Pyramids at Giza in EgyptStatue
                      of Egyptian king and queen

Syracuse University
Fall, 2019

REL 301 
Ancient Near Eastern Religions & Cultures

Cuneiform inscriptionCreature on glazed wall from Babylon

Time: 3:30-4:50 on Tuesdays & Thursdays
Place: Marshall Square 205A
: Jim Watts (PhD) 
Office: Hall of Languages 501 
Office Hours: TTh 2-3 pm and by appointment
E-mailjwwatts at
Phone:  443-5713


Course Description The ancient Near East produced the oldest written texts in the world, along with much art and other artifacts. They provide a window into the ways of life, rituals, beliefs, hopes and fears of people living 2,500 to 5,000 years ago and illustrate the interplay between religion and human culture in all its various forms. This course will explore the interaction of culture and religion by examining the social contexts of ancient religious ideas and practices through close readings of texts from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Israel, and close examination of textual artifacts.

The course includes a no-cost field trip to see the Mesopotamian and Egyptian collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on September 28th.

Parts of each students' research will involve hands-on examination of old textual artifacts in SU Library's Special Collections.

Audience: Students interested in ancient history, culture, and religion and wanting to fill Humanities and Writing Intensive core requirements, as well as majors and minors in Religion, Jewish Studies, History, Literature and Art History.


Goals: Through this course, students will: 

  1. develop an understanding of ancient Near Eastern cultures as key instances in the diversity of human religious phenomena,
  2. develop fluency in describing and interpreting ancient textual and artifactual remains orally and in writing;
  3. use the context of ancient Near Eastern cultures to think both critically and imaginatively about the nature of religion as a basic response to and expression of the human condition;
  4. recognize and appreciate the difficulties and possibilities in undertaking a coherent, disciplined study of ancient religions, and to become aware of the diversity of perspectives within that study;
  5. come to a distinct yet corrigible conception of "religion," and to be able to recognize its appearance not only within ancient religious institutions of diverse cultures, but also in other social/cultural forms.

Course Requirements:
The course consists of class discussions, lectures, student projects, and, most of all, readings. This course is a reading course, and students' completion of all reading assignments is essential for their success. Assignments, discussions, lectures and tests all presuppose that students have read carefully and on schedule the assigned readings. Questions to guide students' reading can be found by clicking the topic headings in the schedule below.

Attendance and participation in discussions is expected of all students and will influence evaluation of their work (5%), which will also be based on their performance on daily quizzes (15% total), and four research papers (20% each). The grades of late papers will be reduced by one grade level (e.g. B to B-). Missed quizzes cannot be made up, but the lowest five quiz grades will be dropped from the total.

The grading scale is: A+ = 100, A = 95, A- = 92, B+ = 88, B = 85, B- = 82, etc. Students may check their grades online through the Blackboard Learning System. Incidents of plagiarism or cheating result in no credit (0) for the test or assignment and may result in further disciplinary action (see academic integrity statement below).

Academic Integrity:
Syracuse University’s Academic Integrity Policy reflects the high value that we, as a university community, place on honesty in academic work. The policy defines our expectations for academic honesty and holds students accountable for the integrity of all work they submit. Students should understand that it is their responsibility to learn about course-specific expectations, as well as about university-wide academic integrity expectations. The policy governs appropriate citation and use of sources, the integrity of work submitted in exams and assignments, and the veracity of signatures on attendance sheets and other verification of participation in class activities. The policy also prohibits students from submitting the same work in more than one class without receiving written authorization in advance from both instructors. Under the policy, students found in violation are subject to grade sanctions determined by the course instructor and non-grade sanctions determined by the School or College where the course is offered as described in the Violation and Sanction Classification Rubric. Syracuse University students are required to read an online summary of the University’s academic integrity expectations and provide an electronic signature agreeing to abide by them twice a year during pre-term check- in on MySlice.

Class-room Behavior: A successful learning experience depends on students' behavior in class, as much as on the quality of their work and on the teacher's presentations.

  • I encourage energetic discussion of relevant topics and expect different opinions among class members, but always express your ideas with respect for those who might disagree with you.
  • Arrive on time. If you must be late, enter quietly. Do not leave during class except for medical emergency.
  • Turn off cell phones, laptops, and tablets. If you wish to use an electronic device for class work (notes, assignments), you must sit in the front row of the class. Texting, e-mailing or web browsing during class are grounds for dismissal from that day’s class.

Discrimination or Harrassment: The University does not discriminate and prohibits harassment or discrimination related to any protected category including creed, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual orientation, national origin, sex, gender, pregnancy, disability, marital status, age, race, color, veteran status, military status, religion, sexual orientation, domestic violence status, genetic information, gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender.

Any complaint of discrimination or harassment related to any of these protected bases should be reported to Sheila Johnson-Willis, the University’s Chief Equal Opportunity & Title IX Officer. She is responsible for coordinating compliance efforts under various laws including Titles VI, VII, IX and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She can be contacted at Equal Opportunity, Inclusion, and Resolution Services, 005 Steele Hall, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244-1120; by email:; or by telephone: 315-443-0211.

Federal and state law, and University policy prohibit discrimination and harassment based on sex or gender (including sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic/dating violence, stalking, sexual exploitation, and retaliation). If a student has been harassed or assaulted, they can obtain confidential counseling support, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, from the Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team at the Counseling Center (315-443-4715, 200 Walnut Place, Syracuse, New York 13244-5040). Incidents of sexual violence or harassment can be reported non-confidentially to the University’s Title IX Officer (Sheila Johnson Willis, 315-443-0211,, 005 Steele Hall). Reports to law enforcement can be made to the University’s Department of Public Safety (315-443-2224, 005 Sims Hall), the Syracuse Police Department (511 South State Street, Syracuse, New York, 911 in case of emergency or 315-435-3016 to speak with the Abused Persons Unit), or the State Police (844-845-7269).

I will seek to keep information you share with me private to the greatest extent possible, but as a professor I have mandatory reporting responsibilities to share information regarding sexual misconduct, harassment, and crimes I learn about to help make our campus a safer place for all.

Religious Observances Policy: SU's religious observances policy recognizes the diversity of faiths represented among the campus community and protects the rights of students, faculty, and staff to observe religious holidays according to their tradition. Under the policy, students are provided an opportunity to make up any examination, study, or work requirements that may be missed due to are religious observance provided they notify their instructors before the end of the second week of classes. For fall and spring semesters, an online notification process is available through MySlice/StudentServices/Enrollment/MyReligiousObservances from the first day of class until the end of the second week of class.

Disability-Related Accommodations: Students who are in need of disability-related academic accommodations must register with the Office of Disability Services (ODS), 804 University Avenue, Room 309, 315-443-4498. Students with authorized disability-related accommodations should provide a current Accommodation Authorization Letter from ODS to the instructor and review those accommodations with the instructor. Accommodations, such as exam administration, are not provided retroactively; therefore, planning for accommodations as early as possible is necessary. For further information, see the ODS website, Office of Disability Services

Students who need accommodations regarding the format of the reading assignments should speak to the instructor in the first week of the semester.

Textbooks (available at the campus bookstore in Schine Student Center): 



  • Coogan, Michael D. Stories from Ancient Canaan. 1st or 2nd ed. Westminster, 1978, 2012. (=SFAC)
  • Foster, Benjamin R. From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda: CDL, 1995 (=FDD)
  • Foster, John L. Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology. Austin: U. of Texas, 2001. (=AEL)
  • Holland, Glenn. Gods in the Desert. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. (= Gods) Available online through Bird Library (click here).


  • The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh (New Jewish Publication Society Version)
  • or New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version)


Topics & Assignments: Readings from the textbooks appear by abbreviated title and page numbers; readings from biblical books are marked BIBLE and appear as book title (italics) and chapters; readings marked BLACKBOARD appear under the "Documents" tab; and assignments on the internet are underlined in blue  (click the active link).

Papers: Instructions for the four papers appears on Blackboard under the "Assignments" tab.




Assignment (due by class on date listed)


T Aug 26


History & Religion: Mesopotamia
How did politics influence ancient texts? What do stories about battles to be "king of the gods" say about ancient religion and politics?

Th Aug 28

Gods 99-109, 131-136; "Kings & their deeds" FDD 165-211; “Royal Prayers” FDD 272-87; Letter from Kadashman; Letter of Ashuruballit > curatorial interpretation

T Sep 3

Gods 111-118; “Creation Epic” FDD 9-51.

History & Religion: Egypt
How was Egyptian literature different from Mesopotamian texts? How was it possible for military generals to cast themselves as gods/sons of gods/divine co-regents? Why are gods typically described as kings and queens?
Paper Workshop

Th Sep 5

Gods 3-14; Ancient Egypt; “Longing for Memphis” AEL 44-47; “Instruction of MerikareAEL 191-204; “Testament of Amenemhat” AEL 85-88;  “Prophecy of NefertyAEL 76-84;


T Sep 10

Gods 15-23, 37-55; “Senusert” and “Ramses” AEL 94-99; “Hymn to Osiris” AEL 102-109; Blackboard: "Hymn to the Aten"
Blackboard: Assmann Theological Response


History & Religion: Syria-Palestine
Are there similarities in theme, structure, or form between texts from different ancient cultures? Why do so many pantheons preserve memories of previous divine kings now supplanted by their rivals or “sons”?

Th Sep 12

Gods 191-198, 219-25 ; “KirtaSFAC 64-95; Letter about Abdu-Heba; Letter from Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem;
Bible: 2 Samuel 6-7; 2 Kings 18-20; 24-25; Ezra 1, 3, 6-7;


T Sep 17

Gods 199-212, 228-237; “Baal” SFAC 97-153;
Bible: Psalm 82; Exodus 1-3; Isaiah 45;
Smith, "Israel's Polytheistic Background; Hundley, Making of Monotheism.


Prophets & History

What did ancient prophets do? What were they concerned about? Why did people frequently explain disasters as caused by god(s)? What feelings do laments emphasize?

Th Sep 19

Gods 226-228, 264-273; “Prophecies” FDD 213-20:
Bible: 1 Kings 17-19;
ErraFDD 132-63; “Lament for a City” FDD 324-25;
Bible: Deuteronomy 28; Lamentations 1.


Paper #1

M Sep 23

Noon: First Paper Due


Gods and Creation
What is humanity's place in the universe, according to these ancient texts? Was it different in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Bible?

T Sep 24

Gods 26-36, 122-129; 212-218; “Shipwrecked Sailor” AEL 8-16; “Hymns to Re & Amun” AEL 118-21; “Hymn to Shamash” FDD 254-61;
Bible: Genesis 1-3; Psalm 8


Art & Religion
Why do religions use art and music?

Th Sep 26

Ancient egyptian art; Assyrian art;
Blackboard: Hendrickx & Gatto; Jacobsen, “Graven Image”;
Bible: Genesis 1; Exodus 20;


MET Museum

What are you especially interested in seeing?

Saturday Sep 28

Field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Planning for the Met: Download the museum map, find the ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek & Roman galleries. Read Assyrian Sculpture Court, Artisan’s Tomb, Temple of Dendur



What roles did women play in law and economics? in politics? in wisdom literature? in love songs? Have love songs changed in 4,000 years?
Hand in MET questionnaire for 10 extra quiz points

T Oct 1

“Portrait of the Queen” AEL 100-101;
Ancient Egypt Man and Woman; "Women's Roles" in Mesopotamia; “Queen's Rights” and “Exaltation of Innana” by Enheduanna; "Hatshepsut, Female Pharaoh"; Hatshepsut statue; Letter from Kadashman;
“Counsels of Wisdom” FDD 377-80;
Bible: Genesis 16, 21; Proverbs 31;
“Egyptian Love Songs” AEL 17-31, “Love spells" AEL 90, FDD 331-43, 351-54;
Bible: Song of Songs 3-4


Divine Gender & Sex
What roles did women play in religion? What role did sex play? Did goddesses conform to typical female roles? If not, why not?

Th Oct 3

Gods 23-26, 47-49, 118-122; “Hymns to Gula & Ishtar” FDD 229-246; Divine lovers FDD 344-50; "Aqat" SFAC 27-55;
Bible: Hosea 2;
Blackboard: Cult prostitution; Sacred marriage


No Class

T Oct 8


No Class

Th Oct 10


Colonialism and Scholarship

Why did Napoleaon bring scholars to invade Egypt? How does politics shape museum displays of ancient artifacts today?

T Oct 15

Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt; Pharaoh's Needles;
Blackboard: Said, Orientalism, 79-87.
Porter, Chap. 3 from Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology.
Blackboard: MacDonald, "Egypt at the Petrie museum"; "Zahi Hawass".


Bird Library 6th Floor: Origins of writing and incomprehensible texts

Th Oct 17

Gods xxiii-xxx; AEL xi-xxi; FDD 1-8; SFAC 1-2; Origins of writing.


Paper #2

M Oct 21

Noon: Second Paper Due  



What economic concerns influenced or were reflected in ancient worship of the gods? Why did worship involve economic goods?

T Oct 22

“Little PepiAEL 32-43; “At the Cleaners” FDD 355-56; Life of a salesman; "Grim Secret";
Blackboard: Exchange, gift, & tribute;
“Hymn to the Nile” AEL 110-17; “Hymns and Prayers” FDD 221-28; Bible: Leviticus 25


Bird Library 6th Floor:

Who got “educated” in antiquity? Did education provide access to power? What kind of power?

Th Oct 24

Gods 182-84; “Dissipated Scribe” and “Minna’s Lament” AEL 48-54; “PtahhotepAEL 186-89; “Ashurbanipal” FDD 282; “Why do you curse me?” FDD 363-64;
Bible: Psalm 1; What can fingerprints tell us?

Bring laptop and download Questionnaire from email



What is the connection, in ancient texts, between human justice and divine justice?

T Oct 29

Blackboard: Roth, Hammurabi's Law (read selections); “Eloquent Peasant” AEL 183-85, “Poor Man of Nippur” FDD 357-62, “Land for the Birds” FDD 375-76; “Righteous Sufferer,” “Babylonian Theodicy” FDD 298-323;
Bible: Exodus 20-22


Bird Library 6th Floor: Student Research

Th Oct 31

Bring list of three possible research topics and/or texts in Special Collections. Bring laptop. 


Wisdom Literature

What kind of values and morality did scribal education try to impart? What kind of religious ideas?

T Nov 5

Gods 86-91; “Wisdom of AmenemopetAEL 206-228; “AnzuFDD 115-131; “Hymn of Akhenaton” AEL 1-7; “Leiden Hymns” AEL 149-168;
Bible: Proverbs 8.


Humanity and Creation
How did people's feelings affect their view of humans' place in the world, if at all?

Th Nov 7

“Dialogue” FDD 295-97; “Who has not sinned?” FDD 326-27, “Piteous Sufferer” FDD 328; "Lament to Amun" AEL 123; “Tale of Sinuhe” AEL 124-48;
Bible: Genesis 12-14; Psalms 42-43.


Magic, Prayer and Ritual

What motivated magical rituals and divination? What distinguished good magic or rituals from bad magic? Is (was) there a difference between magic and prayer? What is it?

T Nov 12

Gods 85-86, 177-182; Mesopotamian Magic. “Magic & Divination” FDD 228, 252-53, 262-65, 393-432;
Bible: Deuteronomy 18:9-22; 1 Samuel 28

Th Nov 14

Gods 77-85; 167-175, 257-264, 273-276; “Prayer to MardukFDD 247-48, “Hymns and Prayers” FDD 221-26, “Personal gods” FDD 267-71; “Letter Prayers” FDD 293-94;
Bible: Psalm 6, 11; Isaiah 38; Exodus 40; Leviticus 1


Paper #3

M Nov 18

Noon: Third Paper Due


Death 1

What connections were there between between death practices, living society, and religion? How did burial practices reflect or interact with these views? 

T Nov 19

Gods 57-65; Blackboard "Autobiography of Harkhuf"; Digital Giza Project; Valley of the Kings; Mummification ; 800 tombs;
149-153, 239-242; “Elegy for a Woman” FDD 329; “Flood Story” FDD 52-77;
Bible: Genesis 6-8;
“Family Ghosts” FDD 227; “Prayer to NabuFDD 249-51; "Rephaim," SFAC 57-63.


Th Nov 21

Gilgamesh (all); Gods 136-148, 153-154, 184-188.

No Classes                

Nov 24 to Dec 1

Thanksgiving Break


Death 2, and Influences & Survivals

How did beliefs about the afterlife differ in Egyptian, Mesopotamian and biblical literatures? What do ancient stories mean when they narrate the deaths of gods?

T Dec 3

Gods 65-75, 91-96, 242-244;

Blackboard: Egyptian Afterlife Abydos 1 and 2;
“King UnisAEL 64-69; “Pyramid Texts” AEL 70-75; “Power From the Four Winds” AEL 91-93; “PaheryAEL 169-177; “Harpers Songs” AEL 178-82; "Man vs. Soul” AEL 55-63;
Ecclesiastes 3


Th Dec 5

Gods 154-165, 245-256, 277-284; “Stories of Ishtar, Nergal, & AdapaFDD 78-101; Abydos and Cult of Osiris
Bible: Isaiah 24-25;
Blackboard: Mummy worship


In Lemke Room, Bird Library 6th Floor

F Dec 13

Final Presentations
Final Paper due