“Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia” by Dominique Charpin

CharpinDominique Charpin. Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. PIPOAC 2. Belgium: Peeters-Leuven, 2015, pp. 223, $56 (Amazon)

In Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Dominique Charpin (Professor at Collège de France, Paris) examines the manners in which the religious, political, and economic spheres maintained fluid boundaries, often time intersecting. Within the work, he continue ideas began in his book Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (Chicago/London, 2010) and offers valuable analysis of various topic pertinent to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, snapshots of ancient society through administrative documents, and is careful to note various places which need further in-depth studies. Drawing on studies from 1996 to 2015, he provides an excellent overview and up-to-date understanding of elements from the Amorite (or Old Babylonian) period (first half of the second millennium BCE). Much of his work is supported by the ARCHIBAB project, which is a French internet archive of a complete Old Babylonian bibliography and more than 32,500 texts.

Chapter One discusses prophetism in the Mari archives and, after establishing the error in distinction between prophecy and divination, argues that biblical prophecy is well in-line with its predecessor at Mari. Chapter Two analyzes extradition in the Amorite period and fleshes out the nuances of asylum and extradition with special focus on the authoritative role of gods in diplomatic records. Discussing evocation of the past, he then points to visions of the past, theological histories and temporal markers, to illuminate various approaches to and applications of the past. Chapter Four reviews the political and religious dynamics involving various kingdoms from the mourning of a king’s death to a newly established king. Shifting to a broader look on the dead, Chapter 5 explores the relationship between the living and dead by examining literary texts and archaeology, emphasizing the nuances and multiple approaches of Amorite society regarding the dynamics between the living and dead. Chapter 6 surveys the role of gods as creditors, illustrating the human-deity dynamics in commercial and necessity loans. Chapter 7 briefly reviews the range of Amorite archival contracts and offers analysis of how fines and punishment, private and public spheres, and deity and human dynamics interact within a legal Amorite context. Finally, Chapter 8 re-evaluates archaeological studies of Mesopotamian elites households, suggesting new reasoning for household expansion, and provides a snapshot of house management and familial dynamics through archival records.

Without a doubt, Charpin’s work is absolutely essential a variety of aspects. As this blog is called The Biblical Review, Chapter One is the most intriguing. Moving beyond Martti  Nissinen’s four transmission elements of prophecy (sender, context, message, and recipient) from his well-known  Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: 2002), Charpin offers three additional, or alternative, understandings of the transmission of prophecy which take more seriously the various aspects of prophetism. These alternatives are important because they provides a more tools for accurate readings of prophetic literature. Likewise, they strongly convincing because they are directly rooted in the various pieces of prophetic materials from Mari. Unlike Nissinen, who approaches prophetic transmission fairly rigidly, Charpin successfully breaks from this mold to provide a more comprehensive and historically appropriate approach to interpreting and reading prophetic texts from Mari.

As a brief critique, Charpin would have done well to expand upon his brief discussion of school texts, as school text reflects an even greater issue of the role of the scribal class in the Amorite period. Nick Veldhuis covers the topic of school texts and the scribal class quite extensively his recent work about the history of the cuneiform lexical tradition (Ugarit-Verlag, 2014) and in an earlier work from 2010.Because we see developing scribal identity and traditions during the Amorite Period, coverage of the role of cuneiform lexical lists in scribal identity would have strengthened Charpin’s discussion regarding  elite house management.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Charpin’s work. The analysis in which he fleshes out the nuances and realities of the people and communities who wrote the various, often times administrative, texts effectively illuminates the world through the eyes of the elite during the Amorite period. More specifically, he is able to avoid creating artificial distinctions between religious, political, and economic elements and demonstrates how they all interact with each other. It is an excellent addition or supplement to courses surrounding, or even relating to, the Amorite period. Even more so, Charpin’s work is helpful for research pertaining to the history and culture of Old Babylonian Mesopotamia.

The Old Testament and “Principles” of Theology

At the moment, I am reading through Catherine Bell’s (1953-2008) introduction to ritual theory, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997). In discussing ritual density, namely, why certain historical periods have more or less ritual activity, she comments on ancient Judaism and its orthopraxic nature. Her observation draws out a serious issue in how the Hebrew Bible tends to be approached, especially from within Christian circles.

“Although ancient Judaism distinguished itself from its neighbors by its avowal of monotheism, one God over and instead of many gods, this idea was not understood as a theological principle so much as a rule about who and what one could worship” (192).

In other words, ancient Judaism, and hence its remnants within the Hebrew Bible, cannot, and should not, be understood as abiding by timeless orthodoxical principles. While their principles may properly be understood as time timeless orthopractic principles for those in adherence to the Bible, reading the Hebrew Bible as orthodoxical principles is to do injustice to the text. A hermeneutic of orthodoxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of true beliefs, will result in different conclusions than a hermeneutic of orthopraxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of prescribed actions via the medium of text.

A hermeneutic of orthodoxy quickly and easily abandons issues of contradictory statements, statements likely present due to the diachronic composition of the Hebrew Bible. In response to such contradictions, or at least seeming contradictions, readers must maneuver around the “timeless orthodoxic principles” and find a way to unite them. Of course, this is not  a simple process because the Hebrew Bible isn’t full of orthodoxic principles needing to be formed into a synchronic theology. However, a hermeneutic of orthopraxy can help to solve issues found within the orthodoxic approach. Rather than synchronizing abstract concepts from various contexts, the orthopractic approach attempts to synchronize various practices via their timeless, dynamic, and intricate symbolic imagery.

Bell’s example of the monotheistic nature of ancient Judaism is a perfect example. Read as orthodoxy, the declaration of Yahweh as the only god simply declares a fact. Yet this must be read in context of verses like Exodus 20:3, which declare that one must not worship other gods. Hence, an orthodoxic hermeneutic must find a way to maintain continuity  between the existence of one god and the existence of multiple gods.

From an orthopractic hermeneutic, utilizing the same example, the reader need not synchronize to contrasting elements of the Hebrew Bible; rather, the reader needs only to recognize that the declaration of Yahweh as the only god is more or less a declaration of how one should live in practice. Thus, even with Yahweh as the only god, one is still able to recognize the existence of other gods. But this is only possible through a hermeneutic focused the orthopraxy of the Hebrew Bible.

This is an important and absolutely essential element of biblical interpretation that does justice to the biblical text, reading it within its own context.