Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Oshima, Takayoshi, Babylonian Poems of Pious Sufferers: Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy (Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 14; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), Pp. xx + 572, plates lxv. Hardcover. €139.00. ISBN 978-3-16-153389-1.

This important, weighty monograph offers comprehensive and up-to-date treatments of two of the most fascinating and learned poems produced by the literati of ancient Mesopotamian—Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy. Since these texts have long provided comparative materials for the study of the book of Job and other biblical texts belonging to the so-called “wisdom tradition” (Oshima prefers the term “didactic”; p. 2 n. 5), the insights and advances found in this volume constitute a welcome addition to both Assyriology and biblical studies. Below I offer a brief survey of the book's contents and discuss some of the author's more significant departures from previous scholarship.

Oshima divides the book into five chapters. He devotes the first to a lengthy discussion of Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and its exemplars as well as to an overview of its plot, narrator, characters, and authorship. Here one also finds comparisons to the Sumerian and Babylonian versions of A Man and His God, Ugaritica 5, no. 162, and the Akkadian prayers to Marduk. The chapter also presents a number of smaller studies on various aspects of Marduk theology, including, inter alia, conceptions of retribution, punishment, redemption, piety, ethics, morality, and divine judgment. Also considered, and accepted, is the possibility that the text might contain a discreet political criticism of the Kassite regime for favoring Enlil and Nippur at the expense of Marduk and Babylon (pp. 69–71). The chapter concludes with a composite transliteration and translation of the text. In chapter 2 Oshima provides a similarly thorough examination of the Babylonian Theodicy, including his views concerning the text's authorship, literary style, composition, and characters, some of which one can find in his previous study of the text.[1] As with the previous chapter, a composite edition of the text follows, organized according to strophe and with speakers identified (pp. 150–68). Oshima's third chapter, which comprises the bulk of the book, contains copious critical and philological notes on both texts (pp. 169–375). Chapter 4 inventories all the known manuscripts for both texts and provides them with a line-by-line partitur, organized according to an entirely new system of sigla (pp. 376–464).[2] The fifth chapter offers textual editions and analyses of some related tablets, including a document that refers to Šubši-mešrê-šakkan, a prayer to Marduk, and an acrostic hymn to Nabu attributed to Nebuchanezzar II (pp. 465–80). Further enhancing the volume are an extensive bibliography, glossary, as well as text, word, and subject indices. Additional indices allow one to identify the tablets by their museum numbers, W. G. Lambert's unpublished copies and folio numbers (from his Nachlass), and various published hand copies, and to correlate them with the two main previously published editions.[3] Sixty-five hand-written and photographic plates conclude the tome.[4]

Oshima's study differs from previous treatments of the texts in a number of significant ways. With regard to Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi, Oshima argues that it originally totalled five tablets of 600 lines, rather than four tablets of 480 lines (pp. 6–7). He bases his partial reconstruction of the missing tablet on 15 (or 16) lines in the text's ancient commentary that do not correlate with known exemplars, and which are too numerous to have matched the lacunae of ten lines at the end of Tablet III. He further opines that three brief fragments provide some 49 lines of the missing tablet's likely 120 lines,[5] and that they might have contained an account of a cleansing ritual following a river ordeal (p. 230). As a result, his Tablet V correlates to Tablet IV in previous editions. His arguments likely will solicit some criticism, because the evidence is not definitive. Yet I find his hypothesis worth considering.

Oshima also differs in seeing the poem's sufferer, Šubši-mešrê-šakkan, not as the text's author, a pseudonym, or a fictive character, but a real figure of high social status, possibly a governor. He suggests that Šubši-mešrê-šakkan commissioned an ummânu (“master scholar”) to compose the poem on his behalf as a personal thanksgiving prayer to Marduk. Thus, the poem is not “a straightforward narration or a dialogue comparable to the biblical Book of Job” (p. 342), and it was not recited to an “unspecified audience like a folk tale or legend” (p. 17 n. 72). Instead, the poem has its Sitz im Leben in the suffering of a real person who was redeemed by way of a river ordeal, and who then made a pilgrimage to Babylon, where he offered his praise to Marduk publicly (pp. 29–31).

In an effort to clarify Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi's theology, Oshima contends that, contrary to usual treatments which understand the sufferer as emboldened against an orthodox theology that attributed one's suffering to impiety, the sufferer expresses his incomprehension of divine justice and a genuine ignorance of his sin. Therefore, the main reason why the poem expressed divine inscrutability was “to spell out the difference between the divine moral standards and the human ethical rules governing moral behavior” (p. 63). Since Marduk is the sole basis of all moral principles, he knows what the other gods do not. Consequently, the theological point of suffering in the poem is that “…Marduk alone is the law and that the other gods function as extensions of his will” (p. 68). Thus for Oshima, the poem is not a protest against divine injustice but an expression of devotion: “the acknowledgment of man's incapability to understand the divine plan and to recognize the specific sins of which he was guilty constitutes the ultimate proclamation of faith in the gods and the justice of their judgment” (p. 69). This theology made the poem a powerful tool for the priests and intellectuals of later periods who used it “to manipulate the palace and the populace by encouraging fear of Marduk's divine anger and punishment and thus promoting devotion towards Marduk's cult in Babylon” (p. 72).

As for the Babylonian Theodicy, Oshima rejects the notion that it was court poetry and instead argues that it was “probably not widely known even among the literate communities of Assyria and Babylonian” (p. 143). He also dismisses the notion that the text relates to a specific historical event and sees the issues it relates as timeless. He understands the two figures in dialogue in the poem as an ummânu and his apprentice (p. 125). Thus, “…the model for the protagonist consisted of trainees in the fields of exorcism, lamentation-priesthood, divination, omen texts, and pharmaceuticals…” (p. 143).

As with Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi, Oshima reads this poem as representing not a rebellion against orthodox dogmata but a submission to the ultimate authority and power of divine rule and justice: “…the sufferer has finally realized that he has suffered maltreatment from others, not because of any lack of divine justice but because of his own lack of respect for the divine order and his own lack of piety towards the gods” (p. 142). Thus, both poems employ the figure of the “righteous sufferer” as a theological motif, “not to assert the sufferer's innocence or to encourage people to reject the gods, but rather precisely to teach people the justice of divine rule, however inscrutable, and to urge them to submit themselves without questioning to the gods' authority” (p. 76). As didactic texts for the learned, both texts facilitated the contemplation of Marduk's godhead.

In sum, Oshima's study significantly reconfigures our understanding of Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy. Its improved textual editions, based on many new manuscripts (published and unpublished), and its exhaustive and insightful commentary, filled with comparative cuneiform passages, promise to make it an important resource for many years to come. Its careful attention to various stylistic devices, such as allusion, punning, rhyme, and alliteration, represent a deep engagement with the sophistication of cuneiform literature. The author's many new perspectives and alternative readings—too numerous to be listed here—undoubtedly will encourage scholars to rethink many previously held convictions with regard to the interpretation and theological import of these texts, and of others to which they have been compared.

Scott B. Noegel, University of Washington

[1] Takayoshi Oshima, The Babylonian Theodicy (State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts, IX; Helskini: University of Helsinki Press, 2013). reference

[2]As the author explains, the existence of several different sigla systems, some of which are out of date or otherwise less useful, encouraged him to produce a more unified system (pp. 376–77). reference

[3] Specifically, W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); Amar Annus and Alan Lenzi, Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi: The Standard Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts, 7; Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2010). reference

[4] I respectively list the following corrigenda: These Lambert's copies > Lambert's copies (p. viii), changing the subjects > changing the subject (p. ix), hear > heart (p. 22 n. 89); thie > the or this (p. 37); judgement > judgment (p. 43); could be mention > could be mentioned (p. 63); in sky > in the sky (p. 172), AoF > AfO (p. 176 n. 44), made vomit > made to vomit (p. 218), angry on us > angry with us (p. 231), that also shared by > that also was shared by (p. 263 n. 438), transcription and transliteration are reversed (p. 336 n. 806), it seems be > it seems to be (p. 350), was considered as sins > were considered sins (p. 269), Before the Museus > Before the Muses (p. 372), Stole > Stol (p. 374), Divine Namens > Divine Names (p. 558). I also note the overused and ironic use of the idiom “Needless to say…” pp. 10 n. 36, 13 n. 47, 40 n. 81, 77 n. 307, 234 n. 325, 334, 342, passim; cf. “it goes without saying” p. 250. reference

[5] He identifies the tablets as Si 728 [MS IV.B], BM 123392, and K 9724 (tablet sigla are adopted from the CAD). reference