Genesis Bible Study: Abraham’s Homeland – Mesopotamia

Understanding the historical and literary background of a document does much to shed light on the intended meaning of the author of that document.  When it comes to the book of Genesis, that background material would be the history and literature of Mesopotamia (where Abraham came from), Egypt (where the Israelites were coming out of), and Canaan (where the Israelites were going into, and Abraham had spent some time and met Melchizedek).

This post focuses on the history, geography, ideology, and writing styles of the Mesopotamians.  The thesis of this author is that Abram, being a rich man, learned to read and write in Akkadian academies and so picked up a Semetic language and writing style that he carried with him in his journeys and taught to his children.  Hopefully, this thesis will be shared by the reader as the background of Mesopotamia is reviewed.

The geography will be reviewed because having this background knowledge helps us understand some of the history and ideology of Abraham’s homeland.

Mesopotamia – The Land between the Rivers

(AKA: Chaldean, Assyro-Babylonian, Sumero-Akkadian)

 The geography of a land has great impact on its cultural and social growth. The three thousand years of cultural stability in a land of constantly toppling empires is very difficult to understand, unless one considers the geography.

Mesopotamia

Temperature/Rainfall

Northern Mesopotamia

Summer: 22-42 ºC                   Winter: 11-20 ºC                     Avg Rainfall: 45 cm/month, 400 cm in Sep

Conclusion: The slightly lower temperatures and the increased rainfall means that irrigation is not necessary.

Southern Mesopotamia:

Summer: 35-50ºC                    Winter: 13-22  ºC                    Avg Rainfall: 15 cm/month, 100 cm in Sep.

Conclusion: Low rainfall and high temperature means that crops can only be grown through irrigation (bringing water over from rivers through digging paths for the water to flow through)

Treacherous Waters

Throughout both Southern and Northern Mesopotamia the rivers tend to be shallow and as a consequence they move from year to year.  A small change in a river’s direction in northern Mesopotamia results in a massive change in southern Mesopotamia – suddenly the water supply for irrigation is ten miles from where it was last year.

Keeping Your Crops Growing:

Keeping crops growing means controlling the rivers, requiring huge amounts of cooperative labour between city states.  Irrigating a single field takes a lot of work, and a northern city failing to control the flow of the water could result in a southern city losing all of its crops and having all of their hard work go to waste.  This would then result in war and raids for food by the starving southern cities.  Even cities that didn’t like each other had to remain in contact and work together to some degree.

Trade

The rivers also functioned as an easy way to bring goods from a northern town to a town, since a boat would float down to the needed destination.  This meant that keeping the rivers flowing in the right directions not only meant peace between cities but also prosperity for everyone involved.

Conclusion:

The climate and geography forced people to work together regardless of what kingdom happened to have control at the time.  This meant that there would be a constant flow of ideas between cities and keeping the status quo in regards to religious beliefs and social customs was the ideal for basic survival.

Mesopotamian History

 Having an understanding of the history of Abram’s homeland gives us at least two benefits:

1. We can see what events surrounded Abram’s family departing from Ur.

2. We can see the events that Abram’s family would have been aware of prior to their departure, and thus events that may have been communicated to future generations regarding the homeland of their forefather.

Chronology

Ur, being in southernmost Mesopotamia, is dependent upon northern cities to control the waterways so that the river wouldn’t change course and ruin crop growth.  The Gutian invasions and the fall of the Akkadian empire (N. Mesopotamia) meant that the waterways were not being managed.  Terah most likely left in order to avoid both war and the consequent famine.

By the time the Gutians came down from the Zargos mountains to invade Mesopotamia, the Akkadian empire was already crumbling due to internal rebellions.  The fall of the Akkad empire to the Gutians resulted in a power struggle by the remaining city states where, after a decades of struggle, Ur-Nammu brought the Sumerian civilization to the forefront and paved the way for his son, Shulgi, to bring great reforms to both culture and politics.

The timeframe shows that Terah lived during the height of the Akkadian empire and consequently would have been exposed both to their ideology, writing styles, and religious beliefs.  Since the descendents of Terah clearly did not adopt the belief system of the Canaanites or the Egyptians, based on the writings we have from them, we can assume that some beliefs from the Mesopotamians must have formed the basis of what Abraham and his descendents believed – Israelite ideology and thinking was only in its infancy and would still contain much Mesopotamian aspects for many generations to come.  What becomes obvious, after much study of both Mesopotamian documents and the Bible, is that the Israelites did not abandon all aspects of Mesopotamian thinking – they retained much of the Mesopotamian writing style as well and used Mesopotamian concepts to communicate ideas.

 Key Concepts:  Abraham’s roots are from the Mesopotamian Empire, as ruled by the Akkadians.  This means that we can expect to find traces of Mesopotamian thinking in Israelite writing.

Mesopotamian Religion, Royalty & Art

325px-Ancient_ziggurat_at_Ali_Air_Base_Iraq_2005

Temples & Temple Service

Central to each city, both literally (it was in the middle of the city) and spiritually (the inhabitations’ lives revolved around it), was the temple of the city’s patron deity.  One could not even be a member of the community if they did not venerate and worship the god of the city – refusal to worship was the equivalent of giving up American citizenship and then still trying to live in America.  The reason for this was that the Mesopotamians viewed the god (whichever one they happened to primarily worship) as being the owner of the land and themselves as tenants in the land.

The priests divided up the land, that was not held by the king and his court, into three groups: the land of the lord (the food was meant specifically for the priests); the food land (allotted to the farmers who worked the land of the lord – they had to grow food for the priests and themselves); and the plough land (leased out for 1/8 of the crop).  The priests functioned almost like temple bureaucrats who were broken down into a complex system of specialization – there was even a minister of snake charmers.  Temple service was considered the highest task a person could have given to them, as humans were considered to have been created for the purpose of serving the gods and so priests were exempt from menial tasks such as growing their own food.

The gods were pictured as living in their temples (“house” was the common word for “temple”) with the priests who were their servants (butlers who brought them food and cleaned their home).  In their house they received guests and tried cases, giving divine signs to the priests as proof of their verdicts.

Key Concepts: The land is owned by the gods, and they can give it to whomever they will.  Serving in the temple is the highest calling, because humans were created to serve the gods.  The temple was a house where the god lived and issued divine decrees.  Important parallels would be in that Moses was called the servant in God’s house, the NT promises Christians that they will dwell in God’s house, and the OT refers to the temple as the dwelling place of God (although it is emphasized that it is only symbolically so).

Kingship

Kingship in such a situation was founded upon the religious belief that the king was the representative of the god who owned the land – he was the son of this god.  For example, king Eannatum inscribed on the Steele of Vultures (see below) that he was the son of the supreme god Ningirsu and Innana (war goddess).  Far from being insane, elsewhere Eannatum admits that his earthly father was in fact king Akurgal.  What he means to communicate is that he is the representative of these two deities and thus had divine permission to rule and conquer in a land that is not owned by him or any other mortal man.  Another title for the king was ‘shepherd,’ because he was a caretaker of the people and the city on behalf of the gods.   He was also the man who was responsible for representing the people of his city to the patron deity of the city, and keeping that deity happy VIA sacrifices and worship.   Since the king represented the gods on earth, people treated him like they treated the gods and thus were willing to be buried in his tomb with him after he died.  The Royal Cemetery of Ur contains many tombs where sometimes entire royal families, along with their musicians and court members, were buried with the king (findings seem to indicate that they drank poison so as not to starve or dehydrate to death).  

Stele_of_Vultures_detail_01

The people depended on the king’s relationship with the gods, since the gods may send enemy nations as rods of punishment against the people as a form of divine retribution against the sins of the king – if the king failed, the people failed.  The god(s) he represented was to receive the first fruits of the spring harvest at the hand of the king, or the king was to be removed from office due to the divine wrath of the god – the people could not risk having a leader who would not give the first fruits to the god.

 Key Concepts: The king represents the gods above; he is their “son.”  Divine sonship enables a human to be able to rule – he exercises the rule of the gods.  The king also represented the people to the gods, and by his actions the gods determined treatment toward the people.  He can also be considered as merely being the shepherd of the people, although the people treated him as they would treat the gods he represents.

Statues

Statue Kings would often set up images of themselves in lands that they conquer as a demonstration that the land is under their dominion.  To see the image of a certain person in a place is to understand that said person has total dominion of the location.

Statues of gods were placed in temples.  First the statue was delivered through the childbirth of woodworking, masonry, and metalworking.  Then, by the power of the divine gods that were accessed by rituals and spells, the statue was made to come to life.  The temple priests would then feed the statue by opening its movable jaw and causing it to chew and “swallow” food – this meant the god was accepting the food offering and was pleased.  How could it be that the Mesopotamians understood that the gods were in heaven, but yet view them present in the “living” statue?  We may never know their reasoning.  It’s interesting to know that Hindu’s perform a similar ritual of washing their statues and covering them in lovely ointments as a sign of their devotion, the ritual is called abhisheka.

This is similar to the insanity that happens today with cabbage patch dolls:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QPMLQGuL0c

Side note: Before we mock the idol worshipers, or the cabbage patch doll folks, we should question if our relationship with God is not much the same.  Do we “feed” good works to God in order to please Him, or do we rely entirely on the finished work of Christ?  Do we make God say what we want by avoiding the passages of the Bible we don’t like, or do we read the whole Bible and let it convict and correct us?  Our habits with God tend to be an internalized form of what the Mesopotamians were doing, and so we are not in a place to mock unless we ourselves are living in true obedience and worship.

City-States

The general belief was that the universe was divided in two: what happened on earth was a reflection of what was happening in heaven.  So, for example, city A conquering city B usually meant that A’s god had risen in power or defeated B’s god in heaven.  While a god or goddess may punish a city for unfaithfulness, it is unthinkable that they would bring total ruin to that city – the gods were fed and kept alive by the sacrifices of the city they were worshipped in.  Enlil destroying Akkad is an exception, as he received food from other gods as tribute and was not wholly dependent upon Akkad.  Another exception would be when an enemy nation had done a better job of appeasing the patron deity of the city, and thus the deity of the city had stopped caring for the city and allowed it to lose the war.  Consequently, this ideology played into all of political life.  When cities made alliances then the idols of the gods were carried from one city to another as a symbol of how the patron deities of the cities were now marrying each other in heaven.  Thus, all politics were primarily spoken of in the realm of religious beliefs and the activities of the divine.  When ‘myths’ were created, the gods who were friends reflected alliances between cities, and the gods who were hostile to each other were reflections of cities who were at war.

Key Concepts:  Although religion had become a political game, the prevalent concept was that the divine determines what happens on earth.

Politics & the Pantheon

Perhaps the large pantheon of the Mesopotamian gods is a result of new city-states rising up and gods being needed to represent them?  This would mean that a story that originally only had a small number of gods would, over time, include a large host of characters playing different roles.  If so, then the Mesopotamian myths may have had a simpler back story originally – one more closely related to that of the Bible – that had been corrupted over time due to sin and political necessity.

The Pantheon

Oannes

The opinion prevalent in Mesopotamia was that at the dawn of time the being (Oannes – half fish and half man) brought all the elements of civilization to mankind.  He was the first of 7 total such fish-men who were sent by the god Enlil, however, the sages (fish-men) were merely sent to repeat what Oannes had taught.  The idea was one of a golden age, a time of perfection, which humanity had fallen from.  The great concern of the Mesopotamians was to return to the ideal state from which they had fallen.

Absu: Babylonian, god of the underwater ocean. Usually seen as a concept rather than a being. Consort to Tiamat. Mammetum: Babylonian, goddess of the maker or mother of fate.
Adad: Babylonian, god of storms. A version of Ninurta. Marduk: Babylonian, god of magic. Main god of the pantheon, although he isn’t the chief. Killed Tiamat and used her body to create the earth and sky out of respect for her battle prowess.
Adapa: Babylonian, sent by Ea to deliver the arts of civilization to man. One of the earliest mythical characters. Mummu: Babylonian, god of craftsmen.
Aia: Babylonian, consort to Shamash. Mushdamma: Sumerian, god of houses and foundations
An: Sumerian, god of heaven, pantheon leader prior to 2500 BC. The word “an” means “heaven.” Nabu: Babylonian, god of writing and wisdom.
Anshar: Babylonian, god of the whole sky. His name means An=heaven, shar-whole or entire. Nammu: Sumerian, goddess of the Watery Abyss, the Primeval Sea, the Primordial Mother.
Antum: Babylonian, goddess of the earth. Nammu: Babylonian, goddess of “the pure goddess”, associated with fresh water. Nammu was the Primordial Mother Goddess, creator of the gods, in the Sumerian myths. She got demoted by the time the Babylonians got to her.
Anu: Babylonian, god of heaven, god of monarchs. Transcendent, not immanent. Namtar: Sumerian, demon of fate, responsible for death.
Anunnaki: Babylonian, the gods of the earth. Nanna-Seun: Sumerian, god of the moon. Technically, “nanna” refers to the full moon. Seun, sometimes spelled Sin, pronounced “seen,” refers to the new moon. Father to Utu (Shamash) and Inanna
Aruru: Babylonian, goddess of, mother goddess, created mankind with the help of Enki or Enlil. Nedu: Babylonian, guardian of the underworld gate. Same as the Sumerian Neti.
Ashnan: Sumerian, goddess of grain fields. Nergal: Babylonian, god of the underworld, husband to Ereshkigal, lover of Mami, creator of humans.
Ashur: Babylonian, god of war. Neti: Sumerian, chief gatekeeper of the underworld, the scribe of the underworld.
Bel: Babylonian, god of sages. An epithet meaning, generally, “Lord.” Some have said that he is Marduk. Nidaba: Sumerian, goddess of writing.
Belili: Babylonian, sister of Tammuz, “the one who always weeps.” Nin-agal: Babylonian, god of smiths.
Belit-tseri: Babylonian, scribe of the underworld, kneels before Ereshkigal. Ningal: Babylonian, consort of Sin, mother of Shamash, the sun. Her name means nin=lady, gal=great. Great Lady.
Birdu: Babylonian, (Means ‘pimple’) an underworld messenger. Ningishzida: Sumerian, god of dawn.
Dagan: Babylonian, chthonic god of fertility. Ningizzia: Babylonian, guardian of the gate of heaven, lives in the underworld. He guards the eastern gate, the gate of morning.
Damkina: Babylonian, consort to Ea, mother of Marduk. Ninhursaga: Sumerian, goddess of the earth. Her name means “lady of the mountain-side”.
Dumuzi: Sumerian, shepherd king. A fertility demi-god. Nin-ildu: Babylonian, god of carpenters.
Ea: Babylonian, god of the fresh waters, lord of wisdom, lord of Incantations. Babylonian version of Enki. Ninkasi: Sumerian, goddess of brewing
Ellil: Babylonian, god of wind/storm, originally the leader of the pantheon until Anu took over. His name means El=lord, lil=air. Ninlil: Sumerian, goddess of air. Nin=Lady (in older form), lil=air.
Emesh: Sumerian, god of summer. His name means “summer.” Ninlil: Babylonian, Ellil’s consort. Her name means nin=lady, lil=air. Same deity as the Sumerian goddess.
Enki: Sumerian, god of water and wisdom. En=lord, ki=earth. He’s the god of water because water is not only stronger than earth, but it also fertilizes the earth. Ninurta: Sumerian, god of the south wind, a warrior. A fertility god in earlier myths.
Enkidu: Sumerian, Best friend of Gilgamesh. Raised with the wild animals, tamed by a woman. Ninurta: Babylonian, god of war, a champion of the land. Same as the Sumerian deity of the same name.
Enlil: Sumerian, god of air, pantheon leader after 2500 BC. En=lord, lil=air. Ninsun: Babylonian, mother of Gilgamesh, who knows all and interprets dreams
Enten: Sumerian, god of winter. His name means “winter.” Nissaba: Babylonian, goddess of cereal grains.
Ereshkigal: Sumerian, goddess of the underworld. Eresh=queen, ki=earth, gal=great. The “great earth” refers to the underworld. Nusku: Babylonian, god of fire. The ‘night-light’ of the gods. A good, illuminating night-time fire.
Garra (Gibil): Babylonian, god of fire. Destructive and cleansing fire. Qingu: Babylonian, Tiamat’s battle leader, elevated to her Consort after Apsu is killed. Traitor. His blood was used to create humans to serve the gods.
Geshtinanna: Sumerian, sister to Dumuzi. Her name means Vine of Heaven. Before the yearly planting cycle was turned over to Dumuzi, Geshtinanna took half the year, from Spring to Fall Equinox. Sebitti: Babylonian, the seven warrior gods led by Erra (Irra).
Geshtu-e: Babylonian, god of whose blood and intelligence are used by Mami to create man. Shamash: Babylonian, god of the sun. Babylonian version of the Sumerian Utu. Interestingly, IMO, is that the Ugaritic sun is named Shapash, a female deity.
Gilgamesh: Sumerian, demi-god, king of Erech. Sharra: Babylonian, god of submission. I haven’t been able to confirm this with any myth, so I’m not sure about it. The concept makes sense, though, so I’ll keep it here for the moment.
Gushkin-banda: Babylonian, creator of man and gods, a goldsmith. Crafters of all types were major roles in temples. Sin: Babylonian, god of the moon. His name is pronounced “seen.” Same deity as the Sumerian Nanna-Seun. His temple was the last pagan temple in Europe to fall; this was at Hurran, Turkey.
Huwawa: Sumerian, god of the cedar forest, killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Sumuqan: Babylonian, god of cattle, lives in the underworld.
Igigi: Babylonian, the gods of heaven. Sumugan: Sumerian, god of the plains.
Irra: Babylonian, god of plagues. Tammuz: Babylonian, demi-god of vegetation. Same of the Sumerian Dumuzi.
Ishkur: Sumerian, god of the winds. A version of Ninurta. The Seven: Sumerian, gods Nanna, Utu, Inanna, An, Ki, Enlil, Enki
Ishtar: Babylonian, goddess of passion, war, prostitution, the Babylonian version of Inanna Tiamat: Babylonian, Mother goddess, mother to the first gods. Imaged as a dragon at the bottom of the sea, the absu.
Ishum: Babylonian, god of fire. Utu: Sumerian, god of the sun.
Kishar: Babylonian, goddess of the whole earth. Her name means Ki=earth, shar=whole or entire. Zaltu: Babylonian, goddess of strife.
kur: Sumerian, means mountain. Depending on the reference, could mean the underworld. Ziusudra: Sumerian, Sumerian version of Noah.
Lahar: Sumerian, goddess of cattle Zu: A very bad bird who stole the me and had to be hunted down.
Lahmu and Lahamu: Babylonian, first children of Tiamat and Absu.
Lamashtu: Babylonian, demoness “she who erases.”

Creation

The Mesopotamians viewed words as having creative power, and so in order to express that the universe had not yet been created they would say “before anything had been named.”  Even so, prior to the naming (creation of things), the universe was made of chaotic water – represented by the dragon Tiamat – out of which the world was created.

In one account humans were created out of clay, molded by the gods and given the blood of a rebellious god in order that humans may have semi-divine powers of planning and mastery over the world (the fact that this blood came from a rebellious god explains why humans also do evil).  In another account humans grew up out of the dirt like plants.

Key Concepts: Creation happens by speaking.  Whether humans came up out of the ground like plants or were molded like clay figurines, they were the height of creation.

The World Order

The universe was viewed as a 3 tiered system.  Above were the endless heavens, in the middle was where humans lived, and below was the place of the dead.

Key Concept: Archaeology has shown that the Hebrews uniformly built them homes according to a 3 level tier system: they primarily lived and slept in the middle floor, the bottom floor was for dirty tasks and animals, and the top floor was without roof or walls and thus was boundless unlike the other 2 tiers.

Israelite Pillared House

Mesopotamian Writings

cunei

 Archaeological digs in large city states such as Ur of the Chaldeans have produced much evidence of scribal schools and their curriculums.  It is in such schools that Abram and his family would have been trained in the art of literary composition and reading.

scribes_198

The Curriculum

The curriculum seems to have been based primarily on copying out thesauruses and famous documents.  This means that anyone who knew how to write most likely also knew all of the famous stories there was to know in that time period.

Recording of History

Contrary to popular liberal belief, the evidence for the Hebrews keeping written records of their history and covenants outweighs the supposed oral tradition that lasted until somewhere in 950 BC.  It’s highly probable that literacy was passed down from generation to generation even while the patriarchs wandered in the promised land – their business transactions would need records and their covenants would need to take written form.

Mesopotamian Writing & Moses

Moses was most likely NOT the first Hebrew to create a written record of Israel’s history.  More likely, Moses, by God’s help in the tent of meeting, took the already existing history of his people and the literary works they were already accustomed to copying as part of their literary training, and composed a work of absolute truth that used all of the conventions that Israel was already used to easily identifying. What follows are common Mesopotamian conventions and styles that are clearly seen in the Pentateuch itself.

Common to ANE (ancient near eastern) Documents

As scribes spent their days practicing copying documents they also took the time to be creative and play around with the language.  This resulted in many word games and forms of poetry.

Acrostic Poems

An acrostic poem is when the first letter of each line, when taken together, forms a message.  For example:

Acrostic

Some scribes flattered the gods and their king by writing acrostic poems.  One such poem reads, “I, Saggil-kinam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”  A biblical example would be found in Proverbs 31:10-31 where the attributes of the excellent wife are listed in alphabetical order.

Literary Assumptions

The Scary Movie series expects the viewer to be well informed in regards to both famous horror movies and current cultural events.  Without being aware of these, a plot still exists, but the vast majority of the amusement and message is lost.  The same can be said for many of the ANE documents that have survived, such as the Bible.

Other scribes, perhaps bored and waiting for work to be assigned to them, created literary works that relied on the reader having extensive knowledge of the available literary documents.  Without explanation or introduction, characters would appear in narratives and the reader was to understand based on the history of that character in other writings.  These writings became so complex that one scribe boasted, “I am versed in the craft of the sage Adapa [a pre-flood hero]; I have studied the secret lore of the scribal craft and have memorized the celestial and terrestrial numbers…. I have read intricate tablets inscribed with obscure messages of both Sumerian and Akkadian.”  These scribes, having mastered the complicated and memorized all of the previous works, would then go on to produce even more complicated and obscure documents.  A scribe who could understand and write such documents was held in high honour, and so desires for recognition pushed literary geniuses to produce huge volumes of work.  If a reader could not understand a text, the assumption was that the reader had failed to do proper studies and memorization – a scribe was to have nearly all of the major texts memorized.

Key Point: ANE documents were rarely written for laymen, and so they rarely spell things out for the reader – it’s the reader’s job to know all of the documents from the time period.  This means, that while a general gist can be discovered without knowing the other documents, the fullest meaning can never be found without them.

 Colophon

At the end of a tablet scribes often included a colophon.  This is an individual’s way of inscribing his name on a work that he is proud of; it’s a way of signing the work.  Colophons would often include:

  • A catch-line, which gave the opening line of the next tablet in the series
  • Name and number of a tablet in a series (6th tablet of 7)
  • Number of lines on the tablet
  • Source of the tablet
  • Name of the owner or scribe
  • Cursing or blessing
  • Date
  • Location of the copy

Some scholars hold that Genesis 2:1-3 is a colophon.  Perhaps it’ll be worth considering.  The real discussion on this will take pace when the actual text of Genesis is analyzed, but for the time being a short consideration follows:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.  And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

 Catch line: The heavens and the earth were finished, all the host of them (a catch phrase that parallels the introduction to the, so called, 2nd creation narrative).

Tablet in a series: 6 days completed, 7th day in progress when tablet is written (Hebrews 4:4-6 invites people to believe and enter into God’s day of rest).

Date: The 7th day of creation

Name of the owner/scribe: Elohim

Blessing: God devoted the 7th day to rest

The required parts of the colophon are present, but does this mean it is a colophon?  Such considerations are beyond the scope of this post.  However, they are worth giving thought to!

Sumerian Literary Techniques

The Sumerians, shortly after the fall of the Akkadian empire, copied the Akkadian documents into their own language, and borrowed their literary techniques.  So, since most of the Akkadian documents have not survived for us to analyze them, the Sumerian documents demonstrate the myths, beliefs, and literary styles of the Akkadian scribes.

Parallelism – Chiastic Shape

The dominant literary technique of the surviving Sumerian literature is that of parallelism, often taking chiastic shape.

  1. King am I, warrior from the womb am I
  2. Shulgi am I, mighty male from birth am I
  3. Lion of fierce eye, born to be a dragon am I
  4. King of the four corners of the universe am I

Multiple techniques are taking place, many of them hard to translate into English.  Here are the primary parallels in this chiasm:

  • 1 &2 contain “am I” after the first word, and both emphasize on his might from his birth.
  • 3 & 4 do not contain “am I’ after the first word, and both emphasize his destiny to rule the universe (a dragon is one who rules the universe – the universe came from a dragon according to The Exaltation of Marduk).
  • 1& 4 both mention the kingship of Shulgi, and pair his warrior’s might with his ruler-ship of the universe – he is king of the universe because he is mighty!
  • 2 & 3 are the highlight of the entire text, honoring Shulgi as mighty from the womb and having the eye of the fierce lion (the eye of the tiger is the king of the fight!), consequently he was born to be a dragon.

What we see here are multiple layers of parallels.  This type of parallelism is called a chiasm.  Most parallels merely parallel two concepts without such fancy layering.

Key Concept: The Biblical authors consistently use many forms of parallelisms and chiastic structures, often overlapping each other, with the intention for the reader to sit and ponder them and receive thus receive the fullness of the meaning that comes from shaping the text this way.  This allows for many ideas to be communicated in a short text, rather than writing huge chunks of text – very important in an age where things were written on heavy large slabs of clay.

Hidden Messages

The Sumerians enjoyed encoding hidden messages into their texts by merely mentioning the name of a character.  A character would appear suddenly in a text and then not be spoken of again, but the appearance of such a character was loaded with meaning – all of the understanding and concepts that that character embodied were to be remembered and applied to the text when that character was mentioned.  The same was true for more than just names.

Key Concept: Biblical authors often use key word pairs (“steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are an example) and expect the reader to carry along a freight train of meaning along with these words – where they were first used, and what meaning they have picked up along the way.

Typology

Found more commonly in divination texts, the expectation was that the activities of the gods in the past could be extrapolated into the future – the gods would act in similar ways.  Furthermore, they explained their current events in the language of previous events.  The fall of the Akkadian kingdom was explained as a flood (of Gutians) who were bringing the world back to chaotic state (pre-creation state).

Key Concepts: The NT relies heavily on Typology to argue for Jesus being the Messiah.  The prophets also used creation language to speak of un-creation to speak of Yahweh’s coming judgment (Jer 4:23-26).

Numbers

A common theme throughout most ANE literature is that numbers have symbolic representation.  Four is a number of perfection, where the perfect god is viewed as having 4 of every body part.  7 is viewed as wholeness or completion, where the flood lasted 7 days, the fullness of resting takes 7 days, the fullness of healing takes 7 balms, etc.  Furthermore, a huge number of things could be summed up in the number 7 – one could say that hundreds of days of travel took place in seven days, and the audience would understand that this number is figurative and represents the idea of a full trip having reached completion.

Key Concepts: The Bible makes much use of numbers as representations of concepts.  3, rather than 4, represents perfection.  7 represents wholeness and completion, much like in other ANE literature: 7 ointments for healing; the flood lasted 7 days; there were 7 sages that taught all of wisdom; there were 7 demons that caused evil in the world, etc.  The fullness of a thing is always 7.

Explicit Text References

While the usual assumption was that the reader should know all of the text written to date, and knowing anything less meant one was unworthy of understanding what was being said, some authors were kind enough to explicitly refer to other texts.  This was done by quoting all or part of a line (usually the first line) from the text that is being referred to – if one still failed to understand the reference then quite obviously they needed to spend more years in a scribal school copying out texts.

 Key Concepts: In ANE thinking the scribes were to have sufficient knowledge of the texts written to date, and so references could be made by merely quoting even small portions of other texts.  This is seen in the prophets who make reference to previous documents without naming the book or author they are getting the quotes from, as well as in the New Testament where many quotes and allusions do not contain reference information.

Repetition

Large texts are often repeated numerous times in order to emphasize a particular point.  For example, in Enuma Elish the report of Tiamat’s fierce army is given three times: once when Ea tells Anshar (II:11-48), again when Anshar tells his vizier about the report he is to deliver (III:15-52) and once again as the vizier delivers the message to the high council (III:73-110).   These are large blocks of text spanning 37 lines each.  The repetition, in the context of Enuma Elish, illustrates how great and devastating is the enemy army is, and thus how great Marduk is for defeating it.

Much more could be said about the writing styles and methods used, but the majority of the most important concepts have been briefly covered.  When we turn to the actual text, we will then see how Moses utilizes all of these (history/ideology/writing style), expecting his audience to know many of the concepts and parts of history without spelling it out, to communicate God’s glorious truths.  Most importantly, we’ll see how this approach stands as proof of the validity of conservative positions, rather than supporting false liberal Documentary Hypothesis claims.


Bibliography:

Biblioteca Pleyades. “Mesopotamian Gods.” http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sitchin/mesopotamian_gods.htm  (accessed June 21, 2013).

Brisco, Thomas V. Holman Bible Atlas. Nashville: Holman Reference, 1998.

Bottero, Jean.  “Akkadian Literature: An Overview.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 2293-2304. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Charpin, Dominique.  “The History of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Overview.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 807-829. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Christopher J. Eyre.  “The Agricultural Cycle, Farming and Water Management in the Ancient Near East.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 175-189. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Curtis, Adrian, ed.  Oxford Bible Atlas.  3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 2007.

Franke, Sabina.  “Kings of Akkad: Sargon and Naram-Sin.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 831-843. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques.  “The Use of Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 1815-1823. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Hoffner, H. A. “Amorites.” In The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merril C. Tenney, I: 140-143.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1976.

King, L. W.  Enuma Elish: The Seven Tablets of Creation.  Escondido: The Book Tree, 1999.

Lambert, W. G.  “Myth and Mythmaking in Sumer and Akkad.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 1825-1835. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Michalowski, Piotr.  “Sumerian Literature: An Overview.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 2279-2291. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Merrill, Eugene H. Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel. 2nd. ed.1987.  Reprint. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.

Pearce, Laurie.  “The Scribes and Scholars of Ancient Mesopotamia.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 2265-2278. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Postgate, J. N.  “Royal Ideology and State Administration in Sumer and Akkad.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 395-411. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Roux, Georges.  Ancient Iraq.  2nd Ed. 1980.   Reprint.  Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983.

Wiggerman, F. A. M.  “Theologies, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Mesopotamia.”  In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 1857-1870.  New York: Scribner, 1995.

World Weather and Climate Information. Acessed: June 18, 2013.  http://www.weather-and-climate.com/average-monthly-Rainfall-Temperature-Sunshine-in-Iraq

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About salutations75

Born and raised Atheist turned Reformed Baptist.
This entry was posted in Ancient Near East, Genesis, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Genesis Bible Study: Abraham’s Homeland – Mesopotamia

  1. wamae says:

    I found very enlightened cause they things not taught in church today
    rgds. wamae

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