Under the Sun

“I have seen all the works that are done under
the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and
vexation of spirit.”
Ecclesiastes i, 14

O spirit of Solomon that floats in the vast spaces in the world of spirits, O you that have cast off the garments of matter, which we now do wear, you have left behind you these words born of weakness and despair which did create in the prisons of bodies weakness and despair.

Now is it known unto you that in this life is a meaning not concealed by death. Is it perchance that that knowledge, which is not understood until the spirit is freed from its earthly bonds, is withheld from mankind?

Now is it known unto you that life is not as a vexation of spirit, nor that all under the sun is in vain ; but rather that all things were and are ever marching toward truth. Yet we have clung to your words and pondered deep on them and have not ceased to reckon them a shining wisdom. But they are a darkness that loses the mind and obscures hope, and you are knowing of that.

Now is it known unto you that ignorance and evil and tyranny have good causes. And we see not beauty save in manifestations of wisdom and the results of virtue and the fruits of justice.

Well do you know that poverty and grief purify the human heart, and that our bounded minds see no free thing in life save happiness and ease.

Well do you know that the spirit is going toward the light in face of the obstacles of life, yet do we still recite your words which tell that man is naught but a plaything in the hand of a Force unknown.

You did repent of your sending abroad a spirit to weaken love of this life and destroy the passion for the life to come. Yet did we continue to treasure your words.

O spirit of Solomon, who dwell in the region of the immortals, inspire those who love wisdom so that they take not the path of despair and disbelief ; mayhap it shall be an atonement for a sin not intended.

Gibran Kahlil Gibran, from A Tear and a Smile

Psalm 6

Formal translation
O LORD, do not, in Your anger, rebuke me,
and do not, in Your wrath, chasten me.
Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak.
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled
And my soul is greatly troubled.
But You, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, and deliver my soul.
Save me for the sake of Your mercy.
For there is, in death, no memory of You.
In Sheol, who praises you?
I am wearied with my groaning,
All night I make my bed swim,
with my tears I soak my couch.
My eye wastes away from grief,
it grows old with all my tormentors.
Turn aside from me, all you doers of iniquity,
for the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping.
He, the LORD, has heard my petition!
The LORD has accepted my prayer!
They will be ashamed and greatly troubled, all my enemies.
They will turn back, they will be ashamed in a moment.

Informal translation
Lord, don’t punish me while You’re angry!
Be gentle with me, because I’m so very weak,
even my bones are falling apart.
My whole life is a mess.
When, Lord, will You help me?

Come back, Lord, and rescue me
because of the covenant You made.
How can I tell of Your wonders if I’m dead?
How can I sing Your praise in the grave?

I am so tired of complaining.
Every night I soak my pillow with tears.
I cry so many tears my bed floats on them.
I’m losing my eyesight from all this weeping.
My eyes are all dried out like an old man’s.
All this because of my enemies.

Start running, evildoers,
for the Lord has heard the message in my tears.
He’s listened to my petition, and accepted my prayer.
Shame and terror are coming for all my enemies!
They’ll turn tail and run, shamed in an instant!

Contextual scholarship

Biblioblogdom is all abuzz over the reading of a small cuneiform tablet in the British Museum. See John Hobbins’ fine summary of the issue, and follow the links to various other bloggers’ posts, especially Chris Heard’s. It’s pretty clear that this simple little tablet has resolved the proper reading of Jeremiah 39.3, which is somewhat confused in the Masoretic Text and the versions, and has been the subject of numerous proposed emendations, some more unlikely than others, throughout the years. This is, in part, a concrete example of the value of the contextual approach championed especially by William Hallo.

It’s not the simple fact that two texts in two cultures are being compared, and two names incidentally match in them. It’s rather that the approach of the scholarship involved in first recognizing that there was anything special in this tablet at all, for without both wide and deep reading in both Hebrew and Akkadian, Dr Jursa would not have been able to make the connection between this tablet, the Babylonian functionary, and the somewhat garbled Hebraicized name in Jeremiah. The tablet will have been only cursorily read before, for classification purposes at accession, as there were something like 10,000 tablets being cataloged within the space of only a few years, and time was of the essence. However, even had the tablet indeed been read, perhaps the examiner at that time was unread to the point that he noticed neither the title of a chief officer of Nebuchadnezzar nor the connection with Jeremiah, or perhaps simply didn’t even read as far as the names. In any case, it took the reading of Dr Jursa, familiar with both Neo-Babylonian court terminology and the Book of Jeremiah, to make this fascinating connection.

Similarly, those of us writing and commenting about this text on the blogs, teasing out the implications for the text of Jeremiah 39.3, are also working in an environment where several of us are also widely and deeply read in the Akkadian and Hebrew materials, so that recognition of these terms and names is apparent. This is necessary both for the recognition of direct parallels, as mentioned above in the particular case of this tablet, but even more importantly for the wider perspective of indirect parallels, or shared cultural conceptions.

Perhaps cheerleading the contextual approach is on my mind because of my current reading, a first of its kind: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible by John H. Walton. Having assimilated various texts of the ancient Near East, he presents various chapters covering various conceptual perspectives (Walton’s “cognitive environment”) of several different cultures along with those evident from the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes their conceptual perspectives are quite similar, as in the case of cosmic geography. Others are quite divergent, as in the rather obvious case of the nature of divinity as understood by the Hebrews contra everyone else. The excellence of this book is located precisely in this necessary and refreshing comparison and contrast of the worldviews of the ancient Near East, with each comparison and contrast enlightening our understanding of all the cultures involved. It would obviously make an excellent introductory text for any Introduction to the Ancient Near East type of class, particularly if the Hebrew Bible is included in the prospectus. The only drawback with the book is that, although there are several illustrations, they seem gratuitous, lacking connection with the text, while certain others that would be useful aren’t included. It would be very useful, for instance, to include a diagram of the “three-tier world” understood by the ancients, something like the ones included in Othmar Keel’s The Symbolism of the Biblical World (Eisenbrauns, 1997), on pages 56 and 57. However, with Keel’s beautiful book at hand, such shortcomings are easily remedied, and such quibbling made unnecessary. Walton’s is an excellent book, a truly elegant yet impressive systematization and comparison of disparate texts. Consider it highly recommended.