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.

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