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111 | 2012
Annuaire du Collège de France 2010-2011
Résumé des cours et travaux 111e année
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Making a Name for Oneself: Procreation, Martial Prowess and Heroic Death

Se faire un nom : procréation, prouesses martiales et mort héroïque dans l’ancien Israël
Jacob L. Wright
p. 900-902

Texte intégral

1For the 2010-11 Annual Lecture in “Milieux Bibliques” (chair occupied by Prof. Thomas Römer), Jacob L. Wright from Emory University treated the subject of “name-making” as represented in ancient Near Eastern sources and the Hebrew Bible.

2Wright began by citing a letter that the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad (18th cent. BCE) sent to his son Yasmah-Adad in Mari, petitioning him to “be a man” and to “make a name” for himself by conquering the city of Qatna:

Here your brother won a victory, but there you lie among women! Now, when you march with your army to Qatna, be a man. As your brother has ‘established a great name’ [šumam rabêm ištaknu] you also in your region ‘establish a great name.’

3The expression “to make/establish a name for oneself” refers here to military conquest, if not also to the physical act of setting up a physical victory monument bearing the name of the conqueror and laying claim to the territory of Qatna.

4Similar to the idiom in modern European languages, the Semitic expression conveys often the sense of personal achievement. Discussing aspects of social mobility in ancient Mesopotamian societies, Wright pointed to a wide variety of texts and images in which individual soldiers, who performed great military feats, were rewarded with personal adornments (e.g., bracelets or golden bees/flies) that accompanied a new rank and title (i.e., a more honorable “name”).

5The desire for a great and enduring name could induce individuals to seek opportunities not only to demonstrate martial prowess but also even to sacrifice their life. Such “noble death” on the battlefield is attested richly in antiquity in Greco-Roman sources, but it also appears in texts from the ancient Near East. The most prominent example is found in the Gilgamesh Epic. In one episode, this hero from Uruk sets off to fight the giant Huwawa. Although he stood very little chance of victory, his heroic willingness to engage in battle ensured him a name that would survive his death: “If I should fall in battle, I will nonetheless have made my name to stand!” A similar sentiment is expressed in a letter that a commander sent to the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal from the frontline. His military unit was far outnumbered by the enemy and faced imminent death. Yet the commander assures the king that he and his men remained steadfast in their allegiance and were prepared to die bravely: “If we die, we will do so with an excellent name!”

6Turning to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic sources, Wright pointed out that this corpus of literature surprisingly does not glorify noble death on the battlefield. Israel’s heroes die “in a good old age”, while those who fall in battle (e.g. King Saul) are given a bad name. Likewise, this literature assigns primacy to progeny (one’s “namesake”) as the means of making an enduring name. (In Semitic languages, one could refer to a “child” as one’s “name”). An abundance of texts, both in the Bible and in later Jewish commentaries, show how the nation of Israel depends on procreation more than on a willingness to die in battle.

7In the final part of his lecture, Wright showed how this distinctive feature of biblical and rabbinic literature provides an important clue into what prompted and sustained its formation.The glorification of heroic death is an expression of statehood. Thus, resting beneath the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris – a momentous expression of statehood – is the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier. Such monuments witness to the extent that states depend upon the willingness of it members to die or to send others to die for them. The line from the Odes of Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“How sweet and beautiful it is to die for one’s fatherland”) is repeated in various forms in the birth narratives of many states, whether it be Nathan Hale in the USA or Joseph Trumpeldor in modern Israel. In ancient Athens, the annual funeral oration for the war dead (epitaphios logos) was an occasion to celebrate – or at least affirm – what made the city great. (The most famous example is the Funeral Oration that Thucydides ascribes to Pericles after the first year of the Peloponnesian War).

8While many of the sources transmitted in the Bible emerged in a context of statehood and in response to statist concerns, what elicited the collection and redaction of these sources in the making of the Bible itself was military defeat and the loss of statehood. The biblical authors and rabbis undertook their work at a time when military triumph was no longer achievable and the willingness to die in wars against the empire – whether it be Babylon or Rome – promised to bring only more pain and suffering. They therefore set forth procreation (and with it, education), rather than martial valor and heroic death, as the most basic means of making a name. For a people far outnumbered by enemy armies, such was a more reliable strategy of ensuring the perpetuity of the name of the nation and its constituent families.

9Jacob L. Wright is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (USA). He completed his doctorate in Göttingen (Germany), and his first book, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (2004), was awarded the Templeton Prize for first books in religion. His current research focuses on war and society in ancient Israel.

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Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 111e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2012, p. 900-902. ISBN 978-2-7226-0156-7

Référence électronique

Jacob L. Wright, « Making a Name for Oneself: Procreation, Martial Prowess and Heroic Death », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 111 | 2012, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 23 avril 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/annuaire-cdf/1801

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Auteur

Jacob L. Wright

University of Emory (États-Unis)

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Droits d’auteur

Collège de France

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