Historiography is the study of how people think of and record history. The view that we are all part of history, occupying a small segment of time, that our world was shaped by our past, and that we are participants in the shaping of the future … is a western concept. One of the “givens” of our outlook on life.
The warning that history repeats itself is predicated on this western understanding, and it is why we have a number of literary genre’s documenting history: biographies, auto-biographies, documentaries, historical non-fiction, and more. We read about events of the time, and how our predecessors handled these situations with the hope that it may aid us if, or when, we face a similar situation.
Mesopotamian history and culture parallels, and intertwines with, that of the ancient Israelites, and for this reason, an understanding of how the Mesopotamians thought and wrote can provide insight into the writings of the ancient Hebrews.
Since the Mesopotamians did not have the same sense of cause and effect, did not view history as a process by which a societies past actions and decisions would determine its future state, their historical genres are different than ours. In fact, our definition of history as a process is incomplete. To capture a more comprehensive notion of history, Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, defined history as the intellectual form in which a civilization renders an account to itself of the past.
The central theme or goal in the majority of the genres of the Mesopotamians is praise. In the mindset of these early writers, there was a sense that their writings could re-activate the virtues being praised. Hymns embodied praise, much as they continue to do today, and were intended as expressions of loyalty. Two narrative genres that embodied praise were myths and epics. Myths were god centered, similar in nature to the opening two chapters of Genesis. Epics, on the other hand, tended to be centered on the doings of rulers, especially kings and the monarchy. Stories of David’s life in the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel have a correspondence with Mesopotamian epics. Laments, are an interesting genre, in that they are praise of powers lost. Penitential psalms are similar to laments, but personal in nature and often intended to invoke the pity of some deity.
What is import to note, as expressed by historian J.J. Finkelstein in his article Mesopotamian Historiography is that … genres of Mesopotamian literature that purport to deal with past events, with the exception of the omens and chronicles, are motivated by purposes other than the desire to know what really happened, and the authenticity of the information they relate was not in itself crucial to the point for their authors.
The main point of J. J. Finkelstein’s article is that the genre of omen texts, and not myths, epics, or sagas, likely provides the best account of true Mesopotamian history as we would define history today, but it will take a slight digression to understand what an omen text is, and why this might be true.
When my wife was first pregnant, she was chatting with her grandmother on the phone, one afternoon, when a bird crashed into our picture window with a loud thump. My wife shared what the noise was, and her grandmother was suddenly beside herself with distress. This means you might have a miscarriage, she cried. When a bird thumps into a window, it means someone is going to have a miscarriage. I came to learn, over time, that her grandmother had all kinds of folksy wisdom like this, passed on to her through the generations in the rural community where she lived.
How could this idea have started? Undoubtedly, years ago someone had a miscarriage shortly after they saw a bird fly into a window, and the new omen connection was formed. Human beings have an incredible capacity to make associations, and this capacity manifests in ways that we might otherwise consider illogical. However, the thought process behind the folk wisdom of this rural community is very similar to the mindset of the ancient Mesopotamians. They saw the world as a sort of cosmic matrix, where correlations existed between all manner of observed objects and events.
We make correlations today, but we strive to use science to support those correlations. For example, we understand that the polar caps are the coldest places on earth because of the lack of sunlight, and so if a winter storm comes down from the North, we could say that conditions are favorable for snow. The Mesopotamians had no concept of weather science. For them, if they ever observed a winter storm coming down from the North, and at the same time, noticed that the liver of a sacrificed lamb had spots on it, and then it snowed the next day, they would see these as connection points in the cosmic matrix. They would dutifully record these events in omen texts, and so the next time a winter storm showed up on the Northern horizon, they would sacrifice a lamb, look at the liver, and divine a favorable or unfavorable prediction for snow, based on the pattern of any spots found.
Diviners of the day took their craft as seriously as any weatherman, and just as weather scientists will record temperature, humidity, and air pressure readings in hurricanes to serve as a basis for future weather forecasts, so the Mesopotamians recorded all sorts of observations of objects and events to aid in future divination.
There focus was not just on correlations of small events, but of whole dynasties as well. For example, if some particular dynasty lasted twenty years, and in that time had three crop failures, and after which they won a great battle, then years later, diviners in the service of some king that had been ruling for twenty years, would compare the count of crop failures during the present king’s rule with crop failures record in the omen texts in order to provide the most accurate favorable/unfavorable assessment of some upcoming battle.
Because they considered such divination as the best way of predicting future victories or defeats, feasts of famines, etc., they were meticulous in the recording of events, and so unlike sagas, epics, and myths, the events recorded in the omen texts tended to be, from our point of view, the most accurate.
In the Bible, we see fragmented references to the art of divination (see Numbers 22), and in fact, Deuteronomy 18:9-12 recorded a ban on the practice of divination for the Israelites: When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. However, while divination was banned, the Bible has a number of references that reveal the Mesopotamian mindset behind it, that is, the mentality that our own actions and decisions are not central to future events, but rather there is some sort of mystical cosmic web outside our control that defines destiny. Throughout the early scripture narratives, we see many references to leaders going to prophets to gain predictions of favorable or unfavorable outcomes (see 2 Chronicles 18). The difference, of course, is that the Israelites did have a Lord, and the Lord did have a plan. But to what degree these outcomes were the result of man’s free-will choices vice the result of God’s direct interference is not always clear to be seen.
Something that students of the Bible soon learn is that many of the stories of the Old Testament don’t, on the surface, appear to be conveying any great moral message. Instead, they just tell it as it was. They are descriptive, not prescriptive as one of my pastors used to say. In the narrative of Jacob (see Genesis 25-35), he doesn’t come across as a great husband and father, and it is important that we don’t take this story to imply that we should model Jacob’s behavior in our own families. Students must learn to accept the narratives for what they are.
A similar lesson needs to be learned from our understanding of Mesopotamian literature. It is what it is, and the Mesopotamian influence certainly crept into the literature of the ancient Hebrews. We see echoes of myths, epics, hymns, laments, psalms, and even omen’s throughout the text, and we fail as a student, if we read them from a singularly Western mindset of history. We need to accept them as they are. An epic tale recorded in the pages of scripture is an epic tale, written with the goal of praising the virtues of its central figure, and never intended to convey history to the accuracy of 21st century western standards. Rather than be frustrated that these writers did not convey the chronological picture of history the way we want to see it, we should feel blessed that the Lord has inspired generations of scribes and scholars to pass these early writings down through the centuries for our enrichment today.
To aid in our understanding of God’s Word, scholars studying the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testament have categorized the works into a number of genres: Law, History, Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Epistles, and Apocalypse. Some books of the Bible, of course, appear to have sections of various genres pulled together to form a cohesive work. Understanding that books in the Wisdom genre tend to have metaphors can help us understand what the authors were attempting to convey, and perhaps more importantly, what they were not trying to convey. Gaining a better understanding of our own western mindset, and contrasting it with that of these early writers, along with an understanding of the intent and purpose behind these different genres brings us closer to understanding the truth of God.
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