From the Mari Archives

An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters

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Jack M. Sasson
  • University Park, PA: 
    , June
     454 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


On the face of it, this is a thorough collection of Old Babylonian Letters from the site of Mari in Syria translated into English. In the hands of a scholar of religion who knows how to frame the collection, this book brings to life players from the Old Babylonian period and how they negotiated the world, including, or especially, the divine. Jack Sasson has made this volume a significant resource for scholars of the ancient Near East, the Bible, and religion, especially those interested in ancient and polytheistic religions.

Sasson knows this topic well and so the texts are thoroughly translated and footnoted. He provides the briefest of introductions, but in those few pages provides key information to situate the texts and an outline and footnotes to lead anyone into more detail should they seek it. The book then provides translations of letters, with commentary situating either the characters or the form of the letter. Sasson categorizes the letters into chapters covering kingship, administration, warfare, society, religion, culture, and reflections.

Sasson takes seriously the role of these texts as letters written from one person to another. He addresses the issue of who wrote and why, nuancing such things as how diplomats and bureaucrats naturally inflect their reports (7). He even provides a list of the “Cast of Characters” (9).

The most obvious source of interest for scholars of religion is the chapter on religion. Since the Mesopotamians rarely engaged in theological reflection, this corpus is primarily a collection of how people dealt with religion in their daily lives. For example, the material included under the section “Pantheon” comes from a list of sacrifices that the newly enthroned Zimri-Lim made as he toured diverse shrines in Mari and its surroundings (235). Under “Paraphernalia,” one letter has a rather sarcastic King Samsu-Addu writing to his son. Clearly annoyed that his son is commissioning too many gods, he questions how he plans to feed them (250). A letter under “Devotion” has a writer suggesting to his wife that the ice (house) should be unsealed so the goddess, his wife, and another could drink from it as is needed (267).

Other chapters, though not dedicated to religion, nevertheless touch upon it because the boundary between religion and the world did not exist in antiquity. Under “Kingship” many letters address religious themes. The kings of Mari were never divinized, as was the case in other places in the ancient world, though supernatural qualities were associated with them (17). Of course, some of the letters where divine qualities were associated with the King also appear to fit nicely under “whining and scheming” (77).

At times Sasson overtly makes connections with biblical texts. Some references are to specific biblical books or passages that are similar, such as when a Mari author evokes the “ship of state” metaphor which Sasson connects to Jonah 1 (35). Other times the references are to biblical methodology, such as how to approach historical reconstructions based on fragmentary, unique, or single-witness data (8). In all cases, Sasson, as both an ancient Near Eastern specialist and a biblical scholar, is adept at building bridges between the two fields without overstepping what and where the connections between the two are.

Finally, Sasson’s choice of text and juxtaposition of texts and themes allows the ancient writers of these letters to be heard. From a sarcastic Samsu-Addu (above) to a daughter of Zimri-lim consecrated to a deity in Sippar demanding attention or affection (264), the voices of these ancient people spring to life on these pages. The texts are organized in a fashion that allows the reader to unpack various themes and every page surges with real people dealing with the issues of their day.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tammi J. Schneider is Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2018


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