Since writing that was capable of representing grammatical speech was not invented until the 3rd millennium BC, written documents cannot have been the source for the first chapters of Genesis. To have any historical basis, the Creation story, the temptation of the first human couple, the genealogies, the history of the antediluvian world and the story of the Deluge must have passed down the generations first of all by word of mouth. The same applies to the story about Abraham. While he may have been able to write, Abraham was a herdsman, not a member of the elite class of scribes and priests, and herdsmen had no use for writing. Whoever wrote Genesis must have learned about him and his descendants through oral tradition.
The stories about them are rich in details specific to the time they describe and are amply authenticated by archaeology (Kitchen 1995, Gordon & Rendsburg 1997), so we can have some confidence that they are historical. Abraham, the tradition tells us, came from Sumer, or Shinar in Hebrew: lower Mesopotamia. Sumer is often referred to as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, as if what it nursed was something innocent. In reality, the religion at its heart exercised power through sorcery, the magical invocation of spirits. Every city was ruled by a god and, much like a human king, the god dwelt in a palace in the midst of the city, present and manifest in his life-like statue. Close-by, a brick-built mountain enabled the gods of heaven to come down a stairway and the gods of the underworld to come up, so that they could meet with the resident god in council and assist him in his deliberations.
One such ziggurat stood in Ur, home-city of Abraham. Its partly restored remains constitute the most impressive monument left by the civilisation. Ur served the moon-god Nanna, so it was not a place where Abraham could have known about the monotheistic stories of early Genesis. That is why God called him out of the city. Haran, several hundred miles upstream from Ur, can be discounted for the same reason: after leaving Sumer, Abraham and his father settled there probably because it too worshipped Nanna. They knew too little about the god who had called them out of the country to be confident about venturing further.
In the hill-country of Canaan, on the outskirts of Sumerian civilisation, something close to a monotheistic cult might 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 the priest-king of Jerusalem, Melchizedek (Gen 14:18ff). Melchizedek means ‘The righteous one [is] king’, referring to the deity whom he served, and he blesses Abraham in the name of that deity, ‘God Most High, maker of heaven and earth’. The word ‘God’ here is El, head of the Canaanite pantheon, to whom titles such as ‘most high’, ‘lord of heaven’, ‘maker of heaven and earth’ were regularly applied. As attested by texts from Ugarit, a city on the western coast of Syria north of Canaan, El was the father of the gods.
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.
In contrast to the Sumerian theory of kingship, Ebla’s king was an elected ruler, so he did not claim authority from above. He was a monotheist in recognising only one father deity, El, but a polytheist in worshipping others who were his children, notably El’s son Hadad. The document is therefore evidence not that the tradition was pristine, only that it was less corrupted by Sumerian ideas than it became. Whether Melchizedek in his more remote location worshipped other gods is not known. By this time, c. 1870 BC, few places can have resisted the new ideology, which seemed to bring the numinous closer to humanity, exalted the sons of God as gods in their own right, ascribed to them powers within creation to bless and to curse, and even invented personalities, histories and genealogies for them. But Genesis suggests that Melchi- zedek still preserved the Genesis tradition intact. He was the priest of the one to whom all gods owed their existence. He was unlike other priests and kings, and probably it was from him that Abraham learned about the deity called Ya who had appeared and spoken to him, just as he had to Noah, and Enoch, and Cain.
In 1872 George Smith, an assistant Assyriologist at the British Museum, was working on one of the many cuneiform tablets that archaeologists had found in the royal libraries at Nineveh, subsequently established to belong to a larger work about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. As he began to decipher the text, written in Akkadian, the language of Upper Mesopotamia, rather than Sumerian, he realised with excitement that it told of a flood similar to Noah’s flood. He announced the discovery in a lecture to the Biblical Archaeology Society the following month. Also in the audience were the Prime Minister, the archbishop of Canterbury, and numerous newspapermen. This was just 13 years after Darwin had published The Origin of Species, to say nothing of the other intellectual currents threatening biblical authority. Two questions were at the fore. Was the story younger than the book of Genesis, or older? And who had borrowed (stolen) from whom – the Mesopotamians from the Hebrews, or the Hebrews from the Mesopotamians? Even before they knew that Gilgamesh was the older composition, archaeologists and theologians were agreed that the Hebrews must have borrowed from the Mesopotamians.
Subsequently, the tablet was established to be part of a much longer work about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Named after its hero, the epic exists in a number of versions, some going back to the Old Babylonian period (1700–1400 BC). Gilgamesh is a historical king of Uruk from the mid third millennium and introduced as the king who ‘restored the cult-centres destroyed in the Deluge’, as if the Deluge had been a relatively recent event. Towards the end of the poem he meets Utnapishtim, the Noah-like survivor of the flood whom Gilgamesh meets in his search for eternal life, and it is he who tells about the event. But the story is borrowed primarily from another poem, Atrahasis, which, like Genesis, places the flood in the context of the world’s beginning. Here it constitutes the principal theme, though still composed as epic rather than as straight history.
Atrahasis opens with a description of a world inhabited by gods. Heaven, earth and the underworld have been divided among the three principal gods, Anu, Ellil and Ea. Formerly, Anu’s children, called the Anunnaki, lived on earth, but now they live with him in heaven, from where they compel the Igigi, Ellil’s children, to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates. The labour is burdensome, so after 3600 years the Igigi rebel, set fire to their tools and march on Ellil’s palace in Nippur (an actual city in central Mesopotamia) to urge him to make their lives easier. It is night when they arrive. Roused from his bed, Ellil is prepared to fight, but his vizier advises him to summon Anu and Ea from their respective dwellings and seek their counsel. Anu proposes that another being should be created to carry out the work. Ellil agrees. So they slaughter one of the gods and mix his flesh and blood with clay to make man, complete with a soul. Man, however, proves a mixed blessing. He produces too many children and eventually becomes so numerous that his noise stops Ellil from sleeping. After vain attempts to reduce the population by disease and famine, the god resolves to destroy the human race by a flood. Privately Ea disapproves. He tells one of his worshippers, Atrahasis – another name for Utnapishtim – to build a vessel in which birds, cattle and wild animals can be saved. Atrahasis obeys.
When Ellil discovers that he has been thwarted he is furious, so Ea propitiates him by instituting less drastic measures to limit the post-flood population, among them ensuring that some babies are snatched away by demons. The only man who is granted immortality – at least in the Gilgamesh version of the story – is Atrahasis (Utnapishtim) himself.
Genesis, by contrast, is written in dry, historical prose. The motive for telling about the Deluge generation after generation lies in the story itself: the event was momentous, and what it reveals about the righteousness of the one God and Creator of the world is of abiding significance; the revelation itself furnishes compelling reason not to replace truth with fiction. After the Deluge, God granted man a second chance, and that knowledge helps him to understand his present existence. The story reveals who God is. There is no similar sense when we read Atrahasis. The subject matter is valueless for understanding the human condition: 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. Far from being all-knowing, Ellil is unaware of his sons’ dissatisfaction and does not see how creating man might not be to his advantage. 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 a third possibility, not considered by scholars, is that Atrahasis and Genesis are similar because they derive from a tradition common to both peoples. Although as a text Genesis is the younger of the two and therefore (even) further away from the historical Deluge, factually it is closer. Polytheism has distorted the truth about God and the history of the world. For that if for no other reason, the author is under an obligation not to embellish, not to fictionalise. By contrast, partly because it had to cater for many gods, Mesopotamian literature was 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). Polytheism was fictionalising at its core.
One of the strongest evidences that monotheism preceded polytheism in Sumer is that, until the Late Uruk period, the country knew only two gods: Anu, with a temple at Uruk, and Ea, with a temple at Eridu, to the south-east. Later they were joined by a third, Ellil, worshipped at Nippur. The lesser deities did not appear until after them, increasing in number like a human family and, having been brought into the world, being assigned a parentage from pre-existing gods.
In the ancient world the gods had names, for in principle they were knowable. Some had more than one: for example, the goddess Ninhursag (‘lady of the mountains’) was also known as Nintu (‘lady of birth’) and Belet-ili (‘mistress of the gods’). Anu, Ea and Ellil were originally different names for the same deity. Anu simply meant ‘Heaven’, an impersonal synonym for God. His personal name was Ea, pronounced, and sometimes written, as Ay-a (Roberts 1972, Leick 1991). 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’, just as Hebrew used the plural form Elohim to refer to the one God. The god of heaven was a person, not an impersonal force.
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 must have known him by a different name. The references to Yahweh in Genesis are editorial and retrospective: Abraham was calling on the one whom Israel later came to know as Yahweh.
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, ‘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?’), both of which were later also Israelite names. Although Moses himself associated Yah with the newly revealed name of Yahweh (Ex 15:2f), and the names may have derived from the same root, it is unlikely that the one was an abbreviation of the other, as sometimes proposed. Indeed, if Yahweh was the later name, it cannot have been its abbreviation. This is also inferable from two places in Isaiah where the names are in apposition: Yah Yahweh. Similarly 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 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 ehyeh (infinitive: hayah), equivalent to Akkadian Ayah, and Ya(h) was a West Semitic contraction of the word. Ea, or Aya was his name in East Semitic. Like Yahweh, it was derived from the verb ‘to be’, and meant ‘He who is’.
Over time the concept of a transcendent Creator in Mesopotamia disintegrated, with different parts of the creation being allocated to a multitude of gods. In its prologue, Atrahasis mythologises the process by characterising the universe as an inheritance for which they cast lots. The god of heaven, called Anu as if this were 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 heaven and the Apsu, his name also being 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, in the holy city of Nippur. And all three took on the nature of carnal human beings. In an effort to bring order to their genealogical relationships, and since there were no older gods, Anu was made the father of Ellil and Ea by Ki, or Earth, sister of heaven. The progeny of Anu and Ki were then called Anunnaki. Like their parents, they united with each other to produce 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 if 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 [Ea].
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 …
In the original account too there are sons of God before the creation of man (Job 38:7). In the New Testament they are called aggeloi, or messengers, from which we get the word ‘angel’. Much later, three of them visit Abraham and give him the message that in one year’s time his wife will bear him a son. They are described as ‘men’ (males), because that is how they appear to him. When food is put before them, they eat it. Both in the new world and the old they are even capable of mating with human beings and of fathering children (Gen 6:2–4). Even with the concept of spiritual bodies, that is difficult to understand, just as a virgin’s becoming pregnant by the Spirit of God in the New Testament is difficult to understand, but it was possible because Adam was of the same kind, being himself a son of God, even though his body was physical. (But he will be given a spiritual body in the resurrection.) Thus the originals behind the Anunnaki in Atrahasis are the angels, and the originals behind the Igigi are the sons of Adam, son of God. The Igigi are ‘instead of man’ in the quite literal sense that they have replaced him in the narrative.
In Genesis, God makes man ‘in his own image, after his likeness’. He forms his flesh from clay and animates him by breathing into him something of his own life (2:7, 6:3). The body is the image in which God himself chooses to manifest himself when he walks in the garden (3:8). In blessing the human couple, he gives them and, by implication, their descendants dominion over every animal; they are to rule over the rest of creation, not their fellow man.
In the new theology, man is made partly from clay, partly from the flesh and blood of a god. In this way ‘god and man will be mixed together’, the death of the god ensuring that an intelligent soul will live inside the creature. Not even the high gods are capable of creating life de novo. The details are comprehensible only in the context of the tradition that the myth replaces, for by themselves they make little sense. If the gods are immortal, they cannot be killed, and logically man cannot be the product of a fusion in which he is one of the beings fused. Man is made in the image of an unknown god and created to be the gods’ slave. The only mortal who truly combines both natures is the king, standing between man and the gods. Only he has authority to rule on earth, and his chief role is to ensure that the gods – mysteriously present in the human-like effigies that man makes for them – are clothed, housed and fed. To do that, he requires the services of craftsmen, builders, farmers, he requires administrators, tax collectors, priests. The whole economy is organised round the temple.
In Atrahasis God (Ea) does not create man personally; he delegates the task to Ninhursag, here called Belet-ili (‘mistress of the gods’) or Nintu (‘queen of the birthing hut’). Again, her involvement is incongruous, 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 mediation 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’s true identity is clear from two other titles of hers, ‘mother of the gods’ and ‘mother of all children’, again showing the equivalence between gods and men. In Genesis, Eve is ‘the mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), because she has been created with the ability to procreate. She is the ancestor of us all.
In Genesis, man is told to ‘till’ the ground, the Hebrew verb abad connoting a sense of serving or working for another. But principally he labours to feed himself. If tilling the ground turns out to be burdensome, it is because sin has spoiled the creation; work itself is honourable. Over the first six days God himself worked. Sacrifice, whether animal or cereal, is voluntary – Abel and Cain decide for themselves what to offer – and what matters is that it is offered in the right spirit. Its function is to atone for sin, not to feed the one who made him.
God positively desires that man should multiply and fill the earth. But he creates him mortal. 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, for before he can eat of the tree of life God drives him out of the garden into the natural world where he has to toil for bread. He must return to the dust from which he came. God meanwhile continues to dwell in the garden. Having rested for one day, he will never rest again.
In Atrahasis Ellil dwells on earth in a palace. He does not merely rest but sleeps, every night in a bed, and his main concern after the creation of man is that his sleep should not be disturbed. He puts no limit on man’s mortality, for there seems no reason why the slave should not live as long as his masters. His filling the earth unchecked by mortality is unforeseen. 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, at which point only Atrahasis (Utnapishtim) is offered immortality.
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?”
It is also striking that Genesis describes a world very different from the one which existed when the account was written down. Though the names are mostly familiar, the geography is not. The river flowing out of Eden branched into four, whereas in the present world the Tigris and Euphrates do not branch from a single river, and Pishon and Gihon, along with Eden itself, are difficult to identify at all. (The Sumerians overcame the discrepancy by imagining that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had a common source in a mythical ‘Mountain of Sunrise’ in the east.) Pishon flowed round the borders of Havilah, Gihon round the borders of Cush. In the postdiluvian Ancient Near East, Havilah was probably part of Arabia and so named after the descendant of Shem who settled there (Gen 10:29); Cush, on the other side of the Red Sea, was Ethiopia/Sudan, so named after a descendant of Ham who settled there (Gen 10:6). Neither territory was bounded by a river, and the individuals themselves were named after individuals in the first world after whom territories were named.
The change in geography was the consequence of the land’s having been totally destroyed. When the colonisers of the Ancient Near East thought about what to call their new lands and settlements, they chose names that referred back to the first world, conscious that in multiplying and spreading across the earth they were doing what men had done once before. They were declaring a recreation of 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).
Let him block below, and not raise flood-water from the springs!
Scholars have long supposed that Mesopotamia’s version of the Deluge was inspired by the experience of an exceptionally devastating overflow of its rivers, for certain descriptions give the account a distinctly local character. Others do not. Details conflict, as if two events – one regional and recent, the other global and ancient – were conflated into one. Winds howl like a wild ass, the land is shattered like a pot, total darkness supervenes. An overflowing of the Tigris and Euphrates? Possibly. On the other hand, the measures Atrahasis has to take in order to circumvent the disaster point to more than just a more than regional disaster. He must take on board birds, wild beasts and cattle, for Ellil intends 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’. Again, it is Genesis which makes clear the reason for such instructions. The design of the vessel, a much more seaworthy 300 by 50 by 30 cubits, answers its explicit purpose. All the earth’s animals are to be blotted out, and from those preserved in the ark once the cataclysm is over the earth is to be restocked. Even birds will not escape the cataclysm.
The landing of the cube on Mount Nimush – after only seven days – 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. Be that as it may, 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, no renewal of the kingship (Gilgamesh I, 43-44), merely a depopulated wasteland. The detail that the boat landed on a mountain is completely foreign. So too is the detail that Utnapishtim waited seven days before sending forth a dove and a further unspecified number of days during which he sent forth a swallow and a raven. Evidently he could not see land all that time, and the implied depth of water only makes sense in the context of a universal inundation.
For all its inconsistencies and 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. The Deluge was total: escaping to higher ground was not an option for any animal. Ellil is angry because a purposely constructed vessel has enabled one family (by implication only one family) to survive. Death, no longer just the consequence of disease and famine, is instituted as the normal end to human life. 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 could not have originated in the experience of a merely regional disaster.
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.