Saturday, November 29, 2008

Post SBL 2008

I haven't had time till just now to comment on the SBL 2008 in Boston; nor have I much to say this time around. I greatly enjoyed the various meals and meetings I had with friends and students, both planned and unplanned (especially the McGreevy's pub hilarity), but overall I'd have to say this meeting lacked some luster. Maybe it was the absence of the AAR, which made everything seem smaller, especially the book exhibits; maybe it was the unseasonably cold weather; maybe it was the chastened mood of an academy feeling the economic pinch; maybe it was just me. But Boston 2008 didn't knock my socks off.

I greatly enjoyed several papers, especially those of David Everson, Edward Goldman, Joe Zias, and my colleague Andrew Gross. My own paper, after being finished months ago, felt stale and unpolished to me, and I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of composition and execution. Hopefully it came off better to others than it seemed to me.

The nicest moment for me came when Sam Greengus told me at the Hebrew Union College luncheon, "We will always consider you a ben bayit." Thank you, and a blessing on HUC and its outstanding graduate studies program.

As for the new Zinjirli inscription, I may add a few updates to the post dealing with it; but in general I thought Prof. Pardee did an excellent job and he is to be thanked for putting this interesting inscription in front of the scholarly world so rapidly. The full philological treatment of the inscription will be published in BASOR within a year's time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The New Zinjirli Inscription

The new Zinjirli inscription is featured in a New York Times article, along with a good (but not quite clear enough) picture. I can make out a few phrases, but the resolution is not great enough for my eyes to transliterate the whole thing.

The picture features a man, probably Kittamuwa, the sponsor of the stele, sitting with a TV remote in one hand and a turkey drumstick in the other. Just kidding! I surmise that he is actually holding a pomegranate and some other foodstuff.

A partial translation from Dennis Pardee, with whatever bits of Samalian I can glean:

I Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa (אנכ כתמו עבד פנמו), am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it (ושמת ותה) in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast (חגג) at this chamber (יד זנ): a bull for [the god] Hadad (שור להדד), a ram for [the god] Shamash (יבל לשמש) and a ram for my soul that is in this stele (ויבל לנבשי זי
בנצב זנ).

Interesting to note is another occurrence of the definite object marker wt. The inscription may also throw light on the occurrence of ybl in the notoriously obscure line 21 in the Panamuwa inscription, which now seems to require interpretation as referring to sacrifice.

A few other phrases are readable; but why not wait for Pardee's definite treatment this weekend? I'm looking forward to it.

UPDATE (11/30/08): Pardee's presentation in Boston was a thorough and competent survey of the inscription. The word for "chamber" is syr or syd, not yd. I will deal with other aspects of the inscription at another time. I will further note that the text will no doubt inaugurate a discussion concerning aspects of the West Semitic cult of the dead due to the expression "my soul that is in this stele." As one scholar noted in Boston, this has to be connected to the use of the term nephesh for tombs at a much later time. It is also possible that the Kuttamuwa stele may have some relation to the so-called baityloi, also known from a later period, which were considered to house spirits or other numina; Philo of Byblos called them lithoi empsychoi, "stones with souls." Let the games begin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Note on Sirach 42:18b

(Tristan, this post is for you.)

The Hebrew text of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus ) 42:18b, from the Masada manuscript, says of God ‏יׄביט אתיות עולם, "he sees from of old the things that are to come" (NRSV). The word אתיות is everywhere taken to be the feminine plural participle of the verb ‏אתי, "to come." This is a reasonable supposition since that form does occur in the Hebrew Bible, in Is 41:23; 44:7; 45:11. On the other hand, in the next verse a different word, ‏נהיות, is used for future events.

Nevertheless it occurred to me while reading the text with a seminar class today that an alternative understanding of the word might be "letters," understood as "elements." In post-Biblical Hebrew the word ‏אות "sign, letter" has two plural forms: ‏אותות when the meaning is "signs, miracles" and אתיות when the meaning is "letters."

If God is said to "see the letters of the world," what could that possibly mean? It might mean the same as the expression τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, "the elements of the world" used in Paul's letters; στοιχεῖα means not only "elements," but also "letters." It is possible that Hebrew "letters" could also mean "elements," and that Ben Sira's expression refers to the four elements, the building blocks of creation.

But also possible — if this reading is accepted — is the idea that the 'otiyyot `olam are the "eternal letters," the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet through which, according to later tradition, the world was created. This idea plays a role in the later Sepher Yezirah and in the thought of Kabbalah. I doubt that Ben Sira had a fully developed Kabbalistic concept in mind, but the intersection in meaning of Greek stoicheion and Hebrew 'ot may have worked on his strongly Torah-centric theology to influence his expression in this one verse, which in turn influenced or foreshadowed later developments.