Alasdair Livingstone began his chapter on “Expositions of Mystical Mathematics and Philology” with these words,
Babylonian scholars were at times concerned with explaining aspects of their culture. The explanations which they put forward frequently involved association of different items drawn from the cultural tradition. Sometimes, items were associated on the basis of mathematical or philological resemblances which appear artificial to the modern mind, but were evidently regarded as significant by ancient thinkers (19).
The Akkadian texts Livingstone studied are abnormally interesting and in some cases abnormally complex and difficult. At first glance many of them have the appearance of lexical texts: two or more columns with Sumerograms followed by Akkadian glosses. But on closer examination one finds rather weird mathematical or philological associations between various cultural expressions. Here’s an example (K 170 + Sm 520 obv.:7; | indicates a column boundary on the tablet):
. . . ] x x Ú ga-šìr re-ú šu-ú šu-ú kiš-šat lugal (šar) šú (kiššati) | 50 | den-lil
. . . ] . . . he is a shepherd, “he is” means “universe,” (so he is) king of the universe | 50 | Enlil.
Notice the pun on Akkadian šû meaning “he (is)” and the Sumeragarm šû = kiššatu meaning the entire world, the universe. Among the best evidence for this association is an ancient commentary on the omen series Izbu (šú = kiš-šá-tú [Leichy, 211]). See also šú = kiš-šá-tú in the Šumma Alu commentary on tablet 45:24. Bear with me on this! The Sumerian word for 50 when spelled out, and it seldom is spelled out, is ninnu. The vocabulary text A (II/4:202) reads, nin-nu-u 50 = kiš-šá-tú (See CAD K, 457). So you see, it ties together in a nice little philological package. Enlil is the king of the universe and his number is 50. Now all of this may seem rather farfetched. But it is certainly of their construction and not ours. Such associations come up too often to be fortuitous. As Livingstone points out, just because such associations may “appear artificial” doesn’t preclude their having been of significance to ancient scholars.
Many of these associations are much like the orthographic and phonetic puns that sometimes tie an omen’s protasis to its apodosis. I’m quite sure that these associations were expressions of a scribal value system that often reveled in such things.
Livingstone, Alasdair, Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986)