On Prophecy in the Ancient World


Source: Wikipedia

More often than not, understandings of prophecy arise from hearing about or reading the Hebrew Bible. Books like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah shapes and form these understandings. In this blog post, I will briefly examine one example of prophecy which occurred before all else in the Hebrew Bible. By looking at this text, I hope to demonstrate, through non-biblical material, a function of prophecy in the ancient world. The letter which I will write about was written around the 18th century BCE (c. 1800 BCE) [1].

In this letter, Inibsina is communicating with her brother who she calls Kakkabi (Zimri-Lin) [2]. Within the letter, we first read the following: “Previously, Selebum the Assinu gave a prophecy to me… Now, one female Qammatum of Dagan of Terqa came to me.” Here, Inibsina is telling Kakkabi that she previously received a prophecy. Now, she received another prophecy from a religious priestess. What did this priestess prophecy, then?

“The alliances of the men of Esnunna (a city in the ancient world) are deceptive. And, under the straw, the water will go; and toward the net, of which it can be said I will bind, I will gather it. His city I will destroy, and his stuff, which from ancient times was not defiled, I will defile.”

What is going on here? For the sake of this post, there are two main things which should be addressed: what is the message and who is the speaker?

In this prophecy which was first reported to Inibsina, the message is fairly straightforward: current allies of Kakkabi are deceptive and will not remains faithful to the alliance. As a result, the god Dagan of Terqa will destroy the city of those in the alliance who are deceptive [3]. In other words, the god recognizes the unfaithfulness of some members in the alliance. So, he will destroy them. As for the speaker, it is Dagan of Terqa speaking through the Qammatum priestess.

What does this mean, though, for how we think about religion, politics, and society in the ancient world? As this text demonstrates, the gods are understood to be directly involved in politics and social relation. Consequently, religion is directly involved with politics and social relations. Viewing it the other way, politics is directly involved with religion. Either way we look at this letter, it is evident that the people living in 18th century BCE Mari did not make a large distinction, if any, between politics and religion. They were intrinsically intertwined, if not the same.

Likewise, prophecy was intrinsically intertwined into politics. Although popular modern notions of prophecy tend to distinguish it from politics, this ancient letter demonstrates that it was, during this period, understood as part of the political atmosphere. This notion of prophecy for both religious and political ends is important because it may inform how we understand prophecy within the Hebrew Bible. Though I do not advocate that all prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is politically driven, it is worth keeping this reality in mind as we read through prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible [4].

[1] ARM 10 80. Translation is my own.

[2] Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press, p. 28 n. b. For simplicity, Kakkabi is best understood as a nickname for Zimri-Lin.

[3] My attempt is not a careful and close reading. I simply want to present the gist of the text.

[4] Ancient Israelite prophecy is, in fact, a unique phenomenon.


Charpin, Dominique (Paris), “Mari”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 23 April 2017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e723510&gt;

Nissinen, Martti, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press,

What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?


14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.

Is the Hebrew Bible a Historically Reliable Text?

The following is a draft which I am developing for Ancient History Encyclopedia. Although I will be writing on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is problematic for many, scholars and non-scholars alike. In particular, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of ancient Israelite religion is problematic. Thus, I wrote this piece to undergird my presentation of ancient Israelite and Judean Religion. As I proceed, I will add more layers to the issue. My goal, though, is to make the information comprehensible. 

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is a complex issue. In order to decide whether or not it is historically reliable, we must pay close attention to the text, archaeology, and other literature from the ancient Near East. After analyzing the Hebrew Bible alongside other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology, we can make an informed decision as to whether or not we should utilize the Hebrew Bible for understanding the history in the regions throughout the Levant (the Levant is the area encompassing modern day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).


Source: Wikipedia

In seeking to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, though, we must take three factors into consideration. First, we must consider that the Hebrew Bible was not originally written and composed as a single document; rather, it is an anthology of ancient writings. The ancient writing were written by many authors, over a long period of time. Thus, any attempt to answer the question must consider the varying degrees of historically reliability of texts within the anthology. Some texts may be historically reliable. Some texts may not be historically reliable.

Second, we must consider the length of time over which the Hebrew Bible was developed. As Sara Mandell notes, the history of the Hebrew Bible is “a historically late, redacted composite that presents the diverse religious and historical perspectives of its several layers of editors.”[i] In simpler words, the Hebrew Bible consists of texts which were edited by many people. By the time of the earliest, fully compiled version of the Hebrew Bible (c. 300 BCE), the text had been developed and edited for nearly 600 years. Because it was developed over such a long period of time, it contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 10th century BCE. Yet, it also contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 3rd century BCE. So, when we think about whether or not the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable, it is essential that we recognize that it was written and edited over a long period of time and in many different historical contexts, not just one.

Third, the Hebrew Bible is not just history. Within the Hebrew Bible, there are many different genres of texts. For example, the Psalms contains liturgical hymns used in temple contexts, lamentations, personal prayers, and many other genres of literature. Additionally, texts like 1 and 2 Kings are historiography, historiography being an attempt to tell history through a particular worldview. In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the author(s) viewed the history through a theological lens. In addressing the historically reliability of the Hebrew Bible, then, we must think about the genre of text. Would one read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) like it is a poem? Absolutely not. Darwin’s book is about scientific observations. It does not fall within the genre of poetry. Likewise, we should be aware of the genre of text we read within the Hebrew Bible. By doing so, it can help us to understand how relevant the particular text in terms of its historical reliability.

To summarize, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is not a simple question to answer. We must take into consideration archaeology, other ancient literature, and the complicated nature of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is, after all, (1) an anthology of many texts and traditions from the ancient Levant. (2) These texts were developed over a period of nearly 600 years! 600 years ago from 2017, the USA did not exist, France was not established as a country, and the events which inspired some of Shakespeare’s plays were still taking place. In other words, a lot can happen in 600 years, both in Europe and the ancient Levant. Within the anthology of texts composed over a long period of time, namely the Hebrew Bible, (3) things were written in many different genres. By being aware of different genres, we can think about how we should read the text. Should we read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a story? Or should we read it as a history like Edward Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? These are pertinent questions and considerations when thinking about whether or not a text within the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable.


[i] Sara Mandell, “Israelite Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism, vol. II.

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.


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.

On the Mahābhārata: History of Scholarship

kurukshetraPreviously, I briefly discussed a few of my interests in reading the Mahābhārata. One of these was the potential to learn methods from the History of Religions. Consequently, I could utilize the methods for new approaches to the Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern material. Although I haven’t figured out how to do this yet, I have been fascinated by the parallels between the history of scholarship on the Mahābhārata and the history of scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Also, some of the ideas are strikingly similar.

One of the earliest scholars of the Mahābhārata was Adolf Holtzmann, Sr. Holtzmann argued that, originally, the losing party was actually the victor. So, in the current state of the Mahābhārata, the Pandavas are the victors over the Kaurava. This recension, though, is a modification of the original story in which the Kaurava are the victors over the Pandavas. Those involved in biblical scholarship may recognize a similar trend in biblical scholarship. Many biblical scholars highlight the conflict between Northern Israel (Samaria) and Judah. Likewise, there is much conflict between surrounding people groups. Within biblical texts, there are many conflicting accounts which have been reworked in order to account for the incongruities.

Another major scholar of the Mahābhārata was E. Washburn Hopkins. Hopkins wrote in 1895, around the period as major biblical studies figures: Gunkel and Wellhausen. Hopkins intensely analyzed the Mahābhārata in terms of meter, philosophy, and languages. He concluded that within the Mahābhārata is an original epic. The current state of the Mahābhārata, though, was agglutinated with many “pseudo-epics.” Needless to say, Wellhausen argued similarly in the same time period. Unlike Mahābhārata studies, though, biblical studies continued intensely throughout the 20th century. Mahābhārata studies slowed substantially at the onset of the 20th century. Of course, both fields, Biblical Studies and the History of Religions, developed in substantially different ways.

Clearly, study of the Mahābhārata and Hebrew Bible in the modern period come from very similar roots. These roots ultimately grew in very different directions. Perhaps by considering why each field developed how it did, we can shed new light on both the Hebrew Bible and Mahābhārata by utilizing new methods. After all, the field of Biblical Studies and the History of Religions seem to be distant cousins.



Buitenen, J. A. B. van. 1973. The Mahābhārata. Book of the beginning: University of Chicago Press, 1973. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2017).


Initial Thoughts on “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus”

In Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus – Hellenistic Histories and the date of the Pentateuch, Russel Gmirkin argues that “the Hebrew Pentateuch was composed in its entirety about 273-272 BCE by Jewish scholars at Alexandria that later traditions credited with the Septuigant translation of the Pentateuch into Greek” (1). I am in Chapter Three. Thus far, though, I have a few initial comments.

His criticism of the documentary hypothesis is weak. In his argument, he attempts to destabilize the documentary hypothesis in order to create a space to construct his argument. Problematic within his presentation of the documentary hypothesis, though, is how broadly he paints it. Thus, he argues against the stability of the documentary hypothesis in a weak and undeveloped manner. Through the short chapter, only 10 pages, he comes to the conclusion that “the historical construct proposed under the Documentary Hypothesis cannot be accepted” (33).

To him I raise another question: Which documentary hypothesis? No (good) scholar who adheres to the documentary hypothesis blindly accepts it as an authoritative, binding division of material in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, they thoroughly consider the text through critical analysis. They don’t just consider Wellhausen’s formulation of the documentary hypothesis to be the end-all-be-all.

Perhaps, then Gmirkin’s critique is more accurately a criticism of Wellhausen’s formulation of the documentary hypothesis. After all, scholars like Joel Baden and Jefferey Stackert have done substantial work with the documentary hypothesis. Both scholars have moved the hypothesis forward substantially, not accepting the “standard” source divisions. Rather, they take up the text critically on their own. At bottom, his argument against the documentary hypothesis lacks substance.

Perhaps his forthcoming publication will engage the subject in more depth. I’d love to see him offer a substantive criticism of the documentary hypothesis, examining the varieties of documentary hypotheses.

I’m also interested in how he uses Greek sources for understanding Jews. I must comment no further than this, though, because I am only about halfway through Chapter Three.