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Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia:

The Background to Nehemiah’s Feasting (Part I)*

By Jacob L. Wright
(Emory University)

»Beer, meat, and politeness«

(A Baganda list of requirements for a good leader1)
Nam-šag5-ga kaš-àm nam-äul kaskal-àm
»Pleasure – it is beer. Discomfort – it is an expedition.«
(Sumerian Proverb2)

I. Introduction
In a passage of his Memoir describing his munificence and personal
involvement in the labor on Jerusalem’s ramparts, Nehemiah includes
a statement about his mensal practices: »Moreover at my table there were
150 people, Judeans and officials, besides those who came to us from the
nations round about« (Neh 5,17). He boasts that this large number of
guests enjoyed handsome hospitality: »Now that which was prepared
daily was one ox, six choice sheep, and poultry; this was prepared at
my expense. And at ten-day intervals, we had wine of every kind in abun-
dance« (v. 18).
Table-fellowship and feasting similar to that described by Nehemiah
is encountered throughout the ancient world, where it played a central
role in displaying power, forming social bonds, and fortifying political
alliances. Surprisingly scholars have rarely if ever brought this com-
parative data to bear upon the Memoir.3 The present essay works toward
redressing this deficit by discussing a wide range of texts and images re-
lated to commensality. My overarching interest is how feasting functions
within the political calculus of ancient Western Asian rulers as one of the
most popular means to promote internal social cohesion and forge exter-
nal alliances – either as a way of avoiding military conflict or as a prelude
to warring against a third party. In keeping with this interest, I devote an

* To Nadav Na’aman on his 70th birthday.

1 L. Mair, An African People in the Twentieth Century, 1934, 183.

2 E. I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs, 1959, 264 f.

3 See however the treatment of the Achaemenid sources in H. G. M. Williamson, The Gov-

ernors of Judah under the Persians, TynB 39 (1988), 59–82.

ZAW 122. Bd., S. 212–233 DOI 10.1515/ZAW.2010.016

© Walter de Gruyter 2010
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 213

extensive portion of the discussion to the manner in which feasting

works: By making a deep impression on his or her guests, the host creates
memories of the feast that contribute to the maintenance of the social
bonds formed in the act of feasting. Both of these aspects figure promi-
nently in Nehemiah’s Memoir, with its themes of social bonding, external
conflict and the memory of the host. The implications of this study are
however not confined to research on the Nehemiah Memoir. Indeed,
many of my analytical distinctions, observations, and conclusions apply
equally to a wide range of commensal practices in other times and places.4

II. Commensality – Anthropological Considerations

In a recent volume on The Archaeology of Mediterranean Prehistory,
Emma Blake writes with respect to the activity of commensalism and
»[It] always has some bearing on social relations and on the identities of the participants,
whether creating them, reinforcing them, or even masking them. Thus the punctuated occa-
sion of the feast sheds light on ongoing social roles: Who is hosting the feast? Who are
the participants? Who is excluded? What kind of obligations does this event place on its
participants? […] Feasts serve a range of social functions. They may help raise or maintain
the status of the host, and establish indebtedness in the guests that can be repaid immediately
(as in the case of work-parties) or at a later date in the form of a delayed reciprocity.«5

Blake’s questions and observations – with respect to the status of the

host, the identity of the guests, the social bonds created between the two,
and the indebtedness that the guests can repay in contributions of labor –
are by no means new to the fields of (Old and New World) archaeology
and cultural anthropology. Scholars in these fields have long studied the
complex phenomena associated with commensality. The particular sub-
jects that have attracted attention are wide-ranging, including everything
from weddings to kahvehaneler (Turkish coffeehouses), from early Chi-
nese porcelain trade with Europe to the Wari ceramic assemblages from
Middle Horizon period Peru.
In his seminal study, Cooking, Cuisine and Class, Jack Goody sug-
gests that scholarly interest in commensality can be traced to a pivotal
moment in feasting history, namely to the repasts enjoyed by Sir James

4 The activity of feasting may be compared to the institution of gift-giving inasmuch as

both serve as means of forming alliances. Feasting and gift-giving also figure promi-
nently in academic ritual life, with its time-honored traditions of symposia, Fest-
schriften, and dedications. I thus offer this article to Professor Nadav Na’aman on his
70th birthday in appreciation for his exemplary research on the history of ancient Israel,
and wish him many more years of productive research.
5 E. Blake, The Material Expression of Cult, Ritual and Feasting, in: E. Blake/A. B. Knapp
(eds.), The Archaeology of Mediterranean Prehistory, 2005, 102–129, 107.
214 Jacob L. Wright

Frazer and William Robertson Smith at Trinity High Table.6 This historic
commensality contributed directly to the latter’s influential Lectures on
the Religion of the Semites (1889). Exploring in one of these lectures the
subject of sacrificial feasts, Smith claimed: »According to antique ideas
those who eat and drink together are by this very act tied to one another
by a bond of friendship and mutual obligation.« Such an act is »the
solemn and stated expression of the fact that all those who share the meal
are brethren, and that all duties of friendship and brotherhood are impli-
citly acknowledged« in this very activity of feasting.7 Although Smith
was a professor of Old Testament before penning his controversial
Encylopaedia Britannica articles on the Bible (and commissioning similar
ones from his close colleague Julius Wellhausen), his insightful ideas on
feasting have stimulated more interest in anthropological research than
in Hebrew Bible studies.8
Before proceeding, we need first to address several issues related to
definition and approach. The present essay employs the terms »feasting«
and »commensality« as analytical rubrics to cover a wide range of cul-
tural practices. Common to all these practices is the communal consump-
tion of drink and often food. The manner of consumption is however to
be distinguished from quotidian activities of feeding or domestic meals.
In contrast to the latter, food consumption during a feast has a formal-
ritual-dramaturgical character; it is often called »banqueting.«9 The
intentionality that characterizes feasting distinguishes it from normal
meals. Within anthropological research on feasting, one may distinguish
between approaches that are ecological-materialist in orientation, which
place greater emphasis on the redistribution/recycling aspects of feasting,
and those with roots in cultural studies and political practice theory,
which devote more attention to issues of prestige and status.10 Although
founded on conflicting ontological premises, the two approaches are not
necessarily always at odds in praxis. Yet given the alternative between the

6 J. Goody, Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology, 1982, 10–12.
7 W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites I, 1889, 247 f.
8 See E. Schmitt, Essen in der Bibel, Studien zur Kulturanthropologie 2, 1994; A. Brenner/
J. W. van Henten (eds.), Food and Drink in the Biblical Worlds, Semeia 86, 1999; and
N. MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament, 2008. Feast-
ing has been studied widely by New Testament scholars, but only rarely by students of
Rabbinic Judaism. Most recently this lacuna has begun to be filled by J. D. Rosenblum,
»They Sit Apart at Meals«: Early Rabbinic Commensality Regulations and Identity Con-
struction, PhD Dissertation, Brown Univ., 2008 and D. M. Freidenreich, Foreign Food:
A Comparatively-enriched Analysis of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law, PhD Disser-
tation, Columbia Univ., 2006.
9 The term »banquet« is thus used here as a subset of the larger category of »feast«.
10 See, e.g. the introduction and articles in M. Dietler/B. Hayden (eds.), Feasts: Archae-
ological and Ethnographic Perspectives, 2001.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 215

two, the present paper tends more toward the latter constructionist ap-
proach.11 It demonstrates the validity of Michael Dietler’s incisive state-
ments: The feast represents »a remarkably supple ritual practice that
allows the strategic reciprocal conversion of economic and symbolic
capital toward a wide variety of culturally appropriate political goals.«
This potential for converting symbolic and material capital »is what ac-
counts for the striking ubiquity and durability of the feast as an institu-
tionalized practice in the face of dramatic social transformations …«12
As for the social impact or benefits of feasts, one of the problems
facing any political economy – be it a tribal coalition, a nascent state, or
an empire – is the need to transcend or to reconfigure allegiances that are
local, kin-based and/or primordial. Rituals involving food and drink are
commonly one of the more prominent means utilized toward this end.
But what is it about the meal that predestines its widespread use in social
bonding rituals? Anthropological research has variously shown how eat-
ing and drinking are not just physiological necessities but also communi-
cative and performative acts. Food and drink are highly charged forms of
material culture, and the act of ingesting food into the body may be com-
pared to sexual intercourse in both its physicality and symbolism.
A group becomes in a certain sense one body at the table. As Arjun Ap-
padurai argues in his earlier work on »gastro-politics,« food must be seen
as part of a semiotic system; it encodes complex sets of social and moral
propositions.13 Food and drink »are almost infinitely variable and sub-
ject to elaboration – not only what is eaten and drunk, but how it is pre-
pared, served, and consumed.«14 By virtue of their unique symbolic
capacities, food preparation and food consumption often express what it
means to be human and to belong to a particular species of humanity
(nationality, ethnicity, social class, etc.).15
As formal practices, feasts represent an especially powerful com-
municative-performative kind of eating and imbibing.16 Cultically, feasts
play a central role in maintaining contact with the gods and/or ancestors

11 For the differences between constructionism and constructivism, see M. Q. Patton,

Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods, 2001 (3rd ed.), 96 f.
12 M. Dietler/B. Hayden, Digesting the Feast, in: idem (eds.), Feasts, 1–20, 13.
13 A. Appadurai, Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia, American Ethnologist 8 (1981),
14 S. Pollock, Feasts, Funerals, and Fast Food in Early Mesopotamian States, in: T. Bray
(ed.), The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires,
2003, 17–38, 18.
15 For the relationship between consumption and identity construction, see P. Bourdieu,
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1984.
16 The performative-communicative aspects of feasting are treated at greater length below,
V. (Part 2).
216 Jacob L. Wright

and, in turn, affirming boundaries and idealized concepts important to

the group. Yet they also offer contexts for individuals to serve as the hosts
and, in so doing, to advertise their largesse and success.17 In this way they
contribute directly to prestige and status. Feasts create strong social
boundaries between outsiders and insiders (via invitations to the table).
They likewise can serve to construct or reinforce hierarchies and rank via
a precisely demarcated social space (e.g., seating arrangements). They
can also function as ritual theaters for the enforcing of social sanctions
(honor, shame, ostracism, etc.). Furthermore, by excluding those outside
the circle, feasts furnish opportunities for social change in a protected,
confined environment. In this »safe« setting, the guests can enter into
new relationships (communitas) through conviviality, with all its ritual,
formal, dramaturgical, and occasionally ecstatic-bacchanal qualities.18
The relationships sought and produced in feasting range from marriage
to political alliances and networks of reciprocal debts, which can be re-
paid in various forms (such as conscripted manpower).19 With respect to
their potential for mobilizing labor as well as armies, feasts to be sure are
»not simply epiphenomenal reflections of changes in culture and society,
but central arenas of social action that have had a profound impact on
the course of historical transformations.«20

17 For modern society, see T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899; P. H. Nystrom,
Economic Principles of Consumption, 1929, as well as P. Bourdieu, Language and Sym-
bolic Power, 1991, 163–170.
18 Thus for the case of warriors, feasting often played a role in building solidarity and
camaraderie that was essential to fighting efficiency. Referring to early European medi-
eval society, Guy Halsall writes that battle »was fought at close quarters in formations
which depended upon mutual support for their cohesion. A warrior had to be sure of
those who stood to each side of him … This necessity … surely lay behind the communal
feasting and drinking which helped to bond the warrior classes. The need to express this
martial reliability may have produced the boasting culture apparent in the feasting halls
depicted in the late Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and elsewhere« (Warfare and Society in
the Barbarian West: 450–900, 2003, 33).
19 As one who recently relocated to Atlanta, I may be permitted to refer here to the incessant
banqueting in the plantation culture of the antebellum South, described for example in
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. At the other end of the social spectrum is the
tavern, which is often represented as a den of conspirators and shady characters. Already
the Hammurabi Laws stipulate that »if criminals [conspirators] plot in a tavern keeper’s
[sabitum’s] house and she does not arrest those criminals and bring them to the palace,
that tavern keeper shall be put to death« (Law 109 in M. T. Roth, Law Collections from
Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd ed., 1997, 101). The tavern was also a place where
contracts and alliances were formed; see B. Alster, The Instructions of Suruppak. A Su-
merian Proverb Collection, MCSA 2, 1974, 38f., l. 72. See also K. Dixon, Saloons in the
Wild West and Taverns in Mesopotamia: Explorations Along the Timeline of Public Drink-
ing, in: S. N. Archer/K. M. Bartoy (eds.), Between Dirt and Discussion, 2006, 61–79.
20 Dietler/Hayden, Digesting the Feast, in: idem (eds.), Feasts, 16.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 217

Feasting functions similarly to the more widely studied activity of

gift-exchange (e.g., potlatch). Both activities figure prominently in the
critical process of converting prestige goods, material surplus, and mar-
riageable children into social bonds and political power.21 Yet one should
note a major difference between feasting and gift-giving: »[F]ood is de-
stroyed in the act of commensal consumption at a feast; and, moreover,
destroyed by ingesting it into the body. This is the literal ›embodiment‹ or
›incorporation‹ of the gift and the social debt that it engenders. Aside
from the powerful symbolic dimension of this practice, it also results in
the pragmatic fact that, unlike durables, the food cannot be recirculated
or ›reinvested‹ …«22 Although feasting may be understood as a subset of
gift-exchange, gift-exchange is often subsumed to the goals of feasting:
By presenting gifts to his or her guests, the host of a banquet can maxi-
mize and perpetuate the impact of his or her table.23
The host of a feast typically strives to leave a deep impression on his
or her guests.24 The delicacies that are served, their distinctive taste, the
aesthetics of the table, the entertainment, and gifts or »party-favors,«
which the guests do not consume but rather take home as lasting mem-
entos or keepsakes, all work toward this goal of memory-making.25 As we
shall see below, this principle was not lost on ancient Near Eastern hosts.

III. The Politics of Commensality in Ancient Israel and Judah

In a chapter from his recent book on the uses of food in the Hebrew Bible,
Nathan MacDonald treats feasting not just as a matrix for general social
change but as one of the essential elements in the move towards more
centralized institutions of authority.26 Although tending to treat the »the

21 M. Douglas/B. C. Isherwood, The World of Goods, 1996; D. V. Kurtz, Political Anthro-

pology, 2001.
22 M. Dietler, Theorizing the Feast, in: Dietler/Hayden (eds.), Feasts, 65–114, 73 f.
23 This fact, and the unceasing necessity of producing food that can be used as commodities
in exchange, bring to the fore the role feasts play in mobilizing labor (for agricultural and
construction projects) as well as armies (for raiding/looting and expanding territory).
24 Thus one often distributes party favors to guests as souvenirs, which are especially im-
portant since the commodities exchanged at feasts are perishable and ingested. The
memory-making role of banquets is reflected in the way high school proms in the US are
often referred to as »A Night to Remember.« For an anthropological study of feasting in
relation to memory, see D. E. Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts, 2001.
25 Cf. the common presence of photographers at contemporary banquets, who are hired to
preserve the memory of the event.
26 Not Bread Alone, 134–165 (chapter title: »Feasting Fit for a King: Food and the Rise of
the Monarchy«). The theories on the rise of the Israelite monarchy that MacDonald
chooses as conversation partners for his own ideas are unfortunately outdated, and
his discussion is in many respects confined by the contours of the books of Samuel and
218 Jacob L. Wright

rise of the monarchy« as if state-formation constituted a single event or

transitional period, MacDonald identifies a real deficit in earlier models
of political change in ancient Israel. He observes that growing social in-
equality was not simply a factor of time but also of variation in fertility –
both of the soil and of families. »For some individuals good fortune
meant the existence of surplus production that could be invested through
feasting. [S]uch investments can lead to greater accumulation of power
and prestige.«27 One may note here that, of course, not everyone who en-
joyed material surplus would have been adept in converting it into sym-
bolic and social capital through hosting feasts and exchanging commod-
ities. Yet this makes feasting and other forms of gift-giving all the more
important as pieces of the puzzle, for it is not so much a matter of being
blessed with surpluses as much as it is about the charisma, skills and
sophistication required to transform the surpluses – through the fine art
of commensality – into status, power and (institutional) authority.28
A wide variety of biblical texts witness to the social and political im-
portance of the dining table in the governance of the states of Israel and
Judah.29 When the Queen of Sheba witnesses »the wisdom of Solomon, the
food of his table, the seating of his officials, the attendance of his servants,
their clothing, his cup-bearers, and the offerings that he offered in the
house of Yhwh, she was left breathless« (I Reg 10,4–5).30 In keeping with
the principle that to increase one’s wealth one must first display it, the nar-
rative goes on to tell that after catching her breath, the queen gives the Is-
raelite king extravagant gifts of gold and jewels, and an unsurpassed quan-
tity of spices for his table (v. 10; see the following description of wealth
accumulation in vv. 11–29).31 Solomon is remembered as fighting no wars

Kings. Yet MacDonald has rendered a great service to the study of the Hebrew Bible and
ancient Israel by offering delectable hors d’œuvres that one hopes will be followed by
further studies that engage the interdisciplinary, cross-cultural study of feasting. My own
work has been fed by discussions with MacDonald in recent years.
27 Not Bread Alone, 149.
28 D. Kertzer, The Role of Ritual in State-formation, in: E. Wolf (ed.), Religious Regimes
and State-formation: Perspectives from European Ethnology, 1991, 85–103.
29 For many of these texts, the reader is encouraged to check the indices of Not Bread
Alone, whose discussions are provocative and sometimes pursue different directions
than I take here.
30 Notice that the seating arrangements of his servants are explicitly mentioned. That rank
and order are reflected in the place where one sits at the royal table is indicated by the de-
scription of David’s absence at Saul’s table during the new moon festival in I Sam 20. See
also Gen 43,33. See the discussion in MacDonald, Not Bread Alone, 154–160.
31 Here one can observe the close reciprocal relationship between feasting and gift-giving
noted above. The account of Solomon’s daily provisions (I Reg 5,2 f.) clearly aims to
glorify the splendor of his court. Many features of this list resemble the one found in
Nehemiah 5.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 219

and demonstrating proficiency in international diplomacy. Not surpris-

ingly some of the more prominent features of the account of his peaceful
reign are his political marriages, the gifts he exchanged, and not least the
sumptuous feasting in which engaged (see also I Reg 3,15; 8,2.65).
The narrative of the book of Kings uses the symbol of the king’s table
to express its most fundamental point: the demise of Israelite autonomy.
It begins with Solomon’s awe-inspiring table as an image of Israelite power.
After depicting the gradual forfeiture of Israelite/Judean sovereignty,
it returns to the image of the royal table. This time, however, the host is
a foreign king and the hosted is the Judean king (II Reg 25,28–30; see
also Jer 52,31–34). The tables have turned, literally.32 But we are told
that the Judean king was granted a seat above the seats of other vassals,
and therein lies the prospect of prosperity under these new mensal con-
The »law of the king« in I Sam 8 also identifies ostentation at the
royal table – and the concomitant stratification in society that this table
both mirrors and promotes – as central features of monarchic rule. Ac-
cording to this text, the king will not only have at his disposal a standing
army and a weapons industry (vv. 11 f.), but also agricultural lands, cattle
and produce that he will seize (vv. 14–17), as well as sons and daughters
he will conscript to harvest his crops and to serve in his kitchen (vv. 12 f.).
Whereas I Sam 8 attends more to the production of goods to be con-
sumed, the account of Solomon’s reign, discussed above, configures king-
ship in terms of the royal performance of consuming these goods.
The king’s table not only offered a context in which one could per-
form kingship, display status and demonstrate one’s qualifications to
rule; it also served as a ritually constructed space in which one could
form and cement political bonds.34 The Chronicler reports that when
David’s warriors made him king, they spent three days together banquet-
ing. Political approbation and alliances are here expressed in the provi-

32 The Esther scroll uses feasting to show how Jews regain power in the Diaspora and at a
foreign court (moving gradually from being hosted to hosting); see below V. (Part 2).
33 The sudden transition of events (release from prison and rehabilitation) depicted in this
narrative is probably completely constructed for the purpose of the narrative (restora-
tion after defeat). From the Weidner Tablets (see below V. [Part 2] we know that Jehoia-
chin was receiving generous rations already in 592 BCE. And despite attempts at har-
monization (e.g. R. Albertz, In Search of the Deuteronomists, in: T. Römer [ed.],
The Future of the Deuteronomistic History, BETL 147 [2000], 1–17, 15, n. 52), we lack
warrant for assuming that Jehoiachin lost his privileges and then later regained them.
That the final passage of Kings depicts feasting is all the more significant since it seems
to belong to a group of two additions (25,22–26 and 27–30) that have been secondarily
appended to the conclusion (probably 25,21b).
34 For »promotional and alliance feasts,« see Dietler/Hayden, Feasts, 55–57 and 196–198.
220 Jacob L. Wright

sioning of the coronation feast: By telling how the food was transported
from remote places in Israel, the author underscores the wide acceptance
of David’s rule (I Chr 12,38–40).35 David’s proficiency in mensal politics
is portrayed in the account of Abner’s defection: When this former gen-
eral of Saul comes to Hebron with twenty men (representing probably
various clans), David prepares a feast that eventually leads to a covenant
between him and all Israel (II Sam 3,20). Representations of the king’s
table as a place for nourishing former alliances are found in the accounts
of David showing kindness to the house of Saul by granting Mephibos-
heth son of Jonathan a place at his table (II Sam 9) and later offering to
do the same with Barzillai the Gileadite (19,31–40).36
Rebellions against reigning rulers are often accompanied by »com-
petitive feasts« that rival the repasts at the king’s table.37 When Adonijah
b. Haggith determines to assume the throne, he acquires chariots and
horsemen, and then hosts a grand fête to which he invites the priest, com-
mander of the army, children of the king and all the royal officials of Judah
(I Reg 1,5–49).38 Suggestive in this context are the sheep-shearing festiv-
ities that Absalom organizes on his path to kingship (II Sam 13,23–29;
cf. 15,1 with I Reg 1,5).39 Banqueting figures prominently also in the
account of Jehu’s putsch: When he is anointed, Jehu is found sitting
together with other commanders – either in council or eating (II Reg 9,5).
Later, after entering Jezreel and assassinating Jezebel, he »came [into the
palace?] and ate and drank« (9,34); the statement suggests some sort of
triumphal celebration.40 Jehu’s feasting is matched by the group of dogs
outside feeding on the corpse of the queen mother (9,34–37).41

35 The expression of political solidarity by means of food provisions, described in this text,
may be compared to the gifts of grain and other alimentary benefactions to Athens from
distant allies during the Hellenistic period. The Chronicler’s act of composing the text
may likewise be compared to the commemoration of the benefactors in Athenian inscrip-
tions. On the latter, see G. J. Oliver, War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens,
2007, 228–259.
36 See also I Reg 18,19 (versus II Reg 4).
37 See also I Reg 12,32–33. On »competitive feasts,« see Dietler/Hayden, Feasts,
57 f.206–209.279–282.
38 For the association of the feasting motif with chariots/horses (also prestige symbols), see
the glyptic art discussed below.
39 For the literary and social significance of sheep-shearing feasts, see GenR 74,5.
40 See the discussion of Ashurnasirpal and Shalmaneser below, V. (Part II) for examples of
victory feasting in the palace of the opponent.
41 Compare the account in Jdc 9: The lords of Shechem »place their confidence« in a cer-
tain Gaal b. Ebed (v. 26), they harvest grapes and make a banquet. During their eating
and drinking in the local temple, they curse the king Abimelech. Gaal gives a speech
reflecting his increased confidence. He then – prematurely – challenges Abimelech to en-
gage him in battle.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 221

Military triumphs were often celebrated with feasts. Although more

prevalent in ANE iconography (see IV. below), the Siegesmahl appears
not only in poetic and prophetic texts (such as Isa 25, Ez 39, Nah 2,
Zach 14) but also in several narratives. After Abra(ha)m defeats Chedor-
laomer, the king of Sodom comes out to greet him and Melchizedek
brings out bread and wine (Gen 14,17–20). Similarly, the Philistine lords
offer a great sacrifice to Dagon »with rejoicing« (feasting) because Sam-
son had been divinely delivered into their hands (Jdc 16,23). Following
Saul’s victory over the Ammonites, the people/militia go to Gilgal to
make him king; they celebrate the occasion with sacrificial feasting
(I Sam 11,15). Yet the most thorough account of victory feasting is found
in the Esther scroll; indeed, the triumph over the enemy occasions its own
festival that is integrated into the holiday calendar (9,17–32).42
The solidarity achieved through feasting can serve as a prelude to
war or as a passage to peace. An example of the former is found in the
book of Chronicles, where Ahab hosts a regal repast for Jehoshaphat
in order to persuade the Judean king to join him in an attack on Ramoth-
Gilead (II Chr 18,1–3). A more illustrative account is the story of
the siege of Samaria by Benhadad and 32 allied kings (I Reg 20). When
the Israelites take the offensive at midday, they catch the Aramean king
off-guard, drinking in the camp with the 32 kings who were assisting him
(20,16; cf. also 20,12). On the one hand, this banqueting may be inter-
preted as a further expression of Benhadad’s hubris (cf. 20,10–12) – as a
sort of anticipatory victory feast. On the other hand, the activity may be
understood as means through which Benhadad maintained political
bonds and exerted influence on his 32 vassal kings/coalition partners.43

42 The same may be said for some texts relating to Passover; see esp. Ex 13,27.
43 The account presents however Benhadad’s hegemonial system, based upon rituals of
commensality, as ultimately deficient: He loses the battle to Ahab, and consequently is
later advised to remove the kings from their posts and replace them with governors
(20,24). The hegemonial system is thus transformed into direct rule, and, in support of
this interpretation, we are not told about any alcohol consumption during the second
campaign. That the 32 kings represent vassals of Benhadad is based solely upon 20,24.
From 20,1.12.16 the reader is tempted to understand these kings as partners in a military
coalition. The reason for the discrepancy is likely due to what many commentators
(e.g. E. Würthwein or V. Fritz pace the critique by D. Sroka, Kings, Wars and Prophets:
Historiography, Literature and Ideology in 1 Kings 20, MA Thesis, Tel Aviv Univ., 2006
[in Hebrew]) identify as two separate battle stories: the first about Samaria (vv. 1–21)
and the second about Aphek (vv. 26–43), which have been united by means of a literary
bridge (vv. 22–25, probably also vv. 35–43). It is significantly this middle piece that
identifies the kings as vassals (v. 24). That they are replaced with governors may be re-
lated to their absence in the second story. But in its present shape, the unified account
clearly depicts a transition of a hegemonial system (with client kings) to a system of di-
rect rule (with governors).
222 Jacob L. Wright

Examples of commensality fostering peace are found throughout the

book of Genesis. When Abimelech, accompanied by his adviser and the
commander of his army, visits Isaac in Beersheba after repeated alter-
cations over water rights, Isaac hosts a feast to ratify and celebrate a
peace treaty (Gen 26,17–31; see also Gen 21). Similarly, after Jacob and
Laban had successfully deescalated mounting hostilities, they make a
treaty that includes sacrificing and breaking bread (Gen 31,43–55).44 The
immediately following account, while not referring to feasting, illustrates
how armed conflict is avoided with the help of a gift-exchange (which is
closely related to commensality, as noted above). Jacob sues for peace
with his brother, who is approaching with 400 warriors, by proffering a
gift consisting of elaborately orchestrated droves of livestock (32,13–21).
The text plays on the close phonetic similarity yet great conceptual dis-
parity between the terms hnxm , »(war-) camp,« and hxnm , »gift« (see the
juxtaposition in 32,22 and throughout the account). The sending of the
hxnm contributes directly to the reunification of the divided hnxm . One
may compare these patriarchal stories to the complex descriptions of
feasting and gift-giving as a means of rapprochement in the story of Jo-
seph and his brothers.45
Our survey of biblical texts leaves little room for doubt that many
rulers and elites in ancient Israelite and Judahite society recognized, and
knew how to profit from, the political benefits of feasting – whether it be
in terms of performing kingship, forming political/military coalitions,
celebrating victory, or making peace.46 Indeed, the Hebrew Bible contains
some of the richest material for studying the art of commensal diplomacy
in ancient Western Asia. Future biblical research on this subject however
cannot afford to neglect, on the one hand, the insights of cross-cultural
anthropological research, and on the other hand, important bodies of
ancient evidence, such as remains from material culture, iconographic

44 For further references to feasting in connection to treaty ratifications, see, inter alia,
Ex 18,12; 24,11; Num 22,40; 25,2; Jos 9,12–14 and perhaps also Deut 23,5–7 (the fail-
ure to offer Israel food and water signifies the Ammonites’ and Moabites’ unwillingness
to ratify a pact of non-aggression and this leads in turn to a prohibition on any future
pacts with these neighbors).
45 Seen from the perspective of Jacob’s family, the book of Genesis treats feasting and
gift-giving as a strategy of pacification first with outsiders (Isaac and Abimelech), then
with closer relatives (Jacob and Esau), and then within the family itself (Joseph and his
46 The present discussion of commensality versus war in HB literature has not been exhaus-
tive (see e.g. Jdc 14 or Ps 41,10). The social aspects of feasting can also be studied via
cultic and mythic texts. I have omitted these because they deserve a separate treatment.
See meanwhile A. Marx, Opferlogik im Alten Israel, in: B. Janowski/M. Welker (eds.),
Opfer: Theologische und kulturelle Kontexte, 2000, 129–49 and C. Eberhart, Studien
zur Bedeutung der Opfer im Alten Testament, WMANT 94, 2002.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 223

representations, and various genres of official and occasional texts. In

what follows I aim to illustrate the potential of such integrative research.

IV. Raising the Cup:

The Siegesmahl in Ancient Western Asian Iconography
In glyptic art from ancient Western Asia, the banqueting scene represents
a widespread motif signifying power and domination.47 Closely associated
with these scenes are martial images (e.g. chariots, battles, or transfer of
spoils). In some cases, one cannot ascertain a direct connection between
the two image sets; they seem merely to represent popular symbols
of puissance and prestige. But in many other instances the scenes of con-
viviality should be interpreted in direct relationship to the associated
martial images, namely as a representation of a Siegesmahl (»victory cel-
ebration«). My primary aim here is to draw attention to the pervasive-
ness of the juxtaposed banquet and martial motifs; I therefore will not
discuss the artifacts at length. Because the cultic aspects of feasting in
ancient Near Eastern texts and iconography have already been subjected
to numerous discussions, I will omit them from treatment here.48
The association of the martial images with the banqueting motif
appears to be as old as the banqueting motif itself. Already cylinder seals
from Early Dynastic II and III, collected by Pierre Amiet, depict seated

47 For the various interpretational approaches to the scenes in iconography (sacred mar-
riage, funerary, New Year’s Festival, etc.), see the research reviews in J.-M. Dentzer,
Le motif du banquet couché dans le Proche-Orient et le monde grec du VIIe au IVe siècle
avant J.-C., Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome 246, 1982; F. Pin-
nock, Considerations on the ›Banquet Theme‹ in the Figurative Art of Mesopotamia and
Syria, in: L. Milano (ed.), Drinking in Ancient Societies: History and Culture of Drinks
in the Ancient Near East, History of the Ancient Near East 6, 1994, 15–26, as well
as idem, Il motive del banchetto rituale nell’arte della Mesopotamia del III millennio a.C.
(PhD Dissertation, Rome, 1976). See also G. Selz, Die Bankettszene: Entwicklung eines
»überzeitlichen« Bildmotivs in Mesopotamien von der frühdynastischen bis zur Akkad-
Zeit, 2 vols., FAS 11, 1983; A. Da Silva, La symbolique du repas au Proche-Orient
ancient, SR 24 (1995), 147–157; R. Muyldermans, Two Banquet Scenes in the Levant,
in: L. de Meyer/E. Haerinck (eds.), Archaeologia Iranica et Orientalis: Miscellanea
in Honorem Louis vanden Berghe, 1989, 393–407, and M. Haran, The Bas-Reliefs on
the Sarcophagus of Ahiram King of Byblos in the Light of Archaeological and Literary
Parallels from the Ancient Near East, IEJ 8 (1958), 15–25. – For the contrast between
the ideology expressed in these images and the Greek world, epitomized in the image of
Sardanapalus, see Aristotle, Nich. Ethics, 1095.19–22 and the classic work by S. Maz-
zarino, Fra Oriente E Occidente: Ricerche Di Storia Greca Arcaica, 1947.
48 Of course, cultic feasts also functioned as catalysts for social and political change. For
example, the failure of a king to support and participate in central festivals had direct
consequences for his own reign and other sectors of society; see below on the Hittites.
224 Jacob L. Wright

Fig. 1–3: P. Amiet, La glyptique mésopotamienne archaïque, 1980, pls. 92–93

figures drinking through straws from a common vessel in the upper reg-
ister with equid-drawn war wagons in the lower register (see fig. 1).49
Similarly, several relief plaques show war wagons in their bottom reg-
isters and the delivery of what is probably booty (figs. 2–3).50 In these im-
ages one can distinguish a seated couple from the attending servants and
musicians. Here the motif of the right hand raising a (victory) cup, which
will pursue a long career in ANE glyptic art, is already present.51

49 If the seal belonged to aristocracy, it may express both prestige (serving in chariot divi-
sion) and allegiance. »The seals in question all belong to elite members of society who
played an important role in the Ur III state organization. It would not be surprising to
learn that the primary message of the ›presentation scene‹ on their official marks of iden-
tity – the cylinder seal – is that of vassalage and obedience to the king of the realm or to
the god who represents the realm and, thus, the king.« P. Michalowski, The Drinking
Gods: Alcohol in Mesopotamian Ritual and Mythology, in: L. Milano (ed.), Drinking in
Ancient Societies, 27–44, 36 f.
50 J. Boese, Altmesopotamische Weihplatten, 1977, pls. VI, LV, LVI and LVII. On the de-
velopment of the four-wheeled wagons into later chariots, see my article »Chariots/
Chariotry« forthcoming in A. Berlejung et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Material Culture,
51 Many seals show both types of drinking – through straws from a common vessel and
from a cup; indeed, based on analogies, the seal in fig. 1 seems to show the figure on the
left drinking from a cup. Drinking straws represent a card of membership to a ruling
council. The elders of the Luo people of western Kenya bring their own long straws
(oseke) to feasts in order to drink from pots (thago), while younger men and women
drink from mugs. Nevertheless, the move away from straws in Mesopotamia is related,
at least in the seals, to a larger number of attending servants who are shown filling the
cups. Straws served of course also a practical function of avoiding the floating material
in the drink; see Xen. Anab. IV.26 f. – On the symbolism of the cup in early Mesopota-
mian literature, see Michalowski, The Drinking Gods, 35–37 and I. J. Winter, The King
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 225

Fig. 4–5: »Standard of Ur« (BM 121201)

The most important early example of juxtaposed banqueting and mili-

tary images is the »Standard of Ur« (fig. 4–5). One side of this box
(»War«) depicts a battle scene and the other side (»Peace«) a banquet
scene. Although this work distinguishes between war and feasting, the
two activities are probably not to be understood as alternatives but

and the Cup: Iconography of the Royal Presentation Scene on Ur III Seals, in: M. Kelly-
Buccellati (ed.), Insight through Images: Studies in honor of Edith Porada, 1986,
253–268, as well as the literature cited in Haran, The Bas-Reliefs, 22, n. 16–18. As for
biblical texts, see esp. Gen 40,11.13.21; Ps 116,13. For the numerous texts referring
to the victory cup at Ugarit an exhaustive but much needed study has yet to be written;
see meanwhile O. Loretz, Der Thron des Königs ›zur Rechten‹ der Gottheit beim Sieges-
mahl nach Psalm 110,1–2. Jüdische Umformung altorientalischer Königs- und Kultbild-
ideologie, Ugarit 38 (2006), 415–36.
226 Jacob L. Wright

Fig. 6–7: Basins from Tel Mardikh. Adapted from

P. Matthiae, Ebla: Un impero ritrovato,1989, 2nd ed., figs. 126 and 127

rather as a sequence: the feasting is part of the celebrations after the cam-
paign.52 Nevertheless, the fact that fighting has been so clearly demar-
cated from the feasting is noteworthy. It attests to the consciousness of
two connected yet still distinct moments (and manners) of rule.53
The correspondence between battles and banquets, as well as many
of the discrete features from early Sumerian art, will continue in the
iconographic traditions for millennia to come. Thus sculptures on the
two ritual basins from Tel Mardikh/Ebla (22nd–20th cent. BCE) show an
enthroned king raising a drinking vessel, with armed warriors behind the
throne (fig. 6–7). The second scene stands in direct continuity with the
popular first millennium BCE »Neo-Hittite« motif of the conviving king
and queen. While the sculpture on the second basin displays figures bear-
ing large vessels, the first portrays a figure standing before the king also
with upraised cup; behind him and on the other side of the basin stand
warriors posed for action. This image may represent the celebration of
a treaty with a vassal (see e.g. the letter to Zimrilim discussed below,
V. [Part 2] as well as ARM 26 438).

52 With respect to the »Peace« panel, one can distinguish in the first register a number of at-
tendants and musicians (harpist and singer) from seven seated, male guests, six of whom
are facing a larger figure. The latter is most likely to be identified with the same person-
age on the »War« panel who is shown inspecting the naked and wounded captives. The
guests at the banquet may represent recognized officers or figures from the aristocracy.
53 More attention is devoted to the display of the booty than to the feasting itself. The bot-
tom two registers show various groups bearing offerings and leading animals. As to
be expected from comparison with later representations of post-battle processions, the
artist depicted the groups with distinctive features signifying the diversity of subjugated
peoples. The type of banquet displayed here and in several other images discussed
below is what some anthropologists call »tribute feasts.« See Dietler/Hayden, Feasts,
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 227

Fig. 8: Megiddo no. 2 (PAM 38.780). Based on G. Loud, The Megiddo Ivories, 1939, pl. 4

The LB Megiddo ivory engraved inlays also depict the activity of ban-
queting after vanquishing the enemy. The first (fig. 8) shows a prince in
triumphal procession on the right side proceeding directly to the throne
on the left side, where he has already assumed the throne and begun
to imbibe wine. Two servants are portrayed next to a large wine cauldron
and two extraordinary rhyta in the shape of animal heads. Standing
before him are a lady in aristocratic Syrian headdress (the queen?) and
a lyre player. (A table is noticeably absent.) The activities take place
en plein air.54

Fig. 9: Redrawing of parts of four inlays from G. Loud, The Megiddo Ivories, pl. 9

Comparable attention to detail can be witnessed in the second specimen,

a group of four inlays with dovetailed ends (Megiddo nos. 159–162; here
are shown pieces of what are presumably the beginning and end of the
series – fig. 9.). The two longer strips show chariots in action and return-
ing from battle in triumphal procession with captives, like the first Me-
giddo ivory. The two shorter strips portray post-battle scenes: a proces-
sion of captives/booty and a banquet consisting of a ruler and other
seated figures (apparently indoors) imbibing wine from a large cup and
a large vessel. The notable difference between this scene and the former
Megiddo ivory is that we have here true commensality, rather than a lone
figure who is portrayed prominently and in isolation. Indeed, the posi-
tion of »the one« in relation to »the many« is an important analytic per-
spective for the study of these images.

54 See H. Leibowitz, Military and Feast Scenes on Late Bronze Palestinian Ivories, IEJ 30
(1980), 163–69.
228 Jacob L. Wright

Fig. 10: Adapted from M. Mallowan and L. G. Davies, Ivories in Assyrian Style.
Ivories from Nimrud (1949–1963), Fascicule II, 1970, 18, pl. v,7

An ivory found at Nimrud and dated to the 9th cent. BCE depicts a strik-
ingly similar scene of commensality, with the king alongside other guests
seated at multiple tables rather than a single enthroned imbiber (fig. 10).
The martial character of the feasting is marked by a sword that the
king has girded at his side. Two heavily-armed bodyguards stand behind
the throne. The remaining banqueters, attended to by eunuchs, are also
garbed in field/military attire yet unarmed. The banqueter nearest the
king is a high official, perhaps the turtannu. While the style is Assy-
rian(izing), the ivory must have been produced in a Levantine atelier. Be-
cause the hosts and guests are raising a cup in their right hands, the scene
may depict a victory feast rather than a pre-battle alliance ceremony; one
should perhaps avoid such alternatives when interpreting this multivalent
In contrast, a section of the gates of Balawat shows the king, Shal-
maneser III, in a more prominent position. He is seated outdoors with a
cup in his right hand (fig. 11). Behind him stand two bodyguards (as in
fig. 9). Before the throne are not only a table and vessel-stand (similar to
the one in the left corner of fig. 9) but also a long line of officials and sol-
diers bearing booty.
Additional Neo-Assyrian examples of feasting iconography are
found on the large slabs from Sargon’s palace at Chorsabad (figs. 12–15).
Although heavily damaged, one can still detect their basic contours. The
upper registers present rows of dignitaries or officers dining and drink-
ing – notably all hoisting the victory cup in their right hands. In the
bottom registers, we can still see hunting scenes or more images of war –

Fig. 11: From E. Unger, Zum Bronzetor von Balawat, 1912, Taf. I,3
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 229

Fig. 12–15: P.-E. Botta, Monument de Ninive, Vol. 1, 1849, pls. 61, 63, 64 and 65
(see also pls. 58–60, 62, 66).

chariots, mounted riders, dismembered bodies, and siege. These striking

exemplars have unfortunately not received the attention they deserve in
past research; a discussion in my book War and the Formation of Society
in Ancient Israel (forthcoming Oxford UP) will help correct this deficit.
Because they bear less directly upon my interest in the social aspects
of banqueting, the numerous »Neo-Hittite« representations of a single
dining individual or a couple (often attended by one or two servants and
230 Jacob L. Wright

occasionally with musicians) will be omitted from consideration here.55

Many of these images are associated with military or combat scenes, with
which they are often found in close proximity (as in the case of the or-
thostats at the gates of the citadel of Zincirli) or in explicit juxtaposition
in the same sculpture. As such, one may perhaps view these scenes as the
climax of the conquest »narrative« – as the feasting that follows the van-
quishing.56 Caution is however urged against overextending the martial
association or, for that matter, seeking the one authentic Sitz im Leben
for the banqueting motif. The image is powerful and popular because it is
The parade example of banqueting after vanquishing is the scene of
»Ashurbanipal’s Garden« in the North Palace at Nineveh (fig. 16).57 Al-
though often viewed in isolation, the scene comprises just one, albeit cen-
tral, piece of a program relating to the garden itself and to the Battle of
Til-Tuba.58 Our relief presents a stark contrast between the violent action
on the battlefield and the perfect peace and tranquility of the reclining
ruler.59 The passivity of this paradise is underscored by the attention
given to the imposing number of servants situated throughout the garden:
No less than six are occupied with the task of fanning the conviving royal
couple, who thus do not even have to raise a hand to shoo away flies. The
relaxed pose of the king is made psychologically possible by the complete

55 See W. Orthmann, Untersuchungen zur späthethitischen Kunst, 1971, 366–93.

56 Support for such a reading is furnished by other images (e.g., figs. 8 and 14 that show the
royal couple feasting alone in direct connection with prior success in vanquishing an
57 J. Reade, Elam and Elamites in Assyrian Sculpture, AMI NF 9 (1976), 97–105 as well as
J. A. Brinkman, Prelude to Empire. Babylonian Society and Politics, 747–626 B.C.,
1984, 91 ff. and R. Borger, Beiträge zum Inschriftenwerk Assurbanipals, 1996. See also
S. Maul’s keynote address at the 52nd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale 2006 in
Münster, Die Rache der Besiegten: Neues zum Untergang Ninives im Jahre 612 v. Chr.
58 For the whole pictorial narrative of the Teumman head and related objects in Assurbani-
pal’s reliefs, see P. Albenda, Grapevines in Ashurbanipal’s Garden, BASOR 215 (1974),
5–17 and idem, Landscape Bas-Reliefs in the Bit-Hilani of Ashurbanipal, BASOR 224
(1976), 49–72 and 225 (1977), 29–48.
59 This is the first time in Assyrian sculpture that we witness a reclining sovereign (a popu-
lar motif in Persian and Greco-Roman art); see J.-M. Dentzer, L’iconographie iranienne
du souverain couche et le motif du banquet, AAS 21 (1971), 39–54. This fact is not sur-
prising given that the subject matter is the conquest of an Elamite ruler. Indeed, this ac-
counts in large part for the fact that such great attention is given to the depiction of the
paradeisos. Attempts, often frustratingly speculative, to reconstruct a more elusive cultic
(New Year), ritual (qirsu war rituals) and mystical (hieros gamos) background to this
garden scene, abound; see the review of literature in C. Nylander, Breaking the Cup of
Kingship: An Elamite Coup in Nineveh?, Iranica Antiqua 34 (1999), 71–83 as well as his
own thesis presented in his essay.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 231

Fig. 16: Ashurbanipal’s Garden (BM 124920)

annihilation of the enemy, portrayed elsewhere but also explicitly con-

nected to the scene by means of Teumman’s head hanging from a tree not
far from the table. Similarly, the king’s weapons are shown on a table be-
hind his couch; the relaxed bow is lying alongside a quiver and sword.60
The efficacy of these images resides in their historically concrete, yet
nevertheless universal commemoration of the Assyrian king’s success.
The Elamites, who later assisted the Babylonians in razing Nineveh to the
ground, would undoubtedly have taken great pleasure in giving the scene
its final touch by blotting out from memory Assurbanipal’s face and his
right arm in which his victory cup resided.61 This conscious act of icono-
clasm illustrates in the most striking manner the appeal and symbolic res-
onance of the long tradition of the victory cup iconogram in ancient
Western Asia.62
Finally we should note the existence of a multitude of tribute scenes
in Egyptian and Mesopotamian art. In many cases, these scenes show
foreign emissaries or captives under the careful oversight of soldiers
bringing food, drink and precious items for the royal table. As a repre-
sentative example, I refer to the reliefs on the small staircase south of

60 It is possible to be identified with the same bow that inscriptions report was dedicated to
Ishtar-of-Nineveh; see Borger, Beiträge, 101–3 and Albenda, Landscape Bas-Reliefs, part
2. Similarly the necklace hanging from the bed may very well represent a trophy taken in
the victory over the Egyptians; also the horse-trappings may be trophies taken as booty.
61 See Nylander, Breaking the Cup. On the destruction of Nineveh, see most recently P. Mig-
lus, Die letzten Tage von Assur und die Zeit danach, ISIMU 3 (2000), 85–100.
62 The power of the image and ritual of raising the victory cup for other cultures is illus-
trated not least by its continuation in contemporary sports. As for the mutilation of As-
surbanipal’s upraised cup in our image, one may compare it to many further instances of
iconoclasm, such as the eradication of the faces of the Assyrian soldiers who are shown
decapitating Teumman (BM 128801/802) or the erasure of Ashurbanipal’s and Senn-
acherib’s right arms throughout the reliefs.
232 Jacob L. Wright

Fig. 17: Staircase from Palace of Darius at Persepolis

(photo by G. R. Frysinger, permission granted)

Tripylon Hall from the Palace of Darius at Persepolis (fig. 17). Facing
outwards are images of armed royal bodyguards, while facing inwards
are representations of various conquered peoples bringing gifts and
tribute (in the form of precious perishables) up to the great king.
In the next issue of ZAW, I continue this discussion by treating ref-
erences to feasting in various texts from ancient Western Asia and then
reflecting on the implications of this diverse material for the study of
Nehemiah’s account and ancient commensality in general.

Table-fellowship and feasting similar to that described by Nehemiah (Neh 5,17–18) is en-
countered throughout the ancient world, where it played a central role in displaying power,
forming social bonds, and fortifying political alliances. Surprisingly, scholars have rarely
brought this comparative data to bear upon the Memoir. The present essay works toward re-
dressing this deficiency by discussing a wide range of biblical and other ancient Near Eastern
texts and images related to commensality. It shows how feasting functions within the politi-
cal calculus of ancient Western Asian rulers as one of the most popular means to promote
internal social cohesion and forge external alliances – either as a way of avoiding military
conflict or as a prelude to warring against a third party. On the basis of different texts and
images, the article demonstrates how feasting as a ritual performance plays an essential role
in the construction of victory.
In the first instalment of this two-part article, I begin with theoretical observations,
move to discuss an array of biblical texts, and continue with an overview of iconographic im-
ages of victory feasting.

Des pratiques de commensalité et de festin comparables à celles décrites par Néhémie

(Neh 5,17–18) se retrouvent partout dans l’Antiquité. Ces pratiques jouent un rôle central
dans la démonstration du pouvoir, la formation de liens sociaux et le renforcement des
alliances politiques. Étonnamment, les chercheurs ont rarement rapporté ces informations
comparatives au »mémoire de Néhémie«. Cet essai cherche à pallier à ce déficit en examinant
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia (Part I) 233

un ensemble de textes bibliques et proche-orientaux, ainsi que des images, en lien avec la
commensalité. L’ intérêt premier est de montrer comment fonctionne le festin dans les calculs
politiques des souverains d’Asie occidentale comme l’un des moyens les plus populaires de
promouvoir la cohésion sociale interne et de forger des alliances à l’extérieur – soit comme
façon d’éviter un conflit militaire, soit comme prélude à la guerre contre un parti tiers. Sur la
base de textes différents et d’images, l’auteur tente de montrer comment le festin en tant que
performance rituelle joue un rôle essentiel dans la construction de la victoire.
Cet article se divise en deux parties. La première partie, débute par des remarques théo-
riques, puis analyse une gamme de textes bibliques et s’achève par un survol de documents
iconographiques de festins de victoire.
Tischgemeinschaft und Festgelage, wie in Neh 5,17–18 beschrieben, sind in der antiken Welt
allgemein üblich gewesen, wo sie eine zentrale Rolle bei der Entfaltung von Macht, der Bil-
dung sozialer Bindungen und beim Stärken politischer Bündnisse gespielt haben. Überra-
schenderweise sind die vergleichbaren Belege aus anderen antiken Kulturen bisher nur selten
und unzureichend zum Verständnis der »Nehemia-Denkschrift« herangezogen worden. Die
vorliegende Untersuchung zielt darauf ab, diese Lücke zu schließen. In ausführlicher Diskus-
sion sollen biblische und weitere altorientalische Belege in Text und Bild herangezogen wer-
den, um die Bedeutung der Kommensalität im politischen Kalkül altorientalischer Herrscher
zu zeigen. Tischgemeinschaft war eines der beliebtesten Mittel, internen sozialen Zusammen-
halt zu fördern und externe politische Allianzen zu schmieden – sei es, um militärische Kon-
flikte zu vermeiden, oder als Auftakt eines Krieges gegen eine dritte Partei. Auf der Basis ver-
schiedener Texte und bildlicher Darstellungen wird weiterhin aufgezeigt, welche rituelle
Bedeutung dem Element »Festmahl« im Rahmen einer Siegesfeier – und in der Konstruktion
des Sieges selbst – zukam.
Im ersten Teil dieser auf zwei Teile angelegten Untersuchung werde ich mit theoreti-
schen Überlegungen beginnen, sodann zur Diskussion ausgewählter biblischer Texte fort-
schreiten und einen Überblick über die Ikonographie des Siegesmahles bieten.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia:
The Background to Nehemiah’s Feasting
(continued, Part II)*
By Jacob L. Wright
(Emory University)

V. Commensality, War and Memory in Epigraphic Evidence

The abundant iconographic material bearing the Siegesmahl motif – a
representative selection of which was examined in § IV in Part I of this ar-
ticle – is matched by a wide range of texts that touch on various facets of
banqueting rituals. In keeping with the focus of this paper, I catalogue
in what follows those texts that relate specifically to commensality in re-
lation to warfare and alliance formation.
Already in Ur III and Old Babylonian sources, we find numerous ref-
erences to a practice known as kaš-dé-a (literally, »the pouring of beer«);
they appear in connection with the banquets performed in celebration
of various events, not least military victories.1 Myths and epics mention
the excessive amounts of food and drink as well as singers, musicians
and consorts, and occasionally formal disputations on these occasions.

* Part I of this contribution was published in ZAW 122/2 (2010), on pages 212–233. As
pointed out to me in the meantime, I. Ziffer published an article on 2nd mill. Levantine
iconography of feasting in TA 32 (2005).
1 See the sources cited in Michalowski, The Drinking Gods, 29 f., n. 10. On the material in

general, see D. Schmandt-Besserat, Feasting in the Ancient Near East, in: Dietler/Hayden
(eds.), Feasts, 391–403. In L. Milano (ed.), Drinking in Ancient Societies. History and
Culture of Drinks in the Ancient Near East, HANE 6, 1994, see J. Bottéro, Boisson, ban-
quet et vie sociale en Mésopotamie, 3–13 and H. Neumann, Beer as a means of compen-
sation for work in Mesopotamia during the Ur III Period, 321–331. See also J. Bottéro,
Textes culinaires Mésopotamiens, Mesopotamian Civilizations 6, 1995; J.-J. Glassner,
L’hospitalité en Mésopotamie ancienne: aspect de la question de l’étranger, ZA 80
(1990), 60–75; W.G. Lambert, Donations of Food and Drink to the Gods of Ancient Me-
sopotamia, in: J. Quaegebeur (ed.), Ritual and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East, 1993,
191–201; J.B. Lloyd, The Banquet Theme in Ugaritic Narrative, UF 22 (1990), 169–193;
D.P. Wright, Ritual in Narrative: The Dynamics of Feasting, Mourning, and Retaliation
Rites in the Ugaritic Tale of Aqhat, 2001. Among the countless studies of the xjrm , see
D.B. Bryan, Texts Relating to the Marzeah: A Study of an Ancient Semitic Institution,
PhD Dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1973 and J.C. Greenfield, The Marzeah as
a Social Institution, Acta Antiqua 22 (1974), 451–455.

ZAW 122. Bd., S. 333–352 DOI 10.1515/ZAW.2010.024

© Walter de Gruyter 2010
334 Jacob L. Wright

Not surprisingly, these texts, like many of their later counterparts, pay a
lot of attention to seating arrangements, which correspond to the rank
and status of the guests.2
A reference to commensality strikingly similar to the statement in
Nehemiah’s account is Sargon I’s claim that 5,400 men ate daily in his
presence. The text is extant in both Sumerian and Akkadian.3 While
the former refers to érin2, »troops,« the Akkadian text refers to guruš,
»young men fit for military service,« which may be compared to Nehe-
miah’s ,yrin . By means of these quotidian meals, the expenses of which
were included in his own oikos, Sargon could establish a relationship of
both dependency and intimacy with his vast army.4 That his court ap-
preciated the social potential of this commensality explains the statement
that they ate daily in his presence.5 One may compare Sargon’s statement
to the black obelisk of his son Maništušu that describes how the purchase
of eight parcels of land at Marda (northern Babylonia) was celebrated
with a two-day banquet at Kazallu at which 600 soldiers feasted.6 As
P. Abrahami suggests, these 600 soldiers likely formed one regiment, just
as 5,400 troops of Sargon probably consisted of nine regiments.7 The rea-
son why a regiment of soldiers attended this feast was because Maništušu

2 See lit. cited throughout Michalowski, The Drinking Gods. For Mari seating arrange-
ments, see lit. cited below. Seating arrangements are mentioned widely in Ugarit; for
example, Anat arranges »chairs for the soldiery, tables for the hosts, footstools for
the heroes …« (CTA 3.2 [KTU 1.3 II].20–22). See also the references in A.J. Ferrera and
S.B. Parker, Seating Arrangements at Divine Banquets, UF 4 (1972), 37–39. For seating
arrangements among the Persians, Classical literature contains many references; see e.g.
the description of the attention given by Cyrus to table seating in Xenophon’s Cyrop.
3 D.R. Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia. Early Periods, vol. 2: Sargonic
and Gutian Periods (2334–2113 BC), 1993, p. 29, Sargon E2.1.1.11, lines 34//41; p. 31,
Sargon E2.1.1.12, line 27’: 5400 erin2 u4-šu2-še3 igi-ni-še3 ninda i3-ku2-e / 5400 guruš
u-um-śum6 ma-har-śu ninda ku2.
4 A. Westenholz, The Old Akkadian Period: History and Culture, in: P. Attinger et al.
(eds.), Mesopotamien. Akkade-Zeit und Ur III-Zeit, OBO 160/3, 1999, 17–117, 68, pro-
poses to view these 5,400 troops as organized according to nine regiments of 600 sol-
diers, a regimental size documented elsewhere in Ur III texts.
5 Compare the weekly Hassidic tish celebration during which a large multitude (often
more than a thousand) Hasidim eagerly gather at the table in order to eat in the presence
of the Rebbe.
6 600 guruš in ga-za-luki ninda i3-ku2 600 guruš šu 1 u4 1200 guruš šu 2 u4 – I.J. Gelb/
P. Steinkeller/R.M. Whiting, Earliest Land Tenure Systems in the Near East: Ancient
Kudurrus, OIP 104, 1991.
7 P. Abrahami, L’armée d’Akkad, in: P. Abrahami/L. Battini (eds.), Les armées du Proche-
Orient ancien, BAR International Series 1855, 2008, 1–22, 7 f. A subject that I do not
pursue in the present paper is the feasts celebrated to honor service and loyalty of ser-
vants, and oftentimes specifically soldiers.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 335

had purchased the lands in order to remunerate his troops for their faith-
ful service and to boost their morale.
Some of the richest textual evidence for commensal practices can be
found in the Old Babylonian Mari archives. These texts provide us with
invaluable details regarding the size of feasting parties, elaborate forms
of dining etiquette, gift-giving, table-seating, the forms of entertainment,
etc.8 The social-political aspects are particularly pronounced. The first
ruler that deserves to be discussed in this context is Šamši-Adad, who
conquered Mari and established his son, Yasmaä-Adad, on its throne.
Various clues suggest that the longevity of his reign was due not solely to
military prowess but more importantly to his activities in peacetime. Nele
Ziegler draws attention to the efforts of this ruler in not only integrating
the regions he defeated but also in unifying the very diverse (ethnic
and socioeconomic) groups in his army and in securing their common
loyalty.9 In order to achieve the latter, he pursued an effective policy of
land distribution, gifts and, not least, common meals. An impression of
how he would have likely ruled himself is provided by the various letters
in which he instructs and counsels his son Yasmaä-Adad on how to gov-
ern Mari. Thus, he urges his son to do everything to satisfy the needs and
desires of the troops who protect Mari, »instead of just opening the jars
and dispensing silver.« The soldiers should eat in the king’s presence in-
cessantly and should be served liberally.10 Šamši-Adad’s appreciation for
the importance of commensality in unifying subjects corresponds to his
actions in protecting the oppressed and granting clemency.11 Similarly,
Nehemiah recounts his magnanimous table practices in the context of his

8 There are already a number of very good studies; see esp. J. Sasson, The King’s Table:
Food and Fealty in Old Babylonian Mari, in: C. Grottanelli/L. Milano (eds.), Food and
Identity in the Ancient World, HANE IX, 2004,179–215 as well as R. R. Glaeseman, The
Practice of the King’s Meal at Mari: A System of Food Distribution in the 2nd Millennium
B.C., PhD Dissertation, UCLA, 1978; J.-P. Materne, Remarques sur l’écriture des ›repas
royaux‹ Zimri-Lim, in: J.-M. Durand/J.-R. Kupper (eds.), Miscellanea Babylonica: mél-
anges offerts à Maurice Birot, Florilegium Marianum 2, 1985, 223–231; A. Malamat,
The King’s Table and the Provisioning of Messengers, IEJ 53 (2003), 172–177.
9 N. Ziegler, Samsi-Addu et ses soldats, in: P. Abrahami/L. Battini (eds.), Les armées du
Proche-Orient ancien, BAR International Series 1855, 2008, 49–56, 51 f.; see also B. La-
font, Le sâbum du roi de Mari au temps de Yasmaä-Addu, in: Durand/Kupper (eds.),
Miscellanea Babylonica, 161–179.
10 ARM I, 52:12–35 = LAPO 16, 1. See also the unedited text A. 4265 and 1160 discussed
by Ziegler. Several texts enumerate the numbers who feasted at the royal table; they
range from 110 to 562, with the average of 180 to 280. On the basis of other texts, we
can reveal the diverse social and ethnic groups that constituted the army who feasted in
the king’s presence: captains, lieutenants, nobles, guards, Suheans, Elamites, couriers,
auxiliaries, Šinameans, etc.
11 Ziegler discusses this evidence on pp. 53 f.
336 Jacob L. Wright

social reforms for the people as a whole and for the poor in particular
(see Neh 5).12
In a fascinating study, Jack Sasson draws attention to the way Mari
commensality contributed to political cohesion. »Elaborate codes of con-
duct were staged around sacramental meals hosted by the king, their goal
was to include those deemed worthy of belonging to his circles; but also
to exclude those unworthy of the honor. At such moments, leaders could
feel themselves part of a ›family‹ and did not hesitate to use kinship
vocabulary … to calibrate precise power relationship [sic] among each
other.«13 Wherever Zimrilim, the perhaps most convivial of the Mari
rulers, travelled, his exquisite drink- and tableware accompanied him.
During elenum celebrations, meat was sent to the vassals and allies so
that they could still partake from the overlord’s sacrifice.14 In addition to
shedding light on the logistics of the naptan šarrim u sabim (lit. »the meal
of the king and troops«), several letters provide fascinating accounts of
how complex war plans were forged and coalitions formed at the table
(e.g. ARM 26, 392); others tell how older alliances were endangered by
infractions of etiquette (e.g. ARM 26, 101 and 26, 438).15 Particularly
significant is the material relating to the elaborate betrothal and wedding
rituals for marriages among allies and with vassals. They describe the ex-
change of various kinds of nuptial gifts and banqueting that lasted for
days on end.16
In keeping with the memory-making function of feasting, banquets
at Mari were choreographed to make a lasting impression on the guests.
One went to great lengths when preparing for visits from foreign rulers
and dignitaries. Before the food was served, the royal standards were

12 As such, his account has the character of a Fürstenspiegel or miroir de princes; see below.
13 Sasson, King’s Table, 213 f. Furthermore: »The notion of solidarity was reinforced by a
great number of body metaphors that addressed the unity of the houses … being ce-
mented à table. They include reference to the mingling of blood, to sharing the same bed-
ding, and to becoming as one finger in a hand …« (203).
14 Sasson, King’s Table, 204 f. See J. Bottero, Textes economiques et administratifs, ARM 7,
1957, 7.14.16 and 201 f. It is clearly represented in Neo-Assyrian texts as well as Greco-
Roman authors writing on the Achaemenids; see S. Parpola, The Leftovers of God and
King, in: Grottanelli/Milano (eds.), Food and Identity (see n.8 above), 281–312. Com-
pare the tvnm xvl>m in Est 9,19.22 and Neh 8,10.12 and below n. 48.
15 Convinced that Zimrilim’s commensality, in contrast to that of his predecessor, directly
contributed to his success as ruler, Sasson, King’s Table, 210, writes that »I would not be
surprised if the reluctance [of Yasmaä-Adad] to leave his residence – for which he was
roundly criticized by his father – did not eventually undermine the loyalty of his vassals
and of allies who were denied the opportunity to practice table fellowships«.
16 See B. Lafont, Les filles du roi de Mari, in: J.-M. Durand (ed.), La femme dans le Proche-
Orient antique, 1987, 113–121, and J. Sasson, The Servant’s Tale: How Rebekah Found
a Spouse, JNES 65 (2006), 241–265.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 337

paraded. During the dinner, the guests were treated to performances of

acrobats, dancers and singers. Gifts were exchanged both before and
after the meal, which the guests could take as souvenirs of their experi-
ence. A particularly intimate form of these gifts is the garments (some-
times from the king’s own wardrobe) that were distributed before the
meal. A letter referring to these gowns reads: »My lord had rubbed his
hands on the fringes of my garments and I can now smell the wonderful
scent of my lord throughout my house.«17 In such ways, the accompany-
ing gifts served one of the main purposes of the feast, viz. to create an en-
during memory.
Feasting was of course a common component of ANE treaty ratifi-
cations. Already Early Dynastic sale documents refer to the consumption
of food and drink on occasions of land transfer and sale.18 At Mari food
and wine consumption are mentioned often in connection to oaths and
ratification of treaties. In a letter discussed by Piotr Steinkeller, we hear
about a certain Akin-Amar who was hosted by Zimrilim: »He [Akin-
Amar] drank from the cup and raised it (in salute). His Majesty counted
him among his own men, dressed him and gave him a huburtum head-
dress [or wig]. But he went back on his word and he defecated into the
cup from which he had drunk; he is hostile to His Majesty!«19 A rich de-
scription of commensality in the context of political-military alliances is
found in a letter sent from Yasim-El to Zimrilim reporting the making of
a pact between Atatmrum of Andarig and Aškur-Addu of Karana against
Hammurabi of Kurda. In attendance at the festive ceremonies were many
vassals and emissaries from neighboring lands. The ceremonies them-
selves consist of the sacrifice of a donkey, an oath, drinking from cups
and exchange of gifts (ARM 26, 404). Eating bread and drinking beer
can even serve synecdochally for property transfer and treaties (ARM 22,
328). Similarly, in an Amarna letter to Azirru of Amurru, the Pharaoh
accuses his vassal of treasonous relations with others: »Now the king
has heard as follows, ›You are at peace with the ruler of Qidša. The two

17 Sasson, The King’s Table, 203, n. 67. Sasson compares this practice of robe-sharing with
the elaborate durbar ceremonies of Moghul India. More similar are however the khilat
ceremonies, which significantly go back to earlier Arabic customs. See S. Gordon, Robes
of Honour: Khilat In Pre-Colonial and Colonial India, 2003. See also II Reg 25,29 for
clothes in the context of the king’s table.
18 P. Steinkeller, Sale Documents of the Ur-III Period, Freiburger altorientalische Studien 17
(1989), 143 f.; see for later times J.-M. Durand, Sumerien et Akkadien en pays Amorites,
MARI 1, 1982, 79–82. See also the Obelisk of Maništusu: E. Cassin, Le semblable et le
différent, Éditions la Découverte, 1987, 323 f. and 331–333.
19 P. Michalowski/P. Steinkeller, The Drinking Gods, 35; now published in FM (=Florile-
gium Marianum) II: 122 (p. 238). See the motif of the raised cup and drinking before
kings in figs. 6–7 and 10 (Part I).
338 Jacob L. Wright

of you take food and strong drink together.‹«20 The commensality here
equals alliance formation and thus disloyalty. On the other hand, if two
are already allies, they can express their solidarity by eating each other’s
food: In a letter to Babu-ahu-iddina, the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV wrote
regarding the peaceful relationship and alliance with Shalmaneser I: »If
he would enter my land or if I were to enter his, we would eat the bread of
one another.«21 From a much later period, the Assyrian-Aramaic egirtu
ša šulmu stipulates that agreements are valid only if one party makes the
formal statement to the other before witnesses: »Here eat bread!«22 Simi-
larly, Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty (VTE), which evinces many points
of contact with Aramaic treaty forms and tropes,23 proscribes the enter-
ing of a mutually binding oath with anyone that involves first »setting up
the gods before them,« as well as »setting up a table« (rikis paššuri) and
»drinking the cup« (šatê kasi; § 13). From these and other texts, it ap-
pears that the act of eating (and drinking) was what ratified a treaty. One
ingested corporeally the oath: the food and drink was the means through
which the oath and curse – symbolized by the slaughtered animal – en-
tered the body of the oath-partners. Only after the eating and drinking
did the pact go into force and become legally binding.24
The eating of food during treaty ratifications – and specifically the
execrations – often possesses a sympathetic or imitative magical quality.
Thus the curses of the treaty of Ashur-nirari V with Mati’ilu of Arpad
reads: »May the people of his country (be forced to) eat the flesh of his
sons and daughters and may it taste as good to them as the meat of a male

20 EA 162:22–24. W.L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, 2000; see also EA 161:22.
21 KUB XXIII 103: Rs. 4’-5’; see H. Otten, Ein Brief aus Hattusa an Babu-ahu-iddina,
AfO 19 (1959–60), 42 f. Noteworthy in this context of political alliances is also the
planned marriage-feast of the daughter of Hattushili III and Rameses II. The correspon-
dence emphasizes fraternal solidarity and the unification of the thrones and respective
lands. E. Edel, Die ägyptisch-hethitische Korrespondenz aus Boghazköi in babylonischer
und hethitischer Sprache I, 1994.
22 S.A. Kaufman, An Assyro-Aramaic egirtu ša šulmu, in: M. de J. Ellis (ed.), Essays on the
Ancient Near East in Memory of Jacob Joel Finkelstein, 1977, 119–127. – Notice also
the use of the bread and wine brought by the Gibeonites when making a covenant with
Joshua (chap. 9). These items are both the means with which the covenant is made and
the evidence that they came from a distant land, which is the precondition for the cov-
23 C. Koch, Vertrag, Treueid und Bund, BZAW 383, 2008.
24 For an etymology of the Hebrew term »covenant« (tyrb ) by appeal to a rare verb for »to
eat« (hrb ) and the noun »food« (hyrb ), see TDOT 2: 253 f. Less speculative are the nu-
merous texts referring to eating oaths. For a rich study of the expressions of asakkum
akâlum in Mari texts, see D. Chapin, Manger un Serment, in: S. Lafont (ed.), Jurer et
Maudiere: Pratiques politiques et usages juridiques du serment dans le Proche-Orient
Ancien, Méditerranées 10–11, 1997, 85–96.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 339

or female spring lamb,« which was apparently slain and eaten during the
ratification ceremonies.25 Similarly § 69 (a ceremonial curse) of Esarhad-
don’s Succession Treaty (VTE) reads: »Just as this mother sheep is ripped
open and the flesh of her offspring is placed in her mouth, so may they
allow you to eat the flesh of your brothers, sons, and daughters to satiate
your hunger.«26 A comparable symbolic curse is found in § 75: »Just as
honey is sweet, may the blood of your wives, sons and daughters be sweet
in your mouths.«27 Here anthropophagy and particularly teknophagy are
imprecated on disloyal vassals through sympathetic rites of food con-
sumption. In this way, curses were not only inscribed but also ingested so
that the vassal would be ever mindful of the consequences of perfidy (see
below §VI on inscribed versus ingested memories).28
The importance of the banqueting table as a place where important
political decisions were made is mirrored in the myths with respect to the
divine council. For example, in the Babylonian Epic of Creation all the
great gods come and take their places at the banquet table where they
elect to invest their champion Marduk with the power to wage war
against Tiamat (3,125–138). Later Marduk invites the gods to his own
banquet during which they complete his investiture (6,70–90).29 Similar
depictions of feasts as the assembly of (divine) councils are found often in
Akkadian and Ugaritic epic literature.30

25 šer maremeš-su-nu marati-mes-šu-nu li-ku-lu-ma kima šîr UDU.NIM.SAL.NIM elî-šu-nu

li-tib (iv 10 f.); see E.F. Weidner, Der Staatsvertrag Aššurnirâris VI. von Assyrien mit
Mati’ilu von Bît-Agusi, AfO 8 (1932), 17–34, 18 f.
26 ki ša agurrutu [anni]tu šalqatuni širu ša mar’iša ina piša šakinuni ki äanni’i širu ša (aääe-
kunu) mar’ekunu mar’âtekunu ana burîkunu lušâkilûkunu.
27 kî ša dišpu matiquni damu ša mar’iša îssatekunu mar’ekunu (mar’atekunu) ina pikunu
28 I treat anthropophagy and teknophagy as symbols of the abrogation of the rule of law
during wartime (an Ausnahmezustand) in an extensive forthcoming study of war and
29 With respect to this passage, J. Bottéro, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, 2001,
75 f., writes: »For the sovereign to assemble his subjects, or at least a representative se-
lection of them, at one and the same ›sitting‹, to share his own meal, was both to display
and create or strengthen the cohesion of all in a single ›body‹, a single state. It was also
a way of demonstrating and consolidating his power over them: not only did his guests
eat the same food as himself – in other words, were united in the same life derived from
the same foodstuffs – but their presence together, the good tidings they were sharing and
their common happiness tacitly announced their approval of the sovereign from whom
they received these benefits; confirmed his authority over all of them and the entire
population they represented; and renewed, if you will, his investiture«.
30 See, inter alia, the Gilgamesh epic, Atrakhasis, Nergal and Ereshkigal, Tale of Keret, Tale
of Aqhat, the Baal cycle, the unnamed KTU 1.114. For the research on feasting in re-
lation to ritual in Ugaritic texts, see Wright, Ritual, 1–18.
340 Jacob L. Wright

Feasting is also attested widely in Hittite texts. From them, we know

not only about numerous cultic festivals but also various other feasts,
such as the celebration held every six years in honor of the Hittite kings’
success.31 Other documents describe how, after the completion of the an-
nual military campaign, the king, accompanied by the queen and other
officials, would celebrate in important cities the nuntarijašäaš festival,
during which the local population formed a massive assembly around the
king and other leaders.32 More than any of his peers, Muršili II vaunts in
his annals the care he took in ensuring that the gods were honored with
regular festivals. Before he initiated a campaign, he celebrated the feasts
of the sun-goddess Arinna, praying for prosperity and success in his mili-
tary endeavors. He even tells how his father, Šuppiluliuma I, failed to re-
turn from his Mitanni campaign in time to participate in the Arinna fes-
tival. This in turn led to the widespread rebellion after his death. Order
was restored when Muršili redirected attention to the festival calendar,
preferring to even interrupt any diplomatic or military activities rather
than to cancel or postpone a festival.33
In contrast to the commensality reflected in Old Babylonian and
Hittite sources, the feasting in Neo-Assyrian is much more a matter of
showcasing power and celebrating victories; this is at least partly due to
the nature of the sources (i.e. inscriptions). On his »Banquet Stele« As-
hurnasirpal II claims to have hosted a ten-day dedication feast for nearly
70,000 people – including 5,000 envoys (sirani lùšaprate) from various
countries – after finishing the construction of Nimrud.34 He also reports
that when he conquered the city of Aribua, he made a feast in the local
palace (cf. II Reg 9,34).35 More importantly, one of the incentives for As-
hurnasirpal’s campaigns seems to have been the abundant goods he could
despoil and later display and consume at his royal feasts. As in earlier
Hittite inscriptions and in the records of many of his successors, he re-
ports that various rulers met him with tribute, which consisted not only
of precious metals but also of many items that could be used directly for

31 See B. Rosenkranz, Kultisches Trinken und Essen bei den Hethitern, in: E. Neu/C. Rüster
(eds.), Documentum asiae minoris antiquae. FS Heinrich Otten, 1988, 283–289;
B.J. Collins, Ritual Meals in the Hittite Cult, in: M. Meyer/P. Mirecki (eds.), Ancient
Magic and Ritual Power, RGRW 129, 1995, 77–92; A. Archi, Das Kultmahl bei den
Hethitern, Türk Tarih Kurumu Kongresi Yayinlari 8, 1979, 197–213.
32 See most recently M. Nakamura, Einige Fragmente des hethitischen nuntarijasha-Festes,
Bulletin of the Department of Archaeology, University of Tokyo 8 (1989), 129–144.
33 A. Goetze, Die Annalen des Muršiliš, MVAG 38, 1933, 20.
34 RIMA 2/1 A.0.101.30 = ANET 560.
35 RIMA 2/1 A.0.101.1:iii 80–84a (p. 218) = ANET 275 f.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 341

his banquets: sheep and cattle, garments, singers/musicians, numerous

tables and countless fine vessels.36
Feasting is attested also for Ashurnasirpal’s successors. Shalmaneser
III is reported to have celebrated banquets (tašiltu), more than once, in
the palaces of the rulers he conquered, thus following the precedent es-
tablished by Ashurnasirpal.37 The inscriptions on the Balawat Gates for
his 9th year refer to a sumptuous feast that he made after triumphantly en-
tering Babylon: »For the people of Babylon and Borsippa, the protégés,
the freemen (awelu) of the great gods, he prepared a feast, he gave them
food and wine, he clothed them in brightly colored garments and pres-
ented them with gifts.«38 These actions of feeding and clothing possess,
on the one hand, a solicitous, parental quality, and, on the other, they dis-
tinguish and confirm the beneficiaries in their status and prestige due
to the luxurious qualities of the feasting and the brightly colored gar-
ments.39 For the early 8th century, the Wine Lists from Fort Shalmaneser
likely attest to the regular celebration of a banquet were wine flowed in
abundance for the troops. It may have been held in the ekal mašarti (the
Review Palace), which with its many open courtyards would have been
»a suitable place for recruits, officials and ambassadors to ›drink and
make merry.‹«40 With respect to Sargon II, the images from Dûr-Shar-
rukîn reproduced above are matched by the Pavement Inscriptions from
Khorsabad, which refer to banqueting with rulers when they brought the
Assyrian overlord their tribute.41 In the account of his 8th year, he also
claims to have elevated the throne of Ullusunu, making for him and his
grandees a sumptuous table, where they were seated with Assyrians. The
result was that they all blessed Sargon’s kingship before Assur and the
gods of their own country.42

36 The details may be found throughout the very long inscription RIMA 2/1 A.0.101.1.
37 See S. Yamada, The Construction of the Assyrian Empire, CHANE 3, 2000, 152. See
also the reference to the celebratory feast (naptan hudûti) after reaching the source of the
Tigris in his 7th year and the accompanying depictions on the Balawat Gates (Yamada,
Construction, 281 and AAAO 91).
38 Luckenbill, ARAB I, Shalmaneser III, 624, 231.
39 See also above on the robes distributed in Mari feasting.
40 F.M. Fales, A Fresh Look at the Nimrud Wine Lists, in: L. Milano (ed.), Drinking in
Ancient Societies, 361–380, 368. See also the statement by S. Dalley and J.N. Postgate
in The Tablets from Fort Shalmaneser, 1984: »It is possible that the same event in
the military calendar gave rise to the muster of equids, and the feasting of the army with
members of the royal family and foreign emissaries …« (24). For banqueting with mili-
tary officers and guests in 2nd millennium material, see – in addition to the iconography
treated above – the extensive description in the Ugaritic text KTU 1.15 IV 1–V14 (and
1.15V [?]).
41 Luckenbill, ARAB II, 50 f.
42 ARAB II, 144.148.
342 Jacob L. Wright

The official inscriptions do not exhaust the references to Neo-Assy-

rian commensality. Simo Parpola has collated intriguing letters related to
the royal/divine »leftovers« (reäati), which enhanced the social status of
the recipients.43 Various documents from Nineveh refer to ceremonial
feasts – including information on the delicacies served, the guests (pre-
dominantly military officers), and table/seating arrangements.44
Conviviality in relation to a putsch is depicted in the fascinating cor-
respondence between Kudurru (a Babylonian expert in scribal lore and
divination expert) and the Assyrian rulers Esarhaddon and Ashurbani-
pal.45 The former reports that high-ranking functionaries (Nabu-killianni,
the chief eunuch, and a troop commander) went to great lengths to per-
suade him to perform an oracle. They fetched him from prison (perhaps he
had been interned already for treasonous activities) and had him brought
to an upper chamber.46 There »they tossed me a seat and I sat down, drink-
ing wine until the sun set. Moving my seat closer, he (the chief eunuch?)
started speaking to me with the quota of the temple of Nusku, saying: ›You
are an expert in divination …‹« (18–22). They then petition Kudurru: »Go
perform the (following) divination before Shamash: ›Will the chief eunuch
take over the kingship?‹« (r. 4–5). The long hours of sitting and drinking
together constituted a prelude to a carefully orchestrated coup d’état.
Especially relevant for our purposes are Neo-Assyrian victory rituals
that involved banquets, of which the most famous is the akitu festival.47
The careful research of Beate Pongratz-Leisten has revealed many im-
portant details related to this celebration.48 After the destruction of Bab-

43 Parpola, Leftovers of God and King. See comments in n. 16 above. For the reäati, sellu
tabnitu and kurummat šarri in the Eanna archive, see P.-A. Beaulieu, Cuts of Meat for
King Nebuchadnezzar, NABU 93, 1990. The royal and sacrificial (e.g., veäati ša pan
Aššur) »leftovers« deserve a comprehensive and cross-cultural study; they provide
a backdrop for understanding not only the Eucharist but also the širayim (Heb. »left-
overs«) of the meal eaten in the presence of the Rebbe during the Hassidic tish festivities.
The latter has yet to be studied from a comparative perspective; see however A. Nadler,
Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism, in: L. Green-
spoon (ed.), Food and Judaism, 2005, 193–214.
44 Now published in SAA 7 (texts 148–157); see discussion by F.M. Fales and J.N. Postgate
on pp. xxx–xxxiv as well as R. Mattila, Balancing the Accounts of the Royal New Year’s
Reception, SAAB 4, 1990, 7–22.
45 See SAA 10, 179 as well as M. Nissinen, References to Prophecy in Neo-Assyrian
Sources, SAAS 7, 1998, 133–153. The depicted events may be connected to the conspi-
racy against Esarhaddon in 670 BCE.
46 The similarities between this account and several of the putsch narratives in the book of
Kings are unmistakable.
47 F. Thureau-Dangin, Rituels accadiens, 1921, 111–118.
48 See B. Pongratz-Leisten, Ina Šulmi Irub: Die kulttopographische und ideologische Pro-
grammatik der akîtu-Prozession in Babylonien und Assyrien im 1. Jahrtausend v.Chr.,
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 343

lyon in 681 BCE (during the reign of Sennacherib), the Assyrians trans-
ferred the theology of Marduk to their god Assur and introduced the
akitu festival to Assyria. The symbolic valence of the procession as the
fight of the deity (here Assur) against Tiamat remained the same. Yet the
Assyrians introduced significant changes: They abandoned the stages in
the procession of the deity and the visits of gods from other cities. They
also celebrated the festival in diverse ways in various cities, all of which
were, significantly, either royal residences or important garrisons on the
borders of the empire. The theological and cultic advancement of the
temples in the frontier cities (accompanied by material support) served
the concerns of the Assyrian court for the security of its borders. One of
the chief differences from the Babylonian celebration is the central role
the Assyrians assigned to the king in the festivities and, with it, the re-
versal of the centripetal movement (with the gods coming to the center,
Babylon) to the centrifugal character of the Assyrian ritual (with the king
making his presence felt on the periphery). »In Assyria … the procession
of the city-gods in the respective military garrisons serves to visualize the
presence of the king in this peripheral region, even if it occurs only sym-
bolically through his garments.«49 The celebration of the festival in Nine-
veh and Arba^il (Arbela) included the banquet in the akitu-house, a
triumphal procession back to the city, and a »war ritual.«50 During the
reigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, the celebration of the festival
in Arba^il was occasionally associated with extraordinary victories. The
parade of Ishtar from the akitu-house was accompanied by the display of
military rewards – both human and material.51
Unfortunately we have very little information on the king’s table and
the role of political commensality in the Neo-Babylonian period. The
Weidner Tablets, dated to 595–570 BCE, record oil rations from the
royal court to various persons of status. One of these figures is Jehoiachin
(called šarri ša KURyaäudu; Tablet B) and his five sons (ANET 308; Tablet
C is dated to 592 BCE). This same ruler is depicted by the biblical auth-
ors as not only receiving »regular allowance« in the form of »victuals«

Baghdader Forschungen 16, 1994, and The Interplay of Military Strategy and Cultic Prac-
tice in Assyrian Politics, in: S. Parpola/R.M. Whiting (eds.), Assyria 1995, 1997, 245–252.
49 See ibid., 252.
50 This ritual concludes: »Having defeated his enemy, [the king] puts on the jewelry and
hangs the lyre on his shoulder. He goes before the gods. Sheep offerings are performed.
He kisses the ground, does triumphal entry into the campy, enters the qirsu-enclosure
and begins the banquet. The king rejoices« (B. Menzel, Assyrische Tempel, SPSM 10;
Rome, 1981, II, T82–89).
51 In addition to Pongratz-Leisten, see also N. Weissert, Royal Hunt and Royal Triumph in
a Prism Fragment of Ashurbanipal (82–5–22,2), in: Parpola/Whiting (eds.), Assyria,
344 Jacob L. Wright

(„lmh tXm vl hntn dymt txrX vtxrXv ) but also being released from
prison (by Evil-Merodach), given new clothes, and granted the highest
seat, and eating his bread continually in »his presence« (II Reg 25,27–30;
see discussion of Sargon I and Šamši-Adad as well as reäati above). If
the biblical account actually reflects Babylonian practices, it would mean
that vassal rulers ate regularly at the king’s table (II Reg 25,28).52
But of all the peoples of Western Asia it is the ancient Iranians who
are most famous for their feasting practices. Their customs and opulence
displayed at the table exercised the imagination of Greek authors as well
as others. One of the greatest descriptions of Persian feasting is Esther 1,
in which the king celebrates with his satraps, princes, servants and army
for 180 days, displaying the wealth and glory of his kingdom (v. 4).53
Many of the details in Jewish and Greek depictions of Persian opulence
are pure fantasy, yet these accounts do accurately reflect the importance
of feasting in Persian court life.54 The antiquity of Iranian traditions of
commensality is reflected in the material cultural record. For example, at
Godin Tepe, the archeologically discernible patterns of state feasting (in-
cluding pillared buildings, fine ceramics and floral/faunal remains) show
how pots functioned as political tools and represented an indispensable
strategy of Median statecraft.55 The epigraphic evidence from the later
Achaemenid period attests to the continuation of these traditions.56

52 On the problems of this account, see Part I note 33. On the texts themselves, see B. Oded,
Observations on the Israelite/Judaean Exiles in Mesopotamia during the Eighth-Sixth
Centuries BCE, in: K. van Lerberghe/A. Schoors (eds.), Immigration and Emigration
within the Ancient Near East (FS E. Lipiński), OLA 65, 1995, 205–212. See the dis-
cussion of the constructed nature of II Reg 25,27–30 in Part I note 33. I thank Prof. Paul-
Alain Beaulieu for sharing with me his thoughts on this text.
53 D. J. Clines tracks the way feasts (as well as fasts) in the Esther scroll demarcate shifts in
power as the perspective shifts from Persian to Jewish celebrations. Viewed from this
perspective, the book of Esther tells the opposite story of the book of Kings (see the dis-
cussion on Solomon’s table in Part I § III).
54 See the excellent discussions in P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Per-
sian Empire, 2002; cf. the passages listed under »banquet« in the index. See also idem,
Table du roi, tribut et redistribution chez les Achéménides, in: idem (ed.) Le tribut dans
l’Empire perse, 1989, 35–44; A. Dalby, Greeks Abroad: Social Organisation and Food
among the Ten Thousand, The Journal of Hellenic Studies 112 (1992), 16–30; H. San-
cisi-Weerdenburg, Persian Food. Stereotypes and Political Identity, in: J. Witkin et al.
(ed.), Food in Antiquity, 1995, 286–302; K. Vössing, Mensa Regia. Das Bankett beim
hellenistischen König und beim römischen Kaiser, 2004, esp. chap. 2; C. Binder, Plu-
tarchs Vita des Artaxerxes, 2008.
55 H. Gopnik, Why Columned Halls?, forthcoming in: St. John Simpson (ed.), The World
of Achaemenid Persia; and H. Gopnik and M. Rothman, On the High Road: The History
of Godin Tepe, Iran, 2009. I thank Prof. Gopnik for making available to me unpublished
portions of her research. For further research on feasting in the ANE material culture,
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 345

VI. Interpreting the Evidence

Having surveyed a host of images and texts relating to our subject, we
can now reflect on the ways commensality figured in the political calcu-
lus of ANE states. In § II, I discussed feasts in general – from modern
weddings to sacrificial rites. In the body of the paper, § III–V, I focused
on a dataset from ancient Western Asia that consisted primarily of diplo-
matic commensality and victory banquets. Yet even here we encountered
a wide array of phenomena. To organize such disparate facets of feasting,
I employ three basic categories: the functional, the performative and the
With respect to the functional, the evidence surveyed here confirms
William Robertson Smith’s observation regarding the capacity of feasting
to consolidate groups and foster cohesion, while demarcating the group
from those who are denied a place at the table. What happened before the
feast and how one uses the solidarity achieved at the table are different
questions. The banqueters may be convening to celebrate some event in
the past, such as a coronation of a ruler or a victory over a common
enemy (although these two acts are closely linked in several texts we
looked at; see e.g. I Sam 11,15). Moreover, the solidarity fostered by
feasting can be applied to very diverse ends. Parties could pacify their ag-
gressions in the collective activity of eating and drinking, or the fellow-
ship at the table could create coalitions with the ultimate objective of
warring against another group. These questions of before and after are
imminently important and require case-by-case analysis. Yet they should
not be confused with the more general and basic conclusion regarding the
consolidating character of commensality.

see the articles on ancient Syrian drinking vessels by G.F. del Monte, I. Caneva, M. Fran-
gipane, S. Mazzoni, F. Baffi Guardata and R. Dolce in L. Milano (ed.), Drinking in
Ancient Societies, as well as A.H. Joffe, Alcohol and Social Complexity in Ancient West-
ern Asia, Current Anthropology 39 (1998), 297–332. For archeological studies of feast-
ing in the Levant, surprisingly very little exists for the Iron Age. Much more however has
been written on the Bronze Age and Philistine material culture; see A. Yassur-Landau,
Old Wine in New Vessels: Intercultural Contact, Innovation and Aegean, Canaanite and
Philistine Foodways, Tel Aviv 32 (2005), 168–191, and most recently the papers from
the conference »Dais: The Aegean Feast« published in Aegeum 29 (2008).
56 W.F.M. Henkelman’s careful research on Elamite texts has brought to light many import-
ant royal table, feasts and sacrifices, see his »Consumed before the King.« The Table of
Darius, that of Irdabama and Irtaštuna, and that of his Satrap Karkiš, in: B. Jacobs/
R. Rollinger (eds.), Der Achämenidenhof, Oriens et Occidens, forthcoming; idem, Parnak-
ka’s Feast: šip in Parsa and Elam, in: J. Alvarez-Mon (ed.), Elam and Persia, forthcoming;
and his book The Other Gods Who Are. Studies in Elamite-Iranian Acculturation Based on
the Persepolis Fortification Texts, Achaemenid History XIV, 2008. I thank Prof. Henkel-
man, as well as Prof. Matthew Stolpert, for kindly sending me several unpublished articles.
346 Jacob L. Wright

The other aspects of feasts, the performative and communicative, are

closely related to the first.57 They can be observed in material ranging from
the biblical account of Solomon’s reign to the popular iconogram of the
raised victory cup. In contrast to much of the evidence discussed here,
these facets of feasting are not so much about creating alliances or bolster-
ing older bonds as about performing the established rites and roles of king-
ship or displaying to a public (even if it is confined primarily to the court
and a small circle of elites) one’s superior status. The performative-com-
municative aspect is connected not only to the competitive character of
many feasts but also to the association of our images with other symbols
of status and power, such as chariots and horses, weapons, troops, and
martial valor.58 Such advertising of success in word, image and behavior is
often treated cynically by those who embrace the Hobbesian attitude that
power is simply the imposition of one’s will on another through both the
threat of violence and the display of symbols of status and prestige. A
more sympathetic posture towards this recurring feature of human beha-
vior recognizes that prestige and status represent »the preconditions for
developing the moral authority to influence group decisions, exert leader-
ship, and wield power – or to resist the powers of others.«59 Seen in this
light, the performative-communicative side of feasting is closely related to
its functional character in creating and fortifying social-political bonds.
The use of martial motifs along with the images of feasting is, how-
ever, not just about the display of potent symbols of power. This juxta-
position, we saw, should often be interpreted in terms of the feasting that
follows the vanquishing of an enemy. As such, these images and the re-
lated texts attest to the importance of performing a particular ritual (the
Siegesmahl) in order to translate ephemeral success on the battlefield into
formal »victory« and enduring institutional authority.60
The outcome of a battle was often a matter of interpretation.61 In
contrast to sporting events, one cannot consult a field judge or ref-

57 For a good overview of past research on performance in communication studies, see

M.A. Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 1996.
58 For biblical texts juxtaposing feasting and chariots, see the stories of Absalom in II
Sam 13–15 and Adonijah in I Reg 1 f.
59 Dietler/Hayden, Digesting the Feast, 15. The latter stance is in line with Foucault’s view
that »sees the strategies of power used by kings and governments as embedded in and de-
pendent upon the level of ›microrelations‹ of power, the local interactions and petty cal-
culations of daily life« (C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 1992, 200).
60 Ritual studies are only slowly starting to have an impact in biblical studies and Assyri-
ology. For a brief research overview, see the introduction to B.N. Porter (ed.), Ritual and
Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia, AOS 88, 2005.
61 Compare, e.g., the biblical account of Sennacherib’s activities in Judah with the different
message in the Assyrian annals.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 347

eree.62 Moreover, even when the outcome is indisputable, it was easily

forgotten. Yet concomitant with the emergence of civilization, human so-
cieties developed a wide array of means and media for interpreting his-
tory and perpetuating memories.63 One option was monuments, ranging
from orthostats to architecture (palaces, temples or even whole cities).
Another option available to ancient memory makers was writing: Its
development allowed greater control and precision in the process of
memory construction.64 Often written memories were integrated with
monuments – hence, monumental inscriptions. Yet another alternative, es-
pecially in a predominantly oral culture, was song (see e.g. Ex 15,20–21; I
Sam 18,6–7; II Sam 1,20.24). Closely related to song is ritual, such as cel-
ebrations, triumphal processions or feasting.65 By raising the victory cup,
one performed the role of victor and thereby communicated to others
who lost the battle. More importantly, by assuming the head seat at the
table, hosting a resplendent banquet, and engaging in rituals of triumph,
the champion converted a short-lived moment of success into valuable,
long-lasting symbolic capital.66 In this sense, the performance of victory
is tantamount to, or constructs, the victory.67
Commensality and the memory of it nourished alliances. But even a
very ostentatious celebration was bound to be forgotten sooner or later,
and thus one combined performance with communication: Feasting and
banqueting were depicted, in word and image, on durable »memory-

62 For the presence of a (divine) judge in battle, see Jud 11,27 and M. Liverani’s comments
on »War as an Ordalic Procedure« in his Prestige and Interest, HANE I, 1990, 150–159.
The overlap between battles and athletic competitions with respect to deciding winners
and losers can be witnessed in the practice in Archaic Greece of armies setting up a tro-
paion on the battlefield at the site of the »turning point« (tropê), where the enemy phal-
anx broke and retreated.
63 J. Assmann has devoted much of his research to this phenomenon; see e.g. his Tod und
Jenseits im Alten Ägypten, 2001.
64 The development of the written record posed new problems, however. For example,
when the Neo-Assyrian scribes could not report the capture of enemy kings, they sought
creative ways to compensate. One option was to report the felling of trees and orchards,
which was associated symbolically with complete victory and utter destruction. For a
study of this phenomenon, see B. Oded, Cutting Down Orchards in Assyrian Royal In-
scriptions: The Historiographic Aspect, JACiv 12 (1997), 93–98 as well as my own War-
fare and Wanton Destruction, JBL 127 (2008), 423–458.
65 For Roman triumphal rituals, see H.S. Versnel, Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin,
Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph, PhD Dissertation, Univ. of Leiden,
66 Compare this conversion process to the one discussed above (II.) in which material sur-
plus is translated into political power through feasting. For the concept of symbolic and
social capital, see Bourdieu, Distinction.
67 The same can be said with respect to mourning rituals and the will to admit defeat.
348 Jacob L. Wright

media« (Gedächtnisträger) that included precious works of art, larger

steles and display inscriptions, or monumental architecture, all of which
has been treated in this article.68 Via these communicative media, feasting
could continue to play its performative role long after the original per-
formance had ceased.
The significance of this fundamental point is that it draws into
question any facile distinction between ingested memories and inscribed
memories.69 Inscription and pictorial depiction should rather be seen as
additional media through which ingestion (feasting) can continue to per-
form its memory-making function.

VII. Commensality and Memory-Making in Nehemiah’s Memoir

Returning now to the point of departure for this paper, Nehemiah signifi-
cantly tells about his feasting (Neh 5,17 f.) after first describing how he
donned the mantle of a military commander and skillfully mobilized the
Judeans to defend Jerusalem against an assault by their neighbors (chap.
4). Nehemiah also claims a divine victory of sorts: »When our enemies
heard that we were privy to their plan and that God had frustrated their
scheme, all of us returned to the work on the wall …« (4,9). The account
of his financial reforms (5,1–13) separating this passage from the descrip-
tion of his table seems to have been inserted at a later point.70 Yet even if
the texts directly followed each other in an earlier version of the Memoir,
one should not interpret the eating and drinking mentioned in chap. 5 as
a victory celebration. The account clearly refers to regular (daily) com-
mensality, not a single occasion as in the case of triumphal banqueting.
Nonetheless, the present comparative study of feasting – with respect not
only to war and alliance formation but also to the memory-making role
of commensality – opens up new vistas for appreciating Nehemiah’s ac-

68 Feasting is of course not the only victory ritual combined with the medium of monumen-
tal architecture; an important example from Jewish history is the triumphal procession
depicted on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra in Rome. In this regard, see Josephus, Bell.
Iud. 7,1, for a description of the feasting of Titus with his commanders and army im-
mediately after the conquest of Jerusalem.
69 The works of P. Connerton, How Societies Remember, 1989 and Sutton, Remembrance
of Repasts, posit this distinction. While initially valuable as heuristic tool, the distinction
breaks down in fascinating ways when we examine the representations of feasting in
texts and iconography. For a discussion of food in relation to memory in the book of
Deuteronomy and the writings of the Apostle Paul, see MacDonald, Not Bread Alone,
70–99. For further theoretical reflection on feasting in relation to memoria, see
M. Mauer (ed.), Das Fest. Beiträge zu seiner Theorie und Systematik, 2004.
70 See my Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah-Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, BZAW
348, 2004, 163–188, and the discussion there of scholars who share this opinion or have
made similar claims.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 349

tions. We may divide these according to two aspects of feasting presented

above: the performative-communicative and the functional.
First, the performative and communicative aspects of feasting:
Nehemiah’s generosity at his table was not only performed but also com-
memorated in a medium that ensured it would not be forgotten. This
medium is what one calls his »Memoir« (or Denkschrift). The desig-
nation stems from his repeated demand that the deity remember him
for his deeds, which also concludes the description of his feasting (5,19).
On the basis of these petitions, scholars rightly conclude that Nehemiah’s
account – or at least some version of it – was intended (primarily) for a
divine readership.71 To be sure, however, writing for a divine audience
does not obviate its usefulness for more mundane purposes. Long before
the Memoir was incorporated into larger histories (Ezra-Nehemiah, Jo-
sephus’ Antiquities), it would presumably have been read – perhaps as a
votive inscription – by those who were not (or no longer) privileged to
partake in Nehemiah’s grand repasts.72 While not specifically address-
ing this wider public, the Memoir can indirectly inform (or remind) it of
Nehemiah’s generosity, much in the same way as the monarchic inscrip-
tions and iconography discussed above function to commemorate other
types of feasts. For many, I argue, the Memoir served as a model of
leadership – a sort of Fürstenspiegel or miroir de prince.
One may note another performative-communicative aspect of Nehe-
miah’s feasting. Within the satrapal administration of the Achaemenid
empire, one can observe at work what may be called the mimetic
principle, elite emulation or imitatio regis: Satraps often mimicked the
great-king in material culture, court life and behavior, which included
their judicial, fiscal, diplomatic, military, and domestic roles. Thus, for
example, they not only trained aristocratic children by guiding them on
hunting excursions in their satrapal paradeisoi; they also granted stately
audiences to foreign emissaries. The king was also imitated by local gov-
ernors and officials, who witnessed Achaemenid court life and rule
either indirectly through satrapal intermediaries or first-hand. Nehemiah
would have belonged to the latter group. The particular constellation of
emphases in his account – as well as the accusation that he intended to
become king (6,5–9) – make sense when viewed against the backdrop of

71 Nehemiah emphasizes that despite the great expense his generosity caused him, he »did
not eat the bread of the governor« because »the servitude weighed heavy on this
people.« From the perspective of the divine readership, he records these deeds so that
they are reckoned to his name. See »do not wipe out my good deeds« in 13,14.
72 The reasons for being excluded were location (those who did not reside in Judah or were
not among those »who were coming to us from the surrounding nations«), status (they
were not among the 150 »Judeans and officials« that were granted a place at the table),
or time (Nehemiah was no longer hosting guests).
350 Jacob L. Wright

satrapal and imperial behavior. Thus one may compare what is known
about the satraps to Nehemiah’s statements regarding his house (2,8),
body-guards (2,9, as well as his ,yrin mentioned throughout his ac-
count), his military command (chap. 4), his financial reforms (chap. 5;
see also 13,10–14), his foreign diplomacy (chap. 6), some features of his
internal reforms (chap. 13), the building project as a whole, and – not
least – the personal wealth and benefaction he displays at his table.73 Ac-
cordingly, his boasts of providing wide assortments of meat, poultry and
wine may be likened to the ostentation that characterized other satrapal
tables.74 It is, moreover, not surprising that Nehemiah, as a cupbearer to
Artaxerxes, highlights the role he played à table.
Finally, we turn to the functional side of commensality.75 Although
Nehemiah is granted permission to build, he does not come to Judah with
an imperial decree comparable to those recorded elsewhere in Ezra-Nehe-
miah. The success of his project depended ultimately on his own pith and
pluck. His account leaves no room for doubt that he faced many ob-
stacles and fierce opposition. When he arrives in Judah, the population is
far from consolidated. It consists of territorial divisions as well as numer-
ous different strata, social groups, and guilds (2,16 and 3,1–32). He con-
vinces them to adopt his project (2,17 f.) with the same rhetorical skills
displayed before the king when the latter was banqueting (2,1–8). In the
process Nehemiah forms a community of builders (2,18; 3,1–32.38). Yet
thereafter he continues to face not only social divisions (5,1–13) but also
hostile opposition – both within and without (2,19 f.; 3,33–4,17; 6,1–19;
13,4–9.28 f.). His strategies for overcoming these hurdles include ripostes
against antagonists that strengthen the resolve of the builders (2,20;
3,36 f.), using a military threat to assume great control over the commu-
nity (4,1–17),76 introducing social reforms as a way of increasing soli-

73 See Hilmar Klinkott, Der Satrap, OSAW 1, 2005, as well as my review in RBL at
74 For example, Herodotus (III.125) and other classical authors report that Polycrates, the
tyrant of Samos, mimicked Persian luxury (tryphe) by recreating a Persian court where
he sumptuously feasted. See also Williamson, The Governors of Judah.
75 A further functional aspect of Nehemiah’s table worth considering is what M. Dietler
and I. Herbich call »Collective Work Projects« (Feasts and Labor Mobilization, in:
Dietler/Hayden [eds.], Feasts, 240–264). The meat and wine accordingly served as a way
of remunerating the labor. If the amount of meat listed in the text sufficed for hundreds
of mouths, then Nehemiah could likely have fed the entire work force (= »the Judeans
and the leaders« in 5,17). The similarities between the use of pelek in Nehemiah 3 to the
system of ilku-service in Akkadian sources are also significant in this light.
76 The assumption of power and imperium by a strong-handed leader in direct response to
military threats, as depicted in Nehemiah’s Memoir, is a common phenomenon in human
history (see e.g. the Roman iustitium or the modern »state of exception/emergency«).
For the Ausnahmezustand phenomenon, see G. Agamben’s State of Exception, 2004.
Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia 351

darity among the Judean populace (5,1–13), forgoing the gubernatorial

allowance (5,14 f.), etc. In such precarious conditions, with internal fric-
tion and external hostility, it is not surprising that Nehemiah hosted at
his table every day »150 Judeans and rulers as well as those [compatriots
or foreign dignitaries] who came to us from the surrounding nations«
(5,17). The sumptuous feasting on beef, lamb, poultry and »wine of all
kinds in abundance« would have certainly helped to ease tensions and to
strengthen the resolve of the communal leaders to complete the project.
Later Nehemiah’s table would have continued to feed growing alliance
networks between groups and regions within Judah itself as well as with
its neighbors.77 And in his role as a host, he could not only put to use his
professional training and years of experience as a cupbearer at the Ac-
haemenid court but also draw on the long-established Israelite and West-
ern Asian conventions of commensality.

Table-fellowship and feasting similar to that described by Nehemiah (Neh 5,17–18) is en-
countered throughout the ancient world, where it played a central role in displaying power,
forming social bonds, and fortifying political alliances. Surprisingly, scholars have rarely
brought this comparative data to bear upon the Memoir. The present essay works toward re-
dressing this deficiency by discussing a wide range of biblical and other ancient Near Eastern
texts and images related to commensality. It shows how feasting functions within the politi-
cal calculus of ancient Western Asian rulers as one of the most popular means to promote
internal social cohesion and forge external alliances – either as a way of avoiding military
conflict or as a prelude to warring against a third party. On the basis of different texts and
images, the article demonstrates how feasting as a ritual performance plays an essential role
in the construction of victory.
The second instalment of this two-part article continues with a discussion of a wide
range of ancient Near Eastern texts, engages in theoretical reflections on the disparate ma-
terial, and finally brings the findings to bear on the interpretation of the Nehemiah Memoir.
Des pratiques de commensalité et de festin comparables à celles décrites par Néhémie
(Neh 5,17–18) se retrouvent partout dans l’Antiquité. Ces pratiques jouent un rôle central
dans la démonstration du pouvoir, la formation de liens sociaux et le renforcement des
alliances politiques. Étonnamment, les chercheurs ont rarement rapporté ces informations
comparatives au »mémoire de Néhémie«. Cet essai cherche à pallier à ce déficit en exami-
nant un ensemble de textes bibliques et proche-orientaux, ainsi que des images, en lien avec
la commensalité. L’intérêt premier est de montrer comment fonctionne le festin dans les cal-
culs politiques des souverains d’Asie occidentale comme l’un des moyens les plus populai-
res de promouvoir la cohésion sociale interne et de forger des alliances à l’extérieur – soit
comme façon d’éviter un conflit militaire, soit comme prélude à la guerre contre un parti
tiers. Sur la base de textes différents et d’images, l’auteur tente de montrer aussi comment le
festin en tant que performance rituelle joue un rôle essentiel dans la construction de la vic-

77 Neh 6, however, is less sanguine about the prospects of diplomatic relations with (some
of) Judah’s neighbors.
352 Jacob L. Wright

La deuxième et dernière partie de cet article contient l’examen d’un large éventail de
textes du Proche-Orient ancien, des réflexions théoriques concernant le matériel disparate
rassemblé dans le »mémoire de Néhémie«, et je montre finalement l’enjeu des observations
précédentes pour l’interprétation dudit »mémoire«.
Tischgemeinschaft und Festgelage, wie in Neh 5,17–18 beschrieben, sind in der antiken Welt
allgemein üblich gewesen, wo sie eine zentrale Rolle bei der Entfaltung von Macht, der Bil-
dung sozialer Bindungen und beim Stärken politischer Bündnisse gespielt haben. Überra-
schenderweise sind die vergleichbaren Belege aus anderen antiken Kulturen bisher nur selten
und unzureichend zum Verständnis der »Nehemia-Denkschrift« herangezogen worden. Die
vorliegende Untersuchung zielt darauf ab, diese Lücke zu schließen. In ausführlicher Diskus-
sion sollen biblische und weitere altorientalische Belege in Text und Bild herangezogen wer-
den, um die Bedeutung der Kommensalität im politischen Kalkül altorientalischer Herrscher
zu zeigen. Tischgemeinschaft war eines der beliebtesten Mittel, internen sozialen Zusammen-
halt zu fördern und externe politische Allianzen zu schmieden – sei es, um militärische Kon-
flikte zu vermeiden, oder als Auftakt eines Krieges gegen eine dritte Partei. Auf der Basis ver-
schiedener Texte und bildlicher Darstellungen wird weiterhin aufgezeigt, welche rituelle
Bedeutung dem Element »Festmahl« im Rahmen einer Siegesfeier – und in der Konstruktion
des Sieges selbst – zukam.
Der zweite Teil dieser auf zwei Teile angelegten Untersuchung bietet zunächst einen
Überblick über das Phänomen der »Tischgemeinschaft« nach dem Zeugnis von Texten aus
verschiedenen altorientalischen Kulturen. Daran anschließend wird versucht, das verstreute
Material theoretisch zu gliedern und die Ergebnisse für die Deutung der »Nehemia-Denk-
schrift« fruchtbar zu machen.