Letters to the King of Mari

01.01.05 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Wolfgang Heimpel

    A review of Wolfgang Heimpel's, "Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary," by Dr. Richard Hess.

    Heimpel, Wolfgang. Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Mesopotamian Civilizations 12. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003. Hardback. xxv + 657 pp. ISBN 1-57506-080-9.

    The site of Mari, lying at a bend in the middle Euphrates River in modern Iraq, has been the source of the rediscovery of the Middle Bronze Age Amorite civilization since the first of tens of thousands of Old Babylonian cuneiform texts began to emerge about seventy years ago. These texts represent a city fully integrated with the surrounding tribes and sharing a West Semitic culture with the later Israelites and their biblical world. Dating from the middle part of the eighteenth century B.C., these texts reveal a great deal about the ancient Near Eastern world from Hazor to Elam during the approximately three years from which most of them date. The texts of greatest interest are the letters. Although published sporadically for decades, many of the letters were collected and published in the late 1980's and early 1990's. They appeared in French editions of Archives épistolaires de Mari 26 and 27 (ARM). More recently new editions and publications of the letters have led to several translations of these interesting texts. Heimpel's work is easily the most complete English translation available. This large study contains an introduction with maps, a survey of the geography, languages, and peoples involved, and some 130 pages of a historical reconstruction of the years covered by the letters. The hundreds of letters, numbered sequentially according to their appearance in the ARM volumes (with a few extras) each include a bibliography of earlier (non-ARM) studies, a full translation, and copious notes on all matters of language and culture related to the letter. Indexes of individuals, group designations, and place names follow. There are also eight appendixes dealing with various personal names, timelines and historical information, and a summary of liver phenomena used for divination.

    Because the documents provide the most complete survey of a West Semitic culture available, these texts have always provoked a great deal of interest in terms of their connections with later Israelite culture. Scholars such as A. Malamat and more recently J. Sasson and D. Fleming have studied these texts to identify background that can illuminate various aspects of the Bible. Sasson has noted analogous cultural customs whereas Fleming has concentrated on the possibility of historical memories that connect specific items at Mari with the Genesis accounts.

    In fact, there is so great a wealth of material here that scholars probably will be identifying analogies with biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts for many years to come. A few but nevertheless important examples may be suggested here.

    Heimpel identifies the Sutean dialect as a possible precursor of Aramaic (pp. 27-28). He also notes the mention of Ahlamu, a people identified with the Arameans in the Early Iron Age. In either case, this would be by far the earliest evidence for this people and their language; an important matter in the biblical discussion of the early mention of Arameans.

    The historical survey of the three years covered by the letters also provides a fascinating discussion of what can happen between local states in a short period of time. Ever since the discovery of the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III and the Assyrian campaign against Levantine states, the battle at Qarqar in 853 B.C. has been taken as proof that Ahab of Israel and his neighbor in Damascus were allies. This much is true. However, some historians have used this historical source to cast doubt on the mention of Ahab in 1 Kings 20 and 22, where the king of Israel is at war with Damascus and its king, Ben-Hadad II. The argument goes that there could not have been a war between the two states who were such close allies a few years earlier. This has always seemed rather suspect to this writer, given the shifting alliances of states throughout history. However, there is now an earlier West Semitic parallel. Heimpel notes the alliance between Mari, Babylon, Ekallatum, and other states that was so strong when threatened by the outside power of Elam, disintegrated within months of the removal of that threat. Mari and Ekallatum became antagonists (p. 130; see p. 163 for a similar fate befalling Babylon and Mari a few years later).

    Space does not permit further extended discussion. Nevertheless, the cultural analogies are remarkable and can no longer be overlooked when discussing relevant Old Testament narratives and sections. Only a few can be mentioned here: Deborah's leadership in Judges 4-5 and a female general and king (pp. 101, 484); the king's use of his predecessor's harem and Absalom's treatment of David's harem (pp. 159-160); killing animals (as in Genesis 15, but at Mari they use stallions) to make a treaty (pp. 189-190, 344); Joseph in Egyptian prison and the condition of prisons in the age of Mari (pp. 207-208); Numbers 6 and the action of eating in order to establish the truthfulness of an oath (pp. 258-259) as well as an ordeal for adultery (p. 386); Boaz's casting his cloak over Ruth as a sign of protection (pp. 273-274; in neither case is sex suggested – already noted by Sasson); the "sour grapes" theology (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2) and the tragedy of three brothers falling sick and dying as related to some sort of sin or taboo of the god (pp. 282-283); Asa's ailment (1 Kings 15:23) and severe foot disease (p. 283); weaving garments for religious purposes (2 Kings 23:7; pp. 284-285); severing the hem of one's garment as a sign of enmity (1 Sam. 15:27; Zech 8:23; pp. 296, 491); Joshua 5 and exhortations to warriors for battle given in a religious context (p. 337); the frequent use of the term "Israel" to denote the army (rather than all the people) and the reference to "commoners" carrying the same sense (pp. 354-355); Job 1 and raids by tribes that carry off more than a thousand sheep and cattle (p. 360); an eternal covenant (Gen. 9:16 et passim) and an eternal peace (p. 374); mention of an intercalary month (p. 376); a female lyre player (p. 414); Joel 1 and a locust plague (pp. 420-422); fights over water rights (Genesis 26; p. 447); woman transported on a royal bed (Song 3:6-11; pp. 491-492).

    In addition to cultural information in the letters the index of group designations is extremely useful for a quick survey of any profession discussed in the letters. This is a volume that is useful for all those who wish to be informed about the cultural background of Old Testament times and thus better understand the Bible.

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 2005

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