Whenever one teaches an introductory class an instructor almost always must simplify the material and the luxury of deep discussions upon debated subject matter are rarely possible.Â However, as we simplify material we must be careful that we do not distort it in the process.Â As I listened to a portion of Christine Hayes’ first lecture of her Old Testament course at Yale I found myself in strong disagreement with her characterization of ancient Near Eastern religion.Â For instance:
People regarded, umm, the various natural forces as imbued with divine power and as in some sense as divinities themselves.Â The earth was a divinity; the sky was a divinity; the water was a divinity–had divine power.Â In other words the gods were identical with or imminent in the forces of nature (this transcription is around minute 4:50 of the lecture).
Let me say at the outset that Hayes is a specialist in talmudic-midrashic studies and not ancient Near Eastern studies.Â I have taken one graduate class in rabbinics and if I had to give a lecture in the area of talmudic studies I would hope that people would cut me some slack. Â That said, I think that Hayes’ presentation is overly simplistic and misleading.
It is true that if you read Jacobsen’s work on Sumerian religion, The Treasures of Darkness, you might come away with an understanding similar to that of Hayes since Jacobsen does make a big deal over the etymological connections between the god names and the names for sky, water, air, etc.Â However, he locates this identification of the deities with nature only in the earliest period of Sumerian history and then proposes a kind of evolutionary progression of the religion toward abstract thoughts.
Furthermore, just because a word has the dinger sign (this is a “determinative” that provides a classification of a noun) in front of NA4 or ID2 it doesn’t automatically mean that the writer viewed stones or a river as a divine being.Â It may indicate that at one time people thought this, but forms and customs are often frozen and their use continues long after they loose their meaning.
Also, you can’t paint with a broad brush and say something like, “All Mesopotamians viewed the gods as natural objects or imminent in them.”Â I am sure that there were a good crop of atheists within the ancient Near East just as there are in our society today.Â Not everyone drank the kool-aid of what we think was the consensus religion within ancient societies.Â I read a humorous incident of this with Tom Palaima during my studies at the University of Texas Classics department in which youths were in very big trouble with the town elders because they went around one night and knocked off all the phalli of the Hermes figures at the major intersections.Â Do you think these youths had deep respect and fear of Hermes?
All of us are prone to over-simplification in our teaching and I’m sure that I have done it from time to time.Â However, we need to be aware of this tendency and try to present an accurate, if simplified, picture of the subjects we address.