Monday, 5 March 2018

Abraham holds the key

In this essay, I argue that no other Biblical personage is as important as Abraham when considering the trustworthiness of early Biblical tradition. Abraham stands at the transition between the "ancient history" and the subsequent patriarchal traditions given in the Book of Genesis. As such, both of these traditions are anchored on the historicity of his person. So, the primary question is: Can the Abrahamic tradition be trusted? I provide three levels of arguments why we have good reasons to do exactly that, which centre on 1) the many EARLY Sumerian motifs in the "ancient history" included in Genesis 1-11, 2) the remarkable ACCURACY of the historical information in the story of Abraham and 3) the nature of the Abrahamic tradition which strongly suggests that it had been written down during his own lifetime. This is the final essay in the series on the Book of Genesis.

Our study of the Book of Genesis now brings us to the person of Abraham. Abraham's story is told in Genesis 11:10-25:10. He is the central personage in the Book of Genesis and God's covenant with him prefigures the Mosaic covenant in the Book of Exodus (and even the New Covenant according to Christian thinking). Except for Israel (Jacob) who gave his name to the people of Israel, Abraham is depicted in Hebrew tradition as their most important forefather. 

What makes Abraham especially important for our present discussion, is the fact that he is presented as the figure who stands between the "ancient history" told in Genesis 1-11 and the patriarchal traditions of Genesis 12-50. Whereas the "ancient history" is located in the land of Sumer (as well as regions to the north thereof), Abraham is the one who is said to have migrated from Sumer, the land of his forefathers, to Canaan, the land of promise, where his descendants established themselves. As such, it is quite natural to think that he brought those ancient traditions with him when he migrated westwards. This is the basis for the Sumerian Hypothesis presented in this series of essays.

Although this seems to be a logical conclusion, this is not how some fundamentalist Christians (influenced by the Seventh-day Adventists) or Biblical Criticism scholars see things. The first group often thinks that God revealed those things directly to Moses and that there was no handing down of tradition in this regard. Although this is surely possible, the close correspondence with similar Sumerian stories suggests otherwise. The second group nowadays prefer the Babylonian Hypothesis according to which the Mesopotamian material in the Book of Genesis had its origin during the Babylonian exile (there is also a view that these motifs entered Israelite tradition during the monarchic period but the extent of the correspondence with Sumerian tradition makes it extremely unlikely that it happened at any other time when contact between those regions was not that close). In this view, Abraham is typically not considered as a historical person and the tradition about his migration is not taken seriously. 

In previous essays on this blog (as part of the series on the Book of Genesis), I presented many reasons why the Sumerian Hypothesis is to be preferred to the Babylonian one. Although I have not yet considered the historicity of Abraham in the discussion, there cannot be any doubt that this stands central to the validity of the Sumerian Hypothesis. Even though the arguments presented so far have strong significance on their own (they are very difficult to explain without the Sumerian Hypothesis), they are basically grounded on the idea that the Mesopotamian material in the Book of Genesis had its origin within the context of the migration of the Abrahamic family from Ur in Sumer to Canaan.

In this essay, I discuss the historicity of Abraham from three different angles. The first angle is primarily concerned with the obvious Sumerian motifs in the "ancient history" (Gen. 1-11). I give an overview thereof and show that it is extremely difficult to explain these without calling upon the Sumerian Hypothesis in some way (and by implication, on the truth of the Abrahamic story). The second angle focuses on the Abrahamic story itself and the historical information therein. I argue that some of this information is impossible to explain without accepting that it originated from trustworthy sources. The third angle considers the nature of the Abrahamic tradition (especially its oracular nature) which strongly suggests that it was written down during the lifetime of Abraham himself. These points make a remarkably strong case for a historical Abraham and the Sumerian Hypothesis.

The Sumerian origin of the "ancient history"

There are various motifs in the "ancient history" which are consistent with the Sumerian Hypothesis which at the same time resist any explanation in terms of the Babylonian Hypothesis. What is so interesting, is that there are so many of these motifs! They all point in one direction: an early Sumerian origin. And that suggests that they became part of the Hebrew tradition after being handed down for a long time by the Abrahamic family. 

1. The strong Sumerian influence in the creation story

Any scholar who is familiar with the Sumerian tradition cannot but to observe the remarkably strong Sumerian influence in the creation story. The opening words, namely that God created "heaven and earth", uses the traditional Sumerian term for the cosmos. The "deep" (primaeval waters) which existed before all things (even before God commenced with his acts of creation!) finds its equivalent in the Sumerian primaeval "Apsu" from which "heaven and earth" were created according to Sumerian sources (for example, in Enki and Ninmah).

The light which God created on the first day (as his very first act of creation) finds its equivalent in the brilliant light, called Gibil, which appeared from the primaeval Apsu. The "firmament" (heaven) and earth that were created on the second and third days respectively fit perfectly with the Sumerian worldview – the idea of creation out of water (and establishing dry ground – and even the cosmos as such) is an old Sumerian motif. The creation of the sun only on the fourth day (at a later stage in the process of creation) reflects the late arrival of the sun god on the scene in Sumerian tradition (he was a later offspring of the gods) (see [1] for a detailed discussion).

From a Biblical point of view, this close correspondence with the Sumerian tradition suggests that the author of the Book of Genesis used source material originating from this milieu (i.e., that was the world which moulded the thinking of the person/s who wrote the source material) and that he reworked those ancient motifs within an evolving Hebrew tradition. As such, he included the creation of all sorts of plants and animals, as well as humans, and replaced the polytheistic perspective of the Sumerians with the monotheistic view of the Hebrews. Of particular importance in this regard is the fact that these Sumerian motifs in the creation story show absolutely no influence whatsoever from developments after the Abrahamic period (i.e. no motifs which are distinctively neo-Babylonian or neo-Assyrian).

The idea that the creation story of Genesis 1 was influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elis (creation epic) is far-fetched. A possible association between the Hebrew word tehom (deep) and the sea monster Tiamat proves nothing since those ideas were around since Akkadian times (ca. 2370-2190 BC). We do not find any of the complicated creation motifs typical of the Babylonian creation story (for example, of the war between the older and younger generations of gods (the latter led by Marduk) or the creation of the world from the body of the killed monster) in Genesis 1. Although there are clear Mesopotamian influences, these are typical of the early Sumerian traditions (the world of Abraham and his forefathers) and not in accordance with later developments in Babylonian thinking. In a previous essay some years ago, I challenged any scholar to provide a single thread of evidence to the contrary!! [2] Nobody has done that.

Those who argue for the Babylonian Hypothesis usually take Genesis 1 as a polemical text written late in Israel's development. As such, they explain the late arrival of the sun, moon and stars on the scene as an effort by the Hebrew author (from the time of the exile or thereafter) to argue that the gods of the surrounding nations cannot be compared with the great creator God of the Hebrews who is so powerful that He could create light and let the plants grow even without the presence of the sun. The problem for this view, however, is that Marduk, the main god of the neo-Babylonians, was a weather god and the sun and moon gods did not play an important role in the Babylonian (or Mesopotamian for that matter) theology! As such, this view makes no sense - why would the author try to assert the authority of the Hebrew God against such unimportant gods? It seems much better to think that this was not a polemical text at all – its purpose seems to have been totally different (see below).

There are also those who think in terms of an Egyptian origin for the creation story. This means that the author was directing his arguments towards the Egyptian gods. This is possible if we assume that the text was written in a period when the Israelites had some interaction with the Egyptians, which happened during various periods in Israel's history. In this case, the argument could work: One of the oldest and most prominent Egyptian gods was the creator god Atum who was syncretized with the sun god Ra. And the motif of the primaeval earth coming forth out of the primaeval waters is also an old Egyptian concept (as it is a Mesopotamian one).

There is, however, an important reason not to accept this view, namely that the rest of the ancient history in Genesis is clearly taken from ancient Mesopotamian (more correctly, Sumerian or Akkadian) sources (Akkadian is the Semitic language spoken in ancient Sumer). So, on what grounds would one prefer an Egyptian background for the text? And why cling to the polemical view? It seems much easier to take the order of creation (with the sun, moon and stars created later in the process) as typical of ancient Sumerian thinking.

2. The Sumerian influence on the story of Adam and Eve

The garden story also shows strong Sumerian influence. The main personage of the Biblical story, namely Adam, corresponds with the similarly named Adapa of Sumerian tradition – Adam is presented as the first known human with whom God had a relationship whereas Adapa was the founding sage who brought civilization to Sumer and the first human with whom the Supreme god An (which in my view corresponds with the Semitic god El) had a relationship. Adapa was misled by the Sumerian god Enki (who is sometimes described as a snake) regarding the food of life in the same way that Eve was misled by the snake regarding the food of the tree. In both cases, God (or a god) prevented them from eating from the food/tree of life. 

In the garden story, God is presented as a potter who made Adam from clay and created Eve from Adam's rib. Both of these are well-known Sumerian motifs which are clearly used by the Biblical author as metaphors. Of special interest is the story of Eve's creation. This story is clearly reworked from a very well-known ancient image which we find in the story of the Sumerian god Enki's creation of eight other gods and goddesses from his own body, who were all named after various parts of his body in a play of words. One of these was a virgin goddess called Ninti, whose name means "lady rib" but play on the words "lady life". Now, this is exactly what we find in the garden story in the Book of Genesis: Eve is taken from the rib of Adam and her name is later said to mean "life" (Gen. 3:20). The reason why the author used and reworked this Sumerian story to introduce Eve was that he wanted to accentuate that she was in the closest sense one with Adam (i.e that they belonged together in marriage which was not universally instituted (presumably even in Canaan) until relatively late as we know from Mycenaean tradition; Gen. 2:24), just as the mentioned gods and goddesses were in the closest possible sense associated with their parent god (for a detailed discussion, see [3]).

The fact that these are very old Sumerian motifs seems to suggest that the author of the source material for the garden story came from a milieu where this was the typical motifs which suggested themselves to him – which is in line with my reading of the creation story in Genesis 1 above. Although these motifs would also have been available to a later author from the time of the Babylonian exile, it would have been very strange if he used these very "heathen" motifs given that he had a long Hebrew tradition behind him which would have included other possible metaphors (the metaphor of God as potter was indeed incorporated in later Hebrew tradition).

3. Other Sumerian influences in the garden story

There are many other motifs in the garden story which go back to ancient Sumer – some of which belong to an ancient stratum of thinking which was very different from that which was current during the period of the exile. In this regard a comparison with the garden (of Eden) stories of the prophet Ezekiel (in chapters 28 and 31) – who did, in fact, live during the exile – is informative.

Consider the geographical location of the garden. According to the story it was located somewhere in the east in the area of the "heads" (headwaters) of the Tigrus, Euphrates, Gihon (Gaihun, called Araxes after the Islamic invasion of the Caucasus) and Pishon (Uizhum) (for a detailed discussion, see [4]). This would be somewhere in the northern Zagros mountains – exactly where the ancient Sumerians placed their own origins. One may suggest that both the Sumerians and Semites living in Sumer traced their origins back to that northern region.

In the ancient Middle Eastern worldview, this garden was close to (or on top of) the "mountain of the gods" which the Sumerians located in the northern Zagros (in the land of Aratta [5]) as we read in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta [6]. Later, during the Ur III period (ca. 2150-2050 BC), this northern location was replaced by one in the Cedar Mountains which was located in the distant west (originally identified with the Amanus and later with the Lebanon mountains) as we find in the Gilgamesh Epic [4]. This change reflects developments during the Akkadian period (ca. 2370-2190 BC) when those kings started making long journeys to the Amanus and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. In accordance with this change in location due to later developments in the Semitic tradition, the garden is placed in the Lebanon mountains in the stories of Ezekiel - in line with the tradition found in the Gilgamesh Epic

As such, the contrast between the locations of the garden in the Book of Genesis and in Ezekiel can be explained easily. The story in the Book of Genesis reflects an extremely old tradition going back before the Akkadian period (2350-2150 BC) when the mountain of the gods was still located in the northern Zagros long before it became associated with the Amanus and later the Lebanon mountains.  This is consistent with the other ancient Sumerian motifs in the book. The story of Ezekiel on the other hand clearly reflects the tradition found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was current at the time of the Babylonian exile.

What about the tree in the garden? In the story in the Book of Genesis, the tree is said to bear some kind of fruit – which stands (once again) in direct contrast with the cedar of Ezekiel's description. What is more, the close association between the serpent and the cosmic tree (growing in the "middle" of the garden) is not unique to the Bible; it is a very old motif that goes back to the earliest strata of ancient Sumerian thought. In ancient Sumerian literature, there are various stories where we find such a close association between the serpent and the tree, namely that of Inana and the Halub tree, the myth of Lugalbanda as well as the legend of Etana. 

In these Sumerian stories, there is another creature which is also associated with the same tree, namely the Anzu eagle. The eagle is typically depicted in the top of the tree, whereas the serpent is depicted at the bottom. One may suggest that these Mesopotamian eagles correspond to the Biblical cherubim which would explain why we find both the serpent as well as such cherubim mentioned in the garden story in Genesis. Cherubim also have large wings and we read in Hebrew poetry that God rides on a cherub (Ps. 18:10, 11; the Anzu was also associated with the abode of the king of the gods in Sumerian tradition). Interestingly, the cherubim of later Biblical tradition are depicted differently with four heads, namely of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle (Ezek. 1:5-10; 10:20-21) [7].

We furthermore find (consistent with such a Sumerian origin for this motif!) the same antagonism between the realms of heaven and the underworld  (to which the snake belonged - it guards the "pit" at the bottom of the tree in the Etana story) in both the Sumerian and Hebrew traditions. This is a very old motif which appears in the Etana legend where the snake and eagle are depicted as antagonists fighting each other. There is a remarkable correspondence with the garden story where God (associated with the cherubim) and the snake are presented as opposing figures. As one expects from such an old text, the snake is, however, not directly identified as Satan as we find in later Hebrew tradition. As such, the depiction of the conflict between God and the snake is much more in line with early Sumerian tradition (as we find in the Etana legend) than later Hebrew tradition from the time of the exile when this conflict was presented as being between God and his great antagonist, Satan (see, for example, Zech. 3:1-5) (for a detailed discussion, see [8]).

It had been proposed by Sumerologists that this motif of the cosmic tree, snake and eagle goes back to ancient shamanistic traditions from northern Asia [9]. What is interesting regarding this shamanistic theme, is that the serpent which tempted Eve shows close correspondence with a motif found in shamanistic traditions from those regions, namely among the Yahut shamans where the "spirit" of the cosmic tree is perceived of as a naked woman at the roots of the tree (which were associated in Sumer with snakes, i.e. suggesting a women with the lower body of a snake as we find with the ancient Sumerian goddess Ninhursag). She tempts the aspirant shaman with the milk of her breasts which is said to be a symbol of the consciousness-altering mushrooms which grow in close proximity to such trees (especially birch trees). This may explain the "fruit" of the tree in the Biblical story which is obviously not of the usual kind since it had the power to "open" one's eyes and enable you to become like "the gods" (for a detailed discussion, see [10]).

4. Sumerian influences in the rest of the ancient history

When we come to the rest of the ancient history of Genesis 4-11 we find that it too has features which show strong Sumerian influence going back to late Sumerian and early Old Babylonian times (i.e. the time of Abraham). It has a very distinct style which differs from that of the patriarchal history as well as the other historical narratives given in the Bible. What distinguishes the ancient history is 1) genealogical lists of the earliest remembered forefathers, 2) particularly long lifetimes accorded to these people, some of whom are said to have lived for nearly a millennium, 3) short accounts of events related to some of these persons – some in-between the genealogies and others within the genealogies, 4) a Sumerian background for some of the stories (taking place in the land “Shinar”).

Readers who are acquainted with the Sumerian King List would immediately recognize a close agreement with that text – in line with the reference to that land in the text itself. The Sumerian King List was probably compiled during the reign of king Utuhegal of Uruk during the end of the third millennium BC although the oldest copies found so far date from the time of the Isin dynasty early in the second millennium BC. As with Genesis 4-11, the list contains genealogies of early forefathers, some of whom also lived centuries-long lives as well as short comments about some of these figures. The difference between the texts is that the Hebrew text includes short stories between the different genealogical lists, whereas the Sumerian King List does not. This is, however, not too far removed from the Sumerian King List which also uses information from Sumerian stories (some of which correspond to the Biblical ones).

One may also compare the Hebrew tradition with the Amoritic king lists from the Old Babylonian Period (during the early second millennium BC). In this case, the king lists of the historical kings were also preceded by the names of their forefathers. The difference is, however, that these lists do not ascribe such long lifetimes to these forefathers as we find in the Sumerian King List and one also does not find the short commentaries typical of that list. So, although the ancient history in Genesis serves as the preamble to the patriarchal narratives (of Abraham etc.) in a similar way that the Amorites’ list their forefathers before proceeding with the reigns of their kings, the correspondence with the Sumerian King List is much closer.

This close correspondence between the ancient history of Genesis 4-11 and the Sumerian King List forces us to consider the possibility that was written (at least in its original version) during the epoch when that style was still in use, which would be some time during the early Old Babylonian Period (the time when Abraham is said to have lived). This would immediately explain why the Hebrew text has so much in common with the Sumerian King List, namely that it originated in the very milieu where that style was in use. The problem with the Babylonian Hypothesis is that one has to accept that the author (for some very strange reason) imitated a style that had been out of use for more than a thousand years! This does not make sense (except if one is has been paradigmatically conditioned to only accept the validity of the Babylonian Hypothesis!).

What is more, the Biblical personages and stories mentioned in the ancient history (Adam, Enoch, the flood, early origins in the land of Ararat, Nimrod, the building of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent confusion of languages etc.) also correspond to a remarkable degree with personages and stories in Sumerian tradition (Adapa, Etana ("he who went to heaven"), the flood, early origins in the land of Aratta, Enmerkar, the building projects during the Uruk period at Uruk and Eridu, the confusion of languages etc.) (for a detailed discussion, see [11]). Just as Enoch went to heaven, Etana is said to have gone to heaven (on the back of an eagle). One finds a remarkable correspondence between the stories and genealogies of the Cush and Kash (Mes-kiag-kash-er) families. One of the members of this family was Nimrod, who correspond with the Sumerian Enmer-kar (N-m-r(d), the hunter). As was the case with Nimrod, Enmerkar was a great Sumerian king who ruled from Uruk and who conquered all the land to the north (including the land of Aratta). The confusion of languages is mentioned in both traditions (called the "Incantation of Nudimmud" in Sumer) and can be grounded historically in the context of the introduction of the first phonetic writing at the end of the Uruk period [11].

What is quite astonishing, and excludes the possibility of later borrowing, is that this does not merely constitute a detailed agreement between traditions (although there are also differences as can be expected from the parallel transmission of traditions), but that these traditions constitute a perspective on ancient Sumerian history that is very much in line with archaeological evidence (with the deluge referring to the well-documented break between the Ubaid and Uruk periods (for a detailed discussion, see [12])). In fact, the Biblical tradition is consistent with a viable reconstruction of Sumerian history from the time before the deluge until after the Uruk Period (ca. sixth to early third millennia BC [11]) – something that is not even found in Sumerian tradition where the ancient history of the land must be reconstructed from the textual sources and archaeological data. The obvious question is: How on earth did the Biblical author know how to arrange his history – placing the personages in the correct historical context? It does not make sense that the author wrote it down millenniums after these things happened without access to a continuous and reliable tradition.

5. A Sumerian/Akkadian origin for Abraham's God

There is also information from the rest of the Book of Genesis which suggests a Sumerian origin. Of particular importance is the reference to two El-gods, namely the Most High God (El-Elyon) and God Almighty (El-Shaddai). Although Abraham is said to have worshipped God in both these forms, the context in which they are worshipped is very different. The Most High God was worshipped on the mountain of God in Salem, whereas the Almighty God was worshipped as the ancestral God of Abraham and the fathers (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Ex. 6:3 etc.) (for a detailed discussion, see [13]).

Why this difference and how would one explain it? In Hebrew tradition, the Most High God was identified as the "father of the gods" who gathered on his cosmic mountain (Ps 82:6; Deut. 32:8). These gods (who were in later tradition called angels) are accordingly called "sons of God" (see Gen. 6:2; Job. 1: 6; 2: 1; 38: 7; also in the Septuagint in Ps. 29:1 & 89:6; Deut. 32:8, 43). This is an ancient concept found in both Sumerian and Canaanite (Semitic) tradition. The Almighty God, on the other hand, is called "God of your fathers" (Gen. 49: 23-25) - a concept which also belongs to the world of Abraham. According to Exodus 6:2 this is the God who was later called Yahweh, the God [Elohim] of Israel (Ex. 5:1). So, as one would expect, the "God of the fathers" became the "God of Israel". This name is first introduced in the shortened form "Yahweh God" in Genesis 2:4. 

Now, in contrast with the Most High God who was the father of the gods, this God "of the fathers" is depicted as the great warrior-king of the gods (already in the song about Israel's deliverance from Egypt; Ex. 15:11; Ps. 95:6; 1 Ki. 22:19; Ps. 82:1; 89:7-8). In fact, it seems that this Yahweh was even taken to be the firstborn son of the Most High God (who stands apart from the generic "sons of God") to whom he gave the people of Israel as an inheritance when he divided the nations among the "sons of God" (Deut. 32:8-9). Although it has been suggested that Yahweh has merely set Israel apart for himself, that goes very much against the idea of “inheritance”.

This distinction between the father of the gods and the king of the gods (in the council of the gods) was an ancient one. We find it in both Canaanite and Sumerian tradition but it is only in the Sumerian tradition that the king of the gods was also considered to be the direct (and only) son of the father of the gods. There was a variant tradition that Enki was also a son of An but there cannot be any doubt that this is a mere syncretism since two distinct groups of gods headed by An and Enki respectively go back to our earliest Sumerian sources from Fara (about 2500 BC). 

In Sumer, the father of the gods was called An, whose name means “exalted, most high”. The elevated position of this god can be seen in the manner in which his name was written in cuneiform. All the names of the gods were combined with the sign for “god” which showed the reader that a god is spoken of (called a determinative). In the case of An, however, no such sign appears behind his name; his name is also the sign for god. He was “God”, the elevated one above all other gods. According to the earliest literary tradition from Fara (about 2500 BC) as well as later Sumerian tradition, the worship of this God was extremely old. Since this sign was read by the Semites as "el", we may accept that the name An itself was understood as the god El who was incorporated into the Sumerian pantheon as the father of the gods.

The son of An was the god Enlil who was also the king of the gods in the council of the gods [14]. Sumerian scholars have proposed that this name originated from a duplication of the name El, i.e. that the symbol for El was accompanied by the symbol for god (el) [15]. There are various problems with this view. Although Enlil was indeed a Semitic god, he was worshipped as king of the gods which was very much distinct from El's traditional role as the father of the gods. The other problem is that El.El immediately also presents a duplication of the name El.

The Sumerians would have had theological speculations about the meaning of this name which implies a duplication of the God El into another God El. One may suggest that they would have thought that the God El, the father of the gods, duplicated himself to produce another god who shared his divine being, namely El.El (Enlil) who became the king of the gods. His kingship should be understood in the long Semitic (and Sumerian) tradition where this title was associated with warrior-kings. As king, he had the title "Lord" and was the one who pronounced the decision (word) of the council of the gods. As powerful ruler of heaven and earth, he was called the "Mighty One" [16] (see Gen. 49:24; Deut. 10:17). At this point, one cannot but see the close correspondence with the later Israelite tradition which would then constitute a continuation of this early Semitic tradition.

What I suggest, is that the relation between the Most High God (El-Elyon) and the Almighty God (El-Shaddai) as father and son goes back long before the time of Abraham in Semitic tradition – they were incorporated into Sumerian tradition as An and Enlil (as such these gods developed a particular Sumerian character). It is interesting to hear Balaam, who did not participate in the Israelite tradition going back to mount Sinai, referring to both of El-Elyon and El-Shaddai in one proverb: “He hath said, which heard the words of God (El), and knew the knowledge of the Most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:16; see also Ps. 91:1). This parallelism is similar to one from Sumerian poetry in which the fall of Ur is bemoaned: “In truth, I shed my tears in front of An. In truth, myself I mourned in front of Enlil” [17].

In my understanding, the two forms of the God El in the Book of Genesis reflect the ancient Sumerian/Semitic tradition in which the father of the gods and king of the gods were distinct from each other (they were later regarded as manifestations of one God in the Hebrew tradition). In my view, this also explains the way in which the names of God are used in the Book of Genesis which Biblical Criticism scholars usually explain in terms of their Documentary Hypothesis (for a critical analysis, see [2, 18]). This divine duality is found throughout Israel's long literary history until we read in the vision in the Book of Daniel that the “Son of man” appeared before the Ancient of days sitting on his glorious throne to receive eternal kingship over all the gods [13]. 

The historicity of Abraham

At this point, I think that any reader would have to admit that there is a remarkable amount of information in the ancient history (and the rest) of the Book of Genesis which was taken from Sumerian sources. This is true for the creation story (Gen.1), the garden story (Gen. 2-3) as well as the rest of the ancient history (Gen. 4-11). In fact, most of the important themes (although not in their particularly Hebrew presentation) can be found in Sumerian tradition. There cannot be any doubt that the author did not only purposively place the origins of his people (and all their ancient history) in Sumer (and the lands to the north thereof); he (or at least the author of the source material) was also deeply influenced by ancient Sumerian thought in a way that is consistent with the tradition about which he was writing (and from which he himself supposedly came). His writing style, his metaphors, the main characters and their stories find their closest equivalence in the ancient Babylonian milieu from the time of Abraham. And most importantly - there is absolutely no Mesopotamian influence whatsoever in the Book of Genesis which belongs to later developments in Mesopotamian thought per se. 

File:Grechetto (Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione) - Journey of the Family of Abraham - Google Art Project.jpg
Journey of the Family of Abraham (painted by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione in 1650-1660)
These things suggest that the story about Abraham's journey from Ur in Sumer to Canaan should be taken seriously. Although scholars from the Biblical Criticism tradition have consistently refused to do this [19], new archaeological evidence which is consistent with the Biblical tale proves them wrong. Of particular importance in this regard, is the Elamite incursion that is said to have happened in the period after Abraham migrated from Harran (where he and his family are said to have stayed for some time) to Canaan.

We are in the fortunate position that we do not only now know that such an incursion of the Elamites into northwestern Syria actually took place during that time but also when namely in 1822 BC (according to the "high" Mesopotamian chronology; it happened only once during the relevant period). Of particular interest is the fact that the date of this event is consistent with the Septuagint dating of Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, namely in 1837 BC. (The Masoretic text gives a later date).

If we take the Septuagint reading serious, then the Elamite incursion would have happened 15 years after Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, during the reign of Siwe-palar-huppak, king of Elam, which is about 19 years before Hammurabi became overlord of Mesopotamia in 1818 BC after his victory over Rim-Sin of Larsa. The northern invaders might have marched under the leadership of Kudu-zulus, the brother of the Elamite king, who ruled in Esnunna in Sumer [20]. One may even suggest that the name “Kedor” in Kedor-Laómer, the name of the leader of the invaders according to the Biblical narrative, goes back to “Kudu” in Kudu-zulus because these names have the same root form K-d.

Another interesting piece of information in the Hebrew Bible is that Abraham journeyed to Egypt – seemingly directly after his first arrival in Canaan because there was famine in the land (see Gen. 12:5-10). According to the Septuagint, this happened in about 1836 BC, which is consistent with the well-known depiction at Beni Hassan in Egypt of a man called Abishai/r, which is of the same Amorite name-type as Abraham [21]. This Abishai/r is shown in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, administrator of the Eastern Desert who had close ties with the royal court, with his entourage arriving with "greeting gifts" in Egypt in the sixth year of king Senusert II in 1836 BC (according to K. A. Kitchen's low Egyptian chronology). He is described as a "ruler of the hill-lands" (Canaan). This corresponds to the Biblical description of Abraham as a "mighty prince" from Canaan (Gen. 28:6).

Abishai's entourage included thirty-seven men with their families (even though only some of these are shown [22]) who were Asiatics of Shu, a geographical term which probably refers to the southern Levant (most scholars identify it with the region east of the Jordan River – which is also the region through which Abraham came from Harran to Canaan). Also relevant to the discussion, is the colourful robe "patterned with stripes and chevrons" [22] worn by Abishai/r which reminds of such a robe mentioned in the Biblical tradition in connection with Joseph (Gen. 37:3).
Image result for beni hassan
Abishai and his entourage arriving in Egypt from Canaan
What shall we make of this? These correspondences may be a mere coincidence. It is, however, also possible that a Semitic prince called Abraham/Abishai in the Hebrew and Egyptian traditions respectively arrived from Canaan in Egypt in the year 1836 BC (if we take the Septuagint as consistent with Kitchen's low chronology and the Mesopotamian high chronology - I argued elsewhere that this is by far the best way to reconstruct the ancient Middle Eastern chronology [23]). The reason for taking this possibility seriously is that the Hebrew tradition does, in fact, includes data that is consistent with evidence from Mesopotamia in accordance with the high chronology (see above). Also, according to the Hebrew tradition Abraham's coming to Egypt was noted even at the royal court which would be consistent with the remarkable (and unique) depiction at Beni Hassan.

Although we can obviously not prove that Abraham was a historical personage, the remarkable consistency with known archaeological facts as well as the strong Sumerian influence on the stories about Abraham's forebears gives us reason to think that this is indeed a trustworthy tradition. In fact, it is impossible to explain the correctness of the information about the Elamitic incursion to northern Syria without accepting the trustworthiness of the Biblical story (there is also nothing that goes against this assessment). At this point, we may take a closer look at the nature of the Abrahamic tradition with the hope that we may find some clues therein regarding its origin.

The essential nature of the Abrahamic tradition

When we take a closer look at the Abrahamic tradition, there is one thing that immediately jumps to our attention, namely the remarkable amount of oracular material. We read that God first appeared to Abraham at Ur in Sumer and then again at various points throughout his story (Gen. 12:1-3; 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 18:1-33; 22:1-2, 15-18). In fact, the story of Abraham is closely interwoven with the many oracles ascribed to the Almighty God (Gen. 17:1; Ex. 6:2). We even read that Abraham is called a "prophet" in Hebrew tradition (Gen. 29:7).

Now, the tradition of writing down oracles also had a long history in ancient Mesopotamia, since the time of the Akkadian kings who ruled over Sumer (ca. 2370-2190 BC) and persisting in the western regions such as Mari where those traditions were kept alive. In Akkadian times, animals were sacrificed to inspect their intestines for an oracle from the gods. As these were considered to be of divine provenance great care was taken to make clay models of the intestines on which the oracles were also inscribed. Also, in the epic tales of these great kings, these oracles are mentioned as part of their story. These stories belong to a long Semitic oral tradition in which they were told and retold by court poets throughout the centuries. During the early second millennium BC, there were poet-prophets in the western city of Mari who also wrote down prophecies which had come down to us. Some of these prophecies were connected with the kings of Mari - of whom epic tales were also told.

What is of particular importance to our story is the fact that these Mari prophecies date from the time of Abraham - who would have travelled past that city on his way to the west. As such, the custom of receiving and writing down prophecies that we find in Abrahamic tradition - and even the practice of incorporation such oracles in the stories as a whole - have a long history in the world from which Abraham came! Since such oracles were considered with great awe - which is also why they were written down when they were first given - it seems reasonable to assume that this practice also applied to the very similar Abrahamic tradition. This reading is in line with the overwhelming evidence for Sumerian influence in the ancient history - which is also written down in a style that reflects that ancient milieu! This strongly suggests that the patriarchal stories were (indeed) written down (at least in the form of the source material which was used by the Biblical author) during the period in which they are placed!

One cannot but notice that these early literary roots are also reflected in the rest of Hebrew tradition where we read that Moses was a prophet (Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 34:10) who received various oracles from God which he wrote down and taught the people (Ex. 19:7-9; 24:3-8; 34:27, 28). In this case, the circumstances in which they were received are also mentioned (Ex. 17:14; Nu. 33:1, 2). Later, Moses's successor Josua is also said to have written down some of Moses's oracles which are said to have dated from the time of Moses himself (Jos. 8:32; 24:26). Other oracles are also identified with the period of the judges. In later tradition, from the time of Samuel, the Hebrew prophets were the ones who did not only wrote down the oracles but also the historical context in which they were given [24].  

Also interesting is the importance of oral tradition within Semitic circles during the late third and early second millenniums BC. In the time of the Akkadian period, we read how Enheduanna, the daughter of king Sargon the Great, who wrote three poems in honour of the goddess Inana, called in one of these upon the poets to hand it down verbatum: “That which I recited to you at (mid)night, May the singer repeat it to you at noon”. The original use of the word implies that the poem had to be repeated: “in the presumably technical sense of repeating verbatum” [25]. At that time oral techniques may have formed part of the education of such poets. The Akkadian epic tales which recount the great and mighty heroic deeds of those kings also show that they were handed down in poetic circles for centuries.

The reason why this is of importance to us is that the ancient history may originally have been handed down in the same way. Although this tradition was probably first written down in Old Babylonian times (the time of Abraham) (as is reflected in the close correspondence with the Sumerian King List), the material for this may have come from a long oral tradition. This is exactly what happened with the Akkadian epic tales; they were also handed down since Akkadian times and were only written down in the Old Babylonian period. 

The Biblical expression "written on their hearts" reflects this strong oral current in Hebrew circles which may have survived for a long time as Koert van Bekkum writes: “Met het gebruik van de uitdrukking 'schrijven in hun hart' maakt Jeremia tekst gebruik van een bekend beeld in het oude Nabije Oosten waarin het uiteindelijke doel van heel de scholing werd verwoord: het uit het hoofd kennen van de teksten, ingewijd worden in een traditie en ernaar gaan leven” [26]. One may suggest that the difference in literary styles between the ancient history and patriarchal stories reflects the oral nature of the material used for the first in contrast with the second which was written down during the lifetime of the patriarchs themselves.

At this point, we find that we have good reasons to think that the ancient tradition originated from Semitic circles in Sumer and was first written down in Old Babylonian times. The patriarchal story of Abraham also reflects the world of that time and its oracular nature strongly suggests that it was first written down during the lifetime of Abraham himself. Given the fact that Ur was a city of great learning, we may assume that Abraham was educated in the Sumerian scribal tradition and that he or people in his entourage wrote down the source material which was later used to write the Book of Genesis. One may suggest that the recurrent reference to the "(books of) the generations of" (Gen. 2:4a; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12, 19; 36:1,9; 37:2) refers to various source documents used in this regard.

Who wrote the Book of Genesis?

This brings us in the final instance to the question of authorship. When we want to gain some insight into this, we have to take a closer look at the way in which the author reworked the source material. What was his special concerns and how did he make use of his sources to present his own view of the world? Traditionally the book had been ascribed to Moses to whom God is said to have revealed Himself with the name Yahweh. The use of the divine name "Yahweh God" (or just: Yahweh) throughout the book is consistent with this view. Since this name belonged to a long Hebrew tradition, this, however, does not on its own establishes the authorship of the book. (Some Biblical Criticism scholars used the reference to "Chaldees" in Genesis 11:29, 31 which dates from the time of the exile to support their view but this is clearly the hand of a late editor).

We can start with the creation story in Genesis 1. When we carefully consider this story, we find that the author used motifs typical to the ancient worldview (of Sumerian origin) and rearranged them into a new pattern – into six creation days plus a Sabbath (presented as six periods of creation and one of rest). He did this to establish a divine model for the practice of keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest (Gen. 2:2-3). This practice – to write a creation story which served as the model for cult practice – is found all over the ancient Middle East. This strongly suggests that the purpose of the creation story was not to serve as some kind of polemical text but rather as an argument for keeping the Sabbath when it was first introduced.

Now, although the seven day week was known in the ancient Ur III period (~2100-2000BC) and later in Canaan as one can see in the Ugarit texts (~1400-1200 BC), the Sabbath always played a very central role in Israel. The one person who is indissolubly connected with introducing the practice of keeping the Sabbath is Moses. Keeping the Sabbath is part of the ten commandments which Moses is said to have received from God (Ex. 34:27, 28). So, the most logical time when one expects that this kind of argument would have been made in Hebrew context is when the Sabbath was first introduced. And since Moses is so closely associated with introducing the Sabbath, we may with good reasons think that he was the author of the Book of Genesis as is traditionally held.

There is other evidence which supports this view. The garden story ends with God Himself making clothes for Adam and Eve from animal skins to replace their fig leaves. This would have involved the slaughter of animals (Gen. 3:21). In fact, in the story of their sons Cain and Abel, we find that the right kind of sacrifice is clearly stated to be one of animals - not an offering of the fruit of one's labour which symbolizes one's own effort. Now, as is the case with the Sabbath, we find that God's example (at the time of the "beginning" of known history) is used to introduce the right kind of sacrifice which is consistent with that of Mosaic tradition. Again, the divine model serves as the basis for cultic practice.

There is, however, more to this. The author did not merely introduce animal sacrifice as a way to please God, he also presents this in contrast with the events of the preceding garden story. In the garden story God is depicted as rejecting the practices that are grounded in shamanism - practices like those ascribed to Balaam (which is also placed in the time of Moses) which involved enchantments (Num. 24:1; although such practices also involved sacrifice that was not in the manner required by God). The story of Balaam does, in fact, show some correspondence with the garden story: both, for example, involves a speaking animal (donkey; typical of the shamanistic experience), the idea of "opened eyes" as well as some kind of secret knowledge available to the initiates (Gen. 3:5; Num. 24:16).

We find this rejection of occult practice throughout the Pentateuch. Instead, God requires certain animal sacrifices like those which Moses is said to have introduced into Israelite practice after the exodus during their time in the desert. The story, therefore, serves to confirm the validity of the Mosaic ceremonial laws (see also the story in Numeri 25 where these two kinds of sacrifices are explicitly presented in opposition to each other!). Such a context of writing would constitute a strong argument that the Book of Genesis was indeed written early as has been traditionally accepted.


In this essay, our concern is with the trustworthiness of the Abrahamic tradition. If this story is a true reflection of historical events, then we expect that Abraham's origin in Sumer would be reflected in the ancient history - which is presented in the book as the prehistory of that family. And this is exactly what we found. There cannot be any doubt that the book had been influenced at its very core by the Sumerian world.

This Sumerian influence is visible in the many Sumerian motifs found in the creation story, in the garden story as well as the style and content of the rest of the ancient history. The author(s) - not the one who finally wrote the book, but those who wrote the source material - clearly worked within the ancient Old Babylonian milieu in which the ancient Sumerian ideas dominated. Of particular importance is the fact that the ancient history reflects a valid reconstruction of ancient Sumerian tradition (which cannot be accounted for without assuming some kind of continuous tradition), that this ancient history is in accordance with Sumerian literary tradition as found in the Sumerian King List and that there is absolutely no Mesopotamian material whatsoever included which date from the post-Abrahamic period per se.

We also found that Abraham's story includes information which cannot be explained except in terms of a trustworthy tradition going back to those events themselves. There is no other possible way that the author could have known about the Elamite incursion into northwestern Syra or the other details given in the story. This conclusion is consistent with the nature of the Abrahamic tradition which includes many oracles as well as the story which brings them all together. This way of presenting history is typical of the Akkadian tradition - and the one later found at Mari. Given the fact that such oracles were typically written down shortly after they were revealed, one cannot but come to the same conclusion regarding the Abrahamic oracles. If these were written down at that time (as this evidence suggests) then the trustworthiness of the material is easily explained.

One may ask: Why is the Sumerian information in the Book of Genesis never presented by scholars supporting the Babylonian Hypothesis in the unified way that I do in this essay? Why do such scholars follow an ad hoc approach trying to explain these features - always assuming that it cannot be true! I think this is an example of the deep bais in Biblical Criticism circles against the Bible which goes back to modernist times. The fact is: They cannot explain the things discussed in this essay in any coherent way within the Babylonian Hypothesis. It is time to finally reject the misguided efforts of such scholars and accept the Abrahamic tradition as trustworthy in every possible aspect that we are able to test given the restricted nature of our available evidence [27].

[5] The only known geographical reference to Aratta that is found outside the early Sumerian literature, comes from the account of Sargon II of Assyria's eight campaign. He travelled through the well-known seven mountain ranges across the northern Zagros where he finally arrived at a river called Aratta. This places the land of Aratta (the Biblical Ararat) near Mount Sahand in northern Iran. It is possible that the holy mountain of Aratta with its garden served as the basis for later Sumerian tradition since some of those royal families (such as the one who ruled at Uruk) traced their descent from this very land.
[6] In an ancient text called Gilgamesh and Humbaba (from the Ur III period), we read that the heroes Gilgamesh and Humbaba travelled across seven mountain ranges before they found the beautiful cedar which grew near (or on) the mountain of the gods. These "seven mountain ranges" were, however, not on the way to the Amanus mountains in the west but on the journey to the distant land of Aratta to the north of Sumer (the Biblical Ararat) - which means that this theme had been taken from that tradition and reapplied to the Gilgamesh legends. These seven mountain ranges are referred to in the legends told about an early king of Uruk, named Enmerkar, who ruled during the last part of the fourth millennium BC. His servant travelled through the seven mountain ranges to the land of Aratta beyond the Zagros mountains. In the Gilgamesh Epic of later tradition, Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu travelled to the distant west.
[7] Whereas the cherubim are depicted with four different faces in Ezekiel, we find in Ezek. 10:14 that the ox face is called that of a cherub. As this is in conflict with the rest of Ezekiel's text and does not appear in the Septuagint, we cannot take this as normative.
[9] Dalley, S. 1998. The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University.
[12] The Great Flood: Did it really happen?
Traditionally, Biblical Criticism scholars believed that the Biblical story of the deluge originated from the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic which dates from ca. 1700-1600 BC. In their view, a copy found at Ras Shamra on the North Syrian coast dating to ca. 1300 BC shows that the text was known in Canaan at an early enough data to be incorporated into the J flood story (in accordance with the Documentary Hypothesis). No complete copy of this epic has, however, been found and those copies that we have, lack the crucial sections for comparison. This has led some scholars to propose that the Genesis flood story - which they date to the exilic or post-exilic periods - was taken either from the 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic (which was a late addition to that epic) or Berossus's Babyloniaca. Again, the problem is that these versions of the deluge show crucial differences with the Biblical one. In my view, the Hebrew and Babylonian versions of the story go back to a common original tradition in Sumer which was handed down separately within the Abrahamic family and in Babylonian circles. 
[13] Who is Elohim?
[14] Shortly after the time of Abraham, the god Marduk usurped the role of king of the gods to become ruler of the Babylonian gods. After that time the character of Enlil was slandered in Babylonia. There is, for example, the story of his banishment to the Western mountains in which he is depicted as having sexual relations with the goddess Ninlil. This story was clearly taken from the opposing Enki milieu as Michalowski [15] has shown (Enki was the father of Marduk). Marduk was later worshipped by the Canaanites as Baal. In both the Babylonian and Canaanite traditions he is presented as a rebel who led an insurrection against the king of the gods to become king himself. As such his role as king of the gods was never accepted in Israel. Instead, this rebel-leader in the council of the gods was called Satan, which means “adversary”, in the Biblical tradition. The figure of Satan is clearly old and cannot be understood apart from the ancient concept of the council of the gods [8, 13].
[15] Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1977. Inuma Iiu awilum, in Maria de Jong Ellis (ed.). Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts & Science Vol xix. Hamden: Archon Books.
Michalowski, Piotr. 1996. The Unbearable Lightness of Enlil, in J. Prosecky (ed.). Intellectual Life of the Ancient Near East, papers presented 43e Rencontre assyriologique Internationale.
[16] Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures of Darkness, p101. New Haven: Yale University.
[17] Mullen, E. Theodore. 1980. The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. Chico (California): Scholars Press.
[19] In South African context, Jurie le Roux is one of the main proponents of the view that the Abraham story dates from after the exile. He has propagated this view in various essays in the official publication of the Theological Faculty of the University of Pretoria (see TEO 27/05/2016). He always quotes Biblical Criticism scholars that agree with his view - all of whom dogmatically accepts the Babylonian Hypothesis. If one accepts the Babylonian Hypothesis then this is the obvious outcome. If one rejects that context, then everything changes! 
In Le Roux's (long-discredited) modernist and positivist perspective, the lack of sufficient evidence for a historical Abraham (in his opinion) is evidence that there was no historical Abraham! He might have remembered how the scholarly consensus that Dawid was not a historical person was overturned by the discovery of the Tell Dan Stela on which mention is made of the "House of Dawid". Le Roux mentions an essay by Joseph Blenkinsopp, Judaeans, Jews, Children of Abraham (2011), in which the latter takes the usual Biblical Criticism stance that the Biblical authors "invented" their stories for all sorts of "necessary" reasons and then resorts to remarkable intellectual acrobatics to argue that the Abraham story was invented after the return from exile. For these scholars one thing stands above all others: The Biblical narrative can under absolutely no circumstances be true! 
[20] Van de Mieroop, Marc. 2005. King Hammurabi of Babylon: a biography. Oxford: Blackwell.
[21] Hoffmeier, James K. 2008. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion Hudson.
[22] Kamrin, Janice. 2009. The Aamu of Shu in the Tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 1(3):22-36.
[24] Various court prophets are mentioned in Hebrew tradition as the ones who wrote down the oracles as well as the story which tells the context in which that happened. Among these were Samuel (I Sam. 10:25), Nathan (1 Chr. 29:29; 2 Chr. 9:29); Gad (1 Chr. 29:29; 2 Chr. 29:25), Ahijah (2 Chr. 9:29), Shemaiah (2 Chr. 12:15), Iddo (2 Chr. 12:15; 13:22), Elijah (2 Chr. 21:12), Isaiah (2 Chr. 32:32) and others. The author of the Chronicles of the Hebrew kings mentions the histories written by Samuel (from the time of King Saul), Nathan and Gad (from the time of King David), Ahijah (from the time of King Solomon), Shemaiah and Iddo (from the time of King Rehoboam), Elijah (from the time of King Ahab) and Isaiah (from the time of King Hezekiah). One cannot but see this as a continuation of the ancient Semitic tradition in which such prophets wrote down the oracles as well as the context in which they were revealed. It also strongly suggests that the historical data in those histories is trustworthy.
[25] Hallo, William & Van Dijk, J. J. A. 1968. The Exaltation of Inanna. New Haven: Yale University.
[26] Van Bekkum, Koet. 2013. Schrijven, schrijvers en auteurs in de oudheid, in Van Bekkum, Koet; Van Houwelingen, Rob & Peets, Eric (Red.). Nieuwe en oude dingen. Barneveld: Vuurbaak.
[27] One of the great problems with Biblical Criticism scholars is that they take no evidence as positive evidence of the negative which according to them "proves" that the literary tradition about Hebrew history is untrustworthy (see [19] above]. One of the contemporary culprits is Israel Finkelstein who is accused by Nadav Naaman of using the "not-found ergo does-not exist" principle (BASOR 317:2). This reflects a basic lack of understanding by a whole generation of scholars (deeply influenced by the long-discredited modernist roots of the discipline) regarding the nature of disciplines such as textual studies and archaeology (for a detailed discussion, see [18, 28]).

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

Readers are welcome to share this essay.

No comments:

Post a Comment