Posted by: religionthink | February 19, 2007

Psalm 22: I can count all my bones.

Psalm 22: I can count all my bones.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! (Psa 22:11-20)

The text that we are about to discuss in this particular essay has many motifs and images, not only from the ancient Near East, but also from the New and Old Testament. Due to time and space we will only discuss those contributions made possibly from the ancient Near East. However, in passing, one must recognize that the words in this Psalm were said to be spoken by Christ at the crucifixion. In the text Lamentation to Ishtar and in sections taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh, we will see, as in Psalm 22, that the lamenter complains of his sufferings to a great extent, with the intention of the gods or God intervening in their behalf. The last section of the Psalm is an expression of the confidence of that intervention. It is proper to note that the text of Job, and the last part of Jonah, also may be relevant to this particular Psalm.

In Near Eastern literature such laments are common. Not only are their individual laments; but also laments for cities, as in the biblical texts among prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the Lamentation to Ishtar, we see the writer complaining of great suffering in order to move the goddess to intervene.

I have cried to thee, suffering, wearied, and distressed, as thy servant.
See me O my Lady, accept my prayers.
Faithfully look upon me and hear my supplication.
Promise my forgiveness and let thy spirit be appeased.
Pity! For my wretched body which is full of confusion and trouble.
Pity! For my sickened heart which is full of tears and suffering.
Pity! For my wretched intestines (which are full of) confusion and trouble.
Pity! For my afflicted house which mourns bitterly.
Pity! For my feelings which are satiated with tears and suffering.
O exalted Irnini, fierce lion, let thy heart be at rest.
O angry wild ox, let thy spirit be appeased.
Let the favor of thine eyes be upon me”.

When reading both we can feel the anguish, both mentally and physically, of the writers. Such themes of hunger, thirst, bone pain, mental anguish, and enemies plague the writers as they make their pleas to the God and Goddess for help. Here Ishtar, like Yahweh, is a war goddess and was known to perform almost the same acts as Yahweh. Ishtar was known to control weather, wage holy war, was jealous, and like Yahweh, she had terrible temper.

Moving on to the text of Gilgamesh we come to the section in the text where Gilgamesh is searching out Utanapishtim, an Enoch like character, in order to enquire how he was allowed by the council of the gods to have eternal life. When asked why he looks so weary, we find the following reply:

Enkidu, my friend, whom I love deeply, who went through

every hardship with me,

the fate of mankind has overtaken him.

Six days and seven nights I mourned over him

and would not allow him to be buried

until a maggot fell out of his nose.

I was terrified by his appearance(!),

I began to fear death, and so roam the wilderness.

The issue of my friend oppresses me,

so I have been roaming long trails through the wilderness.

The issue of Enkidu, my friend, oppresses me,

so I have been roaming long roads through the wilderness.

How can I stay silent, how can I be still!

My friend whom I love has turned to clay;

Enkidu, my friend whom I love, has turned to clay!

Am I not like him! Will I lie down never to get up again!

Gilgamesh here relates his sufferings and the details of his journey in order to persuade Utanapishtim to tell him the secret of eternal life. After being put through a series of tests, which he fails, Utanapishtim tells him of a plant that will grant him immortality like the gods. He retrieves the plant only to have it snatched away by a water serpent. In a beautiful speech, like the speech of Yahweh to Job from the whirlwind, Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh:

“Why, Gilgamesh, do you … sadness?

You who were created (!) from the flesh of gods and mankind

who made … like your father and mother?

Have you ever… Gilgamesh … to the fool …

They placed a chair in the Assembly, …

But to the fool they gave beer dregs instead of butter,

bran and cheap flour which like …

Clothed with a loincloth (!) like …

And … in place of a sash,

because he does not have …

does not have words of counsel …

Take care about it, Gilgamesh,

… their master…

… Sin…

… eclipse of the moon …

The gods are sleepless …

They are troubled, restless(!) …

Long ago it has been established…

You trouble yourself…

… your help …

If Gilgamesh … the temple of the gods

… the temple of the holy gods,

… the gods …

… mankind,

they took … for his fate.

You have toiled without cease, and what have you got!

Through toil you wear yourself out,

you fill your body with grief,

your long lifetime you are bringing near (to a premature end)!

Mankind, whose offshoot is snapped off like a reed in a


the fine youth and lovely girl

… death.

No one can see death,

no one can see the face of death,

no one can hear the voice of death,

yet there is savage death that snaps off mankind.

For how long do we build a household?

For how long do we seal a document!

For how long do brothers share the inheritance?

For how long is there to be jealousy in the land(!)!

For how long has the river risen and brought the overflowing


so that dragonflies drift down the river!’

The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun

has never existed ever.

How alike are the sleeping(!) and the dead.

The image of Death cannot be depicted.

(Yes, you are a) human being, a man (?)!

After Enlil had pronounced the blessing,'”

the Anunnaki, the Great Gods, assembled.

Mammetum, she who forms destiny, determined destiny with them.

They established Death and Life,

but they did not make known ‘the days of death'”.

The texts of the ancient Near East and their themes and motifs help us to better understand the biblical texts. It pulls us from our own, and sometimes narrow theological view, and opens our understanding in a broader sense. It pulls us into the fierce environment of the region and time period where more then one person cried to his or her god or goddess for intervention. Transported forward to our time, their metaphoric value and message can be applied to our fast paced environment. It freezes us in time and place, with our hardship, and allows us to reflect inward while waiting for intervention that is sure to come.

Brown, E. Raymond., Fitzmyer, Joseph. And Murphy, Ronalde. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice-Hall, Inc, New Jersey, 1990

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1968.

Dally, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press Inc., Oxford, New York 1989.

Pritchard, James. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New York 1950.

Quoted biblical texts are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.


  1. Very well thought out blog post.

    J. Kaiser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: