"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Category: Bible

Selz: Patriarchs and Sages

“A central figure in the discussion about the alleged Mesopotamian model for the antediluvian patriarchs soon became Enoch, who lived for 365 (364) years and of whom we read in Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God then he was no more, because God took him away.”

The verb lāqah in this context has received numerous comments. Biblical sources offer three interpretations:

a) The liberation of a dead person from the power of the underworld;

b) A final removal from earth (cf. Elijah); or

c) An act of temporal transference, as in dream visions.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647 CE), Elie nourri par le corbeau, 1624-5 CE. Oil on canvas, held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille, Accession number BA 451, photographed by Rvalette.  This faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art is in the public domain where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647 CE), Elie nourri par le corbeau, 1624-5 CE. Oil on canvas, held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille, Accession number BA 451, photographed by Rvalette.
This faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art is in the public domain where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

The name Enoch has found several interpretations: It has been argued that J derived the name from hānaq, “to dedicate” and “to train” which comes close to an interpretation of “the sage” (cf. also Arabic Idris!), and it may well be that the two values attributed to Enoch in Genesis are a “babilistic” interpretation of “a man dedicated to and trained by God.”

In the light of Genesis 4:17 the name was also thought to convey the meaning of “founder,” referring to the eponymous city Enoch. This Enoch is possibly entering the rank of those patriarchs who, according to biblical tradition, were perceived as a sort of cultural heroes.

Gerard Hoet (1648-1733 CE), Illustrators of the Figures de la Bible, P. de Hondt, The Hague, 1728 CE. God took Enoch, as in Genesis 5:24: "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." (KJV) illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.

Gerard Hoet (1648-1733 CE), Illustrators of the Figures de la Bible, P. de Hondt, The Hague, 1728 CE.
God took Enoch, as in Genesis 5:24: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” (KJV) illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries.
This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

(Westermann, Genesis, pp. 443-45 suggests that Enoch may refer to the foundation of a city or sanctuary. Westermann writes: “In Israel wurde die Erinnerung daran bewahrt, daß der Städtebau zum dem gehört, was vor und außerhalb der Geschichte Israels geschah. Die Gründung der ersten Stadt gehört der Urgeschichte an” (p. 444).

("In Israel, the memory was preserved because of urban development, 
what happened before and outside of history. 
The founding of the first city belongs to prehistory.")

Discussing Genesis 4:17 most exegetes remark that it seems unlikely that Kain, the tiller, condemmed to a nomadic life, could be renowned as the founder of a city. In an attempt to harmonize the alleged discrepancies, they even assume that the said founder was originally Enoch (cf. e.g. Westermann, Genesis, p. 443).

With the publication of a Seleucid text from Uruk, W 20030,7 the comparison between Berossos, the Old Testament, and the Sumerian King List reached a new level:

Seleucid text, Uruk, W 20030,7.  Excerpt from Selz, Of Heroes and Sages, 2011, p. 793.

Seleucid text, Uruk, W 20030,7. Published by J.J.A. van Dijk, “Die Tontafeln aus dem Resch-Heiligtum,” in Uruk-Wanka Vorberichte 18 (1962): pp. 43-52, from which this transcription is taken. Also on Samizdat, in Lenzi: The Uruk List of Kings and Sages.
Excerpt from Selz, Of Heroes and Sages, 2011, p. 793.

This document establishes an important link between Berossos’ account of the primeval kings and his story of the sage Oannes.

In this text the names of Mesopotamian rulers are accompanied by names of advisors, sages, the so-called apkallū which play an important role in Mesopotamian iconography and have been known, up until now, chiefly from the so-called Etiological Myth of the “Seven Sages” studied by Erica Reiner in 1961.

(E. Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the ‘Seven Sages,’Orientalia 30 (1961): 1-11; eadem, Astral Magic in Babylonia (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 85.4; Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995).

(See further S. Parpola, “Mesopotamian Astrology and Astronomy as Domains of the Mesopotamian ‘Wisdom,’” in Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens: Beiträge zum 3. Grazer Morgenländischen Symposium (ed. H. Galter and B. Scholz; Grazer Morgenländische Studien 3; Graz: RM Druck-und Verlagsgesellschaft, 1993), pp. 23-7.)

This list is certainly fictional, it is, however, based on scholarly traditions: the name of the well-known compiler of the standard version of the Gilgamesh Epic, dsîn-liq-unninnī, functions as an apkallu to Gilgamesh himself.

Further, a certain Kabtu-il-Marduk, perhaps referring to the author of the Erra Epic Kabti-ilāni-Marduk, is mentioned as a sage during the reign of Ibbi-Sîn (ca. 2028-2004 BCE), unlucky last king of the Ur III empire.”

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 792-4.

Melvin: Divine or Semi-Divine Intermediaries

The Divine Source of Civilization in Mesopotamian Myths

“The motif of the divine origin of civilization is common in the ancient Near East, especially in Mesopotamia, and it stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of the rise of civilization in Genesis 1– 11.

(Although many of my observations with regard to the view of the rise of civilization presented in Mesopotamian mythology could also be made within the mythic traditions of other ancient cultures (e.g., Egypt, Greece, Canaan), Bernard Batto notes, “[f]or reasons not entirely clear to us the opening chapters of Genesis are typologically and content-wise more akin to the mythic traditions of Mesopotamia than of territorially closer Canaan—the reverse of the normal situation in the Hebrew Bible.”

(Bernard Batto, “Creation Theology in Genesis,” R. J. Clifford and J. J. Collins [eds.], Creation in the Biblical Traditions [CBQMS, 24; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1992], 16).

For this reason, as well as the general consensus that the compilation of Genesis 1–11 occurred in the exilic or early post-exilic period, in large measure as a polemic against the Babylonian cosmological worldview in which the Jewish community found itself immersed, I have limited my comparisons of the biblical material to a number of Mesopotamian myths.)

In a number of mythological texts, civilization is portrayed as a gift bestowed upon humanity by the gods, and human advancement is generally a positive development. Often the arts of civilization come to humanity through divine or semi-divine intermediaries, such as the apkallus or heroes who are either semi-divine (e.g., Gilgamesh) or divinized humans (e.g., Lugalbanda, Utnapishtim).

This depiction of a fish-apkallū of the purādu-fish type guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud.  A fish's head can be seen on the Apkallu's head, and its skin hangs down over the back of his body.  It is important to recall that the so-called Seven Sages of Sumeria were apkallū of this type. Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE.  From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London). Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)

This depiction of a fish-apkallū of the purādu-fish type guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud.
A fish’s head can be seen on the Apkallu’s head, and its skin hangs down over the back of his body.
It is important to recall that the so-called Seven Sages of Sumeria were apkallū of this type.
Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE.
From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London).
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)

According to the apkallu tradition, which comes to us from a wide array of sources ranging from the bilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian), “Etiological Myth of the Seven Sages” in the Bīt Mēseri 􏰀􏰁􏰂􏰃􏰄􏰅􏰆􏰇􏰈texts to the much later writings of Berossus (4th century BCE) and the Uruk Sage List (c. 165 BCE), as well as the Adapa myth and the epic myth􏰔􏰈􏰈􏰎􏰃􏰎􏰋􏰐􏰃􏰓􏰆 Erra and Ishum, semi-divine beings sent by Enki / Ea instructed antediluvian humans in the arts of civilization. The apkallus were teachers of early humanity whom Ea had endowed with “broad understanding” (uzna rapašta).

(Erica Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the ‘Seven Sages,’” Orientalia 30 (1960), 4. See also Alan Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel (SAAS, 19; Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2008), 106–20. A similar description of the apkallus appears in the myth Erra and Ishum (COS 1.113:408).

(See the detailed description of the apkallus in Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 246–49. For a discussion of the Uruk Sage List, see Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods, 106–09.)

(See Helge S. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man (WMANT, 61; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag), 295–318; Paul D. Hanson, “Rebellion in Heaven, Azazel, and Euhemeristic Heroes in 1 Enoch 6–11,” JBL 96 (1977), 226– 29.)

According to Berossus, they taught the people of Sumer “writing, science, and technology of all types, the foundation of cities, the building of temples, jurisprudence and geometry,” as well as such necessities as agriculture. In lists, they usually appear paired with the king whom they purportedly advised as a sort of vizier.”

David P. Melvin, “Divine Mediation and the Rise of Civilization in Mesopotamian Literature and in Genesis 1-11,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 2010, pp. 3-4.

Kvanvig: Initiation is a Restriction of Marduk

“We think van der Toorn is right in taking this as a comment to the tendency present in the Catalogue. This is still no absolute chronology, since apkallus are listed as authors in III, 7; IV, 11; and VI, 11.

Nevertheless, the commentary seems to underscore three stages in the transmission of highly recognized written knowledge: it starts in the divine realm with the god of wisdom Ea; at the intersection point between the divine and the human stands Uanadapa; and as the third link in this chain stands (we must presuppose) an ummanu, “scholar.”

Tablet of Uruk. The ritual of daily sacrifices in the temple of the god Anu in Uruk.  Seleucid period, 3rd-2nd Centuries BCE, Hellenistic, from Uruk.  Baked clay, 22,3 x 10,4 cm  Louvre, AO 6451.

Tablet of Uruk. The ritual of daily sacrifices in the temple of the god Anu in Uruk.
Seleucid period, 3rd-2nd Centuries BCE, Hellenistic, from Uruk.
Baked clay, 22,3 x 10,4 cm
Louvre, AO 6451.

A. Lenzi has called attention to a colophon to a medical text which reveals a similar kind of transmission:

“Salves (and) bandages: tested (and) checked, which are ready at hand, composed by the ancient apkallus from before the flood, which in Šuruppak in the second year of Enlil-bani, king of Isin, Enlil-muballit, apkallu of Nippur, bequeathed. A non-expert may show an expert. An expert may not show a non-expert. A restriction of Marduk.”

(Medical Text, AMT 105, 1, 21-5. Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods, p. 117.)

The models of transmission in the commentary of the Catalogue and in this colophon are not exactly the same, but the tendency is. In this text, an expert, possibly an āšipu, has in his hands a tablet of high dignity: it belongs to the secrets of the gods (cf. below).

AM-102 ; No. #1 (K4023) British Museum of London 

Tablet K.4023  COL. I  [Starting on Line 38] . . .  Root of caper which (is) on a grave, root of thorn (acacia) which (is) on a grave, right horn of an ox, left horn of a kid, seed of tamarisk, seed of laurel, Cannabis, seven drugs for a bandage against the Hand of a Ghost thou shalt bind on his temples.  FOOTNOTES:  [1] - The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 54, No. 1/4 (Oct., 1937), pp. 12-40; Assyrian Prescriptions for the Head By R. Campbell Thompson

AM-102 ; No. #1 (K4023)
British Museum of London 

Tablet K.4023
[Starting on Line 38] . . .
Root of caper which (is) on a grave, root of thorn (acacia) which (is) on a grave, right horn of an ox, left horn of a kid, seed of tamarisk, seed of laurel, Cannabis, seven drugs for a bandage against the Hand of a Ghost thou shalt bind on his temples.
[1] – The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 54, No. 1/4 (Oct., 1937), pp. 12-40; Assyrian Prescriptions for the Head By R. Campbell Thompson

Therefore, if somebody not belonging to the initiated by accident should have such a tablet, he may show it to the expert, but the expert should never show it to an uninitiated person. The content of the tablet was secret; it went back to the ancient apkallus from before the flood.

Afterwards a distinguished sage, an apkallu in Nippur, inherited it, and from this line of transmission it arrived to the scholar writing this colophon. The division between the apkallus before the flood and the postdiluvian apkallu in Nippur may here be similar to the division of the first group of apkallus of divine descent and the next group of four apkallus of human descent in Bīt Mēseri.

As we have seen, the Late Babylonian Uruk tablet also had a division between a group of seven “before the flood” and a group of ten afterwards, but here the first seven were apkallus, and the next group (with one or two exceptions) were ummanus.

What we observe here is confirmed by two independent contributions with different scope that we already have called attention to, K. van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, and A. Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods.

They are both concerned with the transition from oral transmission of divine messages to written revelations, and they both use Mesopotamian sources from the first millennium as an analogy to what took place in Israel in the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

(van der Toorn, Scribal Culture, pp. 205-21; Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods, pp. 67-122.)

Enuma Elish means “when above”, the two first words of the epic.  This Babylonian creation story was discovered among the 26,000 clay tablets found by Austen Henry Layard in the 1840's at the ruins of Nineveh.  Enuma Elish was made known to the public in 1875 by the Assyriologist George Adam Smith (1840-76) of the British Museum, who was also the discoverer of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. He made several of his findings on excavations in Nineveh.

Enuma Elish means “when above”, the two first words of the epic.
This Babylonian creation story was discovered among the 26,000 clay tablets found by Austen Henry Layard in the 1840’s at the ruins of Nineveh.
Enuma Elish was made known to the public in 1875 by the Assyriologist George Adam Smith (1840-76) of the British Museum, who was also the discoverer of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. He made several of his findings on excavations in Nineveh.

Van der Toorn is concerned about the broad tendency in Mesopotamian scholarly series from the end of the second millennium to classify these as nisirti šamê u erseti, “a secret of heaven and earth.” This expression, occurring in colophons and elsewhere, does two things to the written scholarly lore: on the one hand, it claims that this goes back to a divine revelation; on the other hand, it restricts this revelation to a defined group of scholars.

This tendency goes along with the tendency to date the written wisdom back to primeval time, or to the time before the flood. This also concerns the most well-known compositions from the end of the second millennium, Enuma Elish and the standard version of Gilgamesh.”

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 149-51.

Curnow: Atrahasis is More Historical than Noah

Atrahasis is an interesting figure. By surviving the flood he and his wife became the living links between the antediluvian and postdiluvian ages. They also seem to have been the only human beings to have been made immortal (Leick 2001, p. 83).

More than once the narrative presents Atrahasis talking to Ea, the god of wisdom, and this is perhaps the basis for his own reputation for wisdom. On one occasion he is clearly asking the god to explain a dream to him. However it is also said that his father was called Shuruppak, who was the last king of the city-state of Shuruppak before the great flood.

(Excavations at Shuruppak have uncovered evidence of very substantial flooding there in around 2750 BCE).

MS in Sumerian on clay, Sumer, ca. 2600 BC.  Context: For the Old Babylonian recension of the text, see MSS 2817 (lines 1-22), 3352 (lines 1-38), 2788 (lines 1-45), 2291 (lines 88-94), 2040 (lines 207-216), 3400 (lines 342-345), MS 3176/1, text 3, and 3366. Commentary: This Early Dynastic tablet represents the earliest literature in the world. Only three texts are known from the dawn of literature: The Shuruppak instructions, The Kesh temple hymn, and various incantations (see MS 4549).  The instructions are addressed by the antediluvian ruler Shuruppak to his son Ziusudra, who was the Sumerian Noah, cf. MS 3026, the Sumerian Flood Story, and MS 2950, Atra-Hasis, the Old Babylonian Flood Story.  The Shuruppak instructions can be considered the Sumerian antecedents of the Biblical Ten Commandments and proverbs of the Bible:  Line 50: Do not curse with powerful means (3rd Commandment); lines 28: Do not kill (6th Commandment); line 33-34: Do not laugh with or sit alone in a chamber with a girl that is married (7th Commandment); lines 28-31: Do not steal or commit robbery (8th Commandment); and line 36: Do not spit out lies (9th Commandment).

MS in Sumerian on clay, Sumer, ca. 2600 BC.
Context: For the Old Babylonian recension of the text, see MSS 2817 (lines 1-22), 3352 (lines 1-38), 2788 (lines 1-45), 2291 (lines 88-94), 2040 (lines 207-216), 3400 (lines 342-345), MS 3176/1, text 3, and 3366.
Commentary: This Early Dynastic tablet represents the earliest literature in the world. Only three texts are known from the dawn of literature: The Shuruppak instructions, The Kesh temple hymn, and various incantations (see MS 4549).
The instructions are addressed by the antediluvian ruler Shuruppak to his son Ziusudra, who was the Sumerian Noah, cf. MS 3026, the Sumerian Flood Story, and MS 2950, Atra-Hasis, the Old Babylonian Flood Story.
The Shuruppak instructions can be considered the Sumerian antecedents of the Biblical Ten Commandments and proverbs of the Bible:
Line 50: Do not curse with powerful means (3rd Commandment); lines 28: Do not kill (6th Commandment); line 33-34: Do not laugh with or sit alone in a chamber with a girl that is married (7th Commandment); lines 28-31: Do not steal or commit robbery (8th Commandment); and line 36: Do not spit out lies (9th Commandment).

The names of both Shuruppak (the king) and Atrahasis (as Ziusudra) appear in a Sumerian work known as The Instructions of Shuruppak to His Son Ziusudra. The earliest surviving fragments of this have been dated to around 2500 BCE. The work includes a variety of proverbs, aphorisms and observations within a framework indicating that this is Shuruppak’s advice to his son.

Just before the final flourish in which Shuruppak pays his valedictory respects to Nisaba comes line 278, which could either be regarded as a final aphorism, or as a summation of the entire text: “The gift of wisdom [is like] the stars (of heaven).” (Alster 1974, p. 51).

Atrahasis is therefore the beneficiary of both the divine wisdom of Ea and the human wisdom of Shuruppak, and most fittingly called “extra-wise.”


While there are few believers in Thoth or Marduk in the world today, the idea that anything that appears in the Bible should be treated as mythology will doubtless seem objectionable to some, but there is no obvious reason why Atrahasis should be treated as mythological while Noah is treated as historical.

Indeed Dalley (2000, p. 2) sees in “Noah” a possible derivation from “Utnapishtim,” the Akkadian name of the survivor of the Mesopotamian flood. For present purposes the most important antediluvian figure in the Bible is without doubt Enoch, although in fact the Bible says very little about him and what it does say is vague and confused.

Genesis (4, 5) seems to draw on two different and conflicting genealogies, one of which makes Enoch the son of Cain, the other makes him the son of Jared, a seventh-generation descendant of Adam through the line of Seth.

In an enigmatic phrase it is said that “God took him” (Genesis 5:24), and this came to be understood to mean that he ascended into heaven. Towards the end of the first millennium BCE a literature began to grow around Enoch and there survive three books concerning him, sometimes known as the Ethiopic (1), Slavonic (2) and Hebrew (3) Enochs after the languages in which they have been preserved.

Debates concerning the dating of these texts have been as long as they have been inconclusive, and some have argued for 2 Enoch and 3 Enoch to be from the late first millennium AD, and so outside the scope of this work.

Fortunately, it is 1 Enoch that is of most interest here, and for that an earlier date is agreed.”

Trevor Curnow, Wisdom in the Ancient World, Bloomsbury, 2010, pp. 41-2.

Sex, Evil, and the Fall

“If we posit a rich circulation of oral traditions in the eastern Mediterranean–including Mesopotamia, West Semitic cultures, and Greece–following the well-attested trade route in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, then we may wish to relate these Greek, Mesopotamian, and biblical texts to these (now invisible) streams of tradition.

In this view, the texts are a literary selection and / or reworking of a few stories among the many variations that circulated in these traditions. With this maximal view of the interaction of eastern Mediterranean oral and written traditions, it is not necessary to relate the surviving texts to each other directly; it is plausible to see each as representing a particular selection of motifs and combinations, each text articulating its distinctive discourse out of the available materials of tradition.

Against this background, we may see Genesis 6:1-4 as related to Greek traditions as a member of a larger family of discourses, and, at the same time, as a distinctive version (and abbreviation) of old traditions.

It has often been argued that the biblical writers eschewed mythology and embraced instead a view of time and history closer to modern conceptions. This position, exemplified in the “Biblical Theology” school of the postwar period has been effectively countered by closer attention to the continuities between biblical and Near Eastern texts and concepts.

Satan in his Original Glory:  'Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee'  c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949

Satan in his Original Glory:
‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’
c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949

Genesis 1-11 functions as myth just as thoroughly as Atrahasis or Hesiod’s Theogony, in that it lays out the origin of the present cosmic order as a product of primeval events, a narrative of the past that is constitutive of the present world.

In Alan Dundes’ succinct defintion, myth is “a sacred narrative explaining how the world or humans came to be in their present form.” (Alan Dundes, ed., The Flood Myth (Berkeley, 1988), p. 1.) Genesis 1-11 fulfills neatly this generic and functional definition. It is a cycle of ancient Israelite mythology, a prelude to the stories (which may be called legendary or epic) of national origin in the rest of the Pentateuch. Genesis 6:1-4 is an obvious example of myth in this sense.

Even as Genesis 6:1-4 shows that mythology was alive and well in ancient Israel, it also shows that such stories could be controversial, since this account has been so severely truncated in the J source. Each culture creates its own discursive boundaries, which are constantly subject to negotiation and conflict.

There were aspects of the full story of the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men that, according to the J source, ought not to be said. The boundaries between what can and cannot be said are important to discern in order to attend to the distinctive features of Israelite culture in its various manifestations.

Israelite religion is both like and unlike the religions of its neighbors according to these shifting boundaries of discourse and practice. Genesis 6:1-4 shows how the sexuality of the gods and their marriages with human women came into conflict with the unsayable in the conceptual horizons of the J source.

 William Blake (1757–1827)  wikidata: Q41513 s:en:Author:William  Deutsch: Der große Rote Drache und die mit der Sonne bekleidete Frau Français : Le grand Dragon Rouge et la Femme vêtue de soleil Español: El gran dragón rojo y la mujer vestida de sol wikidata:Q538936 Date1805-1810 Current location: National Gallery of Art  wikidata:Q214867 Washington (D.C.) Source/PhotographerThe Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Permission (Reusing this file)

William Blake (1757–1827)
wikidata: Q41513 s:en:Author:William
Deutsch: Der große Rote Drache und die mit der Sonne bekleidete Frau
Français : Le grand Dragon Rouge et la Femme vêtue de soleil
Español: El gran dragón rojo y la mujer vestida de sol
Date 1805-1810
Current location: National Gallery of Art
Washington (D.C.)
Source/Photographer The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
(Reusing this file)

That these issues are not spoken of elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible also illuminates this particular boundary of the unsayable. Sex, gods, and the allure of women are a potent and self-censoring combination in biblical discourse.

In post-biblical times, these tantalizing issues came to receive fuller attention, in what Freud might call a return of the repressed. The terse and sensational aspects of Genesis 6:1-4 provoked detailed exegetical attention. The wayward Sons of God and the Nephilim, the latter taken in their etymological sense as the “fallen ones,” in combination with other biblical stories of the “fall” of divine beings (especially Isaiah 14Ezekiel 28, and Psalm 82), gave rise to the myth of the fallen angels who seduced human women and introduced evil on the earth.

The awakened sexuality of these divine beings leads to their cosmic fall, similar to the exegetical equation of sex and evil in some post-biblical interpretations of the Garden of Eden story. (Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, New York, 1988).

Through these extensions of the biblical story, the brief and cryptic text of Genesis 6:1-4 became the site of potent discourses in the Hellenistic period and beyond.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 32-4.

Flood Traditions

“Another point of connection with Mesopotamian traditions concerns the relationship between Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood story. Since Genesis 6:1-4 occurs immediately prior to the flood story, it is possible that the stories were more richly connected in other versions of these stories, whether oral or written.

One such possibility would be a version of the flood story in which the deeds and / or existence of the mixed breed demigods provoked God to destroy them in a great cataclysm–the flood. This possible story is not told in biblical or Mesopotamian texts of the flood, but an intriguing Greek text about the Trojan War (see below) raises the possibility of this combination of motifs.

Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet Date15 July 2010 Current location: British Museum Link back to Institution wikidata:Q6373 Source/Photographer	Fæ (Own work) Other versions	File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg British Museum reference	K.3375 Detailed description:	 Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian., Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record. Location	Room 55

Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet
Date 15 July 2010
Current location: British Museum Link back to Institution wikidata:Q6373
Source/Photographer Fæ (Own work)
Other versions File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg
British Museum reference K.3375
Detailed description:
Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian., Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record.
Location Room 55

In the versions of the flood recounted in Mesopotamian and biblical texts, the motives for the flood are several:

  • Old Babylonian Atrahasis: the “noise” (rigmu) of overabundant humans makes it impossible for Enlil to sleep. The flood is an extreme and, as Enki points out, morally repugnant method of population reduction.
  • Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Tablet XI and the flood tablet from Ugarit: the flood was sent for reasons impenetrable to humans: it is a “secret of the gods” (pirišta ša ili. XI.10).
  • The J flood story of Genesis: the evil of the human heart makes Yahweh regret that he created humans, and so he resolves to destroy them with a flood (Genesis 6:5-7).
  • The P flood story of Genesis: the violence of humans has corrupted the earth, and so God resolves to destroy them with a flood (Genesis 8:11-3).

None of these motives directly requires the existence of mixed-breed demigods or the sexual mingling of gods and humans. In its context as a prologue to the flood, Genesis 6:1-4 serves as one of several illustrations of human evil or corruption, but is not itself a necessary or sufficient cause of the flood.

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic, Babylonian, about 17th century BC  From Sippar, southern Iraq  A version of the Flood story  The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki.  The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods. This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil's sleep.  He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters.  The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed.  However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans.  Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version.  There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh.  T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)  S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991)  W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis: the Babylonian story (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969)

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic, Babylonian, about 17th century BC
From Sippar, southern Iraq
A version of the Flood story
The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki.
The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods. This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil’s sleep.
He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters.
The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed.
However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans.
Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version.
There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991)
W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis: the Babylonian story (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969)

But it is in the nature of oral and mythological traditions that stories and myths can be combined and recombined–this is what Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Savage Mind, Chicago, 1966, pp. 16-22) calls the “bricolage” of myth making, and what Albert Lord (Singer of Tales, 2d ed., Harvard university Press, 2000,) calls the multiformity of oral narrative traditions.

It is possible that the birth and proliferation of the demigods signified a kind of chaotic disruption of the cosmic order that required a global destruction. But to find an example of such a combination of motifs, we must turn from Mesopotamia to Greece.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 29-30.

The Children of El in Ancient Ugarit

“There is, of course, a logical problem with the twofold reference of the Nephilim to the antediluvian warriors and to the giant inhabitants of Canaan on the eve of the Israelite conquest. The flood intervenes, which kills all living creatures on earth: “Everything with life’s breath in its nostril, everything that lived on dry land, died” (Genesis 7:22 J).

The continuance of the Nephilim contradicts the testimony of the flood story (thus providing a lively subject for post biblical exegetes). The likely solution to this problem is that the writer was heir to traditions about the Nephilim that were not internally consistent, but was constrained by the audience’s horizons of expectations to relate these traditions accurately.

Such internal inconsistency is characteristic of oral traditions in many cultures, and we may point to this particularly inconsistency as a sign of the oral multiformity of the narrative lore of ancient Israel. As with the Sons of God, the Nephilim no doubt populated more stories in ancient Israelite culture than the brief texts that have been preserved.

To gain a richer understanding of Genesis 6:1-4–both of its content and its gaps–it is useful to consider the longer history (the discursive longue durée) of these narrative elements in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The most immediate cultural context, for this and much else in ancient Israel, is the culture of Canaan from which early Israel emerged.

We have seen above that the term “Sons of God” has a direct antecedent in the Canaanite bn’il, “Sons / Children of El.” This group is referred to several times in Ugaritic literature of the Late Bronze Age and is carried on in several later West Semitic cultures of the Iron Age.

"22 alphabet" by Chaos - self-scan of old picture more than 10 years in syria (PD in syria). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ugaritic text“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Ugaritic texts the “Sons / Children of El” are the members of El’s divine assembly (Mark S. Smith, trans., Simon B. Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 1997). They are described as the offspring of El and his chief wife, the goddess Asherah. One of El’s epithets is ‘ab bn ‘il, “Father of the Children of El,” indicating his paternity of the gods, and Asherah is called qnyt ‘ilm, “Creatress of the gods.”

The Children of El are often shown feasting in heaven, as is the wont of the gods. At one point Baal recounts an shameful–but obscure–event during a feast in the divine assembly:

“… He stood and abased me.

He arose and spat on me.

Amid the ass[em]bly of the Children of El bn’ilm” 

(Manfred Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín. Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Íbn Hani and Other Places. (CAT). KTU 2d enlarged edition. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, 1.4.iii.12-4)

Usually the gods feast in heaven, but occasionally they attend feasts on earth in the company of humans, such as the wedding feast for King Kirta (CAT 1.15.iii).

The Children of El are immortal, as the goddess Anat affirms in her (probably spurious) promise of immortality to the mortal hunter Aqhat:

“Ask for life, Aqhat the Hero.

Ask for life, and I’ll give it.

Deathlessness–I’ll endow you.

I’ll let you count years with Baal.

Count months with the Children of El bn’il.”

(CAT, after Mark S. Smith, trans., in Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 61, and Ronald Hendel, The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel, 1987, pp. 74-81.)

Though immortal, the Children of El are less powerful than El. In the Kirta epic, El asks the divine assembly seven times if any among them can remove disease, but they are silent. Apparently El alone has the power to heal:

“Stay seated, my children (bny), on your seats.

On your elevated thrones.

As for me, I’ll use skills and create.

I’ll create a remover of illness.

A dispeller of disease.”

(CAT 1.16n.24-8).

Interestingly, this passage appears to equate the Children of El with the stars, comparable to the biblical concept in Job 38:7 and the biblical term “Host of Heaven” (see above).

The Children of El in the Ugaritic texts, cognate to the biblical Sons of God, are subordinate to the high god El, just as the biblical Sons of God are subordinate to Yahweh. They are less powerful than El and they occasionally visit humans on earth. Nowhere in the extant texts, however, do the Children of El engage in sex with humans.

In one curious text, Baal may have sex with a cow, which bears “a bull for Baal” (CAT 1.10.35, see Smith, trans., Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 181-7), but there is no other inter-species sex that we can discern.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 22-4.

Recalculating the Antediluvian Reigns of Sumerian Kings

“At one time the present writer tended to interpret the large numbers associated with the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and also with the census lists in Numbers as “symbols of relative power, triumph, importance, and the like,” a position that can be sustained to a degree from ancient Near Eastern literature but does not account satisfactorily for all the Biblical data involved.

Sensing that there might, after all, be a rationale underlying the very large figures, a few scholars adopted cautious positions reflecting that possibility.

Among all extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum contains the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism had a wooden spindle so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.

Among all extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum contains the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.
The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism had a wooden spindle so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.

A serious mathematical investigation of the postdiluvian portions of the Sumerian King List was undertaken by D. W. Young (Dwight W. Young, “A Mathematical Approach to Certain Dynastic Spans in the Sumerian King List,” JNES 47 (1988), pp. 123-9), in which he suggested that the total years for certain dynasties utilized squares or higher powers of numbers, perhaps in combinations.

Thereafter his interests shifted to the problem of large numbers in the accounts of the Hebrew patriarchs (Dwight W. Young, “The Influence of Babylonian Algebra on Longevity Among the Antediluvians,” ZAW 102 (1990), pp. 321-5), but his studies in that area are not strictly relevant to the present problem.

His great contribution was to take seriously the numbers of the ancient writings with which he dealt and to attempt to interpret them mathematically.

The ancient Sumerians were innovators in the areas of astronomy and mathematics as well as in other unrelated fields of investigation. It is now known that their arithmetical calculations were based upon the sexagesimal system, and thus when they considered the mathematics of time it was natural to divide the hour up into sixty units, and then to reduce each one of those units to a further sixty components or, in our language, minutes and seconds.

There is still very much to be learned about Sumerian mathematics, but from what is known of the pragmatic nature of the subject it appears increasingly clear that their numerical exercises were organized on the basis of rationality rather than mythology.

Having regard to this situation, scholarship now has the responsibility of investigating the numerical problems of Sumerian times against such a background.

To the present writer it now seems evident that the solution to the large numbers found in the antediluvian Sumerian King List is disarmingly simple. It is obvious that, proceeding rationally, base-60 must be involved in numbers of the magnitude contained on the prism. The list of rulers and regnal years is as follows:

Cf. J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (Princeton: Princeton University, 1946), p. 25.

Cf. J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (Princeton: Princeton University, 1946), p. 25.

An inspection of this table shows two kings credited with reigns of 36,000 years each and three others recorded as having reigned for 28,800 years each. In the case of Alalgar and the divine Dumuzi, the numbers assigned to them contain two factors—namely, 3600 (the square of base 60) and 10 — which when multiplied furnish the large number under investigation.

In the case of the triad comprising Alulim, Enmengal-Anna, and Ensipazi-Anna, the factors involved are the square of base-60 multiplied by 8. When the base is isolated from the calculation, the remaining factor constitutes the actual length of the king’s reign.

This process can be expressed by a formula, as follows:

Formula for Calculating Actual Reignwhere Pr is the prism’s record, B is base-60 raised to the power of 2 to give base-60 squared, and At is the actual length of the king’s tenure. By employing this means of calculation, the above table can be rewritten as follows:

Recalculated Actual Reign of Years and Months

Notice may now be taken of the third century BC list compiled by Berossos. As observed earlier, the names are Greek and the total has been extended to ten rulers by the addition of two names.

Xisouthros, the legendary hero who survived the flood, is one of these. It has also been suggested that Amelon and Ammenon may be corrupt forms of the name Enmenlu-Anna, but this cannot be demonstrated.”

R.K. Harrison, “Reinvestigating the Antediluvian Sumerian King List,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) 36 / 1 (March 1993), pp. 4-6.

An Excerpt from The Fall of the Angels

“How did the story about the fall of the angels relate to biblical tradition? Why is it only hinted at there, and not incorporated into the canon in more complete form? Two general points may be offered in response to these questions.

First, the story presupposes, rather than lies behind, the Hebrew Bible and, thus, is to be regarded as a development, indeed interpretation, of what later came to be recognized as canonical. Second, the communities which produced the story did so by transforming the biblical tradition through the dual filters of apocalyptic dualism and their own social contexts.

These points have to be taken into account when considering how it was that “the day of the Lord” of the exilic and post-exilic prophets could be absorbed into the notion of a final apocalyptic battle in later early Jewish literature. Was this shift from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology the result of an attempt to reject the foreign domination by Hellenistic rulers—such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria—in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests?

Or was this growing dualism a reflection of the breach between urban and rural culture? Or, by contrast, did the apocalyptic religious tradition re-present knowledge gleaned from the “foreign” sciences of its day as divine revelation, doing so long before the Greeks came on the scene?

There were yet other stories in the Ancient Near East that had been told long time and retold in the Greek world. Those stories were adapted to the current social situation and to the clash of civilizations. (sic).

The famous passage from Genesis 6:1-4 played a central role in the development of apocalyptic traditions. The biblical tradition itself is ambiguous; it conveys a story about ancient “heroes”, on the one hand, and the “sons of the gods”, on the other. What these figures have to do with the destruction brought about through the Great Flood in the following narrative (Genesis 6:5ff.) constitutes the first question to be examined in this volume.

The contribution by Ronald Hendel does so by exploring possible parallels to the biblical story in the Ancient Near East. One of the most significant traditions to throw light on the biblical account is shown to be the Atrahasis Epic. If read alongside this epic, the ruptures and ambiguities within the Genesis narrative, which involves the insertion of a polytheistic conflict between deities into a monotheistic narrative about God and creation, do not appear so conspicuous or unexpected.

This is further illustrated by the common motif that has the lower world flooded by the heavenly world in order to prevent the superhuman inhabitants of the lower world from becoming too powerful. The attempt by the gods above to destroy the younger and smaller ones reaches a truce in the form of a treaty or alliance. This is how Genesis chapters 6-9 may be comprehended as a complete narrative and, in addition, came to include the passage in 6:1-4.

A tradition about a revolt in a heavenly palace is preserved in the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, also known through the Baal-Cycle from Ugarit and the Hethitic Kumarbi Epic, has also influenced Greek mythology which tells of the conflict between Zeus, on the one hand, and his tyrannical murderer-father and the Titans his helpers, on the other. In this volume, Jan Bremmer argues impressively that the “Titans” of the story are actually not destroyed. The fear of their possible return persists and remains an irrepressible potential and threat.

How astronomic observation, the interpretation of stars as deities living in a distant world, and scientific knowledge are coalesced into the traditional image of God is shown by Matthias Albani in his analysis of Isaiah 14.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. Bruegel's depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist's profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.  Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Bruegel’s depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist’s profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.
Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

For Albani, the myth of the morning star that rises at night only to be driven away and dissolved by the light of the sun is discernible in a story about the power of God who, though rivaled by the smaller stars, is never surpassed by them.

The fact that the Isaiah account may be dated to the exilic period—and so is similar to expulsion of the throne pretender mentioned in Ezekiel 28—strengthens the likelihood that it functioned as a story of consolation. The image of the rise and fall of Helel was later translated into “Lucifer” in Latin tradition. The interpretation is depicted in Figure No. 2.

No direct line can be drawn from the Isaiah narrative to the Enochic apocalyptic literature and its Gnostic adaptation. The apocalyptic and cosmological dualisms of the latter fundamentally changed the religious tradition into something cosmic, super-historical, and superhuman.”

Christoph Auffarth & Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., “The Centre for Power for Evil: Its Origins and Development,” in The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004.

The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

“Jewish and Christian users even manipulated Berossos’ account in order to accommodate it to Biblical history.

Josephus claims that a Babylonian mentioned by Berossos could be identified with Abraham (BNJ 680 F 6), which is obviously a Jewish misinterpretation.

Eusebius adduces an alleged synchronism between the Babylonian and Judean kings in the account of Polyhistor in order to settle Old Testament chronology (BNJ 680 F 7c).

It is, however, certain that this synchronism was a later Jewish or Christian creation. The parallel number of ten Babylonian antediluvian kings and Biblical patriarchs is very probably a Jewish or Christian forgery too.

In Mesopotamian tradition there were no more than nine antediluvian kings, as e.g. in the Dynastic Chronicles, which was very likely an important source of Berossos. Moreover, the name of one of the kings is in fact that of a postdiluvian ruler (Ammenon = Enmenunna). This suggests that a later user inserted a tenth name in Berossos’ list in order to create the correspondence with the Old Testament tradition.

Apart from links with Biblical tradition, several fragments contain references to stories in classical literature. Sennacherib’s erection of a monument in Cilicia and the foundation of Tarsus (BNJ 680 F 7c // 685 F 5) recalls the classical story of the epitaph of the Assyrian king Sardanapallos, who boasted to have built Tarsus and Anchiale in one day (Strabo 14.5.9).

The fall of Nineveh and the death by fire of the Assyrian king Sarakos (BNJ 680 F 7d // 685 F 5) parallels the end of Sardanapallos in Ctesianic tradition (BNJ 688 F lb and lq). Berossos also gives a version of the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 8a), in classical tradition one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The close connections to classical tales very probably explain why these stories survived in the fragments.

It must be emphasised, then, that due to the particular interests of our main sources — Josephus and the Christian apologists — we only have a partial and biased view of Berossos’ original composition. A few fragments clearly show that Berossos’ work was broader in scope than may appear at face value.

Athenaeus describes a Saturnalia-like festival celebrat­ed in Babylon (BNJ680 F2), which demonstrates that Berossos also wrote about Babylonian customs. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of the Persian goddess Anaitis in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 11).

This shows that Berossos treated the Achaemenid period in some detail and did not confine himself to the brief summary in BNJ 680 F 10. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that Sarachero was the female adorner of the spouse of Bel (BNJ 680 F 13), but we do not know in which context Sarachero had been mentioned.

Antiochus Cylinder BM36277

The Cylinder of Antiochus I Soter from the Ezida Temple in Borsippa (the Antiochus Cylinder) is an historiographical text from ancient Babylonia. It describes how the Seleucid crown prince Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator, rebuilt the Ezida Temple and prays for divine protection. The cuneiform text itself (BM 36277) is now in the British Museum.
The Antiochus cylinder is the latest such cylinder extant. Another late example is the Cyrus Cylinder, commemorating Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 BCE (Schaudig 2001: 550-6). This cylinder, however, was written in normal Neo-Babylonian script.
The document is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, which was buried in the foundations of the Ezida temple in Borsippa. This form of foundation document is common since the second millennium. The script of this cylinder is deliberately archaic, using a ceremonial Babylonian cuneiform script that was also used in the Codex of Hammurabi and adopted in a number of royal inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings like Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (cf. Berger 1973). The script varies from the cuneiform that was used for chronicles, diaries, rituals, scientific and administrative texts.
The Antiochus Cylinder was recovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1880 in Ezida, the temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa, from its original position “encased in some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the “doorway” of Koldewey’s Room A1. Rassam (1897: 270) mistakenly records this as a cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II (Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder is now in the British Museum in London.

Let us now turn to the Babyloniaca itself. Tatian states that the work consists of three books (BNJ 680 T2). Fragments from each book have been preserved. As far as we can judge, the contents of the books can be outlined as follows:

Book 1 opens with a prologue, in which Berossos presents himself and his sources. In this prologue he probably also explained his dedication to Antiochus I. After the prologue he describes the geography of Babylonia, the country’s fauna and flora and its multiethnic popu­lation.

Berossos then proceeds to primeval history: the ‘fish-man’ Oannes, in Mesopotamian tradition Uan(na), the first antediluvian and most important sage, brings civilisation to hu­mankind in Babylonia in the very first year of kingship. Thereupon, the sage narrates how the universe was created by Belos and how this god formed man (BNJ 680 F la-b and 685 F la-b).

Athenaeus’ testimony that Berossos describes the celebration of a festival in his first book (BNJ 680 F2) is the only indication that this book also dealt with Babylonian customs. Although I concluded that the astronomical / astrological fragments preserved under the name of Berossos are not genuine, this does not exclude the possibility that Berossos wrote in his work on this Babylonian science par excellence.

As a rule, a Greek ethnographical work, the genre Berossos followed, presents the intellectual achievements of the people treated. If Berossos wrote on Babylonian astronomy / astrology, Book 1 — and more specifi­cally in the section of Babylonian customs — was the most likely part of his work to do it.

Book 2 gives an overview of Babylonian rulers, starting with the antediluvian kings (BNJ 680 F 3a-b – F 6 and 685 F 2-3; Aelian records the tale of King Euchoros, or Enmerkar in the cuneiform, whose guards hurled the infant Gilgamesh (Gilgamos) from the height of the citadel in the History of Animals, 12.21).

The book probably ends with the reign of Nabonassar (747-734). For the most part, this section of Berossos’ work was very likely an enumeration of kings, dynasties and year numbers and did not provide elaborate information — at least for the early periods.

This can be deduced from Eusebius’ remark that Berossos gave hardly any information on the kings’ deeds or even omitted them (BNJ 680 F 3a). This very likely reflects the dearth of sources Berossos could rely on: many of the early rulers were no more than names in long king lists. The overview of kings and dynasties is interrupted by the story of the Flood and its aftermath (BNJ 680 F 4a-c and 685 F 3a-b).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (BNJ 680 F7-11 and 685 F5-7). From this book more narrative episodes have been preserved and although Berossos’ treatment of the Achaemenid period is almost completely lost, the notice that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of Anaitis demonstrates that Berossos elaborated on this period too.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 22-3.

Babylon, Fallen

“Although in all the articles and discussions concerning cultic prostitution the preeminence of Babylon as the “mother of harlots” is never mentioned; it is an unarticulated assumption underlying their arguments.

“The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet and glittered with gold and jewels and pearls, and she was holding a gold winecup filled with the disgusting filth of her prostitution; on her forehead was written a name, a cryptic name: “Babylon the Great, the mother of the prostitutes and all the filthy practices on the earth.” (Revelations 17:4-5, NJB)

This popular identification of harlotry with Babylon appears to stem from Revelation, a widely read and quoted book in our Western Christianized civilization, a quotation from which opens this article. The persistence of such views to the present is illustrated in this graphic depiction of Babylon by Joan Oates:

So wrote a New Testament prophet, and, although the allusion was to Rome, the sentiment accurately expressed the ancient world’s view of Babylon. Today, 2000 years after the city was “cast down and found no more,” the name still conjures up in our minds a vision of opulence and splendour stained with the smear of pagan decadence so enthusiastically applied by the writers of the Hebrew world. (Joan Oates, Babylon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), p. 9.)

This common misconception arose because of the lack of awareness that the reference–as Joan Oates seems to realize–is of Hebraic origin and alludes exclusively to the practices of then-existing decadent Rome and not to those of a Babylon of an earlier period.

The authentic Greek view of Babylon, though running parallel to that of Revelation, is found typically in the words of older writers such as Herodotus and reflects their derogatory perception of women and barbarians.

The Babylonian Marriage Market

Edwin Long (1829–1891) wikidata:Q3042629
The Babylonian Marriage Market
Royal Holloway College (London).
23 May 2007 (original upload date). Original uploader was Briangotts at en.wikipedia
(Reusing this file) PD-US.
The Babylonian Marriage Market is an 1875 painting by the British painter Edwin Long of young women being auctioned into marriage. It received attention for its provocative depiction of women being sold and its attention to historical detail. It was inspired by a passage in the Histories by Herodotus, and the artist painstakingly copied some of the images from Assyrian artifacts.
It is currently held in the Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway College, after being bought by Thomas Holloway in 1882, where it fetched a then-record price for a painting by a living artist at £6,615.

The truly Hebraic or Judean view toward ancient Babylon in the world of the Old Testament is revealed through numerous references to Babylon both in the historical and in the literary texts. The most elaborate portrayal is given in the description of the fall of Babylon in Deutero-Isaiah whose people lived closer in time, in territory and in kinship to those of Babylonia.

There Babylon is distinguished by the epithet 6VBq5vJAmPGzoQtSaZp-KnBuAy87TDxAT0Dh1j1NOu0, “the virgin daughter of Babylon”–an epithet by which Jerusalem is often esteemed, 2u5voQ59k3CODNCGd_l_coUc62wSXXnY3h-RTbnJaLo, “the virgin daughter of Zion.”

Note in the following passage rather than being “stained with the smear of pagan decadence,” Babylon is honored and dignified with the rank of a queen who has been sheltered, veiled, and protected from any type of manual labor:

Come down, sit in the dust, virgin daughter of Babylon! Sit on the ground dethroned, daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you soft and dainty. Take the millstones, grind the meal, take off your veil; strip off your skirt, bare the thigh, cross the rivers. Let your nudity be displayed–yes, let your sex appear; I will take vengeance, I will not entreat man…. Sit in silence, enter into darkness, daughter of the Chaldeans: For no longer will they call you the mistress of kingdoms. (Isaiah 47:1 – 5)

In the succeeding lines, Babylon stands accused not of harlotry but of spells and sorceries, and can expect punishment in the form of evils and disasters which cannot be conjured away or averted.

This reflects a clear picture of Babylonian practice–a reliance on incantations (spells for positive and negative results) and divination (sorceries to tell the future) and namburbi, and other rituals to avert predicted disasters.

In light of its ethnic, cultural, and linguistic proximity, the Hebrew Bible could portray a more accurate understanding of Babylon and its culture.

Thus, we have come full circle from using Mesopotamian material to explain the Bible to using biblical material to depict Babylon. Both traditions are firmly rooted in the ancient Near East.

It is the Greeks and their denigration of the female sex and of barbarians that caused them to lump together the negative attributes of both groups in their description of Babylon and its cultic rites.”

Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tamar, Qēdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July, 1989), pp. 264-5.

Boaz and Jachin, and Pillars of Emerald and Gold in the Temple of Melkarth in Herodotus

“Within the last few years, bas-reliefs have been found in Sicily and Tunisia representing persons in the act of adoration before a small triad of stone. We are here on Phoenician territory, and it is not strange therefore that classical writers should speak of the βαίτυλοι or Beth-els, the meteoric stones which had fallen from heaven like “the image” of Artemis at Ephesos, and were accordingly honoured by the Phoenicians.

In the mythology of Byblos, Heaven and Earth were said to have had four sons, Ilos or ElBêtylos or Beth-elDagon and Atlas; and the god of heaven was further declared to have invented the Baityli, making of them living stones (Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 1, Chapter 10).

Bethuel is connected with Aram in the Old Testament (Genesis xxii, 21, 22); and we all remember how, on his way to Haran, Jacob awakened out of sleep, saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place,” and “took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it, and called the name of that place Beth-el.”

In Palestine, however, the Beth-els were arranged in a circle or Gilgal, rather than singly; the isolated monuments were the cones of stone or the bare tree-trunks which symbolised Ashêrah, the goddess of fertility, and Baal the Sun-god. The sun-pillars and the ashêrim meet with frequent mention in the Biblical records; and we may gain some idea as to what the latter were like from the pictures we have on coins and gems of the famous conical stone that stood within the holy of holies in the temple of the Paphian Aphroditê, as well as from the description given of it by Tacitus.

On a gem in the British Museum, Sin, “the god of Harran,” is represented by a stone of the same shape surmounted by a star. The “pillars of the Sun” were also stones of a like form. When the Phoenician temple in the island of Gozo, whose ruins are known as the Temple of the Giants, was excavated, two such columns of stone were found, planted in the ground, one of which still remains in situ.

We cannot forget that even in Solomon’s temple, built as it was by Phoenician workmen, there were two columns of stone, Boaz and Yakin, set on either side of the porch (1 Kings vii. 21), like the two columns of gold and emerald glass which Herodotos saw in the temple of Melkarth at Tyre (Herodotus, The Histories, ii, 44).

The sacred stones which were thus worshipped in Arabia, in Phoenicia and in Syria, were worshipped also among the Semites of Babylonia. There is a curious reference to the consecration of a Beth-el in the Epic of Gisdhubar.

When the hero had been dismissed by the Chaldean Noah, and his sickness had been carried away by the waters of the sea, we are told that “he bound together heavy stones,” and after taking an animal for sacrifice, “poured over it a homer” in libation.

He then commenced his homeward voyage up the Euphrates, having thus secured the goodwill of heaven for his undertaking.”

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. 408-10.

The Sacred Books of Chaldea and the Long Shadow Cast by Francois Lenormant

“To François Lenormant, whose untimely death was an irreparable loss to the progress of Assyrian research, belongs the merit of first describing and defining the sacred books of ancient Babylonia.

With the keenness of perception that characterised him, he pointed out two main collections of Babylonian sacred texts; one containing magic incantations and exorcisms; the other, hymns to the gods.

The magical texts obviously belong to an earlier and less advanced stage of religious belief than the hymns; they presuppose, in fact, a sort of Shamanism, according to which each object and power of nature has its zi or “spirit,” which can be propitiated only by a sorcerer-priest and certain magical rites; while the hymns, on the other hand, introduce us to a world of gods, and their language from time to time approaches a high level of spiritual expression.

The collection of hymns Lenormant very happily named the Chaldean Rig-Veda, and to them he subsequently added a third collection, consisting of penitential psalms which in many respects resemble the psalms of the Old Testament.

All three collections are generally composed in both Accadian and Semitic Babylonian, the Semitic Babylonian being a translation of the presumably older Accadian text which is written line by line above it.

It was natural to suppose that what has happened in the case of other sacred books happened also in Babylonia; that the magical texts were first collected together, the collection subsequently acquiring a sacred character; and that a similar process took place in the case of the hymns.

The whole work would have been complete before the culture and literature of the Accadians were handed on to the Semites: in this way the preservation of the Accadian originals would be accounted for, the very words of the primitive documents and their correct pronunciation having come to be looked upon as sacred and inspired; while the Semitic interlinear translation served, like the Aramaic Targums of the Old Testament, to assist the priests in understanding the object of their recitations.

As time went on, the religious beliefs which underlay the magical texts became so far removed from those of a later age that the texts themselves gradually passed into the background, the collection of hymns taking more and more their place as pre-eminently the Babylonian Bible.

The theory as thus stated is at once simple and probable. But although in its main outlines it is no doubt correct, further research has shown that its simplicity is due to the imperfection of the materials upon which Lenormant had to work, and that it will have to be very considerably modified before all the facts now known to us are accounted for.

In the first place, there are numerous magical texts which are later, and not older, than many of the hymns. Nothing is more common than to find a magical text breaking off into a hymn or a fragment of a hymn the recitation of which forms part of the spell or ceremony.

A large number of the hymns that have come down to us are thus embedded in the magical documents of which they form an integral part. The hymn to the seven evil spirits, for instance, quoted in a former Lecture, is really a portion of one of the most famous of the magicaI texts.

In such instances there can be no question that the hymn is older than the text in which it is found. Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish the hymns when used in this way from similar poetical addresses to divine beings, which, so far from being especially sacred, were employed as spells in medical practice.”

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. 315-7.

More Totemism

“We can learn a good deal about this totemism from the old ideographic representations of the names of the chief deities. They are like fossils, embodying the beliefs of a period which had long passed away at the date of the earliest monuments that have come down to us.

The name of Ea himself affords us an example of what we may find. It is sometimes expressed by an ideograph which signifies literally “an antelope” (dara in Accadian, turakhu in Assyrian, whence perhaps the Biblical name of Terah).

Ishtar is depicted at far left, wearing the horned headdress of divinity, with weapons on her back and a long knife in her hand.  A worshipper presents a sacrificial animal, next to an uncertain goddess depicted with water flowing from her vase.  Ea appears with a fishtail hanging behind him, and an antelope bucking beside him.  I am not certain which goddess appears at far right.

Ishtar is depicted at far left, wearing the horned headdress of divinity, with weapons on her back and a long knife in her hand.
A worshipper presents a sacrificial animal, next to an uncertain goddess depicted with water flowing from her vase.
Ea appears with a fishtail hanging behind him, and an antelope bucking beside him.
I am not certain which goddess appears at far right.

Thus we are told that Ea was called ”the antelope of the deep,” “the antelope the creator,” “the antelope the prince,” “the lusty antelope;” and the “ship” or ark of Ea in which his image was carried at festivals was entitled “the ship of the divine antelope of the deep.”

Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head.  Lusty antelopes rear on the right side, perhaps signifying the god Ea.

Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head.
Lusty antelopes rear on the right side, perhaps signifying the god Ea.

We should, indeed, have expected that the animal of Ea would have been the fish rather than the antelope, and the fact that it is not so points to the conclusion that the culture-god of southern Babylonia was an amalgamation of two earlier deities, one the divine antelope, and the other the divine fish.

Perhaps it was originally as the god of the river that Ea had been adored under the form of the wild beast of the Eden or desert.

There was yet another animal with which the name of Ea had been associated. This was the serpent. The Euphrates in its southern course bore names in the early inscriptions which distinctly connect the serpent with Ea on the one hand, and the goddess Innina on the other.

It was not only called “the river of the great deep”– a term which implied that it was a prolongation of the Persian Gulf and the encircling ocean; it was further named the river of the śubar lilli, “the shepherd’s hut of the lillu” or “spirit,””the river of Innína,” “the river of the snake,” and “the river of the girdle of the great god.”

In-nina is but another form of Innána or Nâna, and we may see in her at once the Istar of Eridu and the female correlative of Anúna. Among the chief deities reverenced by the rulers of Tel-loh was one whose name is expressed by the ideographs of “fish” and “enclosure,” which served in later days to denote the name of Ninâ or Nineveh.

It seems clear, therefore, that the pronunciation of Nina was attached to it; and Dr. Oppert may accordingly be right in thus reading the name of the goddess as she appears on the monuments of Tel-loh.

Nina, consequently, is both the fish-goddess and the divinity whose name is interchanged with that of the snake. Now Nina was the daughter of Ea, her eldest daughter being described in a text of Tel-loh as “the lady of the city of Mar,” the modern Tel Id, according to Hommel, where Dungi built her a temple which he called “the house of the jewelled circlet” (sutartu).

This latter epithet recalls to us the Tillili of the Tammuz legend as well as the Istar of later Babylonia. In fact, it is pretty clear that Nina, “the lady,” must have been that primitive Istar of Eridu and its neighborhood who mourned like Tillili the death of Tammuz, and whose title was but a dialectic variation of that of Nana given to her at Erech.”

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. 280-2.

An Excerpt from the Prophecies of Baba

“As Rahmani pointed out, some quotations of the Baba text are found in Dionysius Bar Salibi’s work Against the Muslims. They are very brief and restricted to the most suitable sentences (see p. 229, n. 7, and p. 230, n. 1, below); there can be no doubt that they do not go back to a complete text of Baba’s work but are derived from the same collection in which we find them today.

Bar Salibi wrote his work Against the Muslims before his work Against the Jews, which was written in 1477 Sel./l 165-6. Thus, we know for certain that his source for the Baba quotations must have been written before that date, but how long before remains an open question, except that being addressed to unbelievers it is likely to antedate the twelfth century by, at least, a few centuries.

It seems that little attention has been paid to Baba’s prophecies since their publication, and the edition is not easily available. Therefore, a modest attempt to translate the text into English has been appended here:

The Prophecy of Baba, the God of Harran.

Listen to the statements of Baba who also lived in Harran, whose book is being read attentively by the pagans, who is called by them a prophet, whom they esteem more than all the philosophers, and in whom they take refuge. With the divine power’s approval of his prophecy, he announced and spoke openly about the Messiah, as did Balaam, the soothsayer. He made the following statement in his first book, which is called ‘Revelation‘ (Gelydnd).

I did not want to say these things, but I was required against my will to write about these things that are going to be, while there will be tears and lamentation when they are going to happen. For the light that is prior to the world came to earth and appeared in the body of the earth without mankind knowing it.

Thereafter, it returned again and went up to its place on high by the side of that glory that is concealed from everybody. And while it is there in its place, so-called (?) inhabitants of Harran will come, and the inhabitants of the city of Sin will say that it is Baba’s insanity, <not> wisdom coming from the sons of heaven.

Shaking ‘Azzfiz in which all exaltation (?) is, they will expel those who dwell in it, and it will become a house of martyrs, and all the rest a place of shame.

From the same book:

For the gnosis of light that is immortal, imperishable sacrifices, and incorruptible splendor (will) appear on earth, having its dwelling in heaven and controlling heaven and earth.

Life is in it for all who take refuge in it. The inhabitants of Harran were liars. <It is> all that was and is, and it is prior to everything.

Wisdom takes up residence and dwells in it. Beside this splendor, nothing has subsistence.

Earth, earth! Do not drink error, but know the light that has appeared and subsists and does not perish, ascending on high and serving on earth for years! Shortly, evil will come because of their sin, and their foot will not be steady until they see the light that has appeared and worship it rightly.

From the same book:

And they will say the sweet word: ‘Come, let us fall upon the ground and worship God, the Creator of the earth!’ And there shall be a great and holy temple on earth, and the entire people will bring a sacrifice to God in perfect love.

From the second book:

They will behold the ray that sprang from where they did not expect it. It will be visible from their place.

It will appear with all its appropriate fittings in great, incomprehensible splendor, and all those who dwell on earth will notice the glory of the brilliance that was concealed and became revealed.

I saw in the mind as if I was spoken to as follows: The progeny of splendor and light was born from the earth for gain and loss, for subsistence and fall.

Woe, woe! For after a while, no stone of the house of the gods in your midst that is glorious and exalted like the Capitol in Rome, will be left upon the other. Do not tremble, for if you know the splendor of the ray, many things that (seem) important will be like nought.

The ray of the Lord will openly descend upon the earth, and they will be without signs until the ascent of the radiance. The inhabitants of Persia will come bringing gifts for the ray. Glorious is the divine guidance, and marvelous the miracle that will appear upon earth. It is above words and understanding; it is incomprehensible and unaccountable. Thereafter, the world will dwell in peace for a while.

The kingdom of the east will be aroused. It will go up and destroy the city of Judah. ‘Abor (Eber) will descend into captivity, and Babil will serve in servitude, because of the miraculous progeny, concerning <whom> I (she ?) said …. (?).

Thereafter, the kings of the west will be roused, and they will come up to our place. They will slaughter sacrifices and bring offerings in the midst of ‘Azzuz.

They will seek to abolish the religion, while unable to say so because others after them will believe and rule.

Baba then said that after a long time, a big name from the south will come and sit down in the midst of ‘Azzuz. He will honor its initiates, but over all those who do not heed his words, the sword will rule.

Baba then spoke about the apostles: His apostles, that is, his runners, are contemptible.

He indicated openly that the Apostles of the Messiah are contemptible and simple people (Qiedyote). He sent them out, and they ran over the whole world. With the help of the divine power that was clinging to them, they were able to catch all mankind (and bring them) to Life, doing great and miraculous deeds.

The soothsayer spoke again further about the progeny of splendor on earth, as follows: <Above> all and dwelling in everything —that miracle that was done.”

The Syriac and the Arabic texts have identical remarks concerning the reluctance of the seer, and there is some similarity in the statements concerning the big name from the south and his powerful rule in the one text, and the Abyssinian ruler and the power gained by the good Harranians in the other.

The “sons of heaven” who play an important role in the Syriac text certainly are identical with the “people of heaven” in the Arabic. All these agreements may, however, be credited to the literary type to which both texts belong.

The assumption that the Syriac text is an outright Christian forgery finds support in the fact that the Baba passages appear in the context of clearly supposititious statements attributed to various famous figures. The difference is that Baba was not famous or internationally known but of strictly local interest which at best extended to, say, Edessa and Antioch.

There are the Christian concepts of the ray springing from the glory in heaven and other ideas best explained as Christian in origin. However, if one reads the Syriac text carefully, one cannot help being struck by the tenuousness of the Christian allusions and the fact that practically all of them could have been easily superimposed upon a text that might have spoken about a gnostically transformed Christ in a kind of Biblical phraseology or, rather, about the gnostic light in general.

Concepts such as the light coming down to earth, the gnosis of light, the incorruptible splendor (nuhrd), or the progeny of light and splendor, can be read as gnostic. With regard to the pagan cult in Harran, the text lacks clarity and seems to contain contradictory statements, but expressions of hope for its preservation and renewed glory in the fact of violent attacks upon it by hostile elements (which may have been Christians or Muslims) seem to be prevalent.

The remark about the Apostles must have been originally intended as a slur upon them, branding them as evil characters. Above all, if there really existed a book ascribed to Baba, of which our text has preserved only excerpts, the comparative irrelevance of the excerpts chosen leaves little room for doubt that that book cannot have had much to do with Christianity (which, if it were a Christian falsification, would be its only reason for existence).

There is a good possibility that the Syriac text has, in fact, preserved remnants of Harranian gnostic literature that were only slightly adapted to the purpose which the Christian author had in mind when using them.

For the Arabic text, considerably less doubt seems indicated.

The author obviously hopes for the persistence and flourishing of paganism. It would be far-fetched to assume that a Christian or a member of an heretical Christian sect that had remained at least basically Christian would have gone that far in his mystification in order to provide local color and the appearance of authenticity. We cannot be fully certain, but in all likelihood, the Arabic text is a rare survival of Harranian “Sabian” literature, translated from an Aramaic original presumably dating from the Umayyad period.”

F. Rosenthal, “The Prophecies of Baba the Harranian,” in S.H. Taqizadeh, A Locust’s Leg: Studies in Honor of S.H. Taqizadeh, 1962, pp. 220-32.

Spence on the Gilgamesh Epic

“The Gilgamesh epic ranks with the Babylonian myth of creation as one of the greatest literary productions of ancient Babylonia. The main element in its composition is a conglomeration of mythic matter, drawn from various sources, with perhaps a substratum of historic fact, the whole being woven into a continuous narrative around the central figure of Gilgamesh, prince of Erech.

It is not possible at present to fix the date when the epic was first written. Our knowledge of it is gleaned chiefly from mutilated fragments belonging to the library of Assur-bani-pal, but from internal and other evidence we gather that some at least of the traditions embodied in the epic are of much greater antiquity than his reign.

Thus a tablet dated 2100 b.c. contains a variant of the deluge story inserted in the XIth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Probably this and other portions of the epic existed in oral tradition before they were committed to writing—that is, in the remote Sumerian period.

Assur-bani-pal was an enthusiastic and practical patron of literature. In his great library at Nineveh (the nucleus of which had been taken from Calah by Sennacherib) he had gathered a vast collection of volumes, clay tablets, and papyri, most of which had been carried as spoil from conquered lands.

He also employed scribes to copy older texts, and this is evidently how the existing edition of the Gilgamesh epic came to be written. From the fragments now in the British Museum it would seem that at least four copies of the poem were made in the time of Assur-bani-pal.

They were not long permitted to remain undisturbed. The great Assyrian empire was already declining; ere long Nineveh was captured and its library scattered, while plundering hordes burnt the precious rolls of papyrus, and buried the clay tablets in the debris of the palace which had sheltered them.

There they were destined to lie for over 2000 years, till the excavations of Sir A. H. Layard, George Smith, and others brought them to light. It is true that the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh epic (or rather, the fragments of them which have so far been discovered) are much defaced; frequently the entire sense of a passage is obscured by a gap in the text, and this, when nice mythological elucidations are in question, is no light matter.

Yet to such an extent has the science of comparative religion progressed in recent years that we are probably better able to read the true mythological significance of the epic than were the ancient Babylonians themselves, who saw in it merely an account of the wanderings and exploits of a national hero.

The epic, which centres round the ancient city of Erech, relates the adventures of a half-human, halfdivine hero, Gilgamesh by name, who is king over Erech.

Two other characters figure prominently in the narrative—Eabani, who evidently typifies primitive man, and Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the Babylonian deluge myth. Each of the three would seem to have been originally the hero of a separate group of traditions which in time became incorporated, more or less naturally, with the other two.

The first and most important of the trio, the hero Gilgamesh, may have been at one time a real personage, though nothing is known of him historically.[1] Possibly the exploits of some ancient king of Erech have furnished a basis for the narrative.

His name (for a time provisionally read Gisdhubar, or Izdubar, but now known to have been pronounced Gilgamesh[2]) suggests that he was not Babylonian but Elamite or Kassite in origin, and from indications furnished by the poem itself we learn that he conquered Erech (or relieved the city from a besieging force) at the outset of his adventurous career.

It has been suggested also that he was identical with the Biblical Nimrod, like him a hero of ancient Babylon; but there are no other grounds for the suggestion.

So much for the historical aspect of Gilgamesh. His mythological character is more easily established. In this regard he is the personification of the sun. He represents, in fact, the fusion of a great national hero with a mythical being.

Throughout the epic there are indications that Gilgamesh is partly divine by nature,though nothing specific is said on that head. His identity with the solar god is veiled in the popular narrative, but it is evident that he has some connexion with the god Shamash, to whom he pays his devotions and who acts as his patron and protector.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 154-6.

Babylonian Origins of Jewish Purim

We have already questioned whether the Scripture story of Esther is in some manner connected with the goddess Ishtar. Writing of the Jewish feast of Purim, Sir James Frazer says (Golden Bough, vol. iii, p. 153):

“ From the absence of all notice of Purim in the older books of the Bible, we may fairly conclude that the festival was instituted or imported at a comparatively late date among the Jews. The same conclusion is supported by the Book of Esther itself, which was manifestly written to explain the origin of the feast and to suggest motives for its observance.

For, according to the author of the book, the festival was established to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from a great danger which threatened them in Persia under the reign of King Xerxes. Thus the opinion of modern scholars that the feast of Purim, as celebrated by the Jews, was of late date and Oriental origin, is borne out by the tradition of the Jews themselves.

An examination of that tradition and of the mode of celebrating the feast renders it probable that Purim is nothing but a more or less disguised form of the Babylonian festival of the Sacaea or Zakmuk. . . .

But further, when we examine the narrative which professes to account for the institution of Purim, we discover in it not only the strongest traces of Babylonian origin, but also certain singular analogies to those very features of the Sacaean festival with which we are here more immediately concerned.

The Book of Esther turns upon the fortunes of two men, the vizier Haman and the despised Jew Mordecai, at the court of a Persian king. Mordecai, we are told, had given mortal offence to the vizier, who accordingly prepares a tall gallows on which he hopes to see his enemy hanged, while he himself expects to receive the highest mark of the King’s favour by being allowed to wear the royal crown and the royal robes, and thus attired to parade the streets, mounted on the King’s own horse and attended by one of the noblest princes, who should proclaim to the multitude his temporary exaltation and glory.

But the artful intrigues of the wicked vizier miscarried and resulted in precisely the opposite of what he had hoped and expected; for the royal honours which he had looked for fell to his rival Mordecai, and he himself was hanged on the gallows which he had made ready for his foe.

In this story we seem to detect a reminiscence, more or less confused, of the Zoganes of the Sacaea, in other words, of the custom of investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for a few days, and then putting him to death on the gallows or the cross. . . .

“A strong confirmation of this view is furnished by a philological analysis of the names of the four personages. It seems to be now generally recognised by Biblical scholars that the name Mordecai, which has no meaning in Hebrew, is nothing but a slightly altered form of Marduk or Merodach, the name of the chief god of Babylon, whose great festival was the Zakmuk; and further, it is generally admitted that Esther in like manner is equivalent to Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess whom the Greeks called Astarte, and who is more familiar to English readers as Ashtaroth.

The derivation of the names of Haman and Vashti is less certain, but some high authorities are disposed to accept the view of Jensen that Haman is identical with Humman or Homman, the national god of the Elamites, and that Vashti is in like manner an Elamite deity, probably a goddess whose name appears in inscriptions.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 140-2.

Intimations of Antediluvian Kings

“Now the annalistic tablet takes us back reign by reign, dynasty by dynasty, to about the year 2400 B.C. Among the monarchs mentioned upon it is Khammuragas, whose reign is placed 112 years later (B.C. 2290). Of Sargon and his son Naram-Sin, however, there is no trace.

But this is not all. On the shelves of the British Museum you may see huge sun-dried bricks, on which are stamped the names and titles of kings who erected or repaired the temples where they have been found. In the dynasties of the annalistic tablet their names are as much absent as is the name of Sargon.

They must have belonged to an earlier period than that with which the list of the tablet begins, and have reigned before the time when, according to the margins of our Bibles, the flood of Noah was covering the earth, and reducing such bricks as these to their primeval slime.

But the kings who have recorded their constructive operations on the bricks are seldom connected with one another. They are rather the isolated links of a broken chain, and thus presuppose a long period of time during which their reigns must have fallen.

This conclusion is verified by another document, also coming from Babylonia and also first published by Mr. Pinches. This document contains a very long catalogue of royal names, not chronologically arranged, as is expressly stated, but drawn up for a philological purpose–that of explaining in Assyrian the Accadian and Kossaean names of the non-Semitic rulers of Babylonia.

Though the document is imperfect it embodies about sixty names which do not occur on the annalistic tablet, and must therefore be referred to an earlier epoch than that with which the latter begins.

[ … ]

Moreover, whatever might have been the original character of the Semitic occupation of Babylonia, from the time of Sargon I downwards it was of a more or less peaceable nature; Accadians and Semites mingled together, and from the mixture sprang the peculiar civilisation of Babylonia, and the peculiar type of its people.”

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. 23-6.

The Story of Mesopotamian Archeology

“Although official attentions were now turned elsewhere, strong popular interest in Mesopotamian antiquities continued, fueling a flourishing trade in material looted by local merchants from the ancient cities of Assyria. Scholarly plundering had already caused considerable destruction. Now the situation reached its nadir, with the retrieval of saleable pieces being the only aim, very much at the expense of the ancient remains.

Scholarly activity had not ceased, however, although it was no longer concentrated in the field. By the end of the 1850s the successful decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform meant that inscriptions and texts recovered from Nineveh and elsewhere could now yield a vast amount of information on the ancient Mesopotamian world.

One of the most surprising discoveries was the great time depth of the civilization. Biblical and Classical sources had painted a picture of the wealth and grandeur of Assyria in the first millennium B.C.E., and this had been confirmed by the excavations at Nineveh and adjacent cities.

The library uncovered in Ashurbanipal’s palace included texts written in the second millennium B.C.E., shedding light on the period of the Old Babylonian Empire and the early history of the Assyrians, the time of the biblical patriarch Abraham, native of the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

But there were also copies of even more ancient texts that revealed the existence in the third millennium B.C.E. of the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer and Akkad.

The later nineteenth century was a time of great intellectual upheaval. The developing science of geology was revealing the immense age and gradual formation of the earth, while Charles Darwin was showing how life had evolved in all its diversity. This new knowledge undermined the certainties of the Bible, according to which the world was created in immutable form at a date calculated by biblical scholars as 4004 B.C.E.

In this epoch of challenge to established traditional views, many found it reassuring that archaeological research in the Near East was uncovering cities and records of individuals familiar from the Bible, thus confirming and buttressing its authenticity.

It was therefore electrifying news when George Smith, who had spent many years quietly studying cuneiform texts, announced in December 1872 that he had found part of a tablet recounting the story of the Flood. A serious-minded man, he amazed his colleagues at the moment of discovery by leaping to his feet, rushing round the room, and beginning to tear off his clothes.

In less than two months he found himself en route to Mosul to look for the missing pieces of the tablet, lavishly sponsored by the Daily Telegraph of London—a measure of the immense popular excitement that his discovery had generated.

Once Smith had accomplished the tedious and time-consuming task of extracting a permit from the Ottoman authorities, he achieved his objective in just five days of digging, finding among the debris left by previous excavators a piece of tablet that accounted for the major part of the missing section.

Smith later returned to excavate further at Nineveh, but in 1876 he contracted a fatal illness. As his replacement, the British Museum appointed Hormuzd Rassam, veteran of the 1850s excavations.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 29-30.

The View of Babylon at the Near End of History

“The influence and prestige of Mesopotamia ensured that its myths, legends, and history were widely disseminated in the Near East and beyond. Many elements of Assyrian and Babylonian legal institutions and laws, science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, calendar and the division of time, as well as magical and ritual beliefs and practices such as divination were widely adopted, as can be seen in Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature and in the Bible.

Whereas the early Greeks knew of Mesopotamia at one remove, the Israelites had direct and often painful experience of the Mesopotamians. Mesopotamian myths and history are interwoven with biblical accounts of the early days of the world: for example, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. From the mid-ninth century B.C.E., the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered from Assyrian expansionism, and revolts against Assyrian, and later, Babylonian, rule led to the sack of their cities and the deportation of many of their citizens. The climax came in 588–587 B.C.E., when Jerusalem was put to the torch, the Temple destroyed, and its notables exiled to Babylon.

Although a substantial Jewish community flourished in Babylon for many centuries, becoming familiar with Babylonian traditions, it is the purple prose of the traditionalists who returned to Judah that formed the picture of Mesopotamia that passed into Western consciousness via the Bible. Centuries of conflict had produced a very hostile biblical view of Mesopotamian culture and civilization, especially of Babylon “the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:5), ruled by supposedly corrupt and decadent rulers like Belshazzar, who was “weighed in the balance and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

Although the Greeks had no such political axe to grind, they also gave the Mesopotamians a bad press, contrasting their alien practices with the civilized behavior epitomized in the Greek mind by the Greeks. Thus, for example, Herodotus draws attention to the practice of sacred prostitution. He also gives an anecdotal and fanciful account of Mesopotamian history. In contrast, his descriptions of the cities of Babylonia, and particularly Babylon itself, are both accurate and informative.

Nevertheless, contemporaries came to doubt his accounts, which conflicted with those in the twenty-three-volume Persica of Ctesias, a Greek doctor at the Persian court in the fifth century B.C.E. In fact, Ctesias’s account is far less reliable than that of Herodotus, being filtered through the attitudes and knowledge of Mesopotamia’s Persian conquerors. Unfortunately, it was upon Ctesias’s work that later Classical scholars based their writings about Mesopotamia.

This was despite the existence of a far better account, a three-volume work by the third century B.C.E. Babylonian scholar Berossus. A native of Babylon, Berossus wrote in Greek but had access to many cuneiform texts that provided detailed and accurate information on Mesopotamian history and culture. Berossus’s Babyloniaca, which ran from the Creation to Alexander’s conquest, was copied and circulated for a few centuries but by the first century B.C.E. had been largely superseded by a digest in which a Greek scholar, Alexander Polyhistor, uncritically assembled material from a number of different and conflicting texts, including Berossus and Ctesias. Information was drawn from Berossus’s work to calculate chronology, particularly the dates of the Creation and the Flood, but his original was otherwise neglected. Little of it survived the Classical period.

The Hellenistic Greeks took an active interest in the visible relics of Mesopotamia’s past. Alexander the Great began reconstructing the ziggurat of Marduk (the Tower of Babel), although work ceased upon his death. His successors carried out restorations in the precinct of Marduk and of the temple of Nabu in Borsippa. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reputedly built by Nebuchadrezzar for his Median queen, Amyitis, were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, their fame long outlasting their physical existence. Some versions of the list of Seven Wonders also included the great walls of Babylon, said by Herodotus to be wide enough to turn a four-horse chariot on.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 21-3.

There Were Giants

“It is strange that the dispersion of tribes at Babel should be connected with the name of Nimrod, who figures in Biblical as well as Babylonian tradition as a mighty hunter.

Epiphanius states that from the very foundation of this city (Babylon) there commenced an immediate scene of conspiracy, sedition, and tyranny, which was carried on by Nimrod, the son of Chus the Ethiopian. Around this dim legendary figure a great deal of learned controversy has raged. Before we examine his legendary and mythological significance, let us see what legend and Scripture say of him.

In the Book of Genesis (chap. x, 8,  ff.) he is mentioned as “a mighty hunter before Yahweh: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” He was also the ruler of a great kingdom. “The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur” (that is, by compulsion of Nimrod) “and builded Nineveh,” and other great cities.

In the Scriptures Nimrod is mentioned as a descendant of Ham, but this may arise from the reading of his father’s name as Cush, which in the Scriptures indicates a coloured race. The name may possibly be Cash and should relate to the Cassites.

It appears then that the sons of Cush or Chus, the Cassites, according to legend, did not partake of the general division of the human race after the fall of Babel, but under the leadership of Nimrod himself remained where they were. After the dispersion, Nimrod built Babylon and fortified the territory around it. It is also said that he built Nineveh and trespassed upon the land of Asshur, so that at last he forced Asshur to quit that territory.[3]

The Greeks gave him the name of Nebrod or Nebros, and preserved or invented many tales concerning him and his apostasy, and concerning the tower which he is supposed to have erected. He is described as a gigantic person of mighty bearing, and a contemner of everything divine; his followers are represented as being equally presumptuous and overbearing. In fact he seems to have appeared to the Greeks very much like one of their own Titans.

Nimrod has been identified both with Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon, and with Gilgamesh, the hero of the epic of that name, with Orion, and with others. The name, according to Petrie, has even been found in Egyptian documents of the XXII Dynasty as ‘Nemart.’

Nimrod seems to be one of those giants who rage against the gods, as do the Titans of Greek myth and the Jotunn of Scandinavian story. All are in fact earth-gods, the disorderly forces of nature, who were defeated by the deities who stood for law and order. The derivation of the name Nimrod may mean ‘rebel.’

In all his later legends, for instance, those of them that are related by Philo in his De Gigantibus (a title which proves that Nimrod was connected with the giant race by tradition), he appears as treacherous and untrustworthy. The theory that he is Merodach has no real foundation either in scholarship or probability. As a matter of fact the Nimrod legend seems to be very much more archaic than any piece of tradition connected with Merodach, who indeed is a god of no very great antiquity.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 49-51.

On the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues

“Many attempts have been made to attach the legend of the confusion of tongues to certain ruined towers in Babylonia, especially to that of E-Sagila, the great temple of Merodach, and some remarks upon this most interesting tale may not be out of place at this point. The myth is not found in Babylonia itself, and in its best form may be discovered in Scripture. In the Bible story we are told that every region was of one tongue and mode of speech.

As men journeyed westward from their original home in the East, they encountered a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled. In this region they commenced building operations, constructed a city, and laid the foundations of a tower, the summit of which they hoped would reach to heaven itself.

It would appear that this edifice was constructed with the object of serving as a great landmark to the people so that they should not be scattered over the face of the earth, and the Lord came down to view the city and the tower, and he considered that as they were all of one language this gave them undue power, and that what they imagined to themselves under such conditions they would be able to achieve.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence over the face of every region, and the building of the tower ceased and the name of it was called ‘Babel,’ because at that place the single language of the people was confounded.

Of course it is merely the native name of Babylon, which translated means ‘gate of the god,’ and has no such etymology as the Scriptures pretend,—the Hebrews confusing their verb balal, ‘to confuse or confound,’ with the word babel.

The story was no doubt suggested by one of the temple towers of Babylon. Over and over again we find in connexion with the Jewish religion that anything which savours of presumption or unnatural aspiration is strongly condemned. The ambitious effort of the Tower of Babel would thus seem abhorrent to the Hebrews of old.

The strange thing is that these ancient towers or zikkurats, as the Babylonians called them, were intended to serve as a link between heaven and earth, just as does the minaret of the Mahommedan mosque.

The legend of the confusion of tongues is to be traced in other folk-lores than that of Babylon. It is found in Central America, where the story runs that Xelhua, one of the seven giants rescued from the deluge, built the great pyramid of Cholula in order to besiege heaven.

The structure was, however, destroyed by the gods, who cast down fire upon it and confounded the language of its builders. Livingstone found some such myth among the African tribes around Lake Ngami, and certain Australian and Mongolian peoples possess a similar tradition.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 47-9.

Chaldean Astronomy and Magic

“For more than two thousand years the records of Babylonian and Assyrian astronomy lay buried and forgotten under the ruins of Assyrian palaces, and all that was known of the subject came from a few passages in the Bible and in the works of Greek and Roman writers.

To the Hebrews the sorceries of Babylon were an accursed thing, and the prophet Isaiah scoffs at them in these words:

“Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.

Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” (Isaiah 47:12).

Among Greek writers Strabo (died a.d. 24) asserted that the Chaldeans were skilled in astronomy and the casting of horoscopes, and Aelian (3rd century a.d.) mentions the fact that both the Babylonians and Chaldeans enjoyed a reputation for possessing a knowledge of astronomy.

Achilles Tatius  (6th century) reports the existence of a tradition to the effect that the Egyptians mapped the heavens, and that they inscribed their knowledge on their pillars; the same tradition declared that the Chaldeans claimed the glory of this science, the foundation of which they attributed to the god Bel.

For this last belief there seems to be some evidence in a statement of Berosus, to the effect that the god Bel created the stars and sun and moon, and the five planets. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Augustus, tells us that the Babylonian priests observed the position of certain stars in order to cast horoscopes, and that they interpreted dreams and derived omens from the movement of birds and from eclipses and earthquakes.

The general evidence of serious writers leads us to believe that astrology formed part of the religious system of the Babylonians, and it certainly exercised considerable influence over the minds of the dwellers between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In any case, the reputation of the Chaldeans, i.e., the Babylonians and Assyrians, for possessing magical powers was so widespread, that the very name Chaldean at a comparatively early date became synonymous with magician.”

Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, Vol. II, London, 1900. pp. xiii-xiv.

Mesopotamian Religion is Undefinable

“Mesopotamian religion includes certain beliefs and practices of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and other peoples who lived at various times in different parts of ancient Mesopotamia, the region corresponding roughly to modern Iraq, from the fourth through the first millennia BCE.

The history and cultures of these peoples were mostly forgotten during the early Christian era, save for brief historical narratives of famous kings and cities in the Hebrew Bible, in classical authors such as Herodotus, Diodorus and Josephus, and in scattered excerpts from a lost book by Berossus, a Babylonian writing in Greek in the third century BCE.

Beginning in the nineteenth century CE, with the discovery and excavation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and decipherment of Mesopotamian languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian, European and American scholars identified texts, objects and architecture as religious in nature. They used these to reconstruct ancient Mesopotamian religious beliefs and practices in the absence of any continuous or living tradition from ancient times to the present.

Inevitably the intellectual concerns of successive generations of scholars, their personal religious commitments and their individual stances, such as piety, scepticism or anticlericalism, had their effect on agendas of research and modes of presentation of Mesopotamian religion in modern studies. Many scholars of an earlier generation took for granted, for example, a higher degree of religious preoccupation and expression among ‘ancient Oriental’ or ‘Semitic peoples’ than among other ancient peoples such as the Greeks and Romans, but generalizations on this order are no longer the basis for serious research.

Some scholars imagined, for example, that the priesthood was primarily responsible for preserving culture, while others claimed that priests resisted change and development, suppressed writings unacceptable to them, and generally stood in the way of progress.

Pioneering studies of Mesopotamian religion tended to be comprehensive, such as that by M. Jastrow (1898, partially revised German edition 1912, with a volume of illustrations, 1912). Its fundamental thesis was that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from local animistic cults that grew and merged into a larger, more complex interlocking set of religious practices and beliefs.

Similar views were set forth by R. W. Rogers (1908) in a volume that treated Mesopotamian religion as a sort of prelude to Judaism, itself a prelude to Christianity. E. Dhorme (1945, not available in English) wrote a concise and well-documented descriptive study.

The most influential writer in English on Mesopotamian religion was Thorkild Jacobsen. He developed a view that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from a person’s sense of the ‘other’ in the natural world around him, leading to feelings of fear and awe. People perceived active will in natural events, processes and phenomena. This sense of the other was expressed, using metaphorical terms, in myth and theology and was acted upon in cult and ritual.

We have a comprehensive presentation of his views (Jacobsen 1976) and a later summary statement of his work (Jacobsen 1987). Bottéro (2001) stressed spiritual values and a phenomenological rather than a schematic, theoretical approach; for a summary of its main theses see Bottéro (1992: 201–31).

Economic and ritual aspects of Mesopotamian religion are presented by Oppenheim (1977), professing disdain for a historical approach to the subject. He contributed a brief but suggestive essay to a collection edited by Ferm (1950: 65–79). A more detailed, primarily bibliographical survey was offered by Römer (1969). There are numerous technical studies of aspects of Mesopotamian religion in the scientific literature of Assyriology, but few of them are in English.

Many presentations of Mesopotamian religion rely on retellings of ancient literary works that modern scholars classify as mythology. Authoritative presentations of Mesopotamian and other ancient Near Eastern mythologies were made in Kramer (1961 and 1969), as well as in a major treatment of Mesopotamian mythological texts jointly with Bottéro (1989, not available in English). Recent English translations of Akkadian mythology are found in Dalley (1989) and Foster (1996). Important Sumerian myths and other religious texts are translated in Jacobsen (1987).

No ancient Mesopotamian term corresponds to the modern concept of ‘religion,’ nor is there any ancient scripture, systematic treatise or general description of religious belief or activity from any period of Mesopotamian history. This means that definition of Mesopotamian religion can at best be only a modern mode of selecting and interpreting ancient writings and material culture using modern humanistic categories for which there may not have been ancient counterparts. Although the Mesopotamians recognized certain matters as ‘pertaining to the gods’, a distinction between religious and secular matters may not have been always fully comprehensible in the context of Mesopotamian culture.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Sources,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 161-5.

The Schism Between Biblical and Mesopotamian Studies

“Some scholars of Mesopotamia sought to declare independence from biblical studies in the 1930s, insisting that Mesopotamia be studied on its own terms, even in isolation, but for most people the main interest of Mesopotamian religions lies in their historical interest and comparison with ancient Greece and the Bible.

Studies regularly appear on the Near Eastern background of Greek mythology and culture. Some, such as the work of Cyrus Gordon, are strongly critical of a perceived tendency of Classicists to assume that Greece stood alone in the eastern Mediterranean and was not significantly influenced by Near Eastern (or ‘Semitic’) peoples (Gordon 1965).

With respect to the Bible, the ‘contextual approach,’ advocated by scholars such as William W. Hallo, makes both comparisons and contrasts, recognizing the autonomy and interdependence of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia (Hallo 1997).

This steers a middle course between the extremism of the Pan-Babylonianists and of those who would build a fence around the Bible and claim that Israel was somehow exempt from the dynamic influences of Mesopotamia, the greatest cultural centre in Western Asia during the first millennium BCE.

No serious student of the Bible can ignore Mesopotamian civilization, but the religious experiences of both Mesopotamia and the Hebrews have to be understood in their own terms before they can be profitably compared or contrasted.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 209.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

Assyro-Babylonian Studies in Modern Context

“Mesopotamian religion has been of interest to biblical scholars since the discovery in 1872 by George Smith of a flood story in an Assyrian tablet. This proved that non-biblical ancient Near Eastern documents contained material directly pertinent to the Bible. To some thinkers, the uniqueness and integrity of the Bible could therefore no longer be maintained.

Leading philologists, especially in Germany, such as Hugo Winckler, Hermann Gunkel, Heinrich Zimmern and Friedrich Delitzsch, staked out different and sometimes contradictory positions in what became known as ‘Pan-Babylonianism’ or the ‘Astral-mythological’ school. The basic tenet of this group was that the civilization of Israel was essentially Babylonian in origin, including its religious ideas, such as monotheism.

Winckler, for example, argued that Joshua, Saul and David were actually Babylonian astral deities. Zimmern went on to suggest that Marduk was a forerunner of Jesus. Peter Jensen, a distinguished Assyriologist, argued that Abraham, Jesus and John the Baptist, for example, were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and that the Gilgamesh epic, to him a kind of astral saga, was the basis for the New Testament and the Koran.

Outside of Germany more moderate positions were taken, but still implying a strong cultural and religious dependency of Israel upon Babylonia. The extravagant claims of the Pan-Babylonianists eventually collapsed and are not taken seriously today.

A broader and more moderate view held that Babylonia was part of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible (Lambert 1988). Committed Christian and Jewish scholars, for example, often put the Bible first, so to them ancient Near Eastern ‘parallels’ helped to clarify or even ‘prove’ the validity of the Bible because they were independent witness to biblical passages.

Mesopotamian studies, especially in the United States, became effectively an adjunct of biblical studies. In the period 1880–1940 the majority of leading American scholars in the discipline were Protestant clergymen, very much interested in possible biblical connections.

To some scholars, such as W. F. Albright, the ‘biblical world’ came to include the whole of the ancient Near East. There was therefore no need to separate Mesopotamian studies from biblical studies; they were aspects of the same agenda. In this spirit, Albright could entitle one of his most popular books From the Stone Age to Christianity (Albright 1940).

According to this, Mesopotamian religion was a ‘preparatio’ for the more profound religion of Israel, itself a preparation for Christianity. Today, because of the accumulation of new material, a panoramic grasp of the languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East such as Albright enjoyed is impossible to attain, but Albright’s fundamental approach remains influential, especially among conservative Christian scholars.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 207-8.

Cult of Sin, Moon God

“The cult of the moon-god was one of the most popular in Babylonia, the chief seat of his worship being at Uru (now Muqayyar) the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees. The origin of the name Sin is unknown, but it is thought that it may be a corruption of Zu-ena, “knowledge-lord,” as the compound ideograph expressing his name may be read and translated.

Besides this compound ideograph, the name of the god Sin was also expressed by the character for “30,” provided with the prefix of divinity, an ideograph which is due to the thirty days of the month, and is thought to be of late date.

With regard to Nannar, Jastrow explains it as being for Narnar, and renders it “light-producer.” In a long hymn to this god he is described in many lines as “the lord, prince of the gods, who in heaven alone is supreme,” and as “father Nannar.”

Among his other descriptive titles are “great Anu” (Sumerian /ana gale/, Semitic Babylonian /Anu rabû/)–another instance of the identification of two deities. He was also “lord of Ur,” “lord of the temple Gišnu-gala,” “lord of the shining crown,” etc.

He is also said to be “the mighty steer whose horns are strong, whose limbs are perfect, who is bearded with a beard of lapis-stone, [*] who is filled with beauty and fullness (of splendour).”

[*] Probably of the colour of lapis only, not made of the stone itself.

Besides Babylonia and Assyria, he was also worshipped in other parts of the Semitic east, especially at Harran, to which city Abraham migrated, scholars say, in consequence of the patron-deity being the same as at Ur of the Chaldees, where he had passed the earlier years of his life. The Mountain of Sinai and the Desert of Sin, both bear his name.

According to king Dungi (about 2700 B.C.), the spouse of Sin or Nannara was Nin-Uruwa, “the lady of Ur.” Sargon of Assyria (722-705 B.C.) calls her Nin-gala.

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 81-3.

Hebrew and Babylonian Creation Myths

” … For the local Babylonian colouring of the stories, and the great age to which their existence can be traced, extending back to the time of the Sumerian inhabitants of Mesopotamia, 3 are conclusive evidence ….

On the other hand, it is equally unnecessary to cite the well-known arguments to prove the existence among the Hebrews of Creation legends similar to those of Babylonia for centuries before the Exile.

The allusions to variant Hebrew forms of the Babylonian Dragon-Myth in Amos ix, 3, Isaiah li, 9, Psalm lxxiv, 13 f., and lxxxix, 9 f., and Job xxvi, 12 f., and ix, 13, may be cited as sufficient proof of the early period at which the borrowing from Babylonian sources must have taken place; and the striking differences between the Biblical and the known Babylonian versions of the legends prove that the Exilic and post-Exilic Jews must have found ready to their hand ancient Hebrew versions of the stories, and that the changes they introduced must in the main have been confined to details of arrangement and to omissions necessitated by their own more spiritual conceptions and beliefs.

The discovery of the Tell el-Amarna tablets proved conclusively that Babylonian influence extended throughout Egypt and Western Asia in the fifteenth century B.C., and the existence of legends among the letters demonstrated the fact that Babylonian mythology exerted an influence coextensive with the range of her political ties and interests.

We may therefore conjecture that Babylonian myths had become naturalized in Palestine before the conquest of that country by the Israelites. Many such Palestinian versions of Babylonian myths the Israelites no doubt absorbed; while during the subsequent period of the Hebrew kings Assyria and Babylonia exerted a direct influence upon them.

It is clear, therefore, that at the time of their of Babylonian exile the captive Jews did not find in Babylonian mythology an entirely new and unfamiliar subject, but recognized in it a series of kindred beliefs, differing much from their own in spiritual conceptions, but presenting a startling resemblance on many material points.”

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902, pp. xcv-xcvii.

The Sumerians Considered the Deluge an Historic Event

” … It is, at all events, well known that the Sumerians regarded the Deluge as an historic event, which they were, practically, able to date, for some of their records contain lists of kings who reigned before the Deluge, though it must be confessed that the lengths assigned to their reigns are incredible. After their rule it is expressly noted that the Flood occurred, and that, when it passed away, kingship came down again from on high.

It is not too much to assume that the original event commemorated in the Legend of the Deluge was a serious and prolonged inundation or flood in Lower Babylonia, which was accompanied by great loss of life and destruction of property.

The Babylonian versions state that this inundation or flood was caused by rain, but passages in some of them suggest that the effects of the rainstorm were intensified bv other physical happenings connected with the earth, of a most destructive character.

The Hebrews also, as we may see from the Bible, had alternative views as to the cause of the Deluge. According to one, rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights (Gen. vii, 12), and according to the other the Deluge came because “all the fountains of the great deep” were broken up, and “the flood-gates of heaven were opened” (Gen. vii, ii).

The latter view suggests that the rain flood was joined by the waters of the sea. Later tradition, derived partly from Babylonian and partly from Hebrew sources, asserts, e.g., in the Cave of Treasures, a Syriac treatise composed probably at Edessa about the fifth or sixth century A.D., that when Noah had entered the Ark and the door was shut …

“… the floodgates of the heavens were opened it and the foundations of the earth were rent asunder,” and that “the ocean, that great sea which surroundeth the whole world, poured forth its floods. And whilst the floodgates of heaven were open, and the foundations of the earth were rent asunder, the storehouses of the winds burst their bolts, and storms and whirlwinds swept forth, and ocean roared and hurled its floods upon the earth.”

The ark was steered over the waters by an angel who acted as pilot, and when that had come to rest on the mountains of Kardô (Ararat),

“God commanded the waters and they became separated from each other. The celestial waters were taken up and ascended to their own place above the heavens whence they came. The waters which had risen up from the earth returned to the lowermost abyss, and those which belonged to the ocean returned to the innermost part thereof.”

Many authorities seeking to find a foundation of fact for the Legend of the Deluge in Mesopotamia have assumed that the rain-flood was accompanied either by an earthquake or a tidal-wave, or by both. There is no doubt that the cities of Lower Babylonia were nearer the sea in the Sumerian Period than they are at present, and it is a generally accepted view that the head of the Persian Gulf lay farther to the north at that time. A cyclone coupled with a tidal wave is a sufficient base for any of the forms of the Legend now known.

A comparison of the contents of the various Sumerian and Babylonian versions of the Deluge that have come down to us shows us that they are incomplete. And as none of them tells so connected and full a narrative of the prehistoric shipbuilder as Berosus, a priest of Bêl, the great god of Babylon, it seems that the Mesopotamian scribes were content to copy the Legend in an abbreviated form.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish1929, pp. 27-8.

On the Literature of Ancient Sumer

” … Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present.

In Egypt, for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a well developed written literature in the third millennium B. C.

Unfortunately it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period.

Then, too, there is the hitherto unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria.

These tablets, relatively few in number, indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated approximately 1400 B. C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian literary tablets. 21

As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the Epic of Creation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but also includes much that is borrowed directly from it. 22

We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews; the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran.

None of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first millennium B. C.

Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B.C., therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference.


"To judge from the script, the Nippur cylinder illustrated on this plate 
(8383 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) may date as early 
as 2500 B. C. Although copied and published by the late George Barton as 
early as 1918, its contents, which center about the Sumerian air-god Enlil 
and the goddess Ninhursag, are still largely unintelligible. Nevertheless, 
much that was unknown or misunderstood at the time of its publication is now 
gradually becoming clarified, and there is good reason to hope that the not 
too distant future will see the better part of its contents ready for 

-Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, p. 18.

The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig-veda and Avesta, as we have them, have been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of view.

Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later compilers and commentators.”

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 19-20.

The True Pronunciation of the Ineffable Name, From an Assyrian Inscription

” … And not only names of Biblical places, but of Biblical persons are to be found there; as Hezekiah and Jehoahaz, Ahab and Jehu, and Hazael, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Nebuchadnezzar.

Under this head of scriptural illustration will come the deeply interesting fact, that we now obtain evidence of the true pronunciation of the sacred and incommunicable name of God. It is, we believe, generally admitted among Hebrew scholars, that the name Jehovah, as the designation of the supreme God, is incorrect.

The Jews never pronounce this name.8

You never meet with it in the New Testament; showing that even at that time either the true pronunciation was lost, or it was considered unlawful to pronounce it, which is the statement of Philo Judaeus, confirmed by Josephus.

Some Hebraists contend for Yahveh as the correct pronunciation, but with little proof. We learn, however, from an Assyrian inscription of Sargon’s that the correct pronunciation of the most sacred name of God amongst the Semitic people was Ya-u, or Yahu.

In the Cyprus Inscription of Sargon we read of a certain Ya-hu-bidi, king of Hamath. Now as this king’s name is preceded by the sign indicating a god, it is evident that his name is a compound of some divine name, such as Yahu’s servant, in which it resembles the Hebrew name Jehoahaz, more correctly Yeho-ahaz “one who holds to Yeho,” or Jehovah. In the book of Psalms, too, we are told to praise God by his name Yah, which is an abbreviated form of Yahu.

Lastly. That this was the most sacred name of God as taught in the mysteries we learn from Macrobius and Plutarch. We may assume, therefore, from the very accurate mode of Assyrian vocalization, that we have here the correct pronunciation of a Semitic name as found in an Assyrian inscription, and that Ya-hu, or Ya-ho, and not Jehovah, is the correct pronunciation of what has been called “the ineffable name” of the Most High.”

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876,


” … The records of Ashur-bani-pal cease after 640 B.C., so that we are unable to follow the events of his reign during its last fourteen years. Apparently peace prevailed everywhere. The great monarch, who was a pronounced adherent of the goddess cults, appears to have given himself up to a life of indulgence and inactivity.

Under the name Sardanapalus he went down to tradition as a sensual Oriental monarch who lived in great pomp and luxury, and perished in his burning palace when the Medes revolted against him. It is evident, however, that the memory of more than one monarch contributed to the Sardanapalus legend, for Ashur-bani-pal had lain nearly twenty years in his grave before the siege of Nineveh took place.

In the Bible he is referred to as “the great and noble Asnapper,” and he appears to have been the emperor who settled the Babylonian, Elamite, and other colonists “in the cities of Samaria.”

He erected at Nineveh a magnificent palace, which was decorated on a lavish scale. The sculptures are the finest productions of Assyrian art, and embrace a wide variety of subjects–battle scenes, hunting scenes, and elaborate Court and temple ceremonies. Realism is combined with a delicacy of touch and a degree of originality which raises the artistic productions of the period to the front rank among the artistic triumphs of antiquity.

Ashur-bani-pal in the palace of Nineveh.

Ashur-bani-pal boasted of the thorough education which he had received from the tutors of his illustrious father, Esarhaddon. In his palace he kept a magnificent library. It contained thousands of clay tablets on which were inscribed and translated the classics of Babylonia.

To the scholarly zeal of this cultured monarch is due the preservation of the Babylonian story of creation, the Gilgamesh and Etana legends, and other literary and religious products of remote antiquity. Most of the literary tablets in the British Museum were taken from Ashur-bani-pal’s library.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 486-7.

Destroyer of Babylon

” … In 691 B.C. Sennacherib again struck a blow for Babylonia, but was unable to depose Mushezib-Merodach. His opportunity came, however, in 689 B.C. Elam had been crippled by raids of the men of Parsua (Persia), and was unable to co-operate with the Chaldaean king of Babylon.

Sennacherib captured the great commercial metropolis, took Mushezib-Merodach prisoner, and dispatched him to Nineveh.

Then he wreaked his vengeance on Babylon.

For several days the Assyrian soldiers looted the houses and temples, and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. E-sagila was robbed of its treasures, images of deities were either broken in pieces or sent to Nineveh: the statue of Bel-Merodach was dispatched to Asshur so that he might take his place among the gods who were vassals of Ashur.

“The city and its houses,” Sennacherib recorded, “from foundation to roof, I destroyed them, I demolished them, I burned them with fire; walls, gateways, sacred chapels, and the towers of earth and tiles, I laid them low and cast them into the Arakhtu.”

“So thorough was Sennacherib’s destruction of the city in 689 B.C.,” writes Mr. King, “that after several years of work, Dr. Koldewey concluded that all traces of earlier buildings had been destroyed on that occasion. More recently some remains of earlier strata have been recognized, and contract-tablets have been found which date from the period of the First Dynasty.

Moreover, a number of earlier pot-burials have been unearthed, but a careful examination of the greater part of the ruins has added little to our knowledge of this most famous city before the Neo-Babylonian period.”

[ … ]

Sennacherib’s palace was the most magnificent building of its kind ever erected by an Assyrian emperor. It was lavishly decorated, and its bas-reliefs display native art at its highest pitch of excellence.

The literary remains of the time also give indication of the growth of culture: the inscriptions are distinguished by their prose style. It is evident that men of culture and refinement were numerous in Assyria. The royal library of Kalkhi received many additions during the reign of the destroyer of Babylon.


Like his father, Sennacherib died a violent death. According to the Babylonian Chronicle he was slain in a revolt by his son “on the twentieth day of Tebet” (680 B.C). The revolt continued from the “20th of Tebet” (early in January) until the 2nd day of Adar (the middle of February). On the 18th of Adar, Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib, was proclaimed king.

Berosus states that Sennacherib was murdered by two of his sons, but Esarhaddon was not one of the conspirators. The Biblical reference is as follows:

“Sennacherib … dwelt at Nineveh. And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch (?Ashur) his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer (Ashur-shar-etir) his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia (Urartu). And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.”

Ashur-shar-etir appears to have been the claimant to the throne.

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 468-70.

Destruction of Sennacherib

According to Berosus, the Babylonian priestly historian, the camp of Sennacherib was visited in the night by swarms of field mice which ate up the quivers and bows and the (leather) handles of shields. Next morning the army fled.

The Biblical account of the disaster is as follows:

And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went
out, and smote the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and four score
and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning,
behold, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib king of Assyria
departed, and went and returned and dwelt at Nineveh.

A pestilence may have broken out in the camp, the infection, perhaps, having been carried by field mice. Byron’s imagination was stirred by the vision of the broken army of Assyria.

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars of the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen;
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed on the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved–and forever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent–the banners alone–
The lances uplifted–the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Asshur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.

Before this disaster occurred Sennacherib had to invade Babylonia again, for the vassal king, Bel-ibni, had allied himself with the Chaldaeans and raised the standard of revolt.

The city of Babylon was besieged and captured, and its unfaithful king deported with a number of nobles to Assyria. Old Merodach Baladan was concerned in the plot and took refuge on the Elamite coast, where the Chaldaeans had formed a colony. He died soon afterwards.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 466-7.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

” … All the younger gods, who displaced the elder gods as one year displaces another, were deities of fertility, battle, lightning, fire, and the sun; it is possible, therefore, that Ashur was like Merodach, son of Ea, god of the deep, a form of Tammuz in origin.

His spirit was in the solar wheel which revolved at times of seasonal change. In Scotland it was believed that on the morning of May Day (Beltaine) the rising sun revolved three times. The younger god was a spring sun god and fire god. Great bonfires were lit to strengthen him, or as a ceremony of riddance; the old year was burned out.

Indeed the god himself might be burned (that is, the old god), so that he might renew his youth. Melkarth was burned at Tyre. Hercules burned himself on a mountain top, and his soul ascended to heaven as an eagle.

These fiery rites were evidently not unknown in Babylonia and Assyria. When, according to Biblical narrative, Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” which he set up “in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” he commanded:

“O people, nations, and languages… at the time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick… fall down and worship the golden image.”

Certain Jews who had been “set over the affairs of the province of Babylonia,” namely, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego,” refused to adore the idol.

They were punished by being thrown into “a burning fiery furnace”, which was heated “seven times more than it was wont to be heated.” They came forth uninjured.

In the Koran it is related that Abraham destroyed the images of Chaldean gods; he “brake them all in pieces except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame on that.” According to the commentators the Chaldaeans were at the time “abroad in the fields, celebrating a great festival.”

To punish the offender Nimrod had a great pyre erected at Cuthah.

“Then they bound Abraham, and putting him into an engine, shot him into the midst of the fire, from which he was preserved by the angel Gabriel, who was sent to his assistance.”

Eastern Christians were wont to set apart in the Syrian calendar the 25th of January to commemorate Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s pyre.

It is evident that the Babylonian fire ceremony was observed in the spring season, and that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. A mock king may have been burned to perpetuate the ancient sacrifice of real kings, who were incarnations of the god.

Isaiah makes reference to the sacrificial burning of kings in Assyria:

“For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared: he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood: the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.”

When Nineveh was about to fall, and with it the Assyrian Empire, the legendary king, Sardanapalus, who was reputed to have founded Tarsus, burned himself, with his wives, concubines, and eunuchs, on a pyre in his palace. Zimri, who reigned over Israel for seven days, “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.”

Saul, another fallen king, was burned after death, and his bones were buried “under the oak in Jabesh”.

In Europe the oak was associated with gods of fertility and lightning, including Jupiter and Thor. The ceremony of burning Saul is of special interest. Asa, the orthodox king of Judah, was, after death, “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries’ art: and they made a very great burning for him” (2 Chronicles, xvi, 14).

Jehoram, the heretic king of Judah, who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” died of “an incurable disease. And his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (2 Chronicles, xxi, 18, 19).

The conclusion suggested by the comparative study of the beliefs of neighbouring peoples, and the evidence afforded by Assyrian sculptures, is that Ashur was a highly developed form of the god of fertility, who was sustained, or aided in his conflicts with demons, by the fires and sacrifices of his worshippers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 348-51.


“Among the gods of Babylonia none achieved wider and more enduring fame than Tammuz, who was loved by Ishtar, the amorous Queen of Heaven–the beautiful youth who died and was mourned for and came to life again. He does not figure by his popular name in any of the city pantheons, but from the earliest times of which we have knowledge until the passing of Babylonian civilization, he played a prominent part in the religious life of the people.

Tammuz, like Osiris of Egypt, was an agricultural deity, and as the Babylonian harvest was the gift of the rivers, it is probable that one of his several forms was Dumu-zi-abzu, “Tammuz of the Abyss.” He was also “the child,” “the heroic lord,” “the sentinel,” “the healer,” and the patriarch who reigned over the early Babylonians for a considerable period.

“Tammuz of the Abyss” was one of the members of the family of Ea, god of the Deep, whose other sons, in addition to Merodach, were Nira, an obscure deity; Ki-gulla, “world destroyer,” Burnunta-sa, “broad ear,” and Bara and Baragulla, probably “revealers” or “oracles.” In addition there was a daughter, Khi-dimme-azaga, “child of the renowned spirit”. She may have been identical with Belit-sheri, who is referred to in the Sumerian hymns as the sister of Tammuz.

This family group was probably formed by symbolizing the attributes of Ea and his spouse Damkina. Tammuz, in his character as a patriarch, may have been regarded as a hostage from the gods: the human form of Ea, who instructed mankind, like King Osiris, how to grow corn and cultivate fruit trees. As the youth who perished annually, he was the corn spirit. He is referred to in the Bible by his Babylonian name.

When Ezekiel detailed the various idolatrous practices of the Israelites, which included the worship of the sun and “every form of creeping things and abominable beasts”–a suggestion of the composite monsters of Babylonia–he was brought “to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house, which was towards the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”

The weeping ceremony was connected with agricultural rites. Corn deities were weeping deities, they shed fertilizing tears; and the sowers simulated the sorrow of divine mourners when they cast seed in the soil “to die,” so that it might spring up as corn. This ancient custom, like many others, contributed to the poetic imagery of the Bible. “They that sow in tears,” David sang, “shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

In Egypt the priestesses who acted the parts of Isis and Nepthys, mourned for the slain corn god Osiris.

Gods and men before the face of the gods are weeping for

thee at the same time, when they behold me!…

All thy sister goddesses are at thy side and behind thy couch,

Calling upon thee with weeping–yet thou are prostrate upon thy bed!…

Live before us, desiring to behold thee.

It was believed to be essential that human beings should share the universal sorrow caused by the death of a god. If they remained unsympathetic, the deities would punish them as enemies. Worshippers of nature gods, therefore, based their ceremonial practices on natural phenomena.

“The dread of the worshippers that the neglect of the usual ritual would be followed by disaster, is particularly intelligible,” writes Professor Robertson Smith, “if they regarded the necessary operations of agriculture as involving the violent extinction of a particle of divine life.”

By observing their ritual, the worshippers won the sympathy and co-operation of deities, or exercised a magical control over nature.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

The Behistun Inscription

“In 1854 Sir Henry Rawlinson superintended diggings at Birs Nimrud (Borsippa, near Babylon), and excavated relics of the Biblical Nebuchadrezzar. This notable archaeologist began his career in the East as an officer in the Bombay army. He distinguished himself as a political agent and diplomatist. While resident at Baghdad, he devoted his leisure time to cuneiform studies.

One of his remarkable feats was the copying of the famous trilingual rock inscription of Darius the Great on a mountain cliff at Behistun, in Persian Kurdistan (the Behistun Inscription). This work was carried out at great personal risk, for the cliff is 1700 feet high and the sculptures and inscriptions are situated about 300 feet from the ground.

The Behistun Inscription

Bisotun Iran Relief Achamenid Period” by Hara1603 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Darius was the first monarch of his line to make use of the Persian cuneiform script, which in this case he utilized in conjunction with the older and more complicated Assyro-Babylonian alphabetic and syllabic characters to record a portion of the history of his reign.

Rawlinson’s translation of the famous inscription was an important contribution towards the decipherment of the cuneiform writings of Assyria and Babylonia.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

The Names of the Great Mother

“THE dawn of history in all parts of Western Asia discloses the established worship of a nature-goddess in whom the productive powers of the earth were personified. 1 She is our Mother Earth, known otherwise as the Mother Goddess or Great Mother. Among the Babylonians 2 and northern Semites she was called Ishtar: she is the Ashtoreth of the Bible, and the Astarte of Phœnicia. In Syria her name was ‘Athar, and in Cilicia it had the form of ‘Ate (‘Atheh). At Hierapolis, with which we are primarily concerned, it appears in later Aramaic as Atargatis, a compound of the Syrian and Cilician forms.

In Asia Minor, where the influence of the Semitic language did not prevail, her various names have not survived, though it is recorded by a later Greek writer as “Ma” at one of her mountain shrines, and as Agdistis amongst one tribe of the Phrygians and probably at Pessinus. These differences, however, are partly questions of local tongue; for in one way and another there was still a prevailing similarity between the essential attributes and worship of the nature-goddess throughout Western Asia.

The “origins” of this worship and its ultimate development are not directly relevant to our present enquiry; but we must make passing allusion to a point of special interest and wide significance. As regards Asia Minor, at least, a theory that explains certain abnormal tendencies in worship and in legend would attribute to the goddess, in the primitive conception of her, the power of self-reproduction, complete in herself, a hypothesis justified by the analogy of beliefs current among certain states of primitive society.

However that may be, a male companion is none the less generally associated with her in mythology, even from the earliest historical vision of Ishtar in Babylonia, where he was known as Tammuz. While evidence is wanting to define clearly the original position of this deity in relation to the goddess, the general tendency of myth and legend in the lands of Syria and Asia Minor, with which we are specially concerned, reveals him as her offspring, the fruits of the earth.

The basis of the myth was human experience of nature, particularly the death of plant life with the approach of winter and its revival with the spring. In one version accordingly “Adonis” descends for the six winter months to the underworld, until brought back to life through the divine influence of the goddess. The idea that the youth was the favoured lover of the goddess belongs to a different strain of thought, if indeed it was current in these lands at all in early times. In Asia Minor at any rate the sanctity of the goddess’s traditional powers was safeguarded in popular legend by the emasculation of “Attis,” and in worship by the actual emasculation of her priesthood, perhaps the most striking feature of her cult.

The abnormal and impassioned tendencies of her developed worship would be derived, according to this theory, from the efforts of her worshippers to assist her to bring forth notwithstanding her singleness. However that may be, the mourning for the death of the youthful god, and rejoicing at his return, were invariable features of this worship of nature. It is reasonable to believe that long before the curtain of history was raised over Asia Minor the worship of this goddess and her son had become deep-rooted.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, Lucian’s the Syrian Goddess, A Translation of De Dea Syria  with a Life of Lucian, 1913, pp. 1-4.

Mystical Spelling of the Divine Name

“In the writings of the ‘Iyyun circle, the sefiroth undergo a transformation: each one, indeed even each of the thirty-two paths of the Sophia, becomes an autonomous world in which the theosophist immerses himself.

In fact, even the mystical spelling of the divine name with twenty-four points, which Pseudo-Hai transmits here and which no doubt goes back to Oriental sources of Jewish magic, is interpreted in this manner.

The spelling obviously imitates the magical alphabet and characters as they are frequently found in amulets and that, in Jewish magic, are encountered, for example, in the old “alphabets of the angels.”

They appear below:


The twenty-four points or stars of this script correspond, according to the author, to the twenty-four books of the biblical canon, which are perhaps woven from this “hidden name.”

The author instructs the initiate that each of these points in and of itself represents an entire world. This use of the term “worlds” for different levels of being is undoubtedly Neoplatonic. It first penetrated into kabbalistic literature in the ‘Iyyun circle.

As we have seen, Isaac the Blind speaks of the “world of separation” below the sefiroth, but it seems he still did not take the step of considering the sefiroth themselves as just so many worlds. The upper world is henceforth no longer that of the separate intelligences, as it was for the philosophers and in Isaac’s fragments on cosmogony, but the world of the divine emanations itself. In the “Book of the Unity” of Pseudo-Hammai it is said that before Creation all the powers were intertwined and hidden in God,

“ … until there came the time of the will of the first Acting One, and they emerged from potentiality to spiritual reality, and the emanation of the upper world emanated to that of the tenth fundamental stone which is called, in the language of the sages of the mysteries, the “condensed light,” ‘or ‘abh. On account of its condensation they also name it “mixed darkness,” for all the powers of the flames are mixed in it, but are also differentiated in it, and it is the foundation of all the spiritual and corporeal worlds . . . and the last seal of all the [other] seals [emanated in the higher sefiroth].”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 328-30.

The First Sefirah is Passed Over in Silence

“After the resurrection, the righteous and the average realize a new progress in their spiritual and moral perfection, one that takes them beyond everything they attained in their lives. By this adherence to the seven divine middoth, all will share perpetually in the gift of prophecy.

From a brief allusion of ibn Sahula (f. 34a), we can infer that on several occasions Isaac expressed his views on eschatological matters, in the context of which he may also have discussed the preparation for redemption by means of the purification of souls during their transmigrations.

In the extant texts, however, there is no clear statement on this subject, though on one occasion Isaac quotes a relevant passage from the Bahir, section 105.

Isaac of Acre states that in his commentary on Yesirah Isaac the Blind made a hidden allusion to the distinction between the migration of souls (gilgul) and the impregnation of souls (ibbur) as being two different things, but I have not been able to locate this allusion.

It should be clear from the foregoing that Isaac the Blind already had at his disposal a complete system of kabbalistic symbolism, partly inherited from tradition and partly elaborated by himself which he applied to a great variety of biblical and rabbinic subjects.

His epistle to Gerona, which has survived, offers a brief explanation of the last psalm, apparently in response to a question. The psalmist’s tenfold invitation to praise God is interpreted as an allusion to the ten sefiroth, though the first sefirah is passed over in silence, and Isaac counts downward beginning with hokhmah.

His mystical allusions in this epistle scarcely differ from the instructions he gives for the mystical kawwanoth at prayer; there too, he briefly describes the process by which the mystic first traverses the world of the sefiroth from below upward during the profession of the divine unity, the Shema’ Yisrael, and then, in his meditation on the word ‘ehad, “one!” completes and closes the circle of his kawwanah, from above downward.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 308-9.

Debhequth is Communio

“It is this contact, connection, or communio with God that is designated by the Hebrew term debhequth. This kabbalistic concept has its origins in the terminology of the medieval Jewish theologians, especially Bahya ibn Paquda and Abraham ibn Ezra, who employed the biblical verb dabhaq (“adhere, cleave to,”) to express the contact of the soul with God or the divine light. The biblical injunction Deuteronomy 13:5 is cited by Isaac’s pupils as their master’s cue for this doctrine:

“ … Our master the Hasid said: The essential thing in the divine service of the mystics [maskilim] and those who meditate on His name, lies in this [verse]: “and cleave to Him.” And this is a cardinal principle of Torah and of prayer, that one make one’s thought conform with one’s faith, as though it were cleaving to what is above, in order to conjoin the name [of God] in its letters and to link the ten sefiroth to Him as a flame is joined to the coal. With his mouth he must express it according to its paraphrase, but in his heart, he must conjoin it in its true structure.”

Debhequth is therefore not unio but communio. In the sense the term acquired in kabbalistic usage it always contains an element of distance despite its character of intimacy. Debhequth is not becoming one with God but entering into an infinitely close liaison with him, roughly corresponding to that called adhaeresis by medieval Christian mystics.

In Hebrew, debhequth can denote the process as well as the state attained through it. The instrument of this process is the kawwanah. Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself.

Debhequth does not consist in tempestuously rushing toward God and becoming absorbed in him; it is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation. In contrast to some later schools, the old kabbalists did not go any further, and in this remained true to their Jewish-theistic character. For them, debhequth or the mystical communio is not, as for many non-Jewish mystics, a transitional stage leading to still higher regions.

Any pantheistic overstepping of the limits they fixed for themselves in their interpretation of the mystical path is far from their thoughts.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 302-3

The En-Sof

“They are called in his works the Infinite (‘en-sof), Thought, and Speech. The principle of Speech, dibbur, is divided into the plurality of speeches and words, by which he often means the seven lower sefiroth, called not only dibburim but also debharim. In Hebrew dabhar means “word” as well as “thing,” and this coincidence was obviously decisive for the formation of Isaac’s thought.

The sefiroth, above all the seven lower ones, are the words or things “which shape reality.” They take the place of the ma’amaroth, the logoi of the Bahir. The “Thought,” too, already comes from this text, as we saw in the previous chapter. But what is entirely new is the emphasis laid on a domain of the divine that is above all reflective contemplation, indeed above the divine Thought itself, a domain called by Isaac “the cause of Thought” and designated by a new term: ‘en-sof.

The birth of this concept is of great interest for the history of the Kabbalah. This designation is usually explained as a borrowing from Neoplatonism. Christian Ginsburg, whose essay on the Kabbalah has been appropriated by many authors (who do not always bother to acknowledge their source), says:

“ … Any doubt upon this subject must be relinquished when the two systems are compared. The very expression En Sof which the Kabbalah uses to designate the Incomprehensible One, is foreign, and is evidently an imitation of the Greek Apeiros. The speculations about the En Sof, that he is superior to actual being, thinking and knowing, are thoroughly Neo-Platonic.”

Ginsburg, however, proceeded on the completely erroneous assumption that the oldest document of the authentic Kabbalah was the Neoplatonic catechism on the sefiroth composed by Azriel, Isaac’s disciple. There the notion is in fact explained in a manner that comes particularly close to Neoplatonic thought. But this says nothing about the origin of the concept. Indeed, the expression is strange, by virtue of its very grammatical formation.

It certainly is not a rendering of a fixed philosophical idiom, whether it be from the Greek or from the corresponding Arabic (la-nihaya)—in spite of the readiness with which some scholars have adopted this view.

The form ‘en-sof corresponds in no way to the translations of privative notions in medieval Hebrew literature: in these the conjunction Ulti always precedes the negated notion; the negation ayin is never employed for this purpose. Thus “inconceivable” is rendered by bil-ti-mussag and not by ‘en hassagah, and “infinite” is Ulti ba’al-takh-lith and not ‘en-sof.

The form ‘en-sof is altogether unusual, and Graetz had good reason to see it in a proof of the late origin of the term. However, he should have added that in the Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages, too, it represents a completely isolated phenomenon. It is only in biblical literature that we find forms such as ‘en ‘onim or ‘en ‘eyyal, for powerless. Subsequently, locutions of this kind disappear completely.

How, then, are we to understand the origin of the term ‘en-sof? It did not result from a deliberate translation, but from a mystical interpretation of texts that contain the composite term ‘en-sof in a perfectly correct adverbial sense, and not as a specific concept. The doctrine of Saadya Gaon, in particular, abounds with affirmations of the infinity of God—in fact, it is asserted at the very beginning of his well-known “Supplication” (Siddur R. Saadia [1941], 47), and in the old Hebrew paraphrase, known among the Provençal Kabbalists as well as the German Hasidim, it is reiterated incessantly.

Tobias ben Eliezer, who wrote around 1097, also stressed precisely this quality of God, in the context of a reference to the mystical Hekhaloth writings. For him God is “the first up to the unfathomable, the primordial beginning up to the infinite (‘ad ‘en-takhlith), among the last up to infinity (‘ad ‘en-sof). ” The adverbial construction is perfectly correct.

“Up to infinity” results from a combination of “up to there, where there is no end.” Expressions of this kind, in which ‘en-sof has the function of an adverbial complement, are found with particular frequency in the writings of Eleazar of Worms. We find the same usage in the Bahir (cf. p. 130 preceding). Thus, Eleazar writes, for example: “When he thinks of that which is above, he should not set any limit to this thought, but thus [should he think of God]:

” … high, higher up to the Boundless [‘ad ‘en-qes]; down deep, who can find him; and the same above in the expanse of all the heavens . . . and outside the heavens up to the infinite [le’en- sof].” Or: “in the Throne of Glory are engraved holy names, which are not transmitted to any mortal, and which sing hymns unto infinity [meshorerim shiroth le’en-sof].”

The transition here from the innumerable hymns sung by holy names and angels to a hypostasis that, as a mystical reader might perhaps conceive it, “sings hymns to ‘en-sof” seems easy enough. The term ‘en-sof came into being when one of the Provençal kabbalists read this combination of words that actually represents a phrase as a noun, possibly influenced by the aforementioned kind of adverbial composites and perhaps also by some expressions in the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 265-7.

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

Bakol = Shekhinah

“But what about the oldest text, the Book Bahir itself? Here, too, many passages show that we are dealing with a later exegesis, which reinterprets, on the basis of a medieval mentality, older material that had already become authoritative and confers upon it a symbolic character.

Assuredly, biblical verses could already be interpreted in the talmudic era as symbolic of events taking place on a higher plane of being. The psychological distance between the gnostic exegetes, Jewish or not, and the biblical canon is evident. The elaboration of pagan mythology in terms of gnostic exegesis, as, for example, in the “Naassene sermon” preserved by Hippolytus, indicates a similar psychological distance between ancient myth and its new interpretation.

The Bahir already presents this type of interpretation of the talmudic Aggadah. This can be seen not only in the many passages in which parables drawn from aggadic literature in the Talmud and the Midrash, where they have a perfectly exoteric significance, are transposed to a mystical plane, the new parable often becoming, in the process, much more strange and problematic than the one upon which it is based; we can observe it above all when talmudic quotations themselves are treated as old materials of this kind.

Only during a period when, for the pious consciousness of broad sections of the Jewish population, the Aggadah itself could already claim the authority of a sacred text, and at a time when for other circles its very extravagance became a problem—from the eighth century onward, after the emergence of Karaism—is a passage like section 52 of the Bahir possible. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 16b, transmits various opinions with regard to the value of the birth of daughters.

In this connection, a discussion is reported between mishnaic teachers (second century) concerning Genesis 24:1: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” “What is meant by ‘in all things?’ R. Meir explained: it means that he had no daughter. R. Yehudah said: Abraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol [literally: with all things].”

The Bahir made this last remark the object of a mystical exegesis, which elevated the strange statement concerning the daughter Bakol to an allegorical plane. Bakol thus becomes a designation for the Shekhinah, the last of the divine powers, which is mentioned at the end of section 51 and to the symbolism of which I shall return. Abraham is there designated as the father of this Shekhinah. Section 52 then continues:

“And whence did Abraham have a daughter? [we learn that] from the verse [Gen. 24:1] the Lord had blessed Abraham with “all things” and [Scripture also] says [Isa. 43:7] “every one” will be called by my Name, etc. Was this “blessing” his daughter or not? [another version: Or was it rather his mother?] Yes, she was his daughter. It is like a king who had a perfect servant . . . Then the king said: What should I give to this servant or what should I do for him? There is nothing left for me to do but to recommend him to my brother, so that he may counsel, protect, and honor him. The servant went home with the king’s great brother and learned his ways. The brother grew very fond of him and called him his friend, as it is said [Isa. 41:8]: Abraham, my friend. He said: What shall I give him or what shall I do for him? Lo, I have made a beautiful vessel, and inside it are beautiful gems to which none can be compared, and they are the jewels of kings. I shall give them to him, and he may partake of them instead of me. That is what is written: God blessed Abraham with “all things.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 87-8,

Abrasax, the Invincible Name of Power

“The last class of documents undoubtedly contains a very large proportion of the magical ideas, beliefs, formulæ, etc., which were current in Egypt from the time of the Ptolemies to the end of the Roman Period, but from about B.C. 150 to A.D. 200 the papyri exhibit traces of the influence of Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian philosophers and magicians, and from a passage like the following (see Goodwin, Fragment of a Græco-Egyptian Work upon Magic, p. 7) we may get a proof of this:—

“I call thee, the headless one, that didst create earth and heaven, that didst create night and day, thee the creator of light and darkness. Thou art Osoronnophris, whom no man hath seen at any time; thou art Iabas, thou art Iapôs, thou hast distinguished the just and the unjust, thou didst make female and male, thou didst produce seeds and fruits, thou didst make men to love one another and to hate one another.”

“I am Moses thy prophet, to whom thou didst commit thy mysteries, the ceremonies of Israel; thou didst produce the moist and the dry and all manner of food.”

“Listen to me: I am an angel of Phapro Osoronnophris; this is thy true name, handed down to the prophets of Israel. Listen to me. (Here follow a number of names of which Reibet, Athelebersthe, Blatha, Abeu, Ebenphi, are examples) . . .”

In this passage the name Osoronnophris is clearly a corruption of the old Egyptian names of the great god of the dead “Ausar Unnefer,” and Phapro seems to represent the Egyptian Per-âa (literally, “great house”) or “Pharaoh,” with the article pa “the” prefixed.

It is interesting to note that Moses is mentioned, a fact which seems to indicate Jewish influence.

In another magical formula we read, (Goodwin, op. cit., p. 21) “I call upon thee that didst create the earth and bones, and all flesh and all spirit, that didst establish the sea and that shakest the heavens, that didst divide the light from the darkness, the great regulative mind, that disposest everything, eye of the world, spirit of spirits, god of gods, the lord of spirits, the immoveable Aeon, IAOOUÊI, hear my voice.”

“I call upon thee, the ruler of the gods, high-thundering Zeus, Zeus, king, Adonai, lord, Iaoouêe. I am he that invokes thee in the Syrian tongue, the great god, Zaalaêr, Iphphou, do thou not disregard the Hebrew appellation Ablanathanalb, Abrasilôa.”

“For I am Silthakhôoukh, Lailam, Blasalôth, Iaô, Ieô, Nebouth, Sabiothar, Bôth, Arbathiaô, Iaoth, Sabaôth, Patoure, Zagourê, Baroukh Adonai, Elôai, Iabraam, Barbarauô, Nau, Siph,” etc.

The spell ends with the statement that it “loosens chains, blinds, brings dreams, creates favour; it may be used in common for whatever purpose you will.”

In the above we notice at once the use of the seven vowels which form “a name wherein be contained all Names, and all Lights, and all Powers” (see Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, London, 1893, p. 63). The seven vowels have, of course, reference to the three vowels “Iaô” (for Iaoouêi we should probably read Iaô ouêi) which were intended to represent one of the Hebrew names for Almighty God, “Jâh.”

The names “Adonai, Elôai,” are also derived through the Hebrew from the Bible, and Sabaôth is another well-known Hebrew word meaning “hosts”; some of the remaining names could be explained, if space permitted, by Hebrew and Syriac words.

On papyri and amulets the vowels are written in magical combinations in such a manner as to form triangles and other shapes; with them are often found the names of the seven archangels of God; the following are examples:–

 (British Museum, Gnostic gem, No. G. 33). (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123). (Ibid., p. 123. These names read Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Souriel, Zaziel, Badakiel, and Suliel).

(British Museum, Gnostic gem, No. G. 33).
(Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).
(Ibid., p. 123. These names read Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Souriel, Zaziel, Badakiel, and Suliel)

In combination with a number of signs which owe their origin to the Gnostics the seven vowels were sometimes engraved upon plaques, or written upon papyri, with the view of giving the possessor power over gods or demons or his fellow creatures.

The example printed below is found on a papyrus in the British Museum and accompanies a spell written for the purpose of overcoming the malice of enemies, and for giving security against alarms and nocturnal visions. (Kenyon, op. cit., P. 121).

Amulet inscribed with signs and letters of magical power for overcoming the malice of enemies. (From Brit. Mus., Greek Papyrus, Nu. CXXIV.--4th or 5th century.) (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).

Amulet inscribed with signs and letters of magical power for overcoming the malice of enemies. (From Brit. Mus., Greek Papyrus, Nu. CXXIV.–4th or 5th century.) (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).

But of all the names found upon Gnostic gems two, i.e., Khnoubis (or Khnoumis), and Abrasax (or Abraxas), are of the most frequent occurrence. The first is usually represented as a huge serpent having the head of a lion surrounded by seven or twelve rays.

Over the seven rays, one on the point of each, are the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet, which some suppose to refer to the seven heavens; and on the back of the amulet, on which the figure of Khnoumis occurs, is usually found the sign of the triple S and bar.

Khnoumis is, of course, a form of the ancient Egyptian god Khnemu, or “Fashioner” of man and beast, the god to whom many of the attributes of the Creator of the universe were ascribed.

Khnemu is, however, often depicted with the head of a ram, and in the later times, as the “beautiful ram of Râ,” he has four heads; in the Egyptian monuments he has at times the head of a hawk, but never that of a lion.

The god Abrasax is represented in a form which has a human body, the bead of a hawk or cock, and legs terminating in serpents; in one hand he holds a knife or dagger, and in the other a shield upon which is inscribed the great name ΙΑΩ {Greek IAW}, or JÂH.

Considerable difference of opinion exists as to the meaning and derivation of the name Abrasax, but there is no doubt that the god who bore it was a form of the Sun-god, and that he was intended to represent some aspect of the Creator of the world.

The name was believed to possess magical powers of the highest class, and Basileides, (he of Alexandria, who lived about A.D. 120. He was a disciple of Menander, and declared that he had received the esoteric doctrine of Saint Peter from Glaucias, a disciple of the Apostle) who gave it currency in the second century, seems to have regarded it as an invincible name.

It is probable, however, that its exact meaning was lost at an early date, and that it soon degenerated into a mere magical symbol, for it is often found inscribed on amulets side by side with scenes and figures with which, seemingly, it cannot have any connexion whatever.

Judging from certain Gnostic gems in the British Museum, Abrasax is to be identified with the polytheistic figure that stands in the upper part of the Metternich stele depicted on p. 153 and below.

Metternich Stele.

Metternich Stele.

This figure has two bodies, one being that of a man, and the other that of a bird; from these extend four wings, and from each of his knees projects a serpent.

He has two pairs of hands and arms; one pair is extended along the wings, each hand holding the symbols of “life,” “stability,” and “power,” and two knives and two serpents; the other pair is pendent, the right hand grasping the sign of life, and the other a sceptre.

His face is grotesque, and probably represents that of Bes, or the sun as an old man; on his head is a pylon-shaped object with figures of various animals, and above it a pair of horns which support eight knives and the figure of a god with raised hands and arms, which typifies “millions of years.”

The god stands upon an oval wherein are depicted figures of various “typhonic” animals, and from each side of his crown proceed several symbols of fire.

Whether in the Gnostic system Abraxas absorbed all the names and attributes of this god of many forms cannot be said with certainty.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 177-80.

The Original Content of the Kabbalah

” … Traditions differ in matters of detail. According to some, it was Rabbi David, the father of Rabbi Abraham ben David (known in Hebrew literature by the acronym Rabad) and not Abraham ben Isaac, his father- in-law, who was the first to receive this Kabbalah. Albeck assumed Isaac the Blind was the son and not the grandson of Abraham ben Isaac, but the analysis of the oldest sources does not confirm this assumption. Around these scholars, but especially around Isaac the Blind, there crystallized the oldest groups of Provençal kabbalists that we are still able to identify.

The pupils of Rabad and his son, coming from Spain to study in the talmudic academies of Provence, were the principal agents of the Kabbalah’s transplantation to Spain and its propagation in that country. Nothing permits us to suppose that the Kabbalah, in the precise sense of the term, became known in Spain other than through this channel or by way of a parallel path that would point to Provence.

Here, to be sure, we must ask what the exact significance of the word Kabbalah was at this time in the circle of the kabbalists themselves. Kabbalah is a fairly common word in rabbinic Hebrew: it simply means “tradition.” In the Talmud, it served to designate the non-Pentateuchal parts of the Hebrew Bible. Later, every tradition was called by this name, without its entailing any specifically mystical nuance.

That it was already employed by the philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in the sense it would acquire among the kabbalists is a widespread but completely false assumption. It has just a little to do with the Aramaic word qibhla, “amulet.” The Spanish kabbalists still knew very well several generations later what original notion their predecessors had in mind when they employed the term Kabbalah. As late as the year 1330, Meir ben Solomon ibn Sahula, a pupil of Solomon ibn Adreth, expressed himself clearly and directly on the origin and meaning of this new discipline.

“It is incumbent upon us,” he writes in the preface to his commentary on the Book Yesirah, “to explore all of these things according to the measure of our understanding, and to follow, in what concerns them, the path taken by those who, in our generation and in the preceding generations, for two hundred years, are called kabbalists, mequbbalim, and they call the science of the ten sefiroth and some of the reasons for the [biblical] commandments by the name Kabbalah.”

It follows, then, that in the eyes of these kabbalists the new theosophic conception of God, based upon the doctrine of the ten sefiroth of the Book Yesirah as well as upon the mystical reasons founded on this doctrine for certain ritual precepts of the Torah, constitute the original content of the Kabbalah.

In the author’s own opinion, this teaching is by no means ancient; it does not go back many centuries. Rather, it is about two hundred years old, which brings us back, for its initial stage, to the period of the first revelations of the prophet Elijah —that is, in Provence, toward the middle of the thirteenth century. The chain of kabbalistic traditions that contains the names mentioned previously accords perfectly with this information. It should be noted, also, that the clear awareness on the part of this later kabbalist of the relative youth of the Kabbalah in no way prevents him from considering it a path to knowledge that is ”incumbent upon us” to follow.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 37-9.

The Revelations of the Prophet Elijah and the Celestial Academy

” … Their accounts emphasize the mystical inspiration, namely, the “appearance of the Holy Spirit,” in one of the most distinguished families representing the rabbinic culture of Provençal Jewry. These sources name several historical personalities to whom the prophet Elijah is said to have revealed himself (gilluy Eliyahu)-, that is, they were the recipients of celestial mysteries of which earlier tradition knew nothing until then, and which came to them as revelations from above.

These revelations may have been of a purely visionary character, or they may have been experiences of illumination sustained while in a state of contemplation. I have expressed my opinion elsewhere on the meaning of this category of gilluy Eliyahu, which is of considerable importance for an understanding of the relationship between religious authority and mysticism in Judaism.

The prophet Elijah is for rabbinic Judaism the guardian of the sacred tradition. In the end, with the arrival of the Messiah, he will bring the divergent opinions of the teachers of the Torah into harmony. To the pious, he now reveals himself on diverse occasions in the marketplace, on the road, and at home. Important religious traditions of the Talmud and even an entire midrashic work are attributed to his instruction. He is present every time a child is admitted into the Covenant of Abraham—that is, at the establishment of the sacral connection between the generations by means of circumcision. It is by no means the mystics alone who encounter him; he may just as well reveal himself to the simple Jew in distress as to one perfect in saintliness and learning.

As the zealot of God in the Bible, he is the guarantor of the tradition. He is, as I have written, “not the kind of figure of whom it could be supposed that he would communicate or reveal anything whatsoever which stood in fundamental contradiction to such a tradition.” A tradition that was acknowledged to have come from the prophet Elijah therefore became part, in the consciousness of the faithful, of the main body of Jewish tradition, even if it brought something new; and it stood above any possible suspicion of foreign influence or heretical attitude.

It is no wonder, then, that at important turning points in the history of Jewish mysticism—precisely at those times when something new appeared—constant reference was made to revelations of the prophet Elijah. Understood in this sense, “tradition” included not only that which was transmitted on earth and in history, but also that which was received from the “celestial academy” above.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 35-6.

Shabbatai Zevi and Sacred Hypocrisy

“The theological challenge facing Nathan of Gaza and other Sabbatian thinkers changed dramatically late in 1666, when Shabbatai Zevi was summoned to the palace of the Ottoman sultan. He emerged from the meeting wearing the Muslim cap. Having been threatened, Shabbatai Zevi did not hesitate for long before converting to Islam. Judaism was suddenly faced with a situation in which the messiah committed the worst possible sin that generations of Jews were educated to avoid. One has, when faced with a demand to convert, to become a martyr and “sanctify the holy name” rather than betray one’s God, people and tradition. Shabbatai Zevi, who should have been the example of religious perfection and who was regarded not only as a divine messenger but also as a divine incarnation, did the exact opposite.”

Scholem later explained that this was not only deliberate, but necessary, including the “discovery” of numerous verses and statements in the Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar that indicate the necessity of the messiah’s conversion to an “evil” religion.

“Several thousands of Sabbatians followed Shabbatai Zevi in the last decades of the seventeenth century and converted to Islam… Most Sabbatians, however, remained within Jewish communities, and created an underground of believers in all strata of Jewish society, simple people, intellectuals, and rabbis. They imitated their messiah in a kind of “sacred hypocrisy:” They pretended to be orthodox Jews, adhering to the ancient exilic tradition, while secretly they worshiped the messiah and the Torah of the age of redemption.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 89-90.

The Ein Sof

“The concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah. This concept, which was expressed in the most powerful terms by Aristotelian thinkers when they discussed the primal cause or the unmoved mover, was accepted wholeheartedly by Jewish medieval thinkers. Kabbalistic terminology often used the term “ein sof,” no end, infinite, to designate this supreme entity.”

“The process of emanation that brought forth the system of the sefirot was the kabbalistic answer to the question, “How can anything different emerge from the unchanging and eternal divinity?”

“Many kabbalists insisted that the ein sof is not indicated by any biblical phrase, because its perfection and unchanging character put it beyond language, even divine language … The realm of ein sof in the kabbalah is therefore beyond language, beyond any kind of description, and essentially it is not different from the rationalistic designations of the infinite supreme eternal entity.”

“This and other such systems attempt to build a bridge between the timelessness of the ein sof and the sefirot, which exist in time … The most important aspect of ein sof in kabbalistic thought is as the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light (shefa) that constantly provides the power to exist in both divine and earthly realms. Emanation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing vital process that maintains the existence of all beings.

“The kabbalists differed from the neo-Platonists in the intense dynamism and mythological elements that they introduced into their system, especially in the lower realms of existence, and in their belief in the capacity of human deeds and behavior to influence processes in the divine world.”

As above, so below, and vice versa.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 39-41.

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