Thursday, July 26, 2018

Christ and the Babylonians

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I just finished Women in the Ancient Near East, a source book edited by Mark Chavalas.  The book focuses on one aspect of life in the Fertile Crescent (how women are portrayed), good preparation for a book I have been working on for several years arguing that "Jesus liberates women."   It features a sample of non-Jewish texts from the region from about 2400 BC to about 600 BC, which proves interesting for a few other reasons as well.

As literature, little of this stuff will vie for a Nobel Prize.   Much literature from these civilizations is fragmented, even the Epic of Gilgamesh and Descent of Ishtar, perhaps the two most famous stories from the Fertile Crescent.  And while those works have their moments, they probably remain most interesting for their status as among the oldest literature, from the first literate nations in the world.

The present book covers several states and almost two thousand years, and there were differences among these peoples, as the authors point out.  The status of women, along with religious beliefs, varied across times and places, naturally.  But I will focus on what they share in common, because (a) the material is fairly scant, and we need all the material available even to get a rough picture of how women were treated, and (b) there seems to be much continuity as well as variety among these societies.

I'll begin by addressing the status of women, for more than half the present post.  Then I'll touch on other matters than readers may also find interesting, such as how Babylonian magic compares to Christian miracles, passages that parallel or help explain incidents in the lives of Job and Sarah, and a brief look at the threatened Babylonian Zombie Apocalypse.

(1) Status of women.  Evidence for how women were treated in these civilizations seems limited and mixed.  Chavalas begins with a quote from Herodotus about how the Persians allegedly prostituted their wives, which he clearly doubts.  (Chavalas often compares the attitude towards women in these inscriptions and stories favorably to the "misogynistic" attitude of the Greeks and Romans -- but judge for yourself.)

True, in the Third Millennia BC, women appear to have bought and sold property, and engaged in administration as well as business.

"The situation of women seems to have changed and to have become considerably more restricted by the end of the second millennium." (23)

We deduce the status of women by looking at key passages from narrative literature, proverbs, medicine, curses, and laws.  (A few letters are also included in the collection, showing women involved in business warm and also testy personal relationships, and drawn within the inner circle of royal power.)

Narrative Literature

The Old Man and the Young Girl (Old Babylonia, 3 of 4 copies found at Nippur)

What is the solution to old age, if you're a man?  Marry a very young woman!  This old solution can be found already in a popular Sumerian tale, The Old Man and the Young Girl.  The old man in this story complains about health problems, teeth problems, his son, and that a young female servant "whom I bought, is like an evil galla-demon."

A "court lady" advised the king:

"'My lord, suppose the old man took a young girl as a wife . . . the old man will regain his youthfulness."  

The girl is said, perhaps like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, to find these arrangements quite welcome, instructing her friends to throw a party to celebrate:

"Dance all young girls, move around!" 

The Dialogue of Pessimism (The Obliging Slave) (Akkadia) 

"A woman is a well- a well, a trap, a ditch.  
A woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man's throat."

Enlil and Ninlil

Enlil and Ninlil is the story of a sort of courtship between two divine figures, set in the city of Nippur, southeast of Babylon, on an arm of the Euphrates River.  Enlil is a god of Zeus-like magnitude and Me Too-type liability issues.  (Also like Gilgamesh as described in his epic.)  Enlil spots Ninlil bathing in a canal and attempts to seduce her.  She refuses on grounds both that she is physically not ready for such a relationship ("my vagina is small, it doesn't know how to stretch,") and that her parents will get mad and her friend won't talk to her.  (Her mother had warned her away from this divine creep.)

Of course that doesn't stop Enlil.  He rapes Ninlil, and is consequently exiled.  But either because she suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, because society would look at an uwed mother as used goods,  (though one contributor insists the Hittites at least weren't stuck on virginity), or simply because this is, after all, a myth, "the young woman pursued him."

Enlil tries to lose the girl, telling the city gatekeeper, "You must not reveal to her where I am!"

But they make love again multiple times, conceiving other divine entities, apparently.  The courtship concludes:

"For the praise spoken for Mother Ninlil; Praise be to Father Enlil."

As justification for abusing young women, a popular pass-time among the powerful in many civilizations, this would seem an effective piece of propaganda.

The god Enki, god of water, wisdom, crafts, etc, was also a profligate rapist.  Indeed he rapes three consecutive generations of females, until his great-granddaughter (also granddaughter and daughter), more or less willingly shares his bed.

"Gods will be gods."  One cannot casually assume that mortals took the sexcapades of Enki, Enlil or Zeus as models for human behavior, any more than that the presence of powerful female deities in a religion meant that women in that society would hold political power, or even be let out of the house.

Still, Plato was not the only ancient to recognize the danger of holding up such models to mortals who are subject to temptation.

In a chapter on medical texts, Joann Scurlock introduces a demon-hag called Lamastu:  "She continually drinks the dried (?) blood of men," among other bad habits.

The solution was a ritual involving killing a piglet ("Oh, bother!" -- Pooh), making a clay Lamastu, and giving the divine hag beer and water.  (In a similar fashion, the wild man Enkidu is tamed by being offered sex, beer and bread in Epic of Gilgamesh.)


"Sumerian proverbs tend to depict women in traditional roles: young unmarried and married women, mothers and daughters, sisters, and caregivers . . . women's sexuality is depicted in negative terms, especially when compared to men's sexuality." (Alhena Gadotti, 60)

"The earliest proverb collections date to the Early Dynastic period (2600-2550 BC); these included a collection of misogynistic proverbs in a Sumerian dialect called eme-sal, literally 'the tongue / language of a woman.'" 


"A house without an owner (is like a) woman without a husband)

"My field is like a woman without a husband because it lacks a cultivator."

"Who is rich?  Who is wealthy?  For whom do I reserve my vulva?"  

Counsels of Wisdom: 

"Do not honor a female slave in your house.  She must not rule your bedroom like a wife." 

"Do not marry a follower of Ishtar, whose husbands are numerous; a follower of Ishtar dedicated to a god, (or) a prostitute, whose intimacies are many." 

Instructions of Shurupakk: 

"Do not have sexual intercourse with your slave girl.  She will neglect you." 

"Do not abduct a wife; do not raise an outcry." (258)

"Do not speak an arrogant word to your mother; there will be hatred caused against you." (265)

"A mother is like Utu, who gives birth to mankind." (267)


"Women's uteruses periodically went AWOL, careening about the body in search of insatiable sexual satisfaction." (102)

"It was . . . the custom for a boy to be handed, or made to look at, symbols of masculinity and for a girl to be made to take, or look at, symbols of femininity when the umbilical cord was cut." (130, Joann Scurlock)


"Just as a snake and a mongoose do not enter the same den to lie down together but think only of cutting each other's throats, may you and your wives not enter the same house and not sleep on one bed; (and only) think about cutting each other's throats." (Esarhaddon's Oath of Allegiance.)


In Assyria widows could cohabit with a man of their choice, the marriage becoming legal after two years. (106)

Laws of Ur-Namma (2100 BC)  (edited by Martha Roth)

"If the spouse of a young man on her own initiative pursues a man and has sexual intercourse with him: they shall kill that woman; that male shall be given his freedom."

"If a man deflowers the (virgin) slave-woman of a man,  with guile, that man shall weigh and deliver 5 shekels of silver . . . "

"If he deflowers a widow: he shall weigh and deliver 30 shekels of silver."

Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1925 BC) (First king of First Dynasty of Isin)

25. "If a man takes a spouse, she bears to him a son, and that sons lives; and a slave-woman (also) bears to him a son: the father shall free the slave-woman and her sons: the son of the slave-woman shall not divide the house with the son of her master." 

This seems to be just what Sarah did, when she asked Abraham to sleep with her maid, then got angry at the result and cast Ishmael out of the house.

27.  "If a man's spouse does not bear to him a son and a prostitute from the street does bear to him a son: he shall give grain rations, oil rations, and wool rations to the prostitute.  The son whom the prostitute bears to him is his heir.  As long as his spouse is living, the prostitute shall not reside in the house with the first-spouse."

29. "If a man's first-spouse loses her sight or becomes paralyzed: she shall not be evicted from the house.  Her spouse may take a healthy spouse; the second spouse shall support the first spouse." 

Laws of Eshnunna (1800 BC)

28.  An adulteress must die.

Laws of Hammurabi (1750 BC)

108.  If a female innkeeper insists on being paid in silver rather than grain, "They shall cast her into the water."

109.  If criminals congregate at her bar, "that woman innkeeper shall be killed."

110.  "If a naditum-priestess (or) an ugbabtum-priestess, one who does not reside within the cloister, should open a tavern or enter a tavern for a beer: they shall burn that woman." 

129. "If a wife should be seized lying with another male, they will bind them and cast them into the water; if the owner-of-the-wife allows his wife to live, then the king will allow his slave to live." 

132.  If a woman is accused of playing around but not caught in the act, "she will submit to the divine River Ordeal for her husband."

A woman can divorce, if her accusations against her husband are proven.  However:

143.  "If she is not circumspect but is wayward, squanders her household possessions, disparages her husband, they will cast that woman into the water." 

All in all, a young Babylonian woman might do well to learn how to swim.

144. "If a man takes in marriage a naditum-priestess, and (she) gives a slave-woman to her husband and thereby provides sons, and that man intends to marry a sugitum-priestess: they will not permit that man to do so . . . 

More deep background on the saga of Abraham and Sarah:

146. "If a man marries a naditum-priestess, and she gives a slave-woman to her husband, and she bears sons, after which that slave-woman sets herself as equal with her mistress: because she bore sons, her mistress shall not sell her; she will place upon her the slave-hairlock and reckon her among the slave-women."

147.  "If she does not bear sons, her mistress shall sell her." 

A woman who hires a hit-man to take out her husband shall be impaled. (153)  A man who sleeps with his son's wife shall be tossed into the river. (155)  A man who sleeps with his mom (step-mom), both get burned (157).

A man can give inheritance to his slave brats along with his official kids, it's up to him.  (170)  In that case, the mother is also free (171).  If your daughter marries your slave and has kids, well then the slave is free (175).  

All in all, a lot of incentive besides sex is given here for a slave to sleep with her master or his master's daughter.   2000 years later, Mohammed picked up that mantle. 

Strike a pregnant woman, and she miscarries: you owe 10 shekels.  BUT:

210.  "If that woman then should die, they shall kill his daughter."

Which seems grotesquely unfair, unless daughters are primarily the property of their fathers.     

A commoner miscarries because of a beating?  5 shekels.  If she dies?  30 shekels.  A slave miscarries because of a beating?  2 shekels.  She dies?  20 shekels.

Middle Assyrian Laws (1050 BC)

This is from a single Assyrian tablet.  Roth comments:

"Almost all the provisions in MAL A involve women as actors or as victims.  In general, the women in these Assyrian provisions are significantly less autonomous and enjoy considerably fewer rights than do women in the earlier or later Babylonian laws . . . the authority of a husband or father over his wife or daughter is constrained only by the higher authority of the temple or palace." (158-90

Lots of killing and cutting off of ears.

7. "If a woman should lay a hand upon a man and they prove the charges against her, she shall pay 1800 shekels of lead, they shall strike her 20 blows with rods." 

Rapists to be killed (12).  If a wife commits adultery, the man goes unpunished, while the husband determines his wife's punishment. (15)

Statute 20 is quite strange.  It seems to suggest that if a man is proven guilty of homosexual activity, "they shall copulate with him and they shall turn him into a eunuch." 

35. "If a widow should enter into the house of a man, whatever she brings with her all belongs to her (second) husband."  And if a man should enter (the house of) a woman, whatever he brings with him all belongs to the woman."  

37.  "If a man intends to divorce his wife, it is it is his wish, he shall give her something; if it is not his wish, she shall not give her anything, and she shall leave empty-handed." 

Respectable women must veil themselves in the market (40).  But prostitutes who veil themselves shall have their clothing taken away, and "they shall strike her 50 blows with rods; they shall pour hot pitch over her head."

Furthermore, if a man simply fails to report a veiled hooker, he will have his ears threaded and be made to slave for the king for a month!

"Slave women shall not veil themselves, and he who should see a veiled slave woman shall seize her and bring her to the palace entrance: they shall cut off her ears; he who seizes her shall take her clothing."  

In agreement with one of the more appalling laws in Hammurabi:

55. "If a man forcibly seizes and rapes a maiden who is residing in her father's house . . . and against whose father's house there is no outstanding claim . . . the father of the maiden shall take the wife of the (rapist) and give her over to be raped; he shall not return her to her husband, he shall take her (for himself)."

If the rapist is unmarried, the father can choose either to make him marry his daughter, or demand triple silver from him.

59.  "In addition . . . a man may (whip) his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her; it bears no offense."  

Conclusions on women in the world's oldest literate societies: 

Women were sometimes given consulting positions in government.  "High-ranking royal women took part in day-to-day rituals, funeral services, and some other cult-related events." (Sarah Melville, 219)  Women were often tasked with offering oracles and speaking for the gods.  Chavalas coins the title "wise women" to describe these oracles, in lieu of more pejorative terms.

Mothers must be blessed, and sleeping with slave girls was sometimes regarded as unwise, if not immoral.  But there is no shame in seeing young women as sex objects for even old men with power.  The gods themselves were prone to incest and rape.

Rulers are almost entirely male, even more so than in ancient Egypt.  A few queen mothers or sisters manage to gain a nominal grip on power.

It is true, as Chavalas says, that overtly and generalized misogynistic outbursts are rare or nonexistent in the texts this book covers: inscriptions, laws, letters, stories, medical texts.  But I don't think that's strong evidence that such attitudes were absent or rare in these cultures.  The misogyny of Greece and Rome seems to appear more often in philosophical writings, for instance of Aristotle, which are not paralleled by any of the extant writings.

Women were often considered the property of their husbands or fathers.  In some societies, a man could even be punished for rape, by having his wife or daughter raped.

But in general, what stands out most is the general despotism and cruelty of the civilizations covered by this literature.  (As well as its weak literary value: none of the Babylonian, Akkadian, Assyrian or for that matter Egyptian literature, even the Decent of Ishtar or even Epic of Gilgamesh, rises to a par with the best Hebrew or Greek literature.)  Hands are cut off, people are thrown into the river or fire or impaled, for walking into a bar, wearing a veil, or beaten on a husband's whim.

All these were unapologetically hierarchical societies, with the king seated steady, flattered but not cajoled by any visible prophets like Nathan or Isaiah, at their summits. 

Life was cheap in the crudest sense: 2 or 3 shekels for a slave's unborn child or that of a commoner: a little more for killing the woman herself.

Positive female role models are few and far between.  One might cite the tavern keeper in Epic of Gilgamesh who advises the hero on overcoming death, or recognizing that he cannot overcome it.  Even common women were made to veil themselves in the market.  By contrast, prostitutes and slave women were harshly beaten and scalded if they dared to wear a veil -- even the man who failed to report veiled slaves to the king were harshly punished.  Some females are powerful but not particularly good - like Ishtar.  In one inscription, a husband unreservedly praises the beauty of his wife.  It is good to know a few families were happy in those days of tyranny and empire.

But all in all, reading these texts strongly reinforces the picture Rodney Stark paints of the despotism and centripetal force of these ancient police states.  Everything centers on the king.  Women are poorly treated, aside from a few royal favorites, but then almost everyone is poorly treated.  As Stark points out, life was shorter in the cities than on ancient farms, and scattered tribes probably ate better and lived better than the ordinary man or woman in the "great civilizations."

Unless you are Enkidu, and are willing to give up your freedom for bread and beer.

Even the Book of Judges, never mind the New Testament, comes as a breath of fresh air compared to this literature. 

(2) Magic or miracle?  Some skeptics deny a difference between the miracles of Jesus and another category of allegedly supernatural acts sometimes called "magic."  I tried to define the difference from my experience as a missionary, and from the gospels and other accounts, in Jesus and the Religions of Man.

The striking thing is, while there is magic going on everywhere here, in none of these inscriptions or stories do I find anything resembling the miracles of Jesus.  Here's the sort of thing you find instead:

"When they propitiate the Sun God of Blood and the Storm God they take (these things): two kurtali containers of dough; into one are thrown seven tongues of dough and into the other are throw seven tongues of dough.  A waksur-measure of sheep fat, a waksur-measure of honey, two lambs, twenty turuppa, one sutu-measure of emmer.  She places it on thick loaves.  They are thrown into a basket.  One linen thread.

"Silver, gold, lapis lazuli, Babylon-stone, parasha-stone, rock crystal, lulluri-stone, tin, copper -- he / she takes a little of each.  He / She takes one set of scales of wood.  Forty wooden figurines, four small carts, six wooden (carts) for sitting in, one wooden (cart) for sitting and standing in, five cups, two small KUKUB vessels, one hanessa-vessel of wine.  He / She arranges them . . . "

(The sorcerer takes all this stuff into the lord's house and begins cursing the rival sorcerer.)

"Behold, we are propitiating the Sun God of Blood and the Storm God.  (These) evil tongues are demonic.  Let them seize Ziplantawiya (together with) her son(s) instead!  Let them seize her heart, her womb, her knees, her hands, her feet!  Whatever she has inflicted upon her brother, we are propitiating it for the lord together with his wife (and) his sons.  Let these evil tongues seize Ziplantawiya together with her sons instead!"

That is only a small part of the total ritual which, I am sorry to say, also seems to involve a star-crossed puppy.

That sort of thing is common in these texts.  Middle Assyrian law mandates that if accused witches are found in possession (of paraphernalia) and the accusations are proven, the witch should die. (47)  "A man who heard from an eyewitness to the witchcraft" is obligated to report to the king.

But nowhere in the letters, inscriptions, myths or legends that has come down to us from these ancient civilizations, do we seem to find anyone like the person we find in the gospels, even in regard to the direct power, economy, and grace with which he works miracles:

"Little girl, stand up."

"Son, your sins are forgiven you."

"Daughter, your faith has saved you: go in peace and be healed of your affliction."

"I am willing.  Be healed."

Still less can we find anything like the mass of credible historical details that surround the gospel accounts, which I describe in Jesus is No Myth.  

(3) Back-firing Magic

In his book Peace Child, Don Richardson described how the Sawi people in New Guinea would do ghastly acts to force Nature or the spirits to be merciful.  This seems to be one of the psychological well-springs of sorcery.  In ancient Sumer:

"Lamastu's less than edifying speech was repeated by the healer in the hope that it would make the gods irritated enough for them to force Lamastu to cooperate in the cure." (116)

Sorcery is often like using a backfire to stop a raging forest-fire. You do something terrible to coerce the super-mundane world into giving you what you want.  (Of course this doesn't work with God, though some people try.)

Lamastu herself served a twisted purpose.  She killed newborns to keep the human population down, "lest the noise of mankind again become unbearable, tempting the gods to send another flood to destroy them," as Scurlock explains.  (118)

(4) Precursor to Job? 

The Righteous Sufferer, an Akkadian narrative, is compared to the Book of Job.  The speaker, a pious man, recounts how he was stricken with many illnesses, lost his jobs and estates, yet remained faithful to the gods.  "I called to my god, but he did not pay attention.  I implored my goddess, but she did not listen."  In the end he is restored to his previous life.

There may be some literary relationship to Job.  But while only portions of the text and plot are given here, it appears that Job is by far the more developed, interesting and polished story.

(5) Lilith? 

"A class of demons, lilu, lilitu and ardat lili, who were recruited from among young persons who died just before or after marriage . . . " (JoAnn Scurlock, 101)

"If a girl had the misfortune of dying prematurely before the fulfillment of life's expectations, her ghost was forever doomed to prowl the earth in the form of a lilitu or lili-demon." (103)

A young man could also become such a wandering demon:

"(Young man who always sits, silent and (alone) in the street . . . young man whose body grief has burnt . . . who never married a wife, never raised a child; young man who never experienced sexual pleasure in his wife's lap; young man who never removed a garment in his wife's lap; young man who was driven out of the house of his father-in-law."  

Some Chinese ghosts shared a similar pattern.

(6) Zombie apocalypse. 

Ereshkigal, goddess of the Underworld, warned that if deprived of her lover Nergal:

"I shall raise up the dead to eat the living; the dead will outnumber the living." (200)

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