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Christian Davis
Christian Davis

Prophets And Prophecy In The Ancient Near East ...

In this collection the editor presents transliterations (except for the Egyptian text) and translations of the diversity of ancient Near Eastern texts dealing with prophecies, whether as reported or quoted, and texts mentioning a person having a prophetic title. He does not consider Akkadian prophecies and apocalypses and related texts where the author betrays no awareness of transmitting a received message; nor does he consider other texts wherein it not clear that a prophecy is involved. In addition, Papyrus Amherst 63 is omitted due to lack of a complete edition. However, the portion that is translated presents an oracle of salvation.

Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East ...

The work concludes with a lengthy bibliography, a glossary, and a variety of indices. The latter does not include an index of biblical references because the authors avoid making parallels with the Bible, such as has been done here. Nevertheless, this work forms an essential starting point for the study of prophecy in the ancient Near East outside the Bible. Students of biblical prophecy owe a debt of gratitude to Nissinen and his collaborators for collecting all these sources, especially the ones from Mari, and providing useful transliterations, readable translations, helpful introductions, and philological notes.

Serious questions arise when the evidence for prophetism in the Ancient Near East is examined. In the first place, all extant sources for Ancient Near Eastern prophecy were uncovered by archaeological discovery and consist of written documents - texts - whilst prophetic oracles were most probably delivered orally in the first place (Cancik-Kirschbaum 2003:35; Kratz 2006:344; Nissinen 2003a:4; Van der Toorn 2000:219-221). The obvious problem here pertains to the distance between the spoken word and the written document. Prophecies were not recorded as the oracles were delivered, in fact, a considerable time elapsed between what was spoken and what was written down. With regards to the written documents, it is quite certain that the prophets did not write these words, but that these are the works of the scribes (see the section headed 'The relationship between divination and prophecy' below).

Mari is a main site in Syria. Most texts from here were recovered in the royal archive and, furthermore, represent a very restricted span of time, that is, they can be dated to the final decade - perhaps less - of the reign of Zimri Lim, c.1775-1761 BCE (Gordon 1995:20; Malamat 1995:52; Nissinen 2004:25). These are mostly first-hand documents which reflect a relative short lapse of time between the oral utterance and its record in writing and thus present a synchronous picture of prophecy. The differences from the prophetic corpus in the Hebrew Bible should be obvious: the Israelite prophets appeared over the course of centuries and their words and deeds had undergone a lengthy and complex literary process of transmission and transcription (Malamat 1995:52-53); consequently, the picture the present is one of diachrony and diversity, even contradiction, a picture that is totally different from the impression reflected by the Mari-oracles.

Apparently these texts had no oral background but were intended as literary compositions from the outset, thus indicating 'the transition from prophecy to literature in 7th-centuary Assyria' (De Jong 2007:186) and are closer to the kind of prophecy recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Some texts do predict political events in the near future as revealed by the gods, however, these predictions should be regarded as vaticinia ex eventu - that is, projected backwards after they had happened. Other texts are only vague predictions of future political events and cover a broad time-span without mentioning the names of the rulers - these may be termed 'pseudo predictions' (De Jong 2007:187). Nevertheless, these texts also betray a particular interest or agenda. They appear to be general, for example, by emphasising general attributes of the ideal ruler: one who defeats his enemies, who restores the cult and who cares for the well-being of his subjects. Hereby they actually disclose a particular situation and aim to justify of glorify the reign of a specific king.

Earlier scholars drew a distinction between 'divination' and 'prophecy', thereby aiming to distinguish between inductive and non-inductive measures that would separate the diviners from the prophets (cf. Nissinen 2004:21). Diviners make use of inductive measures and technical operations to invoke the message of a deity, whilst prophets receive it spontaneously, albeit an audible word, a dream or a vision. Although this sharp distinction is no longer tenable, it is certainly informative to examine briefly the different means of inductive and non-inductive measures of divination.

Instead of making the sharp distinction between inductive divination and non-inductive prophecy, scholars nowadays are of the opinion that both are branches of the same tree and stand in a complementary relationship to each other, rather than being in conflict (De Jong 2007:313; Nissinen 2004:21). Both forms of divination were practiced side by side and shared the same ideological basis, namely that gods knew what humans did not and they wished to convey this knowledge to those on earth. Decisions made in heaven directly affected the earthly world and, as the extant sources reveal, these often pertained to the so-called Herrschaftswissen - the affairs of the ruler and the state, which, of course, had implications for everybody. Thus, far from being mutually exclusive, diviners and prophets worked together to serve the king and secure the well-being of the nation. The message was so much more important than the mode of transmission.

Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is often distinguished from prophecy in the rest of the ancient world by the courage of the former to criticise the status quo. Once again this argument takes Amos as an example: the biblical prophets challenged the king and the government and dared to speak out against social injustices and exploitation of the poor, whereas the prophets of the nations supported the king regardlessly. Therefore the Heilsprophetie of the Ancient Near East is considered to stand in sharp contrast to the Unheilsprophetie of the Hebrew Bible (Nissinen 2003b:1-2). However, this is yet another distinction that is no longer tenable.

How did they dare to voice their criticism? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that they were not part of the close inner circle at the royal court. This was where the diviners, the scholars, belonged. They were the immediate employees of the king, they had to vie for his favours and had to be careful not to anger those in control. Prophets, on the other hand, stood at a certain distance and were slightly further removed where they lived and worked at the temples. The prophets were the employees of the gods and their first responsibility was towards the deities (De Jong 2007:313). As mouthpieces of the deities, it was their duty to speak on their (the deities') behalf. This could ask from them to criticise the status quo (Nissinen 2003b:30) and go against the wishes of the king, yet they could dare to do so, because, although the king was powerful, even he stood under the authority of the gods. After all, the prosperity of the king and the whole nation was dependent on obedience towards the deities and acting out divine will. Prophetic criticism in the ancient world was not an uncommon phenomenon as is often assumed.

All prophets claimed that they received a message from a deity. This was the very essence of prophecy. But how could this assumption be verified? Who could check it? The original prophetic oracle was something that happened only between the prophet and the deity: even if witnesses were present when the prophet delivered the oracle, they did not see or heard what the prophet did (Nissinen 2000:239). Only the prophet was aware of the appearance or voice of a deity, all others were second-hand recipients.

However, the degree of time between utterance and transcription is not the only issue. The communication process of 'sender-message,-recipient'happens to be rather complex with regards to prophecy. A deity was the 'sender', the 'message' was from divine origin the 'recipient'was the prophet, but he was not the addressee and, often, he was unable to interpret the message. Most of the prophets belonged to the illiterate part of the society and more often than not did not have direct access to the king to whom the oracle was addressed in the first place. Another intermediary was required, someone who was able to read and write and, by nature, someone who was closer to the royal court (Nissinen 2000:240-241; Van der Toorn 2000:228-229). Thus, between the prophet and the addressee stand the interpreters of the message, the scribes. They were the authorities who controlled prophetic activities and, as intermediaries, they were the ones who decided what was recorded and what was ignored. They did not render the prophetic oracles verbatim or objectively for the sake of submitting a clinical report, because this was not their interest. Furthermore, they were the children of their time, in that matters of style, literary conventions and perhaps even personal interests may have influenced the final shaping of the oracles on record. Also, as has been indicated, some of these are purely literary inventions and probably bear no relation to real prophetic oracles at all (see the section headed 'The Mari documents' above).

The ipsissima verba - the actual words - barely survived the moment of utterance. The words of the prophets are as lost as the historical prophets themselves- forever (Van der Toorn 2000:219, 230). Put very crudely, the words of the prophet are not the words of the prophet, but the twisted version of some scribe with a hidden agenda. Even though this statement may be an exaggeration, the truth of the matter is that prophetic messages, as recorded in texts, are subjected to much uncertainty. The documented record hardly ever conveys the true words of a prophet: prophecy, as it appears in texts, is always, without an exception, a hermeneutical exercise - an interpretation. This is the case with prophecy in the Ancient Near East as well as in the Holy Scriptures of all religions. 041b061a72


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