I’ve been reading John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament – a book that introduces the “conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible,” explaining the framework in which the Old Testament events and literature arose. It’s been a fascinating read, offering many incredible insights. (As an aside, I cannot recommend this book enough for those who really want to understand the Old Testament.)
The prayer Walton cites that I read last night is the most poignant of all. It is an Assyrian prayer that was discovered on a tablet that dates from the mid-seventh century BC. Evidently, the supplicant has suffered some type of misfortune in his life and he offers this prayer as a way of rectifying his misery.
But there’s just one problem: he doesn’t know the sin he has committed that would warrant such ire and, just as significantly, he he has no idea which god it is that he has offended. And so he composes this “Prayer to Every God,” hoping that it will somehow reach the ears of whichever god he has offended with a prayer that is sincere enough to appease him.
The anxiety is palpable. He starts by admitting his utter ignorance:
May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
He then declares that he is unaware of his transgression:
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.
He again repeats this refrain a few lines later, adding a few more admissions for force and connecting it to the wrath of the gods:
The sin, which I have committed, I know not.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The offense, which I have committed, I know not.
The transgression I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
The goddess hath become angry with me, and hath grievously stricken me.
The known or unknown god hath straitened me.
The known or unknown goddess hath brought affliction upon me.
Perhaps most heart-rending of all is his utter despondency about his loneliness, and humankind’s inability to know exactly what the gods want and how to approach them:
Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
When I weep, they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled; I am overwhelmed; I cannot see.
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists – what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.
He ends the prayer with this petition: “Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.”
What an incredible tragedy! Can you imagine living in an environment in which you think every bad thing that happens to you results from the anger of the gods? Can you imagine following so many gods that you are unsure of which god you have offended, and how exactly you have offended that god since the gods have not revealed their wills nor their laws?
My heart weeps with incredible sympathy for this despondent penitent.
And yet, it is within this landscape that the God of the Old Testament revealed Himself – a God known for His unique covenant faithfulness and love; a God who liberated His people from the tyranny of divided devotion that characterized polytheism; a God who didn’t leave His followers in the dark about what His expectations were but mercifully revealed them through His Torah.
Is it any wonder that Yahweh jealously asked for exclusive commitment from His people? He wanted to emancipate them from the despair that results from trying to keep multiple gods happy.
Is it any wonder that when He declared His character to Moses, He focused on His consistency and graciousness? “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious,” He announced after the golden calf incident, “longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Is it any wonder that David rejoiced in the Torah, boasting, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me” (Psalm 119:97-98)? The Torah – God’s revealed instructions and guidelines – brought His people out of the darkness and made known to Israel what it was exactly that their God expected of them. Unlike the polytheistic nations around them, they didn’t have to guess about what their God wanted, and they didn’t have to speculate about what would bring them back into harmony with Him.
Encountering such a tragic prayer has helped me realize just how fortunate we are to have been introduced to the worldview of Israel. It helps me realize – perhaps for the first time – just how blessed we are to understand monotheism (it’s also sobering to realize that there are still billions of people in this world who still suffer from the same polytheistic malady that this prayer betrays); how fortunate we are to have a God who has actually revealed Himself and His expectations through His Torah; and how fortunate we are to be pursued and loved by a God who is faithful to His covenant – indeed, a God who has “loved [us] with an everlasting love,” and with His “lovingkindness” has “drawn” us to Himself (Jeremiah 31:3).