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Inferences drawn from the whole of the biblical text suggest that Moses was considered responsible for the shape and content of Genesis from earliest times. The Israelites in the wilderness, in roughly the third quarter of the second millennium B.C., are then the initial audience of the book. Many scholars unconvinced of the connection to Moses are more inclined to view the book against a mid-first millennium B.C. backdrop. The discussion is not without significance, but its impact on background issues will not often be felt. It is more important to become aware of how ancient culture differed in general from our own and to assess how the literature of the ancient Near East offers us understanding of that ancient culture.
Mesopotamia: Sumer through Old Babylonia
Sumerians. It is not possible at this time to put Genesis 1-11 into a specific place in the historical record. Our history of the ancient Near East begins in earnest after writing has been invented, and the earliest civilization known to us in the historical record is that of the Sumerians. This culture dominated southern Mesopotamia for over five hundred years during the first half of the third millennium B.C. (2900-2350), known as the Early Dynastic Period. The Sumerians have become known through the excavation of several of their principal cities, which include Eridu, Uruk, and Ur. They are credited with many of the important developments in civilization, including the foundations of mathematics, astronomy, law, and medicine. Urbanization is also first witnessed among the Sumerians.
By the time of Abraham, the Sumerians no longer dominate the ancient Near East politically, but their culture continues to influence the region. Other cultures replace them in the political arena, but benefit from the advances they made.
Dynasty of Akkad. In the middle of the twenty-fourth century, the Sumerian culture was overrun by the formation of an empire under the kingship of Sargon I, who established his capital at Akkad. He ruled all of southern Mesopotamia and ranged eastward into Elam and northwest to the Mediterranean on campaigns of a military and economic nature. The empire lasted for almost 150 years before being apparently overthrown by the Gutians (a barbaric people from the Zagros Mountains east of the Tigris), though other factors, including internal dissent, may have contributed to the downfall.
Ur III. Of the next century little is known as more than twenty Gutian kings succeeded one another. Just before 2100 B.C., the city of Ur took control of southern Mesopotamia under the kingship of Ur-Nammu, and for the next century there was a Sumerian renaissance in what has been called the Ur III period. It is difficult to ascertain the limits of the territorial control of the Ur III kings, though their territory does not seem to have been as extensive as that of the dynasty of Akkad. Under Ur-Nammu's son Shulgi, the region enjoyed almost a half-century of peace. Shulgi exercised absolute rule through provincial governors and distinguished himself in sportsmanship, music, and literature. He himself was reputed to have composed a hymn and was trained in scribal arts. Decline and fall came late in the twenty-first century through the infiltration of the Amorites and the increased aggression of the Elamites to the east, who finally overthrew the city.
It is against this backdrop of history that the Old Testament patriarchs emerge. Some have pictured Abraham as leaving the sophisticated Ur that was the center of the powerful Ur III period to settle in the unknown wilderness of Canaan, but that involves both chronological and geographical speculation. By the highest chronology (i.e., the earliest dates attributed to him) Abraham probably would have traveled from Ur to Haran during the reign of Ur-Nammu, but many scholars are inclined to place Abraham in the later Isin-Larsa period or even the Old Babylonian period. From a geographical standpoint it is difficult to be sure that the Ur mentioned in the Bible is the famous city in southern Mesopotamia (see comment on 11:31). All this makes it impossible to give a precise background of Abraham.
The Ur III period ended in southern Mesopotamia as the last king of Ur, Ibbi-Sin, lost the support of one city after another and was finally overthrown by the Elamites, who lived just east of the Tigris. In the ensuing two centuries (roughly 2000-1800 B.C.), power was again returned to city-states that controlled more local areas. Isin, Larsa, Eshnunna, Lagash, Mari, Assur, and Babylon all served as major political centers.
Old Babylonian Period. Thanks substantially to the royal archives from the town of Mari, the eighteenth century has become thoroughly documented. As the century opened there was an uneasy balance of power among four cities: Larsa ruled by Rim-Sin, Mari ruled by Yahdun-Lim (and later, Zimri-Lim), Assur ruled by Shamshi-Adad I, and Babylon ruled by Hammurabi. Through a generation of political intrigue and diplomatic strategy, Hammurabi eventually emerged to establish the prominence of the first dynasty of Babylon.
The Old Babylonian period covered the time from the fall of the Ur III dynasty about 2000 B.C. to the fall of the first dynasty of Babylon just after 1600 B.C. This is the period during which most of the narratives in Genesis 12-50 occur. The rulers of the first dynasty of Babylon were Amorites. The Amorites had been coming into Mesopotamia as early as the Ur III period, at first being fought as enemies, then gradually taking their place within the society of the Near East. With the accession of Hammurabi to the throne, they reached the height of success. Despite his impressive military accomplishments, Hammurabi is most widely known today for his collection of laws.
The first dynasty of Babylon extends for more than a century beyond the time of Hammurabi, though decline began soon after his death and continued unabated, culminating in the Hittite sack of Babylon in 1595 B.C. This was nothing more than an incursion on the part of the Hittites, but it dealt the final blow to the Amorite dynasty, opening the doors of power for another group, the Kassites.
Canaan: Middle Bronze Age
Abraham entered Canaan during the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1550 B.C.), which was dominated by scattered city-states much as Mesopotamia had been, though it was not as densely populated or as extensively urbanized. The period began about the time of the fall of the dynasty of Akkad in Mesopotamia (ca. 2200) and extended until about 1500 B.C. (plus or minus fifty years, depending on the theories followed). In Syria there were power centers at Yamhad, Qatna, Alalakh, and Mari, and the coastal centers of Ugarit and Byblos seemed to be already thriving.
In Palestine only Hazor is mentioned in prominence. Contemporary records from Palestine are scarce, though the Egyptian story of Sinuhe has Middle Bronze Age Palestine as a backdrop and therefore offers general information. Lists of cities in Palestine are also given in the Egyptian texts. Most are otherwise unknown, though Jerusalem and Shechem are mentioned. As the period progresses there is more and more contact with Egypt and extensive caravan travel between Egypt and Palestine.
Egypt: Old and Middle Kingdoms
Roughly concurrent to the Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia was the formative Old Kingdom in Egypt that permanently shaped Egypt both politically and culturally. This was the age of the great pyramids. During Egypt's Sixth Dynasty, contemporary with the dynasty of Akkad in Mesopotamia, disintegration became evident. From the mid-twenty-second century until about 2000 B.C., Egypt was plunged into a dark period known as the First Intermediate Period, which was characterized by disunity and at times by practical anarchy. Order was finally restored when Mentuhotep reunited Egypt, and Amenemhet I founded the Twelfth Dynasty, beginning a period of more than two centuries of prosperous growth and development.
The Twelfth Dynasty developed extensive trade relations with Syro-Palestine and is the most likely period for initial contacts between Egypt and the Hebrew patriarchs. By the most conservative estimates, Sesostris III would have been the pharaoh who elevated Joseph to his high administrative post. Others are more inclined to place the emigration of the Israelites to Egypt during the time of the Hyksos. The Hyksos were Semitic peoples who began moving into Egypt (particularly the Delta region in the north) as early as the First Intermediate Period. As the Thirteenth Dynasty ushered in a gradual decline, the reins of power eventually fell to the Hyksos (whether by conquest, coup, or consent is still indeterminable), who then controlled Egypt from about the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth century. It was during this time that the Israelites began to prosper and multiply in the Delta region, waiting for the covenant promises to be fulfilled.
Genesis 1-11 is set in the area of Mesopotamia, mostly in modern Iraq. Though two of the rivers of Eden remain unidentified, the Tigris and Euphrates are well known throughout history. We are not told where Noah's home is, but the mountains of Ararat, where the ark came to rest, are in the region from which the Tigris and Euphrates flow. The kingdoms mentioned in connection with Nimrod (10:10) and the location of the tower of Babel both demonstrate the Mesopotamian backdrop.
The Table of Nations (Gen. 10) expands its view to include the settlement of peoples throughout the known world. With Abraham the focus moves across Mesopotamia and into Canaan. The ancestors spend most of their lives in the southern regions of the land, notably Hebron and Beersheba. Additionally there are occasional journeys outside the region, for instance, to Gerar, or even to Egypt. Jacob spends twenty years back in northern Mesopotamia in the area of Haran. By the end of the book, the whole family has moved to Egypt to join Joseph.
Literary genres have rules and conventions by which they operate. Communication is jeopardized if we do not understand the parameters of the genre of the literature we are reading. How confusing it would be if we were reading a mystery in which the author gave every appearance of writing a biography! But at the same time, the features that indicate whether a literary work is a mystery or biography are to some extent culturally determined. The reason that genre categories work is that they represent a consensus of expectation among the readers.
When we approach a book like Genesis, we must be aware of what genres we will be encountering. But just as important, we must adjust our expectations so that we will come to those genres understanding the ancient conventions attached to that genre rather than imposing our own genre conventions on their literature.
Genesis contains cosmogony texts, that is, texts that deal with the origins of key aspects of the cosmos. It also contains genealogies (e.g., chs. 5; 11; 36), founders' or ancestors' narratives (e.g., chs. 12-35), destiny proclamations (i.e., formal blessings and/or curses from father to son, e.g., chs. 9; 27; 49), conflict tales (e.g., chs. 4; 6-7; 11; 19; 34), battle accounts (e.g., ch. 14), and a narrative about the rise of a courtier from humble beginnings to a position of power (chs. 40-45). Some of these are unparalleled in the ancient world, and even when possible parallels exist, significant differences lead us to proceed with caution.
Genesis and Mythology
Some people who take their Bibles seriously are uncomfortable with using the literature from the ancient Near East in their Bible study. Often this is a defensive reaction. If the Bible is associated too closely to other ancient literature, its unique status as the Word of God might be tarnished. Ancient Near Eastern literature is viewed as pagan, mythological, depraved, fictional ... human. The Bible's reputation, so they maintain, must be guarded against being viewed as similar in any way lest it attract similar labels.
Reactions such as these are understandable, but we cannot afford to lose the benefit of comparative studies as we protect our convictions. Therefore we must be willing to come to the ancient Near Eastern literature with solid methods and firm convictions to learn what there is to learn. With these caveats in mind, we can approach the mythology of the ancient Near East.
Defining the term mythology is treacherous. Many formal definitions have been offered, and beyond those, one can find a wide variety of popular conceptions that impede fruitful discussion. Rather than offer yet another definition, it is more productive to identify the function of mythological literature. The mythology of the ancient world encapsulated contemporary thinking about how the world worked and how it came to work that way. It features the gods prominently because the ancients found the answers to their questions about the world in the divine realm. If we describe mythology functionally in this way, we can conclude that our modern mythology is what we call science. That is our culture's way of encapsulating how the world works and how it came to work that way. Contrary to the divine orientation of the ancients, our scientific worldview is naturalistic and empiricist.
Genesis functions in Israelite society the same way that science functions in our culture and the same way that mythology functioned in the rest of the ancient world. Genesis offers an alternative encapsulation of how the world worked and how it came to work that way. Like the rest of the ancient world, it has a divine orientation rather than a naturalistic/ empiricist one as is common today. But its view of the situation in the divine realm also makes it distinct from the mythology of the ancient world.
Consequently, studying the mythological literature of the ancient world can help us, whose cultural worldview tends toward empiricism, to make adjustments as we try to understand how a nonempiricist worldview works. The result is that we can be drawn out of the restricted perspectives that come most naturally to us. This is the value of mythological literature for the study of the Bible.
Creation of the Cosmos in the Ancient Near East
Creation and cosmology are familiar topics in a number of different sorts of texts, but especially in the mythological literature of the ancient world. Few texts (maybe none) can actually be called "creation texts," but they nevertheless provide considerable information concerning ancient beliefs. The following offers a brief summary of the major sources.
Egypt. The Memphite Theology (focusing on the god Ptah) is known from a single copy dated to about 700 B.C., though it is believed to have originated in the thirteenth century at the latest. Texts are found in afterlife literature (i.e., Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and Book of the Dead) from Heliopolis (featuring Atum) and Hermopolis (featuring Amun). Allusions also occur in wisdom pieces such as The Instructions of Merikare. Cosmological depictions such as those found on the Cenotaph of Seti I (13th century) can also be instructive.
Mesopotamia. The Epic of Atrahasis (17th century) contains an account of the creation of man. Enuma Elish (12th century at the latest) is the most important ancient text for cosmology. The Eridu Genesis is a Sumerian text, copied from about 1600 B.C.
Many other Sumerian texts contain statements about creation, from myths or rituals to disputation texts or dedicatory inscriptions, and including even genealogical lists of the gods. Traditions from Nippur feature Enlil and traditions from Eridu feature Enki.
Excerpted from Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Copyright © 2009 by John H. Walton. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2011