Prof. Anson F. Rainey: In Memoriam



Obituary for Anson Rainey - IEJ

Anson F. Rainey, Semitic linguist, historical geographer of the biblical period and leading authority on the Amarna letters, died after a blessedly brief struggle with pancreatic cancer at Tel Hashomer hospital on 19 February 2011, aged 81.

Anson Frank Rainey was born 11 January, l930, in Dallas, Texas. He completed his secondary education and served as Assistant Commandant at Brown Military Academy of the Ozarks, receiving his B.A. in Religious Education in 1949, also completing the requirements for a Commercial Pilot's License and Instructor's Rating.

After working for two years as a social worker he entered the California Baptist Theological Seminary in Covina, California, eventually receiving an M.A. in Old Testament, a B.D. in Biblical Theology and an M.Th. in Old Testament, teaching there as a fellow and an Assistant Professor.

In 1956 he completed a B.A. in Ancient History with honors at the University of
California, Los Angeles, and then went on to graduate school at Brandeis University, receiving an M.A. and then completing his PhD in June of 1962. As part of his doctoral studies he came to Israel as the sole American recipient of an award from the Government of Israel, studying Hebrew, archaeology, Egyptian, Coptic and Phoenician at the Hebrew University.

In August 1962, he returned to Jerusalem to teach Historical Geography at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College on Mount Zion), a relationship which would last throughout his career.

In 1963 Anson Rainey began teaching Ugaritic and Akkadian at Tel-Aviv University, receiving a full-time appointment in 1964 and eventually rising to the rank of Full Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics. During those years he also served terms as acting chair of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies Department, coordinator for Mesopotamian Studies and acting chair of the department of Semitic Linguistics. Besides teaching such languages as Ugaritic, Akkadian, Ancient Hebrew, Phoenician and Egyptian, he also taught Historical Geography of the Land of the Bible.

In 1982 he began teaching part-time in the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar Ilan University, and continued to do so almost continuously. He developed and taught the basic introduction to Historical Geography of the Land of Israel in the Biblical Period, as well as several advanced seminars and workshops. All the while he also continued to teach at Jerusalem University College. He advised and mentored several graduate students at both institutions. Over the last few years of his life he also taught at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva and at Orot College of Education in Elkanah.

Anson Rainey was also an avid traveler, spending sabbaticals and receiving grants and invitations to teach and conduct research all over the world. This included extended stays at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Los Angeles, Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea and the University of Melbourne, Australia. Short-term visits to Egypt, Jordan, Berlin, London, Oxford, Chicago and many other places were used to study and collate the ancient inscriptions housed at museums and university collections in these and other places.

Anson Rainey was first and foremost a man of the field. He believed in a "hands-on" approach to historical geography, touring the Land of Israel and the neighboring countries extensively, emphasizing the connection between text and geography. He imbued this methodology in his students as well, including field studies in his classes. While not specifically "tagged" as an archaeologist, he gained more experience in the field than many holders of chairs in departments of archaeology. He began as a volunteer at the 1961 season of Yohanan Aharoni's excavation at Ramat Rahel, then following him to Arad, En-gedi, Metzad Mazal, Kh. Burgata; then as an area supervisor at Lachish, Gezer, Arad and Khirbet Rabud; and finally as a field supervisor and core staff member at Beer-sheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa and Tel Harasim. Aharoni himself became a mentor and friend, the two scholars finding much in common in their love of the land, its antiquities and the texts that describe it, all cornerstones of historical geography.

Most of Anson Rainey's published books and articles can be classified into three main areas: the Ancient Near East, Historical Geography and Hebrew and Semitic Languages, although he also published on additional subjects. An example of the first is his The Social Structure of Ugarit (Jerusalem, Bialik Institute, 1967, Hebrew, later published in English). As illustrations of the second we would mention his translations of Aharoni's Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography and Michael Avi-Yonah's The Holy Land from the Persian to the Arab Conquests (536 B.C. to A.D. 640): A Historical Geography, as well as the updating and translation of several editions of the Carta and Macmillan Bible Atlases (together with Ze'ev Safrai), and finally with his own A Handbook of Historical Geography (Jerusalem, American Institute of Holy Land Studies, 1984), The Sacred Bridge: The Carta Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem, Carta, 2006, with R. Steven Notley) and "The abridged Bridge" (officially Carta's New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible, Jerusalem, Carta, 2007). The third field can be represented by his translation of Daniel Sivan's Grammar of Ugaritic, and by his own four-volume Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1996). One of his final projects was the recategorizing of Biblical Hebrew as a "Transjordanian" language rather than a "Canaanite" one.

Anson Rainey served on the editorial boards of Israel Oriental Studies and of Tel Aviv. Besides his many articles in scholarly journals and books, he was also a prolific writer of festschrift articles, encyclopedia entries and articles in such popular and semi-popular journals as Biblical Archaeology Review, Bible Review, Biblical Archaeologist and its successor Near Eastern Archaeology. He was also an avid reviewer, publishing over 50 reviews in scholarly journals, each of which is a well-researched paper in its own right. Altogether he has over 250 publications to his name, a respectable legacy even for such a long career. He was also an enthusiastic conference-presenter, with his annual papers at the ASOR, SBL and other meetings always well attended and always well received. His final grand project, on which he spent much of his time and energy over the last several decades of his life, was a re-reading and interpretation of all of the existing Amarna letters. His involvement with these extraordinary documents began in a seminar that he conducted at Harvard in 1976-7 under the guidance of William Moran. To this end, he travelled to Cairo, Berlin, London, New York, Chicago and other places where these documents are stored and exhibited, and personally examined each and every one of the texts. Using high-resolution digital photography, he noted many details that had not been noticed previously, and began working on a new edition of the entire corpus. He continued working on this project even in his hospital bed, ensuring that the project would continue after his death.

However, Anson Rainey's greatest legacy of all is his many students. Teaching was his greatest love; he often referred to himself as a "classroom junkie". He taught right until his final illness; in fact, his hospitalization and subsequent death left classes at three institutions teacherless. He was known by his students for his sense of humor and accessibility on one hand, and for his "larger than life" depth of knowledge on the other. He was always ready to discuss and answer questions. After the advent of email he was always available on-line. He was always willing to write recommendations, review requests for grants and to fight for every student who he considered deserving of his help. During the war of 1973, as one of the few professors who was not called up for duty (as he was not yet an Israeli citizen at the time), he visited wounded students in their hospital beds and helped them advance with their studies. Many of Anson Rainey's students at Tel-Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities, at the American Institute (now Jerusalem University College) and at the other institutions at which he taught have become scholars in their own right; for all practical purposes, they are almost the only scholars working in the field of Biblical Historical Geography today.

Coming from an American Evangelical background and with his training in theology, Anson Rainey felt an intense connection to the Land of Israel and to its people. Making his home in Israel, he eventually converted to Judaism and was proud to become an Israeli citizen in 1980. After two previous marriages, he married Zippora Kochavi, a former graduate student of his at Tel-Aviv University, in 1982, settling in Sha'arei Tikva. Their son Yonni is now a Tel-Aviv University graduate student himself. Anson's final interment at Barkan cemetery under his Hebrew name of Aryeh ben Avraham symbolizes the fullness of his long journey from the plains of Texas to the hills of Samaria.

When the The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan and the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel-Aviv University held a joint conference in May of 2010 in honor of his 80th birthday, it seemed to all of us like a preliminary summary of what Anson had achieved so far, and we all wished him many more years of fruitful work. His sudden illness and death caught us all off-guard, not yet prepared to take leave of our teacher and friend. 

Anson Rainey will be remembered as one of the last of a generation of giants, leaving an exemplerary model of scholarship, integrity and friendship.

                                                                                                                     Yigal Levin

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