When your Advisor is not your Friend

Graduate school plays a huge role in the outcome of many students’ lives. They spend their 20s and sometimes their 30s preparing to dedicate themselves to lifetime careers of discovery and scholarship. Yet I sometimes see advisors carelessly phoning it in, and students taking their every word seriously because they don’t know any better. They wishfully assume that their advisors are their friends, constantly thinking of their best interests, rather than self-absorbed and self-interested bureaucrats of thought.

So here are three questions that may help inoculate against Stockholm Syndrome:

1. What’s their response to the current job market? It could come in various forms, from tailoring training and thesis topics to the jobs that are out there to encouraging students to explore promising “real world” careers to curating the cohorts they graduate so they are only producing limited groups of well-supported candidates with good shots at success. If your advisor has no well-thought-out and compelling response to the job market you will be entering, they are not your friend.

2. How do they make you feel about your work? A good advisor can come off as a tough coach, a cool aunt, or visionary sage, and good advisors always push you to do distinctive work of high standards. But they need to understand what you’re reaching for and help you reach it. If your advisor doesn’t see the point of your interests and project you shouldn’t be working with them.

3. Does your advisor stand up for people? On a small scale, do they return emails and do the important things for people on time? On a large scale, do they assert themselves to help people? In cases of glaring unfairness, sexual harassment, or discrimination, does your advisor use their tenure as it was intended–to do the right thing even if it’s challenging or unpopular? If your advisor does not go to bat for others they will probably not go to bat for you.

 

The Incirli “Human Sacrifice” Trilingual: Not a Trilingual about Human Sacrifice

First part: Front of the inscription*

Since the text of this incredibly interesting but horribly worn stela is not currently available in any digital form, including books or online journal articles, here is the text and translation, based on Steven Kaufman and Bruce Zuckerman’s careful work (S.A. Kaufman 2007. The Phoenician Inscription of the Incirli Trilingual: A Tentative Reconstruction and Translation, Maarav 14.2, 7–26). This is a very simplified version of Kaufmann’s edition, which should be consulted because it indicates many places where the characters are incompletely preserved.

I present here the front, from which the most text is preserved, along with a translation after his. I present the more obscure and uncertain passages in italics. Later I will add the other three sides and a more original translation.

 

  1. hgbl z mtn/t tkltʾplsr pʾl mlk ʾšr

This frontier is a gift of Tiglath-Pileser—Puʾul, king of Assyria,

  1. lmlk wlšpḥ mlk dnnym | hgbl gbl

to the king and the descendants of the king of the Danunians. This frontier has been the border

  1. pḥt (/ʾrṣ) ʿbr nhr wgbl kmḥ lmym swsdd šr

of the province (or land) of Across-the-River and Kummuh from the reign of Shamshi-Adad, ruler

  1. ʾšr wʿd kl ym tkltʾplsr pʾl ml[k]

of Assur, through the reign of Tiglath-Pileser—Puʾul,

  1. ʾšr rb | hgbl [z] gbl hr [g]rgm wpḥty

Great Kin[g] of Assyria. [This] frontier is the border between the mountains of [Gu]rgum and my province,

6. zʾ(/hʾ) ḥdšt ʿd bʾ pḥt ʾšr lhgbl z

this new one up to where the Assyrian province reaches it, through this region

  1. lmʿbr lbt trtn kbʾ nhr sns ʿd

from across the Turtanu’s dynastic region along the River Sinis, up to

  1. [h]r [ʾ]rrṭ      ʾnk wryks mlk z bt mp[š]

the [moun]tains of [U]rarṭu. I am Warikis, king of the House of Mopsos

  1. ʿbd m[l]k [tk]ltʾplsr mlk ʾšr mlk qw

servant of king T[ig]lathpileser, king of Assyria, king of Que

  1. mlk bt mpš wkl [   ]t ḥt wʿd lbnn

king of the house of Mopsos and all [ ] Hittite country up to the Lebanon

  1. w kn mrd bkl mt ḥ[t] wzbḥ mlk ʾrpd

There was a rebellion throughout the Hittitle country and the king of Arpad

  1. lyʿn hdd mlk wgzr mkpr k ʾrpd

sacrificed for the benefit of Hadad-Melek (or: as a mulk-offering for Hadad) and redeemed (the human sacrifice) with butchered animal parts because Arpad

  1. pḥd mlk ʾm/šr [xx] wʿṣ ḥkm l/wʾmr

feared (a living molkomor/the king of Assyria. He arose, a wise man, and said)

  1. km ḥq mlk ʾrpd wḥlb ʾl tgzr/l ʾd[m]

“According to the law of the King of Arpad and Aleppo, do not sacrifice a human being

  1. […]ʾl tpḥd kʾm kpr ʾš pḥtk ʾl yḥr[b/m]

[…] fear not, rather offer a substitute sacrifice so he will not destroy your province..”

 

*Huge thanks to Chip Hardy, Philip Schmitz, and Sanna Aro-Valjus for helping me understand the text; errors are mine.

 

 

New workshop on Culture contact and the history of ideas

 

giovanni-battista-piranesi-the-tomb-of-the-metelli252c-plate-xv-from-volume-ii-painting-artwork-print

I’ll be organizing what looks to be a wonderful workshop at the 62nd Rencontre Assyriologique in Philadelphia this summer, July 12-15, on

Culture contact and the history of ideas: Comparing scribal ideologies in the Persian and Hellenistic periods

An area of increasing shared interest connecting Assyriology with the rest of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean studies is the concept of scribal culture: how scribal practices and goals may have shaped the worldviews of ancient writers. So far the most influential theories  have been proposed by biblicists (often based on secondary sources) and assumed a common “ancient Near Eastern scribal culture.” But recent work in Assyriology, Classics, and early Judaism on ancient education, textuality, and intellectual history is transforming what had been a uniform and static picture into a surprisingly varied one.
This workshop focuses on a uniquely rich database for the interaction and comparison of ancient scribal cultures: the Persian and Hellenistic near east, but takes a new methodological direction by focusing on the scribes’ own worldviews. It will build on the groundbreaking new research and data of the past decade in how the languages, scribal traditions, and political conditions of the Near East came to be shared, but move beyond simple questions of influence toward deeper questions of intellectual history. For example, if Francesca Rochberg is correct that Babylonian intellectuals did not believe in nature, or an inherent gap between nature and culture, as in the Greek antinomy between physis and nomos, what happens when Babylonian culture is created and transmitted in a Hellenistic Greek environment? How can we understand the shared elements of early Jewish and Mesopotamian hermeneutics? By exploring how culture contact changed scribes’ ontologies and hermeneutics, we will better understand the creative new aspects of ancient thought that emerged in the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
Planned participants:
Jacobo Myerston, UC San Diego
Laurie Pearce, UC Berkeley
Annette Reed, University of Pennsylvania
Seth Sanders, UC Davis
Kathryn Stevens, Durham University

Rethinking the Idea of the Book in the Ancient World

Did ancient Israelites or Babylonians ever actually have a set list of “inspired” authoritative sacred writings? This colloquium brings linguistics, anthropology, and new evidence from ancient inscriptions to bear on a key question of religion and literature.

Tuesday, April 5th, noon-2pm at the University of Michigan
202 S. Thayer room 2000

Seth L. Sanders, University of California Davis
When Was Ancient Israel an Oral Society? Semiotic Ideologies in Hebrew
800-400 BCE

We used to imagine that the Bible arose the way ancient Israel did, as a simple oral society grew into a complex literate one. Archaeological discovery disrupted this simple story when it turned out that people in the Levant had writing long before they had Hebrew: there was no history of evolution. Scholarship since abandoned the idea of a transformative social-literary shift from oral to written but continues to struggle with these somewhat outdated cookie-cutter concepts. But an alternative history of ancient ideals of textuality can be written based on excavated and datable sources. It suggests that ancient writers used Hebrew not to make speech permanent but to manage relationships between what is local and imperial, intelligible and unintelligible, remote and present.

Jay Crisostomo, University of Michigan
The Making of Many Books: Some Reflections from Babylonia

How do we get from texts copied by scribes to standardized (series of) authoritative compositions? What grants these compositions authority? Are canons and/or standardized works merely figments of our presentist imaginations or perhaps creations of historiographic development? The earliest discoveries and decipherments of cuneiform texts have shaped our perceptions of how these compositions were used and constructed for scribal knowledge and authority. Nevertheless, it is certain that some compositions were imbued with ancient communal authority and simultaneously open to alteration and variation. This paper surveys the histories of some well-known compositions as products of ancient scribal practice, authoritative knowledge, and constructs of modern discourses.

Were Babylonian and Judean Revelation the Same Type of Knowledge?

Abstract for Manuscripts, Scribal Cultures, Scribal Change, a special joint session of the Hebrew Bible and Cognate Literatures and Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Units at SBL 2016

Many early Jewish and late Babylonian writers learned the same script and similar ideas; did they also learn the same worldview? During the Persian and Hellenistic periods higher-level Aramaic scribes in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant shared key elements in their education: For these scholars, Ahiqar and Sennacherib were international figures of legend and otherworldly sages like Adapa and Enoch were ideal figures of emulation. Despite their different backgrounds, their minds were shaped by such rigors as sexagesimal mathematics and the astronomy of Enūma Anu Enlil. In my recent From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylonia (Tübingen 2016), I argued that early Jewish texts like Aramaic Enoch and the Qumran Hodayot also share a metaphysics with Babylonian scholarship. Both lacked a concept of nature as a physical realm separate from the cultural or supernatural, and instead had a semiotic ontology in which the universe itself was linguistically patterned. Yet while the two cultures were converging in some ways, they also had deep historical differences in media, ideology, and politics. In this talk I will press the contemporary data deeper into the history of ideas, asking whether this led by the Hellenistic period to an ancient science–or theology–shared between Jewish and Mesopotamian cultures.

From Adapa to Enoch: an Overview

 

I therefore assume that most visionaries are either psychotic or shamming, or that they are imitating other visionaries who are psychotic, shamming, or imitating. If this assumption holds, it may be that much recent visionary poetry is written by imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators worshipfully imitating a few originals. – Joshua Mehigan

At a glance, here are the main points of my new book, From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, in press for Spring publication in Siebeck’s Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism series, which will be the topic of a discussion at the November Society of Biblical Literature meeting.

This book asks what drove the religious visions—and literary production–of ancient scribes. During the first millennium bce both Babylonian and Judean scribes wrote about and emulated their heroes Adapa and Enoch, who went to heaven to meet god. These sages brought back esoteric secrets uniting knowledge of the divine and physical world—what we would call both mysticism and science—secrets the scribes copied and shared with each other. These ideals of knowledge represented the soul of their literature and training.

Heavenly journeys and the visions described in ancient religious literature have often been understood ahistorically, as symbols or primordial forces. But to us the visions of first-millennium Near Eastern scribal culture are historical objects before anything else: we know them exclusively through tablets, figurines, and seals dug up out of the ground, scrolls discovered, copied and translated. This book takes three avenues to make them available as historical, material things made by people.

1) it treats Mesopotamian and Judean scribal cultures as individual, pragmatic institutions, presenting the textual evidence for how the best-documented visionary figures were used over centuries or millennia. Adapa’s journey is documented over a thousand years before Enoch’s, yet their revelations share important elements. The book therefore examines the clearest cases of contact between scribal cultures, precisely when and how they came to share key features.

2) it examines the persona of the scribal hero, not as an original visionary lost to history but as a durable ritual role. Rather than an irrecoverable religious experience, it argues that we can recover how the ideal scribal “self” was available to certain people in certain ways: through rituals documented in texts, through ideals depicted in literature, and through institutions that made these roles durable.

3) it examines what was behind the creation of ancient religious literature by analyzing specific cases where these texts and selves worked together, as part of a history of how the world was thought about and how it could be known: what the philosopher Ian Hacking would call a historical ontology and epistemology of first-millennium scribal cultures. The surprising result is at least as much a history of science as a history of mysticism: insight into the changing ancient visions of the fundamental nature of existence and how it can be known.

I wrote this book to address a big question for which philology has often had more data than answers. In “The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy” (1993) the great Assyriologist Simo Parpola threw down the gauntlet for understanding the religious visions of ancient scribes historically. I found the work both dangerously anachronistic and spellbinding when I first encountered it. Comparing the cosmic trees on Neo-Assyrian palace walls with the cosmic trees representing the Godhead in medieval Kabbalah, Parpola argued that Jewish and Mesopotamian thought shared a worldview symbolized in the tree, often skipping 1-2,000-year gaps in evidence to find a system of thought nowhere clearly documented in the ancient Near Eastern sources. My own Akkadian teacher, the Sumerologist Jerrold Cooper, pinpointed the problematic logic in a review: if a Mesopotamian phenomenon could be interpreted kabbalistically, then that interpretation must be originally Mesopotamian. Yet Cooper agreed that given their sustained contacts, elements of Mesopotamian religion must live on via Jewish thought. How can we develop a precise and rigorous understanding of the interplay between influence and parallel development in two intertwined ancient religious cultures? How can we talk about what it meant to them?

 

Chapter 1, “Heavenly Sages and a Mesopotamian Scribal Culture of Continuity,” draws on 2,000 years of cuneiform data to set up the book’s arguments by presenting and analyzing every Sumerian and Akkadian text about the heavenly journey. The earliest Mesopotamian journeys to heaven are the ascents of kings, but in the Old Babylonian period the most enduring Mesopotamian myth of ascent emerges: the journey of the sage Adapa. At this early stage Mesopotamian exorcists already identified directly themselves with this mythic sage in ritual. With the loss of native kingship in the Persian period, scribal ancestors and heroes became the protagonists of history in a new way.

Chapter 2, “‘I Am Adapa!’ The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes,” examines Babylonian scribal mechanisms of identification with the heavenly sage Adapa, focusing on what they tell us about how scribes identified themselves and related to the knowledge in their texts during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Tracking shifts in this culture, it paints a historical portrait of late Babylonian scholarly culture from within and identify key aspects of its relationship to the past, the production of knowledge, and textual change. A key feature of these scribes’ self-understanding came from their theory of the universe, which did not separate human culture from physical nature or the supernatural. They saw their cuneiform culture as fundamentally connected to the divine knowledge and power that structured the universe by means of language. As a result, scribal learning naturally provided access to both cosmic secrets and divine presence.

The book then moves to track changes in the Judean scribal persona, along with shifts in their ontology and epistemology. It argues that scribal culture was more than just the production and interpretation of texts. Writing was intertwined with the scribes’ sense of who they could be and what they could know.

Chapter 3, “Ezekiel’s Hand of the Lord: Judahite Scribal Reinventions of Heavenly Vision,” examines a set of important and plausibly datable visions of God in heaven. Rather than a long tradition of direct identification, as in Mesopotamia, we see a powerful but volatile discourse of religious experience emerge in response to problems of religious communication in exilic Judah. The scribes who produced the book of Ezekiel invented a new and more immediate way of presenting older mythic visions of God’s throne, through Ezekiel’s being touched by the “hand of the Lord.” But their inheritors discarded this discourse in favor of a new way of presenting revelation in terms of exact knowledge of the physical world. A developing interest in the heavenly journey began to present revelation as a kind of science of the cosmos.

Chapter 4, “Enoch’s Knowledge and the Rise of Apocalyptic Science,” shows how Hellenistic Judean scribes came to share key features with late Babylonian scribes and in contrast with the earlier Judahite scholarly culture represented in the Hebrew Bible. These include an interest in identification with heavenly sages such as Enoch and systematic exact knowledge of the physical world. The core of the chapter is a case study of this new knowledge, examining how Babylonian astronomy was presented in the language of the Tabernacle revelation from Exodus. The chapter elucidates the two ways this new approach to knowledge and identity came into being. The first is parallel transformations in culture: with the death of native kingship scribes increasingly reflected on themselves, inserting themselves into history as heroes. The second is the way Judean scribes came to share a cosmopolitan Babylonian-Aramaic culture with larger communities of knowledge, but was marked by a distinctive concern to correlate human practice with the revealed nature of the cosmos.

Chapter 5, “Aramaic Scholarship and Cultural Transmission: From Public Power to Secret Knowledge” investigates the transmission of Babylonian texts and scholarship into West Semitic languages. Important sets of evidence for ancient scribal cultures have been walled off from each other by modern disciplinary boundaries: while Aramaic-writing scribes had decisive roles in both Judean and late Babylonian culture, research has been divided between Assyriology, North-West Semitic epigraphy, and Second Temple Jewish studies. This chapter unites these areas to survey the strongest evidence for Babylonian-to-West Semitic textual transmission. It shows that since the ninth century, Aramaic scribalism was thoroughly intertwined with Babylonian, but that it enters dramatically new realms of Babylonian culture in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The connections were more intimate than borrowing: Jewish and Mesopotamian scholars were becoming part of the same community, in which Aramaic had moved from being a cosmopolitan language to a cosmic one.

Chapter 6, “‘Who is Like Me Among the Angels?’ Judean Reinventions of the Scribal Persona” asks how scribes could plausibly claim to know newly revealed things. It argues that the most important process was through identification with ideal figures such as Enoch. While the mechanics of this identification have been seen as obscure, mystical or literary, this chapter argues that instead there are concrete, historically developing mechanisms by which the speaker of a prayer could identify with a mythic figure enthroned in heaven. As in Mesopotamia, the horizons of scribal personhood and knowledge were set by the scribes’ ontologies and epistemologies, their assumptions about how things exist and are known. By the Hellenistic period, a theory had arisen in which God had established fundamental secrets of cosmic order through language—language that humans had the capacity to know. These divine secrets and reckonings were praised in such texts as the Qumran Hodayot and revealed, for example, in early Enochic literature. The result was a scholarly culture that viewed both Babylonian astronomy and Hebrew scriptures as its own ancient Israelite heritage by means of an Aramaic medium, and through its linguistic tools could learn and produce revelation as scientific knowledge as much as religious experience.

 

S22-122 Hebrew Scriptures and Cognate Literature
11/22/2015
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Downtown Atlanta Marriott M109 (Marquis Level)

Jonathan Ben-Dov, University of Haifa, Presiding, introduction and comments from Benjamin Sommer (JTSA) in absentia (15 min)
Naomi Janowitz, University of California-Davis (25 min)
Martti Nissinen, University of Helsinki (25 min)
Francesca Rochberg, University of California, Berkeley  (25 min)
Seth Sanders,University of California-Davis  (25 min)
Discussion (25 min)

 

 

 

Table of Contents for From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon

Introduction

Chapter 1   Heavenly Sages and the Mesopotamian Scribal Ideology of Continuity

Chapter 2 “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes

Chapter 3   Ezekiel’s Hand of the Lord: Judahite Scribal Reinventions of Heavenly Vision

Chapter 4   Enoch’s Knowledge and the Rise of Apocalyptic Science

Chapter 5   Aramaic Scholarship and Cultural Transmission: From Public Power to Secret Knowledge

Chapter 6 “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” Judean Reinventions of the Scribal Persona

Conclusion

Blood for the Soul of Reagan: Religious Studies as Leftover 80’s Postmodernism

For the second Republican debate,

Ronald Reagan set the agenda, framed the issues and animated the candidates. …And as always he owned the visuals. It was his venue—the Reagan Library—and his backdrop, Air Force One.

Did Reagan “animate” the candidates like some possessing spirit? Saying you have something of Reagan’s spirit in you lets the aspiring candidate try to inhabit his persona. It surely involves admiration, but it most decisively involves the chance to step into a public role. Almost four thousand years before Reagan became president, the most famous kings of Mesopotamia, Sargon and Naram-Sin were sacrificed to as dead ancestors by Amorite kings of Mari who bore no relation to them. And for similar reasons: Amorite kings Zimri-Lim wanted to be a new Sargon, or at least win his support.

A couple of centuries later a later Amorite ritual, the sacrificial liturgy known as the “Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty” builds a coalition of political forces–some dead, some living–with the current king at the center:

(sacrifice to honor:)

the reign of the Amorites, the reign of the nomads..

the reign of (all those) not recorded on this tablet and the soldier who fell while on perilous campaigns for their lord,

princes, princesses, all persons from east to West who have neither caretaker nor anyone to invoke your memory:

Come! Eat this! Drink this! And bless Ammisaduqa, son of Ammiditana, king of Babylon!

Religious display is equally great among political candidates, yet the soul of Reagan is never summoned to eat or drink. In fact Reagan’s soul is rarely invoked. It is optional at best, more usually invisible. In politics you no longer have to sacrifice to someone, offer food for their soul to eat, to step into their role or take on their mantle as leader. Reagan’s memory may be sacred, but neither his appetites nor his rituals are. His cult, like that of Justin Bieber’s “beliebers” or the Rock Horror Picture Show, is a figure of speech. Religion and politics connect differently now because their relationship has been drastically reshaped.

The tools of philology let us read this ritual again after 3,600 years and after its publication, let us correlate it with other forms of Amorite ancestor worship where there were literal cults for dead kings. They show that claims to ancestry through offerings to the dead were key tools of rule. Political philosophy and the history of religions hold an enduring interest in the relationship between sovereignty and sacrifice, as writers from Kantorowicz to Agamben make clear.

While this seems like a vital question for archaeology, anthropology, and political thought, it no longer seems like a question for religious studies. This is because the theory of religious studies seems peculiarly uninteresting for this question, to the point where it’s not clear it makes sense to even ask for its perspectives. Why? Because its energy today is focused so intensely on staging the asking of questions about itself: it has come to specialize more and more in intellectual self-dramatization, “a poetic wrestling with the nature of its naming”

Iconic of the trend toward self-study in religious studies is the way that a book series named after a classification, claiming to “the most innovative works in the study of religion today” could be subject to attack for being inattentive to classification before publishing a single word.  The study of modern classification itself is a brand attacked for being unreflective classification. Constructionism is still too essentialist. To be sure, classifying something–say, as being something as politically correct as essentialism–is always political. But politics includes the most piddling and miniscule acts, and the critique of classifiers is an act of office politics.

JZ Smith talks about a great experiment of allowing religion into the academy, but maybe he performed a second one in his own time: after discovering there was no “there” there in Frazer’s Golden Bough, its central myth nothing but a jest and riddle, he wanted to see if he could nonetheless offer that fact as a methodology–a jest and riddle of his own?

to be continued in part II

How to Build a Long-Term Text in the Ancient Near East

I am happy to report that the American Oriental Society session I organized on March 14, 2015 was well-attended and produced intense, substantive discussion. Every presentation I heard broke new ground and worked toward setting a new standard in how we understand the creation and life of the world’s earliest and best-documented literatures.
A selection of the papers will constitute a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions and each, along with key additions including “On Lies, Rumors and Rejected Traditions” by Ronnie Goldstein of Hebrew University, are planned for a book.

Ably chaired by Richard Averbeck, the presentations were:

1. Jay Crisostomo, University of California, Berkeley
“The Lexical and the Literary: Intertextuality and Composition in the Old Babylonian Curriculum”

2. Paul-Alain Beaulieu, University of Toronto
”Babylonian Chronicles and the Stream of Tradition”

3. John Wee, University of Chicago
“Straight from the Ummânu’s Mouth: Serialization, Classification, and Cuneiform Text Commentary”

4. Hannah Marcuson, University of Chicago
“Ritual Transmission in Hittite Anatolia”

5. Antonio J. Morales, Freie Universität Berlin
“Text-building and transmission of Pyramid Texts in the Third Millennium BCE: Iteration, Objectification, and Change”

6. Foy Scalf, University of Chicago
”From Beginning to End: Funerary Text Creation in Greco-Roman Egypt”

7. Aaron Tugendhaft, University of Chicago
”Were Alphabetic Cuneiform Texts Transmitted and Why Might it Matter?”

8. Seth Sanders, Trinity College
”Joseph, Ahikar and Enoch: Towards a History of Hebrew and Aramaic Narrative Technique in the First Millennium BCE”

Bondage as Liberation: The Political Theology of Slavery in Late Iron Age Law

–to be given at the special ASOR/SBL Joint Session on “Assyria and the Levant in the Iron Age” in November 2015.

Uniquely among biblical law collections, the Covenant Code (Ex 21-24) begins with slavery, and then moves to the  addressee’s active enslavement of a fellow Hebrew. This striking, even outrageous feature of the oldest Hebrew law collection has never been satisfactorily explained: If the Exodus is about liberation, why does the first detailed set of laws God reveals emphasize its opposite? While elements of the Covenant Code are clearly modeled on Mesopotamian legal discourse, this remarkable feature of its structure cannot be explained by Assyrian influence, and for a very interesting reason: no cuneiform legal collection begins with slave law either.

The text thus raises both a problem of textual composition and a problem of political theology. The first, formal problem is the role of slave laws in the structure of the Covenant Code: why begin with slavery when this theme never begins any other biblical or cuneiform law collection? The second, and more disturbing, problem is political: uniquely within the biblical and cuneiform collections, the Covenant Code presents the law from the point of view of one actively enslaving his fellow. This separates it from the debt-relief law of which it is a part in the Laws of Hammurapi, on the one hand, and Deuteronomy and Leviticus, on the other.

This paper places Judahite and Mesopotamian slave laws in a comparative historical trajectory, arguing that the two literary cultures used the same scribal topos to think differently about sovereignty. By closely investigating a critical point where ancient Near Eastern scribal cultures do not share a common phenomenology, it proposes a solution that builds on but moves beyond the idea of Judahite borrowing and subversion of Assyrian literature.

The panel includes a stellar lineup of

Jacob Lauinger of Johns Hopkins University

Sara Milstein of the University of British Columbia

Peter Machinist of Harvard University