Jiri Prosecky, ed., Intellectual Life in the Ancient Near East.
Papers Presented at the 43rd Rencontre assyriologique internationale, Prague, July 1–5, 1996 (Prague: Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Oriental Institute, 1998), 482 pp. ISBN 80-85425-30-0..
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

This collection of forty essays was selected from more than ninety papers delivered at the Rencontre assyriologique internationale (RAI), held at Prague, July 1–5, 1996. Its timely publication is a welcome addition to scholarly shelves. Though the volume contains a great deal of important information in its many fine articles and covers the complete gamut of intellectual life in ancient Mesopotamia, for the purposes of this journal’s review, my comments primarily will concern pieces that bear some comparative impact on the study of the Hebrew Bible. The selection of articles upon which I shall comment, therefore, by necessity will cover only a fraction of the total collection.

I begin with Joan Goodnick Westenholz’s, “Thoughts on Esoteric Knowledge and Secret Lore,” which focuses on the numerous lexical lists and other texts that claim to possess the secret knowledge of the gods. As she argues:

… the earliest lexical compilations may have been more than a utilitarian convenience for the scribes who wrote them; that they may have contained a systematization of the world order; and that at least one was considered as containing ‘secret lore’ (p. 451).

After discussing the various words used to convey notions of esoteric knowledge, Westenholz places such wisdom on a continuum with magical prowess: “On the intellectual level, knowing the organization of the world made it possible to affect the universe by magical means” (p. 453).

One of the most important aspects of her work is the recognition of the scribal interest in antiquity and the scribal knowledge of earlier, more arcane, values for cuneiform signs. “The writing system itself was considered part of the arcane knowledge of the ancients” (p. 456). This raises important questions for the Mesopotamian scribal employment of literary devices, such as word play, which often hinge on the polyvalence of particular signs, as she notes: “A sub-category of writing which embodies the principles of secrecy is that of cryptic writing systems … ” (p. 457). She goes on to suggest that

deliberate mystification may have been another motive behind the creation of another orthography in the Early Dynastic period: the UD.GAL.NUN orthography, found only in ED literary texts containing mythical narratives. It was a most learned and highly erudite system of sign values based on clever etymologies, Akkadian equivalents, etc. which could be comprehended only by the most knowledgeable, which is the meaning of ‘esoteric knowledge’ in accordance with the definition advanced earlier in this article” (p. 457).

The interested comparativist will find much of use in this piece. For example, as scholars who study the literary devices in the Hebrew Bible, seek to clarify the social context of oral production, the magical aspects of Mesopotamian cryptography and various types of word play will perhaps offer new avenues of research. Features such as atbash1 and gematria are perhaps the most obvious focal points for such study, but research on polysemy and paronomasia might also benefit.2

New directions for research also are offered by Simo Parpola’s “The Esoteric Meaning of the Name Gilgamesh,” in which the author examines the “… evidence that names in the Epic were purposely edited in order to provide them with hidden semantic content” (p. 318). The phenomenon of polysemous names was widespread in the ancient Near East; one can point to the sacred name of God Yahweh, as a classic example. As he notes: “Breaking names into their component parts in search of esoteric meanings hidden behind them was an interpretive technique widely practiced in ancient Mesopotamia” (p. 319). The same device would appear later in rabbinic hermeneutics.

Throughout the article Parpola notes the presence of riddles in Gilgamesh and their importance for uncovering hidden meanings in a text. While Proverbs 1:6 might come to mind as a likely source for comparison, Parpola opts to parallel his observations with the book of Daniel (e.g., Dan 5:12) where dreams and riddles are placed in tandem. Such connections lead him to a more elaborate set of parallels between the two texts.

It is accordingly clear that the association of ‘shekel,’ ‘weighing,’ ‘balance,’ and ‘judgment’ found both in Gilgamesh and in the Book of Daniel cannot be a mere coincidence and must be explained otherwise (p. 327).

After noting additional parallels between Enkidu’s former life as a beast and Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment to live like a beast, as well as Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s felling of the great tree and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of felling a great tree (Daniel 4), Parpola concludes:

Numerous other themes and details in Daniel 1–5 indicate that the author had read his Gilgamesh well and deeply absorbed its religious and philosophical imagery and values. Just consider the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar and their interpretations in Chapters 2 and 4, and the long sequence of dreams and their interpretations in Gilgamesh IV; the huge image of gold made by the king in Chapter 3, and the huge golden image of Enkidu made by Gilgamesh in Tablet VIII; and the way in which divine secrets were revealed to Daniel in Chapter 2 and to Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh XI (p. 328).

Parpola’s observations, while perhaps overstated, might explain some of the mythological background of Daniel pondered by previous scholarship, and will doubtless provoke much discussion amongst biblical scholars.

Piotr Michalowski’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Enlil” demonstrates the backward projection of first and second millennium conceptions of creation into the third millennium texts by scholars. It is primarily interested in getting at who the god Enlil was, and how he was conceived in the third millennium.

Based on clues taken from Eblaic texts, where he is called is called i-li-lu, Micholowsi offers the provocative suggestion that the name Enlil means “father of the gods,” and that he is ultimately a Semitic, and not Sumerian deity.

In addition to challenging the long-held assumptions concerning the Sumerian origin of Enlil, Michalowski’s study provides precedent in the ancient Near East for the retrojection of contemporary theological concepts into the distant past. Scholars of biblical Israel and rabbinics will see the obvious methodological template here for the study of various theological beliefs and numerous biblical figures, Moses among them.

Michael B. Dick’s study of the “The Relationship between the Cult Image and the Deity in Mesopotamia,” examines the conceptual framework and details of the creation of cult statues and the concomitant washing of the mouth ceremony (mis pi) as found in Mesopotamian texts. He argues that “the deity was really present in the cult image” after the mis pi ceremony was performed (p. 111). Indeed, the deity took up its dwelling in the statue by entering it.

Dick’s examination provides a fascinating context for the Hebrew Bible’s rhetorical parodying of idols, which often identifies the cult images with the deities themselves, a subject to which the author returns in a longer, more recent work.3

As the title of Wilfred G. Lambert’s “Technical Terminology for Creation in the Ancient Near East,” suggests, this comparative study surveys the various nomenclature in Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and biblical texts for creation. Of interest is his observation that the Sumerian conception of creation is linked to plant-like growth, as he notes:

Thus Akkadian offers both banû “to build” and also bunnû “create” ( = “make to grow”). This bifurcation of one Semitic root is clearly derived from the concept of creation as plant-like growth (p. 193).

This observation might have implications for the biblical portrayal of Eve’s creation (banah) from Adam’s rib in the garden, and God’s portrayal as a gardener planting Eden. More important for biblical studies is Lambert’s note that Hebrew alone possessed a separate verb for God’s act of creating (p. 193).

In “The Challenge of Chance: An Anthropological View of Mesopotamian Mental Strategies for the Dealing with the Unpredictable,” Gwendolyn Leick calls for a more thorough integration of new interdisciplinary, and especially anthropological models into Assyriology. Her specific focus is on divination.

Divination systems make use of the same conceptual apparatus as blaming strategies. Divination has many purposes, from randomising decision making, to deferring responsibility of individual choice, to reducing stress and anxiety, etc. Apart from such social ‘functions’ they also allow us to have insight into conceptualisation processes. They often represent alternative models of interpretation than those of the main stream culture. We find divination in all types of societies, in strictly egalitarian ones, where the process of decision making is typically tortuous unless deferred, as well as in highly stratified ones, where high level decision making can be seen as sanctioned by superior divine forces (p. 197).

This same call for interdisciplinarity could be applied to biblical scholarship, where research on divination and ontological conceptions of words often is dominated by theological preconceptions devoid of ancient cultural context. At the very least, the piece signals the changes currently underway in the discipline.

Alasdair Livingstone’s “Babylonian Mathematics in the Context of Babylonian Thought,” attempts to place mathematics within Babylonian conceptions of science and pseudo-science, especially as found in the mystical texts. His study of certain scholars, for example, Nabû-zuqup-kena (716–684 bce), demonstrates that some were acquainted with a variety of texts from the astronomical diary enuma anu enlil, to the divinatory text shumma ålu ina melê shakin to the mystical text i.NAM.gish.hur.an.ki.a (p. 218). The interdisciplinarity of Mesopotamian science offers an explanation for the application of one area of thought to another within the context of Mesopotamian scholarship, and may provide a useful template for examining other ancient Near Eastern cultures under Mesopotamian influence, like Israel, where the roles of prophet, physician, priest, and scholar appear to overlap.

Eckart Frahm’s “Humor in assyrischen Königsinschriften” is the first study of its kind. While a few literary studies of various Akkadian texts have appeared, no study has yet attempted to broach the topic of humor. To demonstrate the presence of humor in Akkadian texts, Frahm focuses on the annals of Sargon II and Sennacherib. Most of his examples are based on what he perceives to be the comic effect of word play. Thus, he translates Sennacherib’s annals (Heidel-Prism, V 30–43 (Borger, BAL2, 80) with an eye toward word plays: “Ich wählte (zum Kampf) im Gleichklang zwischen Tilgarimmu … Truppen aus …, und sie zerstörten und verheerten diese Stadt und machten sie zu einem Ruinhügel und Trümmerhaufen (ana tilli u karme)” (p. 151). The play here, of course, is between the name Tilgarimmu and tilli u karme.

While word play is a subject seldom studied by Assyriologists, and therefore a welcome addition to any volume, one must question whether such word plays have comic import. Indeed, given the connection of word plays to divinatory and mystical hermeneutical texts, as well as the lack of exemplars of humorous punning elsewhere in the ancient Near East,4 such word plays might have a deeper, perhaps magical significance. Nevertheless, such examples provide a larger context for the phenomenon in biblical texts, and raise questions with regard to the presence of word play and/or humor in other Near Eastern inscriptions.

Shlomo Izre’el’s “The Initiation of Adapa in Heaven,” suggests that “… the Adapa narrative, wholly structured as a rite of passage, describes the rite of Adapa’s passage into full humanity” (p. 183). With an comparative eye Izre’el concludes:

Seven days is a transitional period which separates life from death. It took seven days before a worm came out of Enkidu’s body. It takes seven days for Jewish people to recover from their initial mourning period, for which the Hebrew term is shiv`a ‘seven,’ indicating seven days of mourning. The mythological tradition about the seven gates of the netherworld may also be related to this mytheme. After having spent six days in bed with Ereshkigal, Nergal returns to the upper world on the seventh day, which is the last day of a transitional period (p. 185).

Izre’el’s study presents a new theoretical paradigm for the Adapa myth and suggests a possible model for viewing numerous other sequences of seven in other ancient Near Eastern texts.

Laurie E. Pearce’s “Babylonian Commentaries and Intellectual Innovation,” attempts to distinguish the various types of commentaries known in Mesopotamia by examining closely the native terms used for such works. In particular, she looks at two commentary genres: sâtu [with dotted “s”] and mukallimtu. The former is “a single-column text in which individual words are excerpted from the source text and explained. It offers lexical or linguistic explanations” (p. 332). The latter commentaries

excerpt whole lines from the source text and offer explanations of those lines. They are exegetical or hermeneutical in purpose and may offer explanations which are neither implicit in the wording of the source text, nor are to be found in the lexical compendia (p. 332).

In the Late Babylonian period a third genre appears which is a merger of the other two types. It also contains quotations from other literary works used to explicate the text. One of Pearce’s most important contribution in this article is her demonstration of how “lexical transivity” works to create lexical associations, i.e., a = b, b = c, then a = c. Thus, since the Sumerian GAZ can be read as hepû, and GUL can be read as hepû, and since GUL also can be read as naqåru, the meaning naqåru is attributed to GAZ as well. Such associative relationships between lexemes may offer insight into the phenomenon of stylistic word pairs in other Semitic texts, where a similar lexical transivity occurs.

Frances Reynolds, “Unpropitious Titles of Mars in Mesopotamian Scholarly Tradition,” grapples with the age-old question of how the ancients associated their deities to planets and various attributes. In this particular study, Reynolds focuses on Mars who is associated with red and fire, and thus with many other destructive forces. In some cases, the association takes place via word play. Thus, e.g., mulsarru (lul.la) “False star (= Mars) is equated with mulalluttu (al.lul) “Crab constellation,” by way of the similar sound of their names. Such insight might suggest a new way of looking for connections between other ancient Near Eastern gods and their attributes and planets.

In “Reflections on the Dream of Lugalbanda (A Typological and Interpretive Analysis of LH 332–365),” H. L. J. Vanstiphout examines the divinatory intersection of oneiromancy and literature in the Lugalbanda text. In his words, “The oneirocritic is also an oneiromantic. The important thing is that the technique is essentially the same as in other types of divination” (p. 397).

Yet, the Lugalbanda text cannot be divorced from its literary aspects: “In the present case the dream passage is central to the development of the hero from a weakling, abandoned by his companions, to the heroic savior of the same” (p. 401). Thus, in its political and religious context the dream episode serves a legitimizing function.

The hero gradually becomes a totally unique personality. And this long rite de passage starts with the act of recognition which is the core of the dream episode. So this dream is no message dream; it is no symbolic dream; it is instead a first test of Lugalbanda’s suitability for holiness, and at the same time his calling to the same (p. 402).

Vanstiphout avers that the ambiguity of the dream’s images is a necessary means by which the hero, through realization of its meaning, becomes sanctified. At the same time, Vanstiphout suggests:

For the dream episode can be seen also as an exercise in rationality. First it does away with the notion that dreams are anything but arbitrary. Since they belong to the guarded secrets of the gods, they cannot be determining as such. It follows that the only meaning a dream can have is its realisation (p. 403).

Vanstiphout’s perceptive combination of cultural, literary, and divinatory aspects in the Lugalbanda text provide a wonderful model for the study of other dream texts in the ancient Near East.

Pierre Villard’s “Allusions littéraires et jeux de lettrés dans les rapports des devins d’époque néo-assyrienne,” demonstrates how the scholars’ letters in the Assyrian court incorporate allusions to literary works, oracular manuals, royal inscriptions, and proverbial texts into new contexts in order to maximize a particular message and entrench a system of scribal authority.

To cite one example, Villard shows how ancient authors exploit an atypical, yet suggestive orthography of i-dShESh.KI-na (= inanna) with connections to inscriptional, omenistic, and literary texts. Specifically, the same orthography appears in SAA IV 282 for the word “At the present … ” It also paronomastically plays on the words anna “yes,” which when read with the previous sign KI suggests the adjective kina “true, affirmed.” As Villard notes: “De cette manière était évoquée de façon cryptique la formule inaugurale des questions oraculaires, Shamash belu rabû sha ashalluka anna kina apalanni, ‘shamash, grand seigneur, réponds-moi un ‘oui’ sûr à ce je te demande’ ” (pp. 435–436).

These are just a few of the fine essays in this book, too numerous to detail here. Suffice it to say that the tome is a veritable goldmine of information for the specialist and interested comparativist. My only critique of the volume, and this is directed more to the publisher, concerns its extremely poor binding. Upon first handling, nearly a quarter of the pages became detached. Such a fine collection of articles deserves a higher quality package that will contribute to its shelf life.

Nevertheless, I congratulate Dr. Jiri Prosecky for undertaking the difficult task of selecting and editing such a large and diverse collection of works and making them accessible in such a timely manner. Once again the Rencontre assyriologique internationale has brought together an important body of scholarly work on a fascinating theme.


[1] Some attempt has been made at this already. See, Scott B. Noegel, “Atbash in Jeremiah and Its Literary Significance: Part 1–3,” JBQ 24/2 (1996), 82–89; JBQ 24/3 (1996), 160–166; JBQ 24/4 (1996), 247–250.

[2] See also Scott B. Noegel, Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job (JSOTS, 223; Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

[3] Michael B. Dick, “Prophetic Parodies of Making the Cult Image,” in Michael B. Dick, ed., Born in Heaven Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN.: Eisenbrauns, 1999), pp. 1–53.

[4] See, e.g., Scott B. Noegel, “Wordplay in the Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur,” ASJ 18 (1996), 169–186, where potential cases of humorous punning are called into question by the fact that the text was discovered at Sultantepe in a priest’s archive.