Warring With Words
Religion scholar chases text destruction in the ancient world
Engraved tablets and boundary stones from the ancient Near East add an aura of deep mystery to the famed Louvre museum in Paris. The relics span 9,000 years from prehistory to the early Islamic period. Some are hidden from public view in back rooms. Many artifacts are etched with the lettering of extinct languages.
Nathaniel Levtow is one of a handful of scholars who can read the cryptic words. He is a lifelong student of Phoenician, Akkadian, Aramaic and Hebrew. This summer, the UM religious studies professor traveled first to Jerusalem and then to the Louvre in Paris, where he studied early inscriptions that include boundary stones and law codes from the excavations of Susa, once ancient Iran. Some of these stones were carved in Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago but abducted by the king of Susa 1,000 years later.
To the casual visitor to the Louvre, the imagery and writing are inscrutable. To Levtow, the stones reveal an unfolding drama. Upon close examination, for example, the stolen stones of Susa reveal erasures of text and new writing over the old.
"You have to read them yourself," he says. "The languages are the windows to the ancient world."
Levtow seeks patterns in the early stone writings. Rather than focusing on the creation of texts, he looks for repeated acts of text destruction, which are associated with violence against people.
The Hebrew Bible itself has been a target of destruction, he points out. And within its pages is the famous scene of Moses smashing the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. That was no random fit of anger, he explains. Rather, the scene from Exodus exemplified a long tradition of the consequence of breaking law codes. When Moses saw his people worshiping a golden calf in violation of "thou shalt have no other gods, no graven images or likenesses," he destroyed the divine text.
A two-month grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities provides the funding for explorations that further Levtow’s overarching endeavor to find new perspectives on the Bible through understanding the cultures and practices of the times its writers lived in.
What Levtow knows so far about stone carvings might add fodder for a whole new genre of "Da Vinci Code" thrillers. Translations of the rune-like lettering on Mesopotamian artifacts often reveal weighty curses meant to protect the engraved names of kings and gods, as well as entire law codes.
For instance, if a person dared to erase a name on a stone, he would face "the obliteration of his city, the dispersion of his people, the supplanting of his dynasty and the blotting out of his name and his memory from the land."
Those are words in the Akkadian language on the famed Stele of Hammurabi displayed at the Louvre. The Stele, an inscribed stone slab, bears a law code from Babylon from about 1772 B.C. (and it, too, was abducted to ancient Susa). The laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Bible also contain warnings to not change or alter what’s written — admonitions that follow from cultural practices of guarding the written words of gods and kings, Levtow says.
The practice of writing curses suggests to Levtow that they arose for a reason. But why would people care enough to steal stones, erase names and replace the name of one king with another?
Energetic and curious, Levtow takes a fresh approach to the question of divine presence on Earth. His scholarly terrain takes him into a world of priests, secret rites and numinous images. Since he arrived at UM in 2006 for his first full-time teaching position armed with a doctorate from Brown University and master’s from Harvard Divinity School, Levtow has offered courses that border on the magical, such as Prophecy.
In 2011, he received UM’s prestigious teaching award for junior professors, the Helen and Winston Cox Educational Excellence Award. Levtow is a gifted scholar as well. In 2006, he earned the outstanding dissertation award in the humanities from Brown University.
"Nat is a genius at being able to present the scholarly perspective," says longtime UM religious studies Professor Paul Dietrich. He admires Levtow’s critical eye and ability to apply social science theories to idolatry and iconoclasm in religion.
Levtow says he often turns to the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience to better understand human perceptions from thousands of years ago. He’s most interested in the ancient Near East from 2500 B.C. to 500 B.C., especially Syria, Babylon, ancient Israel and Egypt. There, Levtow studies the earliest stories of warring gods, where destruction appears to be pivotal to a society’s creation.
"The battle between gods is as old as the hills," Levtow says. "Such battles or ‘combat myths’ often show up in many religious texts, including the Hebrew Bible."
The gods of the ancient world were thought to have a physical presence on Earth first through statues and the earliest writings. Destroying a statue or other image, the practice called iconoclasm, was a powerful act. Levtow suggests that the Bible’s condemnation of worshipping images coupled with promoting only one universal god, is another variation of the ancient war of gods, where the winner destroys or takes over the other’s images.
His new research into text destruction flows from prior studies of iconoclasm, the subject of his dissertation and a 2008 book, "Images of Others: Iconic Politics in Ancient Israel."
"I’m very interested in learning what it means to interrelate with a statue as if it were a living god," he says.
Levtow studied Mesopotamian "mouth-washing" rituals where priests imbued statues with life and divinity after stone-carvers, woodsmiths and metal-workers finished their works. Statues that today we might admire for their artistic beauty were once considered living gods.
In ancient wars, battles often involved horrific losses of limbs and lives, yet the ultimate defeat only happened through the loss of a statue embodying the divine presence of a god. To gain more power over the losers, the victors often would not break statues, but abduct them and place them before their own divine statues in their own temples.
"You have this in the Bible, too," says Levtow. "The ark functions like a divine statue. The Israelites take the ark into battle, and when they are defeated the ark is stolen and taken to the temple of their victorious enemy’s god and placed before its statue."
The Ark of the Covenant was the chest built at the command of God to hold the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments, as described in Exodus.
If statues could be divine, then so could ancient writings, Levtow points out. Similarly, if statues could be destroyed or usurped, then so could the texts.
That’s where the curses come in. The earliest texts of ancient Sumeria in the third millennium began as writing on objects and images. The first texts were often names of kings engraved on stone statues. Later came the curse, created to protect the name and statue.
"The curses basically say that if you destroy my statue or name, your name will be destroyed, and your son will die, and your dynasty will end," Levtow says. "So, in the world’s oldest known texts, the destruction of writing engraved on the images is linked to the death of people. It’s one interlocking reality."
Levtow believes that special rituals surrounded early writing. Toss out any vision of a lonely scholar scribbling with a calligraphy pen. Instead, writing was a sacred performance art practiced in temples. Since few people could write in the ancient world, those who did had special powers, he says. The words, like statues, came to life as a physical expression of the divine.
"We find here the origin of the holy word," he suggests.
Levtow’s summer excursion exposed him to writings from long ago and to more evidence of deliberate and ideologically motivated text destruction in Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Levantine artifacts. While much of his research focuses on archives of museums and libraries, he visited archeological excavations, including one outside of Jerusalem that is unearthing compelling artifacts from the time of the biblical King David.
As Levtow weaves together the threads of image and text destruction as symbolic violence in the ancient world, his findings may help both to explain motivations for similar acts in the modern world and to inform policies in the volatile Middle East and Central Asia.
He gives one memorable example of a recent act illuminated through the lens of studying the past. When the Taliban in March 2001 blew up the world’s two largest standing Buddhas in Afghanistan, that action was a deliberate public display of image destruction based on a very ancient tradition.
"In today’s world, the study of religion, culture and history are more important than ever," he says.
UM’s Liberal Studies Program now offers a religious studies option with courses on religions of Near Eastern/Mediterranean origin and on South and East Asian religions. Other course offerings cover topics ranging from American Indian religions to Tibetan civilization.
From a personal standpoint, Levtow admits to the pure delight of scholarly time travel that he experiences when pursuing the origin of western religion in the ancient Near East.
"I find it very interesting to spend my time in the ancient world where the gods are everywhere."
— By Deborah Richie