Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East

  • Nissinen Marttí, C.L. Seow, R.K. Ritner
  • Oct 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Nissinen, Marttí, with contributions by C. L. Seow and R. K. Ritner. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Peter Machinist ed. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. Paperback, $29.95. xxi + 273 pp. ISBN 1-58983-027-X.

In this collection the editor presents transliterations (except for the Egyptian text) and translations of the diversity of ancient Near Eastern texts dealing with prophecies, whether as reported or quoted, and texts mentioning a person having a prophetic title. He does not consider Akkadian prophecies and apocalypses and related texts where the author betrays no awareness of transmitting a received message; nor does he consider other texts wherein it not clear that a prophecy is involved. In addition, Papyrus Amherst 63 is omitted due to lack of a complete edition. However, the portion that is translated presents an oracle of salvation.

Most of the texts are from 18th century B.C. Mari, during the first third of that century. These are the most interesting because they have not been easily available before to English readers; although in the last two years at least two other translations of these texts have appeared. Most of the letters actually come from the city of Mari, although some come from surrounding population centers, including Babylon. Most of these prophecies are directed to the king. They include concerns of everything from the best battle times to the construction of the temple of the deity behind the oracle. Many interesting comparisons with biblical texts suggest themselves. There is the recounting of how the deities at Mari drink water containing dirt from the gate of the city (no. 18). These divinities then pronounce an oath that they will not harm Mari. Compare this with the drinking ritual of Numbers 5 where the female suspected of adultery drinks water mixed with Tabernacle dirt and takes an oath as part of a lie detector test. Another text (no. 32) warns of dire consequences if a city gate is not correctly rebuilt. Contrast this with Hiel who rebuilt Jericho's gates at the cost of two of his sons (1 Kings 17:34). There are women prophetesses (cf. biblical Deborah and Huldah), dreams with cows in them that deal with life (no. 35; Genesis 41), the god Dagan's appearance in a dream with a question about his future (no. 37; 1 Kings 3), the importance of presenting oneself or one's messengers regularly in the temple of the god and of providing a full account of the battle (no. 38; Hezekiah in battle against Sennacherib in Isa. 37:14-36), the scent of the beloved as a source of life and wellbeing (no. 45; Song 4:10-11), and a locust plague (no. 49; Joel 1). In the ritual of Ishtar, music is used in which an ecstatic may have a vision (nos. 51, 52; 1 Sam. 19:20-24). In the "Epic of Zimri-Lim" two deities that personify power and destruction appear at the left and right sides of the warrior king (no. 64; Hab. 3:5 where the forces appear in front and behind). The fully preserved oracle from contemporary Eshnunna (no. 66) is a salvation oracle similar to ones in the Bible (cf. Isaiah 40-55 and examples there).

The Neo-Assyrian oracles constitute 29 texts, of which eight of the thirteen identified prophets are female with a few oracles that are given by an asinnu, a prophet without clear gender. Most of the prophecies derive from or refer to Ishtar of Arbela. The goddess utters expressions in these seventh century oracles that sometimes resemble sentiments in the biblical psalms and prophets. Thus Ishtar says, "Do not trust in humans! Lift up your eyes and focus on me!" (no. 71). Again, "Who is now lonely, who is now wronged? Fear not! Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, is in my protection" (no. 81). The defeat of the enemy by raining down fiery stones is considered a divine judgment (no. 86; Josh. 10:11). and a divinely ordered judgment against a region is accompanied by the moon's appearance beside the sun (no. 106; Josh. 10:12). In a different kind of text, Esarhaddon records his rise to power in which despite several older brothers, the gods confirmed to Sennacherib his father and to the son that he (Esarhaddon) would be king due to his piety. Compare David's rise to power in 1 Samuel. The ritual of the substitute king is recorded in which a substitute is made king and killed to appease the god(s) and to earn redemption for the royal family (no. 109; Isaiah 53).

The final section deals with a variety of other sources for the mention of prophets. The oldest attestation of a prophet comes from the 21st century B.C. Ur III period where the figure, called a mahhum, appears in a ration list. Elsewhere, prophets and their messages are mentioned in a 14th century letter from the Hurrian king of Mitanni, in a 13th century(?) wisdom fragment from Ugarit, and in a variety of Middle Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian sources (as well as Late Babylonian ones). In first millennium alphabetic script, like Hebrew, prophets can be found south of Aleppo at Tell Afis, in the capital of the Ammonites, in the Deir 'Alla plaster inscriptions from the Jordan Valley, and in Lachish ostraca from the time of the destruction of the southern kingdom, c. 587 B.C. The 11th century Egyptian report of Wenamon mentions encountering an ecstatic prophet in Byblos who confirms his search for wood for Egyptian cultic purposes. Thus prophets were hardly unique to the Bible and Israel's religious experience. They appear before and simultaneous with Israel's history and they are found in every region where Israel sojourns, including Canaan itself.

The work concludes with a lengthy bibliography, a glossary, and a variety of indices. The latter does not include an index of biblical references because the authors avoid making parallels with the Bible, such as has been done here. Nevertheless, this work forms an essential starting point for the study of prophecy in the ancient Near East outside the Bible. Students of biblical prophecy owe a debt of gratitude to Nissinen and his collaborators for collecting all these sources, especially the ones from Mari, and providing useful transliterations, readable translations, helpful introductions, and philological notes.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
October 2004

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