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Category: Koran

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.

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.

The Water of Life

” … In the mythical histories of Alexander the Great, the hero searches for the Water of Life, and is confronted by a great mountain called Musas (Mashti). A demon stops him and says; “O king, thou art not able to march through this mountain, for in it dwelleth a mighty god who is like unto a monster serpent, and he preventeth everyone who would go unto him.”

In another part of the narrative Alexander and his army arrive at a place of darkness “where the blackness is not like the darkness of night, but is like unto the mists and clouds which descend at the break of day.”

A servant uses a shining jewel stone, which Adam had brought from Paradise, to guide him, and found the well. He drank of the “waters of life” and bathed in them, with the result that he was strengthened and felt neither hunger nor thirst. When he came out of the well “all the flesh of his body became bluish-green and his garments likewise bluish-green.” Apparently he assumed the colour of supernatural beings.

Rama of India was blue, and certain of his monkey allies were green, like the fairies of England and Scotland. This fortunate man kept his secret. His name was Matun, but he was afterwards nicknamed “‘El-Khidr,‘ that is to say, ‘Green.'” What explanation he offered for his sudden change of appearance has not been recorded.

It is related that when Matun reached the Well of Life a dried fish which he dipped in the water was restored to life and swam away. In the Koran a similar story is told regarding Moses and Joshua, who travelled “for a long space of time” to a place where two seas met.

“They forgot their fish which they had taken with them, and the fish took its way freely to the sea.” The Arabian commentators explain that Moses once agreed to the suggestion that he was the wisest of men. In a dream he was directed to visit Al Khedr, who was “more knowing than he,” and to take a fish with him in a basket.

On the seashore Moses fell asleep, and the fish, which had been roasted, leapt out of the basket into the sea. Another version sets forth that Joshua, “making the ablution at the fountain of life,” some of the water happened to be sprinkled on the fish, which immediately leapt up.”

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

Awaiting the Prophet Elijah

“The Qu’ran is the final revelation of the Lord (as Allah) to the children of Abraham. It was transmitted through the Prophet Mohammed, the “Seal of the Shemite prophets.”

The only prophet yet to come is the reappearance of Eliyahu (Elijah), who will herald the final messianic advent of Allah as “The Last,” which the Qu’ran calls the Day of Judgement” (Yom Ah-Din).

The Qu’ran encompasses 6,666 verses in 114 titled surahs (chapters) of varying length.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  71.

More on Words of Power

“The written word has been regarded in the East with reverence from time immemorial, and a copy of a sacred writing or text is worn or carried about to this day with much the same ideas and beliefs about its power to protect as in the earliest times.

In ancient Egypt the whole Book of the Dead, as well as the various sections of it which are usually copied on papyri, consisted of a series of “words of power,” and the modern Egyptian looks upon the Koran in the same light as his ancestor looked upon the older work. (In a similar way the Arabs attach as much importance to the Fatha, or opening chapter, and to the chapter which declares the Unity of God (CXII.), as to the rest of the Koran).

A curious passage in the text inscribed on the inside of the pyramid of Unas reads (1. 583), “The bone and flesh which possess no writing are wretched, but, behold, the writing of Unas is under the great seal, and behold, it is not under the little seal.”

It is difficult to explain the passage fully, but there is no doubt that we have here an allusion to the custom of placing writings believed to be possessed of magical powers with the dead.

Certain passages or sections of the religious books of ancient nations have always been held to be of more importance than others, and considering the great length of such compositions this is not to be wondered at.

Among the Egyptians two forms of the LXIVth Chapter of the Book of the Dead were in use, and there is no doubt whatever that the shorter form, as far back as the Ist dynasty, about B.C. 4300, was intended to be a summary of the whole work, and that the recital of it was held to be as efficacious as the recital of all the rest of it. (See Chapter of Coming Forth by Day, p. 70).

It is a remarkable fact that this form is called “The Chapter of knowing the ‘Chapters of Coming Forth by Day‘ in a single Chapter,” and that it is declared to date from the time of Hesepti, a king of the Ist dynasty, about B.C. 4300, whilst the “finding” of the longer form is attributed to the reign of Men-kau-Râ (Mycerinus), a king of the IVth dynasty, about B.C. 3600.

It is interesting to note how persistently certain chapters and formulæ occur in funeral papyri of different periods, and the explanation seems to be that a popular selection was made at an early date, and that this selection was copied with such additions or omissions as the means of the friends of the deceased allowed or made necessary.

One thing is quite certain: every man in Egypt died in the firm belief that in the course of his journey into the next world he would be provided with words of power which would enable him to make his way thither unhindered, and give him abundance of meat and drink.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 124-6.

The Absolute Book

“Superimposed on the notion of a God who speaks with men in order to command them to do something or to forbid them to do something was that of the Absolute Book, of a Sacred Scripture.

For Muslims, the Koran, (also called “The Book,” al-Kitab) is not merely a work of God, like men’s souls or the universe; it is one of the attributes of God, like His eternity or His rage.

In chapter XIII we read that the original text, the Mother of the Book, is deposited in Heaven.

Muhammed al-Gazali, the Algazel of the scholastics, declared: “The Koran is copied in a book, is pronounced with the tongue, is remembered in the heart and, even so, continues to persist in the center of God and is not altered by its passage through written pages and human understanding.”

George Sale observes that this uncreated Koran is nothing but its idea or Platonic archetype; it is likely that al-Gazali used the idea of archetypes, communicated to Islam by the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity and by Avicenna, to justify the notion of the Mother of the Book.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

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