May 21, 2008

Enkidu, Jeremiah and the Mother of Seven

Claude Mariottini has written an interesting post on "the mother of seven" in the Hebrew Bible. When I read it I was reminded of this passage from The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet VII iv:10 (161*);

[áš-šu-mi-ki li]-in-né-zib AMA 7 i-ir-tum
[aššumiki li]innezib ummi sibitti ārtum
[For your sake,] even (if) the mother of seven, a first wife will be abandoned.

This is from an "amended" curse of Enkidu against an unnamed harlot. See Bailey, 137-142, for what I think is the most accessible discussion of role of the harlot in Gilgamesh, at least it was for me.

Claude cites Jeremiah 15:9a as his first example of "mother of seven" and the major topic of his post. Please go read Claude's post where he discusses this passage at some length. Jeremiah 15:9 comes at the end of a curse by Yahweh against Jerusalem(?) that, by at least one reckoning, begins with Jeremiah 15:5.

Before turning the Jeremiah 15:9, I want to take a closer look at verse 6a, ‏אַ֣תְּ נָטַ֥שְׁתְּ אֹתִ֛י, "You have left me." The root of the verb is נטש, which has a rather rich range of connotations including allowing a field to remain fallow. The following verse 7 contains agricultural language. But נטש occurs in parallel with עזב, "leave" or "abandon" in several passages. See, for example, Jeremiah 7:29 and 12:7. Like its Akkadian cognate, ezēbu, seen in our Gilgamesh passage, the semantic range of עזב includes leaving a spouse. And there can be little question that Jeremiah sees some aspects of the relationship between Israel and Jerusalem and Yahweh in terms of a marriage. It is interesting that in Jeremiah 2:2-3 marriage and agricultural themes also interact.

Now let's go to Jeremiah 15:8-9. More out of laziness than anything else, I follow the NRSV.

"Their widows became more numerous than the sand of the seas;
I have brought against the mother of youth a destroyer at noonday.
I have made anguish and terror fall upon her suddenly.

She who bore seven has languished; she has swooned away;
her sun went down while it was yet day; she has been shamed and disgraced.
And the rest of them I will give to the sword before their enemies."

says the Lord.

I will leave it to others to explain fully the poetic structure of these verses and the whole of Jeremiah 5-9. I will note that the subject of "Their" is Yahweh's people and the parallel expressions "widows" // "she who bore seven" and "mother of youth a destroyer at noonday" // "her sun went down while it was yet day."

One minor quibble that should be noted: יֹלֶ֣דֶת הַשִּׁבְעָ֗ה, "she who bore seven," does not translate literally into "mother of seven" as does the Akkadian ummi sibitti in Gilgamesh but it is clearly a closely related idiom that amounts to the same thing.

Where is all this headed? The larger linguistic and cultural environment of the Near East may well add nuance to our understanding of Jeremiah 15:5-9. The only hint that Jeremiah 15:8-9 refers to anything other than a woman or women is the last part of verse 9. If we follow Claude's suggestion that the reference to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 20:19 as "mother in Israel" is relevant to our understanding of Jeremiah 15:9, then the "widow" and "she who bore seven" may refer both to the widows of those who fell before the Babylonian army but also to Jerusalem itself. "The rest of them" would thus refer both the dead husbands and sons but also to the remainder of the Judean communities.

We need to consider a further possible nuance. Taking our lead from Gilgamesh, the harlot who beguiles husbands away from their first wives, even "a mother of seven" is, in Jeremiah, Babylon. But it is Yahweh who abandons Jerusalem, his figurative wife, the mother in Israel, to side with Babylon against "the mother of seven." In this case, the charms of the harlot are her abilities to punish "she who bore seven." This is not the kind of idea that Jeremiah would say outright. But it is an idea that he could imply or his readers might well infer by way of shared cultural heritage.

While I think it likely that Jeremiah (and/or the complier of his prophecies) knew significant portions of the Gilgamesh Epic, it is not necessary that he did for what I am suggesting to hold. It is only necessary that there be a cultural connection between the wife who is the mother of seven and her potential abandonment in the face of the charms of a harlot. And the language of Gilgamesh Tablet VII iv:10 gives evidence of such a connection even if the exact words were unknown to Jeremiah.

Now, I just checked. I have multiple commentaries in multiple languages on nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible except Jeremiah. It is late in the day and the best library for this kind of research is closed. And while I am posting this as it is, anyone who has an abnormally interest in this topic should check a couple recent scholarly commentaries and an article or two before they get too excited one way or the other.

[Another thing that one might want to explore is the role of Shamash in Gilgamesh Tablet VII and the reference to the sun in Jeremiah 15:9. But such thoughts are perhaps moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.]

* George's line number on page 642, the source of the Akkadian text in this post.


Bailey, John A., "Initiation and the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3," JBL, 89:2 (Jun., 1970), 137-150

George, A.R. ed., The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts, Oxford:: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Posted by Duane Smith at May 21, 2008 3:53 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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Your post is very interesting. The linkage between the harlot in Gilgamesh with Jerusalem as the harlot is very interesting and deserves further study.

I am surprised that you do not own a commentary on Jeremiah. I consider him the greatest prophet in the Hebrew Bible. I consider Lundbom's 3 volumes in the Anchor Bible the best, followed by Holladay and McKane.

I have written a post asking readers to read your post. Thank you for your thoughtful work.

Claude Mariottini

Posted by: Claude Mariottini at May 22, 2008 12:14 PM


Thanks for your comment and link. I don't exactly know why I don't have two or three commentaries on Jeremiah. I was actually surprised that I didn't have a single one. My training in the Hebrew Bible back in the late 60s and early 70's focused disproportionately on the Pentateuch and the "former prophets." In part, this was in keeping with the zeitgeist.

Anyway, I did finally get to the library and found that some modern commentaries, Lundbom for example, reference the Gilgamesh passage but I didn't find any that made anything at all of the reference.

Posted by: Duane at May 23, 2008 4:08 PM

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