Review of A. Annus and A. Lenzi, Ludlul bēl nēmeqi: The Standard Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Suffer

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

A review article of:
Annus, Amar and Alan Lenzi, Ludlul bēl nēmeqi: The Standard Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts, 7; Publications of the Foundation for Finnish Assyriological Research, 2; Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2010). Pp. xvi + 72. Hardback. US$35.00. ISBN 978-952-10-1334-8.

For half a century the standard edition of the popular Akkadian composition Ludlul bēl nēmeqi has been that of Wilfred G. Lambert in his classic compendium Babylonian Wisdom Literature (BWL).[1] Lambert had at his disposal twenty-six fragmentary manuscripts each containing part of a single tablet of the four tablets usually comprising the complete work. The only tablet he could reconstruct nearly entirely and to its full length of 120 lines was the second. Tablets III and IV could be restored only partially, with tablet IV being most problematic with the order of its constituent fragments uncertain.

Since Lambert's publication copious new material has come to light and Ludlul has repeatedly merited translations and studies.[2] BWL itself contains an addendum with several additional pieces including one identified by Erle Leichty preserving the first thirteen lines of the work.[3] The new volume of Amar Annus and Alan Lenzi reviewed here is based on fifty-five of the fifty-eight known manuscripts, and the composition is now available in nearly its entirety save some lines from tablets III and IV.[4] The most exciting new find, to be published shortly in JNES and utilized in this edition for the first time (ms. jk), is a partially preserved six column tablet containing the entire composition, which enables the proper placing of the fragments of tablet IV. This also reveals more or less how the composition ends, although only the ends of the last thirty eight lines (83–120) are preserved.

In keeping with the SAACT format, the heart of the new volume is a computer-generated, eclectic cuneiform text, a transcription with a textual apparatus (including citations from the ancient commentary), and a literal English translation aimed at rendering the precise meaning of the Akkadian text rather than reflecting its poetic qualities. Unfortunately, extant colophons are not provided (eleven manuscript fragments had colophons, three of which are no longer legible). Following the translation are a glossary, an index of names, and a sign index.

The volume deviates from the SAACT format mostly in its somewhat extended introduction. This section starts with a detailed discussion of the history of the reconstruction of the text, including comparative charts showing the different approaches; and ends with a list of manuscripts and a useful chart illustrating at a glance the preserved and broken parts of all the manuscripts of each tablet. Sandwiched between these parts is a fine discussion of literary matters including: the identification of the protagonist Šubši-mešrê/â-Šakkan; the date of the composition (last few centuries of the 2nd millennium b.c.e.); an interpretive summary of the narrative with comments on some specific passages; some linguistic and literary features of Ludlul (vocabulary, voice, semantic, grammatical and lexical parallelism, word pairs, multivalence, alliteration, assonance); Ludlul and “Wisdom”; and Ludlul as a religious text. Finally there is an up to date bibliography listing nearly ninety items.

The book is a “student's edition,” and its didactic intent resounds in the simplified sign list at the end, the clear, briefly illustrated discussions of literary issues in the introduction and in sentences solicitous of students such as: “But we hope to alert the reader to features that contribute to the poem's artistry and will thereby encourage the reader to explore the poem more deeply on their own” (p. xxvi); “Such considerations…will enrich one's appreciation of the artistry of Ludlul”; (p. xxxi) or “Such careful and sensitive reading will repay with a much fuller appreciation of the author's artistry” (p. xxxiv).

As a “cuneo-biblist” I would like to take this opportunity to discuss briefly two points raised in the introduction (pp. xxxiv–xxxvi) of interest to both biblical scholars and assyriologists relating to the comparative study of Ludlul.

1) Definitive determination of the order of the fragments from tablet IV clarifies the end of the text. Knowing how the work concluded permits reflection on the genre of Ludlul and consequentially the vexed, perennial question of its classification as “wisdom,” a term undoubtedly imposed upon it by supposed similarities to biblical literature. Ludlul divides generically into two sections. The main part, ending somewhere in the break between IV 90 and 101, is Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan's autobiographical confession. But it is not entirely autobiographical for it includes an appeal in the form of a second person plural imperative to human beings throughout the world: “praise ye Marduk!” (dullā Marduk; IV 82). In other words, other people, hearing the story of suffering and salvation, are also instructed to praise the deity. The following part, IV 101–20 is preserved fragmentarily, the left side of the column broken off, making complete understanding difficult. Nevertheless some things are clear. The very last words […t]anittaka ṭābat, “ your praise is sweet” form an inclusio with the first word ludlul (for collocations of the word pair dalālu//tanittu cf. CAD D: 46b s.v. dalālu a; T: 174a s.v. tanittu A a1), bringing the composition back to where it started and fixing the formal genre of the entire work as a hymn of praise, undoubtedly to Marduk. Ludlul is generically a hymn. The references to Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan in the final section (IV 111, 119) indicate that it is a hymn with a request for the supplicant to which we can compare, for example, the Ishtar hymn with a prayer for Ammiditana.[5] There also is a reference to making a lilissu drum (IV 106–7) indicating a cultic situation and that the hymn may have been accompanied by the presentation of a gift to the god, probably by Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan himself.

It is, however, a hymn with a twist, namely a didactic bent aimed at a human audience. On the basis of precative verbs in IV 114–17 Annus and Lenzi have suggested that the work ends on a “didactic note,” inviting the reader “to experience the redemptive power and benevolence of Marduk” (xxv–xxvi). To this we add that I 39 (concluding the opening paean), “I will teach (lušalmid) the people that their plea for favor is near,” and III (cited in the commentary but not preserved in a manuscript of tablet III) “Let [the one who] was negligent of Esagil learn from my example” (ina qātīja līmur; lit. “may he see from my hand”) indicate that the purpose of the autobiography is to teach others to learn from the protagonist's experience. So Marduk is being praised, but praise of Marduk is more for human ears than it is to those of the deity himself.

These didactic formulations in both parts of the work as well as the fact that Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan makes recommendations on the basis of his personal experience permit us to characterize cautiously the text as a whole as having central components of “wisdom” in the sense applied to biblical wisdom literature. To be precise, biblical wisdom literature derives its authority and conviction not from divine revelation but from life experience of the individual (cf. Prov 6:6–11; 7:6–7 [MT]; 24:3–34; Eccl) and collective experience of society as transmitted by parents and teachers. Correspondingly, Ludlul's advice to praise Marduk and enjoy his beneficence is based on the experience of its protagonist. Dreams are crucial in Ludlul, which mentions three consecutive dreams (III 9–47), and Job enjoys a divine epiphany (Job 38:1; 40:6; see also Eliphaz's dream in Job 4:12–13). However, both are private revelations and are resorted to only when the ability of human wisdom to understand a peculiar situation has reached its limit.

The fact that the protagonist in Ludlul is named may enhance the didactic bent of the composition because it adds weight and credibility to the reality of the experiences described, associating them with a real person. Note that the “Babylonian Theodicy,” which is certainly a work of speculative wisdom (BWL 63–91) is a name acrostic (Saggil-kīnam-ubbib) and the instructions of Šurrupak and Šūpî-awīlim as well as the Egyptian Instructions and the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) all name their protagonists, even though their actual authors may have been anonymous.[6]

We note as well that Ludlul was copied frequently and in various localities, provided a commentary, cited occasionally, and assumedly known to others indicating that it actually was studied, learned, and internalized.[7]

All these factors support the classification of Ludlul as “wisdom literature” according to the use of the term in biblical studies. It is didactic/reflective literature concerning the human condition and aimed at regulating human behavior based on human experience. Ludlul may be too Mardukian or Babylocentric to be compared with non-particularistic books of universal appeal such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, but its aim to promote the worship of a particular god makes it comparable with the biblical wisdom psalms or the post-biblical books of Ben Sira or Wisdom of Solomon which promote YHWHism and devotion to Torah. Ludlul's specific lesson is of a religious, theological rather than a temporal, pragmatic nature, but it is instruction nonetheless.

2) Although Ludlul may arguably be categorized as “wisdom,” it should not be compared with Job or called a “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” as is often done. Both Job and Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan suffered immeasurably even while they considered themselves righteous and wondered why they were so afflicted, but this is the full extent of the similarity. In the end Job comes out blameless while Šubši-mešrê-Šakkan is found lacking. In a broken context he speaks of “my sin…my iniquity…my transgression…my negligence” (arnī…initta…šertī…egâtīja; III 58–61), and in fact he was worshipping the wrong god.[8] He may have been ignoring Marduk inadvertently or out of ignorance but that was enough.

In conclusion, Annus and Lenzi are to be thanked for a significant contribution to the reconstruction, study, and understanding of a major Akkadian literary work and a welcome addition to the growing SAACT series. It will prove valuable to both scholars and students.

Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

[1] Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960; reprinted, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 21–62; 283–302 reference

[2] To the translations of Ludlul listed on pp. xxxviii–xxxix add the modern Hebrew rendition of Y. Hoffman and F. Polak in Y. Hoffman (ed.), A Blemished Perfection. The Book of Job in Context (The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library, 12; Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1995), 95–100 (Hebrew). Hoffman discusses the use of catalogues in Job and Ludlul. The English translation of the volume (JSOTSup, 213; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996) discusses Ludlul's catalogues (91–92) but does not reproduce the translation. To the bibliography add M. Held, “Studies in Biblical Lexicography in Light of Akkadian” part 2, S. E. Loewenstamm (ed.), Studies in Bible Dedicated to the Memory of U. Cassuto on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1987), 104–26 (in Hebrew), which discusses terms for ephemerality in Ludlul II 39–43. Held previously delivered two unpublished papers on these matters (American Oriental Society 1971 and 1981) and also examined the famously enigmatic i-RIM/KIL (II 120; see Annus and Lenzi, xxii no. 38). On grounds of parallelism, style, and usage, Held sides with Landsberger against Cooper in reading īkil (darkened) and dismisses the variant reading i-ri-im adduced by Lambert as a scribal misreading. reference

[3] Ibid., 344–45 reference

[4] On p. xliii and chart on p. xlvii note that ms. X also preserves I 87–91 (information courtesy of Alan Lenzi). reference

[5] P. Thureau-Dangin, RA 22 (1925), 170–72 reference

[6] For a different explanation of identifying the author see K. van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2007), 40. reference

[7] See V. A. Hurowitz, “Towards an Image of the ‘Wise Man’ in Akkadian Writings,” L. G. Perdue (ed.), Scribes, Sages, and Seers. The Sage in the Eastern Mediterranean World (FRLANT, 219; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2008), 64–94, (81–82, 86–87). For a citation of Ludlul I 52, 54 in Nabonidus' Harran A Stele col. 3:1–2 see H. Schaudig, Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld enstandenen Tendenzshriften (AOAT, 256; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2001), 493 reference

[8] According to I 4–42 bēlī īninanni…Marduk isbusu ittīja, “my lord (my Bel) punished me…Marduk was angry with me,” implying some sort of transgression before the afflictions. reference