Review of T. Oshima, Babylonian Prayers to Marduk

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Oshima, Takayoshi, Babylonian Prayers to Marduk (Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 7; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). Pp. xviii + 483. Cloth. €119.00; ISBN 978-3-16-150831-8.

This work is a revision of the author's Ph.D. thesis, which was supervised by Wayne Horowitz at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2003 (then entitled “Hymns and Prayers to Marduk and his Divine Aspects in these Texts”). In his systematic study of prayers to Marduk and related texts, Oshima's work advances the century-old work of Johannes Hehn, whose corpus was one-third the size.[1] Oshima accounts for 79 prayers to Marduk and other related texts, 31 of which are presented in an up-to-date edition. The author's aim, however, is more than textual; he hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the Marduk theology: how Marduk acquired the role of divine savior, and how this role contributed to his rise to the head of the pantheon.

In chapter 1, entitled “General Discussion of Akkadian Prayers,” Oshima aims to outline what Akkadian prayers meant to the ancients who prayed them (pp. 8–9). After a brief introduction, he examines ancient terms for Mesopotamian prayers, in both Sumerian and Akkadian, and he divides these into four types. With Lambert and van der Toorn, he suggests that the rubric ŠU.ÍL.LÁ is not so much a generic category as it is an indication of the manner in which the prayer was to be recited. He states, however, that “despite certain differences at the semantic level, the ancients took most of these words more or less as synonyms, just as the words like ‘invocation’, ‘devotion’, ’supplication’, and ‘benediction’ are used as synonyms of ‘prayer’ in English“ (p. 12).[2] Oshima defines Akkadian prayers as “praise to a god followed by requests” and then outlines their typical structure in four parts: (1) hymnic introduction, (2) lament, (3) pleas, and (4) thanksgiving (p. 14). He notes that sin was understood vaguely as just about anything which offended the gods, and that while the supplicants often seem ignorant of the nature of their offense, they commonly assumed that the god's wrath was linked to their negligence of cultic duties. Oshima also notes that the hymnic introduction “was meant to help conceptualize the divine quality of a deity which was relevant to their needs and wishes” (p. 15). This is not a new position, and Oshima cites Widengren and Hallo to the same effect. However, this fact should perhaps have been taken into account more fully in his sketch of the character of Marduk in light of the prayers addressed to him (more below). Finally, Oshima notes three principal roles of Akkadian prayers: (1) formulae for offering personal requests, (2) verbal offerings of praise in place of sacrifices, and (3) religious texts by which scribes learned about the character of the gods. Even while Akkadian prayers generally reflect personal, rather than national, interests, he stresses that these prayers are not the private expression of faith in a particular deity, but a general consensus about the nature of the gods: “[M]ost of the Akkadian prayers can be used in order to study a general consensus on different gods in ancient times but not the faith of a private person in a particular deity” (p. 26). The fact that Šuilas and Namburbis are commonly constructed with a fill-in-the-blank section in which the supplicant includes his or her name is further evidence of that fact. After a brief discussion of the relationship between hymns and prayers, Oshima summarizes the main points of the chapter.

In chapter two, entitled “Marduk the God of Deliverance and Punishment,” Oshima outlines his view on how and why Marduk became the divine savior par excellence, drawing extensively throughout his discussion from the prayers edited in the final chapter of the monograph and on Ludlul bēl nēmeqi. According to Oshima, Marduk's original role was to impose suffering upon humans as an executor of divine punishments. However, by the Old Babylonian period (if not before), Marduk became identified with Asalluḫi, who was the son of Enki/Ea and Damgalnuna and who was associated with the magical knowledge of exorcism and healing. Through this syncretism, Marduk also became Ea/Enki's son, and he gradually took over the roles of exorcism and healing. Added now to Marduk's “original” role an executor of punishments was his role as savior. Marduk thus became a dialectical deity of both wrath and mercy. This dialecticism is what Oshima refers to as Marduk's “older personality,” and he draws especially on Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, the Prayer to Marduk no. 1 (bēlum šezuzu linuḫ libbu[k], see Foster, BTM3, 611–616), and Ugaritica V, no. 162 (RS 25.460; see Foster, BTM3, 410–411) to illustrate this personality. In these texts, both wrath and mercy are essential for understanding the nature of Marduk. However, Oshima asserts that one pole of Marduk's personality began to take over in the Kassite period—his role as savior. He calls this Marduk's “new personality” and he points to the lengthy Prayer to Marduk no. 2 (bēlum apkal igigî adallala siqarka; see Foster, BTM3, 617–620) as the text which best illustrates this personality. Oshima summarizes, “In later Akkadian prayers, his aspects as the god of redemption and the divine healer become more evident than his harmful and destructive power” (p. 61). With the recession of Marduk's wrath, says Oshima, came his rise to supremacy over personal gods and to the highest position in the pantheon. This is, indeed, the closest thing to a thesis in this study: that Marduk's role as savior (acquired through the Asalluḫi-syncretism) is the reason for his great popularity and perhaps also for his rise to the head of the pantheon (see p. 1).

Several things in this sketch seem to me questionable. First, was Marduk really only a god who imposed suffering before his assimilation to Asalluḫi? Walter Sommerfeld has suggested that Marduk's function as exorcist was original,[3] and Tzvi Abusch notes Marduk's early association with the fructifying elements of rain clouds and water.[4] But perhaps more importantly, it makes little sense that anyone would worship a god whose role was only to punish. Second, in chapter one, Oshima underscores that Akkadian prayers often emphasize the aspects of the deities that were relevant to the needs of the supplicant (p. 15), but here he tends to draw on divine descriptions in these prayers as if they were the only or primary aspects of the deity's character. Third, Oshima's sketch makes no mention of Marduk's rise being related to the gradual rise of Babylon in political prominence, or to the crisis under Nebuchadnezzar I, whose recovery of Marduk's statue from the Elamites was likely the catalyst for solidifying Marduk's position as “the king of the gods” (šār ilāni) in official religion.[5] This is all the more curious, given that elsewhere Oshima has brought these facts into the discussion. In his chapter on Marduk in a recent reference work on the Babylonian world, he states, “The god Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon, and therefore the history of Marduk is intimately related to the history of Babylon. Just as political power of Babylon grew, so did the position of its national god, Marduk, who was also gradually elevated within the polytheistic religious system of Babylonia.”[6] Because this focus is completely lacking from the present study, it gives the strong impression that Oshima believes that Marduk's supremacy was tied to his sanguine personality traits taken over from Asalluḫi. I must confess that I am still confused as to whether or not this is what Oshima wishes to communicate in this monograph.

Chapter three is a “Catalogue of Akkadian Prayers to Marduk.” After a brief introduction, Oshima explains his use and arrangement of the materials which follow in chapter four. The texts are presented in roughly chronological order within three main genres: prayers (P), incantation-prayers (IP), and incantations (In). An exception to this is the Šuila-prayers, which are basically contemporaneous. Oshima assigns a name to each entry in the catalogue, followed by its incipit, the catchline, the manuscripts, previous text editions (if any), translations, and major studies.

Chapter four presents the corpus. The texts are arranged in the same order as in chapter three, and Oshima generally provides both a Partitur and a composite text of each work, as well as translation and commentary. Oshima introduces each work before presenting it. Scattered throughout are sketches, plates, autograph copies, and tables relevant to the discussion. The format of this portion of the book is exemplary; it is logical, and the opposing-page layout of text edition and translation for the longer texts makes them easy to study.

In reading through this corpus, Marduk's character as reviver of the dead stands out above all. He redeems from the pit, raises the dead, and shows the sufferer light in his death (Prayer to Marduk no. 1). He snatches from the mouth of death and lifts the supplicant up from the netherworld (Ugaritica V, no. 162). Marduk brings back the one who slumbers from inside the grave, and he wipes away the tears shed by the father and mother over their dead child (Prayer to Marduk no. 2). He “hold[s] the hand of the one who is cast into the bed of Namtar and … raise[s] (him) up,” and he releases the sufferer from death, which is like a dark prison (BMS 12, 17–95). Among the gods, Marduk is the one who “loves to give life” (DT 119+152: Šigû-Prayer to the Lord), and his “incantation is life” (Prayer to Marduk no. 2). In the incantation-prayers, Marduk is called “the one who protects life” and “the one who provides health” [KAR 69, 1–25 (=BMS 9 obverse); AOAT 34, 28(+)29], and in KAR 26 obv. 11–rev. 6, the supplicant entreats the god: “Daily, may a favorable thing and the wellbeing of my healthy life follow me” (cf. Ps 23:6). For with Marduk, says JAOS 88, 131, “there are reviving of life and (being) full of life.” Much of this overlaps with biblical metaphors, especially in the Psalms, where YHWH redeems life from the pit (Pss 103:4; 40:3) which is likened to a prison (Ps 107:10), and who illuminates the sufferer's darkness to save from death (Pss 13:3; 18:8; 49:19). As in the biblical Psalms, the supplicant likens tears to food (Ugaritica V, no. 162; IVR2, 59/2; cf. Ps 42:3) and appeals to Marduk's desire for praise as a motivator to keep him alive: “What can dead dust add to the god?” (Prayer to Marduk no. 1; cf. Ps 30:6). And if Marduk does show mercy, the supplicant promises to proclaim Marduk's greatness to the whole world (Prayer to Marduk no. 1; cf. Pss 9:14–15; 22:23 et al.). As Annette Zgoll puts it, the sufferer is an “advertising medium” (Werbeträger) who promises to be an instrument of the god's “public relations work” (Öffentlichkeitsarbeit).[7] The focus on Marduk's responsiveness to the suffering and his ability to reverse death must be taken into account in the ongoing discussion of the development of the doctrine of resurrection in ancient Israel.[8]

Closely related to this is Marduk's compassionate nature. It is clear from reading this corpus that YHWH was not alone in being thought of as a gracious and compassionate god. In IVR2 59/2, the supplicant calls Marduk “my compassionate and merciful lord,” and the Šigû-Prayer to Marduk mentions his “gratifying leniency, [his] great compassion, (and) [his] honorable generosity.” One of the more interesting prayers in the collection is BMS 12, 17–95, which likens Marduk to a father and mother and extolls him for caring for orphans and widows and those in distress. Lines 18–25 run:

18. The lord, you are like a father and mother, you exist in the mouths of people.
19. You are like the sun, you illuminate their darkness.
20. Daily, you establish justice for the wronged and oppressed.
21. You straighten out the orphans and widows, the wretched and the distressed.
24. You are merciful, O lord, in difficulties and adversity, you save the weak.
25. [You look] with favor on the tired and weary whose god punished him.

Similar themes are found in the Prayer to Marduk no. 2, and also in KAR 26 obv. 11–rev. 6, where Marduk is portrayed as the only hope of the orphans, the widows, and the childless.

Nevertheless, Marduk is commonly extolled as heroic warrior whose force is like a flood or a destroying wind (meḫu or imḫullu). While Marduk is associated with an entourage of Mischwesen (see VS 24, 97 and table on p. 203), he himself is called “the Ušumgallu-dragon of the great heavens” (AMT 93/3). The most lengthy description of Marduk as warrior in these texts is in STC 1, p. 205, lines 7–11:

7. [The ba]ttle line and warfare are in the hand of the sage of the gods, Marduk,
8. [At hi]s attack the heavens trembled,
9. At his roar, the Apsû became muddled,
10. At the blade of his weapon, the gods turned back,
11. Against his furious onslaught, there is no one who can stand up.

KAR 25 ii 3–26 also celebrates Marduk's fury in battle: “Your furious arrow is a [m]erci[less]
li[o]n/the honorable lord, the one who tramples all the enemies, the one who staves off battle.” This same text is also remarkable for calling Marduk's abstract qualities (e.g., sovereignty, lordship, understanding, strength, etc.) the names of other gods. So, for example, the incipit of this syncretistic hymn reads: “Sîn is your divinity, Anu is your sovereignty.” The text is of obvious importance for discussion of henotheism or monotheism in the ancient Near East. In this connection, note also the slightly weaker formulation in KAR 26 obv. 11–rev. 6, which states that the function of every other deity is reliant upon Marduk; without Marduk, neither the sun nor the moon would rise.

Quite often, Marduk's qualities of wrath and mercy accompany one another, and each is one part of a whole. This is clearly the case in Ug. V, no. 162, which may have been a source for similar dialectical characterization of YHWH in the Hebrew Bible (Job 5:18–19; Deut 32:39; Hos 6:1; Isa 30:26).[9] It is also evident in ABRT 1, p. 59, where Marduk is both the Ušumgallu-dragon of the heavens and the earth” and “the one who revives the dead.” It is, indeed, the very fact that Marduk is a warrior, a dragon, and a potentate, which gives him the ability to release supplicants from illness and demons. The opening lines of the incantation-prayer BMS 11 also capture this duality nicely: “Warrior, Marduk, he whose anger is a deluge, (But) his forgiveness is (that of) a merciful father.”

The volume concludes with a bibliography, a very useful listing of epithets of Marduk in Akkadian prayers, several indices, and a section of hand copies and plates of cuneiform texts. The book is unfortunately riddled with typographical errors, some of which are fairly egregious, and it contains confusing formulations which make it difficult to tell whether it the author's asserted position or if it is mere speculation. I am not convinced by the author's attempt to use this corpus to support his thesis that Marduk developed from destroyer to savior; it seems to me better to view these characteristics as matters of emphasis by supplicants with different needs. Even the corpus gathered here contains enough variety of characterizations over a long period of time to render it dubious. Nevertheless, Oshima has done both Assyriologists and biblical scholars a great service by gathering these texts together in new editions so that they can be studied with a view to answering the question which he himself poses: “What did the prayers composed in Akkadian as a whole signify to the ancient people?” (pp. 8–9).

Scott C. Jones, Covenant College

[1] Hymnen und Gebete an Marduk (Beiträge zur Assyriologie 5; Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1905); now reprinted in Analecta Gorgiana 105; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010. reference

[2] In the summary at the end of the chapter, however, Oshima emphasizes not the synonymity of the terms, but the difficulty of our perceiving differences between the terms which would likely have been self-evident to the ancients: “Probably, these terms indicated different purposes and usages of Akkadian prayers within the reality of the ancient world, but it is not always possible today to appreciate the exact semantic connection between some of the words and the notion of praying” (p. 37). reference

[3] “Einige altbab[ylonische] Beispiele zeigen M[arduk] in der Funktion als Beschwörungsgott…, die für M[arduk] wohl ursprünglich war…” (W. Sommerfeld, “Marduk A. I.” RlA 7 [1987–1990]: 368). See also Sommerfeld's monograph on the rise of Marduk (Der Aufstieg Marduks. Die Stellung Marduks in der babylonischen Religion des zweiten Jahrtausends v. Chr. [AOAT, 213; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1982]), as well as his brief essay in English, “The Rise of Marduk – Some Aspects of Divine Exaltation,” Sumer 41 (1985): 97–100. reference

[4] T. Abusch, “Marduk,” DDD (2d, rev. ed.; ed. K. van der Toorn et al.; Leiden and Boston: Brill; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 544. This article is the best brief discussion of Marduk and his rise of which I am aware. reference

[5] On the latter, see W. G. Lambert, “The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar I. A Turning Point in the History of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion,” in The Seed of Wisdom. Essays in Honour of T. J. Meek (ed. W. S. McCullough; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 3–13; and J. J. M. Roberts, “Nebuchadnezzar I's Elamite Crisis in Theological Perspective,” in Essays on the Ancient Near East in Memory of Jacob Joel Finkelstein (ed. M. de Jong Ellis; Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 19; Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1977), 83–87. reference

[6] Oshima, “The Babylonian God Marduk,” in The Babylonian World (ed. G. Leick; New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 348. reference

[7] A. Zgoll, “Der betende Mensch. Zur Anthropologie in Mesopotamien,” in Der Mensch im alten Israel. Neue Forschungen zur alttestamentlichen Anthropologie (ed. B. Janowski and K. Liess; HBS, 59; Freiburg im Breisgau, 2009), 124. See also p. 128 and similar language in prayers to Ištar in note 44. reference

[8] The imagery of resurrection from death in these prayers would have fit very nicely in Jon Levenson's treatment of similar imagery in biblical psalms in his Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel. The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven and London: Yale, 2006), 35–66. reference

[9] J. J. M. Roberts, “Job and the Israelite Religious Tradition,” ZAW 89 (1977), 109 n. 14. reference