Archive | March 2015

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