Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Lenzi, Alan, Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel (State Archives of Assyria Studies, 19; Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2008). Pp. xvii, 456. Paperback. $72.00 ISBN 978 952 10 1330 0.

Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel is a revised version of Lenzi's 2005 doctoral dissertation written at Brandeis University under the direction of T. Abusch and D. P. Wright. The basic thesis expands upon previous work on secrecy among Mesopotamian scribes  that started with Rykle Borger's listing of a restricted number of Akkadian tablets known in the field as the “Geheimwissen colophon texts.” These colophons explicitly restrict the circle of those allowed to read the text on the tablet. Lenzi's volume is an attempt to reconstruct the “mythological” and social world in which this concern for secrecy among Assyrian and Babylonian scribes arose and then draw parallels from the Hebrew Bible.

The introduction retains much of the feel of a dissertation, including a bevy of the then current crop of popular phrases and topics; mercifully, these tend to be left behind once the body of the book is reached. Central to the research thesis, however, are concerns with boundaries (here insider scribes separated from those outside the higher scribal circles), elites (those who hold and maintain power), and especially secrecy (a manifestation of power politics). Secrecy clearly defines an inner group from an outer group and serves as an appropriate topic for discussing the other concerns of the thesis. Recently, secrecy as a topic of social-science research commonly includes discussions concerned with the question of boundaries in many cultures and contexts. Two recent essays reflect the concerns of Lenzi's work and demonstrate how his research connects to modern society.[1] The entire question of who is allowed to read particular, especially religious, texts and who within that select group is allowed to make authoritative statements about such texts has driven a recent lively debate on Hindu documents.[2] On a social group as an entity, certain Mesquakie narratives are not to be repeated to those outside the ethnic community, even though they are known to all within the group.[3] Lenzi raises questions which go beyond those of boundaries within the populations he discusses, including the issue of academic access to restricted material—academics themselves feel entitled to unrestricted access to “secret” material. Lenzi's work presupposes such an academic stance.

The first, and longest, part of the volume deals with the question of secrecy in ancient Mesopotamia in the second through first millennia B.C.E. On the historical level, Lenzi concludes that there was a political organization that formed the secret council for the Assyrian and Babylonian kings. The evidence for these councils is found in the vision of the mythological divine assembly, for which the work of E. T. Mullen and the American School of Old Testament studies is foundational. That no evidence for such councils has yet appeared in the mundane tablets does not stop scholars from positing their existence (which is fair enough since they are supposed to be a secret after all), but then to found theories of lineages of secret traditions and complimentary secret councils which can be posited for “Israel” (Lenzi almost without exception uses “Israel” to refer to the political situation in Jerusalem) stretches the data beyond certainty. To his credit, Lenzi constantly reminds the reader that his reconstruction is hypothetical.

On much firmer ground is Lenzi's reconstruction of the Mesopotamian scribal self-understanding: they understood themselves to be the bearers of secret knowledge from the antediluvian deities. Accepting that the writing of cuneiform Akkadian was simplified through these 2000 years and that therefore the capacity for literacy expanded, the professional scribes contrived various means by which to keep texts they wished to maintain within their circles away from the barely literate. Using Sumerian served these purposes, as was using ancient forms of cuneiform signs. A last resort would be a colophon simply stating that the attached text was a secret and thus, that is not to be shown to improperly trained readers. The fact that some of these texts appear with and without such notes may suggest that there were some who thought the material was not secret, or just thought that the texts were not going to fall into the “wrong” hands. Apparently some scribes believed that the secrecy of these texts needed to be maintained while others did not.

The official ideology appears to be that the information of the practitioners of various forms of divination, exorcism, medicine, and other specialized arts came from a group of seven sages (apkallu) who, in turn got their information directly from the deities, especially the god of wisdom, Ea. Well documented is that the origin of practical wisdom derives from ancient times through the passing on of written texts intended to be kept secret, save for those capable of properly using the information (meaning usually a family profession). It is certainly true that at least certain types of divination were considered specialized activities that should only be performed by authorized individuals; nonetheless, it appears that persons outside those with access to these secret texts also practiced divination. The development of the secrecy colophons and of the mythological origins of specialized secret knowledge corresponded to this unauthorized desire to attain secret knowledge. A survey (with convenient table) of the secrecy colophon tablets and their contents concludes the Mesopotamian section of the volume.

The much shorter section of the book that deals with prophecy in the Hebrew Bible presents a West Semitic reflection of the Mesopotamian secrecy themes. Lenzi wisely notes that many aspects of the Mesopotamian situation do not apply to the material in the Hebrew Bible. A short survey of problems in dealing with biblical texts reminds the reader that both dating and understanding biblical texts is no easy matter. Then there is the positing of a secret council for the Jerusalem kings (or at least the Samarian kings), evidence for which is extremely slim. The divine council that appears in the biblical texts corresponds in some ways with that in Mesopotamia, but in the most significant aspect, that there is only one deity, it is quite different. On the other hand, the deliberations of the divine council are presented in the Bible as decidedly secret. That all wisdom comes from God is a recurring theme throughout the biblical wisdom literature and into the succeeding religious traditions. So, like the knowledge from Ea in Mesopotamia that is passed on in antiquity through the seven sages, the ancient Israelite scribes came up with Moses to perform the same function. All the secret knowledge, ritual and legal, is attributed to this antiquarian figure. Unlike Mesopotamia, however, Israel sought to make secret knowledge known. Prophets did not seek to keep other people from knowing what the divine council proclaimed, but set out to inform publically and orally as many people as possible. The volume ends with a select series of passages being considered in light of the material presented in the book: Daniel as a court scholar with secret knowledge not available to other court functionaries (the cluster of court positions are seen to have Mesopotamian literary roots); Deut 28:69–30:20 as a description of Moses as the paradigmatic prophet (with 29:28 as an interpolation devised to prevent apocalyptic or exilic restoration speculation); Prov 8:22–31 as the foundational tale of Wisdom as God's creation before creation (presented as, if not based on, at least familiar with, the Enuma Elish—though the question of why would the term אָמוֹן  in Prov 8:30 remind readers of Marduk rather than, say, Amon raises questions about the matter; see pp. 354-57); and Deut 34:10–12 wherein Moses is shown to be the apkallu for the Israelites. Lenzi is fully aware that these interpretations are selected from numerous alternatives which contemporary biblical commentators have posited, but they do seem appropriate given his thesis.

The volume has a few typographical errors, though this is not a major problem; also, there are statements, not central to the argument, that are more popular in current scholarly theory than in the ancient texts. For instance, a typographical error has a proper reference to Huldah's prophecy cited in 2 Kings 22 followed by a citation where 1 Kings 22 is intended (p. 262). Furthermore, the notion that Huldah was a temple prophet explicitly assigned to the central sanctuary is a modern construct, but is not discernable from the biblical texts (p. 260).

Lenzi does a very good job of presenting his major thesis. He is less successful in the attempt to discover a secret inner-circle royal council than demonstrating that the envisioned divine councils in both Mesopotamia and Israel/Judah dealt with secrets withheld from humanity. On the basis of many examples, Lenzi persuasively posits an ancient figure who was responsible for the written secrets which were passed on to current scribes, diviners, medical personnel, prophets and others. Clearly some of the Mesopotamian professional class believed they belonged to a chain of human professionals who derived their expertise from the gods and who then passed on this knowledge through wise men (and these were all men).

It is decidedly less clear that what Moses passed on and became embodied in Torah or was expounded by the prophets ever had been considered secret; this information appears always to have been intended to be known by all Israelites/Judeans. However, taking into account Daniel, perhaps like the Mesquakie narratives, the Mosaic material in the Hebrew Bible was supposed to be for insiders only.

Lowell K. Handy, American Theological Library Association, Chicago, Ill.

[1] Fred McTaggart, “American Indian Literature: Contexts for Understanding,” in The Worlds between Two Rivers: Perspectives on American Indians in Iowa, Expanded edition (ed. Gretchen M. Bataille, David Mayer Gradwohl and Charles L. P. Silet; Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), 1–9; Anantanand Rambachan, “Rethinking Advaita: Who Is Eligible to Read Advaita Texts?” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 22 (2009), 8–13.reference

[2] See Rambachan, “Rethinking Advaita.” reference

[3] McTaggart, “American Indian Literature,” 3. The suspicion of European academic traditions by First Nations appears in several of the essays in this volume.reference