Pondering the Spade: Mari and the Mari Texts

by Dr. David Schreiner

[Click here to view the introduction to this series.]

When I ask students about the purpose of archaeology, I count on receiving a few answers in one form or another.

“To prove that the Bible is true!”

“To find something really valuable!”

I am not surprised by such answers, because most introductions to archaeology happen via Indiana Jones the Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Treasure, or some other cinematic creation. So, I can’t help but chuckle when I see shades of disappointment creep across their faces as I explain that biblical archaeology is really days upon days of monotony in the scorching hot sun occasionally punctuated by a significant find. Worse yet, the payoff normally does not come until years after excavation has finished when archaeologists hole up in the offices in order to meet publication deadlines.

I know…total bummer, right?

So, what then is archaeology, and what is its purpose? Other than to disappoint students? It is essentially the excavation of “stuff” for the purposes of understanding a culture through its material remains. So, there is a lot of meticulous digging, photographing, cataloging, starring at dirt, discussing dirt, and getting excited about dirt. However, if one is committed to the end goal, if one is in it for the long-haul and is willing to spend tremendous amounts of time synthesizing truckloads of data, then one could revolutionize the way the world understands a particular culture.

That is the exciting part!

Mari Map
Figure 1

The excavations at Mari are a prime example of how long term commitments to the monotony of archaeology can pay off. Mari, modern day Tell el-Hariri, sits in modern-day Syria. It was the size of a massive and very influential city during the Middle Bronze Age (circa. 2000-1550 BCE), which is due in large part to its proximity to a number of ancient trading routes. The climax of its prestige occurred around 1800 BCE, but by about 1750 BCE it was sacked by Hammurabi, the founder of the Old Babylonian Empire.

Excavations at Mari covered decades, which has resulted in an immense amount of material. The opulence of the city during its height of influence is manifested in its architecture and city planning, but perhaps most vividly in the palace complex of Zimri-Lim. That complex covered acres and contained hundreds of rooms. Yet, without question, the most enduring quality of Mari is its texts. Archaeologists have excavated tens of thousands clay tablets, which contain anything from census lists, legal texts, diplomatic texts, to narratives. In short, these texts shed light on all facets of ancient Near Eastern society.

Specific to Old Testament studies, and at the expense of sounding glib, two implications from the Mari texts, I believe, leap to the forefront. First, the texts describe a “dimorphic society,” which is a scholarly term for a society that manifests two identifiable and separate elements that collaborate for the integrity of said society. For example, in the Mari texts one reads about the negotiation between settled and nomadic people over watering and pasturing rights, as well as other aspects of the daily relationship that was to be mutually beneficial for both elements of the society. Such accounts are critical because they illuminate the interactions between the Patriarchs and their Canaanite neighbors. So, the fluid interaction between pastoralists and sedentary peoples described in the Mari texts can explain Lot’s settlement near Sodom (Genesis 13). The texts also help us understand the migratory routes of the Patriarchs that often found them near significant Canaanite cities.

Second, the Mari texts offer a valuable cross-sectional view into the prophetic institution. In these texts, one reads about similar terms as those used in the Bible, similar methods of prophecy, and even similar reasons for the prophetic word. For example, Mari shows how the prophetic word comes in response to times of socio-political crisis, which certainly characterizes the era of the Major and Minor Prophets. Also, Mari describes the presence of professional and intuitive prophets (prophets who were “called” only for a certain period of time and/or for a specific purpose), as well as inductive verses non-inductive prophecy (observations based on concrete phenomena and accepted canons versus prophecy based on divine sanctioned “word”).

Now, you may be thinking, “Why did you single out Mari? There are other places that attest to the same material? What about Nineveh and its prophetic texts?” Fair enough. However, the quality and quantity of the material at Mari is unmatched. Simply, Mari is arguably the richest site for comparative data—whether you are concerned with textual or non-textual issues. Moreover, the prophetic institution casts a long shadow across the history and textual development of Israel and the Patriarchal era remains one of the most cryptic of all the Old Testament eras. Any extra-biblical data that allows us to understand these two issues more effectively is most welcome.

Figure 1: Brisco, Thomas V. Holman Bible Atlas. Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 1998, 10

 

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