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January 9, 2014
Stephen Colbert and a Fun Guide to Comparative Study of the Ancient Near East
January 9, 2014
The Bible, of course, did not just drop out of the sky. It was written in a culture, at a certain time and place. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and to some extent Persian and Greek cultures form the milieu of ideas, discourses, concepts, practices, politics, and religions in the Hebrew Bible. On the ANE page of Noah's Flood, one is invited to compare the Mesopotamian flood myths with the biblical story.
In a great segment called "Mysteries of the Ancient Unknown: Yo Mama Jokes," Stephen Colbert has a good time with a recently discovered Mesopotamian text. Inadvertantly, he also happens to showcase several issues that frequently emerge when doing comparative work. Why not use Stephen Colbert as our muse to guide us into the joys of studying ANE literature. (Watch the video; points listed in order.)
(1) Mesopotamian literature is delightful in its own right.
Stephen starts with the Mesopotamian 'joke' about the murderous governor. A good laugh. One need not cite its relationship to the Bible to find meaning in an ancient culture. This might be obvious to some. But students of the Bible can risk devaluing Mesopotamian culture, humor, insight, and wisdom. These texts and cultures survived for over 1,000 years in some cases. That's a lot of ancestors.
(2) Modern readers frequently provide anachronistic readings of ancient texts.
Stephen's "by the way, the Fertile Crescent, the most common punch line in ancient Babylonia" is funny...to us. It is important to remember, when trying to illuminate the culture of ancient texts, that cultures of humor differ widely. Puns almost never translate. Also, the Babylonians did not speak English.
(3) Ancient literature is hard to decipher.
It goes without saying that literature millenia of years old is subejct to wear and tear. Papyrus, parchment, stone, clay, and even metal deteriorates, making philological work difficult. Broken lines of text are common. Most publications of ancient texts, if they are honest, are filled with  and (). Be patient, and be glad you even have this much access to something so remarkably ancient!
(4) Reading comparative literature often sheds light on unseen issues in the biblical text.
When Stephen makes fun of the Yo Mama joke in Genesis 4:8, quoting fabricated text, he is actually engaging in a complex interpretive project. Biblical literature is sparse. One rarely encounters adjectives, we seldom know the inner thoughts of characters, motiation is difficult to discern, and plots are relayed with extreme brevity. There are numerous artful narrative devices to be enjoyed in biblical literature, as Robert Alter most famously demonstrates. But by and large, modern readers will find the narration curt.
Numerous questions must be answered through inference, and a seasoned reader will begin to note what some call "gaps" in the text. (See Ron Veenker's essay on one such gap). In Genesis 4:8, Stephen seized upon a gap: Why does Cain kill Abel? Commentators usually dwell on the details of their agricultural vs. hunter-gatherer sacrifices and God's responses to them. However, Stephen uses a comparative text to 'imagine' a culture of Yo-Mama jokes to help explain a biblical gap: 'Cain was mad that Abel told a Yo-Mama joke.'
Stephen would not be happy to hear as much, but this is actually a very bad use of the comparative method. First of all, why would Cain incite with a joke that was about his own mother? Second, there is nothing in the text to suggest that a joke transpired between the two. Without any cue from the text, any old explanation is as good as another. Why not say they were arguing about whether Darren Aronofsky should retain final editorial say for the Noah film? Stephen's proposal has the merit of relative geographical and chronological proximity to Israelite culture, but numerous other ANE explanations could equally fill in the gap.
Despite these criticisms, Stephen has helped us to see a gap in the bibilcal text, and shed light on a way we might go about 'filling' it with information from ANE culture.
(5) Not everything really happened. [to be continued...]
Finally, all of us can bebefit from calling our work, "Award Awaiting." Perhaps such hopes will prompt us on in our quest to read, write, and understand. ....AW SNAP!