Lost in Translation: Gender, Ambiguity, and the Bible
With this book project, I aim to expose the dangers of “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that because the Bible has divine origins, it is both infallible and applicable to the modern world. This conviction is fraught with three major problems. The first is that the Bible, as an ancient anthology of texts that underwent repeated revision over time, is full of ambiguities and inconsistencies. In fact, the very texts that tend to be employed in the service of modern agendas are often the most ambiguous, opaque, and/or inconsistent. Second, advocates of biblical inerrancy consistently interpret biblical texts in a vacuum, without attention to the wider cultural contexts in which these texts were composed. Finally, the ancient writers themselves were often wholly uninformed; and the choice to follow them in their ignorance thus has disastrous and costly results.
Given that the texts that are deployed for the most harm often intersect with matters of gender, sexuality, and the law, the book will spotlight texts and terms related to the intersection of these specific topics. The essays in Lost in Translation: Gender, Ambiguity, and the Bible, will take different forms: some will centre on a particular word while others will highlight a particular text. All of the essays will then expose the tragic histories of the (ab)uses and (mis)interpretations of these texts and terms: ancient and/or modern, secular and/or religious. I intend to show that in certain cases, acts of misinterpretation are driven by modern agendas; in others, they are triggered by ambiguities in the ancient Hebrew; and in still others, they reflect the blind spots of the interpreter’s own milieu.
Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
Outside of the Bible, all of the known Near Eastern law collections were produced in the third to second millennia B.C.E. in cuneiform on clay tablets and in major cities in Mesopotamia and in the Hittite Empire. None of the five major sites in Syria that have yielded cuneiform tablets has borne even a fragment of a law collection, even though several have produced ample legal documentation. Excavations at Nuzi have also turned up numerous legal documents, but again, no law collection. Even Egypt has not yielded a collection of laws. As such, the biblical texts that scholars regularly identify as law collections represent the only “western,” non-cuneiform expressions of the genre in the ancient Near East, produced by societies not known for their political clout, and separated in time from “other” collections by centuries.
Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law challenges the long-held notion that Israelite and Judahite scribes either made use of “old” law collections or set out to produce law collections in the Near Eastern sense of the genre. Rather, it argues that what we call “biblical law” is closer in form and function to another, oft-neglected Mesopotamian genre: legal-pedagogical texts. During their education, Mesopotamian scribes studied a variety of legal-oriented school texts: sample contracts, fictional cases, sequences of non-canonical law, and legal phrasebooks. When biblical law is viewed in the context of these legal-pedagogical texts from Mesopotamia, their practical roots in comparable legal exercises begin to emerge.
Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)
In the ancient Near East, scribes commonly transformed their received material by adding something new to the front, or what I call “revision through introduction.” This method allowed scribes to preserve their received material while simultaneously recasting it. As a result, many biblical and Mesopotamian texts manifest multiple and even competing viewpoints. Because the new contributions launch these works, however, the texts are often read solely through the lens of their final contributors. Tracking the Master Scribe provides a fresh way of approaching this reworked material. In addition to providing overviews of hard evidence for revision in both corpora, it includes a set of detailed case studies that offer fresh insight into the trajectories of well-known biblical and Mesopotamian texts. The result is the first comprehensive profile of this key scribal method: a method that was not only ubiquitous in the ancient Near East but that epitomizes the attitudes of the scribes toward the literature that they produced. In 2017, this book earned the American Schools of Oriental Research Frank Moore Cross Award.
Co-authored with Daniel Fleming, The Buried Foundation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Akkadian Huwawa Narrative (Brill, 2010).
This book presents a new theory to account for the emergence of the Gilgamesh Epic. For decades, all of the Akkadian Gilgamesh evidence from the early second millennium B.C.E. (or Old abylonian [OB] period) has been understood to constitute a single composition known as the OB Epic, the first brilliant precursor to the twelve-tablet Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Contemporary with the early Akkadian material is a handful of independent Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh that have been viewed as the direct antecedents of the OB Epic. We propose, however, that between the Sumerian tales and the emergent epic there was an intermediate literary stage that we identify as the Akkadian Huwawa narrative. This old story, we suggest, only covered Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s expedition to the Cedar Forest to battle the fearsome forest guardian Huwawa. This argument is rooted both in internal evidence (i.e., inconsistencies in Tablets II and III of the OB Epic) and in hard evidence (i.e., the centrality of the Huwawa episode in a set of newly available OB Akkadian fragments; the popularity of the Sumerian tale of “Gilgamesh and Huwawa” in scribal education). Our work reflects an effort to reconstruct the Akkadian Huwawa narrative, the immediate foundation for the first Gilgamesh Epic. According to Benjamin Foster, “One concludes this book with a lively admiration for the authors’ ingenuity, learning, and literary sensitivity. It deserves a place of honor among the many interpretive studies of the Gilgamesh Epic for its originality, acumen, daring, and depth of reflection.”
Sara Milstein is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies. She is the author of Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021); Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (Oxford University Press), which earned the Frank Moore Cross Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research in 2017; and co-author with Daniel Fleming of The Buried Foundation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Akkadian Huwawa Narrative (Brill). A graduate of Bates College (B.A. in English), City College of New York (M.A. in Secondary Education in English) and New York University (M.A./Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies), she has been the recipient of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012), the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (2009-2010, 2012-2013), the Killam Foundation (2017), and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (2018-2019). In 2016, she was the recipient of the Killam Teaching Prize. In 2021, she was awarded a Killam Accelerator Research Fellowship for her new project, titled Lost in Translation: Gender, Ambiguity, and Biblical “Errancy”.
Grants and Awards
Killam Accelerator Research Fellowship (KARF), Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Fund, 2021-2023
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Exchange Arts Workshop Grant, with Reinhard Mueller, “Making a Case: The Origins and Legacy of Biblical and Near Eastern Law” (2020-2021)
SSHRC Insight Grant, “Making a Case: The Origins and Legacy of Biblical and Near Eastern Law” (2019-2021)
SSHRC Connection Grant, “The Emergent Legal Mind in the Ancient Middle East” (2019-2020)
Peter Wall Special Projects Fund, “The Emergent Legal Mind in the Ancient Middle East” (2019-2020)
Peter Wall Institute, Special Projects Fund (with Jessica Dempsey, Malabika Pramanik, and Anna Casas-Aguilar), “Building the 1.5 Degree UBC: Reducing Work-Related Aviation Emissions” (2019)
Arts Undergraduate Research Award (AURA), UBC Faculty of Arts, “Making a Case: The Emergent Legal Imagination in the Ancient Near East” (2018, 2016)
American Schools of Oriental Research Frank Moore Cross Award (for Tracking the Master Scribe, 2017). This award is presented to the editor/author of the most substantial volume(s) related to one of the following categories: a) the history and/or religion of ancient Israel; b) ancient Near Eastern and eastern Mediterranean epigraphy; c) textual studies on the Hebrew Bible; or d) comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature.
Killam Teaching Prize (university-wide teaching prize, 2017)
SSHRC, Insight Development Grant, “Nothing but the Truth: Near Eastern Scribes and the Production of Legal ‘Opinions’” (2015-2018)
Hampton Grant, “Making a Case: The Impact of Mesopotamian ‘Lawsuits’ on the Hebrew Bible” (2014-2017)
Ephraim Urbach Postdoctoral Fellowship, “Scribal Exchange in the Ancient Near East: Textual Revision in New Settings” (2012-2013)
Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Recent Doctoral Recipients Fellowship, “Revamping Ancient Texts: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Narratives” (2010-2011)
Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Doctoral Scholarship, “Reworking Ancient Texts: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature” (2009-2010)
Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Completion Fellowship, “Reworking Ancient Texts: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature” (2009-2010)
I am open to supervising any promising students in the areas of biblical studies and/or ancient Near Eastern studies. Please contact me directly through email if you would like to discuss the possibility of studying in our Department.
•Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
•Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
• Fleming, Daniel and Sara J. Milstein. The Buried Foundation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Akkadian Huwawa Narrative, Cuneiform Monographs Series 39 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010).
Journal Articles and Chapters
• “Insights from Tradition into the Biblical Law of the Slavewoman (Exodus 21:7-11),” Biblische Notizen 189 (2021): 29–44.
• “The Role of Legal Texts in Scribal Education: Implications for Biblical Law,” The Scribe in the Biblical World, ed. Esti Eshel and Michael Langlois (forthcoming).
• “The Origins of Deuteronomic ‘Law,’” IOSOT Conference Volume, ed. Joachim Schaper (forthcoming).
• “The Origins of the Laws,” in Cambridge Companion to Law and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Bruce Wells (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
• “Sleeping In(serted): Humor and Revision in the Adapa Mythic Tradition,” Archiv für Orientforschung 54 (2020): 1–17.
• “Will and (Old) Testament: Reconsidering the Roots of Deuteronomy 25,5-10,” in Writing, Rewriting and Overwriting in the books of Deuteronomy and of the Former Prophets: Essays in Honor of Cynthia Edenburg, eds. Thomas Römer, Ido Koch, and Omer Sergi, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium (Leuven: Peeters, 2019), 49–63.
• “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Independent Origins of Deut 22:25–27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137.3 (2018): 625-643.
• “Making a Case: The Repurposing of ‘Israelite Legal Fictions’ as Post-Deuteronomic Law,” Supplementation and the Study of the Hebrew Bible, ed. Saul Olyan and Jacob Wright (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2017), 161-181.
• “Outsourcing Gilgamesh,” in ed., Raymond Person and Robert Rezetko, Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016), 37-62.
• “Saul the Levite and His Concubine: The ‘Allusive’ Quality of Judges 19,” Vetus Testamentum 66 (2016): 95-116.
• “Insights into Editing from Mesopotamian Literature: Mirror or Mirage?” in ed., Reinhard Müller, Juha Pakkala, and Bas ter Haar Romeny, Insights into Editing in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2016).
• “The Origins of Adapa,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 105.1 (2015): 30-41.
• “The Magic of Adapa,” in ed., Paul Delnero and Jacob Lauinger, Texts and Contexts: Approaches to Textual Transmission in the Cuneiform World (Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2015).
• “Delusions of Grandeur: Revision through Introduction in Judges 6-9,” in ed., John Greene, A Life in Parables and Poetry: Pedagogue, Poet, Scholar: Essays in Honor of Mishael Maswari Caspi (Berlin: Klaus-Schwarz Verlag, 2014), 210-239.
• “‘Who Would Not Write?’ The Prophet as Yhwh’s Prey in Amos 3:3-8,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 75 (2013): 429-445.
• “From Rambam to Richard Wright: Job, the Delayed Angel, and the Conception of Modern Midrashim,” in ed., Mishael Caspi, Why Hidest Thy Face: Job in Traditions and Literature (Berkeley, California: Bibal Press, 2002).
• “Adapa,” in ed., Lisbeth Fried, Routledge Dictionary of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (New York: Routledge, 2015).
• “Enkidu,” in ed., Lisbeth Fried, Routledge Dictionary of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (New York: Routledge, 2015).
• “Gilgamesh,” in ed., Lisbeth Fried, Routledge Dictionary of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (New York: Routledge, 2015).
I am Chair of the Hebrew Scriptures and Cognate Literature Section and Steering Committee Member of the Deuteronomy Section at the Society of Biblical Literature.