Has Michael Coogan Seized His Opportunity? – By Charles Halton

Charles Halton on Michael Coogan’s A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Michael D. Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Sources for the study of the Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2012. 240 pp. $29.95.

The first literary anthology appeared no later than the Hellenistic period twenty one centuries ago and the genre remains popular today. Anthologies provide readers with convenient access to documents that would otherwise remain obscure or even inaccessible. Collections of ancient texts orient contemporary readers to worlds that are culturally, temporally, and geographically distant from our own. More importantly, modern anthologies of ancient texts are translations of stories whose languages are known only to a few specialists. These resources expand our knowledge of the human experience by introducing readers to the ways in which ancient peoples viewed the world and went about out their daily lives.

For more than a decade professors have been able to choose between several one volume anthologies that present translations of ancient Near Eastern texts to their students in Hebrew Bible classes. Bill Arnold and Bryan Beyer published Readings from the Ancient Near East in 2002 and the third edition of Don Benjamin and Victor Matthew’s Old Testament Parallels appeared in 2006. In 2010, Princeton University Press released a one volume abridgment of Pritchard’s venerable Ancient Near Eastern Texts which included a new foreword by Daniel Fleming. Each of these books presents a selection of texts from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant with short introductions and other interpretive aids such as cross references to biblical passages. Various genres of writing are also included  – from myths to epics to laws to inscriptions.

There is also the three volume Context of Scripture which presents a greater number of texts (at a greater cost as well) from each genre and culture as well as more in depth introductions and topical essays. Other anthologies focus upon specific cultures or genres. For instance, Ben Foster’s Before the Muses and Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia treat Akkadian material; Miriam Lichtheim masterfully translated Egyptian literature in a three volume series, Ancient Egyptian Literature; Shmuel Aḥituv assembled ancient Hebrew and cognate inscriptions in Echoes from the Past; and the Society for Biblical Literature’s Writings from the Ancient World series is currently twenty-eight volumes with more on the way. And these titles only scratch the surface. Certainly, not all of these make suitable supplementary textbooks for introductory students but many of them do.

Within this crowded landscape, why did Oxford University Press add another title to this list with Michael Coogan’s A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts? As with many decisions, lucre likely played a role. After all, Coogan authored one of the best selling Old Testament textbooks on the market and it makes for a natural brand extension to offer a reader to go along with it (especially if in the future the textbook is reworked into a third edition which integrates assignments from the reader). But is there a reason for this book beyond economics?

There is a more or less standard corpus of texts that is included in all of the anthologies currently on the market – such as, tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Mesha Stele – and of course Coogan includes these. It is standard practice for these anthologies to select portions from longer ancient texts, like the Gilgamesh Epic, instead of publishing them in their entirety. Like almost every other anthologist, Coogan follows in this train. For instance, he omits the fifty names of Marduk at the end of the so-called ‘Babylonian Creation Epic’, Enuma Elish. To his credit, in the introduction to this account Coogan rightly points out that this story is primarily about the rise of Marduk within the Babylonian pantheon and not about the creation of the world per se. Yet, he leaves out the very pinnacle to which the story builds – Marduk assimilating the fifty names and identities of other deities. While it might be tedious for modern students to read through this list, it is the apex of the story and provides a crucial window into the nature of ancient literature which valued and celebrated the recitation of lists such as this. Furthermore, understanding how the fifty names are used within Enuma Elish would help readers of the Old Testament better understand the many instances in which the biblical authors included lists in their accounts. Coogan missed this opportunity to distinguish his anthology from the other available offerings.

Furthermore, Coogan did not include several ancient texts that would have enhanced this book. Adapa and the South Wind was a prominent story within the ancient stream of tradition to which Mesopotamian prophets alluded (one of the first scholars to notice this was Moshe Anbar) and the story was reshaped within a Hellenistic context into Berossus’ Babyloniaca. Its inclusion in the reader would have given students a better position from which to read the account of Adam and Eve as well as biblical wisdom literature (Adapa is included in Fleming’s reissue of ANET). Coogan includes the Laws of Hammurapi and Hittite laws. Most of the other anthologies also include the Laws of Eshnunna and the Laws of Ur-Nammu since they are some of the earliest extant law collections. If the decision to leave out these two law collections was made on the basis of space, Coogan could have made room by omitting a couple of the nine treaties that he includes. These treaties are formulaic and I wonder why readers need to be exposed to nine of them. Coogan also presents thirteen hymns and prayers but the ‘Prayer to Any God’ (pages 447-464 in Reading Akkadian Hymns and Prayers), which is one of the most fascinating and theologically thought provoking of any Mesopotamian prayer, is not among them (this prayer is in the original ANET but, unfortunately, not in Fleming’s reissue). Lastly, Alasdair Livingstone provides a new collation and translation (Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 97 [2007]: 98-118) of a letter between two royal daughters within Ashurbanipal’s palace that implies an expectation that royal daughters be literate. This is a particularly fascinating text at the nexus of literacy, gender, and the royal household and would be a very relevant cognate text for considering these topics in relation to the Bible.

For the most part, Coogan has gathered together translations of other scholars which have appeared in print before and only on occasion does he translate a text himself. No doubt translation is an art and we could quibble here and there, but most renderings in this book follow well-worn paths. The translations are clear but cautious, readable but bland. Their conservative nature results in a lack of some of the literary quality that characterizes Pritchard’s ANET. For example, this section of the Baal cycle was translated by Coogan and Mark Smith (p. 22):

As soon as El saw her,
his brow relaxed and he laughed;
he put his feet on a stool,
his fingers twirled with excitement.
He raised his voice and declared:
“Why has Lady Asherah of the Sea arrived?
why has the Mother of the Gods come?
Are you hungry…
or thirsty…?
Eat, please drink:
eat some food from the table,
drink some wine from the goblet,
blood of the vine from the golden cup.

This translation is accurate and easily accessible but it also sounds rather pedestrian when compared to H.L. Ginsberg’s reading in ANET (p. 117):

As soon as El espies her,
He parts his jaws and laughs
His feet upon the footstool he puts
And doth twiddle his fingers.
He lifts up his voice and [cri]es:
‘Why is come Lady Asher[ah of the S]ea?
Why hither the Progenitress of the G[ods]?
Art thou become thirsty and pa[rched]?
Eat, pray, yea drink.
Ea[t] thou from the tables bread;
Drink from the flagons wine,
From the golden gob<lets> blood of vines’.

The Baal Cycle is a larger than life tale and its ancient readers likely read it as such. When translators render epics like this in immediately accessible, common vernaculars they inescapably fail to translate aspects of how these stories were received and preserved. These were and are grand, expressive stories; encountering the Baal cycle should feel different from reading legal texts or proverbs. I didn’t get this sense reading from Coogan.

One last point about the translations: Coogan does not include line numbers which will make things like class discussions and citations a bit more cumbersome. Locating a particular clause within a composition will often mean having to count the number of lines from the top of the page. It is not unusual for anthologies to lack line numbers – Arnold and Beyer do not include them while ANET does – but they are helpful.

One advantage that Coogan has over every other anthology is that he was able to include newly discovered texts since his reader is the most recently published. This means that Coogan’s is the only reader which includes the Kutamuwa (Coogan reads Kuttamuwa) funerary inscription from Samal (discovered in 2008) and the Tell Fekheriye inscription (discovered in 1979 but not included in Arnold and Beyer), among others. Yet even here there are problems. Coogan seems to have translated the Kutamuwa inscription himself because there is no footnote or credit indicating otherwise. His translation departs quite significantly from that of Dennis Pardee, who published the first edition of this text ‘A New Aramaic Inscription from Zincirli’BASOR 356 [2009]: 51-71). Coogan conflates ly (line 1), lnbšy (line 5), and lnbšy (line 11) in his translation, rendering each as ‘for myself’. Not only is this clumsy since it identically translates very different constructions, it also obscures the most significant aspect of this inscription for biblical interpretation. According to Pardee, nbš is related to the Hebrew noun nepeš (‘life, soul’) and, accordingly, in the first edition this word is translated as ‘soul’. Pardee supported his translation by pointing out that apparently Kutamuwa believes his npš will remain living in the stela even after his death. This may imply that the author of this inscription saw a distinction between body and soul. If this translation is correct it is fantastically important for the study of ancient perceptions of anthropology since it is the only extra-biblical, West-Semitic text that indicates this kind of body/soul division.

Coogan seems to disagree with this approach since he translates npš as ‘myself’ instead of going with Pardee’s rendering of ‘soul’. On its face this is fine – scholars are free to disagree with one another. However, Coogan does not discuss this topic in the introduction to this text. He does have a footnote that accompanies his translation of lnbšy in line 5 (there are no footnotes for lnbšy in line 11 so readers of his translation will probably mistakenly assume that ‘myself’ in lines 1, 5, and 11 all translate the same word). The footnote reads: ‘Others take this word (nbš; cf. Heb. npš) to mean “soul”; it can also mean “monument”’ (n. 6, p. 158). This note is marginally helpful to introductory readers but most undergraduates will not read the footnote, much less connect the dots to understand its impact on this debate. (As an aside, it seems that Coogan follows David Hawkins’ understanding of nbš as calqued on Luwian *atari– (‘self, being’) if the meaning of atari– is extended to ‘image’; yet, other Luwian scholars do not follow this reading [see Ilya Yakubovich, ‘Nugae Luvicae’, p. 196] and there is no evidence that the Kutamuwa inscription was directly modeled on Luwian discourse or genres [see Seth Sanders, ‘Naming the Dead: Monumental Writing and Mortuary Politics in Late Iron Age Anatolia and Judah’, forthcoming]). It would have been far more helpful if Coogan briefly discussed this topic in the text’s introduction, particularly because this debate is the very reason why this inscription should be added to a collection of cognate texts for students of the Bible.

Lastly, in addition to translations Coogan also includes twelve pictures, one at the beginning of each chapter, which were thoughtfully chosen and illustrate an important concept that relates to texts within the respective chapters. For instance, this picture of a sealed document from Elephantine appears at the start of chapter 5, ‘Letters’, and beautifully illustrates the use of seals and bullae.

Now it is time to return to the question that began this reflection: is there a reason, apart from an economic incentive, for the publication of another anthology of ancient Near Eastern texts for students of the Bible? Since there are at least several recently discovered texts that contribute to biblical and ancient studies in substantial ways I think the answer to this question is yes. In light of the deficiencies of Coogan’s reader, however, I do not think this volume sufficiently capitalizes on this opportunity. In my view, Fleming’s edition of ANET remains the best choice among one-volume anthologies. Nevertheless, the layout of the text in Coogan’s reader is clean and double-columned (in contrast to the single-columned ANET), facilitating quicker reading, the price is very reasonable at $30, the illustrations are thoughtfully selected and presented, and it includes newly discovered texts. For Coogan to offer something truly better than the other anthologies on the market, he would need to include unabridged translations that have more verve and the introductions need to introduce more meaningfully and clearly the significance of the individual texts for students of biblical studies.

OUP and Coogan should go back to the drawing board and rework the anthology for a second edition. If they also produced a third edition of Coogan’s Old Testament textbook, they should integrate reading assignments from the new anthology and offer these two books as a package. This would be very compelling to professors and deepen the learning experience of thousands of students.