Joshua J. Mark
published on 06 March 2011
The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi is a Babylonian poem which chronicles the lament of a good man suffering undeservedly. Also known as `The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer', the title translates as "I will praise the Lord of Wisdom". In the poem, Tabu-utul-Bel, age 52, an official of the city of Nippur, cries out that he has been afflicted with various pains and injustices and, asserting his own righteous behavior, asks why the gods should allow him to suffer so. In this, the poem treats the age old question of `why do bad things happen to good people' and the poem has thus been linked to the later Hebrew composition The Book of Job. No scholarly consensus exists on a date for the writing of Job (nor, for that matter, when the story related is supposed to have taken place) but many point to the 7th, 6th, or 4th centuries BCE as probable while Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi dates to c. 1700 BCE. The Babylonian poem was probably inspired by the earlier Sumerian work, Man and His God (composed c. 2000 BCE) which, according to Samuel Noah Kramer, was written "for the purpose of prescribing the proper attitude and conduct for a victim of cruel and seemingly undeserved misfortune" (589). In this, the poem follows a paradigm of Babylonian writers borrowing from earlier Sumerian pieces as exemplified in The Epic of Gilgamesh where the Babylonian scribe Shin-Leqi-Unninni (c. 1300-1000 BCE) drew on separate Sumerian tales of the King of Uruk and formed them into the now famous epic.
There is no question that a number of biblical narratives of the Old Testament have their origins in Sumerian works. The Fall of Man and Noah's Flood in Genesis, for example, can be traced back to the Sumerian works Adapa and Atrahasis. Because of the similarity of the themes addressed in Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi and Job, so many have compared the two works that there exists today the claim that The Book of Job was derived from the earlier work in the same way as the Flood story. While there is, obviously, some merit to this claim and a comparison is profitable, it seems a disservice to both works to only read them for what they offer regarding literary borrowing. The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi could as easily be compared to other books in the Bible such as Ecclesiastes or the third chapter of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. The speaker in Ecclesiastes asks the same questions as Tabu-utul-Bel and Lamentations chapter three has very similar imagery to Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi. While it is certainly possible that the later work drew on the earlier (as the Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi most likely drew on the earlier Man and His God) it is just as probable that the two works simply treat of the same theme. People in the modern day are still wrestling with the question of why good people suffer. When modern readers insist that The Book of Job derives from Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi it seems they relegate the earlier poem to mere source material instead of appreciating the work for what it has to say about the human condition.
There are more significant differences between The Book of Job and the Babylonian work than there are similarities and, while it may be that the earlier work was drawn on as source material for the later, to read Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi as simply a `rough draft' of biblical narrative (or to dismiss Job as `derivative') is to demean the works as well as miss the point of the pieces. The question `why do bad things happen to good people' is as old as human beings themselves. Tabu-utul-Bel, like Job, endures terrible suffering even though he has been very religious, observed all the rites and prayers. He says, "But I myself thought of prayers and supplications - Prayer was my wisdom, sacrifice my dignity" and yet still he suffers. Job says likewise, "My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food" (Job 22:11-12). Both works ask how a human being is supposed to understand the will of God and, in the end, both protagonists are healed of their afflictions through divine intervention.
The differences, however, are in the details of the two works and the culture from which they spring. The most obvious difference in the two is that the Babylonian work is a monologue while the Hebrew composition is a drama. That aside, however, and also granting the obvious difference of Job's deliverance by God himself and Tabu-utul-Bel's salvation through a necromancer, the most significant difference is in what the suffering consists of and the depiction of the deities.
Tabu-utul-Bel suffers in his person and extrapolates from this suffering to consider the sufferings of others and the futility of existence ("Where may human beings learn the ways of God? He who lives at evening is dead in the morning...At one moment he sings and plays; In the twinkiling of an eye he howls like a funeral-mourner"). Job suffers in his person but also must endure the deaths of his children and the loss of all he has worked for in his life. He, also, considers others' suffering and wonders how one may learn the reason for it ("Oh, that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbor"(Job 16:21). The deities themselves, however, reveal the greatest difference in the two works.
In ancient Mesopotamian religion there were between 300 - 1000 deities at work at any given time and, this being so, the good which a god such as Marduk might wish for an individual could be thwarted by another such as Erra. Tabu-utul-Bel's complaint is that he should not suffer because he has done right by his god and, while no one would fault him for complaining about the many afflictions he lists, he would have had to know that it was not Marduk's fault he was suffering so, nor his own fault; suffering could come from any one of many deities and for any reason. The Penitential Prayer to Every God tablet (dating from mid-seventh century Sumer) makes this clear in that the penitent in that prayer begs for mercy and forgiveness from whichever god he has offended unknowingly.
Tabu-utul-Bel is cured at the end of the piece by a necromancer (conjurer) whom Marduk sends to him and the title of the poem praises Marduk for the healing. In the Babylonian piece, then, the problem of suffering is dealt with through one god (of many) working through an intermediary to deliver justice. An ancient audience to the poem's recitation would have understood that, however undeserved they felt their own suffering to be, the gods would deal justly with them in the same way. As human beings were created to be co-laborers with the gods, the god who wished them well would, in time, redress their wrongs and cure their afflictions.
In The Book of Job, however, the one supreme deity handles the situation differently. God appears himself toward the conclusion, speaking out of a whirlwind, and asks, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it?" (Job 38:4-5) asking, in other words, `Who are you to question my ways?' Even though there is a `happy ending' to The Book of Job in which this righteous sufferer is rewarded with new children and a new life, the question of why bad things happen to good people is never answered. A reader of The Book of Job understands that Job's suffering is the direct result of a wager God has made with Satan regarding Job's faithfulness. No reasonable reader or listener would draw much comfort from the idea that they had lost those whom they loved, as well as their health and wealth, just so their god could gratify his ego in winning a bet.
Instead of giving Job a direct answer to the question of his suffering, God extols his own greatness and silences Job's complaints. This is quite a significant difference from the Sumerian gods' response to Tabu-utul-Bel. Yet, in God's response, is one of the greatest strengths of the work: there is no satisfactory answer to the question of why good people suffer and the writer of Job was wise enough to recognize that fact. The deity's response in The Book of Job is in keeping with the culture which produced it in that one did not question the ways of God but, rather, trusted that this all mighty, all loving and all benevolent deity had one's best interests at heart - even if those interests were expressed through something as seemingly whimsical as making a wager.
While these two compositions are certainly thematically linked, to read Mesopotamian literature only for what it contributes to biblical narrative diminishes the very real importance of the earlier works. Rather than read these two stories in an attempt to find correlations between them, it would perhaps be more profitable to read them for what they have to say about the human condition. As George A. Barton wrote, "The chasm which often yawns between experience and moral deserts was as keenly felt by the Babylonian as by the Hebrew" and is just as keenly felt by anyone living in the world today. The greatest comfort both these ancient works offers to a modern reader is the understanding that what one is presently suffering has been suffered by others and that, like them, one may prevail.
The Book of Job may be found in any translation of the Bible, usually located between the Book of Esther and the Book of Psalms. The following translation of the Ludlul Bel Nimeqi comes from Sir Henry Rawlinson's A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylon and Assyria, Volume IV, 60 (1850) as printed in George A. Barton's Archaeology and The Bible.
1. I advanced in life, I attained to the allotted span
Wherever I turned there was evil, evil---
Oppression is increased, uprightness I see not.
I cried unto god, but he showed not his face.
5. I prayed to my goddess, but she raised not her head.
The seer by his oracle did not discern the future
Nor did the enchanter with a libation illuminate my case
I consulted the necromancer, but he opened not my understanding.
The conjurer with his charms did not remove my ban.
10. How deeds are reversed in the world!
I look behind, oppression encloses me
Like one who the sacrifice to god did not bring
And at meal-time did not invoke the goddess
Did not bow down his face, his offering was not seen;
15. (Like one) in whose mouth prayers and supplications were locked
(For whom) god's day had ceased, a feast day become rare,
(One who) has thrown down his fire-pan, gone away from their images
God's fear and veneration has not taught his people
Who invoked not his god when he ate god's food;
20. (Who) abandoned his goddess, and brought not what is prescribed
(Who) oppresses the weak, forgets his god
Who takes in vain the mighty name of his god, he says, I am like him.
But I myself thought of prayers and supplications---
Prayer was my wisdom, sacrifice, my dignity;
25. The day of honoring the gods was the joy of my heart
The day of following the goddess was my acquisition of wealth
The prayer of the king, that was my delight,
And his music, for my pleasure was its sound.
I gave directions to my land to revere the names of god,
30. To honor the name of the goddess I taught my people.
Reverence for the king I greatly exalted
And respect for the palace I taught the people---
For I knew that with god these things are in favor.
What is innocent of itself, to god is evil!
35. What in one's heart is contemptible, to one's god is good!
Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?
The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?
Where may human beings learn the ways of God?
He who lives at evening is dead in the morning;
40. Quickly he is troubled; all at once he is oppressed;
At one moment he sings and plays;
In the twinkling of an eye he howls like a funeral-mourner.
Like sunshine and clouds their thoughts change;
They are hungry and like a corpse;
45. They are filled and rival their god!
In prosperity they speak of climbing to Heaven
Trouble overtakes them and they speak of going down to Sheol.
[At this point the tablet is broken. The narrative is resumed on the reverse of the tablet.]
46 Into my prison my house is turned.
Into the bonds of my flesh are my hands thrown;
Into the fetters of myself my feet have stumbled.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
47. With a whip he has beaten me; there is no protection;
With a staff he has transfixed me; the stench was terrible!
All day long the pursuer pursues me,
In the night watches he lets me breathe not a moment
Through torture my joints are torn asunder;
48. My limbs are destroyed, loathing covers me;
On my couch I welter like an ox
I am covered, like a sheep, with my excrement.
My sickness baffled the conjurers
And the seer left dark my omens.
49. The diviner has not improved the condition of my sickness-
The duration of my illness the seer could not state;
The god helped me not, my hand he took not;
The goddess pitied me not, she came not to my side
The coffin yawned; they [the heirs] took my possessions;
50. While I was not yet dead, the death wail was ready.
My whole land cried out: "How is he destroyed!"
My enemy heard; his face gladdened
They brought as good news the glad tidings, his heart rejoiced.
But I knew the time of all my family
51. When among the protecting spirits their divinity is exalted.
Let thy hand grasp the javelin
Tabu-utul-Bel, who lives at Nippur,
52. Has sent me to consult thee
Has laid his............upon me.
In life........has cast, he has found. [He says]:
"[I lay down] and a dream I beheld;
This is the dream which I saw by night:
53 . [He who made woman] and created man
Marduk, has ordained (?) that he be encompassed with sickness (?)."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
54. And...........in whatever.............
He said: "How long will he be in such great affliction and distress?
What is it that he saw in his vision of the night?"
"In the dream Ur-Bau appeared
A mighty hero wearing his crown
55. A conjurer, too, clad in strength,
Marduk indeed sent me;
Unto Shubshi-meshri-Nergal he brought abundance;
In his pure hands he brought abundance.
By my guardian-spirit (?) he stopped (?) ,"
56. By the seer he sent a message:
"A favorable omen I show to my people."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
...he quickly finished; the.........was broken
........of my lord, his heart was satisfied;
57. .................his spirit was appeased
He approached (?) and the spell which he had pronounced (?),
59. He sent a storm wind to the horizon;
To the breast of the earth it bore a blast
Into the depth of his ocean the disembodied spirit vanished (?);
Unnumbered spirits he sent back to the under-world.
The...........of the hag-demons he sent straight to the mountain.
60. The sea-flood he spread with ice;
The roots of the disease he tore out like a plant.
The horrible slumber that settled on my rest
Like smoke filled the sky..........
With the woe he had brought, unrepulsed and bitter, he filled the earth like a storm.
61. The unrelieved headache which had overwhelmed the heavens
He took away and sent down on me the evening dew.
My eyelids, which he had veiled with the veil of night
He blew upon with a rushing wind and made clear their sight.
My ears, which were stopped, were deaf as a deaf man's
62. He removed their deafness and restored their hearing.
My nose, whose nostril had been stopped from my mother's womb---
He eased its defonnity so that I could breathe.
My lips, which were closed he had taken their strength---
He removed their trembling and loosed their bond.
63. My mouth which was closed so that I could not be understood---
He cleansed it like a dish, he healed its disease.
My eyes, which had been attacked so that they rolled together---
He loosed their bond and their balls were set right.
The tongue, which had stiffened so that it could not be raised
64. He relieved its thickness, so its words could be understood.
The gullet which was compressed, stopped as with a plug---
He healed its contraction, it worked like a flute.
My spittle which was stopped so that it was not secreted---
He removed its fetter, he opened its lock.