Fall 1998, Volume 16.1
Tremble Before Ishmael
R. Darcy teaches politics and statistics at Oklahoma State University. He has co-authored books on women in politics and quantitative history, and publishes widely in journals. He was a Bruce Fellow at Keele University in England and has taught at Queen’s University, Belfast, University College, Galway, and Trinity College, Dublin.
Reluctantly Higgott inserted the cheap departmental ballpen, point first, under the flap of the letter and then pushed downward, mushing and smearing the paper inside as the pen jammed to the bottom of the envelope. He ripped upwards, making a messy tear across the top of the flap. He did not care. It was the expected letter from Hugh Smith.
He did not take the letter out immediately. He knew it was bad news. His colleagues had been tip toeing about him for weeks and Smith had seemed embarrassed when he ran into him at the photocopy machine. Smith was making copies of his newest Religion-o-Meter—a device he had developed years before to show the movement of people from one denomination to another as measured by the latest Gallup Religion in America Survey. Smith managed to make a little money out of his idea and got an enormous amount of visibility as it got printed in about half the papers in the country. Most had a religion page on Saturday and Smith knew they were starved for popular material that looked significant and serious. Among academics the Religion-o-Meter managed to excite a flurry of criticisms and defenses in the American Comparative Religions Review—something which gave Smith some stature as a scholar.
Higgott knew he was sailing into bad times when, in a friendly gesture, he said he looked forward to getting his copy and Smith simply gave him one, right then and there. It was an unexpected gesture for Smith who was careful about not letting copies out. Higgott expected the usual story about having to wait for the national release date like everyone else. So Smith was embarrassed about something and wanted to avoid conversation and involvement. Higgott had a very good idea what was up. This was his tenure year.
Sitting in his office, the still unread letter on his desk, Higgott thought back to his first year at Oklahoma State University, to the beginning of his academic career, to another letter, a wonderful letter. He pictured his office then. The only object on his desk, placed in the exact center, was that letter, unopened. It was from his adviser, Ian MacAllister, at the University of Pennsylvania. MacAllister’s scrawl was there above the Sumerian Studies departmental address. He had saved that letter to be a special treat to himself, to be opened and savored as another person might open and savor a special whiskey at the end of a particularly satisfying day. That day he felt good. His classes had gone well, his colleagues had been friendly, and a warm clean Indian summer sun shown through the window on him, on the letter. He opened it carefully, not tearing it, rather slowly separating the flap from the back. The envelope was an old one from a stock Sumerian Studies had not yet depleted—so old it still had a postal zone rather than the new zip code or even the newer zip-plus codes. The glue gave up easily and the envelope opened.
Congratulations on the Oklahoma State job. How you got into a Ph.D. granting religion department is beyond understanding. The market is horrendous. You had no teaching experience. You had no contacts in comparative religion. You do not even have the appropriate degree or coursework. But you are sincere, humble, and a scholar. You work hard and love your work. You generously share what you have learned. You give all you can and OSU is fortunate to have you. Perhaps we do live in a world where good comes from good.
Anyway, I think the American Bible Society would look favorably on a proposal to translate the New Testament into Sumerian. It seems that they got a rather large translation endowment in the 1850’s. They can’t touch the principal and they cannot use it for anything else. So far they have published Bibles in about 140 different languages and they are running out of ideas. They actually thought about translating the gospels into FORTRAN. They are that desperate. Write a brief letter to Bill Maley—his card is attached. Just say you are proposing to translate the New Testament or even just the Gospels into Sumerian. Ask for support for a summer, throw in photo copying and some travel; attach a copy of your CV and use me as a reference. It should be worth a couple of thousand.
The letter went on to ask about his wife and conveyed gossip about who was doing what back in the department. In all, a very satisfying letter. He let his thoughts have their play in that warm sunshine…. He could get back to Sumerian. He felt good just thinking about getting down the dictionaries, his notes, his special cuneiform writing sticks. He could learn to use MacAllister’s cuneiform text editor which did a wonderful job with the peculiar wedges that made up cuneiform writing. Yes, he would include a Macintosh SE/30 in the grant application—with a hard disk and laser printer.
In the end he got the grant—almost immediately, in fact. MacAllister was right. They were desperate to fund translation projects. The $9,000 covered all he asked for and more. Quickly his world separated itself into three parts: his family, his job, and his Sumerian.
There was his wife, Diane, and little son, Gudea, and their shopping, cleaning, cooking, and eating. He participated in these because he had enough sense to realize that things could go awfully wrong if he did not, and he did not want family trouble. Hugh Smith eating breakfasts and dinners alone in the cafeteria was warning enough to those who could read the signs. And he genuinely loved them without always understanding how they thought or what motivated them. He could not understand, for example, what Diane had against ‘Gudea’ as a name for their son. Gudea, ruler of Lagash in its golden age, was without blemish; a patron of art, religion and learning, not a despot or conqueror. Higgott wanted ‘Lawrence,’ after Diane’s father, as a middle name. He liked and respected Diane’s father and wanted to please and honor him.
Diane liked neither name. She did not care what a name meant or its associations, only how it would sound and how it might become shortened and abused. She thought about how others might react to a name in pivotal moments of the near or far future. But she soon realized that any name was vulnerable. The only safety was in a name that everyone was using that year and that was not satisfactory either. She liked ‘Séan ,’ for example, but nobody seemed to know what spelling was for girls and what spelling was for boys. If she had known of gouda, the cheese, she would have held out longer. But she knew little of cheese. So their son was Gudea Lawrence Higgott.
Then there were his classes in comparative religions. His only teaching qualification was that he had a Ph.D. It was not in comparative religions or anything remotely resembling that. His degree was in Sumerian. But there were absolutely no openings in Sumerian—and would not be for decades. MacAllister was still young, just a few years older than he, in fact, and Pennsylvania had the only Sumerian slot in the hemisphere.
Finally, there was his Sumerian. He was amused that his colleagues assumed he was an Assyrianologist trained in Sumerian religion and the Semitic monotheism that came with Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to become the religion of Israel, Christianity, and finally Islam. He knew little of the exotic worships of Marduk and Bael. Sumerian religion was all ritual by which man, nature and God regulated one another’s behavior. The religions Abraham left the world showed no traces of Sumerian origins. Besides, the Sumerian Ur was an older city to the south of Abraham’s Ur of the Chaldees. No, his love was the language itself and the uses to which it was put over the millennia.
The Sumerians invented their writing during the third millennium and in this they were the first. Though the language itself became dead during the second millennium, anyone who wished to write anything had to do it in Sumerian—at least in Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Persian Empire. Even the Hittites used the Sumerian writing. As a result, Sumerian continued as the language of scribes until the time of Christ, when alphabets supplanted cuneiform. Then the language died and Sumer and Sumerian were forgotten utterly. Sumerian slept for almost two millennia.
About one hundred years ago, some Greek and cuneiform monuments erected by a forgotten king were found and the Greek proved the key to the cuneiform. Sumerian was re-discovered. The language was like no other and made no contributions to any still living language. Its intricacies could only be studied for themselves and that was his love. He with his writing sticks and his Mac was in a world into which only few among the living could enter—he and the small band who published in the Cuneiform Studies Newsletter and the Journal of Cuneiform Studies.
As it turned out, his Bible translation project took not a summer, but five years. The original plan was to translate the Gospels. But as he worked he found the Gospels drew in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on the books of the Old Testament. Time after time he found it necessary to translate the older before he could render the newer. In the end, he went back and began his translation where it belonged, in the beginning. He liked how it started, In the beginning was the word… and the words were his beloved Sumerian.
From time to time he published notes in the Cuneiform Studies Newsletter documenting various discoveries made in his work and posing questions of syntax and meaning. Then there was the lady from Tishomingo, Oklahoma, who came in one day with some Sumerian tablets, Mrs. Miriam Wilson Nestor. Her mother had brought the tablets from her home in New Hampshire many years ago. Like arrowheads in some areas, Sumerian tablets could still be found in that part of the Northeast, having been brought over as ship ballast in the eightenth and nineteenth centuries. For the young Lillian Roller, she had not yet met and married Stanley Wilson, they were a reminder of New Hampshire and her childhood.
Higgott did a translation of Mrs. Miriam Wilson Nestor’s tablets and sent it to the Journal of Cuneiform Studies. He managed to identify them as cargo receipts for goods shipped to Lagash from Dilmun during the time of Gudea, about 2130 B.C. Mrs. Miriam Wilson Nestor, like her mother Lillian before her, had the tablets as a feature of her carefully cultivated flower garden. Now they were on loan to the Kirk A. Rodden Museum of Antiquities at Murray State College in Tishomingo, where they belonged. Higgott had helped persuade the state college there to find space in the atrium outside the cafeteria entrance and he organized the display. The Kirk A. Rodden Museum of Antiquities was not a central location. Rather, its holdings showed up here and there on the Murray State College campus and largely featured the heritage of the Chickasaw Nation, whose capitol Tishomingo once was.
At Higgott’s suggestion, the display included an enlarged reproduction of an old photograph of Mrs. Nestor’s mother Lillian as a pre-teen on a pile of ship ballast rock, Mesopotamian dirt, and Sumerian tablets. Higgott also wanted a color picture of Mrs. Nestor and her twins in their Tishomingo garden. The tablets, some broken, were set among stones and flowering plants, each carefully identified, from Mrs. Nestor’s garden. Because some thought Dilmun was the garden of Eden while others thought Dilmun was the island Emirate of Bahrain, there was a reproduction of Albrecht Dürer’s picture of Adam and Eve amidst mountain ash and a photograph of Emir Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s sovereign, wearing a royal burnoose. The Bahrain Cultural Foundation provided the photograph and modest funding for the exhibit itself. There was also a picture of local dignitaries with Murray State College president Jeff Birdsong at the exhibit and enlarged reproductions of stories from the Tulsa World and Daily Oklahoman validating the importance of the display. And there were Higgott’s careful drawings of the tablets’ cuneiform with his translation and brief account of their original purpose and subsequent fortunes over the past four thousand years. It was well done and, what is unusual for things of this kind, everyone seemed pleased with it.
For Higgott it was immensely satisfying that Sumerian proved adequate to the task of expressing concepts, meanings, and names embedded within cultures and locales stretching through the most ancient times of Abraham, although Sumerian was a dead language even at that remote time, to the most modern times of Christ and his apostles. He never had to adapt the language—Sumerian itself had adapted, thanks to generation upon generation of scribes. It was there when Abraham set forth from Ur of the Chaldees. It was there when Peter set out for Rome. It was contemporary to all the events of the Bible. The Bible began with Sumerian and they ended together.
Higgott thought of his love of the language that lived and died under the hot Mesopotamian sun. From its most early stages Sumerian was subject to a process of evaporation. Words and meanings, one at a time, were lost throughout the three thousand years of its use. Finally, what was once a vast ocean of words, meanings, grammatical devices, sounds and symbols had completely dried up. Only the desert remained. Now scholars like himself, Mackerras and MacAllister were causing long gone words to condense back into being. Symbols and sounds were taking old meanings. The process was slow but each condensed word droplet somehow grew as the scholars worked and, slowly, one at a time, showed the way back for other words. One word opened the way for another word. The Sumerian Ocean would be restored to life.
MacAllister and Higgott were working on ‘níg-gig,’ which meant ‘taboo,’ but also ‘offense,’ ‘curse,’ and many other things that we today separate but which the Sumerian united into a whole. Eating improper food was a ‘níg-gig’ against nature because it made one sick; making a false accusation was a ‘níg-gig’ because it offended God; building too close to the road was a ‘n¡g-gig’ because it was forbidden by the city; shipping dates to Dilmun, the quality of whose dates surpassed all others, was a ‘níg-gig’ because it was bad business. Slowly they were growing the tiny droplet that was ‘níg-gig.’
When Higgott sent Bill Maley the Bible translation (and the disks on to which he had copied it) a couple of months passed before he got a letter back.
Dear Professor Higgott:
We have your cuneiform text of the Bible and have arranged to have it checked and proofed by our staff—a process greatly facilitated by your providing the disks as well as the manuscript copy. Our standard practice in commissioning translations is to have two or more scholars work independently. This we did in the case of the Sumerian translation as well. I think you may know our other translator—Dr. Malcolm Mackerras at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. We find that your two translations are virtually identical—a contemporary reaffirmation of the 270 B.C. Miracle of the Septuagint. God’s hand was there for the first translation from Hebrew to Greek and it was there for you more than two thousand years later. Yours is another braid in the rope of faithful Biblical translations.
As you might expect, the publishing schedule of the American Bible Society is backlogged quite a bit and, given the fact that there is no present missionary need for the Sumerian Bible, we cannot justify scheduling publication before 2007—ten years hence. Publishing technology is changing rapidly and there is a chance the Sumerian Bible will be published before then—but it cannot be guaranteed. You and Professor Mackerras will receive two copies each upon publication. Unfortunately long standing practice prevents indicating your contribution on the published Bible. Once more, let me thank you for your contribution to Biblical scholarship.
American Bible Society
Higgott’s thoughts returned to his current situation. His promotion and tenure decision was due and all signs were bad. His colleagues were polite but guarded—they were all acting guilty or embarrassed. And he could not really blame them. He did not belong in the department at all—his was not the world of comparative religions. He had nothing to contribute there and his lectures were straight out of the very same textbooks the students themselves were reading. He tried to make up to the students for this by being patient, by giving well organized notes and, ultimately, by giving them better grades than they deserved. He did his best, but knew it could never be enough. He thought of the cuneiform text he and MacAllister were working on, "Di-k U níg-gi-na hul-a di níg-érim-e ki-ág níg-gig utu-kam," which Higgott had translated, "O judge, justice is perverted when a verdict harms the just. Such a verdict is cursed [níg-gig] by God [utu]."
Knowing it contained bad news, he did not want to read Smith’s letter. But he must, so he read very slowly, with the desperate idea that, if he read slowly, took an eternity to get to the end, gave the letter time to change itself, perhaps against all reason the letter would become altered and some good would have time to grow and displace some bad, that the letter would redeem itself if given a chance. Higgott was going to give it that chance.
Dear Professor Higgott:
The Departmental Committee on Tenure and Promotion has reviewed the material made available to it with regard to your performance. As you know Oklahoma State University, in conformity with AAUP Guidelines, is required to notify you of reappointment one year before the termination of your seventh year. Reappointment in these circumstances confers tenure. The material you submitted falls into three categories, that regarding your research, that regarding your teaching and that regarding your service to the University and community. The Department requires a "superior" rating in at least one of teaching, research or service for promotion.
With regard to your teaching and service you were rated "adequate." This can be interpreted as the minimum expected of faculty. By itself this neither prevents nor mandates promotion to the rank of Associate Professor and with it, the granting of tenure. The committee did take note of your efforts at establishing a ‘Sumerian Tablets Display’ at Murray State College. But, while clearly you deserve a pat on the back from the people there, your name was not part of the display, it was not mentioned in association with your drawings and translations, and your affiliation with the Religious Studies Department at OSU was not recognized.
This brings me to your research. As your research you submitted three notes that have been or will soon be published in the Cuneiform Studies Newsletter, a manuscript under review by the Journal of Cuneiform Studies that appears to be an account of the Sumerian tablets found in Tishomingo, and a manuscript that has been accepted for publication by the American Bible Society. The manuscript is a translation of the Good News For Modern Man edition of the New Testament and the King James edition of the Old Testament into Sumerian. It was the Bible translation that gave the committee the most problems. The committee’s difficulties are summarized as: Cuneiform Studies Newsletter, a manuscript under review by the Journal of Cuneiform Studies that appears to be an account of the Sumerian tablets found in Tishomingo, and a manuscript that has been accepted for publication by the American Bible Society. The manuscript is a translation of the Good News For Modern Man edition of the New Testament and the King James edition of the Old Testament into Sumerian. It was the Bible translation that gave the committee the most problems. The committee’s difficulties are summarized as: translation that gave the committee the most problems. The committee’s difficulties are summarized as: Cuneiform Studies Newsletter, a manuscript under review by the Journal of Cuneiform Studies that appears to be an account of the Sumerian tablets found in Tishomingo, and a manuscript that has been accepted for publication by the American Bible Society. The manuscript is a translation of the Good News For Modern Man edition of the New Testament and the King James edition of the Old Testament into Sumerian. It was the Bible translation that gave the committee the most problems. The committee’s difficulties are summarized as:
- The translation will not be published for a number of years. Previous experience tell us that such commitments are not always honored.
- Even when the publication takes place your name will not appear anywhere in the published Bible and there will be no mention of your institutional affiliation, The Department of Religious Studies, or Oklahoma State University. Neither you nor we will gain credit for the publication.
- Translations are not strictly considered works of original scholarship. When academics do translations and offer them as evidence of scholarly achievement so as to merit promotion, they are expected to contain numerous explanatory textual notes or a lengthy introduction in which the translated work is critically assessed for its literary or historical merit. It is the notes or introduction, not the translation itself, that is considered as a contribution to scholarship. Your translation has neither explanatory notes nor an introduction in which you critically assess the Bible’s literary quality or contribution to religion.
- Yours is one of two identical translations. It is therefore impossible for you to claim credit for the published version — or for us to decide whether or not it is your translation that is to be published.
- The Cuneiform Studies Newsletter (CSN) is not a refereed journal and your notes are as much by way of questions you would like colleagues to answer as they are contributions to scholarship. In any case they are not "articles" in the sense defined in the department’s Statement of Criteria for Promotion and Tenure. Your submission to the Journal of Cuneiform Studies (JCS) has not yet been accepted. Cuneiform Studies Newsletter (CSN) is not a refereed journal and your notes are as much by way of questions you would like colleagues to answer as they are contributions to scholarship. In any case they are not "articles" in the sense defined in the department’s Statement of Criteria for Promotion and Tenure. Your submission to the Journal of Cuneiform Studies (JCS) has not yet been accepted. (JCS) has not yet been accepted. Cuneiform Studies Newsletter (CSN) is not a refereed journal and your notes are as much by way of questions you would like colleagues to answer as they are contributions to scholarship. In any case they are not "articles" in the sense defined in the department’s Statement of Criteria for Promotion and Tenure. Your submission to the Journal of Cuneiform Studies (JCS) has not yet been accepted.
- Some on the committee, the majority in fact, felt that your work was entirely outside the discipline of Comparative Religion and more an exercise suitable to a Sumerian Studies Program. They point out that you have not published in the American Comparative Religions Review (ACRR), you do not belong to the American Comparative Religion Association (ACRA) and, generally that your activities have not contributed toward the Department’s standing in our discipline. American Comparative Religions Review (ACRR), you do not belong to the American Comparative Religion Association (ACRA) and, generally that your activities have not contributed toward the Department’s standing in our discipline. (ACRR), you do not belong to the American Comparative Religion Association (ACRA) and, generally that your activities have not contributed toward the Department’s standing in our discipline. American Comparative Religions Review (ACRR), you do not belong to the American Comparative Religion Association (ACRA) and, generally that your activities have not contributed toward the Department’s standing in our discipline.
Against these difficulties we find the undeniable fact that you have worked hard over the past several years, that you have been a cooperative colleague, that you have produced a lengthy manuscript in a difficult language, that you have published several notes and that you have strong letters of support from Professors MacAllister and Mackerras testifying to your high regard as a scholar. Further in your favor, as you have pointed out, you are the only member of the department to receive external grants (from the American Bible Society and the Bahrain Cultural Foundation), although one could be seen as more directed at proselytizing than at scholarship itself and the other was awarded to the Kirk A. Rodden Museum of Antiquities in Tishomingo, not to Oklahoma State University. Finally, there is an unsolicited letter of support from president Jeff Birdsong of Murray State College.
In balance, I find it impossible to recommend promotion to Associate Professor. In that I agree with the unanimous recommendation of the Departmental Review Committee.
The page ended here but a second page appeared to continue the letter. "Di-k U níg-gi-na hul-a di níg-érim-e ki-ág níg-gig utu-kam," Higgott thought to himself. He knew that he had not earned favor for that could not be earned, only given. But he also knew that he would return good for good if given the chance. "O judge, justice is perverted when a verdict harms the just," his lips unconsciously shaping the ritual words, "such a verdict is an offense to God." He turned to the fresh page and continued.
On the other hand, I am forced also to agree with the committee minority that suggests you be reappointed without promotion. That is, that you be tenured as an Assistant Professor. I have visited with Dean Makkai about this as it is an unusual step for us to take and a violation of her ‘up or out’ policy. In this instance the Dean will support my recommendation, however. You will be reappointed at the rank of Assistant Professor and that will confer tenure.
I am sorry I was not able to report more happy results. You have been a good departmental citizen and many of us regard you as a friend. Nevertheless your colleagues and I will completely understand if you decide to seek a position elsewhere so your contribution can be better appreciated.
Head of Department
So he made it. He was tenured! The good had found its place among the bad. He would never have to worry about having a job again. He must write MacAllister and Mackerras and thank them—they saved his hide! And President Birdsong at Murray State—Higgott had no idea he had written to Hugh Smith! But not yet. Sunk back into his chair, feet on the desk, Higgott gave full play to his reverie.
He could spend the rest of his life with his Sumerian. He thought of projects. He was entitled to a sabbatical! So he could take a year off with half pay and go back to Philadelphia and work on the Sumerian Dictionary. He had worked on that as a graduate student and just last year they had finally published ‘A.’ ‘B’ was decades away from being ready—but he could spend a year working on it. He might even get a trip back to Iraq. Ur and Babylon! Then there were his own translations. He thought of Moby Dick and laughed happily to himself about translating it with all its Biblical references. He had already done most of the work! "Ish-mael liš-ke-en libbi!" he thought, laughing to himself, "Tremble before Ishmael!" He could start with that. Why not!