Ahiqar, Aesop and Wise Sages of the Ancient Near East

Here’s an essay I wrote as part of my literature module in BA ANE Studies. I thought I’d share it, since I enjoyed writing it so much:

The world of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean was highly interconnected, and as a result, many common story motifs became diffused throughout the region, including the story of an Archetypal wise man who went by many names. The Biblical characters of Joseph and Daniel are incarnations of this archetypal hero, but other examples are Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman. As a result of the cultural matrix in which they developed, these three characters each share similarities with each other, these similarities are the result of ‘intertextuality’, where elements of a story are taken from one work of literature and applied to a different work of literature. This happened due to equations made between the three characters made by ancient authors, conscious of the similarities between the heroes, whom were believed to be essentially the same,

The great fabulist Aesop is most certainly the most well-known of these extra-biblical figures today, but we shall start by speaking of Ahiqar. A classic hero of Middle Eastern and Eastern European folklore, the story of Ahiqar possibly originates with a real figure in the Assyrian court, whose life was highly mythicised, with him adopting the motifs of a ‘Type 922’ hero, a man who is lowly, often due to being falsely accused by an enemy, but wise, and is able to solve a conundrum no one else could answer, being rewarded for his troubles[1]. By the 7th century, literature concerning him had been written in Aramaic. Though the early fragments of his tale are fragmentary, later tales tell his story more completely, such as in the thousand and one nights. In this version of the story, Ahiqar is a high ranking official in the court of Sarhadum (Esarhaddon in the original Aramaic), whose nephew and adopted son, Nadan becomes jealous of his position. Falsely accused by him of treason, Ahiqar is sentenced to death, but the executioner is reminded of a favour Ahiqar granted him, so spares him. A prisoner is executed in his stead. In Ahiqar’s absence, Pharaoh of Egypt issues a challenge to king Sarhadum, a challenge to build a castle floating in mid-air. No one is able to solve the conundrum, so the captain of the guard confides to Sarhadum that Ahiqar is still alive. Ahiqar is sent for, he lectures Nadan (preceding to his gruesome death), and instructs that several eagles be captured and taught to carry boys, after which they are sent to Egypt, where they are instructed to fly into the air and ask Pharaoh for building materials, Pharaoh is dumbstruck by this request and realises that he has been outwitted. After which, he challenges Ahiqar to a series of more conundrums, which Ahiqar is able to solve with ease.

A nearly identical story is attributed to Aesop in the popular Aesop romance. The differences however, though few, are still interesting in that they betray differences in ideology with the Ahiqar legend. The Aesop legend is considerably more humanistic, the violence found in the Ahiqar legend is turned down, to avoid offending sensibilities[2]. After being lectured by his uncle, Nadan, or rather ‘Helios’ commits suicide, rather than inflating like a bag and exploding, as is found in our versions of the Ahikar story. It is likely that this story in the Aesop Romance was directly adapted from a version of the Ahiqar tale, adapted in order that it should better fit with Greek morals. Aesop, of course, is better known for his fables, the most famous being ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, and ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’, and here is found another example of literary diffusion, and Intertextuality in the Ancient, and Medieval World. Luqman is an obscure character in Surah 31 of the Koran, a Surah bearing his name, who’s mention spawned a variety of legends. Like Aesop, he was a noted fabulist, to whom 49 animal related fables are attributed, all but two of them identical to those of Aesop, a clear case of intertextuality[3]. There is a possible link with the Ahiqar story too, with Luqman’s rebellious son, Nathan, possibly a variant of Nadan. In Surah 31 of the Qur’an a series of parables are given by Luqman, which lecture his son on wisdom. Many of these parables resemble parables from the Ahiqar story, and Islamic scholar Gabriel Said Reynolds goes as far as to suggest that the figure of Luqman may be entirely modelled on the sage Ahiqar (with the differences in later traditions being a later development, by Muslim commentators who had become acquainted with Aesop’s Fables). This is possible, but Reynolds also mentions the possibility that Luqman may be a dimintutive form of ‘Sulayman’, Solomon in Arabic. Reynolds’ cities the similarity of Surah 31:13 with Proverbs 1:8, attributed to Solomon[4]. Perhaps the best explanation for the similarities between Luqman, Ahiqar and Solomon is that the three figures were equated with each other on account of their wisdom, with this being grounds for ‘typology’, equation of separate figures based on similarities, a term often used in academic biblical studies.

Indeed, Perhaps the equation of Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman with each other goes down to the fact that all three figures were associated with giving proverbs, and parables of wisdom. The notion of a wise man, who gives parables, later being betrayed by his confidant, who later dies a horrible death as retribution was a common motif in the ancient world, the most famous example being the relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot, who suffers a death similar to that of Nadan, namely ‘bursting asunder’ in the midst of a field after falling headlong, similar, but also different to the death of Nadan by bursting[5]. It is no wonder why many scholars see reflections of the Ahiqar myth in the story of Jesus’ betrayal[6]. None of this means that we should see the story of Jesus as being ‘purely’ based on a legendary archetype, as the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, even atheists and agnostics like Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey accept a historical Jesus, but scholars make a point of separating the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ, and the presence of a wise figure giving parables in both stories means that Midrashic equations between the two figures could have been made after the fact. The story of Ahiqar was known to 2nd Temple Jews, as shown by his presence in the book of Tobit, and the Jesus stories are filled with references to older characters from Jewish lore via typology. Likewise, Aesop almost certainly developed as a semi-legendary wise sage independently from the Ahiqar legend, his equation with the latter being a result of the fact that both characters embody similar virtues of wisdom. The same can be said with the character of Luqman, who absorbed elements of both Ahiqar and Aesop.

However, it is likely that at least in origin, the stories go back to a common source, albeit with many of the similarities being the result of intertextuality. Even independently of Aesop’s travels in Babylon, he is still portrayed as paralleling the story of Ahiqar. Just as Ahiqar figuratively died (being hidden in a crypt) and was resurrected, likewise, Aesop literally was put to death and rose again in spirit. Just as Ahiqar was chief counsellor of the Assyrian absolute monarch, likewise (but with clear differences), Aesop advised the democratic polis of Samos. These correspondences point to a common origin, but do not negate the clear intertextuality with the narratives of Aesop in Babylon, which were probably the result of equations. Ahiqar is hardly the only influence on the character of Aesop in the Aesop Romance, influence from the characters of Diogenes, Socrates and the Seven Sages of Greece also show up, thus showing that the writer of the romance was fond of intertextuality.[7]

In conclusion, the characters of Ahiqar, Aesop and Luqman probably developed independently from each other, even if they did share a common source (but branched out from it) but the later tales regarding the three figures intertextually referenced each other, based on the fact that the three heroes both embody similar virtues. The figure of Christ may be another such sage. It is possible that the character of Luqman is merely an Arabic adaptation of the Ahiqar story however, given the nature of his brief mention in the Qur’an, his oldest mention. This is speculative however, given our lack of early information, and it is also possible that not Ahiqar, but the Biblical king Solomon was the prototype for Luqman’s story. In short, all we can say for sure is that the stories regarding the three figures are intertextually linked, yet likely developed independently, albeit possibly from a common source. As a result of this common source, their stories contained enough similarities for Greek and Arabic writers to make equations between the three figures.

rkb ‘rpt, out!

Bibliography

  • Niditch, Susan, and Robert Doran. “The Success Story of the Wise Courtier: A Formal Approach.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 2 (1977): 179-93. doi:10.2307/3265877.
  • Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Aesop Romance. Athens: Stigmi Publications, 2013
  • Lunde, Paul: Aesop of the Arabs. Aramco World 1974/2
  • Reynolds, G. S: The Qur’an and The Bible – Text and Commentary (Yale: 2018)
  • Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris and Agnes Smith Lewis: The Story of Ahikar: from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic (Cambridge, 1913)
  • Levine, Amy-Jill: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: 2011)

[1] Niditch, Susan, and Robert Doran. “The Success Story of the Wise Courtier: A Formal Approach.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 2 (1977): 179-93. doi:10.2307/3265877.

[2] Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Aesop Romance. Athens: Stigmi Publications, 2013, 616 pp.

[3] Lunde, Paul: Aesop of the Arabs. Aramco World 1974/2

[4] Reynolds, G. S: The Qur’an and The Bible – Text and Commentary (Yale: 2018)

[5] Acts 1:18

[6] Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris and Agnes Smith Lewis: The Story of Ahikar: from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic (Cambridge, 1913)

[7] Konstantakos: Akicharos, p3-4

Islamic Mythology 2: The Dark Side of Robin Williams

Our modern-day image of the Jinn (Genies) is largely formed by early western translations of the 1001 Nights, and later by Disney’s Aladdin. Ask a Non-Muslim to describe a Genie and they will invariably describe a benevolent, lamp dwelling spirit who grants three wishes. But ask a Muslim and they will describe something much more sinister, something more akin to the western conception of demons (though good Jinn do exist). According to Islamic folklore they are a third class of entities, alongside angels and humans. They are formed from fire, perhaps recalling Psalm 104:4:

he (YHWH) makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire.

The Qur’an however makes no such distinction. In fact, one particular Jinn, Iblis (the Devil) is outright stated to be a Jinn, but also heavily implied to also be an angel:

When we said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ they prostrated, but not Iblis. He was one of the Jinn, so he transgressed against his Lord’s command (Surah 18:50)

In some other accounts of this event, such as Surah 2:34, Iblis is not called a Jinn at all. The most natural reading of these verses is that Iblis was an angel, who was ‘expected’ to prostrate before Adam alongside his kin (the text never mentions angels ‘and’ Jinn being told to prostrate themselves), but refused.

This enigma makes most sense if the Jinn are a particular class of angel, perhaps fallen angels or demons (given their consistent negative persona in the Qur’an, and the fact that the aforementioned verse states it was in Iblis’ very nature as a Jinn to rebel), rather than a different class of entities all together.

Another interesting clue as to the origin of the Jinn comes from Palmyra, a city in the Syrian desert, where beings known as Ginnaye, likely a cognate to Jinn, are mentioned as ‘the good and rewarding gods’, in stark contrast to the Qur’anic Jinn, who are seen as evil. Yet the Qur’an similarly alludes to these Jinn as being entities which people worshipped, (Surah 34:41, Surah 72:6), similar to the Palmyrene inscriptions. It would seem though, that the monotheistic Qur’an was appalled by this worship, so polemically ‘demonised’ the Ginnaye as fallen angels, the Jinn.

A parallel development can be found with the Shedu, of Mesopotamia, protective spirits worshipped by the Assyrians, who were later demonised in the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 32:17, a development which is still in Judaism to this very day, where Shedim, is a term for demons very similar to the Islamic Jinn.

It would therefore seem as though the Qur’an believed the gods worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia were fallen angels masquerading as gods (an idea also found in the letters of Paul), who were referred to as Jinn. In later Islamic tradition the Jinn were separated from angels, and given their own class. They also became more morally ambivalent, hence the modern conception of a benevolent genie who grants wishes.

I have minimally described the status of Jinn in Islamic tradition, since I have attempted to focus on the historical context and origins of the Jinn.

Sources:

Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam – Robert G. Hoyland

The Qur’an and The Bible: Text and Commentary – Gabriel Said Reynolds

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A Debate Between Drought and Flood

Behold, I wrote a prelude to the flood story in Genesis and the Ancient Near East, in the form of a Sumerian Literary Debate, or a-da-min, Studying the Near Eastern literature at Uni has influenced my prose. Without further ado:

When Aliyyon created man on earth, his children spreading to the ends thereof; daughters were born to them, fair and comely to behold. Every man would lust in his heart over his neighbour’s daughter, and his brother’s wife, and would snatch her away. The fury of the fathers was great, and blood was shed, blood which polluted the earth to the ends thereof.

In horror, Aliyyon opened his mouth to speak: ‘The sons of men have gone astray. Within 120 years all men will have fallen to the sword. Who will go forth? Whose hands will return the earth to righteousness?’.

 Flood came forth, the deluge opened his mouth to speak:

‘I shall raise my waters from the deep below, the springs of the rivers shall open up, and all land, save the mount of Kharumi shall be returned to the sea from which it arose’.

Drought then came forth, opening his mouth to answer in kind:

‘Deluge, you inundate the earth, turn all life to clay, yet when the rays of the sun touch your face, as he travels in his course, to vapour go your waters, as you flee in terror to the hole from whence you came, to the land of dust and clay. Are you a mouse, that you should fear the sun? Is your face burned, that you shall fear his heat?’.

Flood gave forth speech from his tongue, a reply to his adversary drought:

‘Do not presume to think of me as the coward, you who fear the water of heaven, and the wellsprings of the deep. Once they are opened you flee in terror, flee back to you dwelling place. You have been allotted to fight my waters, to turn them to vapour, to catch them as a songbird. Yet you flee like the songbird from the hawk, an incompetent fool and a coward you become’.

From the tongue of drought came forth a reply:

‘Power of the deep, I have no reason to doubt that you are my better, yet that is your flaw, in your pomp you say ‘there is non my equal, none who returns the sons of men to dust as I do’. You are merciless, savage as a wolf, bloodthirsty as the sons of the northern steppe, who decorate their garments with the skins of the slain. In your onslaught, all men shall die, the work of Aliyyon brought to naught. Yet I shall flood the rain until but a remnant is left, a remnant humbled in repentance to their lord’.

Flood laughed, the deep roared, opening his mouth to give an answer:

‘Evidently this challenger has forgotten his purpose, it is to destroy, not to save, yet even so, when the sons of men have invented the boat, who is to say that none will survive? There lives a man, who dwells in the valleys of the Aqana, who has not been held captive by the violence of his kin. A man of Aliyyon, whom I shall bear on my waves. A man who would die the death of the wicked if left to a drought’.

Drought came forth, but Aliyyon confounded his tongue. His own tongue uttered forth a verdict:

‘My children, the host whom I have allotted to mankind; Anat, Beladad, Etaret, Ghanroqh, Mursu, Nyadh and Sayan the virgin huntress; here ye the voice of my servants, lift up your head to the voice of flood, your ears to the voice of drought. Flood has prevailed, the deluge has proven his worth. By his waters shall the sons of men die. But I shall spare a preserve, a remnant, the man whom sin has not yet touched, through his seed shall heaven and earth find rest’.

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How to be a Prophet – The Maimonidean way

Philosophers have always asked what the highest good was. Plato thought it was wisdom, Epicurus thought it was happiness. Maimonides, thought it was prophecy. According to him, a prophet must have perfected virtues of character, wisdom, and imagination, only then will God send his spirit upon them, in other words, God does not send whoever he likes a prophetic vision, irrespective of his wisdom, character or imagination. There are reasons for this:

  1. A foolish man could mistake his prophecies for delusion. A perfectly wise man could discern.
  2. A man with an unhappy character could be greatly disturbed by his prophecies, and would not want to prophecy.
  3. Scripture states that not everyone who receives a prophecy is a true prophet, as in Deuteronomy 13. Rather, God sends the spirit of prophecy on the undeserving to test their faith.

In light of number 3, how do we then distinguish a true prophet from a false one? Maimonides says that a true prophet must mental perfection, imaginative perfection and moral perfection, meaning that the following must be so:

  1. The brain must be in perfect condition.
  2. The body must be in perfect condition.
  3. His rational faculty must have passed from a state of potentiality to actuality, through acquiring wisdom.
  4. He must solely desire the knowledge of God.
  5. He must not seek pleasure from the sense of touch.
  6. He must suppress every desire for power and dominion, such as with victory in battle, acquisition of honour, and human service.

A prophet must also be in a joyful and happy mood, as Jacob and Moses ceased to prophesy when they were sad. This, Maimonides classifies as a part of the imaginative faculty, which is linked to the condition of the body (no2).

Once these conditions have been achieved, the only thing a man will be able to perceive is the divine and supernatural. He will only know that which is true, and is only directed towards improving human relations. This is not due to any supernatural influence, but rather because his intellect is perfected. Once one has such a mindset, they will be able to recognise the spirit of prophecy when it comes upon them. A prophet has the ability to know things which human reason would otherwise be unable to know, such as visions of the future, but ‘only’ when God sees fit, and even if a man was intellectually, imaginatively and morally perfect, God could choose to withhold prophecy if he wished.

But how can we achieve such a state?

I admit, in this day and age, Maimonides was unsure about whether or not humans could achieve a prophetic state, as the era of prophecy was over, and it was unrealistic for humans to reach so high. In the Messianic Era, however, human capacity for prophecy will return.

I’d be somewhat more liberal than Maimonides at suggest that even in today’s day and age, humans theoretically could prophesy if they achieved the perfection, however unlikely this may be. In the Messianic era however, when the hearts of the parents are turned to their children, and vice versa (Malachi 4:6), prophecy will become as common as it once was in the Biblical Era.

Until then, we can only do as best as we can, and few would deny that we should seek to improve our physical, mental, imaginative and moral constitution as much as possible.

rkb, rpt, out!

Further reading:

Moses Maimonides – The Guide For The Perplexed

The Bible and Maimonides on the Heavens

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Think Psalm 19:1 is just a figure of speech, expressing David’s wonder at the cosmos? Think again. In his A Guide for the Perplexed (p130), Maimonides gives his own explanation of the verse:

Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things: that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are, as the philosophers assert, endowed with life, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify; comp “The heavens declare the glory of God,” etc. (Ps. xix. 2).

Now before Michael S. Heiser comes and tells me off for relying on medieval Jewish texts as opposed to the Bible itself, and it’s Ancient Near Eastern context, let’s examine Maimonides’ own evidence, and whether or not it is coherent:

It is a great error to think that this is a mere figure of speech for the verbs “to declare” and “to relate,” when joined together, are, in Hebrew, only used of intellectual beings.

Maimonides is correct here. Biblehub has a list of all occurrences in scripture where the verb saphar occurs, and in virtually (if not entirely) all of them, it refers to human actions, counting, relating, recounting and inscribing. It is impossible for an inanimate object to perform these tasks. Even in the poetic psalms this is so (see Psalm 66:16, Psalm 64:6 and Psalm 22:22, for example). David could merely have suggested that the heavens ‘show’ God’s glory, through the verb Ra’ah. The simplest option is therefore that David believed the heavens were sentient.

It’s not like such an idea was unknown in the Ancient Middle East either, the Egyptians personified the sky and earth as the gods Nut and Geb. As Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesly tells us:

Now Nut’s body separated the world from chaotic waters of Nun. Her laughter rumbled as thunder and her tears fell as rain. Along her body the stars and moon twinkled at night, and the sun blazed by day

The Penguin Book of Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt: p38

Image result for nut and geb

So Maimonides was correct to reject in the strongest terms the notion that Psalm 19:1 is merely poetic or metaphorical. Whilst certainly poetic to an extent (it being in a psalm), the use of words used only to describe human communication implies that the Psalmist was being serious when he spoke of heaven as declaring through speech (v2) God’s glory.

I am hardly the only one who has noted this, here is Robin Parry, who sees such an idea as being omnipresent in the Biblical text:

Modern Westerners draw rigid distinctions between animate objects (like animals and plants) and inanimate objects (like the sea and mountains). The former are alive and have no consciousness. we climb mountains, we look and mountains, we dig in mountains, we paint mountains, but we do nor talk to mountains and we certainly do not expect them to talk back. Now ancient Israelites didn’t talk to mountains either, but they seem surprisingly willing to talk about the whole of the created order as if it were in some sense alive and conscious and able to respond to God in a manner appropriate to it. This phenomena is so common in the Bible we often become oblivious to it, so it is worth highlighting some instances.

The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible: p2

In a Pre-Newtonian era, the notion that the heavenly spheres had intellect in themselves made perfect sense in that they appeared to move around the earth, surely for no reason, implying that either them, or an ‘unmoved mover’ were sentient. I accept the Aristotelian argument from motion as a sound argument for the existence of God, but this does not entail that the heavens are literally sentient beings, when in the modern era, it is known that the heavens are essentially nothingness, and do not have a brain, or the ability to speak. As long as things move from potentiality to actuality, the argument still stands.

Now we should ask, when the Bible speaks of fields exulting and trees singing for joy (Psalm 96:12) as well as Mountains praising God’s name (Psalm 89:12), was that meant literally as well? Very possibly. As for why God would allow such mistakes in the Tanakh, for that we need to consider that the Psalms were written to God by men, so an inspired author could share the opinion of his day provided it did not conflict with the divine message, which was never about science to begin with.

rkb ‘rpt, out!