As pointed out in a companion article, written documents cannot have been the source for the first chapters of Genesis. The story about the Creation and the temptation of the first human couple, together with the genealogies, the history of the antediluvian world and the story of the Deluge, would all have passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. This would also be true of the story about Abraham. While it is not impossible that he could write, Abraham was an Aramean herdsman, not a member of the elite class of scribes and priests, and herdsmen, just as in parts of the world today, had no use for writing. If Moses wrote Genesis, he must have learned about the lives of Abraham and his descendants through the tribe’s traditions.
Amply authenticated by archaeological discoveries, the stories about Abraham and his immediate descendants are rich in details specific to the time they describe; they were not inventions of a later age (Kitchen 1995, Gordon & Rendsburg 1997). Thus we can have some confidence that they go back to Abraham himself. And Abraham, the tradition tells us, came from polytheistic Sumer.
Sumer, or lower Mesopotamia, was the location of the world’s oldest civilisation. The country is often referred to as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, as if it accommodated the birth of something innocent, but in fact the religion at its heart revolved around the art of sorcery, the magical invocation of spirits. Every city, it was believed, was ruled by a god and, much like a human king, the god lived in a palace at the centre of the city, present and manifest in his life-like statue. Close-by, a mountain-stairway enabled the gods of heaven to come down and the gods of the underworld to come up, so that they could assemble in council with the city’s ruling god and assist him in his deliberations.
There was one such ziggurat in Ur, home-city of Abraham. The ziggurat’s partly restored remains, forever now associated with the archaeologist Leonard Woolley, constitute the most impressive monument left from the civilisation. Ur served the moon-god Nanna. It was not therefore a place where Abraham could have become acquainted with the monotheistic stories recorded in early Genesis. Haran, several hundred miles upstream from Ur, can be ruled out for the same reason: Abraham and his father lingered there after leaving Sumer because it too worshipped Nanna. The family knew too little about the god who had called them out of the country to be happy about venturing further.
In the hill-country of Canaan, on the outskirts of Sumerian civilisation, perhaps something close to a mono- theistic cult might still have survived. There are two pieces of evidence for this. One comes from Genesis itself, where, after defeating the king of Elam and his confederates, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem (Gen 14:18ff). Melchizedek means ‘The righteous one [is] king’, referring to the deity served by this priest-king, and he blesses Abraham in the name of ‘God Most High, maker of heaven and earth’. The word ‘God’ here is El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, to whom titles such as ‘most high’, ‘lord of heaven’, ‘maker of heaven and earth’ were regularly applied. As demonstrated by numerous Ugaritic texts, El was the father of the gods, enthroned in heaven, and he ruled over his sons with supreme power.
The earth was not; you created it.
The light of the day was not; you created it;
The morning light you had not yet made.
The texts show that Ebla’s king worshipped other gods besides El, notably El’s son Hadad, so we should not read too much into this document, it is primarily evidence that the tradition was less corrupted by Sumerian ideas than it later was. Whether Melchizedek, in more remote Jerusalem, worshipped other gods is not known. By this time, c. 1870 BC, there can have been few places that had not gone down the road of confusing the sons of God with gods to be worshipped in their own right, inventing personalities, histories and genealogies for them, identifying them with aspects of the creation, ascribing them with power to bless and to curse. All we can say is that it is possible that Melchizedek still preserved the Genesis tradition intact. He was the priest of the Creator to whom all gods owed their existence, and Abraham saw that he was unlike other kings, someone eminently worthy of the office. So it could have been from him that Abraham received the tradition and learned about the deity who had appeared and spoken to him.
In 1872 an assistant Assyriologist at the British Museum named George Smith found himself handling a polytheistic text that was evidently also related to that tradition. The tablet, inscribed in cuneiform, came from the royal libraries at Nineveh and belonged to a larger work about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. As Smith began to decipher its meaning, he realised that this part of the epic told of a flood astonishingly similar to Noah’s flood. Around the discovery clamoured questions that were to shake the foundations of western civilisation almost as much as Darwin’s theory of evolution was now doing. Was the story younger or older than the book of Genesis? Who had borrowed from whom, the Sumerians from the Hebrews or the Hebrews from the Sumerians? Even before they knew that Gilgamesh was an older composition than Genesis, archaeologists and theologians both concluded that the Hebrews had borrowed from the Sumerians.
The Gilgamesh epic exists in a number of versions, some going back to the Old Babylonian period, well before the earliest date for Genesis, and even in the oldest version the flood features as a story within another story, narrated by Utnapishtim, the Noah-like survivor of the flood whom Gilgamesh meets in his search for eternal life. It is in fact borrowed from another poem, Atrahasis, a work much more like the first chapters of Genesis. In that work it constitutes the principal theme, the climax of an epic which opens with a description of the world when gods inhabited the earth. These gods have work to do, canal-digging, and, finding it burdensome, they threaten to rebel against their masters, the gods in heaven. They rouse the chief deity Ellil out of his bed and petition him to do something. In consultation with his co-leaders, Ea and Anu, Ellil agrees that another being, man, should be created to carry out the work. Man, however, proves a mixed blessing. He produces too many children, and eventually becomes so numerous that the people’s noise stops Ellil from sleeping. After several vain attempts to reduce the population by disease and famine, Ellil decides to destroy the whole human race by a flood. Privately Ea disapproves. He tells Atrahasis, another name for Utnapishtim, to build a vessel in which birds, cattle and wild animals can be saved.
In the event, life is not totally extinguished, and Ellil is furious when he discovers that he has been thwarted. As a propitiating compromise, Ea limits the post-flood population by a variety of less drastic measures, such as ensuring that some babies are snatched away by demons and others perish in miscarriages. The only man who is granted immortality is Utnapishtim himself.
Evidently the Sumerians did not borrow from the Hebrews for their material. However, it is also difficult to argue that the Hebrews got theirs from the Sumerians or the Babylonians. Why would monotheists have wanted to take over a polytheistic story? And if that is what happened, why did they not set the story in the land of Canaan, in the same way as every other people with a flood tradition set it in their own land? While there are some striking similarities, the differences are even more conspicuous, and make the suggestion of indebtedness to Babylonian literature extremely problematic.
- The scope of the earliest known context for the flood story, Atrahasis, was universal, about the creation of man, the offence he gave to the gods, and his eventual extermination.
- The theology in Atrahasis was amoral: for example, man was created to be the gods’ slave, and Ellil eventually destroyed the human race because its noise kept him awake.
- Although historical in the sense of giving an explanatory story about the past, Atrahasis was an epic poem and as such quite different from the dry, historical prose in which Genesis was written.
- It was permitted for epic poets to take an element of one story and adapt it for the purposes of another.
The Sumerian work is inherently fictionalising. Historical events, as known about through tradition, serve as raw material for the poet’s art, which has licence to embroider and reweave. There is no obligation to be true to source. The deliberations of the gods are dramatised, one god pitted against another, and it is beside the point to ask how the poet could have known what they said to each other. We are dealing with entertainment, not history.
With Genesis we have the reverse situation. The motive for telling about the Deluge generation after generation lies in the story itself: the event was momentous, and what it revealed about the righteous Creator of the world was of abiding significance, a compelling reason not to replace truth with fiction. As man multiplied and spread abroad, the knowledge that God had granted him a second chance helped him to understand his present existence. The story revealed who God was. There is no similar sense when we read Atrahasis. The subject matter is valueless for understanding life: if the story has any meaning, it is that life has no meaning, for the gods are selfish and capricious, divided in their counsel, false to one another and to man. The historiographic interest is replaced by the dramatic, prose turned into poetry. In Genesis the storyteller’s art serves the purpose of the history; in Atrahasis the history serves the purpose of the storyteller, who therefore includes, modifies and alters whatever of the facts he likes. The conditions for preserving the original story intact have gone.
Thus, if the Gilgamesh and Genesis versions are similar because they derive from a common tradition, the version likely to be closer to that tradition, and the more accurate, is Genesis, even though, as a text, it is younger. Genesis is the tradition put into writing: literary in form, but under an obligation both of genre and theology not to embellish, not to fictionalise. In Hebrew literature there is no evidence that writers were accustomed to reshuffle the themes that made up their total repertoire, still less to borrow from peoples whose culture was fundamentally alien to theirs. By contrast, partly because it had to cater for many gods, Sumerian literature was much more promiscuous. Poets drew upon a common stock of narrative themes which they ‘used in different stories, and adapted in various places for diverse gods’ (Dalley 2000, p 204).
One of the strongest evidences for the view that monotheism preceded polytheism in Sumer is that, until the Late Uruk period, the country knew only two gods: Anu, who had a temple at Uruk, and Ea, who had a temple at Eridu. Somewhat later, they were joined by a third, Ellil, who was worshipped at Nippur. These were high gods, with absolute authority in the universe; lesser deities appeared only after them, increasing in number in the same way a family does. A new deity was assigned a parentage from pre-existing gods, and adapted to his niche in the human world by appropriating much of his role from a god who was less specialised.
In the ancient world all gods had names, being in principle knowable as persons. Some had more than one name: for example, the goddess Ninhursag (‘lady of the mountains’) was also known as Nintu (‘lady of birth’) and Belet-ili (‘mistress of the gods’). Likewise Anu, Ea and Ellil were originally different names for the same deity. Anu meant ‘Heaven’, an impersonal synonym for God. His personal name was Ea, pronounced, and sometimes written, as Ay-a (Roberts 1972). Ellil was a duplication of the Semitic word il, as in Eblaite texts, where the name appears in the form il-ilu. The duplication signified that he was the one, self-existent God before all others, the ‘god of gods’, much as Hebrew used the plural form Elohim to refer to the one God. The three names together designated Aya (who he was), god (what he was) of heaven (where he was).
The most common proper name for God among the Israelites was Yahweh, the name by which he first revealed himself when he appeared to Moses (Ex 3:15, 6:3). When Abraham called on his name after building an altar between Ai and Bethel (Gen 12:8), he evidently knew him by a different name. The reference to Yahweh in the text is retrospective: Abraham was calling on the one whom Israel later came to know as Yahweh by what was then his personal name.
In Abraham’s day the proper name was Yah. Unlike Yahweh, Yah is attested as a component of both Israelite and Eblaite names from long before the time of Moses. The name of Jacob’s great-grandson, Abiah, meant ‘Yah is father’; Joshua meant ‘Yah saves’. Texts found in the Syrian city of Ebla (c. 2250 BC) include such names as Isa-yah (‘Yah has gone forth’) and Mika-ya (‘Who is like Yah?’). Although the names Yah and Yahweh were associated from early on, as in Exodus 15:2, and may derive from the same root, it is unlikely that the shorter was an abbreviation of the longer, as is sometimes proposed. Indeed, if the name Yahweh was not known prior to Moses, Yah cannot have been its abbreviation. This can also be inferred from texts where the two are in apposition: Yah Yahweh (e.g. Isa 12:2). Parallel titles, such as Adonai Yahweh (‘Lord Yahweh’, Gen 15:2) or Yahweh Elohim (‘Yahweh [who is] God’, Gen 2:4), suggest that the meaning is ‘Yah who is Yahweh’, that is, Yah who revealed himself as Yahweh. It would have been pointless to add the full name after the shorter form. Yah renamed himself Yahweh as a token of the covenant relationship that he was about to enter with Moses’ people, just as he had earlier renamed Abram Abraham.
To make it clear that he was the deity whom Israel’s ancestors knew as Yah, Yahweh instructed Moses to tell the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ‘I am’ in Hebrew was Eyah, equivalent to Akkadian Ayah, and Ya(h) was a West Semitic contraction of the word. Mesopotamians knew him by his East Semitic name: Ea, or Aya. Like Yahweh, the name was derived from the verb ‘to live’ or ‘to be,’ and meant ‘The Living One’ or ‘I am’. Ea and Yah were the same name, representing the same god, and Yah, in turn, was the same god as Yahweh.
But over time the concept of a transcendent Creator in Mesopotamia disintegrated, with different parts of the creation being allocated to a multitude of gods. Atrahasis mythologises this process by characterising the universe as an inheritance for which they cast lots. The god of heaven, called Anu as if this were now a proper name, was allocated the highest part. Ea was allocated the subterranean earth and the watery Apsu (the great deep). Ellil took charge of the subaerial world between the heavens and the Apsu. His name too was treated as a proper name. In the person of Ellil, God lived at the same level as man in a world from which he was no longer estranged. And all three took on the nature of carnal human beings. They took wives. Uniting with them, their wives produced sons and daughters, who in turn begot more deities. The deities functioned as the proprietors and guardians of Mesopotamia’s now competing cities, patrons of the powers and attributes that gave civilisation its lustre. As the human population grew, so did the divine population, until by the mid third millennium the pantheon, according to one list, totalled around five hundred, a huge number, even allowing for the fact that some names referred to the same deity. By the end of the second millennium there were around two thousand.
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold.
Anu their father was king,
Their counsellor warrior Ellil,
Their chamberlain was Ninurta,
Their canal-controller Ennugi.
They took the box (of lots),
Cast the lots; the gods made the division.
Anu went up to the sky,
[And Ellil] took the earth for his people (?).
The bolt which bars the sea
Was assigned to far-sighted Enki.
When Anu had gone up to the sky,
[And the gods of] the Apsu had gone below,
The Anunnaki of the sky
Made the Igigi bear the workload.
The gods had to dig out canals
A historical account must be self-consistent if it is to have any claim to be authentic. An account which alters and fictionalises history is likely to retain details that make little sense in the new version. Unassimilated traces of the source material may remain: incongruous details that point back to a prior account where they were not incongruous.
It is striking that the Genesis account describes a world quite different from the one which existed when Genesis was written down. Though the names are mostly familiar, the geography is not. For example, the river flowing out of Eden branched into four: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates, whereas in the present world these are not branches of a single river, and Pishon and Gihon are difficult to identify at all. In the antediluvian world Pishon flowed round the borders of Havilah, Gihon round the borders of Cush. In the Ancient Near East, Havilah was part of Arabia, Cush was Ethiopia, and neither territory was bounded by a river. They were post-Deluge territories. Havilah was so named after the descendant of Shem who settled there (Gen 10:29), and Cush was named after a descendant of Ham who settled there (Gen 10:6). The individuals were postdiluvians named after antediluvians, and the lands where they settled were named, respectively, after them. Eden cannot be located at all in the present world.
The change in geography was the consequence of the dry land having been destroyed in the Cataclysm (Gen 9:11). When the colonisers of the Ancient Near East chose names for their new settlements and lands, they were drawing upon a still extant tradition about that world, in the knowledge that in multiplying and spreading across the earth they were repeating its history. They were deliberately re-evoking the old world, much as European settlers of North America and Australia did with their place names (New York, New England, New Hampshire and the like).
In Atrahasis we encounter a world that is recognisable. There are many gods, and the gods mirror the social order of Sumer: the Anunnaki upper class, with their own chamberlain and canal-controller, ruling the Igigi lower class. The land is watered by the two major rivers of the present age, the Tigris and the Euphrates. We are struck by details that seem incongruous. Why are gods digging canals? Why have the Anunnaki forced them to labour in this way? For what purpose? The original account of creation has been overturned in order to justify a new theology. Man has been created to serve the gods, and hence serve the priests and the king who represent them.
In Sumerian theology it was the king alone who in any degree reflected the divine nature. The Sumerian King List tells us that there was a moment in history when ‘kingship came down from heaven’ and was delegated to human beings. The gods were present, after a ceremony of breathing into their nostrils (exactly as in Gen 2:7), in the effigies made for them, the king served the gods, and the people served the king. With help from the priests, it was his duty to ensure that the gods were clothed, housed and fed, and to do that, the king required the services of craftsmen, builders, farm-workers. In Atrahasis Ea therefore creates man to be the gods’ slave, and it is unnecessary that man should reflect anything of the divine nature.
That there is a sense in which, nonetheless, man does reflect divinity is another incongruity. Ea has him made partly from clay, partly from the flesh and blood of one of the Anunnaki who is slaughtered for that purpose. By these means ‘god and man will be mixed together’ (illogically, for man is supposed to be the product of this fusion), and the death of the god will ensure that a ‘ghost’ lives inside him. These details become comprehensible only in the context of the Genesis account, where God creates all humanity to reflect his nature. He forms him from clay and animates him, not by taking the life of one of his sons, but by breathing into him something of his own life (2:7). He forms the man and the woman personally, and they are made ‘in his image’. Not only are their bodies to be a dwelling-place for his spirit (6:3), but he has them bear the physical image in which he himself has chosen to manifest himself. He blesses them and gives them dominion over the animals; they are to rule over the rest of creation, not the rest of mankind.
In Atrahasis Ea does not create man personally; he delegates the task to Ninhursag, here called Belet-ili (‘mistress of the gods’). Once again, there is something unexplained about this, since although she is characterised as a womb-goddess, she exists before any human beings exist, and the man about to be created does not come from any womb. The reason for her involvement becomes apparent only when we turn to Genesis and recognise that Ninhursag has her prototype in Eve, the first woman. Eve has been deified: Ninhursag exemplifies how in the Sumerian version gods (as the opening line of the poem says) are ‘instead of man’ and how, in pushing man down to a lower level, they take away from his god-like qualities. Ninhursag’s true identity is clear from two other titles of hers, ‘mother of the gods’ and ‘mother of all children’, from which again we see the equivalence between gods and men. Eve, correspondingly, is ‘the mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), because she has been created with the ability to procreate; under God, and via Adam, she is the ancestor of us all. In Atrahasis she is a goddess to whom the creation of mankind is delegated, and consequently the creation of woman, distinct from man, is not described.
In Genesis God expressly invites man to multiply and fill the earth. But he creates him mortal: man is made of dust, and to dust he will return (3:19). The only way he could become immortal is to eat of the tree of life, and that he fails to do. Instead he does the one thing that guarantees he will not live forever: he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The act of disobedience seals his death; he cannot now eat of the tree of life. God therefore drives him out of the garden into the natural world where he has to toil for his bread
In Atrahasis God puts no limit on man’s mortality, since there seems no reason why the slave should not live as long as his masters. His filling the earth unchecked by mortality is both unforeseen and regretted; it was never part of the plan. Disease and famine (not mentioned in Genesis) are unsuccessful ad-hoc attempts to deal with the noise problem by culling the population. Death becomes the lot of all humanity only after the flood (Dalley 2000). If man had not been created with the ability to reproduce, or if the earth had not been finite, he might have lived forever.
Whose ear was open (to) his god Enki.
He would speak with his god,
And his god would speak with him.
Atrahasis made his voice heard
And spoke to his lord,
“How long (?) [will the gods make us suffer]?
Will they make us suffer illness forever?”
The measures Atrahasis has to take in order to circumvent the disaster also hint at a more than regional disaster. He must take birds, wild beasts and cattle on board, as well as his family, for Ellil’s intention is to destroy all life and leave no survivors. He must build (in the Gilgamesh version) a gigantic cube seven storeys high, its length, breadth and height each 120 cubits (50 metres), and take “the seed of all living creatures”. It is, again, Genesis which makes clear the reason for these instructions. The design of the vessel, a vastly more seaworthy 300 by 50 by 30 cubits, answers its explicit purpose: the earth’s animals are to be entirely blotted out, and from those preserved in the ark the earth, once the deluge is over, is to be restocked. Even birds will not survive the cataclysm.
The landing of Atrahasis’ boat on Mount Nimush is similarly incongruous. According to one Assyrian text the mountain lay southeast of the Lower Zab, a tributary of the Tigris, in which case it was probably Pir Omar Gudrun, rising to 9,000 feet. Whether or not this is correct, had the floodwaters reached even the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, Sumerian civilisation would have been wiped out. There would have been no restoration of cult centres or renewal of the kingship, as Gilgamesh relates, merely a depopulated wasteland. In the context of Gilgamesh the detail that the boat landed on a mountain is completely foreign. The implied depth of water makes sense only in the context of a universal deluge.
Nonetheless, for all its Mesopotamian colour, Atrahasis is a story about the whole human race. It explains in Mesopotamian terms why mankind was created, and why mankind had to be destroyed. After the Deluge death is instituted as the normal end to human life, not just the consequence of disease and famine. In such a context the Deluge cannot but have been universal. The same applies to the tradition which tells of it. If the deluge was a real event, and perceived as affecting the whole of mankind, the tradition can hardly have originated in the experience of a merely regional inundation.
That the Sumerian and Hebrew accounts of the Deluge some genetic relationship is clear: they have too many details in common for their similarity to be coincidental. But in what way are they related? Neither of them seems directly dependent on the other. Atrahasis cannot have borrowed from Genesis, because it is the older text of the two, and Genesis cannot have borrowed from Atrahasis, because at every point of comparison it is manifestly the less corrupted version. Atrahasis and Genesis must therefore stem from a tradition that was older than both. It is on this basis that Genesis has some claim to be treated as a historical text. It is not a document without origins. The Sumerian versions throw the Hebrew text into sharp historical relief, demonstrating that it has a pedigree in oral tradition stretching at least as far back as the third millennium. They also demonstrate just how far the Sumerians had by then distorted the story. What we know about their society suggests that the corruptions were ideological rather than failures of memory.
The primeval tradition of all mankind
Evidence from other continents that Genesis reflects a once universal tradition.
The chronology of Genesis 7-8.
Further evidence, both Hebrew and Sumerian, that the cataclysm described in Genesis chapters 7-8 was a unique event.
A record of Earth’s recolonisation
How the rocks beneath our feet present a record consistent with the historical record.