The Mari Archives

New information on early Semites and their religious history.

Dennis Pardee, Ph.D., is associated with the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at
the University of Chicago, where he teaches Northwest-Semitic languages.


ARCHEOLOGY is providing increasing information about the early Semites and their religious history. This information comes from both nonliterary sources (altars of earth, for example) and literary sources (documents written on clay tablets, for example). Among the latter is a series of texts containing references to patriarchal customs and pre-Israelite prophetism among the inhabitants of Mesopotamia that comes from Mari (pronounced mah'ree), a city that once occupied the mound that now goes by the name of Tell el-Hariri. Mari lies on the right bank of the Euphrates in Syria, about ten miles north of the Iraqi frontier. Its importance lies not so much in its location as in those who inhabited this city at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. (after 2000 B.C.). Their native language belonged to the family from which the Hebrew of the Old Testament sprang (termed by linguists the Northwest Semitic group of languages). Thus when we trace the language and history of the inhabitants of Mari we are, in a sense, mapping the family tree of the Biblical Hebrews.

The first of twenty campaigns at Tell el-Hariri was carried out by Andre Parrot and a French expedition during the winter months of 1933-1934.1 To date more than twenty thousand tablets have been found, as well as inscriptions on such items as stone, cylinder seals, and jewelry. Astonishing architectural discoveries include several palaces and temples in various layers, the lowest being dated by archeologists to the early third millennium B.C.

The latest palace, closest to the surface and therefore excavated first, be longed to the old Babylonian period (early second millennium B.C.). It expanded until in the time of its last king, Zimri-Lim, it covered eight acres and comprised three hundred rooms—throne rooms, audience chambers, schools, bakeries, wine cellars, archives, bathrooms, and lavatories (imagine inside plumbing in 1800 B.C.!). This is the palace in which most of the twenty thousand tablets were found. These are rectangular or square tablets, thicker in the middle than at the sides, made of unbaked clay. Because the tablets were originally not baked hard, they tend to be very fragile when unearthed. The excavators bake and clean the tablets immediately to prevent further decay.

Of the more than 20,000 texts excavated to date, only about 3,000 have been published officially, 1,077 letters and 1,760 economic, administrative, and juridical texts; many other documents have been published in preliminary form. 2

The letters, dealing firsthand with real-life situations, are of more intrinsic value as historical documents than the propagandist^, bombastic royal inscriptions intended for public consumption. Letters do have some drawbacks, how ever: (1) they were written to persons who knew the situations written about and who thus did not need all the details that modern eavesdroppers would like to have; (2) we are never sure whether someone writing to a superior—to the king, for example—was embroidering on the truth; (3) not enough letters have come down to us through nearly three thousand years to fill all the gaps in our information, and those surviving are often broken, leaving exasperating gaps.

The economic, administrative, and juridical texts provide the raw material for assessing how goods and services were exchanged and the legal traditions regulating such exchanges, as well as other aspects of social intercourse.

The Mari texts, with other information from Mesopotamia, reveal an out line of the political history of Mari in the early second millennium B.C.: a local dynasty, followed by a period of rule by neighboring Assyria, the local dynasty again in power, and then the destruction of the city by Hammurabi of Babylon about 1757 B.C.3 These texts are extremely useful not only in establishing the history and geography, the economics, the military and social life of Mari and of Northern Mesopotamia but also—most important for the student of Syro-Palestinian history—for the references to these western countries. Cities such as Laish (the old name of Dan), Hazor, and Ugarit are mentioned.

The Mari texts also contribute to linguistic history. Though consistently written in good Akkadian (East Semitic), they yield enough information from proper names and non-Akkadian words to outline the linguistic structure of the language spoken by the West Semites of the Mari region—related to Hebrew.

Mari and the Bible

We have already seen how important these texts are for reconstructing political history in the early second millennium B.C., and for establishing the prehistory of the West Semitic languages. In addition, they are important for tracing an early form of prophetism.

To date, twenty-seven Mari letters have been discovered that contain references to communications from persons claiming to have dreams or direct mes sages from deities. These messages are directed from the deity to a third party, usually the king. Before the appearance of the Mari texts, divine guidance induced by various divination practices (by inspecting the viscera of animals or by interpretation of smoke patterns, of oil patterns on water, or of the flight of birds) was well known from Mesopotamian sources. The message dream was also known, though it was not common.4 The Mari dream messages, however, as well as the immediately perceived prophetic messages, are, for all practical purposes, unparalleled outside of the Old Testament. This new source of material for comparison with the Old Testament has predictably elicited a flood of publications.

A unique example of the Mari prophetic texts (so far published only in French translation)5 is the only letter to date that was written by a prophet him self (in all the others the message was conveyed by an intermediary). Part of the text reads: "Speak thus to Zimri-Limking of Mari]: Thus (says) the apilumprophet [literally, "the answerer (of questions)"] of Shamash [the sun god]. Thus says Shamash, lord of the country: 'Please send immediately to me in Sippar, in order that prosperity continue [literally, "for life"], the throne intended for my splendid residence, as well as your daughter whom I already have re quested o!f you. . . . Now, as concerns Hammurabi, king of Kurda, he has spoken criminally against you. But when he attacks, you will be victorious; thereafter you are to relieve the land of its indebtedness. I grant you the whole land. When you take the city, you are to declare amnesty from debts."

This text reveals two of the main concerns of in the Mari prophetic messages: (1) proper care of the deities, their temples, and! the temple services, and (2) promises; of military success (or threats of defeat] in other cases).

The main concern of most researchers with a background in Old Testament studies has been to compare the Mari materials with the Old Testament prophets: Do the Mari prophets use the same type of language as the Biblical prophets? do they talk about the same things? and do they fill the same role in society? The answers to all three questions are Yes and No. Old Testament form critics immediately picked out the formula "x deity has sent me," so like many  such statements in the Bible. Ellermeier, however, has shown at length that there are too many variations in formulas at Mari to say that the messenger formula was primary.6

The content of the letter quoted above shows many points of comparison with the Old Testament. For example, a repeated announcement to Zimri-Lim that he would be victorious over Babylon is reminiscent of Biblical oracles of the same type; unfortunately, the Mari prediction was incorrect, since Hammurabi of Babylon eventually destroyed Mari (cf. 2 Chron. 18). One immediately misses, however, the strong moral emphasis of the Biblical prophets. In this respect the letter cited above is typical of the preoccupations of the Mari prophets.

The role played by these prophets seems to be quite comparable to that of the Israelite prophets under unresponsive kings. Jeremiah, for example, was heard but only occasionally heeded and had no real impact on the political events of his time, because of the lack of attention paid to him. The very large place that some of the Israelite prophets assume in our thinking today is largely due to the fact that their literary creations, often of very high quality, have come down to us.

We must be careful in comparing the role of the Mari prophets with that of the Old Testament prophets for two reasons: (1) we have very little evidence with regard to the response accorded the messages of the Mari prophets (one, it may be noted, claimed that the present message was the sixth he had given on the matter in question; apparently royalty was slow to comply); (2) we have no literary production from the Mari prophets that is in any way comparable to that of the Israelite prophets.

We can, in any case, say that the choice by the God of Israel of prophets as intermediaries between Himself and His people was not a new and unfamiliar mode of communication. As with many aspects of the Israelite religion, prophetism was an old phenomenon, raised to new heights of moral and esthetic quality.

Mari and the Patriarchs

In certain interpretations of Biblical chronology the patriarchs of Genesis are dated to the same general period as the Mari documents, but there is little, unfortunately, to link these texts with the patriarchs beyond comparison of proper names (of persons and places). Closer and more numerous links of a social nature (marriage and family customs, for example) are discernible, in fact, with the texts from another and later side (Nuzi, fifteenth century B.C.).

A recent book by Thomas L. Thompson has shown that a comparison of certain proper names and social customs from both Mari and Nuzi with the patriarchal narratives furnishes parallels from periods ranging from 2000 to 500 B.c.7 Thompson has also claimed that, without a specific link between the patriarchal narratives and extra-Biblical texts we have no sure way of dating the patriarchs or even, according to him, of asserting their existence. His argument is based on silence (no monument has yet mentioned Abraham, for example, by name) and is, in a sense, unfair (the statistical chances of finding a contemporaneous reference to Abraham are practically nil).

One must, nonetheless, give heed to Thompson's argument. If we were secular historians writing a history of Syria- Palestine in the early second millennium, we could not categorically assert that the patriarchs were historical personages—simply because the Bible is the only document that refers to them (one of the dicta of historical research is testis unus testis nullus ["one witness only is no witness at all"]. However, even secular historians can assert that the patriarchs may well have been historical persons, because so much in the rest of the Bible has proven true to the findings of historical and archeological research of the last century.

From a religious perspective we can say that the patriarchal narratives were, in any case, written as theological statements emphasizing God's love and care. The presence or absence of extra- Biblical evidence corroborating the existence of the personages to whom these divine characteristics were revealed has very little to do with the attitude of faith that accepts these statements as of eternal worth. (To the extent that evidence is required for such an attitude of faith, one would have to say that the evidence for the historicity of the Bible with reference to later periods is sufficient.)

Though the Mari texts do not furnish proof that the patriarchs were actual historical persons, they do contribute to the growing body of illustrative mate rial of an archeological, social, and philological nature that helps bring the narratives of Genesis to life. Indeed, be cause name types and social customs may be maintained for centuries, we may have to wait many years before a precise parallel to or direct attestation of one of the patriarchal narratives is found to provide a certain dating peg. Considering all that the Middle East has yielded in the last century to elucidate the Bible, perhaps we should not be too demanding or impatient for further confirmation of Biblical historicity.


Those wishing a more complete description of the Mari discoveries may consult the article "Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: the Mari Archives," by the same author, to appear in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

1 Andre Parrot, "Les fouilles de Mari. Premiere campagne (Hiver 1933-34). Rapport preljminaire," Syria 16 (1935): 1-28, 117-140. The other 19 reports are all in the same journal; the last, for the twentieth campaign, is in Syria 49 (1972): 281-302.

2 For English translations of a few Mari texts see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard, 3d ed. with supplement (Princeton, 1969), pp. 482, 483, 556, 557, 623-625, 628-632. A few more are available in A. L. Oppenheim, Letters From Mesopotamia (Chicago, 1967), pp. 96-110.

3 The best historical survey is that of J. R. Kupper in The Cambridge Ancient History, 3d ed., vol. II, pt. 1, ed. by I. E. S. Edwards and others (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 1-41.

4 A. L. Oppenheim, "The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series 46, pt. 3 (1956), pp. 193-206.

5 G. Dossin, "Sur le prophetism a Mari," in La divination en Mesopotamie ancienne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1966), pp. 85, 86.

6 Friedrich Ellermeier, Prophetie in Mari und Israel (Herzberg: Erwin Jungfer, 1968).

7 The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: the Quest for the Historical Abraham, Beiheft zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133 (Berlin, 1974).

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Dennis Pardee, Ph.D., is associated with the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at
the University of Chicago, where he teaches Northwest-Semitic languages.

April 1977

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