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Tag: Hebrew

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.

On the Ummânu

“Such an association of the apkallu’s with kings of renown is singularly striking in view of the ancient near eastern motif that links a person of superior wisdom with a famous king.

In Egypt, we have the tradition — or fiction — of viziers who are credited with the authorship of “instructions” or “admonitions” (see J.A. Wilson, ANET 412 ff. and 432 n. 4, see also H. Brunner in Handbuch der Orientalistik I/2 p. 92 f.); for the Old Testament, references are conveniently collected by J. Lindblom, in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 3, p. 129 f.

The god Ea at far left, wearing the horned headdress indicative of divinity, with water coursing from his shoulders. 

A fish-apkallū is in the iconic posture with right hand raised in blessing or exorcism, with the banduddu bucket in his left hand. 

The next apkallū wields an indistinct and as yet undefined angular object in his right hand, with the typical banduddu bucket in his left. 

The entity at far right, which appears to be wearing a horned tiara indicative of divinty, remains unidentified and undefined.

The god Ea at far left, wearing the horned headdress indicative of divinity, with water coursing from his shoulders. 

A fish-apkallū is in the iconic posture with right hand raised in blessing or exorcism, with the banduddu bucket in his left hand. 

The next apkallū wields an indistinct and as yet undefined angular object in his right hand, with the typical banduddu bucket in his left. 

The entity at far right, which appears to be wearing a horned tiara indicative of divinty, remains unidentified and undefined.

The most famous figure of such a wise man, whose story is the most wide spread, is Ahiqar, whose Mesopotamian origin has repeatedly been stated (for bibliography see Ginsberg in ANET 427), although no Babylonian prototype of the story as a whole is known.

However, there can be proven for Babylonia the existence of at least the theme that serves as a framework for Ahiqar’s sayings: this theme, the “disgrace and rehabilitation of a minister”, has been discussed, with a good comparative bibliography, by  A.H. Krappe in JAOS 61 (1941) 280-84.

The story is included in the “bilingual proverbs” (latest publication with bibliography, by W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature 239 ff.), where it comprises a section of fourteen lines (ii 50-63, op. cit., p. 241), the longest of the sayings which usually consist of only two to four lines, although there are some as much as eight lines long.

The umu-apkallū at far left has his right hand raised in the iconic gesture of purification and exorcism, but no mullilu cone appears to be present.<br /> The banduddû bucket is present in the left hand. This umu-apkallū wears a horned tiara, indicative of divinity.<br /> The next entity lacks wings, and so is probably not an umu-apkallū. The mace in the right hand could be an e'ru, as it is not yet clear precisely what e'ru means. I do not understand the object in his left hand. The mace could be an indicator of sovereignty, of kingship.<br /> The next entity holds a bowl and the curved staff, known as the gamlu-curved staff. While this entity wears a headdress, it is not horned, and wings are absent, suggesting that it is human rather than umu-apkallū. This is probably a king, Museum notes suggest Ashurnasirpal.<br /> The entity at far right wields a curved stick in his right hand, I am unsure how Wiggermann defines it, and I am completely stumped by the object in his left hand, which appears to be a ladle. The entity appears to be a priest, blessing an offering from the king in a bowl.<br /> Overall, this frieze supports one theme of Erica Reiner's article on the Seven Sages of Sumeria, which is that each king had his associated advisor in the form of an apkallū.

The umu-apkallū at far left has his right hand raised in the iconic gesture of purification and exorcism, but no mullilu cone appears to be present.
The banduddû bucket is present in the left hand. This umu-apkallū wears a horned tiara, indicative of divinity.
The next entity lacks wings, and so is probably not an umu-apkallū. The mace in the right hand could be an e’ru, as it is not yet clear precisely what e’ru means. I do not understand the object in his left hand. The mace could be an indicator of sovereignty, of kingship.
The next entity holds a bowl and the curved staff, known as the gamlu-curved staff. While this entity wears a headdress, it is not horned, and wings are absent, suggesting that it is human rather than umu-apkallū. This is probably a king, Museum notes suggest Ashurnasirpal.
The entity at far right wields a curved stick in his right hand, I am unsure how Wiggermann defines it, and I am completely stumped by the object in his left hand, which appears to be a ladle. The entity appears to be a priest, blessing an offering from the king in a bowl.
Overall, this frieze supports one theme of Erica Reiner’s article on the Seven Sages of Sumeria, which is that each king had his associated advisor in the form of an apkallū.

Since none of the previous translations does justice to the motif expressed in the relevant passage, I suggest the following (the short lines of the bilingual text disposed in two columns are here restored to their assumed full length):

  • 50-51: “Their gods have returned to the ruin,
  • 52-53: the clamor (of daily life) has filled (lit. entered) the deserted house (again);
  • 54-55: (where) the ingrate is tenant, the wise man does not reach old age.
  • 56-58: The wise vizier, whose wisdom his king (or his lord) has not heeded,
  • 59-61: and any valuable (person) forgotten by his master,
  • 62-63: when a need arises for him (i.e., for his wisdom), he will be reinstated.”

The second half of the “saying” has reference to the disgrace and rehabilitation of a wise vizier, and, unless the first three lines (ii. 50-55) should be taken as a separate saying (so last J. Pereman, The Book of Assyro-Babylonian Proverbs [in Hebrew], p. 58), the reference to the “ingrate” (raggu) would indicate that the other basic theme of the Ahiqar-story, that of the “ungrateful nephew” (see Krappe, loc. cit., p. 281), had already been fused in the Mesopotamian tradition, as in the Ahiqar-story, with that of the “disgrace and rehabilitation of a minister”.

The argument for the existence in Babylonia of a tradition linking wisdom to a high official (“vizier”) of the king can be strengthened by the philological evidence of the alternation of the terms apkallu and ummânu, which has been adduced in other contexts.

In the top register, Ummiamu, (a variant spelling of Reiner's ummânu), human apkallū that are postdiluvian, tend to a sacred tree. In the lower register, antediluvian apkallū with avian heads tend to a sacred tree.<br />  The cones and buckets in their hands are now understood to be standard devices used to sprinkle water. Called mullilu and banduddu, respectively, the water sprinkling ritual was intended to liberate sin, or as part of a rite of exorcism.

In the top register, Ummiamu, (a variant spelling of Reiner’s ummânu), human apkallū that are postdiluvian, tend to a sacred tree. In the lower register, antediluvian apkallū with avian heads tend to a sacred tree.
The cones and buckets in their hands are now understood to be standard devices used to sprinkle water. Called mullilu and banduddu, respectively, the water sprinkling ritual was intended to liberate sin, or as part of a rite of exorcism.

The usual acceptation of the latter is “master craftsman,” often referring to scribes, authors or copyists of literary texts. References to both have been collected by van Dijk, La Sagesse Suméro-Accadienne, p. 20 n. 56, and note that Adapa, besides his more common epithet apkallu, is also called ummânu . . .

Moreover, it has been shown the term ummânu serves not only as the designation of a learned man or craftsman, but also refers, although in late texts, to a high official . . . In our connection most relevant is the mention of the ummânu beside the king in the Synchronistic King List (see simply Oppenheim in ANET 272 ff.), and the passage from the Fürstenspiegel (see now Lambert, BWL 112:5): šarru . . . ana UM.ME A la iqūl “if the king does not heed the vizier (or wise man).”

Note in the same text . . . is most likely to be read apkallišu.”

Erica Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the “Seven Sages,” Orientalia, v. 30, No. 1, 1961, pp. 7-9.

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.

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.

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.

Divinity of the High Places, and Sacred Stones

“The sacred mounds of Babylonia, in fact, like the Gilgals of Palestine, appear to have been the sites of older structures which had long fallen into decay, and around which fancy and tradition were allowed to play freely.

They had in this way become veritable hills–tumuli, as we should term them in our modern archeological vocabulary–and as such deserved the venerable title of sadu, or “mountain.” New temples like that of “the mountain of the world” could be named after them, but this did not imply a recollection that the sacred mounds had once been temples themselves.

They were rather, like the mountains of the eastern frontier, the everlasting altars of the gods, on whose summits worship could most fittingly be paid to the deities of heaven. And, like the mountains, they were something more than altars; they were themselves divine, the visible habitations of the spirits of the air.

It is possible that Prof. Friedrich Delitzsch is right in proposing to see in the Assyrian sadu, or “mountain,” the explanation of the Hebrew title of the Deity, El Shaddai. At all events, God is compared to a rock in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, xxxii. 15, Psalms, xviii. 2), and the worship of sacred stones was widely spread through the Semitic world.

Between the sacred mounds of Babylonia, however, and the sacred stones of Semitic faith, there was a wide difference, answering to a difference in the minds of the two races to whom these separate cults belonged.

The sacred stone was a Beth-el, or “house of god;” no habitation of a mere spirit, but the dwelling-place of deity itself. Its sanctity was not inherent; it was sacred because it had been transformed into an altar by the oil that was poured out upon it in libation, or the priest who was consecrated to its service. The worship of those sacred stones was common to all the branches of the Semitic family.

The famous black stone of the Kaaba at Mecca is a standing witness of the fact. So firmly rooted was the belief in its divine character among the Arabs of Mohammed’s day that he was unable to eradicate it, but was forced to make a compromise with the old faith by attaching to the stone the traditions of the Old Testament.

The black stone, though more sacred than any others, did not stand alone. All around Mecca there were similar stones, termed Anzab, three of which may still be seen, according to Mr. Doughty, at the gates of the city, where they go by the names of IIobbal, Lâta and Uzza.

Northward of Mecca, at Medain-Saleh, the burial-place of the ancient kingdom of the Nabathaeans, Mr. Doughty has discovered niches in the rock containing sacred stones. Above one of them is an inscription which shows that the stone was the symbol or habitation of the god Auda (or Aera): “This is the place of prayer which Seruh the son of Tuka has erected to Auda of Bostra, the great god, in the month Nisan of the first year of king Malkhos.”

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. 407-8.

Was the Birs-i-Nimrud the Historical Tower of Babel?

“At any rate, in Babylonia itself the primitive cult of the mountains could be carried on only artificially. The sacred mountains of the plain were the mounds which marked the sites of ancient temples, or the towers which rose within them in order that the priest might continue on their summits that close communion with heaven which he had once enjoyed on the high places of the mountain-tops.

In the story of the Deluge, the mountain peak of Nizir, where the rescued hero of the legend built his altar and poured out his offerings, is called a ziggurrat, or temple-tower. Conversely, “the mountain of the world” was the name given to a temple at Calah; and the mountain of ‘Sabu, to which the god Zu took his flight, was Kharsak-kalama, “the mountain of mankind,” an artificial mound near Kis.

The most famous of these sacred tels or mounds, however, was the famous tilu ellu, “the illustrious mound,” at Borsippa, now represented by the Birs-i-Nimrud. Nebo, to whom the great temple of Borsippa was dedicated, is called its god (H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, ii. 54, 71).

The Birs-i-Numrud, alleged to be the ruined remains of the historical Tower of Babel.  Current dimensions are 150 feet high with a circumference of 2300 ft.

The Birs-i-Numrud, alleged to be the ruined remains of the historical Tower of Babel.
Current dimensions are 150 feet high with a circumference of 2300 ft.

One of “the three great” or secret “names of Anu” was that of “the lord who issues forth from the illustrious mound” (H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, iii. 68, ID), in reference to the fact that the Accadian prototype of Nebo was once the universe itself, in which the seven spheres of light were set, and around which the ocean-stream wound like a rope or serpent.

When the old god of Borsippa had passed into the Semitic Nebo, the attributes which had formerly connected him with the firmament of heaven were transferred to Anu, the sky-god of the official cult.

A fragmentary tablet, which gives us, as I believe, the Babylonian version of the building of the tower of Babel, expressly identifies it with “the illustrious mound.” Here we are told of the leader of the rebellion that when “the thought of his heart was hostile” and he “had wronged the father of all the gods,” when “he was hurrying to seize Babylon,” and “small and great were mingling the mound,” “the divine king of the illustrious mound” intervened, “Anu iifted up (his hand) in front” and prayed “to his father the lord of the firmament.”

“All day long he troubled” them; “as they lamented on their couch he ended not” their “distress.” “In his wrath he overthrows (their) secret counsel; in his (fury) he set his face to mingle (their) designs; he gave the command (?), he made strange their plan” (William Saint Chad Boscawen, Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archeology, v. 1.)

The very word that the Hebrew writer uses in order to explain the origin of the name of Babylon, and which the Authorised Version translates “confound,” is here employed of those who “mingled together” the mound, and whose designs were afterwards themselves “mingled'” by the god of heaven.

“The illustrious mound” was known as far back as the time when the months of the Accadian year were named. The month which corresponded to the Semitic Tasrit or Tisri, and our September, was “the month of the illustrious mound.”

It would seem, therefore, that legend had referred the attempt to build the tower whose head should reach to heaven to the autumnal equinox; at any rate, it is clear that the mound of Borsippa was not only in existence, but was already in a state of ruin when the Accadian calendar was first drawn up.”

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. 405-7.

Augury Through the Flights of Birds and the Voice of the Thunder

“The divine storm-bird,” however, who invested himself by stealth with the attributes of Mul-lil, and carried the knowledge of futurity to mankind, served to unite the two species of augury which read the future in the flight of birds and the flash of the lightning.

The first species was but a branch of the general pseudo-science which discovered coming events from the observation of animals and their actions, while the second species was closely allied to the belief that in the thunder men heard the voice of the gods. The old belief marked its impress upon Hebrew as well as upon Assyro-Babylonian thought.

“The voice of thy thunder was in the whirlwind,” says the Psalmist; and nothing can show more clearly what must once have been the Canaanitish faith than the poetic imagery of another Psalm (xxix.):

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;

the God of glory thundereth;

the Lord is upon many waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars;

yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. …

The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness;

the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests.”

In the Talmud, “the voice of the Lord” has become the bath qôl, or “daughter of the voice,” a supernatural message from heaven which sometimes proceeded from the Holy of Holies, sometimes, like the δαιμονιον of Socrates, assumed the form of an intuition directing the recipient as to his course in life.

This prophetic voice of heaven was heard in the thunder by the Accadians as well as by the Semites. I have already noticed that the Accadians believed the sounds of nature to be divine voices, from which the initiated could derive a knowledge of the future.

At Eridu it was more especially the roar of the sea in which the Sumerian priest listened to the revelations of his deities, and this perhaps was the oracle through which Oannes had spoken to men. In the rival city of northern Babylonia, where the supreme god presided over the realm of the dead, and not over the waters of the sea, the divine voice came to men in the thunder.

By the side of Mul-lil, the lord of the ghost-world, stood Mul-me-sarra (Wül-mö-sára), “the lord of the voice of the firmament.” Mul-me-sarra, in fact, was but Mul-lil himself in another form, and hence, as lord of Hades, was the author, not only of the thunder, but of subterranean noises as well.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, 299-300.

The Rise of Marduk

“In an inscription upon a clay cylinder brought from Babylonia seven years ago, Cyrus is made to declare that the overthrow of Nabonidos, the last independent Babylonian monarch, was due to the anger of Bel and the other gods.

Nabonidos had removed their images from their ancient sanctuaries, and had collected them together in the midst of Babylon. The priests maintained that the deed had aroused the indignation of Merodach, “the lord of the gods,” who had accordingly rejected Nabonidos, even as Saul was rejected from being king of Israel, and had sought for a ruler after his own heart.

It was “in wrath” that the deities had ”left their shrines when Nabonidos brought them into Babylon,” and had prayed Merodach, the divine patron of the imperial city, to “go round unto all men wherever might be their seats.”

Merodach sympathised with their wrongs; “he visited the men of Sumer and Accad whom he had sworn should be his attendants,” and “all lands beheld his friend.” He chose Cyrus, king of Elam, and destined him by name for the sovereignty of Chaldea.

Cyrus, whom the Hebrew prophet had already hailed as the Lord’s Anointed, was thus equally the favourite of the supreme Babylonian god.

“Merodach, the great lord, the restorer of his people,” we are told, “beheld with joy the deeds of his vicegerent who was righteous in hand and heart. To his city of Babylon he summoned his march, and he bade him take the road to Babylon; like a friend and a comrade he went at his side.”

A single battle decided the conflict: the Babylonians opened their gates, and “without fighting or battle,” Cyrus was led in triumph into the city of Babylon.

His first care was to show his gratitude towards the deities who had so signally aided him. Their temples were rebuilt, and they themselves were restored to their ancient seats.

With all the allowance that must be made for the flattery exacted by a successful conqueror, we must confess that this is a very remarkable document. It is written in the Babylonian language and in the Babylonian form of the cuneiform syllabary, and we may therefore infer that it was compiled by Babylonian scribes and intended for the perusal of Babylonian readers.

Yet we find the foreign conqueror described as the favourite of the national god, while the last native king is held up to reprobation as the dishonorer of the gods. It is impossible not to compare the similar treatment experienced by Nebuchadnezzar and the native Jewish kings respectively at the hands of Jeremiah.

The Jewish prophet saw in the Chaldean invader the instrument of the God of Judah, just as the Babylonian scribes saw in Cyrus the instrument of the god of Babylon; and the fall of the house of David is attributed, just as much as the fall of Nabonidos, to divine anger.”

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. 85-6.

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.

The Etymology of the Name “Moses”

“Josephos has preserved an extract from the Egyptian historian Manetho, which relates the Egyptian version of the story of the Exodus as it was told in the second century before our era. In this it is stated that the earlier name of Moses was Osarsiph, and that he had been priest of Heliopolis or On.

Here it is evident that Moses and Joseph have been confounded together. The name of Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On, has been decomposed into two elements, the first of which is the divine name Jeho, and this has been changed into its supposed Egyptian equivalent Osar or Osiris.

It is clear that, whatever might have been his opinion about the name of Joseph, Manetho had no doubt that that of Moses was purely Israelitish. It was not until he had become the Israelitish lawgiver and had ceased to be an Egyptian priest that Osarsiph took the name of Moses.

But Moses finds no satisfactory etymology in the pages of the Hebrew lexicon. It stands alone among Hebrew proper names, like Aaron and David. We do not hear of any other persons who have borne the name. If, therefore, it is Semitic, it must belong to an older stratum of Semitic nomenclature than that preserved to us in the Old Testament. We must look to other branches of the Semitic stock for its explanation.

There is only one other branch of the Semitic family whose records are earlier than those of the Hebrews. Arabic literature begins long after the Christian era, when Jewish and Greek and even Christian names and ideas had penetrated into the heart of the Arabian peninsula.

The Arabic language, moreover, belongs to a different division of the Semitic family of speech from that to which Hebrew belongs. To compare Arabic and Hebrew together is like comparing Latin with modern German. There is, however, one Semitic language which has the closest affinities to Hebrew, and this is also the language of which we possess records older than those of the Hebrew Scriptures. I need hardly say that I am referring to Assyrian.

Now the Assyrian equivalent of the Hebrew Mosheh, “Moses,” would be mâsu, and, as it happens, mâsu is a word which occurs not unfrequently in the inscriptions. It was a word of Accadian origin, but since the days of Sargon of Accad had made itself so thoroughly at home in the language of the Semitic Babylonians as to count henceforth as a genuinely Semitic term.

Mâsu signified as nearly as possible all that we mean by the word “hero.” As such, it was an epithet applied to more than one divinity; there was one god more especially for whom it became a name.

This god was the deity sometimes called Adar by Assyrian scholars, sometimes Nin-ip, but whose ordinary name among the Assyrians is still a matter of uncertainty. He was a form of the Sun-god, originally denoting the scorching sun of mid-day. He thus became invested with the sterner attributes of the great luminary of day, and was known to his worshippers as “the warrior of the gods.”

The title of Mâsu, however, was not confined to Adar. It was given also to another solar deity, Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon and the antagonist of the dragon of chaos, and was shared by him with Nergal, whose special function it was to guard and defend the world of the dead.

But Nergal himself was but the sun of night, the solar deity, that is to say, after he had accomplished his daily work in the bright world above and had descended to illuminate for a time the world below.”

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. 45-7.

Commonalities Between Sargon and Moses

” … I will conclude this Lecture with a few illustrations of the extent to which the study of Babylonian religion may be expected to throw light on the earlier portions of Scripture. We have already noticed the curious parallelism which exists between the legend of Sargon’s exposure in an ark of bulrushes and the similar exposure of the great Israelitish leader Moses on the waters of the Nile.

The parallelism exists even further than this common account of their infancy. Sargon of Accad was emphatically the founder of Semitic supremacy in Babylonia; he was the great lawgiver of Babylonian legend; and to him was assigned the compilation of those works on astrology and augury from which the wise men of the Chaldeans subsequently derived their lore.

Moses was equally the legislator of the Israelites and the successful vindicator of Semitic independence from the exactions of Egyptian tyranny, and future generations quoted the books of the Hebrew law under his name.

As we have seen, Sargon was a historical personage, and popular tradition merely treated him as it has treated other heroes of the past, by attaching to him the myths and legends that had once been told of the gods.

Now the name of the great Hebrew legislator has long been a puzzle and a subject of dispute. In the Hebrew Old Testament it is connected with the Hebrew verb mashâh, “to draw out,” not, indeed, in the sense that Moses was he who had been drawn out of the water, for this would not be grammatically permissible, though Pharaoh’s daughter puns upon the idea (Exod. ii. 10), but in the sense of a leader who had drawn his people out of the house of bondage and led them through the waves of the sea.

The translators of the Septuagint, on the other hand, living as they did in Egypt, endeavoured to give the word an Egyptian form and an Egyptian etymology. With them the name is always Μωυσης, which Josephos tells us is derived from the Egyptian words , “water,” and usês, “saved from the water.”

But this etymology, apart from other imperfections, depends upon the change the translators of the Septuagint have themselves made in the pronunciation of the name.

Modern Egyptian scholars, equally willing to find for it an Egyptian derivation, have had recourse to the Egyptian messu or mes, “a son.” This word, it is true, when occurring in proper names is usually combined with the name of a deity; Rameses, for example, the Sesostris of the Greeks, being written in the hieroglyphics Ra-messu, “Lord of the Sun-god.”

But it is conceivable that we might occasionally meet with it alone, and it is also conceivable, though not very probable, that the daughter of the Egyptian king would assign to her adopted child the simple name of “son.”

It is much less conceivable that such an Egyptian name would be that by which a national hero would be afterwards known to his Semitic countrymen. It is difficult to believe that the founder of the Israelitish people would have borne a title which the Israelites did not understand, and which could remind them only of that hated Egyptian land wherein they had been slaves.”

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. 43-5.

Tracing Religious Ideas from Babylon to Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Influence of Babylonian Religion on Judaism

“But, it will be asked, what interest can the religions of Babylonia and Assyria have for us, much more an inquiry into their nature and origin? They have long since perished, like the people who professed them, and have left no apparent traces of their influence upon the nations about whom we know and care most.

The Greeks and Romans concerned themselves so little with these Eastern barbarians as neither to read nor to preserve the only Greek history of Chaldaea (ed. note: referring to Berossus) which was written by a native and professed to be derived from native accounts; we owe the fragments we have of it to the apologetic zeal of Christian controversialists.

Still less would it appear that these old people of Babylonia and Assyria can have had any influence upon the world of to-day, or have served to mould the ideas and the society of modern Europe. Such questions may be asked, and until lately it would have been hard to answer them.

And yet a moment’s consideration might have shown that there was one nation at all events which has exercised, and still exercises, a considerable intluence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history.

The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world.

It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community.

The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world.

Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and the Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God’s anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins.

The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds; from henceforward Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of “the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.”

Apart, therefore, from any influence which the old religious beliefs of Babylonia may have had upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study.

Hitherto, the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith.

Now and then, it is true, some bold spirit, like Bishop Warburton, may have ventured to propound the paradox that the doctrine of the resurrection was first learnt by the Jews in Babylonia, but it was treated generally as a paradox, and of late years, if admitted at all, was considered a proof of the influence not of the Babylonians but of their Persian conquerors.”

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. 38-40.

Comparative Myths of the Deluge

“It is interesting to note that Sisuthrus, the hero of this deluge story, was also the tenth Babylonian king, just as Noah was the tenth patriarch. The birds sent out by Sisuthrus strongly recall the raven and dove despatched by Noah; but there are several American myths which introduce this conception.

Birds and beasts in many cosmologies provide the nucleus of the new world which emerges from the waters which have engulfed the old. Perhaps it is the beaver or the muskrat which dives into the abyss and brings up a piece of mud, which gradually grows into a spacious continent; but sometimes birds carry this nucleus in their beaks. In the myth under consideration they return with mud on their feet, which is obviously expressive of the same idea. Attempts have been made to show that a great difference exists between the Babylonian and Hebrew story. Undoubtedly the two stories have a common origin.

The first Babylonian version of the myth dates from about 2000 b.c. and its text is evidently derived from a still older tablet. It seems likely that this was in turn indebted to a still more archaic version, which probably recounted the earliest type of the myth.

This perhaps related how the earth and its inhabitants were not to the liking of the Creator, and how he resolved to recreate the whole. The great ocean-dragon was therefore called in to submerge the world, after which the Creator re-moulded it and set the survivor and his family upon it as the ancestors of a new human race. It is possible also that the great sea-dragon, or serpent, which was slain by the Creator, may have flooded the earth with his blood as he expired: there is an Algonquin Indian myth to this effect.

In an old cuneiform text, in fact, the year of the deluge is alluded to as “the year of the raging serpent.” The wise man who takes refuge in the ship or ark is warned by a dream of the forthcoming deluge. In some North American Indian myths he is warned by friendly animals. The mountain, too, as a place of refuge for the ark, is fairly common in myth.

We have dealt in Chapter II with the creation myth found in Berossus, and with this ends the part of his history which is of any importance.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 45-6.

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.

The Myth of Tammuz, or Adonis

“The date of the rise of the myth of Tammuz is uncertain, but as the name of this god is found on tablets of the time of Lugal-anda and Uru-ka-gina (about 3500 B.C.), it can hardly be of later date than 4000 B.C., and may be much earlier.

As he is repeatedly called “the shepherd,” and had a domain where he pastured his flock, Professor Sayce sees in Tammuz “Daonus or Daos, the shepherd of Pantibibla,” who, according to Berosus, ruled in Babylonia for 10 /sari/, or 36,000 years, and was the sixth king of the mythical period.

According to the classic story, the mother of Tammuz had unnatural intercourse with her own father, being urged thereto by Aphrodite whom she had offended, and who had decided thus to avenge herself.

Being pursued by her father, who wished to kill her for this crime, she prayed to the gods, and was turned into a tree, from whose trunk Adonis was afterwards born.

Aphrodite was so charmed with the infant that, placing him in a chest, she gave him into the care of Persephone, who, however, when she discovered what a treasure she had in her keeping, refused to part with him again.

Zeus was appealed to, and decided that for four months in the year Adonis should be left to himself, four should be spent with Aphrodite, and four with Persephone; or, as a variant account makes it, he should spend six months with Persephone, and six with Aphrodite on earth. He was afterwards slain, whilst hunting, by a wild boar.

Nothing has come down to us as yet concerning this legend except the incident of his dwelling in Hades, whither Ištar, the Babylonian Venus, went in search of him.

It is not by any means unlikely, however, that the whole story existed in Babylonia, and thence spread to Phœnicia, and afterwards to Greece. In Phœnicia it was adapted to the physical conditions of the country, and the place of Tammuz’s encounter with the boar was said to be the mountains of Lebanon, whilst the river named after him, Adonis (now the Nahr Ibrahim), which ran red with the earth washed down by the autumn rains, was said to be so coloured in consequence of being mingled with his blood.

The descent of Tammuz to the underworld, typified by the flowing down of the earth-laden waters of the rivers to the sea, was not only celebrated by the Phœnicians, but also by the Babylonians, who had at least two series of lamentations which were used on this occasion, and were probably the originals of those chanted by the Hebrew women in the time of Ezekiel (about 597 B.C.).”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 69-70.

Origins of the Jews?

“Babylonia, on the other hand, continued the even tenor of her way. More successful at the end of her independent political career than her northern rival had been, she retained her faith, and remained the unswerving worshipper of Merodach, the great god of Babylon, to whom her priests attributed yet greater powers, and with whom all the other gods were to all appearance identified.

This tendency to monotheism, however, never reached the culminating point–never became absolute–except, naturally, in the minds of those who, dissociating themselves, for philosophical reasons, from the superstitious teaching of the priests of Babylonia, decided for themselves that there was but one God, and worshipped Him.

That orthodox Jews at that period may have found, in consequence of this monotheistic tendency, converts, is not by any means improbable–indeed, the names met with during the later period imply that converts to Judaism were made.

Thus we see, from the various inscriptions, both Babylonian and Assyrian–the former of an extremely early period–the growth and development, with at least one branching off, of one of the most important religious systems of the ancient world.

It is not so important for modern religion as the development of the beliefs of the Hebrews, but as the creed of the people from which the Hebrew nation sprang, and from which, therefore, it had its beginnings, both corporeal and spiritual, it is such as no student of modern religious systems can afford to neglect.

Its legends, and therefore its teachings, as will be seen in these pages, ultimately permeated the Semitic West, and may in some cases even had penetrated Europe, not only through heathen Greece, but also through the early Christians, who, being so many centuries nearer the time of the Assyro-Babylonians, and also nearer the territory which they anciently occupied, than we are, were far better acquainted than the people of the present day with the legends and ideas which they possessed.”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 7-9.

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.

Points of Correspondence Between Genesis and the Enuma Elish

” … It would be tempting to trace the framework of the Seven Days of Creation, upon which the narrative in Genesis is stretched, to the influence of the Seven Tablets of Creation, of which we now know that the great Creation Series was composed. The reasons for the employment of the Seven Days in the Hebrew account are, however, not the same which led to the arrangement of the Babylonian poem upon Seven Tablets.

In the one the writer’s intention is to give the original authority for the observance of the Sabbath; in the other there appears to have been no special reason for this arrangement of the poem beyond the mystical nature of the number “seven.”

Moreover, acts of creation are recorded on all of the first six Days in the Hebrew narrative, while in the Babylonian poem the creation only begins at the end of the Fourth Tablet. 1 The resemblance, therefore, is somewhat superficial, but it is possible that the employment of the number “seven” in the two accounts was not fortuitous.

Whether the Sabbath was of Babylonian origin (as seems probable) or not, it is clear that the writer of the narrative in Genesis was keenly interested in its propagation and its due observance. Now in Exilic and post-Exilic times the account of the Creation most prevalent in Babylonia was that in the poem Enuma elish, the text of which was at this time absolutely fixed and its arrangement upon Seven Tablets invariable.

That the late revival of mythology among the Jews was partly due to their actual study of the Babylonian legends at this period is sufficiently proved by the minute points of resemblance between the accounts of the Deluge in Genesis and in the poem of Gilgamesh. 1

It is probable, therefore, that the writer who was responsible for the final form of Gen. i-ii, 4a, was familiar with the Babylonian legend of Creation in the form in which it has come down to us. The supposition, then, is perhaps not too fanciful, that the connection of the Sabbath with the story of Creation was suggested by the mystical number of the Tablets upon which the Babylonian poem was inscribed.

Further resemblances to the Babylonian Creation legends may be traced in the second Hebrew account of the Creation which follows the first in Gen. ii, 4b-7. According to this version man was formed from the dust of the ground, which may be compared to the mixing of Bel’s blood with earth according to the account of Berossus, the use of the Creator’s blood in the one account being paralleled by the employment of His breath in the other for the purpose of giving life to the dust or earth.

Earth is not mentioned in the recovered portion of the Sixth Tablet, but its use in the creation of men is fully in accordance with Babylonian beliefs. Thus, according to the second Babylonian account of the Creation, 1 Marduk formed man by pouring out dust beside a reed which he had set upon the face of the waters. Clay is also related to have been employed in the creation of special men and heroes; thus it was used in Ea-bani’s creation by Arum, 2 and it is related to have been mixed with divine blood for a similar purpose in the fragmentary legend Bu. 91-5-9, 269. 3

To the account of the creation of woman in Gen. ii, 18 ff. we find a new parallel in l. 5 of the Sixth Tablet of the Creation Series, in the use of the word issimtu, “bone,” corresponding to the Hebrew ‘esem which occurs in the phrase “bone of my bones” in Gen. ii, 23.

In addition to the Babylonian colouring of much of the story of Paradise we may now add a new parallel from the Babylonian address to a mythical River of Creation, inscribed on S. 1704 and the Neo-Babylonian Tablet 82-9-18, 5311. 1

This short composition is addressed to a River to whom the creation of all things is ascribed, 2 and with this river we may compare the mythical river of Paradise which watered the garden, and on leaving it was divided into four branches.

That the Hebrew River of Paradise is Babylonian in character is clear; and the origin of the Babylonian River of Creation is also to be found in the Euphrates, from whose waters southern Babylonia derived its great fertility. 3 The life-giving stream of Paradise is met with elsewhere in the Old Testament, as, for instance, in Ezekiel xlvii, and it is probable that we may trace its influence in the Apocalypse.”1

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

Creation of Mankind in Genesis and the Enuma Elish

” … The account of the creation of man, which is recorded as the eighth and last act of creation in the Hebrew account (Gen. i, 26-31), at length finds its parallel in the Babylonian poem upon the new fragment of the Sixth Tablet, No. 92,629. 2

It has already been pointed out that the Babylonian account closely follows the version of the story handed down to us from Berossus, 3 and it may here be added that the employment by Marduk, the Creator, of his own blood in the creation of man may perhaps be compared to the Hebrew account of the creation of man in the image and after the likeness of Elohim. 4

Moreover, the use of the plural in the phrase “Let us make man” in Gen. i, 26, may be compared with the Babylonian narrative which relates that Marduk imparted his purpose of forming man to his father Ea, whom he probably afterwards instructed to carry out the actual work of man’s creation. 1

A parallel to the charge which, according to the Hebrew account, Elohim gave to man and woman after their creation, has hitherto been believed to exist on the tablet K. 3,364, which was supposed to contain a list of the duties of man as delivered to him after his creation by Marduk.

The new Babylonian duplicate of this text, No. 33,851, proves that K. 3,364 is not part of the Creation Series, but is merely a tablet of moral precepts, so that its suggested resemblance to the Hebrew narrative must be given up. It is not improbable, however, that a missing portion of the Sixth Tablet did contain a short series of instructions by Marduk to man, since man was created with the special object of supplying the gods with worshippers and building shrines in their honour.

That to these instructions to worship the gods was added the gift of dominion over beasts, birds, and vegetation is possible, but it must be pointed out that the Babylonian version of man’s creation is related from the point of view of the gods, not from that of man.

Although his creation forms the culmination of Marduk’s work, it was conceived, not as an end and aim in itself, but merely as an expedient to satisfy the discontented gods. 2 This expedient is referred to in the Seventh Tablet, l. 29, in the phrase “For their forgiveness (i.e., the forgiveness of the gods) did he create mankind,” and other passages in the Seventh Tablet tend to show that Marduk’s mercy and goodness are extolled in his relations, not to mankind, but to the gods. 1

In one passage man’s creation is referred to, but it is in connection with the charge that he forget not the deeds of his Creator. 2

The above considerations render it unlikely that the Babylonian poem contained an exact parallel to the exalted charge of Elohim in which He placed the rest of creation under man’s dominion.

It is possible, however, that upon the new fragment of the Seventh Tablet, K. 12,830 (restored from the commentary K. 8,299) 3 we have a reference to the superiority of man over animals, in the phrase “mankind [he created], [and upon] him understanding [he bestowed (?) . . .]”; and if this be so, we may compare it to Gen. i, 286.

Moreover, if my suggested restoration of the last word in l. 7 of the Sixth Tablet be correct, so that it may read “I will create man who shall inhabit [the earth], 4” we may compare it to Gen. i, 28a in which man is commanded to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” 1

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxxvii-xc.

Parallels Between the Enuma Elish and Genesis

“The close relation existing between the Babylonian account of the Creation and the narrative in Genesis i, 1-11, 4a has been recognized from the time of the first discovery of the former, 1 and the old and new points of resemblance between them may here be briefly discussed.

According to each account the existence of a watery chaos preceded the creation of the universe; and the Hebrew word tehôm, translated “the deep” in Gen. i, 2, is the equivalent of the Babylonian Tiamat, the monster of the deep personifying chaos and confusion.

In the details of the Creation there is also a close resemblance between the two accounts. In the Hebrew narrative the first act of creation is that of light (Gen. i, 3-5), and it has been suggested that a parallel possibly existed in the Babylonian account, in that the creation of light may have been the cause of the revolt of Tiamat.

From the new fragments of the poem we now know that the rebellion of the forces of disorder, which was incited by Apsû and not Tiamat, was due, not to the creation of light, but to his hatred of the way of the gods which produced order in place of chaos 2

A parallelism may still be found, however; in the original form of the Babylonian myth, according to which the conqueror of the dragon was undoubtedly a solar deity. 3 Moreover, as has been pointed out above, 4 day and night are vaguely conceived in the poem as already in existence at the time of Apsû’s revolt, so that the belief in the existence of light before the creation of the heavenly bodies is a common feature of the Hebrew and the Babylonian account.

The second act of creation in the Hebrew narrative is that of a firmament which divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament (Gen. i, 6-8).

In the Babylonian poem the body of Tiamat is divided by Marduk, and from one-half of her he formed a covering or dome for heaven, i.e. a firmament, which kept her upper waters in place. Moreover, on the fragment S. 2,013 1 we find mention of a Ti-amat e-Zi-ti and a Ti-amat shap-li-ti, that is, an Upper Tiamat (or Ocean) and a Lower Tiamat (or Ocean), which are the exact equivalents of the waters above and under the firmament. 2

The third and fourth acts of creation, as narrated in Gen. i, 9-13, are those of the earth and of vegetation. Although no portion of the Babylonian poem has yet been recovered which contains the corresponding account, it is probable that these acts of creation were related on the Fifth Tablet of the series. 1

Berossus expressly states that Bel formed the earth out of one half of Omorka’s body, and as his summary of the Babylonian Creation story is proved to be correct wherever it can be controlled, it is legitimate to assume that he is correct in this detail also.

Moreover, in three passages in the Seventh Tablet the creation of the earth by Marduk is referred to: … “Since he created the heaven and fashioned the firm earth”; 2 the new fragment … states, “He named the four quarters (of the world)”; 3 and another new fragment … definitely ascribes to Marduk the title “Creator of the earth.” 4

That the creation of vegetation by Marduk was also recorded in the poem may be concluded from the opening lines of the Seventh Tablet, which are inscribed on the new fragment … and … ascribe to him the titles “Bestower of planting,” “Founder of sowing,” ” Creator of grain and plants,” and add that he “caused the green herb to spring up.” 1

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxxi-lxxxv.

Babylonian Creation Myths Echo Down the Centuries

” … The evidence furnished by these recently discovered tablets with regard to the date of Babylonian legends in general may be applied to the date of the Creation legends.

While the origin of much of the Creation legends may be traced to Sumerian sources, 1 it is clear that the Semitic inhabitants of Mesopotamia at a very early period produced their own versions of the compositions which they borrowed, modifying and augmenting them to suit their own legends and beliefs.

The connection of Marduk with the Dragon-Myth, and with the stories of the creation of the world and man, may with considerable probability be assigned to the subsequent period during which Babylon gradually attained to the position of the principal city in Mesopotamia.

On tablets inscribed during the reigns of kings of the First Dynasty we may therefore expect to find copies of the Creation legends corresponding closely with the text of the series Enuma elish. It is possible that the division of the poem into seven sections, inscribed upon separate tablets, took place at a later period; but, be this as it may, we may conclude with a considerable degree of confidence that the bulk of the poem, as we know it from late Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian copies, was composed at a period not later than B.C. 2000.

The political influence which the Babylonians exerted over neighbouring nations during long periods of their history was considerable, and it is not surprising that their beliefs concerning the origin of the universe should have been partially adopted by the races with whom they came in contact.

That Babylonian elements may be traced in the Phoenician cosmogony has long been admitted, but the imperfect, and probably distorted, form in which the latter has come down to us renders uncertain any comparison of details. 1

Some of the beliefs concerning the creation of the world which were current among the Egyptians bear a more striking resemblance to the corresponding legends of Babylonia. Whether this resemblance was due to the proto-Semitic strain which probably existed in the ancient Egyptian race, 1 or is to be explained as the result of later Babylonian influence from without, is yet uncertain.

But, whatever explanation be adopted, it is clear that the conception of chaos as a watery mass out of which came forth successive generations of primeval gods is common to both races. 2

It is in Hebrew literature, however, that the most striking examples of the influence of the Babylonian Creation legends are to be found.”

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxix-lxxxi.

Legends of Creation and Dragons

” … Both the source of the original form of the Legend of the Fight between Ea and Apsu, and Marduk and Tiâmat, and the period of its composition are unknown, but there is no doubt that in one form or another it persisted in Mesopotamia for thousands of years.

The apocryphal book of “Bel and the Dragon” shows that a form of the Legend was in existence among the Babylonian Jews long after the Captivity, and the narrative relating to it associates it with religious observances.

But there is no foundation whatsoever for the assertion which has so often been made that the Two Accounts of the Creation which are given in the early chapters in Genesis are derived from the Seven Tablets of Creation described in the preceding pages. It is true that there are many points of resemblance between the narratives in cuneiform and Hebrew, and these often illustrate each other, but the fundamental conceptions of the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts are essentially different.

In the former the earliest beings that existed were foul demons and devils, and the God of Creation only appears at a later period, but in the latter the conception of God is that of a Being Who existed in and from the beginning, Almighty and Alone, and the devils of chaos and evil are His servants.

The seal may illustrate a scene from the epic of creation in which the forces of chaos, led by Tiamat, are defeated by a god representing cosmic order, probably Ninurta.

The seal may illustrate a scene from the epic of creation in which the forces of chaos, led by Tiamat, are defeated by a god representing cosmic order, probably Ninurta.

Among the primitive Semitic peoples there were probably many versions of the story of the Creation; and the narrative told by the Seven Tablets is, no doubt, one of them in a comparatively modern form.

It is quite clear that the Account of the Creation given in the Seven Tablets is derived from very ancient sources, and a considerable amount of literary evidence is now available for reconstructing the history of the Legend.

Thus in the Sumerian Account the narrative of the exploits of the hero called ZIUSUDU 19  begins with a description of the Creation and then goes on to describe a Flood, and there is little doubt that certain passages in this text are the originals of the Babylonian version as given in the Seven Tablets.

In the Story of ZIUSUDU, however, there is no mention of any Dragon. And there is reason to think that the Legend of the Dragon had originally nothing whatever to do with the Creation, for the texts of fragments of two distinct Accounts 20 of the Creation describe a fight between a Dragon and some deity other than Marduk.

In other Accounts the Dragon bears a strong resemblance to the Leviathan of Psalm civ, 26; Job xli, 1. In the one text he is said to be 50 biru 21 in length, and 1 biru in thickness; his mouth was 6 cubits (about 9 feet) wide, and the circumference of his ears 12 cubits (18 feet).

He was slain by a god whose name is unknown, and the blood continued to flow from his body for three years, three months, one day and one night.

In the second text the Dragon is 60 biru long and his thickness is 30 biru; the diameter of each eye is half a biru, and his paws are 20 biru long.

Thus there is every reason for believing that the Legend as it is given in the Seven Tablets is the work of some editor, who added the Legend of the Creation to the Legend of the Dragon in much the same way as the editor of the Gilgamish Legends included an account of the Deluge in his narrative of the exploits of his hero.

All forms of the Legend of the Creation and of the Dragon were popular in Babylonia, and one of them achieved so much notoriety that the priest employed recited it as an incantation to charm away the toothache.

The literary form of the text of the Seven Tablets fulfils the requirements of Semitic poetry in general. The lines usually fall into couplets, the second line being the antiphon of the first, e.g.:–

“When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name.”

Thus we have:–

enuma elish || lâ nabû shamamu
shaplish ammatum || shuma lâ zakrat

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Legends of the Creation and the Fight Between Bel and the Dragon, 1921.

Sumerian Sacred Stories, c. 3500 BCE

” … it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.

Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B.C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East.

Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony.

Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B.C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.

But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B.C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form.

Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer had already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land.

Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites.

Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development.” i

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 27-9.

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.

Giants Again, and Abraham


“The City of Babylon owes its foundation to those who were saved from the catastrophe of the Flood; these were the giants, (Heb. נפלים = fallen ones), and they built the tower which is noticed in history. But the tower being overthrown by the interposition of God, the giants were scattered over all the earth.

He says, moreover, that in the tenth generation, in the City of Babylonia, called Camarina (which, by some, is called the city Urie, and which signifies a city of the Chaldeans), there lived, the thirteenth in descent, (a man named), Abraham, a man of a noble race and superior to all others in wisdom.

Of him they relate that he was the inventor of astrology and the Chaldean magic, and that on account of his eminent piety he was esteemed by God. It is further said, that under the directions of God he removed and lived in Phoenicia, and there taught the Phoenicians the motions of the sun and moon, and all other things; for which reason he was held in great reverence by their king.” 121―Extracted from Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica, 9.

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, p. 77.

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 Ten Lost Tribes

” … Shalmaneser died before Samaria was captured, and may have been assassinated. The next Assyrian monarch, Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), was not related to either of his two predecessors. He is referred to by Isaiah, and is the Arkeanos of Ptolemy. He was the Assyrian monarch who deported the “Lost Ten Tribes.”

“In the ninth year of Hoshea” (and the first of Sargon) “the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”

In all, according to Sargon’s record, “27,290 people dwelling in the midst of it (Samaria) I carried off.”

They (the Israelites) left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven (the stars), and served Baal.

And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.

And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof….

And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth (Cuthah) made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharites burnt their children in fire to Adram-melech and Anam-melech, the gods of Sepharvaim.

A number of the new settlers were slain by lions, and the king of Assyria ordered that a Samaritan priest should be sent to “teach them the manner of the God of the land.” This man was evidently an orthodox Hebrew, for he taught them “how they should fear the Lord…. So they feared the Lord,” but also “served their own gods … their graven images.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the “Ten Lost Tribes,” “regarding whom so many nonsensical theories have been formed,” were not ultimately absorbed by the peoples among whom they settled between Mesopotamia and the Median Highlands.

The various sections must have soon lost touch with one another. They were not united like the Jews (the people of Judah), who were transported to Babylonia a century and a half later, by a common religious bond, for although a few remained faithful to Abraham’s God, the majority of the Israelites worshipped either the Baal or the Queen of Heaven.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 455-6.

Prehistoric Sumerian Burial Customs, Magical Talismans and Amulets

” … The conservative element in Babylonian religion is reflected by the burial customs. These did not change greatly after the Neolithic period. Prehistoric Sumerian graves resemble closely those of pre-Dynastic Egypt.

The bodies of the dead were laid on their sides in crouching posture, with a “beaker,” or “drinking cup” urn, beside the right hand. Other vessels were placed near the head. In this connection it may be noted that the magic food prepared for Gilgamesh by Pir-napishtim’s wife, when he lay asleep, was also placed near his head.

The corpse was always decked with various ornaments, including rings, necklaces, and armlets. As has been indicated, these were worn by the living as charms, and, no doubt, they served the same purpose for the dead.

This charm-wearing custom was condemned by the Hebrew teachers. On one occasion Jacob commanded his household to “put away the strange gods which were in their hand, and all the ear-rings which were in their ears; and Jacob buried them under the oak which was by Shechem.”

To Jacob, personal ornaments had quite evidently an idolatrous significance.”

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


“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

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

Shemittah Without Limit

“In this state, the Torah is not “legible” for human beings. At the Sinaitic revelation, God taught Moses how to read the Torah by a division into letters and words, in such manner that it yielded a meaning in the Hebrew language. These considerations also opened the door to the possibility of alternative mystical readings, and it is precisely this notion that the Book Temunah presents in such a radical fashion.

In fact, according to this book, the world in which we live and which we know as the creation that began so and so many thousand years ago is not the first. It was preceded by another shemittah: the aeon of Grace, in the course of which all the sefiroth acted under the determining regime of this principal sefirah.

The world “built by Grace” at that time—according to the interpretation given by the kabbalists to Psalms 89:3—bears some resemblance to the Golden Age of Greek mythology. This shemittah was entirely bathed in light. The spheres of the heavens were simple and not composed of four elements; men stood at the highest spiritual pinnacle and possessed a pure body.

Even the cattle and other animals stood as high then as the animals that bear the Merkabah in our shemittah. The cult practiced by the creatures resembled the adoration of God by the angels in the present aeon. There was neither an exile of the body, as that of Israel, nor an exile of the souls, which is the transmigration of souls.

Man looked like the celestial man whom Ezekiel saw upon the throne. The manifestation of the primordial Torah as beheld by the creatures of that shemittah came exclusively from the side of Grace. Since there existed no evil inclination and no tempting serpent, the Torah of this shemittah (that is, the manner in which the mystical letters were combined) contained nothing concerning impurities or prohibitions. Even those letters had a simple form and were not in large measure composite, as at present.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 467.

The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

The Magical Name Araritha

“But here the magical name by means of which heaven is sealed is Araritha, and the corresponding name for the earth is ‘EHWY. The latter name, which in the writings of this group frequently serves as an object of mystical speculation, is obviously not a secret name belonging to the theurgic tradition but an artificial product composed of the four consonants employed in Hebrew as matres lectionis.

Abraham ibn Ezra and Yehudah Halevi were the first to propose interpretations of these four letters as the most spiritual elements among the consonants, and hence best suited to form the symbols of the divine spirit in the body of the world and the elements of the two most important divine names in the Torah: ‘Ehyeh and YHWH.

In due course a magical primordial Tetragrammaton was formed, designating the unity of these two names and said to precede them. However, the name Araritha can be found in very old magical texts of the German Hasidim as the secret name of the hashmal in the vision of Ezekiel 1:4.

The same name also appears in a magical piece from the Gaonic period, the “Prayer of Rab Hamnunah the Elder.” In the Book ‘Iyyun, these names are interpreted in the spirit of a Neoplatonic concept of God: they indicate his static as well as his dynamic unity, which also maintains its identity in its oppositions.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 315-6.

The Sound of the Alef

“Before all Creation he rested, transcendent, in himself, hidden in the power of his own reality. But at the beginning of Creation, “His kabhod became manifest, and the explication of his knowledge consisted in five things.” The author in fact names, but does not explain, these five things, which lead to gnosis. They obviously belong to the sphere of language mysticism and are called tiqqun, ma ‘ amar, seruf, mikhlal, heshbon.

It appears that they constitute the processes by which the letters are placed in harmony (tiqqun), assembled into words (ma’ amar), permutated (seruf), collected together in all their combinations (mikhlal), and calculated according to their numerical value (heshbon). Here, too, the process of emanation coincides with the process of language, but the details do not become clear.

These five events are, as the author says in a curious image, “united in the ramifications of the root of movement [probably meaning the root of the movement of language], which is strengthened in the root of the thirteen pairs of opposites” and unfolds from a thin breath, the sound of the ‘alef, into the name of God (if I understand this difficult text correctly).

These thirteen pairs of opposites are, at the same time, the thirteen middoth derived from Exodus 34:6, which play such a great role in Jewish theology as the modes of God’s action. God acts in the middoth positively as well as negatively, which enables us to perceive a connection with the kabbalistic notion of middah that we found in Isaac.

Here, however, not the sefiroth are meant but the powers or modes of action that are enclosed in the first sefirah and erupt from it. It is in these five modes of the movement of language that everything is realized “like a source for the flame and a flame for the source” prolonged “up to the unfathomable and infinite light, which is concealed in the excess of the hidden darkness. And the knowledge of the unity and of its principle refers to this darkness.”

The divine unity acts therefore out of the effusive darkness from which come all the lights, which are connected to it as the flame to its source. This world of images does not appear to me far removed from that of John Scotus Erigena and Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite; it is more closely related to them than to the world of the Bahir.

Among the Hebrew Neoplatonists such language is not used to express the divine unity, and we touch here upon a possible connection that will emerge more often in the course of this investigation. It seems that the kabbalists of Provence combined the doctrine of the aeons, as found among the gnostics and in the Bahir, with Erigena’s doctrine of the causae primordiales, which in all their multiplicity are nevertheless the unity of the divine sapientia.

Such a relationship is historically plausible. It is not difficult to suppose that the first kabbalists of Provence and Aragon, around 1180-1220, had direct or indirect knowledge of Scotus Erigena, whose influence reached its high point at that time, just before the condemnation of 1210. Many Cathars too seem to have made use of Erigena’s work as is suggested by two extant testimonies. Writings of Erigena were no rarity in the cities where the first kabbalists lived, before Honorius III ordained the destruction of all copies found in France.

But from this speculative and novel introduction, the Book ‘Iyyun proceeds to an explanation of the primordial darkness and the potencies issuing from it. This explanation claims to be a kind of commentary on a Hekhaloth text by Nehunya ben Haqqanah that however, is not identical with any of the Hekhaloth writings known to us. It is apparently against this commentary and, by the same token, against the Book ‘Iyyun in general (along with the Bahir and other writings) that the antikabbalistic attack in Meir ben Simon’s epistle is directed.

Around 1245, therefore, the existence of such a commentary on the Hekhaloth, “where one finds things in the spirit of their [namely, the kabbalists’] heresy” was known in Provence. This text names the signet rings sealing heaven and earth much as we also find them in the Wertheimer version of the “Greater Hekhaloth” (chap. 23).

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 313-5.

On the Lost Book of the Speculation

“What is surprising in this text is that it constitutes an irruption of Neoplatonic language and concepts into older cosmological and Merkabah teachings, as far removed from the language of the Bahir as it is from that of Isaac the Blind.

The few extant pages appear to have been carelessly thrown together without any sense of structure, and the exposition is in part erratic and opaque. The book is written in a pure Hebrew and in a curiously enthusiastic style. The long superscription says:

“ … The “Book of the Speculation” of the great master Rab Hammai, chief of those who speak of the subject of the inner [hidden] sefiroth, and he unveiled in it the essence of the whole reality of the hidden glory, whose reality and nature no creature can comprehend, [and of all that] in a truthful manner, such as it [the hidden kabhod?] is in the indistinct unity, in the perfection of which the higher and the lower are united, and it [this kabhod] is the foundation of all that is hidden and manifest, and from it goes forth all that is emanated from the wondrous unity. And Rab Hammai has interpreted these subjects according to the method of the doctrine of the Merkabah—’al derekh ma- ‘aseh merkabah—and commented upon the prophecy of Ezekiel.”

The language used in this superscription, as well as in the beginning of the work, is purely speculative. The notion of indistinct unity (‘ahduth shawah) is unknown in prekabbalistic Hebrew texts. The term, as becomes quite clear in the writings of Azriel of Gerona, refers to that unity in which all oppositions become “equal,” that is, identical.

This concept, and the idea of a coincidentia oppositorum in God and the highest sefiroth—which subsequently plays such an important role, particularly in Azriel—seems to appear here for the first time. According to Azriel, God is …

“ … the One who is united in all of His powers, as the fire’s flame is united in its colors, and His powers emanate from His unity as the light of the eyes proceeds from the black of the eye, and they are all emanated from one another like perfume from perfume and light from light, for one emanates from the other, and the power of the emanator is in the emanated, without the emanator suffering any loss.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 312.

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

Intertwining Branches of Good and Evil

“But it is not only the good that has its origin in the irradiation of lights of the emanation; there also exists a positive evil, which is related to the root of death. In this way Isaac adopts a modified form of the corresponding idea of the Bahir concerning the nature of evil.

The oppositions discussed in chapter 4 of the Book Yesirah, in connection with the seven consonants of the Hebrew alphabet that can be pronounced in two different ways, also include that of life and death; and Isaac explains that “after the cause of life, the cause of death was emanated.”

Also at the beginning of chapter 2 he emphasizes that in each case the poles of oppositions come “from an autonomous principle.” Death is therefore something more and something other than the mere cessation of life. It has a positive root.

Certainly Isaac stresses at the same time that in the world of the sefiroth and of the “inner essences,” good and bad are not yet dissociated from one another but are harmoniously united, be-‘ah-duth ube-shalom. Only when the “roots” continue to develop into a tree—and in the emanation that later derives from it and to which the double letters correspond—does evil also exist in isolation.

Otherwise, Isaac’s thinking remains determined by the image of the organic body (on chap. 4). The letters are like the branches of the tree and in them the intertwined pattern of good and evil is unfolded, so that each good middah also has its corresponding evil and vice versa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 293.

The Letters of the Great Name

“Whatever the precise nature of the supreme sefirah, hokhmah is in any case the “beginning of being” as it is also the “beginning of the dibbur.” Prom hokhmah, all the sefiroth proceed in a clear chain of emanations. In terms of Isaac’s language-mysticism, the divine things are at the same time the divine words. The ideas are names.

This motif, already prefigured in the Bahir where the sefiroth coincided with the ten logoi, now appears in a much profounder form. For the kabbalist, evidently, language-mysticism is at the same time a mysticism of script and of letters. The relation between script and language is a constitutive principle for the Kabbalah.

In the spiritual world, every act of speaking is concurrently an act of writing, and conversely every writing is potential speech, destined to become audible. The speaker engraves, as it were, the three-dimensional space of the word on the plane of the ether.

The script, which for the philologist is only a secondary and otherwise rather useless image of real speech, is for the kabbalist the true repository of its secrets. The phonographic principle of a natural transposition of speech into script and vice versa manifests itself in the Kabbalah in the idea that the sacred letters themselves are the lineaments and signs that the modern phoneticist would want upon his disc.

The creative word of God is legitimately stamped upon just these sacred lines. Beyond language lies the unarticulated reflection, the pure thought, the mute profundity, one could say, in which the nameless reposes. Prom hokhmah on there opens up, identical with the world of the sefiroth, the world of the pure name as a primordial element of language. This is the sense in which Isaac understood the saying of Yesirah 2:5, according to which all language proceeds from a name. The tree of divine powers, which formed the sefiroth in the Bahir, is here transposed to the ramifications of the letters in this great name.

But more than that of the tree, Isaac liked the simile of the coal and the flames (shalhabiyoth) that are fed by it, inspired by another passage of Yesirah (1:7) to which he often has recourse:

“ … Their root [that is, that of language and things] is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, which are mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal, and in the manner of the leaves of the tree, its boughs and branches, whose root is always in the tree . . . and all the debharim become form and all the forms proceed only from the one name, just as the branch comes from the root. It follows therefore that everything is in the root, which is the one name (on 2:5).

The world of language is therefore actually the “spiritual world.” Only that which lives in any particular thing as language is its essential life.

Raising the above to the level of kabbalistic discourse, the words, dibburim, constitute the world of the sefiroth, which are united in their configurations in order to form letters, just as, conversely, the words themselves are the configurations of letters.

Isaac uses both images though their kaleidoscopic relations are not entirely transparent. In any case, letters are for him the elements of the universal script. According to him, the Hebrew word for letters, ‘othiyoth, derives from the verb ‘atha, to come; the letters are “things which come from their cause,” thus, that which “proceeds” from the root.

But each of these elements comprises in ever new configurations all the sefiroth: “In every letter there are the ten sefiroth.” Thus we are told, in connection with Yesirah 4:1 that the ten sefiroth are “inner [or: hidden] essences” whose inner [hidden] being is contained in the hokhmah, and that they are at the same time the roots of principles in which good and evil are still united.

“They [the sefiroth] begin to grow forth like a tree whose beginnings are unrecognizable, until a plant issues from them.” The verbs employed by the Book Yesirah to describe the formation of the letters that God “hewed” in the pneuma suggest to Isaac the image of a mountain from which raw stones are extracted, then hewed and chiseled, and from which well-ordered edifices come into being.

This “edifice” is the world, but the world of the sefiroth as such also represents a building of this type that issues from its elements, and, in the last analysis, from the hokhmah. The sphere in which this hewing of the innermost elements takes place is not the hidden Sophia, where everything is still conceived as united without form, but the sefirah that follows it, binah or teshubah (“that to which all returns”), which is itself a mystical hyle from which the forms are chiseled.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 277-9.

The Unknowable

“To this correspond two statements of Isaac that refer to the hidden subject of the third person, past tense, which Hebrew does not mark by a specific termination. In his comment on Genesis 1, he says: “In every place [in the Scriptures] where you find simply bam’, ‘asa, ‘he created, he made,’ know that it [the subject] is above the pure thought.”

But in his commentary on Yesirah 1:1 he explains the hidden subject of the verb haqaq, as “that which thought cannot attain.” Since for Isaac (who knows nothing of a definition of the Will as the first emanated being) the mahshabah itself is the first sefirah, then that which it cannot attain would therefore be nothing other than ‘en-sof, which is itself transcendent and hidden in relation to thinking.

The pure thought would be the supreme creative sphere of being, while ‘en-sof, as the Unknowable, already existed before all thought. Quite possibly this was in fact Isaac’s opinion, and I find nothing in his own statements to contradict this supposition. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that all his disciples, Ezra ben Solomon, Azriel, Jacob ben Shesheth, and above all his own nephew, Asher ben David, who was closest to him, identify the Unknowable, at times explicitly, at times implicitly, with the first sefirah.

The rules of simple logic would lead to the conclusion that Isaac is the common source of this identification. The divine Thought would then be that which cannot be attained by human thought, and Isaac would therefore employ the word mahshabah in different senses: in one context it would designate the Thought of God, but in the expression “that which cannot be attained by thought,” the reference would be to human thought.

However, in the fragment of his commentary on Genesis, he even speaks, as we saw, of that which is above the “pure Thought,” that is, above the divine Thought. I cannot resolve this difficulty without doing violence to the texts. The unknowable in God is identified by the Christian Neoplatonist, Scotus Erigena, with the Nothing from which all creation proceeds.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 270-2.

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.

Finally, Here is the True Kabbalah

“The transition from the usual meaning of the word Kabbalah to the esoteric nuance was easily made. We find the first sign of it in Yehudah ben Barzilai. Speaking of the creation of the Holy Spirit, which is the Shekhinah, he says: “The sages did not deal with it at length, in order that men would not come to form ideas concerning ‘what is above,’ etc. and that is why they were accustomed to transmitting this thing in whispers and in secret, as a tradition to their pupils and to the sages.”

The ordinary expression “to transmit something as Kabbalah [orally]” here acquires through the addition of the adverbs “in whispers and in secret” the quality of an esoteric tradition. Somewhat similar is the use of the term in an Arabic text of 1223 that counters Maimonides in its assertion that where the Kabbalah of the sages of Israel is mentioned the reference is to the baraithoth of the Hekhaloth literature as the true interpretation of Ma’aseh Merkabah (A. Harkavy, in his appendix Hadashim gam Yeshanim to the Hebrew translation of Graetz’s Geschichte 5:47).

But contrary to Harkavy’s view, this passage in no way proves that the term Kabbalah in its novel, technical sense was known in the Orient in 1223. That, precisely, is Kabbalah, in the sense of the Provençal school. But Eleazar of Worms also cites traditions of this kind—for example, with respect to the names of the angels—as “Kabbalah.” Besides, still other expressions were used in Isaac’s circle. In a letter sent to Gerona, Isaac himself speaks in this sense of hokhmah, wisdom or science, without adding the adjective penimith, “esoteric,” although this often occurs in other places.

In the twelfth century, the expression of sefarim penimiyyim appears in France for writings considered there as esoteric literature, such as Seder ‘Eliyahu Zutta.

In the liturgical manual Sefer ha-Manhig, composed in 1204 by Abraham ben Nathan ha-Yarhi of Lunel, who in his youth had studied with the Rabad, the “Greater Hekhaloth” are twice designated by this term.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 261-3.

Conversing with Moses and Metatron

“From a somewhat earlier period, around 1200, comes the Hebrew protocol, recorded in Rouen, of the appearance of a prophet of the same type, R. Shemuel ha-Nabi, who conversed, in the presence of witnesses, with Moses and the angel Metatron as well as with the tosafist masters Rabbenu Tam and R. Elias of Paris, and who communicated mystical revelations dealing with talmudic matters.

Similar revelations concerning talmudic and halakhic questions likewise occurred in the Languedoc, in the neighborhood of the Rabad and the same generation. Even if we regard as metaphorical rather than strictly mystical the expressions employed by Rabad (see pp. 205-6) with regard to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his school, the occurrence of such revelations is conclusively proven by the curious case of Jacob of Marvège (today in the Department of Lozère), who flourished around 1200.

He sought the answers to halakhic problems through “dream questions,” she’eloth halom, that is, through a visionary procedure. Alongside figures of this kind there also appeared pure mystics whose illuminations were of an inward kind that resulted, when the occasion warranted it, in esoteric doctrines.

How did these revelations come about? Did they appear spontaneously, without preparation, to mystically inclined souls, or were they the result of specific acts and rituals that required a certain preparation? Is it possible that a theurgic element also played a role? There is no unequivocal answer to these questions. We do, however, possess certain testimonies suggesting that in this Provençal circle such revelations were linked, at least in part, to a specific ritual and that they were even tied to a particular day.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 239-40.

Heresy in the Bahir

“It is in this sense, above all, that the raising of the hands in Aaron’s blessing (Lev. 9:22) and during the battle against Amaleq (Exod. 17:11) is explained. The raising of the hands in the priestly blessing, at the end of the ‘Amidah prayer, corresponds to the raising of the hands after the sacrifice (section 87): it is a gesture marking the union of the sefiroth, which are specifically mentioned here as being contained in one another.

The victory of Israel over Amaleq when Moses raised his hands is on the same level. Moses directed the “concentration of the heart,” kawwanath ha-leb, to that middah that is named Israel and that contains the Torah of Truth.

“He indicated with the ten fingers of his hands, that [this middah] gave permanence to the ten [logoi], so that if it [this middah] would not assist Israel, the ten logoi would no longer be sanctified every day—and then Israel was victorious.”

The expression kawwanath ha-leb is taken from the Targum and the Midrash and means concentration of the spirit; from the Book Bahir on it was used by the kabbalists in the sense of “mystical meditation” on the sefiroth. It serves as the fundamental concept of their mysticism of prayer. The Midrash already states that Israel’s prayer is not heard now, for it does not know the full, explicit name of God, shem ha-meforash. If, therefore, someone knows this secret, his prayer will be heard. The same idea is very boldly developed in an interpretation of Habakkuk 3:10 in section 95:

“If there are in Israel enlightened men and such as know the secret of the venerable name and raise their hands, they will be heard immediately, for it says [Isa. 58:9]: “Then, when you call, the Lord will answer.” [This is to be understood as follows:] If you invoke [that which is indicated by the word] ‘az, God answers. And what does this ‘az [composed of ‘alef and zayin] signify? This teaches that it is not permitted to invoke the ‘alef alone or to pray to it, but only together with the two letters that are connected with it and that sit highest in the royal dominion. And together with the ‘alef, they are three. Seven of the logoi [still] remain, and that is signified by [the letter] zayin [whose numerical value is seven] and of this it is also said [Exod. 15:1]: “Then sang,” ‘az yashir, [that is, the ‘az praised] “Moses and the Israelites.”

This reinterpretation of the Hebrew word ‘az utilizes an old nonmystical midrash in which this word in Exodus 15:1 is interpreted according to the numerical value of the two consonants, as if Moses had said: “Let us praise the one who thrones above the seven heavens.”

The new idea is: if you invoke (in your kawwanah ) the ten logoi that represent the secret of the true name of God, then God answers! It is understandable that this passage, which speaks so clearly of a prayer addressed to the logoi and sefiroth, would have been considered offensive.

It evidently was one of the many heretical utterances that, according to Meir ben Simon of Narbonne, filled the Bahir. He specifically taxed the kabbalists with praying to the sefiroth as intermediaries instead of to God, thus making themselves guilty of polytheism.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 194-6.

Shema’ Yisrael

“The passage occurs in connection with a statement of Rabbi Rahmai concerning the expression “twelve tribes of God” in Psalms 122:4. It follows rather abruptly on a relatively long magical text devoted to the names of God and is found in connection with the symbolism of the “source” that also appears in important passages elsewhere in the book.

Starting from the conception of God as the origin of a source that irrigates everything else, the text interprets the twelve tribes in the upper world as the channels through which the water of the source is conducted. This source is perhaps the name of God, which, through the twelve channels, indicates the thirteen attributes of the divinity, deduced by Talmudic theology from Exodus 34:6.

The discourse concerning the elements of language appears as the continuation of this section 82. The vowels have the form of points, therefore of circles; the consonants, on the other hand, are square, which is in the nature of the Hebrew script.

And just as there is a chain of analogies: God—soul—vowel—circle, so also the corresponding members of each pair should be correlated, to wit, the primordial images of the twelve tribes—bodies—consonants —square. It is difficult to separate one series of symbolism from the other. If these symbols are themselves older, then the pair vowel-consonant which figures among them must also belong to an older tradition reaching back beyond the book Kuzari. In that case the continuation of the paragraph, at first sight enigmatic, can also be interpreted in a logical and consistent manner. The text says:

“And the vowel comes along the way of the “channels” to the consonants through the scent of the sacrifice, and it descends from there, as it is frequently said: the savor is a thing which descends toward God. For [the first] YHWH [of the two four-letter divine names mentioned one after another in Exod. 34:6] descends toward [the second] YHWH, and that is the meaning of Scripture [Deut. 6:4]: “Hear 0 Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one.’”

Here, therefore, the symbolism is transferred to the magic of the sacrifice. Through the savor of the sacrifice the current of life enters from the soul, which is the source, into the attributes, which are the tribes, the consonants or the bodies. By means of a sacramental magic it is attracted toward them through the twelve channels introduced in section 82 in the form of a simile. And corresponding to this mysterious event at the hour of sacrifice, in the prayer, which mystically replaces the sacrifice, is the “unification” of the name of God in the formula of Shema’ Yisrael.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 64-5.