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Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East.

Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. By MARTTI NISSINEN, with C. L. Seow and Robert K. Ritner. Writings from the Ancient World, vol. 12. Atlanta: SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 2003. Pp. xix + 273, maps. $29.95 (paper).

This volume continues the tradition of fine scholarship exemplified in previous volumes in the SBL Writings from the Ancient World series. Along with The Context of Scriptures, ed. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. (3 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1997-2002), it also contributes to the growing body of ancient Near Eastern texts in fresh translations available to scholars. The commissioning of this set of volumes by the Society of Biblical Literature and the increasing citation of these texts in the critical examination of biblical materials demonstrates a revival of an interest that had somewhat flagged as J. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Bible, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969) grew dated. This also opens up an opportunity for those who have not studied Akkadian or Egyptian both to familiarize themselves with the linguistic characteristics of these languages and, hopefully, spark an interest among students in studying them as well.

The author is somewhat apologetic about the SBL/WAW convention of providing transcriptions of the ancient texts rather than the "sign for sign" transliterations found in the technical literature. However, since the volumes in this series are designed to appeal to a more general audience of biblical scholars and historians, no concern is necessary. The inclusion of bibliographic references to the transliterations prepared for specialists as well as translations and explanatory/analytical treatments of the texts provide the full range of readers the opportunity to broaden their study.

Like M. Roth's compilation of legal documents in this series (Scholars Press, 1995), a collection of prophetic texts in a single volume is particularly useful to biblical scholars. Most of this prophetic literature has been scattered in various publications, some difficult to access and much of it in French or German (see, however, J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays [Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002], 157-253, for a new translation of the Mari prophetic texts that complements Nissinen's work).

While the manner and the agency of the prophetic figures differ (being more closely tied to temple communities and more often transmitted second-hand by correspondents to the king) in the Mesopotamian context from that in ancient Israel, comparisons can be made and the phenomena of prophetic utterance can be analyzed. For example, in ARM 26 221bis (pp. 56-57), in what is a mundane report by a provincial governor to king Zimri-Lim about the progress of the harvest, the bureaucrat matter-of-factly recounts what sounds like a very strident warning by a prophet (muhhum). The prophet gives "strict orders" to say that a city gate must be built or disaster is imminent. Despite the apparent urgency expressed by the prophet, the governor asks for a decision by the king because his men are busy with the harvest and he does not want to divert them from their work. This situation suggests how governments sometimes figure the warnings of prophets into the overall mix of the administrative work calendar (compare Ahaz's reaction to Isaiah's pronouncement in Isaiah 7 and the pressure to rebuild the temple put on Zerubbabel by Haggai).

Given the possibilities for comparative analysis, however, Nissinen makes no attempt to suggest literary or stylistic parallels between these ancient Near Eastern texts and the Bible. Perhaps this was a conscious decision designed to highlight the original context of these prophetic materials without the distraction of comparison, but these could at least have been inserted in the footnotes to indicate an awareness of the possibilities at work here. The only exception to this is in the appended section on "West Semitic Sources," where C. L. Seow does provide a few biblical references in the discussion of Balaam and the Deir 'Alla plaster texts (p. 208) and in the preface to the Lachish ostraca (p. 213).

One other aspect of this collection of texts is the inclusion of prophetic texts that are less familiar than those from Mari. Having oracles from Eshnunna, from the archives of the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, as well as miscellaneous cuneiform sources including the El Amarna letters, ration lists, omen texts, and even a small section of the Egyptian text of the travels of Wenamon broadens the field and suggests the range of possibilities for exploring the role and the words of ancient prophets. For instance, what could be considered "related" or ancillary material is found in economic texts. Thus we learn that prophets had economic concerns and received equipment and rewards, being issued garments, silver, a donkey, bronze lances by the government.

All of this makes Nissinen's volume a very useful addition to the scholar's bookshelf and an essential reference for ancient Near Eastern prophetic texts.


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Author:Matthews, Victor H.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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