The Sumerian Legacy
The Sumerians invented writing and were the world’s first great Civilization as we know it. The civilization flourished in the valleys between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the area known as southern Iraq today.
The Sumerian civilization existed for ca 3000 years, between the fifth and the second millennium BC. They reached their golden era 3-2000 BC. The Sumerians invented the wheel, the plough, irrigation, sailing boats, the keel, potter’s wheel and were the first to build stone arcs and multi-storeys buildings. They had an advanced juridical system, developed mathematics, astronomy and the calendar. Still today our definition of time is based on the original Sumerian number-system based on 6 and 60, and the division of the circle in 360 degrees. But their most important invention, the very basis of all later civilizations and cultures was done late in the 4 th century BC: – the art of writing.
The Sumerians wrote cuneiform script with straws from reed on clay tablets. Hundred of thousands of these clay tablets are found in archaeological excavations. The more of these tablets are found and interpreted, the more of the original stories and motifs known from the Old Testament stories emerges in their original form. Most of the clay tablets are at least a thousand years older than the earliest texts in the Old Testament. The Sumerian culture had a huge impact and formed the casting mould for the later great civilizations.
The story of how man was created from dirt (clay?) and brought to life through a breath of air through the nose as told in Gen 2,7, is a copy of the far older Sumerian creation myth. The Sumerian legend is preserved as a seven-tablet epos, Enuma elish, ”In the beginning”.
The creation of the world
In both the Babylonian and Egyptian creation myth we find the motif of how once everything was water and how the gods create land, rivers, animals and vegetation. In the Babylonian story the giant Marduk fights and conquers the demons of the prehistoric waters. The most dangerous of the demons is the saltwater demon Tiâmat. The word the Bible texts uses for the chaotic prehistoric water, the Hebraic theôm, is the very same name. Marduk splits the demons body and creates heaven and earth, and then he organizes the stars and creates the moon. When he was done he left to the god Ea to create man out of clay and blood. The Biblical creation myths are based on these older myths. In the Bible it is of course Jehovah and not Marduk who is credited with the conquering of the prehistoric waters and its demons (in the Bible called dragons), and building the world from these (Psal. 74,12-17; 89,10-13. Isa. 42, 5; 51, 9-16; Job 9, 8-13; 26, 7-14; Gen 1). Marduk celebrated his achievements with a sacred wedding with the godess Zarpanitum, the diehard bachelor Jehovah took one day’s nap instead.
The creation of man
In the Bible God actually creates man twice, first in chapter one were he creates man and woman in his own image (Gen 1,27), and then in chapter two were he creates man (hebr: Adam) of dirt (hebr: Adama)(Gen 2,7) and a little later creates the woman from one of the ribs of man (Gen 2,22). It’s kind of strange that God creates man after created all the animals in chapter one, but in chapter two he created man before the animals.
On excavated clay tablets from Sumer there is a story that explains the background of the biblical story of the creation of women, the Garden of Eden and the fall of man and original sin. The strange story of how woman was created from the rib of Adam, do not make much sense. Why the rib? When we read the original story the writers of the Bible used as a template, it all becomes clearer.
The Sumerian story tells about the god Enki, the god of water and wisdom and one of the central and most popular deities in the Sumerian pantheon, and of the paradisical land of Dilmun (today’s Bahrain). Dilmun is said to be to the east of Sumer. In the Biblical story the Garden of Eden is situated “in the east” (Gen 2,8). According to the myth Dilmun is a bright and clean place, without disease nor death, – a land of the living, a land of the immortals.
However, Dilmun lacks one thing: water. But the water god Enki knows what to do and water is his business, and he creates a river that turns Dilmun into a divine garden with an abundance of fruit trees, flowers and green meadows.
Then the great Sumerian mother-goddess Ninhursag enters the picture and creates eight different plants in this divine garden. The creation of these eight plants involves an intricate process with births of three generations of goddesses, and the story emphasizes that these births are all happening without the slightest pain or discomfort.
The happy camper Enki wants to taste the fruits of these eight plants and makes his servant Ismud (a god with two faces) to collect the fruits and he eats them one by one. This makes Ninhursag furious and she casts a lethal spell over Enki, and then disappears from the scene. Enki then becomes ill in eight different organs or body parts, one for each fruit. Enki’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, and the other gods are flabbergasted by this and do not know what to do to help the popular Enki. Finally a fox (!) gets Ninhursag to come back, exactly how is unknown because this part of the story is missing.
Finally Ninhursag comes back and she places Enki between her legs and asks him in what body parts he is ill. Then she creates eight healing goddesses, one for each body part, and soon Enki is well again. One of the sick body parts is the ribs, and in Sumerian the word for rib is “ti”. The goddess created to heal Enki’s rib is called “Nin-ti”, which means the “rib woman”. However, the Sumerian word “ti” also means “life” or “to make life”, so “Nin-ti” also can mean “the woman who makes life”. The Sumerians were very fond of such puns, but this pun was of course lost on the bible authors, since the name Eve in Hebrew (Chavvah) may resemble the Hebrew word for “life” (Chay), but have no resemblance with the Hebrew word for “rib” (Tsela)(or `ala` in Aramaic).
The story’s emphasis that the births of the creation-goddesses is without any pain or discomfort, is an element we find in Gods punishment of Eve for causing the fall of man: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (Gen 3,16).
The very name “Eden” is also originally a Sumerian name and simply means “plain/flat terrain”. The name originates from the controversy between the Mesopotamian city-states Lagash and Umma about whom should rule the fertile river-valley of Gu-Edina(The banks of Eden) located between the two cities.
The Great Flood
In the cultures like the Sumerian/Mesopotamian and Egyptian, which emerged in fertile river valleys, the rivers are the very lifeblood of these cultures, the very foundations of existence. The yearly flooding of the rivers was crucial for agriculture and crops. If the flooding is too small or do not happen one year, famine, hunger and crisis is the result. If the flooding is too big, the fields, cities, granaries are destroyed and irrigation systems clogged, and the society faces a catastrophe.
Destructive Floods were relative common in Mesopotamia, and the rivers and the deities associated with them were central to these people’s religion. The concept of a devastating great flood as the divine punishment of a displeased God is also very common in these cultures. It is also a concept quite foreign to pastoral desert nomads like the Hebrews. The biblical story of Noah and the Great flood is more or less a direct copy of the far older Sumerian mythical story of a great Flood and the boat-building hero Ziusutra found in the Gilgamesh epos.
Many of the clay tablets with this epos are now in the British Museum. There exist several versions of the Mesopotamian myth of the great flood, all far older than the biblical version.
The rivers of the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Nile evidently caused many great floods, so the background of the Mesopotamian myth is based on real events, but of course exaggerated in their mythical form. The Flood as it is presented in the Bible is exaggerated in such a way it is completely ridiculous. To cover all the mountains in the world the sea level had to rise 9000 meters. This would actually call for humongous amounts of water *, actually many times the amount of water existing in our entire solar system.
The size of the Ark (Gen 6,15) is described as big enough for two specimens of every species on earth. The volume of the almost 1 million known species of insects, each with multiple different families, would probably be bigger than the vessel itself, and then of course we have the problem with inbreeding. To avoid inbreeding the Lord allowed seven pairs of the birds and the “clean” animals in the Ark, but of humans there were only four pairs: Noah (hardly particularly fertile when 600 years old), his wife and their three sons and their wives.
By the way, how exactly did the 600(!) years old Noah and his family gather the 1,190,200 known species of invertebrates,5416 species of mammals, 5743 species of amphibians, 9917species of birds and appx. 8163 species of reptiles, – and each species with its many different families and subgroups? And this in only seven days?
Like all nature religions, natural disasters were considered as an act of God to punish his subordinates into obedience. The motif of the story of Cain and Abel can also be found in myths from old Sumeria together with many others. Since the Sumerians were the first literate civilisation, their myths and stories were written down, copied and became known over huge parts of the Middle East. Comparing the stories on the excavated clay tablets with the biblical stories, the similarities are quite obvious. The biblical texts were written late in antiquity, and the writers were inspired by, and building on an already rich source of stories, myths, religious motifs and history from the surrounding high cultures.
Actual historical events and figures were transformed and over time took on a mythical form. The biblical story of the tower of Babel (Babylon) is such a story. In this story all the people of Babel talked the same language, but when the people tried to build a tower into the heavens, God got annoyed and confused the people’s language so no one understood each other anymore. As a consequence the whole building project failed. The story relates to the real 90 meters tall tower Etemananki of Babylon.
When Jerusalem was conquered by king Nebuchadrezzar 2 in 597 BC, he overthrows the Jewish king Jeconiah. Ten years later, in 587 BC, there was a Jewish uprising, and Nebuchadrezzar then levelled Jerusalem and brought part of the Jewish elite back to Babylon as hostages. The capitol of Babylon controlled the trading routes and was the centre for trade and culture in this mighty and influential empire. Babylon was a melting pot of people and many different languages were spoken. The Jewish elite stayed in Babylon from 886 until 839 BC, and reminiscences of it is found in Hymns verse 137 and the prophet Daniels stories of king Nebuchadrezzar (Dan 4,33).
There is actual evidence of the Jew’ stay in Babylon in a clay tablet inventory from 592 BC. The inventory lists the different foods king Jeconiah and his court were entitled to. The size and monumentality of the city of Babylon, ands its rich culture made clearly quite an impression on the Hebrew elite. The huge central ziggurat and the 90-meter high tower Etemananki, several big temples and double 30 meters high city walls with towers, would impress anybody even today. It was also here the Jewish, and later Christian, idea of Angels originates, depictions of human figures with wings were commonplace on temples in Babylon.