The Role of the Messenger and the Message in the Ancient Near East

By J. T. Greene
Atlanta : Scholars Press (1989). 346 Pages.

Reviewed by
7.2 (Fall 1996) : 269-270

This work draws upon the author's 1980 Ph.D. dissertation at Boston University, "The Old Testament Prophet as Messenger in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Messengers and Messages" (University Microfilms 8024188).

That the OT writers portray the prophets as messengers from God to His people has long been recognized. The present volume proposes to draw on ancient Near Eastern documents for information about the messenger in order to investigate the character and behavior of OT prophets. In so doing, it follows a standard comparative methodology using the messengers of Israel's neighbors to illumine the role and character of biblical messengers.

The three main chapters are "the Messenger in the Ancient Near East," "The Message in the Ancient Near East," and "The Messenger and the Message in the Hebrew Scriptures." The purpose of the third chapter is "to ascertain whether the messengers of the Hebrew Scriptures truly share all of the characteristics of their overall ANE counterparts" (77).

Several weaknesses mar the volume. It is mistitled because less than 70 of its 300 pages treat the broader ancient Near Eastern matters of the messenger and message which the title promises. The title of the author's dissertation would have been more representative of the book's contents. The other two-thirds of the book address the comparison of the ancient Near Eastern messenger and message as they illumine the OT prophet and prophetic utterances.

In a comparative study, care in orchestrating the method is important. Messenger activity cannot be separated from either the processes of administrative correspondence or the royal postal system. In Greene's research, material used to compare with Scripture comes from a number of sites, but without in-depth analysis of any one site. This means that the data with which he compares Scripture is a composite sketch of the messenger and message rather than an internally coherent system. In support of his approach the author argues, "For nearly three thousand years, according to the literature studied herein, the understanding of what a messenger was and did as viewed by the inhabitants of the ANE was everywhere the same" (133). Textual evidence for the messenger does not support that assumption. The author has over-generalized a complex set of characteristics.

For example, at ancient Nuzi the messenger's character and role are basic. He carries out simple local deliveries of commodities and escorts people to court. Greene's caricature of the messenger is based not on the small-scale local messenger, but on the international diplomatic messengers of whom it was said, "Upon his shoulders is the word of the king." The latter messengers were often high officials of an empire builder such as Hammurabi. The two roles differ significantly. The Nuzi local messenger comes from a brief period of time and one small site. Greene's data comes from all over the ancient Near East and dates from 3000 B.C. to 30 B.C. His overgeneralized assumption impairs his conclusions. The author may be correct in many of his observations, but he does not provide the reader with arguments rooted in clear systemic evidence of the sort needed.

A third concern is the price of the book ($68.95). A similar study, much more carefully executed (and titled), is Samuel Meier's The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World. The latter work sells for about $14.00. A conspicuous absence of any allusion to Meier's book or 1986 Harvard dissertation is unfortunate.

These matters aside, the book stimulates creative thinking about who the prophets were in light of the language used to describe them. This interesting study exhibits much creative thought.