Sumerian King List

The Bible account of history should be confirmed by ancient historical documents. Corroboration of Bible history is found to some degree in the ancient Assyrian texts excavated from Nineveh, which hark back to ancient Sumerian myths and historical records.

Mythical Documents

Those ancient Assyrian texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish and Epic of Atrahasis do relate aspects of human history reflective of Biblical history. Those reflections are tainted, however, by the polytheistic mythology interpolated into the historical record, such that the documents are considered mythical, rather than historical. Nonetheless, spontaneous creation and a global flood are significant aspects of Biblical history which are clearly celebrated in the ancient Sumerian legends.

It is worth noting that the ancient Assyrian writings do not involve myths about evolution, millions of years, ice-ages, missing links, spontaneous generation, punctuated equilibrium, a big bang or life from outer space. Yet those myths do speak of divine creation, mankind under divine accountability and a global flood. It is logical that these myths involved such events because they were part of the true history within human consciousness.

Non-Mythical History

What we should expect to find and what would be valuable in support of the Bible is a non-mythical historical document which attests to creation and the flood, and therefore supports the Bible narrative. We should expect to find a document which is not tainted with mythology, but which reflects from ancient times an independent affirmation of what the Bible declares is to be our human history.

The Sumerian King List is such a text.

The King List

An historical record of kings has survived from the Sumerian age, speaking from antiquity and tracing human history from the very beginning though to the time of Hammurabi of Babylon. This record offers a window into the ancient past which lends historical support to the Bible record.

The list appears to have developed through history, with successive kingdoms taking charge of continuing the record from earliest times. Sixteen copies of the list have been identified, but not all are in good condition. Some later versions display the process of later kingdoms adding themselves and their kings to the continuing genealogy.

As one kingdom conquered the dominant kingdom of the day it then added its lineage of kings as an extension of the historical record. Then when that kingdom was overthrown the conquerors maintained the record and added their own names in succession, until they, in turn, were overthrown.

There is no reason to doubt the validity of the list, except for some omissions and disparity among the records. Many of the names and places have been confirmed by archaeology. The list attests to its own accuracy by giving specific detail, such as one king whose reign was detailed down to include the three months and three and a half days, as well as the total of years. Another person is detailed as having ruled for forty days. Yet another person is identified as the older brother of his predecessor and also son of the predecessor’s father, Sargon.

Corroboration

The Sumerian King List is an independent corroboration of the Biblical record of divine creation followed by a global flood just a handful of generations after the original creation.

Yet it stands independent from the Biblical record. Where the Bible record follows one of the family lineages from Noah’s three sons, the King List follows a different line. Where the Bible record focuses on a family lineage the King List records successive kings, who are from various families.

The King List, then, cannot be argued as some kind of religious source for the Bible record. The two stand independent from each other, yet they support each other in several significant facts.

The King List is a secular document. It is not maintained as part of religious worship, nor does it set out to deify the Kings or invoke particular religious sentiment, as the Epic of Gilgamesh was made to do. This is significant, because it stands as a secular, non-mythical, historical account of ancient times, yet with remarkable corroboration of the Biblical historical record included in its content.

Creation

The Sumerian King List totally ignores any notion of evolution through vast ages, and speaks from a divinely initiated beginning, as does the Bible. Its opening words are, “After kingship had descended from heaven, Eridu became the seat of kingship.”

Just as the Sumerian and Assyrian mythologies and epics speak of a divinely motivated creation, albeit with grotesque, polytheistic artefacts included, this ancient Sumerian historical record attests to the same reality. Spontaneous creation was not only a fact in the distorted mythical legends, but also in the historical records, just as it is a fact of the Bible record.

The Flood

This King List also attests to a unique flood event very early in the earth’s history. The Bible describes a flood which occurred in Noah’s day. Noah was the tenth person in the historical lineage from the creation of Adam.

The King List speaks of a unique flood event after the eighth generation from the beginning.

“Total: Five Cities, eight kings, reigned 241,200 years. The FLOOD then swept over.”

No other natural or astrological event is referred to in the entire list. The only such event is this reference to “the flood”. All other floods were ignored. No other natural or astrological event was worth reference, but this one flood event was enshrined in the record. Such significance given to the flood attests to it fitting the Bible account of Noah’s global flood.

In the light of this historical record, the mythological references to a global flood which destroyed almost all of mankind, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, give even more resoundingly credibility to the Bible account.

Kings in Mind

The King List is exactly that: a list of kings. The King List identifies eight kings before the global flood. The Bible records ten generations before the global flood. It is logical that both the King List and the Bible account came from the same information carried on Noah’s Ark. So, why the discrepancy?

The Bible record identifies ten family generations, but only eight patriarchs. Neither Enoch nor Lamech outlived their father, so there were only eight “kings”, or heads of the family line, before the Flood. Thus, even in this detail, the King List corroborates the Bible account.

Mythical Life-spans

Scholars refer to the Sumerian King List as a “mixture of fact and fantasy“. One of the principal reasons for the ‘fantasy’ charge is the unbelievable life spans attributed to the earlier members of the list. The earliest kings were recorded as living for tens of thousands of years.

This problem has been successfully tackled, at least in part, by John Walton, writing in the Fall 1991 issue of Biblical Archaeologist. Walton attributes the problem to an error made along the way, probably when one kingdom took new possession of the list by overthrowing the previously dominant kingdom. The error would have related to the Sumerian numerical use of base 60 in its calculations. In simplified terms this would mean that the numbers were blown out by a factor of 60 times.

Walton was able to rework the ages of the eight persons listed prior to the flood and found that they came very close to the ages ascribed to the eight people between Adam and Noah in the Bible.

Walton’s work brings the King List into greater correlation with the Bible record, but also reveals that the Sumerian document supports the Biblical history of people who lived for close to 1,000 years. He also removes the mythical quality from the list and brings it back into the realm of factual history.

Observations

The Sumerian King List brings the following relevant observations to our understanding of ancient times.

Genealogical records were kept from the earliest of time. Moses was able to provide acurate and detailed information about events which occurred thousands of years before he was born, in the same way successive generations of kings were able to refer back to the Sumerian list.

Genealogical records summarised history around significant personalities, in the same way the Bible accounts for history along one principal family lineage. The Sumerian King List records those who were “king” or head of the family or clan at the relevant time. On that basis we discover that Noah was the eighth in lineage from Adam, even though he was the tenth generation by birth order. Thus Peter records Noah as the “eighth person” in 2Peter 2:5

“And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly” 2Peter 2:5

Expanding Record

These Sumerian records were passed down from generation to generation. Conquering kings took over the records in their own court, adding themselves to the grand list. The record grew in stages over time.

The King List record is therefore a true account of people that did live and victories that did occur. The record traces the kings of each dominant kingdom in a succession of kingdoms. We see that several kingdoms enjoy repeated dynasties as the dominant kingdom.

Those who perpetuated the ongoing genealogy understood the record to be fact and worthy of adding their inclusion.

Mathematics Mixed

As discussed earlier, the earliest age accounts were misunderstood at some point in the passing of the records, causing a blow-out of the figures, as per John Walton’s 1991 calculations.

John Walton’s assumptions result in the record of the ante-diluvium kings matching the Genesis record. The error most likely occurred when a new conquering kingdom updated the records, but without understanding the original Sumerian mathematical base.

Genesis Supported

The Sumerian King List is a sound attestation to several elements of the Genesis record.

It accounts for a divine element in the creation.

It accounts for a time of creation, with a beginning that did not need a preceding extended evolutionary history.

It accounts for the limited number of generations before the global flood.

It concurs with the long lives of the ante-diluvium generations.

It confirms the unique global flood incident, worthy of being recorded apart from all other flood or natural events, and thus matching the flood of Noah’s day.

It attests to the process of passing down historical records and “generations” as was done from Adam to Moses, in the compilation of the Genesis historical record.

It allows for misunderstanding in the passing down of the record, as conquering kings took possession of the record but may not have fully understood the basis on which it was maintained. This is different to the lineage record passed down to Moses, as that record was kept in the family, along with a supporting oral tradition. The Biblical detail is therefore factual and reliable.

It allows for the interpolation of spurious divinity into the record, as a conquering king made his self-appointed assertions of the basis of his authority, without denigrating the actual record itself. When King Meskiaggasher of Eanna conquered Kish he had his scribes add him to the list, but as a “son of Utu” (the sun god). This deistic insertion would have been an attempt to aggrandize and elevate himself, as was done in the deification of Egyptian Pharaohs and others.

The list confirms the real existence of Gilgamesh, and thus reveals the encroaching religious mythology which developed in some kingdoms over time. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a real person, presents a perverted mythological tale involving polytheistic deities who were imagined and interposed into human consciousness somewhere during the time of the Sumerian kings.

The emergence of polytheistic concepts represents a degeneration of human consciousness, rather than the forward movement of the evolution of religious thought.

The King List starts with reference to heaven, as per the Bible account, but degenerates into mythology as the centuries pass. The Bible account has maintained its integrity, being preserved by God from the deception and delusion which shrouded the minds of those influenced by the serpent ‘Satan’ character described in Genesis 2.

A Valuable Find

In light of the points mentioned above, the Sumerian King List proves to be a valuable document in support of several aspects of the Biblical record. I commend it for inclusion in discussions on the historicity of the Book of Genesis.

Ancient Writings Compared

Critics of the Bible usually object to its proclamation of a creator God to whom man is accountable. In fact, moral accountability is the over-riding message of the Bible, combined with a divine solution to man’s problem of moral failure.

Yet the Bible does exist as a surviving ancient document. It is the most remarkable document in all of human history, ancient and modern. To assess that fact let us compare the ancient text of the Bible with other ancient writings which are help up against it at times.

Before we look at specific ancient documents, consider this quote about the Bible from Professor William Foxwell Albright.

“It [the Bible] stands absolutely alone in ancient literature without a remote parallel even among the Greeks …  The Table of Nations remains an astonishingly accurate document …  (It) shows such remarkably ‘modern’ understanding of the ethnic and linguistic situation in the modern world, in spite of all its complexity, that scholars never fail to be impressed with the author’s knowledge of the subject.” (Recent Discoveries In Bible Lands, pp.70ff.)

Sumerian Mythology

Discovery of ancient texts in the ruins of Nineveh and at Ebla, among other sources as well, provide us with a range of ancient texts which echo back to the early Sumerian civilisation. Those texts give ancient accounts of events and provide a notion of their ancient view of the world.

The ancient accounts of creation and the flood, which are claimed to be the original sources from which the Bible accounts of those events were constructed, prove to be vastly inferior to the Bible. While some scholars blindly proclaim such texts as the ancient epic stories of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis as the mythological base from which the Bible’s mythological stories were developed, we have already seen in previous articles in my archaeology series, that they leave much to be desired. They are decidedly non-scientific and mythical. They describe a universe which is inconsistent with what people now revere in both science and religion. They have no prevailing presence in modern thought.

Note that the combined corpus of Assyrian mythology, celebrated as the seedbed for Moses’ writings in Genesis, has been lost to antiquity and irrelevance. It has not persisted as something of substance in today’s word, even though there are those who wish to hanker back to ancient religious thought.

Codes and Histories

We saw in an earlier post on the Code of Hammurabi, that the legal prescriptions of King Hammurabi are limited and devoid of moral principal. They are a far cry from the pronouncements of our moral creator God, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, 500 years after Hammurabi’s work.

Hammurabi’s code is not enshrined in civil codes today. It is not an undergirding aspect of today’s legal systems. While its cruel prescriptions, such as maiming a thief, are picked up in such places as the Koran, there is no abiding regard for this text and its contribution to modern civilisation.

We also have ancient historical records, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This text is essentially a religious funeral liturgy devoted to making the appropriate petitions to the polytheistic deities, so that the deceased will be allowed certain privileges and protections in the afterlife.

Copies of the text were carved on the sarcophagi, or placed inside it, so the dead would have access to the various petitions to make in the afterlife, to enable them to go forth each day. They were designated the Book of the Dead in an 1842 translation, and the name has persisted since.

The deities, prayers, concepts of afterlife and concerns expressed in the Egyptian book have faded from consciousness in today’s world. They do not describe things which today’s science or religious thought holds dear.

Similarly, the ancient Sumerian Kings List, with its reference to the flood very early in human history, is not a living document. It is regarded as a mixture of fact and fiction, worth being aware of, but of limited value today. It is just another list of names, bringing with it no moral value and little scientific merit. On this point, however, I believe that the Sumerian King List proves to be a valuable corroboration of the Bible history, and I will investigate that claim in a future post.

Greek Mythology and Philosophy

Greek writings from the centuries before Christ are, arguably, the most enduring ancient writings outside the Bible. Western thought has been greatly influenced by the rediscovery and re-promotion of these Greek texts in recent centuries.

Most western universities have courses in the Greek Classics. They are held by some to be essential reading in order to come to wisdom. Yet for all that, the Greek philosophers have not been able to develop a track-record of enduring impact and value. Most who study them gain little from the process and rarely become evangelists for their promotion.

World Thought

The Hindu Vedas and the writings of Confucius are other examples of ancient documents which have survived into today’s generation. Hindus revere their Vedic writings. Chinese culture owes much to the standards encouraged by Confucius. Buddhists refer to teachings attributed to their founder, Gautama Buddha. These writings were an oral tradition for a very long time and various schools of Buddhism give different weight to various aspects of the ancient texts.

While these various influences hold sway within their cultural or religious context, they are generally locked within that context. They have not gained currency in other fields of application.

Disposable Antiquity

It is to be noted that these various documents from antiquity have two significant qualities which differentiate them from the Bible. The first is that they are disposable. Many indeed have disappeared from the culture completely.

The ancient Assyrian clay tablets, referring back to even more ancient Sumerian myths, were buried for several millennia. Their message was not missed. Their contribution was not sought. They did not leave a void. They were easily disposed of. Even today, subsequent to their rediscovery and publication, they have little impact. Their greatest contribution seems to be in encouraging criticism of the Bible by those who wish to see them as a mythical source for what they call Biblical mythology.

Harmurabi’s Code and the Egyptian Book of the Dead are novel relics, but of no present impact. The religious texts of Buddhism and Hinduism have been abandoned by converts from those religions, without loss to those converts. Those individuals have been able to dispose of their ancient religious texts without thought. Similarly, students of Greek philosophy have disposed of their textbooks and essays, without any further regard for the supposed value of those studies.

Compare those examples with the Bible, which has been the most attacked book in history, yet has had by far the most outstanding impact of any book in all of human history. Rather than passing into oblivion, as several people have prophesied it would, it remains as loved and valued today as ever. The Bible is not a disposable book, despite its antiquity. It has an enduring relevance, which gives it as much value in each new generation as it held in olden-days times.

Impotent Impact

The second significant quality of these ancient texts is that they display limited impact. They have not endured, because they have not delivered value. In many cases they do not offer truth, but a cultural delusion which passed away with the culture of the era, such as the Greek mythology and Egyptian funerary rites of ancient Egyptian polytheism.

The religious writings also prove to be impotent. When devotees of Hinduism and Buddhism convert to Christianity, for example, they discover potency in their new faith which they did not find in their past beliefs.

Greek mythology and philosophy has now been studied by millions of western minds, yet it has not brought the impact to them that is so readily testified to by those who have believed in the Bible.

The Supreme Text

The Bible is the vastly superior ancient text, on all counts. It has endured while others have faded away and not been missed. It has impact, not only to the religious devotees, but in such fields as law, sciences, government, society, family life, health, education and personal transformation.

Jesus Christ prescribed the perfect test for people and related things, by telling us to check out the fruit which is produced.

“Wherefore by their fruits you will know them.” Mathew 7:20

The fruit of all these ancient documents amounts to so little, if anything, especially when compared with the fruit which the Holy Bible continues to prompt and generate in the lives of young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, on every continent and in every country and culture, not only now, but continually through human history.

When ancient writings are compared, the Bible stands supreme. And this is not simply a religious claim by a Christian. This is the clear evidence for all who will dare to look.

Enuma Elish Creation Story

In 1876, just four years after publication of the Epic of Gilgamesh, George Smith completed and published his translation of Enuma Elish. This ancient Assyrian document was immediately acclaimed as an equivalent creation story to that given in the Bible.

Part of the Barrage

This new document came as yet another wave of challenge to the authenticity of the Book of Genesis. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, published in 1859 compounded the growing scientific assault on Genesis, propelled forward by Charles Lyell’s geological uniformity concepts.

The 1872 publication of the Gilgamesh Epic brought criticism of Genesis from a new quarter. Archaeology seemed to bring solid evidence that the supposedly divine revelations in Genesis were mere re-workings of ancient stories. The pile of discarded clay tablets, with their “bird track” markings proved to be more valuable than the initial treasure hunters expected. While the ruins of ancient Assyrian palaces from the Nineveh site were scoured for gold and priceless artefacts, the tens of thousands of small clay tablets were simply shovelled out of the way. But when George Smith put his unique self-taught talents to work on deciphering the cuneiform script new evidence against Genesis seemed to leap from the rubble.

Evidence of the exaltation of Enuma Elish as a direct challenge to the authority of Genesis is testified by George Smith’s title for publication of his translation, under the auspices of the British Museum, “The Chaldean Genesis“.

The Link Asserted

In 1895 German author Herrmann Gunkel HeHerrr

published an influential book, proclaiming that the Genesis account is merely an expansion of the pre-existing Enuma Elish story. Since that book scholars have taken it for granted that the two accounts are directly linked.

Gunkel contended that the ancient Near Eastern myth of creation, especially as formulated in the Enuma Elish, was the underlying document upon which the Genesis account was formulated. He claimed that the myth was modified by Bible writers to bring it into agreement with the Israelite religion.

Seven Clay Tablets

Enuma Elish is an ancient story about warfare and barbarism among a group of gods. Seven clay tablets from the ancient library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal told the story as it existed in Babylon. Variations of the story have been found, reducing the status of Enuma Elish as a “creation” narrative, since the battle story is presented in some cases, without any reference to creation.

King Ashurbanipal ordered his servants to collect written works from around the realm, from Egypt to India. 100,000 clay tablets filled his famous library, which housed the first such collection in history. From the excavations of his library some 26,000 tablets survived, with many being destroyed or damaged in the hunt for more valuable antiquities.

The seven clay tablets were not without damage and some parts of the story have been untranslatable. George Smith translated what was still readable. The fifth tablet speaks of creation of the earth and sky from the carcase of a murdered god. The sixth of seven tablets mentions the plan by the victorious warring gods to create mankind. Note, then, that creation is a small part of the overall story, and is not recorded in other telling of the same war among the gods.

Rebellion in Heaven

Enuma Elish is a grotesque and barbaric story about bloodshed among the gods. These gods, rather than being divine in nature, are very human in their relationships and actions. They marry, give birth to other gods, are able to be killed and so on.

When the family of gods makes too much disturbance for the principal male god, Apsu, from whom the others sprang in several generations, he decides to destroy them all. One of the younger gods, Ea, great-grandson to Apsu, kills the patriarch god. The widow and great-grandmother, Tiamat, is enraged and seeks vengeance against Ea. She creates eleven monsters, marries Kingu, and goes to war.

Tiamat’s vengeful rampage at first seems unstoppable. However, a great-great grandson god, Marduk, who is supposed to have founded Babylon, successfully destroys Tiamat, by bludgeoning her to death and cutting her body in pieces from which various creations are made. Marduk then appoints the various gods their own places, which researchers have noted correspond to Babylonian astrology.

Marduk decides to create mankind to serve the gods by maintaining temples for their worship, and to perform menial tasks for the gods. Marduk murders Kingu, using his blood and bones as the substance to form humanity.

The Creation Account

Since Enuma Elish is cited today as proof that the Genesis creation record is somehow taken from earlier creation accounts, it is important to see the account from which Moses is supposed to have gained his inspiration.

There are approx 1,160 lines of text in the whole Enuma Elish story. Of that complete text the account of earth’s creation occupies no more than 30 lines and the account of the man’s creation occupies 8 lines. Here I quote text related the creation, from LW Kings 1902 translation, published as The Seven Tablets of Creation.

“He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud.
And the lord measured the structure of the Deep,
And he founded E-sara, a mansion like unto it.
The mansion E-sara which he created as heaven,
He caused Anu, Bel, and Ea in their districts to inhabit.”

Another 24 lines speak of the moon and sun in their orbits, as dividing the year into twelve months.

Thus less than four percent of the whole document relates to creation, and that account, as you can see by what is quoted here, has no meaningful relationship with the account of Genesis 1.

The Creation of Man

Of the more than one thousand lines on seven tablets there are but a few scant words about the creation of man. Here I again quote from LW Kings The Seven Tablets of Creation.

“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may ….
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established, and that their shrines may be built.”

A more complete translation of the Enuma Elish document, compiled from other sources as well, adds to these four lines just a few more.

“Out of his blood they fashioned mankind.
He imposed on him the service and let free the gods.
After Ea, the wise, had created mankind,
Had imposed upon them the service of the gods-”

What Comparison?

Enuma Elish has nothing to do with the Genesis account. The fact that the reality of creation is reflected in an ancient myth only goes to prove the human consciousness of that event, not the creation of a lie which Moses inherited.

The one true God, acting in a fashion consistent with His actions through the whole of recorded history, created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, as described in the Book of Genesis. He acted as a holy, loving creator, who made man in His own image, to enjoy the delight of inclusion into His eternal existence. God does not need man, nor does God act with the vain impulses we see in man.

God created out of nothing (ex nihilo) not from the remains of some other deity whom He butchered. God created life as a gift to those He made. He did not create as a self-serving exercise to indulge His needs or have menials at His disposal.

There is next to nothing that links the Enuma Elish to the Genesis record, except that it speaks of creation. Yet thousands of ignorant people were beguiled into believing that the authority of scripture had been decimated by the sunburnt clay tablets.

I am thankful to Dr Clifford Wilson and his wife Dr Barbara Wilson for their inspiration and guidance in my own exploration of Biblical archaeology. As friend, academic supervisor and mentor, Dr Clifford has keenly encouraged my interest in archaeology, as he has for many others in decades past.
In honour of his on-going work and his world-wide impact I am compiling various posts on archaeology, based on the excellent work of Drs Clifford and Barbara, while adding my own personal style and insights. Drs Clifford and Barbara Wilson are building a website to present their work. You can visit the website at http://www.drcliffordwilson.com

Genesis Challenged

Christianity faced troubled times at the close of the nineteenth century. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution fed scientific scepticism about the Genesis account of creation by providing what seemed to be a viable alternative. At the same time, clay tablets from the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh provided alternative accounts of the Flood and Creation, in clearly mythical form, suggesting that the Genesis record was similarly a mere myth.

Foundations Shaken

Creationist Ken Ham points out that Christianity has been distracted with taking pot shots at issues while its detractors have been aiming their weapons at Christianity’s foundations. If the Book of Genesis can be discredited then all that follows in the Bible can be brought into question.

During the nineteenth century (the 1800’s) assault on the Book of Genesis was vigorously pursued by some, based on emerging scientific hypotheses and on archaeological discoveries.

Charles Lyell, who lived from 1797 to 1875, proposed a non-catastrophic view of geography, despite the abundant evidence for upheaval in the geological record. His propositions of uniformity allowed for extended periods of time in the earth’s history. That extension of historical time was required by the proponents of gradual change over time (evolution).

The emerging notion of evolution was given seeming scientific status by Charles Darwin with his 1959 “Origin of Species” with its account of exotic creatures in the mysterious and remote Galapagos Islands. The notions of “survival of the fittest”, “natural selection” and “missing links” created a new scientific myth which had everything but substance and common sense.

Within days of the release of Darwin’s book, Thomas Henry Huxley, eventually dubbing himself “Darwin’s Bulldog“, began vigorously promoting the scientific worth of evolution over the religious notions carried in the Book of Genesis.

Enter Archaeology

As the battle for Genesis gained intensity, a new dimension emerged to give impetus to detractors. A pile of rubble in ancient mounds in the Near East yielded documents which dated back almost 1,000 years before Christ. Included in that rubble were ancient mythologies of events similar to those described in Genesis.

The city of Nineveh was a sprawling metropolis at its height. Successive rulers moved their principal residence to different parts of the city and so several palace buildings were established over time. Add to that the fact that Nineveh housed the world’s greatest library collection of its time, and you have the creation of a treasure trove of antiquity.

The ancient palaces and libraries of Assyria began to be excavated in the 1840’s, leading to the discovery of a vast collection of ancient documents on clay tablets. In 1850 English archaeologist Henry Layard uncovered the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib at tell Kouyunjik (one of the three principal palace locations in Nineveh – Kouyunjik, Khorsabad, and Nimrud).

In 1853 Layard’s former assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, found the famous library of the Assyrian King Ashur-bani-pal, in a different part of the Nineveh ruins. 26,000 of the original 100,000 clay tablets survived with decipherable text. Many were taken to the British Museum for translation.

Among those tablets were found Assyrian myths about creation and a fiction story which featured a great flood. When they were finally translated by George Smith he published them under the title “Chaldean Account of Genesis” in 1876 under the auspices of the British Museum of Oriental Antiquities. The very title suggests a direct link between the tablets and Genesis and those discoveries fuelled the accusation that Moses’ Genesis document was a mere evolution of earlier mythological writings. Note that George Smith died that same year, on his way back from his third visit to the ruins of Nineveh.

Assyrian Flood Story

In December 1872 George Smith published his translation of the oldest known literary work in human history. Smith was the first person to read the story in 2,000 years. But the Epic of Gilgamesh was not made famous for its literary worth, but for its reference to a great flood.

George Smith is an interesting character in that he was not a great scholar and came from a working class background. But he was fascinated with antiquities and taught himself to decipher ancient cuneiform inscriptions. He soon became more knowledgeable and skilled in the task than the staff at the British Museum where he pored over antiquities. Consequently Henry Rawlinson, the great Assyriologist of the day, arranged for Smith to be employed in the Assyriology Department to work on translating the thousands of clay tablets from Nineveh.

Smith translated several tablets in the fictional story of a man named Gilgamesh, who travelled the world facing various adventures. He came to a blank in the story, where a missing tablet was needed to continue the adventure. Smith then ventured to Mesopotamia to attack the pile of rubble left by Layard and Rassam, and, against all odds, found the missing tablet.

It told of a great flood, and of a boat and animals. It even mentioned birds being released at the end of the flood. This bore striking resemblance to the Genesis record of Noah’s Flood.

Assyrian Creation Story

Following Smith’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh he then came across another set of clay tablets telling a story which led to the creation of man. The series of seven tablets is known as the Enuma Elish.

While some tablets were broken and accurate translation is impossible, the general text of the story has been translated several times by different scholars. It was first titled “The Chaldean Genesis” by Smith. LW King’s 1902 translation was titled “The Seven Tablets of Creation“. EA Speiser’s translation was published in a 1969 book titled “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament“. It is obvious that scholars readily link the Enuma Elish with the book of Genesis.

Mounting Evidence

When Smith followed his Assyrian Flood translation with the Assyrian Creation story in 1876 there seemed to be growing proof that the Bible was merely another expression of ancient mythological writings.

Combine that with the pseudo-scientific crusading of Huxley and other evolutionists and you can see that Genesis was under solid attack by the end of the 1800’s. That assault has played a large part in the increased secularisation of western society during the twentieth century.

Clay Tablets are No Threat

Despite the perception that the clay tablets from antiquity have demolished the Bible, the truth is quite the opposite. The abiding impact of archaeology at Nineveh is to confirm the first-hand authenticity of the Bible accounts. The clay tablets confirmed details, customs, language and similar details provided in the Bible, which had previously not been corroborated.

Further to that, the seeming case against the Bible crumbled on closer investigation. The Assyrian stories are vastly different to the Bible account and the differences set the Bible apart, rather than put it down.

Ignorance and Assumption

People who are ignorant are prone to making assumptions. This tendency can be exploited by those who wish to deceive or who make suggestions which are misleading.

When the public is told that the Assyrian stories of the flood and creation match the Bible, many people will gullibly assume that the parallels are striking and that the Bible’s authority has been damaged. Few are likely to read the source documents and remove their ignorance.

In a follow up post I will explain some of the glaring contrasts between the Assyrian and Biblical accounts which people have been led to believe are closely related.

Code of Hammurabi

Did an ancient legal code from Babylonia form the basis for the Mosaic Law embodied in the Old Testament? Does the existence of the Code of Hammurabi reduce the law of God to a mere human code?

The existence of a noted artefact from antiquity containing Hammurabi’s Code has prompted questions like these and cast a shadow of doubt over Moses’ meeting with God on Mount Sinai. So the archaeological investigation of the Code of Hamurabi is one that Christians and Biblical scholars have an interest in.

Black Stone Monument

In 1901 an ancient stone monument, eight feet high, was found in the Susa acropolis, in the Persian mountains. The stele was originally created and placed in Babylon by King Hammurabi of Babylon who lived from 1792-1750BC.

Hamurabi ruled over a vast empire and his monument lists the many places where he exercised dominion, telling of his many contributions to his various subjects.

The stele was taken to Susa by a conquering prince from the neighboring country of Elam in Iran in the 12th century BC.

The monument is now housed in the Louvre Museum in France, where it is described as “a work of art, history and literature, and the most complete legal compendium of Antiquity“.

The Code

Hammurabi’s monument contains cuneiform script and Akkadian language writing presented in three sections. The opening and closing paragraphs speak of Hammurabi’s appointment and blessing from the many gods, his dominion over many peoples and the many curses which will come upon those who oppose him.

The central portion contains 282 legal pronouncements which form the legal code which Hammurabi applied in his kingdom. Those legal pronouncements cover family relations, commercial transactions, property inheritance, prescribed punishments for theft and other evils, and more.

Hammurabi described his code as designed for specific maintenance of justice in the realm. “That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans … in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries.”

Origins

Hammurabi ruled over what is thought to be the world’s first metropolis. It was a multi-cultural society, under his supreme leadership, but sweeping across various cultures and peoples. His code, therefore, became a universal reference point, superseding the local, tribal customs and imposing royal edict and pronouncement as to how matters were to be resolved.

Hammurabi’s code is thought to date from about 1740 BC, created from legal precedents which were established during his reign. It is also thought to be drawn from two pre-existing Sumerian legal documents which have not survived to our time. Those codes were drawn up first by Ur-Namma, king of Ur (2100 BC) and then Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c.1930 BC).

To put those dates and places into Biblical perspective, Abraham originated in Ur of the Chaldees, born 1998 BC. One hundred years later, 1898 BC, Isaac was born. At the time Hammurabi was composing his code the 12 sons of Jacob were being born, from which sprang the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob’s name was changed to Israel by God).

Hammurabi probably had a legal team who drafted it for him, based around rulings which had been made in various courts, principally the Babylonian court.

There are some contradictions and illogical prescriptions in the code, where two similar cases are treated differently. This is probably accounted for by the compilation process from case law.

Prescriptions

Most items in the code are legal prescriptions, presented on the basis of person, action and outcome. Should a particular type of person (described in a class system) do a particular type of action, to a particular type of person, then the prescribed penalty shall be such and such.

The same action committed against people of differing station resulted in different penalties. People who occupied the highest class in society, such as members of the court, were protected by the higher penalties for injury against them. However, they were also punished at a higher rate, due to their ability to pay larger fines and probably the expectation of a higher standard from them.

Enduring Influence

Hammurabi’s code was referred to until just a few centuries before Christ. This fact is ascertained by the later copies which have been found. Fragments of the code were found in the ruins of Assur-bani-pal’s library at Nineveh and later versions, titled Ninu ilu sirum (from the opening words of the code) have been found, including reformatting into chapters.

Much of the code remained in force through the subsequent Persian, Greek and Parthian eras, preserving the Babylonian way of life. Aspects of the code persisted into the Syro-Roman era and were even adopted into the Mahommedan law of Mesopotamia.

Hammurabi’s code employed a cruel retribution upon offenders, including grim retaliatory punishments such as cutting off hands, poking out eyes, drowning, killing family members. Mohammedan law incorporates similar cruelty, such as cutting off the hand of the thief. Thus Hammurabi’s code resonates today in selected legal settings.

Hammurabi and Moses

Hammurabi composed his code half a millennium before Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. The existence of Hammurabi’s code has prompted many who deny the supernatural nature of Moses’ life and ministry to construe that Moses simply reworked the Law of God from existing resources, such as Hammurabi’s code.

Consequently it is interesting to compare the codes passed to us by both Hamurabi and Moses. Do they have much in common or are they significant in their independent approaches and concepts?

Mosaic Law is first summarised in the Ten Commandments, but is then expanded into an extensive compilation of pronouncements about things religious and civil.

Contrasts between Hammurabi and Moses

While there may be parallels in some of the legal items listed in the different law codes the differences and contrasts are significant. They are so significant that they argue against Hammurabi’s code have any real place in the Mosaic Law.

The choice similarity that is promoted involves Moses’ use of the term, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which resonates with Hammurabi’s prescription for similar retribution. While that similarity can be argued, the reality is that there is a profound distinction. Hammurabi prescribes the process of exacting retribution, to satisfy an aggrieved person. Moses establishes a legal principle, where no more can be demanded than was lost. Hammurabi celebrates retaliation, while Moses offers justice.

Hammurabi’s code is prescriptive, listing almost 200 precepts. They are rulings to aid a judge in making a determination in a legal case. The Law of God is not built on prescription, but on principles. Moses laid out many principles which did not need to be itemised in codified prescriptions. The principle was supreme over the precept. In Hammurabi’s Mesopotamian science, however, the particular never governs the general. Every particular had to be spelled out and prescribed. Law was not a matter of principle, but of prescribed outcome and punishment.

Hammurabi’s code was State Law. It was the dictate by Imperial decree, just as the English have a tradition of Imperial Law. It was, therefore, not divine. Although Hammurabi claimed to be graced by the gods and given special wisdom thereby, he asserts that the code is his own and he imposes it by his own authority. Moses, on the other hand, never made any claim to the laws which he received from God. They were always the Law of God, given by revelation, not by human comprehension.

Hammurabi’s laws were fixed on action, without regard for cause, excuse or mitigating circumstances. The effect was primary. God’s Law, on the other hand, gives great emphasis to motive and intent. The outcome being important, does not destroy the issue of intention, whether accidental, on the spur of the moment or premeditated.

The Place of God

While Hammurabi’s code acknowledges and lists deities, it fails to elevate deity. Trespass and theft from a temple is on a par with the same actions against a court. But the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue, as it is sometimes called) starts out with a demand for God’s primacy. The first three (thirty percent) of the fundamental laws were directly related to God’s being. No gods before the True God; No idols; No blasphemy of God’s name.

God’s fourth command is that the Sabbath day be honoured. This is stated as being in honour of God resting on the seventh day. Jesus Christ later declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So this fourth commandment had the dual function of honouring God and enforcing a blessing on mankind.

So the first forty percent of the Decalogue has no prescriptive, punitive, civil application. It is about God’s elevation and man’s welfare.

The fifth command is to honour parents. This, like those first commands, is a matter of heart and principle, not prescription. The final five cover civil life, not religious issues, but they are stated as matters of principle. Life is precious. Sexual intimacy is the preserve of marriage. Property rights are to be upheld. Truth is to be protected. Inner, personal contentment is to be maintained.

Religion and Civics

The expanded law of Moses includes the Levitical order – the administrative and religious functions of the priests and their Levite assistants. Matters that are legal are intermingled with religious duties, prescribed sacrifices, health regulations, tests for truthfulness, and so on.

While Hammurabi devoted his code to civil issues, effectively relegating the religious codes to oblivion, God, through Moses, revealed a deeply religious society which saw civil existence as an extension of God’s presence and reality in the whole of life.

Another testimony to the divine nature of Moses’ Law is that the Ten Commandments and the extended laws reflect a divine perspective. They are not set out as resolving human concerns, but of serving divine requirements. They are not about bringing peace among men, but bringing people to a place of respectful worship of God. The demands of a vengeful heart in a wronged person are not the concern of the Law of Moses. Provision is made to protect people from such things, with cities of refuge. God’s heart toward man and man’s heart toward God are more important considerations than man’s need for restitution and vengeance.

Moses and Hammurabi Stand Apart

The contrasts in construction, content and context reveal that what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai had nothing to do with what Hammurabi constructed for his kingdom. Babylon came and went, then later revived before being swept away. Hammurabi’s issues of social and civil justice have not prevailed as a lasting code to uplift mankind.

The Law of God, given through Moses, has remained the outstanding and unparalleled legal, social and moral code for all cultures in all centuries of human history.

Hammurabi is dead and gone and his code has faded with time. The Living God lives on, and so too does His law. Hammurabi cannot claim any of God’s glory.