Friday, May 16, 2008

Short Creation Days AND an Ancient Universe: Sailhamer's Exegesis of Genesis 1 with a Twist

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In his book Genesis Unbound Dr. John Sailhamer, a Hebrew scholar and biblical commentator of international reputation, has presented a fully exegetical interpretation of Genesis 1 which suffers no conflicts with contemporary sciences, no conflicts with the predominant viewpoints of contemporary Hebrew scholarship (as the Gap Theory encounters) and no logical difficulties of the order of things created (as the Day Age Theory encounters). Although it presents an exegetical "old earth" alternative to young age creationism, Dr. Sailhamer's book was actually given a very favorable review here by a prominent at "young age creationist" (YEC) at

Sailhamer’s exegesis is not new; J. Lightfoot defended it, and it is also known from ancient Jewish Rabbinical writings. Briefly, this position holds Gen 1:1 describes the creation of the universe at an indeterminate time in the past ("in the beginning," which translates the Hebrew בראשית/bereshith, as Sailhamer emphasizes, frequently denotes an unspecified or indeterminate time in the past in the Old Testament, e.g. Genesis 10:10; Jeremiah 28:1). Sailhamer views the six days of creation as special preparation of the land for human habitation as having transpired over a period of six literal days in fairly recent times. This view is not be confused with the Gap Theory or restitution cosmology (as will become clear below), whose best recent defender was the late anthropologist Arthur Custance. The central point of Genesis 1 according to Sailhamer is a description of God’s preparation of the land as a suitable habitation for man.

The phrase "the heavens and the earth" (השמים ואת הארץ) denotes an ordered cosmos in every known usage beyond Genesis 1 in the Hebrew Bible. Many contemporary commentators -including most of the "major" ones- hold that the "traditional view" that verses 1 & 2 of Genesis 1 both describe the same circumstance appears to import a contradiction into the text, namely that God created an ordered heavens and earth (vs 1), and that the earth is unordered (vs 2). In other words, if vs 1 (God created the heavens and the earth) denotes order, and vs. 2 (and the earth was formless and void, Heb. tohu & bohu/תהו ובהו) embodies absolute disorder, and these are taken as circumstantial clauses, we have the logical enigma "God created order" & "the earth was disordered." Further, the phrase "the heavens and the earth" is taken to mean shapeless precursor, though in no other passage does it have any meaning other than a completed, ordered cosmos.

Sailhamer maintains that interpreters have gone wrong in interpreting tohu & bohu as "formless and void," an assumption which originated with the first Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX) which rendered it as "unseen and unformed" (avo,ratoj kai. avkataskeu,astoj) in order to accomodate the Bible to Greek cosmology which held the world was formed out of chaos. Sailhamer instead renders tohu & bohu as "an uninhabitable wasteland." The sense is that God had not yet fully prepared it as an ideal habitation rather than that it was a shapeless precursor or a totally chaotic mass. The creation narrative, according to Sailhamer, describes God's preparation of an uninhabitable wasteland as a suitable habitation for man. The tension described by many commentators between verse 1 and verse 2 may be dismissed, according to Sailhamer, as a false dichotomy which originated by reading tohu & bohu through the lens of ancient extra-biblical cosmology. No other author of scripture understood Genesis 1 as God shaping an infinitely pre-existing chaos.(as per ancient Near Eastern cosmologies); this idea is in direct conflict with teachings elsewhere in the Bible that God created everything that is out of nothing (e. g. Heb 11:3; Is 37:16; 45:7; Acts 17:24; Rev 4:11; Prov. 8:22-30; etc.; the details of the relationship of Genesis 1 to ancient Near Eastern cosmologies, in and of itself a major topic of discussion, is beyond our present scope; perhaps it can be addressed in a later post).

Sailhamer further points out that modern readers and most modern translators invariably read unnecessary and uncalled for modern assumptions into the text, mainly due to our understanding of the universe (which the Hebrews did not then have; this is done constantly by both modern proponents and detractors of the Bible. Sailhamer maintains the text cannot be proven to teach anything modern understanding would consider false). For example, “the earth” in Gen 1 translates ha-eretz (הארץ), which literally means “the land”; eretz (ארץ) is indeed most often translated as "land" rather than "earth" throughout the OT. What if we read ha-eretz as “the land” (i.e. visible) instead of reading “the spherical body which rotates around the sun” every time we see it? And without condemning the text as “wrong”! What would happen if we read the account as referring to preparation of an uninhabitable wilderness into a habitation ideally suitable for man, rather than as a convoluted ancient description of modern models of geological strata, biological progression over enormous epochs etc. (e.g. as some Day Age theorists attempt), and/or other concerns that were not even at issue until fairly recent times? To read our modern assumptions, or objections from modern assumptions, into the text, which virtually everyone does today including many scholars, is to read the text, says Sailhamer, in an anachronistic fashion.

I’m not going to recount all of Sailhamer’s views (it took him a book length treatment to do that), however I’d like to provide a pictorial presentation of what Sailhamer’s viewpoint might look like (everybody loves a story with pictures) with a slight twist. I’m going to make one addition to Sailhamer’s picture: ice. Job 38, as is well known, presents a narrative of the six days of creation where ice, snow, hail, darkness, etc. are prominently mentioned. Ice is not specifically mentioned in Genesis 1. However if we take the two accounts canonically, we can speak of ice alongside the days of creation in the sense of canonical exegesis (the same procedure of canonical exegesis is utilized when ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) is affirmed of Genesis 1 since although it is possible and reasonable to read Genesis 1 as presenting creatio ex nihilo it is not considered by contemporary scholars to be exegetically necessary or undeniable taking the text of Genesis 1 alone. If we consider how other biblical authors interpret creation, however, it is undeniable that the Bible as a whole presents a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and there is certainly nothing in Genesis 1 to forbid such an interpretation even of Genesis 1).

Secondly, since Sailhamer takes the creation days as normal 24 hr days (we might perhaps reasonably think of them as brief periods without departing too much from Sailhamer's model), the preparation of the land as a suitable habitation for man as Sailhamer describes it would have transpired in fairly recent times. Unquestionably it would be at the tail end of the last ice age on any accounting, just before the first extant evidence of agriculture and first known cities in the world (Jericho and Catal Hayuk, in Mesopotamia, are the first known cities, c. 9000BC), not too long before the critical melting at the end of the last ice age when most of Mesopotamia was inundated and the sea level worldwide rose some 350 feet (cf. the great 20th century archaeologist William Foxwell Albright believed this event inspired the great ancient Flood Narratives of the ancient Near East including the biblical account).

On grounds of canonical exegesis including the ice, hail, frost, snow, and darkness imagery in the days of creation in Job 38, the pictorial representation which follows will include melting ice as a pitch-dark atmosphere dissipates (comparison will also be made to the global dimming/cooling due to volcanism during the ice ages, the last of which ended in very recent times; such a comparison is, however, not required for the claim that what follows is exegetically warranted). After the pictorial representation, two brief outlines will be provided comparing the pictures presented by climatological, geological, and biblical models.

“…and darkness was on the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen 1:2-3)

Darkness was over the face of the icy deep (Gen 1; Job 38:8-30)

(Day 1) Light shined through the pitch-dark atmosphere (Gen 1:3-5; Job 38:24).

(Day 2) Sky -a clear area where only darkness had been before- appears beneath the clouds (Gen. 1:6-8; Job 38:25-26).

(Day 3) Ice melted into the seas; dry land appeared; vegetation appeared ("let the earth sprout" תדשא הארץ). Gen. 1:9-13; Job 38:27-30

(Day 4) The newly visible sun moon and stars now served to divide days, seasons, and years (Gen. 1:16-19; Job 38:31-38).

(Day 5) Birds flew across the sky and sea creatures swarmed (Gen. 1:20-23: "Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens").

(Day 6) Land creatures spread across the earth; man was given the imago Dei (Gen 1:24-31). .

(Day 7) Rest!

Climatologically speaking, this is what the world would have been like at the end of the last ice age: Extreme volcanism on a massive worldwide scale beyond anything we can imagine produced global dimming worldwide. The sky would not have been visible through the thick darkness produced by volcanic ash, and the world was extremely cold. Eventually, the ashes began to dissipate and sunlight warmed the land. Rapid arrival of a climate ideal for man occurred as the warm sun appeared after centuries of frigid cold and darkness (due to volcanic ash in the atmosphere). The ice began to melt; sometime later the ocean levels would come to rise 350 ft. during a period of rapid, critical melting.

I. BIBILCAL PROGRESSION (cf. ice, snow, and darkness/Job 38):
(1) Then God said, ‘Let there be light...’”
(2) Then God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters... God called the expanse "sky ..."
(3a) Then God said, "Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear"; and it was so...he gathered waters he called "seas."
(3b) Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind..."
(4) Then God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, seasons, days, and years
(5) Then God said, "Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens."
(6a) Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind...".
(6b) Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

(1) Light shined through the ashen atmosphere.
(2) Blue sky appeared (first warmth; imagine if it was summertime in Mesopotamia!).
(3a) Ice melted into the seas and dry land appeared.
(3b) Vegetation appeared (sprouting).
(4) Sun moon and stars now functioned to divide days, seasons, and years.
(5) Birds flew and sea creatures swarmed.
(6) Land creatures spread across the earth; the rapid 350 ft rise in sea level which would occur sometime later as described previously was exacerbated e.g. by the huge glacial avalanche of along an enormous portion of the Mediterranean coast recently described by geologists; pretty much all of bowl-shaped Mesopotamia would have been inundated). Subsequently the first cities, first agriculture, etc. appeared (first in Mesopotamia, the land which is the focus of Genesis).

The progressions are identical. The above pictures adequately illustrate both progressions.

Additional notes

Natural births are seen throughout scripture as instances of God creating. Although the contrary is often claimed, Heb. bara (ברא “create”) does not necessarily denote creation “from nothing” (although canonically, the Bible indeed does teach that God made everything that is from nothing in the beginning). For example, although man was said to have been “created” in Genesis 1:27 -bara is used there- he was nevertheless formed using precursors “from the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7/עפר מן־האדמה i.e. earthy materials) rather than having been created from nothing at all. Precursors are also either explicitly mentioned or possibly implied regarding of all of God’s creations in Gen 1:
A. grass, herbs and fruit trees sprouted from the earth (תדשא הארץ) producing “after their kind” (in the above scenario, as the sun melted the ice, the ground appeared and seeds sprouted);
B. An abundance of sea and sky creatures spread out, having been created (rather than “from nothing") “after their kind” (למינה) as warmth advanced.
Cattle and creeping things were blessed, multiplying after their kind (למינה rather than “from nothing,” we may understand "fruitful multiplication").
C. Lights now visible in the no longer darkened sky were "made," or "appointed" (Heb. asah; the Hebrew term is very often used, for example, of the appointment of kings and priests) to rule/govern (לממשלת) the day and night and mark the seasons (i.e. they were "made to rule"). As this function is established a bit after the earlier statement "let there be light," and an indeterminate period after the initial creation of the universe and solar system, the above view presumes the existence of the sun and stars beyond the veil of darkness prior to their usefulness for marking day night and season; there is nothing in the text to demand otherwise.
D. The woman is made from the man in Gen 2; the man is said to be composed from earthy materials -from the dust of the ground rather than from nothing (as discussed earlier). Biblically he is composed of the same material the animals were said to have been composed of, i.e. the same materials we can find in the earth. The land is made a suitable habitation for man to thrive. Man is specially bestowed with God’s image (בצלם אלהים). Nothing is said positively or negatively concerning the existence of pre-Adamite creatures in Genesis, as many conservative evangelicals strongly emphasize (cf. Dr. Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties).

The above remarks about bara (ברא “create”) not denoting "creation out of nothing" (since it is used of man who is created out of something, the dust of the ground) should not be taken as contra the idea that biblically God is indeed said to have created the entire universe out of nothing as this idea is clearly and widely established throughout the Bible. Insofar as Sailhamer still does adamantly affirm the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation of all from nothing), there is no reason to suppose Sailhamer's reading of Genesis 1 in any manner, shape, or form, diminishes God's powerful role as creator of everything that is. Jews and Christians were ridiculed for centuries for affirming the creation of all that is from nothing in the beginning... until Einstein -very reluctantly- embraced it.

In Genesis, eternal life before the fall was not a property belonging to any and all creatures merely by virtue of their existence and/or birth. It was derivative and conditional, and required partaking of the fruit of the tree of life on a continual basis:

Genesis 3:22-24 "Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever, therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life."

There is no indisputable biblical reason to believe that man would have lived forever without partaking of the fruit of the tree of life. Nor is there any biblical reason to believe that there was ever such of a tree of life available to other living organisms such as phytoplankton, beetles, and bacteria. That man was not created with immortality as a property of his biology or his being is clearly suggested by the fact that, even in Eden steps were required, continual partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, to avoid physical death. Genesis portrays man’s “immortality” as having been derivative (“eternal life” was conditional rather than, in philosophical parlance, necessary): it involved partaking of the fruit of a tree on a continual basis, and abiding in the Lordship of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown quite effectively that many of the common theological ideas about “perfection” before the fall originated completely apart from, and in spite of, a sober reading of the text of Genesis. I would classify the pervasive YEC arguments about death first coming to phytoplankton, bacteria, and beetles only as a result of the fall in such a category. Death did, according to Genesis, first come to the pair who had been given the image of God and who had been hedged about in a special Garden, allowed to partake of the immortality of a special tree. This event is called the fall; it is according to Niebuhr the universal presupposition of all human history; our fallenness is indeed something which one can indeed read about in every newspaper and every history book; do we not see it in the mirror? Nowhere is man's fall from grace as memorably described as in the book of Genesis. If it seems to some that the interpretation as posited by YECs is textually possible, is there anything to demand it is textually necessary? Does not YEC import eisegetically things into the text not demanded by it, such as the immortality of vegetarian mosquitos? Being fruitful, multiplying, and immortal, our world would have been rapidly overrun by such creatures. There are also many YEC advocates who admit death in nature before the fall is inescapable. Being given every herb and plant to eat requires death of the material which is eaten, but the examples cited by prominent YECs in concession to this point are not even remotely restricted to that.

One minor difference I have with Sailhamer is that I take “the land” in Genesis 1 to refer to the visible land all about rather than as specifically as referring to “the promised land,” i.e. Palestine, as Sailhamer prefers it, but this difference does not affect the model depicted above.

Do take the time to read the positive review of Sailhamer's book by a young earth creationist here; it is a very interesting and fair-minded review.

Conclusion: If Sailhamer's exegesis of Genesis 1 is possible, which even YEC advocates admit, the pervasive "Flintstones exegesis" of the Bible is quite unnecessary, as the informed opinion of many very good Christian scholars also affirms today.

The present author does not regard any valid exegesis of Genesis 1 in terms of one being 'true' and others not, but more strictly in terms of which are exegetically 'valid' and 'invalid,' 'probable' and 'improbable.' I prefer to leave the matter of truth up to God. But what is presented above does make very good sense of the text IMO, and without importing a host of modern cosmological assumptions into it which were unknown to the time when Genesis was composed, and which are commonly injected into Genesis 1 not only by run of the mill atheists and Christians, but also -as Sailhamer argues- by a great deal of contemporary academic scholarship, and without being fully aware of it. Perhaps mention of Ice Age global dimming due to volcanism is just another example of a similar form of conceptual idolatry in the final analysis (in spite of the fact that ice and darkness at creation are biblically warranted), however the present author makes no claims to be an across the board purist... Sailhamer's original presentation, of course, does not suffer from such shortcomings.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Tower of Babel (Gen 11) and Ancient Near Eastern Ziggurats

© 2007, by All rights reserved

“The building of this tower (temple) highly offended the gods. In a night they (threw down) what man had built, and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad, and their speech was strange” -Tower of Babel and Confusion of Tongues: a Sumerian Version

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar [Sumer], and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth’” -Genesis 11:1-4

”Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand one another” -Genesis 11:1-4

Fig. 1 Escher's Conception of the Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel at first sounds imponderable to many ears, but not to the informed. In fact this story fits our best knowledge of earth’s earliest civilizations like a well-tailored glove. No longer is it possible for scholars to smugly dismiss these stories as mythological simply because of their unusual nature.

Fig. 2 Ascent to the Ziggurat at Nippur


In the land of the Bible, the ancients built most of their cities around sacred towers with uncanny similarities to what we find in the Biblical Tower of Babel narrative; these sacred towers are referred to as ziggurats. These massive structures first appear during the Uruk period (3500-3100 BC) in Mesopotamia (literally "the land between two rivers," also referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization," or commonly "land of the Bible"). It is in this land, explicitly, where the earliest events in Genesis take place. From Babylonia to Assyria, most Mesopotamian cities had a centralized tower.

A growing number of Bible scholars and commentators, including most Evangelicals, believe the tower of Babel, described in Genesis 11, was almost certainly a ziggurat. Why? (1) Gen 11 uses typical ziggurat terminology like (this point will be expanded below). (2) Bitumen mortar and baked clay-brick construction of ziggurats is precisely the same as the materials and methods indicated in the Bible (Gen 11:3a: "let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly" and Gen 11:3b "And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar" very precisely reflects Sumerian building practices in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley where the first civilizations were, where there is virtually no stone, but clay was some forty feet thick). (3) Gen 11 “plains of Shinar” (SNR) is identified philologically as Sumer (SMR); the plains of Shinar/Sumer are between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (4) Sumer also has narratives of the confusion of tongues and the destruction of a great tower. (5) Modern research has clearly demonstrated that the earliest civilizations and ancient languages actually developed in the general area of Mesopotamia, the plain of Shinar.

A TOWER THAT REACHES UNTO THE HEAVENS (cf. Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Constellation Worship)

That the ziggurat symbolized the connecting link between heaven and earth is quite clear from cuneiform descriptions and reliefs. The biblical language describing "a tower that reaches to the heavens" is quite typical in comparison to the language used to describe the ziggurats (e.g. "Temple of the Stairway to Pure Heaven" (Sippar); "House binding Heaven and Earth" (Nippur); "Temple Linking Heaven and Earth" (Larsa); "Temple of the Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth" (Babylon, also used of the Dilbat ziggurat); and so on). Mesopotamian ziggurats were typically given names demonstrating that they were intended to serve as "staircases" or "binding" locations between earth and heaven. So we see that a narrative about a tower whose top reached into the heavens fits the times quite well.

Fig. 3 Ur Nammu Atop the Ziggurat at Ur: "a Tower Unto the Heavens"

Further evidence relates a story of King Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2044 to 2007 BC) on a 5 x10' stele (see Fig. 3 above). He received orders from his god and goddess to build the ziggurat The stele is nearly five feet across and ten feet high. At the top, the king stands in an attitude of prayer. Above his head is the symbol of the moon god Nannar, and to the right are figures of angels with vases from which flow the streams of life (this is the earliest known artistic figures of angels). The panels show the king setting out with compass, pick and trowel, and mortar baskets to begin construction. One panel contains just a single ladder used as the structure was rising. The reverse side depicts a commemorative feast.

We have already seen that the baking of bricks forms a significant and accurate portrayal of building practices in the Bible. ”Kiln-fired bricks are first noted during the late Uruk period and become more common in the Jamdet Nasr period toward the end of the fourth millennium (Finegan, J., Archaeological History of the Ancient Near East (Boulder CO: Westview, 1979), p. 8; cf. Singer, C., The History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon). Bitumen is the usual mortar used with kiln-fired bricks. By contrast, the later building technology of Israel/Palestine used a mud mortar. Bitumen of any kind was very expensive in Israel (Forbes 1955: 4-22) though it was standard in the earlier Mesopotamian period. The Biblical description of the building materials accurately reflects a major distinction between later Israelite and earlier Mesopotamian building methods, giving further credence to the fact Genesis contains some very ancient material that is accurate in the finest detail (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 Close up of the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the ziggurat at Ur
“They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” for the Tower of Bible (Gn 11:3).

Fig. 5 The Ziggurat of Ur


The confusion of tongues is also spoken of in a Sumerian fragment initially published by S. N. Kramer which states:

“Enki... Changed the speech of their mouths/ (brought?) contention into it/ Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.”

Another ancient cuneiform tablet reads,

“the erection of this tower highly offended the gods. In a night they [threw down] what man had built, and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad, and their speech was strange.”

This is yet another of a host of examples which demonstrate the earliest chapters of the Bible have very close parallels with the ancient cuneiform literature of Mesopotamia; this was highly unexpected on the assumptions of the influential Documentary Hypothesis of the composition of Genesis in its original 19th century formulations, which stated the earliest portions of the pentateuch were not written before circa 1000 BC in Palestine. Why are there so many parallels with Mesopotamian culture, from a place and a different time so far removed from Israel, which had turned to dust thousands of years prior to the time Israel became a nation? It is for reasons such as this that the original Documentary Theory had to be modified, and modified, and modified again. The Bible was far more accurate in its depiction of ancient times than had been suspected in the pre-archeological heyday of unrestrained literary theory.

Fig. 6 Ancient Sumer: The Origin of Writing


Origin of Writing/ Earliest Written Texts date to Sumeria, the earliest civilization (c. 3500-2340 BC; Sumer is also the first civilization mentioned in the Bible (Gen 11:1-9). Several hundred thousand of such tablets as the one depicted above have been recovered. This first system of writing is known as cuneiform (lit. “wedge-shaped”) after the pictographic wedge shaped impressions which were made on clay which was subsequently sun-dried. Because the clay tablets were so durable, we have an astonishing amount of information about the earliest writing cultures. The earliest texts were highly pictographic, and later became more stylized and simplified. The first ziggurats were built by the Sumerians, who built some of the largest brick buildings in the world; the ziggurat was the centerpiece of all their cities. The priesthoods owned most land and livestock, and probably were political theocratic rulers of the city as well, as agents of their gods. Their main cities included Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Umma, and Lagash, which were independent city-states, frequently at war with one another. They were conquered by Sargon of Akkad in 2340 BC who unified all Mesopotamia under his rule. Babel, literally “confusion” (of tongues). Writing develops first from Mesopotamia and subsequently to all other areas. (cf. Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer (3rd Edition, 1989); The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, 1971; Crawford, Harriet, Sumer and Sumerians (1991); H.W.F. Saggs, Babylonians (1999; covering the Ubaid period and the Sumerians to 500 BC) and Crowe, Ivan, The Quest for Food (2000).


Material culture shows a strong continuity between the earliest ancient Near Eastern cultures. Philologists, however, perceive a strong discontinuity in the language to such an extent that they claim only an infiltration or invasion suffices to explain irrespective of the complete lack of physical evidence for such an event (this conflict between archaeologists and philologists is known in the literature as "the Sumerian problem"). These respective positions appear quite irreconcilable, but the Biblical story itself suggests a possible resolution which accepts and explains all of the philological and archaeological data.

1. Archaeological evidence: The first major group of settlers in the region, the ancestors of the Ubaid people, exhibits physical/material /cultural continuity with later inhabitants of the valley. The material remains suggest the Ubaid people, the Uruk people, the Proto-Literate Jemdat Nasr Culture, and the Sumerians were the same people. Archaeologist see in this cultural continuity a disconfirmation of the idea of a great invasion by a new people. There are no changes in material culture that cannot be explained as normal technological development. To the archaeologist, the earliest major inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, even if they were unable to tell us who they were during the earlier period.

2. Linguistic evidence: E.A. Speiser and B. Landsberger, who insisted that the names of rivers, indigenous plants and animals, and some cities are non-Sumerian words unrelated to any known language. Landsberger demonstrated this is particularly true of words pertaining to agriculture suggesting basic farming vocabulary and common farming techniques were invented by non-Sumerian people. This lead philologists to posit an invasion or at least an infiltration into Mesopotamia, which philologists date at the beginning of the Uruk period.

3. Both Biblical and Sumerian cuneiform accounts present a third alternative: a confounding of speech began within the context of a formerly unified culture and ultimately fractured it. This perspective allows both archaeological data (unity of culture) and philological data (disunity of language) to coexist. On the ancient view, both the archaeologists and the linguists are correct. Many left after the language first began to become confused (therefore material culture was continuous), yet a new language developed (which we refer to as Sumerian), therefore the philological data is also correct

Fig. 7 Ur-Nammu Ziggurat Dedication
"For his lady Inanna, Ur-Nammu, the mighty man, the king of Ur, the king of Sumer and Akkad, built her temple."

We must not forget that the Biblical view that the world/land (the Biblical word can be translated as either) had one tongue before a time of confusion is not unique to the Bible; it is multiply attested from independent sources as different as the Bible and Sumerian cuneiform literature. This suggests the Biblical view, which is also the Sumerian view, should perhaps be considered more seriously (Note: it is going beyond the evidence of both the Biblical and cuneiform texts to postulate that no language development whatsoever occurred before the confusion of tongues; the narratives only affirm that the whole land spoke one language at the time; this would have been an amazing cultural achievement quite beyond what we are capable of today).


W. F. Albright suggested that the Hebrew word sem does not mean “name” but “an (inscribed) monument.” He says “It was, therefore, as a tremendous monument to its builders that the Tower of Babel was intended” (Albright, W. F., Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, p.87). There is much to commend the view that one of the central foci of Mesopotamian ziggurat builders was that their memories be preserved for posterity in a fashion which emphasized their role in building these structures, which were not only physically central to their cities, but around which their entire lives seemed to be centered.

Fig. 8 Ur-Nammu, King and Lawgiver of Ur; Builder of the Ziggurat of Ur
Notice the bowl of clay on his head, for construction of the ziggurat.

“King Ur-Nammu rebuilt and enlarged one of the most important temples in ancient Mesopotamia - the E-kur of Enlil, the chief god of the pantheon. The figurine above, which was buried in a foundation box beneath one of the temple towers, represents the king at the start of the building project - carrying on his head a basket of clay from which would be made the critically important first brick. The foundation deposit also contained an inscribed stone tablet; beads of stone and gold; chips of various stones; and four ancient date pits found perched atop the basket carried by the king”

( Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Ur-Nammu's empire lasted about 100 years after which the cities of southern Mesopotamia fell under the control of others.


Civilization, culture, and language did, according to archaeology, indeed develop from the center of its origin, in Mesopotamia. Archaeology and even the earliest portions of the Bible tell the same story to a degree that is far greater than is commonly realized. The observations above only just begin to illustrate this fact.

Fig. 9 Remains of the Ziggurat of Eanna

Fig. 10 Massive Ancient Tower Near Babylon

One of the most famous ziggurats was in Babylon. It was dedicated to Marduk, the god of the city, and was called Etemenanki meaning "House platform of Heaven and Earth." The ruins of this massive crumbling tower are near the site of ancient Babylon in Iraq. Some scholars assume this was the tower of Babel. The remaining tower may have been built on a previous structure “Each ziggurat was dedicated to the city's most important god or goddess. For example the ziggurat at Ur was the home of the moon god Nanna, while Enki, the god of wisdom and fresh water, lived at Eridu. Temples in Mesopotamia were given names. The ziggurat at Eridu was called Eunir which means 'House Temple-Tower' while at Nippur the ziggurat was known as Eduranki, which means 'House binding Heaven and Earth.’”


Fig. 11 Ziggurat at Ur Before Restoration

In the 1960's and 1970's, the first stage of the ziggurat was reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. The manner of restoration was carefully guided by the principle excavators.

Fig. 12 Ziggurat Locations in the Ancient Near East

The earliest ziggurat discovered to date is at Erech (cf. Gen 10:9-10: Genesis 10:9-10 "He [Nimrod] ]was a mighty hunter before the LORD... And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar").

Fig. 13 Ascent to the Ziggurat of Ur

Fig. 14 The "House binding Heaven and Earth" at Nippur

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ancient Geography: The Lost River of Eden and Recent Geological Discoveries

(cf. James Sauer, "The River Runs Dry: Creation Story Preserves Historical Memory" Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August (1996)

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good” (Gen 2:10-12).

“…in very far antiquity, just such a river once existed, and its long-dried course has been recently traced from its rise in the west Arabian gold-lands (in Havilah) east and east-northeast toward the head of the gulf, via modern Kuwait.” (Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2003).

Fig. 1 Map Showing Eden’s Long-lost River

Four rivers are mentioned in the narrative of the ordering of creation in Genesis 2, but as any commentary will tell you, only three are known. The commentaries, it turns out, will have to be rewritten.

Eden’s Pishon river, mentioned only in the Bible (Genesis 2:11), is said to have flowed “around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold...” Three other rivers which Genesis said were alongside the Pishon are known to us as the centers of the world’s earliest civilizations, but the Pishon was a complete enigma to readers for millennia, until recently. The earliest known civilizations, Sumer and Egypt, knew nothing of it, and these civilizations were flourishing over 1500 years before Abraham! Satellite imaging and later Space Shuttle echolocation revealed a pock-marked section of the desert caused by river stones which still lay buried deep under the desert sand. Blue is limestone, yellow-orange is desert sand; the pock-marked area in the yellow sand (below left) is caused by the influences of subterranean topography and wind on the desert sand. (the river was discovered by Farouk El-Baz of Boston University. Photo courtesy EDSAT, Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing).

Fig. 2 Satellite Image of the Lost Pishon River of Eden

The imagery also overturned the prevailing assumption of climactic stability since the end of the last ice age (ending c. 9000BC) held by a majority of ancient Near Eastern scholars until recently. It would appear, as James Sauer puts it, that Genesis contains some very ancient historical memory about ancient Near Eastern geography. How ancient? The presence of this river far predates the geography described by the Sumerians and the Egyptians, which are the earliest civilizations known to historians, yet its existence and location are just as they are found in the Bible.

This brings to mind an obvious question: where’s all that gold? It turns out that the gold of that land is good! The ancient river, it turns out, runs right by the best producing site in the world today. "Only one place in Arabia has such a deposit -the famous site of Mahd edh-Dhahab, the "Cradle of Gold." This mine, ancient and modern [it was re-discovered in 1932] currently produces more than 5 tons of gold a year. The mining site is located about 125 miles south of Medina, near the headwaters of the Kuwait River" (Sauer, op cit, p. 64).

Fig. 3 Gold Vain from Solomon’s Mine in Havilah.

“This quartz-sulfide-gold vein at Mahd edh-Dhahab is still mined today. The mine, which some identify as King Solomon’s mine (1 Kings 9:26–28), produces more than 5 tons of gold a year” (Sauer, op cit; Photo by Richard B. Carten).

Fig. 4 Arial Photograph of the Gold Mine at Mahd edh Dhahab (Eden’s Havilah) discovered in 1932)

Travel Photos from Sodom

“And the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But his wife, from behind him, looked back; and she became a pillar of salt.Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace. Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.” -Genesis 19:24-29

Fig. 1 Ebla Archives

I. The Ebla Archives.

A. Discovery. The Royal Archives of Ebla, discovered at Tell Mardikh in Northern Syria 1976 date to the 24th century BC and afterwards. Initially 17,500 tablets were found; one of them spoke of another library, which was also found. The archives cover a considerable span of time ending just prior to the Patriarchal age. Considerable light was thrown on the earliest portions of the Bible from these archives, including deities also named in the Bible, personal names found also in the Bible, an “early stage” creation account, and place names found in the earliest portions of the Bible.

B. Deities at Ebla. Many of the deities mentioned at Ebla are also mentioned in the Bible: “Approximately five hundred deities are named in the Ebla tablets… The main god in Ebla was Dagan (grain), spelled Dagon in the OT… The Canaanite gods Baal and Haddad, variant names of the storm, were worshipped at Ebla, as were Ishtar (spelled Asherah), Kamish, Malik, Kemosh, and Molek, all mentioned in the OT. Some personal names end with il, which in the OT equals el (God). In some instances il is displaced with ia, which Pettinato equates with Yah (the first part of Yahweh), an equation denied by others… Pettinato’s claim that Sodom and Gomorrah appear on several tablets is a matter of controversy.” (G. H. Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Context, p. 295).

C. Biblical Personal Names at Ebla. Many of the names of persons early in Genesis are found in the Ebla archives as well. "Over ten thousand personal names are said to be recorded on the Ebla tablets, of which several thousand have been published. Names that are equivalent to those of some persons mentioned in the Old Testament are Adam, Eve, Jubal, Noah, Abram, Ishmael, Hagar, Keturah, Bilhah, Israel, Micah, Michael, Saul, and David" (Livingston, op cit).

D. Creation Account. Ebla creation accounts show the origin of the creation idea was not provincialistic, i.e. why their given nation is supreme, why one should serve their nation, rather it was distinctly theological & non-political. The Ebla creation account demonstrates the existence of elements of the Genesis creation narrative in uncorrupted (via mythology) form prior to the development of the mythological versions that Genesis was said by some to have borrowed from. This also calls severely into question the assumption, as held by some critical scholars, that the Genesis creation account did not originate until after the time of Solomon.

E. Biblical Place Names at Ebla. Many place names found in the Bible were discovered at Ebla, including Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Gaza, Nahur (cf. Gen 11:24-26/ “Nahor”), and controversially, Sodom and Gomorrah.

II. Sodom and Gomorrah

A. Sodom and Gomorrah in Economic Trade Texts?! These cities and their destruction cannot be easily written off as mere literary myth as they once were. Giovanni Pettinato, initially the head epigrapher who translated the ancient Ebla archives, maintained that the names of Sodom and Gomorrah (si-da-mu and ì-ma-ar) appear on several Eblahite tablets, not in mythic tales, but in several economic texts which preserve records of trades which had been made between Ebla and Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Shanks, Herschel, "BAR Interviews Giovanni Pettinato". Biblical Archaeology Review (Nov/Dec 1981).

B. Sodom/Gomorrah/Ebla Trade Route Specified.

The specific trade route by which goods were moved from Ebla to Sodom and Gomorrah and back was also specified in the Ebla archives; this route, which was called the King's Highway (first map and first photo below) is very well known to archaeologists. A modern road follows the same route taken by the King’s Highway through Wadi Wala. As the King’s Highway then lead to the southern tip of the Dead Sea, this provides strong confirmation of the traditional site of Sodom and Gomorrah along the southern shore of the Dead Sea.

Fig. 2: Known Ancient Near Eastern Trade Routes

Fig. 3: The King's Highway

C. Mount Sodom (photo below). Jebel Usdum ("Mount of Sodom"), a mountain made of salt containing caves with spectacular soaring ceilings and located on the west side of the Dead Sea at the southern end. The ancient place name Usdum also is thought by philologists to preserve the name of Sodom.

Fig. 4 Jebel Usdum ("Mount of Sodom")

The archaeologist and popular author who took the photo below is standing in the midst of Sodomite ash deposits, which are typically about seven-feet deep. Splatter formations where molten bituminous material (asphalt-like, i.e. “brimstone”) once dropped from the Sodomite sky are present in this richly fertile area where cities once flourished. The shore of the Sea is peppered with huge pillars of salt.

Fig. 5 Sodomite Ash: Seven Feet Deep!

Fig. 6 Pillars of Salt (Dead Sea)

Fig. 7 Pillars of Salt (Dead Sea)

The Bible speaks of “five cities of the plain” of which Sodom and Gomorrah were two. Excavations at Bab edh-Dhra' about 5 miles from the Dead Sea SE of el-Lisan, indicate a steady stream of religious pilgrimages to the area from about 2300 B.C. to 1900 B.C. which ceased very abruptly. "The cessation of visits at that time implies the destruction of the cities of the plain, about 1900 B. C., and also furnishes support for the presence of Abram in Canaan at the end of the twentieth century B.C. God's destruction of Sodom most probably was produced by the combustion of petroleum gases emanating from the bituminous deposits in the area. This doubtlessly was accompanied by seismic disturbances, which caused the plain to sink some 6.1 m. (20 ft.) under the surface of the Dead Sea. In1953 the first oil well of the State of Israel went into production just north of Jebel Usdum, indicating significant petroleum deposits in the region. The heavy pall of smoke which Abram saw (Gen 19:28) would characterize ignited petroleum products." Blaiklock & Harrison, Eds., New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. pp 418f. Considering the location of Sodom in time and space via the Ebla archives, it is quite likely the actual site of the city is, as many scholars believe, submerged under the waters of the Dead Sea south of the el-Lisan peninsula in what was originally "the Valley of Siddim, that is the Salt Sea" (Gen 14:3).

Fig. 8 Religious Pilgrimages Ceased Suddenly in Abraham's day.

"The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.“