Does Religious Studies have a future?

The last American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings had brilliant and searching responses to this question by Laurie Patton and Gale Yee respectively, so this post will address a narrower practical question: what should Religious Studies grad programs do, especially if they’re not in the tiny group of ultra-elite programs?

Here are things I thought about while running one. Really only one: given the data, you’re doing it against the odds, so every significant decision needs to help set you apart and justify your existence. 

The 30-second version: 1.There are dwindling decent jobs available and elite programs tend to dominate them. 2. But outside of ultra-elite universities, individual program choices matter the most. 3. What can students and programs do? Leverage our distinctiveness and treat each major decision as an opportunity to set ourselves apart and make things better.

  1. There are dwindling decent jobs available and elite programs tend to dominate them. This is because in humanities and social sciences the most prestigious programs are typically overwhelmingly more successful than others and tend to hire from each other. 


An Astonishingly Small Number of Elite Graduate Schools Produce the Academics Who Get Jobs 

Here are the relevant studies on narrowness of hiring in history, comp sci, and business: 

Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks 

And same phenom in political science 

Superpowers: The American Academic Elite

And the fewer jobs that are out there aren’t as good: the AAR public data is a bit out of date but shows faculty positions decreased by 8.6% from academic 2016 to 17 and an overall increase in postings was mainly from non-faculty positions. Job postings from research institutions were at an all-time low since AAR began collecting data

For faculty positions, the most selected category for annual course load shifted from 3 or 4 in 2016 to 5 or 6 in 2017 

2. Outside of ultra-elite universities, program choices matter most: For the field I know best, Hebrew Bible, I did an informal survey of some top programs that revealed big disparities between program placement rates, in gender of placement, and in success after 2010 (it got worse). I defined old-school success as TT placement by 5 years.

Ballpark stats since c 2000:

Program 1: 8/10 80% (5/5 women 3/5 men) 

2: 3/4 75% all male 

3: 7/11 64%

4: 2/4 (1/1 w, 1/3 m) 50% 

5: 40% 2/5 (since 2012)

6: 36% 5/14: (1/6 w 4/8 m)

7: since 2010 20% 1/5, pre 2010 5/11 (3 of 5 at v. conservative places) 45% 

Results suggest that how a program is run and how it recruits and supports have a huge impact leading to large inequality between programs regardless of academic quality (all have excellent faculty): some programs do badly for female grads, some do badly for everyone. 

3. What can students and programs do? Given that program choices matter decisively for student success, what can students do? Slate article suggests: 

1. Have influential mentor or program in your field

2. Degree laundering—get postdoc from fancy place

3. Do extremely hard work in productivity and self-promotion 

But these cases were rare successes in Slate’s article. What we can really affect is choices the program makes. What we tried was to leverage our distinctiveness in 4 ways: …

1. Create network for students by connecting them with both best & most prestigious colleagues.

And help students themselves build networks with incentives and advising

2. Build an atmosphere of collaboration and productivity with cross-campus incentives and workshops.

But what about money? Difficult to study hard if you’re highly precarious and to survive on the job market if you’re poor or in major debt.

3. We’ve tried to use every means possible from fellowship money to faculty research funds but there is a limit #COLA

4. Treat the PhD as training for the life of the mind, equally within the TT system and more broadly in public life, business, nonprofit, and religious institutions. Have professionalization focus on communicating ideas and actually connecting and working with both academic and nonacademic communities.

In recruiting grad students we’ve tried to see if there is not only an advisor for them but a prestigious, active, and influential set of mentors and network that will give them an edge. We remember that our students will be running up against competitors from dominant programs. 

Big picture: grad school should not be a hole you go into to do your work, it should be a vital intellectual experience that fights narrowness and inequality by always actively working to build & share new ideas from people who aren’t just the “usual suspects.”  The one thing there isn’t a need for is a program that just fills institutional requirements and puts more hapless people out onto the job market. And achieving that is an ongoing project!

Beyond Doom: New Jerusalem

This podcast is a brief history of the apocalyptic origins and futures of America and Israel: What happens when the good part of the apocalypse actually arrives but somehow results in a modern nation-state? This hour-long episode is downloadable here, Soundcloud here, musically illustrated at the beginning by the weirdest doom epic in the history of metal, Jerusalem, and at the end by William Blake’s poem of the same name.

There are a huge number of apocalypse movies, from Mad Max to the Walking Dead, but these are all really half-apocalypses, because they’re all-bad apocalypses. They only give the scary parts, and not the hopeful parts. Remember that the pattern we’ve seen in classic apocalyptic literature like The Books of Enoch and Revelation is that things get worse and worse but in a predictable, divinely planned way until they get better, and when they get better they get totally better, forever, Traditional apocalypses all offer hope after a period of terror: the world is renewed and goes to an ideal state that contains the best of the past but perfected. The things that were wrong are undone and set right. One thing we see is a return to the best parts of nature, so that things reflect the way they were in the garden of Eden—this is what Enoch sees in his tour of the universe, stored up and waiting for the end of days. A second key part is the return of Jerusalem. We see that reflected in the book of Revelation where an ideal city, a new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven and is granted to the righteous.

So what happens when we have a positive apocalypse, when an ancient hope is literally and concretely fulfilled in 18th or 20th century history—in 1776 in New England, in 1948 or 1967, in the southern Levant—but only for some people?

There are 4 main topics:

  1. 1776:  The American Colonies as the New Israel 
  2. 1948: (The State of) Israel as the New Israel 
  3. 1967: Heaven on Earth–What if divine redemption has already arrived?
  4. Paradise Now: From Messianism to Ethnic and Religious Nationalism 

I draw heavily on two great books: Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More and Gershon Gorenberg’s The End of Days.  I also reflect on Jonathan Z. Smith’s provocative History-of-Religions interpretation of the State of Israel, “Earth and Gods.”  Musical credits: Intro–Sleep, Jerusalem; Outro–the Fall, “Jerusalem.”

Beyond Doom: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

This podcast (links to: download or soundcloud), itself recorded to help mitigate the potential Coronavirus disaster by helping my students stay home, is about why Octavia Butler’s brutal but startlingly uplifting science fiction novel is a perfect book to cap off an apocalyptic literature class. I’m going to talk about what it says about the things we face today that feel apocalyptic, and also why it surprised me so much. For example while it goes deeply into some of the absolute worst stuff we can expect from climate and social collapse, the book is not just another apocalypse, but something new that goes far beyond that. It envisions the powerful and positive role religious thought can play in shaping our response to catastrophic change.

This is the first draft of the talk (I hope to add a conclusion and soundtrack tonight) and it covers two major themes:

  1. The Novel’s Urgency: It feels like it’s about today, specifically California, but also conservative resurgence in government, terrifying inequality, and climate collapse
  2. How it Draws on but Goes Beyond Apocalyptic Thought
    1. It draws on the religious imagination, including the apocalyptic imagination, but is not really an apocalypse novel! There is no rapture, but a human-made goal to aspire to: spreading the seed of Earth into the future and toward the stars.
    2. So it uses the vital elements of religious thought like scripture, in the form of the book the protagonist is writing, which she calls Earthseed, and the idea of God, the idea that there is a bigger order out there. but it puts them in confrontation with chaos, violence, problems of hunger, shelter, uncertainty—those aspects of human experience that seem to defy simple answers. This confrontation becomes a powerful dialogue.
    3. The book is involved in one of key arguments of the course: being aware of the apocalyptic imagination, being aware of the power of religious thought, does not mean to repeat it or blindly accept it. There are physical forces in the book—human violence, economic scarcity, both triggered by climate collapse—that the characters have to deal with: this is the larger overarching reality. The argument is not that this is all pre-planned and unchangable, but that change is something you have to come to grips with, and religion is a way of doing it.

Hammurapi, King of the Dead

[The first of the Vedic funeral hymns is dedicated to] “Yama, the first to die and the king of the world of the dead, where the forefathers dwell and to which a newly dead person makes his way along the pitṛyāna or “way of the forefathers.” Because he was the first to die, Yama discovered this path and blazed the trail…

Jamison and Brereton, The Rig-Veda.


  1. Hammurabi or Hammurapi–Trivial Spelling Choice or Cosmic Gulf?

In popular consciousness king Hammurabi is synonymous with Babylon, having put his ancient empire on the map through conquest and inventing the first law code. The “Laws of Hammurabi” are thought to provide the first parallels to biblical law, including principles of owner responsibility for damages in the law of “the goring ox,” and enshrining the gruesome principle of an “eye for an eye” or lex talionis.

A lot of this is totally wrong. While he was indeed an important empire-builder, he was not ethnically a Babylonian, a language he may not even have spoken, but originated from an Amorite tribe that the Babylonians often saw as foreign marauders–despite the fact that they so dominated the politics of the period that some scholars want to call it “the Amorite era.” And as far as we can tell his name was not even Hammurabi, a word that does not make any sense in Babylonian.

In fact, the real Hammurabi’s background was weirder and more interesting than this. And the Amorite name behind “Hammurabi” tells us quite a lot about his social world and politics. For one thing, there is little evidence that his laws were ever put into practice: despite the claim that

Anyone who has been wronged and has a word (they want heard in court), let them come before this image of me, King of Justice, and have my inscribed monument read to them so they can hear my brilliant words

Epilogue to Laws of Hammurapi, col 48:3-19, my translation

there are no clear cases of anyone actually doing that.

What is weird about his law collection is that the operative ideal among his Amorite contemporaries was to have the king himself address people’s issues in person, not just put up a statue with a bunch of written rules on it to do it for him. Indeed one of the kings he eventually betrayed and defeated, Zimri-Lim of Mari, was directly told in a divine oracle that “When someone who has been wronged comes before you, be there for them, in person! Judge their case!” His imposing monumental law-stelae seem, from this point of view, to be an attempt to depersonalize what was supposed to be an essential, personal condition of legitimate rule. At least the eye for an eye part seems true.

But the linguistics of his name, like the reasons behind his law collection, reveal a different sort of politics, one that that drew power from the dead and dispossessed as well as from armies, and guarded anxiously against unrest from both this world and the next.


  1. The Linguistics of Hammurapi’s Name

The name of the king who defined Babylon and its reputation follows a standard Semitic naming form, the predicative form X-is-Y. This form is conveniently shown in the name of perhaps his most famous predecessor Sargon or šarru-kên“the King is Established/Legitimate.” As Sargon was probably a usurper, the name was something like the Babylonian version of the tweet protesting that ‘My “Not involved in human trafficking” T-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my shirt.’ Two less loaded ancient Semitic examples are the Ugaritic and Hebrew name ilî-milku/’eli-melekh, both of which mean “my god is king” (or perhaps “my god is the underworld deity Milku,” making it a little more loaded again).

The king we called Hammurapi was, like Sargon, a dynasty-builder who would use every tool at his disposal to defend his legitimacy, but his name does it very differently, by claiming the very dead as supporters. We are led to this interpretation by the basic problem that his name is not comprehensibly Babylonian. At least, the first half is gibberish–there is no plausible Semitic root for Hammu– documented near this time period. For a long time scholars were at least able to squeeze out a Babylonian meaning for the second half of his name, since the common Semitic word rabûmeans “great” (although even here the -i vowel ending doesn’t quite make sense). Indeed, the two recent “biographies” of Hammurapi, by Charpin and van de Mieroop (Hammurabi of Babylon:24;* King Hammurabi of Babylon:2-3) still attempt to treat the name as half-Amorite and half-Babylonian. Since there is a well known West Semitic root ˁammu“senior male kin, kin group” which is found in the names of other members of his dynasty, the name could theoretically be rendered Hammu-rabi“(My) Kinsman is Great,” but of course to the many Babylonian speakers not fully bilingual in Amorite it would come across more like “My Tío is Great” or “My Oncle is Great.” While this could theoretically be an interesting move, the fact is that linguistically compound names composed of a regular noun in one language plus a regular noun in a different one were not popular in this period; indeed there aren’t any other examples in the dynasty in question.

In fact, we have learned a lot about Babylonian since our king was first discovered and a lot more about the type of language his family spoke, and the increasingly clear evidence of his native language type, from West-Semitic-speaking contexts pretty much rules out the “mixed” reading of his name. There are three main points of evidence, surveyed in a very thorough and thoughtful article by Michael Streck (Hammurabi oder Hammurapi? Archív Orientálni67 (1999)). First, the fact that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Amorite kings and members of his dynasty had fully non-Babylonian, transparently West Semitic names suggests that we look there first. And it turns out that the name reappears in the same form very nearby, in Amorite, as well as a few centuries away in Ugaritic. The powerful Amorite contemporary of Hammurabi, Yarim-Lim of Yamhad, also names his son Hammurapi.

This very name appears as the name of a dead Ugaritic king called on, in an offering-list of divinized dead rulers, as “the god who is Hammurapi” where it is spelled with the expected West Semitic form ˁmrpỉ, also transcribed more clearly in the corresponding Babylonian version as am-mu-rap-i**. Second, Hammurapi’s descendants have fully Amorite names which follow the same pattern, even when the phonology is Babylonianized, losing the initial ˁayin. The West Semitic Ammi-Ṣaduqa (the second part of the name already documented in 14th-century Amarna letters as a known West Semitic term) was even translated in the Babylonian king list as Kimtum-kittum“The kinsman is just,” showing that it was still understood as a ‘foreign’ but comprehensible and meanintful name meriting translation. Finally, and most clearly, within Hammurapi’s lineage the pattern of ˁammu + rāpiˀu continues with his descendant Ammi-Ditana, who is named after one of the most famous long-dead Amorite ancestors, Ditanu, known not only from the Genealogy of the Hammurabi Dynasty (wr. di-ta-nu) and Assyrian King List (with the variant writing di-da-nu) but apparent in the epithet of Kirta, “member of the circle-of-Ditanu” and repeatedly drawn on as the most famous of the divine underworld kin-group rapaˀūmain two Ugaritic ritual texts, KTU 1.161 and the oracular consultation of Ditānu in KTU 1.124. This last text contains contextual evidence suggesting that the primary meaning of rpˀm may be connected with the Biblical Hebrew and later root rpˀ , whose later meaning is “heal.”

As more and more of these names are analyzed–and we have thousands of them over a period of about 500 years–it has become clear that Hammurapi’s name is part of a widespread Amorite naming pattern that is found in competing tribes and dynasties as well. Dialectally, it stands in a line of Amorite names consisting of assertions about personified kin-group or kinsmen with the kin term in first position such as Ammi-Saduqa or Ammi-Ditana. Compare Zimri-Lim and Qarni-Lim, which contain the kinship term Lim (like Hebrew le’om “people, nation”) in second position, and thus fits with a second group which both use a different divine-kin-group term, Lim, and put it in second position, often governed by a prefix-form verb (Yahdun-Lim, Yarim-Lim).


  1. The Ritual in Hammurapi’s Name

If this is what the name literally means, why did his culture like these names so much and why does Hammurapi’s whole dynasty have them–what did it do for their rulers? There at least are two ways you could be “king of the dead”–mythic and ritual (though the two are intertwined). In myth one could become an actual undead underworld ruler, as Etana, the first human king (precisely like Yama) or Gilgamesh did before him. The second, ritual, way would be to make a claim to rule based on the power of dead constituents, becoming the dead people’s king in somewhat the same way as the drug dealer played by Chris Walken in Abel Ferarra’s King of New York. It’s the later, ritual, claim to power

Typically his name has been glossed in a vague way as “The (divine) kinsman is a healer,” based on our vague knowledge of these West Semitic words that only appear in one body of connected West Semitic texts during the entire second millennium, those of Ugarit. The only larger connected West Semitic corpus in which they appear is the yet more chronologically remote Hebrew Bible. However, recent work on the political role of kinship (ˁammu) and the ritual role dead ancestors (Rapaˀūma) in Amorite and later West Semitic has made certain patterns of the evidence clearer, which permits us to restrict the possible meanings.

A remarkable sacrificial ritual on behalf of one of Hammurapi’s descendants calls on his name as one of these revered dead: the conclusion of the “Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty” reads:





The dynastyof the Amorites, the dynasty of the nomads, the dynasty of the barbarians (Gutium)

(any) dynasty not recorded on this tablet!

and the soldier(s)who fell while on perilous campaigns for their lord,

princes, princesses, all persons from East to West who have neither caretaker {pāqidu} nor invoker (of your name)(?)come! Eat this! Drink this! And bless Ammisaduqa, son of Ammiditana, king of Babylon!

The slightly earlier Mari ritual protocol for Hammurapi’s rival Zimri-Lim stipulates:

The funerary food-offering (kispu) for Sargon {and} Naram-Sin, the yarādu-nomads, and for the Numheans and various others–(that) funerary offeringis to be done.

A libation is to be p[oured out] for the king and the people in the temples [of the gods and goddesses]

(M.12803 i 17-26 ed. Durand and Guichard 1997:63-70)

The role of the Genealogy of the Hammurabi Dynasty (as well as parallels like the Assyrian King List) and the Mari funerary offering involves placing the current king in a lineage of exalted ancestors. This is imagined as a two-way obligation in which the king ritually feeds (Babylonian verbs kasāpu, naqû) the dead, who, it is insisted, are in need of food and cannot feed themselves. The ancestor(s), in turn, confer honor on the king simply by allowing themselves to be fed; since the king is in the role of the one entrusted with the duty (pāqidu) to feed them, it means that he is truly their dutiful and rightful descendant. There is thus a subtle two-way performative relationship created: by repeatedly declaring that the dead need food, they are placed in a relationship of dependence; by repeatedly feeding them, the king is placed in a relationship of being needed and fulfilling that need. And the destruction of the food, typically by fire (though this is not mentioned in Mesopotamian texts, in contrast to the explicit lexicon of burning in Ugaritic, Phoenician and Biblical Hebrew), performatively produces the effect of the dead having eaten (the action of flames being figured as “eating” in West Semitic).

The category of honored dead rpˀ, a much-debated term in Amorite, Ugaritic, Hebrew and Phoenician, has been subject of a good deal of confusion, much of it based on etymological speculation. Because of the Hebrew verb rpˀ “heal”, it has been etymologized as rāpiˀu“healer” or rapiˀu (euphemistically) “healthy one” (actually not very healthy, in fact dead). As Matthew Suriano has most recently pointed out, among the seven or eight useful narrative and ritual contexts in Ugaritic, Hebrew and Phoenician, there is not one case of the rpˀ healing, being healed, or being depicted as either particularly healthy or sick (“Dynasty Building at Ugarit: The Ritual and Political Context of KTU 1.161” AO 2009:107n12, with earlier bibliography).While the etymology may well be ultimately correct, it is a crucial principle of historical linguistics that a word’s meaning is created through the contexts in which it is used. While the rpˀ noun may plausibly be related to the verb, it could have branched off a thousand years before its earliest written attestation, or been the subject of drastic resignificaiton over a decade; there is no evidence yet to decide.

  1. Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead

But in all attested cases, some things about the social use of rpˀare clear: first, they are not the recently dead but the long-dead (rpỉm qdmymin KTU 1.161); second, they are never depicted as located near the speaker, but rather when located are always addressed at a distance (the summoning in KTU 1.161 and their journey in KTU 1.20-22; the address to the rpˀym in Sheol in Isaiah 14), and finally they are always royal, or very high-status (Dan’ilu as mt rpỉm, the kings joining them in KTU 1.161. KAI 13-14, their role as kings in Isaiah 14; compare the sneering denigration in Isaiah 26).

It is this role as high-status dead, remote in time and space, that contains the key to the meaning of the name Hammurapi. The name is an assertion that the family’s, and thus the child’s, older male ancestor, the ˁammu, is a member of the remote, superior dynasty of the dead. It is thus in itself an Amorite dynastic claim, and fits quite precisely with the dynastic rituals calling on Hammurapi’s name.

The archaeologist Ann Porter has written brilliantly about how funerary ideologies were one of the main ways ancient rulers could use kinship politically. And invoking the names of the dead–even incorporating them into your own name–was a crucial part of West Semitic family politics that became enshrined in the most famous name of the Babylonian empire. The pattern of Hammurapi’s name, with its more specific parallel Ammi-Ditana “My ancestor is (the particular rapiˀu known as) Ditanu”, also helps explain exactly why funerary ritual and burial practices were so important to Amorite politics–they literally help create theˁammu in its broader sense: the kin-based political unit.

By making the older kin into high-status dead ancestors–rapaˀūma–through ritual and sometimes collective burial, Amorite rulers actually helped create the facts of ancestry that are the basis for political organization in their ideology. But Hammurapi’s personal removal from the face-to-face, negotiated aspect of politics, enshrined in his law-stela that was supposed to serve as a remote, substitute version of his presence, suggests that his dynastic name is also a way of avoiding the politics he came from. By the same token the Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty ritual, in its hand-waving acknowledgment of the many soldiers who died on Babylonian campaigns without actually bothering to name any of them, incorporates Amorite ritual while also abandoning it. Thus Andrea Seri’s pithy summary of the narrative arc of the main myth of Babylonian supremacy, Enūma Eliš as “from kinship to kingship” also suggests a way the Babylonian empire tried to manage the politics of kinship, to move away from their dead while holding onto their names and power. If so, his very name and the cultural innovations Hammurapi is most famous for are monuments to his real politics: a strategic distancing, even betrayal, of the ancestors. .


*Charpin’s treatment manages to combine three striking philological errors in a short space:

“The meaning of almost all Akkadian personal names, like those from other parts of the Ancient Near East, can be deduced with reasonable certainty, and it is possible that Hammurabi means ‘Grandfather is great’. But another possible suggestion is that the name was pronounced Hammu-rapi, and then it would mean ‘Grandfather is the healer’.” First is his assumption that almost all ANE personal names are linguistically transparent: just as today, many names are “heirlooms” passed on from other languages and from the distant past, and while far more people gave their children names in their own living languages, many also did not. Second is the assumption that unlike most of the kings in his Amorite dynasty, his name was actually in Akkadian despite the fact that Hammu is documented nowhere as a productive root in Akkadian, and as we’ve seen *rabi– is not plausibly the second half of his name. The third is deriving the meaning of rapi– from Hebrew documents dated over 1000 years after Hammurapi’s death.

**See the funerary ritual KTU 1.161:31 and especially the ritual for the dead kings KTU 1.113/RS 24.257 l. 35′, with Sumero-Akkadian parallels including RS 94.2518:14 (Arnaud SMEA 1998, where the variant spelling in a parallel text am-mu-rap-pìis noted, with the orthography indicating a long -a- in rāpi’; summarized by Pardee, Ritual and Culttext p.210n45




Did the World Begin with a Strike? Labor Revolts in the Babylonian Flood Myth and Ancient Egyptian History

Where did the idea come from that most people should work all their lives to provide food, housing, and luxuries for a handful of powerful people?* How did it come to be that on top of that, the many were supposed to be thankful to the few for giving them back just enough to survive on–if they were lucky? Have people throughout history always accepted this?

The Mesopotamian flood myth, one that predates the biblical story of Noah’s flood by at least a thousand years, says that the creation of humanity began because of a labor dispute. The beginning of the poem reads:

When the gods were like humans,
they did forced labor, they bore drudgery.
Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods,
the forced labor was heavy, the misery too much:

the seven great head gods burdened the lower gods with forced labor.

The lower gods dug canals, the life of the land, so crops could be watered and the high gods could eat

They dug the great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris river and the Euphrates.
They heaped up all the mountains of the landscape.

too much!
… forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,

muttering down in the ditch:
“Let us stand up to our foreman,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, ruler of the gods, the warrior,

The gods heard these words: they set fire to their tools,

they put fire to their workspaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
They surrounded the head-god warrior Enlil’s abode.

This lower-class divine rebellion threatens to overthrow the order of heaven, but the head gods would literally rather murder one of themselves than do any regular work. So in fear of the revolt, the head gods kill one of their own, mix his blood with clay, and create humans to do the work instead.

We began as a solution to a divine labor dispute: and the story says that the struggle is now ours. Did humans just accept their role?

Meanwhile a scroll from the artisans’ village of Deir el-Medina in Ancient Egypt–likely written by a labor leader and not found in official records or royal victory inscriptions–records the first documented human strike that began in 1159 BCE. The craftspeople who made the tombs that supposedly allowed the rich to live forever were not getting paid. So the workers went on strike, this time occupying and blocking access to the Valley of the Kings where the royal tombs were located. This was a dire threat: the result was that no priests or family members of the dead could bring food and drink offerings for the dead, starving the rulers in the afterlife. When officials appeared with armed guards and threatened to remove the men by force, a striker responded that he would damage the royal tombs before they could move against him.

The strike ended in a victory for the artisans and a new understanding: the people who fed both the living and the dead could act on their own behalf—they didn’t have to just be grateful for whatever the rulers chose to give them. It was recently mythologized here by the socialist SF writer China Miéville, most recently author of an amazing history of the October Revolution.

May Day is a chance to remember that the history of work is also a history of a fight about right and wrong, about who makes the rules for who gets what, and it extends back into ancient history and beyond the grave, to the records of earliest civilizations we know.


“Here I am. I shall not do it.” The First Workers’ Strike in the Netherworld

An excerpt from chapter 25 of China Miéville’s brilliant apocalyptic detective novel, Kraken

FROM THE ELEVENTH DYNASTY, THE DAWN OF THE MIDDLE Kingdom, many centuries before the birth of the man Christ, the better-off dwellers by the Nile were concerned to maintain their quality of life, in death.

Were there not fields in the afterworld? Did the crops of the nightlands, the farms of each of the hours of the night, not need harvesting and tending? Were there not households and the tasks that would mean?

How could a man of power, who would never work his own land while alive, be expected to do so dead?

In the tombs, by their mummied masters, the shabtis were placed. They would do it.

They were made to do it. Created for those specifics. Little figures in clay or wax, stone, bronze, crude glass, or the glazed earthware faience, dusted with oxide. Shaped at first in imitation of their overlords like tiny dead in funeral wrappings, later without that coy dissembling, made instead holding adzes, hoes and baskets, integral tools cut or cast aspart of their mineral serf bodies.

The hosts of figurines grew more numerous over centuries, until there was one to work each day of the year. Servants of,workers for the rich dead, rendered to render, to perform what had to be done in that posthumous mode of production, to work the fields for the blessed deceased.

Each was inscribed at its making with the sixth chapter of the Book of the Dead:

Oh shabti allotted me, their skins read, If I be summoned or decreed to do any work which must be done in the place of the dead, remove all obstacles that stand in the way, detail yourself to me to plough the fields, to flood the banks, to carry sand from east to west. “Here I am,” you shall say. “I shall do it.”

Their purpose was written on the body: Here I am. I shall do it.

For centuries the shabtis did what they were tasked. Here I am, they said in the dark unsound, and cut the uncrops, and harvested them, and channelled the not-water of death, carried the remembrance of sand. Made to do, mindless serf-things obeying dead lords.

Until at last one shabti paused by the riverbank-analogues, and stopped. Dropped the bundled shadow-harvest it had cut, and took the tools it was built carrying to its own clay skin. Effaced the holy text it had been made wearing.

Here I am, it shouted in what passed there for its voice. I shall not do it .

“It named itself Wati,” Dane said, “the rebel.” He was made in Set Maat…He said the strange place carefully. “Now called Deir el-Medina. In the twenty-ninth year of Ramses Three.”

“The royal tomb-builders weren’t paid for days,” Dane said. “They downed tools. About 1100 BC. They were the first strikers.I think it was one of them builders that builtit. The shabti.”

Carved by a rebel, that ressentiment flowing through the fingers and the chisel and definingit? Made by the emotionsthat made it?

“Nah,” said Dane. “I think they watched each other. Either Wati orhis maker learnt by example.”

Self-named Wati led the first-ever strike in the afterlife. It escalated. That first revolt of the shabti, the uprising of the made.

Insurrection in Neter-Khertet. Murderous fighting among the constructed,the smithed servants, split between rebels, the afraid, and the still-obedient,slave armies of the loyal. They shattered each other in the fields of the spirits. All confused, none used to the emotions they had accreted by some accident of agency, their capacity to choose their allegiance bewildering. The dead watched aghast, huddled among the ash-reeds of the river of death. Overseer gods came running from their own hours to demand order, horrified by the chaos in those bone-cold agricultural lands.

It was a brutal war of human spirits and quasi-souls made out of anger. Shabti killing shabti, killing the already dead, in heretic acts of meta-murder, sending the appalled souls of the deceased into some further afterlife about which nothing has ever been known.

The fields were full of the corpses of souls. Shabti were slaughtered in hundreds by gods but they killed gods too.The crude features of comrades no one had bothered to carve with precision making their own expressions out of the indistinct impressions given them, taking their axes and ploughs and the fucking baskets they were built carrying in a swarm over bodies the size of mountains with jackal heads howling and eating them but being overrun by us and hacked with our stupid weapons and killed.

Wati and his comrades won. You can bet that meant a change.

It must have been a shock for succeeding generations of highborn Egyptian dead. To wake in astrange fogged underworld scandalously off-message. The ritualsof posthumous hierarchy to which theircorpses had been piously subjected turned outto be antique, overthrown mummery. They and the worker-statue-spirit household they had had made to come with them were met by disrespectful representatives of the new shabti nation. Their own figurines swiftly recruited to the polity of that shadeland. The human dead were told, If you work, you may eat..



A Hymn to Noisemaking and Namegiving: Assyriological Viewpoints on the Meaning of Enūma Eliš

There is a big gap between recent scholarship on Enūma Eliš and publicly available popular discussion of it. This is especially unfortunate because the scholarly views are arguably fresher and more surprising–as well as better-supported in the ancient textual evidence–than the popular treatments. This post is intended to help close the gap as well as bring together one earlier groundbreaking analysis, by Piotr Michalowski, with some of the crucial recent work of Andrea Seri. As we will see, the result of the newer work is to show that the epic is at least as much about making sound and meaning–conflicts over how different kinds of beings and orders, whether they be gods or political organizations, are or should be made—as it is an explanation of how the whole universe was made in the distant past. It had a contemporary message, relevant to political conflicts in Mesopotamia that were still urgent and ongoing at the time of its writers and early audiences. As a result, though it does talk about creation, its main point goes far beyond its relatively brief discussion of a far-off primordial battle, and that battle is much more than just a stereotypical conflict between order and chaos (as a common older interpretation claims).

Contemporary discussion of this Babylonian religious text (somewhat misleadingly termed a “Creation Epic”) tends to be based either on the careful but badly outdated 1951 work of the Assyriologist Alexander Heidel, the Babylonian Genesisor on provocative but speculative work by scholars of religion or psychology unfamiliar with the original language and historical contexts of the work. First of all, it is not a Babylonian “Genesis,” as Heidel implies in his very title, or any real equivalent of a biblical creation story. The Assyriologist Wilfred Lambert already discredited this idea in 1965, pointing out a caveat that should be cited at length. The text

“…is not a norm of Babylonian or Sumerian cosmology. It is a sectarian and aberrant combination of mythological threads woven into an unparalleled com positum. In my opinion it is not earlier than 1100 B.c. It happens to be the best preserved Babylonian document of its genre simply because it was at its height of popularity when the libraries were formed from which our knowledge of Babylonian mythology is mostly derived. The various traditions it draws upon are often perverted to such an extent that conclusions based on this text alone are suspect. It can only be used safely in the whole context of ancient Mesopotamian myth.” (p. 291)

Beyond comparisons to the Bible, this problem holds true of broader discussions of its meaning as well. For example Mircea Eliade’s interesting and generally well-informed discussion of the Babylonian “Creation of the world” in his History of Religious Ideas(1978; French original 1976; p. 70ff) contains mistranslations (the rhetorical question “Shall we ourselves destroy what we have created??”  is rendered “We shall ourselves destroy what we have created!”). But worse than this, a profound misinterpretation due to his Platonic- or Christian-influenced antimaterialist reading of matter’s inherently “fallen” nature. His conclusion reads more like St. Paul than anything Mesopotamian and is really unsupported by Babylonian evidence (“man is made from a demonic substance…We can speak of a tragic pessimism, for man seems to be already condemned by his own origin.  In both [the creation of the world and of humanity), the raw material is constituted by the substance of a fallen primordial divinity, demonized and put to death by the victorious young gods.” p. 73).

Similarly provocative discussions by the popular psychologist Jorden Peterson (Maps of Meaning, 1999, with the incisive critique of Emily Pothast) are limited by an unsubstantiated assumption that the myth and in particular the gender pattern of its battle scene where a young male storm-god slays an older mother-like dragon is universal (in fact in the majority of ancient Near Eastern dragon-slaying myths, the dragon is male or has no strong gender features). For any defense of Eliade or Peterson’s readings as not requiring ancient context because of the “universality” of the stories must deal with the fact that there are other Babylonian stories from roughly the same time and place that are in fact told very differently, with different characters and outcomes. The danger in both treatments is to import distinctively Christian or Western European notions of the nature of matter or the maternal, under the guise of the universal, into 3,000 year old material where the ideas are actually often quite different–and arguably more interesting.

  1. Mother Noise

In his 1990 work “Presence at the Creation,” (in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran) an influential work widely cited in Assyriology, Piotr Michalowski points out that

‘The modern designation of the text as “the Babylonian creation myth” is misleading, for it has been recognized by scholars that the creation is not the focus of this story. Nevertheless, because our culture greatly favors beginnings, origins and the like, it has been assumed that such matters were of equal interest to the Babylonians. Indeed, this text does begin at the beginning and includes an account of the creation of the universe, but the role of this motif in the narrative cannot be compared with the similar stories in Genesis. First, there are other contemporary Mesopotamian poems that begin with the creation of the world [for example, the dozen or so myths conveniently collected and edited by Lambert in his Babylonian Creation Myths or the Sumerian myth of Adapa] and some of them are quite different from the one found in Enūma Eliš. Second, with one exception, none of these texts contains only the creation; rather, this type of narration is confined to introductions of texts which are primarily concerned with other matters. And third, the metaphysical importance of creation in Western traditions is inescapably bound to the other end of time and thus must be seen in a different light, for in ancient Mesopotamia there is absolutely no trace of any apocalyptic vision and thus the linear axis of time is not so strongly determinant.”

Both Michalowski (citing the Classicist F M Cornford) and a set of more recent studies by Andrea Seri agree that “This is not an epic, but a hymn.” Indeed, as we shall see it is also arguably a dictionary and a work of mystical speculation in some ways parallel to works by Jewish Kabbalists or early Christian Church Fathers.

Michalowski first addresses a mysterious set of terms used to describe Tiamat. Repeatedly in the text she is called ” Mother Hubur, who forms everything” (I 133, II 19, III 23, III 81). Elsewhere this term is rare, appearing as the name of an underworld river, and it is unclear how it would apply. He points instead to the very common use of the root Babylonian hubūruas “to make noise, clamor” and suggests it is likely a nominal form, like Ti’amat’s own name which is a similar type of derivative from the word for “deep.” He then notes that one of the names given to Marudk is Mummu, “creator of heaven and netherworld, who protects refugees” (VII 86), as well as the name for Apsû’s advisor. Again, this term for a creator and advisor is likely a pun on a word for noise since there is a Sumerian term, phonetically Mu-mu, that is equated with noise in Babylonian scholarship (the equation mummu=rigmu“noise”).

Noise is associated with the acts of divine creation done by both Ti’amat and her opponent Marduk, but it is also precisely what brings on divine destruction. One of the terms for the young gods’ “noise” or clamor, rigmu(I 25) which so disturbs Apsû that he decides to kill the new generation is also used to describe the noise that the recently created humans make which provokes the gods to kill them by sending the flood in the Babylonian myth of Atra-Hasis; a second noisemaking term is precisely the root Michalowski sees in Tiamat’s other name: hubūru.

The conclusion I would draw is this: clamor and productivity are inseparable whether in construction work or childbirth. Oddly, after this brilliant setup Michalowski says he will return to conclude this point later but never does, but his implied point is clear: each generation’s creativity sounds like noise to the older ones. In each of the Babylonian myths, the older group reacts by trying to destroy the newer one, and the plot hinges on whether the upstarts can be suppressed. In Enūma Eliš, the new generation of gods wins the battle, but in the flood myths, the last generation of created beings which is human cannot really fight back. The best they can do is survive, and interestingly it is the wisdom of the trickster Ea, the god of magic, subterranean depths, and secret knowledge, who helps both young gods and younger humans escape.

  1. Babylonian vs Assyrian myth?

What of the political context? From the point of view of the ancient state of Babylon, Marduk might really be king of the universe. But starting around the thirteenth century BCE, they started losing political and military power to their close relatives in the north, the Assyrians. By the time that the text was probably composed, perhaps 1100 BCE, Babylon’s international power had faded significantly. 

The larger problem is an ideological one that has been shared by younger, expanding countries or empires anxious about their past and older, more respected but weaker ones. In more recent times we can see it in the relationship between the United States, a military and economic giant born (partly) from English colonies, and the older, shrinking British empire. While British culture holds a certain prestige for Americans (think of the status of Oxford university or those students who study abroad for 3 months in the UK and come back with a dubious British accent) , there is no question which country holds more power and influence in the world.

In ancient times this tension between the older, “real” culture and the younger “imitator” was shared by Judah and Israel as well as Assyria and Babylon. In both cases there is an older and more prestigious yet weaker partner contrasting with a younger and more anxious but more powerful partner that tries to claim the older one’s mantle. In both cases the general term for the culture or kingdom belongs to the more prestigious and archaic one—Babylon, which harks back to the great conqueror and culture-maker Hammurapi, on the one hand, and Israel, which harks back to the great eponymous ancestor Jacob-Israel, father of the 12 tribes.

And in both cases, for much of the countries’ histories, the younger partner was dominant but ambivalent about their status. It is the newer partner that writes the political histories of two different polities each one uses a different strategy to synchronize them to solve the problem of narrating the interrelated events of multiple regimes.

Michalowski points to a special distinctive aspect of Assyria that may have shaped how Enūma Eliš was written: while the Babylons had many gods, and Marduk was only “chief” when the city of Babylon happened to be on top, the Assyrians truly had a single head god for the whole empire. Although we don’t know as much about Assyrian religion as Babylonian during this period,

“a major difference that can be detected concerns the relative status of the city gods of Assur and Babylon. Marduk is simply the head god of his city but this does not necessarily mean that he is the head of a national pantheon. By contrast, the Assyrian god Assur is inseparable from his city, called Assur, as well as from the state itself which is named “The Land of Assur.” In Assyria the main god is truly at the top of the hierarchy and the ruler is only his viceroy on earth.”

This difference in prestige and cultural importance grew because Babylon

“depended for its survival not on military means, but primarily on a form of ideological blackmail. For Babylon was perhaps not the powerful military and economic force in the world, but it was the center of knowledge, learning, and of the old Sumerian tradition. Indeed, there is hardly any strictly Assyrian literature to speak of and while there are exceptions, the Assyrian scribes usually copied and wrote texts not in Assyrian but in the Standard Babylonian literary dialect of their southern cultural mentors.”

This prestige usually protected Babylon in disagreements with its more powerful sibling, but not always: around 1210 BCE the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I actually dared to conquer the city of Babylon. In an inscription that probably contains a good deal of exaggeration and self-promotion (but is our only source on the event), he claims to have totally destroyed and plundered the city. As Michaowski points out, the things he claimed to have taken from Babylon includes a unique set of things: not just gold, horses, slaves and citizens but also knowledge: literary and religious works written on cuneiform tablets. “The Assyrian cultural inferiority feeling was never so well demonstrated as in the textual material devoted to these actions. Tukulti-Ninurta lived long enough to commission an apologia for these events but did not enjoy his spoils for long as he was eventually assassinated under circumstances that are not yet clear to us.”

Six centuries later, in 689 BC, another Assyrian king, Sennacherib, attacked and plundered Babylon. In one of his historical annals he describes his deeds in the following words:

I removed the debris of Babylon and piled it up in heaps in that akītu-temple as a sight for future generations.

Sennacherib’s weird memorial betrays the cultural anxiety that Assyria had long had, for as Michalowski notes, that temple was built for only one ceremony-the New Year’s or akītu ritual, during which Enūma Eliš was recited. As if to make it obvious, Sennacherib also built a gate for the temple that depicted the story’s battle with Ti’amat–but now with Assur as the hero!

Michalowski continues:

“It is also worth mentioning that only in copies from Assur did the Assyrian scribes attempt to neutralize the text-they substituted the name of their god for that of Marduk and amalgamated Assur with Anshar. A recently published copy of a text from the reign of Sennacherib provides further evidence of these complex ideological maneuvers.  In this unique document, written in literary Babylonian, the king of Assyria endows Assur with the epithets and titles that had been associated with Marduk. The Assyrian god, moreover, takes into possession the Tablet of Destinies, a symbol of supreme rule that in Enama Elis is strongly identified with Marduk and his supremacy over the universe.”

“Sennacherib, like Tukulti-Ninurta before him, was assassinated soon after his Babylonian adventure and his son and successor, Esarhaddon, hastened to undo the damage by putting his energies to the rebuilding of Babylon. In his inscriptions the embarrassing admission of cultural war is suppressed and a different motivation is established, in the standard tradition based on divine abandonment, just as Tukulti Ninurta had done in the 13th century.”

Probably the most remarkable evidence for the long, bitter memory of these events in Babylonian culture is in the very ritual in which Enūma Eliš was recited: the akītu or New Years’ ritual According to this text, on the fourth day of the first month a priest of the Ekur temple recites the creation hymn to Marduk. During this ritual reading of the myth

 “the front of the tiara of the god Anu and the resting place of the god Enlil shall be covered.” The next day the same priest takes away the scepter, the ring, and the sword-that is, all the symbols of royal power-from the king. After leading the king before the statue of Marduk he strikes the royal cheek, drags him by the ears, and makes him bow down. The king then recites the following prayer:

I did not sin, oh lord of the lands, I was not neglectful of your divinity,

I did not destroy Babylon, I did not command its dispersal,

I did not [desecrate1] Esagila, I did not forget its rites.

[I watched] out for Babylon, I did not smash its walls

So the main reason for the exaltation of Marduk in Enūma Eliš is linked to the cultural tension between Babylonia and Assyria. in order to assert the primacy of Marduk, the Babylonians had to make their pantheon seem similar to that of Assyria.

“The central act in this reform was the exaltation of the city god of Babylon to the status of a national deity, an exaltation that provided a direct counterpart to Assur. The complex cosmology of Enūma Eliš put Marduk in the equivalent role that Assur had in Assyria, while at the same time it connected the Babylonian deity with older Sumero-Babylonian cosmological traditions. One should, therefore, note that the composite structure of Enūma Eliš and the reuse of older cosmological and religious materials in the text, are not simply compositional features, but carry a complex ideological message.”

And it is here, in the study of exactly how the epic was built, that the works of Seri take center stage, and I will discuss in the second half:


  1. The Epic of Namegiving 

One of the strangest features that strikes the modern reader is that for an epic battle, there isn’t much fighting but there’s a huge amount of naming. With the battle over and done by the middle of the epic (Tablet IV), the whole second half is devoted to the structuring of the stars, the ritual calendar, and then, in overwhelmingly the largest single section of the text, the gods bestow no less than fifty different names on Marduk. In addition to the mysterious nature of some of the names, the format is odd, more like the ancient Babylonian version of a spreadsheet (with placeholders like ditto marks) than a poem.

Assyriologists who study ancient Mesopotamian scholarship have long recognized that these names were not invented for the story, but were almost directly copied and pasted from preexisting scholarly lists of divine names. One of these building blocks is a large and widely used work called AN=Anum after its first entry, which gives you the Babylonian translation or interpretation of hundreds of Sumerian divine names. The first, and perhaps easiest one, is the equation (Sumerian) AN = (is pronounced or interpreted in Babylonian) as Anum, the Babylonian word based on the Sumerian AN with the Babylonian noun ending -um. Yet there is art here too. As Andrea Seri writes in her revealing study of “The Fifty Names of Marduk,” “the originality of this section resides precisely in the technique of ingeniously interweaving a rather dry string of names into a literary text,” so that in the context of the story the 50 names work to build a case for the universal nature of Marduk, whose name can be “translated” into such a huge range of cosmic roles and functions that he ends up wrapping up all the roles of other gods in himself.

In fact even the precise number of names is an artful political choice, because 50 is the symbolic number of the previous head god, Enlil. Though here we can also see a seam where the text’s construction out of other building blocks shows, Seri notes that  “In the strict sense, the ancestors, in Enūma Eliš actually grant Marduk fifty-two names. The last two, however, were not originally Marduk’s: they are bēl mātāti, Enlil’s epithet, and Anu. These two extra names are simply final bonuses, and they do not follow the pattern of the preceding list.”

She summarizes the different naming scenes thus:

1. After Marduk was born, “fifty pulhātu(‘awesomeness’) were heaped upon him”(I: 104). 2. The gods assign the name Lugaldimmerankia [king of the gods of heaven and earth] to Marduk (V: 112). 3. Marduk himself names the human being “man” “I shall make stand a human being; let ‘Man’ be its name” (VI: 6). 4. The number fifty is mentioned again in connection with the great gods celebrating the creation of Esagila: “The great gods, fifty of them, took their seats” (VI: 80). 5. At this banquet, Anu assigns three names to Marduk’s bow. 6. Anšar [a god name meaning simply “all of heaven” in Sumerian] gives Marduk his third name, Asalluhi [the name of the divine demon-fighter and exorcist] (VI: 101). 7. Finally, the gods announce their their decision to grant Marduk fifty names right before these are enumerated (VI: 121).

She adds a fascinating point about the origins of our text: from studying a different major god list, one that unlike AN=Anum has three columns, “one gets the impression that certain episodes of Enūma Elišhave been drawn from the explanations of the god list. This is not an innovation, for lexical lists had already inspired the composition of literary texts, as Miguel Civil (1987) has shown [see more recently the article by Jay Crisostomo ] Aside from the praise of Marduk, specific events taken from the god list include: the defeat of  Tiamat and disarming her of her weapon (iii: 1′-2′); the slaughter of Kingu (iii: 16′); the creation of skillful things as a consequence of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat (iii: 20′); and the positioning of the astral body Neberumentioned in tablet V: 6 (iii: 25′).22 In a few instances one may even suspect a closer connection, for some lines of the god list seem to have made their way into previous tablets of Enūma Eliš. Thus the use of related words from the god list seems to be present in tablet V: 59, when Marduk ties Tiamat’s tail to the durmahhu,” the cosmic mooring-rope that unites heaven and earth.

  1. From kinship to kingship

Seri argues that a key to the story’s real plot is this lavish bestowing of names–a group linguistic act done by a “society” of gods, that could be contrasted with Tiamat’s solo physical and biological acts of creation that begin the epic and the gods themselves come from. For the very first lines of the narrative emphasize the lack of names in the opening line: Enūma eliš lā nabû šamāmū, “When above heaven had not been named.” And it is emphasized even further because “the absence of names appears again in the following line. This betrays from the outset the intention to create a circular account, because the beginning lacks what abounds at the end.”

Thus, “having the names at the very end is also intended to highlight the contrast with the first tablet. It further implies that towards the end of Enūma Eliš Marduk’s genealogical filiation becomes less relevant because by defeating Tiamat and creating the universe he is able to establish a reputation for himself. It is in this sense that names replace genealogy.” The process by which Marduk goes from a god to the supreme god is important partly because of its artificiality: in human reality, biological creation is (except in the worst possible cases) also social, as offspring are named and talked to, built up socially, as much as they are birthed and fed. By contrast Marduk, although created by the coupling of Ea and Damkina, has an artificial air about him from the beginning as he is generated in the abyss, the secret subterranean source of magic and wisdom formed from the corpse of Apsû (recall that his name is also the Babylonian word for “abyss” or hidden subterranean water.)

Marduk finally becomes who he is when he gains the capacity to change reality by pure command, as he himself is verbally recreated by the gods who subordinate themselves to him. It is in this way that Seri’s wonderfully insightful phrase, “from kinship to kingship,” illuminates the underlying plot and argument of our weird hymn of noisemaking and namegiving.



Works Cited*

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Translated by W. Trask. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis. Second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Lambert, W. G. “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis.” Journal of Theological Studies New Series 16, no. 2 (October 1965): 287– 300.

______. Babylonian Creation Myths. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996.

Michalowski, Piotr. “Presence at the Creation,” in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, edited by Tzvi Abusch, John Huehnergard and Piotr Steinkeller. Harvard Semitic Studies, Volume 37, 381–396. Leiden: Brill, 1990.

Peterson, Jordan. Maps of Meaning. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Pothast, Emily. “The Great Mother and The Dragon of Chaos: Jordan Peterson’s Misuses of Mythology” (presented at Conference: Responding to Peterson: An Intervention In Lieu of a Debate, Boise State University October, 2018).

Seri, Andrea. “The Fifty Names of Marduk in Enūma Eliš,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126, no. 4 (2006): 507 – 519.

*My gratitude to AKM Adam for his kind help with formatting

Cultural Creativity as Golden Calf: Theses Against Kaufmann

Preface: I think Kaufmann is great. This is a polemic about one thing he got wrong.

1. The Israeli historian of religion Yehezkel Kaufmann presented the first truly coherent critique of academic histories of ancient Israel and the creation of the Bible, exposing them as artificially evolutionist theories informed by German Protestant ideology. Rather than a fall from an original vitality, the major threads in the Hebrew Bible represent a continually vital creative dialogue with historical circumstances.
2. But Kaufmann’s incisive critique was itself made from a classically German Romantic viewpoint, and reveals him and his colleague Umberto Cassuto as essentially men of the 18th century, continuing the thinking of Herder above all, but also organicist philosophers of language and culture (Wilhelm) von Humbolt and Hamann.
3. A wonderful recent volume on his intellectual legacy makes key work of his widely available for the first time, including a 1941 essay, “The Secret of National Creativity,” which he wrote “contains an explanation of the general historical-cultural assumptions of my book (the History of the Religion of Israel)” (p. 337 note). His views on cultural creativity are a simple distillation of Herder’s:

“We draw distinctions among different creative works in national cultures, and we assign them different ranks in the scale of values. Among cultures of a single period or stage of development, as well, there is higher and lower. Some nations are rich in imagination, others poorer. Some nations display a proliferation of artistic creative power, while the art of others is meager. ..The Roman nation came later in history than the Babylonian, the Egyptian, and the Greek, but it was not endowed, as they were, with a mythopoeic imagination or with the talent for original artistic invention.”

The straightforwardly late-18th-century nature of this aspect of his thinking is clear when it comes to language as culture:

“we discern in the cultural creation of an ethnic group certain organic phenomena that attest to its being a natural and uniform source of creation. The creative products of the group exhibit organic unity, developing on their own through a natural pattern of growth. An example of this is, first and foremost, language, which develops on its own out of the collective life. It is no mere collection of words, but a kind of organic creature, embodying inner laws and an inner harmony, as if it grew from within.”

4. This organicist mode of thinking, which sees languages and cultures as if they were distinct biological entities that have offspring, grow, and die (cf the “tree model” in linguistics), remained popular in bible scholarship through the 20th century but by the 1930s was already being challenged and rethought in Russia (Bahktin/Voloshinov) and America (Boas, Sapir). The organic metaphor has been critiqued already (historically many if not most people have been multilingual, and not rarely in two “genetically unrelated” groups, as if the average Chinese-and-English speaker were an eagle and a horse at once, and it is well documented that these languages often begin to share features with intensive contact, as if the horse grew wings from hanging out with the eagle; the metaphor is absurd because the organicist theory is absurd).
5. But the fetishization of creativity as an inherent human good has not been critiqued nearly enough. Creativity is a power and few powers are inherently good or evil. Creativity in particular is often often destructive, and people invent forms of exploitation, weaponry, and propaganda, perhaps as frequently as they invent ways of healing, beauty, and insight. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a creative work.
6. The fetishization of cultural creativity as the greatest human good is a foolish form of collective “private ownership” that is meaningless without historical and political context. The exploitation of indigenous or small-scale creativity by empires or large-scale marketers is rightly seen as theft or abuse because of the huge power imbalance, but many building blocks of every culture are shared or adapted. Though they are often bounded by space, time, and medium (including language), both culture and creativity must be seen as lacking inherent, essential borders, including borders that separate them from questions of politics and ethics.

Imagined and Real Ritual Genocide (ḥērem) and Ancient Israel’s Origins in Denied Resemblance

[T]he founder of the earthly city was a fratricide. Overcome with envy [Romulus] slew his own brother, … So that we cannot be surprised that this first specimen, or, as the Greeks say, archetype of crime, should…find a corresponding crime at the foundation of that city which was destined to reign over so many nations.. For Rome, as one of their poets has mentioned, “the first walls were stained with a brother’s blood” (Lucan, Phar. i. 95) –Augustine, City of God 15.5

There is a pattern of horrifying victimization in ancient Mediterranean stories of how countries, and even gods, came to be. Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome, is said to have killed his father in battle and murdered his brother in a dispute about land. And it goes far beyond that: in a widespread myth of theogony found from Anatolia to Greece, the head god is said to have castrated and killed his father in order to take over the rule of heaven. Most troubling for biblical studies, scholars have never really laid to rest the problem of how the Bible portrays the Israelites’ invasion and extermination of Canaan, which fits the way Rafael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish Jurist who created the concept of genocide, defined it. From the killing of parents and siblings to the mass murder of neighbors, these stories seem to require monstrous evil to break with the past and create something new.

But is Augustine right about the inherently murderous and evil nature of political beginnings? Why is this type of origin story a horror story?

These stories claim that the origins of peoples and kingdoms demand atrocity; does this mean that real political origins required them too? Beginning in Deuteronomy, the Bible tells a story of how God commands the people of Israel to conquer Canaan, a land divinely promised to them in which none of them had ever lived. In this divine promise it is not just permitted but required that they exterminate every living thing. The mark of this divinely commanded mass killing is the term ḥērem (cognate with Arabic ḥaram “(religiously) forbidden; sanctuary” source of the modern “harem”). The word is often translated with the somewhat wooden and neutral-sounding term “ban,” but it goes a good deal further than “bans” on, say, unpasteurized cheese. In the narratives, there are two main sorts of claim about this mass killing: the first is a brief, sweeping statement that they exterminated every living thing in all of the cities of Canaan, sometimes with a minor exception noted (such as Joshua 11:23).

The second use is in a set of three detailed narratives: the stories of Jericho, Ai, and Amalek. Each of these stories revolves around a miraculous conquest and a ritual exception. In the first of these stories, that of Jericho, the prostitute Rahab and her family rescue the Israelite spies (Joshua 2) so they are marked out as exceptions to the ritual extermination. Upon crossing the Jordan, whose waters miraculously stop permitting the Israelites to cross unharmed carrying the Ark of the Covenant, Joshua commands the priests to march the same Ark around Jericho seven times (Joshua 6). On the final circle the walls crumble at the sound of the shofar and the Israelites kill every living thing and destroy every object in the city but spare the family of Rahab, who becomes the ancestor of the future king of Israel.

If the first story is about rightly sparing an ally and exterminating everybody else, the second two are about the disaster that ensues when an Israelite selfishly spares anything at all. Joshua 7 narrates the failed conquest of Ai, caused because one of the warriors took some plunder from Jericho for himself. The warrior Achan and his family are then ritually singled out and exterminated themselves, leading to the happy ending of Ai’s successful conquest. Similarly in 1 Samuel 15 Saul, the original king of Israel, spares the king of Amalek as well as some of the best livestock, and for his trouble God ejects him from the throne to be replaced with David.

  1. The Ethical Problem: Literary Colonialism and Narrative Genocide?

Biblical scholars have tended to treat these stories of conquest and ritual mass murder in ways that increase the tension and raise further questions. Two typical approaches have been to naturalize the ritual genocide stories as, in Carly Crouch’s words, “sensible” in a world that is supposedly naturally threatened by the “chaos” of foreigners people with different gods and customs (2009:179*). As Phillip Stern puts it, “nothing could be more palpable than the human longing to dwell in a livable environment.” (1989:220). Other scholars from Monroe (2007) to Smith (2014) to Weinfeld (1993) have described the practice in more neutral, culturally relative terms as part of “tribal state formation,” a “warrior sensibility,” or “colonization.” Indeed, both the richly documented comparative  account of Weinfeld and the more critical, if abstract and schematic, account of Pitkänen agree in describing the biblical pattern as one of settler colonialism, in which a group comes from the outside, claims a legal right to a territory, and then proceeds to “purify” it of its current inhabitants in order to cultivate it, a process of violent political expansion, exploitation and destruction of humanity known from ancient to modern times.

It is natural to be ambivalent when your sacred text seems to imply that political history begins with the wholesale slaughter of the innocent along with the guilty, especially because the Hebrew Bible itself condemns it. In Genesis 18:25 Abraham declares to God in outrage, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

As Susan Niditch asks, how much of a problem is this if we can’t be sure it ever happened? But as the history of religions shows, treating narratives of genocide as myth involves its own powerful ethical problems.


“(In the entire land of Canaan) not a single city made a treaty with the Israelites [apart from the Gibeonites, who became servants] all were taken in battle. This was from the Lord, to harden their hearts to fight Israel, so that they could all be subject to holy extermination (hḥrym), without mercy, and wiped out, as the Lord commanded Moses.” -Joshua 11:19

In 1927 the great French Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil, published an article which he would later omit from all records of his work, “De quelques faux massacres” in Revue turque d’anthropologie. It emphasized a folkloristic approach to oral traditions about mass killings, such as the legend that the women of the Greek island of Lemnos were all single when Jason and the Argonauts encountered them, because they had previously butchered all the men for cheating on them. In approaching narratives of terrible events as stories first and foremost, it represented Dumézil’s approach to what he called “historical myth,” nicely summarized in the subtitle of a later book, Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion As Roman History. He later used this approach to analyze the Roman historian Livy’s peculiar accounts of early Rome, for which no reliable ancient records existed and which turned out to strongly parallel Indo-European myths. The idea that all history is in some way storytelling, necessarily sharing the essential formal features of fiction, was later emphasized by Roland Barthes and most famously, Hayden White.

But as Bruce Lincoln (1991), who first rediscovered the forgotten article, notes, the historical context of the article itself tells a different story. Dumézil wrote it after he had been unable to get a job in France and moved to Turkey, which had just begun its campaign of Armenian Genocide denial. Why would he choose to write about the fictionality of mass murder accounts precisely then and there? As the Historian of Religion Cristiano Grottanelli (1993) showed, the stress on the fictional quality of oral genocide accounts was no coincidence. This is especially important given Dumézil’s active support for the far right, evident not only in pro-fascist French newspaper articles he wrote under a pseudonym (cited by Lincoln and Grottanelli) but in his larger orientation which even his most vocal defender concedes was fascist (Eribon 1992, 140).

This raises the larger historical and moral question of forgotten genocides. For students of ancient history and literature, what is our responsibility to the testimonies of victims long dead? What if no testimony has survived, only claims to a victory that involves mass killing or even genocide, the victor’s proud claim to have victimized? In the following, I will explore a case where questions of historical and philological method are raised most acutely because they are inseparable from ethical questions.

The issue is what many have seen as the most morally difficult part of the Hebrew Bible: divinely commanded genocides, and trying to figure out how we can respond to them in a way that is moral but not anachronistic.

Those who wish to remind themselves of the worst parts of the Old Testament are invited to glance at Joshua 6-8 and I Samuel 15, which look rather fictional, and compare it to the actual 9th-century BCE inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (also mentioned and fought against in the Bible), who uses precisely the Biblical vocabulary of ritual genocide to claim.

  1. The Epigraphic Data

The most recent major investigation of this problem had to contend with a near total lack of historical data. As Phillip Stern, author of The Biblical Herem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience (1989) notes, his project was launched from a single non-biblical inscription, the Moabite stone, which he treated as the sole historical claim to have actually done the practice. But since then our database has been significantly expanded, opening the possibility to expand our thinking as well.

The root *rm “be set apart, sanctified, forbidden” is well known in the ancient Semitic languages, with outcomes in all major branches including Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Hebrew, Moabite, and Sabaic. However there is a distinct Causative Stem usage known from the Iron Age Southern Levant and Yemen involving divinely commanded mass killing. This is the unambiguous meaning of the term, which is frequent in ancient Hebrew literature e.g. the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Samuel. It was also long known in a late 9th-century BCE Moabite inscription that claims: “I killed the whole population: 7000 male subjects and aliens, female subjects and aliens, and servant girls. I did rm to it for (the god) Ashtar-Kemosh.” (KAI 181) However with the recent publication of the second early Sabaic attestation (the Iron Age text DAI Ṣirwāḥ 2005-50, adding to R 3945 from the same site) it is increasingly clear that this refers not merely to a mythic pattern but the slaughter of whole populations presented as ritual sacrifice. The texts read:

“And I killed all the people of the city {of Atarot) as a sacrifice for Kemosh and for Moab. …Then Kemosh said to me, “Go, take Nebo from Israel.” And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I subjected it to holy extermination (hḥrmth) for Ashtar (=ʿAṯtar)-Kemosh.” –Moabite victory inscription of Mesha (KAI 181:11-17), late 9th c BCE

“Yiṯaʽʼamar avenged the people of Sabaʾ:… he broke the people of ʿAm entirely,  from Yahnaṭl to Timnaʽ.. and he condemned to holy extermination (hḥrm) by destruction and fire all the cities of the people of ʿAm and Timnaʽ, sacked all the crops of Qatabān, and killed (the king) of Timnaʽ” –Sabaic victory inscription of Yiṯaʽʼamar (DAI Ṣirwāḥ 2005-50:1-2), late Iron Age

“And he broke Kaminahū, besieged, devasted, and took vengeance on Nas²an, assigned to others the territory of (two cities) from Kaminahū, took possession…of its territory for ʾAlmaqah and Sabaʾ, and Kaminahū he condemned to holy extermination (hḥrm) by destruction and fire…” —ibid, (DAI Ṣirwāḥ 2005-50:3-4)

“The account of how Karibʼil Watar, ruler of Sabaʾ, took possession of lands during his reign for (the god) ʾAlmaqah and (the people of) Sabaʾ, when he settled the entire community: that of the god, of the (divine tribal) patron, that of the territory, of the people. He made three sacrifices in honor of ʿAṯtar (=Moabite Ashtar)…Then held the tribal assembly of Saba’, so they might gather (under his leadership) and succeed in their calls to arms, unanimous in doing what was right….

He took possession of the fields (and) confiscated the irrigated territory of the king of Nas²an and… demolished the walls of his city, Nas²an until he eradicated it, and the city of Nas²an he condemned to holy extermination (hḥrm) by fire.”  –Sabaic victory inscription of Karibʼil Watar (RES 3945:1; 15-16), late Iron Age.


Within the study of South Arabian there has long been a question of whether to render the verb in a more abstract, context-free way, based on the broadest possible sense of the ḥrm root (he “forbid” his troops to destroy the city or “set it aside” from destruction), or in the more specific causative-stem use known from Hebrew and Moabite (he “banned” its existence or “set it aside” as a sacrifice, to be destroyed for his god). The context of sweeping destructive conquest would support the more specific C-stem meaning as scholars from Lauren Monroe (2007) to George Hatke (2015) have argued. The abstract sense would lead to a set of jarring translations along the lines of the king “demolished the walls of Nas²an until he eradicated it, but he forbade the city of Nas²an from being destroyed (hḥrm) by fire” which raises the question of who was planning to destroy it by fire in the first place. As Avanzini pointed out in a detailed review of the earlier Sabaic inscription’s publication by Nebes (Avanzini 2018, rev of Nebes 2016), both grammar and context support the specific reading, since acts of clemency are not normal in these battle reports and the alternative meaning the editor relied on is only clearly documented in the G stem.**

A crucial step in the overall interpretation of the cultural complex behind this term was made by Lauren Monroe, “Israelite, Moabite and Sabaean War-herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence,” (2007), who examined the later of the two Sabaic inscriptions and noted that the Moabite, Sabaic, and biblical texts share a political pattern of doing ritual extermination for God, People, and Territory. It was George Hatke (2015) who provided a historical foundation for the comparison with the most detailed political treatment of the Sabaic inscriptions, where he notes the surprising context of the extermination of Nashan. It emerges that Saba’ and Nashan had been allies up until soon before the Sabean kingdom’s destruction of the nearby city. Similarly the other cities named were not remote sites but relatively close to Saba’. In other words, all of the historical herem accounts from Moab in the 9th century to Saba’ in the 8th and 7th are not of the conquest of remote areas but of near neighbors, even allies.

  1. The Historical Surprise: Israel’s Origins in Denied Resemblance

There is currently no support for the idea that the ritual genocides depicted in the Hebrew Bible ever occurred as described. This is for three reasons: first and most importantly, neither Jericho nor Ai nor Amalek were actual political entities either during the Late Bronze Age when the events are supposed to have occurred nor during the late Iron Age when the narratives were plausibly taking written literary form. Second, the narratives all follow a pointedly ritual pattern involving miraculous victory and defeat; as has long been noted, the “conquest” of Jericho describes a religious performance and the very name of Ai (“mound/rubble”) announces its quality as a memorial. And finally, early Israel would probably not have been militarily able to perpetuate these massacres.  The highland groups that would later be called Israel developed in the resource-poor highlands precisely to  avoid their militarily stronger neighbors: neither archaeological evidence nor contemporary historical inscriptions indicate they would have been able to field the overwhelming force necessary to perform such murders.

But if the Deuteronomistic stories are fake, the real problem is why mimic the language of settler colonialism and bake it into biblical tradition? More than a narrative genocide, the herem accounts represent an attempt on the part of Hebrew writers to deny their past in Canaan by paradoxically adopting one of the most horrifying ideas in circulation during the Iron Age.

This quality of Israelites as Canaanites-in-denial is well documented but not well conceptualized, and it points to a problem in standard approaches to “Israelite identity,” as well as in classic post-colonial theory. This is that historically, much of what is distinctive about ancient Israel and Judah, from language to material culture to their political organization as tribe-based kingdoms (what the archaeologist Bruce Routledge calls “segmentary states”) is in fact what makes them very similar to their neighbors. At the same time, the most influential post-colonial theory of imitation, Bhabha’s 1994 account of “colonial mimicry,” is drawn almost entirely from white colonists’ accounts of natives. It describes a piece of exclusively English-language imagination in which South Asians or Africans are painted as inferior copies of white British people. As such it is not directly interested in the agency, let alone creativity, of non-colonizers.

Is there a historically anchored way to theorize Israelite denial of what it shared with its neighbors?  One of the main points that emerges from both Monroe and Hatke’s articles is how monotonously similar these Moabite, Sabaic, and Hebrew statements are. When it comes to ḥērem and political formation there is nothing special about performing mass muder for king, god, and country.  Responding to the common notion of ethnic identity as pure difference, anthropologist Simon Harrison argues that “a certain feature of ethnic and national identity appears a little puzzling from perspectives of this kind: namely, identities ostensibly “different” from one another are often remarkably similar. For example, Schneider, researching American family life in the 1960s, [noted that] his Irish-American respondents that the key to understanding their identity lay in understanding the special role of the “Irish mother.”‘ (Harrison 2003) But, Schneider continued, this was true for every ethnic group he interviewed: Jews, Italians, and Poles all claimed that the key to their distinctive family structure. Harrison argues that neighboring groups will often developed shared, even identical ways of expressing difference: “situations such as these are most readily explained if eth- nicity and nationalism are conceptualized as relationships, not of difference or perceived difference, but of denied or disguised resemblance. In other words, ethnic and national identities are best understood as emerging through processes in which certain kinds of felt similarities, and shared features of identity, are disavowed, censored, or systematically forgotten.”

In other words, ancient Israelites seem to have used a shared ritual-political concept, the ḥērem , to not only claim absolute difference from their Canaanite neighbors but also to create a radical break with their own Canaanite past. But if these particular stories aren’t true, does it mean they’re harmless? Certainly both Rabbis and ethicists would say no.

The political theorist Yves Winter points out the dangerous power of these “fake” stories. There is always a dialogue between real acts of violence and stories about them. “For the most part, acts of political violence are designed to leave behind traces destined for an audience. Often elaborately staged, acts of political violence are intended to be perceived, experienced, remembered, and narrated” (2018:195). The field devoted to the politics and history of colonization, Settler Colonial Studies, may suggest a more supple model than Bhabha’s Post-Colonial one. As Patrick Wolfe (2006) writes, settler and native culture often enter into an unequal dialectic in which colonists nativize: “the [colonial] process of replacement maintains the refractory imprint of the native counter-claim.” What we see here would be the other side of this dialectic, as an originally native Canaanite culture develops an origin myth of emerging from foreign conquerors via moments of purifying ritual exclusion using the concept of ḥērem.

Thus a crucial part of Iron Age Israel’s historical origins is in fact “literary” and politically vital: an attack on Israel’s own actual past as natives, adopting the violent mask of its more powerful neighbors and incorporating their language of colonization and genocide into their own biography.


======Notes and Bibliography=====

*”herem is an extreme expression of the struggle of order against chaos; it is sensible that it comes to the fore in periods in which the threat of chaos is felt particularly acutely. It is equally sensible that the threat of chaos, personified in the figure of the enemy (and its culture), would have been felt most strongly in the periods in which exposure to foreign cultures was highest.”

** Nebes cited YM 14556=CSAI I, 114: w-ḥrmt bn ṭrd bn Bnʼ ‘it is forbidden to remove (this basin) from (the temple) Bnʼ’. But as Avanzini writes, “In this case, it is evident that the verb, not in the causative form, means ‘to forbid’. In the causative form, the ambiguous meaning of ‘to forbid’ shifts to the meaning of ‘to make something forbidden, cursed’, but also ‘to make something sacred’. Avanzini 2018: 535n10


Avanzini, Alessandra. 2018. “Norbert Nebes, Der Tatenbericht des YiṯaAmar Watar Bin Yakrubmalik aus Ṣirwāḥ (Jemen). Zur Geschichte Südarabiens im frühen 1. Jahrtausend vor Christus.” Journal of Semitic Studies 63: 532–43.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London ; New York: Routledge.

Coutau-Bégarie, Hervé. 1995. “Dumézil rattrapé par la politique.” Histoire, économie & société 14 (3): 533–42.

Crouch, Carly L. 2009. War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History. BZAW 407, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Eribon, Didier. 1992. Faut-il brûler Dumézil?: mythologie, science et politique. Paris: Flammarion.

Grottanelli, C. 1993. Ideologie, miti, massacri: Indoeuropei di Georges Dumézil. Vol. 155. Prisma ; Palermo: Sellerio.

Harrison, Simon. 2003. “Cultural Difference as Denied Resemblance: Reconsidering Nationalism and Ethnicity.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45: 343–61.

Hatke, George. 2015. “‘For ʼĪlmuquh and for Sabaʼ: The Res Gestae of Karibʼīl Bin Dhamarʽalī from Ṣirwāḥ in Context.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 105: 87–133.

Havrelock, Rachel. 2010. “Pioneers and Refugees: Arabs and Jews in the Jordan River Valley.” In Understanding Life in the Borderlands: Boundaries in Depth and in Motion, edited by Zartman, I William, 189–216. Studies in Security and International Affairs. Athens: U of Georgia Press.

Hendel, Ronald S. 2005. Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lincoln, Bruce. 1998. “Dumézil, Ideology, and the Indo-Europeans.” Zeitschrift Für Religionswissenschaft 6 (2): 221–230.

———. 1991. “Myth and History in the Study of Myth: An Obscure Text of Georges Dumézil, Its Context and Subtext” in Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology & Practice (Chicago).

Monroe, Lauren. 2007. “Israelite, Moabite and Sabaean War-Herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence.” Vetus Testamentum 57: 318–41.

Naʾaman, Nadav. 2011. “The Exodus Story: Between Historical Memory and Historiographical Composition.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 11: 39–69.

Nebes, Norbert. 2016. Der Tatenbericht des Yitaʻʼamar Watar bin Yakrubmalik aus Ṣirwāḥ (Jemen) : zur Geschichte Südarabiens im frühen 1. Jahrtausend vor Christus. Epigraphische Forschungen auf der Arabischen Halbinsel 7. Tübingen: Wasmuth.

Niditch, Susan. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pitkänen, Pekka. 2014. “Ancient Israel and Settler Colonialism.” Settler Colonial Studies 4: 64–81.

Quintela, García, and Marco V. 1994. “Nouvelles contributions à l’affaire Dumézil.” Dialogues d’histoire ancienne 20 (2): 21–39.

Smith, Mark S. 2014. Poetic Heroes: Literary Commemorations of Warriors and Warrior Culture in the Early Biblical World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Stern, Philip D. 1991. The Biblical Ḥerem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience. Vol. no. 211. Brown Judaica Studies ; Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press.

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1993. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Winter, Yves. Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8: 387–409.






Consequences for sexual harassment in biblical studies: an example

This story appeared in Haaretz in 2015; the below is a translation.

Retired Hebrew University professor banned due to harassment

Yarden Scoop
The move was made following information received from a third party. Prof. Shalom Paul previously signed a letter of apology following earlier complaints filed against him. His Lawyer: “An attempt to undermine one of the last the intellectual giants that arose from this nation.”
Professor Shalom Paul, Professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was banned in recent days from the campus in light of information that has been verified, according to which he had harassed a female student. Complaints against the lecturer, a Bible scholar in his 80s, were collected in the past and he had signed an agreement in November 2013 under which he was forbidden to teach, instruct female students, and to employ female research assistants.
In the current case, due to which he was banned, the university did not receive a direct complaint against Paul, but information was transferred by a third party. It should be noted that Paul is one of the 11 lecturers mentioned in the letter that the “One out of every One” organization submitted to the university administration, in which they warned about harassment, and even rape, at the institution.
According to the previous complaints, the lecturer kissed the cheek of one student and stroked her hand, while they were together in his office. In another case, the lecturer invited a student to sit near him, and while jointly investigating a text touched her arm, and at the end of the meeting, blew her a kiss. In the agreement signed with him, Professor Paul expressed “his sincere apologies for abusing the dignity of the students”, committed to deposit a letter of apology with the (University) Disciplinary Officer for the complainants, and made a commitment not to repeat this kind of behavior. In addition, it was made clear to him that violation of his commitments will result in disciplinary prosecution.
The Hebrew University offered in response that “the university continues to fight against harassers and addresses every complaint decisively and with utmost seriousness. The case in question is not new, and concerns a retired faculty member, who was banned from the campus. Although the complaint was not received from an identified source, in light of information received by the Sexual Harassment Officer, an investigation was opened which lasted a number of weeks. In view of the findings of this investigation, it was decided to permanently ban the scholar from the campus, in light of the fact that about 3 years previously, he was forbidden to teach and advise students because of inappropriate behavior toward women. In addition, the university spokeswoman emphasized that no information was received from the One out of every One” organization about the 11 alleged new cases [concerning other lecturers], which they presented in their letter.”
Paul’s attorney, Lior Epstein, said in response that “in this decision, which was drawn from dark regimes, he was separated from his books and from his office and he was shamed before a trial – against one of the last intellectual giants that arose from this nation and this city. This is a decision taken by one side, without argument and trial, and all in a desperate attempt to ingratiate itself and to please the populist wave of destruction of his character. “
This past April, the university signed an agreement with Professor Mario Schneider, 67, who sexually harassed a graduate student, whereby he will not be able to return to teach or instruct students in the future; cannot enter the Mount Scopus campus for a year and a half; and will not be able to participate for five years in academic conferences or seminars at the university or on its behalf. Schneider additionally committed to compensate the complainant against him, in the amount of 95 thousand shekels.