Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (2/2)

Part 2: When the Scripts are Enacted

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two parts. In order to fully understand Part 2, click here to first read Part 1

When scripts are embodied and performed on stage, certain physical aspects, not present before, become apparent. In this case, what does it mean for the officiant to “make a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash”?

First, we must identify the location of these documents. Then, based on the location of the text, we can infer the location where the ritual was enacted. Finally, by looking at the architecture of the Shamash temple, we may be able to identify ways in which the physical space makes the Coronation Prayer more understandable.

The Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal was discovered in Assur at the house of an incantation priest, just 300 meters south of the great Ziggurat [5]. In proximity of the Ziggurat were a variety of temples dedicated to other deities, Shamash’s temple being among them [6]. This suggests that the giving of a blessing towards Shamash, towards the ‘Censer Gate’, may have occurred within Shamash’s temple.

Now that we have identified the location in which this ritual may have been enacted, how can the ritual space can help us to get a better sense of the performance of the Coronation Prayer? For this, two points should be addressed. First, it is difficult to identify what the ‘Censer Gate’ exactly was. For sure, we know that it marked a particular gate within the temple [7]. Second, whereas the temple entrance during the Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian periods was on the northwestern front, the cult direction during the Neo-Assyrian period is re-oriented towards the East [8].

This shift in the direction is notable because the sun rises in the East. Seeing that the sun rises in the East, this means the sun would have had maximum access to the temple. Moreover, recall that the officiant turns towards Shamash. Thus, on the basis of the (a) eastern oriented Shamash temple and (b) the officiant of the Coronation Prayer turning towards Shamash, I would like to suggest that the Coronation Prayer would have been accomplished in the morning, when the temple would have received maximum sunlight.

Receiving maximum sunlight is extremely significant. Throughout Mesopotamian literature and history, reference is made to prayers, rituals, and judgment occurring at sunrise [9]. So, Mary Shepperson suggests that “these temple gateways where judgements were given and oaths taken may be connected to solar phenomena. If the presence of light is understood as the presence of the god of justice, then it seems desirable that judgement should be performed in sunlight” [10].

Therefore, performance of the Coronation Prayer was not a simply a religious prayer. Instead, the Coronation Prayer should be understood as a ritual performed in a physical space, one which was performed before Shamash. This reading is important because it suggests that the Coronation Prayer has legal overtones [11]. The ritual moves an individual from one legal status to another social status by means of religious language and actions. And, as I have demonstrated, this can be observed by considering the special and ritual aspects of the text [12].

At base, then, this should challenge our understandings of the relationship between “legal” and “religion.” Especially in the 21st century, people enjoy speaking about the separation between Church and state, often times viewing them entirely distinct entities. I propose, though, that this distinction did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, the king’s new legal, social and religious status was invoked through rituals employing religious language and legal symbolism.

So, is this really a ‘Coronation Prayer’ or is it a ‘Coronation Prayer Employed in a Legal Ritual’? I suggest the latter.

[5] Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210. Moreover, Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210n30, notes that temple documents were often stored this house during the late period of the Assyrian empire. So, see also Ernst F. Weidner, „Neue Bruchstücke des Berichtes über Sargons achten Feldyug“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 12 (1937-1939), pp. 144-148.


[7] CAD B Babu A, 1C 2´.

[8] Adrndt Haller and Walter Andrae, Dei Heiligtumer des Gottes Assur und der Sin-Shamash-Tempel in Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr, 1955), 82.

[9] Mary Shepperson, “The Ray of Shamash: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice”, in Iraq Vol. 74 (2012), pp. 51-64.

[10] Shepperson (2012), pg. 58. She continues by noting that, when temples were oriented Southeast, they would maximize the duration of the morning sun. Perhaps this is why the Sin-Shamash temple is not exactly East; rather, it is oriented between 73 and 103 degrees. Furthermore, though Shepperson is focused on the Ur III period, the same principle appears to be at place in later Mesopotamian history and literature, as is evident by her citations of NB texts. For a more broad overview of the influence of the sun on ancient architecture, see Ezequiel Uson Guardiola, Joan Lluis Fumado Alsina, and Josep Vives Rego, “The Influence of Religious and Cosmological Beliefs on the Solar Architecture of the Ancient World”, in International Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology no. 1 (2014), pp. 3-11.

[11] Martin Arneth, „“Möge Shamash dich das Hirtenamt über die vier Weltgegenden einsetyen” Der „Krönungshymnus Assurbanipals“ (SAA III, 11) und die Solarisierung des neuassyrischen Königtums”, in  Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte no. 4-5 (1998-99), pp. 28-53, provides an excellent form-critical analysis of o. 1 – r. 2, along with some fascinating work showing how the form matches on king rituals from the MA period and before. This work highlights the centrality of Shamash. However, Arneth does not deal with the stage instructions found in r. 3. My analysis, then, contributes to Arneth’s argument for the centrality of Shamash and the prayer as being legal in nature.

[12] Mapping out the way that a text imagines itself to be enacted in a physical space, and how that changes our reading of the text, was inspired by Jeremy Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES 76 no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.

Mesopotamian Monday: Shalmaneser III’s Prayer to Mulissu


Statues of Shalmaneser III from Istanbul Archaeological Museums (Source: Wikipedia)

Shalmaneser III’s prayer to Mulissu provides insight as to how Mesopotamian kings functioned in the cosmos, especially their relationship to deities [1]. By function, I don’t simply mean how they ruled; rather, I mean how they fit into the world- and theological- view of ancient Mesopotamia more broadly.

This text may be summarized succinctly: the speaker requests Mulissu’s blessings for the king because he supports the deity’s particular temple [2]. Within this text, three aspect of the king’s role in the Mesopotamian worldview emerge: (a) his role in temple rites and rituals and (b) his role in maintaining the temple, (c) both of which point to his role to do the will of deities.


First, the king is portrayed as participating in rituals and rites within this text:

“… [the one] who guarantees your offering, who maintains [your] food offerings, /
The faithful shepherd who watches over (?)… [ ] /
The most great one, first in rank, who performs [your] rites” (lines 14-16)

In the first two lines, the king is said to make and maintain the offerings. His offerings, though, consist of more than a small donations or tax deductions; rather, he provides a large portion of offerings which allow a temple to function. That’s not to say that the king was the only person to provide offerings; rather, he was just a primary contributor.

From a theological perspective, he is one of the primary figures who pleases and appeases deities. Without the king’s support in temple, deities would, perhaps, not be appeased, perhaps choosing to abandon the king and his people! [3]

Returning to the text cited earlier, consider, as well, the speakers’ claim to partake in rituals and perform in rites. For example, in Neo-Assyria, the king participated in a festival at the Temple of Assur. The festival consisted of roughly 1 week of various animal sacrifices, rituals, and libations [4].

Second, and in a similar vein, the king claims responsibility for maintaining the quality and beauty of the temple. Consider a central aspect of the text, namely the speakers’ repairing the cultic hard: “The great harp that played (?) your songs of praise (?) having deteriorated, / … He made it once again splendid and greater than it was [before]” (lines 17, 20). Evidently, the king repaired, or replaced, broken cultic items. Likewise, the king was known to provide finances for building or repairing entire temples. [5]

His role in maintaining cult materials and buildings, generally speaking, provided justification for the deity to bless the king. In other words, from the royal perspective, the king was not legitimated by the divinities for no reason; rather, he functioned within a reciprocal relationship: so long as the king provided the proper sacrifices, housing, and cultic materials for the deity, the deity lent support to the king.

Finally, and ultimately, these two roles of the king point toward the king as the most central performer of the will of deities. In fact, the relationship between the king and the deity was the most central aspect of Assyrian imperial ideology. Shawn Zelig Aster comments that the “king embodies the will of Assur, and acts as his vicar…, and as his priest…” [6]. Such embodiment was made possible because Assur, the highest deity in the Assyrian pantheon, was perceived as the hypostasis of ideal Assyrian kingship. Therefore, one was a “good” Assyrian king not because a deity said a king was legitimate; rather, one was a “good” Assyrian king because they performed (embodied) the will of the deity [7].

To summarize, Shalmaneser III’s prayer to Mulissu demonstrates how the king related to the Mesopotamian worldview, albeit through poetic means. The two majors ways, namely being involved in temple ritual and maintaining the temple through contributions, both points to a more important aspect: the king embodied the will of the deity. Therefore, whenever a text present the king as embodying the will of the deity, it is, at base, expressing why the king is a legitimate king.


[1] Before commenting on this prayer, a few caveats are necessary. First, it is unclear if Shalmaneser III is addressing the deity, or another Assyrian king. Second, it is unclear exactly which deity is being addressed. Unfortunately, I was unable to access the resources which would have enabled me to discuss these problems. Furthermore, all translations of the text are taken from Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, Third Edition (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005).

[2] Mulissu is the name of Assur’s spouse during the Neo-Assyrian period. Aramaic texts write her name as mlš; Herodotus writes her name as Mylitta. See M. Stol, “Mulissu,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition, eds. Karel van der Toorn et. al. (Leiden/Grand Rapids: Brill/Eerdmans, 1999), 606.

[3] That’s not to suggest that a temple could not function without the king. Karen Radner, , “Assur’s “Second Temple Period”: The Restoration of the Cult of Assur, c. 538 BCE,” in Herrschaftslegitimation in vorderorientalischen Reichen der Eisenzeit, eds. Christoph Levin and Reinhard Muller (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), pp. 77-96, demonstrates how one of the primary temples at Assur was rebuilt c. 538 BCE. And although it was traditionally connected to the Assyrian king, it was revived in 538 BCE after the end of Assyrian kingship. Concerning Neo-Babylonia, G. van Driel, Elusive Sulver (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor her Nabije Oosten, 2002), pg. 80, suggests a similar idea: While the king played a prominent role in providing means to maintain the cult, major building operations, and agriculture, “we cannot regard the king as the unrestricted owner the temple” (147).

[4] Salvatore Gaspa, “Meat offerings and their preparation in the state cule of the Assyrian empire,” in BASOR, University of London, Vol. 75, No. 2 (2012), pp.253-255.

[5] Radner, “Assur’s “Second Temple Period”” (2017), pg. 78.

[6] Shawn Zelig Aster, “Transmission of Neo-Assyrian Claims of Empire to Judah in the Late Eight Century BCE, in HUC Annual, Vol. 78 (2007), pg. 6.

[7] For more discussion on this matter, see Baruch Levine, “Assyrian Ideology and Israelite Monotheism,” in Iraq, Vol. 67, No. 1, Nineveh, Papers of the 49th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part Two (Spring, 2005), pp. 411-427, esp. 412.

“The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture” by Jeremy D. Smoak

Jeremy SmoakJeremy D. Smoak. The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, November 2015, xvii + 242 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Jeremy D. Smoak, Continuing Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, attempts to establish a firmer understanding of Judah during the Iron Age and biblical literature through an approach combining inscriptions throughout the Levant and intertextual interpretation. His unique approach results in an exemplary work which sheds light on both history and the Hebrew Bible. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, discovered tombs dating from the seventh to fifth centuries BCE, provide a launch pad for his analysis.

Chapter One examines the Ketef Hinnom amulets as some of the earliest examples of the priestly blessing in ancient Judah and highlights their apotropaic focus (amulets with the power to avert malevolent forces),  how they testify to the actual writing of the priestly blessing upon people, and accentuates “the significance that the act of writing, rather than reciting, the blessing held as part of its early ritual function” (42). Following, Chapter Two explores how Phoenician and Punic amulets place the Ketef Hinnom amulets into a wider practice of similar lexical and syntactical apotropaic blessings  that were expected to provide protection to the deceased by a deity.

Having demonstrated the wider context of the priestly blessing, Chapters Three through Five apply the refined understanding of it to biblical literature. The priestly blessing, Smoak argues, is was a re-contextualization of the blessing from its use in oral performance to priestly literature, something which centralized power to the sons of Aaron. Thus, the new perspective indicates the blessing as being expected to be written upon people. Chapter Four focuses on the face of Yahweh shining, which he finds to be rooted in temple pilgrimage. So the priestly blessing likely incorporated the Temple element of the blessing into the well-known West Semitic pattern during the late Judean monarchy to centralize the worship of Yahweh. Finally, Chapter Five engages with Numbers, arguing that the priestly blessing is placed where it is because it is in the midst of other ritual Temple activities. He supports his argument with a dedicatory inscription from Ekron that contains the same basic syntactical and lexical patterns in context of a material spatial blessing. Thus, the editor of Numbers, by placing it within Numbers, established a “more enduring and effective location in which the blessing could be embodied and preserved” (132).

Overall, Jeremy Smoak’s analysis of the priestly blessing offers unique conclusions regarding why the blessing is placed where it is in Numbers. His use of archaeology and biblical references to reinterpret the priestly blessing demonstrates a methodological approach which should be utilized more often across the realm of biblical studies. Without a doubt his work is an extremely valuable and significant contribution to both the history of ancient Israel during the later Judean monarchy and analysis of Numbers. Of course, as he indicates, the renewed understandings of blessings in the seventh to fifth centuries BCE challenges common understanding of blessing in biblical literature. The apotropaic, death related, and material nature of the blessing, both written and spoke, should be applied to other studies of blessing as it may provide fresh and alternative understandings.

He does, though, lack focus on ritual theory. Although the lack of this topic does not remove or negate the value of his work, it would certainly strengthen his conclusions which are focused on the writing of ritual performance. Inclusion of ritual theory would sharpen the strength of his conclusions significantly.

Yet, even in view of this point, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture is still invaluable for studies on Numbers and ancient Israelite religion. With portions that could be expanded upon with more archaeological evidence and theoretical discussion, he also provides a fantastic starting point for future studies of Numbers and ancient Israelite religion. Assuming one is studying within those specialties, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture by Jeremy Smoak must be addressed, and perhaps purchased, for solid methodology and excellently evidenced and fresh conclusions.

Why Priests?

Within ancient Israel, Priests held extremely important roles. Priestly significance is demonstrated even more so by the entire ancient Near East. Unlike the 21st century western world, ancient civilizations in the Near East placed high value on the “sacred space”, often designating them as temples. The sacred space was essential to the survival of an ancient civilization because “it was considered the center of power, control, and order from which deity [brought] order to the human world” (Walton, 127). In effect, the temple, sacred space, was a sort of “government” for the ancient world in that provided life, prosperity, and justice. The sacred temple was also considered a microcosm of the cosmos, the center of the cosmos. With this context, it is evident why priests in Leviticus are so dignified and viewed with prestige.

The value of priesthood depended not upon the tribe or lineage. In its purest sense, priesthoods attained value because they acted as the ones who ensured the sanctity of the sancta (the sacred space). Consequently the priesthoods allowed (1) the gods to continues maintaining order and (2) permitted human involvement in retaining cosmic order (Walton, 130). Unfortunately, because the temple was simeltaneously a political entity and religious expression, priesthoods could easily evolve into political powerhouses rather than sanctifying/sancitified powerhouses. And due to our own context which dichotomizes religious practice and politics, we easily pick up on the political struggles but miss the high cultural value of priests within a cultic context. In this context, then, it is evident why the priests were so important to ancient Israel. Without priests, order could not be maintained and life could fall into non-order/disorder as the world was left without Yahweh’s presence.


Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

By William Brown