Context of Scripture: And When I Say, "Context"...
...I mean, context.
(Reading COS in a year, following Charles’ schedule. Join in any time!)
The archival document for the day is a short Ugaritic letter from “The King to Ḥayyaʾil Regarding an Allotment of Logs” (3.45Q). I know! Hold your excitement! Dennis Pardee offers a record-breaking ratio of commentary to text: the latter measuring about 6 square inches, the former a hefty 52 square inches (in reduced font, no less). In the letter, the king scolds his recipient for asking where to get the logs for a certain temple, and informs him where the logs will come from. In the commentary, Pardee finds opportunity to make illustrative inquiry into
- indicators of genre, both in the language of the text and in such non-textual indicators as horizontal strokes dividing elements of the inscription;
- the institutions and practices associated with timber production, sale, and distribution in and around Ugarit;
- how to “follow the money” involved with dispersal of royal funds to or through civil employees and private vendors and distributors, possibly involving alliterative wordplay;
- and more! Seriously, lots to learn here for the patient.
The other text for the day is the “Prophecies of Neferti” (1:45). Students in Bible will appreciate this one as an example of “prophecy ex eventu,” that is the literary fiction of prophecy formulated “after the fact” (as in the apocalypses of Daniel 7–12, for example, or in 1 Kings 13:1-3). Here, the wise scribe Neferti is said to live during the reign of Snefru (4st Dynasty), predicting a future disastrous period that will eventually be corrected by a restorative, redeeming king “Imeny” (Amenemhet I, 12th Dynasty). The work itself of course derives from the reign of that same Amenemhet I, justifying his usurpation and reforms.
Students of the ancient Egyptian language will know that this 12th Dynasty defines the “Middle Kingdom” period of Egypt, considered a literary high point, the style of which is considered normative in later periods. Reading “The Prophecies of Neferti” alongside of “The Instructions of Amenemhet I” (1.36; a work likely written after his death to defuse his assassination and legitimate his heir’s succession) and “The Tale of Sinuhe” (1.38; a politically charged fantasy story also reflecting Amenemhet I’s death and succession), while attending to the notes, begins to provide a textured depiction of this watershed moment in Egypt’s past.[FOOTNOTE]
Here in “The Prophecies of Neferti,” where it depicts the disastrous period preceding Amenemet’s usurpation of the crown, we learn a lot about what scares the daylights out of right-thinking ancient Egyptians:
- Asiatics in Egypt
- failure to observe ritual, including mourning rites
- violence, and indifference to violence
- burdensome taxes
- breaking down of social hierarchies
- Asiatics in Egypt.
This is why I have to be careful not to fall behind on our reading schedule, and when I do fall behind, to simply pick up where we are instead of trying to read too much at once. The texts are just so, so good on a second reading after I have had time to marinate in the contexts for a spell.
BACK TO POST The interested reader might start with Ronald J. Leprohon, “Egypt, History of (Dyn. 11–17)” Anchor Bible Dictionary 2:345-348 (Doubleday, 1992).
[Context of Scripture: And When I Say, "Context"... was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/25. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]