the foundation “results of a larger project on the history of textual amulets in antiquity” (23). In will be interesting to see in the future how his analyses in this volume stand up to scrutiny of future research in his large project.

Focusing on how miniature monstrous figures attain ritual efficacy, Laura Feldt argues they were installed as media who were both in this world and the other world, bringing bless and cursing. As materials, they embodied this fundamentally ambiguous state only effective as material. Feldt writes, “The ‘reality’,  functions, and importance attributed to transempirical beings in religion and magic depend fundamentally on mediation and materiality” (90). This mode of ritualizing the monstrous figures and providing it efficacy is important because, by focusing on the production of magic materials for pragmatic ends in material and textual sources, it becomes apparent that the satues attained efficacy from broader discussions about ritual efficacy, statue use, and divine presence. I do look forward to considering how Feldt’s push for understanding monsters as liminal beings, on the borders of our world and the other, modes for blessing and cursing, may have ripples in Biblical Studies.

Jaime Curbera provides update analysis on the material aspects of Richard Wunsch’s collection of Greek curse tablets. Naturally, these observations improve our understanding(s) of the nature of “magic” in ancient Greek culture. Of particular importance is the appendix, which provides new readings of some of the tablets within the collection.

Jaime Curberaq and Sergion Giannobile together issue analysis of a newly published Voodoo doll, suggesting that it originated in Keos. This is followed by a lead isotope analysis which confirms the possibility of origins in Keos.

Richard L. Gordon argues for a more intimate associations between the material and immaterial in magic by examining how magical substances, namely natural substances, manufactured objects, and text, shifted from being materials to immaterial ideas.

Veronique Dasen provides an overview of several amulets in order to demonstrate how differing period thought about amulets as material magic. Consequently, she provides important considerations of how magic and amulets developed, along with the role of the the amulets. These considerations are important because, from a methodological perspective, it highlights the importance of reflecting on material magic from an emic, internal perspective, taking consideration of the developments and influences which change how people understand materials.

Arpad M. Nagy first provides an overview of magical gems in the Roman Imperial Period. Following his discussion, he highlights a gem that stands on the threshold between two cultures, constituting a creative connection of different cultures. Because it was a product of cross-culture, it failed as a magical gem. Importantly, Nagy’s awareness of the diversity of the gems is important because it helps to re-define the genre and demonstrate the significance of magical during the period.

Jan N. Bremmer focuses on three points in his contribution: (1) a brief history of books with magic in antiquity, (2) an emic argument for the lack of any magical book, and (3) an etic argument for the Bible as a magical book in late antiquity. One thing Bremmer directly touches upon that other contributions do not is a keen awareness of the struggle between emic and etic descriptions when it comes to understanding magic. His comment on the Bible in particular demonstrates this awareness: “From an etic point of view, the uses of a Gospel or the Bible discussed above might be considered as magical. On the other hand, these books certainly were not grimoires, and neither did most Christians consider them as magical…” (269). I commend Bremmer for this astute comment.

Jitse Dijkstra concentrates on six Greek magic texts with Christian elements. With these magical texts, he demonstrates the syncretistic environment of Egypt in Late Antiquity. He does so by examining the relationship between the image on the magic texts and the texts themselves. From a historical perspective, his work is important because it enables a more nuanced examination of how the images within texts can enable cross-cultural examination of ancient cultures.

Jürgen Blänsdorf analyzes the curses texts of nymphaeum in order to consider the defixion texts and magical components in relation to Tabulae Sethianae and the Anna Perenna sanctuary. By highlighting the similar and differing elements, he clarifies and sharpens our current understanding of the texts geographically and in terms of material magic.

An updated description and appendix of inscriptions for ‘good luck’ charms of a 1994 article, Annewies van den Hoek, Denis Feissel, and John J. Herrmann, Jr. show the historical development of ‘good luck’ charms into magic chains. My favorite things in this article are (1) the overview of ‘good luck’ charms that are incredibly informative and also (2) the updated appendix of charms for future studies.

Peter J. Forshaw’s analysis of Marsilio Ficicono through Heinrich Khunrath draws out the materials aspects, and developments therein, of astral and talismanic magic and the relation between between the user and material. I found Forshaw’s comment on the blessing of the high priest particularly fascinating: “Bearing in mind Khunrath’s interest in both Christian Cabala and Divine Magic, it is little surprise to discover that the very same verses can be found on Jewish ritual amulets” (372). I find this intriguing because in Jeremy Smoak’s recent work on the Priestly blessing, one of his primary arguments is that the benediction is apotropaic in origins. Perhaps, then, Khunrath was onto something when  he used the text as a amuletic formulation.

Owen Davies explores the material culture of post-Medieval domestic magic and highlights the emotional connection between the material of domestic magic and those who provide it agency. While discussing methodological approaches to this topic, one exceedingly insightful comment, and perhaps a call to act, considers the current nature of “magic” within different disciples: “It should go without saying that different disciplines have much to learn from each other’s source base, theories, and methodologies when it comes to understanding ritual activity and magic. But while there are numerous different conversations going on, they are rarely shared because of disciplinary, chronological, and geographical boundaries between scholarly communities and individuals” (380).

As evident through the great variety of time period, The Materiality of Magic offers a plethora of conclusions through the common focus on material aspects of magic. Because it draws from so many time periods, it offers a variety of authoritative, influential, and important ideas of how scholars understand “magic”. Although it may not have been available, the volume would be strengthened substantially with an additional article about the materiality of magic in the 21st century.

Overall, I highly recommend this work. The contributions, derived from a diverse group of scholars and disciplines, are important starting points, or perhaps checkpoints, for current dialogue regarding magic. Variations of what constitutes “magic” in terms of materiality for each contributor, depending on his or her scholarly tradition and studied historical period, reflects the past and forthcoming struggles about understanding a term with such baggage. Yet, The Materiality of Magic is an excellent start in breaking disciplinary walls and secluded scholarly approaches.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to the publisher who provided me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 


Philosophy before the Greeks

I am hope to eventually read Van de Mieroop’s forthcoming book titled Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. It looks extraordinary. Here is little summary from the Princeton University Press website:

There is a growing recognition that philosophy isn’t unique to the West, that it didn’t begin only with the classical Greeks, and that Greek philosophy was influenced by Near Eastern traditions. Yet even today there is a widespread assumption that what came before the Greeks was “before philosophy.” In Philosophy before the Greeks, Marc Van De Mieroop, an acclaimed historian of the ancient Near East, presents a groundbreaking argument that, for three millennia before the Greeks, one Near Eastern people had a rich and sophisticated tradition of philosophy fully worthy of the name.

In the first century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily praised the Babylonians for their devotion to philosophy. Showing the justice of Diodorus’s comment, this is the first book to argue that there were Babylonian philosophers and that they studied knowledge systematically using a coherent system of logic rooted in the practices of cuneiform script. Van De Mieroop uncovers Babylonian approaches to knowledge in three areas: the study of language, which in its analysis of the written word formed the basis of all logic; the art of divination, which interpreted communications between gods and humans; and the rules of law, which confirmed that royal justice was founded on truth.

The result is an innovative intellectual history of the ancient Near Eastern world during the many centuries in which Babylonian philosophers inspired scholars throughout the region—until the first millennium BC, when the breakdown of this cosmopolitan system enabled others, including the Greeks, to develop alternative methods of philosophical reasoning. (Source)



“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 3 of 3)

WileyBlackwellSusan Niditch (editor). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, 567 pp., $195.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Wiley Blackwell for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Additionally, primarily due to the many contributors and secondarily the lengthy nature of this work, I will be posting the complete review through three blog posts. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Part III covers a wide variety of theme in ancient Israel.

Neal Walls (Associate Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Wake FOrest University School of Divinity) introduces prominent deities in ancient Israel’s region and how Yahweh is represented within the ancient near Eastern environment. His contribution is helpful because it primarily focuses on regional deities, providing a thorough background of regional deities for the reader. Problematic, though, is the historical distance between Ugaritic mythologies of El (12th century BCE) and various representations of Yahweh. Acknowledgement of the distanced history would be helpful and easily solved by referencing the reader the Avraham Faust’s contribution about the emergence of Israel in the second-half of the 13th century BCE. In doing so, he would demonstrate why Ugaritic mythology and representations of Yahweh can be compared.

Mark Smith (Skirball Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University) reviews modern issues surrounding the term monotheism, history of Yahwism contextualized in the ancient Near East as monotheistic tendencies developed, and aptly discusses how monotheism in reshaped ideas of what constituted divinity. Smith’s contribution contains two valuable elements. First, his assistance in drawing out baggage of the the popular term monotheism provides important information about a term that may impact terminology and methodology of students. Second, while many realize the novelty of Judaean monotheism, I appreciate his focus on how the development completely redefined divinity in general.

S. A. Geller (Irma Cameron Milstein Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary) introduces the Priestly Theology (henceforth PTh) of the Tetrateuch, especially focusing on the priesthood, cult, and sacrificial system. While is introduction to the textual data is fairly thorough, I have one major contention with his contribution. Geller seems not to put enough focus on the material reality of ancient Israelite ritual. For example, when discussing the function of blood rites upon the Holiest Place, he notes that “How this unique blood rite attains atonement is not stated. On the contrary, it essential that it remain a mystery of faith” (302). Likewise, overall his representation of the PTh tends to focus purely on literary effects of certain choices. Although literary analysis of PTh is important, it is just as valuable to recongize that the PTh was also within a material reality. I also took issue with his representation of Zadok. Some scholars have pushed against the historicity of Zadok (MacDonald, 2015; see also Alice Hunt, Missing Priests: The Zadokites in Tradition and History, 2006); yet, Gellder presents the Zadokite priests as if they were a genuine historical group of priests.

Robert R. Wilson (Hoober Profesor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Yale University) engages with the phenomenon of prophecy, providing its history of scholarship and operative function and source within ancient Israel. For a basic introduction to prophecy in ancient Israel, this article is an excellent choice, as it presents a basic picture and doesn’t make any significant arguments about prophecy.

John J. Collins (Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University) introduces apocalypticism with attention to the development of it from Persian prophecy. Most beneficial about this article is its attentiveness to the historical development of apocalypticism rather than just attempting to pinpoint what is and is not apocalyptic literature.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professsor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter) examines household materials to provide a snapshot of how religion function in ancient Israelite households. Stavrakopoulou’s clearly presents religion of ancient Israel homes without utilizing biblical texts as the foundation for her portrayals, consequently constructing an important image for readers to understand the average person from ancient Israel.

Raymond F. Person Jr. (Professor of Religion at Ohio Northern University) considers the transmission methods of education and traditions in ancient Israel. His article is important to understanding not only the methods of transmission, but also the ways in which they overlapped within the culture, namely via literary and oral transmission.

T. M. Lemos (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College at Western University) traces the social history of Israel, with special regard for kinship, community, and society, from its emergence in the 13th century to Judea in the Hellenistic period. Her contribution does well in tracing ancient Israelite society as a non-static, fluid people group and should be used to demonstrate to students ancient Israel’s social fluidity over time.

Bernard M. Levinson (Professor of CLassical and Near Eastern Studies and of Law at the University of Minnesota) and Tina M. Sherman (Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University) introduce the major Law collections and legal literature of the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate how the “constitution” of ancient Israel was “a model of ongoing renewal of its legal and religious heritage” (412). The manner in which Levinson and Sherman present their data is interesting because it makes the law and legal literature more relevant to a modern audience. For this factor, I greatly appreciate the article.

Carol Meyers (Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University) thoughtfully considers the role of woman in ancient ancient Israelite daily life, pushing against ideas of “domestic work” formed during the industrial revolution and emphasizing the social complexities and large communal benefit of women. Beyond the scope of her contribution, I like the quesiton that she raises of the disconnect between archaeology and textual records of women (See Carol Meyers, “Double vision: Textual and archaeological images of women” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4).

J. David Schloen (Associate Professor of Syro-Palestinian Archaeology in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago) focuses on the economy and society of ancient Israel during the Iron Age . As part of the volume, I greatly appreciate his contribution because economy observations need more sustained attention, especially with primary use of archaeology, made known to the public and incorporated in biblical studies and studies of ancient Israel.

Edward L. Greenstein (Meiser Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University) introduces a variety of literary and rhetorical techniques commonly utilized in the ancient Near East and emphasizes their artful roles great care to aesthetic principles. Greenstein’s contribution is by far a necessity for literary studies of the Hebrew Bible. As he covers texts ranging from Mesopotamia, to the Levant, and to Egypt, the broad coverage of literature clearly demonstrates the literary environment in which ancient Israel existed.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) explores literature in the Persian period, the Ketuvim (or the Writings) and highlights how the documents reflect a Persian context. Eskenazi’s focus on the human realities of the Ketuvim provides a unique perspective, one which is scholarly and also takes seriously the plight in which writers and represented audiences partook in.

Benjamin G. Wright III (University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religion Studies at Lehigh University) introduces Second Temple Period Literature; however, rather than merely describing genres as found in James Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, he introduces five different categories of Second Temple Period Literature, based on George J. Brook’s list, that both attest to the commonalities and differences within Judaism of the period.

  • use of textual antecedents as a framing device or springboard
  • implicit use of or allusion to earlier texts
  • explicit citation and use of scriptural antecedents
  • revision and rewriting of earlier texts
  • texts that relate to earlier texts but that complicate the previous categories (495)

Although these categories are extremely broad, but their use as organizing literature proves fruitful.

Theodore J. Lewis (Blum-Iwry Professorship in Near Eastern Studies at John Hopkins University) covers the interdisciplinary field of iconography and advocates for analysis of Yahweh’s representation as abstract, rather than merely assuming an anthropomorphic representation. His argument is strongly supported by his brief analysis of representation of divinity across the ancient Near East. Especially in an increasingly secularized society (I do not mean the term pejoratively in any way), the tendency is to see Yahweh, or other deities made in man’s image. I appreciate Lewis’ call to re-orient towards most abstract understandings of divinity.

Overall, I have no doubts that this volume is one of the most valuable contributions to the study of ancient Israel. Most handbooks and encyclopedias relating the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel cover a significant breadth of scholarship. This volume, though, deeply engages with 28 aspects of ancient Israel on their own terms. Furthermore, each contributors brief introduction to the history of scholarship and discussion of current trends establishes the companion to ancient Israel as one of the best places to begin any research relating to ancient Israel.

While the book is oriented towards scholars, one must determine the status of the scholar. In this case, the companion is oriented towards student-scholars. Practiced scholars with lengthy experience may find some of the articles and information repetitive for their area of focus. In contrast, certain contributions will assist them if they desire to move in a different direction and obtain a different perspective on a certain issue. More likely is that this book will be a cornerstone for serious student-scholars, as it engages the reader with a great variety of information, methodologies, and topics. I highly recommend The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. For any student in or applying to graduate school, it is a must read because it presents a broad, succinct, and detailed snapshot of current scholarship and ancient Israel.