Sumerian prayer letter of king Sin-Iddinam (Isaiah 38)

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Illustration: A prayer letter from an Asayrian army commander to the god Shamash

The modern reader may be surprised that in Isaiah 38:9-20 Hezekiah’s prayer is recorded as a “writing” or letter. The genre of the “prayer letter”, however, is well attested in Sumerian and Akkadian literature. It is first known from the libraries of private individuals but later developed as a common means for royal figures to petition the gods. An example of this form of communication is the Sumerian prayer letter of king Sin-Iddinam of Larsa (ca mid nineteenth century B.C.). Sin-Iddinam wrote to Nin-Isina, the patron goddess of the city of Isin (the rival city of Larsa), complaining that although he had been a faithful shepherd of the nation under his care, the city of Isin continued to raid his territory. Furthermore, he had been cursed with an incurable disease that defied diagnosis. Appealing to the goddess as though she were his own true mother, Sin-Iddinam begged Nin-Isina to petition her divine son Damu (the god of healing) on his behalf. The letter ebds with the king on the brink of death, crying for Nin-Isina to have mercy and call upon Damu. A subsequent letter in the name of Nin-Isina to her divine son on behalf of king Sin-Iddinam appears to be the answer to the king’s prayer.

Another prayer letter, this one an Akkadian missive written by a military officer, is addressed to the god Shamash. In it the offiser asked for an oracle on success of a planned campaign.

In Isaiah 38 king Hezekiah of Judah used the prayer letter genre to address Yahweh. Having been inflicted with a near fatal illness, Hezekiah pleaded for healing while recounting his obedience and devotion to God. When the Lord heard his prayer and granted him 15 additional years of life, the king wrote another prayer letter, detailing the extent of his sickness and praising God for His healinbg restoration and loving faithfulness. In so doing Hezekiah demonstrated true loyalty: He did not call upon God only when experiencing life-threatening difficulty but remembered also to thank and praise Him after his full recovery.


 

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