Published in 1938 and still in print, this is a classic layman's introduction to the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians. The fact that they mainly wrote on durable clay tablets and not papyrus has ensured that their bank loans, wills, business contracts, tax receipts, and literature has survived for 5,000 years. It is a very welcome book, as to this day these civilisations are generally overshadowed by the more glamorous Egyptians who built in stone, and the more talented Hebrew writer who penned the Old Testament.
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The book is easy to read and is written by an experienced archaeologist of the Ancient Near East, who is also a translator of Akkadian and related languages in the cuneiform scripts. It has 114 B&W photographs and illustrations, a few of which show items not frequently seen in this type of work. Good examples of this are: the inscribed clay 'nail' which the propaganda-conscious kings sank into the walls of temples and palaces to record their building exploits; and the security device of the clay 'envelope', developed for clay tablets and which contained valuable legal and business documents.
This book has stood the test of time very well and dated but little. In general, it is full of practical information and insights on how the clay tablets were made and used from at least 5000 years ago. Apart from its interest as straight history it gives some essential background for understanding the Old Testament. It is very clear on the accurate parallels to be drawn between the clay records and the OT versions of such things as the adoption of sons in the account of Abraham, and the true value of the teraphim (family idols) stolen by Rachel from her father Laban the Aramean, which conferred property rights to her husband Jacob. And, as an aside, the modern computer scientist will be interested to see that he describes a data handling technique know as the linked-list - invented by the scribes to chain series of clay tablets, used with a belt-and-braces index for good measure (chap. 9).
Indeed, so determined is Chiera to see everything from the Babylonian point of view, that he is not at all interested in the question of proving or disproving the Old Testament. In this respect he is much like Cyrus H. Gordon, who simply went where the facts led him, however much this upset the preconceived notions of those with axes to grind. This is an advantage from the point of view of confirming that the OT is generally very accurate in its portrayal of the culture of Abraham, Moses, David, etc. Unfortunately, it is a disadvantage from the point of view of exegesis, as a 'not bothered' attitude leads to an anodyne superficiality in analysing the subtle meanings and ambiguities of the texts, particularly Genesis. Philology and sociology alone just cause the reader to skid on the slippery clay surface. That said, it is full of good background and has good short overview chapters on Ebla, Ugarit, Nuzu, and the Hittites.
The review of this Book prepared by Michael JR Jose