Kingship and Wisdom in Mesopotamia

Concluding his section on the King as Wise Man, Ronald Sweet says,

“The conclusion to be drawn from this evidence is clear.  In Mesopotamian society the king was regarded as possessing an unusually large measure of god-given wisdom, and was thought to manifest that wisdom by performing deeds pleasing to the gods, in particular the building of temples.  The Israelite tradition of King Solomon, the wise king whose greatest achievement was the building of a temple, reflects a similar point of view.”

Concluding his essay, he says concerning the wise man in Akkadian literature,

“Who, on the evidence of Akkadian literature, was the wise man in ancient Mesopotamia?  If the answer is to be decided by a frequency count of claims to wisdom,or by the passion and eloquence of the claims, the answer cannot be in doubt: the king was the wise man par excellence.  Yet only three kings claim to have been literate in two thousand years of Mesopotamian history. The wisdom of kings was therefore not a bookish or intellectual affair.  It was largely a matter of recognizing the supremacy of the gods and performing deeds pleasing to them.  Reverence for the gods was the beginning of wisdom.”

Now, Akkadian literature also knows of “commoners” as wise men (craftsmen, architects and builders, soldiers, cult officials, diviners, exorcists, musicians, physicians, scribes,counselors, teachers[he rejects the meager evidence of this category], and nonspecific). Concerning them Sweet concludes,

“The evidence has also shown that the vocabulary of wisdom was applied to certain classes of the king’s subjects.  What is common to the classes so identified is that they are all in some way professions that required an obvious and special skill, ranging from carpentry through the leadership of armies to vocations requiring mastery of writing.  It is interesting that wisdom terms are not applied to agricultural workers, shepherds, or boatmen, for example.  Such people certainly required professional skills, but they were the widely shared skills of daily life.  If the wise man of Mesopotamia is to be defined as the man who is called wise in Mesopotamia, the definition must emphasize his possession of special know-how, whether in the realm of material concerns or in affairs of the unseen world of the gods.”

(The preceding quotes came from Ronald F. G. Sweet, “The Sage in Akkadian Literature,” in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, edited by John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue, 57, 65.)

Does this picture in Akkadian literature shed any light on the biblical data?  Furthermore, does this evidence aid those who argue that the kingdom/kingship theme runs through all of Scripture, even the wisdom literature?  It seems to me that Scripture also places the emphasis on the wisdom of the king (Proverbs 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:1; Deut. 17:18-19), but not to the exclusion of others (Exodus 35:31ff, Proverbs 30:1ff; Proverbs 1:8-9:fin? = Homilies of the teacher, which Sweet denied as a category in Mesopotamia?).

Let me know your thoughts on this matter.


2 thoughts on “Kingship and Wisdom in Mesopotamia

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