Ancient Babylon: Where to Start?

I’ve long noticed that while people continue to care deeply about ancient myths and cultures, and even argue passionately about them, it’s not always obvious where to start with understanding its context. In the case of ancient Babylon, if we date the Mesopotamian written record from the early 3rd millennium BCE, it has arguably a longer continuous written history than that of Western Europe.

If you imagine the task of summarizing “Western Civilization” in a book, let alone a chapter, you can guess what a tricky balancing act this is. And how absurd it would be to expect one statement from one person to capture all, or even most, of its facets. So instead I’m throwing out a set of options.

1 Sweeping and Magisterial, if Outdated, Overviews

Leo Oppenheim, Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (open access)

Jean Bottéro, Ancient Mesopotamia

2 Brilliant Advances in Our Understanding

Eleanor Robson, Ancient Knowledge Networks (open access)

Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature

3 Reliable Translations of Important Texts

–broad collections (you’ll learn a bit about everything):

Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (a concise survey of Akkadian-language narratives)

Jeremy Black, The Literature of Ancient Sumer

–more focused (you’ll gain deeper knowledge of a specific area):

Wilfred Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths

Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (bizarrely Penguin lists the very up to date 2019 edition as 2003 but never fear, if you order it you’ll get the 2019)

Martha Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor

Some Further Explorations of Mine

I’d suggest you pick one from each of the top three categories to start. Then if you want to drill down a little I have some deeper surveys of:

What the Babylonian Creation Epic is really about, with a synthesis of two amazing studies, by Piotr Michalowski and his student Andrea Seri.

Who Hammurabi really was (to start with, that wasn’t how he would have pronounced his name, and it turns out that that tells you a lot about who he was)

What the Editing of the Gilgamesh Epic really tells us about biblical composition

A small sampling of Assyriologists who share their learning online

Moudhy Al-Rashid @Moudhy

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo

Gina Konstantopoulos @gvkonsta

Megan Lewis @digi_hammurabi

Willis Monroe @willismonroe

Eleanor Robson @Eleanor_Robson

note: these are accounts that are especially ancient-content-heavy (unlike e.g. mine which is equally devoted to things like strongly-held musical opinions. That said…)

The Three Best Mesopotamian Metal Songs

I could include others but I don’t want to mislead people by including posers who I shall not name

  1. High on Fire, “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil”–self explanatory
  2. Ooozing Wound, “When the Walls Fell”–no explicit Mesopotamian content but I’ve decided it’s actually about the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek
  3. Nile, “Von unassprechlichen Kulten“–technically this means “conderning unpronounceable religious practices” but since that describes pretty much the entire field I think we’re good.
  4. Morbid Angel, “Umulamahri“–sorry, four best.


3. From Black Mountain to the Havana Hilton (Castro Never Apologized to My Dad)

My father attended Black Mountain College, “the mythic school of the mountain” and maybe the most unique educational institution in midcentury America . It was here he met John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and—crucially—Buckminster Fuller, an experience that shaped his remarkable, practical yet anarchic creativity. I’m not sure how he wound up there or whether it was just before or after his salvation by smoking. But as a collaborative school run by teachers and students, with no rich, out-of-touch trustees and little administrative overhead, Black Mountain’s model of learning and experiment as a mode of living is worth reflecting on again as a promising path not taken for the future of higher education. 

Students climb one of Buckminster Fuller’s designs
Students pose for a picture at Black Mountain

In 1972 the first detailed history of Black Mountain called it “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in art, education, and life style…known, too, as the refuge, in some cases the nurturing ground, for many of the singular, shaping talents of our time: Cage, Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning…and Robert Rauschenberg”* The term “refuge” is precise because refugees were among its founders: its main arts teachers, Josef and Ani Albers, were among the first wave of thinkers who fled Hitler’s Germany. If the later wave of intellectual refugees such as Eric Auerbach, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Hannah Arendt which populated more prominent universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Chicago was to reshape the landscape of academia in the same way that Black Mountain’s wave impacted American art. Of these teachers it was the American Buckminster Fuller, at whose feet he could sit for hours and hours and who he later followed to Chicago for a time, that made the greatest impact on my father.

This remarkable institution was started in 1933 by a Classics professor with a vision of education based on a process of discovery, led collaboratively by teachers and students rather than Trustees, sororities or fraternities. John Rice was forced out of his previous institution for his pugnacious nonconformism after a 10-day hearing in which he won over the external reviewers from the American Association of University Professors, several faculty and a number of students, including the student body president and newspaper editor—left with him.

The practical and conceptual daring of my father’s later designs seems to be intertwined with Black Mountain’s early impact and the motto of using spontaneity as a design tool—“leap before you look!” Its founder John Rice would engage his students in Socratic dialogues that would continue at leisure allowing each student to work out their own understanding of what a word or concept was doing—what my father later liked to call his “Must Mean” school of philosophy. More broadly, they were engaged in what Duberman described as the project of attempting “to find some consonance between their ideas and their lives, who risked the intimacy and exposure that most of us emotionally yearn for and emotionally defend, but in practice shun.”

Soon after this my father’s interests—perhaps a fascination with the possibilities of making new kinds of design with new materials like bamboo—brought him to Mexico. There he met a brilliant young psychology student at the University of Mexico who he picked up at a restaurant after passing her a note. Sharing a spirit of adventure and following some of Betsy’s connections, the young couple soon moved to Cuba.

They could not have arrived at a more dramatic point in Cuban history. Here he married Betsy Sanders, the mother of my half-brother Aaron, at the American Embassy. And through a connection with Betsy’s friend Scondina Dweck, my father got a job helping design the interior of the landmark Havana Hilton, which the dictator Batista, Frank Sinatra and the American Mafia were hoping to make into a monumental tourist destination. Things were coming together and his star was on the rise.

But even as my father worked to bring his designs to reality in this lush environment, a revolution was brewing. Almost immediately after the Havana Hilton’s completion, he saw it taken over by Cuban revolutionary forces and made into Fidel Castro’s office. My father and Betsy fled the bloody conflict, back to Mexico and eventually each moved on from the marriage. While the revolution and its imperfect but real socialism improved life for the majority of Cubans, the artistic and business types who had seemed to hold such promise for my father suffered—sometimes in horrifyingly violent ways. While my father was strongly egalitarian and a diehard supporter of Bernie Sanders (apparently a distant cousin!), this loss of friends and a potential future was one for which he held a lifelong grudge toward Castro.

*Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community


2. How Smoking Saved My Life

“I met my first wife working in Burbank at the Lockheed factory doing final assembly on P-38s. Her name was Eunice Klotz. She was from Riverside and her father was Dr Leo J Klotz, head of UC Riverside Citrus Experiment station. We got married at 18 in Reno. Her mother was also a doctor and died when she was born. She had two brothers.

He went on ruefully, remembering the instability he brought to a relationship he was too young to handle.“I’m guessing we were married 2-3 years. She got pissed at me, so I left and went to DC. Later on she shipped off my records.” It was in DC that my father was involved with what you could call the first Jazz fanzine, the music nerd/collector-oriented Record Changer: “a small and independent magazine [whose editors] transformed the traditional jazz oriented publication into a progressive voice,” as you can see from these two striking 1946 illustrations.

My dad became friends with one of the editors, Nesuhi Ertegun, who went on to found Atlantic records with his brother Ahmet. It may have been here that my father took his friend David Amram to see Charlie Parker for the first time, helping get the young composer into Bebop and thus making one of the more productive connections in American music. And as Eunice Riemer my father’s first wife went on to become an artist and writer in Vermont.

We next find him living in Berkeley on College Ave, where he paid $60/month for an apartment. He took the streetcar that ran down the middle of College “Across the street from me was George Good Custom Tailor, where I worked. He had giant benches in basement where Jewish and European tailors would sit and stitch the stuff together.”

“I was part of the early co-op movement,” which collectively bought not just groceries but its own gasoline. “I was the head of a Berkeley co-op with its own gas station and supermarket. I was also involved in Hostels, we had a trailer that carried bikes behind an old 1934 Chevy, taking them on the ferry boats that went from Berkely to San Francisco. We would bike up Mount Tamalpais and come down.” This is part of the remarkable early history of city-dwellers’ nature pilgrimages to Mt. Tam. The ride down the mountain—his daughter-in-law’s first introduction to California—is still thrilling today even on a modern suspension-equipped mountain bike.

Mount Tam by Tom Killion

“I do lie. I don’t lie about superficial things. I lied to get out of the army. I didn’t smoke but I went and smoked until I was sick and then I smoked some more. I ate carbon to turn my shit black and said it was bleeding. And all my friends went to Korea and 80% of them died. So I’m here because I lied. Smoking can save your life. I’m here because I lied at the right time for the right purpose. I used to go to AA just to hear the stories because they were so great.”

My father only joined the army after being threatened: “If you don’t come for a physical we’re going to come get you for violating draft law!” They took him to an army camp in Virginia for the 82nd airborne

“I don’t want to jump out of a plane!” “Well, that’s where we’re putting you/”

“Then took me to a bivouac with live ammo. There was a guy who’d been playing tricks back and forth with me in the army that spiraled out of control. The guy wanted to dump my trunk out the back steps so I switched his trunk secretly and guy dumped own trunk. I got scared the guy would frag me on bivouac.”

“Our sergeant was an alcoholic Oklahoma Indian who’d knock Japanese teeth out for the gold in them. I called him and said ‘I’m shitting black, I think I have a bleeding ulcer”, They picked him up in a jeep at 3am and took him to the army hospital. The army doctor said, ‘take 2 asprin and see how you are.’”

After that my father got his hands on as many packs of cigarettes as he could and smoked til he could barely breathe. “So I took charcoal to make my shit black. I had a friend who was a filmmaker, did the first documentary of the Turner automobile, and I had him come along as a witness. In the morning I took a fake poop sample. Again the doctors shrugged it off and gave me Kayopectate.

So I said (in a quavering voice), “Doctors, which one of you are going to be responsible for my ruptured ulcer,” got them to arguing and turned them against each other

Ended up in hospital for 3 months where I learned to play badminton. After that they made me do KP so I deliberately spilled grease all over floor so guy said “get the fuck out of my kitchen!” After that, I just hid under stairs when duty came around. And that’s how smoking saved my life.


1. The Other Side of the Fence and The Murder of Larkin Lee

On April 30, 1933, my father’s break from his southern upbringing was spurred by the untimely and suspicious death of his father Larkin Lee Sanders, after whom I take my middle name. The head of the local railroad workers’ union, Larkin Lee was a brakeman on the Southern railroad making $1 a day; benefits included that his family could ride for free. He used to get off the train when it would stop and have coffee. After missing the train at one such coffee break he was run over when my dad was 9. His brother, also a railroad unionist, died around the same time which my father thought was no accident. The coordination of two local unionists’ deaths would not be surprising at a time when working people organizing for their rights were not just the objects of suppression by politicians and business leaders, as they are today, but targets.

“I was there when they came and told my mother,” my dad told me. 

“Larkin Lee Jr, my brother, was about 11, Robert, the oldest, maybe 13. It was a traumatic experience for my mother. Up til then we’d had a great house in Greensboro with a yard in front, back, and side. Dad paid $6,000 to buy it.

“My mom called the orphanage to come take me but I slipped out the back door and disappeared. Though my cousin spent her life there.” He was 9 years old at the time and I cannot imagine the violence this did to him.

My father was born on September 15 1923, the last child of Larkin Lee and Lucille Morrison, and before this his life seems to have been fairly settled. He remembers his grandparents who used to keep drinks cold by storing them in a slatted crate in the “crick” below their house in Roaring River, NC. His Grandfather Richard Morrison, had a 2-story house on the edge of a canyon where the railroad track ran. Below the tracks was a river and the de facto refrigerator.

The childhood friend that made the biggest difference in his life was invisible, but quite real. “The ball used to go over fence when we were playing and land in neighbors’ yard, neighbor would throw it back—I couldn’t see him. People in his house called the other side of the fence n***town; I hate that word. Alfred Bethel was the name of my neighbor. I would thank him and we’d throw the ball back and forth over the fence before we ever shook hands.

Then we became friends, around ages 13-14. Bethel would take me downtown to the Pla-mor dance hall to hear bands. It was basically only black people; there was dancing and a jazz band. It had a corrugated metal roof and they kept all the windows closed to keep people from sneaking in so the perspiration would condense and drip down on us.”

My dad remembers sneaking out of the house one night to see Count Basie and I have to think: somewhere there is a list of every show Basie played. On that list will be an entry for the night my own father and Alfred went down to see him. 

Our next door neighbors were the Jones family, their son eventually took me to LA when I left home. There were all kinds of animals in the back yard, me and my friends used to loosen the fence so we could go back and forth and visit. And I went to Oak Ridge military academy for a while.

“After my dad’s death my mom started a business sewing in the house, would make dresses, opened sewing room in downtown Greensboro, would work with her sister Mamie and do alterations for local clothing stores. I would take bills to stores to collect money. 

One day a dog mauled my pet chicken and my mom stitched up the wound so it lived a couple more years.”

His childhood drugstore became the site of the first Civil Rights sit-in: “Downtown on Main Street there was a drugstore, across the street was a food store where I ran a popcorn stand. Later, the first sit-in was by students from A & T College in that drugstore, the one I used to go into to get milkshakes for 10 cents—the sit-in was at that counter.”

“When he was 16 or17, Alfred moved to LA and worked on Pico as a busboy. We connected again and I would take him down to Hollywood, Hollywood was a completely white, racist town til the 50s.”

Alfred then moved to NY as dancer with Bill Robinson, famous tap dancer and choreographer. There he became one of the century’s great teachers and choreographers of dance, where among other things he brought new insights into the origins of minstrel performance and the nature of black dance as a distinctive African-American art.

“Then I moved out to LA, and went to Burbank High School and worked at Lockheed at night. You know that red strip you use to open packs of gum? I came up with that to open fuel lines at Lockheed. They gave me $100 for the idea.”

Sammy Lee was my first friend in LA, a champion high diver who won an Olympic Gold medal, becoming the first Asian-American to do that. He became an ENT doctor. He was Korean and his parents had a restaurant on railroad tracks on San Fernando road.

The winners of the 1948 Olympic Men’s 10m Platform Diving competition, London, England, August 5, 1948. From left, bronze-medal winner Joaquin Capilla Perez (Mexico), gold medalist Sammy Lee (U.S.), silver medal winner Bruce Ira Harlan (U.S.), and American team coach Mike Peppe.

My dad liked to speculate that he may have led Sammy to his career in medicine:

“Sammy’s father had stroke during argument with friend about politics, Sammy wanted to kill the friend because he thought he’d caused father to have stroke. I talked him out of it, and asked him to find out why Sammy’s dad had the stroke.”

After a wonderful career Sammy died at 96, the same age as my father. Today you can visit a magnet school in Los Angeles named after him.

Above: the grave of my grandfather, Larkin Lee Sanders.

Below, the grave of my father, Billy Woodrow Sanders, in the arms of the Pacific Ocean after I carried him down the mountain to Point Reyes National Seashore on March 6 2020.

Next: How Smoking Saved My Life.


Billy Woodrow Sanders, September 15 1923-February 2 2020.

In the U.S catalog of copyright entries for 1950, after three songs each called “Darkness” is one called “Darkness Fell at Noon,” by a man named Billy Woodrow Sanders. The song after it was called “Darkness Gives Me You Again.” All I know about “Darkness Fell at Noon” was that the copyright holder was my father and he died a year ago today. 

My father’s life would be impossible to live today because of what it tied together: the assassination of a white union organizer (his own father) and the first lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro NC, a brilliant black choreographer (his across-the-fence childhood neighbor and friend Alfred “Pepsi” Bethel), the Cuban revolution (from which he fled to Mexico), blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters and Beat writers (Dalton Trumbo and William Burroughs, who he drank with in Mexico city), John Cage and Merce Cunningham (who he learned from at the experimental Black Mountain College), study with the renegade designer Buckminster Fuller, and—by the way—raising me and creating his own furniture designs, like some kind of Californian Midcentury Modern version of Marcel Duchamp. This is one way I can have him back from the darkness for a little while.

You get a sense of the life he led from knowing that in his last years my dad was being sought after as the last living person who had been with the avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs in Mexico City at the horrifying party that ended in Joanne Vollmer’s death. A heated, drug-addled argument ended with Vollmer, the heterosexual wife of the very actively homosexual Burroughs, taunting him into a crossbow target shooting escapade and his arrest for her death. In 2015 not wanting to relive this horror for interviewers, dad evaded them. People wanted to hear the story but I had already heard it from Burroughs himself when he soberly reminisced with my father in Lawrence, 50 years after it happened.

Dad said he was never sure how he wound up in these places or knew these amazing people, but I think I understand: he had a unique gift for being interested. I think this gift  for seeing and hearing people and their stories drove and animated his life.

That’s why I want to share his.


Part II: Bridging the gap between hermeneutics and philology

As scholars we work with a mysterious gap between how we read the Hebrew Bible and how we interpret it. This mystery extends to an interestingly similar gap between how we interpret the Bible and how we interpret each other. In particular, we read specific ancient texts–even inscrutable ones–in a similar way to how we communicate with living people, assuming there’s a verbal message to be found, even if we have trouble deciphering it. By contrast, the realm of interpretation can be presented as a free-for-all with incommensurable and irreconcilable views. Seeing the connection between the exalted, even fetishized act of exegesis and the banal everyday act of discussion can help demystify the gap between them.

Ed Greenstein lays this issue out incisively when he writes:

[When it comes to interpreting a biblical text], the number of solutions that seem possible is limited by the communal contexts in which we live and the institutional frameworks in which we work. In theory, anything goes, but in practice we constrain ourselves from using any and every methodology and from reaching the widest possible range of results by setting limits at the outset. For example, by adopting a source-critical approach to the study of Torah, one will always succeed in finding more than one textual source there. If this eventuality conflicts with one of my basic beliefs or principles, then I will not engage in source analysis.

Similarly, a close reading in the book of Exodus of the rhetoric of the Sinai revelation (19:15— “you may not approach a woman”) and of the Ten Commandments (20:13—“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”) shows that God and Moses are in this particular context addressing the menfolk alone and not the women. If that result is unacceptable, one will either avoid a close reading of the text, or counterbalance a close reading according to the peshat, or contextual sense, with a midrashic type of reading… It should be clear, however, and we should be honest enough to admit it, that our beliefs and understandings do not follow from our textual interpretations as much as they shape and produce them.

This puts a sharp edge on a common-sense view of what we can reliably understand: non-technical, everyday conversation and reading make it possible to know what we and our colleagues think, at least on a straightforward literal level. By contrast, fairly technical and specialized philology reading or translation makes it possible to know what most of the Bible says, again at least on a straightforward literal level.. But the two are separated by an ocean of possible interpretations, an ocean that can only be navigated by decisions based on preexisting beliefs or prejudices.

First of all, when we read the Hebrew Bible we act as if we’re reading more or less the same text. This apparently obvious fact deserves a little more reflection. We tend to treat the fundamental, floor-level work of philological reading–translating or checking against the Hebrew or Aramaic in context, working out its basic referential content–as a realm of relative certainty. We do recognize that translations differ in subtle or occasionally sharp ways and that there are difficult or even indecipherable passages, and that in marginal cases people will often disagree along party lines if they’re theologically or politically loaded. And like with all old, widely distributed literatures from the pre-PDF world, different manuscripts and editions will have different spellings, wordings, or even different texts. But for every hot-button phrase or passage in the Bible there are dozens of boringly lines translated in boringly similar ways across every half-decent translation.

So, contrary to the rhetorical question in the title of Stanley Fish’s old pop post-structuralist book Is There A Text in This Class?, it looks like there is one here. We have to have a shared text in order to find problems in it. It is the basic coherence we find in philologically-based Bible translations–that they are readable and in most cases agree on the level of content–that raises our curiosity about its larger possible incoherence, the intriguing seams running through the Bible. God certainly creates humanity by command in Genesis 1, while crafting it physically in Genesis 2-3. Exodus says female Hebrew slaves are slaves forever, while Deuteronomy says they go free in 7 years and Leviticus bans having any Hebrew slaves at all. It’s the text’s basic word- and sentence-level coherence that lets readers raise and discuss the most fundamental and useful questions about these passages’ relationships to one another and the times of their writing.

Crudely put, whether it’s scripture or your uncle’s provocative statement at the dinner table, we need something specific to argue about. And when it comes to the Bible, historically it has been people’s agreement on the basic reading that has led them to disagree on its interpretation. Whatever its larger meaning, Genesis 12-20 presents Abraham and Sarah as the founding ancestors of Israel. This what gives the New Testament’s aggressive reinterpretations of Israel’s ancestry their shock. Without Genesis’ presentation of Abraham and Sarah, it would be hard to know what the Gospels and the Pauline letters were fighting over when Jesus tells the Jews who stopped following him that they are the children of Satan, not Abraham, or when Paul says that it’s the gentiles, not the Jews, who are the real descendants of Sarah.

By contrast, we tend to see interpretation as irreducibly tied to the individual interpreter, their values and choices. The Bible was famously used both for and against slavery during the Civil War, and it is read in the same predictable ways around hot-button issues today, from abortion to the state of Israel’s claim on the southern Levant. There is an old sports joke that gets at this central human role in observation and interpretation: three umpires are talking about how they do their job in calling balls and strikes. The first says, “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.” The second, “I calls ’em like they is.” And the third, “They ain’t nothing til I calls ’em!’

What lies between the apparent free-for-all of theory and exegesis and the apparent relative objectivity of philology, and why do philology’s results look more like the results of everyday conversation than those of exegesis? Is theory inseparable from prejudice, just arguing points you can pick in order to produce the answers you want? The other Stanley Fish argument mentioned above in part 1, that theories are basically machines for manufacturing predictable results, can seem a bit pat, even denigrating or dismissive towards theorists. You can hear it in the grating voice of an archetypal old-school academic (“those Marxists seeing class and economic inequality everywhere, the feminists with their patriarchy obsession, and don’t get me started on post-colonialists bugging me about racism and imperialism!”). The really dark aspect of this viewpoint is it suggests an ultimately value-free marketplace of ideas, which rewards those who have the biggest marketing budgets or control the most seminaries. And this relativistic stance towards knowledge-making can easily be turned around, pointing out that the ‘objectivity’ of language- and manuscript-based philology rewards a kind of skill that has overwhelmingly been cultivated by male members of the dominant culture in established institutions. If there is no Godlike objectivity inherent in philology, what is it doing that make its results look more stable?

One way to demystify the apparently contradictory natures of philology and hermeneutics lies in a hidden aspect of ordinary conversation. In a classic, and wonderfully disorienting, essay on how we come to understand each other, the philosopher Donald Davidson argues that we never really quite do that–instead we do something more interesting when we communicate. Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, named for an odd but totally comprehensible Spoonerism, argues that even perfect knowledge of a language’s official rules cannot explain how a person makes sense of another’s speech, since everyday language is riddled with too much assumption, incoherence, and playfulness to be managed by grammar alone. He argues that the main thing we’re really doing when we understand someone else is improvising, taking our best guess–what Davidson calls a “passing understanding,” and then bouncing it off the other person with our replies. If the other person suggests our first shot at understanding is off-base, we typically check in with them (“did I hear you right? Was it a different penguin this time?”) until we get close enough for it to pass–to create enough impression of understanding and dialogue to keep the conversation going.

Rather than ironclad rules, we produce meaning by improvising and recalibrating our understanding against what the other person says–dialectically, through dialogue. This method of calibrating meaning between speaker and hearer is what linguistic anthropologists call co-creation, and it is similar to the co-creation of a translation, except instead of the speaker producing new utterances over the course of the dialogue in response to the hearer’s inquiries (“is this what you mean?” “Not exactly, it was the same penguin, but wearing a different hat”), the reader calibrates the text’s meaning with other utterances within the text. An excellent example is Greenstein’s use of other Biblical Hebrew instances of חזק + לב beyond those applied to the Pharoah in Exodus to show that “hardening the heart” does not have inherently negative connotations, and its fundamental sense is not “be stubborn” but “be resolute.”

Part III of III (coming next): Hermeneutics: the Virtue of Obscurity versus The Magic of Objectivity

If this makes conversation look a little more special, and philology look a little more ordinary, that will not be a bad thing. By contrast, the ways both literary theory and hermeneutics are presented tends to make them seem lofty and mystical on a cultural level but arbitrary and chaotic on a practical level, but this may not be inherent to their nature. For example, the maxim that “the Torah has 70 faces” is a prescriptive claim with a distancing effect: beyond the fact that it means different things to different people, it asserts that Bible actually means differently than anything else. But a brilliant set of articles by the linguistic anthropologist Kristina Wirtz suggests that this unique, distant picture of meaning is itself the artifact of a religious strategy.

Similarly, we don’t tend to think of our everyday understanding of conversation as ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ in some special way, so how did the rhetoric of objectivity get applied to philology but neither conversation nor hermeneutics? Here it will be helpful to look at how objectivity itself was built over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, via Daston and Galison’s remarkable visual history of it, as well as alternative notions of scientific truth that still exist alongside it. For it turns out that it is as much a way of physically presenting the objects of knowledge, and creating a kind of knower, as it is about anything inherent to the type of knowledge gained.


Theory and Method in Biblical Studies, Part I: A Necessary Dissonance?

A revered teacher of mine, Ed Greenstein wrote what I find the most relevant book on theory and method in biblical studies because it is the most incisive. It is a cause for celebration that it is now open-access. Greenstein speaks with understanding from within the world of Hebrew philologists and Semitists–among other things, he is responsible for my favorite study of Job and the most fundamental rethinking of how we understand the Ugaritic verbal system, as well as freshly illuminating the roles of poetry and prose, speech and narration in biblical literature–ideas that have been important in sparking the new work of others.

But the reason the book has found an audience well beyond the world of philologists and Semitists is its comfort with big questions of language and meaning, and how it fluidly integrates them with day-to-day questions of understanding biblical texts. Here seemingly endless reading in literary theory, fueled by long-running curiosity, meets the practice of working on texts. The whole book is, in a way, the best response to one of his old-school professors’ complaint that “you should read primary sources, not theory.” For Greenstein the two are mutually illuminating–and they’d better be, because they’re inseparable whether we like it or not.

It is this ability to at once take a 30,000-foot view of what we do when we read demanding Hebrew (or Aramaic, or Ugaritic) texts, as well as to engage in it, that reveals one of the problems we all struggle with. This is that when it comes to reading texts we are all relativists, but when it comes to texts themselves we still have to be essentialists.

We are all relativists when it comes to interpretation. This starts with the basic and indisputable historical fact that different people have read the same biblical text in radically different, often contradictory ways. But the stronger and perhaps more disturbing recognition here is that different reading assumptions, even or especially the most apparently rational and well-founded ones, will produce different meanings–even different texts. He cites Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in The Class? which argues that literary or social “theories always work and they will always produce exactly the results they predict.” For example, with regard to John van Seters’ arguments about the composition of the Pentateuch, he writes that “Every method is, in a sense, tendentious, though,as it drives toward a specific,foreseen goal. The type of argument and rhetoric that one uses in the service of a theory,as well as the evidence one adduces in support of the argument,would never have been exercised had they not sustained the theory.” Interpretation is pragmatic because “you read a certain way in order to obtain a certain result.” Elsewhere, he says “For example, by adopting a source-critical approach to the study of Torah, one will always succeed in finding more than one textual source there. If this eventuality conflicts with one of my basic beliefs or principles, then I will not engage in source analysis.”

At the same time, when we go back to work on texts or objects, our work undergoes a subtle shift and we return to what is “out there” on the pages of the BHS edition of the Hebrew Bible or in the clearly decipherable passages of a Qumran scroll. In discussing the value of rendering the Hebrew phrase חזק + לב, literally, as “harden the heart,” he points out that it has meanings that depend on context: “Compare, for example, Ps. 27:14:  “Be strong and may your heart be firm,” i.e., “be courageous” (cf. also Ps. 31:25). In light of the full expression “to strengthen the heart,” i.e., “to give courage” in Josh. 11:20 and the numerous [related passages,]…Hebrew “to be hard of heart;· then means neither precisely “to be obstinate” nor “to be courageous,” but rather something more general like “to be single­ minded” or *’resolute” toward one end or another. Only context governs its interpretation.” (131).”

We have all done this–or would hope to have the skill to–but I want to linger on it. It suggests, in sharp contrast with what Fish would argue, that there is a text in the class. Not only is there a text but we are responding to its words which inspire a quite specific and constrained range of possible things. Indeed, his lucid, step-by-step discussions of how we can get from Hebrew text to new translation, we see these constraints as inspiring, and also that there is often no plausible theory that would produce a result at odds with the meaning inherent in the Hebrew text.

I too often find myself to be a relativist outside the Bible but an essentialist between its covers. What is happening here, creating this apparent gulf between hermeneutical theory and philological method? Perhaps if we can put a finger on it we can gain a more precise view of the power and predicament of theory in biblical studies.


Who Cared What Scribes Wrote?

O believers, when you contract a debt
one upon another for a stated term,
write it down, and let a writer
write it down between you justly,
and let not any writer refuse
to write it down, as God taught him;
so let him write, and let the debtor
dictate, and let him fear God his Lord
and not diminish aught of it. And if
the debtor be a fool, or weak, or unable
to dictate himself, then let his guardian
dictate justly. And call in to witness
two witnesses, men; or if the two
be not men, then one man and two women…

And be not loth to write it down,
whether it be small or great, with its term;
that is more equitable in God’s sight

Qur’an 2 tr. Arberry, cited in Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society

The Qur’an presents a divine mandate to use written economic documents in the everyday life of a male-dominated, majority-nonliterate society. Brinkley Messick cites this command and the long history of discussion around it in his account of why documents were both disputed and politically central in medieval Islamic states.

By contrast, we are a bit more vague on what documentary texts–let alone literature–meant to most people in the Hellenistic Near East and earlier. Indeed, when it comes to ancient Near Eastern literary texts many suspect nobody except the writers and their colleagues really read them. “Scribes wrote for scribes,” in the pithy line of Karel van der Toorn, whose Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible argues that it is largely the product of a scholarly bubble.

Yet biblical and Second Temple studies has seen a ‘scribal turn’ in scholarship of the past 20 years in response to the lack of direct social contexts for most of the Bible and early Jewish literature. Placing these divine speeches and related narratives in the immediate circle of their writers and transmitters seemed to be a safer bet than the whole peoples of Israel and Judah that scholars reconstructed 50 years ago, even if the texts claim to be addressing those peoples. After all, we can be sure the copyist was reading the text even if nobody else was. But sticking to such minimal assumptions leaves open the important questions of who this material was really speaking to and how much explanatory power a closed “scribal culture” has.

Indeed, the equally vigorous recent scholarly move to apply Halbwachs’ old concept of “collective memory” to the literary texts of the Hebrew Bible may be an attempt to swing the pendulum in the opposite, communal, direction. The Hebrew Bible’s writers may have presented it as the Memoirs of God, as Mark Smith put it, or perhaps not the memory of God himself so much as a prosthetic memory of ancient Israel, with the scribes understood as its guardians and technicians. As Philip K. Dick titled the story that became the basis of Verhoven and Schwartznegger’s dystopian action movie Total Recall, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

The most ambitious contemporary claim to the political significance of ancient Mediterranean scribal culture is Paul Kosmin’s Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire because it argues that this culture was quite literally epoch-making. When the Seleucid rulers began dating their documents to year 1 of their empire they were asserting that real, universal history began with Seleucid rule and pushing all other claimants into dusty, faded local pasts or marginal, minority chronologies. In reaction, local cultures created their own claims to be the protagonists of universal history, for example in the Aramaic Apocalypse of Weeks found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and transmitted as part of the books of Enoch.

Because of the way Time and Its Adversaries reinscribes the universality and dominance of a Greek culture, it may not be a coincidence that its warmest reception has been in Classics departments, while people whose focus is outside the Western Mediterranean have had more questions. Despite its great attention to detail, historians versed in the eastern Mediterranean like Sylvia Honigmann have argued that this flattens out local understandings and chronologies.

Do we know if anyone other than the scribes was really listening? The cultural anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy raises the questions of social difference and uptake:

one of the impressions that I started to develop is that the Seleucid state depended upon the “rule of scribes,” and maybe a few accountants. If we are to accept Kosmin’s argument, then writing—the stories that scribes recorded and the dates that they stamped on all sorts of mundane transactions—was the core technology holding together the Seleucid Empire. Yet, we learn little about the scribes, their training, their relationship to the state, or—most importantly—whether anyone cared about all the documents that they were date-stamping and recording, or indeed whether anyone could read them. What if the corpus of Seleucid dated material was just the busywork of academicians and bureaucrats that helped them to reproduce their own institutions, but had little impact on the lives of others?…

Dawdy points out that people typically live in more than one chronology at once, as everyone who follows the Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, academic, or financial calendars today knows. “As has been observed by scholars of temporality, most cultures, including our own, actually run on multiple time-reckoning systems. [I]mperial time was likely only one of many that operated in the towns and fields under the Seleucid flag, and it may not have been a very important one in lived life, or even in day-to-day politics.” Honigmann confirms this for the Hellenistic Near East, noting instead that “historical works from the Uruk library composed under the Seleucids exhibit a pointed interest in the last kings of previous Babylonian dynasties, and they come across as meditations on the collapse of the Persian empire, implying that this event was perceived as the major turning point.” And “[d]espite Kosmin’s sweeping statement to the contrary (84), the narrative in 1 Maccabees is not structured by the ongoing Seleucid Era, but is organized according to the ‘lives’ of leaders in imitation of the traditional form of the royal chronicles.”

What impact did the scribes’ reckoning of official time by the Seleucid Era (SE) have on their subjects’ imaginations? How can we compare it, for example, to the lived experience of economic or physical coercion? Dawdy raises this question, drawing on the way state violence is recounted in Maccabees (though it would hold true for any demand backed by violence):

One then wonders whether the fact that the calendar started over at 1 se really mattered all that much to people who were forced to commit acts of desecration against their gods and ancestors upon the pain of death, or at least having their tongues cut out.

Another way to look at what these texts were for: of course neither writing nor the act of creating or reading it are the same in every time and place. So we could ask: what kind of event was the reading of texts, even bureaucratic ones–in the first millennium Near East: were the participants limited to a single writer and reader? Does the medium and event help create certain kinds of writers and readers? Years ago the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock showed that the choice to write down a local language, on the one hand, or to create a whole literature in it on the other, can be ways of asserting a community or audience that actually help call them into being. And in the ancient Near East, I have suggested that creating an official language and a literature in the local vernacular of Hebrew helped invoke a local audience that was culturally predisposed to hear the call. Because “to read,” qr’ in most ancient West Semitic varieties, also encompassed “to call out to, to summon,” and is part of a cultural ideal in which each act of qr’ entails an event with collective participation. Indeed, the word is cognate with Arabic qur’ān and Hebrew miqra’, in both cases “what is recited, called out; scripture.”

In other words, what mattered was not just time but who inscribed it, in whose story.


Reimagining the Bible: The Writings of Ancient Israel and Its World, and the Earliest Jewish Literature

The first thing you realize when you look at the archaeologically excavated evidence for the texts ancient Israelites and early Jewish people knew—what they were reading, writing, and otherwise talking about, was that it was not our Bible. They heard tales of great prophets who talked with God but were not Moses, made treaties with empires that aren’t written in Deuteronomy, and learned origins of the universe that aren’t in Genesis. At the same time, what is in our Bible all flowed from what they knew, and gained a power they could never have imagined. It represents a vital but selective fraction of the ancient Israelite and Jewish world. Those writings from ancient Israel that did wind up in our Bible survived because they were put in an anachronistic form: they were chosen and woven together by later groups of scholars according to principles that spoke to their times—not always the time they were written in, and often not ours. 

Getting our ancient Israelite and early Jewish writings chosen and put together for us in the form of our Bible has some great advantages, but it is also misleading. First, it blurs together very different times and conditions. Of course, there is no bright line between ancient Israel and early Judaism, and both are as much an ideal as a reality. In reality there was no single “ancient Israel” but a range of different tribes (not always twelve, and not all within the borders of Israel or Judah!) and two very distinct kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Seeing them as one people is an idealization after the fact that many of the people involved would not have agreed to. Second, there were sharp cultural and political breaks in that history, like the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and exile, but these also led Judeans to reassert their connection to the past even more strongly.

But the biggest disadvantage of reading the Bible if you want to understand the literature of ancient Israel, Judah, and early Judaism is that it’s just not what they were reading, writing, or talking about. It omits things we knew they were reading or hearing like crucial prophecies and political announcements that archeologists have discovered, edits other things into forms we know they did not use (e.g. the first four books of our Pentateuch are mostly made up  of narratives and laws that Deuteronomy’s writers never heard of!*), and puts it in an order that is not only historically inaccurate but that we know nobody in ancient Israel read them in. In other words, our Bible is an aggressive and misleading anachronism. 

On the other hand, the Bible does have some advantages: in its anachronistic, lumped-together form it is the most beautiful work of Hebrew literature. Translated, it became the most important work of Latin and then of English literature. Religiously it is the single most important work of Judaism and the foundation of the most important work of Christianity. And culturally it is probably the most widely-distributed, universally translated, talked-about, commented-on, and easily available piece of writing in human history.

Which is why I’m sure nobody will mind if we rearrange it in a way that will tell you more about ancient Israel, Judah, and early Judaism. 

I. The Writings of Ancient Israel and Its World: an incomplete sample, roughly corresponding to Preexilic literature (this is what the first part might look like)

1. The Primordial Era: 

The Priestly Work on the Origins of the World (P Genesis 1-11)
Traditions of Israel and Judah on the Origins of the World  (Non-P Genesis 1-11)
The Babylonian Flood Myth and Its Canaanite Versions (Gilgamesh XI and variants)

2. The Patriarchs and the Origins of Israel
The Priestly Stories of the Patriarchs (the P thread in Gen 12-50) 
Traditions of Israel and Judah on the Patriarchs (the non-P stories in Gen 12-50) 
The Priestly Exodus and Sinai Revelation
Traditions of Israel and Judah on Exodus, Sinai, and the Earliest Divine Laws
The Earliest Royal Laws from Babylon (from the Laws of Eshnunna and Hammurapi)
The Priestly Revelations (Leviticus and P Numbers)

3. The Wilderness Wanderings and the Book of Balaam (Non-P Numbers)
The Book of Balaam from Deir ‘Alla

4. Israel Founded and Reconsidered
Loyalty Against Usurping Prophets (Deuteronomy 1-12)
Loyalty Against Usurping Rulers (from the Loyalty Oath of Esarhaddon)
A Kingdom Under God (Deuteronomy 13-28)
A Kingdom Under the Assyrian Emperor (from the Loyalty Oath of Esarhaddon)
The End of the Book of Moses (Deuteronomy 29-33).

5. “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD alone shall rule over you” Tribal Origins and Colonization
From the Mari letters
From the Amarna letters
Epigraphic South Arabian Colonization and Ritual Genocide Inscriptions

II. The Earliest Jewish Literature: an incomplete sample roughly corresponding to Second Temple literature (this is what the first part might look like)

1. The Primordial Era:
The Enochic Book of the Watchers

2. The Patriarchs and the Origins of Israel
The Genesis Apocryphon

3. Israel Founded and Reconsidered
From the Elephantine Archives

4. Cosmic Wisdom
The Astronomical Book of Enoch

5. Life Under God in Exile
A Kingdom Under the Persian Empire (The Aramaic Behistun Inscription)


*This is because the P(riestly) laws and narratives make up most of the Tetrateuch. However the narrative parts of Deuteronomy only seem to refer to non-P parts of the Tetrateuch, most often what Documentarians would call the E version. There are strong reasons to see the non-P elements of the Tetrateuch, including the Covenant Code, as relatively early. D and P then seem to come after them but work independently of each other. A later phase of P, sometimes called the H or Holiness School, then expands Leviticus and some of Numbers and responds to D.

Dating P late was the trend in the late 19th c and much of the 20th, but most of the arguments for late dating involve either elaborate reconstruction or allegorical reading of allusions, on which see Sommer’s eye-opening piece. But D’s lack of knowledge of P (in contrast with the late-P/H’s very likely reuse of D argued lucidly by Levinson) alongside P’s lack of knowledge of non-P suggests an early-ish date, as lucidly demonstrated by Bernie Levinson in the case of the three main law collections.


How to Win Friends and Impress Reviewers by Writing Boring Normal Articles

Normal articles bore me. There’s something about the narrowness and predictability of the classic bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes peer review journal article that makes my skin crawl. For the first half of my academic career I did my best to avoid writing them. Why add to the heap of work already piled up around a single disputed phrase or historical sub-sub-period when you could go bigger, deeper, or weirder?

But doing anything more ambitious is a risk, and taking risks is, by definition, dangerous. And constantly trying to go bigger, deeper, or weirder with your writing is a high-wire act that risks catastrophic failure, the consequences of which could be visited on you or the reader. You, the ambitious writer, risk rejection and the threat of academic failure. For your hoped-for audience, the risk is incomprehension leading to frustration and abandonment of your new work: “what on earth are you trying to say and why is it taking you so long to get to the point, if there even is one?” And if you fail in either way your work could be all in vain.

My advice? Do it anyway. Take the risk, but use a safety net. The safety net I’m suggesting here is putting your ideas in the form of a normal article, or something that can easily pass as one. Putting challenging ideas in an easy to grasp form does two good things: first, it makes your work more likely to win publication and an audience (though this does NOT make the absurd job market or academic life remotely reasonable or fair, it does give the work itself a chance). Second, it is democratic in a minimal but meaningful way: it opens the work to people to understand and engage with it. Taking a friendly attitude to people you don’t know is good politics in a primal sense–as the great anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, one of the most engaging theorists to ever write a line, said, “I think of it as being nice to the reader.”

What the following four things have in common is that they earn the reader’s trust.

  1. Welcome the reader in and show them around: say the main issue and the main new thing you’re going to do on the first page (maybe the second page if the setup is good). Do not make the reader wait 10 pages to get a good, clear reason why they’re supposed to be reading this!

The intro should immediately invite strangers in and make them want to stay. So it needs enough plain-English background on the main issue so someone who has never heard of any of this shit could tell why a normal person who is not already heavily invested in it should care. Not an introduction to the whole field but to what’s cool about this part of it.
A good way to do that is to be authentic: talk about what gets you up in the morning to work on this! For the main new thing you’re going to do, cut to the chase: imagine a really good convo with a perceptive interlocutor that ends “so what you’re really saying is…” and finish that sentence!

Two high-risk things to avoid: 1) a long indirect anecdote 2) a longer methodological or lit-review preamble. It’s cool to tell how some European scholar nobody’s heard of fucked up the whole direction of research for 50 years, but nobody needs to be greeted with it.

And use topic sentences.

  1. Connect with the conversation
    You want to show you’re a trustworthy guide to the debate who has been listening to the conversation and can meaningfully locate your work in it. In a practical sense this means at least a quick thoughtful overview before you’re 1/5 of the way through the article. You can do this different ways–a lucid paragraph or a rich footnote, followed by a more in depth section a few pages later.

Make clear to the reader that you’ve not only read virtually everything important people have written on this, but care about it and have some respect for their accomplishments. Remember that some of your readers will themselves be participants in that conversation, and more will care about what participants have written.

There can be a temptation to downplay or even omit work similar to yours or that you’re competing with. Don’t do that! This leads to point 3:

  1. Build alliances with your citations: everybody knows the jackass colleague who tries to shout everyone else down and show how everybody but them is an idiot who got it wrong. This will make you nothing but enemies, and–worse–if you manage to persuade someone you’re right their acceptance will be grudging. Take the opposite approach: assume you’re in a good conversation and try to show how other people are smart, just in slightly different ways from the way you’re trying to be smart about the point. Treat the history of research as a history of achievements.

Of course there should be exceptions for really disastrous errors, but the bar for that should be high. A more important exception is scholarship that perpetuates damaging views of people based on gender, ethnicity, or class, but even here it can be most helpful to expose it simply by clearly showing what it is doing.

Also, use topic sentences.

  1. Make your point sound obvious. This goal subsumes all the others, but it also take the most thought because it requires you to organize the article strategically. Rhetorically,. you want to make your case sound memorable but not polemical (if it’s that obvious, you don’t need to yell, just calmly point the way). And most importantly, put your strongest arguments first. Foreshadow the most striking pieces of evidence in your favor right away (like on the first page or two) and lead with them in the data section. This gets the reader on your side and shifts the burden of proof to the doubters. You can then afford to be gracious and even-handed (“of course, there are other sides to this and very important nuances, and I could always be wrong, but gosh there are those two pretty decisive looking pieces of evidence I opened with and am gently reminding you of, and gee whiz it does seem pretty hard to get around those…”)

And use topic sentences. I cannot emphasize enough how much academics love to bury their strongest points 2/3 of the way through the article in the last quarter of the longest paragraph. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.