Ben Dov – Haaretz article on influence of Mesopotamian Texts and Images on the Watcher Myth

Since my last post on Jonathan Ben-Dov’s theory that Mesopotamian texts and images influenced the composition of the Watcher myth, Jim Davila noted Ben-Dov’s Haaretz article on the same topic, “Turning to the angels to save Jewish mythology” (18 October 2013).

I’ve found that the article is available in full at this url.

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.

Aramaic writings thus preserved a historical memory of Mesopotamian kings in two ways. While the more direct channel was expressed in the legends of the Book of Daniel, the second, more oblique, channel came by means of the myth of the Watchers, transmitted mainly in the book of Enoch. Here, the ancient angels were portrayed as mythological giants, judging by their artistic representation on the rock reliefs.

In particular, Ben-Dov finds that the type of images found at the site of Brisa, in Lebanon, may have influenced some of the elements of the Watcher tradition:

Yet another confirmation of the connection with Lebanon is an additional, common motif in the literature of the watchers, one that until now was not completely understood. These books often describe dreams, all of which include a scene of a forest, usually of cedars, which is either cut down or destroyed by flood or fire. Such scenes appear repeatedly: In the Book of Giants ‏(also an Aramaic text from Qumran, with its own surprising transmission history‏), in Daniel 4 and in an Aramaic midrash (apocryphon) on Genesis from Qumran. The ancient authors repeatedly invoke the forest scene, always in a dream account. Particular attention should be given in this regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s stone engravings and reliefs from the site of Brisa in the northern Lebanon valley. Although the reliefs were discovered as early as the mid-19th century, they were not properly documented until recently. This turned out to be most unfortunate, since in subsequent years the reliefs were repeatedly damaged.

When they were photographed and published in 1906, the ensuing assyriological research dealt mainly with the text of the rock inscriptions from Brisa rather than with the reliefs. Recently, Catalonian scholar Rocio Da Riva returned to Lebanon and discovered that the reliefs had suffered heavy damage from shooting, so that almost nothing remains of them today. Nonetheless, she was able to improve on the reading of the inscriptions.

These are large monuments, each one approximately 2.5 meters in height. On one relief, Nebuchadnezzar is described fighting a lion, and opposite it, on the opposite cliff of the riverbed, Nebuchadnezzar is seen standing in solemn pose, next to a large tree with multiple branches. The tree is erect and bare, as though created to fulfill its role in the eyes of Babylonian kings: to provide wooden beams for the temples in Mesopotamia. The tree bears no fruit, nor does it offer shade. The cuneiform inscriptions were not understood already in Antiquity, while it was the image alone that remained to work its effect on the collective memory.

The figure of the giant standing next to the tree threatening to cut it down comprises a frequent scene in generations of literature on the Watchers, such as Daniel 4:10-11 and in the Book of Giants. While the Aramaic source of the latter was preserved only partially, translations of it survived until the medieval period in various sundry versions, from Hebrew to Turkish. In the Hebrew version preserved in Midrash Bereisheet Rabati ‏(Provence, 11th century‏), we read the dreams of two giants. Quite surprisingly, the content of the dreams in this midrash gives a very reliable description of one of the Brisa inscriptions. The text is as follows: “ These two sons of Shemhazai, Hiwwa and Hiyya by name, dreamed dreams. The one saw a great stone which covered the earth, and the earth was marked all over with lines upon lines of writing. An angel came, and with a knife obliterated all the lines, leaving but four letters upon the stone. The other son saw a large pleasure grove planted with all sorts of trees. But angels approached bearing axes, and they felled the trees, sparing a single one with three of its branches.

In the first dream, the rock is covered with many rows of writing, as the angel descends with a knife in hand to erase them. The second dream draws a scene in a forest, with the angel descending with an ax to cut down its trees, until only one remains.

In the Brisa relief, the middle of the figure had already been destroyed in 1906, and therefore there is no way of knowing whether or not the king carried an ax ‏(the text in fact reports that Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees with his “pure” hands, rather than an ax‏). There is no certainty as to whether the Aramaic text describes this particular inscription or similar inscriptions in Lebanon, but the resemblance is nonetheless quite strking.

Two things become clear, in any case: first, that the Aramaic authors cite the stone engravings and convey them in the form of a dream, for that is their way of giving epistemological validity to the mysterious reliefs. And second, the reliefs were interpreted as a message of divine punishment, represented by the erasure of the writing and the chopping down of trees. The relief in which the king is fighting a lion ‏(which also appears at another site in Lebanon, outside of Brisa‏), is also echoed in the Watchers tradition: both in a description of the violence of the watchers against wild animals (1 Enoch 7: 5, cp. Habukkuk 2: 17‏), and in Daniel 4:12-13, where the king is expelled from the shelter of the tree and sent to confront wild animals.

Read the full article here.

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