Hebrew Society, History, Religion, and Texts
(LINKS to Web Sites to Hebrew, Sumerian, and Babylonian Cultures)

The early Hebrews were unrivaled as historians in the ancient near east, partly because religion was history to them, the history of God's relations with his chosen people. More than any other people we will study in myth class, the Hebrews saw religious events as happening in historical (not mythical) time: they traced their lineage quite carefully back to the first man and woman, and major events like the Exodus out of Egypt happened in time, not out of it or before it. Not only that, but their religious covenant, or contract, with their God stressed fulfillment in this world (the Promised Land was Canaan, a place you could walk to, invade, and live in), not in the next.

The early history of the Hebrew people is recounted in the Bible in the form of patriarchal legends about Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. The entire Hebrew nation is depicted as descending from these patriarchs: Jacob's 12 sons are seen as the eponymous ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel (see Genesis 29:31-30:24 and 35:16-18 and Exodus 1:1-7). Abraham himself is a direct, if distant, descendant of Noah's son Shem, the eponymous ancestor to all the Semitic peoples (Gen. 11:10-27). According to Genesis 11:27-31, Abraham's home town was "Ur of the Chaldeans," the ancient Sumerian city of the moon god Nanna. From Ur, Abraham moved up the Fertile Crescent to Haran (still a town today in southernTurkey), and later down into Canaan. Abraham also went to Egypt briefly, during a time of famine (Gen. 12:10-20). Throughout the book of Genesis, Abraham is depicted as a herder or pastoralist, which may help account for his frequent movements.

Abraham's movements also follow well-known trade-routes, indicating that the early Hebrews were probably nomadic traders as well as herders. W. F. Albright notes that the ancient form of the word Hebrew was a general term for "donkey man, donkey driver, huckster, caravaneer" (5). The traditional dates for Abraham (2000-1800 BC) were also times of great movements of various populations. The Tigris and Euphrates river valleys of Mesopotamia were invaded after 2600 BC by Semitic-speaking peoples now called Akkadians. You may know them as Babylonians. By 2350 BC, the Akkadians ruled Mesopotamia as a large empire. Later, other Semitic-speaking pastoral nomads called Amorites ("westerners") by the Babylonians moved into Mesopotamia, consolidating power around 1800 BC. While the Amorites in Babylonia quickly assimilated into the civilization of Mesopotamia, those who migrated in the other direction, along the Mediterranean coast into Canaan, maintained many of their nomadic customs. Abraham's clan was probably one of these latter groups, grazing their flocks in the hill country between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. According to James S. Ackerman, while in Canaan some Amorites "continued the pastoral life of the herdsman while probably relying on some form of primitive farming to supplement the produce of their flocks" (8). It is important to remember that Abraham was probably the chieftain of a large clan and that the loyalties of these nomadic groups were to clan leaders and not the larger Canaanite city-states.

"Each clan or tribe was bound by a contractual agreement [known as a covenant] to the personal god of its chief or founding father. This is clearly shown by the oath between Jacob and Laban, which was to be enforced by their respective clan deities" (Ackerman 9; Gen. 31:53; ). Abraham's covenant with his God involves three related promises: a) that Abraham and Sarah, childless into great old age, shall have a legitimate son and heir (Gen. 15:2-4); b) that the descendants of Abraham shall become a great people, numberless as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5-6); and c) that these descendants will be given the promised land of Canaan "for an everlasting possession," in which to dwell (Gen. 15:17-21 and 17:7-8). As a sign of this covenant, God commanded that every male descendant "that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised" (Gen. 17:11-14). Abraham also received a slight name-change at this time: before he had been known as Abram, but from now on he would be called Abraham, "the father of a multitude" (Gen. 17:5).

Abraham's grandson Jacob also had his name changed as a sign of election. After wrestling all night with what my text calls "a man" (Gen. 32:24), Jacob is told by his opponent that "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28). Jacob and his twelve sons (now "sons of Israel"--synonymous with the twelve tribes of the nation) immigrated to Egypt, and after a long stay there, would eventually be led out by the culture-hero Moses. These early stories emphasize ancestors and descendants for at least two reasons: the history of Israel was viewed as the history of God's relations with one clan, that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, and, since concepts of an afterlife were unclear (all the dead were believed to go to a shadowy place called Sheol--see Gen. 37:35 and 42:38), one lived on through one's descendants.

The Hebrew Language and Names for God in Hebrew

"The Hebrew Language is written from right to left in an alphabet of 22 letters. They all originally denoted only consonants," but early texts (1000 BC) sometimes use letters to represents vowels. "The full system of representing vowels by adding points [similar to punctuation marks] to the consonants developed much later, between the fifth and tenth centuries AD" (Emerton, "Hebrew" 271).

Hebrew belongs to the Semitic group of languages and does not differ much from Canaanite. It is most closely related to languages once spoken in the areas around Canaan or Israel: Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Ugaritic. The other main branch of Semitic languages spoken in this area is Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Akkadian, or Babylonian is also a Semitic language. Modern Arabic also belongs to the Semitic group.

For the most part, the Old Testament uses two Hebrew words to designate the deity: Yahweh, translated as "Lord," and Elohim, translated as "God." Yahweh, spelled in ancient Hebrew as yhwh, may be a form of the Hebrew verb "to be," perhaps as a causative; i.e., "he causes" or "will cause to be." At Exodus 3:14, the name is said to mean "I AM." Out of respect and awe for the name of God, orthodox Jews did not pronounce the word Yahweh out loud. Instead, when reading in Hebrew, they substituted adonay ("Lord"). The term Jehovah is a 16th century AD Christian mispronunciation which combines the consonants of the name yhwh with the vowels of adonay.

The word Elohim is what one authority calls "a plural of majesty with a singular meaning when used of Yahweh" (Emerton, "Names" 548). The singular of Elohim is El, a common Semitic word for God. The chief god of the Canaanites was called El, "often styled the Bull El, the Father of the gods, who dwells in the field of El, at the sources of the rivers" (Hooke 81). El's son was Baal-Hadad, a rain, storm, and wind god somewhat similar to Zeus. The Bible often opposes the worship of Baal, whose fertility rites were seen as a corruption of the worship of Yahweh. When Jezebel attempted to institute worship of Baal, the prophet Elijah instituted a test of Baal's powers in which Israel's god Yahweh proved victorious (1 Kings 18:17-46). This story makes it clear that the Hebrew god was not in nature or a part of nature like most fertility gods, but outside of nature, "a still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12).

Texts in the Bible

Most students know that the Bible is actually a compilation of different texts, or books, written at various times for varying purposes. Many students probably also know that the Old and New Testaments are written in different languages (Hebrew and Greek respectively). However, it does surprise some students to learn that individual books like Genesis are made up of various texts which have been pieced or woven together into a single narrative. In the late 18th century, a group of mostly German scholars began to notice that the book of Genesis seemed to contain two versions of several stories: two accounts of creation, two versions of the covenants with Noah and Abraham, for example. "Then they noticed that, quite often, one of the two versions of a story would refer to God by one name and the other version would refer to God by a different name" (Friedman 50). In 1780, a scholar named Johann Gottfried Eichhorn published a study in which he concluded that Genesis was made up of stories from two different texts, one using Elohim as the name of God and the other using Yahweh. He named the two texts E and J, after the first letter of each name for God. (In German, "J" is pronounced like English Y.)

A few years later, scholars discovered that within the group of stories that used the word Elohim as the name of God (now called "E") there were further duplicate accounts.

There were also differences of style, differences of language, and differences of interests. In short, the same kinds of evidence that had led to the discovery of J and E now led to the discovery of a third source that had been hidden within E. The differences of interests were intriguing. This third set of stories seemed to be particularly interested in priests. It contained stories about priests, laws about priests, matters of ritual, sacrifice, incense-burning, and purity, and concern with dates, numbers, and measurements. This source therefore came to be known as the Priestly source--for short, P. (Friedman 52-53) The first four books of the Bible are made up of the sources J, E, and P. The fifth book (Deuteronomy) of the Pentateuch or Torah as it is called in Jewish tradition, was found to be a fourth source, called D.

But when and how were these texts written and later compiled into one narrative? The answer to this question is quite complex and disputed in some details by scholars. The answer also involves the further history of the Hebrews and their religion. The fortunes of Israel as a nation often turned on how she fared with her powerful neighbors, whether they were in Mesopotamia to the east (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians), around her in Israel proper (Canaanites, Philistines, Phoenicians), or to the south and west (nomads, Egyptians). After escaping from Egypt and conquering Canaan, the Hebrews organized their political life around a loose federation of the 12 tribes. There was no king, since Yahweh was the king of all; however there was a central place of worship. From time to time charismatic leaders, called judges, would emerge to solve disputes and lead the people into battle. (Israel had no standing army--the tribes summoned one another for help when there was a threat.) Around 1050 BC, the last judge, Samuel, lost the central place of worship, Shiloh, to the Philistines, so he "was compelled by popular demand to find a permanent military leader who could deliver Israel from the Philistines" (Ackerman 23). This new leader was Saul, the first king of Israel. (The Philistines, by the way, were probably Myceneans of some sort who had settled on the coast around 1200 BC, a time of much movement by sea-raiders and, not coincidentally, the approximate date of the Trojan War.)

Saul was successful against the Philistines at first, but was disturbed by the rising popularity of one of his generals, David, and "wasted his energy pursuing David instead of the Philistines" (Ackerman 24). When Saul was killed at the disastrous battle of Gilboa (1006 BC), David was made king over the southern tribe of Judah. When the northern tribes' new king was assassinated, David became king of all Israel. David, who was a fine general, unified the state, conquered new territories, selected the northern city of Jerusalem as capital and holy city, ended the federation of tribes, and established a standing army. But David's unity did not last. His successor Solomon spent lavishly on building and defense projects in Judah in the south and taxed the north heavily, even going so far as to force citizens to work one month of the year on his building projects. These policies alienated the northern tribes (see Friedman 42-45), who revolted when Solomon died in 922 BC. The country split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom, made up of ten tribes, was called Israel, and the southern kingdom, made up of two tribes, was called Judah.

The northern kingdom had developed its own sacred traditions, which were written down sometime after the division of the kingdoms in 922 BC. This is the E text. The southern kingdom's traditions had probably been written down before Solomon's death, and thus are slightly older. This is the J text. Sometime after 722 BC, the two texts, J (from Judah, the south) and E (from Israel, the north), were combined. Why 722 BC? That was the year, as Lord Byron puts it,

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like the stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
To put it less poetically, the mighty Mesopotamian empire of Assyria smashed the northern kingdom of Israel and forced the southerners in Judah to pay tribute, but they could not conquer Judah's capital, Jerusalem. As a result, the northerners fled to the south, and the two traditions and texts came together under one temple in Jerusalem. Another northern text, called D by scholars (Deuteronomy) was discovered when the temple was cleaned out and renovated in 622 BC (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chr. 34:14-15). Most scholars think that the last source for the first five books of the Bible, known as P or the Priestly text, was not written down until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. The temple was destroyed and the elite of Israel were forced into exile in Babylon: By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137)
The P text was probably written in Babylon by a group of priests who stressed genealogies and rules (the law) as a means of keeping the Hebrew community together in the absence of any central place of worship or even land they could call their own. In 538 BC, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return to Judah. They rebuilt the temple, dedicating it on Passover, 516 BC (Friedman 157). Not all the Babylonian captives came back right away. Ezra, a priest and scribe, returned in 428 BC. He brought with him a letter from the Persian king, giving him authority to teach and enforce "the law of your God, which is in your hand" (Ezra 7:14). Later, Ezra is described as reading "the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel" (Neh. 8:1) to the assembled people of Jerusalem. This "book of the law" (torah) was probably the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) as we know it today. Most scholars, at any rate, think the first five books were finally edited and collated into the narrative we know today sometime around 400 BC. The following timeline sums up the history of the sources for the first five books of the Bible:
1000-961 BC: David's reign 
961-922 BC: Solomon 
922 BC: Israel splits into two kingdoms

J text (Judah, Yahweh) c. 950 BC

922-722 BC: Northern kingdom of Israel:  E text (Israel, Elohim) 900-750 BC?

722 BC: Assyrians destroy northern kingdom.  Northerners flee south, bringing their texts (presumably E and D) with them. 
Those northerners who did not escape were rounded up by the Assyrians and relocated elsewhere (the so-called "10 lost tribes").

622 BC: D text (Deuteronomy) discovered in temple cleaning. King Josiah bases reforms and his campaign against pagan gods on the newly discovered text.
587 BC: Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonians. The upper classes were forced into exile in Babylon.  Priestly text or P composed or gathered together during the Babylonian exile, c. 587-428 BC. 

538 BC: Persians conquer Babylon and allow Hebrews to return to Jerusalem.

516 BC: Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem.
458 or 428 or 398 BC (authorities differ and the texts are confused): Ezra returns from Babylon with "the book of the law,"  either a version of the P-text or the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) as we know it (combining J, E, D, and P). 

Genesis Notes and Questions

2.6 a mist Some translate this word as "flow" or "groundswell." The word occurs very rarely in Hebrew.
2.7 formed man of dust from the ground There's a pun in Hebrew here: 'adham means "man" (i.e., Adam), 'adhamah means "ground."
3.20 Eve . . . mother of all living Another pun here: Eve, or hawwa sounds like hay ("life") in Hebrew.

Creation and Adam and Eve Questions (Genesis 1-3)

1. What details seemed surprising or unexpected as you read through Genesis 1-3? Are there any details that you thought were in the text but are not there?

2. Many scholars say that Genesis 1-3 contains two accounts of creation. After studying the "Two Creations?" chart, compare / contrast the order of creation in 1-2:4 with the order in 2:4-2:25. What do you think is the logic of each order? In what ways are the two accounts similar / different? In what ways do you think Genesis 2:4-3:25 is a) an alternate creation story and / or b) a continuation of Genesis 1-2:4?

3. Near what region of the world does Eden seem to be located? What aetiological details and charter elements can you find in the creation story?

4. What differences and similarities (in order, creating power, method of creation, emphasis on humans, relations of gods and humans to nature, etc.) do you see between the Greek and Hebrew Creation stories?

5. Why does God create the world and men and women? (Compare with Hesiod.)

6. Did Adam till the soil of Eden? (See 2.15 and 3.17). Why is it appropriate that the ground be cursed because of Adam?

7. What do you think the serpent represents? (Could he be a trickster figure?)

8. Who is right about what will happen after the fruit is eaten, the serpent or the Lord God? (See 2.16 and 3.4-5). If Adam and Eve will gain immortality only by eating of the the tree of life (3:22), then why do you think the serpent tempts them to eat of the tree of knowledge? Do you think the two trees could be the same tree?

9. What do you think the "tree of life" (2.9 and 3.22) could symbolize?

10. What do you think the nakedness (2:25, 3.7) symbolizes? Why do you suppose the Hebrews chose nakedness as a symbol?

11. In what ways is Eve like or unlike Pandora? Note names, reasons for creation, "fall," and consequences of that fall. How are the "evils" released similar or different?

12. Compare / contrast what humans have at the end of the Prometheus-Pandora story with what they have at the end of the Adam and Eve story.

13. What is Adam and Eve's relationship with God like? Compare / contrast with the relationships of the Greeks to the gods.

14. In what ways do you think the stories of Prometheus and Pandora and Adam and Eve do or do not fit this statement by Mircea Eliade: "the myths of many peoples allude to a very distant epoch when men knew neither toil nor suffering and had a bountiful supply of food merely for the taking. In illo tempore [literally, "in that time"], the gods descended to earth and mingled with men; for their part, men could easily mount to heaven. As a result of a ritual fault, communications between heaven and earth were interrupted and the gods withdrew to the highest heaven. Since then, men must work for their food and are no longer immortal" (91).

Two Creation Stories?

Genesis 1-2.4
Genesis 2.4-3:25
Earth without form; darkness on "deep"; "spirit" moves over waters (1:1-2). 
1. light / dark; Day / Night (1:3-4). 
1. "In the day when the Lord-God made the earth and the heavens . . ." (2:4)
2. waters / firmament above and below
above = Heaven
2. Nothing on earth (2:5) until a "mist" waters the ground (2:6). 
3. dry land / waters = Earth / Seas
plus vegetation (1:9-13)
3. Lord forms Man from dust; breathes "breath of life" into nostrils (2:7). 
4. God makes "lights" to separate night and day: sun, moon, stars (1:14-19).  4. Lord plants a garden, makes trees grow out of the ground, including tree of life and tree of knowledge of good and evil (2:8-9). 
5. God makes living creatures: fish (waters) and birds (air).  5. Four rivers flow out of Eden (garden), two known, two unknown. Lord puts man in garden "to till it and keep it" (2:15) and issues prohibition about tree (2:16-17). 
6. He makes more living creatures: cattle, creepers, beasts (earth animals). God creates Man, male and female in "our likeness" and gives humans "dominion" over all living creatures (1:26-31).  6. "It is not good that the man shall be alone" (2:18), so the Lord makes beasts "out of the ground" and Adam names the animals (2:19-20). Woman is made from rib of man (2:21-25). 
7. "God rested" (2:3).   

Cain and Abel and later generations (Genesis 4-5)

4:1 Cain --his name means "smith," or one who works with metals. In ancient times, smiths often were nomadic wanderers, since they followed the herders and since few towns were large enough to support a full-time blacksmith. Cain is the ancestor of wanderers: cattle-herders, musicians, and the Kenites, or tribe of smiths (See Genesis 4:17-22).
4:6 If you do well: both animal and vegetable sacrifice were acceptable in "the Levitical sacrificial code" (Hooke 126). sin is couching Some translate "sin is a demon."
4:11 cursed from the ground E. A. Speiser says a better translation would be "banned from the ground." The Hebrew word here is the same used at 3:14 and 3:17 and means "to restrain (by magic), bind (by a spell)" (Speiser 24).
4:16 land of Nod "Nod" means "wandering" in Hebrew.

1. What do you think the Lord means when he says, "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" (4.6)? Why do you suppose the Lord "had no regard" (4.6) for Cain's offering?

2. Why do you think Cain murders his brother? Could murder be seen as an improper sacrifice?

3. Why do you think the Lord put a mark (4.15) on Cain? What do you think the mark symbolizes?

4. Why do you think Cain needs the mark if no one else is around? Comment on Sir James Frazer's suggestion that God put the mark on Cain so that he "may have paraded the waste places of the earth without the least fear of being recognized and molested by his victim's ghost" (quoted in Hooke 124-125).

5. S. H. Hooke notices two strands in the story: a) the ancient feud between nomadic herder and settled farmer, and b) a ritual myth of blood sacrifice to ensure fertility. About the second strand, Hooke comments: "The rejection of the agriculturalist's offering implies a failure of crops, and this calls for some form of expiatory ritual" (123). In other words, Abel must be "sacrificed" in order to ensure better crops next time: blood will fertilize the soil and appease an angry God. Cain must flee because he has become a scapegoat (see definition below). "The sacrificer was defiled by his act and was driven out by the community until he had been purified: his guilt was a communal and not individual guilt. This explains why the slayer enjoyed ritual protection [the mark]" (Hooke 125-126). Hooke's interpretation assumes that the story was originally supposed to take place in later times, but was altered to conform with the beginnings of mankind. Do you think his interpretation a plausible one? Why or why not?

6. In what ways is this story like or unlike the Adam and Eve story? (Think of the plot pattern and the relations of humans with the deity.)

7. Can you find the "relief" (5.29) that Lamech says his son Noah will bring? (Look in chapters 8-9.)


"A scapegoat . . . is an animal or human being used in public ceremonies to remove the taint or impairment consequent upon sin which, for one reason or another, cannot be saddled upon a particular individual. Such a scapegoat is a means of "cleansing" a community of a collective stain which cannot be wiped out by the normal procedure of individual penitence, restitution, and reform. The execution or despatch of it is always necessarily accompanied by a blanket public confession. Its purpose is not, as in the case of surrogates, to transfer punishment or discomfort, but to remove from the body politic any pollution or disaster responsibility for which cannot be precised" (Gaster 638).

The term scapegoat is short for "escape-goat" and derives from the biblical description of the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16. In The Oxford Companion to the Bible Philip Stern writes: "Two goats were designated by lot (16.8), one for the Lord, and one for Azazel, perhaps the name of a demon. The Lord's goat became a sacrificial sin-offering, while the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness after Aaron placed his hands on it and confessed the people's sins (16.21). . . . Thus, the scapegoat ritual . . . reveals the sacrificial cult's inability to achieve complete atonement by itself. . . . This [scapegoat ritual] involves the riddance of something profoundly unwanted. The sin offering could not carry away sins like the scapegoat" (69).

Two Genealogies?

Genesis 4:17-22 and 5:1-30 recounts two parallel traditions about the descendants of Adam (adapted from Hooke 127):
J-text (Genesis 4:17-18)
P-text (Genesis 5:1-30)
1. Adam 
2. ---- 
3. ---- 
4. Cain 
5. Enoch 
6. Irad 
7. Mehujael 
8. Methushael 
9. Lamech 
10. wandering descendants: (herders, musicians, smiths) 
1. Adam
2. Seth
3. Enosh ("man")
4. Kenan (Kenites, smiths)
5. Mahalalel 
6. Jared
7. Enoch
8. Methulselah
9. Lamech
10. Noah 

Noah and the Flood Notes and Questions (Genesis 6-10:32)

Two Flood Stories? ó The Flood Story Side-by-Side

Noah's Descendants

Works Cited

Back to ENG 204 World Mythology Course Index

LINKS to Web Sites to Hebrew, Sumerian, and Babylonian Cultures

The Book of Genesis (Revised Standard Version): http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/genesis.htm

Search Eight Different Translations of the Bible: http://bible.gospelcom.net/cgi-bin/bible

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago: http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/default.html
 [Authoritative, impeccable scholarship, if a bit puzzling to navigate--check out their ABZU index to Ancient Near Eastern Resources on the web.]

Origins of Western Religion Netcourse  http://www-relg-studies.scu.edu/netcours/rs011/
[From Santa Clara University, with lots of biblical information, especially on Mesopotamian influences on the Bible.]

Exploring Ancient World Cultures: The Near East: http://eawc.evansville.edu/nepage.htm

Christopher Sirenís Sumerian Myth site:  http://pubpages.unh.edu/~cbsiren/sumer-faq.html

Christopher Sirenís Babylonian Myth site: http://pubpages.unh.edu/~cbsiren/assyrbabyl-faq.html

Christopher Sirenís Canaanite Myth site: http://pubpages.unh.edu/~cbsiren/canaanite-faq.html