Oldtest(A) Essay, Research Paper
The Old TestamentThe Old Testament is a compilation, and like every compilation it has awide variety of contributors who, in turn, have their individualinfluence upon the final work. It is no surprise, then, that there existcertain parallels between the Enuma Elish, the cosmogony of theBabylonians, and the Book of Genesis, the first part of the Pentateuchsection of the Bible. In fact, arguments may be made that other NearEastern texts, particularly Sumerian, have had their influences inBiblical texts. The extent of this ‘borrowing’, as it were, is notlimited to the Bible; the Enuma Elish has its own roots in Sumerianmythology, predating the Enuma Elish by nearly a thousand years. Asuperficial examination of this evidence would erroneously lead one tobelieve that the Bible is somewhat a collection of older mythologyre-written specifically for the Semites. In fact, what develops is thatthe writers have addressed each myth as a separate issue, and what thewriters say is that their God surpasses every other. Each myth or textthat has a counterpart in the Bible only serves to further an importantidea among the Hebrews: there is but one God, and He is omnipotent,omniscient, and other-worldly; He is not of this world, but outside it,apart from it. The idea of a monotheistic religion is first evinced inrecorded history with Judaism, and it is vital to see that instead ofbeing an example of plagiarism, the Book of Genesis is a meticulouslycomposed document that will set apart the Hebrew God from the othersbefore, and after. To get a clear picture of the way the Book of Genesis may have beenformed (because we can only guess with some degree of certainty), we mustplace in somewhere in time, and then define the cultures in that time. The influences, possible and probable, must be illustrated, and then wemay draw our conclusions.If we trace back to the first appearance of the Bible in written form, inits earliest translation, we arrive at 444 B.C.. Two texts, components ofthe Pentateuch referred to as ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts, can be traced to around650 B.C. Note that ‘J’ refers to Yahweh (YHVH) texts, characterized bythe use of the word ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Lord’ in accounts; ‘E’ refers to Elohisttexts, which use, naturally, ‘Elohim’ in its references to God.1 But 650B.C. isn’t our oldest reference to the ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts; they can betraced, along with the other three strands of the Pentateuch, to at least1000 B.C. Our first compilation of these strands existed in 650 B.C.. Wemust therefore begin our search further back in time.We can begin with the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. We can deducewhen he lived, and find that he lived around 1900 B.C. in ancientMesopotamia2. If we examine his world and its culture, we may find thereasons behind certain references in Genesis, and the mythologies theyresemble.The First Babylonian Dynasty had begun around 1950 B.C. and would lastwell into the late 16th century B.C.. The Babylonians had just conquereda land previously under the control of the Assyrians, and before that,the Summering. Abraham had lived during a time of great prosperity and aremarkably advanced culture. He was initially believed to have come fromthe city of Ur, as given in the Bible as “…the Ur of Chaldees”. Earliertranslations read, however, simply “…Land of the Chaldees”; later, itwas deduced that Abraham had come from a city called Haran3. In any case,he lived in a thriving and prosperous world. Homes were comfortable, evenluxurious. Copies of hymns were found next to mathematical tabletsdetailing formulae for extracting square and cube roots.4 The level ofsophistication 4000 years ago is remarkable. We can also deduce that itwas a relatively stable and peaceful society; its art is characterized bythe absence of any warlike activity, paintings or sculptures.5We also have evidence of an Israelite tribe, the Benjamites, inBabylonian texts. The Benjamites were nomads on the frontier of itsboundaries, and certainly came in contact with Babylonian ideas- culture,religion, ethics. The early tribes of Israel were nomadic, “taking withthem the early traditions, and in varying latitudes have modified it”6according to external influences. The message remained constant, but thecontext would subtly change. In addition to the Benjamites inMesopotamia, there were tribes of Israel in Egypt during the EgyptianMiddle Kingdom period7, which certainly exposed these people to Egyptianculture as well as Babylonian culture as a result of trade between thetwo kingdoms. Having placed Abraham and certain early Semites in thistime, we can now examine the culture they would have known.The Babylonian Dynasty had as one of its first leaders a man known asHammurabi. In addition to being the world’s first known lawgiver, heinstalled a national god for his people named Marduk 8. Marduk’s story isrelated in the Enuma Elish:It begins with two primordial creatures, Apsu and Tiamat. They havechildren, who are gods. These children became too noisy and disruptive toApsu, who wished to kill them. One of these gods, Ea, kills Apsu first. Tiamat becomes enraged, and increasingly threatening towards Ea and theremaining gods for killing her mate. One by one, the gods seek to quietTiamat, 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 hercorpse. In addition, Marduk slays one of the gods who allied himself withTiamat, and from this dead god’s blood, Marduk creates man. 9On the surface, it looks and sounds nothing like Genesis. However, we canbegin to draw our parallels as we go into more detail. For example,Babylonian poetry has no rhyme, but it has meter and rhythm, like Hebrew10. 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 watersescape” 11and”Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome… to separate onebody of water from the other.’” Genesis 1:6″All the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and the floodgates ofthe sky were opened…” Genesis 7:11 Also compare the creation of daysand the special significance conferred upon the seventh:”Thou shalt shine with horns to make six known days, onthe seventh with… a tiara.” 12From 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 restedfrom all the work he had done in creation.”We can summarize the similarities like so: each created the firmament,dry land, the celestial bodies, and light. Each makes man the crowningachievement. On the seventh day, God rests and sanctifies the day. In theseventh tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods rest and celebrate. Thesesimilarities strongly suggest a common knowledge of the Enuma Elish amongwriters of the Book of Genesis (each section of Genesis is composed offour different sets of writers). In addition to Babylonian influence,look at the following taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which canbe traced back to 3000 B.C.:”I am Re.. I am the great god who came into being by himself…”13Compare that to the familiar “I am who am.” These similarities are ofsecondary importance, however; we now begin to see the departures. Forone, if Marduk is all-powerful, why does he do battle with Tiamat, when aword would suffice? For example:”Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of thewaters, to separate one body of water from the other.’ And so ithappened…” Genesis 1:3, 1:6God’s word alone is sufficient to render unto the world any change Hewishes. This is a radical innovation in a world where pantheisticreligion more closely resembles a super-powered family that doesn’t getalong very well. The Egyptian god Re may have been self-created, but heis by no means all-powerful, and not at all the only of his kind. Mardukis a warrior who can defeat primordial serpents, but the Hebrew god hasbut to speak:”…and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Psalms, 33:9The word of God is all-powerful.. And here we begin to see our greatestdepartures. We have a monotheistic religion, the first of its kind,created amidst a culture that, in the case of the Babylonians, has up tofifty gods!14 Not only is there but one god, but he is all-powerful, somuch so that he does not find it necessary to wrestle with nature ordefeat mighty primordial gods. He simply speaks and it is done. It is ourfirst occurrence of divine will impose upon the world. Furthermore, it isa god without a precursor, without creation. He is something apart fromthis world. Tiamat and Apsu lived in a world already created (and bywhom?); the Egyptian gods have a multitude of births of gods in theirtexts15.In fact, there was once a debate on the translation of a single verb inthe Bible, “bara”, meaning “to create”. Later translations modify this to”bero”, meaning”to create from nothing”. When written in Hebrew, only careful scrutinywould distinguish the two. The distinction is important, however, becauseit changes the implications involved in creating. Does God create theworld from something or nothing? In the following passage,”When God began to create heaven and earth- the earth being adesolate waste, with darkness upon the abyss and the spirit ofGod hovering over the waters- God said, ‘Let there be light!’ Andthere was light.”it is inferred that God is creating with something. The next translation,”When God began to create the heaven and earth, the earth was adesolate waste and darkness was upon the abyss and the spirit ofGod was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light!’And there was light…”implies that God began by creating a desolate waste, then creating light,then shaping the waste, and so forth. All this as a function of oneverb16. As another departure, examination of creation stories bySummering and Babylonians show that they begin with subordinate clausessuch as “when” or “On the day of.”17 Genesis clearly diverges from this:”In the beginning” clearly sets apart the text from any other, making itthe actual start of all time and space as we know it. It also puts theHebrew god outside of time and space.There would be no point in arguing that the Old Testament was influencedby the contemporary cultures of its writers; the facts clearly point toinnumerable external sources of inspiration. But while we can acknowledgethese similarities, we must also acknowledge that the writers of the Bookof Genesis are making a radical departure from the norm: they havecreated a monotheistic religion, and their god is all-powerful, beyondthe scope of human comprehension. Typically, gods are represented assomething akin to humans on a grander scale; the Hebrew god is simply notmeasured or scaled; He is an unknown quantity, set apart from the boundsof human knowledge. These similarities serve a function as a contrast tothe differences between these religions. It would seem that the writersacknowledged these other religions, and addressed each one by creating agod that surpasses all others. The god that creates himself is one ofmany; the Hebrew god stands alone in his might. The god that created theworld defeated another god, and formed the earth from the corpse; inGenesis, God speaks and his words transform into actions. God existsbefore 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-powerfuldeity such as this. By drawing comparisons to other texts, the messagecan be lost in attempting to find the roots of certain ideas. But theorigins of the stories are not nearly as important as the overall messagebeing stated, and while the ideas they resemble may be old, the messageis clear and unique: there is but one, and He is beyond all that is. Hiswill alone suffices, and He predates even time itself. And that messagehas changed the world.