Cuneiform Writing And Scribal Values

The other day I mentioned a fairly recent paper by Eckart Frahm. Despite what one might have gleaned from my discussion in that post, Frahm’s main focus is on various schemata in writing that go well behind what we generally consider normal usage. Here’s an excerpt from his conclusion.

Undoubtedly, Babylonian and Assyrian scholars regarded their writing system, first and foremost, as a tool that provided them with the opportunity to accurately reproduce language. But this was not the only function cuneiform writing fulfilled for them. Drawing on the polysemy and polyphony inherent in the repertoire of cuneiform signs, and inspired by the belief that the many alternative readings of each of these signs conveyed to them a secret message on how things were actually connected, they found ways to imbue the texts they wrote, by using particular characters, with additional layers of meaning, and to discover such layers, through the application of creative hermeneutics, in the foundational texts they read and commented on. Cryptographic writing was employed to make certain texts inaccessible to everybody except a small group of initiates. And finally, as demonstrated in our preceding overview of omens dealing with graphemes, there were also traditions that applied completely alien “codes” to cuneiform writing. In the case presented here, scholars employed a code in which, as far as we can determine, the shape of the signs was the primary factor that determined their meaning. This peculiar “grammar” of the visual appearances of cuneiform signs was part of the much larger system of analogies governing the Mesopotamian omen corpus. Another code unrelated to the established conventions of cuneiform writing seems to be used in a few cuneiform syllabaries from the first millennium b.c. that associate individual graphemes with numbers. The principles behind the equations presented in these texts are still obscure to us. [references deleted]

All this rests on a set of scholarly scribal values that use various techniques to enrich and in some cases disguise the meaning of a text.
As I look at the puns in a text like Genesis 2-3, I wonder the extent to which an analogous set of scribal values are in play and the extent to which they too are meant to enrich and/or disguise the meaning of the text. I further wonder if the meaning of these chapters is “still obscure to us.” At the March meeting of the Pacific Coast Regional SBL in Santa Clara, I will draw on these wonders to suggest that there is more, or at least something additional, involved in Genesis 2-3 than what at first meets our eye but not more than met the eye of a scholarly scribe at the time of composition and early development (whenever that might have been). Should I and my thesis survive the presentation, I’ll have more to say than I said a year or so ago.

Frahm, Eckart, “Reading the Tablet, the Exta, and the Body: The Hermeneutics of Cuneiform Signs in Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries and Divinatory Texts,” in: Amar Annus, ed., Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, The Sixth Annual University of Chicago Oriental Institute Seminar (Chicago, 2010) 93-141

2 thoughts on “Cuneiform Writing And Scribal Values”

  1. As to why the snake is smart (or why the snake figures in so many omens*), there’s also the well-known similarity between nhs (snake) and nhs (sorcery, divination). Are they similar in Akkadian?
    I’m sure someone else has said this, but I also think the snake may be smarter than other creatures because it’s more naked (punning on ‘arom)– because it sheds its skin. (Perhaps the fact that the snake isn’t covered by hair or fur plays a role, though, obviously, there are many other naked animals). Again, is this also an Akkadian pun too?
    *Leaving aside the primary datum, which is that snakes are objects of fear and fascination in many cultures.

  2. gginat, thanks for the comment – Yes, the possible etymological relationship between nhs snake and nhs divination is well know and clearly part of the story. No, they are quite different in Akkadian. I actually think there may be another reason that the snake was thought to be the most cunning of the land animals. If you’re interested, take a look at this.

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