The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature

By Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature


Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature, by William L. Moran. Edited by Ronald S. Hendel. CBQMS 35. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2002. Pp. ? + 212. $11.50 (paper). ISBN 0915170345.

In a distinguished academic career extending over half a century, the late William L. Moran, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, authored nearly seventy articles, a hundred critical reviews, and a volume of translations of the Amarna letters (produced in French and translated into English). he also edited the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, vol. 7 (I/J), a volume known for its particular excellence. The current collection containing fifteen articles, two in print for the first time, samples but a small, tantalizing taste of the author's scholarly legacy. Missing are examples of Moran's numerous contributions concerning the Amarna letters (a career-long occupation and arguably his major field of endeavor; see William L. Moran, Amarna Studies: Collected Writings [ed. John Huehnergard and Shlomo Izre'el; HSS 54; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003]), Northwest Semitic philology, Assyriology proper, and certain major Mesopotamian myths such as Enuma Elish and Anzu. The works in this volume, selected apparently for their "biblical" import, epitomize nonetheless the evaluation in the introduction to his Festschrift: "But his work has also always had a special appeal. Regardless of the topic, there is in his approach a humane quality, a concern for broader issues that expresses the intellectual and vital excitement that he brings to the text" (Tzvi Abusch, John Huehnergard, and Piotr Steinkeller, eds., Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran [HSS 37; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990], x).

The title of this volume is borrowed from Rainer Maria Rilke's impression of the Gilgamesh Epic (read in Ungnad's German translation) as "das zaubernde Wort zu irgendeiner Zeit." Its use testifies to Moran's conviction that ancient Mesopotamian literature was not an arcane corpus of interest only to a handful of scholars conversant in dead languages but of highest humanistic value of concern to people of culture even in modern times. Moran's commitment to human culture in general even while studying the ancient Near East finds expression in his frequent citations in foreign languages, abundant use of Latin expressions, and, most significantly, comparative use of classical literature to explain Mesopotamian writings. In the same vein, of the essays selected for publication, one discusses Gilgamesh's coming to grips with his own humanity, another focuses (through the lens of Ovid and other classical authors) on the humanization (by lovemaking) of his companion Enkidu, and yet a third discusses the creation of humankind according to Atrahasis. In this essay, published here for the first time, Moran relates the use of the remnants of a slain god in the newly formed man to "man's religious impulse, the inner urging he experienced to submit to the yoke of the gods and satisfy their needs." The divine is at the center of Moran's interest mostly in the last essay on the role of Marduk in the "Babylonian Job" (see below), but even there at issue is not theology but the divine in its relationship to humankind.

The collection hosts three components. The first half as well as the concluding chapter highlight Babylonian literature and contain four items on the Gilgamesh Epic (one is not an article per se but a translation of Gilgamesh's famous lament over his fallen friend Enkidu and Siduri's words of consolation), an equal number of pioneering articles on Atrahasis (the Babylonian story of the flood and antediluvian histoiy, which is more essential than Gilgamesh XI for background to Gen 5-6), and a never-beforepublished study of Ludlul bel nemeqi, the so-called Babylonian Job, which eschews a biblifying reading of the poem in favor of one concentrating on the theology of Marduk.

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