Saturday, August 21, 2010

Of Hammurabi, Gilgamesh, and Abraham

I'd like to start by putting two ancient writings on the table before I explain why:

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
(from the Code of Hammurabi, around 1800 B.C.)

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth ... (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21)

The Code of Hammurabi predates Moses by centuries, by any chronology I've ever heard. I don't want to make too much of the similarities between the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and the laws passed down in the Torah. I suspect the various peoples of that place and that era shared a sense of justice, and likewise shared a sense that these commands were handed down by God (or gods, as the case may be). If some would see this as proof positive that the Hebrew legal code was not, after all, handed to Moses in its entirety on Mount Sinai, that is not for me to argue.

One more thing before I get to my actual point.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an early Babylonian record of a great flood. Even allowing an early date for the book of Genesis around the time worked out in chronologies for the exodus from Egypt, still the Epic of Gilgamesh is earlier. Even Answers in Genesis (a conservative Christian website, to say the least) acknowledges, "Comparing the flood stories in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis, one is impressed with the numerous similarities between the two accounts." Many scholars believe that the Hebrew account is largely borrowed from the earlier Babylonian account. Others say that the two accounts both preserve the memory of the same event.

Again, my point is not whether Noah is a rework of Gilgamesh.

I'll get to the point now.

It's interesting, I think, that the Hebrew legal code may show a Babylonian influence. It is interesting again that the Hebrew account of the flood bears such a striking resemblance to the older Babylonian story.

Why is it that Babylon keeps coming up? At other places scholars research possible similarities to other cultures like the Greeks or Persians. The older stuff -- Babylonian.

It's possible that it's just coincidence; we can research similarities between the Hebrews and the Babylonians because the Babylonian records exist for us to make that comparison; the best records we have of those more ancient times are Babylonian. Possible -- but there's no particular reason the Hebrew writings should resemble them quite that closely unless there was some cultural influence.

It's possible that, if we did a proper study of all the ancient legal codes and all the ancient flood accounts, we might find that the Hebrew records resembled something else more than the Babylonian accounts. And that's a more serious possibility, though still a tall order to fill, given the close similarities.

But there is another possibility I'd like to mention. What if the Hebrews received part of their legal code, and part of their memories of the ancient world and the dawn of human history, from ancestors who came from Babylon? What if there was an early migration of a people from Babylon to the land that later became the homeland of the Hebrews?

They went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan. (Genesis 11:31, speaking of the family of Abraham's migration from Babylon)

I would not by any stretch call this conclusive. I would want to spend a year poring over ancient legal codes and flood accounts before I used words as strong as "tentative" with something like this. But it is an intriguing possibility: the repeated similarities between Hebrew sacred writings and earlier Babylonian writings may provide an independent line of argument that the ancestors of the Hebrews spent some time in Babylon.


Howard said...

Fascinating thought there.
I do not know if you're familiar with the works of Dr David Rohl on Old Testament history and archeology,but he most certainly sees more links of the kind you have 'tentatively' suggested than is often suggested in most views of those times.

Weekend Fisher said...

I think my blog-neighbor Dr. Platypus has mentioned him or his work a few times -- he's mentioned the new chronologies at the very least.

To me, the "inerrancy" debate has polarized things to the point where many skeptics feel compelled to doubt *everything* in the Bible simply because it's in the Bible. For my own part, I figure that a lot of the ancient peoples kept histories of themselves that contained at least kernels of truth. I think even the most skeptical person on the planet would do well to look twice at any ancient history and consider that it probably has a good few things right.

Just so many skeptics don't want to accord the Bible the same respect that they would, say, Homer ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

I chanced across this tonight and I noticed that I never explained my thoughts on one question. Someone might say, "Granted there may be a Babylonian influence -- but the Hebrews were captives in Babylon. Why not simply date the Babylonian influence to then?"

There are a few reasons that "captivity borrowing" of those particular passages is not entirely convincing to me.

1. The passages that I mentioned are in the Torah -- documents accepted by the Jews earlier than their other sacred writings, and showing signs of redaction from still-earlier sources. The fact that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" comes up so many times in the Torah is a sign to me that it was collected from an earlier source that had been passed down. That is to say, odds are that was in their legal code before they went to Babylon.

2. When they were captives in Babylon, they weren't happy about that. They wouldn't necessarily be eager to adopt things from Babylon at that point.

3. The writings that we know date from close to the Babylonian captivity don't show such obvious Babylonian influence. I'd have expected that to be the other way around, if the influence came at the time of the captivity.

So that's the round-up of why I expect those particular passages had a Babylonian influence that pre-dated the Babylonian captivity.