Nothing could hide from the sun's scorching rays. Not the highway crew who were tearing up the old iron bridge that spanned the majestic Connecticut: their boots sank into the melting asphalt, nor I, who in desperation, shut the windows , pulled the blinds, and plugged my ears with cotton to muffle the jackhammers' vibrations and blot out any temptation to escape outdoors.
It was the day before the assignment was due and I could afford no distractions. I sought to focus -- to sear through the obscurities of an ancient Akkadian document like the sun through a magnifying glass. It would be difficult. Such learned pursuits, by their very nature, require great acumen, erudition, and above all, discipline.
For the past two months I had been translating a passage written nearly 4,000 years ago during the time of Hammurabi, king of Babylon. The "Code of Hammurabi" may have been the world's first legal document. It governed practically every aspect of life in Mesopotamia. For centuries scholars had pored over the code -- working out every detail and implication.
The stele I had tackled was no less weighty. As far as I could tell, it dealt with some complex legal matter -- one that fully justified my elaborate preparations.
It was an inscription on a temple dedicated to Shamash, the sun god, the god of justice. Yakdun-Lim, king of the city-state Mari, had just defended the temple from invaders. I read aloud the accolade to Shamash: To Shamash, king of the heaven and the earth, Judge of the gods and mankind, whose equity is shared so that the gift of justice is given to them.m
Shamash brought injustices to light. Bright sunlight disarmed the dishonest, revealed the neglected, and uncovered the clandestine.
But where is the justice in being holed up here? I wondered. On a hot summer's day, one should shed clothes and frolic in the sun. My gray mood cast a shadow on my work. Before it had been inspiring, today it was a trial.
Yes -- trial! The great god was outraged at the temple raid, I reasoned, and was meting out his fiery justice to the deserving enemy. The perpetrators were being tried for their misdeed. Shamash is the judge, Yakdun-Lim the executioner.
The sun burned its way across the sky. Through the aging blinds, it cast an orange glow in the room. I strained over each wedge-shaped cuneiform symbol, forcing them together like warped alphabet blocks.
What were the soldiers of Yakdun-Lim doing? After winning the battle, they were apparently confiscating the weapons of the vanquished. Maybe it was the punishment; or perhaps the spoils of war. This seemed the only explanation. Yakdun-Lim, powerful king, wild ox in strength and valor, went to the shore of the sea, to the sea of sacrifice . . .m
Why did he go to the beach? Was Shamash so severe as to demand a human sacrifice?
I paced the room, edging closer to the window. I fingered back the blind and peeked out. The sun sparkled in the blue water of the Connecticut. My thoughts drifted away with the current. . . .
I slapped the shade back. Pull yourself together and work harder! The next section promised to be even more abstruse:
. . . u sabusu ina qirib aiiabba me irmuk
"Sabusu, sabum,"m I muttered, "-- host, force, army. Me, mum -- water!"
"Qirib, qirbumm -- middle," I repeated.
No, this is a legal text -- no simple matter. It must have to do with Shamash and the sacrifice. But it left me in a quandary, a sea of confusion. My persistence had expired. I was prepared for no such battle.
I jumped up, still muttering Akkadian, "irmuk, muk, makum, ramakum," intermingled with dark profanities. I yanked off my shirt and trousers and jumped into my shorts. The door banged as I fled.
Past the bridge, along the shore, I ran to my swimming hole.
I imagined a sizzle as I hit the water. I ducked under and shook my head, expelling the tangled questions. I sighed and turned over on my back to face the warm, friendly sun. Shamash -- the brilliant god, judge of the living, provider of contentment.m
My spirit flowed freely.
Suddenly, I knew! "Irmukm -- 'To bathe oneself' -- 'The army bathed in the water!'" I shouted.
This was no complex legal contract, but a simple tribute to Shamash. The battle had been won and the troops were rejoicing.
When I shed my own armor, the translation was finished.