The Kirta Epic

JOB 1 In 1930 excavators at Ras Shamra discovered the fragments of an epic poem among the writings of Ugarit.2,3 The text, called Kirta (or Keret) after the name of its hero, is sometimes compared to the story of Job or to that of David.There are similarities, but we are wise to exercise caution not to make too much of these correlations.

The poem depicts Kirta as a king who loses all of his wives and children to various disasters. He weeps bitterly, but in a dream the god El tells him what to do: He must make a sacrifice to El and then lead his army in an assault on the city of Udmu. He complies, with the result that Pabil, king of Udmu, submits to Kirta and allows him to take his daughter Hurraya as his wife. Hurraya bears Kirta many children, after which he falls seriously ill, apparently because of a failure to keep a vow to the goddess Ashera. Hurraya proceeds to prepare a banquet to mourn her husband's grave condition, and his son Iluhau and daughter Thitmanatu especially grieve the prospect of his death. El then fashions a female healer, who restores Kirta's health. After this, however, another of Kirta's sons,Yassubu, declares that Kirta is no longer fit to reign and asks him to abdicate so that he, Yassubu, may take his place. The tale ends somewhat inconclusively, with Kirta cursing Yassubu.

The Epic of Kirta at least superficially recalls the story of Job: It portrays a hero who loses his children (Job 1) and his health (ch. 2) but who also moves toward restoration (ch. 42). And the rebellion of Yassubu recalls Absalom's attempt to usurp the throne (2Sa 15-18) in the story of David. Even so, the differences between Kirta and the Biblical narratives are enormous, and we can hardly suggest that either Scriptural account may have been derived from Kirta. Even the similarities are apparently coincidental:The account of Absalom's rebellion, for example, has nothing in common with that of Yassubu beyond the fact that both concern a son who desires to overthrow his father (hardly an unusual theme in ancient monarchical societies).While Kirta is a pagan tale of myth and magic that follows the ups and downs in the career of its hero, the Biblical texts focus on the repercussions of human behavior and the theological problem of evil. Job in particular wrestles with the questions of justice, suffering and divine involvement in the world on a profound level, while Kirta does none of this.

The Potsherd: Pottery in the Bible

JOB 2 Job, his body covered with boils, sat in an ash heap seeking to relieve his pain through a counterirritant—scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery (Job 2:7-8). Earthenware vessels, used for storing, cooking and serving food and for shipping commodities, were the common containers during antiquity. Most lamps and artistic and cult objects were earthenware as well. Since pottery is brittle, vessels often broke into pieces called potsherds. Isaiah alluded to sherds (i.e., fragments) being used for carrying burning coals and for scooping water from a cistern (Isa 30:14). Notes and letters were often written on potsherds.

Sir Flinders Petrie, in his excavations at Tell el-Hesi in 1890, recognized the archaeological significance of pottery and began classifying pottery and potsherds. His work was carried forward by others, including William Albright, Kathleen Kenyon and Ruth Amiran.The nature of pottery makes it indispensable for archaeology. Clay vessels were fired rock-hard in a kiln, allowing the pieces to survive the ages.Changes through time in the shape, decoration and manufacturing methods of pots can be documented and used for dating purposes. In fact, pottery is the primary means of dating in Palestinian archaeology. Through knowledge of regional and national variations, pottery can also tell the archaeologist something about trade, cultural connections and the movements of people groups. Ancient habitation sites are littered with potsherds, and simply by examining this surface pottery an archaeologist can form a historical picture.

Complete vessels are often recovered from tombs,' and sometimes a broken pot can be reconstructed. A trained archaeologist can take pieces of the rim, handle or base ("indicator"or"diagnostic" sherds) and identify the type of vessel from which they came. In recording data about pottery at a dig, precision is critical. It is important to know, for example, exactly where a piece was found. Specialists analyze pottery finds and painstakingly sketch or photograph each piece. Color is significant too, and a sherd's hue and chroma (color saturation) are precisely recorded.

Even though its type may be known, the archaeologist may still be hard pressed to explain a vessel's use. But tomb paintings from ancient Egypt depict vessels in everyday use. Ethnoarchaeology, which examines the links between a society's material culture and its social and economic customs, can help, and the Bible itself offers clues, When Rebekah met Abraham's servant at the well in Nahor, she was carrying a water jar on her shoulder (not, as in many cultures, on her head; Ge 24:15). First Kings 17:14 indicates that flour was kept in a jar but oil in a flask (a tsappa-hath). Jars were also used to preserve documents (Jer 32:14), a practice well attested at Qumran.

Scholars have developed an extensive inventory of the jars, bowls, cups, decanters, figurines, flasks, urns and lamps discovered from antiquity. Types of pottery from different cultures and eras have distinguishing features, including type of rim or base; presence, absence or type of handles; coloration; and presence of incised or painted decorations. Some vessels have a ribbed texture, while some bowls are carinated (keel-shaped). A container's mouth may be straight or flared, and pottery may have been burnished by rubbing or polishing.

By observing the evolution of styles and techniques, archaeologists can date a piece and from this evidence proceed to date an entire excavation stratum or layer. Carefully documenting stylistic changes, scholars have assembled a fairly complete typology of pottery for the ancient Holy Land. Types and styles have been documented through the Neolithic and Char colithic periods, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the exilic period, the Persian and Hellenistic periods and the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Pottery analysis is also critically important in Greco-Roman studies. Early Greek pottery (c. 1050 —700 B.c.) featured painted decorations in the form of geometric shapes. Such decoration eventually developed into pottery with highly naturalistic, painted scenes involving people,animals and various objects. Around 720 B.C. black-figure decoration was invented, with silhouettes incised onto vessels and black, red and white paint applied. Around 525 B.C. the red-figure technique was invented, in which the decoration was left in the natural red color of the clay, with thin painted lines in various colors providing highlighting; the background was painted black. Scholars have learned the names of some of the craftsmen and can describe the distinctive characteristics of their work. For example, Greek artisans often painted small inscriptions, such as "Psiax made me," on their pottery.

Dream Oracles in the Ancient World

JOB 4 The belief in dream oracles is well attested in the ancient world, including in the Bible.Job's friend Eliphaz stated that he had received in a dream a divine message relating to Job's misery (Job 4:12-21). Elihu also expressed his knowledge that dreams are one means by which God communicates with people (33:14 —18).The Lord visited the patriarch Jacob in a nocturnal vision (Ge 28:11-19). His son Joseph also received prophetic dreams (Ge 37:5-11), as did Solomon (1Ki 3:5-15), prophets in general (Nu 12:6), Daniel (Da 7) and Joseph the carpenter (Mt 1:20-24; 2:13).

Dream oracles were not exclusive to Israel, however. Joseph, the son of Jacob, interpreted the dreams of the pharaoh and his servants (Ge 40:5-22; 41:15-32), Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Da 4:4-27), and the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod (Mt 2:12).

Of course, not all dream oracles can be considered legitimate. If the omen por-: tended in the dream encouraged the worship of anyone besides the one true God, or if the apparent implication of the dream did not come to pass, that message did not issue from the Lord (Dt 18:20-22).

Numerous texts from outside of Israel attest to the importance placed upon dreams throughout the ancient Near East:

  • Prophetic dreams are attested at Mari (eighteenth century B.c.) One text describes a dream that was repeated, as was the pharaoh's in Genesis 41.

  • When seeking instructions on temple building, King Gudea of Lagash invited the deity Nirgirsu to visit him by offering sacrifices and lying down in the temple to sleep.

  • When venturing forth to battle a great monster,the legendary hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu encouraged the gods to give them dream oracles.

  • Ugaritic texts provide examples of such dreams. In the Epic of Kirta the god El speaks to the hero in his sleep.

  • Handbooks for dream interpretation have been uncovered in New Kingdom Egypt (sixteenth—eleventh centuries B.c.). For example, if a man saw himself in a dream submerged in the Nile, that was a good omen, signifying that he had been purified of all evil. But seeing a dwarf in a dream portended tragedy:The dreamer's life would be shortened by half.

Dreams were one of the many ways people of the ancient world believed that humans received divine messages. It is important to observe, however, that the Bible contains no guidebook for interpreting dreams.There is no magical code we can follow. If God communicates by a dream, only God can give the interpretation (Ge 40:8).

Casting Lots

JOB 6 A clay cube inscribed in Akkadian' provides archaeological evidence for the use of lots in the ancient Near East. This "lot," a cube approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, commemorates the selection by lot of lahali to serve as the minister of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (c. 828 B.c.). Though other forms of divination were prohibited in Israel (Dt 18:9-14), the casting of lots was permitted. Proverbs 16:33 makes this clear: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD." Lots were cast for various purposes:

  • They settled the apportionment of land, guaranteeing that it was divinely inherited (Nu 26:55).

  • They narrowed a field of candidates in determining a selection (Saul in 1Sa 10:20ff.; Matthias in Ac 1:26), order of service (temple personnel in 1Ch 24:5ff.; Zechariah in Lk 1:8ff.) or guilt (Achan in Jos 7:14ff.; Jonathan in 1Sa 14:41ff.).

  • They were used for dividing or distributing people (orphans in Job 6:27; prisoners of war in Joel 3:3 and Na 3:10).

  • The sacred lots called the "Urim and Thummin"were used to determine the will of the Lord in a particular matter (Nu 27:21)

"I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom"

JOB 12 From the Kassite period of Babylon (the second half of the second millennium B.c.) comes an Akkadian poem titled "I will praise the Lord of Wisdom." Because it concerns a pious sufferer, it is often compared to Job, although it is formally more similar to certain Biblical psalms in which an individual describes some illness or calamity he has suffered but praises God for having delivered him (e.g., Ps 30; 116). In this Akkadian text the poet (named Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan) says much that is similar to Job's lamentation:

  • Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan considers himself helpless before his god, Marduk, who is merciful but whose anger is like a raging storm (see Job 12:13-25).

  • Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan laments about friends and family having abandoned him (see v. 4., 19:13-20). Like Job,he exhaustively describes his physical afflictions (see 7:5) prior to his healing.

  • Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan was delivered after having seen three godlike persons—two men and a woman—in his dreams (chs. 38 -42).

In other respects, however, the Akkadian psalm is very different from Job. It focuses on omens, magical spells and dreams,3 as well as listing rituals of healing at the gates of the temple of Marduk. In contrast, th-e- * book of Job contains no ritual or magical elements. Instead, its protagonist is a righteous sufferer, and it wrestles with fundamental issues of God's governance of the world.' Job is not healed by magic but by God himself after he has heard and understood God's answers to the questions he has raised.

A Hittite Ritual Against Plague

JOB 18 Throughout the book of Job the problem of evil is debated in terms of sin, judgment and divine sovereignty. Bildad's speech in Job 18 presents a simplistic, black-and-white perspective—that God punishes the evil and delivers the righteous. But Job himself contends that he is undeserving of what has befallen him, taking the reader to a new level in understanding the place of suffering under the hand of God. Although issues of guilt and divine justice were not unknown to pagans in the ancient Near East,' what is most striking in their texts is how often their religious framework for dealing with calamity is all about magic and ritual, not justice and divine purpose.2 A Hittite text by Uhhamuwa of Arzawa illustrates the same philosophy,although it deals with national rather than personal disaster.

Uhhamuwa advises that if plague from an enemy god should strike a land, one should entwine wool of blue, red, yellow, black and white into a wreath and place it on a castrated ram. Then the people should drive the animal down the road while reciting a liturgy imploring the enemy god to accept the gift and be pacified (see 1Sa 6:2-9). Uhhamuwa goes on to suggest specific offerings and sacrifices to be made to the Hittite gods.

The basic approach of pa anism is to attempt to manipulate divine powers through finding efficacious rituals and incantations. In contrast to the ancient Near Eastern perspective, the complete absence of these elements in Job's confrontation with suffering is astonishing.The book of Job wrestles with real issues about God and his governance of the world and does not deal with the problem of evil through magic and superstition.

The Tale of Aqhat

JOB 20 In Job 20 Zophar asserted that God punishes all evildoers.Although his comprehension was inadequate, Zophar correctly understood that God is fundamentally just and does not capriciously inflict pain upon people.While this may seem self-evident to the modern Christian reader, it is not a viewpoint an ancient pagan would have shared or even considered. The Ugaritic tale of Aqhat (also called Aqhatu), located at Ras Shamra, in 1930, illustrates this.

The tale begins with the hero Dani-El, who makes sacrifices and prays for a son. At last his desire is granted: He is given a son, Aqhat, to whom the god Kothar-wa-Hasis bequeaths a powerful warrior's bow. But the goddess Anat (also called Anatu) covets the bow and seeks to barter with Aqhat for it. Aqhat is unwilling to part with it but offers to give her all she needs in order to have Kothar-wa-Hasis fashion a similar bow for her. Still, she wants only Aqhat's bow —and offers him eternal life for it. Aqhat, recognizing this as a fraudulent offer, tactlessly refuses. Infuriated, Anat demands permission from the high god, El, to avenge herself upon Aqhat, threatening violence against El himself if he refuses. When El accedes, Anat murders Aqhat with the aid of her henchman and gloats over her deed. What follows is incomplete and somewhat confused, but it seems that a drought ensues, Dani-El mourns his son, and Aqhat's sister Pugat seeks to avenge his death.

Readers of the Iliad and the Odyssey are familiar with pagan tales of jealous, violent and petty gods. This understanding prevailed in the ancient Near East. Israel's belief in a righteous God was truly distinctive.

A Man and His God

JOB 29 A broken Akkadian tablet from the Old Babylonian period, sometimes called A Man and His God, describes the lament of a young man who is suffering from some dreadful but unspecified disease. He groans, weeps and cries out to his god for help. Although the text is fragmentary, it is clear that the man wrestles with the question of how he may have sinned against his god and concludes that he has committed blasphemy. In the end, his god pronounces a blessing on him, promises that he will prosper and encourages him to donate food to the poor.

At first glance the tablet may strike many readers as being similar to Job, with its pitiable account of the sufferer's lamentation, his struggle with the problem of sin and divine justice and his final deliverance by divine intervention. An important difference between the two texts, however, is that the young man of the Akkadian text finally recognized and confessed his sin, whereas Job expressly declared himself to be a righteous man who was suffering because of his virtue and not because of some sin. The Akkadian text thus lacks the profundity of the problem posed by Job: that of the righteous sufferer.

The Babylonian Theodicy

JOB 33 An Akkadian text from approximately 1000 B.C. has striking similarities to the book of Job. Commonly called the"Babylonian Theodicy,"it is a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend. In this text a hurting individual bemoans his fate and the treatment he has received at the hands of the gods. Like Job, he has been generous and devout, but now he is driven about in destitution, like a beggar (see Job 30:1-11). He complains that the wicked strut around, secure in their wealth (see 21:1-21). A friend responds that the sufferer does not fully understand the ways of the gods. He does not accuse the man of grievous sin in the manner of Job's friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (e.g., 22:4-5). However, in much the same vein as Elihu in Job 33, he concedes that the ways of the gods are mysterious.

The Babylonian Theodicy does not wrestle with questions of God and evil as profoundly as does the book of Job, but it does

demonstrate again that this kind of literature had parallels elsewhere in the ancient Near East., The date of the Babylonian Theodicy is not far removed from the golden age of wisdom under Solomon (latter tenth century B.c.), and the similarities in genre suggest that Job may have been written at about the same time.

The Hittite Storm Gods

JOB 38 The speeches of God in Job 38-41 present him as absolute and unrivaled in his power over nature. The stars, storms, seasons and wild animals all submit to and depend upon him. He even controls Leviathan, the dragon that symbolizes chaos and evil (ch. 4). In polytheism, on the other hand, the gods are often depicted as weak and dependent.

Hittite texts of myth and ritual illustrate this. For example, the Telepinu myth recounts an incident in which the storm god Telepinu was reported to have become angry and deserted his post. ln his absence the crops ceased to grow and the live-stock to calve. Even the other gods began to panic at the prospect of starvation. Although the gods were unable to locate Telepinu, a bee found him asleep under a tree and wakened him with a sting. A goddess of magic and a human priest then performed expiatory rituals that assuaged Telepinu's anger.

Other Hittite myths tell of the storm god's conflict with the dragon Illuyanka. Unlike Yahweh's domination of Leviathan in Job 41, however, the storm god can scarcely handle Illuyanka. In one version the storm god is at first defeated by the dragon, but the tables turn after the goddess Inara enlists the aid of a mortal, Hupashiya, by sleeping with him. She then hosts a feast; after Illuyanka gorges himself on food, Hupashiya binds the dragon with ropes so that the storm god can manage to slay him. In another version the storm god loses his heart and eyes to the dragon in their first battle, but the god's son marries Illuyanka's daughter and persuades Illuyanka to return his father's eyes and heart. The storm god resumes the battle, slaying both the dragon and his son.

The profound moral and theological debate of Job could not have arisen from such pagan myths. The gods, as depicted in these tales, were simply too weak to control events in a meaningful way; they needed the assistance of other gods and even of humans and animals. There would also be no problem of evil if God were too weak to control the world; such a theological dilemma can only exist in a setting in which God is understood to be omniscient and omnipotent.