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Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural ContextA Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts
By John H. Walton
ZondervanCopyright © 1994 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Cosmology is the term I have chosen to encompass the comparative study of the foundational elements in the perceived origin and operation of the universe. I will introduce the primary literature concerning creation of the cosmos, creation of man, and the flood.
Mesopotamian literature has no extant literature that systematically recounts the details of creation. There are, however, numerous references to aspects of creation in a wide range of literature. It would be a similar case if in biblical material we had to construct a creation account from the Psalms. As a result there are many gaps. There are also inconsistencies. As mentioned in the introduction, we do not expect homogeneity of Mesopotamian thinking, even in a given time period. Certainly over the millennia differences are expected. We are not trying to suggest a form of systematic theology for Mesopotamian thought. Rather, based on observations from the literature, as diverse as it is, we are attempting to comprehend how their worldview fitted together.
In Egyptian literature, the case is similar to that of Mesopotamia, except that here the element of rival theologies is more evident. Creation accounts from Memphis, Hermopolis, and Heliopolis compete with one another. Again our object is not to reach some conclusive "view of creation," for no such thing existed. We hope to come to some conclusions, however, on some of the common factors that provide a foundation for understanding the origin of the cosmos and humanity.
A. Eridu Genesis
Approximate Date of Composition
Sources date from late in the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1600), and it is difficult to extrapolate beyond this.
Sumerian OB tablet (CBS 10673) from Nippur (ca. 1600) of which only the lower third is preserved. Sumerian OB fragment from Ur. Bilingual Sumerian/Akkadian copy from Ashurbanipal's library. There remains some question as to whether these manuscripts belong to a single composition.
Text: CBS 10673-PBS V:1. Ur Fragment-UET VI:61. Bilingual-F. W. Geers, AS 11; W. G. Lambert, CT XLVI, pl. 23:5.
Translation: T. Jacobsen, "The Eridu Genesis," JBL 100 (1981): 513-29. Translation, discussion, and frequent transliteration notes. ANET, 42-44 ("The Deluge"). M. Civil, "The Sumerian Flood Story" in W. G. Lambert and Alan Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969), 138-45, 167-772. Also includes transliteration. A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago, 1951), 102-6.
The preserved section begins with humanity becoming civilized. Later, because of their excessive noise, a flood is sent. Ziusudra, the king, is given the forewarning and builds a boat. Gaps make it impossible to know who else is spared.
Approximate Date of Composition
Earliest surviving copies are from the seventeenth century B.C. The composite nature of the work makes conclusive statements beyond this impossible. W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard suggest that the text could not have taken its present form earlier than the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries B.C.
The most complete edition dates from 1635 B.C. and is on three tablets copied by Ku-Aya. There is a total of about two dozen fragments dating from the seventeenth to the sixth centuries B.C., and the complete listing may be found in W. G. Lambert and Alan Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969), 40-41.
All the publication data as well as the texts, transliterations, and translations can be found in W. G. Lambert and Alan Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969). A somewhat outdated translation may also be found in ANET, 104-6, 512-14.
The lower deities become tired of their work and rebel. The gods' solution is to create man to do the work. Populations proliferate and become too noisy; the multitudes are reduced respectively by plague, then twice by famine and drought. Finally a flood is sent. Atrahasis is told of the coming destruction and builds a boat in which animals and birds are saved. It is assumed that other people were saved besides Atrahasis, but breaks in the text obscure the details.
C. Enuma Elish
Approximate Date of Composition
Manuscripts are all from the first millennium B.C. Estimates of the date of composition usually center on the Kassite period. Lambert suggests a strong connection to the developments under Nebuchadnezzar I (ca. 1100).
The epic is written on seven tablets and was first discovered in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh by Rassam about 1850. Fragments from an Assyrian version were found at Assur in the early twentieth century. Tablets I and VI were found in a Neo-Babylonian version at Kish, 1924-25, and another Neo-Babylonian version of tablet VII was found at Uruk a few years later. Sultantepe and Babylon also yielded tablets.
Text: W. G. Lambert and S. B. Parker, Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Epic of Creation (Oxford, 1966). Composite text without critical notes; see also O. R. Gurney, AfO 17 (1956): 353-56. E. Ebeling, Keilschrifttexte aus Assur religiösen Inhalts (Leipzig, 1919, 1923). L. W. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation (London, 1902). CT X111 (1901) S. Langdon, OECT VI (Kish) tablets.
Translation: ANET, 60-72, 501-3. A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago, 1951).
Discussion: T. Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness (New Haven, 1976), 167-91.
This composition tells of Marduk's ascension to the head of the Babylonian pantheon. It is recorded on seven tablets as follows:
Tablet One: Cosmogony/Theogony including a long description of Marduk, born of Ea and Damkina. Describes the discontent between the boisterous younger gods and the older gods, Apsu and Tiamat (representing sweet water and salt water respectively), who are seeking peace and quiet. When Apsu decides to respond destructively, Tiamat joins the rebel cause.
Tablet Two: The older gods unsuccessfully seek a champion to represent them against Tiamat until Marduk steps forward to accept the challenge. In exchange for his leadership, he asks to be made the head of the pantheon.
Tablet Three: Marduk's proposal is presented before Lahmu and Lahamu (the oldest children of Apsu and Tiamat) and is accepted.
Tablet Four: Decrees are given to Marduk, and his weapons for battle are prepared. The battle is enjoined, and Marduk is victorious. Using Tiamat's corpse, Marduk lays out the cosmos.
Tablet Five: Stars and constellations, moon, and probably the sun are arranged in the firmament. Marduk reorganizes the divine realm and is proclaimed king of the gods.
Tablet Six: Man is created so that the gods will not have to work. Kingu, the partner of Tiamat, is slain, and his blood is used by Ea to form man. Babylon is constructed as the first city. The last part of the tablet begins the proclamation of Marduk's fifty names by the Igigi gods.
Tablet Seven: The proclamation of the fifty names is completed. The work ends with an exhortation to be vigilant in praising Marduk.
D. The Gilgamesh Epic
The Gilgamesh Epic seems to have had more influence on international literature than any other piece known to us from antiquity. Though it is not cosmological literature, I have included it here because the foremost correlation between it and biblical literature occurs in its recounting of the flood story.
Approximate Date of Composition
The Gilgamesh Epic is an edited work comprised of several ancient works. According to the reconstruction of the evolution of the work by Jeffrey Tigay, Gilgamesh tales may well have begun circulating in writing as early as the twenty-fifth century B.C. The earliest copies known are Sumerian; they date to the Old Babylonian period, 2000-1600, though it is reported that the Ebla tablets attest some Gilgamesh material. If so, then this would move the date back to within a couple of centuries of the historical Gilgamesh (ca. 2600). The current Akkadian Epic draws from four (or more) separate Sumerian Gilgamesh tales: Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living; Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld; Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven; The Death of Gilgamesh; and original material from several editors. The initial editing is thought to have taken place in the Old Babylonian period. The Middle Babylonian period, 1600-1000, witnessed international circulation with some editing. Tigay further understands three sections as being still later additions: the prologue, the flood story, and tablet XII. The flood story is borrowed from the Atrahasis Epic. Thus some material in the Gilgamesh Epic dates back into the third millennium, but its final form as we know it was achieved in the first part of the first millennium B.C.
Dozens of fragments are used to piece together the epic. Modern scholarship got its first glimpse of the material in the considerable fragments found in Ashurbanipal's library. Other fragments have been found both in Mesopotamia (Nippur, Nimrod, Ur, Uruk, and Ischali) and in such faraway places as the Hittite capital, Boghazkoi, and in Israel at Megiddo. Tigay has a very helpful listing on pages 304-6.
To date, the most comprehensive publication of the text, transliteration, and translation is R. Campbell Thompson, The Gilgamesh Epic (Oxford, 1930).
Translation: ANET, 72-99; 503-7. A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago, 1946).
Excerpted from Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context by John H. Walton Copyright © 1994 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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