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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.


Written texts also provide insight into belief systems, at least those of the elite. Often these take the form of what are traditionally called myths, narratives about the gods and the heroes of an apparently distant past. In the ancient Near East as a whole, and even within distinct cultures, these myths exhibit an often bewildering variety of perspectives and details. As attempts to explain the origins of the world and the nature of the human condition, ancient myths are neither consistent nor systematic. They are, however, an important body of data that, like tools, pottery, fortifications, and other artifacts, shed light on historical development.

The genesis of the natural and social order is usually expressed as the result of the activity of an individual deity, who presided over and coordinated the collective efforts of other gods and goddesses. The origins of this deity are sometimes expressed in a theogonic narrative describing how a series of divine generations led to the birth and ultimately the assumption of power of the creator-god.

Creation myths are usually etiological, explaining how the world as their writers and audiences perceived it came to be. They thus project that world, already agricultural and often urban, back into primeval times. In Mesopotamian tradition,

At the very beginning, Plough married earth And they decided to establish a family and dominion. “We shall break up the virgin soil of the land into clods.” In the clods of their virgin soil, they created Sea. The Furrows, of their own accord, begot the Cattle God. Together they build Dunnu forever as his refuge.

(Theogony of Dunnu; trans. Dalley, 279)

This was the time before the creation of humans, when, according to another myth,

The gods instead of man Did the work, bore the loads.… The gods had to dig out canals, Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land… For 3,600 years they bore the excess, Hard work, night and day.

(Atrahasis, tablet 1; trans. Dalley, 9–10)

Atrahasis goes on to describe the creation of humans out of a mixture of clay and the blood of a slain god, so that they would do the necessary work of construction and dredging canals, or, as Enuma Elish puts it, so that the gods might enjoy a life of leisure. Humans would not only maintain the essential irrigation channels, but also build the houses of the gods—their temples—and prepare their meals—the sacrifices.

The Bible itself begins, appropriately, with an account of the origins of the cosmos and of civilization that is largely mythological. Much of the material in Genesis 1–11 is clearly related to ancient Near Eastern accounts of origins, and mythological language is used throughout the Bible.

The ancient Israelites did not live in a cultural vacuum. From prehistoric times on Palestine was linked by trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia, and one or the other politically dominated it for much of the period from the mid-third millennium to the late first millennium BCE. Biblical traditions also relate how some of Israel's ancestors, and later some of Israel itself, spent considerable time in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Thus, while Israelite literature and religion as preserved in the Bible and as uncovered by archaeologists have many distinctive features, in their lives and in their writings the Israelites inevitably shared perspectives with their ancient Near Eastern contemporaries. They were familiar with other cultural expressions and freely adopted and adapted them in articulating their own specific formulations.

The marvelous epic of Gilgamesh provides one example of the interrelationship of ancient Near Eastern cultures. The earliest forms of the epic are from Sumer, where it seems to have originated in the late third millennium BCE as an account of the adventures of an actual king of Uruk, who had lived a few centuries earlier. Subsequently, different writers and cultures freely expanded and revised the epic, much like the treatment of the Arthurian legend in European literature. Tablets containing all or at least parts of the epic have been found in ancient libraries throughout Mesopotamia, with the latest dated to the second century BCE, as well as in the Hittite capital of Hattusas in central Asia Minor and at Megiddo in Israel. Gilgamesh himself is mentioned by name in the Dead Sea Scrolls and by Claudius Aelianus, a Roman who wrote in Greek in the early second century CE. This chronological and geographical spread testifies to the myth's extraordinary popularity, and it is no surprise that scholars have detected themes from Gilgamesh in both the Bible and the Homeric poems. But the same spread also makes it impossible for us to determine precisely which version was being read at a given time.

Gilgamesh was not the only widely known ancient Near Eastern text. Similar examples of literary proliferation abound, and collectively they demonstrate a shared repertoire throughout the ancient Near East, including biblical Israel. It is rarely possible to establish a direct link between a specific nonbiblical source and a part of the Bible, both because of the random nature of discovery and because of the complicated processes of composition, editing, and collection that finally produced the Bible. Still, the cumulative evidence shows that most biblical genres, motifs, and even institutions have ancient Near Eastern parallels.

Like other accounts of origins, the early chapters of Genesis relate the beginnings of a world in which agriculture is practiced and urbanism soon develops. Yahweh God plants a garden in Eden from which flows a river with four branches (Gen. 2.10–14 ). Two are the Tigris and Euphrates, and another is Gihon, the name of the spring that was ancient Jerusalem's principal source of water. The symbolic imagery of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem both informs and is informed by the description of the Garden of Eden. This garden is Yahweh's plantation, in which like a country gentleman he regularly strolls in the cool late afternoon ( 3.8 ). And the first human, formed by Yahweh from the soil as a potter shapes a vessel and infused with an element of the divine, is made to cultivate and tend the garden.

The first children of Adam and Eve are Cain and Abel, a farmer and a herder, and Cain's son Enoch is the first to build a city (Gen. 4.17 ). Cain's descendants go on to make musical instruments and bronze and iron tools. In a later generation, after the Flood, Noah will be the first to plant a vineyard ( 9.20 ).

As in the Sumerian King List and other Mesopotamian traditions, this primeval history was divided into antediluvian and postdiluvian epochs. Before the Flood came a distant past, when humans lived extraordinarily long life spans. The biblical narrative of the Flood provides the clearest example of direct dependence on other ancient myths. Many of its details are virtually identical to Mesopotamian accounts of the Flood, especially in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. In both traditions, a god warns the hero of the impending deluge. Following divine instructions he constructs a boat, waterproofs it, and brings on board his family and all sorts of animals. They ride out the storm, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. Then, to see whether it is safe to disembark, the hero releases three birds. Here is the way the hero Utnapishtim recounts this episode in Gilgamesh:

When the seventh day arrived, I put out and released a dove. The dove went; it came back, For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round. I put out and released a swallow. The swallow went; it came back, For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round. I put out, and released a raven. The raven went, and saw the waters receding. And it ate, preened, lifted its tail, and did not turn round. Then I put (everything) out to the four winds, and I made a sacrifice.… The gods smelt the fragrance, The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance, The gods like flies gathered over the sacrifice.

(trans. Dalley, 114)

Likewise, in Genesis, Noah releases three birds. The third brings him an olive leaf and when released again does not return. So Noah and his family and all the animals leave the ark.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” (Gen. 8.20–21 )

As in the Sumerian King List, in Genesis lives are shorter after the Flood, society becomes more complex, and populations increase. The story of the Tower of Babel, set at the end of the primeval period, tells how the building of a “tower with its top in the heavens” and a city (Gen. 11.4 ) results in linguistic diversity.

Like their ancient Near Eastern colleagues, biblical writers used myth to explain the origins of their world. However, for them both, this was not just myth, but history too. The modern distinction between history and myth is perhaps too sharply drawn, since mythic conventions informed the interpretation of the past in ancient historiography, and to some extent do so in modern as well.

Like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1–11 received its final form well into the first millennium BCE, and was clearly intended as an overture to the narratives that follow. These chapters set the story of Israel's ancestors, its Exodus from Egypt, and its vicissitudes in the Promised Land in a larger, universal context, and consciously connect that later history with creation and primeval events. For the authors of Genesis 1–11 , then, the accounts of creation, of the Garden of Eden, of the Flood, were historical as well, connected by genealogy with their own more immediate past. The “generations of the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 2.4 ), the creation of the world, became the first of a series of births, summarized periodically in the lists occurring throughout the book of Genesis of the descendants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Esau, and finally Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel. These genealogies join as in a continuous history the birth of the world with the birth of Israel, first the family, then the nation, that will be the primary focus of the Bible's subsequent books.

* * *

This, then, is the beginning of history in the biblical world, the world in which prophets and sages, poets and historians, storytellers and apologists, produced their works, eventually to be edited and collected into two anthologies of early Jewish and early Christian traditions: the Hebrew Bible—the Torah, Prophets, and Writings—and the New Testament.

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