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Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East
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Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East

The Reflexes of Celestial Science in Ancient Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Israelite Narrative

by Jeffrey L. Cooley 5
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Modern science historians have typically treated the sciences of the ancient Near East as separate from historical and cultural considerations. At the same time, biblical scholars, dominated by theological concerns, have historically understood the Israelite god as separate from the natural world. Cooley’s study, bringing to bear contemporary models of science history on the one hand and biblical studies on the other hand, seeks to bridge a gap created by 20th-century scholarship in our understanding of ancient Near Eastern cultures by investigating the ways in which ancient authors incorporated their cultures’ celestial speculation in narrative.

In the literature of ancient Iraq, celestial divination is displayed quite prominently in important works such as Enuma Eliš and Erra and Išum. In ancient Ugarit as well, the sky was observed for devotional reasons, and astral deities play important roles in stories such as the Baal Cycle and Shahar and Shalim. Even though the veneration of astral deities was rejected by biblical authors, in the literature of ancient Israel the Sun, Moon, and stars are often depicted as active, conscious agents. In texts such as Genesis 1, Joshua 10, Judges 5, and Job 38, these celestial characters, these “sons of God,” are living, dynamic members of Yahweh’s royal entourage, willfully performing courtly, martial, and calendrical roles for their sovereign.

The synthesis offered by this book, the first of its kind since the demise of the pan-Babylonianist school more than a century ago, is about ancient science in ancient Near Eastern literature.

Product Details

Publisher: Eisenbrauns
Publication date: 2013
Bibliographic info: Pp. ix + 396
Language(s): English


Cover: Cloth
Trim Size: 6 x 9 inches



Poetic Astronomy offers a judicious and compelling reconstruction of the main avenues along which the celestial sciences developed in the ancient Near East and the reflexes of those sciences in a wide variety of ancient literature. This thorough, rigorously argued, and elegantly structured volume is sure to be welcomed by anyone interested in the history of science or in ancient divination. — Stephen C. Russell, RBL February 2015

This division [between mythology and astral science] has been slowly eroding in the last generation, and Cooley's study can be viewed as a culmination of this change in attitude. Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East removes that wedge, provides a corrective to pan-Babylonism, and considers the cultural continuities between narrative and technical literatures, not only of the cuneiform world but those of ancient Ugarit and Israel as well. The book's thesis is that contemporary knowledge concerning the heavens is indeed found in ancient Near Eastern literature, thus reflecting a cultural matrix in which science and literature are not separate. . . . Among the commendable aspects of this work is its attention to the significant literary-historical, chronological, and cultural differences among the three regions, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Israel, and the explication of the methodological consequences of those differences. . . . Cooley does not suggest erasing the distinction between scientific and literary texts altogether, but his intertextual study shows how useful it is, for our understanding ancient cultures, when that distinction is not taken as a lack of interaction. — Francesca Rochberg, Journal for the History of Astronomy 45.1 (2014).

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