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.

“A Prophet Like Moses” by Jeffrey Stackert

A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion by Jeffrey Stackert. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, viii + 243 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of A Prophet Like Moses by Jeffrey Stackert.

An emerging and ground-breaking biblical scholar, Jeffrey Stackert’s first book, Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007), resulted in bestowment upon him of the 2010 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Currently teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, his second publication will significantly further his already established authority in biblical studies.

Chapter One discusses Wellhausen’s impact the relationship between law and prophecy in the Torah, especially critiquing his coincidental correspondence between law and prophecy (15) and choice not to distinguish J and E. Additionally, rooting his analysis of the Torah in various concrete, historical settings, Stackert emphasizes that “the Torah sources engage in historical discourse for precisely… their conceptualizations of prophecy’s attenuation and demise” (31). Chapter Two turns to the literary characterization of Moses’ prophetic character, initially presenting four reason why he is not denoted a prophet. Following,  he demonstrates that Moses’ greater literary context, the ancient Near East, indicate his legitimate status as a prophet. He then narrows his focus to briefly analyze a variety of textual traditions, especially J, E, and D, to demonstrate that the Torah does portray Moses as a prophet.

Chapter Three, through tracing E’s narrative trajectory, analyzes five major passages: “Exod 3*-4*, 19-20*, and 33:6b-11; Num 11*-12*; and Deut 34:10-12” (71). In short, Stackert concludes “that E’s Moses stands as a singular prophet” (125), acting with in an extreme anti-prophetic sense and promoting law over prophecy. Chapter Four examines D’s unique appropriation and approbation of E, its literary fund. After analyzing Deut 1:9-18, 5:1-31, 13:2-6, and 18:9-22, he concludes that D expects some sort of prophetic action with its historical context. In response, D authorizes prophecy under the auspice that the prophet is derivative of Mosaic authority. D’s extension of prophetic authority “is one in which law and prophecy exist in a hierarchical relationship rather than being mutually exclusive options” (166), as E presents. Because there is far less direct reference or allusion to prophecy, Stackert discusses both P and J in Chapter Five. P, he concludes, is unique in that it simply views Moses as sole prophet of Israelite religion because of “the divine law mediated by Moses” (174). With P, H advocates for a priestly mediatory figure. And as Stackert succinctly notes P’s claims, “There once was a prophet who instituted a religious system in which there is no place for prophecy” (172), concluding that P holds an antiprophetic stance. Chapter Six, after initially reviewing the breadth of perspectives on ancient Israelite religion, discusses how Wellhausen, even in his attempt to distinguish the theological from historical, was unknowingly driven by his own perspective on religion. As a conclusion, he argues that biblical studies should be studied within the realm of humanities, such as ancient Near Eastern studies, rather than the realm of theology, noting his own study as one which provides “a richer and more nuanced appreciation of some distinctive views of prophecy and law in the history of Israelite religious thought” (208).

Stackert accomplishes his goal of demonstrating the breadth of theological tradition in the history of Israelite religion. Most praiseworthy is his ability to locate and draw out the nuances between the various sources. As he notes, many scholars overlook certain aspect of the sources and generalize based on the work of Wellhausen. Yet, by providing reason to doubt certain aspects of Wellhausen’s work, he illustrates the importance of each sources trajectory regarding prophecy and law, providing analysis essential to any future study of prophecy in the Torah and Moses’ literary character.

As for points of disagreement, there was only one place in which his argumentation needed more support. Chapter Five notes that “two specific omissions from P emphasize its antiprophetic stance… because P addresses the question of the performance of religious practices that YHWH did not sanction” (171). Stackert then draws of Nadab and Abihu’s death (Lev 10:1-2) and Korah’s death (Num 16), both P material, as evidence that “religious innovation provokes a fatal divine response” (172), his reason that post-Mosaic prophecy is not permitted in P. Yet to compare these two passages is inadequate evidence for such a claim. Leviticus 10:16-20 specifically notes Aaron’s error, perhaps intentional, in failing to eat the goat in the sanctuary, as Moses commanded. If God is against religious innovation, or differences in what he commands, Aaron should have died as well. He did not, and was in fact justified in his religious innovation. Thus, Stackert’s use of the beginning of the narrative in Leviticus 10 fails to take into account the greater complexities of the passage. In summary, his argument that P opposes religious innovation is weak in that he fails to explore or note the complexities of Leviticus 10’s narrative, leaving him with only one argument for P’s stance against religious innovation.

Even so, A Prophet Like Moses is valuable for research relating to the prophetic nature of the Torah and Moses, as it presents a ground-breaking and unique perspectives on how to understand the relationship between prophecy, law, and Moses. Stackert’s nuanced approach, additionally, demonstrates a focused approach on the history of Israelite religion and may be used as a guide for future research due to how it understands the complex dynamics of law and prophecy. And because his focus draws on the historical dynamics of law and prophecy, it opens doors for much future research regarding each source’s unique time period. In conclusion, Stackert’s nuanced analysis of the Hebrew Bible and willingness to look beyond generalized dynamics between law, prophecy, and Moses allow his work to potentially become a launch pad for future studies exploring the nature of the multi-faceted, historically rooted, theological traditions of ancient Israel.

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Leviticus as a Window to Ancient Israel

Too often Leviticus is overlooked because 21st century interpreters are generally unable to connect with the cognitive environment of Leviticus. Unfortunately, this results in a skewed and simplistic view of Leviticus and the entire sacrificial system. In reality, the sacrificial system offers insight to the societal organization and cognitive environment. While the ethical standards of Leviticus are most clear in displaying ancient Israel to the modern reader (cf. Lev 18-19), the environment can also be grasped through the sacrificial system.

Take, for example, the arrangement of sin offerings (Lev 4). In it, the sin offerings are grouped in two categories, communal and individual. Each of these categories break into two more sub-categories, for a total of four sub-categories.

  • Communal – Anointed Priest
  • Communal – Community as a whole
  • Individual – Ruler
  • Individual – Common Israelite

In Leviticus 4:3-12, the sin of an anointed priest is described as “bringing guilt on the people” (Lev 4:3, NRSV), hence its categorization as communal. Also communal, Leviticus 4:13-21 discusses the process of a sin offering “if the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (Lev 4:13, NRSV). Both communal sacrifices require a bull to be brought before the Lord and involve the sprinkling of blood seven times before the curtain.

The second category, individual, involves the actions for a ruler, or judge, who sins or the ordinary person. The individual category simply requires a male goat for the judge and female goat, or sheep, for the ordinary person. Additionally, the blood is not sprinkled seven times before the curtain. The individual category does not imply any need for communal cleansing in response to the actions of an individual, whether ruler or ordinary person.

Distinction by the text of the communal and individual illustrates the cognitive environment and  society of ancient Israel. Additionally, it provides an essential key to interpreting biblical texts, especially texts of more Priestly oriented tradition. Leviticus 4 demonstrates that ancient Israel, while fully aware of the individual, placed much more significance upon the community. First, the communal sin offerings required far greater sacrifice, a bull. In contrast, the individual sin offerings only requires a goat or sheep. Secondly, unlike the individual sin offerings, the communal sin offerings required the priest to spring blood seven times before the curtain. The curtain was the closest that one could move towards the center of the sanctified space because it was the Holy of Holies. So, by the priest sprinkling blood for atonement before the curtain in order to attain atonement for communal sin offerings, Leviticus suggests that sanctification of the entire community is more important than the individual sanctification. While the text clearly suggests that the individual is important, the community take precedence.

In conclusion, this brief examination of Leviticus 4 and ancient Israel’s sin offerings exemplifies how Leviticus holds essential keys to understanding the world and mind of ancient Israel. While such observations in Leviticus are not always immediately noticed by the modern reader, they are present if one is willing to set aside his/her presupposed ideas about Leviticus. By doing so, they will avoid abrogating the meaning and intention of the text and provide it autonomy from the 21st century cognitive environment (cf. John Walton 2015, 15-23). After all, a proper reading of Leviticus results in far richer results of the Bible than are generally expected.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.