Imagery and Analogy in Psalm 58:4-9

in Vetus Testamentum
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This article treats the images and logic of Ps 58:4-9. Drawing on Stanley Tambiah’s work on “performative analogies,” it compares the images of serpents and unborn children as well as the ways in which these images are used in Ps 58 with incantations from Syro-Mesopotamia. It focuses on the similarities between Ps 58 and Syro-Mesopotamian incantatory traditions, emphasizing how the latter serves as a catalyst for understanding Ps 58 as a YHWHistic religio-magical expression.

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  • 2

    Tambiah 1968pp. 189-90; Tambiah 1985 esp. pp. 64-77. As for the term magic it has long been noted that it is a designation that carries negative value judgments about rites or beliefs of non-Judeo-Christian groups. For an overview of magic and the difficulties of defining it in opposition to religion in the ancient Mediterranean see Johnston 139-154. Additionally a sustained interaction with anthropological literature and its values for understanding the nature of ancient Mesopotamian magic in particular can be found in van Binsbergen and Wiggerman pp. 3-34 (supplemented by the helpful review of Scurlock 2002 esp. 477-481). For my part I have considered it less prejudicial to use the designation ‘religio-magical’ taking my cue from the use of the hyphenated term medico-magical (e.g. Scurlock 2006) to deal with a similar classificatory challenge in the study of medicine in ancient Syro-Mesopotamia (see e.g. N. Wasserman 2007). That is the term religio-magical seeks to foreground the fact that any distinction between religion and magic in the ancient Near East is an etic one (see also Wright 1993 pp. 473-506 who adopts a similar line of thought yet employs the term ritual). That said at times I have occasionally retained the term magic and magical when I engage historiography that employs this term.

  • 9

    See Doyle pp. 126-135; also the layout and remarks of Hossfeld and Zenger pp. 77 80.

  • 13

    van Dijk and Geller p. 22.

  • 17

    van Dijk and Geller p. 33. More generally Ur iii incantations suggest significant connections between the malevolent creatures that cause illnesses that are spellbound in incantations and the defeated chaos creatures from mythological texts (see Cunningham 1997 pp. 92-93).

  • 20

    See Miglio pp. 30-48.

  • 21

    In Veldhuis 2000pp. 383-399.

  • 22

    van Dijk and Geller pp. 22 48.

  • 23

    Cunningham 1997p. 35. Conversely a Sumerian curse states: “May illness(-inducing) teeth bite that ruler in his ruined palace” (Cunningham 1997 p. 47).

  • 31

    See Pardee 2002p. 188 n. 34; he notes that puns and plays on words are common in incantations.

  • 36

    Cowan p. 918.

  • 38

    See the summary of literature in Wright 1996p. 227 esp. n. 37.

  • 39

    Krawczack pp. 96-7.

  • 42

    Veldhuis 1991pp. 13 44-45.

  • 43

    See the discussion of Steyl pp. 133-34.

  • 44

    See Veldhuis 1991.

  • 46

    Farber 1989pp. 149 151.

  • 48

    van Dijk and Geller pp. 21-22. The rationale for dealing with these two medical conditions together is not explicit in the incantation but cf. van Dijk and Geller who offered the suggestion that it may have been that a “snakebite was perceived as a factor contributing to childbirth problems” (p. 22).

  • 50

    See Velhuis 199114. Note that embryos could also be portrayed as a fish (dadum) both images being evocative of early modern recapitulation theories of embryology that accentuated fish-like as well as reptilian attributes in human embryos (see for example Gould especially chapters 2-3).

  • 54

    Cf. especially Seybold pp. 53-66 who posits that verses 467 and 11 are additions. Also Wright has suggested that the images in this psalm were disparate even dissonant and as such contributed to an ever-intensifying ethos of the poem (1996 pp. 213-236). Poetically it should be noted that Ps 58:9 can be understood as an asyndentic relative clause (“[Let them be] like a stillborn wasting away as it is born like a woman’s miscarriage never seeing the sunlight”) that functions akin to the marked relative clause in Ps 58:6 hence further tying these two images and further developing the analogical logic of the poem’s “persuasive analogies.”

  • 55

    Kaufmann p. 109.

  • 58

    Abusch 2004p. 355.

  • 60

    See Lambert 1974pp. 274-75 294. In light of this similarity it is noteworthy that Lenzi has also highlighted the correlations between the invocations in the psalms of individual lament and dingir.šà.dib.ba prayers. As he observes both share brevity of address “reflect[ing] a more familiar connection between the supplicant and the deity. . . .” (2010 p. 304).

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