THE WORDS OF AHIQAR “ Aramaic Proverbs and Precepts “ – Translator: H. L. Ginsberg

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The text is preserved as the more recent writing on eleven sheets of palimpsest papyrus of the late fifth century B.C. recovered by German excavators from the debris of Elephantine, Upper Egypt, in the years 1906-7. The first four papyri, with a total of five columns, contain the story of Ahiqar, which is in the first person; the remaining seven, with a total of nine columns, contain Ahiqar’s sayings. The composition of the work may antedate the preserved copy by as much as a century.
The action of the narrative centers about the court of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib ( 704-681) and Esarhaddon (680-669). Of other persons named therein, Nabusumiskun actually was a high official of Sennacherib, and Ahiqar himself may be a reflex of Adadsumusur, a priest who officiated in the reigns of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon and exerted a certain amount of influence over them. All of the proper names fit well into an Assyrian milieu. For the sayings, too, a Mesopotamian origin is indicated by repeated references to Shamash as god of justice.
Prior to the recovery of the old Aramaic text, several post-Christian recensions of the book of Ahiqar were known, the Syriac one being the oldest. The man Ahiqar is mentioned in the book of Tobit (1:22; 14:10; etc.).
Columns i-ii (lines 1-31) are too defective for smooth translation. In them Ahiqar (‘hyqr) relates how, having grown old piloting the Assyrian ship of state throughout the reign of Sennacherib, and being without a son of his own, he adopted and instructed his sister’s son Nadin and then persuaded Esarhaddon to make him his (Ahiqar’s) successor; whereupon Nadin requited his foster-father’s kindness with calumny.

(iii 32-48) Then Esarhaddon, the king of Assyria, answered and said: “Do you, Nabusumiskun one of my father’s officers, who ate of my father’s bread, seek the old man Ahiqar wherever you may find and kill him. Otherwise this old man Ahiqar is a wise scribe and counselor of all Assyria, and is liable to corrupt the land against us.” Then, when the king of Assyria had spoken thus, he appointed with him two other men to see how it would turn out.

So this officer Nabusumiskun went away riding on a swift horse, and those men with him. Then, after three more days, he and the others who were with him sighted me as I was walking among the vineyards. Now when this officer Nabusumiskun beheld me he straightway rent his mantle and moaned “Are you the wise scribe and man of good counsel, who was a righteous man and by whose counsel and words all of Assyria was guided? Extinguished be the lamp of your son whom you brought up, who you set up at the gate of the palace. He has ruined you, and an evil return is it.”

Then I, Ahiqar, was afraid. I answered and said to that officer Nabusumiskun, “Am I not the same Ahiqar who once saved you from an undeserved death? When Sennacherib , the father of this King Esarhaddon, sought to kill you, then I brought you to my house. There I sustained you (iv 49-63) as a man deals with his brother, having hidden you from him and having said ‘I killed him,’ until at a later time and after many days I brought you before King Sennacherib and cleared you of offenses before him and he did you no evil. Moreover, Sennacherib was well pleased with me for having kept you alive and not having killed you. Now do you do to me even as I did to you. Don’t kill me. Take me to your house until other times. King Esarhaddon is merciful as any man( ?). In the end he will remember me and wish for my advice. Then you will present me to him and he will spare me alive.”

Then the officer Nabusumiskun answered and said, “Fear not, my lord Ahiqar, father of all Assyria, by whose counsel King Sennacherib and (all) the host of Assyria (were guided) !” Then the officer Nabusumiskun said to his companions, those two men that were with him, ” Do you listen and pay attention to me while I tell you my plan, and a very good plan it is.” So those men answered and said to him. “Tell us, O officer Nabusumiskun, what ever you will, and we shall listen to you.” The officer Nabusumiskun then spoke and said to them, “Listen to me. This is Ahiqar. He is a great man and a bearer of the seal of King Esarhaddon, and the whole army of Assyria was guided by his counsel and words. Let us not kill him [undeservedly]. I will give you a eunuch slave of mine. Let him be slain between these two mountains instead of this Ahiqar. When it is reported, and the king sends other men after us to see the body of this Ahiqar, then they’ll see the body of this eunuch slave of mine. (v 64-78) In the end King Esarhaddon [ will remember Ahiqar and desire his ad vice] and he will regret etc.”

(Since only the right half–or less than half–of col. V is preserved, its translation involves too much conjecture. It is, however, certain that Nabusumiskun’s companions agree to his plan, and Nabusumiskun secretly main- tains Ahiqar in his house as Ahiqar once maintained Nabusumiskun. The latter and his two companions report to Esarhaddon that they have slain Ahiqar. The rest of the story is missing altogether. We know from the later recensions that eventually the king did, in fact, miss Ahiqar’s advice sorely and was overjoyed to learn that he was still alive, and that Ahiqar was rehabilitated while Nadin got his deserts.)

Ahiqar’s Proverbs

-What is stronger than a braying ass? The load.

-The son who is trained and taught and on whose feet the fetter is put shall prosper.

-Withhold not thy son from the rod, else thou wilt not be able to save him from wickedness.

-If I smite thee, my son, thou wilt not die, but if I leave thee to thine own heart thou wilt not live.

-A blow for a bondman, a rebuke for a bondwoman, and for all thy slaves discipline.

-One who buys a runaway slave or a thievish handmaid squanders his fortune and disgraces the name of his father and his offspring with the reputation of his wantonness.

-The scorpion finds bread but is not pleased, and something bad and is more pleased than if one feeds it…

-The lion will lie in wait for the stag in the concealment of the… and he … and will shed its blood and eat its flesh. Even so is the meeting of men. ..a lion. …

-An ass which leaves its load and does not carry it shall take a load from its companion and take the burden which is not its [own with its own] and shall be made to bear a camel’s load.

-The ass bends down to the she-ass from 1ove of her, and the birds ….

-Two things which are meet, and the third pleasing to Shamash: one who drinks wine and gives it to drink, one who guards wisdom, and one who hears a word and does not tell. Behold that is dear to Shamash. But he who drinks wine and does not give it to drink, and one whose wisdom goes astray, and. .. is seen. …Wisdom….

-To gods also she is dear. For all time the kingdom is hers. In heaven is she established, for the lord of holy ones has exalted her.

-My son, chatter not overmuch so that thou speak out every word that comes to thy mind; for men’s (eyes) and ears are everywhere (trained) upon thy mouth.

-Beware lest it be thy undoing. More than all watchfulness watch thy mouth, and over what thou hearest harden thy heart.

-For a word is a bird: once released no man can recapture it!

-First count the secrets of thy mouth; then bring out thy words by number.” For the instruction of a mouth is stronger than the instruction of war.

-Treat not lightly the word of a king: let it be healing for thy flesh.

-Soft is the utterance of a king; (yet) it is sharper and stronger than a two-edged knife.

-Look before thee: a hard look on the face of a king (means) “Delay not!” His wrath is swift as lightning: do thou take heed unto thyself that he display it not against thine utterances and thou perish before thy time.

-The wrath of a king, if thou be commanded, is a burning fire. Obey it at once. Let it not be kindled against thee and cover thy hands.

-Cover up the word of a king with the veil of the heart.

-Why should wood strive with fire, flesh with a knife, a man with a king? I have tasted even the bitter medlar, and I have eaten lettuce but there is naught which is more bitter than poverty.

-Soft is the tongue of a king, but it breaks like a dragon’s ribs; like a plague, which is not seen.

-Let not thy heart rejoice over the multitude of children nor grieve over their fewness.

-A king is like the Merciful; his voice also is loud: who is there that can stand before him, except one with whom is God?

-Beautiful is a king to behold like Shamash, and noble is his majesty to them that walk the earth. …A good vessel covers a word in its heart, and a broken one lets it out.

-The lion approached to greet the ass: “Peace be unto thee.” The ass answered and said to the lion: …I have lifted sand, and I have carried salt; but there is naught which is heavier than grief!
I have lifted bruised straw, and I have taken up bran; but there is naught which is lighter than a sojourner!’

-War troubles calm waters between good friends!

-If a man be small and grow great, his words soar above him. For the opening of his mouth is an utterance gods, and if he be beloved of gods they will put something good in his mouth to say.

-Many are the stars of heaven whose names no man knows. By the same token, no man knows mankind.

-There is no lion in the sea, therefore they call a flood a lb (lion).

-The leopard met the goat when she was cold. The leopard answered and said to the goat, “Come, I will cover thee with my hide.” The goat answered and said to the leopard, “What need have I for it, my lord ? Take not my skin from me.” For he does not greet the gazelle” except to suck its blood.

-The bear went to the lambs. “Give me one of you and I will be content.” The lambs answered and said to him, “Take whichever thou wilt of us. We are thy lambs.”

-Truly, ’tis not in the power of men to lift up their feet or to put them down without the gods.

-Truly, ’tis not in thy power to lift up thy foot or to put down. If a good thing come forth from the mouths of men, it is well for them, and if an evil thing come forth from their mouths, the gods will do evil unto them.

-If God’s eyes are on men, a man may chop wood in the dark without seeing, like a thief, who demolishes a house and…Bend not thy bow and shoot not thine arrow at a righteous man, lest God come to his help and turn it back upon thee.

-If thou be hungry, my son, take every trouble and do very labor, then wilt thou eat and be satisfied and give to thy children.

-If thou bend thy bow and shoot thine arrow at a righteous man, from thee is the arrow but from God the guidance.

-If thou be needy, my son, borrow corn and wheat that thou mayest eat and be sated and give to thy children with thee.

-Take not a heavy loan or from an evil man. Moreover, if thou take a loan, give no rest to thyself until thou repay the 1oan.

-A loan is sweet as [. ..], but its repayment is grief.

-My son, hearken not with thine ears to a lying man.

-For a man’s charm is his truthfulness; his repulsiveness, the lies of his lips. At first a throne is set up for the liar, but in the end they find out his lies and spit in his face.

-A liar’s neck is cut [i.e. he speaks very softly?] like a. that is hidden from sight, like a man who causes misfortune which does not proceed from God.

-Despise not that which is in thy lot, nor covet a wealth which is denied thee. Multiply not riches and make not great thy heart. Whosoever takes no pride in the names of his father and mother, may the sun not shine upon him; for he is a wicked man.

-From myself has my misfortune proceeded: with whom shall I be justified ? The son of my body has spied out my house: what can I say to strangers? My son has been a false witness against me: who, then, has justified me? From my house has gone forth wrath: with whom can I strive and win?

-Reveal not thy secrets before thy friends, lest thy name become despised of them.

-With him who is more exalted than thou, quarrel not. With him who is. .. and stronger than thou, contend not; for he will take of thy portion and add it to his. Behold even so is a small man (who strives) with a great one.

-Remove not wisdom from thee …. Gaze not overmuch lest thy vision be dimmed.

-Be not (too) sweet, lest they swallow thee: be not (too) bitter lest they spit thee out.

-If thou wouldst be exalted, my son, humble thyself before God, who humbles an exalted man and exalts a lowly man.

-What men’s lips curse, God does not curse. God shall twist the twister’s mouth and tear out his tongue.

-Let not good eyes be darkened, nor good ears be stopped, and let a good mouth love the truth and speak it.

-A man of becoming conduct whose heart is good is like a mighty city which is situated upon a mountain. There is none that can bring him down. Except a man dwell with God, how can he be guarded by his own refuge ? …, but he with whom God is, who can cast him down?

-A man knows not what is in his fellow’s heart. So when a good man sees a wicked man let him beware of him. Let him not join with him on a journey or be a neighbor to him–a good man with a bad man.

-The bramble sent to the pomegranate tree saying, “The bramble to the pomegranate: Wherefore the multitude of thy thorns to him that touches thy fruit ?” …The pomegranate tree answered and said to the bramble, “Thou art all thorns to him that touches thee.” All that come in contact with a righteous man are on his side.

-A city of wicked men shall on a gusty day be pulled apart, and in …its gates be brought low; for the spoil of the righteous are they.

-Mine eyes which I lifted up unto thee and my heart which I gave thee in wisdom hast thou scorned, and thou hast brought my name into disgrace .

-If the wicked man seize the corners of thy garment, leave it in his hand. Then approach Shamash: he will take his and give it to thee.

-Hunger makes bitterness sweet, and thirst sourness.

-…If thy master entrust to thee water to keep and thou do it faithfully, he may leave gold with thee… A man one day said to the wild ass, ” Let me ride upon thee, and I will maintain thee … ” Said the wild ass, “Keep thy maintenance and thy fodder, and let me not see thy riding.” …Let not the rich man say, “In my riches I am glorious.”

-Do not show an Arab the sea nor a Sidonian the desert; for their work is different.

“ Aramaic Proverbs and Precepts “