Monday, October 21, 2013

Cuneiform inscriptions and Aramaic angels and giants

JONATHAN BEN-DOV has a very interesting article (unfortunately, requires subscription or registration) in Haaretz on the possible influence of Mesopotamian iconography in cuneiform inscriptions on ancient Jewish mythology about angels and giants: Turning to the angels to save Jewish mythology. Ancient Mesopotamian texts and images, although understandable to contemporary scholars, were entirely incomprehensible to readers in the Levant in Greek and Roman times. The creative imagination of those readers produced new mythologies in Aramaic, incorporating the ancient relics in a convoluted way. Excerpt:
A rare interpretation of such inscriptions was preserved in the Jewish literature of the Hellenistic period , opening a gateway to an entire world of mythology, sights and images.

A relevant passage is found in the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish text from the mid-second century B.C.E. whose Hebrew source was found in fragmented form at Qumran, but which circulated in various translations in the ancient world:

“... and he called his name Kainan. And the son grew, and his father taught him writing, and he went to seek for himself a place where he might seize for himself a city. And he found a writing which former ‏(generations‏) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven. ‏(English translation by R.H. Charles, 1913‏)

The ancient, engraved images looked to the later observer like a vestige from the world of the Watchers ‏(Aramaic: ‘irim‏), primordial angels who, according to popular mythology, descended to earth in hoary antiquity and bequeathed civilization to mankind. If you will, these are aliens, in a way resembling those recounted by Erich von Däniken in his pseudo-scientific book, “Chariots of the Gods.” In fact, Däniken’s idea − that extraterrestrial powers descended to earth and instructed mankind how to build the pyramids and other notable projects − mirrors various ancient mythologies like the one discussed in the present article.

Babylonian mythology already told of ancient sages who were half-man and half-fish who emerged from the sea and bequeathed civilization to mankind. This old myth was revived in new garb in Lebanon, Syria and the Land of Israel in the Hellenistic period. In its Jewish form, the myth bore a new aspect: the Watchers conveyed forbidden knowledge, brought to human beings in an original sin. The bearers of the knowledge in the present version were not ancient fish who emerged from the sea but the mysterious angels who descended from heaven.

A manual of divination

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.
For more on the Watchers, the giants, the Book of Giants, and their Mesopotamian connections see this recent post and links. More on Erich von Däniken is here and links.

(HT Joseph I. Lauer.)