C. G. Frechett, Mesopotamian Ritual-prayers of “Hand-lifting” (Akkadian šuillas): An Investigation of Function in Light of the Idiomatic Meaning of the Rubric

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Frechett, Christopher G., Mesopotamian Ritual-prayers of “Hand-lifting” (Akkadian šuillas): An Investigation of Function in Light of the Idiomatic Meaning of the Rubric (AOAT, 379; Münster: Ugarit Verlag, 2012). Pp. xxi + 316. Hardcover. US$109.00. ISBN 978-3-86835-046-3.

In this thorough and convincing study, Christopher Frechette argues for an interpretation of the “šuilla” rubric in collections of Akkadian prayers that moves away from the claim that šuilla terminology designates a particular form of prayer. Instead, he focuses on the ritual context that šuilla terms imply, which has at its heart a formal gesture of salutation or greeting to a superior. This monograph should be of interest to biblical scholars because šuilla prayers have often been used as a point of reference in the study of the Psalms.

The word šuilla is a transcription of Sumerian šu.íl.la (2) and means “lifting of the hands” or “hand-lifting.” As a rubric it marks about 110 Akkadian prayers used by the incantation priest/exorcist called an āšipu. The same rubric is also attached to 23 prayers sung by cult singers (kalû) and five prayers used in the “washing of the mouth” ritual. Frechette's approach allows him to avoid previous impasses created by classifying the šuilla as a form of prayer, because it is well-known that there are Akkadian prayers which resemble the šuilla but do not have this designation. He addresses this situation by pointing to the ritual context implied by šuilla terminology. What is characteristic of the šuilla is the formal greeting ritual which the rubric “lifting of the hand” signifies. By focusing on the act of formal greeting, these prayers offer the hope of gaining a favorable relationship with a deity and the anticipation of divine assistance to a person in need. By communicating the superior status and power of the god as well as the loyalty of the suppliant, they express a commitment to a quality of mutual relationship that ensures help in a time of personal distress. In other words, what typifies the šuilla is the attention it places on the ritual context in which petitionary prayer takes place. Its distinctiveness from similar Akkadian prayers, therefore, is a matter of emphasis.

Accompanied by offerings, as well as gestures and words, the šuilla typically addresses a single deity. This tactic reinforces the dynamic of reciprocal exchange implicated in the ritual of formally greeting a superior by a subordinate. While some rituals were limited to the use of šuilla prayers, Frechette explains the functions of these prayers within a number of religious contexts including purification rituals, rituals to ward off bad omens, dream rituals, anti-witchcraft rituals, and the substitution ritual. In each case the prayers designated by the šuilla rubric support the main purpose of the ritual by emphasizing rites of greeting that might gain the favor of an important deity.

Frechette's book makes a significant contribution to the study of Akkadian prayer and ritual. However, I will leave it to Assyriologists to comment on the various nuances of his arguments. My interest here is to indicate the value of his work for biblical scholarship. For that purpose I will focus on three issues: its importance for identifying Mesopotamian parallels to individual lament, discussions about audience identification in form criticism of the Psalms, and reconstruction of the ritual context of biblical prayer.

Previous generations of biblical scholars often looked to šuilla prayers for a comparative base by which to assess both the form and theology of the individual lament. A conventional conclusion was that this comparison showed Mesopotamian piety in a rather compromised light, as its suppliants or petitioners had to engage in lengthy praise of the deity prior to making their needs known. Recent studies, however, suggest that this comparison is ill-conceived as it overlooks a genre of prayer to the personal god in Mesopotamia that reflects the brief form of address used in psalms of individual lament.[1] But even in the case where the relevance of the šuilla to the study of biblical lament might be called into question, the virtue of Frechette's work is that it provides an up-to-date study of the Akkadian evidence needed to make such a judgment.

One of Frechette's significant contributions lies in the sophistication of his approach to matters of form and literary classification. Attention to the nature of the audience being addressed in the psalms and analysis of psalmic arguments as forms of rhetoric are finding expression in recent scholarship.[2] In this regard, Frechette is to be complimented on his interest to describe the šuilla in terms of ritual context and the rhetorical strategies implied by its emphasis on the greeting gesture. One might ask, however, whether the emphasis on ritual acts of subordination to the god also had implications for the human audience or other participants in some of the contexts where šuilla prayers were used. It is possible that such actions were also meant to communicate the petitioner's faithfulness to a community of erstwhile supporters who may have been inclined to believe that the suppliant has brought on his misfortunes because of infidelity or wrong-doing. Similar dynamics can be observed in psalms of lament.[3]

Frechette's volume should encourage studies interested in reconstructing the ritual context for the articulation of biblical laments. The value of Akkadian prayers for this purpose has, of course, been noted in previous biblical scholarship. But the emphasis placed on formal expressions of greeting in this study is a helpful supplement to various notices in the psalms that indicate the importance of physical gestures in prayer. Much of this evidence has been collected in Keel's magisterial study of ancient Near Eastern iconography and its relevance to the psalms. [4] Frechette's work supplements Keel in terms of what one can know about physical gestures in prayer from Akkadian sources. By the same token, it underscores the fact that biblical prayer was accompanied by non-verbal signs and practices. It would be useful to integrate Frechette's work in this area with the various indications of physical posture and gesture found in the psalms.

In conclusion, Frechette's study offers a rich and thoughtful analysis of an important variety of Akkadian prayer that has long been of interest to biblical scholars. It promises to become the standard work on the šuilla in English. There is much here to ponder for students of the psalms as well as for Assyriologists. This book deserves the careful attention of both.

William Morrow, Queen's University

[1] See Alan Lenzi, “Invoking the God: Interpreting Invocations in Mesopotamian Prayers and Biblical Laments of the Individual,” JBL 129 (2010), 303–15; Anna Elise Zernecke, “Vain Flattery versus Trusting Confidence? Akkadian Prayers of the Lifting of the Hand and Biblical Psalms of Individual Lament,” in Hermann Michael Niemann and Matthias Augustin (eds.), “My Spirit at Rest in; the North Country” (Zechariah 6.8): Collected Communications to the XXth Congress of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament, Helsinki 2010 (BEATAJ, 57; Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 183–92. reference

[2] Derek Suderman, “Are Individual Complaint Psalms Really Prayers? Recognizing Social Address as Characteristic of Individual Complaints,” in Randall Heskett and Brian Irwin (eds.), The Bible as a Human Witness to Divine Revelation (LHBOTS, 469; London/New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 153–70; Davida Charney, “Keeping the Faithful: Persuasive Strategies in Psalms 4 and 62,” JHS 12 (2012), article 16, online: http://www.jhsonline.org/jhs-article.html. reference

[3] William S. Morrow, Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006), 53–4. reference

[4] Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 308–23. reference