SBL 2007 (p. 7)

Since Andy was AWOL, & even if he showed up in the middle of his session, I figured it would be good to attend the first full hour of Nili Fox’s session, the title of which, by the way, was “Israelite Religion in its West Asian Environment”. Besides, Beth Nakhai was presiding over this one, & based on her interaction during the Q&A of Chang-Ho Ji’s ASOR lecture, I really enjoyed being with her (like Jodi Magness, she’s a straight-shooter, & fun to listen to).

The first presenter prior to Nili Fox was by someone I had never heard of before, Jonathan Greer. For those of you familiar with my preferred interpretation of the purpose of the LMLK seals, it was serendipitous for me to be there:

Drinking the Dregs of the Divine: Neo-Assyrian Libation Rituals and Israelite Religion

This paper will discuss various aspects of Neo-Assyrian, and to some extent Neo-Babylonian, libation rituals and then examine their impact on the religion of Israel as described in the Hebrew Bible. Linguistic and literary parallels will be identified in their archaeological and iconographic contexts, highlighting Israel’s incorporation and rejection of elements of these Assyrian rites and the significant role such attitudes played in defining Israelite religion.

He began by quoting the Esarhaddon Prism regarding the consumption of offerings by priests (A Col. VI, lines 27-40; I thought I’d be able to find it on the Internet when I got home, & I’m disappointed that it’s not online), & also mentioned the White Obelisk (another text I couldn’t find online). He read from his paper, & had a decent slideshow to accompany it. I enjoyed seeing some palace reliefs of Ashurbanipal, including one of him offering a libation in a banquet scene, in which ancient vandals had chiseled out both his face & his offering bowl.

Greer impressed me with his ability to scrutinize minute details such as the size & shape of the offering bowl. Also, I had forgotten that the old forms of the cuneiform “dinger” sign look essentially like one of the Rosette seals (I mention this on p. 654 of “LMLK vol. 2”). The meaning is not the word “king”, but “god”, or as Greer said, “the mark of deity“, not the mark of royalty except by a second-hand claim of divinity by an imbecilic pagan.

Greer emphasized the symbolism of a king drinking wine that had been poured out as an offering to a god, & concluded by drawing a connection to Belshazzar’s feast recorded in Daniel 5:1-4. You know, that’s the one where he & his party-animal friends were havin’ a terrific time until an uninvited guest showed up in the form of a disembodied hand. Don’t ya just hate when that happens?! Someone should tell God that such behavior is, like, so not cool.

Greer’s paper concluded after only 17 minutes, & judging by the favorable comments during the 7-minute Q&A, I was not the only one who had enjoyed it.

One attendee informed him of the Hittite expression, “drink the god“, & invited him to also investigate the more modern practices of Hassidim.

Another person wondered about possible connections or deeper meanings in the well-known quote of Christ in Matthew (26:39):

Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (cf. 26:42 & Mark 14:36 & Luke 22:42).

Actually, an even more apropos quote is John 18:1:

The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

Nili Fox recommended that he also investigate Egyptian iconography depicting a tree (of life?) nursing the king. Then Greer himself mentioned that this reminded him of the (Mesopotamian?) expression, “nourished on the milk of the gods“.

For me, this lecture turned out to be a real treat! It represented the ideal Biblical conference lecture–exactly what I was trying to explain to the parking attendant the previous night (except without any disagreements)!

At 4:27, Beth Alpert began her introduction of Nili Fox’s paper by reading its title, “Divine Design, Tattooed Images: The Prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 and Beyond”, then noted that it had been on the giant projection screen where everybody could already read it, & said this was a leftover from older days before PowerPoint, & now “I feel like such a moron for reading them!” Very funny! God bless her.

Here’s Dr. Fox’s abstract:

Comparable to practices of the 21st century CE, humans in antiquity encoded their bodies to express a broad range of cultural information. Tattooing, one method of body marking, is attested in the archaeological and textual records of the ancient Near East and Egypt since earliest times. The biblical prohibition against making skin incisions–any form of tattooing–seems to be unique to biblical Israel, and, as such, has raised numerous questions in scholarly circles. First and foremost is the question: Why ban the practice at all? This paper seeks to explore the topic from two perspectives. First, as a manifestation of permanent body transformation tattooing has various social implications which can mark the bearer’s status, gender, and societal role. Second, as a cult related phenomenon tattooing functions as an expression of religious identity and devotion to a particular deity. In discussing these issues we will examine the evidence for tattooing in the cultures of the region, as well as the thesis that the biblical prohibition is directly related to the mandate for exclusive Yahwistic worship.

She began by showing an Egyptian figurine that conventional scholars date to 3800 BC, found in a 1st-Dynasty royal tomb at Abydos. On it, you could see groups of dots arranged sort of like a diamond (I had to add more dots here to make it look like a diamond due to the way this website adds space between the rows; the actual tattoos on the figurines only consisted of 2 dots on the 2nd row & 3 dots on the middle row):

. . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .

Then she showed a photo of a mummy, which bore actual tattoos resembling the figurine’s decorations, & stated, “If we did not have the mummies, we’d not be able to discern the tattoos on the figurines.” In other words, it would be reasonable to think the markings on the figurines were just some sort of decoration or symbols, rather than actual skin tattoos being represented.

She described these figurines as “companions of the dead“, being parallels to the living-world occupations of “entertainers & cult functionaries” as seen in a 1300 BC tomb painting of Seti I.

Then she switched up to Mesopotamia & pointed out that she was not aware of any depictions of their equivalent of tattooing, which for them was probably branding (via hot irons). In other words, we know they practiced this because we can read about it in cuneiform texts, but we don’t see any evidence of it in their art like down in Egypt.

One of the texts mentions that the brands “could be removed surgically … ouch…” (she read that word stoically/unemotionally as it was in her paper; she’s a brilliant scholar, but needs to brush up on her acting skills a little; I could imagine Beth or Jodi flailing about wildly if they had been reading it!).

She also mentioned that the branding of slaves indicated that they had been “dedicated to the service of a particular deity.

Then she really irked me when she began to examine Biblical texts, & inserted a gratuitous & completely unnecessary comment on Genesis 4:15, “recognizing the literary nature” of the record of Cain & Abel. I couldn’t help but feel she was attempting to patronize/appease her scholarly audience. She could just as easily have said, “which I believe is of a literary nature, not a historical event“, & been more scholarly.

Scholarship should embrace an objective, open-minded attitude, & discern the difference between interpretations of facts vs. facts themselves, so I’ll offer this quickie lesson:

Fact: It’s an ancient text written as a historical narrative–it’s not a piece of poetry.

Interpretation: It could be a complete fairytale–a piece of literary fiction; or it could be a reliable record of an actual event.

That the overwhelming majority of scholars might believe it’s a fairytale in no way equates this interpretation with being a fact.

(Note to all lecturers using multiple languages in their slideshows: If putting your .PPT file on someone else’s computer for your presentation, make sure they have all of your fonts installed! At this point in her paper, Dr. Fox was attempting to analyze Hebrew words, & discovered the hard/embarrassing way that Beth Alpert Nakhai’s computer was different than hers. Though maybe this was a sign from God to teach her that Genesis is not mere fiction! I’m just guessin’, & it certainly doesn’t imply that any scholar who doesn’t experience technical problems has received divine approval, but probably if she had checked to make sure the fonts were installed, God would’ve had to resort to crashing the entire computer–maybe the reason Bill Gates is so rich is that God rewarded him for making Windows easy to infiltrate in situations just like this!)

Next she showed, or at least attempted to show, Isaiah 44:5, which she introduced as “this passage in Deutero-Isaiah“. Dale Carnegie is known for his book, “How to Win Friends & Influence People”, but Dr. Fox is giving a lesson on “How to Make Enemies & Irritate People”.

I soon got over her annoying bias when she began to focus on the text, & read it as “Le Yahwah–belonging to the Lord“, or alternately the whole passage, “another shall mark his arm, ‘Of the Lord’“.

This is a great opportunity for me to infiltrate her subject matter by also highlighting the next verse (44:6), probably recorded by the real historical prophet Isaiah (who lived concurrently with King Hezekiah while the LMLK jars were being manufactured & circulated) on behalf of God, “the Lord, the King of Israel“!!!

Note especially that this text says “of Israel“, not just “of Judah“. As a warm-up for my later report on Oded Lipschits’ 2nd lecture, LMLK jar handles have been found in territories of both Judah & Israel. Note also that this would be a really strange phrase for a deceitful “Deutero-Isaiah” to have written during the much later Persian era after Cyrus had become king (& let’s face it, if 44:28 & 45:1 had not named Cyrus, the case for a “Deutero-Isaiah” would be tremendously weakened, though not annihilated because there will always be a few of higher intelligence who believe it was composed in the Hellenistic or Roman eras), especially if you’re of the frame of mind that the northern tribes of Israel had mostly vanished over a century before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, & especially if you believe it was written by Persian/Greek/Roman Jews wishing to create/promote a Jewish/Judean history. That’s what’s known as “intrinsic” evidence testifying to the historical veracity of Isaiah’s scripture. Chapter 44 was probably penned by the same hand that recorded seeing God “on a throne“, & crying out, “Woe is me … for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord…

I would wager that if I had polled everyone in attendance, the vast majority would’ve professed a belief in the Deutero-Isaiah hypothesis. I would then have asked how many of them believe God or some sort of divine being exists. Again, I would’ve expected at least half to raise their hands. Then I’d ask if this god of theirs is capable of communicating to humans. I would expect the same people to raise their hands. Then I’d ask if this god of theirs is capable of influencing humans (e.g. by causing Earth to rotate & the sun to shine). Again, nobody who already believes that some sort of god exists would deny this possibility. I would conclude my inquiry by asking them what is their basis for believing that God (i.e., someone capable of designing microscopic DNA, & a universe with an unfathomable number of stars) could not have known centuries in advance that a particular man & woman would one day produce a son they would want to name Cyrus.

And if you’re in the minority of Biblical scholars who are atheists believing in godless Evolution, I’d like to remind you that you have no purpose in life–according to your own scientific profession of faith, you’re just a random collection of chemicals not significantly different from those found in an ordinary pile of manure, & therefore have no logical reason to disagree with me. But don’t take my word for it, let’s see what good ‘ol Mr. Deutero-Isaiah himself has to say on behalf of God about idol worshippers (i.e., people who make up their own god, whether with wood, clay, stone, or a figment of their scholarly imagination, rather than believing what’s been recorded in the Hebrew Bible–the record of the God who created everything in less than 7 days, & commanded this 7-day event to be preserved on par with the commandment to not commit murder):

They shall be ashamed, & also confounded, all of them…“–Isaiah 45:16

As Dr. Fox would say, “Ouch.

I don’t mind scholars choosing to believe in a “Deutero-Isaiah“, but I do mind scholars acting like it’s a fact when it’s just an interpretation.

Dr. Fox also highlighted Ezekiel 9:4, noting that the “Tawv” mark was “shaped like an X in Paleo-Hebrew.” She said, “a Tawv in ancient Israel could mark ownership.

Then she concluded by addressing Leviticus 19:28, & suggesting that the author of this prohibition was preventing the people from being like the foreign cult “functionaries“. I didn’t catch all of her words–that was a rough paraphrase from my memory, but I think that was the point she was making.

The Q&A portion began with someone noting other relevant Jewish literature–he mentioned Proverbs, but I was not able to find these therein. One was about “engraving on hands” as a “sign of love“; another was “the righteous shall guard the one whose legs are perfect“. He also mentioned an instance where the Tau was used “to mark someone wicked“–the opposite context from Ezekiel.

I don’t recall if it was the same attendee or not, but someone made 3 interesting points:

1) He noted that in Ezekiel 9:4 “the God who outlawed tattooing is tattooing himself.

2) He said he knew of “the same vocabulary from Elephantine [papyri regarding tattooing].”

3) Egyptian evidence is from art & mummies–no known epigraphical content; Mesopotamian evidence is just the opposite–only epigraphical!

On this 3rd point, Dr. Fox noted that it was “difficult” to determine whether the Mesopotamian marks were branding or tattooing. She asked rhetorically what we should do with the verb, “na-sa“, & said that scholars disagree over it. (Why am I not in shock?)

G.M. Grena


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