Akkadian Commentaries and Early Hebrew Exegesis

By Uri Gabbay | Cite this page
Gabbay, U., “Akkadian Commentaries and Early Hebrew Exegesis,” Cuneiform Commentaries Project (2016), at http://ccp.yale.edu/introduction/technical-terms (accessed )

Already in the mid-1950s W. G. Lambert called attention to the value of comparing Akkadian commentaries to rabbinic Midrash,1 Indeed, ancient Mesopotamian commentaries share a considerable amount of features with two main corpora of Hebrew exegesis from Palestine, namely the rabbinic tannaitic literature, especially halakhic Midrash dating to the first centuries CE, and the sectarian Damascus Document and Pesharim literature found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (the former also known from the Cairo Genizah) dating approximately to the first century BCE or slightly later. The similarities include hermeneutical concerns, techniques, and tools; hermeneutical terminology; and broader features such as the construction of textual authority.2 Mesopotamian parallels to Jewish traditions are usually sought in Hebrew and Aramaic rabbinic sources from Babylonia, specifically the Babylonian Talmud. But in the case of commentaries, the earlier Palestinian material is closer to the ancient Mesopotamian material.



The ancient Mesopotamian exegetical and religious tradition distinguished between three levels of textual authority, according to the perceived authorship of a given text. The highest level of authority was divine, possessed by texts attributed to the gods themselves: cultic and liturgical texts, divinatory texts, and a few Sumerian myths. The authority of other texts usually resulted from their attribution to mythological or historical scholars. 3 The majority of Akkadian commentaries address texts that possessed divine authority, while the commentaries themselves have (oral) scholarly authority (šūt pî, literally: “those of the mouth”; ša pī ummâni, literally: “that of the mouth of a scholar”). This scholarly authority ultimately had its origins in the divine realm too: divine knowledge was revealed to the mythological sages in primordial times, and was then transmitted, according to ancient Mesopotamian perception, from generation to generation by scholars.

In the rabbinic world as well, especially in halakhic Midrash, the authority of the base text, the Torah, was regarded as divine. In the case of Qumran, especially in the Pesharim literature, the base text that is the subject of exegesis is usually considered to be a divine message delivered through a prophet. Thus most Pesharim comment on passages from the biblical prophetic books or the Psalms, which were believed to have been written by David under divine inspiration. And like the Mesopotamian commentaries, rabbinic exegesis of the Torah possessed scholarly authority. In the worldview of rabbinic literature, as in Mesopotamia, oral scholarly lore had been transmitted from generation to generation from the time of the revelation of the Scriptures themselves.



The content of Mesopotamian commentaries and Hebrew commentaries is quite different. Hebrew commentaries on the Bible deal mostly with law (halakhic Midrash), literary texts such as myths and narratives (aggadic Midrash), or prophecies (Pesharim), while Mesopotamian commentaries deal primarily with technical literature, most notably omens, as well as medical texts and lexical texts, and only marginally with literary texts or law. But from a broader point of view the two corpora of Akkadian and Hebrew texts are similar. Although Mesopotamian omens seem far removed from the cultic and civil laws of the Torah, they were considered to be divine laws in ancient Mesopotamia and are formulated in casuistic clauses like the biblical legal texts. The omens are related to the Pesharim literature as well. The Pesharim interpret prophecies, which like omens are divine pronouncements that predict future events. Thus, although the corpora treated in the Akkadian and Hebrew commentaries are very different in nature, the religious and conceptual perception that they reflect is similar.



Both Akkadian commentaries and rabbinic Midrash are often seen as treatises whose purpose is to broaden the meaning of a text by generating new interpretations. Although individual interpretations do sometimes rely on finding a new meaning in the text, the discovery of new meanings is better understood as the secondary outcome of an authentic attempt to understand the text. Thus, while the process of interpretation itself may be intricate and complex, the hermeneutical principles that guide Akkadian commentaries and Hebrew exegesis are simplicity and clarity.

Often clarity is achieved simply by glossing a word or paraphrasing an expression in the base text, but sometimes more sophisticated procedures are required. It may be necessary, for example, to harmonize two contradicting texts, or to specify the particular circumstances to which a general statement in the base text applies. Often harmonization and specification are combined: a contradiction between two texts that seem to refer to the same situation may be resolved by determining that one text actually describes a specific variation of a general situation. Akkadian commentaries on omens often adopt this technique when two omens describe the same phenomenon but make contrary predictions, or when a single omen is associated with two contrary predictions. For example, a commentary on an extispicy omen deals with contradictory statements regarding the occurrence of two “paths” (i.e., grooves on the lobus sinister) on the liver of the sacrificial sheep:


(67) be gìr 2-ma na-aḫ-su tam-ṭa-a-tu ki-bi-is gìr lú ki dingir šu-šur / šá ana sig₅ (u₍₃₎) ḫul iq-bu-ú(-ma) gizkim-šú-nu sum-nu be-ma (var. šum-ma) ina 15 garmeš da-mi-iq (var. s[ig₅])
(67) “If there are two ‘paths’ and they are recessed—deprivation; the way of man will be directed with god,” which it said favorably (and) unfavorably and gave their sign—if they (= the “paths”) are placed in the right—favorable.


The commentary reconciles the omen’s two apodoses, one unfavorable and the other favorable, by specifying that the favorable apodosis corresponds to the placement of the “paths” on the right area of the lobus sinister (implying that the unfavorable apodosis refers to the opposite situation, i.e., when the “paths” are on the left).

Specification is a common hermeneutical phenomenon in rabbinic literature, often referred to with the noun oqimta, “setting up,” i.e., setting or limiting a case to specific circumstances, usually in order to overcome a textual contradiction. For example, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishma‘el (Pisḥa 8) treats two contradictory biblical statements regarding the period of time during which unleavened bread (matzot) should be eaten during the festival of Passover:

Mekhilta of Rabbi Yismael
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cod. hebr. 117
© Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München


One verse of Scripture says: “Six (days you shall eat unleavened bread)” (Deut. 16:8), while another verse of Scripture says: “Seven (days you shall eat unleavened bread)” (Exod. 12:15). How are these two passages of Scripture to be harmonized?—(for the last) six days (of Passover, the unleavened bread may derive) from the “new” (grain) (= grain of the crop of the new year), (while for the whole) seven days (of Passover, it may derive) from the “old” grain (= the crop of the year now passed).


The Midrash reconciles the contradictory commandments, one mentioning six days and the other seven days, by introducing another element into the discussion: the crop of the new year, whose consumption is forbidden before the sixteenth of Nisan. Since Passover begins on the fifteenth of Nisan, the verse dealing with six days can be applied to the crop of the new year, while the verse dealing with seven days can be applied to the crop of the previous year. Thus, similar to the Akkadian example cited above, the Midrash resolves a textual contradiction by specifying that one of the commandments refers to a unique situation that was not mentioned in the base text—the right side of the liver in the Akkadian context, and the crop of the new year in the Hebrew example.

As seen in the examples above, in order to clarify the interpretation of a text, it may be necessary to adopt a solution that goes beyond the immediate and literal sense of the text. Indeed, the tension between the literal sense of a text and the sense of the text in its larger context is a perpetual concern of Akkadian and Hebrew commentators alike. An awareness of this tension is reflected in commentaries that attach two interpretations to one phrase from the base text: the literal interpretation, which does not necessarily agree with the context, and a nonliteral interpretation that succeeds in reconciling the phrase with its larger context. Sometimes the nonliteral sense of a word is determined through notariqon, i.e., by re-reading the syllables that comprise this word as independent elements. Thus, for example, a commentary on an omen dealing with the observation of a baked brick by the healer on his way to the patient explains the baked brick in several ways:


(r 21)sig₄.al.ùr.ra igi gig ug₇ : sag.ús šá-niš š[á ina ḫur-sà-a]n i-tu-ra (r 22) [a : me-e] : gur : ta-a-ra⸣ ⸢šal-šiš munuspeš₄ a : ma-ru : ki-irgu[r₄ : ka-ra-ṣ]a (r 23) [šá-niš] ⸢a⸣ : ma-ri : gur na-šu-u
(r 21) “If he (= the healer) sees a baked brick (agurru)—the patient will die”— actual (kayyān(u)); secondly: (agurru, “baked brick,” refers to) a man who returned from the river ordeal: (r 22) [A = water], gur = return; thirdly: (agurru, “baked brick,” refers to) a pregnant woman: a = son, gur₄ (pronounced) kir = to pinch off; (r 23) alternatively: a = son, gur = carry.
(SpTU 1 27 r 21-23 = George, 1991A. R. George, Babylonian Texts from the folios of Sidney Smith. Part Two: Prognostic and Diagnostic Omens, Tablet I, Revue d'Assyriologie, vol. 85, pp. 137-167, 1991.: 146–147: 4 = CCP 4.1.1.B)


SpTU 1 27 (CCP 4.1.1.B)
Photograph courtesy of Hermann Hunger
© Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

The second and third interpretations in the commentary re-read the Akkadian word for “baked brick,” agurru, as referring to persons associated with new lives, whether a man returning safely from the river ordeal, or a pregnant woman who will soon be giving birth. Each of these two nonliteral interpretations treats the two main syllables of the noun agurru as elements with semantic content (a = “water” or “son”; gur = “return,” “pinch off,” or “carry”), and not just as the phonetic components of a single word. The reinterpretations of the word agurru as referring to the restoration or creation of a new life probably indicate that the new lives were conceived as substitutes for the near-death of the patient, and thus seek to connect the ominous observation in the protasis to the prediction of the death of the patient in the apodosis. Thus, although not in accordance with the literal meaning of the text, these re-readings of the noun agurru make good sense in the larger context of the omen. But the first interpretation simply notes that the “baked brick” in the omen entry is none other than (kayyān(u)) a baked brick. This statement is significant, since the literal understanding of the word agurru as “baked brick” in the protasis has nothing to do with the death of the patient in the apodosis. Furthermore, given that baked bricks were regularly used in Mesopotamian architecture, the omen would effectively predict the death of every patient visited by a healer. Nevertheless, the commentary notes this as a possible interpretation of the text, even though it causes problems in understanding the rationale behind the text as a whole. In this case, the commentary prefers the literal sense of the text as opposed to reconciling it with its context.


Similar tensions between literal meaning and contextual reconciliation can also be found in rabbinic literature. The following example presents two explanations of an adjective in a biblical verse, one literal and the other based on notariqon. Exod. 2:22 states that Gershom, the son of Moses and Zippora, was born in a foreign (nokrîyâ) land. The commentary in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Amalek 1) records two opinions on how to understand the word nokrîyâ:


“Foreign” (nokrîyâ) – Rabbi Joshua says: it was a foreign land to him—actual (wadday). Rabbi Elazar the Modiite says: in a land foreign to the Lord (that is, nokrîyâ indicating nēkār, “foreign” and , “Lord”) …


In the first interpretation, wadday, “real,” indicates that “foreign” is the standard meaning of the adjective nokhriya. The second interpretation, however, construes it as “foreign to the Lord,” nēkār yâ, and hence changes the meaning. Here too, as in the case of agurru, the interpretations are not just literal and nonliteral, since it is indeed not clear what is foreign, or to whom it is foreign. Is “foreign land” an allusion to Midian or to Egypt? Does it refer to a land foreign to Moses himself or to all the Israelites? The notariqon, although it proposes a new meaning for the text, reflects an authentic attempt to understand what “foreign” means in this context, and not an attempt to discover additional meanings in the text.

In the Mekhilta’s treatment of Exod. 2:22, notariqon is employed in a narrative context. Although this technique is commonly found in Akkadian commentaries (see Hermeneutic Techniques), it is not widely used in early halakhic Midrash. In fact, it is easier to understand the logic of this technique in the context of Akkadian exegesis, where the cuneiform writing system associates both syllabic and semantic values with the various signs.



In addition to methodological parallels, a number of similar terms are found in Akkadian and Hebrew exegesis. A few of them will be enumerated below.

The terms ša pî, “that of the mouth,” ša pī ummâni, “that of the mouth of a scholar,” and šūt pî, “those of the mouth,” all refer to scholarly oral lore. They are reminiscent of the phrase tôrâ šᵉ-bᵉʿal peh, “oral Torah (literally: Torah that is upon the mouth),” as well as dibrê ḥăkāmîm, “words of the scholars,” referring to the oral scholarly lore that accompanies the (textual) written Scripture.

The term mašʾaltu (ša pī) ummâni, “teachings (literally: questioning) (according to the mouth) of a scholar,” is used as a label for Late Babylonian commentaries, referring to the study environment out of which the commentaries emerged. The Hebrew term midrāš, “inquiry,” can refer, like Akkadian mašʾaltu, not only to inquiry and questioning, but also to their result, namely the teaching provoked by the inquiries and questions. The construction midrāš ḥăkāmîm, “inquiry-teaching of the scholars,” which appears once in the halakhic Midrash Sifra (Beḥuqotai, 2, 1), is parallel to the designation of commentaries as mašʾalti ummâni, “teaching of a scholar.”

As shown above, the term kayyān(u), “regular, real, actual,” sometimes appears in Akkadian commentaries as a designation for the literal sense of a lemma or phrase. The term is a predicative adjective or an adverb, probably always appearing undeclined in the masculine singular, and usually marks the first of several interpretations of a word or phrase. The term may occur immediately after the citation of the commented text, or it may follow a clarification of or variation on the commented form; when the latter element appears, it is usually the infinitive of a verbal form in the commented text. The term kayyān(u) may be compared to the Hebrew terms wadday, “real, actual,” and mammāš, “concrete, actual,” which are used in tannaitic halakhic Midrash to distinguish between a literal understanding and a nonliteral explanation (as in the case of wadday in the example from the Mekhilta above). The Hebrew terms are used as adverbs or undeclined predicative adjectives. When mammāš or wadday is used in the interpretation of a verb, the form of the verb may be simplified or altered. The verbal form to which mammāš or wadday refers may also occur in the commentary as a verbal noun or gerund. Thus, the use, semantics, and syntax of the Hebrew and Akkadian terms are similar.

Lastly, the verb “to say” is used frequently in both Akkadian and Hebrew commentaries. The Akkadian terms ša iqbû, “which it said,” and kī iqbû, “like it said,” are used respectively for citing the base text before commenting on it, and for indicating the relationship between an interpretation and the base text. These two terms are paralleled in form and use by the Hebrew phrases ʾăšer ʾāmar, “which it said” (occurring before an interpretation), and kî hûʾ ʾăšer ʾāmar, “for this is that which it said” (occurring after an interpretation, and before a re-citation of the base text that has just been interpreted), used in the Pesharim literature and the Damascus Document. The Akkadian and Hebrew phrases appear in the same context and position within a commentary. The phrases in the first pair – ša iqbû and ʾăšer ʾāmar – appear with a quotation or a re-quotation; the Akkadian phrase follows the quotation and the Hebrew phrase precedes it, in accordance with the syntax of each language. In both Hebrew and Akkadian exegetical literature, an interpretation follows the phrase. The phrases in the second pair – kī iqbû and kî hûʾ ʾăšer ʾāmar – allude to the base text as well. Both the Akkadian and Hebrew phrases appear after the commentary and establish a relationship between the quoted text and the commentary. But there is also a difference: the Akkadian phrase kī iqbû refers to the new meaning, usually a paraphrase, which is “like” what the base text “says.” The quotation from the base text is not repeated, and the object of the verb qabû, “to say,” is the new reading of the original text in light of the interpretation. In Hebrew, kî hû’ ’ăšer ’āmar follows the interpretation but refers to the re-citation of the base text: “because this (i.e., the interpretation or intention of the base text) is what it (i.e., the base text) said: ...” The difference between kī iqbû and Hebrew kî hûʾ ʾăšer ʾāmar is perhaps due to a re-interpretation of Akkadian in line with the more conventional causal-explanatory meaning of in Hebrew.



What is the relation between the Hebrew and Akkadian corpora? Do the similarities point to direct contact between the Akkadian and Hebrew texts, or between the Akkadian and Hebrew scholars who wrote them? Or are the resemblances simply typological, the result of two societies interpreting their own texts using similar modes of exegesis? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between these two options: the similarities may be evidence of an indirect cultural connection between the two exegetical corpora, which share a common ancient Near Eastern cultural perception. Perhaps this perception originated in Mesopotamia but did not directly influence the Hebrew corpus, which developed in the context of a broader Aramaic-Hebrew/West-Semitic body of knowledge.

If the accumulation of evidence for similarities between Hebrew and Akkadian exegesis in various dimensions, such as hermeneutic principles, terminology, and the construction of textual authority, reflects a direct contact between the two corpora, how did this contact take place? Judeans lived in Babylonia from the sixth century BCE onward, and when some of their descendants moved to Palestine a few centuries later, it is possible that they brought the Mesopotamian tradition with them. It should be emphasized, however, that there is presently no historical data available to confirm the hypothesis of the transmission of exegetical terminology and techniques from the Akkadian scholarly tradition in Babylonia to the Hebrew scholarly tradition in Palestine, and therefore any claim that the similarities between Akkadian and Hebrew exegetical texts reflect direct cultural contact remains speculative.


Guide to Further Reading

For studies dedicated to the connections between Akkadian and early Hebrew (and Aramaic) exegesis, see:


  • 1. Lambert, 1954/1956W. G. Lambert, An Address of Marduk to the Demons, Archiv für Orientforschung, vol. 17, pp. 310-321, 1954.: 311.
  • 2. In earlier studies (especially Lieberman, 1987S. J. Lieberman, A Mesopotamian Background for the So-Called Aggadic 'Measures' of Biblical Hermeneutics?, Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 58, pp. 157-225, 1987.), comparisons of Mesopotamian commentaries and rabbinic literature usually focused on two exegetical techniques, namely notariqon, i.e., the parsing of a word into discrete elements to which semantic values are assigned, and gematriah, the attribution of numerical values to words. In fact, however, although the former is indeed widely used in Akkadian commentaries it is not very frequent in Hebrew exegesis, especially not in halakhic Midrash (but see below), and the attribution of numerical values to words, although attested in the Hebrew and Akkadian corpora, is rare in both of them.
  • 3. See Lambert, 1962W. G. Lambert, A catalogue of texts and authors, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 16, pp. 59-77, 1962..