Tracing Religious Ideas from Babylon to Judaism

by Esteban

“But it was not only through the Babylonian exile that the religious ideas of the Babylonian and the Jew came into contact with each other. It was then, indeed, that the ideas of the conquering race–the actual masters of the captives, who had long been accustomed to regard Babylonia as the home of a venerable learning and culture–were likely to make their deepest and most enduring impression; it was then, too, that the Jew for the first time found the libraries and ancient literature of Chaldea open to his study and use.

But old tradition had already pointed to the valley of the Euphrates as the primeval cradle of his race. We all remember how Abraham, it is said, was born in Ur of the Chaldees, and how the earlier chapters of Genesis make the Euphrates and Tigris two of the rivers of Paradise, and describe the building of the Tower of Babylon as the cause of the dispersion of mankind.

Now the Hebrew language was the language not only of the Israelites, but also of those earlier inhabitants of the country whom the Jews called Canaanites and the Greeks Phoenicians. Like the Israelites, the Phoenicians held that their ancestors had come from the Persian Gulf and the alluvial plain of Babylonia.

The tradition is confirmed by the researches of comparative philology. Many of the words which the Semites have in common seem to point to the neighbourhood of Babylonia as the district from which those who used them originally came, and where they called the fauna and flora of the country by common names.

Their first home appears to have been in the low-lying desert which stretches eastward of Chaldea–on the on the very side of the Euphrates, in fact, on which stood the great city of Ur, the modern Mugheir.

Here they led a nomad life, overawed by the higher culture of the settled Accadian race, until a time came when they began to absorb it themselves, and eventually, as we have seen, to dispossess and supersede their teachers.

The tribes which travelled northward and westward must, we should think, have carried with them some of the elements of the culture they had learnt from their Accadian neighbors. And such, indeed, we find to be the case.

The names of Babylonian deities meet us again in Palestine and the adjoining Semitic lands. Nebo, the Babylonian god of prophecy and literature, has given his name to towns that stood within the territories of Reuben and Judah, as well as to the Moabite mountain on which Moses breathed his last; Anu, the Babylonian god of heaven, and his female consort Anatu, re-appear in Beth-Anath, “the temple of Anatu,” and Anathoth, the birth-place of Jeremiah; and Sinai itself is but the mountain of Sin, the Babylonian Moon-god.

We may thus assume that there were two periods in the history of the Jewish people in which they came under the influence of the religious conceptions of Babylonia. There was the later period of the Babylonish exile, when the influence was strong and direct; there was also the earlier period, when the amount of influence is more hard to determine.

Much will depend upon the view we take of the age of the Pentateuch, and of the traditions or histories embodied therein. Some will be disposed to see in Abraham the conveyer of Babylonian ideas to the west; others will consider that the Israelites made their first acquaintance with the gods and legends of Babylonia through the Canaanites and other earlier inhabitants of Palestine.

Those who incline to the latter belief may doubt whether the fathers of the Canaanitish tribes brought the elements of their Babylonian beliefs with them from Chaldea, or whether these beliefs were of later importation, due to the western conquests of Sargon and his successors.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 41-3.