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Der Tod von eigener Hand. Studien zum Suizid im Alten Testament, Alten Ägypten und Alten Orient.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2017. XVI, 381 S. = Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 19. Lw. EUR 129,00. ISBN 978-3-16-154055-4.
Jan Willem van Henten
This book is the slightly revised Habilitationsschrift accepted in 2016 by the Theological Faculty of Leipzig University. It concerns an interdisciplinary analysis of the theme of self-killing, combining biblical studies with anthropology and cultural history of the ancient orient as well as ancient Egypt. Jan Dietrich reads the relevant passages concerning self-killing as meaningful stories (»Sinngeschichten«), i. e., they describe a meaningful deed as a solution to a problem that is relevant for life (301). The book is divided in five parts: 1) the ancient matrix of honour and shame in the ancient world, 2) escapist self-killings in the Old Testament and ancient Near East, 3) aggressive self-killings, 4) oblative self-killings (in-cluding martyrdom), and 5) summary and preview of future research. This set up of the book implies a typology of self-killings, which is explained at the beginning of the second section (59–60).
D. applies the categories developed by Jean Baechler in his study Tod durch eigene Hand. Eine wissenschaftliche Untersuchung über den Selbstmord (Frankfurt a. M. u. a., 1981), which focus on the purpose and meaning of the deed and not upon its cause. In line with Baechler’s approach he defines self-killing as: »Unter Selbsttötung wird eine zielgerichtete und mit Sinn besetzte Handlung verstanden, mittels der sich eine Person durch eigenes oder fremdes Tun oder Unterlassen absichtlich den Tod gibt, um auf diese Weise
ein lebensrelevantes Problem zu lösen« (6). He prefers the terms »Selbsttötung« or »Tod von einiger Hand« because most of the relevant passages neither criticize nor glorify the deed. Many Old Testament as well as near eastern passages about a person’s body or status illustrate how views about honour and shame (or disgrace) determine humans’ deeds as means to social control, by either suppressing unwanted behaviour, enhancing the group cohesion or manipulating and dominating others. This is the cultural milieu in which self-killings are meaningful.
With Baechler D. differentiates between four categories of self-killings and eleven types (cf. above about the sections of the book), but he acknowledges that not all types are matched. The first cat-egory concerns escapist self-killings, of which the first type, self-killing in a hopeless military situation, was quite common. The killing is in this case a means to flee from a situation that is unbearable.There are three forms of this self-killing: 1) killing by the sword, 2) jumping down to die, and 3) self-cremation. The most famous case of the first type is Saul’s suicide (1 Sam 31; 2 Sam 1; 1 Chr 10), which D. connects with neo-Assyrian parallels. Other cases include Abimelech (Judg 9:53–54; 2 Sam 11:21), Nabubelshumati (7 th century BCE; Assurbanipal-Prisma A VII 28–37; 45–50), Ursa of Urartu (Sargons Gottesbrief 148–151; 411–414; Sargons Prunkinschrift 76–78), and Razis (2 Macc 14:37–46). The corpus of relevant texts about the second type (jumping) is much smaller, D. discusses a few Assyrian passages (RIMA III 2 ii 66b–75a and RIMA III 2 ii 73) and mentions a few passages in Josephus in a footnote, to which the figure of Razis can be added (2 Macc 14:43–44). Death by self-cremation prevents the enemy from getting hold of the body. There are many cases of the self-cremation of leaders (Mitinti of Ascalon, Assurbanipal, Shamashshamukin, Sinsharishkun, Semiramis, Croesus, Boges and Amilkas; one biblical case: Simri, 1 Kings 16:15–20), but also collective cremations of the inhabitants of cities in Asia Minor, of Sidon, Persepolis as well as the rebels at Masada.
A second type of escapist self-killings results from the conclusion that an important purpose in life has failed (»Bilanzsuizide«). Relevant Egyptian passages include two messengers who refuse to transfer a message about a disaster (one concerns the seer Amenophis in Josephus, Apion 1.236). D. observes that the motive in Egyptian sources differs from Greco-Roman sources: the Egyptian passages focus on personal failure and the Greco-Roman ones on pangs of love (166). There is one case of this type in the Hebrew Bible: Ahitofel (2 Sam 17:23; see also Sarah in Tob 3:10–15; Judas in Mat 27:5). The third and fourth types of escapist self-killings focus on a crisis within society (the mourning of Ipuwer, the conversation of a weary person with his BA, the »pessimistic dialogue«) or a juridical context (death of harem women during Ramses III, Ptolemy Macron, 2 Macc 10:13).
The second category concerns aggressive self-killings, some of which aim at an appeal to others or even to blackmail them. This theme occurs in several ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts. A very specific case is the threat of a woman named Kirum to jump from the roof of a house (ARM 26 304; ARM 10 33), which is echoed in rabbinic literature (e. g. b.Git. 57b). Gen 27:46 and 30:1 may convey similar threats by the matriarchs Rebeccah and Rachel. Another type of aggressive self-killings aims at revenge and/or a glorious death, as the self-killings of Samson (Judg 16:28–30) and Eleazar Avaran (1 Macc 6:43–46; cf. 9:10) illustrate; both attempt to kill the enemy by their death and Eleazar also aims at winning an ever-lasting name for himself.
The third category concerns self-killing as sacrifice, in which D. includes Jona as well as the legends about Eleazar and the mother with her seven sons (2 Macc 6:18–7:42). He argues that a category »martyr« would be unclear and that the suicidal dimension and views about honour and shame are crucially important in these legends (239.252–259). A second type within this category concerns self-killing as passage (»Gefolgschaftstod«) to a posthumous and better realm (e. g. royal cemeteries at Ur; royal cemeteries at Abydos; 4 Macc 8:1–14:10; Ass.Mos. 9–10). Baechler’s fourth category, playful self-killings, is absent in the Old Testament.
This is a well-argued and important contribution to the study of self-killings in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East as well as ancient Egypt. D. offers detailed surveys of various types of self-killings and careful interpretations of the relevant texts. His book en-ables readers within biblical and Jewish studies to interpret self-killing passages in their fields in the light of the broader cultural horizon of the ancient neighbouring cultures, which is a major advantage. The book’s title and his definition of self-killing (above) are together somewhat ambiguous: the title highlights the means of death ( Tod durch eigene Hand …), but the definition implies death by oneself or by others. This explains why D. can discuss passages like 2 Macc 6:18–7:42 under the heading of self-killings. D. rightly emphasizes that the intention and the purpose of the deed are important, but other scholars may keep to the view that cause and means (the person who brings about death) are important factors as well. D.’s categorizations are really helpful because they highlight the different purposes of the killings. Nevertheless, there are always problems with categorizations because there are overlaps and some passages may belong to several categories (e. g. Razis’ self-killing in 2 Macc 14: 37–46). Finally, D. opts for neutral phrases and a neutral definition, but it should be noted that some passages do criticize self-killings (e. g. the re-interpretation of Saul’s death in 1 Chron 10, acknowledged by D.) or even ridicule them (Josephus’ retelling of the self-sacrifice of Eleazar Avaran in BJ 1.41–45, not discussed). Notwithstanding these comments D. has contributed a major study to the theme of self-killing that no doubt will be consulted for many years to come.