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A History of Mesopotamian Religion Author(s): Yochanan Muffs Reviewed work(s): Source: Numen, Vol. 25, Fasc. 1 (Apr.

, 1978), pp. 80-84 Published by: BRILL Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3269681 . Accessed: 14/02/2012 02:30
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Numen, Vol. XXV, Fasc. r

A HISTORY OF MESOPOTAMIAN

RELIGION

Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness * is a truly remarkable achievement, comparable in many ways only to, W. Otto's studies on Greek Religion. His masterly recreation of the spiritual life of Ancient Mesopotamian man is well known from his previous works, especially from his contribution to Before Philosophy-a work which has done more than almost any other to transform the study of the ancient Near East from an esoteric occupation of a few specialists, to an organic and legitimate branch of the Western Humanities. His combination of philological preeminence, uncanny empathy into the intellectual and religious life of the Sumerians, and rare felicity of expression-qualities which distinguish all his previous writingsmanifest themselves in this great work in all their full power. Those of a more positivistic bent may claim that he makes the ancient texts too resonant poetically and a bit too profound intellectually. However, in a field where the qualities of aesthetic appreciation and philosophic sensitivity have been too infrequently represented, it seems wiser to err in the direction of seeming over-explication. Whether one differs with Jacobsen in specific details or even in general orientation, one must admit that we have before us a model of scholarly and humanistic interpretation-one which treats the ancient texts with the seriousness and penetration they deserve. Nor is the book to be taken simply as the ingathering of his previous studies in the field; this has been attempted elsewhere (Towards the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture: Cambridge, I970). Nor does its uniqueness lie in the richness of new material and wide-ranging documentation it presents or in the fact that we now have in written form most of his great lectures: on the "Personal Gods", on Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, and others. To my mind, the greatness of the book lies in the creative integration of the wide range of methodological approaches which Jacobsen has used over the years into a new organic whole, one which transcends any of the methodological structures or grids used before.
* JACOBSEN, Thorkild, The Treasures of Darkness, A History of Mesopotamian Haven and London, Yale University Press, I976, 273 p. $ I5. Religion-New

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Each of his previous studies has been distinguished not merely by a richness of factual information, but also, and especially, by the creative use of some new methodological focus. Rarely does one find such a careful attempt at doing justice to such a wide range of approachesfrom the almost materialistic (the gods Lahmu and Lahamu are but personifications of the geological process of silting and being silted) to the almost mystical (the use of the "numinous" in his more recent publications); from the ecological (while all of Tammuz figures somehow represent the principle of fertility, their specific representations differ from area to area according to the central economic concern of each area: hunting, cattle breeding, date cultivation, etc.) to the psychological or even the psychoanalytical (his brilliant treatment of the female psychology of Inanna, or the theme of parricide in the Enuma Elish, of maturity in the Gilgamesh Epic); from the use of the mytho-poetical in Before Philosophy to the literary-aesthetic interpretations of the Akkadian epics. And above all, a constant preoccupation with the process of humanization (or humanification) by which originally "intransitive" nature gods become more and more "transitive"-human, humane, and articulated personalities distinguished by an outgoing will and purpose. What is truly exciting about this book is the subtle manner with which these various methodological foci interpenetrate and complement each other, thus creating a multileveled texture of rare beauty and sophistication. In Enuma Elish, for example, Tiamat is not merely the personification of the salt waters of the Persian Gulf mating with the sweet waters of the rivers, but is also a representation of the passivity of the older generation of gods who resent the creative restlesness of youth. However, the story also has a clear psychological aspect: Marduk is involved in an act of parricide-he kills. his parents. Not quite warns Jacobsen; note that Marduk does not kill his immediate parents; note also the sympathy with which Tiamat is depicted: as a woman with real motherly feelings. Now just at the moment when through the skill of Jacobsen we are totally involved in the literary and psychological aspects of this piece of world literature-and under the spell of his "New Criticism" have forgotten that this work of art is not merely an expression of eternal and transcultural human values-we are suddenly confronted by another level of interpretation where the psychological ambivalence of the poet towards the act of parricide is given a profound and unexpected political interpretation. To our great joy, however, the
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political interpretation instead of cancelling the psychological-literary approach, enhances and complements it. The whole book abounds in such surprises. Without a doubt, one of Jacobsen's major contributions in this book is his discussion of the "personal god", a religious phenomenon which seems to have originated in Mesopotamia and which spread from there not only to Egypt, but to Israel as well. At this juncture, it may be useful to raise a few questions concerning the implications of the term "personal". A personal god is either (a) a god who is concerned with my person; or (b) a god with a clearly articulated person(ality). Jacobsen clearly opts for the first meaning. Furthermore, he clearly points out that the Mesopotamian personal god, as a personification of Lady Luck, had little or no personality of its own. One is therefore tempted to ask what relationship, if any, exists between this personality-less "personal" god and the process of "humanification" by which intransitive nature gods emerged into anthropomorphic transitive ones with clearly articulated wills and personalities? At first glance, the term "personal" in the concept personal god would seem to link this new phenomenon to the humanification process, a thesis central to all of Jacobsen's studies. However, further reflection would seem to cast doubt on this association. Furthermore, the relationship between the Mesopotamian personal god and the personal god of Israel is also somewhat problematic. Yahweh is not a personal god simply because he is concerned with the person of Israel. He is a personal god because he is a most highly articulated personality-in fact, probably the most articulated personality of all Near Eastern deities. Indeed, if one is looking for connections between Israelite personal religion and the Near East, one could postulate a linear development, not from the Mesopotamian personal god, but rather from Jacobsen's "transitive" high-gods, to Israel's super-transitive deity. Whatever the case may be, the problem deserves some clarification. A few observations concerning the human reaction to the personal gods may now be in order. If Jacobsen finds the idea of the personal god to be a positive religious contribution, he is clearly disturbed by the human reaction to this type of god, a reaction which found its literary expression in the personal penitential prayers. He is perplexed by a seemingly improper human intimacy with the divine and by a rather

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ostentatious display of pseudo-humility, which he takes to be an unconscious expression of an over-blown sense of self-importance. What has happened to the traditional (and theologically "proper") sense of awe before the divine and the transcendent? At least in the Old Testament, says the author, this audacious parading of pseudo-humility is more often than not, balanced off by more sincere expressions of human sinfulness and real lack of self-worth. Professor Jacobsen's negative reaction to the seeming lack of awe in these personal confessions may be a reflection of a modem or Western sensibility in which such a familiarity with the divine can hardly "co-exist" with a proper sense of awe. The fact is that the ancients may have reacted differently. The arguments that Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah and Job have with God may seem strange and more than a bit improper to the moder Western sensibility, but they are certainly typical of biblical religiosity. The rabbis of the Talmud, who, certainly experienced divine awe, speak to and about God with an audacious familiarity which Moslems and Christians may find positively irreligious. Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 369n, had a similar problem in dealing with the too-human intimacy with the divine reflected in some Islamic legends. Jacobsen's evaluation of the human reactions in the Mesopotamian compositions may indeed be correct. My remarks, therefore, are only intended to offer an alternate subjective vantage point rooted, shall we say, in a more "oriental" tradition. After the sublime chapters on the Gilgamesh Epic and Enuma Elish, the last chapter on the spiritual life of the first millennium is somewhat disappointing. Jacobsen sees very little in the religious literature of this period that is of positive religious significance and very much that he actually dislikes: the growing brutalization of the divine image, a possible reflex of human despotism; the growth of astral religion; the obsession with death and the underworld and many other "unpleasing" phenomena. Even the interesting later tendency to view the various gods and their functions as aspects of one deity is not treated with any real enthusiasm. (Contrast the importance of such developments for the historian of biblical monotheism.) Furthermore, it seems a bit strange that after having rejected the humility of the second millennium penetential prayers as a pseudo-humility, Jacobsen seems to reject the seemingly real humility .of first millennium kings as "passivity" and

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"quietism". On the contrary, one could make a good case here that a new type of piety is emrging which has real affinities with similar phenomena in the Old Testament (as Jacobsen himself points out). Jacobsen ends his study on a more "positive" note quoting, without comment, Nebuchadrezer's prayer to Marduk. The idea, that without the deity's help man cannot serve him properly, expressed in the concluding lines: "Cause me to love Thy exalted rule/Let the fear of Thy godhead be in my heart", seems to be a new and positive breakthrough in the religious thought of the Near East, one which deserves a broad comparative treatment. It is an idea which appears at about the same time in Israel and becomes a dominant (although not sufficiently investigated) theme in later Jewish liturgy and Christian theology. This idea is a fine example of the type of personal religion that began to emerge in this seemingly barren period. The phenomenon of Nabonidus and the deeply personal prayers of his mother (cf. The Ancient Near East: Supplementary Texts and Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, pp. I24-6) also merit discussion in this context. It seems that something fine and new was beginning to break through the archaic stereotypes of the older Mesopotamian traditions. Are these positive innovations, as well as the many barbarizations that Jacobsen has pointed out, somehow to be connected with the growing "Aramaization" of Mesopotamian culture? Could it be that the relatively greater evocativeness of some of this later material for the biblicist and the student of West Semitic culture and religion has to do with the nonMesopotamian quality of some of this material? Whatever the case may be, this later period and its religious traditions were not all "bad", and even if they were, deserve a broader treatment. My few questions and qualifications in no way detract from the greatness of this book. It is a masterwork of one of the great humanists and scholars of our age. Its publication is a source of great joy both to the scholarly world and general public.
Jewish Theological Seminary YOCHANAN MUFFS

of America, New York

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