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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Historiography

The most abundant and widely attested of the ancient Near Eastern texts are those which are presented as deliberate records of history, whatever their ultimate purposes may have been. Among these historiographic texts are the king lists of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The best known of these is the “Sumerian King List,” preserved in a number of copies from the first half of the second millennium. This document tells how kingship was “lowered from heaven” and first established at the city of Eridu. Then it names a series of kings, each with reigns of mythic lengths, before the great Flood swept the earth. The post-diluvian kings are given shorter reigns and kingship is said to have moved from city to city before finally being established in the city of Ur. In this way, the dynasties of the different Sumerian cities are consolidated into one common history that ends with Ur. According to this scheme, then, there was only one legitimate kingship for each period in the history of Sumer and Akkad.

The so-called “Assyrian King List” survives in three extant copies from different periods, with the succession of kings brought down to different periods, the latest one ending with Shalmaneser V in the eighth century B.C.E. Among the kings were the earliest “17 kings living in tents” and the subsequent “10 kings who were ancestors.” Legitimate kingship is always associated with one place, the city of Asshur. Similar lists are found in Mesopotamia down to the Hellenistic period and the “Seleucid King List” that legitimated the transfer of power from Alexander the Great to the Seleucid rulers.

This type of literature is also found in Egypt, with a similar emphasis on unity and consolidation of dynastic data. It is exemplified by the Turin Papyrus with its list of kings dating to the Ramesside period around the thirteenth century B.C.E. The list tells how the rulers of the first dynasty descended from the gods and demigods, and kingship passed on to the later generations. This king list is thus presented as a history of the monarchy from its divine inception down to the time of the authors.

Among the types of historiographic literature are the dedicatory or commemorative inscriptions. Such works invariably present history from the perspectives of their sponsors and typically list the accomplishments of the rulers, especially their roles in assuring divine favor for their lands through the installation of the cult statues in their cities and their support for the cult. Indeed, some works are so strongly ideological that one must conclude that they were composed to bolster the dubious claims of the rulers in question. Examples include the Apology of Esarhaddon of Assyria and the Apology of Hattusilis III of Hatti, which some have compared with the History of David's Rise in 1 Samuel.

Far and away the most extensive and detailed of the royal inscriptions are the annals of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Hatti. The Assyrian kings were particularly adept at the use of this genre to chronicle their military exploits, building projects, and support of the local temples. Included among these are the Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III that mentions the involvement of Israel's King Ahab in the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C.E. and the Prism of Sennacherib that describes the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.

The best examples from Egypt are the Annals of Thutmose III (fifteenth century B.C.E.), the most complete of which records the victory of the king over the Asiatics, including a detailed account of the victory at Megiddo. The record makes no pretense of being complete, suggesting that further details are “set down in the daybook of the palace.”

Annals are well attested in Hittite literature, where they exhibit the same selectivity in the reporting of events. From the reign of Mursilis II (1330–1310 B.C.E.) come three major annalistic compositions, namely, the Deeds of Suppiluliumas (the father of Mursilis), the Ten Year Annals, and the Detailed Annals. Mursilis was the younger son of Suppiluliumas I and came to the throne at a very young age, succeeding a sickly older brother at a time of political uncertainty. The annals may, therefore, be seen as means for Mursilis to gain legitimacy. The Deeds of Suppiluliumas records the accomplishments of Mursilis' father and grandfather, while the Ten Year Annals and the Detailed Annals document the achievements of Mursilis himself. The documents speak repeatedly of the king's “manly deeds” and affirm the constant and unfailing support of the deities for him.

The chronicles of Mesopotamia are distinguished by their attention to detail and precision in dating. They are presented as archival texts, and not as inscriptions commissioned by specific regimes. The Assyrian Synchronistic Chronicles describe relations between Assyria and Babylon from about 1500 B.C.E. to 783 B.C.E. Each section of the text deals with an Assyrian king and his Babylonian counterpart. Kings who had no dealings with Babylon were excluded, but the report is otherwise comprehensive. Although not propagandistic in the same way as the royal inscriptions, these Chronicles are clearly written from the Assyrian point of view. Where disputes between the two nations are noted, Babylon is usually judged unfavorably; where skirmishes are reported, attention is usually on the victory of the Assyrians. For all their attention to historical details, these Chronicles cannot be seen as an objective presentation of data.

The Babylonian Chronicles deal with military and political affairs of the Babylonian kings from 747 B.C.E. to the Persian conquest in 539 B.C.E. They report on the events with remarkable objectivity and with only occasional recourse to explanations of divine causality. Even the demise of Babylon is reported with neither apology nor polemic. This is not to say, however, that these chronicles are presenting history for its own sake, only that the compilers saw no disadvantage for their purposes in laying out the historical data as they were.

It appears, then, that the historiographic works of the ancient Near East were purposeful documents written to lead one to certain conclusions. Even genealogies and chronicles were composed not for antiquarian and pedantic interests, but to persuade the readers to see the author's point of view. Thus, too, the historiographic materials of the Bible must be read, not as scientific presentation of data, but as purposeful—in most cases, theological—documents.

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