Crazy Thoughts On Blindness And Reading Clay Tablets

Caution: this is another of my wildly speculative posts. Don’t take it too seriously. I’m constructing thoughts not conclusions. Some of these thoughts are unsupportable; some are little more than free associations; some, like the last one, are surely wrong.
[If you see squares, rectangles or something else that doesn’t look right, please install the Charis SIL font.]

Clay tablet in a broken envelope

Clay tablet in a
broken envelope.

I’m now on my third pass through several Akkadian prayers. Each time I go through them I see something (or think I see something) that I didn’t notice the previous time. Take a look at these two consecutive lines from a prayer to Shamash.
ana lā nāṭili tašakkan nūra
ṭuppa arma la pêtâ tašassi
For the blind, you provide light.
An encased tablet, (still) unopened, you read aloud.
(For those of you keeping score at home, the text is from BMS 6:109-110 and duplicates; Mayer, 505)
Are these two lines related? If so, how? On first reading, aside from attributing extraordinary abilities to Shamash, I didn’t see much of a relationship between them. I certainly didn’t see any more relationship between these two lines and several other similar lines including the one reading “To the impotent, you give an heir.” But the more I look, the more I think these two lines might be related. Each might provide an interpretive context for the other. But I’m not sure.
Notice that Shamash provides light to the blind. There can be little doubt that this means that he brings them sight. But, to what extent can we understand Shamash’s light in this line as informing his ability to read encased tablets in the next line? Everyone, but Shamash, is blind to the contents of an encased tablet. (Actually, this is not always true. Often the envelope had the same text on it as the encased tablet. The whole idea was to prevent forgery.) Alternatively, does Shamash’s ability to read encased tablets inform our understanding of the first line? Do the two lines interact in some way?
Shamash’s light not only brings visible light it also brings life, joy and freedom. The expression nūra sakānu often means “to bring joy” as well as “to bring light.” But “joy” isn’t the only figurative meaning of nūru (light). Expressions like nūra amāru mean “to become free,” “to see the light.” And the phrase ša libbi išqillatu likallim nūrum means “let him bring to light the one who is in the heart of the shell.” According to CAD N2, 349, the “one in the shell” is a child in the womb. Again, we have a meaning in the neighborhood of “to free” in this expression. I think, we can safely understand our first expression as freeing the blind from their blindness. While it is possible to make too much of it, the parallel with the Old Greek version of Isaiah 61:1c, “recovery of sight to the blind,” taken up in Luke 4:18 and Barnabas 14:9, cannot be completely ignored. Compare also 4Q521 2, ii:6. Note that the immediately preceding context of the Isaiah passage includes bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted and freeing the captives. In his ability to read encased tablets, Shamash can free their contents from the darkness of their enclosure. But would any ancient have understood this particular metaphorical relationship?
There are several risks in this line of thought. First is the risk of associating “light” with understanding. This is not a normal metaphor in Akkadian. In fact, I don’t know of a single example. If you do, please give me a reference. The more usual metaphor involves an association between hearing and understanding. Second, the motivation for placing these lines in physical proximity may not be recoverable and I may be imposing associations that would not have occurred to ancient readers or hearers of this text.
Now for the truly crazy stuff: Does providing light to the blind, in close association with Shamash’s ability to read enclosed tablets, mean that he enables the blind to read tablets? That thought alone, while crazy enough, may not be too crazy but my next one sure is. I just ran my fingers across the surface of a plaster cast of an Akkadian tablet from Ugarit. Could I learn to read it in the same way modern blind read Braille? I’m not sure. I tried the same experiment with a plaster cast of an Ugaritic tablet. The signs on the Ugaritic tablet are larger and I do think I could learn to read this kind of tablet by touch alone. That gives me hope that I could learn to read the Akkadian tablet by touch also. Is it possible that an experienced scribe who became blind could learn to read tablets by touch? All this seems more than a little like those modern attempts to provide “scientific” explanations for miracles. The thought is fun, the association unlikely.

Werner Mayer, Untersuchungen zur Formensprache der Babylonischen „Gebetsbeschwörungen” (Studia Poul: Series Maior, 5; Rome: Biblical Institure Press, 1976)

One thought on “Crazy Thoughts On Blindness And Reading Clay Tablets”

  1. On the relative size of the cuneiform characters, and the possibility of navigating them by touch: I experimented with Braille quite a bit as a middle-school student. Not only are those some incredibly small dots, they are ridiculously close together. Even after I had come to be able to “sight-read” Braille by eye, there was a long time where it seemed simply impossible that one could identify them by touch. Obviously, though, users eventually do.

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