I. Author, Title, Publication Data.
As an introduction to Mesopotamian religions, Thorkild Jacobsen's Treasure of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion is exemplary primarily because of the author's background as an expert in the fields of Oriental philology and archeology. The book is full of prime source texts throughout, some of which are Jacobsen's own updated translations. Reading this as a student has been a broadening experience. This is due the fact that less is taken for granted because of the unusual amount of Semitic texts included. A fuller appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of this work shall be noted in its proper place after a full assessment of the material has been given.
II. Assessment: Content and Methodology.
(a) Content and Methodology.
Treasures of Darkness is ordered logically on a chronological pane and in addition to the religions themselves, it touches upon weighty issues of historical methodology in each successive section. Jacobsen starts with the fourth millennium, and each section thereafter deals with a successive millennium and its representative metaphors. According to Jacobsen, the metaphors are as follows: (1) the fourth millennium is represented by the Provider metaphor; (2) the third millennium with the Ruler metaphor; (3) the Second with a Parent metaphor alongside the Creation and Gilgamesh epics; (4) lastly, the first millennium with Warrior-King and Hero metaphors.
Before delving into the particulars of each epoch, he commences his treatment of the ancient Mesopotamian religions by identifying and clearly defining the terms "religion", "Mesopotamian" and "Ancient". In so doing, he touches upon methodological questions that not only determine the nature of the study of these religions but of the history of all antiquity-religious or otherwise. It is, in fact, a historiographical statement. He doesn't posit that religion can in any way be understood apart from the historical, cultural and geographical details of the time period from which it arose. We may note, then, that the study of Israelite religion falls within the purview of the investigative directives governing the study of Mesopotamian religion and therefore succumbs to uniform strictures that determine its definition. The idea that Israelite religion was contemporaneous with Mesopotamian religion, thereby succumbing to a common methodology of investigation might not seem noteworthy or new, but when we take into consideration that our understanding of "Israel" can in no way depart from the methodological assumptions that are held at the inception of the scholarly task, it becomes apparent there are no "findings" peculiar to Israel in the true sense of the word. To be sure, Jacobsen does differentiate between different forms of cultic response among the various religions. For instance, after mentioning that in earliest Mesopotamia the power and the form in which the numinous was manifested (i.e., basic pantheism-moon and moon-god) were essentially the same, he notes contrariwise, that the power speaking to Moses disassociates itself from the burning bush (p. 6). Nevertheless, Jacobsen's methodology was one issue with which I was confronted not only at the beginning but throughout. It was a theological consideration in the end-how does this methodology affect my understanding of revelation? Can I find what "God" means by assuming Jacobsen's point of departure?
Of all the terms examined by Jacobsen, therefore, religion receives attention first and sets the parameter within which the rest of the material is examined. He adopts ideas from Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy (p. 1, 245) who posits that religion refers to "unique experience of confrontation with power not of this world." This power is necessarily not of this world and therefore it is indescribable in terms derived from worldly or human experience. Any positive description of the numinous must be analogical. Ordinary worldly experiences serve as metaphors that can be utilized to communicate by way of the suggestiveness of these ordinary experiences upon the human psyche, the nature of the original confrontation with the numinous. Furthermore, the experience of the numinous demands a response. Myth and theology, Jacobsen asserts, are mental responses whereas cult or worship are their active corollaries. Mental responses (myth and theology), however, are unable to provide accurate descriptions of the Wholly Other.
It is not difficult to understand the utter importance of Jacobsen's assumption in respect to communicating experience of the numinous. Any such communication is wholly human and culturally conditioned-and here the method of historiography is apparent. The significance of this idea is brought out more clearly if one is privy to the controversy at the beginning of this century represented on one side by the likes of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Emil Brunner. The controversy surrounded the nature of revelation, the authority of the Bible and the question of whether language was an adequate medium through which humanity may grasp the nature of God. Brunner for example patently claimed that God and the medium of conceptuality are mutually exclusive. Israel had a conception of language peculiar to its own cultural context which was in all probability opposed to a Neo-Orthodox construction. Words were not only employed as analogical tools to aid in describing the nature of God, but seem in certain places to have been sufficient as to also become a medium of conceptuality by which Yahweh's very essence was to be known. If language to the ancient Hebrews was insufficient to describe God's nature, there would not have been reservations in regard to avoiding the spelling and the verbalization of his entire name. In addition, there are numerous other passages in which we find that rational exchange between God and man in regard to the divine will was mediated through language. According to Otto's suggestion, by way of Jacobsen, that exchange, if metaphors are wholly human and culturally conditioned (pp. 1-17) would have been a rational exchange between man and man or man and Man at best.
The locus of organization for Treasures of Darkness centers around Jacobsen's understanding of religious metaphor. To reiterate more directly, metaphor is an instrument of transference, a bridge, a means of communicating and handing down religious forms and content (original numinous experiences) from a previous age to subsequent generations.
In addition to what's been said about the structure thus far, one other point needs to be pointed out. It was stated that Jacobsen approaches the study chronologically. He begins with the fourth millennium and works forward into the first millennium as far as 600 b.c. From each millennium Jacobsen selects what he considers to have been the primary representative metaphors and after presenting portions of original texts, provides analysis and inferences. As a structuring device, this works well. The total structure of this work, with its chronological approach along with a clearly outlined and explained historical methodology (consisting of at least 10% of the book), not only makes this field accessible but provides even beginners with a framework within which they themselves can attempt a synthesis of their own.
(b) Interaction with the Old Testament.
Jacobsen does not give much attention to the Old Testament directly. Indeed, there are very few citations of Old Testament texts. On the other hand, however, there is nothing in Treasures of Darkness that is not useful in illuminating our understanding of the society out of which Israelite religion and tradition developed. Furthermore, having done a fine job of providing a penetrating and panoramic introduction, it sheds a great deal of light especially in the area of Biblical criticism. So, although Jacobsen does not particularly treat West-Semitic religions (i.e., Israelite tradition) and texts, the large amount of textual and historical data provides a gateway through which to tackle questions related to the origin and development of the Israelite tradition. For example he states that at the time Israel's religious thinking began to form, Mesopotamian influence and ideas were so pervasive that the attitude of personal religion "may be considered to have been part of the general cultural environment" (p. 152). It would seem that personal religion, in which a given deity was one's own personal god that cared for her or him was not peculiar to the Israelite tradition. This is not the proper place to dive into the discussion of source derivation-what's been said here simply illustrates the point that though Jacobsen does not devote as much as a single chapter exclusively to biblical data, the entire work is valuable to biblical studies in one way or another. None of it is irrelevant because, beside the obvious fact that all human institutions are culturally conditioned, what may be elucidated from the text of Scripture depends on parallel or `background' material. Jacobsen provides a great deal of that.
The preceding answers in part the question as to which portions of the Old Testament receive most attention. One can say that because Treasures of Darkness is primarily interested in background material, all aspects of the Old Testament are given equal treatment. But a distinction can nevertheless be made. Essentially, it can be said that the background material in this work most directly illuminates our understanding of the Psalms. The Psalter resembles a lot of contemporary texts that share the same forms. These forms resulted from the rise of personal religion in the Ancient Near East. The advent of personal religion sees its beginning at the turn of the second millennium. This new mood simply encompasses the idea that the individual matters to God and that God cares about him or her personally and deeply. Characteristic features of this new religious sentiment included such other ideas as a worshiper's need for guidance, expectance of divine anger and punishment for sin, and trust in divine compassion (Psalm 38) (p. 147). Jacobsen points out that, when we look to the origins of this personal religion we see a narrowing toward its source. These attitudes are first seen in "Penitential Psalms", "Letters to Gods" in which men complained to their personal gods; these ideas are not restricted to Sumerian works but also appear in Akkadian, Hebraic as well as Egyptian (p. 154). One such prayer from Egypt to the god Re-Har-akhti: "Do not punish me for my many sins; for I am one who does not know himself, I am a man without sense. I spend the day following after my own mouth, like a cow after grass. . . come to me . . . thou who protectest millions and rescuest hundreds of thousands, the protector of the one who cries out to him" (p. 148). This, Jacobsen places alongside Psalm 25:4-7: "Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindness; for they have been ever of old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake O Lord" (p. 147). Likewise, another prayer from Mesopotamia adheres to the same exact form, the only difference being that a female deity is called upon in this particular prayer.
Because of the ubiquity of this religious sentiment and the amount of material, we can gain deeper insights into the theology of the Psalter and are better equipped in interpreting it.
III. Assessment-Related Matters.
(a) Religions of the Ancient Near East.
As to whether adequate attention is given to the religions of the Ancient Near East, there can be no doubt that more than enough is included in this work. The title of the book itself, "A History of Mesopotamian religion" suggests this much. But beyond the obvious, it can be further noted that the work is detailed and densely packed with literature from that region. Assyrian, Egyptian, Semitic, Sumerian and Akkadian texts are all included throughout the book. From the Dumuzi cult representative of the fourth millennium to the Neo-Babylonian god Marduk representing the first millennium (sixth century B.C.), prime source material is given to illustrate the pantheon of Near Eastern religions.
A work such as this, however, should not be seen merely as a conglomeration of such texts. Jacobsen does at times give a broad and sweeping theory to distill the main elements of a millennium's worth of religious mood.
In summing up the second millennium, for example, Jacobsen surmises that the parent metaphor is suggestive of the essential elements in the Mesopotamian response to numinous experience. In the former "great existential myths and epics" man took stock of himself and considered his place in the universe. The second millennium stories react to and critique those of a previous age (p. 223). The stories of Atrahasis, Gilgamesh and Enuma elish react to the earlier metaphors of provider and ruler metaphors, testing the implications of these ideas through stories (p. 225). Humanity, having been a subject and slave in the older myths, gained sonship in the newer myths (226). Therefore, by the time of the Apostle Paul, we see in his sermon on Mars Hill that the divine sonship of humanity had gained universal assent. It provided Paul a common ground from which he led some of the Greek philosophers to Christianity. The idea began as a reaction against the subjugation and enslavement of humanity in myths preceding the second millennium. One age reacts against another while leaving a vestige of previous myths.
As evidence of this historical process (reminiscent of Hegelian dialectical historiography), Jacobsen points to modifications observed in the major religious metaphors as they are utilized as vehicles of religious expression in a subsequent millennia (233). In every age vestiges of a previous one remains. This theory runs into exigencies. Jacobsen notes that the transition from the second millennium to the first saw such dramatic changes that it seemed no vestiges of a previous epoch remained. The problem more precisely was that the first century became increasingly brutal and the parent metaphor no longer seemed to exist in the first millennium (p. 236). He says, however, that vestiges of the parent metaphor idea tended to remain despite the presence of an increasingly brutal world because holy war is given such a definition as to suggest helplessness and complete trust in a god. Dependence is the axiom of holy war p. 237.
(b) Biblical Criticism-the question of how and when the OT came into being.
It seemed to me that the most valuable aspect of this book is its usefulness in this area of biblical criticism. Because Jacobsen provides a panoramic tour through successive ages of religious development, it is interesting to compare and contrast these developments surrounding the biblical text with developments found within the text of the Bible itself. For example, if we begin with the fourth millennium, Jacobsen shows that the various city gods in whom the early city settlers believed seemed to have been powers associated with the economies of the region in which the city was located. The earliest form of Mesopotamian religion was worship of powers of fertility-the powers ensuring human survival (p. 26). A myth in the southern region of Mesopotamia is related to the marsh life and the economies associated with it (i.e., fishing and hunting). Along the Euphrates there is mentioned a Nanshe or goddess of fish. Along the costs there is the god Nanzu or "the Lord knows the waters." Such crude parallels are not found in the Bible. Israel does not worship a god related to its particular economy. To be sure there are other skeptical theories of the origins of the Hebrew religion. There is, for example, the theory that the reason Israel's god became disassociated from physical idols was because the weight and size of these idols made nomadic living cumbersome. And Abraham was a nomad. In any case, the Israelite religion is not as crude, pantheistic or polytheistic as its neighbors.
Economics was not the only factor that provided motivation to revise one's theology. At the beginning of the third millennium b.c., ever present fear of famine was no longer the main reminder of the precariousness of the human condition. Sudden death by the sword in wars or raids by bandits joined famine as equally fearsome threats. A sudden need for protection produced an evolution in the nature of the gods. The old gods of rain and thunderstorm through a process of humanization were seen as warriors and kings. The inference is simple: Theology about god's nature seemed to have developed as the human story unfolded.
There seems to be a greater connection between Israelite religion and this idea. Although it is difficult to say that Yahweh's nature developed as the human story unfolded, one can say with a degree of certainty that Israel's idea of the nature of reality and the nature of God's plan progressively changed. We see, for example, a move from particularism in the earlier texts of the Old Testament, to a universalism in the prophets. This process continues until it reaches its zenith in the theology of Paul. Likewise, the dramatic shifting and shaking of the Jewish foundations that occurred as a result of the apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament was another successive stage of development in which the nature of God was completely revised. And obviously, the development did not cease with the close of the apostolic age, it continued beyond it as the Church came to grips with its understanding of Christology.
One could also note the developmental process within one group of biblical texts. The different theologies of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are stark. Proverbs promises that if you live in such and such a manner, you are guaranteed such and such a life. Ecclesiastes turns such a perspective on its head. Job, moreover explicitly denies that righteousness will guarantee the favor of God. Such an understanding of the historical process which Jacobsen makes very clear, helps us better understand the developments found within the Christian cannon because it is also subject to these same cycles.
IV. What are the strongest and weakest aspects of the book?
Firstly, in my opinion, the best part of this book is the fact that it is as deep as it is wide. It was breathtaking at times to say the least. The best part was the first thirty pages or so where Jacobsen provides a synthesis of the methodology he has adopted in studying the religions of the Ancient Near East. It has a psychological component to it that allows me to experience the lives of these ancient peoples alongside them. Their religious ideas were not divorced from the concrete matters of their living. I sensed more clearly the difficulties that must have faced people living at that time. It was this psychological response to the geo-political atmosphere that initiated the winds of change as exemplified in the religious sentiments of the age. Jacobsen begins every chapter by explaining what he thought to have been the existential angst of the age he was about to examine. This was a very good idea because, as I said, it makes us better historians if we can feel the things which the individuals we are studying felt.
This much being said, the weakness was that this book does not do enough of what I just said it did well. Jacobsen does say much more about methodology than what's found in the introductory pages. The need for a synthesis falls into a secondary place. Jacobsen provides an overwhelming amount of prime source texts. It is a bit too much. The work could have been better if a deeper treatment of these texts were given. Otherwise, it was a pleasure to read this work and something to which I shall subsequently return.