Charles Halton’s ANES Article

Last post of the day. I promise.

Charles Halton has been kind enough to make available a pre-pub version of his article “Allusions to the Stream of Tradition in Neo-Assyrian Oracles” (Ancient Near Eastern Studies 46 [2009]: 50–61). In it he applies literary-critical analysis to several Neo-Assyrian prophetic oracles which make allusion to a specific set of standard texts, namely Adapa and the South Wind, Atrahasis, and the Gilgamesh Epic. Dr. Halton ultimately seeks to raise appreciation for the literary abilities of the Neo-Assyrian prophets, but the article also bears on the literary criticism of the Bible. I hope no one minds if I comment briefly on this relationship.

As Halton states, “the prophets did not merely cut and paste sections of these works into their oracles.” David Carr makes a similar statement in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (34): “The educational focus on copying and recital of texts did not necessarily mean that scribes reproduced traditions exactly as they found them.” Carr then goes on to mention the Gilgamesh Epic as one of the products of this scribal “revision, growth, and appropriation” (35):

Here scribes appear to have built the classic Akkadian epic through appropriation and transformation of Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh that were current in the earlier scribal tradition. It appears that such Old Babylonian scribes felt particularly free to create something new out of older traditions when they were making a switch from a Sumerian tradition to a new Akkadian presentation of the tradition.

By the Neo-Assyrian period, Gilgamesh was an established tradition, and most likely one of the standard educational texts for developing scribes (like those responsible for Halton’s oracular examples). According to Carr’s reconstruction of this pedagogy, the student reproduces these texts verbatim in an effort to develop proficiency with writing and the language, but also with memorization and internalization of the text. At a more advanced level this internal repository of literary tradition can be called upon to provide structure, nuance, and even literary authority to newer compositions.

Halton’s first example comes from Parpola’s prophecy 1.1. Ishtar comforts Essarhadon in this prophecy:

What wind (is there) which has risen against you, (and) whose wing I have not clipped?

This, according to Halton, is an allusion to Adapa and the South Wind:

Adapa broke the wing of the south wind.

The allusion serves to rhetorically associate Ishtar with the rage and power of Adapa, who broke the wing of the south wind in a vengeful fit of rage. The use of a verb less violent verb, according to Halton, subtly recognizes the continued presence of the enemy, but highlights Ishtar’s handicapping of their potency, rather than its total incapacitation.

In a similar way, biblical authors made allusion to popular Syro-Palestinian and Assyro-Babylonian literature. A developed scribal culture aware of cognate Semitic literature would have been responsible for the majority of the texts of today’s Hebrew Bible. For this reason we find intimations of links between the childhood of Moses and Sargon the Great; Joseph and the Egyptian Tale of the Two Brothers;  Psalm 29 and Baal’s “Seven Thunders and Lightnings”; Deuteronomy and Neo-Assyrian (or Hittite, if you’re nasty) vassal treaties; and even Isaiah 14 and the Greek Phaethon (see here). More rigorous evaluation of the intertextuality of cognate literature, such as the Neo-Assyrian oracles, may provide better contextualization for the further analysis of biblical allusion and intertextuality. In this way Halton’s article will no doubt contribute to that discussion.

As an example, I’d like to point to a mythic allusion in the Bible that has only fragmentary representation in extant Syro-Palestinian literature, but shows a manipulation calculated to convey very specific propaganda (similar to the Neo-Assyrian oracles of Halton’s article). In 1995 Simon B. Parker published one of the best evaluations of the mythical background of Psalm 82 that I’ve read (“The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” Revue Biblique 102.4 [1995]: 532–59). Parker proposes two possible literary sources for the mythic imagery of Psalm 82’s divine council: Yassub’s indictment of Kirta (KTU 1.16.VI.39–54), and Absalom’s indictment of David (2 Sam 15). (I would also propose that Deut 32:8–9 provides another source for the backdrop of the chapter, if not the details.) He also discusses their rhetorical implications and argues for the chapter as myth which ends in liturgy, as the author (or reader) calls upon YHWH to rise and judge the earth. If you’re interested in Psalm 82 I highly recommend this article.

I’d like to discuss the intended message of Psalm 82 and its ideological shift from the earlier Deut 32:8–9. In Deuteronomy we find mention of the hegemony of the sons of El over the several nations of the earth (70 in number, most likely). The allusions seems to be related to the Ugaritic 70 sons of El, but the idea of stewardships over the nations is later (see Daniel Block, The Gods of the Nations for a useful, if tendentious, presentation of this ideology). If the text originally contained the phrase “Bull El,” as proposed by Joosten (here, and convincingly in my opinion), the allusion to the Ugaritic literature is more clear. The question of equating Elyon and YHWH is for another day, but we’re left with YHWH ruling Israel and other deities ruling the other nations, with no indication the author takes issue with this arrangement.

The story in Psalm 82 is different. Most likely we’ve moved into the exilic period when a more transcendent YHWH is being pushed in an effort to cope with the subjugation and deportation of Israel at the hands of a wicked nation. The author takes aim in this chapter at the ideology of Deut 32:8, accusing the gods of those nations of iniquity and negligence. YHWH is called upon take over their stewardships, thus appealing to a clearly prevalent type-scene (see here), and yet recasting it as Yahwistic propaganda, exalting Israel and her God over the nations which ruled temporaly over the Israelite peoples.

An interesting dynamic in this shift in ideology is the monotheistic rhetoric of Deut 32. Much like Deutero-Isaiah and Deuteronomy 4, Deut 32 calls the gods of the surrounding nations “no gods,” and “abominations,” and the nations “no nation.” Deut 32:8–9 seems an archaic motif for this rhetoric, and if Psalm 82 is later, it is even more out of place. To me this points to more drastic literary allusion, as the type-scene does not fit comfortably in the context. It seems the author may be alluding to these texts only to manipulate them and polemicize them, which is a dynamic that merits, in my opinion, further and serious investigation. I think Halton’s article makes a great contribution to our understanding of the Neo-Assyrian stream of tradition, but will also help us better understand the scribal context of numerous biblical texts. Thanks Dr. Halton!


4 responses to “Charles Halton’s ANES Article

  • Charles

    Thanks for mentioning the article, Daniel, and also for the fantastic discussion. I wrote it as a control of sorts for biblical allusions so you I appreciate your applications. Keep up the great work.

  • Charles

    By the way, you can call me Charles–I’m a pretty informal kind of guy.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the comment Charles (I’m still learnin’ the etiquette ropes). I think the article will function well in that capacity, and hopefully it receives that kind of application. I wasn’t familiar with that journal either. It looks pretty nice.

  • Decoupling YHWH and El « Daniel O. McClellan

    […] The backdrop for this statement is Smith’s discussion of the four-tiered Syro-Palestinian pantheon. In this reconstruction, El and Asherah inhabit the top tier as parental gods. The “active deities” (Handy’s term) are the 70 sons of El who inhabit the second tier and act as the pro- and antagonists in most of the literature. The third tier holds the craftsmen deities, of which we can point to only one explicit example: Kothar-wa-Hasis. The bottom tier is inhabited by messenger deities (the ml’km, or “angels”). Smith points to two sets of biblical texts that seem to preserve an early distinction between YHWH and the patriarchal deity (Deut 32:8–9; Psalm 82), and it is these scriptures that Heiser addresses in his article. I’d like to respond to Heiser’s article and discuss my perspective of the two relevant texts (I briefly discussed them recently here). […]

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