5e: qoholet as sage, wisdom’s influence—king solomon, king as sage

•June 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment
In Judaic Sapiential tradition—and in keeping with the international ceremonial premise of king as head wise man—the emblematic King Solomon takes center stage in legend as “Israel’s greatest sage” even though he predates the rise of Babylonian-influenced scribalism by half a millennium. As with the authorship of Sumerian Shuruppak and Egyptian Ptah Hotep, the myth of Solomon confers royal authority and glamour on the work of the obscure professional scribe and sage.

For Wisdom’s acceptance into Jewish culture, the importance of Solomon’s romantic image cannot be underestimated. He was James Bond and Obama all in one. He set the fashion. His victory in the competition with his brother(s) for his father’s throne proves that the “best man” won, and by tautological association, that he was, therefore, the “best man.” Huge building projects in his lifetime affirmed both his own wealth and power and that of his subjects. 700 wives and 300 concubines proclaimed his virility. No saint, he was punished for his sins by the breakup of his kingdom after death—for who could follow him?

After Solomon’s high priest Zadok, a caste of priestly sages, keepers of the holy written word, called “Zadokites”—and later perhaps “Sadducees”—arose. Of which we suspect Qohelet was one.

So Solomon becomes the Judaic reply to the Babylonian king sage and the Egyptian divine counselor, as reported in 1 Kings:

And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.

And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.

And he spoke three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five…

—1 Kings 4:29-30, 32, 34 (KJV)


Elaborated reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon based on (non-archaeological) Biblical description. This image was first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok. The copyrights for that book have expired and this image is in the public domain. From http://runeberg.org/nfbl/jerusal2.jpg. Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon%27s_Temple

Like Pythagoras, we see an emblematic character whom the culture needed to glorify in retrospect, even if the deeds attributed were fantastically in-credible, because it gave a solidly credible foundation to the important developments which followed. Developments which were life-blood to cultural self-perception. But achieved by quieter, less marketable heroes.

And where have all Solomon’s wise proverbs and songs gone? The medieval conclusion was that they must be what came next in the bible: The Wisdom Books. The Book of Proverbs opens, first establishing Solomonic identity, then propagandizing wisdom by linking it to every quality we might want in life, culminating with fear of God, and then, if that wasn’t enough, mom and dad:

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;

To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;

To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;

To give subtlety to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.

A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels…

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:

For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck…

—from Proverbs, 1:1-5, 7-9(KJV)

Wisdom is deified in a sweeping literary gesture:

Solomon, Russian icon

The romanticism of King Solomon, depicted holding a temple. Russian icon from early 18th-c. iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia. Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:King-Solomon-Russian-icon.jpg

Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:…

How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?…

For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.

But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.

—from Proverbs, 1: 20, 22, 32-33 (KJV)

Though Wisdom’s femininity is not unique to Jewish Sapiential tradition—Ma’at is the Egyptian goddess creatrix of the world, and would seem to be the original prototype—King Solomon’s fantastic virility is the perfect foil. We remember the Queen of Sheba who heard so much about him she came to check it out in person. She brought him jewels and riddles and he satisfied her. The Ethiopians insist that Solomon and Sheba—or Saba, as her Red Sea coastal nation was called—had an affair from which a son was born who became King Menelik I of Axum, from whom the late Emperor Hailie Selassie traced almost three-millennium lineage of all-but continuous monarchy until his overthrow in 1974. Menelik observed Judaic practice and owned a version of the Ark of the Covenant given by his father.

The Tanakh acknowledges neither the affair nor the birth, but later rabbis who disapproved of Solomon’s immoderation, claimed that the son was the hated Nebuchadnezzar (c. 630-562), the Babylonian conquistador who ended the reign of all Hebrew kings. A five-hundred-year gestation seems like a tall order though, even for Solomon, although the idea that his son would be his undoing has a Freudian appeal.

But the legend itself is prolific, proving once again the “marketability” of the Solomon identity. The Qur’an recognizes Solomon as Suleiman and the Queen of Sheba as Balqis or Bilqis. By Islamic account, Balqis was impressed with Suleiman’s god and converted to Abrahamic monotheism on the spot. Roman recordist Flavius Josephus calls her Nicaule and gives her a birthday of January 5th in the 10th century BCE. Another possible identity is that of Egyptian woman pharaoh Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BCE) who traveled widely and ruled a prosperous trade economy.

In the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom, putative author King Solomon develops this feminine goddess-like identity for Wisdom “in the direction of marital imagery, claiming that God endowed him with a pure soul and boasting that he had consequently wooed Wisdom for his bride” (Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, p. 24, Ch. 1 “The World of Wisdom”.)

Solomon and Sheba by Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca: Legend of the True Cross-the Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon, Detail. (c. 1452-66, Fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy) Public domain. Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon

Neither compared I unto her any precious stone, because all gold in respect of her is as a little sand, and silver shall be counted as clay before her.

I loved her above health and beauty, and chose to have her instead of light: for the light that cometh from her never goeth out.

All good things together came to me with her, and innumerable riches in her hands.

And I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom goeth before them: and I knew not that she was the mother of them.

—Wisdom of Solomon, 7:9-12 [KJV]

Christian apologists dealt with this threat to Jehovah’s uniqueness by asserting that the beautiful goddess Wisdom is actually Christ.

(Although I have to say that I have never unraveled the mystical riddle of how the Holy Trinity equates monotheism.)

(And the angels and seraphs and virtues appear to me to make up a holy host of lesser deities.)

(And why does it feel blasphemous to question this?)

After writing Proverbs, Solomon scribed his Songs, chronicling erotic love in the height of manhood. Last, late, and embittered, he wrote Ecclesiastes. (But why would such a man have ever become embittered? It doesn’t play. His narcissism carried him so far—why would it crap out at the end? There would have been plenty of sycophants to cajole him and too much physical evidence of his triumph. No bitter end for Solomon in my book.)

Growth of the city of Jerusalem, through Kings David, Solomon and Herod

Jerusalem under King David c. 1000 BCE; estimated population 2,000:

Jerusalem under King Solomon c. 970 BCE; estimated population 25,000:

Jerusalem under King Herod, 74-4 BCE; estimated population 60,000:

Maps from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/

5f: qoholet as sage, wisdom’s influence—qoholet’s own wisdom

•June 18, 2013 • 2 Comments
The Book of Ecclesiastes, though attributed as well to Solomon, exhibits none of the romantic fancy of Proverbs or Song of Songs. No other-worldly beauty or deification. Wisdom stays on earth. The mood of day-in-day-out detail reflects Sumerian Shuruppak and Egyptian Ptah more closely than Proverbs. The pessimism recalls Shubshi or Job. The breathtaking cycling from bad to good result, is all Qohelet, but reminds us of wisdom literature’s teaching through antithesis.

Ecclesiastes. Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.

Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.
And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.

Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.

For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.

Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.
Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.

For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?

For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.

For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?

For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

—Eccles. 5:9-26 [KJV]

He was great, desires fulfilled, joy, rewarded in his work—all in vain, no profit. Ouch. Wisdom? Yes, “excelleth” but no, the wise die as the fool, all in vain. Hated life and everything he’d done. Which would be left to who knows? Maybe a fool, maybe not. No control. All in vain. But suddenly it comes to him, no, nothing is better than enjoying life, its pleasures, one’s work (as he had before he started to question). That is where God is. Wisdom, knowledge and joy. Gifts. And work for the sinner to earn them. All in vain. (But it obviously isn’t this time, which puts to question all the other times he has said it previously. Did he mean all was in vain? Or did he want you to ask that question of yourself?)

Qohelet’s mundane realism and grim skepticism have presented an enigma to readers of Ecclesiastes for millennia. Why is he so pessimistic and morbid? Doesn’t he believe in the afterlife? Why does he encourage worldly pleasure as the only saving grace? Was he overly influenced by hedonistic Greek thought? Even now, I find spirited consternation between the lines of recent scholarly Christian writings:

Both Proverbs and the Book of Job are products of a wisdom ethos that placed enormous confidence in the human intellect. The author of Ecclesiastes lacked trust in either God or knowledge. For him nothing proved that God looked on the creation with favor, and the entire enterprise of wisdom had become bankrupt. The astonishing thing is that such skepticism did not prevent Qoheleth from asking the question of questions: Does life have any meaning at all?

—from p. 116, Ch. 5 “Chasing After Meaning: Ecclesiastes,” Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, James L. Crenshaw, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Used by permission.

And differing views!

Read positively, Ecclesiastes complements rather than contradicts Proverbs and Job. Proverbs is well aware of retributive paradox (Gladson [that eye-for-an-eye justice may not be served and maybe should not be served, i.e. the wicked may not be punished, the righteous may not be protected]), especially in its latter chapters; Job and Ecclesiastes explore such paradox in detail, Job through a terrible story of suffering, and Ecclesiastes through an intellectual struggle for meaning. Also, Ecclesiastes, with its affirmation of creation and its understanding of work as toil and life as hebel [vanity], has strong links with Gen. 1-3.

—from p. 183, Ch. 18 “Ecclesiastes,” Craig G. Bartholomew, Theological Interpretations of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, general editor, Craig G. Bartholomew and Daniel J. Treier, assoc. editors, Baker Book House Company, 2005, 2008.

Ecclesiastes for James Crenshaw, Robert L. Flowers Professor of Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School in North Carolina, is skeptical, its faith in wisdom bankrupt, the myth of creation unproven, while for Craig Bartholomew, PhD University of Bristol UK and H. Evan Runner Chair in Philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Ecclesiastes “complements” rather than bankrupts the prior wisdom books of Job and Proverbs, and strongly affirms the myth of creation. How much more diametrically opposed could these two readings be?

Professor Crenshaw, like me, seeking to understand, has created his own translations of Ecclesiastes. Unlike mine, though, they veer to the dark side. I side more with Professor Bartholomew, and apparently he and I are in the minority.

Crenshaw’s negative view of Ecclesiastes is something I objected to earlier. It accords with his and Leo Perdue’s suggestion that the cult of Wisdom arose in alternative to Yahwism, whose claims—an omnipotent Y-H-V-H, obsessively engaged in the preservation of the Jewish people forsaking all others—were bankrupted by a series of political misfortunes culminating in the fall of the kings of David to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonian oppression. Skepticism sets in and threatens to subvert the religion. Wisdom’s mystery saves everything. Skepticism is redeemed by divine inscrutability. Yet Crenshaw sees the purposelessness of Babylonian “divine caprice” as the ultimate pessimism. And Qohelet’s book a close runner-up.

The first thing I disagree with is the crisis-of-faith premise that skepticism appears in the face of adversity. I understand that it sounds logical to doubt and mistrust the large structure of a belief set when its veracity seems more and more questionable. And in our individual lives, that is what we do. But having spent life as an artist, I don’t feel that that’s what happens on the societal level. I submit that when the going gets rough—war, natural disaster, famine—artists turn away from negative modes of expression, such as irony, satire, cynicism, and look for positive— escapist, humorous, joyful or comforting—vehicles for expressions. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as protest art—and important examples thereof. I’m just saying that it’s when we have the liberty to criticize, we will. It’s not from ennui, really. It’s just that we are aware that we are in dialogue, and we seek to say what will be most valued and heard. Freedom of speech gets exercised when regimes are less oppressive not more.

"Stop H-Bomb Tests" Ben Shahn, 1960. From Greg Cook's blog, "The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research"

“Stop H-Bomb Tests” Ben Shahn, 1960. From Greg Cook’s blog, “The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research”

The richest eras for protest art, for cynicism, for poetry about suicide, for acrid social satire, in the experience of my half-century-long life, have been times of comfort and prosperity. The downtimes have produced art which was less self-critical and more about inspiration, adventure, entertainment or fashion. Nothing wrong with that either. And it was always a matter of degree, not a blanket of black, then white. I have no proof except my gut feeling.

Which is why the idea that the relative leniency of the Persian rule increased scribal—artistic—production, works for me. And why the Babylonian captivity might have triggered an effusive creative outpouring, after the fact. While Babylonian “proximity” confronted Jews with cultural literacy, literature and sophisticated questioning—fording upon them the intellectual tools and skills they would need to express that outpouring.

Also, because of my own belief set, I do not see the Babylonian belief in divine inscrutability as pessimistic. The “Righteous Sufferer,” Job and Qohelet, all—according to the hypothesis I’ve just advanced—made their work in times of relative comfort. Maybe not perfect times, but they didn’t write from suffering, they wrote about suffering. But that’s not all.

Because of my personal experience with 12-step recovery—which I will talk about later—the idea of a god who whose plan I cannot fully understand is a friendly one. It actually gives me hope to let go and let god. Marduk tortures the “righteous sufferer”, Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan. The Lord afflicts Job. Qohelet hates growing old and fears his life has been pointless. But in each writing, the god is proven. Shubshi and Job survive to write about it. And from them we learn that we should trust whatever god we believe in no matter what. From Qohelet we learn that acceptance of life on life’s terms is all there is in life and all there ever need be.

Only the surface of these pieces is pessimistic. (In Qohelet’s case, teasingly so. I think there is humor and word play we are not getting. Not cute. Dangerous, elegant and sardonic.) The underlying message is one of deep faith. How can this be pessimistic?

In the context of Wisdom, though, there is more I want to observe. While the relationship between the Babylonian writing and Old Testament seems clear and now, almost unsurprising—although the direct lineage amazed me at first—the connection between Qohelet, in particular, and Egyptian Wisdom, is stunning. Qohelet is a Jew in fierce dialogue with Egyptian thinking, from his tomb-inscription autobiography to the manifestation of ma’at in

  • the great cycles of nature—earth, sun, wind, water—
  • the lesser cycles of human life (large to us)—birth, death, wealth, poverty, marriage, building a home, planting and harvesting—
  • to the minutest cycles—what is wise to say or do, what is foolish, how to deal with what seems unfair, and above all to focus what is good, what we have to be grateful for, whatever it is.

What is so striking to me is that if I explain Qohelet’s comments to myself in terms of ma’at, it is as if I have unlocked a door with a key. Beyond the door, there is light and green.

But while I believe Qohelet embodies many of the principles of ma’at, I don’t feel he has accepted all the Egyptian belief set. The intricate rites of passage into the afterlife are no echo in Qohelet’s:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go the house of feasting;

for this is the end for all of us, and the living should take it to heart.

—Eccles. 7:2 [KB]

Because what is most provocative is his assertion, here and throughout the book, that death is the end. For all of us. Man and Beast. Wise and fool. King and servant. Wicked and righteous. It is almost as if he is speaking out against the concept of afterlife. Here he reminds us that it is more important to offer comfort to the bereaved than to look to our own pleasure. “Feasting” or mishteh is first translated as “drinking” or “banqueting,” all of which “feasting” seems to cover. A party. They need you more at the home in mourning, and you will feel like you gave more meaningfully.

Whether or not there is an afterlife, that family has lost someone in this life. Do not let visions of the afterlife justify ungenerous behavior. Pay attention to meaning in this life. It may not be where you think it is. Who would prefer a funeral to a party? Grief to hilarity? And yet the sadder one may offer more heartfelt meaning. And isn’t that what we are searching for?

The way that Qohelet seems Egyptian is in his delineation of free will versus divine order. You have a choice: you can “fear before God,” believe that divine order is more powerful and eternal than you and listen for right answers as to how you might more closely adhere to divine order—which is the whole quest of wisdom. Or you can be a fool and follow your own path. Either way the earth will outlive you, the sun will be risen and set and returned to begin again, the winds will blow and the rivers will run into the sea. You can be in harmony with all things great and small, or you can ignore harmony and sing whatever the hell comes out of your damn mouth. And see if we like it.

There is no way Solomon is Qohelet. There is no way King Solomon had time to woo 700 women and write all the biblical books of wisdom except Job. Based on Egyptian and Mesopotamian precedent, it is very likely that the use of Solomon’s name is an allusion to legitimacy, an accepted fiction, in every work ascribed to him. Kind of like publishers in the modern world.

Pope Gregory as imagined by Saraceni in 1610.

St Gregory the Great, after Carlo Saraceni, or his studio, ca. 1610. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. Saraceni has Dark Ages Pope Gregory (590-604 CE) sitting at a desk composing music in 17th-c. notation as he receives the melody from the Holy Spirit. Notation as we know it had not been invented yet.

But as sure as I am of that, I am sure that there is some connection between Solomon and Wisdom, and that without his imprimatur, biblical wisdom texts might never have been canonized. I’ve used the analogy before (and it was probably cryptic then too) but I’ll try it again. Pope Gregory the Great was responsible for organizing the Mass into a usable repeatable ceremony involving a complex machinery of sung and spoken, and constant and variable text. Two hundred or so years later when Charlemagne, then a Frankish king, wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor, Rome made a deal. At the time French chanters improvised virtuosically, traveling from town to town to lead congregations in call-and-answer sung recitation. It was a rich, vibrant tradition of many generations in precedent. Rome requested that all chant become standardized in the Roman style not the Gallican. Monk enforcers were sent out to every parish to teach them how to sing. But the most effective maneuver was the declaration that the long-dead Pope Gregory had received all the chant melodies from God, and that was why you had to let go of your age-old way of doing things. Hence Gregorian chant.

Perhaps Solomon was the first patron of the royal sage, and in the Babylonian style, was considered First Sage. Or maybe he just really did do everything. It just seems like a quieter man wrote Ecclesiastes.

To conclude, quieter Qohelet didn’t need to be a cosmopolitan king to be a practitioner of wisdom culture in late 3rd c. Jerusalem. Biblical wisdom culture was inevitable once Jerusalem developed intellectually following Babylonian post-exilic reconstruction. If the emblem hadn’t been Solomon, it would have been someone else. Wisdom culture was in the air. All Jews were descended from Sumer. The commandments of Moses. The creation stories which include Noah. All this was in their DNA to start with. Gottheil et al. of the Jewish Encyclopedia had found a comment in the Talmud which I touched on before, that the Lord exiled Judah and Israel to Babylon “because it was the land from which they had come, as a husband that is angry with his wife sends her home to her mother.” That husband and wife begat the Jews. The wife from Sumer and the husband from the west, Tyre, Phoenicia, or maybe even Egypt.

And Qohelet’s wisdom is also thoroughly Babylonian, because Judaism became Babylonian post-exile. Divine inscrutability must be the first premise when we read Ecclesiastes, not an afterthought. And we must understand that while Qohelet is equally and as thoroughly affected by the principle of ma’at, he rejects the Egyptian tenet of the afterlife, and we must remove that as a premise when we read his work.

Finally, let me say that despite the insights offered by divine inscrutability, ma’at, and the door I’ve opened onto the green sward, I still worry that I’m crazy not to see Ecclesiastes as scolding (the contemporary Christian view) or pessimistic (the contemporary Jewish view).

The enigma of contradiction persists. The enigma which Qohelet himself designed. To get us to stop and question. Much of the immediate word wit, I think, has been lost in the translation, bringing a quality of non sequitur and quirkiness to the enigma which I don’t think he intended. So I understand the puzzlement of my learned colleagues. And just as 20th-c. Christian theologians are confounded, so were the early Common Era Rabbis. Is Qohelet’s the word of god? Is what he says foreign to the message of the Torah? Or does it fit in some wise inscrutable way?

5d: qoholet as sage, wisdom’s influence—egyptian wisdom literature, ma’at and the sage in the ancient near east

•February 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Early in the 2nd millennium in neighboring Egypt, The Instruction of Pharaoh Amenemhat I to his son Pharaoh Senusret I, c. 1909 BCE, 12th Dynasty, Middle Kingdom, poses—with realistic detail! —as the posthumous letter of a murdered king to his son and heir. As in ancient Mesopotamia, we have the egis of royal authorship for the likely work of professional scribes. Mingle with this the Egyptian tradition of autobiographical tomb inscriptions reciting the accomplishments of the regal deceased—who is not deceased but helped on to the afterlife by such lavish provision and ceremony inside and outside his tomb as this sort of remarkable inscription:

Beware of subjects who are nobodies,

of whose plotting one is not aware.

Do not go near to them alone.

Trust not a brother, know not a friend,

make no intimates, it is worthless.

When You lie down, guard your heart yourself.

For no man has adherents on the day of woe…

It was after supper, night had come. I was taking an hour of rest, lying on my bed, for I was weary. As my heart began to follow sleep, weapons for my protection were turned against me, while I was like a snake of the desert. I awoke at the fighting, {came to myself}, and found it was a combat of the guard. Had I quickly seized weapons in my hand, I would have made the cowards retreat. But no one is strong at night; no one can fight alone; no success is achieved without a helper.

Thus bloodshed occurred while I was without You; before the courtiers had heard I would hand over to You; before I had sat with You so as to advise You. For I had not prepared for it, had not expected it, had not foreseen the failing of the servants…

I was grain-maker, beloved of Nepri. [god of corn]

Hapy [god of the Nile and flood] honored me on every field.

None hungered in my years.

None thirsted in them…

I subdued lions, I captured crocodiles,

I repressed those of Wawat, [the first waterfall of the Nile, southernmost ancient Egyptian city, Nubia]

I captured the Medjay, [Nubian army]

I made the Asiatics [a nomadic group that swept over Syria, Palestine and Egypt c. 1750 BCE] do the dog walk.

I built myself a house decked with gold,

its ceiling of lapis lazuli,

walls of silver, floors of [acacia wood],

doors of copper, bolts of bronze.

The serfs (however) plotted against me.

Be prepared against this !

If You know this, then You are its Lord, You the All-Lord.

Behold, much hatred is in the streets.

The wise says ‘yes’, the fool says ‘no’ (for)

he has not understood it, (as) his face is lacking (eyes)…

Behold, I made the beginning, You will tie the end.

I have landed by the dead,

(and) You wear the White Crown of a god’s son…

—lines 6-12, 24-25, 36-39, 42-55, 61-63, the divine word(s): The Instruction of Amenemhat, early XIIth Dynasty-ca.1909 BCE, the revelation of truth beyond the tomb, the assassination of the king and his solitude by Wim van den Dungen, http://www.maat.sofiatopia.org/amenemhat.htm


Scribe’s exercise tablet with hieratic text. Wood. Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BCE. Text is an excerpt from The Instructions of Amenemhat (Dynasty XII), and reads: “Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you …Trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates.”

Photo: One dead president, David Liam Moran. Shared under GNU, CC licenses. Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scribe%27s_exercise_tablet_1.jpg

Even if authored by the son Senusret in honor of his murdered father, the nature of the pharaoh’s advice is more specialized, directed at a more regal recipient, than that of the Sumerian king to his son. Practical, worldly as such, although gods are invoked, two of the deities being the father and son pharaohs themselves. And yet it has a generalized wisdom even so, to any son of the upper classes. And a rock star appeal to those who served them perhaps—e.g. its use as a scribal training exercise above? And this particular poem has the added gothic twist of a murder mystery.

There is a resonance with the Egyptian autobiographical recital and its twist, with Chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes where Qohelet describes his wealthy accomplishments and how they have come to nothing. A spectacular brag—crib, turf, bling, sex, drugs (he mentions wine and mirth later) and rock ‘n’ roll—but no, it was nothing. The rhythmic enumeration builds into a strong surprise cadence of “all was vanity and a striving after wind.”

I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself;

I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.

I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.

I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.

I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces;

I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man’s delight.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me.

And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

—Eccles. 2:4-10 [RSV]

It is almost as if Qohelet is satirizing the form—wisdom’s autobiographical account, Egyptian grave inscriptions, and the patterned lists which Crenshaw and Murphy warned us of. But there is humor in murdered Amenemhat’s letter—I laugh every time I read about the Asiatics’ dog-walk—not to mention the macabre absurdity of his fantastic authorship. Humor and death are not unacquainted in word art. A zing Qohelet may have inherited from the Egyptian side. Woody Allen has made a career of something similar in our time.

Seven Egyptian dynasties, one kingdom and three to five hundred years earlier, the Instructions of Ptah Hotep, c. 2200 BCE, 5th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, share Pharaoh Amenemhat’s format—a letter from father to son—but the proffered wisdom is more generalized, as in the Sumerian letter. Maxims stand discrete, lyrically poetic, though lengthy; such as we will see in the later Book of Proverbs and in some portions of Ecclesiastes. More positive in mood than Amenemhat’s or Qohelet’s instructions. Not so much sting and zing. Kinder. More like Shuruppak’s, with which they are slightly more contemporary.

Follow your heart as long as you live,

Do no more than is required . . .

Don’t waste time on daily cares

Beyond providing for your household;

When wealth has come, follow your heart,

Wealth does no good if one is glum!

—Maxim #1, Instructions of Ptah Hotep, c. 2200 BCE, per Rex Pay, Rex Pay’s Humanistic Texts, 1999 http://www.humanistictexts.org/ptahhotep.htm. From translation, Ancient Egyptian Literature—A Book of Readings Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms by Miriam Lichtheim. The University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1973.

The ending of this maxim is similar in message to Ecclesiastes 6:2:

A man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.

—Eccles 6:1-2 [RSV]

And here is the 10th proto-commandment Egyptian-style in easy, flowing terms. Like the Sumerian, it is less stern than its Mosaic cousin, and again, more wordy. There is more explanation for why one should not do x because y:

Do not plunder a neighbor’s house,

Do not steal the goods of one near you,

Lest he denounce you before you are heard…

If you want friendship to endure

In the house you enter

As master, brother, or friend,

In whatever place you enter,

Beware of approaching the women!

Unhappy is the place where it is done,

Unwelcome is he who intrudes on them.

A thousand men are turned away from their good:

A short moment like a dream,

Then death comes for having known them…

—Maxims #6 and #19, Instructions of Ptah Hotep, c. 2200 BCE, Pay 1999, Lichtheim 1973.

Ptah Hotep

Ptah Hotep

—Photo from Mathilda’s diary: one desperately bored housewife, http://mathildasanthropologyblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/ptah-hotep.jpg. Statue is in Imhotep Museum, Saqqara, Cairo, Egypt.

Note the magical use of antithetical parallelism in the following maxim as it gets going, and recall the same in the famous lines of Ecclesiastes Ch. 3: born-die, plant-pluck up, etc.

If you are mighty, gain respect through knowledge

And through gentleness of speech.

Don’t command except as is fitting,

He who provokes gets into trouble.

Don’t be haughty, lest you be humbled,

Don’t be mute, lest you be chided.

When you answer one who is fuming,

Avert your face, control yourself.

The flame of the hot-heart sweeps across,

He who steps gently, his path is paved.

He who frets all day has no happy moment,

He who’s gay all day can’t keep house.

—Maxim #23, Instructions of Ptah Hotep, c. 2200 BCE, Pay 1999, Lichtheim 1973.

Ptah Hotep closes with the promise of wisdom’s value and potential immortality:

If you listen to my sayings,

All your affairs will go forward;

In their truth resides their value,

Their memory goes on in the speech of men,

Because of the worth of their precepts…

—Maxim #32, Instructions of Ptah Hotep, c. 2200 BCE, Pay 1999, Lichtheim 1973.

Recall Qohelet’s 7:11-12, wisdom as protection and valued inheritance:

Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.

For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.

—Eccles. 7:11-12 [KJV]

In the following lines, he tells a story where wisdom saves the day. Saves lives. A very real power. But then he banks and undercuts it. There was no recognition of wisdom’s role.

There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:

Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.

—Eccles. 9:14-15 [KJV]

Then three verses in quick succession. Zap. Zing. Zffft. The arrows fly by our ears. The middle arrow goes after the king, who’s a fool, flanked by two parallel constructions which open with a statement of wisdom’s value, then slap it down.

Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.

The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

—Eccles. 9:16-18 [KJV]

Again, if we read this carefully, we hear that he is reminding us that we should be listening to the poor wise man, the voice of wisdom, and we are not. And who is the one sinner? Me? You? We are warned.

Finally, note the opening salvo from Chapter 1, where Qohelet says that everything is forgotten, doomed to repeat. This is his single sternest warning, his most threatening to a culture based on remembering and accumulating knowledge through writing as immortality.

Ptah Hotep’s wisdom culture in the 23rd-22nd century and Shuruppak’s in 30th are much younger than Qohelet’s in the 3rd-2nd. For Ptah Hotep and Shuruppak, wisdom is still something to promote, encourage, seduce with. Two to three millennia later in Qohelet’s world, wisdom has long been accepted as a source of power and cultural presence in the Ancient Middle East, its reliance on teaching, study and the written word institutionalized even in late-comer Judaic culture.

But that doesn’t mean that anyone is actually listening. Its value must be revived by reminders which catch our attention. The city you live in may come under fire. Oh no. And wisdom might save you, but will you be wise enough to listen? You will listen to the wealthy and the powerful but you may ignore one who is not so “loud.” The challenges wisdom faced in the first place are the same—it is invisible and unquantifiable. Qohelet makes a direct attack on wisdom’s behalf when he likens wisdom to money (7:11-12) and to weaponry (9:14-18)—attaching it to the tangible sense of physical well-being. Though Ptah Hotep and Shuruppak both give advice which is more practical, and for which the consequences of not heeding we know to be quite tangible—their hinting at these consequences tends to be much more gentle than Qohelet’s sharp frankness.

Said author, Ptah Hotep was vizier under King Isesi of the 5th Dynasty (ruled 2414-2375 BCE) and would have flourished between 2450-2300 BCE, in the late 3rd millennium. However Miriam Lichtheim (1914-2004), intrinsic Egyptologist and translator, suggests that Ptah Hotep may have been author in name only, because there are no mentions of the vizierate and many legalisms which suggest a person who worked in the law. Ms. Lichtheim (who came to the U.S. in 1941 to work at Yale as an academic librarian before beginning to publish her life’s work in the 50s and recognition—cool story) also suggests that the literary style is later, more like 2300-2150 BCE. Someone assuming the literary identity of a person of power, connected to royalty, dead enough not to demur, but recent enough in memory to still confer a cachet of credibility.

So Ptah Hotep may not be Ptah Hotep (Wikipedia thinks Ptah Hotep is really his grandson Ptahhotep Tshefi fl. c. 2200 BCE), just as Shuruppak may not be Shuruppak and Qohelet not Solomon. Just wise scribes.


A section of the Prisse Papyrus from the National Library in Paris, France. Found at Thebes, Egypt by M. Prisse d’Avennes in 1846. Contains copies in hieratic script of Precepts of Kakemna and Precepts of Ptah-hotep. Source: Plate IV. The S.S. Teacher’s Edition: The Holy Bible. New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896. Public Domain. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Prisse_papyrus.jpg

The literary document that seems to have drawn the most extravagant comparisons with Jewish wisdom literature is the Instruction of Amenemotep, Amenemope or Amenhotep, an Egyptian papyrus containing 30 chapters of proverbs written about the time of the 19th Dynasty under pharaoh Amenmesse (circa 1200 BCE). More recent than Ptah Hotep’s (5th dynasty) or Amenemhat’s (12th dynasty), Amenemotep’s instructions bear so much similarity to Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and the later Book of Sirach, that it’s thought that Amenemotep may have been a Jewish scribal sage living in Egypt. Wikipedia gives a wonderful “cliff notes” summary:

Introduction: The beginning of the instruction about life…

Chapter 01: Give your years and hear what is said…

Chapter 02: Beware of stealing from a miserable man…

Chapter 03: Do not get into a quarrel with the argumentative man…

Chapter 04: The hot-headed man in the temple is like a tree grown indoors…

Chapter 05: Do not take by violence the shares of the temple…

Chapter 06: Do not displace the surveyor’s marker on the boundaries of the arable land…

Chapter 07: Do not set your heart upon seeking riches…

Chapter 08: Set your good deeds throughout the world That you may greet everyone…

Chapter 09: Do not fraternize with the hot-tempered man, Nor approach him to converse…

Chapter 10: Do not address your intemperate friend in your unrighteousness…

Chapter 11: Do not covet the property of the dependent Nor hunger for his bread…

Chapter 12: Do not covet the property of an official…

Chapter 13: Do not lead a man astray <with> reed pen or papyrus document…

Chapter 14: Do not pay attention to a person, Nor exert yourself to seek out his hand…

Chapter 15: Do well, and you will attain influence…

Chapter 16: Do not unbalance the scale nor make the weights false…

Chapter 17: Beware of robbing the grain measure To falsify its fractions…

Chapter 18: Do not go to bed fearing tomorrow, For when day breaks what is tomorrow?

Chapter 19: Do not enter the council chamber in the presence of a magistrate And then falsify your speech…

Chapter 20: Do not corrupt the people of the law court, Nor put aside the just man…

Chapter 21: Do not say, I have found a strong protector And now I can challenge a man in my town…

Chapter 22: Do not castigate your companion in a dispute…

Chapter 23: Do not eat a meal in the presence of a magistrate…

Chapter 24: Do not listen to the accusation of an official indoors…

Chapter 25: Do not jeer at a blind man nor tease a dwarf…

Chapter 26: Do not stay in the tavern And join someone greater than you…

Chapter 27: Do not reproach someone older than you…

Chapter 28: Do not expose a widow if you have caught her in the fields…

Chapter 29: Do not turn people away from crossing the river When you have room in your ferryboat…

Chapter 30: Mark for your self these thirty chapters…

—Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instructions_of_Amenemopet

The complete instructions are available at TourEgypt.net—both in well-formed English stanzas and a long column of beautiful colored hieroglyphs. Or at Ancient Egypt’s Books of Wisdom—illustrated with majestic tomb bas-relief. Or, as a twelve-foot scroll in the British Museum known as Papyrus 10474, acquired unwittingly in 1888 by E. A. Wallis Budge.

Photograph of E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) in his office at the British Museum. Wikimedia Commons.


The British Museum has the complete text of the Instruction of Amenemopet. The original is thought to date to the Twentieth Dynasty (about 1186-1069 BCE) or later. The poem lacks a narrative framework; instead it is divided into thirty sections or maxims, each concerned with one topic. In each section, a piece of advice is put forward, and then refined through a series of similes. Two themes common are the sections, the ‘silent man’ and the ‘heated man’, in other words, the ‘ideal’ and ‘non-ideal’. The poem praises the omniscience of god, and contrasts it with human fallibility.


Goddess Ma’at wearing the feather of truth. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Goddess Ma’at wearing the feather of truth. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

For Qohelet, perhaps the most influential element of Egyptian wisdom literature is the powerful underlying worldview embodied in the principle of ma’at. Ma’at is order, good order, much like the 20th-c.’s “Good Orderly Direction,” which explicates the word “god” as acronym. Ma’at is the way the world is supposed to be, the way it was intended. Ma’at is the divinely established principle of social order. Ma’at is physical and moral law. Ma’at is justice. Ma’at is truth. Ma’at is a goddess, the guide of the divine pharaoh who must ensure justice and truth on earth. Ma’at created the world. Ma’at is the mother of gods. Ma’at asks for restraint of appetite and tongue, honesty and a proper attitude towards wealth and impoverishment. Ma’at teaches the right way and the good life. Most of all, ma’at is wisdom.

Here is Ptah Hotep’s description of ma’at per Professor Murphy:

Justice is great, and its appropriateness is lasting;

it has not been disturbed since the time of him who made it….

It is the (right) path for him who knows nothing….

The strength of justice is that it lasts….

— as quoted in Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature Eerdmans, 1990, p. 161, Appendix, “Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom”

Here is an early 2nd-millennium view of ma’at:

Speak Maat, do Maat.

For she is mighty.

She is great, she endures.

Her worth is tried,

She leads one to the state of reveredness.

—from The Eloquent Peasant (Lichtheim, 1975, p.181. Four copies on papyrus dating Middle Kingdom, also Assmann, J. : Ma’at, 1999, p.70 – dated XIIth Dynasty). Via Wim van den Dungen, “Discourse of a Man with his Ba: the chaotic heart and the just ways of the living soul in Ancient Egyptian didactical literature & funerary anthropology” www.maat.sofiatopia.org/ba

Michael V. Fox, Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, abstracts for his students five canons of rhetoric implicit in the wisdom precepts:

keeping silent,

waiting for the right moment to speak,

restraining passionate words,

speaking fluently but with great deliberation,

and above all, keeping your tongue at one with your heart so that you speak the truth.

—from Michael V. Fox, Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric, Rhetorica, 1 (1, Spring, 1983):9-22.

Fox says “they imply one another. Knowing the right moment for speech means waiting until then, in silence; speaking fluently results from sincerity, the unity of tongue and heart. The need to restrain passionate words might seem to conflict with the requirement of honesty, but the teachers taught only that whatever you speak must be true, not that whatever is true must be spoken.”

Qohelet says: “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?” (Eccles. 5:6 [KJV])

Christa Kayatz, Professor of Evangelistic Theology at the University of Duisberg-Essen, enumerates beliefs shared by Egypt and Israel:

  • Wisdom, even when personified (Lady Wisdom per Solomon) or deified (the divinity Ma’at), is referred to in the 3rd person, while other divinities (including Y-H-V-H, Elokim or “the Lord”) speak “I-style”
  • the association of royalty and Wisdom/ma’at
  • Wisdom/ma’at is life and the giver of life
  • the wearing of symbols of wisdom/ma’at for protection and guidance: in Prov. 6:21 “the student is ordered to bind the teachings of his parents about his neck, over his heart. Similarly high officials in the Egyptian court would wear an amulet of ma’at about the neck.”
  • reciprocity of love: I love them that love me…(Prov. 8:17) is found in Egyptian scarabs as well
  • ideal of manliness: strong, self-controlled, silent type who has achieved “harmonious integration with the divine order and is master of any situation” vs. the “heated man” who is constantly stirring up trouble with his unthinking, rash actions.
  • although Egypt was pantheistic, only a single collective reference to divinity appears in the “instructions” genre. This presence is omniscient, omnipotent and just, but relatively silent, though ready to help those who would pursue the divine order of ma’at. The focus in Egyptian wisdom literature like its biblical counterpart, is on day-to-day living in the here and now (then), with little attention to the afterlife, even though the Egyptians believed in life after death.

Qohelet’s ma’at underlies the two poems I have set to music: Eccles. 3:1-8, “To every thing there is a season…” and Eccles. 1:4-7 “Generations come and go but the earth endures beyond mind…” James Crenshaw thinks Qohelet may even have “borrowed” both from the Egyptians (Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, 1998, p. 129). I just believe that Egypt under the Ptolemies, despite their abuses as leaders, would have exerted a strong cultural pull on the world around it. Anyone living outside of Alexandria would have been aware that the tempo there moved faster, that the ideas flew. And anyone who lived in the world of wisdom, as Qohelet did, could not have been impervious to the persuasion of the Egyptian concept-world which underlay the commerce of ideas and fashion of that time.

Qohelet illustrates the Egyptian ideal man, when he counsels:

Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.

For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.

—Eccles. 5:2-3 [KJV]

The God he mentions, Elokim, is an honorific plural, and so in a strange way reflects the collective Egyptian reference. And although mentioned, God is remote. Qohelet counsels adherence to the principle of ma’at, when he warns:

Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him; but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.

—Eccles. 8:12-13 [RSV]

He implies that ma’at, good order, will be restored in this lifetime. And here he decries the disorder of the political situation he lives in, presumably a Graeco-Egyptian rule under the Ptolemies:

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as great an error as if it proceeded from the ruler:

folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place.

I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves.

—Eccles. 10:5-7 [RSV]

This is from the chapter that closes with one of Qohelet’s “loudest” disparagements: Woe to you, O Land, whose king is a child…    We know from history that the child-king’s violation of ma’at was well-punished. And because of Qohelet’s next line, Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of free men…, we know that he knows that ma’at was served too.

His disgust with the Egypt-based governance but deep accord with Egyptian ma’at, should demonstrate how separate the political allegiance was from the cultural. Qohelet was a loyal son of Jerusalem who believed in and abided by Egyptian concepts of good order.

When the question of the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the Jewish biblical canon arose later, no one objected to the possibility of Egyptian influence. They objected to possible Graecisms and the absence of affirmations of the afterlife.

But the afterlife was probably an Egyptian idea too.

The idea that some part of you lives on, was almost universal in the ancient Near East, but an actual afterlife, which you might actually look forward to, was unique to ancient Egypt. In earliest times, the privilege of afterlife was reserved for pharaohs and their intimates, who thus became immortal. By the 5th dynasty (2498-2345 BCE), the hope of afterlife was extended to everyone. According to ma’at, human life followed the cyclic rhythms of nature—a belief set clearly espoused by Qohelet in the nature poem. If cyclic, then universal afterlife is a natural corollary (although Qohelet himself never goes that far).

To support the belief, elaborate and spectacular rituals of death and burial developed in Egypt. Those which have caught 20th-c. pop notice are pyramid tombs and mummification, the hieroglyphs associated with burial inscriptions, the sculpted effigies of the deceased and the occult lore of post-mortem instructions such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Upon closer inspection, the rituals have a ring of recognition and there is more than an incidental connection to Christian ideas of death, purgatory, judgment, heaven, hell, angels and the general relationship between immortal soul and mortal body, than pop culture chooses to assume:

After a person dies their soul is led into a hall of judgment in Duat by Anubis (god of mummification) and the deceased’s heart, which was the record of the morality of the owner, is weighed against a single feather representing Ma’at (the concept of truth and order). If the outcome is favorable, the deceased is taken to Osiris, god of the afterlife, in Aaru, but the demon Ammit (Eater of Hearts)– part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus–destroys those hearts whom the verdict is against, leaving the owner to remain in Duat. A heart that weighed less than the feather was considered a pure heart, not weighed down by the guilt or sins of one’s actions in life, resulting in a favorable verdict; a heart heavy with guilt and sin from one’s life weighed more than the feather, and so the heart would be eaten by Ammit. An individual without a heart in the afterlife in essence, did not exist as Egyptians believed the heart to be the center of reason and emotion as opposed to the brain which was removed and discarded during mummification. Many times a person would be buried with a “surrogate” heart to replace their own for the weighing of the heart ceremony.

—“Ancient Egyptian religion,” Wikipedia

The soul has five parts: its name, its shadow, its ka or life force, its ba or persona, and its akh or final resurrected glory. In order to achieve akh, the physical vessel, the body’s shell, has to journey to rejoin its now-separated ka, at rest until ritual reactivation after mummification. If reunion is impossible, the ba will act in the body’s stead. For the physical body to survive the journey, the ba must return to it every night. Its fate intricately interwoven with the physical body, the ba requires food, drink, sex, toys and pets. The ka too requires food and offerings, all of which are provided within the tomb.

After the initial reunion with ka, the ba journeys into the heavens to attain the soul’s full immortality as akh.

Egyptian afterlife beliefs resonated throughout the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Norman Solomon in his chapter “Life After Death from a Jewish Perspective”, suggests that:

Egyptian and perhaps Indian beliefs [about reincarnation] reached Greece not later than the time of Pythagoras [Pythagoras believed he was a reincarnation of Euphorbus, a Greek warrior at Troy], in the sixth century BCE…The earliest Jewish sources to speak openly of an afterlife belong to the second century BCE, the Maccabaean period. Daniel and late additions to Isaiah, together with several apocryphal books, testify to the bodily resurrection of the faithful; the apocryphal story in 2 Maccabees 7 of the mother and her seven sons who submitted to torture and death for their faith links this to the concept of martyrdom.

—p. 289, Norman Solomon, “Life After Death from a Jewish Perspective,” Abraham’s Children: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conversation, Norman Solomon, Richard Harries, Tim Winter. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006

Sarah Iles Johnston adds that:

In Egypt we find what are probably the earliest foreshadowings of hell: a place where unrighteous people are subjected to torments and “the second death,” a notion that is taken up later in the Christian Book of Revelation. Righteous Egyptians could look forward to their counterpart to the Elysian Fields, the Field of Reeds.

—p. 470, “Death, the Afterlife and Other Last Things”, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston, Harvard University Press, 2004.

Johnston also notes the Mesopotamian contribution to heaven and hell:

Ideas of a blessed hereafter and of punishments for the damned also appear to be present in ancient Persia from a very early period… after death the soul is escorted to a bridge that leads to paradise. There it is judged by a divine court. The righteous soul is able to cross the bridge; the unrighteous falls off to perdition…

—p. 470, ed. Johnston

She then connects the conceptual advances of the two older cultures to the younger two. First to Greece, whose territory became the immortal soul:

A revolution in attitudes to the afterlife began in the Greek-speaking world about the end of the 6th century BCE, in the teachings of Pythagoras and the Orphics and in the mystery cults, all of which involved ideas of reward and punishment after death. The philosopher Plato incorporated some of these myths about the afterlife into his dialogues and gave them currency in the philosophical world. Henceforth, the immortality of the soul would be regarded as a quintessentially Greek idea, but various mythic conceptions of the afterlife flourished in the Hellenistic age. These included belief in astral immortality, whereby a person might hope to be elevated to the heavens after death.

—p. 470, ed. Johnston

As the Egyptian akh.

Then Johnston follows the idea of apocalyptic judgment into Judaism around 300 BCE—earlier than Solomon above—in a description from the apocryphal Book of Enoch (1 Enoch 22).

Enoch is shown “a large and high mountain, and a hard rock and four beautiful places, and inside it was deep and wide and very smooth,” Here the souls of the dead are gathered to await the judgment. The souls of the righteous are kept apart, with a spring of water and light. Another place is prepared for sinners “accomplished in wrongdoing.” We are told that “their souls will not be killed on the day of judgment nor will they rise from there.” This is the oldest passage in Jewish literature that attempts to distinguish the lot of righteous and wicked in the afterlife.

—p. 481, ed. Johnston

We began this journey of the soul’s judgment with the Egyptian weighing of the heart. Feather-weight is the pure soul unburdened by guilt. If we survived the transition into the afterlife we rose to the celestial realm or wafted forever in the Field of Reeds. Or else we were tortured and died a second death. We crossed the bridge to Persian paradise or fell off into the abyss. In Greece, our immortal soul descended through Hades, crossing the river Styx, and then on to torment in the abysses of Tartarus or eternal peace in the Elysian Fields. In Israel, between a rock and a high mountain, we awaited second death or resurrection. From the Roman Catholic world, we descended into Purgatory, were judged sinless enough to rise to heaven, or sinful enough to burn forever in the fires of hell, or somewhere in between requiring us to be detained in Purgatory. And just as the Egyptian living could pave the dead’s successful transition into the good afterlife through provision of food and other offerings, so can the Christian living pave the road to heaven through prayer, indulgences and the giving of last rites.

When these ideas arrived in Jerusalem is what matters. Qohelet wrote Ecclesiastes sometime after cyclic wisdom and before afterlife. Or it may be that he accepted some Egyptian beliefs, such as ma’at, and rejected others, such as the afterlife. He would have been well aware of afterlife beliefs in Judaism by the end of the 3rd c. into the start of the 2nd. Might this have been his protest against the inroads of Egyptian thought?

No human being has the force of breath to stop the breath of life from passing; nor the force to set the day of dying: there is no escape from this assignation, no tricking death.

—Eccles. 8:8 [KJV & KB]


Ka statue of Horawibra-

(Pharaoh w: Hor), 1760s BCE

A ka statue is a type of ancient Egyptian figure intended to provide a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death. The ancient Egyptians believed the ka (or life-force), along with the physical body, the name, the ba (personality or soul), and the swt (shadow), made up the five aspects of a person.

After death, the ethereal aspects of the soul were believed to be released from the body, free to roam the earth, but required the physical body or a surrogate, such as the ka statue, to return to as a permanent home.
The hieroglyph representing the ka is composed of a pair of upraised arms, and is sometimes depicted on top of the head of the statue to reinforce its intended purpose.

Ka statues could also be set up as a type of memorial for the deceased in absentia; for example in Abydos hundreds were set up to allow the dead to participate in the yearly festivals commemorating the resurrection of Osiris.

Ka statues were usually carved from wood or stone and sometimes painted in the likeness of the owner to reinforce the spiritual connection and preserve the person’s memory for eternity.

Many ka statues were placed in a purposely-built mortuary chapel or niche, which could be covered with appropriate inscriptions.

Like most ancient Egyptian statuary, Ka statues display a rigid frontalism in which the body faces squarely forward in a formal way. Whether seated or standing, their posture reflects the need for the statue to “see” the real world in front of them and conform to an ideal standard of beauty and perfection.

Because the ancient Egyptians believed statues could magically perceive the world, they were ceremonially brought to life by priests in a special ritual called the Opening of the mouth ceremony. In the full version of this ceremony, the mouth, eyes, nose, and ears could be touched with ritual implements to give the statue the power of breath, sight, smell, and hearing.

—Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egypt & http://www.egyptarchive.co.uk/html/cairo_museum_24.html

Photo: Jon Bodsworth, 23:37, 10 December 2007 (UTC) All photographs on http://www.egyptarchive.co.uk are copyright free and can be reproduced in any medium

the sage in the ancient near east


The Macedonian Empire from 336-323 BCE. From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd/macedonian_empire_336_323.jpg

But he that giveth his mind to the law of the most High, and is occupied in the meditation thereof, will seek out the wisdom of all the ancient, and be occupied in prophecies.

He will keep the sayings of the renowned men: and where subtil parables are, he will be there also.

He will seek out the secrets of grave sentences, and be conversant in dark parables.

He shall serve among great men, and appear before princes: he will travel through strange countries; for he hath tried the good and the evil among men.

He will give his heart to resort early to the Lord that made him, and will pray before the most High, and will open his mouth in prayer, and make supplication for his sins.

When the great Lord will, he shall be filled with the spirit of understanding: he shall pour out wise sentences, and give thanks unto the Lord in his prayer.

He shall direct his counsel and knowledge, and in his secrets shall he meditate.

He shall shew forth that which he hath learned, and shall glory in the law of the covenant of the Lord.

Many shall commend his understanding; and so long as the world endureth, it shall not be blotted out; his memorial shall not depart away, and his name shall live from generation to generation.

Nations shall shew forth his wisdom, and the congregation shall declare his praise.

If he die, he shall leave a greater name than a thousand: and if he live, he shall increase it.

—Ben Sirach, Ecclesiasticus 39:1-11[KJV, Apocrypha]

The social unification produced by the conquests of Alexander, brought the Jews into intimate relations with Greek thought. It may be inferred from Ben-Sira’s statements (Ecclus. xxxix. i-n) that it was the custom for scholars to travel abroad and, like the scholars of medieval Europe, to increase their knowledge by personal association with wise men throughout the world. Jews seem to have entered eagerly into the larger intellectual life of the last three centuries before the beginning of our era. For some the influence of this association was of a general nature, merely modifying their conception of the moral life; others adopted to a greater or less extent some of the peculiar ideas of the current systems of philosophy. Scholars were held in honour in those days by princes and people, and Ben-Sira frankly adduces this fact as one of the great advantages of the pursuit of wisdom. It was in cities that the study of life and philosophy was best carried on, and it is chiefly with city life that Jewish wisdom deals.

— Crawford Howell Toy (1836-1919), “Wisdom Literature”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, p. 750.

Just to get a grab on why it’s so important to look to the neighbors, when struggling to understand biblical wisdom:

About.com’s list of largest cities in the world, courtesy of geographer Matt T. Rosenberg, begins with Memphis, Egypt, hosting a population of over 30,000—the size of Waxahachie, Texas, or the town of Barnstable, Billerica or Beverly, Massachusetts—in 3100 BCE. Jerusalem may or may not have existed at this time.

Thereafter, the title was won by a succession of cities in Sumer: Akkad, Lagash, and Ur. The last reached 65,000—the size of Portland, Maine, or Enterprise, Nevada—in 2030 BCE. Jerusalem was a small town of under 2000 at this time.

Title is won back by Egypt with Thebes in 1980 BCE. The city of Babylon itself reigned 1770-1670. Then Egypt again: Avaris, 1670 BCE, Memphis, 1557, Thebes, 1400 and Egypt kept the numbers for over seven hundred years. Nineveh, Assyria, in 668.

And Babylon resurges to a population cresting above 200,000—the size of Savannah, Georgia; Salem, Oregon; Fort Collins, Colorado; or post-Katrina New Orleans—in 612 BCE, shortly before it overran the kingdoms of Israel and Judea, only to be toppled by the Hellenized Alexandria, Egypt in 320 BCE. At this time Jerusalem was a small city of about 25,000.


—TOP: After the Battle of Ipsus (301 B.C.). BOTTOM: At the Beginning of the Struggle with Rome (about 200 B.C.).

Map by William R. Shepherd, “Kingdoms of the Diadochi,” Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1926 ed., pp. 18-19.

From the Perry-Castañeda Map Collection – Courtesy of the University of Texas Library Online. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd/diadochi_kingdoms_301_200.jpg


This composite map allows you to see the Ancient Near East in many epochal layers simultaneously as well as the modern context.

It shows the archaeological sites of the Oriental Institute of Chicago as well as other ancient cities. The squares represent modern cities.

Oriental Institute Map Series – Site Maps

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, founded in 1919, is an interdisciplinary research center whose goal is to integrate archaeological, textual, and art historical data to understand the development and functioning of the ancient civilizations of the Near East from the earliest Holocene through the Medieval period. We achieve this by conducting archaeological excavations, artifact analyses, the development of new research methodologies, the stewardship of systematic museum collections, philological studies, historical research, and the development of dictionaries of ancient languages.

Combining separate maps to produce a composite map of the ancient Near East:

This first installment of the Oriental Institute Map Series presents seven [I’ve used six] Site Maps covering the ancient Near East:

  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • The Levant
  • Syria
  • Turkey [not used here]
  • Iraq
  • Iran

locating primary archaeological sites, modern cities, and river courses set against a plain background. All Site Maps are Simple Conic projections at the same scale and orientation

The Oriental Institute Map Series is a publication of the Oriental Institute Computer Laboratory, which welcomes your comments and suggestions regarding future versions of the Map Series. Email them to the John C. Sanders, Oriental Institute Computer Laboratory.

The Oriental Institute Map Series was produced from map projection, terrain relief, and cartographic data in the Mountain High Maps product, by Digital Wisdom, Inc., of Tappahannok, Virginia.

Revised: February 7, 2007.


Accessed 4/13/09

These numbers reflect the movement of imperial power. More or less. They certainly suggest the centers of cultural and commercial dominion for the less populated areas in the vicinity. Jewish diaspora populations also contribute to these numbers in the urban centers themselves. Babylonian Jews. Egyptian Jews. Whether enslaved or seekers of opportunity, many Jews would have experienced immersion in the urbane cultures of Egypt and Babylon.

In comparison to the vast cities of these two cultural empires, Israel was an outback. By the time of Qohelet, Jerusalem had grown to the size of a small city but it still didn’t reach even the size of Missoula, Montana, until the time of Herod, a century and a half later. Alexandria would have been thirty times the size. The relative difference between Boston and New York. Born in Boston, that’s why I live in New York.

The Sumerians or Old Babylonians, the Neo-Assyrians or New Babylonians, and the Egyptians—were where the money, the power, the art, the technology, the wise and the written word—was at.

Two thousand years before the mid-first millennium Judaic scribalism of the Persian Period and Ezra’s post-exilic leadership out of Babylon, twenty-three hundred years before the authorship of wise Qohelet, there is evidence of the birth of a class of scribal sages in 3rd-millennium Egypt and in co-eval Mesopotamia.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the palaces of the Sumerian kings welcomed the presence of wise men as experts in arts, sciences, crafts, palace scribes, diviners, exorcists, physicians and scholars. The king, of course, was primary sage, literate or not. And as general literacy grew, toward the end of Old Babylonian rule in the late 2nd millennium—shortly before the time of both The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer and the Babylonian Theodicy—tablet houses, where written tablets were manufactured or “published” as it were, became seats of learning as well. The manufactured tablets found their way into private homes:

The many discoveries of tablets containing literary texts and scholarly compilations in private houses indicate that learning was fostered not only in the great institutions of palace and temple, but also in private families. But the leisure (Greek schole) necessary for scholarship required patronage as much in ancient Mesopotamia as it has in later ages and in other lands, and the palace was better able to supply that patronage than were private individuals or even temples.

— p. 107, “The Sage in Mesopotamian Palaces and Royal Courts” by Ronald F. G. Sweet, Professor of Assyriology, Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto; Part II, The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue, eds., (Eisenbrauns, 1990).

So the private homes would have been satellites of a central palace. Sages hired to instruct private family members would have been in the royal orbit as well. If literacy conferred social standing, the Mesopotamian sage would have been in possession of intangible treasure. Treasure made tangible by the material presence of the tablet and the written word. The social promise offered by the sage would have guaranteed him/her a living. A viable professional opportunity attracts comers. Then diversification. Knowledge grows. In this fertile conceptual environment, art and literature appear.

Similarly, in Egypt, sages were hired to instruct children of the wealthy in manners, business, politics, glyph writing, speech and general socialization. As in Mesopotamia, they also fulfilled more specialized roles in palace life: magicians and sorcerers, interpreters of dreams, diplomats, problem solvers, physicians, eloquent entertainers, chancellors, architects, government officials, and counselors. These roles echo the Babylonian except in one regard: the pharaoh was a god, not a sage. The pharaoh was responsible for the administration of ma’at on this earth and sages were crucial to his execution of that duty in this life. Sages approached divinity, with circumspection and tact, from the back door.

Following the fashion of Egypt and Babylonia, sages began to appear elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean basin. In late 6th century Greece, according to legend, the first Greek sage Pythagoras divined the fundamental mathematics of the cosmos, acoustics, trigonometry. The fact that there is no proof of these intellectual feats is even greater testimony to the culture’s retrospective need to lionize him as the first his kind.

By the first centuries BCE, moreover, it became fashionable to present Pythagoras in a largely unhistorical fashion as a semi-divine figure, who originated all that was true in the Greek philosophical tradition, including many of Plato’s and Aristotle’s mature ideas. A number of treatises were forged in the name of Pythagoras and other Pythagoreans in order to support this view.

—Carl Huffman, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/Pythagoras © 2006 by Carl Huffman <cahuff@depauw.edu> Fair Use

Huffman reminds us that it is important to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, as in Oz:

Pythagoras was famous in his own day and even 150 years later in the time of Plato and Aristotle, it was not mathematics or science upon which his fame rested. Pythagoras was famous

(1)  as an expert on the fate of the soul after death, who thought that the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations;

(2)  as an expert on religious ritual;

(3)  as a wonder-worker who had a thigh of gold and who could be two places at the same time;

(4)  as the founder of a strict way of life that emphasized dietary restrictions, religious ritual and rigorous self discipline.

—Carl Huffman, “Pythagoras”, SEP

Which sounds rather Egyptian. And Mesopotamian. Current Pythagorean mythology—alive and well on the Web—gives us these tidbits:

Pythagoras arrived in Egypt around 547 BC when he was 23 years old. He stayed in Egypt for 21 years learning a variety of things including geometry from Egyptian priests. It was probably in Egypt where he learned the theorem that is now called by his name.

—Jacobo Bulaevsky, “The History of Pythagoras and his Theorem”, Arcytech Research Labs, Educational Java Programs, http://www.arcytech.org/java/pythagoras/history.html

Some say he fled Samos for Egypt to escape the tyranny of Polycrates, who [had] seized control of Samos some years before. There is some evidence, however that there was a friendship between the two men and Pythagoras actually traveled to Egypt with a letter of introduction from Polycrates around 535 BC…There are some accounts that indicate he was denied access to all but a few temples. One, however, which he apparently entered, was Diospolis, where he was accepted into the priesthood after completing the rites necessary for admission. While in Egypt, Pythagoras continued his education, especially in mathematics and geometry.

Ten years after Pythagoras arrived in Egypt, relations between that country and Samos fell apart. Polycrates sent 40 ships to help Cambyses II, the king of Persia, invaded Egypt. During this war, Egypt lost and Pythagoras was taken prisoner and taken to Babylon. Pythagoras wasn’t treated as a prisoner of war as we would consider today. He continued his education in mathematics and music and delved into the teachings of the priests, learning their sacred rites. He became extremely proficient in his studies of mathematics and sciences as taught by the Babylonians.

—Nick Greene, “Pythagoras of Samos Biography: The Father of Numbers,” About.com: Space/Astronomy. http://space.about.com/od/astronomerbiographies/a/pythagorasbio.htm

Who knows what to believe? The only vaguely solid thing seems to be that Pythagoras brought the Egyptian idea of the soul’s separability—ba, ka and akh, “name” and “shadow”—from the physical body into Greek culture, and translated the parts of the soul roughly, into psyche, pneuma, aer, nous, soma…and what have I missed?

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (early 5th c. – 424 BCE), the Greek historian, writes an “account of Egypt” in his second book, Euterpe. In Chapter 81, he refers to Pythagoras and his followers with respect to burial practices that seem to have been Egyptian in origin. Throughout the book, Herodotus cites Egyptian precedence, not only ritual, but in calendar, names of gods, not having sexual congress within the temple, careful dietary practices, historical recording, and more:

Chapter 81:

  1. They wear linen tunics with fringes hanging about the legs, called “calasiris,” and loose white woolen mantles over these. But nothing woolen is brought into temples, or buried with them: that is impious.
  2. They agree in this with practices called Orphic and Bacchic, but in fact Egyptian and Pythagorean: for it is impious, too, for one partaking of these rites to be buried in woolen wrappings. There is a sacred legend about this.

Chapter 123:

  1. These Egyptian stories are for the benefit of whoever believes such tales: my rule in this history is that I record what is said by all as I have heard it. The Egyptians say that Demeter and Dionysus are the rulers of the lower world.
  2. The Egyptians were the first who maintained the following doctrine, too, that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth; and after passing through all creatures of land, sea, and air, it enters once more into a human body at birth, a cycle which it completes in three thousand years.
  3. There are Greeks who have used this doctrine, some earlier and some later, as if it were their own; I know their names, but do not record them.

—Herodotus, Chapters 81 & 123, Book II: Euterpe http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/GreekScience/hdtbk2.html

However the attribution of the soul’s cyclic incarnation is incorrect, according to Alan B. Lloyd, in his 1975 commentary Herodotus II. Actually this conception of the immortal self/soul is Greek and doesn’t match the Egyptian at all.

But the damage is done. The connection has been made. And in the 5th c. BCE. Egyptians were the more advanced culture and influenced the less developed Greek culture. Thus the Greeks inherit Egyptian Wisdom, translating it into their own version: philosophy (which means “love of wisdom”). Anyone leading the way into this new sophistication would have come to be identified—perhaps even synonymous—with that cultural progress, as King Solomon for the Jews, Pythagoras for the Greeks. No wonder they aggrandized him.

So in the 6th c., Pythagoras became the first Greek “wise man.” One thousand years or more after the Egyptian and Babylonian sages and their Sapiential culture come into play. Like “wise” Solomon, Pythagoras became emblematic, and the philosophers and their schools followed after him, just as he followed after his Egyptian and Mesopotamian prototypes. Greek philosophy, the Wisdom culture of Greece, however, doesn’t come into full swing until the 5th c. So everything to do with Pythagoras is in hindsight, and the Socratic writings of Plato are the real beginning of the Greek Wisdom literature.

Similarly for the Jews, while Solomon in the 10th c. is the mythical start, the Jews don’t receive sage culture in full til later in 6th-5th c. BCE. Perhaps because ambitious Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, Tyre and Egypt, and absconded with their best and brightest, submerging them in the Wisdom culture of urban Babylon. Then Cyrus of Persia brought it back to the west. If one sees culture as viral, perhaps Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus perpetrated the contagion of the sage “germ,” its Mesopotamian strain. Or picked it up along the Nile as they pillaged and subjugated, and carried it back home to Babylon.

Nevertheless, the sage, or wise man, or philosopher, pervaded the Eastern Mediterranean purveying Wisdom, as of the mid-1st millennium BCE. The nativity myth that three sages as well as three kings showed their deference in the lowly manger in Bethlehem, signifies the messiah’s triumph over political power as well as Wisdom. Sagism continued, continues. The monastery. The university’s “ivory tower.” Impenetrable and potent to the extent we believe in it. When we see education as necessary for the good life, we are subscribing to the ancient culture of the wise man.

Pre-Christian sage culture brought universality—respect for human wisdom, the possibility of a better life through study, the non-agrarian profession of the scholar and advisor and a new middle class between ruler and peasant—to all nations. At the same time Wisdom culture was transformed by the host culture into a unique amalgam: the Greek philosopher with his complex eudaimonistic principles of morality, the Hebrew priestly scribe with his monotheistic adherence to the Torah and divine law.

By the time the Greeks swelled to dominance in the 4th century, a universal Wisdom culture was already in place—with its local “variations.” Low immunity to the viral ideas of Alexander’s army. This is the world the sage Qohelet would have entered as a child receiving education from the local Jerusalem sages.

Perhaps the best portrait of the sage in the ancient world is his self-description, chiseled into the statue of Amenhotep, son of Hapu, architect, priest, scribe, and trusted public official under Amenhotep III (1391–1353 or 1388–1351 BC, 18th Dynasty):

I am a great man, greatest of the great, skilled in hieroglyphs and reasoned(?) counsel, adhering to the king’s plans, whose position the sovereign advanced…I was appointed to be the royal scribe at the palace, and moreover was introduced to the god’s book(s), saw the powers of Thoth and was equipped with their secrets. I opened up all their mysteries and my advice was sought concerning all their matters.

—p. 97, The Sage, etc., but originally from H. W. Helck, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie (Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums 4, fascs. 17-22; Berlin/Gratz: Akademie-Verlag, 1955-61), 21:1820.6-15.

Here he is, in the Luxor museum, with his papyrus and writing instrument on his lap:


Antiquité égyptienne, Musée de Louxor, (Égypte). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GD-EG-Louxor-126.JPG

5c: qoholet as sage, wisdom’s influence—sumerian wisdom literature

•February 19, 2013 • Leave a Comment
Roots of Babylonian wisdom and Judaism both run deep. Deep into ancient Mesopotamia. The ancestral Sumerian civilization began in the 6th millennium BCE with the founding of the city of Eridu c. 5400 BCE. By 5300 the Sumerians had established a year-round system of farming affording permanent residence. Grain and irrigation begat cities. Cities begat hierarchies, non-farming professions, art and writing. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, a 1997 project from Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, whose “aim is to make accessible, via the World Wide Web, over 400 literary works composed in the Sumerian language in ancient Mesopotamia during the late third and early second millennia BC” crowns its homepage with this quote from King Shulgi (c. 2100 BCE):

Now, I swear by the sun god Utu on this very day— and my younger brothers shall be witness of it in foreign lands where the sons of Sumer are not known, where people do not have the use of paved roads, where they have no access to the written word— that I, the firstborn son, am a fashioner of words, a composer of songs, a composer of words, and that they will recite my songs as heavenly writings, and that they will bow down before my words…

—The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature or ETCSL, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/index1.htm

In this older wisdom literature, divinity resides in the word itself. Words in the present, just made up, are not divine. But the careful culling of content, counsel, poetic imagery, rhythmic phrasing, written down and then passed on, no matter how mundane—that is wisdom. The gods come and go like the sun god Utu. Omnipotent acquaintances. The written word remains.

Piety, virtue and community standing (per Wikipedia) are the emphasis of the 3rd millennium Instructions of Shuruppak, the son of King Ubara-Tutu, written as a letter to King Shuruppak’s son Ziusudra, a/ka the Babylonian Noah or Utnapishtim, “He Who Saw Life” when he appears in an Akkadian Flood myth in the Epic of Gilgamesh (2150-2000 BCE). So we’re dealing with a letter from a father to a son who will need to restart civilization after a natural disaster. Providential.

But it’s not so simple. And the confusion surrounding the simplest acts of interpretation demonstrates just how far away 5000 years is culturally. Years themselves, and their measurement, are an issue as you will see in the Sumerian king list below.

Shuruppak is the name of a grain storage city that flourished on the banks of the Euphrates until c. 2000 BCE. Grandsire Ubara-Tutu reigned 18,600 years and is said to be the last king of Sumer before the Flood, the last pre-dynastic king of the Early Bronze Age I—which ended around 2900 BCE—and the first Sumerian king to reign from the city of Shuruppak.

Map: Ancient Cities of Sumer by Crates, 2008, based on map by John D. Croft, 2006. From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection.

Map: Ancient Cities of Sumer by Crates, 2008, based on map by John D. Croft, 2006. From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection.

After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug.

In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years.

Alalgar ruled for 36000 years.

2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years.

Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira.

In Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-ana ruled for 43200 years.

En-men-gal-ana ruled for 28800 years.

Dumuzid, the shepherd, ruled for 36000 years.

3 kings; they ruled for 108000 years.

Then Bad-tibira fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Larag.

In Larag, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28800 years.

1 king; he ruled for 28800 years.

Then Larag fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Zimbir [Sippar].

In Zimbir, En-men-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21000 years.

1 king; he ruled for 21000 years.

Then Zimbir fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Shuruppag.

In Shuruppag, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18600 years.

1 king; he ruled for 18600 years.

In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 241200 years.

Then the flood swept over.

—Lines 1-39, The Sumerian king list, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. © 2003-2006 The ETCSL project, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. Updated 2006-12-19 by JE. http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.2.1.1#.

So is it Ziusudra or Ubara-Tutu who was “Noah”? And why is it the middle king who wrote the instructions? And why is he named after the city? And how did he (who?) know that a tablet of instructions would become so valuable?

Archaeological evidence proves the city of Shuruppak was badly flooded around 2900 BCE.

Excavations in Iraq have revealed evidence of localized flooding at Shuruppak (modern Tell Fara, Iraq) and various other Sumerian cities. A layer of riverine sediments, radiocarbon dated to ca. 2900 BCE, interrupts the continuity of settlement, extending as far north as the city of Kish. Polychrome pottery from the Jemdet Nasr period (3000-2900 BCE) was discovered immediately below the Shuruppak flood stratum. [Crawford, Harriet (1991). Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge University Press. pp. 19.]

—Article “Sumerian King List,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_king_list

Another contemporary interpretation goes as follows:

Ziusudra reigned for ten years as king of Shuruppak, a Sumerian city then on the Euphrates River. Ziusudra’s reign was at the end of the Jemdet Nasr period that ended with the flood of 2900 BC. Then as now, river barges were used for transporting cargo on the Euphrates River. This cargo included livestock, beer, wine, textiles, lumber, stone, metals, dried fish, vegetable oil, and other cargo.

In June about 2900 BC during the annual inundation of the Euphrates River, the river was at crest stage. A six-day thunderstorm caused the river to rise about 15 cubits (22 feet) higher and overflow the levees. By the time the river began to rise, it was already too late to evacuate to the foothills of the mountains 110 miles away. Ziusudra boarded one the barges that was already loaded with cargo being transported to market. The runaway barge floated down the Euphrates River into the Persian Gulf and grounded in an estuary at the mouth of the river. After moving to dry land, Ziusudra offered a sacrifice to a Sumerian god on an altar at the top of a temple ziggurat, an artificial hill. Later, storytellers mistranslated the ambiguous word for hill as mountain. The storytellers then erroneously assumed that the nearby barge must have grounded on top of a mountain. Additional details in the reconstructed legend about Ziusudra (Noah) can be found in the Noah’s Ark book (http://www.noahs-ark-flood.com/flyer.htm).

—Robert M. Best, “Analysis of the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Genesis flood myths, the flood hero Noah, a Euphrates River flood, Noah’s ark (a river barge), Mount Ararat, and the temple ziggurat altar where the flood hero Noah offered a sacrifice. Includes the flood myths of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh,” 1999. http://www.noahs-ark-flood.com/otscholr.htm

Yet another story of the Flood, in which a Zi-ud-sura saves “the seed of mankind” was discovered during excavations of Nippur conducted by the University of Pennsylvania from 1889-1900. In great excitement, Prof. H. V. Hilprecht of U. Penn. published The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur in 1910, apprising the world of their find, and was promptly called a fraud by George Barton of neighboring Bryn Mawr College in the New York Times, April 2, 1910:

BALTIMORE, Md., April 1—The tablet which Prof. Herman V. Hilprecht of the University of Pennsylvania announced two weeks ago that he had discovered on an expedition to Palestine, and which he alleged upheld the Biblical story of the deluge, was denounced to-day at a meeting of the American Oriental Society at the Johns Hopkins University as a fabrication and as an exploitation of an archaeological fraud for purely sensational purposes. This declaration was made in an address on “The Latest Additions to the Babylonian Literature of the Deluge Story” presented by George A. Barton of Bryn Mawr College.

Dr. Barton said that the scholarship which Prof. Hilprecht manifested in his translation of the text of his tablet was hardly worthy of a first-year student in Hebrew, and that the restorations which he made in the case of filling in broken lines were purely conjectural, so that the chances of his interpretations being correct were only about 1 in 100…”

—Special to The New York Times, “ATTACKS PROF. HILPRECHT; Dr. Barton Declares Tablet Story of the Deluge Is a Fraud,” April 2, 1910, Saturday, The New York Times, Page 6. Archives.


Eridu Genesis tablet. ca. 1700 BCE. (See: w: Sumerian creation myth) Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EriduGenesis.jpg

Translation below from The ETCSL project, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. Updated 2006-12-19 by JE. © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.7.4#

Segment A

approx. 36 lines missing

1-10. …… sets up ……. I will …… the perishing of my mankind; for Nintur, I will stop the annihilation of my creatures, and I will return the people from their dwelling grounds. Let them build many cities so that I can refresh myself in their shade. Let them lay the bricks of many cities in pure places, let them establish places of divination in pure places, and when the fire-quenching …… is arranged, the divine rites and exalted powers are perfected and the earth is irrigated, I will establish well-being there.

10-14. After An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursaga had fashioned the black-headed people, they also made animals multiply everywhere, and made herds of four-legged animals exist on the plains, as is befitting.

approx. 32 lines missing

Segment B

1-3. 3 lines fragmentary

4-5. I will oversee their labour. Let …… the builder of the Land, dig a solid foundation.

6-18. After the …… of kingship had descended from heaven, after the exalted crown and throne of kingship had descended from heaven, the divine rites and the exalted powers were perfected, the bricks of the cities were laid in holy places, their names were announced and the …… were distributed. The first of the cities, Eridug, was given to Nudimmud the leader. The second, Bad-tibira, was given to the Mistress. The third, Larag, was given to Pabilsag. The fourth, Zimbir, was given to the hero Utu. The fifth, Shuruppag, was given to Sud. And after the names of these cities had been announced and the …… had been distributed, the river ……, …… was watered, and with the cleansing of the small canals …… were established.

approx. 34 lines missing

Segment C

1-27. ……seat in heaven. …… flood. …… mankind. So he made ……. Then Nintur ……. Holy Inana made a lament for its people. Enki took counsel with himself. An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursaga made all the gods of heaven and earth take an oath by invoking An and Enlil. In those days Zi-ud-sura the king, the gudug priest, ……. He fashioned ……. The humble, committed, reverent ……. Day by day, standing constantly at ……. Something that was not a dream appeared, conversation ……, …… taking an oath by invoking heaven and earth. In the Ki-ur, the gods …… a wall. Zi-ud-sura, standing at its side, heard: “Side-wall standing at my left side, ……. Side-wall, I will speak words to you; take heed of my words, pay attention to my instructions. A flood will sweep over the …… in all the ……. A decision that the seed of mankind is to be destroyed has been made. The verdict, the word of the divine assembly, cannot be revoked. The order announced by An and Enlil cannot be overturned. Their kingship, their term has been cut off; their heart should be rested about this. Now ……. What ……

approx. 38 lines missing

Segment D

1-11. All the windstorms and gales arose together, and the flood swept over the ……. After the flood had swept over the land, and waves and windstorms had rocked the huge boat for seven days and seven nights, Utu the sun god came out, illuminating heaven and earth. Zi-ud-sura could drill an opening in the huge boat and the hero Utu entered the huge boat with his rays. Zi-ud-sura the king prostrated himself before Utu. The king sacrificed oxen and offered innumerable sheep.

12-17. six lines fragmentary

approx. 33 lines missing

Segment E

1-2. They have made you swear by heaven and earth, ……. An and Enlil have made you swear by heaven and earth, …….

3-11. More and more animals disembarked onto the earth. Zi-ud-sura the king prostrated himself before An and Enlil. An and Enlil treated Zi-ud-sura kindly ……, they granted him life like a god, they brought down to him eternal life. At that time, because of preserving the animals and the seed of mankind, they settled Zi-ud-sura the king in an overseas country, in the land Dilmun, where the sun rises.

12. You …….

approx. 39 lines missing

ECTSL Revision history:

17.ii.1998-22.ii.1998: GZ, editor: adapting translation

23.ii.1998: JAB, editor: proofreading

22.vi.1999: GZ, editor: minor corrections

22.vi.1999: GZ, editor: SGML tagging

25.vi.1999: ER, editor: proofreading SGML

25.vi.1999: ER, editor: web publication

01.vi.2003: GC/JE, editor/technical developer: XML/TEI conversion

Nevertheless, everyone believed Hilprecht’s find—and the 1914 translation by Arno Poebel (check out the 1998 version above next to image of the tablet). Reverend John Rougier Cohu summarizes the discovery in 1920:

A far older Sumerian Creation-Story, just discovered at Nippur (Sumerian text with Accadian translation, written c. 2000 B.C., but the story itself is ages older) gives an account of the Creation of the world (after the conquest of the Dragon by Enlil [Marduk])… Briefly, this is the old Sumerian story: In the beginning heaven and earth were not, only the primeval dark waters. Four great gods—Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninkharsagga —were the world-creators. Man was created for the gods to receive worship, then animals were made, then came kingdoms. Before the Flood there were five cities: Eridu, Bad[-Tibira], Larak, Sippar, Shuruppak. The gods decree man’s destruction by flood. The hero of the Deluge is Ziusudu, king and priest, a godly man. Enki warns him in a dream of the coming “flood to destroy the seed of mankind,” and bids him build a great ship. “All the mighty winds together blew, the flood…raged. When for seven days, seven nights, the flood overwhelmed the land, the Sun-god came forth lighting heaven and earth. Ziusudu opens the opening of the great boat, bows himself down, sacrifices an ox, a sheep he slaughters.” Anu and Enlil are appeased by the pleas of Ziusudu and grant him eternal life.”

—Rev. J. R. Cohu, Rector of Aston Clinton, Bucks, and sometimes Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, The Bible and Modern Thought, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1920, pp. 83-84.

This same creation-story had first appeared without the Flood, in Enûma Elish, the Babylonian “Epic of Creation,” recovered in a fragmented 7th-c. BCE tablet by Henry Layard in 1849 in the ruined library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq). Published by George Smith in 1876 and miraculously complete, Enuma Elish is “one of the most important sources for understanding the Babylonian worldview, centered on the supremacy of Marduk and the creation of mankind for the service of the gods.”(Wikipedia 3/30/09)

Aerial View of Ur 75

—“A Chaldaean City Charted from the Clouds: Air-Photographs Revealing Ur.”

Official Photographs by Permission of the R. A. F. (Crown Copyright Reserved), and by the Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, and of the University Museum, Philadelphia.” Caption below reads: “A very ancient city viewed from a very modern invention: the site of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, photographed from an aeroplane.” © Time Inc. For non-commercial use only.

[Ur was inhabited beginning in the 5300 BCE and associated with the invention of the wheel.]

The Babylonian/Sumerian creation-story which offers the most fruit for my exploration is the account of Berossus, born in Babylonia under Alexander the Great in the 4th c. BCE. Berossus was an astronomer and priest or satammu in charge of temple administration under Antiochus I. After studying cuneiform tablets from the library of the temple of the god Marduk, Berossus compiled a history of Babylon for his people now under Greek rule in 278 BCE. Along with the history he documented the celestial discoveries of Babylonian and ancient Sumerian culture—which were considerable—and laid the foundations for Greek astronomy. Thought to have been commissioned by the Seleucid king, Berossus recorded everything in Greek. The original was lost and Berossus’ history has been reconstructed by a host of Pagan, Jewish and Christian writers. All we have are fragments remembered from fragments. (The story of history: simplification of what was once complex through attrition of detail.)

Pagan writers depended on Poseidonius of Apamea (135-50 BCE) who focused on Berossus’ wise astronomy and left the history behind. Jewish and Christian writers, most notably Pharisee historian Flavius Josephus (37-c. 100 CE) and Christian chronicler Eusebius, Bishop of Caesaria (c. 260-340 CE), derived their Berossus from Alexander Polyhistor (fl. c. 65 BCE) or Juba of Mauretania (c. 50 BCE-20 CE) who both set out to record the history of the Assyrians. All the secondary sources too—Poseidonius, Alexander and Juba—have been lost. And Eusebius’ original, but an Armenian version written between 500 and 800 CE was quoted in Byzantine monk Georgius Syncellus’ Ecloga Chronographica (c. 800-810 CE). Jeez. What you see below is http://www.livius.org host Jona Lendering’s version based on everything he’s read about Berossus. So consider it a senary or septenary, maybe even octonary source, and think about how amazing it is when we do find a tablet which is primary. Written word as relic. Portal to the past.

Cronus [Enlil is meant. In Greek myth, Cronus was the father of Zeus = Marduk.] appeared to Xisuthrus [Ziusudra] in a dream and revealed that on the fifteenth of the month Daisios [Greek name of the Babylonian month named Ajaru.] mankind would be destroyed by a great flood. He then ordered him to bury together all the tablets, the first, the middle, and the last, and hide them in Sippar, the city of the sun. [These tablets were a library of human knowledge. They are also mentioned in the Flood accounts of the Jewish Book of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.] Then he was to build a boat and board it with his family and best friends. He was to provision it with food and drink and also to take on board wild animals and birds and all four-footed animals.

Then when all was prepared, he was to make ready to sail. If asked where he was going, he was to reply, “to the gods, to pray that all good things will come to man”. [This scene is found more extensively in the Epic of Gilgamesh, 11, 36ff] He did not stop working until the ship was built. Its length was five stades (one kilometer) and its breadth two (400 m). He boarded the finished ship, equipped for everything as he had been commanded, with his wife, children, and closest friends.

After the waters of the Great Flood had come and quickly left, Xisuthrus freed several birds. They found neither food nor a place to rest, and they returned to the ship. After a few days, he again set free some other birds, and they too came back to the ship, but they returned with claws covered with mud. Then later for a third time he set free some other birds, but they did not return to the ship. Then Xisuthrus knew that the earth had once again appeared.

He broke open a seam on a side of the ship and saw that the ship had come to rest on a mountain. He disembarked, accompanied by his wife and his daughter together with the steersman. He prostrated himself in worship to the earth and set up an altar and sacrificed to the gods.

After this, he disappeared together with those who had left the ship with him. Those who remained on the ship and had not gone out with Xisuthrus, when he and those with him had disembarked, searched for him and called out for him by name all about. But Xisuthrus from then on was seen no more, and then the sound of voice that came from the air gave the instruction that it was their duty to honor the gods and that Xisuthrus, because of the great honor he had shown the gods, had gone to the dwelling place of the gods and that his wife and daughter and the steersman had enjoyed the same honor.

The voice then instructed them to return to Babylonia to go to the city of Sippar, as it was fated for them to do, to dig up the tablets that were buried there and to turn them over to mankind. The place where they had come to rest was the land of Armenia. [The Babylonian word for Armenia was Urartu, from which the Biblical name Ararat is derived.] After they understood all this, they sacrificed to the gods there and went on foot to Babylonia.

To this day a small part of the ship that came to rest in Armenia remains in the Gordyenian Mountains in Armenia and some people go there and scrape off pieces of pitch to keep them as good luck charms. [This piece of information is also found in Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 1.93. He also says that the Armenian mountain was called Baris, and was opposite Minyas.]

And those who had arrived in Babylonia dug up the tablets in the city of Sippar and brought them out. They built many cities and erected temples to the gods and again renewed Babylonia.

—Jona Lendering, “The great Flood: the story by Berossus,” last updated 22 May 2007. http://www.livius.org/fa-fn/flood/flood3-t-berossus.html

So presumably one of the tablets bore the instructions from his father. And with this written wisdom, they were able to reconstruct an entire culture. Or they imagined that they would have been able to do so in hindsight. Truth or lie, the meaning of the tablets is clear. Written word as “seed of mankind.” Portal to the future.

Whether or not the instructions represented the “seed” of human culture, the Instructions of Shuruppak must have been popular because they exist in many, many writings, the oldest tablet dating from c. 2500, considerably after Ubara-Tutu/Noah or his son Shuruppak, the putative author, or his grandson Ziusudra/Noah walked the earth or sailed the river to the sea, so the tablets must have been perpetuated through scribal copying. Indeed the ritualistic incipit below (lines 1-13) indicates that the message to follow was already considered antique by its inscriber:

In those days, in those far remote days

in those nights, in those faraway nights

in those years, in those far remote years

at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land;

Curuppag, the wise one, who knew how to speak with elaborate words lived in the Land.

Curuppag gave instructions to his son;

Curuppag, the son of Ubara-Tutu gave instructions to his son Zi-ud-sura:

My son, let me give you instructions: you should pay attention!

Zi-ud-sura, let me speak a word to you: you should pay attention!

Do not neglect my instructions! Do not transgress the words I speak!

The instructions of an old man are precious; you should comply with them!

—lines 1-13, The instructions of Shuruppag: translation and line breaks inferred from The instructions of Shuruppag: composite text, Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., web pages completed 1999 for ETCSL. http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section5/tr561.htm & http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section5/c561.htm. Also please refer to their bibliography at http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section5/b561.htm

Shuruppak’s instructions are wise even now:

You should not vouch for someone: that man will have a hold on you;

and you yourself, you should not let somebody vouch for you (1 ms. adds: that man will despise (?) you)

—lines 19-20, Shuruppag, ETCSL. Question-marks presumably represent untranslatable passages or alternate interpretations.

Addressed to his son the future King Ziusudra, Shuruppak’s proverbial instructions seem to be directed at an agrarian Everyman rather than a royal prince who does not need to work in the fields. Are the father and son figurative?

You should not buy a donkey which brays; it will split (?) your midriff (?).

You should not locate a field on a road; …

You should not plough a field at (1 ms. adds: a road or) a path;

You should not make a well in your field: people will cause damage on it for you.

You should not place your house next to a public square: there is always a crowd (?) there.

—lines 14-18, Shuruppag, ETCSL.

Divinity rarely enters the “elegant words” of “Curuppag who lived in the Land.” It is not necessarily the divine inscrutability of later Babylonia. More like the absence of a traveling human acquaintance. An omnipotent not-so-human acquaintance. The gods are powerful if they’re paying attention. They take care of the important issues like creation. On the personal issues, the gods are less dependable. But there is no sense of divine abandonment. Humans just have to be self-reliant. Wisdom literature is an ingenious solution. In it humans can echo the authority of a god delivering time-tested—and therefore approvable—human instructions, without offending the gods. Saving the gods the bother of human affairs.

Here is one of the few references I find. Note how divine authority is transferred to the human parents, and even more pointedly to the words of paternal wisdom.

You should not speak arrogantly to your mother; that causes hatred for you.

You should not question the words of your mother and your personal god.

The mother, like Utu [the sun-god], gives birth to the man; the father, like a god, makes him bright (?).

The father is like a god: his words are reliable.

The instructions of the father should be complied with.

—lines 255-260, Shuruppag, ETCSL.

Which “instruction” becomes the 5th Commandment. And one can see the makings of Commandments 3, 6-10 in Shuruppak’s instructions, but they aren’t “commandments” yet. More like reasoned suggestions—“don’t do x (or anything else like x) because y will happen if you do”. Here is the 10th proto-commandment:

You should not steal anything; …

You should not break into a house; you should not wish for the money chest (?).

A thief is a lion, but after he has been caught, he will be a slave.

My son, you should not commit robbery; you should not cut yourself with an axe.

You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious.

My son, you should not sit alone in a chamber with a married woman.

You should not eat stolen food with anyone (1 ms. has instead: a thief)…

After you have apportioned the bones, you will be made to restore the ox,

you will be made to restore the sheep.

You should not commit rape on someone’s daughter; the courtyard will learn of it.

—lines 28-31, 33-34, 39, 41, 62, Shuruppag, ETCSL.

Shuruppak reiterates the precious power of the written word then closes thanking his female (!) scribe:

This gift of words is something which soothes the mind…

when it enters the palace, it soothes the mind…

The gift of many words…stars.

Praise be to the lady who completed the great tablets, the maiden Nisaba,

that Curuppag, the son of Ubara-Tutu gave his instructions!

—lines 274, 278-280, Shuruppag, ETCSL.

Besides the biblical kinship and the elevation of the ordinary into useful proto-proverb, and beyond the lore of the Noah story, I can draw from Shuruppak’s words alone how and why the literature of wisdom developed. Tablets turned ephemeral thoughts of the mind into knowledge which could survive the death of the body, could insure individual prosperity or help a king or judge rule a populace, and affirm the wealth and glory of a people against all invaders and/or natural disasters. The awareness of its potency is contained right there in the language, even obscured by the fog of time and translation.

Biblical wisdom literature certainly has a similar self-consciousness of its value:

Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding.

…Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live.

Get wisdom; get understanding:  forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.

Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.

Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her.

She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace; a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.

Hear, O my son, and receive my words, and the years of thy life shall be many.

—Proverbs 4:1, 4b-13 [RSV]

Qohelet acknowledges this value when he says:

I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.

—Eccles. 1:16 [KJV]

But he goes further:

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly:

I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

—Eccles. 1:17-18 [KJV]

Qohelet’s writings do not soothe the mind like Shuruppak’s “gift of words”. But he does not deny the power of wisdom, nor its potential for immortality. Instead he says wisdom is a dangerous thing, something you might not want to have, something you should approach with care—and wisely. Something you may lose, forget, or never realize you never had. Wisdom is a choice, maybe better left to a god. He offers us wisdom of wisdom.



MS in Neo Sumerian on clay, Babylonia, ca. 1900-1700 BC, 1 tablet, 12,3×6, 5×3, 0 cm, single column, 45 lines in cuneiform script.

Commentary: The text pretends to be addressed by the ante-deluvian ruler Shuruppak to his son Ziusudra, the hero of the flood story who, like Noah, survived the destruction of mankind and became the favorite of the gods.

The Shuruppak instructions can be said to be the Sumerian forerunner of the 10 Commandments and some of the Proverbs of the Bible: Line 50: Do not curse with powerful means (3rd Commandment); lines 28: Do not kill (6th Commandment); line 33-34: Do not laugh with or sit alone in a chamber with a girl that is married (7th Commandment); lines 28-31: Do not steal or commit robbery (8th Commandment); and line 36: Do not spit out lies (9th Commandment).

Similar proverbs in the Bible: Proverbs 6:1-5; 7:21-27; 22:26-27; 23:27-28.

The last edition of this proverb collection is: Bendt Alster: The Instructions of Shuruppak. A Sumerian Proverb Collection, Copenhagen 1974. Published: Bendt Alster. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, MD, CDL Press, 2005. pp. 52-53, 101-102, pl. 60-61.

Photo: The Schøyen Collection MS 2788. Used by permission.

The oldest known copy of the Instructions of Shuruppak is the Abu Salabikh Tablet found at Abu Salabikh, near the site of ancient Nippur in Central Babylonia (now southern Iraq). It marks the site of a small Sumerian city of the mid third millennium BCE. The city, built on a rectilinear plan in Early Uruk times, revealed a small but important repertory of cuneiform texts on some 500 tablets, of which the originals were stored in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and were largely lost when the museum was looted in the early stages of the Second Iraq War…

5b: qoholet as sage, wisdom’s influence—babylonian wisdom literature

•February 18, 2013 • 3 Comments
Marduk and the dragon Tiamat

Marduk and the dragon Tiamat from a Babylonian cylinder seal, for rolling into wet clay to tell a story. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Story of Tiamat and Marduk

(From Enuma Elish, the Babylonian story of creation. Dated at around 1700 BCE, but aspects of the story could go back to about 2000 BCE.)

In this story it is said that before the time of the gods and the world there was nothing but a waste of chaotic waters ruled by Apsu and Tiamat, a dragon-like creature. As time passed gods were created in hopes of bringing order to this chaos. One of the gods, Ea, slays Apsu, thus making Tiamat and her brood of monsters mad at the gods. Tiamat waged war against Ea and the other gods and was successful in stifling their efforts until Marduk was born. Marduk was the strongest and the wisest of the gods and was elected to deal with Tiamat once and for all. Upon summoning the powers of all of the other gods, Marduk went to war with Tiamat. Tiamat was no match for Marduk and all of his powers. Marduk caught her in his net and when she opened her mouth to breath fire at him, he let loose the four winds which filled her up rendering her defenseless. Marduk then speared her with a lightning bolt, split her in two and raised half of her body to create the sky and with the other half created the earth.

—from a webpage set called “Dragons!” created by Cory Cuthbertson and Hannah Rossoff in 1996 at Humboldt State University in California. Accessed 2/17/09 1:42am

Inscribed on a stone tablet in ancient Mesopotamia c. 1290 BCE—eleven hundred years before the scroll of Qohelet—Ludlul bêl nêmeqi, or The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer by Babylonian poet Shubshi-meshre-Shakkanalso called I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdomis an autobiographical tale told by a noble gentleman, once important and prosperous, much like Qohelet, then driven to disgrace and disease by the Babylonian god Marduk, like Job but unlike Qohelet. Similar to Qohelet, the narrator recounts his story then draws conclusions in the form of advice to others. Much of his advice urges respect for the inscrutability of the divine mind. He expresses praise for godly wisdom through a series of natural oppositions. The polar antitheses are deliberately chosen to appear contradictory to the human mind, but they are contradictions that the mind then realizes it has accepted:

Marduk! lord of wisdom, solicitous god,

Furious in the night, calming in the daylight;

Whose anger engulfs like a tempest,

Whose breeze is sweet as the breath of morn

In his fury not to be withstood, his rage the deluge,

Merciful in his feelings, his emotions relenting.

The skies cannot sustain the weight of his hand,

His gentle palm rescues the moribund.

—v. 2-12, Tablet I, The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, transl. by Benjamin R. Foster, from Before the Muses: myths, tales and poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia, CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1995.

The poet moves on from the god-driven extremes of weather to describe his own misfortune, again in riddling one-line oppositions, now personal:

I, who walked proudly, learned slinking…

To my vast family, I became a loner…

My brother became my foe,

My friend became a malignant demon…

My slave cursed me openly in the assembly of gentlefolk…

—v. 77, 79, 84-85, 89, Tablet I, transl. Foster

Antithetic parallelism doubles into two-line quadratics as the presence of a divine will behind his trials begins to emerge:

A pit awaited anyone speaking well of me,

While he who was uttering defamation of me forged ahead…

For the one who said “What a pity about him!” death came early,

The one of no help, his life became charmed…

—v. 93-94, 96-97, Tablet I, transl. Foster

Then a bearded young man in a tiara comes to him in a dream, announcing he has been sent by Marduk, and the poet’s fate turns. He has healed, demons thrown off, tongue, teeth, throat, tissues all relieved and unbound:

The Lord took hold of me,

The Lord set me on my feet,

The Lord revived me,

He rescued me from the pit

He summoned me from destruction

…he pulled me from the river of death,

…he took my hand.

He who smote me,

Marduk, he restored me!

—v. 2-10, fragment A, Tablet IV, transl. Foster

The questioning tale becomes a moral testimony to faith in the face of the mystery of divine intention:

What seems good to one’s self could be an offence to a god,

What in one’s own heart seems abominable, could be good to one’s god!

Who could learn the reasoning of the gods in heaven?

Who could grasp the intentions of the gods of the depths?

Where might human beings have learned the ways of a god?

—v. 34-38, Tablet II, transl. Foster.

The tale ends when all is restored to the narrator, thanks to his abiding faith in the wisdom of his lord and god, Marduk.

Because the tale of woe and redemption is so similar to—perhaps parent to—that brother piece of biblical wisdom literature, the Book of Job, this poem has been called the “Babylonian Job” overshadowing its correspondence to Qohelet’s narrative, but the use of personally experienced paradox to express wonder, then praise for an all-powerful god, is at the heart of all three wisdom narratives: Ludlul, Job and Ecclesiastes.

What we see here goes further than a correlation of life stories. It is a permeating belief system shared by Judaic and Babylonian wisdom literature. Divine inscrutability as expressed in Shubshi’s paragraph just above echoes clearly in the Book of Proverbs:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

—Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 [KJV]

Three hundred years after Ludlul bêl nêmeqi, and eight hundred years before the scripture of Qohelet, we find the same thread of thought in The Babylonian Theodicy, c. 1000 BCE:

The mind of the god, like the center of the heavens, is remote;

Knowledge of it is very difficult; people cannot know it.

—from the Babylonian Theodicy, 1000 BCE, as reported by James L. Crenshaw, p. 220, Old Testament Wisdom, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Which resembles the thinking behind:

God has made all things beautiful in their time

but he has hidden this beauty in forever

so that no one of us

can see our true calling

from start

to finish.

Eccles. 3:11 [KB]

And though you may never have heard it this way, the thinking behind:

To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…

Eccles. 3:1 [KJV]

All of which supports my belief that our interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes should recognize the celebration of faith expressed in embracing apparent contradiction, unfathomable to humans, and only understandable by the divine mind. Heard in the Babylonian sense, the phrase “vanity of vanities”, instead of a Calvinist scold, becomes an illustration of human frailty and by inference, an act of praise directed toward the divine lord of wisdom.

Divine mystery as a tenet, ironically, demystifies the diffidence of Qohelet’s advice:

Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?

—Eccles. 3:22 [KJV]

If the “people cannot know” the “mind of god,” then they must trust that the life they have been given is a sacred, unassailable choosing by that divine mind. My friend Sol’s “god’s will is what is.” To question what has been given “could be an offence to a god” to use Ludlul’s words.

Job’s tale and Ludlul’s are both parables for faith in the face of divine inscrutability. Qohelet’s tale teaches the same: when he searches for meaning on his own, he cannot, he must not—if you believe in this hidden god—find it. Instead, he finds what “is.” His time poem, and the nature poem too, celebrate what “is.” And as soon as he praises what “is”—chastely stating it with a poetic simplicity—he follows quickly with a cautionary statement about the human inability to comprehend:

Look at the close of each poem. First the time poem:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

What do you gain from working hard all your life?

I have been in this world of affairs where god has placed the family of humankind.

God has made all things beautiful in their time but he has hidden this beauty in forever

so that no one of us can see out true calling from start to finish.

—Eccles. 3:1…8-11 [KB]

He closes the time poem in a crescendo of human emotions. Emotions and circumstances we can’t control: love, hate, war, peace. The most desired: love, peace. The most feared: hate, war.

Everything up to here in the time poem has been human-driven: birth, death, planting, harvest, murder, health, destruction, construction, stoning, sex, heartbreak, getting, losing, keeping, discarding, making clothing, making rags, holding one’s tongue, telling the truth. And yet as he recites them, we realize that even though each of those actions we had imagined ourselves initiating independently, somehow they were not human-driven after all—that some larger plan was in place, some other force was determining the rhythm of these events. Again we have the paradox of our seeming control, and the clear evidence that we have none when we hear our lives reduced to this simple powerful poem.

Love, hate, war, peace culminate the human-driven. Human passion, human intention cannot run stronger. Like passion, a river crests in sunlight some years, and then safely subsides. Some years, it crests just as days of rain and wind hit, and life is changed forever. Human emotion crests too, with different results. Some benign. Some disastrous and life-changing. And we must see we have no control. All we have is trust in the hidden will of a god of our understanding.

So Qohelet has got you. You are in love, in hate, in war, in peace and out of control. And then he asks you how you feel about it? You work, you press your intention, and you have to assume there is some purpose to your free will, that you have some effect on the world around you or you couldn’t keep working. So your work, your drive to change the world around you is the meeting ground for you, the human, and the god who decides without you. Do you believe? Can you continue to work? Are you willing to join your intention, submit it to the god you can’t see, to a future you cannot know? The sacrifice, the worship is to continue to work and to enjoy it—not to see it as pointless and “a vexation of the spirit.” Acceptance of a meaning, a beauty, a purpose you will never understand is the turning point of faith. Qohelet is asking this question of you, the reader. He already knows the answer. It’s why he tells his parable.

Look at the nature poem:

Generations come and go but the earth endures beyond mind.

The sun is risen and set and returned to begin again.

The wind wheels around the zenith—dark north, bright south—and repeats the circle.

Every river runs into the sea, but the sea does not fill; yet the rivers continue to spring.

All these things are incomprehensible; we cannot fully behold them nor consider their extent.

Whatever was before is what will be again. Nothing is new.

There is no memory of former things. There will be no recollection after this.

—Eccles. 1:4-10 [KB]

Our reaction to being told we will not remember, that we cannot comprehend, may be to take offense on some level. So we experience this statement as negative, cynical or uncaring somehow. What if you add to the equation of reaction a desire to respect divine inscrutability? Then we might hear the same threats differently. We might be reassured that we cannot comprehend—that we do not risk “offence to a god.” And then we might be reassured that despite our incomprehension, “nothing is new.” We may not remember “former things…after this.” Nor may our children. Nor are children’s children. But the hidden god will not deviate from the plan of creation and divine intention: there will be nothing new.

That which has been is now, and that which is to be, has already been.

—Eccles. 3:15a [KB]

Reassuring? It’s a stretch. A turn of the kaleidoscope. The colored chips are resettling in a new configuration, still falling. And we may not remain here. But it’s worth taking a look, right?

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.

—Eccles. 2:24 [KJV]

Qohelet celebrates what “is.” Even death. God has hidden the beauty in forever but Qohelet does not deny that there are glimpses. You just can’t grasp the whole picture. But if you open your eyes to the sun—

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun

—Eccles. 11:7 [KJV]

—you will see—the most beautiful—what already is.

Appreciate its beauty. Show your gratitude. Enjoy your work, your food, your drink, your love. That is all the beauty you could ever require. Trust that you have been given enough.

Besides dissolving Qohelet’s pessimism—as I’ve tried to enact above! —divine mystery connects biblical wisdom literature securely to Babylonian culture. Is it possible that the Babylonian captivity was a positive rather than negative inspiration for Judaic wisdom culture? Call it Babylonian “proximity.”

In Jeremiah, the advice of G-d is almost a prescription—or a justification after-the-fact—for Babylonian assimilation:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon;

Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;

Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.

And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed.

For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD.

For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

—Jeremiah 29:4-11 [KJV]

Note how interactive Y-H-V-H starts to blur into a more inscrutable divinity, here in Jeremiah’s account. Do not listen to the false prophets, I have not sent them. (But I will do nothing to gainsay them.) Trust that I will retrieve you after seventy years “to give you an expected end.” (But for seventy years you must trust without proof.) Know the thoughts I think of you. No actions. Inscrutable. Hidden. A test of faith. Like Job. Like Ludlul.

Later on in this chapter, the LORD is “Yahwist” again threatening to punish those who do not heed him saying he—

will send upon them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.

—Jeremiah 29:17b [KJV]

A further take on Babylonian “proximity” comes from the Jewish Encyclopedia. A twelve-volume assemblage with over 15000 articles on Judaism, its history, art and ideas, the Jewish Encyclopedia was published over five-year period from 1901 to 1906 and has recently entered the public domain. At the time it represented a watershed of accumulated wisdom:

Hitherto the difficulties in the way of such an adequate and impartial presentation have been insuperable. Deep-rooted prejudices have prevented any sympathetic interest in Judaism on the part of Christian theologians, or in Christianity on the part of the rabbis. These theological antipathies have now abated, and both sides are better prepared to receive the truth… With the publication of The Jewish Encyclopedia a serious attempt is made for the first time to systematize and render generally accessible the knowledge thus far obtained.

—Preface, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/preface.jsp (4/17/09)

The project was the dream of Dr. Isidore Singer—Czech-born Parisian journalist during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus and later founder of the American League for the Rights of Man—culminating “a series of labors carried on throughout the whole of the nineteenth century and representing the efforts of three generations of Jewish scholars, mainly in Germany” (Preface, 1901). The early 20th-c. publication included over 400 participators, the primaries being Cyrus Adler, Gotthard Deutsch, Louis Ginzberg, Richard Gottheil, Joseph Jacobs, Marcus Jastrow, Morris Jastrow, Jr., Kaufmann Kohler, Frederick de Sola Mendes, Crawford H. Toy (the Unitarian we heard from earlier), and Isidore Singer. Richard Gottheil, the primary on the Babylonian “Captivity” article, was professor of Semitic languages at Columbia University, president of the American Federation of Zionists, and chief of the Oriental Department of the New York Public Library, and founder and president of the (Jewish) Religious School Union in New York. He and crew write:

As exiles, under royal protection, and consequently enjoying special prerogatives in their new home, their personal lot was undoubtedly a happier one than that of their brethren who had remained behind…

Their outward condition was also by no means unsatisfactory. Jeremiah, in his exhortations…states that the Israelites were permitted to till the soil, to cultivate the family life, and, by thrift and diligence, to accumulate wealth. Perhaps, being permitted to administer their internal affairs through their elders, they were allowed the undisturbed exercise of their religion; and nowhere are bloody persecutions heard of, designed to alienate forcibly the people from their ancestral religion, and to coerce them into accepting that of the conquerors. All the misery, want, imprisonment, and ill-treatment, frequently described as suffered in Babylonia, must be explained by the fact that the Prophets, whenever they gazed back upon the national catastrophe, felt anew all the pangs of homelessness and servitude. Consequently, the description of the people as a helpless worm (Isa. xli. 14), and of the violence and spoliation which had reduced Israel to the condition of those who suffer in chains and bondage (ib. xlii. 20-24), is not ascribable to actual sufferings inflicted in the land of exile.

—Richard Gottheil, Victor Ryssel, Marcus Jastrow, and Caspar Levias, “Captivity,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=135&letter=C&search=Babylonian captivity – 528 (4/16/09)

Messrs. Gottheil, Ryssel, Jastrow and Levias read between the lines of the writings of Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and even the later wisdom-writing of Psalms, to deduce a softer, gentler, more assimilated Captivity:

…they learned to conform to the manners and customs of the country, thus sacrificing not only their national but also their religious independence and individuality…

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s accounts were written later, Isaiah’s as much as three or four hundred years after Captivity. So everything is in hindsight. Idolatry, the most obvious violation, became the target of the Prophets’ retrospective condemnation of “Babylonianization.” Gottheil and company believe it was true that some Jews adopted Babylonian idolatry in an attempt to assimilate.

Even if the description of the idolatry mentioned in Isa. lvi. 9-lvii. 13a belongs to pre-exilic times, many other passages so graphically describe the idolatrous practises of the exiles that the relation between these and the Babylonian cult can not be mistaken (Isa. lxv. 3 et seq.; compare ib. lxvi. 17)…

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Though, in a separate Encyclopedia article, Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau acknowledge an older Judaic idol-worship. Perhaps derived in part from Judaism’s Sumerian ancestry.

The thunderings of the Prophets against idolatry show, however, that the cults of other deities were deeply rooted in the heart of the Israelitish people, and they do not appear to have been thoroughly suppressed until after the return from the Babylonian exile. There is, therefore, no doubt that Jewish monotheism was preceded by a period of idolatry…

—Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau, “WORSHIP, IDOL-,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15027-worship-idol (2/18/13)

According to the Prophets, those who did not join in idolatrous Babylonian practices were shamed:

These sad experiences of all true Israelites tended to separate them more and more from their recreant brethren. The more the pious exiles felt themselves repelled by their pagan environment and their disloyal fellow-Israelites (Ps. cxxxvii. 3 et seq.,) the closer became the union among themselves, and the stronger their allegiance to their Prophets and the Law…

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Useful. Shame motivates the faithful to solidify religious observance around the Sabbath, a discreet practice which can be observed in the privacy of one’s home—its discretion, depth and intimacy lending it tremendous efficacy in maintaining coherent Jewish observance even today:

As the faithful could not honor Yhwh by sacrifices in a foreign land, nothing remained to them of all their ceremonial but the observance of the Sabbath (Hosea ix. 3-5) and such other customs as were connected with a certain independence of action. Such, for example, were the act of circumcision, which, together with the observance of the Sabbath, constituted a distinguishing mark of Israel; regular prayer, performed with the face turned toward Jerusalem (I Kings viii. 48); and fasting, already mentioned. When the Prophets of the Exile spoke of the conditions under which the divine prophecies would be fulfilled, they always emphasized the observance of the Sabbath as the foremost obligation, as the force which should unite and preserve the Jewish community (Isa. lvi. 2, 6 et seq.; lviii. 13; Jer. xvii. 19 et seq.; Ezek. xx. 12 et seq.; xxii. 8, 26)…

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Gottheil and company’s narrative of Captivity culminates in the redaction of the Torah and Nevi’im due to a new Babylonian-born scribalism:

Particular attention was now paid to the ancestral literature; and thus there arose during the Babylonian Exile the profession of the “scribes,” those learned in the Law who set the standard of piety and devotion, and who transmitted their precepts both to their successors and to the people at large, while at the same time extending the body of the laws by means of revision and amplification (see Pentateuch). Historical writings also were now revised in accordance with the standard of the Law, establishing as a basis the historical conception of Deuteronomy.

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Scribalism from Babylon. Babylon whose written heritage extended back at least a millennium and a half. Two millennia further if you count their Sumerian ancestry. Babylon where scribalism was a part of everyday life, especially in the royal court, and the profession of “scribe” was a viable way to fit in to the economy. And this inscribing, documenting and revising process occurred in the 6th c. before the return to Jerusalem and Persian rule. Before Ezra’s convening of the Great Assembly.

According to Gottheil’s Prophets, shame over Israel’s loss, not an embrace of Babylonian mores, is again the motivator:

All the calamities which had befallen Israel were accepted by these exiles as a punishment for transgressions, and particularly for idol-worship… Therefore the history of the past was to serve both as a warning and as a guide for the future. This explains the purpose of the compilation of the various older historical works into a historical entity: the new Israel, risen from the grave of exile, must avoid the sins and errors which caused the ruin of its fathers.

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Ever useful, shame even motivates the post-exilic rise of wisdom literature:

And indeed the Psalms which were composed after the Exile reveal a keener introspection, a deeper sense of contrition, and a more frank avowal of sin than the earlier ones.

—Gottheil et al., 1906

Interesting-er and interesting-er. Another explanation for the rise of wisdom literature.

As I’ve said before, I question the skepticism that three of the biblical scholars I’ve studied—Perdue, Crenshaw and Toy—credit to a crisis of faith brought on by the failure of the covenantal god Y-H-V-H to protect his chosen people from subjugation, capture and exile. First the tribes lost to the Assyrians in the 8th c., then Babylonian captivity in the 6th c. and the fall of the last of the kings of David—I don’t contest the crisis of faith. I don’t question the religious evolution of the Jewish people away from “Yahwism.” I am skeptical that this crisis of faith produced skepticism.

As an artist I don’t see it that way. In a crisis of faith, people want Superman. I think Yahwism itself would have been the answer to Babylonian captivity and subjugation. No matter how far from reality. I propose that that is why the Torah was redacted during captivity—and then the Nevi’im immediately after. Their “Yahwistic” deity restored faith and identity. The covenant with Y-H-V-H was at its peak when there was the greatest need. The “Yahwism” of the earlier Old Testament, not the skepticism of the biblical wisdom writings, is actually the response to the crisis of faith of a culture under drastic metamorphosis—bombarded by the sophistication of Babylonian culture—rendered “homeless” by two mass migrations within a century.

Wisdom culture, I believe, with its divine inscrutability, its antithetical parallelism which praise through paradox, its word art, was already a factor in the 6th c. although it did not express itself through inclusion in the biblical canon until the 4th at the earliest. It was there nevertheless. Latent. The story of Job predates most of the Prophets. A thread in the fabric of Mesopotamian culture. Perhaps it was seen as “secular” and not authoritative enough, not “on message”. So if not wisdom culture yet, then scribalism at the very least, the bottom-line the objectification of thought in discrete, tangible documents—tablets you can hold, which have weight, take space—must be seen as the influence of urbanized Babylon.

Even monotheism may have its roots in the Babylonian preference for one all-father god, the supreme Marduk, the all-powerful Babylonian “Zeus.” In the Prophets’ “Yahwist” histories, Y-H-V-H often exhibits a kinship to the stern reactivity found in some accounts of Marduk and Zeus, despite their general demeanor of remoteness. The full spiritual and aesthetic detachment of the Babylonians’ tenet of divine inscrutability, however, was not practicable for a culture under siege. Hence we do not see a broader “Babylonianism” develop until Qohelet, Job, Proverbs, Tehillim, Song of Solomon etc. Later, when the culture and its Satrapian governance under the Persians followed by the Greek Ptolemies was stable if not comfortable.

Here is a passage in Ezekiel that I believe illustrates the Judaic theological struggle with divine inscrutability. The Lord tells Ezekiel to spy on elders of the Babylon Jewish community who are worshipping idols in secret. He says their abominations are causing him to “distance” himself. If asked why they perform such abominations, He says, they answer that it is because the Lord has left the earth. But note that the Lord and Ezekiel are hiding, digging under a wall, and creeping into a chamber in darkness, and smoke. The presence of divinity is demonstrably hidden and mysterious despite Ezekiel’s clairvoyance.

And He said to me, “Do you see what they are doing? The great abominations that the house of Israel is doing here are to cause Me to distance Myself from upon My sanctuary; and you will yet return and see great abominations.”

Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and I saw, and behold, a hole in the wall.

And He said to me, “Son of man, dig now in the wall,” and I dug in the wall, and behold, an entrance.

And He said to me, “Come and see the evil abominations that they are doing here.”

And I came and saw, and behold, every form of creeping thing and animal of detestation and all the idols of the house of Israel, engraved on the wall around and around!

And seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, and Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan was standing among them, standing before them, and each man with his censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense was ascending.

And He said to me, “Have you seen, son of man, what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each one in his paved chambers? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has left the earth.’

—Ezekiel 8:6-12, Judaica Press Complete Tanach, www.chabad.org, http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/showrashi/false/aid/16106/jewish/Chapter-8.htm or [JPCT]

In this passage from Ezekiel, the Yahwist god rescues his people from his own remoteness—read divine inscrutability.

They scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became prey for all the beasts of the field, and they scattered.

My flock strayed throughout all the mountains and upon every lofty hill, and upon the entire face of the land My flock scattered-and none searches or seeks.

Therefore, shepherds, hearken to the word of the Lord.

As I live, says the Lord God, I swear that because My flocks have become a prey, for My flocks have become food for all the beasts of the field because they have no shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flocks, and the shepherds shepherded themselves but they did not shepherd My flocks.

Therefore, you shepherds, hearken to the word of the Lord.

So said the Lord God: Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I shall demand My flocks from their hands, and I shall banish them from shepherding the flocks. The shepherds will no longer shepherd themselves, and I shall rescue My flocks from their mouth, and they will not be to them for food.

For so said the Lord God: Behold I am here, and I shall search for My flocks and I shall seek them out.

As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his separated flocks, so will I seek out My flocks, and I will save them from all the places where they have scattered on a cloudy and dark day.

I will take them out from among the nations, and I will gather them from the lands and bring them to their land, and I will shepherd them to the mountains of Israel, by the streams and in all the dwellings of the land.

On good pasture I will pasture them, and on the mountains of the height of Israel will be their dwelling; there they will lie in a good fold and graze on fat pastureland upon the mountains of Israel.

—Ezekiel 34:5-14 [JPCT]

Isaiah is the link to the G-d who does not speak. The people the mute G-d doesn’t speak to are the Babylonian exiles. Isaiah the human becomes his voice. He abandons the divine 3rd person to speak in the “I” by the 8th verse. He abandons the people’s 3rd person plural for the 2nd person even sooner:

The spirit of the L-rd GOD is upon me; because HaShem hath anointed me to bring good tidings unto the humble; He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the eyes to them that are bound;

To proclaim the year of HaShem’S good pleasure, and the day of vengeance of our G-d; to comfort all that mourn;

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called terebinths of righteousness, the planting of HaShem, wherein He might glory.

And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall renew the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.

And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and aliens shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.

But ye shall be named the priests of HaShem, men shall call you the ministers of our G-d; ye shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their splendour shall ye revel.

For your shame which was double, and for that they rejoiced: ‘Confusion is their portion’; therefore in their land they shall possess double, everlasting joy shall be unto them.

For I HaShem love justice, I hate robbery with iniquity; and I will give them their recompense in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

And their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which HaShem hath blessed.

—Isaiah 61:1-9 [JPS]

What if the return from Babylonian exile meant something else? Ezekiel writes of Israel as “good pasture” in the highlands but Isaiah mentions “waste cities” and “the desolations of many generations.”

Cyrus took Babylon in 539. He decreed the release of all captives, Jews among them, that same year:

Sketch is from a German 19th century excavation report published in Iran in the early 1900s. It is hence PD-Iran.

“Cyrus the Great”, Wikipedia, inscription under rubbing image: “Dhul-Qarnayn is thought to refer to Cyrus by many Qur’anic commentators.” Wikimedia Commons: “Sketch is from a German 19th century excavation report published in Iran in the early 1900s. It is hence PD-Iran.” Public Domain. Accessed 2/18/13 link to image

I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya, Great King, King of Hakhamanish, Grandson of Kurash, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy. [The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917); Vol. I: Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 460-462; The Bible (Douai-Rheims Version), (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., 1914).]

—Charles F. Horne, ed. The Kurash Prism: Cyrus the Great; The decree of return for the Jews, 539 BCE, History of Iran, Iran Chamber Society, http://www.iranchamber.com/history/cyrus/cyrus_decree_jews.php

And so Cyrus gathered not only Jews but also others captured by the rampant regimes of Nabonides and predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Seized from rival city-states in Babylonia itself— very bad for good will among neighbors. Cyrus returned these people “to their habitations”—good guy. And their gods “unharmed” (must have been idols) to their temples—good guy. And thus establishes the Satrapian governance practice, encouraging home rule and indigenous religious practice in distant satellite territories. According to Gottheil et al., the prophets grudgingly acknowledge that exiled Jews had enjoyed self-rule and internal religious practice under Babylonian rule. But not in their homeland.

Wise, the Persian practice. Like the Iroquois. A greater nation could be built. You can rule more turf if you don’t rule as tough.

And Marduk made Cyrus do it. Nabonides’ seizure for Babilani (Babylon) of gods and people from other temples and lands has offended the lord of the gods. Cyrus feels charged to restore people, religions and ruined cities to appease Marduk. He is also concerned that he be loved and welcomed by the people of Babylon as a friend and that the displaced peoples and gods be made happy through their restoration.

Clearly Cyrus’s magnanimity was no accident. His decree’s inclusion on the Iran Chamber Society’s website continues to send a message of peace. This Website, which includes up-to-the-minute headline news of Iran in English or Persian, was established in 2001, a year of great anti-Arab feeling in the English-speaking world,

to promote Iranian culture and history. By actively publicizing historical and cultural findings and issues in a format that is accessible for the world community at large, Iran Chamber Society aims to create a global awareness about Iranian society and eradicate the misunderstandings and misconceptions about Iranian society, and to play an educational role as well.

—Iran Chamber Society “About Us”, http://www.iranchamber.com/about_us/about_us.php

So Cyrus II is still good governance.

Here is Ezra’s version of the first return to Jerusalem and Judah in 537. Much more Judeo-centric. Of course. There is no sign of Marduk’s displeasure. Only the needs of HaShem or Y-H-V-H. There are no idols to be returned, only ”vessels” of silver and gold. The proclamation concerns no other peoples, only the people of Judah, the G-d of Israel, and the temple in Jerusalem.

NOW IN the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of HaShem by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, HaShem stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:

‘Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath HaShem, the G-d of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

Whosoever there is among you of all His people–his G-d be with him–let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of HaShem, the G-d of Israel, He is the G-d who is in Jerusalem.

And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill-offering for the house of G-d which is in Jerusalem.’

Then rose up the heads of fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit G-d had stirred to go up to build the house of HaShem which is in Jerusalem.

And all they that were round about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.

Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of HaShem, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods;

even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.

And this is the number of them: thirty basins of gold, a thousand basins of silver, nine and twenty knives;

thirty bowls of gold, silver bowls of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.

All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when they of the captivity were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.

—Ezra 1:11 [JPS]


Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery. The Hyrcanian Golden cup. Dated first half of first millennium. Excavated at Kalardasht in the Mazandaran province, north, near the Caspian Sea.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. File by Maksim. Where is the cup itself?

Accessed 4/18/09 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_cup_kalardasht.jpg

Cyrus Cylinder. Terracotta, Babylonian, ca. 539-530 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. W. 22.5 cm (8.75 in.) ME 90920. Upper floor, room 53: Ancient Iran. British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyrus_Cylinder_BM_ME90920.jpg 4/18/09


The cylinder was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila, the main temple of Babylon, where it had been placed as a foundation deposit. It is today kept in the British Museum in London. There have been reports of attempts by the directors of the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran in Tehran to arrange a loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to be temporarily displayed in the National Museum of Iran for a special exhibition.—“Cyrus cylinder,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder

Blurb from the British Museum’s Highlights Page:

A declaration of good kingship: This clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II was part of this policy.

This cylinder has sometimes been described as the ‘first charter of human rights’, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.—P. Michalowski, ‘The Cyrus Cylinder’ in Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp.426-30; T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988); J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near East: Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969 ). Accessed 4/18/09 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cyrus_cylinder.aspx

Restoration of people to their lands and gods to their temples. Per order of Marduk. But why such a display of gold and silver from the royal treasury? Conquest accompanied by the taking of slaves was a modus operandi for the Roman Empire five hundred years later. More typical than the release of “captives” who had been taken almost half a century before. And outfitting such prisoners of war “with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things” by order of the crown? Many of the “captives” could no longer have even been alive. The people who were released must have been the children or grandchildren of those originally captured, born Babylonian, bred Babylonian, perhaps even married Babylonian.

Now these are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and that returned unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city;

who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel:

  • The children of Parosh, two thousand a hundred seventy and two.
  • The children of Shephatiah, three hundred seventy and two.
  • The children of Arah, seven hundred seventy and five.
  • The children of Pahath-moab, of the children of Jeshua and Joab, two thousand eight hundred and twelve.
  • The children of Elam, a thousand two hundred fifty and four.
  • The children of Zattu, nine hundred forty and five…[etc.]

…The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore,

beside their men-servants and their maid-servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty and seven; and they had two hundred singing men and singing women.

Their horses were seven hundred thirty and six; their mules, two hundred forty and five;

their camels, four hundred thirty and five; their asses, six thousand seven hundred and twenty.

And some of the heads of fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of HaShem which is in Jerusalem, offered willingly for the house of G-d to set it up in its place;

they gave after their ability into the treasury of the work threescore and one thousand darics of gold, and five thousand pounds of silver, and one hundred priests’ tunics.

So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.

—Ezra 2:1-8, 64-70 [JPS]

Gottheil & co. estimate that 14,000-18,000 Jews were originally deported to Babylon at the start of the 6th c. Now there were 42,360 returning! And they did not even represent all the Jews in Babylon. 42,360 with servants and entertainers, horses, camels and beasts of burden. And a huge amount of wealth of their own to contribute to the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. These were not slaves. These were wealthy people who had lived in degrees of comfort in Babylon. They were led by Sheshbazzar, prince of Judah, a/k/a Zerubbabel, whose name means “son of Babylon.” Just how Babylonian were they?

There is an allusion to miscegenation:

And these were they that went up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsa, Cherub, Addan, and Immer; but they could not tell their fathers’ houses, and their seed, whether they were of Israel:

the children of Delaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two.

And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Hakkoz, the children of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name.

These sought their register, that is, the genealogy, but it was not found; therefore were they deemed polluted and put from the priesthood.

And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things…

—Ezra 2:59-63 [JPS]

They returned to Jerusalem and began to build the temple and the “locals” resisted. Called the “adversaries of the houses of Judah and Benjamin” or Samaritans, they may not have been the “locals.” But the people of Jerusalem would have experienced something on the order of an invasion with that many people returning and with that much money and royal authorization. The Babylonian way would have been the way it went. The Judaism we have today is a Babylonian Judaism.

The Babylonian practitioners of the new Israel “came to regard themselves as the true Israel” (Gottheil et al., 1906). And they had the Prophets—also Babylonian Jews—on their side. Here is the Prophet Jeremiah’s vision of the Lord’s promotion of Babylonian-brand Judaism over Jerusalem’s—or horrors, Egyptian:

The Lord showed me two pots of figs, prepared before the Temple of the Lord after Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the princes of Judah and the craftsmen and the sentries of the gates from Jerusalem and brought them to Babylon.

One pot [contained] very good figs like the first ripe figs, and the other pot [contained] very bad figs that could not be eaten because they were so bad.

And the Lord said to me; What do you see, Jeremiah? And I said, “Figs. The good figs are very good, and the bad ones are very bad, which cannot be eaten because they are so bad.”

And the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

So said the Lord God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I recognize the exile of Judah, which I have sent forth from this place to the land of the Chaldeans, for good.

And I will place My eyes upon them for good, and I will return them to this land, and I will build them and not destroy, and I will plant them and not pluck them.

And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord, and they shall be to Me for a people, and I will be to them for a God, for they shall return to Me with all their heart.

And like the bad figs that cannot be eaten because they are so bad, for so said the Lord: So will I make Zedekiah King of Judah and his princes and the remnant of Jerusalem remaining in this land, and those dwelling in the land of Egypt.

—Jeremiah, 24:1-8 [JPS]

The Prophet Ezekiel too posits the Lord asserting the supremacy of Babylonian Judaism:

Now it came to pass as I was prophesying, that Pelatiah the son of Benaiah [one of the princely elders in Babylon] died, and I fell on my face and cried out with a loud voice, and I said, “Alas, O Lord God, are You making a complete end to the remnant of Israel?”

Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

“Son of man! Your brethren, your brethren, your kinsmen and the entire house of Israel, all of it, to whom the dwellers of Jerusalem said, ‘Distance yourselves from the Lord; to us has the land been given for an inheritance.’

Therefore, say; So said the Lord God: Although I have removed them far off among the nations and although I have scattered them in the lands, I have become for them a minor sanctuary in the lands where they have come.

Therefore, say; So said the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and I will assemble you from the lands which you have been scattered therein, and I shall give you the land of Israel.

And they will come over there, and they will remove all its detestations and all its abominations from it.

And I shall give them one heart, and a new spirit I shall place within them, and I shall remove the heart of stone from their flesh, and I shall give them a heart of flesh.

In order that they walk in My statutes and keep My laws and perform them, and they will be My people, and I shall be their God.

But [as for those who] to the heart of their detestations and their abominations their hearts go-I have placed their way upon their heads,” says the Lord God.

Then the cherubim lifted their wings, and the wheels corresponded to them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them, from above.

And the glory of the Lord rose away from upon the midst of the city, and it stood on the mountain that was on the east of the city.

Then a wind lifted me and brought me to the Chaldeans, to the exile, in the vision, with the spirit of God, and it departed from me, the vision that I saw.

And I spoke to [the people of] the exile all the words of the Lord that He showed me.

—Ezekiel 11:13-25 [JPS]

But why did the Babylonian Jews leave a life of comfort? Were the tales of “misery, want, imprisonment, and ill-treatment” a justification for

  1. their invasion and displacement of the current inhabitants or
  2. their loss of what must have been a considerably more comfortable and familiar way of life?

Perhaps the gold and silver from Mithredath the state treasurer, was an added impetus to go? Perhaps in going, they became instrumental in stabilizing the distant regions of Judah and Israel under Persian rule, the money buying their political allegiance. Perhaps it broadcast a very visible message about the style of governance being inaugurated under Cyrus II. A gesture of power—because in a way these people were being re-exiled from their homes of at least a generation. And a gesture of good will—because ostensibly this is what a diasporic community wants, right? To go home.

The massive re-location in 537 BCE, shortly after the decree, makes some sense. Politically and religiously. More sense than the later return led by Ezra, the priest and scribe. Why did they go later?

Ezra is an enigmatic character. Beckoning across the years. What if Ezra’s return from Babylonia in 457 BCE with 5000 descendants of captives meant something else as well? What was going on Babylon? Anything? Nothing? Was it in decline after a century of outsider rule?

Under Cyrus (ruled 559-530 BCE), his son Cambyses II (ruled 530-523 BCE ended by a scuffle among heirs during which weak moment city-dwellers revolted) and Darius the Great (ruled 522-486), Babylon continued in prosperity and relative stability, as the central seat of the 9th Satrap of the Persian empire. Not too far away, Pasargadae, then Persepolis were the Persian capitals. The early Persian rulers were good for Babylon, fostering intellectual growth in astronomy and mathematics. Life in the city would have been good. Building, writing, teaching—those expressions of human civilization continued apace.

Unrest seems to show itself at the end of Darius’ long rule with the succession of his son Xerxes who not only refused to participate in the annual Babylonian ritual of clasping the golden hands of the statue of Marduk as rightful emperor, but offended the Babylonians by confiscating the idol and melting him down. In response to the desecration, Babylonians revolted 484-482 and refused Xerxes his father’s title “King of Babilani.” But the Jews didn’t leave in the 480s.

Mending the ties, son of Xerxes I, Artaxerxes (ruled 465-424 BCE) moved the Persian capital from Persepolis to Babylon. So Ezra’s group would have left during a time of stability and wealth in the city. So it’s even more of an enigma.

Babylon didn’t start its downward slide until the 4th c. due to Persian overtaxation under Darius II (ruled 423-404 BCE after a scuffle between heirs) and Artaxerxes II (ruled 404-358 BCE)—taxation having been invented by the Babylonian King Nabonides who kept a “chest”—and the Persian failure to maintain the canals (agricultural system) and the shrines to Marduk (religious system). For the most part, as you can see by the numbers, the Persian rulers enjoyed long reigns and relative peace in the eastern part of the realm where Babylon was located. Greece and Egypt were the trouble spots. Jerusalem, except when caught in the crossfire, would have enjoyed relative calm as well. Babylon finally fell when Darius III fell to Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. (Jerusalem in 332.) Babylon briefly flourished under Alexander until he died prematurely in 323. By the 3rd c. tablets report residents moving to other cities. By mid-2nd c. BCE, Babylon was in ruins.

Babylon was lost until archaeological excavation began in 1811 by British amateurs. In 1854, a barge shipping two years’ worth of excavation stored in 40 crates sank in the Tigris. A more “scientific” archaeological digging began with the German Oriental Institute in 1899 who sent teams every year until the outbreak of WWI in 1917. Work was resumed by the German Archaeological Institute in 1956.

In more recent times, the site of Babylon was excavated by G. Bergamini on behalf of the Centro Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia and the Iraqi-Italian Institute of Archaeological Sciences. This work began with a season of excavation in 1974 followed by a topographical survey in 1977. [G. Bergamini, Levels of Babylon Reconsidered, Mesopotamia, vol. 12, pp. 111-152, 1977] The focus was on clearing up issues raised by re-examination of the old German data. After a decade, Bergamini returned to the site in 1987-1989. The work concentrated on the area surrounding the Ishara and Ninurta temples in the Shu-Anna city-quarter of Babylon. [G. Bergamini, Excavations in Shu-anna Babylon 1987, Mesopotamia, vol. 23, pp. 5-17, 1988] [G. Bergamini, Preliminary report on the 1988-1989 operations at Babylon Shu-Anna, Mesopotamia, vol. 25, pp. 5-12, 1990]

—“Babylon”, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon 4/17/09

Saddam Hussein began to rebuild Babylon in 1985, casting himself as Nebuchadnezzar. Interrupted by the Gulf War, he returned to build a modern pyramidal ziggurat Sumerian-style above some ruins, named Saddam Hill. He planned to build a cable car line when he was interrupted again by the 2003 American invasion. Under General James T. Conway, marines moved into the site and set up a helipad and parking lot for “Camp Alpha.” I must include this exchange from Wikipedia:

Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum reported that occupation forces

“caused substantial damage to the [replica of the] Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity […] US military vehicles crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more than 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists […] Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by soldiers trying to remove the bricks from the wall.”

A US Military spokesman claimed that engineering operations were discussed with the “head of the Babylon museum”.

[“Damage seen to ancient Babylon”. The Boston Globe. January 16, 2005. http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2005/01/16/damage_seen_to_ancient_babylon/.

Babylon and U.S. Marines

Photo by Daniel O’Connell, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Babylon_Ruins_Marines.jpeg

The head of the Iraqi State Board for Heritage and Antiquities, Donny George, said that the “mess will take decades to sort out”.

[Heritage News from around the world, World Heritage Alert!. Accessed April 19, 2008.] In April 2006, Colonel John Coleman, former chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, offered to issue an apology for the damage done by military personnel under his command. However he claimed that the US presence had deterred far greater damage from other looters. [Cornwell, Rupert. US colonel offers Iraq an apology of sorts for devastation of Babylon, The Independent, April 15, 2006. Accessed April 19, 2008.] Some antiquities were removed since creation of Camp Alpha, without doubt to be sold on the antiquities market, which is booming since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq [J. E. Curtis, “Report on Meeting at Babylon 11-13 December 2004”, British Museum, 2004 ].

—“Babylon”, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon. Accessed 4/17/09

Back to Ezra. The Book of Ezra was supposedly written between 440 and 460 BCE according to bible.org.

Ezra doesn’t return from Babylon to Jerusalem until 459-7 BCE. Almost 80 years after Cyrus’s decree, for which neither he nor his father could have been alive. Almost 140 years after the first Jews were taken into captivity. He is said to be the son of Seraiah, a high priest taken captive by Babylonians in the 580s per Wikipedia, but he could only have been a distant descendant.

As a Babylonian, born, bred and educated, Ezra would have been steeped in literacy. Hence his personal scribalism. Steeped in the stricter maintenance of tradition of the homeland, which occurs in a diaspora. Hence his priestly discipline. And his attitude against intermarriage. Politically astute, he petitions to lead a force of 5000 to Jerusalem and is funded by Artaxerxes, who maybe enjoys the opportunity to echo the great Cyrus II in magnanimous gesture. Again, the funded Babylonian Jew, the stranger, endowed with people and treasure, enters Jerusalem and takes command.

All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.

And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.

And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law.

And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Uriah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchijah, and Hashum, and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people–for he was above all the people–and when he opened it, all the people stood up.

And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered: ‘Amen, Amen’, with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, even the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place.

And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.

—Nehemiah 8:1-8 [JPS]

Ezra has the book. A tablet. Or several. Of some weight and presence. There is no Y-H-V-H. No prophecy. No thunderbolt. The book, the written word is the commandment of the new G-d. The Law. The Torah is born, because Babylon comes to Jerusalem.

Finally, a curious passage occurs in the Jewish Encyclopedia in an article called “Captivity” under the heading “Causes of Exile”:

Israel was exiled to Babylonia because the language of the Babylonians is akin to that of the Torah. According to another opinion, God had therefore exiled Israel to Babylonia because the latter is a low-lying country, like the nether world; as it is said (Hosea xiii. 14): “From the power of the nether world I will ransom them.” Another authority says that God exiled Israel to Babylonia, because it was the land from which they had come, as a husband that is angry with his wife sends her home to her mother (Pes. 87b). Babylonia was Israel’s home. Israel and Judah were exiled to different places in order that each might find consolation in the other’s misery (Pesik. R. xxxiii.).

—Richard Gottheil, Victor Ryssel, Marcus Jastrow, and Caspar Levias, “Captivity,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=135&letter=C&search=Babylonian captivity – 528 Downloaded April 14, 2009.

The language of Babel, Babilani or Babylon was “akin” to the golden age Hebrew of the Torah. No Aramaic. No Greek. No Persian. Babylonia was “home” for the “daughter” people, “the land from which they had come.”

So at the very least, the connection to Babylon is old and deep. In the next section I will investigate the wisdom tradition in Sumerian literature and its bearing on Ecclesiastes. The origin of the tradition of documentation, the power of the written word as spore of human culture.

There is a difference between the influence of Old Babylonia (Sumer) and New. Later I will compare population size in the Ancient Middle East. For now, Judaic culture found itself between two giants, Egypt and Babylonia, rivaling each other closely in degree of urbanization from the 4th millennium through the first. Late in the 4th millennium BCE, Sumer assumed leadership and was dominant throughout the 3rd millennium with the city-states of Akkad, Lagash and Ur. This is the Old “Babylonia” or Sumer Abraham left.

—Abraham’s Journey, BIBLE DOCTRINE NEWS. http://www.biblenews1.com/maps/BibleAbrahamL.gif FREE BIBLE MAPS: All maps are considered public domain and may be used freely. Satellite pictures are credited to NASA. Downloaded April 14, 2009.

The city of Babylon rises during the 2nd millennium but doesn’t reach climax of urban population until the 7th-4th c. BCE. This is the Babylon which inscribed the Torah and the Nevi’im, and whose lasting effect on Judaic scribalism caused the bloom of biblical wisdom literature. This is the Babylon whose particular disciplined reconstruction of Judaism begat the world’s religions, whose prophets and scribes shaped monotheism, the Sabbath, and even maybe “Yahwism.” This is the Babylon whose tenet of divine inscrutability is a hidden godview underlying most of the Judaic bible, reaching a more outward expression in the Books of Ecclesiastes and Job, a godview modern culture has lost the connection with and needs to regain in order to understand the bible.

Qohelet was deeply influenced by the brotherhood of this Babylon, and his art must be read in that light.


Trilingual inscription of Xerxes the Great proclamation, carved into the steep rock bluff of Van citadel, Van, Turkey, once capital of Urartu; written left-to-right in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite.

Photo by John Hill, 1973. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License. Wikimedia Commons.

5a: qohelet as sage, wisdom’s influence—biblical wisdom literature

•September 3, 2012 • 1 Comment

The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of seven Sapiential or Wisdom books in the Greek Septuagint, transcribed by Hellenized Jews living in Egypt in the 3rd-1st c. BCE for use in synagogue, then abandoned by Jews during the Roman era. Early Christians, however, relied on this Greek version of the Hebrew scripture; St. Jerome’s Vulgate, the official Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church since early 5th c. CE, reflects the Septuagint in book order and selection in its “Old Testament.” The seven wisdom books come in the middle, after the historical books, and before the prophets:

  • Psalms
  • Job or Iöb
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Songs or Song of Solomon
  • Wisdom of Solomon or Wisdom
  • Wisdom of Jesus the son of Seirach, Sirach or Ecclesiasticus

Revising its canon in the 2nd c. CE, the Jewish Bible’s—or Tanakh’s—Ketuvim, “Writings” or “Scriptures,” offers only the top five of the seven above, and in a different order. The first three are Sifrei Emet, “The Three Poetic Books,” or “The Books of Truth.” Then come Hamesh Megillot, “The Five Scrolls,” of which Shir Hashirim or Song of Songs is first, Qohelet or Ecclesiastes fourth with the Books of Ruth and Lamentations in between, and Esther fifth and last:

  • Psalms or Tehillim
  • Proverbs or Mishlei
  • Job or Iyov
  • Song of Songs, Song of Solomon or Shir Hashirim
  • Ecclesiastes or Qohelet

Alternatively, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are categorized in the Jewish canon as “Wisdom Books”, while Psalms, Song of Songs and Lamentations are called “Poetry Books,” but the distinguishing of wisdom literature in the Tanakh is never quite as simple as it is in the Christian Bible. And all Jews exclude the last two of the seven, Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, from the biblical canon. Perhaps because the last two were composed and scribed later than the others, in Greek, around the time of Septuagint by the same Alexandrian Jews, although passages from Sirach are quoted in the Talmud. And while the wisdom literature comes in the middle of the Christian Bible, in the Tanakh, it comes at the end, after everything else.

Echoing the Tanakh’s canonical components, Protestant Christians recognize only five wisdom books:

  • Psalms
  • Job
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Solomon

But the books remain in the Catholic order. And King James stashes the non-canonical books, Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, in the appendix-like Apocrypha.

Pre-dating Christ, biblical wisdom literature departs in tone from the older corpus of the Judeo-Christian Bible—the five books of the Pentateuch or Torah, and the eight books of the Nevi’im or Prophets (Former, Latter and Minor). Older writings relate historical accounts of the Jewish people and their miraculous, monotheistic interaction with the god Y-H-V-H as well as further divine acts of prophecy by selected humans, and are called “Yahwist” by scholars.

By contrast, the Wisdom books avoid the incredible, the past glories, the future omens, to focus on the here and now (then), exhibiting an almost secular obsession with the quality of life, in particular the impact of the struggle—on this life—between wisdom and folly:

Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.

Say not, “Why were former days better than these?”

For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.

For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money; and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.

—Eccles. 7:9-12 [RSV]

Proverbial recommendations, clearly drawn from experience, defining wisdom as they counsel it—in the present tense. Very different from the mythical remembrance of combat and strategy, noise and action, supernatural and stunning coup, below.

And the LORD said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valor.

And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days.

And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.

And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him.

—Joshua 6:2-5 [KJV]

In Ecclesiastes, the lesson is explicit, the history implicit. In Joshua, the reverse: the battle imagery and narrative are clearly delineated while the lesson “fear God and follow his commandments” is ubiquitous but unstated.

“One of the acclaimed doyens of the study of biblical literature (Garfinkel),” Roland Edmund Murphy, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Duke University, breaks it down:

Within the Hebrew Bible itself, the wisdom literature is exciting, because it deals directly with life. The sages of Israel did not share the same interest in the saving interventions of the Lord as did the Deuteronomic historians. Their concern was with the present and how to cope with the challenges of one’s immediate experience…

—Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 3rd edition, 1990, p. ix.

Biblical wisdom literature appears to be the second act of a great flowering of documentation that occurred in the Persian Period, in the middle of the first millennium before the Common Era. The first act was gathering and re-inscribing—or redacting—the fragments that would eventually form the older Torah and Nevi’im, the “T” and “N” of “Tanakh”.

Jewish scribalism, or what Fort Worth theological historian Leo G. Perdue calls “an extremely important…shaping and writing down,” began with the collection and transcription of the older books in the biblical canon from the mid-6th to the mid-5th century before the Common Era.

This redaction process purportedly culminated with the convening of the Men of the Great Assembly c. 450 BCE—according to Jewish tradition and the Talmud, the assembly numbered between eighty and one hundred twenty sages, scribes and prophets who instituted prayers and benedictions, established feasts, “transmitted the Torah” and canonized the Tanakh. There is evidence—the fact of the Septuagint’s divergence from the Tanakh—that final canonization occurred much later in the 1st-2nd centuries of the Common Era, but it seems very likely that the Torah assumed a fixed identity at this time.

While orthodox believers date the writing of the Torah/Pentateuch from the time of Moses (c. 1380 BCE)—and some fundamentalist believers, before Creation—contemporary biblical critics believe that while bits may have existed earlier (from the 7th c. or even the 10th or maybeeven older as oral lore), the collection and redaction of these core documents into a single body reached completion no earlier than the start of Persian rule in c. 540.

Consensus sees it as even later, as the result of Persian rule. So 450 BCE seems to be a reasonable completion date for redaction of the Torah. The books of the Nevi’im—the histories of the prophets and kings—get trickier. They document events that presumably occurred from the 10th c. to the 6th c. during the Judean monarchy, and even later for the last prophets who extended into the post-exilic times, but their redaction and collection was certainly not complete until the 4th c., Isaiah and Daniel maybe even later.

At any rate by the beginning of the 3rd c. BCE, we can assume the Torah, at least, would have been a known written entity.

Map of Ancient Near East Empires, 1350 BCE

(Christian) Map of Ancient Near East Empires Around 1350 B.C. from THE Bible Study Web Site at BibleStudy.org. Free books and aids to Bible study. Originally from American Bible Society. http://www.biblestudy.org/maps/ancient-near-east-empires.html

What are the circumstances of a Jewish scribalism movement begun in the 6th c. BCE? Why then?

After vanquishing Nabonides of Babylon in 539, Persian Cyrus II ordered the release in 537 BCE of Jews taken as Babylonian prisoners of war during the fifty-year Babylonian tyranny. Canny Persian liberalism encouraged home rule and indigenous religious practice throughout its empire, to which the enslavement and religious suppression of the Babylonian rule (586-539 BCE) must have been in strong contrast. In direct consequence, the Second Temple was reconstructed in Jerusalem in 515 BCE.

Scribalism flourished in the Jewish diaspora in Babylon as well as in Jerusalem. Priest and proponent scribe Ezra finally led 5000 Babylonian exiles home to Jerusalem in 459 BCE. Perdue feels that Persian détente “likely propelled Judah’s efforts at codification of the Priestly document, giving increased significance to the Torah, the temple, and Zadokite priesthood” (Perdue, p. 140, Wisdom Literature, 2007).

Makes sense. Documentation of a culture under siege to protect from within. During a lull in the storm of outsider rule, the culture takes steps to arm its intellectual fortress against future attack. “Written” is more resistant to the siege of circumstance than “spoken.” True in music too.

Map of where tribes Israel and Judah taken captive 585 BCE

(Christian) Map of where Israel and Judah taken Captive: Israel (commonly referred to as the ten tribes of Israel or the lost ten tribes of Israel) was taken captive by Assyrian King Sargon II around 721 B.C. Judah (composed of the tribe of Judah, Benjamin and Levi) was taken captive by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar around 585 B.C.

from THE Bible Study Web Site at BibleStudy.org. Free books and aids to Bible study.


Crawford Howell Toy, a 19th-c. American Hebrew scholar, describes a change in Judaism concurrent with 6th-c. Babylonian exile (or Third Captivity above) and the ensuing Persian rule—a change that articulates the conceptual boundary between Old and “Late Pre-Christian” Semitic philosophies. But Toy credits an additional impetus for this dramatic shift to the internal solidification of a clear Judaic monotheism, rather than to external political conditions alone. Instead of scribalism, he delineates the rise of scholarship, schools led by those scholars, and synagogues.

Of all the musty early 20th-c. theologians I’ve read because the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is out of copyright and the ideas therein now belong to the public domain, Toy (1836-1919) is especially delightful to me as a source. First, because he was one of a select bunch of American scholars invited to contribute to that august British body of lore, and second, because his interest in the theories of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) combined with his objections to a Christological misreading of the Old Testament, got him fired from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in April 1879.

A native Virginian, Toy abandoned the South altogether, became a Unitarian, and moved to Cambridge MA in 1880 where he got hired as Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages by Harvard. The Unitarian Church in Harvard Square he would have joined is where I attended Sunday School. And I grew up a few blocks away in the Victorian home of the first music professor at Harvard, John Knowles Paine (1839-1906). They may have taught the same students. I know Professor Paine was the organist at Christ Church, the Episcopalian congregation whose graveyard abuts the Unitarians’.

Toy details the difference between Old and Newer Judaism:

Old Semitic philosophy was a science not of ontology in the modern sense of the term, but of practical life. For the Greeks “love of wisdom” involved inquiry into the basis and origin of things; the Hebrew “wisdom” was the capacity so to order life as to get out of it the greatest possible good…”Wise men” are distrusted and opposed by the “prophets”…The external law given, as was believed, by the God of Israel, was held to be the sufficient guide of life, and everything that looked like reliance on human wisdom was regarded as disloyalty to the Divine Lawgiver…

—Crawford Howell Toy (1836-1919), “Wisdom Literature”,


XXVIII, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911, p. 751. Public Domain. Own copy.

That was the old way. More Babylonian perhaps, as we shall see. Or Egyptian. But later for that. For now, the newer:

…The class of sages to whom we owe the Wisdom Books did not arise till a change had come over the national fortunes and life. The firm establishment of the doctrine of practical monotheism happened to coincide in time with the destruction of the national political life (in the 6th century B. C.). At the moment when this doctrine had come to be generally accepted by the thinking part of the nation, the Jews found themselves dispersed among foreign communities, and from that time were a subject people environed by aliens, Babylonian, Persian and Greek.

—Toy, 1911, p. 751.

Thus Toy roots monotheism in national identity. The older, more magical thinking is subsumed:

The prophetic office ceased to exist…and part of the intellectual energy of the people was thus set free for other tasks than the establishment of theistic dogma. The ritual law was substantially completed by the end of the 5th century B. C.; it became the object of study, and thus arose a class of scholars, among whom were some who, under the influence of the general culture of the time, native and foreign, pushed their investigations beyond the limits of the national law and became students and critics of life…

—Toy, 1911, p. 751.

So the wise men arrive. The sage class. The rabbis. Criticism. Discussion. Ongoing. Wisdom vs. folly, the everyday morality drama. And inevitably, schools to spread the wisdom. But Jewish shul. Not the Greek gymnasium instituted by the hated Antiochus IV Epiphanes, mid 2nd c., to promote Greek values.

There was a tradition of learning—the results of observation and experience were handed down orally. In the 2nd century B. C., about the time when the synagogue took shape, there were established schools presided over by eminent sages, in which along with the instruction in the law much was said concerning the general conduct of life (see Pirke Aboth).

—Toy, 1911, p. 751.

To reiterate:

During this Persian period, the Torah was created as a single coherent written entity. Then recognized as central to Judaic wisdom and self-understanding. Monotheism, creation, and a new understanding of divine will were codified therein. Jewish life returned to Jerusalem, returning Jerusalem to its rank as cultural capital city. After the written embodiment of Jewish spiritual identity took on life independent from oral memory, its interpretation became the focus of intellectual activity. The Zadokite priesthood became the keepers of the written word. Priestly sages who could interpret the written word became key to the active maintenance of cultural identity in a society under foreign rule.

Interpretation became a calling. Teaching, a sacred employment for the interpreter sage. Schools and synagogues organized reception of these teachings by the unread, untaught, unwise. Until they learned enough to teach. A system of transmission developed, an oral counterpart to the written Torah, later referred to as Oral Torah (until it became written as the Talmud).

Interpretation became an art. The active art extended its focus to inscribing proverbs for everyday living, developing nuance, allegory, riddle and verse. To accounts of lives, less than perfect, such as Job’s or Qohelet’s, which offered valuable lessons in morality by example. And these artfully written documents of wise Hebrew—not Babylonian, not Egyptian—instructions for life, became attached to the now-written body of Jewish history. In the present.

This is a beginning of my understanding of how we arrive at Old Testament Wisdom in the 3rd to 2nd c. BCE.

Who is as the wise man?

and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?

a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.

—Eccles. 8:1 [KJV]

Noah's world

The World as known to the Hebrews, A map from Historical Textbook and Atlas of Biblical Geography (1854) by Coleman.

Transferred from en.wikipedia. 2006-04-07 (original upload date). Original uploader was Kober at en.wikipedia.

This image is in the public domain due to its age.

Wikimedia Commons

Another Christian map of the Jews’ worldview. This one is from a mid-19th-c. English textbook. Christian and Protestant worldviews are thus mapped onto the ancient biblical.


To reiterate from a slightly different angle:

In the husbanding spirit of cultural conservation, Jewish scribalism healed the fragmented memory and mended the remnant history of an oppressed people, while sheltering in the lee of Persian rule. Substantiated in a new body of retrospective writing, Judaism’s practices and beliefs formed a dense, perceptible identity. One that has lasted to this day, survived drastic diaspora in hostile host cultures, while spawning two other world religions who jealously claim portions of that core identity as their own.

Biblical wisdom was the luxuriant flower of this new prosperity of mind. And yet, this Judaic literature may owe much of its intimate quotidian character, poetic romance and realist theism to non-Jewish traditions. Preexisting 2nd and 3rd millennium Babylonian, Egyptian, and Sumerian wisdom texts, which had been offering sage counsel to live by, for thousands of years at this point. In this sense, biblical wisdom texts are the love-children of the enemy.

Ancient near east, 540 BCE

Map of the ancient Near East in 540 BC. Derived from Image: Oriente Medio 600 adC (vacío).svg; modified to follow the map of the Achaemenid empire of Persia – 559-480 BC in the Concise Atlas of World History (Andromeda, 1997). Released to Public Domain by ChrisO. Wikimedia Commons.


Shifting the angle, and looking again:

6th-c. conquest thrust an agrarian, feudal Israel into the high gear of an urbanized, technological, and artistically self-revelatory Babylonia. The cultural disparity could only have resulted in cruel juxtaposition, literal and figurative. Perdue recognizes a crisis in faith:

The disruption of social order in Judah by the Babylonian conquest became the basis for questioning divine justice. Has the Creator turned against his own human creature and enabled the wicked and the power of chaos to prevail over the righteous?

—Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2007, p. 340.

Biblical wisdom scholar, James L. Crenshaw back-stories Perdue’s theistic crisis, redoubling from Old Judaism up to a crisis he then extends well into Persian rule:

The declaration that the universe could be relied on (Gen. 9:8-17) bursts on the scene precisely when the Deluge seemed to render life utterly perilous; its formulation constitutes a mighty expression of confidence in God’s goodness despite the memory of raging waters…

Alongside this belief in a calculable universe stood an equally compelling conviction that Israel was a people of the covenant who enjoyed God’s favor. No task was too great, no enemy too powerful, to frustrate the desire on God’s part to bestow life on Israel at any cost…So ran the embellished account of Israel’s history, a story so far from the truth that it sowed the seeds of skepticism at almost every telling. The disparity between present reality and grandiose confessions of God’s mighty deeds in the past demanded an adequate explanation lest wholesale abandoning of the Lord take place…

The ultimate step [was] to deny knowledge to human beings…For example, human preparations for warfare may abort, because the battle belongs to the Lord. All efforts to master the universe labor under a single unknown factor—God’s freedom…Still, the sages saw no great threat…so long as they believed in God’s goodness.

A decisive shift occurs in the Book of Job, which wrestles with an awareness that God sometimes becomes an enemy…Job’s predicament forces him to abandon the rational principle…Qoheleth advances in yet another direction; in his opinion, God is wholly indifferent to human beings…

—James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, pp. 192-194.

The god of the wisdom writers is a new god. Not the interactive god of Moses. Though almost a century apart and with varying viewpoints as to cause, all three scholars see the wisdom movement as a shift away from the “Yahwist” godview of earlier biblical testimony. The new god would not necessarily help humankind. A new skepticism about god and human fate has entered. Job questions an inclement god. Qohelet questions the meaning of life. But both tellers return to god as their eventual answer while their unpunished questioning is the parable.

For both Qohelet and Job, god remains throughout, divine order silently underlying all. Benevolence and punishment are vestigial relics of the old god’s demeanor. The new god knows the truth and has always known it. And indulges question. To question is to have faith that there exists an answer. Not to question, is to be a fool, and to defy god.

You, the human, may seek the truth and live by the precepts of wisdom or you may choose to be a fool. If you choose folly, you risk disaster in daily life because you won’t have the wisdom to prevent it. Scorn and victimization, because you won’t have the wisdom to win respect and trust. Treachery, because you won’t have the insight of past experience. Punishment from the more immediate human realm, because you have not heeded the advice to obey your earthly masters. Your ignorance and vulnerability are your punishment by the divine. No need for thunderbolts. Folly is its own reward.

While no man can presume to predict the future, the wise man is a little more prepared for it than the fool.

Whether or not there is punishment for being wicked is up for grabs though. Presumably wisdom precludes wickedness. The new god of wisdom may or may not punish wickedness, Qohelet is unsure. So the lesson is: you better take care of yourself and get wise.

William Blake's title page, The Book of Job

Illustrations of the Book of Job, object 2 (Bentley 421.1) “Title Plate”

Title: Illustrations of the Book of Job/ Origination: William Blake: inventor, delineator, engraver/ Origination: James Lahee: printer/ Publisher: William Blake/ Place of Publication: No. 3, Fountain Court, Strand, London/ Date: 8 March 1825

Note: Object 3 (the plate inscribed 1) was mistakenly dated 8 March 1828. The Job plates were not printed for publication until March 1826./ Composition Date: 1823-26/ Print Date: 1826/ Number of Objects: 23/ Note: The first object is the Job label printed in letterpress; objects 2-23 are the Job engravings./ Object Order: 1-23/ Object Size: Ranging between 10.4 x 13.5 cm. (object 1) and 21.9 x 17.1 cm./ Note: Dimensions recorded here are of the complete image, including all border designs and framing lines./ Number of Leaves: 23/ Leaf Size: 12.6 x 16.2 cm. (object 1), 42.1 x 32.5 cm. (objects 2- 23)/ Medium: letterpress (object 1, the Job label), intaglio engravings (objects 2-23)/ Printing Style: letterpress (object 1, the Job label), intaglio (objects 2-23)/ Ink Color: black/ Support: wove paper (object 1), India paper (chine collee) on wove paper backing sheets (objects 2-23)

Watermark: J Whatman Turkey Mill 1825/ Note: The watermark appears only on objects 10, 13, 15, 16 (plates inscribed 8, 11, 13, 14)./ Etched Numbers: objects 3-23 inscribed 1-21 top right/ Penned Numbers: none/ Frame Lines: 1 (objects 1, 3, 23), 2 (objects 4-22), 4 (object 2)/ Binding: loose/ Stab Holes: none/ Provenance: Name: Robert N. Essick/ Date: 1971 (objects 1-12, 14-23), 1973 (object 13)/ Dealer: Zeitlin and Ver Brugge (objects 1-12, 14-23), William Weston Gallery (object 13)/ Price: not recorded/ Note: earlier history not known/ Present Location: Collection of Robert N. Essick, Altadena, CA/ Viewed on: Sun Apr 12 2009 18:32:38 GMT-0400 (EDT) http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/copyinfo.xq?copyid=bb421.1

The Lord answering Job, William Blake

Illustrations of the Book of Job, object 15 (Bentley 421.14) “The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind”

From “Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1826 (Collection of Robert N. Essick): electronic edition” www.blakearchive.org (more credit info on previous page)

God hovers, arms outstretched, in a whirlwind. Below are Job and his wife (left), both with hands raised in prayer. Job’s three friends bow down as though humbled and frightened by God’s sublime energies; only Job and his wife gaze upward toward God. Given our identifications of the three friends in object 9 (plate numbered 7), these are (from front to back) Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Grass and perhaps small plants appear in the foreground below the figures; the middle distance is filled with columns and a long lintel, perhaps both parts of a building. The sky appears dark above the distant mountains.

Going on. Widening & mixing angles to see in 3-D. Three conflicting views of Qohelet help us perceive wisdom’s true shape.

Map of ancient near east, University of Texas

Study map of the Near East and Mesopotamia. Fair use.
—from Constanze Witt’s course page for “Classical Archaeology” taught 2006
University of Texas at Austin Classics Department

I don’t agree with James L. Crenshaw’s further conclusions about the connection between divine inscrutability and the pessimism of both Judaic and Babylonian wisdom cultures. About the Babylonians he quips:

Divine caprice turned these people into what has been called the most pessimistic civilization in history.

—Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 1998, p. 191.

Nor do I agree with Crenshaw’s “crisis” Job. Job, for me, is a character who can only exist in a culture that has relaxed as the post-exilic. And Crenshaw’s “Goth” take on Qohelet is too 2-D for me. He translates hebel habêl as “absurdity,” “meaninglessness.” Qohelet, he describes as a nihilist who felt that:

The sum of all activity, human or natural, was one huge zero, the greatest emptiness…

—Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 1998, p. 118.

Like the Babylonians, Crenshaw educes Qohelet’s devoutless pessimism from the rot of “divine caprice,” saying that the sage found human wisdom bankrupt

whether due to divine caprice or human fallibility…

—Crenshaw, Urgent Advice and Probing Questions, Collected Writings on Old Testament Wisdom, Mercer University Press, 1996. p. 123.

Crenshaw broadens the scope of Qohelet’s pessimism to include all of Israel:

Qohelet taught by means of various literary types that earlier optimistic claims about wisdom’s power to secure one’s existence have no validity…Qoheleth bears witness to an intellectual crisis in ancient Israel.

—Crenshaw, “Ecclesiastes, Book of,” via Craig Bartholomew, Reading Ecclesiastes: Old Testament Exegesis and Hermeneutical Theory. Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1998, p. 47. Revised edition of a doctoral thesis completed through the University of Bristol in 1996, p. 277.

During my studies of Ecclesiastes and its nonsectarian “Midrash” of contemporary writings on the nature of Qohelet’s wisdom, I’ve seen two clear camps emerge:

Camp 1. Those who find an enigmatic optimism underlying the “clear-eyed” questioning of a true skeptic;

Camp 2. Those who decry the negative outlook in Ecclesiastes—naming it “pessimism” rather than skepticism—and tend to find it everywhere. Attributing to pessimism the wasting power of a terrible cultural juggernaut capable of dismantling empires. Deriving it from a crisis of faith.

Members of each camp extrapolate from their interpretation of Qohelet to an interpretation of his intellectual surroundings. The first camp seems to posit Qohelet as the furthest outpost of Hebrew wisdom culture’s experiment. The brave frontier of questioning. This camp admires Qohelet almost boyishly as if he were a fictional hero like H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 Carter who:

resolved to go with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before, and dare the icy deserts through the dark to where unknown Kadath, veiled in cloud and crowned with unimagined stars…

—H. P. Lovecraft, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Arkham House, 1943. Wikisource.

Crawford Howell Toy belongs to the first camp, hailing Ecclesiastes as “the most remarkable of this class of works [wisdom]”:

It is a discussion of human life, put into the mouth of King Solomon according to the custom of the time which liked to rest its wisdom on the authority of ancient sages. It says nothing of a future life of work and hope, and what it says of this life is marked by a complete absence of enthusiasm.

—Crawford Howell Toy, History of the Religion of Israel, Boston: Unitarian Sunday School Society, 1883, p. 106.

Sounds pretty negative. But wait.

The author expects nothing from any human effort. Not only money and power but even wisdom fails, he says, to make its possessor happy. Everything passes away, and man himself passes away, and leaves no trace behind. So, our author declares, the best thing to do is to enjoy such good things as the bounty of God gives us, and not to vex ourselves with ceaseless efforts after wealth and wisdom. But we are to enjoy ourselves, he says, not foolishly or wickedly; we are to have the fear of God before our eyes and to do nothing in excess. This is, in many respects, a most excellent philosophy. On one side it approaches the word of Jesus, that we are not to harass ourselves about tomorrow (Matt. vi. 34). It differs from the teaching of Jesus in not having a warm, loving trust in God. The book was probably written in the second century B.C.

—Crawford Howell Toy, History of the Religion of Israel, Boston: Unitarian Sunday School Society, 1883, p. 106.

And there you have it. Qohelet precurses Jesus. And Toy supplies a date for why, when and how we might contextualize this info.

Roland E. Murphy is in the first camp with Toy. As Toy, Murphy first describes Qohelet’s striking unresponsiveness to awe, his iconoclastic unwillingness to praise creation and the works of god, and his stolid description of divine opacity:

Elsewhere in the Bible the “work(s) of God”—his creative activity (Pss 19:2; 104:24; Job 54:19) or his saving works (Pss 66:5; 111:2-7; 118:17)—are singled out for praise: But for Qoheleth the work of God is not something that stirs his admiration. It is totally unintelligible. Humans cannot know what God is doing (5:11). The work of God is something he has made crooked, and no one can straighten it out (7:15; cf. 1:15). Humans are simply unable to make sense of the action of God (8:17). Qoheleth compares the divine action to the mystery of the process of gestation, the role of the life breath in the womb of the mother (11:5).

—Murphy, “Qoholeth the Skeptic?” The Tree of Life, 1990, 2002, pp. 58-59

Divine inscrutability, yes, that Babylonian connection again. And Q sounds pretty depressed. But wait.

All this constitutes a rather grim picture of the divinity. Nowhere does Qoheleth pray to this God, or even complain, as did many of the psalmists and Job. He is simply not rebellious. “God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few” (5:1). He offers no consolation, nor does he limn the “soft” side of God that one finds in the rest of the Bible. He simply accepts God on God’s terms. That is his faith. These terms are mysterious, so extreme that Qoheleth can call life’s venture a vanity or absurdity (intending this as an objective fact, not as an insult).

—Murphy, 1990, 2002, p. 58

Murphy mitigates absurdity’s abomination against optimism with a gentle parenthetical softening of Qohelet’s un-“soft”-ness—Qohelet’s hebel habêl “vanity of vanities” is “not an insult,” he says. Then more boldly, he re-asserts Q’s faith as his own, in the “I”:

I have called this faith. It is not the faith that celebrates the saving acts of the Lord, of which we hear so much in the Bible. Hence some scholars interpret Qoheleth as honoring only an Urhebergott (a God of origins, or creator God), or even as rejecting the saving history of his people.

[On the Urheberreligion, see Hans-Peter Müller, “Wie sprach Qohälat von Gott?” Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968), 520, and also Horst Dietrich Preuss, Einführung in die alttestamentliche Weisheitsliteratur, Stuttgart 1987, 174 and passim. R. B. Y. Scott implies that Qoholeth denies the salvation-history doctrine of Israel, but there is no evidence of Qoheleth’s reflecting on this. Perhaps he may have regarded it as having stopped (as many in the postexilic period might have thought): Cf. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (AB 18; Garden City: Doubleday, 1965) 207.]

—Murphy, 1990, 2002, p. 58

The massive triplex footnote throws a sop to Murphy’s gainsayers. Then Murphy swoops in like a Valkyrie, picks up the wounded Qohelet from the battlefield of doubt and transports him to the Valhalla of Christian thought, ensuring his immortality with the august imprimatur of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-c. Doctor Angelicus “teacher of angels,” sainted for his scholasticism. You are dazzled. You can’t protest. Watch.

However, he [Qohelet] says nothing about Israel’s traditions, and it is not legitimate to extrapolate and make him say things that he has not said, or to infer that he accepted only a creator God. In view of the circumstances we learn from his writing, it is no little thing that he accepted this mysterious God, of whom he could write that divine love or hatred cannot be discerned by human beings (9:1-2). The usual signs of divine approval (prosperity or adversity) were not adequate for him.

A sympathetic interpretation of Qoheleth is in order. His is a valuable witness in the Bible to the mystery of God. He reminds us of the celebrated words of Thomas Aquinas:

“When the existence of a thing has been ascertained, there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not…”

—Murphy, 1990, 2002, p. 58-59

Brave Qohelet alone, was witness to divine mystery. And thus Qohelet, the Skeptic, winds up solidly in the fold of the good guys.

The mystery of God. The Babylonian tenet. “Divine caprice” per Crenshaw, and responsible for that culture’s putrefaction through pessimism. Tower of Babel. The pride and the fall. Decadence.

For Crenshaw, brave Qohelet is not brave. He represents an outpost of wisdom culture that has gone too far. Effete. Lost. As Babylon, misguided, self-poisoned, doomed. A position from which we must retreat in order to survive as a culture:

The prophetic conscience is entirely lacking here, and moral impotence reigns… Qoheleth may see the same kind of injustice that Israel’s prophets inveighed against but he does not seem constrained to do battle against those who perpetrate the villainy. Instead, he advises against struggling with someone who possesses superior strength, and sees no value in verbal harangue. How differently Job weighed the situation, and how valiantly he waged battle against the Almighty!

…[Even] Qoheleth’s positive counsel contains little cause for exhilaration. The advice invariably occurs within contexts that emphasize life’s absurdity and attendant inequities, as well as those which stress God’s control over human ability to enjoy life. Qoheleth’s concept of divine gift is an expression for human limitation rather than an extolling of a generous God. The sources of pleasure—woman, wine, food, clothes, ointment, toil, and youth—are empty like life itself. In the end none accompanies the dead to Sheol. In spite of the limited satisfaction such pleasure affords, it does amount to something. Like breath, which cannot be seen but makes life possible, such enjoyment renders existence endurable. Still, that life-endowing breath returns to its source and leaves a corpse, and the pleasant moments disappear without a trace. Fleeting satisfaction may be conjured up through an active memory, but even that means of storing up youthful pleasure soars aloft when the death angel raises its wings and sets out with its reluctant burden on a journey into nothingness.

—Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 1998, p. 128

Moral impotence. Chicken-s**t. Helpless against injustice and villainy. Absurdity. Inequity. Human limitation. Empty. Corpse. Fleeting. Without a trace. Death angel to nothingness. (No Valkyrie to Valhalla here.) Crenshaw uses Ecclesiastes to boundary his discussion of biblical wisdom literature. This is the edge. Go no further. He moves on to the Apocryphal books of Sirach and Wisdom as retrenchment.

Below is Crenshaw’s survey of the rise and fall of the culture of biblical wisdom. Before wisdom, god’s voice has been silenced. Wisdom recasts the voice of god as creation itself. Still silent, but evident, Wisdom becomes personified and able to voice god’s intelligence via the instrument of the sage-poet’s hymn. Note the “before” and “after” for Ecclesiastes. Before: Job, hymnic praise, awe. Ecclesiastes: not hymnic, beauty undiscovered, creation ephemeral, stacked deck. After: Ben Sira, hymnic once again, celebrates providence, chorus-ed by Wisdom of Solomon.

The prophetic understanding of God as actively involved in the life of the people imposed a weighty burden on ancient Israel…Defeat in battle easily led to the abandonment of faith…God was punishing Israel for her sins…Thus they discredited prophecy and silenced God’s voice.

The sages understood God’s relationship with the world quite differently. In their view, revelation took place at the moment of creation, and when human capacity to discover this hidden mystery seemed inadequate. God continued to make known the divine will through personified Wisdom. In other words, truth was planted within the universe, and humans searched diligently for it by using their intelligence. Still, truth was not entirely disinterested; in some mysterious fashion divine mystery declared itself to the inquiring mind.

The sages of Israel did not speak often about creation, although the notion undergirds much of what they say about the human situation…Hymns within the book of Job restrict themselves to cosmology, focusing at length on the establishing of heaven and earth. These hymns almost join together the twin concepts of creation and providence. The poet stands in awe before majestic power capable of setting boundaries to the sea’s restless waves, commanding the constellations and stars to shine, and controlling thunder and lightning. That awe is also felt over divine wisdom manifest in the providential sending of rain, snow, and frost.

Qoheleth’s allusion to creation lacks a hymnic mood, replacing it with the somber note of a stacked deck. Having created the world appropriate in its time, or beautiful, God proceeded to implant something positive in the human mind but fixed things so that it would never be discovered…Ben Sira returns to the hymnic tradition of the book of Job (Sir. 43:1-33), … placing providence on an equal footing with creation…In Wisdom of Solomon the dominant role of wisdom…places the emphasis on providence rather than creation.

—Crenshaw, 1998, pp. 197-199

Having “saved” the problem of Qohelet’s pessimism with Ben Sira’s return to hymnic praise and pious restoration of the balance of providence and creation, Crenshaw climaxes his narrative with a gloriously ecstatic description of the purity, eroticism and light in the feminine personification of the goddess Wisdom in the final book:

A further step is taken in Wisdom of Solomon 7-9, one that is bold beyond belief. True, she is a personification, with…erotic overtones,…Solomon’s bride,…an extension of divine essence, a virtual if not actual hypostasis. Her twenty-one attributes add up to supreme purity, an emanation of the glory of the Almighty, and an image of divine goodness (7:22-26). Divine wisdom and spirit unite, and wisdom functions as a providential power at work in the life of the covenantal people. The images of relationship with God dazzle the reader: breath, outpouring of divine glory, eternal light, mirror of divine activity, and God’s image.

—Crenshaw, 1998, pp. 197-199

After such a grand finale, Crenshaw must deal with the problem that the Bible does not actually include these two last books. He justifies the inclusion of Sirach and Wisdom in his own canon of biblical wisdom literature:

The fact that later Jewish leaders restricted the age of inspiration to the period from Moses to Ezra, thus excluding Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon from the Hebrew Bible, has nothing to do with the adequacy of the two books…

—Crenshaw, 1998, p. 201

Having secured their presence, Crenshaw may proceed to his dénouement, wrapping up Old Testament wisdom in a ‘graph:

In summary, the literary corpus of the sages was placed alongside the Pentateuch and the Prophets precisely because wisdom’s legacy was no mean achievement. Proverbs enabled the people to cope with life; Job and Qoheleth empowered them to face sickness and death; Sirach introduced hymnic praise as an essential ingredient in the discussion of life’s enigmas; and Wisdom of Solomon added an erotic dimension to the search for knowledge.

—Crenshaw, 1998, p. 201

So Qohelet is the trouble-maker, the creator of the conflict whose resolution is the catharsis of Crenshaw’s scenario for Old Testament Wisdom.

Here’s another for Crenshaw’s team, extrapolating from Ecclesiastes a sort of social malaise, a dangerous drift towards Pascal’s misère de l’homme sans Dieu, “misery of man without God,” which must follow skepticism:

The world-weariness which we find in the Book of Ecclesiastes is not confined to Israel… As Mesopotamian civilization drew to its close towards the middle of the first millennium BC, scepticism, doubt and indifference began to undermine the spiritual structure of that civilization…

—pp. 244-245, James Thrower, The Alternative Tradition: Religion and the Rejection of Religion in the Ancient World, A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World. Published by Walter de Gruyter, 1980.

“Scepticism, doubt and indifference.” And atheism lurking. I don’t believe it. Skepticism and atheism are luxuries a culture under a stress like Babylonian captivity could ill afford. Post-exilic culture under Persian rule, on the other hand…

Now I put myself in the shot. Subjectivist pursuit of the truth. Do not deny my blind-spot. Reveal it. Use it.

I take issue here.

First with the idea that skepticism necessarily leads to atheism. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but that seems to underestimate the hardiness of faith. In my experience, faith is a choice. Independent of the choice to question.

My primary issue is that Camp #2’s diagnosis of pessimism in Ecclesiastes is predicated on a perceived lack of optimism. And that judgment is based on the determination that Qohelet’s positive advice does not counterbalance his negative. Which takes us back to the premise that carpe diem (“seize the day!”) is an inherently pessimistic approach to life. Empty, Crenshaw says, meaningless. World-weary, indifferent, says Thrower. There is a soupçon that the advice to enjoy life is false wisdom, heretical to and mocking the greater wisdom corpus’s praise-filled teachings.

It’s taken me a while to figure out why this bugs me. Plus a side foray into my teenage daughter’s study of Nietzsche’s slave-morality dichotomy: charity, piety, restraint, meekness, and subservience vs. cruelty, selfishness, wealth, indulgence, and aggression.

Enjoying life like there’s no tomorrow becomes pallid, praise-less and negative when we start to believe that there is a tomorrow, much brighter than anything we might experience in this life.

For some reason, a belief in the existence of the afterlife, rather than comforting us, makes death more frightening (I think). Perhaps because the deadline is irrational. We should not see death as an ending, and yet it is. We should not see life as fulfilling and pleasurable yet we continue to hope for those moments, as irrational, damnable and petty as we know those hopes to be. After all, we don’t really know another life to compare. Carpe diem touts the paltry rewards of this life and arouses a fear of loss we can’t ignore. What if…? The entertainment of private heresy, no matter how brief, is uncomfortable for the pious who strain to believe in the unquantifiable hereafter.

If there is life after death, then we must be careful that our actions in this first life do not inhibit our options in the next.     There is only so much time to amass such insurance. And to seek pleasure, as if we don’t believe we get a second chance, is therefore pessimistic and wasteful. It calls immortality to question. The heart of the premise that carpe diem is pessimistic, is the defensive assumption that it denies the afterlife.

If there isn’t life after death, how can it not be positive to enjoy the one life we are given? If we do believe life is god-given, to enjoy it would certainly seem grateful and of good faith. Hence seizing the day becomes a positive—even a pious—act. An act of praise. And if so, then how can Qohelet’s description of the grand cycles of life and nature not be heard as hymnic?

My subjective outburst arouses a major question about modern interpretation of wisdom literature as a whole. One that is particularly germane to this study of Ecclesiastes.

Although modern Judaism espouses it, the afterlife belief is a relative latecomer to the faith. The tenet of the immortal soul is not a given in every component of the Judaic biblical canon. In fact it is more absent than present. Matured afterlife beliefs—with divine retribution, celestial locations and an apocalyptic process—do not appear in the Torah at all. Nor in the Nevi’im until the last additions, the Book of Daniel being the earliest. Of the wisdom texts, the Wisdom of Solomon, also later, is the only book in the Septuagint that incorporates a full-fledged afterlife conceptualization. But that book was excluded from the Jewish canon.

Ergo, I find it dangerously anachronistic to evaluate biblical wisdom literature without first examining our own beliefs and assumptions carefully. Even if I don’t believe in an afterlife, I live in a culture steeped in afterlife values. Such as judging the carpe diem philosophy as hedonistic and immoral. My view of the object is altered by the thinking behind my eyes.

This is the twist of the kaleidoscope lens. The shifting of belief. We live so deep in a belief set we can’t see how it prevents us from understanding our history. So many things are so familiar that we can’t see where we subtly diverge. And miss the point. Then we wonder how an odd element fits or balances, because the meaning of that element is different in our time. One idea is much louder now—vanity, self-love, l’amour-propre. Another idea tarnished, without the sheen of innocence it might have had—enjoy life, carpe diem, don’t miss a moment.

Somehow we must become aware of how belief in the afterlife distorts our modern reading of the older portions of the bible. And the later pre-Christian portions. Biblical wisdom culture may have occurred as beliefs in the afterlife were being adopted in oral tradition. We can guess this because the Pharisees claimed roots that went back further than the 2nd c. BCE. Wisdom literature must be interpreted as being written on the “cusp” of a huge change in the conceptualization of life and death.

I do however find Professor Crenshaw’s outline of the international Wisdom culture’s legacy very useful:

  1. growth of skepticism (in its original sense—questioning, not pessimism)
  2. a viable alternative to the older, Yahwistic worldview
  3. its ability to cope with reality

—Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 1998, p. 184

Day-to-day coping advice, Crenshaw feels is “the secret to Wisdom’s wide appeal.”

Roland Murphy’s outline of Wisdom’s relationship with reality is also helpful:

  1. Wisdom does not view reality in an unhistorical manner…the sages…draw upon daily experience as this was framed in the traditions handed down in the family and by teachers. But their lessons are not timeless…
  2. Wisdom recognizes a dynamic relationship between humans and their environment…Humans bear responsibility for their actions; … they have “free will.” On the other hand, the Lord is the cause of everything, both good and evil…Ultimately, trust in the patterns of human experience was trust in God, who was responsible for the reality which confronted the sages…
  3. Wisdom [is] a search for order…Once the order of such events could be discovered, wisdom could be achieved, lessons made apparent, and laws for conduct established. This is not an irreligious view, nor even totally pragmatic or eudaimonistic, as if one should follow rules solely for the success they bring. Behind the order stands the divinity, the creator, who has set up his world according to certain laws. Creatures are to abide by the divine set of orders. This point of view has been reinforced by the role of ma’at in the Egyptian wisdom literature…

—Murphy, The Tree of Life, 1990, pp. 111-115

Time-fullness. Responsibility. “Free will.” God as universal motivator. Trust in cycles of life=trust in god. Reality=god. My friend Sol says, “you want to know what god’s will is? God’s will is what is.” Wisdom is a search, not an answer. An action, not an object. A search for order. A divine order that already exists but remains to be discovered by mortals.

In the next few segments I will set biblical wisdom literature within the greater landscape of the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, but before I do, I would like to prevail on Professors Murphy and Crenshaw for two more lists. Wisdom practitioners were also skilled wordsmiths. Literary art was an expectation, and evidence of wit and forethought. Patronage of scribal activity, too, no doubt depended on its power to delight the ear and eye as well as inform the mind. Craft made the document worth keeping.

Murphy’s list of Wisdom’s literary devices includes:

  1. parallelism: a well-known phenomenon in the Bible…”grouping of lines or half lines” to represent a full thought in association. Usually two units, sometimes three. If repetitive, synonymous parallelism, for intensification if A, then more so B. Antithetic parallelism employs opposition to create the full single thought. Frequent combinations are called word-pairs: “wise/fool,” “mouth/tongue,” etc.
  2. paronomasia: puns, alliteration, assonance and chiasm, lost in translation, may explain some of the more obscure sentences in wisdom literature. Also lost, Hebrew style of juxtaposition of participial phrases.
  3. forms:
    1. sayings
      1. experiential, open-ended and subject to verification
      2. didactic and closed
    2. admonitions: commands or prohibitions, positive or negative
    3. wisdom poems: consecutive sets of lines which can include related admonitions or sayings. Consecutiveness allowed individual proverbs to be couched in supportive context. Like Egyptian instructions, show a tendency to patterns—e.g. alphabetized, or acrostic.
      1. legal, disputational
      2. lament
      3. reflection

—pp. 6-11, Murphy, The Tree of Life, 1990

Crenshaw’s list of Wisdom’s literary forms:

  1. proverb—succinct, epigrammatic and metaphorical
  2. riddle—code language which simultaneously informs and conceals
  3. allegory—descriptions of old age, Eccles. 12:1-7
  4. hymn—song in praise of inaccessible wisdom
  5. disputation, imagined speech or dialogue
  6. autobiographical narrative
  7. noun lists or onomastica
  8. didactic narrative or sermon in story form

—pp. 26-28, Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 1998

You may apply these guidelines—I’ve given you two sets for more flexibility—as broadly as you like.

They are not exclusive to the biblical Sapiential works of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Qohelet, Song of Songs, Sirach and Wisdom. They also describe elements of the earlier Bible, as well as the later. The neat causality that wisdom comes to the Bible through the catalytic juxtaposition of Babylonian with Judaic culture is too neat. If scribalism caused the consolidation of the Torah and Nevi’im, these portions of the Bible could have been substantially transcribed after Jewish exposure to Babylonian wisdom literary traditions. And if Abraham were indeed Sumerian before he set off for Egypt, then Sumerian wisdom would have been his heritage and Egyptian wisdom his New World. Alexander Heidel carefully translated “all the published cuneiform tablets of the various Babylonian creation stories” to demonstrate their fundamental correlation to the Book of Genesis in 1942’s The Babylonian Genesis.

Even more importantly, these guidelines define a wisdom culture that transcended seas, kings and national boundaries, framing beliefs and attitudes about god, fate and free will. They represent aesthetic ambition as well as popular fashion and as such could not be contained. I like to say that music, my love, is like water—you can’t keep it apart. I think maybe wisdom culture was like—not water—but maybe air. The same wind, which blew north from Egypt, could as well blow through Palestine, Persia and Greece. The same wind, which blew west from ancient Mesopotamia, might cross those nations too, or turn south to Egypt. In a time of turbulent political struggles for dominance, wisdom created harmony and underlying order.

The excavations which during the last one hundred years or more have been carried on in Egypt, Palestine, Babylonia, Assyria, and other lands of the ancient Orient have opened up vistas of history that were undreamed of before the archaeologist with his spade turned up on the scene. They have furnished us with a remarkable background for the Old Testament; they have shown with singular clarity that the story of the ancient Hebrews…is but an episode in a gigantic drama…; they have shown that the Old Testament is not an isolated body of literature but…has so many parallels in the literature of the nations surrounding Israel that it is impossible to write a scientific history of the Hebrews or…commentary on the Old Testament without…knowledge of the history and literature of Israel’s neighbors.

—p. v, Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, University of Chicago Press, 1942.

The study of wisdom literature is a burgeoning field, in part because there has been such growing interest in alternative spiritual practice and in part because the discovery of ancient literary artifacts and the technology and science for their recovery has increased so dramatically over the past two centuries. No small nutrient for the furious re-blooming of ancient wisdom in most recent culture is the incredible accessibility of these documents to the general public (like me) via the Internet. Now we can all become wise.

In the following pages, I look at wisdom texts from New and Old Babylonia or Sumeria, and from Old, Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and compare them to Ecclesiastes. I hunt for texts that seem to have direct bearing on Qohelet’s writing due to shared attitude, content or style. I try to choose texts to which he might have been exposed as a learned urban sage in the Near East. I then look at the cosmopolitan phenomenon of the sage from a more global, less nationalistic point of view. I move on to the emblematic image of Solomon and his role as “poster-king” for the new wisdom culture in Judaism. Finally, I conclude with Qohelet’s own idiosyncratic wisdom, how it continues to perplex and seduce us into questioning, even now.

Leviticus scroll from Cave 11

The Leviticus Scroll, Library of Congress.

Va-Yikrah. 11Q1(PaleoLev). Parchment. Copied late 2nd c.-early 1st c. BCE. Height 10.9 cm (4 1/4 in.), length 100.2 cm (39 1/2 in.). Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Lev. 23:22-29

  1. (22)[…edges of your field, or] gather [the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the LO]RD [am]
  2. your God.
  3. (23) The LORD spoke to Moses saying: (24) Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month
  4. on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with load blasts.
  5. (25) You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the LORD.
  6. (26) The LORD spoke to Moses saying: (27) Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day
  7. of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering
  8. by fire to the LORD; (28) you shall do no work throughout that day. For
  9. [it is a Day of Atonement on which] expiation is made on your behalf [before the LO]RD your God. (29) Indeed, any person who…

Translation from “Tanakh,” p. 192. Philadelphia, 1985. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/trans9.html

This scroll was discovered in 1956, when a group of Ta`amireh Bedouin happened on Cave 11, but it was first unrolled fourteen years later, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Inscribed in the scroll are parts of the final chapters (22-27) of Leviticus, the third book in the Pentateuch, which expounds laws of sacrifice, atonement, and holiness. This is the lowermost portion (approximately one-fifth of the original height) of the final six columns of the original manuscript. Eighteen small fragments also belong to this scroll. The additional fragments of this manuscript are from preceding chapters: Lev. 4, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18-22.

The Leviticus Scroll was written in an ancient Hebrew script often referred to as paleo-Hebrew. The almost uniform direction of the downstrokes, sloping to the left, indicates an experienced, rapid, and rhythmic hand of a single scribe. The text was penned on the grain side of a sheep skin. Both vertical and horizontal lines were drawn. The vertical lines aligned the columns and margins; the horizontal lines served as guidelines from which the scribe suspended his letters. Dots served as word-spacers.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been the subject of avid interest and curiosity for nearly fifty years. Today, scholars agree on their significance but disagree on who produced them. They debate specific passages of individual scrolls and are still assessing their impact on the foundations of Judaism and Christianity. For the public in this country and throughout the world, the scrolls have an aura of reverence and intrigue which is reinvigorated periodically by the media–journalists who report serious disagreements among well-known scholars, as well as tabloids which claim that the scrolls can predict the future or answer life’s mysteries.

This Library of Congress exhibition presents a significant sampling of scrolls and explores both their history and their meaning. It is the Library’s hope that visitors will leave both satisfied in having seen these remarkable survivors of a far-off past and in having learned something of the challenges facing scroll scholars and intrigued by questions that surround the scrolls and the community that may have produced them.

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? How did the Qumran library come to be? Whose scrolls were they? Why were they hidden in the caves? Today, with specialists and scholars throughout the world poring over the newly released scroll texts, solutions to these mysteries undoubtedly will be proposed. But these solutions will themselves raise questions–fueling continuing public interest and scholarly debate.

—Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/scr3.html#levi & http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/concl.html

4: towards answers—who is qohelet?

•September 3, 2012 • 3 Comments

Continue reading ‘4: towards answers—who is qohelet?’