The Old Testament Myth Or Truth Essay

, Research Paper

The Old Testament is a compilation, and like every compilation it has a wide variety of contributors who have their individual influence upon the final work. Today, thanks to the rediscovery of (ancient) literature, it is possible to recognize that the Old Testament is in fact saturated with the popular lore of the Ancient Near East 1 I will enumerate the influences these cultures had on what we now know as the Old Testament.

Each culture that existed before and during the writing of the Old Testament lent their own specific myths and some myths that were common to all cultures such as the creation of the Earth. We see in the Bible that each of these cultures has given to it a myth of their own, whether the writers of the Bible use them as references or the basis to some of their tales is unknown; but one can see the parallels from the very beginning. First, one has to understand the people of the era of which we are talking about.

To get a clear picture of the way the Book of Genesis may have been formed, we must place it somewhere in time, and then define the cultures of that time. The influences must be explained, and then we may draw our conclusions. If we trace back to the first appearance of the Bible in written form, in its earliest translation, we arrive at approximately 450 B.C. Two texts, components of the Pentateuch referred to as AJ@ and @E@ texts, can be traced to around 650 B.C. The AJ@ texts refer to Yahweh texts, characterized by the use of the word AYahweh@ or ALord@ in accounts; the AE@ texts refer to Elohist texts, which use @Elohim@, in its references to God. But 650 B.C. isn’t our oldest reference to the AJ@ and AE@ texts; they can be traced, along with the other three strands of the Pentateuch, to at least 1000 B.C. However, our first compilation of these strands existed in 650 B.C. Here, with the AJ@ and AE@ texts, is where one can start to piece together the different coinciding stories of the Bible.

We have evidence of an Israelite tribe, the Benjamites, in Babylonian texts. The Benjamites were nomads on the frontier of its boundaries, and certainly came in contact with Babylonian ideas: culture, religion, and ethics. The early tribes of Israel were nomadic, taking with them the early traditions, according to external influences. The message remained constant, but the context would subtly change. In addition to the Benjamites in Mesopotamia, there were tribes of Israel in Egypt during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period, which certainly exposed these people to Egyptian culture as well as Babylonian culture as a result of trade between the two kingdoms.

We can begin to understand the relationships with the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. We can deduce when he lived, and find that he lived around 1900 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia. If we take a look at his world and its culture, we may find the reasons behind certain references in Genesis, and the mythologies they resemble. The First Babylonian Dynasty had begun around 1950 B.C. and would last well into the late 16th century B.C. The Babylonians had just conquered a land previously under the control of the Assyrians, and before that, the Sumerians. Abraham had lived during a time of great prosperity and a remarkably advanced culture. He was initially believed to have come from the city of Ur, as given in the Bible as “…the Ur of Chaldees”. Earlier translations read, however, simply “…Land of the Chaldees”; later, it was deduced that Abraham had come from a city called Haran. AThe book of Genesis tells how Abraham…going up the Euphrates as far as Haran…@2 In any case, he lived in a thriving and prosperous world. Homes were comfortable, even luxurious. Copies of hymns were found next to mathematical tablets detailing formulae for extracting square and cube roots. The level of sophistication four thousand years ago is remarkable. There is Aa well known sculpture…showing two arms raised in prayer…@3 Through this and other pieces of artwork, one can deduce that it was a relatively stable and peaceful society; its art is characterized by the absence of any warlike activity.

Having placed Abraham and certain early Semites in this time, one can now examine the culture they would have known. In addition to Babylonian influence, look at the following taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which can be traced back to 3000 B.C.: “I am Re.. I am the great god who came into being by himself…”4 Compare that to the familiar “I am who I am.” The similarities between the two are of secondary importance, however; through this we now begin to see the deviations between the Old Testament and other earlier texts.

It is no surprise, then, that there exists certain parallels between the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian view of the creation of the world, and the Book of Genesis, the first part of the Pentateuch section of the Bible. In fact, arguments may be made that other Near Eastern texts, particularly Sumerian, have had their influences upon Biblical texts. The extent of this ‘borrowing’, as it were, is not limited to the Bible; the Enuma Elish has its own roots in Sumerian mythology, predating it by nearly a thousand years. This epic of creation starts out Athat in the beginning, when there was neither heaven nor earth…@5 Notice that this is the same opening used in Genesis. This is where the similarities between the two texts begin.

The Babylonian Dynasty had as one of its first leaders a man known as Hammurabi. In addition to being the world’s first known lawgiver, he installed a national god for his people named Marduk, Awho became the chief of the gods, and took over the attributes which…belonged to the old Sumerian divinities.@6 Marduk’s story is related in the Enuma Elish: It begins with two primordial creatures, Apsu and Tiamat. They have children, who are gods. These children became too noisy and disruptive to Apsu, who wished to kill them. One of these gods, Ea, kills Apsu first. Tiamat becomes enraged, and increasingly threatening towards Ea and the remaining gods for killing her mate. One by one, the gods seek to quiet Tiamat, but each fails. However, one god, Marduk, agrees to stop Tiamat, but only if he is granted sole dominion over all other gods. They agree, and Marduk battles Tiamat, killing her and creating the world from her corpse. In addition, Marduk slays one of the gods who allied himself with Tiamat, and from this dead god’s blood, Marduk creates man.

A quick examination of this evidence would falsely lead one to believe that the Bible is somewhat a collection of older mythology re-written specifically for the Semites. In fact, what develops is that the authors of the Bible have addressed each myth as a separate issue, and what the writers say is that their God surpasses every other.

To the Hebrews, like other ancient peoples, creation wasn t a physical or philosophical idea; to them it meant to give form to something previously without. On the surface, the Enuma Elish looks and sounds nothing like Genesis. However, we can begin to draw our parallels as we go into more detail. Notice the similarity in the next two passages: “Half of her he set in place and formed the sky… as a roof. He fixed the crossbar… posted guards; He commanded them not to let her waters escape” and from Genesis (1:3, 7:11) “Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome… to separate one body of water from the other.” “All the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and the floodgates of the sky were opened…” These two quotations from the Enuma Elish and the Bible respectively, connote the same idea: how the Earth and Heaven were formed. Also compare the creation of days and the special significance conferred upon the seventh day: “Thou shalt shine with horns to make six known days, on the seventh with… a tiara.” From Genesis (1:31-2:1): “Evening came and morning followed- the sixth day…So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work he had done in creation.”

We can summarize the similarities like so: each created the heavens, dry land, the celestial bodies, and light; and each makes man the crowning achievement. On the seventh day, God rests and sanctifies the day. In the seventh tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods rest and celebrate. These similarities strongly suggest a common knowledge of the Enuma Elish among writers of the Book of Genesis.

Besides creation myths, there are other parallels such as the flood story. In 1872, George Smith, who happened to be studying tablets found in the now destroyed Library of Alexandria, found an epic story strikingly similar to the flood story of Noah found in the Bible; this was the Epic of Gilgamesh. AOne of these fragments told about a boat…a flood…and a bird seeking dry land,@7 Most critics recognized that here was the earliest version of Noah, and thus doubting the originality of Scripture once again.

In the Biblical story of Noah, Noah built an ark, survived a great flood, and sent a bird out to seek dry land; almost exactly what is written in Gilgamesh. The older versions, of which only a little is known, tell, for the most part, the same story with minor changes due to culture.

The Egyptian story of the flood is found in The Book of the Dead. The God Atum announces his intention of flooding wicked mankind the flood submerges the entire country. The only survivors are certain persons who have been rescued by Temu. 8 Once again, this story is extraordinarily similar to that of the Biblical and Mesopotamian versions.

Each myth or text that has a counterpart in the Bible only serves to further an important idea among the Hebrews: there is but one God, and He is omnipotent and omniscient; He is not of this world, but above and beyond it, apart from it. The idea of a monotheistic religion is first revealed in recorded history with Judaism, and it is vital to see that instead of being an example of plagiarism, the Book of Genesis is a carefully composed document that will set apart the Hebrew God from the others before, and after.

Not only is there just one Hebrew god, but he is all-powerful. A…during the exile…the disappearance of the nation…allowed Hebrew thought to realize…that Yahweh is the one and only God of the universe and of all mankind.@9 So much so that he does not find it necessary to wrestle with nature or defeat mighty primordial gods. He simply speaks and it is done. It is our first occurrence of divine will imposed upon the world. Furthermore, it is a god without a predecessor, without creation. He is something apart from this world. Tiamat and Apsu lived in a world already created; Yahweh, the original Hebrew God, did not.

For example, if Marduk is all-powerful, as the Hebrew claim their God is, why does he do battle with Tiamat, when a word would suffice? For example from Genesis 1:3: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.@ And from Genesis 1:6: “Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.’ And so it happened…”. God’s word alone is sufficient to render any change upon the world that He wishes. This is a radical innovation in a world where religion more closely resembles a super-powered family that doesn’t get along very well.

Other ideas borrowed from earlier times hinge on the description of the deity. The Hebrew God, while resembling many previous gods, seems to outdo all predecessors. The Egyptian god Re may have been self-created, but he is by no means all-powerful, and not at all the only of his kind. Marduk is a warrior who can defeat primordial serpents, but the Hebrew god has but to speak as can be seen in Psalms 33:9: “…and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast.” The word of God is all-powerful. And here we begin to see our greatest departures. We have a monotheistic religion, the first of its kind, created amidst a culture that, in the case of the Babylonians, has up to fifty gods.

There would be no point in arguing that the Old Testament was influenced by the contemporary cultures of its writers; the facts clearly point to countless external sources of inspiration. But while we can acknowledge these similarities, we must also acknowledge that the authors of the Book of Genesis are making a radical departure from the normal views: they have created the first monotheistic religion, and their god is all-powerful, beyond the grasp of human comprehension, or any of the gods before Him.

Typically, gods are represented as something akin to humans on a grander scale; the Hebrew god is simply not measured or scaled; He is an unknown quantity, set apart from the bounds of human knowledge. to the writers of the Old Testament there were no two entities arbitrarily identified with each other. The Absolute, the Principle of Nature and so forth were beings, not ideas 10 By interpreting God as a being, instead of an idea, the Hebrews could relate to his ideas and conceptions more readily. These similarities serve a function as a contrast to the differences between these religions.

It would seem that the writers acknowledged these other earlier religions, in fact, a great many minor vestiges from Canaanite religion among the Hebrews. The names of many pagan gods and goddesses continued to be used in Hebrew, for religious and non-religious purposes, just as in English. 11 The authors of the Bible made sure to address each one by creating a god that surpasses all others. The God that creates himself is one of many; the Hebrew god stands alone in his might. The god that created the world defeated another god, and formed the earth from the corpse; in Genesis, God speaks and his words transform into actions. God exists before the matter He shapes to His will.

The writers have then, in fact, minimized the actions of all other gods in comparison to one all-powerful deity such as this. By drawing comparisons to other texts, the message can be lost in attempting to find the roots of certain ideas. But the origins of the stories are not nearly as important as the overall message being stated, and while the ideas they resemble may be old, the message is clear and unique: there is but one true God, and He is beyond all that is and ever will be. His will alone suffices, and He predates even time itself. And that message has changed the world.

Thus one can see the comparisons of the Old Testament and earlier forms of religious literature. Themes and ideas borrowed from earlier religions and religions of the same period only served to reinforce the idea of the Hebrew God being supreme. Moreover, one can see the influence of Babylonian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian mythology inherent in the Old Testament. This light from extrabiblical texts has

sharpened considerably the understanding of the content of the Bible itself. 12


Albright, William. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. Doubleday, 1968.

Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Harvard University Press, 1973.

Gaster, Theodor H. Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper and Row Publishers, 1969.

Guttmann, Julius. Philosophies of Judaism. Schocken Books, 1973.

Introduction. The Epic of Gilgamesh. By Robert D. Biggs. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1992.

King, L.W. A History of Sumer and Akkad. Greenwood Press, 1968.

Moorey, P.R.S. Biblical Lands. Elsevier-Phaidon, 1975.

Moscati, Sabatino. Ancient Semitic Civilizations. Putnam, 1958.

Patai, Raphael. The Myth of the Jewish Race. Scribner, 1975.

Pritchard, James Bennett. Ancient Near Eastern Texts. W.F. Albright, 1969.

Ringgren, Helmer. Religions of the Ancient Near East. Westminster Press, 1973.

Roberts, J.J.M. The Earliest Semitic Pantheon. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Understanding the Sacred Text. Judson Press, 1972.

Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. Yale University


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