Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Mesopotamia
W. G. Lambert
The idea that understanding of the Hebrew Bible can be helped by study of other ancient Near Eastern documents is nothing new. In the Hellenistic age there was a fascination on the part of some Greek speakers with the great antiquity claimed for the Egyptians and Babylonians, and some learned Jews became aware that the Babylonians had traditions related to the earlier chapters of Genesis, and a history which in part ran parallel to their own. Since these Jews had no direct access to cuneiform texts, they had to depend on Babylonian writers who wrote in Greek, and Berossus from the first half of the third century BCE was the main, and perhaps only genuine one. Thus in the mid-second century BCE Eupolemus, one of the Maccabean envoys to Rome, wrote a work in Greek stating that Babylon was the first city to be settled after the Flood, an item occurring in Berossus, but not in the Bible. Josephus, in the later first century CE, several times quotes Berossus explicitly by name to confirm or elaborate things in the Bible. Later Christian patristic writers followed his example. However, with the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the rise of Islam, and the arrival of the Middle Ages, the works of Berossus—even in the summaries used by the patristic writers—and other similar works were lost, and remain so. Some interest in these matters continued, and a culmination can be seen in the work of I. P. Cory, Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Chaldaean, Egyptian, Tyrian, Carthaginian, Indian, Persian, and other Writers; with an Introducory Dissertation: and an Inquiry into the Philosophy and Trinity of the Ancients (London, best edition = the second, 1832).
By Cory's time a renewed and intensified interest in these matters resulted from, first, exploration and then excavation of sites known from the Bible, especially at first in Assyria. In the hundred years c.1740–1840 a succession of European travellers issued reports on their travels, and from 1840 onwards the digging began, and has continued to the present time. At first the techniques of excavation were by modern standards very crude, but they were often successful in extracting objects from the ground, and, where practicable, the objects were then removed to European museums. Mistakes were sometimes made in the interpretation of this work. For example, one of the first major digs was at an Assyrian mound by P. É. Botta, the results of which appeared in the massive folio volumes entitled Monument de Ninive (Paris, 1849), but the mound was not in fact ancient Nineveh, but Dur-Sharruken, a new city built by Sargon II of Assyria, the king mentioned in the Bible in Isa. 20: 1. Over the last 150 years archaeological techniques have been much improved, and study of the results has been very much refined, so that materials recovered can be used with some confidence in Old Testament study.
Material remains and physical objects have their uses. For example, the far from lucid accounts of the building of Solomon's temple in Kings and Chronicles can be illuminated from the remains of similar temples excavated at other places in Palestine and Syria. The allusions to seals and sealing in the Hebrew Bible become clearer when ancient seals and clay objects with sealings are known. Ancient art, in contrast, is still a dangerous subject. Very little indeed has survived from the Holy Land itself. So to provide illustrations in popular or even learned books on the Old Testament there is a custom of reproducing pictures of statues or reliefs with captions which may be totally false, or lacking any evidence whatsoever. Of course there are exceptions. The Assyrian palace relief showing Sennacherib's assault on Lachish is confirmed by the palace in which it was found and by captions on the reliefs. But seven-headed monsters and gods pursuing miscellaneous monsters usually cannot be identified for certain.
Here our concern is primarily with written remains of all kinds, which can be much more explicit than uninscribed objects. Ancient Mesopotamia has yielded tens of thousands of clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions, apart from monumental stone inscriptions and inscriptions on other media. Palestine and Syria, by contrast, have yielded comparatively little inscriptional material, partly because much was written on papyrus and leather, which has not survived, partly because they were less rich than their Mesopotamian neighbours and so produced less written material.
The old alphabetic script which the Israelites shared with the Phoenicians, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites has not been a problem. It changed after the exile into the so-called square script still used for modern Hebrew. Knowledge of cuneiform, in contrast, was lost early in the Christian era, so it had to be deciphered, which took place slowly over the nineteenth century CE. The script began as a pictographic and symbol script c.3000 BCE and developed in various centres in Mesopotamia, west Iran, and Anatolia, so that the whole gamut is vast and very complicated. There are hundreds of signs for whole words, syllables, vowels, and to mark things in the script, but no signs for consonants. The results of decipherment are impressive, since the following languages are now understood to a more or less degree.
Sumerian This was used in the far south of Mesopotamia, the area nearest the Gulf, for the millennium c.3000–2000 BCE, and was kept on by the Babylonians as a language of learning up to the Parthian era.
Akkadian This is the language closest to biblical Hebrew, Semitic, though written in an entirely different script. The oldest form, now called Old Akkadian, is known from c.2500–2000 BCE, after which it divides into two main dialects: Babylonian and Assyrian, both known to us from c.2000 BCE onwards. Assyrian died out soon after the fall of Assyria in 612 BCE, but Babylonian continued in use, at least in Babylon itself among a few families, up to the first century CE.
Elamite The language of south-west Iran, known to us from c.2300–300 BCE, but not fully understood.
Hurrian The language of the Hurrians (Biblical ‘Horites’), who are first known c.2200 BCE and spread with their language c.1500 BCE from Kurdistan and north-east Mesopotamia to Syria and the east Mediterranean, but then merged into the local populations and so disappeared as an ethnic group by 1100 BCE. Their language is not yet fully understood, and it is difficult to form a reliable estimate of their cultural impact on the relevant areas. It is best seen in religious archives of the Hittites.
Urartian Urartu, biblical Ararat, was not a mountain, but the mountainous area of later Armenia. The Urartians are known to us c.900–650 BCE, and their language is closely related to Hurrian, but has no other known cognates. They formed a unified kingdom, and their royal inscriptions can be translated with some assurance.
Hittite The people lived in Anatolia, and their language, an Indo-European one, is attested c.1700–1200 BCE. At certain times they formed a powerful empire, but eventually disappeared. Their language is well understood, and another Indo-European language, Luvian, attested in Anatolia contemporary with Hittite, survived the demise of that people and, written in a hieroglyphic script, was used by north Syrian states c.1000–700 BCE. Good progress has been made in understanding it.
Persian Old Persian, written in a specially devised cuneiform script of only forty-three signs, was the official language of the Persian empire, known to us c.550–330 BCE, and is well understood.
What, then, is the result of this recovery of documents for understanding the Old Testament? Essentially, the Old Testament can now be set in its original context. It is a collection of diverse texts assembled by a religious community to help in conserving and promoting their faith. It is only incidentally that they tell us about the larger world from which this corpus survived, and in so far as its authors were not sympathetic to other cultures and ideologies, we cannot expect to find systematic information about their neighbours. For us it is a question of how the ancient Israelites preserved their traditional texts and beliefs when other ancient Near Eastern nations did not, and information about these other nations is thus of primary importance. Also, it is easy for us to misinterpret the ancient Hebrew writings from our own very different intellectual world. Familiarity with the thought of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples can give us a better perspective on that of the Israelites.
To proceed, I shall give first an example of the finding of a Babylonian text which has obvious relevance and attracted much popular attention at the time, but which raised questions which could not be adequately answered at the time. Then a general survey of the whole field will be offered.
British-promoted excavations at the true Nineveh, the large site across the Tigris from modern Mosul, uncovered the remains of the palace of Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, in a series of digs about the middle of the nineteenth century CE. This king had assembled a large library of cuneiform tablets, many of which were recovered and taken to the British museum. Here work on decipherment began, and George Smith succeeded in piecing together, among other texts, a Babylonian version of the biblical flood story, including the sending out of birds from the ark as the waters were subsiding. This was announced to a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology in 1872 and received much learned and popular attention. The serious questions raised were when this text was composed, from what materials, and how it is related to the account in Genesis. In 1872 knowledge was insufficient to address these questions seriously, but today the issues can be defined, even if definitive answers still cannot be given.
This field is now a vast one, but most of the extra-biblical evidence is still from Babylonia and Assyria. Despite the finding of the Moabite Stone with its version of a period of the history of the northern Israelite kingdom in the nineteenth century CE and the finding in the twentieth century CE of the Ugaritic clay tablets (c.1400–1300 BCE) with, among other things, extensive Baal myths; the plaster inscription from Tell Deir 'Alla (in Jordan) about Balaam, a figure hitherto known only from the narrative of Numbers 22–4 and later biblical allusions; the very fragmentary stele from Tell Dan mentioning ‘the house of David’; and by now hundreds of Hebrew bullae with impressions of seals of persons known from the books of Kings or their servants, the sad fact is how little has been recovered from Syria/Palestine with direct biblical relevance.