Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis

The Book of Genesis is one of the most discussed books in the Bible and stands at the centre of the great debates about the origin of our universe and of all life on earth. To what extent can we take it seriously in the context of current scientific research? The problem bedevilling the interpretation of this book is the modernist approaches that had been used to read it since the beginning of the science-religion discussion - readings that take our contemporary perspective as the point of departure. I propose a different approach, grounded in a Sumerian hypothesis. This changes our reading of the book in substantial ways and solves many of the interpretive problems, especially in the first few chapters. It also provides some answers regarding origins.

The Book of Genesis is one of the great books of the ancient world. Few other ancient books are so intensely discussed in our time as this book. Although there are many other ancient books and stories that give an ancient perspective on creation, this book is unique in that so many well-educated people from all over the world take it seriously even in our day and age - believing that it had been divinely inspired and as such provides answers, not merely about the origins of the cosmos and life in it, but also about the true meaning of human existence. This is indeed the great quest before humans, trying to answer the question: What is the meaning of our existence? And it seems that the Book of Genesis may give some answers in this regard.

The problem with the Book of Genesis is that so many different people have so many different ideas about the manner in which we should understand the book! People from other religions than the Judaeo-Christian tradition and secularists are obviously not so taken by the book, but this does not mean that they cannot also appreciate the remarkable agreements between the book and modern science - for example, that the cosmos had an origin "in the beginning" when matter (heaven and earth) came into existence in time and space (in accordance with Einstein's general theory of relativity and the Big Bang theory). One also finds that the increase in the complexity of life forms which came into being through time is a feature of both science and the first chapter of the book. Some Christian scientists have developed detailed outlines showing a remarkable correspondence between these two perspectives.

There are also people, however, who think that there are some fundamental disagreements between the Book of Genesis and science. This is also the reason why many secular-minded people do not engage with the book - and even think that the Bible teaches unrealistic stories about creation that had long ago been refuted by science. Some Christians - especially those from traditional communities as well as the Seventh-day-Adventist Church - do in fact believe that the book teaches that the cosmos is only a few thousand years old. But many other Christians disagree with this: they think that the best reading of the book is indeed one that allows for a long period of creation. One of the main concerns of my approach is to answer such questions through a proper consideration of the ancient world in which the book originated and the context in which the author produced it.

On the whole, there are three approaches to the book. The first group follows a "fundamentalist" approach that asserts the literal reading of the text (which its opponents think is excessively literal, neglecting due consideration of the context). The second approach is the "scientific" approach used by Christian scientists that work towards reconciling the book with science (which may lead to neglecting the context of its origin in an ancient world very different from our own). The third approach is that used by Biblical Criticism scholars which may be called a "secular" approach since they often assert that we should study the book without regard for its supposed divine origin (which their opponents think takes an excessive critical stance towards the book). In my approach, I discuss all these views when I engage with the various relevant topics.

How should we navigate between all the rocks of bad interpretation to arrive at an appropriate reading of the book? In my view, we should use good hermeneutical principles developed by the best philosophers of our day (people like Hans-Georg Gadamer; see [1]) while at the same time give serious consideration to the period in which the book originated. I suggest a Sumerian hypothesis according to which the Mesopotamian source material in the first few chapters (called the "ancient history") should be understood as originating in the land of Sumer from which Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites, is said to have come. This goes against the view currently accepted in Biblical Criticism circles, namely that the book (for the most part) originated during or after the Babylonian exile - which would mean that we should merely consider the book in literary terms. I assert that the book is much more than that.

Rereading the Book of Genesis

The Book of Genesis is important to Christians because it touches on many issues of central concern to their faith, including divine creation, God's purpose with man, the Fall, the promise of the "seed" (Messiah), the calling of Abraham etc. These are indeed issues that stand central to the whole message of the Bible. For Christians, the story of the Fall brings God's salvation for mankind through the work of Jesus Christ into focus. The critical stance of traditional Christians towards other interpretations is grounded in the fear that these might in some manner undermine good Christian doctrine. They often think that believe in an old age for the cosmos in accordance with the scientific view necessarily implies support for Neo-Darwinistic evolution (which all traditional Christians reject). They also think that such views undermine the teaching of the Fall - which for them is indissolubly linked with a historical Adam and Eve who were created as the very first humans six thousand years ago. They do, however, not consider the possibility that these might be false dichotomies, i.e. that certain other interpretations might be in agreement with science without undermining good teaching.

On the other hand, one often finds that scholars from the Biblical Criticism tradition think that their view is the only scientifically accepted approach to the Bible. Since many of these scholars do not have any concern for good Biblical teaching, they do not have to take these into consideration when studying the Biblical text. In fact, they often think that since they are not motivated by religious concerns, their approach is superior to that used by such Christians - and they absolutely reject the idea that we should in any manner relate the text to current scientific concerns. The problem with this view is that all people, scholars included, both religious and non-religious, have some preferences - there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective, especially insofar as texts like the Bible are concerned. Many of these scholars, therefore, also think in terms of false dichotomies, either we study the Bible "scientifically" or our views are religiously determined.

The only manner in which these problems can be resolved is to understand what good interpretation is. So often, in both traditional Christian and Biblical Criticism circles, the views of the readers are forced onto the text without any real concern for the voice of the author and the tradition from which he/she originated. This goes back to the days of modernism in previous centuries, when philosophers and scientists thought that we can achieve one final and objective view of texts and reality - a view that is not taken seriously today because we now know that there are always various possible interpretations of texts and reality (which does not mean that one supports the postmodernist view, i.e. that all interpretations are in some manner acceptable, which would again be a false dichotomy!).

In traditional circles their interpretation is often considered as "the truth" of the Bible - they do not have a feeling for the fact that there is an enormous gap between present-day readers and those ancient authors, that all humans interpret the Biblical text and that we do not have access to the thoughts of Moses. In Biblical Criticism circles, on the other hand, the scholarly field has been deeply discredited by the modernist approach of earlier days which determined the later development of the discipline [2]. Early scholars thought that they had an "objective" view of the texts which goes beyond the "primitive" views of the authors of those texts. In both cases, the views of readers are forced onto the text!

There are some very basic problems with both these views which are immediately observable to any careful study of the ancient context in which the book originated. The traditional view asserts that the seven days of creation are literal solar days in spite of the fact that the sun, moon and stars were only created on the fourth "day" and served "for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years" (Gen. 1:14). How the first three solar days were possible without the sun, or how solar "days", as well as "seasons" and "years", came into being only on the fourth day, is only explained with remarkable interpretative gymnastics. The story of Eve being created from Adam's rib is taken in a literal sense, even though other similar stories from that period show that it was a well-known literary motif.

In my view, we may believe the stories (and even take it in a literal sense) insofar as we understand the context in which they originated and were later written down. I argue that we may accept a historical Adam and Eve (even though we can obviously not prove it!), although they might also be regarded as archetypal parents of the human race. Accepting them as historical persons does not mean that they were the very first humans. Traditional questions as to where their sons got wives or where the other people outside the garden (whom Cain feared) came from, are resolved once we view the word 'adam when it is first introduced in Genesis 1, not as referring to the person Adam who is the main character in the garden story but to mankind who was created during the sixth period ("day") of creation.

Without deciding what "creation" means - we read that the "earth" or "waters" produced species (which is not that specific!) - we may accept that humans were created long before the story of the Garden of Eden unfolds. The garden story then tells about later events when Adam and Eve were present in a holy garden, probably on an early "mountain of God". The geographical details given at the beginning of the garden story are in agreement with ancient Sumerian tradition regarding such a mountain - showing that the Biblical tradition is very much part of the ancient world in which it originated.

I furthermore argue that the Fall is already implied from the beginning in the story of creation (words like "chaos" are used; the snake is a fallen creature; the people outside the garden are presented as possible killers) which means that the Fall did not happen through Adam and Eve's disobedience; their fallen human condition was rather "revealed" through their disobedience. Once humans became aware of their fallen condition, the need for salvation arose which is the primary concern of the Biblical message, and which became a reality, as was promised, through the death of Jesus Christ. I show how this reading is in agreement with statements in this regard in the rest of the Bible (especially of St. Paul). It is also in agreement with science which shows that death goes back to the earliest times - long before the time of Adam and Eve about six thousand years ago.

This interpretation means that there is no conflict between the narrative in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and science - in fact, it aligns, as Christians should expect since they believe that God is the author of both creation and the Scriptures (our understanding of these can therefore not be in conflict; traditional Christians often have a deep distrust in science since they believe that scientists are out to show the Bible wrong but this is a very simplistic way of seeing things). The power of my reading - which does not express our contemporary standpoint but shows a sensitivity for the ancient milieu in which the author produced the work - is that it resolves many other problematic issues, for example, that of the speaking snake and the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Biblical Criticism view has its own problems. Many of these scholars, for example, believe in the sources theory of the Pentateuch (for a critical discussion, see [1,2]) according to which there are two creation stories (Gen. 1:1-2:3; Gen. 2:4-3:24) in which two different names of God (Elohim, Yahweh Elohim) appear, which in their view reflects the different sources incorporated in the book. In this reading, the whole Book of Genesis is cut into many pieces that the author supposedly brought together in one book. The problem is that this view essentially negates the unity of the book as produced by one author. I show that there are better ways to read these passages which are to be preferred, for example, that the two creation stories are in fact a creation and garden story, and that the two names of God reflect the two manifestations of the God El (El-Elyon and El-Shaddai) who are introduced later in the book and who can only be understood in the context of the ancient concept of the council of God (or: the gods).

Biblical Criticism scholars also assert that the book was written late (nowadays: during or after the Babylonian exile). This is how they account for the Mesopotamian material in the book. This immediately implies that the information in the book should not be taken as referring to historical persons and events - in their view these stories were not part of a long tradition in Israelite circles; rather, they were literary products of a later period which have no relation whatsoever to the ancient history of the forefathers of the Israelites. I show that this view is not in accordance with the facts.

The Mesopotamian material in the book shows absolutely no sign of being influenced by developments after the time of Abraham's journey from Sumer (Mesopotamia) which excludes a Neo-Babylonian origin during the Babylonian exile (agreement with the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elis is superfluous)! I show that certain motifs in the early chapters, for example, the view that the seven days of creation are the divine model for the Sabbath (see Gen. 2:3), strongly suggests that this was written when the Sabbath was first introduced in Israelite circles - in ancient Mesopotamia the divine model typically served as basis for the introduction of cult practice. This means that the book might have been written by Moses who is so closely connected with the Mosaic law, which included the Sabbath, as is traditionally accepted. I make similar arguments regarding the first introduction of the Mosaic sacrifices.

In my view, the traditional young earth and the Biblical Criticism views are built on simplistic modernist readings of the text. There are other interpretations possible which involve good hermeneutic (interpretative) practice. In my series on the Book of Genesis, I develop such an alternative which answers many of the questions that are traditionally ascribed to the book - especially to the first part thereof.

The trustworthiness of the Book of Genesis

When the ancient context in which the book originated is carefully considered, one finds that the book gives a remarkably accurate depiction of historical events - even those that happened in the countries from which the Israelite forefathers originated, for example, the stories of Enoch, Nimrod, the Tower of "Babel" etc. If the book is, in fact, a trustworthy account of the early history of Israel (even though it is obviously not history in the sense that we understand the term today), then its remarkable agreement with modern science may imply that the book is more than just another old document - it may in fact be divinely inspired as the Scriptures themselves assert and as such provide reliable answers to the meaning of human existence and the role of God therein, if it is read in a sophisticated manner.

When we consider the trustworthiness of the information in the book - much of which cannot be proven for the simple fact that archaeology is not an empirical science which produces representative samples of historical events (see [3]) - we should ask how that would be possible? In my view, we should take the story of Abraham's journey serious - this would explain how the earlier Sumerian worldview and traditions ended up in the Book of Genesis (not that the Biblical stories were taken from the Sumerian ones; rather I assume that they were delivered from ancient times in the context of Abraham's family). In Biblical Criticism circles, the historicity of Abraham has traditionally been rejected, but new archaeological evidence suggests otherwise. All the main events surrounding Abraham's life are either supported by evidence (the Elamitic incursion towards northern Syria in the correct year under the command of a king with a corresponding name) or we may read the evidence as supporting it (Abraham's journey to Egypt). The correctness of especially the first data makes it impossible to accept that this story is not in some manner grounded in history.

Once the story of Abraham is shown to be trustworthy insofar we are able to confirm it (and the problem with verification is not with the Bible, but with the nature of archaeology [3]), the ground for the Sumerian hypothesis is laid. We can now consider the possibility that the older stories may also reflect historical events since the information regarding them may have come with Abraham's family from Ur in Sumer (ancient Mesopotamia). I show that there is, in fact, a remarkable agreement between the Biblical stories in the "ancient history" (Gen. 2-11) and a viable reconstruction of Sumerian history which take both the cuneiform texts and archaeological data into consideration.

All the important Biblical figures like Adam, Enoch, Noah, Nimrod etc. are also found in Sumerian tradition under similar names - which I read as two traditions going back to the same original events. This obviously does not prove that any of those people lived, but it is surely possible and the Jewish and Christian belief in their historicity is not totally unjustified (for many Christians it is anyhow a matter of belief). Although various possible narratives of ancient Sumerian history may be reconstructed, I show that we have good grounds to do it in such a manner that it agrees with the Biblical narrative.


I, therefore, argue that the Sumerian hypothesis is not only the best possible way to understand the Book of Genesis - it also solves many of the traditional problems that scholars have with the book. It shows that the book was written early by someone (probably Moses) who used source material that was handed down for many generations in patriarchal and Israelite circles. The narrative in the first part of the book agrees remarkably well with a sensible reconstruction of early Sumerian history. Once we use this ancient context in our interpretation of the book, many of the other problems associated with the book, which originated from a modern reading of the book, disappears.

The book gains a very special place, not only as a remarkable document in which issues that concern us today are presented from an ancient standpoint but also in presenting deep insights into the greater picture of our human existence. If the picture presented in the book is indeed trustworthy in the context of that time, and agrees with modern science, a good argument may be made that the book is indeed divinely inspired and that we may believe it when it tells about a creator God and sets the stage for the eventual coming of the Messiah.

[1] Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective
[2] A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline 
[3] Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective
A critique of archaeology as a science

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Ref. www.wmcloud.blogspot.com).
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a philosopher and scientist (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Parts of the series on the Book of Genesis that are available:

Part 6: The ancient worldview: the origins of Satan
Part 7: Who is Elohim?

Part 8: The "ancient history" of Genesis 4-11: Myth or history?
Part 9: The Great Flood: Did it really happen?
Part 10: Abraham holds the key

If readers find the essays interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars.