More Than Stubborn

Yesterday, I mentioned Balaam’s talking jenny. If you don’t know the story it’s in Numbers 22 – 24. Divination of some sort is surely involved in the story. The Moabite (and Midian) emissaries who set out to try to convince Balaam to come to the aid of Balak, the Moabite king, by cursing the “people who came out of Egypt,” are said to have “divination in their hand (i.e., in their power).” Here (Num. 22:7) the word used for divination is קְסָמִים but let’s not worry about that just now. As I’ve pointed out before, the Deir ‘Allā Balaam text refers to Balaam as a seer ḥz(h) and says something like, “The gods came to him in the night, and he envisioned a vision (wyḥz . mḥzh).” Whatever Balaam is, his line of work has considerable overlap with that of a diviner.
In the course of things, Balaam, while riding his jenny, runs into a messenger from God. Balaam doesn’t see it but his jenny does. She tries everything in her bag of tricks to point out God’s messenger. She swerves off the road; she presses Balaam’s foot against a wall; she lies down. Balaam, rather than understanding what is going on, is furious at his jenny and beats her. Finally, with some assistance from God, the jenny speaks and she is none too happy. After a brief exchange with his jenny and with God’s help, Balaam is finally able to see the messenger. All this is put in narrative form. It is not formally a divination report. For that reason it is not completely obvious and may not even be the case that there ever was any association with divination. Still, the jenny, by her actions, attempts to make known the presence of God’s messenger.
In yesterday’s post I also mentioned that I wanted to look at the equid omens in Šumma Ālu. A lot of work goes into understanding any text as published in the Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum (CT) volumes. So before I started down that road, I thought I’d mine CAD to see what I could find. I found enough to convince me that I needed to apply the effort to dig through CT 40 plates 33-37 and some related material, and, of course, it means I need to spend some quality time with Friedrich Nötscher’ 1930 work on Šumma Ālu. The only thing I find more vexing than hand transcribed cuneiform is handwritten German! And then, there are also those Šumma Ālu tablets in the Louvre that will demand my attention.
Anyway, here’s an example of donkey divination from CT 40 33:14 as restored with the aid of TCL 6 8:12.
šumma imēru iddanamm[um] bēlšu nakru ileqqīma aššanssu iddanammam
If a donkey constantly moans, the enemy will carry off his master, and his wife will mourn forever after.
I found this in CAD D, 60 and retained CAD’s rather poetic translation. For my more abnormal readers, “his wife” refers to the wife of the owner of the donkey, not to the donkey’s wife. Notice the use of nearly the same form of damāmu, “to mourn,” in both the protasis and the apodosis. This is a rather crude example of hermeneutic polyphony or, perhaps better, hermeneutic equivalence. There appear to be examples from Šumma Ālu of at least horses (and likely donkeys) swerving or lying down but CAD doesn’t provide the complete omen and in a few cases not even the complete protasis. By the way, don’t think I’m equating the moaning of a donkey with Balaam’s jenny talking. If there is a relationship between the equid omens of Šumma Ālu and the Balaam story, it’s far more complicated than that. However, this much is clear, both the early exponents of Number 22-24 and learned scribes of Šumma Ālu thought the activities of donkeys sometimes represented something more than donkeys just being obstinate. I’m not ready to say much than that just now – perhaps later. First, I need finally to finish divining the matter of the snake.

Nötscher, Friedrich, “Die Omen-Serie šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin,” Orientalia, NS, 51-54 (1930)