A Man, His Wife And A Snake

The other day I posted a small sampling from the 200 plus snake related omens in tablets 22-26 of the Akkadian omen series Shumma Alu ina mele Shakin. Today, I will focus on just those omens that mention women. Let’s start with by far the most common theme, issues involving a man and his wife. Of these, most have to do with the case of a snake falling in the middle of a man and a woman. There are 23 such omens extant. There may have been more of them in the now unreadable or completely lost portions of these tablets. I’ve reproduced a sample of this type of omen below. I’ve also added a few notes here and there, mostly for my own reference but its okay for you to look at them. Notice that not all the portents are negative, only most of them. Again, the translations are Freedman’s.

  • 22:13. If, between the first and the 30th of Nisannu, a snake falls in the middle of husband and wife, companions will not survive; that house will be destroyed. [Note that the same thing will befall an “assemble” under the same conditions in the next omen, 23:14]
  • 23:23. If a snake eats itself – establishment of . . . [. . .] in his mouth; the man’s wife will bear a male child. [based on a couple of other omens, I’d guess that the snake has its tail in its mouth but who knows. Note the positive portent. I’m sorry but in this context having a male child is a positive portent.]
  • 23:28. If a snake falls between a man and a woman and [escapes(?)] and kills [. . .], in front of . . . angry [. . .] will be cut off. [See 23:28b for the reconstruction of “escapes”; the Akkadian for “cut off” is KUD.ME = some plural form of parāsu, “cut off, withhold” and in some contexts “decide” or “reach judgment.”]
  • 23:31. [If] a snake falls in the middle of husband and wife and falls near between them and they see it, they will divorce and [. . .] [See also 23:32, 34,112, 113, 114, 115 and 24:5. These all say about the same thing with minor variations.]
  • 23:35: [If, where a man] and a woman are sitting with the children of the house (and) the domestics surrounding them, [a snake] falls between them, the owner of that house will die, and that house will be dispersed. [The Akkadian for “dispersed” is BIR = sapāḫu, “to scatter, disperse” and can apply to everything from oil to grain to families to troops. The seeming cognate root in Hebrew means exactly the opposite, something in the range of “gather” or “join.”]
  • 23:111. If a snake fall onto the bed of a man and woman, an evil uprising will occur – his residence will change.
  • 24:1. If a snake lies on a man’s bed, the man’s wife will be distracted and sell her children for money.
  • 25-26 BM 78960: r.7’. [If a snake in a man’s house(?)] falls from the beams onto the man, the man’s wife will die and he will take her property; that house [will . . .] [Based on other omens on this tablet the final verb is likely iḫarrub, “become deserted.”]
  • 25-26 BM 78960: r.8’. [If a snake in a man’s house(?)] makes a nest [in] the beams and lies there, the man’s wife will bear a male child.

Do omens like these inform Biblical narratives like Genesis 2:4b-3? I do have a general thought on this and one or two more specific ideas. But I’m struggling with a bit of a moral dilemma. Should I post these ideas? Should I even mention a couple of them to my wife? Shirley already thinks many of my ideas are crazy. I see no reason to reinforce this prejudice. My thoughts regarding omens and Genesis 2:4b-3 are unsupported and, without some rather unexpected new discoveries, likely unsupportable. While not necessarily mutually exclusive, my more specific thoughts do not form a coherent whole. Because of the disproportionate attention given to these chapters in Genesis, I worry that someone might use my crazy ideas uncritically in support who knows what even crazier notion. If I can work out a way to express my ideas on this a little more coherently and to wrap them with sufficient caveats to make it unlikely that someone will abuse them, I may post them later. If you want to help in this effort, can the Hebrew root ערם, “clever” ever mean “knowledgeable” or the like or does it only mean “tricky?” At first I was tempted to seek support for “knowledgeable” in Proverbs 19:25. But the two related proverbs in this verse aren’t exactly in synonymous parallelism. Or so it seems to me. This isn’t the only problem I have but it may be the only solvable problem I have. If you don’t quite get the reason for this question, good. Don’t worry about it. If you do get it, I’m afraid I have exposed more of my insanity than I actually wanted to.
I will say this much, other than for a few seeming approved methods, for the most part the Hebrew Bible has it has a rather strong bias against divination. That bias likely actually indicates a significant concern about and therefore significant knowledge of at least some unapproved forms of divination. Why react against something that is otherwise unknown? Divination was likely ubiquitous. I think much that is behind biblical texts may be even stranger to us than what we see on the surface of the text. Does any of this apply to the sort of snake omens I sampled? Why knows!
A few other snake omens in Shumma Alu ina mele Shakin mention women. Here’s a few examples.

  • 23:104. If a woman catches a snake unaware in the base course of masonry and severs it, that woman will be lucky.
  • 25-26 BM 78960: r.9’-10’. [If a snake] lies [in] a dove[‘s nest] and eats its y[oung], the man’s renowned heir will die [ . . . ] his daughter-in law will die, an enemy will conquer his people; the house and its owner will be devastated.
  • 25-26 Sm 532:5’-7’. If snake ditto and entwined like a knot are seen in a man’s house, and . . . witchcraft, spittle-magic in the house [. . .] the owner of the house and the mistress of the house / residents will res[ide] (in) the house [. . .] [Here the antecedent of the ditto is not completely clear but likely goes back to lines 1’-2’. Other than a snakes being in a man’s house lines 1′-2′ are too lacunose to know the exact details.]

Notice that the first one of these three has a positive portent. I suppose that it requires some luck to catch a snake and sever it in the first place.
It would sure be nice if these tablets weren’t so lacunose. And why do the lacunae always come in the vary places where a clear reading is most desired? But that’s the way it is regardless of where sh lacuna happens.
Update: November 6, 2010
I don’t know why I didn’t think of these examples when I first did this post.
Proverbs 13:16
כָּל־עָרוּם יַעֲשֶׂה בְדָעַת וּכְסִיל יִפְרֹשׂ אִוֶּֽלֶת
Every clever (person) acts on knowledge, but a fool/shameless flaunts stupidly/impiety.
Proverbs 14:18
נָחֲלוּ פְתָאיִם אִוֶּלֶת וַֽעֲרוּמִים יַכְתִּרוּ דָֽעַת
(The) naive own stupidly/impiety but the clever wear knowledge.
But does דָעַת mean “knowledge” or simply “ability”? Is/was there a meaningful difference? I sure wish there were something a little crisper.

Freedman, Sally M., If a City Is Set on a Height: The Akkadian Omen Series Shumma Alu ina mele Shakin Vol. 2: Tablets 22–40, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund 19; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum / Babylonian Section, 2006