The terms "Middle East" and "ancient Near East" assume a Eurocentric view of the world, and these monikers sum up why I so often feel conflicted about the moorings of my training in biblical studies.

As many of you know, the literature and art of the so called "ancient Near East" (ANE) has provided invaluable insights into the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible. It has heavily influenced my own academic research and creative writings. But the study of the ANE didn’t just emerge at the height of British colonization, but as an extension of it. The whole enterprise grew out of this context and the current discourse carries with it the language and baggage of a Western gaze.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that my favorite scholar on Assyro-Babylonian art is Iraqi scholar Zainab Bahrani. She was educated in Western contexts, but is native to one of the regions (Iraq) that was home to ancient Mesopotamia. (We use "ancient Near East" as a drip-pan phrase to refer to any or all of the ancient peoples and civilizations that lived in these regions over the span of several millennia--talk about generalization! For a breakdown of the modern names, see Wikipedia.)

Because Bahrani is native to Iraq, she has a vested interest in de- and re-constructing the discourse on Assyro-Babylonian art. Much of her work goes into explaining why/how this art has been misinterpreted/seen as inferior because of a Western gaze that exoticizes the East and/or views it as the antithesis of "superior" Western rationalism.

When I reflect on it, I realize that my own interest in writing about Mesopotamian cult images is becoming more and more about truth-telling. As long as the West maintains that it is synonymous with the spread of Christianity and continues to interpret the Bible in this way, it will continue to think of the biblical stories of Abraham and Israel as equivalent to Western rational monotheism. The story then becomes the (Westernized) Abraham/Israel pitted against the otherness of Mesopotamian polytheistic religions, which the Western gaze then uses as its lens to read all Eastern forms of religion as inferior.

All of these are false constructs. The biblical stories about Abraham and Israel are far removed from Western rationalism, as are the literature and art of the many polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia. Even bundling them together under the label "polytheistic" is an unhelpful conflation of distinct histories and religious practices.

I am interested in understanding (as much as any Westerner can) both the Bible and Assyro-Babylonian art and literature as Eastern works that really do challenge many Western assumptions about the nature of religion, politics, spirituality, community, and a host of other things.

When many of these texts were first discovered, they were understood as foils to the Hebrew Bible--their value was in how they would illuminate the world of the Bible. This focus has shifted somewhat to study these texts as valuable in their own right, but the framework of the discipline still carries the Eurocentric baggage.

I am not sure--given the initial ideological moorings of the study--if it's possible to escape them (nor is any reading of history without ideology). But I do believe that the more we are able to see the histories of Mesopotamia as worth studying simply to tell a true story--and not as the "other" to "our" (Westernized) Bible--the more we will understand not only the landscape of ancient of Mesopotamia (in all its myriad, diverse details), but also ourselves and the texts of the Bible.

As a Western Christian (and as a Western human being) it seems important to me to realize that if I think of ancient Mesopotamia as an inferior other, then the logical step is to also understand the texts my Christian faith holds as sacred in the same way, understanding them as equally strange and inferior to contemporary Western ears. But this is not what Western Christians have done. Instead, we have dressed up the Bible to masquerade it as a Western text so that it would support our own ideology instead of challenging it, while at the same time using the Bible as an excuse to read other Eastern texts as inferior.

I want to be honest about the inherent conflict in this gaze, and try as much as possible to relinquish my stranglehold on history. To let go of my gaze of dominance and let history challenge me. If these texts appear strange to me as a Western reader, I need to take them as challenges to my own modern Western sensibilities rather than a sign of their inferiority. These ancient words and images have things to teach us, but so long as we insist on ogling them, we won't be able to hear a word they say.

Comment