Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

Continued: Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

This is a continuation of my current project. Click here for the first post which outlines the project.

Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, William G. Dever, 605-614).

  • Utilizes the terms “Syria” and “Palestine” to avoid ethnic and time-bound terms (605).
  • For my purposes, I am not too interested in palaces.
  • Temples
    • Easier to identify because they held to a stereotypical style (607).
    • Smaller sanctuaries and private shrines often remain enigmatic (607).
    • Main ways to think of this region’s temples:
      • Houses for the gods
      • consecrated for sacred usage
      • run by priests
      • worship consisted of offering gifts, like food and drink.
        • Often times, the gods were related to aspects of fertility.
    • Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age (c. 4000-2000)
      • Temple at En-gedi on a hill top with pits for offerings and an open area.
      • Later temples were constructed atop this site.
    • Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1500)
      • Four basic types
        • Two long room types
          • In these, they may have served both a religious and administrative function.
        • A threeroom type, which became the standard Phoenician and Israelite
        • Smaller temples or shrines which do not fit with the preceeding categories (609-610).
    • Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200)
      • Three-room, tripartite temple became standard.
        • I should look up pictures of these Temples and show this aspect of religion visually. Material culture is good.
      • Area H temple at Hazor best fits with this tripartite structure (Stratum XV)
      • There were also “bench temples”
        • Small sanctuaries with one or two rooms, plus a side room.
        • Bench around wall; central altar on back wall for worshippers.
        • See for reference Amenhotep III Stratum VII and Sety I Stratum VI temples at Beth She’an, Tel Mevorakh Stratum VIII temple, and three temples at Lachish “Faosse Temples”
        • At Hazor, the “Stelae Temple” of Area C has ten basalt standing stones. See also “Summit Temple at Lachish and Dayr ‘Alla in the Jordan valley.
      • Iron Age (c. 1200-600)
        • This is the most relevant for my writing. The previous data offers the historical and archaeological heritage of ancient Israelite temples.
        • Best preserved Philistine temple is Strata XII-X, 12th-10th century, at Tell Qasile.
        • Similar to bench temples in the Late Bronze Age; however, these ones had Aegean features, like votive offerings in large storeroom behind the altar. Also, a large outer court.
        • Israelite temples
          • Dan on the border of Palestine
            • Open air sacrificial podium
            • adjacent two room temple with altars.
            • Among finds were male and female figurines, incense stands, miniature altars, incense offering shovels.
            • Dates to 10th to 8th century and reflects 1 Kings 12:31, the period in which Jereboam ruled.
          • Arad, near Beer-Sheba
            • Same period as the Dan temple
            • tripartite structure
            • large sacrificial altar in open forecourt
            • smaller altars in inner chambers
            • Incense stands
            • bronze lion
            • “two shallow plate sinscribed with an abbreviated Hebrew formula that probably means “sanctificed for the priests” (1-2.611).
          • Smaller Israelite cultic installations
            • These were not temples; rather, ‘private shrines for family use” (611).
            • Short list
              • Shrine 2081 at Megiddo, “cult building” at Taanach, Tell al-Far’a gateway shrine, “Cult Room 49” at Lachish.
              • The aforementioned are all dated to the 10th century BCE.
            • Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in eastern Sinai wilderness
              • Dever says 8th century; however, I have an article which, based on Carbon Dating, suggests that Kuntillet Ajrud can be dated back to the 10th century BCE. Thus, it would match with the Short list provided.
              • Inscribed stone votive bowl
                • What does this mean and what was inscribed on it?
              • “painted cultic scenes familiar from Canaanite and Phoeneician art
              • Hebrew graffiti
                • Blessing formulas relate to El, Baal, Yahweh, and Aherah.
              • ‘Ajrud shrine for “caravans traversing the desert region.
                • Still, though, it is primarily Israelite-Judean.
            • Temple-sanctuary at Qitmit, east of Beer-sheba in eastern Negev Desrt
              • Dated the seventh century.
              • Edomite
                • Many terra-cottta deity representations.
            • Most famous is Solomon’s Temple, but we only see this directly in 1 Kings 6-7.
              • My thought: Based on the existence of many other temples through Palestine in the 10th century, Solomon’s Temple is not implausible to imagine. Although, it may not have been as grand as 1 Kings 6-7 describes it.
        • Palace-Temple combinations existed:
          • palace-temple combinations from the 9th-8th centuries
            • Zincirli and Tell Halaf in Syria
            • These complexes support the possibility of a palace-temple complex constructed by Solomon.
          • Canaanite palace-temple complexes remind us of the lack of distinction between state and religion.
            • King appointed priests, at least for the main place of worship
            • King also acted as a religious official.
            • Offerings to gods were often claimed by the kings.
            • “royal and priestly structures served a crucial social role in both centralizing and legitimizing national ideology” (612).
              • While I completely agree with this, I do think that it needs to be nuanced. What distinguishes palace-temple complexes, and the god-king-priest relationship therein, in a West Semitic context from an East Semitic context? While there is overlap, I think that Sanders’ book may help to clarify this issue. It will help me to localize Israelite-Judean religion.
          • Temples and Everyday Life
            • Temples indicated signs of wealth among Canaanite, Judean, and Israelite rulers.
              • Less than Egypt or Mesopotamia, of course.
            • Highly stratified society (speculative).
            • What can we learn from these temples, though?
              • For actual religious practice, it is tough.
              • By looking at what was offered, though, we can understand what sort of things were given as offering to the gods, or god.
              • Object recovered at Tel Mevorakh (Strata XI-X, c. 1400-1200) were divided into three categories
                • votives or costly gifts
                • vessels for food and drink offerings.
                  • Like stone cup, mortar, mini libation table.
                • impliments for liturgical function
                  • Like snake figure, dagger, arrowheads
              • Other stuffs, like seals, bead, pendant, game pieces, jar, pots, bowls, platters, chalices, cups, etc. all seem to be evidence of what was offered at a public shrine.
                • Likely to El, Asherah, Ball, or ‘Anat; by this period Yahweh is not a deity in the region.
                • Still, these offerings from a LBA help us to understand what constituted religious worship in the heritage of ancient Judean-Israel religion.

Brief notes on Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israeli, by Hector Avalos

  • Priests often served as judges (622).
  • Priests usually inherited their position (623).
  • There were very structured temple hierarchies (623).
    • This is shared in Phoenician and Hebrew texts (623).
    • Each one expresses the hierarchies in a different way (623).

Brief notes on Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah by Joseph Blenkinsopp

  • Bethel and Dan were set up by Jereboam to rival Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26-33), (p. 1315).
  • Imagery of a golden, young bull, familiar from Canaanite iconography, “either represented Yahweh or served as his pedestal” (1316).
  • Like mentioned to entries ago, there was a large place for sacrifice at Tel Dan, constructed by Jeroboam I – the Omrids expanded it (1317).
  • Sanctuary at the fortress of Arad had two incense altars and a sort of holy of holies.
    • Used in the 9th and 8th centuries – abandoned at the end of the 8th century (1317).
  • According to HB, Ahab build an Asherah. Likewise, the HB notes four hundred prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 16:33, 18:19). Even with a strong Yahwistic zeal, cult of Asherah still flourished until the destruction of Jerusalem and beyond. It was considered acceptable worship alongside Yahweh.
    • Cf. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions and Khirbat al-Qom. These both attest to a strong relation between cult of Yahweh and Asherah.
      • Blenkinsopp translates it as, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah” (1317).
      • May be dated as early as 10th century. Z. Meshel dates it to as early as the second half of the 9th century.
    • In neighboring regions, like Melqart of Tyre and Chemosh of Moab, they were worshiped with a female consort (1318). Thus, for ancient Israelite-Judean religion to do so is not unheard of or surprising.
  • Samaria ostraca include elements of Yahweh. They wrote YW, “corresponding to the Judean YHW” (1318), 8 for Baal, some with El, Gad, and Bes.
  • In the midst of all this, there were extremist cults dedicated to the cult of Yahweh alone.
    • Of course, this is questionable. Perhaps these cults were monolatry. Eventually, though, they began to turn into an early form of monotheism in order to retain their ethnic identity (Mark Smith and others).
  • With the rise of Omri, king of Israelite, sought closer ties with Phoenician cities through marriage and peace.
    • This was not received well because it broke customs and traditions (1318).

The Context of Ancient Egyptian Kings

When Moses is leading the people out of Egypt, what is the Pharaoh like? One of the most obvious facts was that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened. But what was the background of this? Though dating between 2400 and 2000 BC, the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts shed some light on this question. The text soon to follow displays the traditional pride (a term meant to be neutral) and power of an Egyptian pharaoh. From utterances 273-274, Faulkner titles them The king hunts and eats the gods. The following is an excerpt from the text:

“The King’s neck is on his trunk. / The King is the Bull of the sky, / Who conquers(?) at will, / Who lives on the being of every god, / Who eats their entrails(?), / Even of those who come with their bodies full of magic” (Faulkner, 80).

When the Exodus occurs in Egypt, after Yahweh has demonstrated his power against Pharaoh, and more importantly the Egyptian gods, Pharaoh has fallen further than he has ever fallen. Thus, his attempt to redeem pride and honor by chasing the fleeing Israelite population is essential to the validity of his rule. Furthermore, this text also demonstrates why there does not seem to be any record of an Israelite population enslaved by Egypt. To do so would require the Pharaoh to admit his defeat and the defeat of Egyptian gods. The loss of Israelite slaves is no little thing.

So, if a person ever states that Israelite enslavement is historically incorrect, remember that no empire establishing or attempting to establish a empire would record such a loss within their historical court records. And, when reading the Bible, know that Pharaoh’s decision to free the Israelite population is no small deal: Pharaoh placed his honor and power on the line.

Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts,. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.