Legends of Babylon and and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

The new parallels I have to-day attempted to trace between some of the
Hebrew traditions, preserved in Gen. iv-vi, and those of the early
Sumerians, as presented by their great Dynastic List, are essentially
general in character and do not apply to details of narrative or to
proper names. If they stood alone, we should still have to consider
whether they are such as to suggest cultural influence or independent
origin. But fortunately they do not exhaust the evidence we have
lately recovered from the site of Nippur, and we will postpone
formulating our conclusions with regard to them until the whole field
has been surveyed. From the biblical standpoint by far the most
valuable of our new documents is one that incorporates a Sumerian
version of the Deluge story. We shall see that it presents a variant
and more primitive picture of that great catastrophe than those of the
Babylonian and Hebrew versions. And what is of even greater interest,
it connects the narrative of the Flood with that of Creation, and
supplies a brief but intermediate account of the Antediluvian period.
How then are we to explain this striking literary resemblance to the
structure of the narrative in Genesis, a resemblance that is
completely wanting in the Babylonian versions? But that is a problem
we must reserve for the next lecture.



In the first lecture we saw how, both in Babylonia and Egypt, recent
discoveries had thrown light upon periods regarded as prehistoric, and
how we had lately recovered traditions concerning very early rulers
both in the Nile Valley and along the lower Euphrates. On the strength
of the latter discovery we noted the possibility that future
excavation in Babylonia would lay bare stages of primitive culture
similar to those we have already recovered in Egyptian soil. Meanwhile
the documents from Nippur had shown us what the early Sumerians
themselves believed about their own origin, and we traced in their
tradition the gradual blending of history with legend and myth. We saw
that the new Dynastic List took us back in the legendary sequence at
least to the beginning of the Post-diluvian period. Now one of the
newly published literary texts fills in the gap beyond, for it gives
us a Sumerian account of the history of the world from the Creation to
the Deluge, at about which point, as we saw, the extant portions of
the Dynastic List take up the story. I propose to devote my lecture
to-day to this early version of the Flood and to the effect of its
discovery upon some current theories.

The Babylonian account of the Deluge, which was discovered by George
Smith in 1872 on tablets from the Royal Library at Nineveh, is, as you
know, embedded in a long epic of twelve Books recounting the
adventures of the Old Babylonian hero Gilgamesh. Towards the end of
this composite tale, Gilgamesh, desiring immortality, crosses the
Waters of Death in order to beg the secret from his ancestor
Ut-napishtim, who in the past had escaped the Deluge and had been
granted immortality by the gods. The Eleventh Tablet, or Book, of the
epic contains the account of the Deluge which Ut-napishtim related to
his kinsman Gilgamesh. The close correspondence of this Babylonian
story with that contained in Genesis is recognized by every one and
need not detain us. You will remember that in some passages the
accounts tally even in minute details, such, for example, as the
device of sending out birds to test the abatement of the waters. It is
true that in the Babylonian version a dove, a swallow, and a raven are
sent forth in that order, instead of a raven and the dove three times.
But such slight discrepancies only emphasize the general resemblance
of the narratives.

In any comparison it is usually admitted that two accounts have been
combined in the Hebrew narrative. I should like to point out that this
assumption may be made by any one, whatever his views may be with
regard to the textual problems of the Hebrew Bible and the traditional
authorship of the Pentateuch. And for our purpose at the moment it is
immaterial whether we identify the compiler of these Hebrew narratives
with Moses himself, or with some later Jewish historian whose name has
not come down to us. Whoever he was, he has scrupulously preserved his
two texts and, even when they differ, he has given each as he found
it. Thanks to this fact, any one by a careful examination of the
narrative can disentangle the two versions for himself. He will find
each gives a consistent story. One of them appears to be simpler and
more primitive than the other, and I will refer to them as the earlier
and the later Hebrew Versions.[1] The Babylonian text in the Epic of
Gilgamesh contains several peculiarities of each of the Hebrew
versions, though the points of resemblance are more detailed in the
earlier of the two.

[1] In the combined account in Gen. vi. 5-ix. 17, if the following
passages be marked in the margin or underlined, and then read
consecutively, it will be seen that they give a consistent and
almost complete account of the Deluge: Gen. vi. 9-22; vii. 6, 11,
13-16 (down to “as God commanded him”), 17 (to “upon the earth”),
18-21, 24; viii. 1, 2 (to “were stopped”), 3 (from “and after”)-5,
13 (to “from off the earth”), 14-19; and ix. 1-17. The marked
passages represent the “later Hebrew Version.” If the remaining
passages be then read consecutively, they will be seen to give a
different version of the same events, though not so completely
preserved as the other; these passages substantially represent the
“earlier Hebrew Version”. In commentaries on the Hebrew text they
are, of course, usually referred to under the convenient symbols J
and P, representing respectively the earlier and the later
versions. For further details, see any of the modern commentaries
on Genesis, e.g. Driver, /Book of Genesis/, pp. 85 ff.; Skinner,
/Genesis/, pp. 147 ff.; Ryle, /Genesis/, p. 96 f.

Now the tablets from the Royal Library at Nineveh inscribed with the
Gilgamesh Epic do not date from an earlier period than the seventh
century B.C. But archaeological evidence has long shown that the
traditions themselves were current during all periods of Babylonian
history; for Gilgamesh and his half-human friend Enkidu were favourite
subjects for the seal-engraver, whether he lived in Sumerian times or
under the Achaemenian kings of Persia. We have also, for some years
now, possessed two early fragments of the Deluge narrative, proving
that the story was known to the Semitic inhabitants of the country at
the time of Hammurabi’s dynasty.[1] Our newly discovered text from
Nippur was also written at about that period, probably before 2100
B.C. But the composition itself, apart from the tablet on which it is
inscribed, must go back very much earlier than that. For instead of
being composed in Semitic Babylonian, the text is in Sumerian, the
language of the earliest known inhabitants of Babylonia, whom the
Semites eventually displaced. This people, it is now recognized, were
the originators of the Babylonian civilization, and we saw in the
first lecture that, according to their own traditions, they had
occupied that country since the dawn of history.

[1] The earlier of the two fragments is dated in the eleventh year of
Ammizaduga, the tenth king of Hammurabi’s dynasty, i.e. in 1967
B.C.; it was published by Scheil, /Recueil de travaux/, Vol. XX,
pp. 55 ff. Here the Deluge story does not form part of the
Gilgamesh Epic, but is recounted in the second tablet of a
different work; its hero bears the name Atrakhasis, as in the
variant version of the Deluge from the Nineveh library. The other
and smaller fragment, which must be dated by its script, was
published by Hilprecht (/Babylonian Expedition/, series D, Vol. V,
Fasc. 1, pp. 33 ff.), who assigned it to about the same period;
but it is probably of a considerably later date. The most
convenient translations of the legends that were known before the
publication of the Nippur texts are those given by Rogers,
/Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament/ (Oxford, 1912), and
Dhorme, /Choix de textes religieux Assyro-Babyloniens/ (Paris,

The Semites as a ruling race came later, though the occurrence of
Semitic names in the Sumerian Dynastic List suggests very early
infiltration from Arabia. After a long struggle the immigrants
succeeded in dominating the settled race; and in the process they in
turn became civilized. They learnt and adopted the cuneiform writing,
they took over the Sumerian literature. Towards the close of the third
millennium, when our tablet was written, the Sumerians as a race had
almost ceased to exist. They had been absorbed in the Semitic
population and their language was no longer the general language of
the country. But their ancient literature and sacred texts were
carefully preserved and continued to be studied by the Semitic priests
and scribes. So the fact that the tablet is written in the old
Sumerian tongue proves that the story it tells had come down from a
very much earlier period. This inference is not affected by certain
small differences in idiom which its language presents when compared
with that of Sumerian building-inscriptions. Such would naturally
occur in the course of transmission, especially in a text which, as we
shall see, had been employed for a practical purpose after being
subjected to a process of reduction to suit it to its new setting.

When we turn to the text itself, it will be obvious that the story
also is very primitive. But before doing so we will inquire whether
this very early version is likely to cast any light on the origin of
Deluge stories such as are often met with in other parts of the world.
Our inquiry will have an interest apart from the question itself, as
it will illustrate the views of two divergent schools among students
of primitive literature and tradition. According to one of these
views, in its most extreme form, the tales which early or primitive
man tells about his gods and the origin of the world he sees around
him are never to be regarded as simple stories, but are to be
consistently interpreted as symbolizing natural phenomena. It is, of
course, quite certain that, both in Egypt and Babylonia, mythology in
later periods received a strong astrological colouring; and it is
equally clear that some legends derive their origin from nature myths.
But the theory in the hands of its more enthusiastic adherents goes
further than that. For them a complete absence of astrological
colouring is no deterrent from an astrological interpretation; and,
where such colouring does occur, the possibility of later
embellishment is discounted, and it is treated without further proof
as the base on which the original story rests. One such interpretation
of the Deluge narrative in Babylonia, particularly favoured by recent
German writers, would regard it as reflecting the passage of the Sun
through a portion of the ecliptic. It is assumed that the primitive
Babylonians were aware that in the course of ages the spring equinox
must traverse the southern or watery region of the zodiac. This, on
their system, signified a submergence of the whole universe in water,
and the Deluge myth would symbolize the safe passage of the vernal
Sun-god through that part of the ecliptic. But we need not spend time
over that view, as its underlying conception is undoubtedly quite a
late development of Babylonian astrology.

More attractive is the simpler astrological theory that the voyage of
any Deluge hero in his boat or ark represents the daily journey of the
Sun-god across the heavenly ocean, a conception which is so often
represented in Egyptian sculpture and painting. It used to be assumed
by holders of the theory that this idea of the Sun as “the god in the
boat” was common among primitive races, and that that would account
for the widespread occurrence of Deluge-stories among scattered races
of the world. But this view has recently undergone some modification
in accordance with the general trend of other lines of research. In
recent years there has been an increased readiness among
archaeologists to recognize evidence of contact between the great
civilizations of antiquity. This has been particularly the case in the
area of the Eastern Mediterranean; but the possibility has also been
mooted of the early use of land-routes running from the Near East to
Central and Southern Asia. The discovery in Chinese Turkestan, to the
east of the Caspian, of a prehistoric culture resembling that of Elam
has now been followed by the finding of similar remains by Sir Aurel
Stein in the course of the journey from which he has lately
returned.[1] They were discovered in an old basin of the Helmand River
in Persian Seistan, where they had been laid bare by wind-erosion. But
more interesting still, and an incentive to further exploration in
that region, is another of his discoveries last year, also made near
the Afghan border. At two sites in the Helmand Delta, well above the
level of inundation, he came across fragments of pottery inscribed in
early Aramaic characters,[2] though, for obvious reasons, he has left
them with all his other collections in India. This unexpected find, by
the way, suggests for our problem possibilities of wide transmission
in comparatively early times.

[1] See his “Expedition in Central Asia”, in /The Geographical
Journal/, Vol. XLVII (Jan.-June, 1916), pp. 358 ff.

[2] Op. cit., p. 363.

The synthetic tendency among archaeologists has been reflected in
anthropological research, which has begun to question the separate and
independent origin, not only of the more useful arts and crafts, but
also of many primitive customs and beliefs. It is suggested that too
much stress has been laid on environment; and, though it is readily
admitted that similar needs and experiences may in some cases have
given rise to similar expedients and explanations, it is urged that
man is an imitative animal and that inventive genius is far from
common.[1] Consequently the wide dispersion of many beliefs and
practices, which used generally to be explained as due to the similar
and independent working of the human mind under like conditions, is
now often provisionally registered as evidence of migratory movement
or of cultural drift. Much good work has recently been done in
tabulating the occurrence of many customs and beliefs, in order to
ascertain their lines of distribution. Workers are as yet in the
collecting stage, and it is hardly necessary to say that explanatory
theories are still to be regarded as purely tentative and provisional.
At the meetings of the British Association during the last few years,
the most breezy discussions in the Anthropological Section have
undoubtedly centred around this subject. There are several works in
the field, but the most comprehensive theory as yet put forward is one
that concerns us, as it has given a new lease of life to the old solar
interpretation of the Deluge story.

[1] See, e.g. Marett, /Anthropology/ (2nd ed., 1914), Chap. iv,
“Environment,” pp. 122 ff.; and for earlier tendencies,
particularly in the sphere of mythological exegesis, see S.
Reinach, /Cultes, Mythes et Religions/, t. IV (1912), pp. 1 ff.

In a land such as Egypt, where there is little rain and the sky is
always clear, the sun in its splendour tended from the earliest period
to dominate the national consciousness. As intercourse increased along
the Nile Valley, centres of Sun-worship ceased to be merely local, and
the political rise of a city determined the fortunes of its cult. From
the proto-dynastic period onward, the “King of the two Lands” had
borne the title of “Horus” as the lineal descendant of the great Sun-
god of Edfu, and the rise of Ra in the Vth Dynasty, through the
priesthood of Heliopolis, was confirmed in the solar theology of the
Middle Kingdom. Thus it was that other deities assumed a solar
character as forms of Ra. Amen, the local god of Thebes, becomes
Amen-Ra with the political rise of his city, and even the old
Crocodile-god, Sebek, soars into the sky as Sebek-Ra. The only other
movement in the religion of ancient Egypt, comparable in importance to
this solar development, was the popular cult of Osiris as God of the
Dead, and with it the official religion had to come to terms. Horus is
reborn as the posthumous son of Osiris, and Ra gladdens his abode
during his nightly journey through the Underworld. The theory with
which we are concerned suggests that this dominant trait in Egyptian
religion passed, with other elements of culture, beyond the bounds of
the Nile Valley and influenced the practice and beliefs of distant

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