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Banned and Branded: The Mesopotamian Background of Šamata

Yakir Paz
Published: 5 July 2021

Abstract: The verb √šmt and noun šamata, attested in the dialects of Eastern Aramaic in the Sasanian period, would seem at first to be synonymous with the Palestinian term nidui, ‘excommunication’. However, a closer examination reveals that šamata has a different semantic value. It is not simply conceived as a social sanction of excommunication but is understood as a curse involving divine violence; is closely associated with binding; and is often perceived as the property of powerful agents. In this article I argue that √šmt is derived from the Akkadian šamātu, ‘to mark’, ‘to brand’, especially in its more restricted sense ‘to brand temple slaves’ and ‘to dedicate a person to a deity’. Understanding the Mesopotamian roots of šamata might help us better explain its unique regional features, shared by the Aramaic speaking groups in the Sasanian Empire.
Keywords: Hebrew Bible / Biblical Studies

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