Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Assyria, Israel, Amos, Sakkuth, and Dēr

There is an interesting passage in Amos 5.26-27 (NRSV):

You shall take up Sakkuth your king,
and Kaiwan your star-god, your images,
which you made for yourselves;
therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus,
says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.

We know of the city Dēr as the home of the deity Sakkud from various texts, including this one, describing the conquering of Dēr in about 813 BC by Šamšī-Adad V (RIMA 3, A.0.103.2: iii.37’b-48′):

I marched to Dēr. Dēr, the great city whose foundations are as firm as bedrock, (40′) …, I surrounded (and) captured that city. [I carried off] the deities Anu-rabû, Nannai, Šarrat-Dēr, Mār-bīti-ša-pān-bīti, Mār-bīti-ša-birīt-nāri, Burruqu, (45′), Gula, Urkītu, Šukāniia, Nēr-e-tagmil, Sakkud of the city Bubê—the gods who dwell in Dēr—together with their property, […]

In the Dictionary of Deities and Demons, we read about, s.v. Sakkuth:

The problem of why the Israelites adopted an obscure god like Sakkut remains unsolved. The Israelites may have borrowed the worship of this planet from the Assyrians. In this case there are two options. (1) The Israelites took over the worship before the fall of Samaria. Then Amos 5:26 can be interpreted as a prophetic accusation for not having served Yahweh (e.g. BARSTAD 1984). (2) Amos 5:26 refers to one of the deities mentioned in 2 Kgs 17:28-30 who were brought to the Samaritan area by Assyrian settlers. This view implies that the text is a later insertion by a (deuteronomistic) redactor who confused situations before and after the conquest of the capital (H. W. WOLFF, Dodekapropheton 2. Joel und Amos [BKAT XIV/2; Neukirchen-Vluyn 1969] 310-311).

There are, however, other options, taking into account both the Assyrian and Hebrew texts.

Notice this important piece of Assyrian information from Tiglath-Pileser III from accounts of his Eighth Campaign, 738 BC (Ann 13*:3-5, Tadmor, 67):

600 captives of the city of Amlate of the Damunu (tribe), 5,400 captives of Der | in the cities of Kunalia, […], Huzarra, Tae, Tarmanazi, Kulmadara, Hatatirra, Irgillu, | [cities] of the land of Unqi, I settled.

Elements in play here:
1.) Dēr, the home of Sakkud, was subject to Assyrians, first (?) subjugated by Samsi-Adad V, then being (largely? entirely?) depopulated by Tiglath-Pileser III in 738
2.) Exile of Israelites by Assyrians in 734-732 by Tiglath-Pileser III
3.) Settlment of Israelites in “cities of the Medes” is noted in 2 Kings 17.6, which category undoubtedly applies to Dēr
4.) Apparent mention by Amos 5.26 of Israelites worshipping Sakkud/Sakkuth

There are two, I feel more likely, conclusions possible here than those mentioned by DDD. (1) Some Israelites were settled in Dēr by Tiglath-Pileser III, where they turned to worshipping local deities, including Sakkud. In their contact with the homeland, they transferred images of their new god back to Samaria before its fall, and this worship of Sakkud is what Amos 5.26 refers to. (2) Amos 5.26 is a genuine prophecy dating prior to Tiglath-Pileser’s exile of the majority of Israel, a threat to unfair and unfaithful Israel of exile to the lands of Dēr (and other places). Knowledge that Dēr had fallen, was depopulated, and was a very likely settlement of any exiled Israelites did not require Divinely given foreknowledge (though such certainly wouldn’t hurt!). News of the Assyrians destroying yet another city and deporting its inhabitants must have been quite widespread, no doubt as intended by the Assyrians themselves as a kind of deterrent against further insurrections.

Of the two options, I find the second given here more likely, owing to the wider context of chapter 5 of Amos, especially including reference to Gligal (5.5) which would surely have been included in the exile of Gilead, and “house of Joseph” (5.6), which would seem to imply that the regions of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin were still considered intact. Relatedly, practical knowledge of Assyrian treatment of rebellious subjects is all that was necessary for anyone to propose Israelite deportees being resettled in Dēr, home of Sakkud.

Always falling back onto suggestions of interpolation is so passé, don’t you think? In this case, it is also completely unnecessary.

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A unique empire….

If only we had such a wealth of information for every kingdom in the ancient world that we have in the Hebrew Scriptures! Tantalizingly circumspect as they sometimes are, as linguistically obscure as they indubitably have become, as debatedly historical, religious, idealistic, ideological or irrelevant as we may find them, these Hebrew writings are still a singular treasure trove of information from an ancient culture, a collection of literary works which is completely and inarguably, indeed unquestionably unique in the world: a body of writing originating in an act of conscious self-selection in time out of mind, yet preserved in a living tradition of respect and belief from ancient times down to the present, transmitted, and regarded as canonical texts, with or without additional works alongside, and thus normative to one extent or the other, by two religions descendant from that ancient culture, the adherents of which comprise approximately one-third of the world’s current population. This is absolutely astounding! Especially so considering that no such coherent, self-selected set of writings exists for any of the many small kingdoms of the region, indeed, for even the larger civilizations typically associated with the majestic term “empires,” whose creativity has never been in doubt. The Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Achaemenid Persian, Hellenistic Greek, and pagan Roman civilizations have not left us any such coherent collection as an expression of their self-identity, of their intimately personal worldview, despite the few whole and many more fragmentary of their various works, however multiply-copied and obviously popular they may have been, which we have found as solely incidental detritus in each of the regions which they spanned in their greatness and in their own home cities, now crumbled into ruins. No living tradition preserved and transmitted those collections never made. No descendant religions continue to praise the might of the Son of Enki, the Daughter of Asshur, the Chosen One of Almighty Marduk. The holy temples of the cities of Eridu, Larsa, Mennufer, Seleucia are no longer thronged by pilgrims from distant lands, the cities themselves being level with the earth. Yet we find that it is a small library of Hebrew writings, put together in some manner at some time, both of which we wonder at and dispute over, a self-selection from within that living tradition, from that tiny little remnant of a kingdom, after a time supplemented by some Greek texts also springing from that vibrantly living source, that has persisted for these more than two thousand years, and can in a real way be said to have created a kind of empire greater than any other that has ever been, an empire in which a Shepherd King’s songs are still sung, and a King who was hailed by shepherds still rules!

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…the women who served…

I’ve always wondered about these ladies mentioned in Exodus 38.8:

He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

What did they do? Do we have here a stratum of female functionaries associated with Tabernacle and Temple? (And no, I don’t think they were merely temple prostitutes, as if the only possible religious value of a woman is as a sacred whore!) Why do none of the usual suspects mention them? (Nor do I think it’s just because they were men!) Would such have existed even in Herodian times? Does anyone know of any mention of them in rabbinic sources?

And last, but not least, why did they have so many mirrors…?

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Sun, Moon and Storms

A few days ago, I was reading the John H. Walton paper “Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts” (181-190 in Faith, Tradition & History, eds. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier, and D.W. Baker) and came upon an interesting idea, quite different from Walton’s. First, the key verses, Joshua 10.12-13:

אז ידבר יהושע ליהוה
ביום תת יהוה את־האמרי
לפני בני ישראל
ויאמר לעיני ישראל
שמש בגבעונ דום
וירח בעמק אילון
ןידם השמש וירח עמד
עד־יקם גוי איביו
הלא־היא כתובה על־ספר הישר
ויעמד השמש בחצי השמים
ולא־אץ לבוא כיום תמים

The NRSV renders this:

On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites
over to the Israelites,
Joshua spoke to the LORD;
and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?
The sun stopped in midheaven,
and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

Now typically this passage has been taken to indicate some kind of astronomical phenomenon, literally involving the sun and moon. Yet, just prior to this (and please don’t make me type any more Hebrew!), the saving miracle of this battle was described as large hailstones raining down on the fleeing enemy combatants (see vv. 9-11). Furthermore, v. 14 appears to indicate that the amazing part was not the miracle itself, but that the Lord acted upon the suggestion of Joshua.

An idea came to me upon reading an excerpt of a balag-lamentation, “He Is a Storm, At the Healing” lines 10-15, given by Walton:

The heavens continually rumbled,
the earth continually shook;
The sun lay at the horizon
The moon stopped still in the midst of the sky
In the sky the great lights disappeared
An evil storm … the nations
A deluge swept over the lands.

It appears to me that, similar to the Sumerian idiom, the request for and description of the Sun and Moon to דמם/עמד is an ancient Hebrew idiom for a sky-covering storm, which would stretch from horizon to horizon and cover both Sun and Moon. I’ll look into it more, of course, but it certainly is an interesting possibility.

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