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.  However, as we simplify material we must be careful that we do not distort it in the process.  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.  For instance:

People regarded, umm, the various natural forces as imbued with divine power and as in some sense as divinities themselves.  The earth was a divinity; the sky was a divinity; the water was a divinity–had divine power.  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.  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.   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.  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.  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.”  I am sure that there were a good crop of atheists within the ancient Near East just as there are in our society today.  Not everyone drank the kool-aid of what we think was the consensus religion within ancient societies.  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.  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.  However, we need to be aware of this tendency and try to present an accurate, if simplified, picture of the subjects we address.

About the author

Charles Halton

19 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. by Angela Erisman

    Charles, perhaps you might offer your readers a better alternative for accessing ideas about ancient Near Eastern religion than Jacobsen. What would be your “textbook” if you were teaching a course on this subject (ANE religion, I mean)? What would you have students read on ANE religion in the context of a course on Hebrew Bible? Just curious.

  2. by Kristine

    I happened to be a TA during the semester that this class was video taped. I also happen to be a ANE scholar. It should be pointed out that lots of what was said in lecture was beefed up in the weekly TA sessions. The lectures were meant as an introduction to the materials and the TA sections as a chance to expand upon various themes and topics that were presented in class. In addition, we TAs had regular meetings with Prof. Hayes, during which she was always very open to hearing comments and taking suggestions for bettering the class. All this to say, while it may seem that the materials come across as “simplified,” it must be remembered that this is an introductory course for undergraduates and that what is presented in the on-line format is only 1/2 of the class, not the whole picture.

  3. by Chris

    I’m not sure I would ever use the phrase “ANE religion,” even in an OT intro class. Despite some common features, IMO, Morton Smith went too far in speaking of a “common theology” of the ANE.

    If I had to choose one text per civilization for a class that had time to get into ANE religion, I would use Bottero for Mesopotamian religion, Del Olmo Lete for Syro-Palestinian religion (working in some Pardee and others), and either Hornung or Assmann for Egyptian religion. Then you would have to supplement for the less prominent civilizations.

  4. Kristine, thanks for providing added context to the class. It must have been quite fun to TA this class. I think Hayes is a very good teacher, it is always a challenge for every teacher to know how to condense material in the best way.

    Chris, these are very good suggestions. I might add Keel and Uehlinger’s Gods, Goddess, and Images of God in Ancient Israel to the mix.

    Angie, exploring ancient religion is a really difficult thing–I often think of Oppenheim’s tongue-in-cheek remark that presenting ancient religion is an impossible task. I think that the above mentioned texts are very good, but I am still not completely happy with them. For instance, most modern books approach works like the Baal Cycle or Enuma Elish as if these are genuine “religious texts.” I think that Herbet Brichto and others have well pointed out the humorous, satirical, and farcical nature of these myths. For instance, I think the Baal Cycle is more bawdy entertainment for a drunken celebration than it is a religious treatise. This is not to say that we can learn nothing about religious ideas from it, but we certainly need to treat it carefully and within its (hypothetical) context.

    Also, almost no treatment of ancient religion that I have read has explored the fact there there was a diversity within ancient religion and there there were likely “religious dissenters” who didn’t follow the “official” religious line.

    Maybe I’ll get around to writing on ancient religion some day. Until that happens, I think Chris’ suggestions are good with the addition of Keel and Uehlinger. Do you have any suggestions for texts Angie?

  5. by Alan Lenzi

    Re: Diversity:

    Van der Toorn’s Family Religion and Albertz’s History of Israelite Religion, among others, distinguish different levels of religion. By diversity, do you mean individual piety/practice or local distinctives? Something else?

  6. These books are good steps in the right direction, but for the most part they describe diversity in terms of broad sociological categories. I think this is valid, but I’d like to take it a step further. Local distinctives need to be taken into consideration as does individual piety and practice. I admit that it is very difficult for us to understand the attitudes of individuals, but we should at least add some more nuance to discussions. For instance, IMHO not every nude female terra cotta figurine should be assumed to be a “cultic image.” Why couldn’t they just have been seen as erotic images by many people?

    I guess I am reacting to what I perceive is an oversimplification of very complex human societies and individual belief structures. For a modern analogy, if someone 2000 years from now discovered a dollar bill with “In God We Trust,” a 10 Commandment plaque on the Alabama courthouse, lines in insurance documents that addressed “acts of God,” and people take oaths of office with their hand upon the Bible–historians might be quick to say that everyone in our culture was deeply religious within the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we depended upon God for maintaining our economy, that people feared God’s retribution if they lied in court or broke their vows of public service, etc. I think when it comes to human thoughts and religious attitudes it is more complicated than may have been previously acknowledged and we perceive ancient people as simpletons that were all naively religious. At times I think Oppenheim’s comments were less tongue-in-cheek than prophetic.

  7. by Alan Lenzi

    I hear you about the local distinctiveness and the need for greater complexity. But I think the real problem is adequate sources; we really need living informants to nuance things better. For example, individual religion or personal piety is often argued on the basis of proper names. That’s all well and good, but can we really be sure that “piety,” however one is supposed to define that, was the motivating factor behind the name-giving?

    By the way, I just got a copy of the old book by Rainer Albertz, Persönliche Frömmigkeit und offizielle Religion today. I recall van der Toorn referring back to it in his Family Religion, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he thinks on a few matters. I can already see that he uses personal names as evidence. But, for my purposes, I’m really mainly interested in his take on individual laments. I have a comparative theory I’m going to be working on for the rest of this year (alongside about three other projects!)

    BTW, I’m not sure Oppenheim was “tongue and cheek.” It’s been awhile since I read it, but he seemed pretty straight forward on the issue.

  8. Alan, I totally agree with you–the sources are frustratingly just not there to enable us to get a fuller picture.

    Oppenheim’s quote (even italicized subject heading!) itself is straightforward enough, but then right after that he goes on to talk about Mesopotamian religion. Also, David Weisberg, who worked with Oppenheim on the CAD, said that he meant this tongue-in-cheek.

    Oppenheim has a really interesting statement that also lies behind some of my thoughts on this issue. I mentioned a couple of comments ago that I don’t think texts like the Baal Cycle should be viewed as serious religious texts. Here’s Oppenheim’s thoughts concerning Gilgamesh Epic, the Epic of Creation, and the like:

    “All these works which we are wont to call mythological should be studied by the literary critic rather than by the historian of religion” (Ancient Mesopotamia, 177).

  9. by Alan Lenzi

    Yes, I think we all noticed that he was talking about religion a lot for someone who said a history shouldn’t be written. So, the “author’s intent” was to be tongue in cheek. Interesting.

    Neal Walls’ book, Desire, Discord, and Death, is a good example of the appropriation of literary criticism for mythological interpretation. But, I don’t think history of religion and literary criticism are incompatible. It’s hard to resist seeing something more than a story, for example, in the Enuma Elish when we have copies with Ashur instead of Marduk as the hero! Of course, politics need to be mixed in as well. Things can get really messy since our nice neat categories don’t work so well in Mesopotamia. Things start to look like my plate when I was kid eating Sunday lunch: mashed potatoes, roast beef, green beans, corn, and bread all mixed together with gravy over the top.

    Geez, I’m hungry.

  10. Pingback: biblicalia » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival XXVI

  11. by Sherri

    Hi Christina,

    What are your thoughts on Ralph Ellis’s book.. Cleopatra, great grandmother to Jesus? Also, the book Jezebel by Lesley Hazleton?

    Thank you

  12. by Stanley N. Rosenbaum

    You might also want to look at Understanding Biblical Israe” A Re-examination of the Origins of Monotheism (Mercer UP, 2002), by

    Stanley Ned Rosenbaum!

  13. by Joseph Lemm

    All these reading suggestions show why it is pretty much impossible to synthesize and do justice to all the lacunary complexity of the issue in a few sentences in an introductory course. Prof. Hayes did what she could and relied on the TA section to add some nuance.

    (btw, it’s “immanent”, not “imminent”)

  14. by Tims Quinn

    How the hell is a layman interested in becoming more conversant with the history of The Hebrew Bible as introduced by Dr. Hayes in her introductory online course supposed to proceed? I was smitten with her knowledge, intellectual power, and ability to communicate clearly and swiftly. Having read the fibers in the foregoing thread, I’ve had my initial exuberance eviscerated, my remaining enthusiasm for attacking the course lectures and readings lummoxed, the center of gravity of my spirit for the attack exorcised to the shaking point of perturbation. Should I cancel my Abe’s Books order for The Jewish Study Bible, and the anthology edited by Dr. Pritchard Professor Hayes recommended for the course?

    • Hey Tim,
      I’d keep your order intact and just proceed in your study. Sometimes academics, including myself, can be pedantic at times.

  15. by chester baran

    i am a retired steelworker and i consider the lectures to be a skeleton key to readings in the old testament. my own readings, my schooling, church affiliated classes and ‘the teaching company’ don’t approach the breadth and the clarity of prof hayes lectures. even if you take exception to some of the content of her lectures, you have to appreciate her articulation and delivery. her lectures provide a neutral site to inform literalist interpreters and literalist bashers of the old testament.

  16. by Robert Williams

    I am more than pleased to have stumbled upon this site, and that of Dr. Christine Hayes (Yale Open Courses, Old Testament Introduction).

    Dr. Hayes is not merely a fine professor, she is an extrordinary gifted professor–one that comes along once in a generation. And as a water lillie, surrounded by water and other vegetation, Dr. Hayes has raised her head and become one of the greatest scholars of all time.

    Though I, and some others may have a queston with a component or two of Dr. Hayes’ Old Testament Introduction presentation, this in no way should diminish our respect for her. She is most captivating, exceptionally intelligent (with an abundance of wisdom), and possesses an efficiency and effectiveness in communicating that is rarely seen and heard.

  17. by Robert Williams

    Dr. Christine Hayes is an extrodinary professor. Her lectures in Old Testament Introduction have been most rewarding. The lectures are broad based, each covering an extrodinary amount of material over a short period of time.

    The many resources that Dr. Hayes used prompted me to consider them first, before considering any opposing view.

    My life has been greatly enriched through Dr. Christine Hayes
    scholarly presentation of Old Testament Introduction.

  18. by Dwight Davis

    Dr. Christine Hayes is an excellent teacher. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything she punctuates or repeats, but she is certainly engaging and she intelligently constructs her lectures. Her online introductory course has re-challenged me to dig deeper, especially from the sources she quotes from. I think it’s great that Yale made this course available online for those of us who did not have the fortunate circumstances to attend seminary or Yale specifically. I wish more scholars would pay as much attention to their teaching skills as she has.

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