Prior to the “Golden Age of Archaeology” in Palestine, convergences between the Bible and Mesopotamia had already been underway considering the excavations taking place in Iran. Prior to these discoveries, the Pentateuch (also known as the Torah, the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy) and Mosaic authorship was under severe skepticism after the Documentary Hypothesis and the Source Critical school had ripped the Torah apart in attempts to create a historical backdrop in favor of different authors (sources) rather than explore the context of the narratives themselves. This post will be a short summary of archaeological work in the Middle East that relate to the kingdoms of Mesopotamia and their interaction with events in recorded in the Bible.
An officer of the British army by the name of Claudius James Rich was of the first to explore the many ruins and mounds of Iran while working for the East India Company. It was his writings and descriptions of Nineveh, Persepolis and Babylon which inspired the British Museum, archaeologists and explorers to seek out the mysteries of Mesopotamia (Moorey 1992, 7). The Behistune Inscription, a trilingual inscription carved on the side of Mt. Behistune, was well documented by the Germans in the 18th century, however the cuneiform script had not been unlocked until Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered the Old Persian inscription and eventually translating the Elamite and Babylonian portions as well. Thus Assyriology, the study of the language and civilizations of Mesopotamia, was born.
The French were also involved as they employed Paul-Emile Botta as a Consul in Mosul and he discovered the ruins of ancient Dur-Sharrukin, the Assyrian capital of Sargon the Great. Scholars quickly made the connection to Sargon mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and became the first real polemic for archaeology against secular scholarship and their Documentary Hypothesis (Moorey 1992, 8). The remainder of these posts will focus on specific archaeological discoveries in the Ancient Near East which illustrate convergences between the context of the biblical narratives and the history of the Mesopotamian civilizations.
The Patriarchal Period
When biblical archaeology had become a major discipline in the early to mid 1900s, it had been a response to source criticism’s attack against the history of the Levant based off of textual evidence in the Bible. William F. Albright had suggested that the archaeology of ancient Palestine had reflected the collapse of the Early Bronze age brought on by the migration of pastoral nomads from Mesopotamia into the hill country Canaan. Albright had hypothesized that Abraham was among the Amorites whom invaded the land and, in this case,, archaeology confirmed the conditions of the 2 millennium BC (Albright 1939). This at the very least would provide a framework for a historical patriarchal age.
Perhaps one of the fiercest attacks against this archaeological assumption are the anachronisms in the biblical account referring to the Philistines in Genesis 26:1 by Isaac. Other anachronisms are the appearance of camels in the ANE as a domesticated animal. Excavations at Timna in 2014 had been the only evidence of camel bones in Israel yet they only dated to 10th century. Kitchen and others have long shown that camels have been in use in the Fayum "Pottery A" period. Other documented cases of camels in use date to 2400 BCE or earlier (Martin 2011, 368).
The Nuzi texts are another source of circumstantial evidence for practices and context of the Patriarchal period. Nuzi was an ancient Mesopotamian city along the Tigris river in modern day Iraq. The texts are mainly legal and economic in nature but they provide a strong context to social structures practice in the Genesis narratives. Of the 5000 tablets discovered, some of the social and legal portions contain parallels with Bible and Hurrian culture such as hand-servant surrogates to produce an heir on account of barrenness of the wife (Al-Khalisi 1970, 109-206). These assumptions have been challenged more recently by some scholars saying that the social practices instituted continue into the 1st millennium BCE and therefore do not necessarily point to the patriarch specifically. The texts therefore can only be used in illustrative function (Pitard, 1998, 52).
This is yet a sampling of archaeological data which provide a histrocial backdrop for the Patriarchal period. My next posts will focus on later periods of Mesopotamian civilization and their interaction with the Israel and the Biblical narratives. Let me know what you think in the comments!
 Although still a mystery, the emergence of the Philistines (sea peoples?) is said to have happened in the 12th century BCE.
 Timna Valley Excavations. 2014.
 The Hurrian texts also contain similar legal language concerning barren wives and surrogate hand servants to produce heirs.
First on our list are a group of artifacts known as the Tel El-Amarna letters. These letters were found in Egypt and date the Late Bronze Age New Kingdom of Egypt 1360-1322 BCE. They are a collection of over 300 clay tablets which are correspondence between the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, and the major kingdoms of the Ancient Near East.
These tablets were inscribed in cuneiform (wedge writing) and written in a language known as Akkadian which was the lingua franca, or common language of the ancient world in this time period. Most of the correspondence contain devotion and praise to the pharaoh as well as providing details as to the culture and events of these distant kingdoms.
This information provides biblical scholars with a wealth of knowledge since majority of these tablets are written from kings living in the areas of modern day Syria, Lebanon, and Canaan. Evaluation of these texts can help quite literally “set the stage” and provide the historical and geographic context for the emergence of the Israelites in Late Bronze/Early Iron Age in Canaan.
Some of these texts also mention the troubles the Canaanite kings have had with two people groups known as the Hapiru and the Shasu. Both of these groups have been linked with the “Hebrew” people. Some prominent scholars have suggested that these are in fact the emerging ethnic group of the Israelites infiltrating the land of Canaan however this is heavily debated.
Tune in tomorrow for Day 11 in the 12 Days of Archaeology and the Bible!
Sources and for further Reading.
Dever, William G. (1997). "Archaeology and the Emergence of Early Israel" . In John R. Bartlett (Ed.), Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 20–50. Routledge.
Hoffmeier, James K. (2005). Ancient Israel in Sinai, New York: Oxford University Press, 240–45.
Rainey, Anson F. (1995). "Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society". In Wright, David Pearson; Freedman, David Noel; Hurvitz, Avi (eds.). Pomegranates and Golden Bells. Eisenbrauns.
Stager, Lawrence E. (2001). "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel". In Michael Coogan (Ed.), The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pp. 90–129. New York: Oxford University Press.
El-Amarna Tablets, article at West Semitic Research Project, website of University of Southern California accessed 12/12/19.
A section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling featuring Adam and scenes throughout Genesis and the Bible.
When someone, whether a believer or passive reader of ancient literature, picks up a Bible to read its contents, they will naturally turn to the first page being that it is the beginning of the story. They may be very interested in the first three chapters as it introduces God, characters such as Adam, Eve, the serpent, and their sons, Cain and Abel. But shortly after these brief stories the reader is thrust into a lengthy genealogy beginning with Adam, and his descendants of hard to pronounce and exotic names. This list continues through the course of Genesis, pausing only for key players in the list.
One is therefore tempted (like I often was) to skim (or skip) over majority of this list of names to get back to the action. However, could this list of names, years and descendants contain meaning, give life to the text, and provide lessons to the reader? Can this genealogy give any insight to those of us, removed by time and space and perhaps supply a glimpse into the world of Genesis? Can it actually be a valuable part of the narrative involving YHWH and his people? This post will focus on the Generations of Adam throughout Genesis and use a text discovered by archaeology in order to glean a better understanding of this mysterious genre.
Genesis and the Sumerian Kings List
There are many genealogical lists discovered by archaeology but most fall along the category of a “Kings List.” These lists are used in identifying each king within a dynasty and its purpose is usually to authenticate a particular king in power as the true successor to the throne. We have them from the Levant, Anatolia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. In fact, the kings list, which is often compared with the genealogy in Genesis, is the Sumerian Kings list.
WB 444 (Weld-Blundell Prism)
This ancient cuneiform tablet was discovered during excavations at Nippur (modern day Iraq) in the early 1900s by a scholar named Herman Hilprecht. Since then, more kings lists from the Sumerian empire have been discovered but the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is the most complete version. It contains a list of rulers from the antediluvian period (pre-flood era) to the fourteenth rule of the Isin dynasty 1763 – 1754 BC.
Several items are of interest about this list:
Lists such as these help historians, archaeologist and scholars to identify dynastic periods and compare these periods with other civilizations to establish a “chronology.” However the problem lies with fragmentary lists, and issues such as those mentioned before with inflated, (and assumed estimated) lengthy reigns of the earliest rulers.
When compared to Genesis, the lengthy life spans of Adam and his descendants stand out as a parallel to the Sumerian Kings List as well as the mention of a flood and pre-flood era. It also is important to note that Genesis is also establishing a claim of legitimacy in that the Children of Abraham are direct descendants of Adam and Noah. The term “God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is, in a sense, a mini-genealogy establishing a divine claim for the Children of Israel.
A final note before discussing the genealogy as narrative. This list shows that the style and form of the genealogy of Genesis has its roots in Mesopotamia (Sumer is one of the oldest known civilizations by archaeology circa 4500-1900 BC) and this fact alone can provide legitimacy as to the “ancientness” of the Genesis text.
Genealogy as Narrative
After the events of Creation and The Fall, the author of Genesis focuses on giving an extensive list of generations and their families. The formula that is portrayed is thus:
“_(Father Name)_ lived _#_ of years, he fathered _(Son Name)_. _(Father Name)_ lived after he had fathered _(Son Name)_ _#_ of years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that _(Father Name)_ lived were _#_ years, and he died.”
The formula stays mostly consistent with the exception of a few names worth mentioning. Narratively speaking, the authors of the Bible often times use repetition as well as grammar and syntax in order to emphasize a particular person or theological point trying to be made.
As readers of the Bible it is important to note that these techniques beg the question as to their purpose for such a change or repetition. The authors not only convey a message through the actual words on the page but by the form of the text and arrangement of those words. The genealogies in Genesis are a good example of this.
In Genesis we are given a list of names describing a lengthy lifespan for those in the pre-flood period along with mention of the amount of children they have at a particular year. The reason for the information of each man concerning the amount of years one had lived until they began to father children, pertains to the command made earlier to Adam and Even to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28. The author is letting the audience know that this particular person is mentioned in the genealogy because they obeyed the command to have children. In this case, the repetition was to be noted and this common denominator can be found amongst all mentioned.
More importantly, of those mentioned in this list of names are those of whom do not fit the formula. The first name on this list that strays from the formula is of a man named Enoch. Gen 5:21-23 says,
“When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years.”
"God took Enoch" illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries
Majority of these words fit the patterned formula however, verse 23 does not end with “and he died.” Instead, we are given a pause and are told in verse 24, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” This may seem like a minor divergence from the formula but it is one that should be noted, especially since the list continues right back into its formula in verse 25 with Methuselah. This should beg the question from the reader as to what happened to Enoch and why the abrupt change?
Shortly after mention of Enoch, the author decides to give a side story describing the events of a man named Noah and of a great Flood, which covers the whole earth (more on Flood literature in the ANE next month). The story of Noah describes his life and faithfulness in God as he was, the Bible claims, the only righteous man in the world. God is essentially going to start again with humanity from Noah’s family rather than letting the wickedness of man continue on the earth (Gen 6:5-8). The preparation for this event, the event itself and its aftermath take up the bulk of the story. When the story is over, the genealogical formula continues in Genesis 9:28 “All the days of Noah were 950 years and he died.”
Immediately following this statement, the text picks right back up with another genealogy following the lineage of Noah however, the author becomes less concerned with mentioning the number of years each man lived and seems more concerned with the territory in which they inhabited. This continues until the mention of the Tower of Babel. After the author directs the attention of the tower and its creation, he shifts back to the original pattern as the beginning of the genealogy saying in 11:10 “These are the generations of…” A similar formula appears:
“When _(Father Name)_ lived _#_ of years he fathered _(Son Name)_. And _(Father Name)_ lived after he fathered _(Son Name)_ _#_ years and had other sons and daughters.”
The rest of Genesis then follow the events of Abraham and his descendants, Isaac, Jacob/Israel and Joseph.
A portion of Dead Sea Scroll which mentions Noah.
It is intriguing to see whom the text focuses on as opposed to who the text glosses over. The book of Genesis can been view as one large genealogy beginning with Adam ending until Joseph before the events of the Exodus. Purely looking at these genealogies in a narrative light, one can see that the author is clearly emphasizing certain people within the list on account of their faithfulness to YHWH.
Enoch is singled out and his story is different from the others because in verse 1:24 he was said to have “walked with God” therefore he was taken, and the author does not inform the reader of his death. A similar break occurs with Noah and his “walk with God.” The text is careful to mention Noah’s faithfulness and that he is the only righteous man on the earth.
However, the reader is given an abrupt ending to Noah's story immediately after the incident involving his drunkenness and his son’s sin (Gen 9:20-25). The very next thing that happens to Noah is the end of the genealogical formula “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.” The text then dives back in to the genealogy until mention of another man who walks by faith, called Abram.
After a careful reading one can see that names that stray from the formula, were meant to be emphasized and a simple theological deduction arises:
This seems like a simple concept but the logic is played out beautifully within the pages of Genesis. Therefore, there are lessons and valuable insights to be gained among these lists of names, which are placed carefully within the text for a reason. As mentioned before, the author(s) skillfully weaved this text together and not only teach its reader using the words on the page but with the form and arrangement of the text itself.
Next month my post will focus on the Flood in Genesis compared to other flood literature in the ANE.
For further reading:
Hallow, W. W. 1963 The Sumerian King List. AS 11. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sailhamer, John. The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1992).
The Ancient of Days (William Blake 1794)
Genesis 1 begins with creation ex nihilo or creation “out of nothing.” YHWH from no frame of reference appears to manifest all matter in the universe simply by speaking and thus his words become the physical reality for his presence to dwell. In the creation narrative, Chapter 1 gives a day by day creation account of the 6 days of God’s work followed by chapter 2:1-3 of a seventh day of completion where God rests to admire his work. 2:4 picks back up on the 6th day giving a detailed account of the creation of man, God’s favorite work amongst his creation. This section begins with the formula “these are the generations,” signifying that the book is taking a different direction. Instead of solely focusing on a macro-level of Creation, the author wants to focus on a particular aspect of creation and the relationship of God with mankind. This will eventually lead to the lineage of a specific family through its patriarch, Abraham, from whom will father a great nation that will bless the world. This is common way of story telling in which one begins very general to very specific.
The Creation narrative literally is “setting the stage” for God to act in order for the grand drama to unfold. Shortly after, in chapter three, the conflict is introduced and the first antagonist, the serpent, appears to tempt God’s perfect creation. His goal: to change order into chaos. The event of creation takes place within six days (Heb yom). They are outlined as this:
Day 1: Creation of Light, Night and Day
Day 2: Creation of the Heavens (expanse, Hebrew: raqia)
Day 3: Creation of Land and Vegetation
Day 4: Stars, Sun and Moon.
Day 5: Sea Creatures and Birds
Day 6: Land Animals and Mankind
Day 7: Sabbath, God finished his Work and Rested
Chapter 2 verse 5 gives exposition as to the creation of Man which happened on the sixth day. Critics of the Bible have often said that the Bible is contradicting itself or using two separate sources because of the discontinuity of these two chapters. However, the very same thing happens in Genesis chapter 1:1-2. The author says God created the Heavens and the Earth however, the text later informs the reader that the heavens and the earth was not created until Day 2 and Day 3. This means the author gives a summery statement “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” then in verse 3 informs the reader of how God accomplished this in the day-by-day formula finishing each day with the proclamation "and it was so" or “and God saw that it was good.”
Now, this passage along with other passages within the Bible has been juxtaposed with other ancient literary works such as texts from Mesopotamia, the Levant (Modern Day Israel/Palestine Syria and Lebanon) and Egypt. For the essence of time and length, I will focus on one specific creation myth, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, by giving a brief summery and showing where the two texts are similar and how they are different. I have focused on this one text because it is the one, which scholars assume, share the most themes, words and style with the Bible amongst other ancient Near Eastern epics.
Marduk and the Dragon
Enuma Elish also known as the “Babylonian Creation Myth” focuses on the Babylonian god, Marduk and his ascension to prominence in Mesopotamian society. Although Tablets I-VII were recorded relatively late (circa 7th Century BCE discovered at the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh along with another famous work, the Epic of Gilgamesh) it supplies traditions of the older creation myths. Therefore, Enuma Elish is not the only Mesopotamia creation myth as there are many creation texts have been discovered. This one in particular is of the most complete and best used for comparative study. The outline of this epic is as follows:
Tablet I: Apsu (god of fresh water) and Tiamat (goddess of salt water) were the primordial gods whom created the lesser gods. Apsu became annoyed with the noise of his children and planned to kill them. Tiamat, however put a stop to the plan. The younger gods heard about the plan, slew Apsu and angered Tiamat. Tiamat in response created eleven creatures (monsters) to do battle with the gods. Lesser gods Ea and Damika then created Marduk as a hero god to do battle with the eleven monsters and defeat Tiamat.
Tablet 2: Marduk receives his mission to do battle with Tiamat under the condition that if he succeeds, he will become the supreme god of the world.
Tablet 3: Marduk travels to the other gods in order to contract them into his supremacy if he wins his battle with Tiamat.
Tablet 4: Marduk does battle with Tiamat and uses his power of controlling the four winds to trap her. He uses his net, which was a gift from the god Anu, and sends an arrow through her heart, killing Tiamat. He captures the remaining monsters in his net, and then smashes Tiamat’s head with a mace. He splits her body in half, and one of the halves he makes a sky which will be the home for the gods, Anu, Enlil and Ea.
Tablet 5: Marduk makes the stars in the skies (which are supposed to be likeness of the gods), created night and day, and the moon. He also created clouds to send rain to the earth and collect on the ground forming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Tablet 6: Marduk uses mud of the earth and the blood of the god Qingu to create mankind to serve the gods in order that the gods may rest. Marduk then creates a hierarchy for the gods with Marduk at the top of the pantheon and they construct the city of Babylon along with its temple, Esagila as a Temple for Marduk.
Tablet 7: This is a list of Marduk’ s fifty names and titles announcing his supremacy.
After reading the story, and in the brief outline I have given, it is perhaps a wonder why the two texts are compared at all. Naturally, there are similar themes shared in both Enuma Elish and the Bible, but what is more striking is the differences one encounters in the two texts. Most notably are the story and clear purpose of both texts. The Biblical Text, as mentioned above focuses a very brief creation account elevating Yahweh as the sole maker of the heavens and the earth by a process of step by step development in order to set the stage for the drama to occur. On the other hand, Enuma Elish seeks to elevate Marduk and the creation account is a mere afterthought after the divine drama has already taken place.
The similarities are present and they should not be avoided. These similarities are as follows:
1. Primeval chaos
2. Number of days in creation (seven)
3. Creation of light
4. The firmament (similar Akkadian word to the Hebrew, raqia)
5. Dry land
6. A creation of man
7. God(s) resting
Cylinder seal impression depicting Marduk (middle figure) and Tiamat as the Serpent (dragon)
Years ago, scholars used the Enuma Elish account to state the direct influence and adaptation of the myth by the author(s) of the book of Genesis. Today this idea is still somewhat shared by majority of scholars however, they are quick to note the differences such as polytheism versus monotheism, as well as a lack of the monsters and battles in the Genesis text as opposed to the Babylonian creation myth. These similarities are now seen mostly as “common ancient Near Eastern religious parallels” rather than influences. This idea (of cultural parallels) is a very different concept as opposed to direct influence of one text upon another. John Oswalt describes it in a very relatable way:
“The same thing is true in the case of many other supposed identical parallels. If one merely lists the characteristics of a human being and a dog, for instance (one nose, two eyes, two ears, hair, circulatory system, etc.) one will certainly conclude the two are essentially identical. However, if you actually put the two side by side, you will reach a very different conclusion.” (Oswalt 2009: 100)
In this way, there does appear to be some themes and conflicts that are shared amongst the contemporaneous cultures which speak to their current reality. No doubt we have the same thing happening today in various mediums such as television, movies, music in which artists address a specific political, environmental or geographical climate. However, the way in which they perceive and express these ideals are various.
If we attempt what Oswalt states, by putting the two myths side by side, we can appreciate the world of the ancient Near East and gain a better grasp as to the themes that are revealed through these types of literature. Simply let the myths be what they are and glean the ethical, political and historical information of each text. They both tell us something about the ancient world as well as ourselves. Arguments about influence based off of our own presuppositions take away the power and relevancy from both texts.
The Bible had it own agenda, in declaring Yahweh as the creator of universe. It does so in its own way clearly separating itself from the other religions and cultures. Next month I will address the Flood epic and the other literature(s) with similar mythologies involving a deluge.
Please let me know what you think in the comments and supply your own insights and of course, feel free to ask questions!
Bibliography for further reading.
The full text of the Babylonian Epic of Creation can be found here.
Ehrilich, Carl. From an Ancient Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Roman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham, MD. 2009.
Hays, Christopher. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2014.
Oswalt, John The Bible Among the Myths. Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2009.
The story of Genesis is familiar to the most of the Western World. Creation and the Fall (Gen 1-3), Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-16), Noah’s Ark (Gen 6-9), the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), and the Joseph story (Gen 37-50) are all tales heard in Sunday school and/or referenced in movies, theatre and music. Any curious reader of the Bible has also read these passages because naturally, one prefers to start at the beginning of any great story. It also whets the appetite of human interest because we are all curious as to our origins. Religion seeks to answer questions and fills the gaps in our knowledge to such things beyond our own observable universe.
Genesis, first and foremost, is about one thing before it is about anything else: man’s salvation history.* Genesis focuses on 1) introducing the protagonist, God, 2) his creative work of the universe, 3) His favorite work in creating Man, 4) Man’s rejection of God and introduction to the conflict of Sin, and 5) the establishment of Covenant with one family/tribe and how they will assist in the blessing of the nations until order is restored.
These next few blog posts will address the tales in Genesis mentioned above. It will require a month or so to research and write a summary of the topics described and provide a bibliography for further research and reading if you so desire. I can also provide more sources on these subjects as well. On the subject of Genesis as Narrative however, Genesis is a literary work of art. It is both simple in its complexity and complex in its simplicity.
The author (or authors) intricately and intentionally used a variety of literary techniques that go well beyond “children’s stories.” Those that enjoy it in its original Hebrew no doubt pick up on these techniques during a reading of the text. The use of poetry, prose and even genealogy are all skillfully woven together in this work and everything written is plainly intentional.
Critics of the Pentateuch (or Torah, the first five books of the Bible) used to highlight aspects such as repetition used in the Bible as a jumping off point for Source Criticism. They would often condemn the writers and redactors for forgetting that certain words and phrases are mentioned more than once as the redactor compiled and copied the manuscripts. However, we now know that these repetitions (once thought as mistakes) are actually skillful techniques used in a pre-literate, oral society in order to maintain cognitive memory practices in reciting the text to one another.
This is a foreign concept to the Western World because we only imagine something as “publishable” or as “proof” when it is written down. There is no such thing as an oral contract in this day in age. We do not trust people by their spoken word, but instead we have to take further legal means by putting things on paper. The concept of a completely “Oral Bible” make us uncomfortable because we view the world with an extremely conflicting paradigm.
The language of the Bible was written this way because the words are meant to be recited and memorized. This is why you see repetition of a word or phrase, and in Hebrew you see literary tricks like onomatopoeia and alliteration. These techniques were all used intentionally to help the reader or listener to memorize the passage easier. With this knowledge in mind, one can easily imagine shepherds tending to their flocks in the wilderness, camping out under the stars, and reciting these “tales of old” to their families and companions. Tales they heard and memorized from their fathers and grandfathers about how the stars were placed in the heavens, how a man named Joseph went from a shepherd like them to a Vizier ruling over all of Egypt, and how God will one day return to make the world new again, to be a like a beautiful Garden, where they can have their fill of any tree. The stories were memorized and without the interference of modern day distractions we could possibly accomplish these things as well.
The book of Genesis also contains elements of other contemporaneous cultures such as Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia within its language because, naturally, those were the cultures surrounding Ancient Israel in those times. The Joseph story has elements of Egyptian names, cultural references and loan words because the setting of most of the Joseph story takes place in Egypt. If Moses were indeed the writer, being of the Egyptian royal household, then he would be intimate with Egyptian culture and language in order to tell the story correctly.
Now, with all of that said, we can now proceed with our theme of “Genesis Among the Myths.” One may have heard of other creation and flood stories from other cultures such as from Mesopotamia and Egypt. From a surface level reading of these texts, one could compare these myths to the Bible and see some assumed similarities. It was important to establish Genesis as narrative in order to better understand the medium in which the text is written in light of other Ancient Near Eastern literary texts. Next month I will address the passage in Genesis 1 and 2 regarding the Creation account. I will attempt to explain what the author is doing with the text and compare it to some other creation accounts in the Ancient Near East.
[Disclaimer: I will not be dealing with the issue of literal 6-day creation because, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is not my area of expertise. I am an archaeologist and biblical scholar, that is more within the discipline of astrophysics.]
For further reading in the subject of Genesis as Narrative, please see these books. I highly recommend Robert Alter’s pioneering monograph conveniently entitled The Art of Biblical Narrative. It’s a very readable book and a great introduction to the Bible as a cohesive story.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981).
Fokkelman, J. P. Reading Biblical Narrative (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1999).
Long, V. Philips. The Art of Biblical History (Zondervan, 1994).
Sailhamer, John. The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1992).
*Notice I designate the Bible as “man’s salvation history” rather than defining it as history in our postmodern, western mindset. I already discussed this briefly in my first blog post. View it here.
This is the question that typically follows any statement of my particular vocation. More often than not, it is in fact the single most asked question I receive as an archaeologist. Perhaps this post will not give you the answer you were hoping for, but at least to some, I can lay to rest the question that has been on your mind for a long while. 1981 in fact. This is of course, the release of the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, which inspired many archaeologists (including myself) and filled them with dreams of traveling the world, fighting Nazis, getting the girl and discovering aliens exist (…maybe we’ll just forget about that last one). If I haven’t lost many of you by now after mentioning last installment of The Crystal Skull, jokes aside, I will attempt in this post to give some history of the Ark, its purpose, and some historical and traditional views on what might have happened to it.
The Ark of the Covenant was first created as a result of a commandment by God in the Book of Exodus 37, approximately one year after the events of the exodus while the Israelites were in the Sinai wilderness. It was constructed of Acacia wood, 45 inches longs, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches tall. The chest was then overlaid with gold, bolted with rings for carrying poles and was finally a lid with two solid gold cherubim (angels) figurines facing each other with their wings outstretched toward each other and spread out over the lid. According to the New Testament book of Hebrews 9:4, this iconic relic held three things within its confines: the tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments, the Staff of Aaron which was used in the Plagues as well as the same staff which bloomed signifying that Aaron’s sons would be the priests (Levites) to uphold the Laws of YHWH, and a golden pot of manna collected from the wilderness.
The function of the Ark has been debated, however the Bible does mention that it was to contain the “Presence of God." The Hebrew word kepporet seems to indicate that the lid of the Ark functioned as the Throne of God as he is “seated upon the Cherubim” mentioned in Isaiah 37:16 “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.” This would fit well within its ancient Near Eastern Context if we look at other contemporaneous cultures during the time period of the Late Bronze age such as Egypt and Assyria. Egypt has perhaps two of the best examples of similar throne structures. The first and perhaps most popular is the throne of King Tutankhamen.
One can see that there are many animal-like figures which match the description of Cherubim in the ANE (Ancient Near East) as hybrid-winged creatures and symbolize the realm of the gods. In this throne, it can be plainly seen that King Tut was seated upon Cherubim creatures, which represented his protection by angelic beings as well as his place among the gods. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt were essentially the reincarnation of the god Horus.
The next example is far more obvious when it comes to the role of the Ark in light of Egyptian religion. This scene is a depiction of Pharaoh Rameses II’s tent structure at Abu Simbul in Egypt.
The relief dates to Rameses II’s reign in 1279-1213 BCE and shows a tent structure with the Pharaoh’s throne at the center of the camp. Many have made connections with his military tent to the Tabernacle and its arrangement. Rameses’ throne room has two cherubim with their wings outstretched with his cartouche (the encased name of the Pharaoh in hieroglyphics) between them. It’s a remarkable image that perhaps shows that author of the Exodus is reworking the Tabernacle and throne imagery to show that YHWH, not Pharaoh, is the one worthy of worship.
Therefore, the purpose of the Ark was to be the throne of God, not necessarily that his presence was in the Ark, but rather, seated on top since YHWH was supposed to be the first and only king of the Israelites. This also fits with other passages of the Hebrew Bible which instruct the Israelites to carry the Ark before them as they travel. Majority of the events surrounding the Conquest of Canaan center around the Ark, such as the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3 and the battle of Jericho in Joshua 6:4-15. The Ark was supposed to symbolize the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people in that they would indeed be given the land promised to them as well as God being the one who would fight Israel’s battles for them.
The Ark after this point has a rough history. The Ark was housed in the biblical city of Shiloh (currently being excavated today) until the Philistines capture it (mentioned in 1 Samuel 4:3-11) and was kept for 7 months until its return back to Israelite territory. It was then housed in different cities such as Beth Shemesh (also being excavated today) before being sent to David’s capital in Jerusalem. It was not until Solomon built his Temple that the Ark had a final resting place for a hundred years or so. The Ark was returned to the Temple during Josiah’s reign (7th century BCE) and the Bible is not clear why or who removed it from the Temple (2 Kings 21-23) prior to this event.
After the Ark was established in the Temple of Solomon, it plays a pivotal role in the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippor (The Day of Atonement). On this special day, only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies on behalf of the people of Israel. Their job was to sprinkle the blood of an unblemished lamb upon the Ark, or the throne of God. This symbolized the price for the sins of Israel being atoned by this act. This holiday occurs once a year and was the only time anyone was allowed behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies.
This is when the location of the Ark becomes murky. After the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE it is implied that the Babylonians might have been the ones to raid the temple and take the Ark with them back to Babylon as plunder along with the Judean exiles. In the book of 1 Esdras (an ancient Greek form of the book of Ezra), it claims that vessels of the Ark were taken with them but not the Ark itself (1 Esdras 1:54). There is a possibility it could have been taken with the Babylonians, however it is unknown.
2 Maccabees 2:4-10, however also states that the prophet Jeremiah, knowing of the oncoming campaign of Nebuchadnezzar and his army of Babylonians, took the Ark and hid at the site of Moses' resting place on Mt. Nebo (in modern day Jordan) until “the time that God should gather his people again together."
There is the theory that the Pharaoh Shishak (most likely Shoshenq I of the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt) mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings 11:40, 14:25 and 2 Chronicles 12:2-9, took the Ark of the Covenant during one of his campaigns through the Levant. He raided the temple of Solomon and took its riches back to Egypt. No doubt this would have included the Ark of the Covenant. However, there is no written sources whether Egyptian, or Biblical that can confirm this theory. A version of this theory is of course used in the Raiders of the Lost Ark film.
If the Ark still exists and survived either campaigns of the Egyptians or Babylonians, there are several places which claim to have the sacred box. The most popular among these locations is the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, possession of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Only one priest is allowed in the building where the Ark is held. A popular book written by British author Graham Hancock, The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant also proposes this location as the final resting place for the ark. However there is little historical merit to his claims and most scholars do not hold to these views or claims.
The search for the Ark is a popular topic and inspires many with dreams of adventure, intrigue and conspiracy. However, there is not much historical and archaeological data that give any evidence as to what happened to an object such as this. More than likely (and this is my own opinion) that the empires of Egypt and Assyria would have little use for a sacred box containing some tablets, a staff and a pot of flowers. They would simply have stripped the gold from its wood and added it amongst their booty. I realize this is an anticlimactic end to such an influential and symbolic object of the Bible, however Jewish religion continued on. The Holy of Holies in Zerubbabel’s Temple and in Herod’s Temple was void of the Ark of the Covenant although the presence of God was supposed to still be dwelling behind the curtain; the curtain’s purpose being to separate the righteousness of God with the sinful world.
The Jews of the Second Temple Period clearly did not feel the need to remake another Ark and were satisfied with the vacancy in its place. On Yom Kippur the blood of the lamb, that was to be sprinkled on the Ark, was instead sprinkled on the empty place where the Ark sat, most likely a reminder of the sins of the people, which led to their sacred relic being taken from them. Therefore, Jewish life and ritual continued on. Perhaps if the ancient Jews were willing to let the Ark be lost, we should too.
Perhaps one of the most important stories in the Bible is the event of the Exodus, which unfolds with the Israelites in the land of Egypt. It is referenced many times in scripture and is often seen as a great victory of the Israelites and their God, Yahweh, as well as perhaps Egypt’s greatest defeat. The story in Exodus tells of the sons of Jacob (also known as Israel) seeking refuge in Egypt after a famine. Unbeknown to them, their brother, Joseph, who was sold to slave traders in Canaan, made a name for himself in Egypt and became a vizier in Pharaoh’s kingdom. Then a Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” enslaved the Children of Israel into bondage.
Although there are many debates as to the historicity of the event, the focus of this study is that of slavery in general in the land of Egypt. Historians and scholars have to be careful of not committing ethnocentrism when evaluating other cultures according to the standards and customs of one's own culture. The word “slavery” in post-Enlightenment/post-Colonial America is a loaded term and brings to mind a certain type of slavery that was implemented first by Greeks and then ultimately by the Western World in the Americas. The slavery that will be the focus here is the slavery in ancient Egypt. This is important for scholars and those that read the Biblical Accounts as well as evaluating any ancient document. It is very easy for us to view the story and events through our own lenses without any prior knowledge of life in ancient times. This is also important because we discover that slavery viewed in the ancient world was very different than slavery implemented in the Americas.
First to mention is that the data analyzed in this study are from sources found by archaeology and the first problem encountered lies in the sheer amount of sources. Egypt contains a wealth of information concerning how the ruling Pharaoh’s lived day to day. This should be no surprise considering how kings and rulers in the Ancient Near East (Egypt to Mesopotamia) spent majority of their lifetime making efforts to ensure that their name would be remembered forever by building monuments to themselves and having their names carved in stone and in the very foundation of their palaces and temples. Majority of those that were literate in ancient times were those that used reading and writing in their everyday lives, such as those in politics, government or in religious institutions.
In other words, the nobles and upper class typically were the ones privileged enough to learn how to read and write. One will be hard pressed to find anything written by a peasant or slave considering they were more than likely farmers, traders, and miners or had skills in other trades. These trades do not require a formal training in literacy. The sources uncovered which give a glimpse of the ancient life of a peasant or slave are from that of a wealthier human whom, in fact, was not a slave. However regardless of these difficulties, archaeologist and historians make an educated initiative to piece together the lifestyle and liberties of a servant/slave based on written transactions or law codes that correspond with the treatment of slaves.
Second, the term "slave" has a wide semantic range. Anyone who had a master or a lord had “slaves” or servants working under him or her. The Egyptian word for slave/servant is “hm” which is used in a variety of contexts. A priest can be the gods’ slave (hm-ntr), and this phrase also can be the in title of the Pharaoh being a “servant of the gods.” There were however slaves that were, in a sense, property owned by the estate of wealthy families, priests and officials but they were not necessarily confined to hard labor. Many servants worked in occupations in the household and some had significant liberties and responsibilities over their duties and had other servants working under them.
The main source of slaves that populated Egypt was that of prisoners of war. Egypt had many enemies and campaigns through Canaan, Sinai, Lybia and south into the land of Nubia. All of those captured by the Egyptian military became immediately the property of Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was free to divvy out those captured to the temples, his royal residences, or as a gift to soldiers who were brave in battle. In the Brooklyn Papyrus of the Middle Kingdom period, the text provides a list of ninety-five servants given to Senebtisy, an Egyptian noble woman, by Pharaoh. The list gives the names of each worker and their occupation. Of the names mentioned, thirty-three are Egyptian, which implies that they may be criminals assigned to fieldwork because of their crimes. However, forty-five are Asiatic slaves that bear Semitic names, most likely from the land of Canaan.
These Semites show they are skilled workers, most likely captured from war, that were handpicked to serve the Egyptian noblewoman Senebtisy. The Asiatics in this case appear to be highly regarded because of their skills compared to the criminal Egyptians citizens that were probably sent to work hard and manual labor. This included working in the mines, which had the highest mortality rate of other means of labor in the Kingdom. It appears that the Egyptians had no issues with foreigners if they were useful in their particular vocation and in the case of this document, they might have even been preferred workers.
The type of slavery in Egypt and throughout the ancient Near East, was mostly what is known as Chattel Slavery. This is however different from the slavery of modern times where the individual had extreme legal limitations and freedoms. In ancient times, a household slave possessed more social, economic and legal freedom than that of an Egyptian peasant who was also a citizen. Foreign slaves in Egypt could own property, as well as be active in the market place. They even enjoyed the same workweek as an Egyptian (ten days of work, one day off).
In terms of power, the Egyptians seem to have no problem with foreigners (that may have at one point been a slave) taking official positions of power if they excelled at their occupation. The most famous story of course is that of Joseph, sold into slavery and slowly climbing the ranks of Egyptian hierarchy until he became Vizier of Egypt. There are also many Egyptian sources of nobles and officials with Libyan, Nubian and Semitic names given considerable positions of power in ancient Egypt. Slaves in Egypt enjoyed a type of social, political and economic freedom that would have been unheard of in Colonial American slavery.
Servitude to a master was not only limited to criminals and prisoners of war. Slavery was a means to pull oneself out of debt. This would fall into the category of “indentured servitude.” This is not an uncommon practice today and it certainly was not one in ancient times. One could sell himself along with his family, into “slavery” to work off a debt to the owed party. If one has the ability to do this, logically one can assume that economically, it would be better to put oneself under a master in order to provide means and protection of one’s family. It almost appears, as the concept of a “middle class” does not exist in that of the Ancient times. There is simply a “lord” or master and his servant, which he provides, protects and has ultimate responsibility over his subjects, servants and slaves.
There are sources that suggest the masters take familial ownership of their servants. Theban tomb 216 contains a statue of a man with his wife who are clearly affectionate for their young, female servant. Child labor was also perhaps frowned upon in Egypt as according to an eighteenth dynasty letter, children were not allowed to be used in slave labor but masers could only employ them in easier labor such as domestic services. They can even provide education for them in a trade that will one day make them a skilled worker. They would provide the funds for a child to take an apprenticeship under a skilled worker if they did not have the ability to join their father in his trade.
Perhaps the term “slavery” used in an Egyptian context is too semantically broad. It is not the same limited freedoms, which was employed by the Greeks and in later Colonial America in recent memory. Slaves in Egypt had rights, freedoms and the ability for social, and economic mobility. However, when it comes to the Exodus, the labor endured by the Israelites must have been one that was too extreme for even slavery in the Ancient Near East. The Bible is straightforward in the injustices of Egyptians upon their captors. This can be seen in Exodus 3:7 “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings,” and again in Exodus 3:9 “And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.” This is interesting considering what is represented in Egyptian literature compared to law codes that deal with slaves in the Pentateuch.
The laws on treatment of slaves in the Bible resemble that of the Egyptian practices and social mobility and freedoms. The situation of Egypt becoming more limiting of their freedoms concerning slaves can easily be traced to after the Hyksos period, which fits nicely with the typical proposed dates for the Exodus. The New Kingdom Period becomes a very powerful unified Egypt after a time of foreigners (Asiatics) whom had control of the Two Lands in the 2nd Intermediate Period. Egyptian views and treatment of foreigners may have drastically changed which would explain the harshness of the labor imposed on the Israelites of whom were also Asiatics (Semites). The Israelites living in Egypt clearly had complaints of their treatment and the Bible seems to imply that there was a shift in the freedoms and liberties typically given to foreign slaves.
As mentioned before, the purpose of this study is to evaluate Egyptian sources in the lifestyle of slaves in Egypt to form a better understanding of slavery in Egypt as well as in the Ancient Near East. The Bible (Lev 25) also has regulations in how to deal with slaves/servants and it is best to understand this law code in its Ancient Near Eastern context. Too often we view these subjects through our own ethnocentric lenses and imposing these views upon another ancient culture. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will also provide a short bibliography and some sources for further reading and research.
Hallo, William W., and Younger, eds. The Context of Scripture: Archival Documents from the Biblical World (Context of Scripture) Vol. 3. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Redford, Donald. Ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wilson, John A. The Burden of Egypt An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
 Donald Redford. Ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. “Slaves.” 294.
 William Hallo et all. The Context of Scripture. Vol II. “Semitic Slaves on A Middle Kingdom Estate”. Brill. 35.
 John Wilson. The Burden of Egypt. University of Chicago Press. 187.
 Contemporary scholars typically place the Exodus during the mid 15th Century BCE (Thutmoses III/Amenhotep II Dynasty 18) or the mid 13th Century BCE (Rameses II Dynasty 20).
There are few accounts that take place within the Bible that can be cross-referenced by other ancient cultures in such a way such as the Battle of Lachish. In the early 8th century BC Assyria with its king, Sennacherib, campaigned throughout the Levant (that ancient land strip from modern day Lebanon and Syria south all the way to Gaza and Sinai) on a mission to expand his empire and while collecting tribute.
These events are well recorded in Sennacherib's annuls and in wall reliefs at his palace in Nineveh. For those that are familiar with their Old Testament Bible, they should recognize the name Sennacherib and Lachish in passages such as 2 Chronicles 32:9 and Isaiah 36:1-2. However, the event spoken of in the text and what is represented in reliefs and in the famous "Sennacherib Prism" speak of the same event, but it plays out much differently.
In the Sennacherib Prism, also known as the Taylor Prism (one of them kept right here in Chicago at the Oriental Institute of Research Museum), reads:
"As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. ... I took as plunder 200,150 people both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep. As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashdod, Ekron, and Gaza" (translation provided by Oriental Institute).
It is intriguing how the two stories conflict considering the Biblical Text claims that the Assyrian army was unsuccessful in taking the city of Jerusalem. What is far more interesting is that in Sennacherib's palace wall reliefs, he is depicted taking the city of Lachish in 701 BC. However, there is no relief showing him conquering Jerusalem, which he even admits is "a royal city." Why does he focus on Lachish and not Jerusalem? A colleague from Andrews University, Bruno Barros, writes a publication for ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) this month that perhaps Sennacherib focuses on the victory of Lachish because he was perhaps, as the Bible accounts, unsuccessful in his assault on Jerusalem.
Assyria was well known for its "psychological terrorism" by employing fear upon smaller nations, bullying them to pay tribute to their mighty empire. Much of this imagery is depicted of the Assyrian assaults show how brutal they were in warfare and in maintaining their empire. In the reliefs, one can see people impaled on large stakes, which was one of the fear-tactics that made Assyria infamous. Also, what appears to be a siege ramp for their "battering rams" is shown in the relief.
At Tell Lachish in Israel, remains of the Assyrian siege ramp are still present (see above). For a view of the Siege of Lachish, search "Lachish Reliefs" and online you will find pictures taken at British Museum where they are currently held (below). To see the Taylor Prism, do the same or visit the Oriental Institute museum at the University of Chicago, it's a free museum!
Let me know what you think in the comments!
As part of the Persia Symposium back in February of 2018, three students and myself researched topics of interest and presented our research to the university and community. My paper was on Achaemenid Religion and Zoroastrianism.
I remember in my younger undergraduate days, someone out of the blue asked me if I knew that Zoroastrianism was the world oldest Monotheism and in turn, heavily influenced the writers of the Bible. Coincidently, there are quite a few scholars who follow this line of thinking. As I have often questioned, I asked, "where does this tradition/assumption come from?" I discovered that much of what is assumed about this religion is based off of what we know in modern dayZoroastrianism. In my lecture, I explore Archaeological evidence to determine if there is enough data to exhibit that Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BC). I also explore what critical scholarship considers as "influence" upon another religion. I approach the subject logically and come to several conclusions. One of these conclusions is that we know very little about ancient Zoroastrianism, if it was at all practiced in Ancient Persia. What appears to be happening is a problem of propinquity (something being associated within time and space). Critical Scholars whom believe this, impose modern day Zoroastrian theology and themes upon ancient Judaism. Please watch my lecture and let me know what you think in the comments.
Before watching, if you are not familiar with the arguments, let it be known that Critical Scholarship typically places the composition of the Bible during or after the Persian period (550-330 BC). The assumptions of Zoroastrian ideas imposed on the Bible are made by those that believe in a late composition of the text.
Also, let me know if you would like me to upload the full paper or send a pdf to you personally.
Hope you enjoy! Click the button below to watch the lecture.
The following links are to four lectures from students and myself at Andrews University. Every year, the Institute of Archaeology and Siegfried H. Horn Museum have a Scholar's symposium for the students and local community to attend. Last February, 2018, the Horn Lectureship Series had the "Persia Symposium." We all did research and wrote scholarly papers on a subject of our choice centered around a larger theme of the Persian Empire and its connections to subjects in Archaeology and the Bible (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel). These lectures are:
Dorian Alexander: "Fact or Fair Tale? The Historicity of Esther in the Cultural-Historical Context of Ancient Persia"
Maksym Gordiienko: "The Decree of Cyrus in the Bible: Historical Document or Jewish National Propaganda?"
Omwocha Nyaribo: "The Persian Magi and the Stars"
Click on the buttons below to view the lectures.
I will post my own lecture on Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew Bible in a post following this one since I can include a basic summary of the lecture. Andrews University owns the rights to these videos and I did not film the lectures myself. Please click the links and enjoy! Let me know what you think of them in comments.