(Map 6:J4). Shumer (conventionally: Sumer) is the name given to the lower Mesopotamian plain by its Akkadian neighbors; in its own Sumerian language, the land was called Kengir. It occupied the area between the city of Nippur in the northwest and the shoreline of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf in the southeast; upstream from Nippur lay the land of Akkad. Together, Sumer and Akkad occupied all the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris below their nearest convergence around modern Baghdad. In this relatively constricted area (the later Babylonia), there arose not only the world's first civilization but also one of its great ancient cultures, destined to influence all Near Eastern cultures, including Israel, and to bequeath a lasting legacy to civilization as a whole.

The origin of the Sumerians is uncertain. They themselves looked to Dilmun, that is, the islands and Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf, as a kind a paradise, and may have originated from there, or even further east. They regarded Eridu, then on the northern edge of the Gulf, as their first city, and perhaps this was indeed their first foothold in Mesopotamia. Traces of this tradition survive in Genesis 4.17b, which may be understood thus: “And he [Enoch] became the [first] builder of a city, and he named it after his son [i.e., Irad], did Enoch.”

The basic ingredients of civilization as it emerged in Sumer at the end of the fourth millennium BCE included cities, writing, and the formation of capital. Building on the earlier agricultural revolution and its domestication of plants and animals (symbolized in the biblical account by Cain and Abel respectively; cf. Gen. 4.2), the urban revolution in Sumer soon brought in its train such secondary developments as craft specialization, metallurgy, and the emergence of kingship. A rich documentation in cuneiform preserves the records of these achievements as well as the Sumerians' own interpretation of them in literary texts. Long after Sumerian itself had ceased to be spoken, these literary texts continued to be studied and translated in the scribal schools of Babylonia and the rest of the Near East. Some of them are thus echoed in the Bible, whose primeval history (Gen. 1–11) is situated in Sumer.

The centerpiece of Sumerian historiography is the “Sumerian King List,” perhaps better described as a Sumerian city list, which records the eleven cities that exercised hegemony over all of Sumer and Akkad, together with the names of their kings, their length of rule, and occasional biographical notes. It begins in legendary times, when kingship “descended from heaven,” and ends with the destruction of the city of Isin in 1794 BCE, one year before the accession of King Hammurapi of Babylon. Its antediluvian rulers, in most recensions eight in number, and the wise counselors associated with them (in other sources), bear an undeniable resemblance to the lines of Seth and Cain in Genesis 5 and 4 respectively.

The Sumerian story of the flood is preserved in a single fragmentary tablet that, via various Akkadian intermediaries, no doubt helped shape the biblical version in Genesis 6–8. After the flood, kingship was believed to have come down from heaven again, first to the city of Kish and then to Uruk, the Erech of the “table of nations” (Gen. 10.10). Its fourth ruler, Dumuzi, is celebrated in poems about his sacred marriage with the goddess Inanna, and passed into Akkadian—and Hebrew (cf. Ezek. 8.14)—as the deified Tammuz. The epic of “Enmerkar and the lord of Aratta” includes a passage reminiscent of the biblical tale of the confusion of tongues that, in Genesis 11, is linked to the building of “a city and a tower” clearly modeled on the ziggurat (stepped temple tower) characteristic of Sumerian cities (see Tower of Babel). The end of the “Early Dynastic Period” in Sumer (ca. 2900–2300 BCE) is marked by the conflict of two other city‐states (Lagash and Umma) over the edin, a fertile area lying between them that may have inspired the biblical tale of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2–3).

There followed an interval of subjugation to the Semitic‐speaking Akkadians (ca. 2300–2150 BCE), so named after the city of Akkad whose greatest rulers, Sargon and especially his grandson Naram‐Sin, may conceivably have provided the model for Nimrod and Akkad in Genesis 10.8–12. Then the Sumerians reasserted themselves under local rulers such as Gudea of Lagash, who left a magnificent legacy of both literary and sculptural remains, and under the hegemony of Ur, which reunited all of Sumer and Akkad for a century (ca. 2100–2000 BCE) under the city recalled in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham (Gen. 11.28, 31; etc.).

After the fall of Ur (ca. 2000 BCE), Sumerian traditions were preserved intact by the dynasty of Isin (ca. 2000–1800 BCE) and thereafter by the schools and temples of Babylonia and Assyria. Among the Sumerian innovations thus passed on to later ages are the sexagesimal system of counting and computation (using the base 60), irrigation agriculture, and a variety of literary genres.

The Akkadian language, and the civilization of the Babylonians and Assyrians who inherited and preserved Sumerian culture, transmitted the Sumerian legacy, or portions of it, to posterity. Among the heirs of this legacy was biblical Israel. While the name of Sumer itself is no longer thought to lurk behind the biblical Shinar (Gen. 10.10; etc.), other Hebrew words and names can be traced to Sumerian, such as hêkāl (“palace, temple”), ṭipsār (“scribe”), mallāḥ (“sailor”), and numerous names of spices, plants, minerals, and other commodities whose names traveled with the products they identified. Many ideas too can be traced from their biblical formulation back to Sumerian origins, for example the casuistic (conditional) formulation of precedent law. When the Bible placed the origins of (civilized) humankind, and of Israelite prehistory, in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, it was anticipating the modern rediscovery of the Sumerians and their formative contributions to civilization.

William W. Hallo