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I was looking through some examination copies of potential textbooks the other day while planning a course on religion in the Bible and the ancient Near East — when I noticed that all of the books were some shade of brown.

I looked over my bookshelf, and realized that several of my Old Testament survey books looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.

What is it with art designers and old stuff? Is it because so much of the land there is sandy and tan, or because many of the material remains from that period are coffee-colored? Admittedly, clay tablets, pottery, mudbricks, fertility figures, and city walls of the period could all fit on a single color palette.

The “Royal Standard of Ur,” Sumerian, from the British Museum, c. 2700 BCE

But people of the period loved color. The Sumerians crafted beautiful artifacts of gold and lapis lazuli, using rare gemstones for added color. The Babylonians learned to glaze bricks with bright hues, and some of their ziggurats featured blue bricks or tiles on the top levels. The Egyptians were an artistic people, and often painted heiroglyphs, tombs, and public places in vivid colors.

Beyond that, people of the time lived colorful lives and had vivid imaginations, as well. Don’t think so? Read the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Ugaritic tales of Kirta, or some of the Egyptian love poetry — or the Hebrew Bible. Polychromatic characters abound.

I’m off this weekend to attend the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago, where the huge bookstore/exhibit area is to die for and academic ideas float like dust in the air. There will be pedantic pompousness in large measure, I’m sure, but I’m looking forward to hearing presentations on a variety of arcane subjects, and hope the speakers are as entertaining as their topics.

If I hear anything really interesting, I’ll pass it on. And as a personal statement, I’m not packing anything that’s brown. 

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