More Help from Syria: Introducing Emar to Biblical Study

By Daniel E. Fleming

The ancient city of Emar on the great bend of the Euphrates River in Syria was excavated from 1972-1976 by a French team directed by Jean-Claude Margueron (see his article in this issue, pp. 126-138 and 1975a, b, c; 1980; 1982). Excavations at the site of Mesk�n� yielded one thousand to two thousand cuneiform tablets and fragments, most written in Akkadian during the thirteenth century bce. Excitement over the finds from nearby Ebla perhaps distracted attention from Emar, and although the Akkadian texts were published by Daniel Arnaud in 1985-1987, they are only now beginning to receive the study they deserve.

Emar constitutes a major new source for ancient Syria, from roughly the same time as Ugarit about 125 miles further east, and it will certainly become an important point of reference for biblical scholarship. My own involvement with Emar began with my dissertation study of the unique ritual texts (Fleming 1992a),1 and I am continuing work with both the rituals themselves and potential biblical connections. The purpose of this paper is to advertise Emar to biblical scholars while attempting a cautious approach that avoids the shortcomings of "biblicizing" ancient texts by forcing on them features drawn from the Bible (Sasson 1980).

Emar and Its Tablets

When Margueron excavated the tell above the Euphrates River, he was looking for the Middle Bronze Imar that was mentioned in second-millennium texts, including the Mari archives. The city was situated upstream on the Euphrates from Tuttul, apparently at the point where trade with the west switched from the river to an overland route (Margueron 1975a:202-203; 1980:285-286; cf. Durand 1990). Instead he found nothing older than a Late Bronze II city built on virgin soil by the Hittites when they conquered the region in the late fourteenth century. The city was destroyed utterly shortly after 1200 bce, never to be rebuilt (Arnaud 1975). The earlier city either was buried under the waters of the lake or lies deep below the tell layers manufactured in the massive Hittite project, now shorefront real estate on Lake El Assad (Margueron 1990; Geyer 1990).

Margueron concentrated his efforts on the early levels at Mesk�n�/Emar, which were entirely Late Bronze. The lower, eastern section of the mound was occupied by the town of Balis, which left substantial remains from the Roman, Byzantine, and earliest Islamic periods. Most of Balis was covered by the lake in 1974, while excavations were still in progress on the higher part of the tell, and Margueron only managed to prove that the Late Bronze city extended into this eastern area. He failed to reach older occupation or virgin soil (Margueron 1982:238).

Hittite builders thus appear to have initiated construction of a completely new city site, exerting remarkable effort in order to produce a large defensible base. Manipulation of the existing geography included cutting away extensive sections of rock and filling natural wadis so that the level of the finished mound was raised thirty-five to forty meters above its original height, and the western juncture with the valley bluffs was separated by an artificial ravine as much as twenty meters deep (Margueron 1980:288). The effort provided the Hittites an outpost at the southeastern edge of their empire, facing the declining kingdom of Mitanni and the rising power of Assyria (Laroche 1980).

Numerous field areas and soundings concentrated in the western part of the tell produced Late Bronze architectural remains, including approximately thirty houses built according to a Syrian plan. Tablets with defined context were uncovered in a variety of locations. An administrative building identified by Margueron as an early hilani (Chantier [field] A; Margueron 1979), contained tablets along with jar fragments (Arnaud 1986: texts 1-22). An adjoining house produced seven more tablets, placed in a jar in the niche of a wall (texts 23-29). At the western height of the city two temples, which appear to have been devoted to Baal and Astart, produced texts 42-76 (Chantier E). Two other temples yielded respectively a small group of tablets (temple M2, texts 68-74) and the vast majority of the Emar finds (temple M1, see below). Temple M1 was discovered during excavations in a medieval cemetery (Ory and Paillet 1974). The extremely broken and disordered state of its tablet collection derives from its twelfth-century destruction. The tablets appear to have been stored at some height, perhaps in a second story (Chantier M; Margueron 1975a:209). A jar imbedded in the ground below floor-level under the stairs of a house contained tablets (Chantier T: see texts 75-108). Some tablets were associated with the badly disturbed remains of three houses (Chantier V: texts 109-136). The Emar texts are the product of the cuneiform scribes trained in the writing tradition of Mesopotamia as found across the ancient Near East in the second millennium. Personal names from the Emar tablets display occasional visitors from Babylonia or Assyria and a relatively small population of Hittite functionaries. The large majority of names are Syrian Semitic, especially of people from Emar's immediate circle, with little evidence of a major Hurrian element (Laroche 1983). The texts include: 1) Akkadian texts regarding daily life in Emar (Arnaud 1986): contracts, wills, and other legal documents; letters; administrative lists, especially for temples; and texts for rituals and offerings; 2) Mesopotamian lexical and literary texts, used in scribal training (Arnaud 1987); 3) a few Hittite letters; and 4) a collection of Hurrian medical and divination texts, translated from the Akkadian Mesopotamian canon.

The Akkadian texts are now available in transliteration and translation in volumes 3 and 4 of Arnaud's Emar editions, and the others are in various stages of publication.

Among the most remarkable of the Emar textual finds is the diviner's archive, which includes four hundred of the more than five hundred Akkadian texts composed for local use, along with the Mesopotamian scribal works and the Hurrian scholarly lore. These were found in one building, the "temple M1," that appears to have been a scribal center under supervision of a man called "the diviner of the gods of Emar." Among the diverse private and temple documents were almost two hundred texts and fragments for rituals composed at Emar itself (texts 369-535). They describe Emar practice and are not duplicated in the ritual collections from Hatti (Hittite and Hurrian), Mesopotamia (Babylonian and Assyrian), and Ugarit.

There are four kinds of Emar ritual texts. 1) Festival tablets reflect deeply rooted native Syrian traditions, although the scribes classify them by the Sumerian EZEN. 2) Calendar rituals are set either as months in a year or as days in a month. Arnaud (1980:384) suggests that they derive from Mesopotamian models, but they do not conform to known types. 3) Lists of sacrifices or offerings are found. 4) Rites for the gods of Hatti are based on Hittite rituals, though no exact equivalent has been found (Laroche 1988; Lebrun 1988).

Among the festivals included in the texts, four major rites display the core of Syrian ritual at Emar. The first of these describes the installation of the NIN.DINGIR (Emar 369), the high priestess of the storm god's temple. This rite covers nine days: selection, a separate "shaving day," and a seven-day "installation," offerings and feasting begun by enthronement and closed by the final move of the priestess into her temple residence.

The second major rite describes the installation of the mas'artu (Emar 370), priestess of Astart of Battle; the title mas'artu is unknown. This covers eight days: an introductory day plus a similar seven-day installation. In spite of the similar framework, the content of this initiation is quite distinct from the other.

The zukru festival (Emar 373), the third of these rites, operates on a seven-year cycle, with rites in the sixth year leading to the zukru itself, a seven or eight day sequence in the first month of the seventh year. The Akkadian syllabic spelling allows z/s/s and k/q/g, but the most plausible meanings appear to be based on the Semitic roots zkr for "male" or "remembering" (Lafont 1984).

Finally, a set of kissu festivals (Emar 385-388) are associated with various deities, conducted outside Emar at a town called Satappi. The five kissu rituals are found in many copies in various combinations, and they are the most opaque of the festivals. The rites vary considerably, and the significance of the title remains uncertain.

Emar in Syria

With the first decipherment of ancient Near Eastern texts, the great centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt naturally took prime place in the study of the region's cultures. Gradually the spaces have been filled in, especially the Hittite empire in second-millennium Asia Minor, and then Hurrian influence across northern Mesopotamia and Syria for the same period. For western scholars, the other center of attention in the ancient Near East is Israel and its Bible, and by extension, Canaan. Because of this interest, Ugarit has almost come to define what is "Canaanite," especially when speaking of religion and culture, since it provides the main text evidence for second-millennium "Canaan," though it is situated in northern Syria.

In earlier scholarly discussion, ancient Syria tended either to be defined as part of another region, especially Mesopotamia or Canaan, or to be regarded as a cultural crossroads without a distinctly indigenous heritage. Text finds from Mari, and perhaps to a lesser extent Alalah, began to dislodge this assessment. The growing body of cuneiform tablets from third- and second-millennium Syria is initiating a decisive change of opinion. Thus, the current work evaluating the place of Syria in the ancient Near East is among the most exciting of recent research.

Ebla in the third millennium and Emar in the second require explanation as representatives of an inland Syrian culture, and continuing excavations promise further text finds. Northern Syria indeed felt the influence of the powerful neighboring nations and cultures of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the south, but the ancient native traditions and complex internal developments of the region are increasingly apparent. It is even possible to discern Syrian influence on its neighbors. For instance, Hittite and Hurrian involvement in Syria took aspects of Syrian religion deep into Asia Minor.

Emar is 125 miles from Ugarit and their texts come from roughly the same time, but this proximity only underlines the real diversity in second-millennium Syria. While the town of Emar was neither as large nor as influential in its time as Ugarit, the tablet finds from Emar compare in numbers to those from Ugarit and offer an invaluable source for a new Syrian setting. They are perhaps all the more useful for reconstructing the breadth of ancient Syrian culture because they come from a smaller urban center.

The changes in how Syria is viewed are especially apparent in the realm of religion. Before Ebla and Emar, ancient Syrian religion was almost defined as "ancient Ugaritic religion." The wealth of Ugaritic evidence is indeed marvelous: unique myths and tales which explore the life and struggles of the gods and of heroes with the gods, and a more limited collection of rituals expressing religious practice. Emar offers a balance and a complement to Ugarit. Emar has not yielded local myths, but its ritual texts far outnumber Ugarit's (perhaps by twice) and offer a completely new perspective. The festivals in particular are replete with previously unattested Semitic words, seeming to indicate a distinct inland Syrian West Semitic language. The core festivals are long and complex, each representing a different religious heritage at Emar and yielding a wealth of information about the pantheon, sacred sites and personnel, materials, utensils, and procedures for offering, processions, feasts, and the specific acts pertinent to the business of each event.

One of the most striking aspects of Emar ritual is the relatively minor role played by the king, in contrast to the Ugaritic corpus and to much recorded ancient Near Eastern ritual. At Emar, the palace provides offering materials for some rites, and the king sometimes receives feast portions. Yet only one ritual fragment (Emar 392) centers on the king, and none shows him actively involved, as in processions or offering. In the installation festival of the NIN.DINGIR, it is the elders of Emar, apparently representing the city government, who bow down before the new priestess at her enthronement and give her gifts. Though the king is provided food portions at tables with other ritual dignitaries and in final allotments, the NIN.DINGIR festival seems rooted in a society without kings. Emar had kings under Hittite rule, but the royal institution was either recent or always exercised a limited influence. This is not the centralized society of palace government (Fleming 1992b).

Emar and Biblical Literature

Various specific features from the Emar texts could be attractive to biblical scholars. I will review a few of the most striking.


The Bible preserves in the priestly law of the Pentateuch the one substantial compilation of traditions important to those who administered the cult, widely associated with the second temple. In repeated references through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, two traditions for anointing priests are recorded side-by-side. Aaron is anointed to be high priest by oil poured on his head, with references to successors and to a single "anointed priest" (Exod 29:7 and Lev 8:12; cf. Exod 29:29-30; Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15; 16:32; 21:10; and Num 35:25). Other texts assume that both Aaron and his sons, so all priests, are anointed (e.g. Exod 28:41; 40:13-15; Num 3:3). The narratives that anticipate and recount Aaron's installation in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 incorporate both traditions and specify a distinct rite for Aaron and the sons together, where they are spattered (nazah) with both blood from a sacrificed ram and some of "the anointing oil" (Exod 29:21; Lev 8:30).

Although these two rites have commonly been interpreted as stages in a development from anointing only the high priest to inclusion of all priests (Noth 1967; de Vaux 1961), the details suggest distinct customs combined in one narrative. Emar ritual adds important comparative evidence regarding both. On the first day of her installation festival, the NIN.DINGIR is anointed by pouring oil on her head immediately after confirmation by lot of her selection. This occurrence is particularly noteworthy because the text explicitly treats ritual for induction into sacred office, as do Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8. Brides may be anointed before marriage in the ancient Near East, but this instance is a part of her larger installation into divine service as such and has the ordination as its primary point of reference. Comparison to a bride is made only on the final day, when the woman leaves her father's house to move into her temple residence. The secondary nature of the simile is displayed in the fact that Emar has a NIN.DINGIR for a goddess, Astart.

Collective anointing with blood and oil, the other custom recorded in the biblical installation texts, finds a less direct but still useful comparison in the rubbing of oil and blood on all the sikkanu stones set up for Emar's zukru festival. These are aniconic divine statues, so that in effect some gathering of gods is anointed for each principal day's participation in this celebration of Dagan's rule. Neither the biblical nor the Emar anointing with oil and blood mentions the head nor the specific method of pouring, and in both settings two essentially separate rituals seem to be envisioned. Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 are better explained by conceiving parallel customs rather than democratization of high priestly anointing.(2)

Festival Construction

None of the Emar festivals is seven days long, but the three longest all incorporate seven-day units at their core as a period of offering and feasting, sometimes opened and closed with special rites for the first and seventh days. The NIN.DINGIR festival's seven-day period begins with a day of enthronement and ends with rites moving the priestess into her temple residence. Both the mas'artu-priestess installation and the zukru festival include seven-day sequences with separate rites prescribed for day seven. All three festivals involve at least one preparation day before the seven-day unit.

Until now, evaluation of the various biblical requirements for Israelite festivals has lacked external evidence for comparison. The merging of the Passover with the feast of Unleavened Bread, whenever it took place (de Vaux 1961:486), might be illuminated by the compound construction of the Emar festivals. In particular, the shaving day that precedes the seven-day NIN.DINGIR installation proper is treated almost as a separate feast, even while organically incorporated into the larger event. The eight-day framework is apparently not an Israelite innovation.


Beyond the general similarity in the compound construction of Israelite and Emar festivals around seven-day units, the calendar for one Emar festival possesses specific points of similarity to biblical traditions. Emar's zukru festival takes place every seventh year and begins on the fifteenth day of the first month, apparently in the fall. The celebration lasts seven days, preceded by preparatory rites on the fourteenth of the month.

Three elements of the biblical festival system have some correspondence to this zukru calendar. Passover (Pesah) and Unleavened Bread (Massot) are joined in priestly tradition at the first full moon of a spring new year, Pesah on the fourteenth and Massot lasting seven days from the fifteenth (see especially Leviticus 23). Only Massot appears in Exodus 23:15, and Pesah is not separated to the previous day in Deut 16:1-8, so that the priestly eight-day version is widely considered a relatively late development (de Vaux 1961:484-493). Booths (Sukkot) stands at the fifteenth of the seventh month, the first full moon of the year's autumn axis (Lev 23:33-36). The Emar zukru festival marks reinitiation of a seven-year pattern of ritual relationship between human and divine spheres. By expense alone, the event is cast as the most lavish and therefore prominent of attested Emar rites. One repeated sequence dominates the festival: after offering and feasting outside the city walls, Dagan, the head of the middle Euphrates pantheon, is borne between upright stones (sikkanatu) before reentering the city. Such celebration of Emar's divine lord, set at an important transitional moment in the calendar of months and years, appears to reestablish Dagan's rule. The very title zukru might then refer to naming (or, "remembering") the god in commitment to his sovereignty.

Neither the Exodus Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23, cf. 34) nor the Deuteronomic law specifies the opening day of the festivals, but only the month and the seven-day period. The precise comparison with biblical calendar derives from the priestly Torah traditions, and the Emar parallel might show a calendar tradition for a Syrian (but not Mesopotamian) turn-of-the-year festival, which should not first come to Israel through Nebuchadnezzar. Even if the particular month designations were new, perhaps the placement of the festivals at the first month's full moon belongs to older tradition.

Emar's zukru appears to have originated as an annual event, but under royal sponsorship both expense and calendar are expanded to produce the festival. While the essential zukru represents a moment of beginning, re-devoting the city to its divine lord at the start of the year, the zukru as festival observes a true sabbatical year in that the whole last year of a seven-year cycle is set apart before the zukru proper sees in the new seven-year period. Especially because the longer cycle appears secondary to zukru celebration, the intrinsic significance of the seven years is not evident in the ritual record. Nevertheless, the calendar observance as such closely resembles the Israelite sabbatical year as described in Leviticus 25 (cf. Deuteronomy 15). In Deut 31:10-11 covenant renewal is attached to the seven-year cycle with similar location at the autumn axis, with the feast of Sukkot.

Prophetic Origins

Understanding of Israelite prophecy has been impeded by the difficulty in fixing the etymology of the most common prophetic title, nab��. Development of early prophecy has been illuminated by phenomena described in letters found at Mari, but no cognate term had been found either there or elsewhere. Emar now supplies one of two new attestations of a group called the nab�. A letter to Mari (Archives royales de Mari XXVI 216; Durand 1988:444-445) recounts that the l�na-bi-imes of the West Semitic Hanean people were invited to a divinatory inquiry, apparently for participation that would complement the traditional Mesopotamian diviner (bar�m). In the Emar text "the house of the l�.mesna-bi-i" replaces the temple of Ishara in one of two copies for the kissu festival of that goddess. Ishara has a similar exclusive association with the female munabbiatu, evidently a related term. The verb nab�, "to name," from which both titles are derived, occurs otherwise only in one idiom: in legal documents designating a female heir, she is exhorted to "invoke" the ancestral and personal protective deities of the family. This offers a plausible etymology for the Syrian nab�, as those who invoke the gods in prayer, blessing, or divinatory/oracular inquiry.

This active etymology of the biblical nab�� as one who approaches God tends to be obscured by the burden of biblical writers to assert the authenticity of prophetic messages as provoked by divine initiative. The older meaning of the word may be preserved in the story of the Syrian Naaman's request to Elisha for healing. Naaman expects the nab�� to operate by "calling on the name" of the god whose power is being invoked and is disappointed when the prophet simply sends him to bathe in the river (2 Kgs 5:11). Similarly, the competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel requires both sides to "call on the name" of their respective deities, to see who will provoke a response (1 Kgs 18:24-29).

Discovery of ancient Syrian cognate terms and their potential help in unraveling the etymology of the title nab�� will not define exhaustively what is Israelite or biblical prophecy, but the new Syrian evidence fills a previous gap in understanding its origins (Fleming 1993a, b).

The marzahu, Rites for the Dead

Emar text 452 records rites for the single month of Ab�, constructed from two principal celebrations. In the middle of the month, probably the fourteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth, are rites for the processional rounds (so, s�du?) of Astart, which give the same month the name Marzahani in another text (446). That text involves the marzahu-men, who bring offerings to "the gods." It is not clear whether the event or the deities have any association with the dead or the underworld.

A second observance at the end of the month, from the twenty-fifth through the twenty-seventh, has at least one direct link with the dead. On the twenty-fifth, a major offering is given "at the gate of the grave," named without qualification, as if it were the one or principal burial place in the city. During these three days further offerings are presented to the ab�'s of several sacred sites. Offering is made "before" the ab� in one case, and the term might indicate figures or shrines for dead ancestors, or for access to the underworld (Hoffner 1967; Cohen 1993:260-261).

Shrines and Priests

Judges 17 preserves an unusual account of a man named Micah who sets up an image and shrine for Yahweh on behalf of his mother at their own home in Ephraim. He first installs one of his sons as priest, later hiring a traveling Levite from Bethlehem in Judah. Micah has no stated governing or institutional status and is qualified to establish his shrine simply because his mother wishes it and can pay for it.

One Emar legal document records a similar establishment of a stone shrine for Nergal by one Pilsu-Dagan, who seems to make himself priest simply by building the structure.3 Emar's elders are summoned to witness the document, which authorizes Pilsu-Dagan and his sons after him forever to serve as its priests. The Judges text remarks that this sort of procedure was possible because Israel had no king; while thirteenth-century Emar had kings, traditional authority rested with the elders, especially in religious affairs. Such a practice might be common through various parts of the ancient Near East, but perhaps the fact that Emar's texts derive from a less palace-centered society permits a rare view of customs more prevalent outside the bigger urban centers.


Most of the ancient Near Eastern sites that have left substantial cuneiform archives, even including Ugarit, are urban centers, often with political, economic, and religious systems that revolve around king and palace. By contrast, tribal structures were imbedded at the roots of Israelite society, and the monarchy and subsequent developments did not eliminate but rather interacted with the tribal foundation.

The middle Euphrates region in northern Syria likewise experienced constant interaction between city-state cultures and West Semitic tribal societies, and thirteenth-century Emar had not completely assimilated the features of the centralized Bronze Age city. Emar's mixed urban and small-town Syrian community may thus in some ways offer a closer social comparison for biblical Israel than the Ugaritic city-state.


An earlier form of this paper was read at the 1991 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. The present revision has benefited particularly from suggestions by Jack M. Sasson. 1 Most of the detailed observation regarding the rituals from Emar appears in this monograph, and I will not generally make reference to that work for support.

2 For an extensive treatment of anointing in the Bible and in ancient Near Eastern texts see E. Kutsch, Salbung als Rechtsakt im Alten Testament und im Alten Orient, Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1963, and the review of Kutsch by K. R. Veenhof, Bibliotheca Orientalis 23 (1966) 308-313.

3 This text (Aula Orientalis Supplementa 87, Arnaud 1991) and the connection with Judges 17 were brought to my attention by Jack Sasson.


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