Remembering Their Lessons

For the last couple of years I’ve been worrying about exactly what was forbidden in places like Leviticus 19:26, “. . .You shall not practice divination. . .,” . . . לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ . . ., and Deuteronomy 18:10, “Let there not be found among you. . . a מְנַחֵשׁ (a diviner) . . .” and if we can discern echoes of that forbidden activity in parts of the Hebrew Bible where it might have been more obvious had such activity been endorsed rather than condemned. One of the concerns that plagues me as I go blissfully about this quest is the extent to which diviners and other ancient scholars were aware of and used the subtleties and occasional ambiguities of their writing systems. Several more modern scholars, properly I think, see puns as playing important roles in divination texts. At least with regard to Mesopotamian diviners, there really shouldn’t be much question that they knew the many subtleties of their writing system. The great lexical series which they studied amply witness their training in such subtleties and ambiguities. But it’s comforting to see this evidence referenced in Akkadian contexts beyond the concerns of more elementary school exercises.
Padānu Commentary 1 has a rather explicit example. This is Koch-Westenholz’ text 42:66 (K 9667 + Sm 1361 + Rm 149 ii”12’-14’ and duplicates). By the standards of these commentaries this comment is rather long and involved, so I’ll only quote the portion that I find most interesting.
ni-gi-in la-gab-bu pa-ḫa-ru lu-gud la-gab-bu ku-uu-ú
Koch-Westenholz, 238, renders this, “[T]he reading ‘nigin’ of the sign LAGAB means to concentrate, the reading ‘lugud’ of the sign LAGAB means to be short.”
Like many signs, LAGAB, a square formed by two horizontal and two vertical wedges, has several possible ideographic and phonetic readings. If one reads it ‘nigin’ one would understand it as an ideogram for Akkadian paḫāru, “to concentrate, assemble.” If one reads it as ‘lugud’ one would understand it as an ideogram for Akkadian karû, “to be short.” This part of the comment seeks to make it clear that in the context of the interpretation of a particular omen paḫāru and karû mean the same thing even if they have quite different semantic ranges (to use our language) in other contexts. In so far as there is an argument here, the argument is that they can both be represented by the same sign, the LAGAB sign, and are therefore of the same meaning.
The abnormally interesting thing is that no witness to the text of this commentary actually uses the LAGAB sign. All those are that are readable in this area spell out the name of the sign la-gab-bu just as they spell out the two possible readings. CAD L, 36-37, notes that this passage from Padānu Commentary 1 reflects the lexical text Ea I 32f. These advanced scholars remembered their basic training.
One need read no further than the third chapter of Genesis to see that ancient Hebrew scholars knew and exploited subtitles in their own very different writing system.
By the way, if you are abnormally interested in what the Rabbis thought מְנַחֵשׁ meant check out B. Tald Sanh. 65b, Sifri Deut 171, or Sifra Kedushim 6 or wait until sometime later in the week when I plan to post on it.

Koch-Westenholz, Ulla Susanne, Babylonian liver omens: the chapters Manzāzu, Padānu, and Pān tākalti of the Babylonian extispicy series mainly from Aššurbanipal’s Library (Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000)