Tyndale Bulletin 51. 2 (2000) 193-214. Innocent suffering in mesopotamia

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Tyndale Bulletin 51.2 (2000) 193-214.


Daniel P. Bricker


Recent discussion of Mesopotamian texts holds to the idea that theodicy is present in this literature. An examination of the material which takes into account the cultural and religious views prevalent at the time will call into question the validity of classifying certain documents as theodicy. This study will attempt to evaluate the application of the term theodicy to the pertinent literature recovered from Mesopotamia thus far.

I. Introduction: The Purpose of the Study

Studies of the literature from ancient Mesopotamia concerned with the idea of innocent suffering and theodicy have continued to hold to the notion that the concept of an innocent sufferer existed in ancient Mesopotamia. This is seen in the title that modern scholarship has bestowed on one of the documents1 as well as the pervasive view of scholars who discuss other documents that contain similar motifs and themes.

This study will examine the issue of innocent suffering in the literature of Mesopotamia to analyse the pertinent materials with respect to the concept of theodicy. Ancient Israel’s literature will be mentioned only in passing, but it is hoped that this study will shed light on that topic as it appears in the Old Testament.

Wolfram von Soden has listed four basic elements which must be present for the question of theodicy to be raised:

(1) a clear sense of right and wrong, so that a sufferer could reasonably claim to be suffering undeservedly;

(2) significant individual worth, so that personal suffering must be justified;

(3) minimal competition within the godhead or pantheon, so that suffering cannot be blamed on one deity due to human loyalty to another; and

(4) a limited view of judgement in the afterlife.2

If any of these four elements is absent, the tension which generally leads to a theodicy can be relieved. This is because the absence of any one of these components can negate or qualify the principle of equitable or just retribution. The presence of these four factors in any given situation may not answer the question of suffering but it allows the deity to be absolved of responsibility and therefore accusations of divine injustice are no longer appropriate.3 It is my contention that the texts from Mesopotamia do not contain theodicy in the modern sense.4 Gods or goddesses were rarely blamed for human suffering. Sin was virtually always seen as the cause of human suffering. Thus the issue of divine justice rarely surfaced in Mesopotamia.

II. The Mesopotamian Cultural and Religious Background

Mesopotamian deities were personifications of various aspects of reality,5 and guided the world according to their purposes and laws.6 They often displayed characteristics such as spite, lust and rage, and sometimes there was contention between various gods due to competing purposes. They were members of a ‘divine assembly’7 which sought to determine a common course. The interests of the gods ran roughly parallel to those of humanity, since humans were created for the purpose of serving the gods:

I shall compact blood, I shall cause bones to be,

I shall make stand a human being, let ‘Man’ be its name.

I shall create humankind,

They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.8

This view of humanity was more a reflection of their society than their theology:

In the Sumerian city-state,…the characteristic and most significant organization was the temple-estate, in which thousands of people co-operated in works of irrigation and agriculture in a politico-economic system centered on the temple, with all these people thought of as the servants of the god. The myth of the creation of man, therefore, was not basically a comment on the nature of man but an explanation of a particular social system, heavily dependent upon communal irrigation and agriculture, for which the god’s estates were primary foci of administration.9

The gods needed people to feed and care for them through the sacrifices and cult.

The lot in life for the average person was to be quiet,10 keep the land in good order and attend to the needs of the gods, yet the number of requests for divine intervention show that the purposes of the gods were not clearly discernible. The plans or principles which kept the cosmos running smoothly were designated by the Sumerian word ME, the exact meaning of which is still uncertain.11 These divinely ordained decrees covered over one hundred aspects of human life and civilisation, though many are still obscure in meaning due to the fragmentary nature of the texts where they are listed, translation problems, and the difficulty inherent in attempting to understand a culture that has not existed for over three thousand years.12 Thus individuals were concerned to live according to the divine order that regulated virtually all areas of life.13

For the ordinary human the more prominent deities seemed remote and unapproachable, thus the main focus in religion had to do with personal gods, who were seen as intercessors between a worshipper and the great gods.14 The personal god was closely involved with an individual’s success or failure, and was often viewed or addressed as a parent. Under this metaphor the god was seen in four ways: (1) the physical aspect (the father as engenderer of a child or the mother who gave birth), (2) the provider aspect, (3) the protector and intercessor, and (4) the claim parents have upon children for honour and obedience.15

The parental metaphor made the powers of the gods less threatening, and this ultimately led to the paradox of the righteous sufferer in Mesopotamian literature. The personal deities were often portrayed in a positive light, yet when misfortune came the only way of determining what offended a god was by divination or by trial-and-error.16 This is evident in dingir.à.dib.ba texts:

My god, I did not know how severe your punishment is.

I frivolously took a solemn oath in your name,

I profaned your decrees, I went too far,

I…. your mission in trouble,

I transgressed your way much,

I did not know, much .[…

My iniquities are many: I know not what I did.17

The last line shows both parts of the theological problem faced by a suffering person: the assumption of guilt and an ignorance of the offence.

To the Mesopotamians there was no sharp distinction between the care of the body and care of the soul, as opposed to modern societies in which religious faith and scientific medical practice are often viewed as mutually exclusive categories.18 Illness or misfortune often had mysterious causes. Speaking of debilitating illness, Brown says:

If one lost one’s health and vigor one became a burden to both family and society, apparently suffering from divine disfavor as well. Thus it was crucial that the deity’s favor be incurred and his or her help secured. To the ancient Near Eastern—and biblical!—mind, it was impossible to countenance a major god/God who did not heal.19

Another factor in the problem of suffering is that of the human element in healing, i.e. those who practised medicine. Magical arts and divination were the methods used to diagnose the cause of the illness. Appropriate incantations or other kinds of treatment were prescribed to alleviate the suffering by appeasing the offended deity. The two most frequent terms referring to those who practised the medical art were the  and .20 Treatment most often included herbs, plants, animal parts, etc., mixed with carriers such as beer, vinegar, honey, or tallow, and introduced into the patient’s body by means of ingestion, enema or suppository. Other treatments consisted of topical lotions or salves.21

Mesopotamian medicine shows a highly developed internal system which integrated folk-belief, cult ritual, and prescribed treatment.22 However, it shows change over time, with the  falling out of use in favour of the , so one should not expect to see both offices featured prominently in all medical texts.23

III. An Analysis of Pertinent Sumerian and Akkadian Literature

Directory: tynbul -> library
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 50. 2 (1999) 299-305. Angel of the lord: messenger or euphemism?
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 46. 1 (1995) 151-168. The Achaean Federal Cult Part I: pseudo-julian, letters 198 1
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 44. 2 (1993) 323-337. In search of the social elite in the corinthian church
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 51. 2 (2000) 285-294. The ‘new’ roman wife and 1 timothy 2: 9-15: the search for a sitz im leben
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 48. 2 (1997) 219-243. Dionysus against the Crucified: Nietzsche contra Christianity, Part 1
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 52. 1 (2001) 83-100. Innocent suffering in egypt
library -> The significance of god’s image in man gerald Bray Introduction
library -> Tyndale Bulletin 45. 2 (1994) 213-243. The epistle to the galatians and classical rhetoric: part 3
library -> Thetyndalehousebulleti n issued twice yearly by the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, Tyndale House, Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge

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