There are treasures among the unpublished manuscripts of many a deceased scholar. I’m convinced this is the case with Tikva Frymer-Kensky, who was working on a book to be entitled The Judicial Ordeal in the Ancient Near East (see this piece by Seth Sanders here) before she left us prematurely in 2006 (academic obituary here). I have plenty to do, with a vocation to the pastorate, academic research and publishing, and blogging, not to mention teaching my 15 year-old daughter how to drive (what an experience), my six year-old daughter to lose herself in books (by nature and nurture, that’s exactly what she does), and the list goes on. But if I had more time on my hands, I would spend it going through the Nahum Glatzer archives related to Franz Rosenzweig at Vanderbilt (I once got a brief look at it - list of contents here, and was overcome with excitement), in the identification of unpublished materials by Frymer-Kensky that deserve some form of publication, electronic or otherwise, things like that.
Peter Leeson, who teaches at the Booth School of Business of the University of Chicago, 5807 Woodlawn Ave., just wrote a fabulous paper entitled “Ordeals” in which he argues that “medieval judicial ordeals accurately assigned criminals’ guilt and innocence.” They did this by leveraging medieval belief in iudicium Dei; said justice might be expressed through clergy conducted physical tests in which God condemned the guilty and exonerated the innocent.
How did that work, you may ask? How did the priests do it? More below the jump. This stuff is super-cool, and no one who wishes to exegete Numbers 5:11-31, a text which deals with rules to apply in the trial by ordeal of a suspected adulteress, can afford not to research the topic. As all papers should be, Leeson's paper is available for free online, and downloadable as a PDF. Go here.
The bibliography of Leeson’s paper is impressive, but it would have been a lot more impressive if he had taken a stroll to the Oriental Institute a few blocks away, on 1155 East 58th Street. There, he might have made his way to the library, struck up a conversation with the OI’s librarian, or a doctoral student, or a professor, and come up with a magnificent set of readings that would have provided depth to his analysis. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s name would have come up, and he would have had no trouble putting his hands on a copy of her Yale dissertation on judicial ordeal in the Ancient Near East. A few more blocks away, at the Divinity School on 1025 E. 58th St., he might have been given handy access to Frymer-Kensky’s scholarly legacy on the topic.
What ANE evidence is there for the suggestion that people voluntarily subjected themselves to judicial ordeal to prove their innocence? Leeson deals with the medieval period, and suggests the following:
Medieval citizens’ belief in iudicium Dei created a separating equilibrium. Guilty defendants expected ordeals to convict them. Innocent defendants expected the reverse. Thus only innocent defendants were willing to undergo ordeals. Conditional on observing a defendant’s willingness to do so, the administrating priest knew he was innocent and manipulated the ordeal to find this. (p. 2).
According to Benjamin Foster, Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan, in the great and glorious composition entitled Ludlul bel nemeqi (summary by Alan Lenzi here; he quotes the relevant lines; buy Alan’s indispensable edition here), “goes through a river ordeal to prove himself guiltless” (Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature [3d ed.; Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005] 393). I'm not sure about that. But the topic is extraordinarily interesting.
The legislation in Numbers 5:11-31 is not about a voluntary act on the part of the accused, but one wonders whether the overarching cultural presumption saw trial by ordeal as a typical means of determining guilt or innocence, rather than an exceptional one. Isn’t trial by ordeal, according to the common theology of the ANE, a paradigmatic method of deity to demonstrate guilt or innocence? Doesn’t this remain the template, overt or covert, of about half the films Hollywood produces?
I’m working on a basic bibliography on trial by ordeal. This is an utterly rich topic once one starts to see the tie-ins between theology, law, and media tropes in which life is seen as a test or trial.