Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff

My main research focus, when I can get to it, concerns literary allusion in the Bible (also called “inner-biblical interpretation,” or “inner-biblical exegesis”).

Insofar as I have a Big Idea, it mostly involves running around like Chicken Little and yelling that the field of biblical studies isn’t producing a coherent conversation about “inner-biblical allusion” because we quarantine ourselves (as we so often do) from the secular ancillary scholarship (in this case, on the poetics of literary allusion).

What disturbs and intrigues me recently is, I think that there is another scholarly context to which I’ll need to tether my continuing work in biblical allusion. You know it well, and most recently, it looks something like this.

Upside: maybe I get to blow the dust off my Akkadian again. Downside: Hier werden deutsche.

[Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/16. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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Pronouncing Sumerograms as Sumerograms?

Lots of times, we who read and copy Akkadian texts pronounce the sumerograms instead of normalizing them into Akkadian. It’s convenient, when in teaching or learning, or when dictating. Is it logical to suppose that the ancient scribes also did so?

Explanation about sumerograms in Akkadian, for the non-specialists out there:

Akkadian is the language of Assyrian and Babylonian texts, during more or less the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C.E. The writing system for Akkadian was borrowed from a completely different language, Sumerian. Consequently, while most of the signs used to spell Akkadian represent syllables (not single sounds, as with an alphabet), the scribes would often represent an entire Akkadian word by using the Sumerian sign that had represented that word in Sumerian. So, a phrase spelled entirely with syllabic Akkadian characters like this (from Code of Hammurapi §102):

šum-ma tam-ka-ru-um a-na ša-ma-al-le-em ka-as-pa-am a-na ta-ad-mi-iq-tim it-ta-di-in-ma…

This represents the spoken phrase, šumma tamkarum ana šamallêm kaspam ana tadmiqtim ittaddin-ma… (“If a trader has given silver to a trading agent as an advance…”). But, in practice, such a phrase would employ many sumerograms along with the syllabic signs: here, DAM.GAR3 for tamkarum, ŠAMAN2.LA2 for šamallêm, and KUG.BABBAR for kaspam. As a result, the actual spelling turns out to be:

šum-ma DAM.GAR3 a-na ŠAMAN2.LA2 KUG.BABBAR a-na ta-ad-mi-iq-tim it-ta-di-in-ma…

The point of all this is that, in reading the text, you pronounce the Akkadian words, not the sumerograms that represent them. So, šumma tamkarum ana šamallêm kaspam anaetc. But, when we scholars are talking about the text, asking how it is written, we might pronounce the sumerograms as sumerograms, so our hearer understands what’s happening on the tablet: “shumma dam gar-three ana shaman-two-la-two kug babbar ana…etc.”

Does that make sense? There is reading what the text says, when you pronounce the sumerograms as the Akkadian words they represent; then there is talking about how the text says it, where you pronounce the sumerograms as sumerograms.

Getting on with things:

My question concerns whether some texts suggest that ancient scribes—at least sometimes, presumably among themselves—pronounced sumerograms as sumerograms, rather than as the Akkadian words they represent.

Take a text I came across in Lesson Eighteen in Huehnergard’s grammar.[1] Line four of the tablet contains the sumerogram AD.TA.NI, when expected is AD.A.NI (AD represents “father,” and A.NI represents “his/her”). So why is the sign TA used instead of A? Physically, the signs are not remotely alike and could not be confused one for the other. Well, in Akkadian, the dental consonants are not always carefully distinguished: so, the sumerogram AD also can represent, not only the sound /ad/, but also /at/ or /aṭ/. I would—hesitantly—wonder if the spelling AD.TA.NI reflect a rapid pronunciation of the sumerograms: /at-ta-ni/ for /at-a-ni/.

This had been in the back of my mind since I came across it recently, when lo! and behold, I find this note to the 75th Amarna letter: [2] “Very hesitantly, it is proposed that KU.TI.TI is a syllabic writing for GU2.(UN).DI6.DI6, ābilāt bilti, lit. ‘bearers of tribute.’”

If Moran is “hesitant,” then I’m hesitant enough to stand behind him even more hesitantly. But, again, why shouldn’t the ancient scribes have found it convenient, as we do, to pronounce the sumerograms from time to time, especially in the context of teaching, learning, dictating, and taking dictation?

Does anybody know of more data on this? Are the Assyriologists all taking this kind of thing for granted, such that it’s no big deal? Anyone?

BACK TO POST The text is the adoption of a slave, from Vorderasiatische Schriftdenkmäler der Königlichen Museen zu Berlin; vol. 7,8.
BACK TO POST William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters; Baltimore: University of John Hopkins Press, 1992), page 146, EA 75 n. 7.

[Pronouncing Sumerograms as Sumerograms? was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/24. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“When God Began to Create…”: Nouns Bound to Verbs

In order to post on this, I have to break an informal but firm rule I have kept for myself: not to blog on Genesis 1–3. I have no wish to attract any debate or controversy about the truth/historicity/inerrancy of the story/myth/history/polemic/whatever of Gen 1. That said, my Hebrew students are at a point now where they can make sense of the Bible’s very first phrase, so let me have this, please.

As for my Hebrew students: sit up and pay attention. You won’t know the Akkadian, but you can still follow the argument: just give the Hebrew special attention. I am throwing in the Akkadian for my enjoyment, and because I am up to my neck in some texts at the moment.

The text in view is Genesis 1:1:

בראשית ברא אלהים

Traditionally, “In the beginning, God created…” But, more recently, “In the beginning, when God created…” Or even, “When God began to create…” Students naturally want to see a definite article in the first form: BA-rēšīt (“in THE beginning”). They are told (if they are told anything) that the form is in construct, and therefore unable to take a definite article. The obvious question is, “To what is it in construct? It precedes, not a noun, but a perfect verb.”

In Hebrew relative clauses, one permissible construction is a construct noun followed by a finite verb: קרית חנה דוד “The-district-of David encamped,” that is “The district where David encamped” (Isa 29:1). Similarly, for Akkadian relative clauses, one permissible construction is a bound (“construct”) form followed by a finite verb (with -u of subordination): bīt ēpušu “the house-of I-built,” that is “the house (which) I built.” (Note that, in both Hebrew and Akkadian, we will more often see the relative particle in such a clause: Hebrew אשר, Akkadian ša.)

This construction is often used with verbs of time. So in Hebrew: ביום הציל יהוה “In-the-day-of YHWH delivered,” or “In the day when YHWH delivered” (2 Sam 22:1). That the noun of time is in construct is more clearly shown in examples with distinct bound forms: בליל שדד ער “in-the-night-of Ar was devastated,” or “in the night when Ar was devastated” (Isa 15:1). In Akkadian: UD-um É.GAL KUG.BABBAR i-r-i-[šu], or Ūm ekallum kaspam irrišu: “The-day-of the-palace receives silver,” or “The day when the palace receives silver.” (CT 8 36a, cited in Huehnergard exercise 19.G.2.)

An excellent parallel to our text is found in Hosea 1:2: תחלת דבר יהוה “The-beginning-of YHWH spoke,” that is “When YHWH first spoke” or even “When YHWH began to speak.”

By now, it is clear that these constructions are parallel to that of Genesis 1:1. Looking at it again, we can translate:

“In-the-beginning-of God created,” that is, “In the beginning, when God created,” or even “When God began to create.” In other words, the Bible begins with a subordinate clause, preceding the main clause. Where, then, would you say that the first main clause in the Bible begins?