I completed Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. In this post, I will talk about two essays: Karel Van Der Toorn’s “From the Oral to the Written: The Case of Old Babylonian Prophecy”, and Martti Nissinen’s “Spoken, Written, Quoted, and Invented: Orality and Writtenness in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy”. I have two items:
1. The two essays provided evidence for the existence in other ancient Near Eastern countries of the sort of scenario that Philip Davies posits for ancient Israel: that prophecies were spoken, written down, and then sent to the king, who had them archived. (According to Van Der Toorn, Old Babylonian prophecies were usually spoken within the sanctuary, and they were written down for the sake of confidentiality, not so much preservation. The idea was to ensure that primarily the king would have access to the prophecy. Moreover, Nissinen states that some prophecies in Assyria were deemed worthy to be preserved permanently, for they were transferred to the tsuppu format, which was used for long-term preservation. Nissinen doubts that all prophecies were so preserved.) In the process, some of the oracles were organized, collected together, and redacted, according to the creativity of the scribes. And, as John Van Seters notes in his contribution to this book, the written prophecies could serve kings soon after their archival. For example, Nissinen states that the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (seventh century B.C.E.) appealed to prophecies collected in archives to validate his own legitimacy as king, allowing those oracles to be relevant beyond their immediate historical situations.
Both Van Der Toorn and Nissinen address the question of whether the prophecies in their written forms were exact replicates of how they were when they were spoken. Both of them do not think so. Nissinen states that we may be able to date more reliably the prophecies of ancient Near Eastern nations than we can for the Hebrew Bible, for, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, all we have are the books in their final form, whereas we can observe earlier phases for ancient Near Eastern prophecies. But, overall, we do not have access to the original prophecies. When the prophecies were transferred into written form, they were adapted stylistically, so they could be suitable for the king’s court. In some cases, there were written variations of the same prophecy.
And, according to Van Der Toorn, the concept of divine dictation of prophecy emerged in Babylon in 1200 B.C.E., but, ordinarily, Old Babylonian prophecy allowed for interpretation of the divine word on the part of the prophet and the hearers of his message, so long as the spirit of the prophecy was reflected. Van Der Toorn states that “The notion of a literal inspiration (and the views on inerrancy it eventually entailed) was first applied to texts that existed in written form only”, but prophecies were primarily spoken (page 233). They were written down so they could be communicated to the king—and, although Van Der Toorn does not say this explicitly, he may have in mind a concept that Niels Peter Lemche talks about: that access to the king was highly restricted. Consequently, the prophet could not be in the presence of the king himself, and his prophecy had to be written down and delivered to the king for the king to hear it.
2. Van Der Toorn discusses two examples of prophecy that stood out to me because they reminded me of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible—at least loosely.
An apilum was a prophet who interpreted signs. On page 228, Van Der Toorn talks about an apilum who had a negative message for King Hammurabi of Babylon. Ishme-Dagan was the king of Ekallatum, a city in upper Mesopotamia, and he was bid-ridden in Babylon. The apilum is upset that Ishme-Dagan has “appropriated the temple treasures of Marduk to buy peace with Elam.” The apilum first denounces Ishme-Dagan at the palace gate of King Hammurabi, then at the lodging of Ishme-Dagan, and he does so publicly. The apilum’s goal was to increase “the pressure on Hammurabi to dissociate himself from Ishme-Dagan” (page 228). This reminded me of the Bible because the king is criticized. I’ve heard and read that most prophecies in the ancient Near East supported the establishment. But this example demonstrates that this was not always the case.
On pages 230-232, Van Der Toorn talks about an occurrence in Mari. King Zimrilim of Mari was about to conclude a treaty with the king of Eshnunna, but, through the prophets of Terqa, the god Dagan expresses opposition to the treaty. Dagan says that the Eshnunnan king’s friendship is feigned, and the god “promises peace through conquest, which is not the same as peace through alliance.” This reminds me of the biblical prophets’ skepticism about alliances. The analogy is far from perfect, but that was what was in my mind as I read this part of Van Der Toorn’s essay.