Genesis: History of the Semitic Peoples or Not?

A short testimony from Sargon has been pieced together from two incomplete Neo-Assyrian tablets and one Neo-Babylonian fragment. It begins, “Sargon the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.” Sargon goes on to tell of his humble birth. Following are four lines of the thirty-two line text:

And for four and […] years I exercised kingship.
The black-headed [people] I ruled, I gov[erned];
Whatever king may come up after me
Let him r[ule, let him govern] the black-headed [peo]ple;…1

Building on what we have learned, these words from the Semite king imply that he was ruling over a people whose racial characteristics were different from his own people. Clearly, it refers to the Sumerians.

Notes

  1. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts , 94; E. A. Speiser, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, VIII (1928), 119.

Picture of tapestry shows an Akkadian subject presenting an offering to a Sumerian priest. Note the differences in appearance between them.

One of the key factors giving Sargon’s rule such historical punctuation was that the inscriptions beginning with his reign were set down in what had previously been an unofficial language - a Semitic language. A shift to Akkadian after centuries of Sumerian inscriptions was an abrupt archaeological landmark showing that the Akkadians suddenly were in charge.

"In Mesopotamia, Sumerian was gradually replaced in official documents by Semitic Akkadian, though Sumerian was retained in the temples."1

Since we know the Sumerians and Akkadians spoke unrelated languages, and the Akkadian language is the root of Semitic languages including Hebrew, and if we assume the writer of Genesis was at least as knowledgeable as we are, then we may conclude that at least two languages were spoken in the region at the time that tower building was all the rage in Mesopotamian cities. It would be unlikely, therefore, that the writer of Genesis sought to convey that everyone in the land spoke a common language, something we might conclude from the English translation of Genesis 11:1: “And the whole earth was of one language and one speech.”

Notes

  1. S. G. F. Brandon, ed., Ancient Empires: Milestones of History (New York: Newsweek Books, 1970), 21.

After the flood, platforms constructed originally in Mesopotamian cities to survive annual floods began to grow and take on religious connotations. Mud brick mounds became massive ziggurats adorned with elaborate temples of worship, the dwelling places of the gods. Kiln fired bricks were used for support and sun dried bricks were applied to the surface.

Hebrew chroniclers point to Nimrod, king of Babylon (Gen. 10:9-10), as the instigator in building the tower honoring Marduk, with additional sanctuaries for gods Enlil and Ea.1
City counselors with their eyes on neighboring cities proposed the plan of erecting a tower, and Nimrod, the reigning monarch, agreed to it.2 Motivations among the tower builders themselves may have been mixed; a desire to reach the gods, an uprising against God, devotion of the gods, a desire to wage war against the gods, or a means of surviving future floods.3 It’s hard to know what was foremost in the minds of these men caught up in this monumental enterprise.

Notes

  1. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 68-69.

  2. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 163.

  3. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews , 163.

The Atlas of Mesopotamia locates over thirty ziggurats and temple mounds in Mesopotamia, including some in Persia.1 Andre Parrot identified thirty-three towers in twenty-seven different cities, adding "it was sometimes possible for one city to have several ziggurats."2

Whatever the initial motivations, the builders at Babylon became caught up in a ziggurat building competition with their neighbors. In a unified and prideful effort, they tried to outdo the other cities. God caused confusion in their speech, however, and the builders terminated construction and scattered, but their basic language was unaltered. We know this because inscriptions recovered written in Canaanite, Amorite, Aramaic, and Assyrian were all in Semitic dialects.

The Hebrew word translated as “language” in Genesis 11:1 is the Hebrew s aphah meaning lip. The confusion of tongues at Babel was not about scrambling one common language into various different languages. Instead, it related to the predominant topic of conversation of the day, which was about building mud-brick platforms and adorning them with temples of worship.

These were huge, demanding work projects involving the entire community. Thus everyone in the land, Shinar (or Sumer), at that time was talking about it. They were of “one lip.”

Notes

  1. Martin A. Beck. Atlas of Mesopotamia: a Survey of the History and Civilisation of Mesopotamia from the Stone Age to the Fall of Babylon , (New York: Nelson,1962), 21.

  2. Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), 26-27.

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Ziggurat remains at Uruk (biblical Erech)

The order of presentation in Genesis suggests the dispersion of Noah’s kin and settling in their designated lands occurred after the time of Noah’s demise but before the tower at Babylon was built. Japhethites headed for lands around the Mediterranean Sea, are named only to the third generation, and do not appear to be represented at Babylon or elsewhere in Mesopotamia, which may account for the reason no fourth generation Japhethites were known. Noah himself remained with Shem and his people in the region where the ark landed until his death.1 After Noah died, Shem’s clan moved back to the land of Shinar (Sumer) where at least those in the line of Arpachshad set up residence at Babylon where Nimrod, a Hamite, was king.

Building on the work of Josephus who named Nimrod, Byzantine chronicler Synkellos explained:

“And Nimrod incited them to insolence towards God and contempt. The grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, and a daring man of action, he persuaded them not to attribute to God the prosperity they had through him, but to think that their own virtue furnished this to them. And he began little by little to transform the state of affairs into a tyranny, lawlessly believing that if they continuously lived under the same power, people would abandon their fear of God. And he started threatening to retaliate against God if he resolved to flood the earth again. For he would build a tower higher than the water was able to reach, and he would avenge the destruction of their forefathers.2”

  1. Jubilees, 10. 15-16.

  2. From The Extant Fragments of the Five Books of the Chronography of Julius Africanus in George (Georgios) Synkellos, Chronography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 21.

City dwellers in other parts of Mesopotamia were likewise engaged at a time in history (ca. 2400-2000 BC) when major cult centers in Mesopotamia became preoccupied with building ziggurats.

“In Mesopotamia, the temples of the predynastic period developed into grandiose monuments which dominated not only the cities they were meant to serve, but the whole of the valley floor. It has even been suggested that the ziggurats, the stepped mounds which supported the sacred shrines, were intended simply as artificial mountains. Though their design showed high skill, technically they were of the simplest: a mudbrick core encased in a weatherproof skin of burnt brick set in bitumen.”1

  1. Jacquetta Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976),102.

Although the Egyptian pyramids were constructed of cut stone, the Mesopotamian ziggurats were, in fact, constructed with mud bricks and burnt mud bricks as stated in Genesis 11:3. The sticky petroleum product used as a weather-tight casing comes to us as “slime” in the King James Version although other translations use “tar, “bitumen,” or “asphalt.”

”The evolution of the temple complex is well illustrated by the Anu Temple in Uruk. Six temples were constructed, one above the other. … after five hundred years of rebuilding, a monumental brick platform rose 16 meters (53 feet) above the community."1

Not only the Semites, but the Sumerians too, were adept at building ziggurats. In addition to the site at Uruk (biblical Erech), the Sumerians built temple monuments at Nippur, Lagash, Kish, and Ur. Even smaller population centers to the north were building their own. Many of the true ziggurats were built upon old temple complexes about the time of the Third Dynasty at Ur (2112-2000 BC).

  1. Lamberg-Karlovsky, and Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica (Menlo Park: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1979), 147.

Early explorers ventured into the land of “Arabian Nights” seeking adventure, fame, prestige, honor, glory, knowledge, trinkets, and a certain elusive tower. From the latter part of the sixteenth century AD three testimonials emerged: that of Rauwolff, the adventurous physician of Augsburg (traveling 1573-76); one from the Venetian jeweler, Balbi (1579-80); and another by a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, the English merchant Eldred (1583), all of whom descended the Euphrates in a boat, landed at Falluja and proceeded across Iraq to Baghdad. They all spoke vaguely of the ruins of the “mighty city of Babylon,” the “Tower of Babel,” and the “Tower of Daniel,” that they pondered near Falluja on their way to Baghdad (or “New Babylon” as it was called then).

Standing in awe of the massive misidentified tower, Eldred described it in 1589:

“Here also are yet standing the ruines of the olde Tower of Babell, which being upon a plaine ground seemeth a farre off very great, but the nearer you come to it, the lesser and lesser it appeareth : sundry times I have gone to see it, and found the remnants yet standing about a quarter of a mile in compasse and almost as high as the stone work of Paules steeple in London, but it showeth much bigger. The brickes remaining in this most ancient monument be half a yard thicke and three quarters of a yard long, being dried in the Sunne only, and between every course of brickes there lieth a course of mattes made of canes, which remaine sounde and not perished, as though they had been layed within one yeere.”1

  1. Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1589 AD), 232.

The 19th century brought forth a new breed of explorers, as much bent on returning souvenirs to their homeland as to ascertaining the intricacies of a distant, ancient civilization. Claudius Rich visited Babylon in 1811 and stayed for ten days. Taken in by the spotty accounts of previous travelers, Rich found not a few “isolated mounds.” He quickly discovered:

“… the whole country covered with the vestiges of buildings, in some places consisting of brick walls surprisingly fresh, in others merely a vast succession of mounds of rubbish of such indeterminate figures, variety, and extent as to involve the person who should have formed any theory in inextricable confusion and contradiction.”1

As to Babylon itself:

“These ruins consist of mounds of earth, formed by the decomposition of buildings, channeled and furrowed by the weather, and the surface of them strewed with pieces of brick, bitumen, and pottery.”2

The most northern mound Rich described as “Babil,” was the tower the natives called Mujêliba (overturned):

“Full five miles distant from Hilla and one hundred and fifty yards from the river bank, it is of an oblong shape, irregular in its height and the measurement of its sides, which point to the cardinal points. The elevation of the southeast or highest angle, is one hundred and forty-one feet.”3

Notes

  1. H. V. Hilprecht, The Babylonian expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series D: Researches and Treaties (Philadelphia, Pub. by the University of Pennsylvania,1904-10), 27.

  2. Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expeditiona , 28.

  3. Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expedition , 28-29.

I fully agree that we need to start treating Gensis as something more than a kids book, but also be careful to not reduce it to myth. I have done a lot of research into the historicity of the events in Genesis and don’t think the Shurrupak flood of 2900 BC accounts for the full scope of the flood in Genesis and the Sumerian and Assyrian epics. I think Alan Dickin presents a much better option in his paper: New Historical and Geological Constraints on the Date of Noah’s Flood; I have li ked it below

Links

New Historical and Geological Constraints on the Date of Noah’s Flood

Hi Jack:

I read his paper when it came out and made a few notes at the time:

  1. Noah’s flood at 5700 BC would have been before any settlements were established in southern Mesopotamia. There wouldn’t have been anybody there to suffer the consequences of a devastating flood let alone write about it. If he had used his research to support a 2900 BC date it would have made a lot more sense. The earliest settlement was Eridu dated by archaeologists at 4800 BC. Dickin’s flood 900 years earlier would have found nobody in residence to suffer the consequences.

  2. This comes from an article by Matt McClellan: “Today the usual dating of Abraham in Mesopotamia is in either the Ur III (2112-2004 BC) or Isin-Larsa periods (2017-1763 BC). Using the earliest date for Abraham at 2112 and Dickin’s proposed date for the flood of 5700 BC with Noah’s death 350 years after puts over 3200 years between Noah and Abraham! I would consider that a difficult obstacle to overcome. I’m surprised none of the reviewers picked that up.

  3. Dickin described the boats (pp.188-190) used to ply the rivers and canals in Southern Mesopotamia in some detail, however, a craft composed of reeds soaked in pitch would be highly unsuitable for the purpose of floating a family of eight and a veritable zoo along with all the necessary provisions for over a year. When one cow set one foot on such a vessel it would sink like a stone.

Noah’s flood at 5700 BC would have been before any settlements were established in southern Mesopotamia. There wouldn’t have been anybody there to suffer the consequences of a devastating flood let alone write about it. If he had used his research to support a 2900 BC date it would have made a lot more sense. The earliest settlement was Eridu dated by archaeologists at 4800 BC. Dickin’s flood 900 years earlier would have found nobody in residence to suffer the consequences.

If a devastating flood had truly swept through Mesopotamia then it would make sense that we don’t find any settlements in Southern Mesopotamia before 5400 BC, because they were all washed away.

I know this point may be a little beyond this conversation, but I have done some chronological work in Sumerian history that would make the 2900 BC flood impossible. If you want details I will happily provide them.

Carol Ann Hill wrote about the flood in PSCF and was one of the contributing authors to The Grand Canyon Monument to an Ancient Earth, and weighs in on a 2900 BC flood as does Davis A Young who wrote, Biblical Flood : a case study of the Church’s response to extrabiblical evidence . David Rohl wrote, Legend The Genesis of Civilization and supports a 2900 BC flood as does Robert Best who wrote, Noah’s ark and the Ziusudra epic : Sumerian origins of the flood myth .

Langdon and Mallowan examined the flood layers at Kish, Uruk, Shuruppak and Lagash and hit on 2900 BC. Even the deepest layer Woolley dated to 3800 BC would be 1900 years later than the date Dickin uses. The Sumerian King List names kings and cities before the “flood swept thereover” and some of those cities still exist today in Iraq, for example, Abu Sharein, Warka, Madinah and Fara.

Biblically, only ten patriarchs are named from Noah to Abraham. The total of years between fathers and sons vary from 292 in the Masoretic Text to 942 in the Samaritan Pentateuch to 1,072 in the Septuagint. None of those figures will get you from the flood to Abraham unless you revise the numbers of years upward significantly or call for unnamed patriarchs omitted from the text.

So scientifically, historically and biblically the date of 2900 BC for the flood gets my vote.

Langdon and Mallowan examined the flood layers at Kish, Uruk, Shuruppak and Lagash and hit on 2900 BC. Even the deepest layer Woolley dated to 3800 BC would be 1900 years later than the date Dickin uses. The Sumerian King List names kings and cities before the “flood swept thereover” and some of those cities still exist today in Iraq, for example, Abu Sharein, Warka, Madinah and Fara.

I am full aware of the work of of Langdon and Mallowan and by consequence aware of the fact that they did not treat the biblical account seriously. Sumer suffered inumerable floods and the one at Surrupak is only slightly worse than most, bearing in mind that there are still plenty of flood deposits to discover.

Recently it has come to light that Enmerkar, one of the post-flood Sumerian kings, dates no later than Uruk III (3100-2900)1. This would make a 2900 BC flood impossible. Gianni Marchesi has dated another post flood king, Enmebaragesi, to the beginning of EDI (c.2900 BC). Considering that 23 kings are said to have preceded him following the flood, this also makes nonsense of a 2900 BC date.

None of those figures will get you from the flood to Abraham unless you revise the numbers of years upward significantly or call for unnamed patriarchs omitted from the text.

Maybe the chief issue in our dissagreement is that you are not willing to accept that there are only 10 patriarchs for the purpose of symmetry and I am. I think the only purpose of the geneologies is to show connections between key figures, and as many as dozens of people could be omitted.

Sources

  1. Katz, D. (2017). Ups and Downs in the Career of Enmerkar, king of Uruk. In 1038779203 795202920 O. Drewnowska & 1038779204 795202920 M. Sandowicz (Authors), Fortune and misfortune in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 60th Rencontre assyriologique internationale at Warsaw 21-25 July 2014 (pp. 201-202). Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

  2. Marchesi Toward a Chronology of Early Dynastic Rulers in Mesopotamia pp. 141,152

I don’t think anyone today is digging around in the sand looking for flood deposits. There were numerous deposits found at Kish with the highest dated at around 2900 BC. There is only one flood we are interested in, and that is the one which was judgment, wiping out the entire Adamite population in the Euphrates basin. Dickin’s supposed flood would have been on vacant land, would have had no impact on anybody, and left no discernible trace. In fact, Dickin offered no evidence for such a flood other than he thought that might have been a good time for one.

These are all round numbers that certainly are only approximate given limited knowledge and the lack of volcanic deposits that could give us a greater precision of measurement. Dating characters and events is fraught with difficulty. The flood date could be off a bit and EnMerkar’s dates could be as well. But 2800 years is a bridge too far.

King Ashurbanipal (668-626 BC) collected meticulously and stored carefully his collected treasure trove that came to light when Max Mallowan found it at Nineveh and shipped it off to London. The Assyrian king himself decided which pieces of literature were important enough to copy for posterity. Candidate material included writings from before the flood. We might have found them fascinating, but the king was unimpressed: “I study stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are obtuse, obscure and confused.”1

This would require the knowledge of cuneiform writing prior to 5700 BC if we bought into Dickin’s flood. The Sumerians invented writing and date to no earlier than 4100 BC, so who do you suppose did this writing?

Olay, you opt for missing generations, not only on the part of the writer of Genesis but also from the writer of Jubilees. They listed the same patriarchs in two different accounts and must have eliminated a host of undesirables. I wonder what distinguished the named group of ten from the unnamed “dozens.” The Sumerian King List named 23 kings at Kish before it was “smitten with weapons.” Why do you suppose the Sumerians were better at record-keeping than the author of Genesis and Jubilees?

Notes

  1. Andre Parrot, The Flood and Noah’s Ark (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953) , 13.

I don’t think anyone today is digging around in the sand looking for flood deposits.

That’s a bold statement.

“I study stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are obtuse, obscure and confused.”

We have no reason to take all the inscriptions of Ashurbanipal entirely seriously, as the main purpose of his statemnt is gloating. Determining from when tablets dated would also require a methodology the Assyrians did not have.

The Sumerian King List named 23 kings at Kish before it was “smitten with weapons.” Why do you suppose the Sumerians were better at record-keeping than the author of Genesis and Jubilees?

This statement is clearly made from the point of view that the SKL is a parallel to Genesis’ geneologies, a premise I am not willing to accept.

I am open to any flood culprits before 3500 BC, otherwise I think it creates chronological conflict.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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