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The battle won by diving in

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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.


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