An advertisement for a writer's retreat.

Attending the Society of Biblical Literature‘s (SBL) annual meeting reminds me of a big Thanksgiving dinner involving lots of people, all of whom bring a tasty dish. With food in such appetizing variety and quantity, one hardly knows where to start.

Everyone brings something to the meeting — areas of expertise, findings from recent research, intriguing ideas for exploration — and many of them present papers in sessions planned on particular topics. The problem is, there are hundreds of sessions to choose from.

On Saturday morning, after going through my program, I found no less than six sessions I wanted to attend, all running at the same time. The Assyriology and the Bible section was offering a roundtable discussion on the Kuttamuwa Stele (an eighth century B.C. Neo-Hittite funerary stele from Zincirli), the Book of the Twelve Prophets section included a speaker whose book I’m currently reviewing, and the Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation section sounded really interesting. I also wanted to attend sessions on “Egytpology and Ancient Israel” and “Warfare in Ancient Israel.”

I ended up attending a session called “Iconography and the Hebrew Bible,” mainly because the lead lecture was to be “1 Samuel 31 and the Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River: Shared Narrative Topoi.” The “Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River” refers to an Assyrian wall relief portraying Ashurnasirpal’s victory over the Elamites in 653 B.C. It’s part of the British Museum collection, but I saw it last year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it was on tour while the British Museum renovates. It’s a fascinating piece of art, replete with evidence of what warfare in the ancient Near East was like, and I wanted to hear how the presenter compared it to the Battle of Gilboa, where Saul died (in both accounts, the defeated king and his son are beheaded and put on display).

Alas, because I arrived and took a front row seat early, I missed the notice that was later posted at the entrance: the Til-Tuba presenter couldn’t make it. The lead paper then became “The Ekphrastic Image in Song 5:9-16.” That was still interesting, because I learned a new word (I don’t run across “ekphrastic” very often). The presenter was arguing that the description of the male lover in Song of Solomon 5:9-16 sounds very much like someone describing a decorated statue. The pictures and the presentation were interesting, but the premise seemed rather obvious to me, so I took it as no great revelation.

The afternoon held two more fun-information-filled sessions, while the evening featured the president’s address (more on those later).

The meeting and its embarrassment of academic riches goes on through Tuesday. Unfortunately, I’ll be leaving early on Monday to get back for my Old Testament “Prophets and Poets” class. No doubt, they’ll be waiting anxiously to hear all about ekphrasis and other obscurities I’ve picked up at the annual meeting.

Then again, maybe not.

[The image is a section from the Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River, in which the Elamite king is being relieved of his head.]

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