A Window on the Exile? Colony, State, and Writing in the āl-Yāhūdu Archive


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מזרח קדום, Leiden University, הולנד

The metaphor of the archive as a window on the past is widespread in Yahudu scholarship. While most historians these days would contend that archives distort as much as they depict, readers of the Yahudu tablets are confident that what they are getting is a straightforward, unmediated account of everyday exilic life. Two factors instill this confidence. On the one hand, the mundane nature of the transactions recorded in the texts lends them an aura of innocent objectivity. Judeans are seen paying taxes, selling fish, and renting plow animals — activities that can hardly be interpreted otherwise than in the literal sense. On the other hand, the idea that the tablets constitute a private, or personal, archive of one Judean family — the so-called family of Ahiqam — creates the impression that the ‘voices’ we hear in this archive are those of the Judean deportees themselves.

In this lecture I will question these intuitive responses to the Yahudu tablets. Before we mine this archive any further for testimony of the exile, we need to understand how it was shaped, how it came into being, whose viewpoint it represents. Every archive is, through its very existence, a statement of power — and this is not any different in the case of the Yahudu archive. On the contrary, I will argue that the very act of cuneiform writing in this community was a manifestation of state authority.


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