June 10, 2009

The Omen and I

John Hobbins wrote an interesting post on Psalm 26:1-3 providing several options for dealing with the complex, interrelated, parallelism of the passage. But there was something else that struck me about the passage that I had never noticed before. Understanding that the following remarks, if cogent, apply to many other passages, I'd like to focus on three phrases in the passage and their possible relationship to something "completely different":

Judge me . . . (שָׁפְטֵנִי)
Test me . . . (בְּחָנֵנִי)
Probe me . . . (וְנַסֵּנִי)

The literal meanings of the last two of these phrases are themselves abnormally interesting, particularly in the larger context of this post. But I will delay that discussion for another time.

The supplicant in this Hebrew prayer asks YHWH to be his judge, to test him, to probe him. The point I want to make it is that the supplicate seeks to have his own conduct, his own life, judged and not something else that may relate to him. And he offers his own actions as evidence in the judgment and nothing else. What else might he have asked YHWH to judge other than himself or perhaps someone else? O' child of modern western civilization (I am talking to myself), there were many things that the ancients worried about as much as they worried there own conduct and that of others.

Let's look at a couple of lines from one of the Akkadian prayers I'm working on. The prayer begins,

Nusku, friend of Shamash,
you are the judge. Judge my case: this dream
which, during the evening, middle (or) dawn watch,
came to me that you understand (but) I do not understand.

The Akkadian of the second line is wonderfully complex and interrelated. The same is true for the last line of this part of the prayer. But what I want to point out here is that it is not the supplicant himself or his actions that he asks Nusku to judge but "his case." And exactly what is his case? A dream has scared the living bejabbers out of him. Not that it was necessarily a nightmare, although it may have been, but he worries that it might have contained a bad omen. He asks Nusku, in this prayer acting as the illuminator of omens of the night, he who knows the meaning of the dream, to make it go away if its portent is bad. Notice that it is the dream omen that is to be judged and not the actions of the supplicant. Well, maybe his actions in the saying the prayer and performing the proper ritual are important but, at bottom, he is not concerned with his own behaviors or beliefs. He is concern with an omen embedded in the dream.

This motif is rather common in Akkadian prayers. In another prayer, praying to Shamash this time, "the judge of the gods" who is said in the prayer to inscribe his judgments in the entrails of sheep, the supplicant recounts, "the sting of the meat is upon me, indeed, it continually pursues me." The "sting of the meat" refers to an omen written on the entrails (liver or perhaps lungs) of a sheep or some other animal. But our supplicant has many other problems beyond the sting of the meat.

By evil, nasty, bad, portents and signs that
appear to me in my palaces, they continually oppress;
I am afraid and anxious and constantly frightened.

These evil signs include red ants in his house and something broken on his chariot. While these things are bad enough, what they might portent could be even worse. It is not Shamash that he necessarily fears but the omens that plague his house and his land. Sure, these omens came from the gods, including Shamash, that's how the gods communicate with humans, but here, in this prayer, he begs for relief from all these evil, nasty, bad, signs.

The observation I want to make is that in many Akkadian prayers the object of concern is the omen and not the supplicant. While in Psalms 26 thethe object of concern is the supplicant himself. Did the theology of part of the Hebrew Bible replace the omen, at some time or in some places, with the individual? Did individual activity consciously replace the content of omens as evidence for divine judgment at some time or in some places?

To be sure, divination is known and even positively valued in parts of the Hebrew Bible but, on balance, divination is depreciated and even forbidden. And individual discretion is often valued in ancient Mesopotamia. But still . . .

Does anyone know of any literature on the relationship between the self and omens as a subject of divine judgment? I can't think of anything off hand but remember there's a thirty year gap in my knowledge and I'm not all that up to date on the last five years or so either.

Update: June 18, 2009
Fixed screwed up Hebrew. I must have been looking cross-eyed when I copied and pasted. Thanks John

Posted by Duane Smith at June 10, 2009 3:12 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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What interesting questions! I was struck by how the supplicant doesn't address Shamash directly, but his sidekick Nusku, apparently less daunting. Kind of like going to Jesus through his mother Mary, or Sant'Antonio.

BTW, your Hebrew and English are mismatched. Please delete this part of the comment once you've fixed that.

Are there prayers in Akkadian in which the supplicant asks that a god test him as by fire, as in Ps 26? Just wondering. Which reminds me, there is a very interesting article on a related topic in the last issue of JBL, by a famous Assyriologist. Don't want to give too much away . . .

Posted by: John Hobbins at June 18, 2009 1:33 PM


Thanks for the comment and the fact check.

Tzvi Abusch has argued that this prayer was originally addressed to Shamash. There are of course several similar prayers where Shamash is addressed directly. I'm working on a couple of them now. I don't know of any cases where an Assyrian or Babylonian supplicant asks that a god test him as by fire. There may be, I'm just not aware of such a case.

Posted by: Duane at June 18, 2009 2:56 PM

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