Our Text for the day is Deuteronomy 8:15:
. . . who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous snakes, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you water out of the flint rock.
Compare this with the Ugaritic incantation text KTU 1.178 (RS 92.2014). Out of laziness, I follow Pardee’s translation but insert a bnṯ and a cqrb here and there for reference.
I, for my part, will call you.
I will shake bits of sacred wood,
So that the serpent (bnṯ) not come up against you,
So that the scorpion (cqrb) not stand up under you.
The serpent (bnṯ) will indeed not come up against you,
The scorpion (cqrb) will indeed not stand up under you!
In like manner, may the tormentors, the sorcerers not give ear to the word of the evil man,
To the word of any man:
When it sounds forth in their mouth, on their lips,
May the sorcerers, the tormentors, then pour it to the earth.
For Urtenu, for his body, for his members.
There are quite a few things that can be said about the passage from Deuteronomy and the incantation from Ugarit but, as usual, I want to focus on the abnormal. Notice that in both texts, snakes (serpents) are mentioned before scorpions. This is no mere coincidence.
From Esarhaddon 2 iii: 13b-14 we have,
MUŠ u GÍR.TAB šá ki-ma kul-ba-bi ma-lu-u ú-ga-ru
ṣēru u zuqaqīpu kīma kulbābī malû ugāru
. . . the plain teems with snakes and scorpions as if with ants.
And this is just one of several examples from Akkadian tablets and inscriptions. As it was the subject of a past post, the topic of snakes teeming may be the subject of a future post. Think Herodotus, The Histories, I:78. But that’s not what I’m worrying over today.
We see the same snake scorpion order in series Šumma Ālu where tablets with snake omens come before tablets with scorpion omens in numbered sequence. We see the order in vocabulary texts like the Practical Vocabulary Assur where MUŠ = ṣe-ru (snake) is in line 396 and a list of variously colored gír.tab (scorpions) begins in line 397. (Note to self: checkout Hh XIV. From what I can see in CAD, the snake-scorpion order may repeat itself for some reason.)
So how did the set order become snakes before scorpions? I have no idea. One thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that this order was embedded in Akkadian scribal culture which was also the scribal tradition at Ugarit. Whether or not it was embedded in ancient Hebrew scribal cultural and, if so, how that came to be so embedded are different questions. But given the right odds, I’d bet on it being part of Hebrew scribal culture also. Does this also reflect a small element of the larger culture? Who knows? With very few exceptions, all the written material we have comes from and/or was propagated by scribes.
Are there other such embedded micro-cultural elements? Yeah, lots of them. This and the other examples that might be pulled together are each small things. Not one of them means much on its own. But together they provided us with insights into how the ancients saw and organized their world.