Chapter 2: THE NEAR EAST

 Abrahamica: Chapter Two

Consulting the map might suggest that ancient Israel was the very pivot of the ancient Near East. Yet the centrality is strictly geographical, for in reality the little land of the Israelites, confined to the uplands of Palestine, was little more than the plaything of the major powers that surrounded it.

Sometimes these powers occupied Palestine. During other periods they satisfied themselves with exacting tribute and deference. But these powerful neighbors never subscribed to the grandiose claims of Yahwism. Acknowledgment of uch claims was restricted to the modest tribal context that gave them rise.


The ancient Near East is a broad concept embracing a number of early civilizations that flourished within a region roughly corresponding to the modern Middle East. The major components were Mesopotamia (corresponding to modern Iraq and northeast Syria), Egypt, Iran (with Elam, Media, and Persia), Armenia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Levant (most of modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), and the large offshore island of Cyprus. For some periods and concepts, the scope of this geocultural concept extended to the Aegean and continental Greece.

Two regions accomplished the leap forward that gave this region epochal significance--Sumer (in lower Mesopotamia) in the fourth millennium BCE; and Egypt, which followed almost immediately after (some say simultaneously) in the Nile Valley. These two regions share joint honors as the cradle of Western civilization. Building on earlier advances in agriculture during the neolithic period, Mesopotamia and Egypt created advanced urban societies controlled by bureaucracies and centralized governments. They gave the ancient world its first writing systems; invented the potter’s wheel, and then the vehicular wheel and the mill wheel; created the first legal systems and empires; and introduced social stratification (class differentiation), slavery, and organized warfare.

Both of these foundational civilizations made major contributions to the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Well-wrought poems of all sorts, from hymns and epics to practical ditties and secular love songs, were carefully recorded in writing.

Finally, Mesopotamia and Egypt generated complex religious systems and imposing pantheons of gods, both of which had a huge, though often unacknowledged influence over ancient Israel.

At their best, these two great traditions--embodied in the empires of Babylon and Assyria in Mesopotamia, and Egypt of the pharaohs--served as the kindly godparents hovering over ancient Israel. Sometimes, though, they behaved more like evil stepmothers.

In keeping with the normal human propensity for complaint, emphasis on the aggressive, repressive role of such overlords is the rule in the Hebrew Bible. Yet there is plenty of evidence for positive contributions as well. In fact, these were indispensable. Ancient Israel could not have become what it did without these massive infusions of cultural lend-lease.


From the large store of Near Eastern creativity in the sphere of religion and mythology it suffices to note a few telling examples.


The story of the Flood ranks as a major contribution from Mesopotamia. The earliest extant flood legend appears in the fragmentary Sumerian Eridu Genesis, recorded on a cuneiform tablet from Nippur datable by its script to the eighteenth or seventeenth century BCE. The German scholar Arno Poebel deciphered and published the tablet in 1914; it has figured prominently in religious studies ever since. Two later Akkadian versions, Atrahasis and the Gilgamesh epic, supply some missing details.

Here is the gist.  The gods An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursanga create the Sumerians (the "black-headed people") and the animals. Then kingship descends from heaven and the first cities appear: Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, and Shuruppak.

After a gap in the record, the story resumes, indicating that the gods have decided to send a flood to destroy humankind. King Ziudsura learns of this impending disaster, ordering the construction of an ark. Then there is another gap. When the tablet’s narrative starts up again it is describing the flood. A terrible storm rocks the huge boat for seven days and seven nights; then Utu (the Sun god) appears and Ziudsura creates an opening in the boat, prostrates himself, and sacrifices oxen and sheep.

After yet another break the text starts up again. With the flood apparently over, the animals disembark and Ziudsura prostrates himself before An (the sky god) and Enlil (chief of the gods), who give him eternal life, taking him to dwell in the fabled land of Dilmun as a reward for "preserving the animals and the seed of mankind.”

There are a number of Mesopotamian successor texts, notably a section towards the end of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh where the hero is a man named Utnapishtim.

All the stories share a number of general features, which constitute the deep structure of the myth. Deities (or a deity) create the animals and human beings, but people anger the god(s), so they decide to destroy most of the people and animals with a flood. A divine being warns one pious person of the impending flood and tells him to build a big boat, and with it he preserves humankind, and usually the animals, from extinction. In the end the god(s) reward him for his actions.

The similarities with the well-known story in Genesis 6-9 are startling. Among them are the following motifs. In both the Genesis and Mesopotamian stories, mankind had become obnoxious to the god(s): in the Bible they were hopelessly sinful and wicked, in the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy. As a result the god(s) decided to send a worldwide flood. This disaster would drown men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds. The god(s) knew of one righteous man, Ziudsura/Utnapishtim or Noah. The god(s) ordered the hero to build a multistory wooden ark, which would be sealed with pitch. The ark would have with many internal compartments, and a single door. It would have at least one window. The ark was duly built and loaded with the hero, a few other human beings, and samples from all species of other land animals.

Then a great rain covered the land with water. The ark landed on a mountain in the Near East. The hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land had emerged. The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return. The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice. The god(s) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice, and the hero was blessed.

The Mesopotamian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the havoc that they had inflicted. The god of Noah appears to have regretted his destructive actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.

Concedely, the two stories exhibit a number of differences, though many of them are trivial. For example Noah’s ark was three stories high, while the Babylonian one had six stories. Noah's ark landed on Mount Ararat; Utnapishtim's at on Mount Nisir; these locations are both in the Middle East. Noah released a raven once and a dove twice; Utnapishtim sent out three birds: a dove, swallow, and raven. In Genesis the rains from above persisted for forty days and nights; in the Babylonian account the inundation lasted only six days.

Some believers have sought to make much of such differences, most of which are, however, the result of an understandable process of migration of the myth from one culture to another.

The monotheism of the biblical account has been emphasized. However, recent research in early Israelite religion shows that originally Yahweh functioned as the president of a council of the gods. In other words the society was effectively polytheistic. Accordingly, this difference is minimal.

Chronologically, the Mesopotamian accounts are earlier. Moreover, the story makes sense in the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, where floods are common. It is much less suited to the highlands of Palestine.

The evidence overwhelmingly points to the conclusion that the biblical story of the Flood was purloined from the mythological storehouse of the more highly developed Mesopotamian civilizations. To put the matter candidly, it ranks as a plagiarism. Comparative studies of this kind, the inevitable result of the advancing frontiers of scholarship, have severely undermined the case for the authority and uniqueness of the Hebrew bible.


Here are a few further parallels, by way of example.

Sargon of Agade, who reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE, forged an empire that annexed Sumeria to the Semitic realm of Akkad. The ensuing centuries confirmed Sargon’s status as a major culture hero of ancient Mesopotamia. With varying degrees of plausibility, many legends surround the birth and upbringing of Sargon. While the identity of his father is not clearly known, his mother was supposed to have been a temple priestess. Giving birth to him in secret and setting him in a basket to float, she abandoned him to the Euphrates river. Akki, a gardener, rescued him from the river and raised him. After working as a gardener for Akki, Sargon rose to the position of cup-bearer to Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish. Such details recall the early life of Moses (Exodus 1:22-4:26), another major culture hero. Moses’ biography was evidently fashioned so as to absorb some of the features of the Sargon legend.

Mesopotamia and the neighboring regions in Asia Minor display a rich tradition of law collections, of which the Laws of Hammurabi (king of Babylon, 1792-1750) is the most famous example. The collections that have come down to us are compilations, varying in legal and literary sophistication. They were recorded by scribes in the schools and the royal centers of ancient Mesopotamia and Asia Minor from the end of the third millennium through the middle of the first millennium BCE. The languages of the texts are Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite. Some of the collections, like the famous Laws of Hammurabi, achieved wide circulation; others, like the Laws about Rented Oxen, were scribal exercises restricted to a local school center. All, however, reflected contemporary legal practice in the scribes' recordings of contracts, administrative documents, and court cases. They also provide historians with evidence of a process of distillation of legal rules from specific cases (Roth, 1997).

Strictly speaking, the collections are not “codes” in the modern sense of marshaling laws systematically according to category, but simply gatherings in which some recurrent themes are evident, but--as far as can be determined--no overall plan. Much the same is true of the ancient Israelite collections, which clearly stem from this same broad legal culture. Accordiing to the conventional terminology, these collections include the so-called Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26). Further discussion, including some nuances, occurs below, in Chapter Three.

Some works of Mesopotamian literature recall the troubled history of its various city states. One example is the “Lament for the Fall of Ur,” which foreshadows the later Israelite lamentations for the fall of Jerusalem. as seen in the books of Lamentations, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms (especially Psalm 137).


An Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum (10183) contains The Tale of Two Brothers, Anubis and Bata. Anubis' wife falsely accused Bata of beating her when she refused his advances, although she was really the one who tried to seduce him (Lichteim, vol. II), 1976, 203-11). This Middle Egyptian story, or something like it, must be the source of the story ascribed to Joseph in Genesis (39). Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph. When Joseph rebuffed her advances, she falsely accused him of rape.

The Egyptians created a genre of wisdom literature in which a sage records advice for younger persons and later generations. An important landmark of the genre is the Instructions of Amenope, composed about 1100 BCE in the New Kingdom. This text continued to enjoy popularity in later centuries. The author advocates a life of devotion to moral conduct and public service, grounded in religious belief. A key passage in the book of Proverbs (22:17- 24:22) was directly purloined from this Egyptian text. More than copying was involved. At 22:20 the biblical writer’s “[h]ave I not written for you thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge” derives its ethos from the Instructions of Amenope (Lichtheim, vol. II, 1976, 146-63).

Consisting of only 117 verses, the Song of Songs is one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible. It is also known as the Song of Solomon, Solomon's Song of Songs, or as Canticles, The protagonists of the Song of Songs are a woman (identified in one verse as "the Shulamite") and a man,; the poem suggests movement from courtship to consummation. For instance, the man proclaims: "As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters." The woman answers: "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." In addition, the Song includes a chorus, the "daughters of Jerusalem."

Since there is no explicitly religious content, interpreters have struggled to reframe the Song as an allegorical representation of the relationship of God and Israel, or for Christians, God and the Church, or Christ and the human soul. Clearly strained, these efforts are now generally disregarded. It is clear that this fascinating book is nothing other than a collection of secular, erotic poetry.

The ascription of the authorship to king Solomon is now generally abandoned also, as incompatible with the type of language used. In reality, the Song of Songs offers a literary refashioning of the everyday post-exilic vernacular. It contains loan words from languages with which Hebrew had contact in post-exilic times, including Persian, Greek, and Aramaic. The book displays numerous items of vocabulary and syntax that are otherwise unknown in biblical Hebrew but are attested from Rabbinic Hebrew. These expressions give the impression of being part of a living language and not the result of an archaic or artificial style.

For some time it has been recognized that the love lyrics of ancient Egypt provide an atmosphere in which this work can best be understood (cf. Pritchard, 467-69). It is not that there is any direct dependence of the Hebrew Bible songs upon the Egyptian lyrics, but there is a similar approach within a common topic—love between the sexes. In the Hebrew work “the song of the dove is heard in our land,” and spring is the time for love (2:12-13); similarly, in the Egyptian poems the voice of a swallow invites the Egyptian maiden to contemplate the beauty of the countryside. Moreover, true love brooks no obstacles: “deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away” (8:7). Neither can the Egyptian lover be put off—even by crocodiles in the stream that separates them—from his beloved (Pritchard, 468). The Egyptian poetry uses the same term, “sister,”to designate the beloved as does the Song of Songs (4:9-10; 4:12; 5:1-2).


In the early years of his reign, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten; ruled ca, 1353-1336) lived at the upper Egyptian capital of Thebes with his consort Nefertiti and his six daughters. He was a religious reformer of towering ambitions. Initially, Amenhotep IV tolerated worship of Egypt's traditional deities, but adjacent to the Temple of Karnak (Amun-Re's great cult center), he erected several temples to the Aten or sun disk--a portent of things to come. Later his successors demolished these buildings, using the the materials as infill for new constructions in the Temple of Karnak. When in turn archaeologists dismantled the later structures, they recovered some 36,000 decorated blocks from the original Aten building. Fortunately, these blocks preserve many elements of the original relief scenes and inscriptions.

Gradually, the relationship between Amenhotep and the powerful priests of Amun-Re deteriorated. In Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the exclusive, monotheistic god of Egypt. With stunning ruthlessness, the pharaoh disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods, diverting the income from the traditional cults to support Aten worship. This step suggests that his religious reform may have worked in tandem with economic motives. In this way he could secure the support of the bureaucracy and the military, where concern was felt about the stranglehold that the old priests seemed to be gaining over the nation.

To symbolize his new allegiance, the king officially changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, or “Servant of the Aten.” Some scholars have detected a kind of latent solarism running through Egyptian religion in the New Kingdom. This theme had become stronger in the reign of the reformer’s father Amenhotep III, the “dazzling son.” Thus Akhenaten’s so-called “heresy” had real roots.

Still, there is no doubting the genuinely revolutionary character of Akhenaten’s new faith, which was, in essence, a “founded” religion, and not one that had simply evolved like all previous belief systems. It was genuinely monotheistic. As such, it proclaimed a dichotomous standard of truth and falsehood, seen as absolutely opposed (Assmann, 2009). As promulgated by Akhenaten, Atenism was both aniconic (permitting no anthropomorphic or animal representations) and iconoclastic (undertaking the destruction of images of rival gods). In all these respects, it forecasts later forms of monotheism.

As seen in the Great Hymn (possibly composed by Akhenaten himself) the new faith presented many appealing aspects. The supremacy of the sun, the source of all life, was thought to foster both human diversity (what we would term multiculturalism) and human solidarity (the sun shines equally on all lands). The Hymn is mirrored in Psalm 104 of the Hebrew Bible. It may be, of course, that both texts ultimately derive from a common fount of Near Eastern wisdom recitations and literature.

As if founding this new religion was not enough, Akhenaten made two other innovations: his new capital at Tell el-Amarna, and his new realistic style (or styles) of art. Soon after his death, however, this whole structure--the religion, the capital, and the art--faced abandonment, as Egypt turned with relief back to its traditional ways.

Because of their common monotheism, many have sought to forge a connection between Akhenaten and the biblical Moses. The most famous of these efforts is that of Sigmund Freud in his late monograph entitled Moses and Monotheism. Jan Assmann has produced a thorough, critical account of these claims (Assmann, 1997). Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest forced to flee Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death. Finally, on the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses was able to establish what had eluded his Egyptian master, a stable and permanent monotheism. Following the example of the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, Freud thought that there was a connection linking Adonai, the Egyptian Aten, and the Syrian Adonis. Yet the argument is groundless as Aten and Adonai are not, in fact, linguistically related.

At all events, current scholarship doubts the historicity of the Exodus and of Moses himself. Assuming that, in some shape or form, the Exodus did take place, it must have occurred hundreds of years after the time of Akhenaten. Moses and Akhenaten could not have been contemporaries. Moreover, abundant display of the Aten disk was central to Akhenaten’s monotheism, while such imagery is absent early Israelite culture. Archaeology has failed to show any significant similarities between the two cults.

Nonetheless, in the wake of Freud’s book the connection assumed a place in popular consciousness. A genre of popular research and speculation, much of it regrettably implausible and amateurish, began to thrive, as can sometimes be witnessed on television today.

Akhenaten died about 1336 BCE, while Israel first appeared in the archaeological record more than two centuries later in the Merneptah stele, dated 1213-1203 BCE. There are other disconnects. Abundant visual imagery of the Aten disk was central to Atenism, while such imagery is lacking in early Israelite culture. All the same, Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of ancient Israel rank as the first two such instances in world culture. Present knowledge suggests that they were in essence two independent inventions, though some folk memory of Akhenaten’s innovation may have lingered in Egypt and its colonies in the Levant.

Some observers have gone so far as to liken Akhenaten's relationship with the Aten to the relationship, in Christian tradition, of Jesus Christ with God the Father (Yahweh). Donald B. Redford has noted that some have viewed Akhenaten as a harbinger of Jesus. "After all, Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god, “thine only son that came forth from thy body” (Redford, 1987). Arthur Weigall perceived him as a failed precursor of Christ and novelist Thomas Mann saw him "as right on the way and yet not the right one for the way.” After surveying the various theories, Redford concluded: “Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a Christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away one by one as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development—one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh’s death.”


Ugarit (Ras Shamra) was an ancient port city on the coast of Syria. Its Canaanite civilization flourished during the period 1450-1200 BCE. A French team under the leadership of Claude Schaeffer began excavations on the site in 1929. The northeast quarter of the site’s walled enclosure was found to hold three notable buildings: the temples of Baal and Dagon, and the library (sometimes referred to as the high priest's house). The remains of these structures have yielded invaluable texts of various kinds.

Apart from royal correspondence with neighboring Bronze Age monarchs, Ugaritic literature includes mythological texts written in narrative verse, letters, legal documents such as land transfers, international treaties, and a number of administrative lists. Fragments of several poetic works have been identified, including the "Legend of Kirtu" and the "Legend of Danil.” The Baal cycle depicts great god’s destruction of Yam (the sea monster), demonstrating the affinity of the Canaanite version of the Chaoskampf (struggle with chaos) with those of Mesopotamia and the Aegean. In this narrative a warrior god rises up as the hero of the new pantheon to defeat chaos and bring order. All these texts are written in a West Semitic language akin to Hebrew.

The recovery of the Ugaritic archives has been of signal importance for biblical scholarship, as these archives permitted for the first time a detailed understanding of Canaanite religious beliefs during the period directly preceding the rise of ancient Israel. These texts show significant parallels to biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form. Ugaritic poetry presents many features that recur in later Hebrew poetry, including parallelisms, as well as specific meters, and rhythms. Tellingly, the discoveries at Ugarit give evidence of a lively pantheon of deities, suggesting that polytheism was the original heritage shared by the Canaanites and the ancient Israelites.

Indisputably, the cult(s) of Baal in the Levant influenced later Israelite beliefs. For example,Yahweh sometimes assumes the Chaoskampf role of Baal in his struggle with the unruly sea. Still It would be incorrect simply to conflate Canaanite religion and that of early Israel. As noted above, the earliest point at which we can pinpoint a people known as Israel in southern Canaan is marked by the Egyptian Merneptah Stele (1213-1203 BCE); it would be at least two hundred years more before this people achieved some sort of monarchic state.

While we know El to have been the chief of the Canaanite pantheon, he receives little attention in the cultic and mythological texts. This reticence is in fact common of Middle to Late Bronze Age mythology, where the high god recedes into the background as new warrior deities advance to center stage. In Ugarit and much of the Levant this warrior deity is Baal, for the Shasu (or Shosu) nomads and the later Israelites it is Yahweh and his consort, and in Mesopotamia it is Marduk. These warrior-god mythologies show remarkable points of contact and are most likely reflections of the same primordial myth.

There are also more modest connections For example, in the Story of Aqhat the human couple Danil and Danatiya are unable to have a son until Baal intervenes to help them. The barren-wife motif finds parallels in Genesis (15:1-4; 16:1-15; 18:9-15; 28:9-5; 25:21; and 30:1-4), Judges (13:2-3); 1 Samuel 1:2-17), and 2 Kings (4:8-17).

Modern scholars came to understand the significance of the Ugaritic texts only gradually. An early pioneer in this regard was Frank Moore Cross, whose 1973 monograph Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic is still in print. In some ways this book has become dated. It assumes, for example, the presence of monolatry (the precursor of monotheism) in Israel as early as the premonarchic period, arguing that later prophetic polemics and reforms were directed against "syncretism." Yet we now know that most of the gods condemned as "foreign" by the prophets and Deuteronomists---Asherah, Astarte, Baal, and the Heavenly Host--were simply West Semitic deities that Israel had inherited from its Canaanite ancestors. Cross's book carefully examines a wide variety of biblical and extrabiblical texts, early and late, flagging many continuities between Israelite and Canaanite beliefs and modes of worship. The two cultures shared poetics, mythical narratives, theophanic language, and many other features. The only real difference being that Israel's public religion was overwhelmingly focused on a single deity--though not, as Cross assumes, completely excluding others, at least until the late monarchy, when the “Yahweh alone” ideology was finally rigorously applied.

Later studies accept the reality of a kind of pan-Levantine religious consensus of the West Semitic peoples, from which ancient Israel gradually, though incompletely separated itself.


The contribution of Persian Zoroastrianism to the mind of ancient Israel is not generally well appreciated. This influence, which was substantial, became significant only after 597, when the Babylonians commenced their deportations of Israelites to the East, to Mesopotamia and adjoining areas of Persia. Since, according to contemporary scholars, the Hebrew Bible was not composed until well after that date, the influx of such material is fully understandable.

Among the Zoroastrian contributions are the following: angelology and demonology, emphasizing the intervention of these intermediate beings in human affairs; the apocalyptic conception of life after death; and such dualistic concepts as the Two Ages and the Two Spirits. Substantial traces of such ideas appear in the late Book of Daniel (probably written ca. 167-164 BCE), an apocalypse infused with Persian motifs (Russell, 1964).

It may be also that the prohibitions of male homosexuality found in Leviticus 18 and 20 also probably stem from Zoroastrian tradition, where similar strictures are found in a moralistic text, the Vendidad (or Videvdat).


The material surveyed in the preceding pages is of the utmost importance, because it goes to the question of the authority of the scriptures honored by both Jews and Christians. To put it bluntly, it makes any attempt to restore that authority on traditional ground very difficult, if not impossible.

Because of the number of languages concerned, and problems arising from the decipherment, editing and interpretation of the texts, even seasoned scholars find it hard to achieve an overall view. Fortunately, there are a number of resources accessible to laypeople who wish to form their own conclusions. For a long time, the field was dominated by a work first published precisely in the middle of the twentieth century. James D. Pritchard, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [ANET], Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, third ed., 1969. Recently this work has been replaced by Eilliam W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., The Context of Scripture [COS], 3 vols., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003 (“Scripture Index,” vol. 3, pp. 335-57). COS is twice as long as ANET, and presents many improved texts edited by leading scholars: it now represents the state of the art.

In a curious irony, both ANET and COS suffer from the limitations of their very intention, laudable though it is in principle. That is the fact that it is centered on a people who only played a secondary role in the international context of the time, the ancient Israelites. It is as if one were to consult a history of modern Europe written with the Czechs as the fulcrum; this would be valuable if one were a Czech person, but an odd perspective for others. In order to restore balance it is best to consult some up-to-date works offering texts from the great civilizations of the Near East in their own right.

In my view, the most useful of the text collections are as follows. For Mesopotamia, see Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robinson, and Gábor Zólnomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, third ed., Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005; and Martha T. Roth, ed., Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, Second ed. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.

For Egypt, still the most scholarly resource remains Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3 vols., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975-80.

There seems to be no comprehensive, readily accessible edition of the West Semitic documents from Ugarit. See, however, Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.


As the preceding sketch has shown, modern scholarship has provided invaluable source material for evaluating the contexts from which the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, emerged. It emulated these foreign texts far more than the average believer is prepared to concede. Before proceeding further with this necessary task of deconstruction, though, it will be useful to outline the conventional approach.

We must take a closer look at the amalgam known as the Hebrew Bible, which Jews often designate as the Tanakh (known to Christians as the Old Testament). As a rule, it is best to use the term Torah with care, because of its ambiguity; “Torah” can refer restrictively to the first five books (the Pentateuch); to the entire Tanakh; and even, in its most inclusive fashion, to the whole body of Jewish writings, including the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the two Talmuds (the latter four being honored as repositories of the so-called Oral Torah).

The Hebrew Bible is not a single book but rather a collection of texts, most of them anonymous or pseudonymous, and most of them the product of more or less extensive editing prior to reaching their modern form. These texts are in many different genres, but three distinct blocks seemingly approximating modern narrative history can be made out, namely the Deuteronomic history; the Chronicler's History, comprising Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah; and, preceding these in the order in which it is now read, the narrative parts of the Pentateuch (or Torah tout court), made up of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. 
The following short summary of the overall narrative presented in the Hebrew Bible will serve as a convenient guide. Modern scholars have increasingly emphasized that, as we now know them, this set of documents offers an imaginative construction, and not history in the strict sense. Instead, it is a story, one of several that could be told. To be sure, traditionalists cling to the pious notion that it is simply history, a view that is no longer tenable. Here is the Cliff’s Notes version, if you will.


God creates the world, In fact, there are two contradictory creation stories. In the first (Genesis 1-2:3) human beings were created after the animals, and the first man and woman were created simultaneously. In the second story (Genesis 2:4-25) the man was created first, then the animals, then the woman from the man's rib. The work of two different authors has simply been collaged together. As we know from many other pieces of evidence, the Pentateuch cannot have been the result of the work of a single author (Moses), but combines the writings of at least four anonymous authors.

The Genesis creation stories show a general affinity with the Egyptian stories of creation by Ptah and Amun, as well as with the Babylonian Enuma Elish which describes the rise of the divine assembly out of a chaos of water and darkness.

Eventually the world becomes corrupted with violence, so that God destroys it in a great flood. As we have seen, the Deluge story was basically plagiarized from Mesopotamian archetypes.

God selects Abraham to inherit the land of Canaan (i.e., Palestine). He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah in a rain of fire and brimstone. The children of Israel (Jacob), Abraham's grandson, go into Egypt, where their descendants are enslaved. The Israelites are led out of Egypt by Moses and receive the laws of God, who renews the promise of the land of Canaan. Modern scholars have established that this whole story of the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus are simply myth. As far as we can determine the Israelites had always lived in Palestine.


Continuing the mythical account, the Israelites conquer the land of Canaan under Joshua, successor to Moses. Under the Judges (in reality, minor chieftains) they live in a state of constant conflict and insecurity, until the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as king over them. Saul proves unworthy, and God chooses David as his successor. Under David the Israelites are united and conquer their enemies, and under Solomon his son they live in peace and prosperity. As yet archeologists have uncovered no conclusive evidence that any of these worthies ever lived.

The kingdom (in reality a minor principality) is divided under Solomon's successors, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The kings of Israel fall away from God and eventually outsiders take the people of the north into captivity in Mesopotamia. Judah, unlike Israel, has some kings who follow God, but others do not, and eventually it too is taken into captivity. Solomon’s Temple is destroyed.

The continuity of this narrative has been established by modern scholars, who ascribe it to a single anonymous author, the Deuteronomist. His work was then taken up by the Chronicler.


Recalling the doubling of the story of creation, Chronicles begins by reprising the history of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic history, with some differences over details. It introduces new material following the account of the fall of Jerusalem, the event that concludes the Deuteronomic history.

The so-called Babylonian captivity lasted for more than fifty years (597-538 BCE). During this eastern sojourn the captive Israelites encountered the venerable dualistic religion of the Persians, Zoroastrianism. Some important ideas, such as the contest of good and evil for control of the world, the role of angels and demons, and possibly the prohibition of male homosexuality, derive from this source. The incorporation of such foreign elements into the Hebrew Bible is one of the reasons for thinking that its composition was essentially postexilic.

As a result of these experiences the Israelites began to speak a new language, Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian empire. Spoken Hebrew became a dead language, not to be revived until over two thousand years later.

In due course, the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple and taken the people into captivity, were themselves defeated by the Persians under king Cyrus (538 BCE). Cyrus encouraged the Israelite exiles to return to Jerusalem, where the Temple was rebuilt, initiating the Second Temple Period. Nonetheless, some Israelites continued to live in Mesopotamia, where their descendants eventually created the Babylonian Talmud (third-seventh century CE).


Several other books of the Hebrew Bible are set in a historical context or otherwise give information which can be regarded as semihistorical, although these books do not present themselves as histories.

The prophets Amos and Hosea tell of events during the eighth-century kingdom of Israel; the prophet Jeremiah writes of events preceding and following the fall of Judah; Ezekiel limns events during and preceding the exile in Babylon. Other prophets similarly touch on various periods, usually those in which they write--or so we are led to believe.

Several books fall outside the accepted canon of the Hebrew Bible, but are still significant. They are sometimes termed deuterocanonical. Among these, Maccabees is a historical narrative that treats of the events of the second century BCE. Others are not historical in orientation but are set in historical contexts or reprise earlier histories, such as Enoch, an apocalyptic work of the second century BCE.

The above account, focusing on narrative, omits poetic and imaginative books, such as the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Proverbs. These of course have their own intrinsic interest--and pose their own textual problems.


Until the eighteenth century, the general belief in Christendom was that the earth was created some 4,000 thousand years before the birth of Christ, and that the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel, Abraham and the Exodus, and all subsequent narrative, were real history. Then the growth of science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--notably geology and the theory of evolution--threw the first few chapters of Genesis into doubt, and by the end of the nineteenth century the view that the first eleven chapters of Genesis represented actual historical events was being widely questioned. The general opinion among non-creationist bible scholars today is that Genesis 1–11, taking in the cycle of stories from the Creation to the "generations of Terah," is a highly stylized literary work that reflects theology rather than history. If this is so, one must ask, up to what point does the mythical and legendary material prevail? To this question the minimalist scholars have given a radical answer: almost to the end.

During the earlier decades of the twentieth century, there was much hope that archaeology, especially of the school of William Albright, would confirm the essential outlines of the history the Hebrew Bible purports to offer. Yet during the second half of the century there came a growing recognition that archaeology did not in fact support the extravagant claims made by Albright and his followers, Today, while a minority of ultra-conservative scholars continue to work within the old framework, the mainstream views Albright's views as problematic, seeing the Pentateuch as a product of the latter half of the first millennium BCE, perhaps even as late as the third or second century.

The scholarly history of the Deuteronomic history parallels that of the Pentateuch: the European school argued that the information provided was untrustworthy and could not be used to construct a narrative history, while the American biblical archaeology school held that it could when tested against the archaeological record. Of crucial importance was the book of Joshua and its account of a rapid, destructive conquest of the Canaanite cities. By the 1960s it had become clear that the archaeological record did not, in fact, support the account of the conquest given in the book of Joshua: the cities which the bible records as having been destroyed by the Israelites were either uninhabited at the time, or, if destroyed, were destroyed at widely different times, not in one brief period.

Thomas L. Thompson, a leading minimalist scholar for example has written:

"There is no evidence of a United Monarchy, no evidence of a capital in Jerusalem or of any coherent, unified political force that dominated western Palestine, let alone an empire of the size the legends describe. We do not have evidence for the existence of kings named Saul, David or Solomon; nor do we have evidence for any temple at Jerusalem in this early period. What we do know of Israel and Judah of the tenth century does not allow us to interpret this lack of evidence as a gap in our knowledge and information about the past, a result merely of the accidental nature of archeology. There is neither room nor context, no artifact or archive that points to such historical realities in Palestine's tenth century. One cannot speak historically of a state without a population. Nor can one speak of a capital without a town. Stories are not enough." (Thompson, xxx)

Proponents of this view also point to the fact that the division of the land into two entities, centered at Jerusalem and Shechem, goes back to the Egyptian rule of Israel in the New Kingdom. Solomon's empire is said to have stretched from the Euphrates in the north to the Red Sea in the south; it would have required a large commitment of men and arms and a high level of organization to conquer, subdue, and govern this area. But there is no conclusive archaeological evidence of Jerusalem being a sufficiently large city in the tenth century BCE, and Judah seems to be sparsely settled in that time period. Since Jerusalem has been destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt approximately fifteen to twenty times since the time when David and Solomon purportedly ruled, some have argued that the evidence could have been erased. Still, one cannot prove a negative.

The conquests of David and Solomon are also not mentioned in the abundant contemporary histories of neighboring peoples. Culturally, the Bronze Age collapse--something that archaeology does attest--points in a very different direction, indicating a period of general cultural impoverishment of the whole Levantine region. This dismal situation makes it difficult to entertain the existence of any large territorial unit such as the Davidic kingdom, whose general features seem to resemble the later kingdom of Hezekiah or Josiah rather than the political and economic conditions of the eleventh century. Moreover the Biblical account makes no claim that the Davidic kings directly governed the areas included in their empires.

Since the discovery of a possibly ninth-century BCE inscription at Tel Dan at the north of Israel, referring to the "house of David" as a monarchic dynasty, some have argued that David was in fact a real historical figure. However, the term “house of David” (assuming that the inscription is translated correctly) could be a merely conventional name; there is no indication that it refers to THE David. This matter is still hotly disputed. With so much uncertainty, many scholars feel compelled to question whether the united monarchy, the vast empire of King Solomon, and the rebellion of Jeroboam ever existed, or whether they are a late fabrication.

Once again there is a problem here with the sources for this period of history. There are no contemporary independent documents other than the claimed accounts of the Books of Samuel, which clearly shows too many anachronisms to have been a contemporary account. For example there is mention of coined money (1 Samuel 13:21), armor of a late type (1 Samuel 17:4–7, 38–39; 25:13), use of camels (1 Samuel 30:17) and cavalry (as distinct from chariotry: 1 Samuel 13:5, 2 Samuel 1:6), iron picks and axes (as though they were common: 2 Samuel 12:31), and sophisticated siege techniques (2 Samuel 20:15). There is a huge army (2 Samuel 17:1), and a battle with 20,000 casualties (2 Samuel 18:7). These last texts refer to Kushite paramilitary units and servants, clearly giving evidence of a date in which Kushites were common, after the twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt, that is, the last quarter of the eighth century BCE.

For the later material the outlook is more promising--at last. It is generally assumed that the biblical account of the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, as presented in the Books of Kings, contains elements of historical truth, even if not uncolored by bias and parti pris. To some extent, chronologies of neighboring countries have corroborated the general picture presented in the bible, although not every detail. For example, the existence of King Ahab is attested in Assyrian texts, where he is mentioned as having participated in the Battle of Karkar. King Omri of Israel is mentioned in the ninth-century Mesha Stele, which is Moabite. The Biblical account says nothing of Mesha's revolt, while Mesha in his turn says nothing of the campaign described in 2 Kings 3. Neither document implies that the events described in the other did not occur; the two are written from two different points of view. Some later kings who paid tribute to Assyria are mentioned in Assyrian records, although these same records claim Jehu was a king of the House of Omri, suggesting that he may have been related in some way to Ahab.

The brief account above is merely an indication of the host of problems that arise from material that blends history with legend and special pleading. Almost invariably, the authors selected the events to be described in accordance with their underlying purposes. This general principle must be bone constantly in mind.

Bearing the necessary caveats in mind, we return to the traditional history. The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pilesar attacked the northern kingdom of Israel, driving the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead out of the desert outposts of Jetur, Naphish and Nodab and conquering their territories. People from these tribes, including the Reubenite leader, were taken captive and resettled in the region of the Habor river system. Tiglath-Pilesar also captured the territory of Naphtali and the city of Janoah in Ephraim, placing an Assyrian governor over the region of Naphtali.

The remainder of the northern kingdom fell to the armies of Sargon II, who captured the capital city Samaria in the territory of Ephraim. Reputedly, he took 27,290 people captive from the city of Samaria resettling some with the Israelites in the Habor region and the rest in the land of the Medes thus establishing Israelite communities in Ecbatana and Rages, far to the east.

In addition, the Book of Tobit notes that Sargon had taken other captives from the northern kingdom to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, in particular Tobit from the town of Thisbe in Naphtali.

In the world of medieval Rabbinic fable, the concept of the ten tribes who were taken away from the House of David (whose descendants continued the rule of the southern kingdom of Judah) became confused with accounts of the Assyrian deportations, leading to the myth of the "Ten Lost Tribes." The recorded history exposes this fabrication: no record exists of the Assyrians having exiled people from Dan, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, or western Manasseh. Descriptions of the deportation of people from Reuben, Gad, Manasseh in Gilead, Ephraim, and Naphtali indicate that only a portion of these tribes were deported, and the places to which they were deported are known locations given in the accounts. The deported communities are mentioned as still existing at the time of the composition of the books of Kings and Chronicles; they did not disappear by assimilation. A passage in 2 Chronicles (30:1-11) explicitly mentions northern Israelites who had been spared by the Assyrians, in particular the people of Dan, Ephraim, Manasseh, Asher, and Zebulun, and how members of the latter three tribes returned to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah.

With the Kingdom of Judah remaining as the sole Israelite kingdom, the term Yehudi (Jew), originally the adjective of the name Yehudah (Judah), came to include all the Israelite people.

In 597 BCE the Babylonian king Nebuchanezzar sacked Jerusalem, reputedly exiled 3,023 Jews to Babylon (Jeremiah 52:28). He also seized many non-Jewish workers, taking a total of around 10,000 people captive (2 Kings 24:14).

In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar overran the southern kingdom, deposed the king, destroyed the Temple, and left Jerusalem in ruins. He took a further 832 Jews captive from Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:29). Although extinguishing the kingdom, he allowed Judah a measure of self rule, appointing Gedaliah as Jewish governor of the region.

The exiles were allowed to return in 538 BCE, after the fall of Babylon to the Persians and Medes. Substantial returns of descendants of exiles took place in 444 BCE under Nehemiah and in c. 400 BCE under Ezra. As a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions most Israelites lost written records tracing their ancestry. Those who could still lay a claim to establish their ancestry included Levites, Aaronite kohanim, Nethinim including Avdei Shlomo and members of clans that had been part of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.


In English the term “Israelites,” which the King James Bible prefers, serves to describe the ancient people reputedly descended from the patriarch Jacob (who was renamed “Israel”; Genesis 32:29). It is an adaptation of the Hebrew Bnei Yisrael (literally "Sons of Israel" or "Children of Israel"). Similarly, the singular "Israelite" reflects the adjective Yisraeli, which in biblical Hebrew refers to a member of the Bnei Yisrael (e.g. Leviticus 24:10). Other terms used to refer to this biblical stock include "House of Jacob," "House of Israel," or simply "Israel.” 
As used in the Bible, "Israelites" embraces all the descendants of Jacob, whether they followed religion of Yahweh or turned to other faiths. In contrast the term Jew is used in English (though not necessarily by a Jew for self-identification) to refer to an individual who subscribes to the Jewish faith, regardless of the historical period or ancestry. Needless to say, today many persons of Jewish heritage are atheists, agnostics, or without religious connection.

Stemming from the period of the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE; but probably used before that period) the term Yisraeli acquired an additional narrower meaning of Jews of legitimate birth, as distinct from those with special status, the Levites and Aaronite priests (kohanims). In modern Hebrew, the term Yisraeli refers to a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity and is translated into English as "Israeli."

Another expression sometimes used to refer to Jews is Hebrews--deriving from a term first used to refer to the Jews (and probably other peoples as well) by the ancient Egyptians. The word continues to be used at times to refer to Jews or things associated with them, such as the Hebrew Bible.


The course of thinking about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible has an interesting parallel in the vicissitudes of the historicity of the Iliad, one of the foundational documents of Hellenic civilization. The historicity of Homer’s Iliad has been debated for some time, though most intensely in the last 150 years. In the classical era (the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), educated Greeks generally accepted the truth of the human story depicted in the Iliad, even as philosophical skepticism was undermining traditional views of divine intervention in human affairs. Geographers like Strabo (63/64 BCE-ca. 24 CE) confidently discussed the identity of sites mentioned by Homer.

This confidence suffered no erosion with the Christianization of Greco-Roman culture. In the early fourth century the patristic writer Eusebius of Caesarea reduced universal history reduced to a kind of timeline. In this scheme Troy received the same historical weight as Abraham, with whom Eusebius' Chronologia began. Eusebius placed the Argives and Mycenaeans among the kingdoms ranged in vertical columns, offering biblical history on the left (verso), and secular history of the kingdoms on the right (recto). Jerome’s Chronicon followed Eusebius, and medieval chroniclers routinely began with summaries of the universal history of Jerome. In this way presumed certainties regarding early Greek history reinforced presumed certainties about ancient Israel.

With the support of these authorities, the historic nature of Troy and the events of the Trojan War continued to be accepted at face value by post-Roman Europeans. In twelfth-century England Geoffrey of Monmouth's genealogy posited a Trojan origin for royal Britons in his Historia Regum Britanniae.

The new approach to history pioneered by the Renaissance sowed the seeds of doubt. According to Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), for example, "Homer wrote a romance, for nobody supposes that Troy and Agamemnon existed any more than the apples of the Hesperides. He had no intention to write history, but only to amuse us."

Heinrich Schliemann’s (1822-1890) archaeological discoveries at Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey reopened the question in modern terms, and recent discoveries have triggered more discussion across several disciplines. When all is said and done, it is hard to avoid the following conclusion. The events described in Homer's Iliad, even if based on historical events that preceded its composition by some 450 years, will never be completely identifiable with historical or archaeological facts, even if there was a Bronze Age city on the site now called Troy, and even if that city was destroyed by fire or war at about the same time as the time postulated for the Trojan War.

No text or artifact has been found on site itself which clearly identifies the Bronze Age site by name. The effort is hampered by the fundamental alteration of the former hill fort during the construction of Hellenistic Ilium (Troy IX), destroying the parts that most likely contained the city archives . A single seal of a Luwian scribe has been found in one of the houses, proving the presence of written correspondence in the city, but not a single continuous text.

The modern dispute over the historicity of the Iliad has sometimes been heated. Among the skeptics is Sir Moses Finley. In his book The World of Odysseus, Finley dismissed the question, maintaining that “the narrative is a collection of fictions from beginning to end.”

The quest for a demonstrable historicity for Homer's Troy faces hurdles that are analogous to the search for the historical basis for King Arthur and Camelot. Even murkier is Plato's Atlantis, where the myth has been manipulated (or simply created) as a vehicle for philosophical generalizations. Such cases rest on an ancient body of culturally agreed-upon "facts" embodied in a crystallizing "classic" narrative version. Of course, it may be possible to establish some connections between the story and real places and events, but these must always remain tenuous because of the risk of selection bias.

In recent years a consensus seems to have emerged that the Homeric stories comprised a synthesis of many old stories of various Bronze Age sieges and expeditions, fused together in the Greek memory during the "dark ages" which followed the fall of the Mycenean civilization. It may be that no historical city of Troy existed anywhere: the name derives from a people called the Troies, who probably lived in central Greece. In this view the identification of the hill at Hisarlık as Troy is a late development, following the Greek colonization of Asia Minor in the eighth century BCE.

Middle Eastern parallels have become evident, so that one may compare the details of the Iliad story to those of older Mesopotamian literature-- most notably, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Names, set scenes, and even major parts of the story, are strikingly similar. Most scholars believe that writing first came to Greek shores from the east, via traders, and these older poems may have bolstered the case for the value of the alphabet.

As this Hellenic example shows, the Bible is not the only ancient set of documents to have come under the microscope of critical scrutiny. The same basic principles apply elsewhere, with no particular documents occupying a special place that is beyond critique.


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[Abrahamica] [Contents] [Introduction] [Chapter 1] [Chapter 2] [Chapter 3] [Chapter 4] [Chapter 5] [Chapter 6] [Bibliography]