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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Personal Reflection on the Life and Work of Anson F. Rainey (January 11, 1930–February 19, 2011)

Bill Schniedewind, UCLA

The foreword to The Sacred Bridge concludes by recalling Genesis 6:4 and a time when there were giants in the land. Anson Frank Rainey belonged to a bygone era when giants walked the land, and I cannot help but feel that one of the giants has passed away—my teacher, mentor, and friend, Anson Rainey.

I first met Professor Rainey more than twenty-five years ago as a young student in Israel, where I took a lecture course that he taught at the American Institute for Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College) on the historical geography of Israel. I still remember his engaging lecture style; he was one of the best lecturers that I had as a student. He instilled in students the importance of “reading the Bible with your feet on the ground”—that is, with a sense of the land as well as a little common sense. I followed his guidance in considering graduate schools and ended up at his graduate alma mater, Brandeis University (PhD, 1962), and then teaching at one of his undergraduate alma maters, UCLA (BA, 1956). After my own graduate studies, I sat at his feet again as a postdoctoral student in his Amarna Seminar at Tel Aviv University, where he was Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics and taught from 1964 until his retirement in 1998. Rainey was at home in the land both as a geographer and an archaeologist. He began his work in archaeology as a volunteer with Yohanan Aharoni at Ramat Rahel and Arad; he later served as an Area Supervisor at excavations such as Lachish, Gezer, Arad, and became a staff member for excavations at Beer-sheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Tel Harasim. He would speak with fondness and reverence of his teachers and mentors, people such as Aharoni, H. J. Polotsky, or William Moran. His translation and revision of Aharoni’s classic works, especially The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, were labors of love for his teacher. He also took it upon himself to translate Michael Avi Yonah’s seminal work, The Holy Land, into English, so that it would be more widely available. His own work, The Sacred Bridge (2005), written with Steve Notley, is an unmatched masterpiece of historical geography. He had incredible energy and passion for the land. I recall trying to keep up with him even in his seventies as he seemingly raced to the top of tell Izbet Sartah, then regaled me on topics ranging from toponomy, geography, settlement archaeology, biblical history, to the early history of the alphabet. He threw this passion and energy into everything he did, and he seemed to be an itinerant traveler who was invited as a Visiting Professor at Harvard University (1976–77), the University of Pennsylvania (1983–84; 1988–89; 1995–96), UCLA (2001), Konkuk University in Seoul (2002), and the University of Melbourne (2002). I warmly recall his stint as Visiting Professor at UCLA, where he taught both Ugaritic and an Amarna seminar. Wherever he was, students were drawn to him, and he willingly poured himself into teaching and students. After his retirement at Tel Aviv University, during the later years of his life, he taught as adjunct professor at Bar-Ilan University (2002–7) and also continued to teach at the Jerusalem University College, which was always close to his heart because its founder, G. Douglas Young, had first encouraged him to remain in Israel and teach there. Anson was among the most generous people to students and younger scholars, though he was also infamous for not suffering fools gladly. He took the work of scholarship and teaching seriously but also was the first to recall endearingly his own mentors as well as praise his own students like a proud father.

Professor Rainey published over two hundred books and articles. His research ranged across the languages (Egyptian, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hebrew), geography, history, and the society of the Near East. His contributions are too varied and numerous to rehearse completely. Many of his publications are seminal works in the field, beginning with his dissertation, published in Hebrew as The Social Structure of Ugarit (1967), later abbreviated in English as “The ScribeatUgarit: HisPosition and Influence” (1969). His four-volume contribution on the grammar of the Amarna letters, Canaanite in the Amarna Letters (1996), established him as the doyen in this field. His research on Amarna was also seminal to pushing forward our understanding of the Hebrew verbal system, beginning with his article on “The Ancient Hebrew Prefix Conjugation” (1986), and he combined this research with historical-geographical insights to reshape the origins of Hebrew in “Redefining Hebrew—A Transjordanian Language” (2007). His most recent research focused on a new critical edition of the el-Amarna letters. During the last decade, he personally visited and studied all the collections of the Amarna letters in the various museums and prepared collations and readings for a new edition that will be a landmark publication advancing our knowledge of the early history of Israel and the Late Bronze Age.  In his last days, I felt honored and unworthy that he committed the task of completing this work to me. Fortunately, the first volume was nearly complete at the time of his passing, and its publication will be a crowning achievement in a life dedicated to scholarship and the teaching of students.

—Bill Schniedewind, UCLA


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