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.

Methodology of Ken Brown

In The Vision in Job 4 and Its Role in the Book by Ken Brown, Brown makes a great note about the relationship between synchronic and diachronic methodologies.

… the two dangers are parallel. Whether we focus only on the “original” form of the book and treat everything added or changed as relatively unimportant, or focus only on the “final” form of the book, ignoring whatever lies behind it, either way we prioritize a single point in its history to the exclusion of all others. Both approaches impoverish our understanding of the text in all its complexity (pg. 57).

He proceed by discussing how important it is to utilize a methodology that take into account synchronic and diachronic aspects of a book. In short, I appreciate his methodology because it, as he notes, allows the reader to observe and take seriously the various contexts in which the text(s) operated. There is no assumption that one redactor is superior to another. Additionally, more breadth of human experience and expression may be observed with this approach.

 

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.

The Essence of Exegesis: A Review and Response To Gordon Fee’s Hermeneutic

In his articles To What End Exegesis (1988) and Exegesis and Spirituality (2000), Gordon Fee explores how spirituality is an important aspect of exegesis. His article To What End Exegesis sets the framework for Exegesis and Spirituality. The 1988 article is essentially arguing for a hermeneutic that embraces the spiritual aim of Scripture, while the 2000 article explore the intermingling between spirituality and exegesis amidst the interpretative process.

In To What End Exegesis, Fee begins by pointing out that the academy psyche of a neutral approach is not viable because it is not how the texts themselves were written; thus, Scripture should be read as Spiritual from beginning to end, as that is the intention of the text . He demonstrates this through brief exegesis of Philippians 4:10-20, drawing out the importance of the doxology and response expected by the Philippians. The audience was the Church, and therefore the ones who interpret Scripture should be the Church. Published in 2000, Fee continues this exegetical tradition by examining the subject more closely: what “is the interface between exegesis and spirituality, between the historical exercise of digging out the original intent of the text and the experience of hearing the text in the present in terms of both its presupposed and intentional spirituality” (4, Exegesis and Spirituality). As in the 1988 article, spirituality is the ultimate goal of Scripture. So, he begins by reviewing the concepts from his 1988 article; however, his review is more geared towards explaining the worldview of Christianity in order to validate the interface between spirituality and exegesis. His interface takes place in that the exegetical goal is to understand the authorial intent, spirituality. Yet, as a traditional believing scholar, he holds Scripture in high regard, reflected in his statement that exegesis of Scripture is for believers and should be read as a means to spirituality. Through a brief case study, he exemplifies how Paul’s intention for the Philippians was that his spirituality would result in producing greater spirituality in Philippi. Thus, spirituality and history is one discipline that requires us to be good students of the Word and pray-ers (15, Exegesis and Spirituality).

Between the 1988 and 2000, there are 2 major developments: audience and spirituality. Both of these developments are connected because the audience changes how spirituality is represented. In To What End Exegesis, Fee does not explain the a priori of Scripture as God’s word. It is assumed. Additionally, the 1988 article is more focused on the spiritual aspects of exegesis than the interface between exegesis and spirituality, an interface which ultimately unites the two. Thus, rather than simply explaining how the aim of exegesis is spirituality, Fee more aggressively ties the two together inseparably in order to explain it to a broader audience. The development of the united spirituality and exegesis is also clear through how he even uses the term “spirituality”. In To What End Exegesis, “spirituality” is capitalized, giving it a sense of holiness. This is made clear by his statement that “Spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God” (80, To What End Exegesis). In Exegesis and Spirituality, Fee reviews his view of spirituality in more historical terms. That is not to say they are not theological; rather, they communicate the theological through historical scholarly language, not the theological through theological language. Through both 1988 and 2000, Fee maintains a relatively consistent view of spirituality and exegesis. However, his purpose and audience force him to adjust his language in order to present more effectively.

While it is respectable that he observes the goal of the text and the role of the Church, it is unfortunate that he does not address the issue of worldviews. From a Christian worldview, one with much diversity, his explanation is profound and effective for interpreting within the Church context. Yet, criticism from the secular world often stems from criticism of the spirituality, or hopes to understand a more universal spirituality not limited to the Church. By missing this goal of some scholars, Fee is too narrow in his hermeneutic and fails to acknowledge the vastness of worldviews from scholars and lay people. While his regard for the relationship between spirituality and exegesis is respectable, and often times agreeable, a Christian worldview should be willing and able to face the secular approach to Scripture. Christian scholars should know how to dialogue with secular scholars, meaning that they speak the language and traditions of the secular rather than the sacred. In arguing for biblical studies as a secular discipline, protestant scholar Ron Simkins notes that “faith may shape the kind of questions the scholar brings to his subject matter; it may even shape the manner in which the subject matter is treated, but it should not determine the results of the scholarship” (11, Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline). While a completely inclusive biblical hermeneutic is out of question, the exclusive hermeneutic of Fee, which limits interpretation to the Church, creates a system in which there is no question or critique of Scripture. To begin and end with spirituality as the primary goal comes dangerously close to what Simkins opposes. “Faith that demands certain results or is expressed through inviolable propositions is both a distortion of faith and contrary to scholarship” (11, Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline).

As a method, Fee’s approach is viable. But it is viable as one amidst a plethora of hermeneutics, which should be recognized. Biblical interpretation should critique the text, not solely seek spirituality. After all, if God’s word is truly inspired, it should stand up to secular criticism and approach. While faith demands an a priori of trust, there should be a willingness to address the faults of the text. Christian faith is not in the Bible, but God. Because Christianity is, in some sense, a human movement encompassing Christian traditions over 2000 years, that movement should not have absolute and unquestioning loyalty, as it easily pre-determines the exegetical results.

Works Cited

Simkins, Ron. “Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline: The Role of Faith and Theology.” Journal of Religion & Society 13 (2011): pg. 1-17. Journal of Religions and Society. Creighton University, 2011. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

The Significance of a Biblical Genre

Genre in General

In reading anything, whether a grocery list, love letter, or satirical article, it is of the utmost importance to understand the genre of the text. After all, if one reads a satirical article as if it were a publication from The Seattle Times newspaper, there would be a significant misunderstanding of what it was trying to express. Take, for example, the following Onion post:

“WASHINGTON—Confirming that the probe successfully entered orbit around Mars late Sunday night, NASA officials reported today that the Maven spacecraft was now set to begin its mission of taking thousands of high-resolution computer backgrounds. “In its first year alone, the Maven probe will capture several hundred crisp desktop wallpapers of the Martian landscape in previously unattainable detail,” said NASA scientist Bruce Jakosky, noting that the space probe’s sophisticated instruments would ensure the backgrounds were in resolutions up to 1920×1200 and large enough to span two side-by-side monitors.”

Source:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/mars-maven-begins-mission-to-take-thousands-of-hig,36987/

Obviously, the author is not attempting to present this as a “fact”. With the knowledge that this is a satirical genre, it is clear that he is making light of the fact that people tend to simply use pictures of space for their background pictures, failing to recognize the scientific significance of the images. Rather than informing, the article is reflecting on something observed in culture.

Although it seems as if everybody should know this naturally, they do not. Everybody, even great scholars, defines the genre of a book before reading it because it informs them of how to understand the book. Like the Onion, one must understand the genre of a book in the Bible in order to truly grasp what is being expressed.

Genre in the Bible

In the Bible, there are multiple genres. The Old Testament has prophecy, law, history, narrative, etc. Among these genres, within the academic world, many will find sub-genres of a genre. However, that is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, this post will examine Genesis 1-3 and observe why genre is important in reading it.

Genesis 1-3 is not a historical record or scientific journal. If one reads Genesis 1-3 justly, it is essential to understand that it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and establishment of Order. As an important note, mythology does not mean false; it is simply an explanation of some phenomenon. In the case of Genesis 1-3, Genesis 1 focuses on the Order of creation and role of mankind within it. Genesis 2-3 is more focused on the creation of man and women and, in essence, why evil exists. Why does understanding the goal of the text in light of this genre matter?

People will often read something like Genesis 1:26 and make a statement like, “Because God created man, and then male and female, women should be subordinated to men”. Or, they will look at God’s creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and claim that “women should be subordinate to men because they were created from his rib”. This interpretation, however, misses the point of the text. Genesis 1-3 is not written as a historical account of the origins of humanity. Rather, it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and the fall of man in order to explain certain elements of humanity that seem to be wrong.

Unfortunately, this gross misunderstanding of the genre of Genesis 1-3 has caused many theologians, modern and ancient, to claim that man was designed as the superior being to women. With such a profound affect on Christianity and western culture as a whole, it is clear why a correct interpretation with acknowledgement of the biblical genre is absolutely essential. So, next time you read a book, especially a book of the Bible, understand what the goal of the text is. Ask what the genre is. To misunderstand the genre may result in and interpretation never intended by the author, and perhaps completely opposed to the goal of the author.