I have a new article out in the Journal of Biblical Literature (vol. 42 no. 3). The title is “Not Seeing, Unseeing,and Blind: Disentangling Disability from Adjacent Topoi in the Hebrew Bible,” and it is part of a broader research project reassessing the portrayal and metaphorical use of blindness in biblical texts and the ancient Middle East more broadly.
It argues that Hebrew biblical texts have a very limited range of blindness metaphors, and that several texts that have historically been identified as blindness metaphors originally had nothing to do with blindness at all. I structure it around the famous biblical line “they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear!” Variations show up in five different places in the Hebrew Bible, meaning very different things and revealing different aspects of the boundaries of blindness and disability.
IF you want to read it but don’t have institutional access, just let me know.
Sometimes, when you write articles for academic journals, they make you stick to the word count and you have to cut out fun tidbits that, while fascinating, don’t really contribute to the argument all that much. But lucky you! Since you read my blog, you get to read about one such little tidbit.
That biblical phrase above? The Bible was not the first to use it. Centuries before any of the biblical texts I discuss were written, it appeared in a Sumerian poem first published in 1977 under the catchy title (The GIR5 and the ki-sikil.”*
The obverse (front) of tablet BM 24975, which contains the poem in question
[Photo © Trustees of the British Museum]
The ki-sikil is quite clearly a girl or young woman, but the identity of the GIR5 (or KAŠ4, if that’s your style) is more ambiguous. The basic meaning of this term is some kind of runner, messenger, or traveler, but where the young man has gone and why are never clarified. In the first 20 of the poem’s 49 lines, someone tells the young woman to prepare for the arrival of the GIR5.
Then the young woman starts speaking, saying that her GIR5 has arrived, yet not arrived. She says
igi in-tuku igi nu-mu-ni-dug-a
ka in-tuku inim nu-mu-da-ba-e
He has eyes, (but) he does not see me.
He has a mouth, (but) he does not speak
As her poetic monologue progresses, it becomes clear that the woman’s GIR5 has not returned alive from his journeys. Scholars are divided on whether the GIR5’s body has been literally returned or is being represented here by a figurine, but in either case the woman proceeds to fulfill the rites of death, mourning, and offerings for those who have gone down to the netherworld.
Just like most of the biblical versions of this line, “The GIR5 and the ki-sikil” uses it to describe something that
- has eyes
- can’t see
- isn’t blind
If the GIR5 is a figurine, it is similar to the litanies of mockery directed at foreign gods in Psalms 115 and 135. IF it is a corpse, it has no biblical parallel and represents a unique usage of this ambiguous and versatile couplet.
I should add that I’m not saying the there’s a direct line of borrowing from the Sumerian elegy to the pre-exilic biblical prophets—a gap of more than a thousand years separates the two. It’s just fun to note that someone had the idea long before the texts that made it famous.
*Samuel Noah Kramer, “The GIR5 and the ki-sikil: A New Sumerian Elegy,” in Essays on the Ancient Near East in Memory of J. J. Finkelstein ( ed. M. de Jong; Hamden, 1977), 139–142.