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Introduction

JUDAISM

The official story of Judaic myth and religion is contained in the books of the Old Testament, which are thought to have been compiled circa 1000 BC. Until the late-19th century, it was assumed that these books constituted a unique and divinely-inspired account of the origins of mankind and Western civilisation. But then came the discoveries of older, parallel texts in the ancient Near East, many dating back to the 2nd and 3rd millennia BC. Accordingly, it is now widely appreciated that the Old Testament is but a continuation and adaptation of these earlier religious writings. As the renowned Sumerologist Samuel N. Kramer explained in his 1956 book ‘History Begins at Sumer’:

Archaeological discoveries made in Egypt and in the Near East in the past hundred years have opened our eyes to a spiritual and cultural heritage undreamed of by earlier generations... a bright and revealing light has been shed on the background and origin of the Bible itself. We can now see that this greatest of literary classics did not come upon the scene full-blown, like an artificial flower in a vacuum; its roots reach deep into the distant past and spread wide across the surrounding lands. Both in form and content, the biblical books bear no little resemblance to the literatures created by earlier civilisations in the Near East.

To be fair, the Old Testament books are distinctive from earlier literatures in quite a few respects. For example:

• The religion is strictly monotheistic. There is One God. There is no Goddess. And the gods are largely occulted from view.

• God is disembodied from the beginning. When he creates the Universe, he does so ‘at arm’s length’. Accordingly, he is not to be regarded as a Sun-god, a Moon-god, or a star-god; and nor is he to be worshipped via any symbolic image.

• God’s act of creation is non-cataclysmic. His cataclysmic role is historicised, to feature only in post-creation events such as the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and the descent upon Mount Sinai.

• God takes a special interest in the Jewish people, and intervenes in the course of history to establish them in ‘the promised land’.

• On the question of religious philosophy, the afterlife is denied to the common man. ‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’.

• The books provide a complete ‘history’ from the creation of man to the events of the present day.

• Overall, the emphasis is less on the creation myth, and more on philosophy and the political history of the Jewish nation.

The net effect of these differences is that the Old Testament is valued more for its historical and philosophical insights than for its revelations on the meaning of God and the creation myth. Indeed, on the latter questions the books seem to give away as little as possible.

However, if one takes an overview of the Old Testament in the light of the earlier pagan religions, a pattern emerges which is strongly reminiscent of the old pagan religions. For example:

• God is a deity of many names: he is variously called Elohim, Yahweh, Adonai, and El Shaddai.

• God is said to have fought a cosmic battle against a sea-monster named Rahab, whom he pierced, cut into pieces, and flung into the abyss.

• God may be depicted in human-like form, experiencing human-like emotions, and yet he typically manifests himself with phenomena such as bright light, fire, thunder, arrows, a storm of meteorites, or a flood. When he descends from the sky, the earth trembles, splits open, or melts before his presence.

• God’s creation of the Universe begins with a proto-earth that is submerged in a flood of water. This is identical to the Egyptian myth of creation.

• To create the Universe, God separates light from darkness (i.e. soul from body), and separates waters from waters (i.e. the sky-ocean from the terrestrial ocean). He then causes the land of the proto-earth to rise above the waters. Again, this is identical to the Egyptian myth of creation.

• God creates man in his own image, using the clay of the earth. Certain passages in the Old Testament suggest that man was cast down from a heavenly paradise, whilst the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis attests to a period of man’s existence in the underworld. These ideas follow the Sumerian creation myth.

• God authorises a Great Flood to destroy mankind and all living things. Although this is portrayed as a historic event, it closely follows an incident in the Sumerian creation myth.

Conclusion

Despite the Hebrew priests’ best efforts to distance their religion from the pagan creation cults, the influence of the latter can be identified and traced. This allows us to conclude that the God of the Old Testament is a made-over version of the Gods of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In other words, he is a Creator-God who personified the act of creation.

Reading List

The Bible, Old Testament.

A.F. Alford, ‘When The Gods Came Down’, Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.

R. Alter, ‘Genesis’, W. W. Norton and Co., 1996.

Copyright Notice

'These pages are the copyright of Eridu Books 2004. The images and diagrams are the copyright of Alan Alford or of other photographers, where indicated. Eridu Books welcomes the reproduction and dissemination of these pages, in original, unaltered form, for non-commercial purposes, but permission must be sought for any other usage, other than 'fair dealing' quotations.'

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