This Week (And Last Week) in the Context Of Scripture

Last week I was occupied with my Reformation and Modern Church history intensive course, and was unable to do much else. So this week’s post represents the past two weeks in the Context of Scripture. For those who are unaware, Charles Halton at Awilum.com created a reading schedule to read through the Context of Scripture in a year. It’s never too late to join in on the fun!

In the first volume, Canonical Compositions, we read a number of Egyptian myths, hymns, a prayer, and some songs found on the walls of Egyptian tombs. In one of the myths (1.22) we read what sounds like it could be ripped from an add on TV or in a local magazine, a cure for a scorpion sting:

DRAWN (ON) THE HAND OF THE SUFFERER AND LICKED OFF BY THE MAN; DO LIKEWISE ON A STRIP OF FINE LINEN, PLACED ON THE SUFFERER AT HIS THROAT. THE PLANT IS SCORPION PLANT. GROUND UP WITH BEER OR WINE, IT IS DRUNK BY THE MAN WHO HAS A CORPION STING. IT IS WHAT KILLS THE POISON–TRULY EFFECTIVE, (PROVED) MILLIONS OF TIMES.

In The Destruction of Mankind (1.24), I was struck by the role of the divine council. In this text, the sun-god Re decides to destroy the human race, but insists on consulting the divine council before acting: “Tell me what you would do about it, for I am searching. I would not slay them until I have heard what you might say about it.” Before my familiarity with ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and traditions, I was hesitant to allow the divine plurals in the OT (e.g. Gen 1:26, 3:22; 11:7; Isa 6:8) to refer to anybody but God. This no longer bothers be because I recognize the divine council to be a firmly rooted concept both generally in the ANE and particularly in ancient Israel (e.g. Job 1:6). Rather than ascribing ontological significance to such texts, I am interested in investigating their theological significance. What does it mean that God would consult before acting (cf. Gen 18:17-19)? Short of answering the question, let me suggest that it is a worthwhile question to pursue. But it is not one that Christians are likely to investigate without being familiar with the ANE, which is one reason why familiarizing ourselves with the literature in the Context of Scripture is so important.

The Harper’s Songs are incredible texts. Found on the walls of tombs across Egypt (one of which [1.30] was also found on a papyrus), they represent varying views on death and life after death. The Song from the Tomb of King Intef represents a “Heretic” Harper Song, one that brings into doubt much that was extolled in earlier texts. There are strong correspondences between this text (and the other “Heretic” Harper Songs) and the musings of Qohelet in the book of Ecclesiastes. I failed to include it in this post, but they share the carpe diem sentiments found throughout the ANE.  What I found particularly interesting was in Miriam Lichtheim’s description of the Tomb of Neferhotep, which includes three Harper’s Songs, “each expressing a particular response” to death and the afterlife.

One song continued the skeptic-hedonistic theme but blended it with elements of traditional piety in an attempt to tone down and harmonize the contrary viewpoints. The second song is an outright rejection of skepticism and hedonism, coupled with a praise of the land of the dead. The third is a description of life after death in traditional ritualistic terms. Thus, the three songs in one and the same tomb reflect the Egyptian preoccupation with the nature of death and the varying and conflicting answers and attitudes which continued side by side.

This mirrors nicely how David Penchansky in his recent article for SBL’s e-pub Teaching The Bible describes Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible:

In my view, there are three distinct voices in the book of Ecclesiastes. I call them “Fear God Qoheleth,” “Seize-the-day Qoheleth,” and “Pessimistic Qoheleth.” (Qoheleth is the Hebrew name for the implied author of the book, often translated “the Preacher.”) We see “Fear God Qoheleth” in the book’s ending, but the same pious strain also appears throughout. Distinct from this voice is “Seize-the-day Qoheleth,” who proclaims that life is short and that we should grab all the gusto we can: “So I commend enjoyment for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves” (Eccl 8:15).
The most prominent voice, the one most people remember, is “Pessimistic Qoheleth.” This one sees no point or benefit in living, in the face of God’s inscrutability and the inevitability of death: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,” (Eccl 2:17-18)

I do not see these different Qohelets as so different myself, but it is certainly worth thinking about. In the very least, it is not unprecidented in the ANE for such differing opinions to literarily co-exist.

From the second volume, Monumental Inscriptions, we were treated to an excellent introductory volume by the general editor of COS, William Hallo. In particular, Hallo discusses the reason for considering the monumental inscriptions of the ANE as a context in which Scripture can and should be read. This is a particularly pressing question in light of the near absence of any such phenomenon within ancient Israel (with a few noted exceptions). And Hallo is not optimistic about finding a huge cache of ancient Israelite inscriptions in the future. His theory for their absence in Israel is rooted in his “contextual” approach to ancient Israel. Throughout the ANE, the role of the king was

held in high honor; the king was the warrant for his country’s weal or woe; his cultic leadership was a prerequisite; his death mean disaster, especially if premature, as for instance in the case of Sargon II of Assyria.

Not so in Israel. There the norm was theocracy; God was the only legitimate king ever since the exaltation of God celebrated in the archaic Song of the Sea (Exod 15; esp. v. 18). He assumed most of the roles played by the king, and especially the divine king, in the surrounding cultures. . . .

In such an essentially anti-monarchic setting, there was little or no room for the type of propaganda that emanated from the royal chanceries elsewhere in the ancient Near East.

The whole article is worth a read! In the third volume, Archival Documents, we conclude the Hebrew Letters and begin our foray into Ugaritic letters, particularly ones that demonstrate how members of the royal family corresponded with one another.

Next Week in the Context of Scripture

13th – Dream Oracles; The King of Ugarit to the Queen-Mother in the Matter of his Meeting with the Hittite Sovereigns (1.33; 3.45E)
14th – Daily Ritual of the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak; The King of Ugarit to the Queen-Mother in the Matter of his Meeting with the Hittite Sovereign (1.34; 3.45F)
15th – Merikare; A Royal Son to his Mother as Regards Warfare (1.35; 3.45G)
16th – Amenemhet; The King of Tyre to the King of Ugarit in the Matter of Storm-Damaged Ships (1.36; 3.45H)
17th – King Lists, Abydos List, Sakkara King List, Turin Canon; The King of Hatti to the King of Ugarit (1.37A-D; 3.45I)
18th – Sinuhe; Puduhepa, Queen of Hatti, to the King of Ugarit (1.38; 3.45J)
19th – The Shipwrecked Sailor; PGN to the King of Ugarit (1.39; 3.45K)

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