The cuneiform scribal art in the first millennium was, by and large, one of conservatism. The creative activity of scribes of the first millennium was often relegated to the composition of commentaries and explanatory works on the great canonical series. Out of this artistic torpidity came a last gasp of genius. The horrifying destruction of Babylon and the hope of its reconstruction inspired a certain scribe, Kabti-ilani-Marduk (V 42), to compose Erra and Išum. Written on five tablets of about 750 lines altogether, our current text is reconstructed from thirty-seven exemplars from sites such as Assur, Nineveh, Babylon, Ur and, most recently, Me-Turnat (T. Haddad).
The story, entitled šar gimir dadmē, “King of the Entire Inhabited World”, presents little actual action. In almost Job-like fashion, the vast majority of the narrative consists of dialogue between the deities Erra, Išum, the Sebetti and Marduk, whose interactions in the divine realm ultimately lead to the destruction of Babylon and other major cities. Indeed, much of the scholarly activity concerning Erra and Išum has revolved around the significant difficulties presented by this dialogue.