THE BABYLONIANS AND CHALDAEANS
The terms ˜Babylonia” and ˜Babylonian” are taken over in English from
the ancient Greeks, and while they are altogether convenient and
correspond with a reality, they were never used in this way by the
relevant ancient peoples. ˜Babylonia” is used here for the southern end
of the Tigris-Euphrates plain, roughly from the modern Baghdad to Basra,
an area to which some adjacent regions pertained at various periods of
The convenience of the term is that the area in historical times usually
had a common culture and language: Sumerian in the third millennium
B.C., though a Semitic language, Akkadian, was also used, especially in
the areas more distant from the Persian Gulf; Babylonian in the second
millennium and on into the first, when it gradually gave way to Aramaic.
In ancient Mesopotamia “Babylon” meant the city. The whole area was
referred to either and ˜Sumer and Akkad” (a reflection of
third-millennium conditions) or later as ˜Akkad” alone. The Greek usage
arose because after the great Hammurabi had made the city Babylon the
political capital, its political, and later cultural, influence in the
area was unchallenged, and the kings of the city of Babylon ruled the
other cities as well.
Babylonia is a flat, alluvial plain some 300 miles long, watered by the
two rivers, which flood in the spring and early summer. The winter is
mild, but the summer extremely hot. There is so little rainfall as to be
useless for agriculture, and the area is naturally desert, save for the
luxuriant marshes, formerly more extensive, near the Persian Gulf. There
are no trees yielding timber (even the date palm is probably an early
import), and no sources of metal or stone, whether for jewellery or
building. Thus human occupation depended on irrigation-agriculture, and
barley was the staple.
In the third millennium the Sumerians, living in city-states, developed
the unpromising area into a dynamic centre of civilization, well ahead
of the rest of the world, save for Egypt. From this time onwards
southern Mesopotamia remained a leader in Near-Eastern culture until the
The Semitic Akkadians, who had probably migrated down the Euphrates
valley into Babylonia, shared in the Sumerian civilization and no doubt
contributed to it.· By the end of the third millennium another group of
Semitic migrants, the Amorites, entered Mesopotamia and went down the
Euphrates valley to overthrow the last Sumerian dynasty, the Third
Dynasty of Ur.
The land fell into city-states once more, with Amorite sheikhs imposing
themselves on the Sumero-Akkadian city dwellers. Out of this amalgam the
Babylonians first made their appearance in history. As a spoken language
Sumerian died out, though it survived in the schools, and Babylonian, a
Semitic language with substantial differences from Old Akkadian, became
the language of the country. For a couple of centuries different cities
tried vainly to control the rest, but only Babylon succeeded. The town
was utterly unimportant until its first, Amorite, dynasty began to
compete in the power struggles. The sixth ruler, Hammurab (c. 1793-1750
B.C.), by a lifetime’s skilful though unscrupulous diplomacy, coupled
with appropriate military activity, emerged it : as the ruler of the
whole of Babylonia and of some areas beyond.
The town Babylon suddenly became the capital of an empire. While the
succeeding kings of the dynasty failed to hold the full extent of
Hammurabi’s domain --the Sealand Dynasty near the Persian Gulf was in
revolt for a number of centuries-- the prestige of Hammurabi and his
The end of the First Dynasty was ignominious. The Hittite army from
far-away Anatolia marched under king Murshili to Babylon and sacked it.
The kingdom had already been weakened by a number of peoples, and among
them were the Kassites, who probably came into Mesopotarnia from the
Zagros Mountains in the north. They are first mentioned shortly after
Hammurabi’s death; they took over the ruined Babylon and formed the next
dynasty, which lasted from about 1600 to 1150 B.C. Nothing is known of
the first two and a half centuries, which silence is indicative of an
impoverished, disorganized state.
Documentation is abundant for the last two centuries, which cover the
Amarna period and the Hebrew settlement. Under the Kassites the
civilization changed by the normal processes of development.
Art, architecture, and literature altered, but the Kassites themselves
contributed almost nothing, except for a new social structure of the
ruling class. Indeed, they were not assimilated like the earlier
Amorites, and about 1170 the ruling dynasty was ousted.
The succeeding Second Dynasty of Isin (c. 1157-1025) had at least one
successful king, Nebuchadnezzar I. He did something to restore Babylon’s
political fortunes, but the rising star of Assyria was to prevent any
revival of Hammurabi’s empire, and in any case another Semitic migration
flooded the whole of Mesopotamia at this time. The Aramaeans arrived
from the Syrian desert, disrupted agriculture and trade, and sacked
cities. The south bore their full brunt, and the dynasties following the
Second Isin are little known. Eventually the Aramaeans settled in the
far south, adjacent to the Persian Gulf, and it is their tribes that the
Babylonians called ˜Chaldaeans”. In due course they mingled with the
old-established city-dwelling Babylonians, and the Late Babylonian
language, used before Aramaic, is largely characterized by Aramaic
syntax with Babylonian words.
As the Late Assyrian empire reached its height (c. 725 - 625 B.C.), the
Babylonians were dominated from this quarter, but with the fall of
Assyria Babylon was led by Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II to
glory. At the height of its power the Neo-Babylonian empire, which
lasted only from 626 to 539, ruled from Egypt and Cilicia in the west to
the Persian Gulf in the east. Babylon, the city, was rebuilt by
Nebuchadnezzar, became fabled among Greeks and Hebrews for its
magnificence. It was this monarch who took the Hebrews into captivity.
When Babylon fell to the Persians under Cyrus, the cultural and economic
life was in no way interrupted, but a slow decay set in at the end of
the Persian Empire, and as the Near East was Hellenized under Alexander
the Great and his successors, the millennia-old cities were gradually
abandoned, so that by the first century A.D. only a handful of families
survived in Babylon itself, keeping alive the old traditions.
It is quite impossible to describe a highly complex culture like that of
the Babylonians in a short compass: only a few points can be mentioned.
Some aspects were inherited from the Sumerians; the Babylonian culture
did not grow out of a vacuum. Babylonian civilization was urban. People
lived in a relatively small number of old-established cities, while
villages and smaller units played no important part. This urban
character of life encouraged the development of specialist crafts and
professions. Perhaps that of the scribe was one of the most distinctive
It was probably the Sumerians who gave the world the first writing
system. The Egyptians came a little later, it seems. Clay was the
material, and cuneiform signs were impressed with a stylus while it was
It was first (c. 3000 B.C.) intended for administrative purposes
connected with temple estates, and to the end (first century A.D.) most
of these clay tablets were connected with economic or administrative
Vast numbers of receipts, records of disbursements, etc. were being
written at most periods.
With an urban society this produced a bureaucratic background stronger
perhaps than in any other part of the ancient world. The economic
arrangements were often highly sophisticated, merchant bankers playing a
leading role. Credit in many forms was much used, and the lack of
coinage proved no obstacle to commerce. Exports, of course, paid for
imports, and a standard of value was set by silver, though internal
transactions might be engaged in without its actual use, except as
providing relative values of other commodities. Of the thousands of
preserved cuneiform letters the majority are on commercial or
administrative subjects. Since only a corps of professional scribes was
literate, Babylonian letters contain little of personal interest, except
for some royal correspondence. BeIIes-Iettres had no place in
this businesslike civilization.
Quite early, c. 2700 B.C, writing was developed for literature, and
right from the beginning scholarly lists were compiled. The first were
simple lists of signs, perhaps for instructing apprentice scribes, and
in time this genre was elaborated into what has been called a “list
science”. That is,
the attempt was made to write down the names of ever thing in the
universe in list form: not only signs and words lists of this kind could
have up to five sub-columns of explanations), but also classes of men
and women, objects natural and manufactured, animals, plants, rivers,
stars, etc., etc.
Difficult literary texts had commentaries explaining rare words.
Sumerian texts were given Babylonian translations, and more philological
help was given in lists of grammatical forms and other linguistic
material. No other part of the ancient Near East could boast such a vast
range of learned compilations, all of which have much helped the modern
decipherers, of course. Another text genre, more indicative of their
concept of the universe, is omens. Certain conditions and natural events
were held to portend consequences either private or public. Thus the
positions of stars, the birth of physically abnormal creatures, features
of the liver of sacrificial animals, and trivial happenings in everyday
life were the ˜causes” written down in list form on many hundreds of
tablets, and opposite them were written the ˜effects” the kingdom might
fall, or a man might suffer loss. While eclipses have caused fear in
many societies, it is doubtful if any other civilization has taken this
˜science” to such lengths. Etruscan divination probably owed much to the
Babylonians, even if through the Hittites rather than at first hand. The
finding of an inscribed liver model at Hazor shows how this kind of
material spread to Palestine during the Amarna period.
Magic texts were also a speciality of Babylonian scribes. Incantations,
in Sumerian, Babylonian, and (rarely) other languages, were regularly
transmitted in written form. Some of the tablets also offer instructions
for performance of the rituals in which the incantations were recited.
Religious literature includes, of course, prayers and hymns, but the
academic bent of the scribes manifested itself in the compilation of
systematized lists of gods names and other more complex theological
expositions. Literature in the strict sense is represented by myths and
legends and a small number of epics about historical events. lt happens
that those which appeal more to us, for example the Gilgamesh Epic,
were less popular in the ancient world than those of more theological
import, such as the Babylonian Epic of Creation. Sciences were
also represented among the texts. A recipe for making glass and related
material is more a witness to technology, but mathematics was a
distinctively Babylonian science. Knowledge of the material contained in
Euclide’s Elements, but not the theoretical presentation,
is now known to have originated in Babylonia in the early centuries of
the second millennium B.C. The famous theorem of Pythagoras is used on a
cuneiform tablet of this period.
Astronomy, however, was much later in its origin, and the Babylonians
had nothing out of the ordinary to show until the Persian period, when a
mathematical astronomy developed rapidly, based on observation by the
unaided naked eye. For a couple of centuries this exceeded anything in
the world, even the contemporary Greek learning, which in the early
Christian centuries soon surpassed it.
Astrology, in the sense of omens based on the heavenly bodies, is a
Babylonian art, but horoscope astrology only appeared in the Hellenistic
It was not a misjudgement of the Hebrews to look on the Babylonian
scholars as especially experts in magic lore. The large number of omens
and incantations are indicative. Hence the use of the term ˜Chaldaean”
with ˜magicians”, ˜enchanters”, and ˜sorcerers” in the book of Daniel
(2: 2, etc.), but this is not a Babylonian use of the term.
Of religion, the official city cults are the only well-known part.From
the beginnings of civilization each city had its own patron god or
goddess, who was present in the city in the form of a cult statue in a
temple. This building was the largest in the city, a fact which reflects
the theocentric view of the people. As time passed, religious
establishments increased in number, size, and complexity of buildings
and organization. A large Babylonian town hada number of temples,
although only one deity was acknowledged as patron of the place. Also,
each temple would have within it facilities for worship of various gods
and goddesses in addition to the one whose temple it was. The various
deities were mostly personifications of parts or aspects of nature. The
moon, the sun, and Venus had their deities: Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar.
This last was also goddess of love and war. The storm-god Adad was well
known in Babylonia, but no major city professed him as patron. Anu was
god of heaven, Nergal of the underworld, though Ereshkigal was queen in
that place. Enki (Sumerian) or Ea (Babylonian) was god of the sweet
water believed to lie under the earth. It is impossible to give here a
complete list of all the Mesopotamian deities, some of which are little
known. Despite their cosmic associations, the gods were conceived very
much anthropomorphically. Most of them were represented in human form:
they had parents, spouses, and children, and the sum total was organized
by the theologians into a pantheon like a clan: the more senior headed
it, their first generation of offspring followed in precedence, and the
second generation still belonged to the ˜great gods”. The lesser ones
were often integrated in the pantheon by being made servants of the
greater. The major deities had courts with attendants just like a human
king. This systematic organization of the pantheon arose under the
Sumerians, and the system was modified in some particulars by the
Babylonians. Some of the changes were inevitable reflections of changed
For example, Anu and Enlil had been heads of the pantheon at the end of
the third millennium, but with the rise of the city Babylon, Marduk, the
city god, rose at once to the ranks of the ˜great gods”.
By about 1100 B.C. Marduk was officially considered head of the
pantheon, the second and final step in his promotion. The well known
Babylonian Epic of Creation
 is a mythical statement of thisrise. Marduk
(Hebrew: Merodach) became known as Bel, the lord, and is mentioned three
times in the Hebrew prophets under this name: Isaiah 46: 1, Jeremiah 50:
2 and 51: 44.
By the end of the first quarter of the first millennium B.C. Marduk’s
son, Nabu, who was by this time established as city god of Borsippa,
Babylon had similarly risen in power, so that under the Late Babylonian
Empire Bel and Nabu were co-equal rulers of the universe. They appear in
lsaiah 46: 1 as Bel and Nebo. ln this case historical changes brought
about the elevation of new rulers of the gods. Other changes were
entirely the work of scholarly theologians. As a result of the city
origin of the various cults there was a great amount of duplication of
deities when the whole land was considered together. Gods and goddesses
of similar attributes were known and worshipped in a variety of cities,
though often under different names. The theologians identified such
deities and thereby brought order into what otherwise would have been a
chaotic multiplicity of gods. But this process was pushed beyond the
cases where close similarity was obvious, and in the first millennium a
few scholars had gone so far as to identify all the major gods with
Marduk, so creating a kind of monotheism.
It is doubtful if this view was ever widely held: polytheism remained
normal to the end. The cult consisted of seasonal festivals, of which
very little is known, and more regular (often daily) rites. The latter
included prayers addressed to the statue, and the putting of meals
before it twice a day. This was merely feeding the god, and it is
incorrect to speak of this as sacrifice. Mesopotamian religion had
nothing that corresponded to sacrifice among the Hebrews and Canaanites.
The buildings were of two main kinds: the temple (basically an oblong
room with the entrance in the long side and the statue on a podium at
one end), and the ziggurat a kind of step pyramid of solid brick with a
shrine on the top, tough little is known o its function). The temples in
all periods owned large estates, and were in consequence powerful
economically. For such activities the temples owned buildings for what
we would consider non-religious purposes.
It must not be imagined that the city temple was a centre of public city
worship. Only certain priests and officials were allowed inside the
temple buildings. No public worship ever took place there. All devotions
were performed by the appropriate clergy alone. The populace was on hand
at certain festivals and witnessed processions through the streets, and
there is evidence that the whole city shared in the mood of particular
celebrations, but that was the extent of popular participation. The
ordinary people presumably went to the street-corner shrine, or had a
private niche at home around which their devotions revolved, but little
is known of this kind of religion.
Other aspects of Babylonian civilization are not so outstanding.
Architecture was limited by the available materials, and sun-dried
bricks were most commonly used. Stone and timber were expensive imports
and never had much importance for building. The shortage of any readily
available fuel meant that kiln-fired brick were the exception. With such
limitations it is a surprise that the temples and ziggurats had a
certain massive awe about them, but builders elsewhere in stone and wood
had the advantage. Art, too, was not a field in which the Babylonians
excelled. Cylinder seals 
are one of the commonest and best-known forms of Babylonian art. They
served the practical function of seals in other societies to indicate
consent and authorization, as is done in some other
cultures by signing ones name. The cylinder seals vary in size; on
average, they are from two to four centimeters high, and of varying
diameter. They are bored through from top to bottom to be carried,
usually on a string around the neck. The majority were made of stone,
sometimes semiprecious, though other materials also occur. The curving
outer surface was cut with designs which varied from period to period,
and some seals bear in addition an inscription, usually the owners name
or religious phrases. The seals were rolled on the soft clay of a
cuneiform tablet, or on clay used as a seal around a knot in string for
security. Poor-quality seals were the work of hack artists, but the
best, despite their small size, are real works of art. ln the second
millennium cylinder seals in the surrounding countries --Syria,
Anatolia, Assyria, and Elam-- were often based on Babylonian originals,
but in the first millennium B.C. the prevailing styles had originated in
northern Mesopotamia, and Babylonia then became the borrower. Other
manufactured articles are not easy to assess, since some categories have
largely perished in the wet soil, but what was outstanding was usually
so for technological rather than artistic reasons.
Babylonians and Hebrews
are three points at which Babylonian and Hebrew history meet.
The first is Abraham’s origin in ˜Ur of the Chaldees” (Gen. 11: 27-31).
Cyrus Gordon proposed that this Ur be sought in a place Ura, not
certainly located, but known to have been somewhere in Syria
. Scholarly opinion still favours the well-known Ur, an
originally Sumerian city near the Persian Gulf.
From a historical standpoint nothing precise can be said about the
origin of Abraham’s clan in Ur, since Genesis gives no indication of
time, and very diverse opinions of the historical reliability of the
Patriarchal narratives are held by competent scholars. What may be said
generally is that Mesopotamian sources give abundant evidence of a
migration of Amorites down the Euphrates valley into Babylonia. They are
often expressly so called, and in other cases Amorite personal names
betray their presence. The language of the personal names may be
described as a kind of early Hebrew, and some of the Patriarch’s names,
though not, as it happens, Abraham’s, are clearly Amorite. These people
are first found in southern Mesopotamia under the Third Dynasty of Ur
(c. 2100- 2000 B.C.) ,
and a flood of them destroyed this dynasty. To the end of the First
Dynasty of Babylon (c. 1600 B.C.) ˜Amorites” were a distinguishable
element in the population of Babylonia.
Hammurabi and his family belonged to this group. Thus there is no
problem about locating an Amorite clan in Ur at whatever time one might
assign to Abraham. The second point of contact was much later, and of a
very different kind. Merodach-baladan, King of Babylon, sent a
diplomatic mission to Hezekiah (2 Kings 20: 12 ff =Isa. 39: 1 ff.)
This king is well known as an Aramaean who by sheer genius in diplomacy
and intrigue proved himself a thorn in the Assyrian side over a number
of years. He never won a military victory over Assyrian army, but more
than once he got other kings troops to fight in his cause. As King of
Babylon he reigned from 721 to 710 B.C., and again for nine months in
705. The episode with Hezekiah cannot be certainly dated, but it fits in
with the known facts of the situation extremely well.
Ostensibly the mission was to congratulate Hezekiah on his recovery from
a near-fatal illness. However, even the biblical narrative creates a
suspicion that more was involved, since when Hezekiah had received the
mission and shown its members his wealth, the prophet Isaiah confronted
the king with two questions: “What said these men? and from whence came
they unto thee “ Hezekiah replied to the latter question only.The
message from Babylon he chose to conceal. Merodach-baladan was, of
course, concerned with anti-Assyrian intrigue, and was no doubt seeking
to arrange simultaneous revolts against Assyria
among Palestinian and other states.
The third point of contact is the Babylonian captivity under
Nebuchadnezzar II, and a brief record of the events is offered in what
is called the Neo-Babylonian Chronicle Series (Chronicle 5 rev.
. The capture of Jerusalem is dated to the second
day of Adar of the seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar, which can be rendered
into the Julian calendar as 16 March 507 B.C. In other respects the
biblical account is more detailed. There are three main periods during
which Babylonian civilization may have influenced the Hebrews: the
Amarna period, which preceded the Hebrew settlement; (ii) the Exile; and
(iii) the post-Exilic period.
The Amarna Period
Whatever is thought of the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives,
the relevance of this period to Babylono-Hebrew connections is not in
doubt. Those who accept that Abraham came from Ur to Canaan, as
described in Genesis, may hold that Babylonian ideas were passed down to
the Hebrews by family tradition alone. Those who are more skeptical will
still accept the veracity of the picture of nomadic clans, which, in
view of the approximate date of the settlement, must be put somewhere
about the Amarna period. No one disputes that the Hebrews emerged
against a background of Canaanite culture, which they destroyed in the
areas they took over. This culture, as best known in the Amarna period,
was open to Mesopotamian influence. While a local alphabetic script was
just beginning to appear, most writing was on clay in Babylonian
cuneiform. Not only the script, but also the most commonly used language
for writing was Babylonian, though in places influenced by the spoken
dialects. Along with the techniques of writing and the Babylonian
language went a certain amount of literary material and traditional
Babylonian lists. Finds of this kind of material have been made at
Amarna itself, at Megiddo and Hazor, but especially at Ugarit, the
modern Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast, and at the Hittite capital in
Anatolia, Bogazköy. The period was one in which cultural barriers from
the Gulf of Suez to the Zagros Mountains were broken down, and the whole
area freely absorbed whatever cultural developments were available.
There was, of course, native literature in Syria and Palestine, and best
known are the texts from Ugarit, written in a kind of Amorite or
Canaanite, with a specially developed cuneiform alphabet, on clay
tablets. Save for
a few insignificant cases, these poetic texts show no Babylonian
influence. Such local texts may have had a wide circulation in oral
form, but the cuneiform copies of Babylonian texts would at first have
been available only to the few professional scribes. However, in
Anatolia Hittite and Hurrian translations of the Babylonian Gilgamesh
Epic were created, and a Hittite version of the Babylonian Flood
and these could have been incorporated into the repertory of local
In Syria, at least, use of cuneiform antedates the Amarna period.
There is a body of administrative documents from eighteenth-
and letters from the King of Carchemish have
been found in the Mari archives.
But by the Amarna period this use of Babylonian writing had spread. The
relevance of these data to possible Babylonian influence on the Hebrews
is that the early chapters of Genesis betray similarities to Babylonian
texts which cannot be accidental. The overall plan -- Creation, ten
long-lived worthies, Flood -- is paralleled in the Sumerian King List
and related material in Babylonian, where the giving of the arts of
civilization results in a succession of eight, nine, or ten long-lived
kings, after whom comes the Flood.
The seventh, when there are ten, received special revelations from
certain gods, which parallels the Hebrew seventh, Enoch, who had a
special relationship with God. Copies of the Sumerian King List
survive from early in the second millennium, and a big edition of the
Babylonian epic culminating in the Flood is preserved from c. 1630 B.C.
Thus priority in time certainly rests on the Mesopotamian side. The
connection is indisputable, since in the Late Assyrian and Late
Babylonian edition of the Flood story as given in Tablet Xl of the
Gilgamesh Epic 
the episode of the sending out of three birds to ascertain if the
waters were subsiding is undeniably very closely connected with the
parallel verses in Genesis. The earliest preserved copies of this
episode in cuneiform are from only the seventh century B.C., but, as
will be demonstrated later, it is highly improbable that this episode
reached the Hebrews after the time of the settlement, and equally
improbable that the Babylonians borrowed it from the Hebrews. It is
uncertain if this episode was contained in the Old Babylonian edition of
c. 1630 B.C., though probably it was not, and there is no preserved
version of this part of the story in any language from the Amarna
period. The Babylonian background of Genesis I - II is not limited to
the general plan and the Flood story. The world geography of Chapters
2-3 embraces the Tigris and Euphrates, but not the Nile. The Table of
Nations (Ch. 10) has a long anecdote about Nimrod (vv. 8-12), whose
kingdom is precisely described in terms of Mesopotamian towns. So far it
has not proved possible to find a Mesopotamian king who fits the
description. The story of the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11 is based on
the ziggurat of Babylon. (Babel is simply the Hebrew form of that name.)
In estimating these similarities the differences are equally important.
The Sumerian King List begins with the lowering of kingship from
heaven, not with Creation, and its long-lived men are kings, not
patriarchal figures in a single line of descent. The geography of
Genesis 2-3 cannot be based on a purely Babylonian or Sumerian text as
it now stands, since, quite apart from its being in Hebrew, only two of
the four rivers would occur in a Mesopotamian cosmography. Nimrod, as
already remarked, cannot be identified from cuneiform texts, though
names of all important kings are known. The name might be the same as
Ninurta, a Sumero-Babylonian god of war, also associated with hunting.
Whatever the differences, Babylonian material, or material based at some
time on knowledge of Babylonia, is certainly conspicuous in the early
chapters of Genesis, and this raises the question at what period this
material reached the Hebrews. Criteria of judgment are available in the
large number of datable cuneiform texts that can be compared. The Tower
of Babel is important in this respect, since Babylon was utterly
unimportant until the dynasty of Hammurabi, indeed among the tens of
third millennium cuneiform texts there are remarkably few mentions of
the town, and none that attach any importance to it. When Hammurabi
raised it to political supremacy, the fact was expressed theologically
in the Prologue to the Laws of this king by saying that Marduk (the city
god of Babylon) was exalted by Anu and Enlil (heads of the pantheon) to
a place among the great gods  This explicitly
acknowledges that Marduk (and so his city also) was previously
insignificant. The story of the Tower of Babel must come from a time
when Babylon was an important city, so that myth and legend were
clustering around it. This happened in Mesopotamia, but only some
centuries after Hammurabis time. An inscription of the Kassite king
Kurigalzu II (c. 1335 B.C.) first attests the concept of Babylon as the
e city”. Religion
was conservative in Babylonia and changes of status and concept came
slowly. Thus it is improbable that a story such as the Tower of Babel
would have arisen until a century or two after Hammurabi at the
earliest. This is positive evidence for a terminus a quo of the
Babylonian material in Genesis as not earlier than the middle of the
second millennium, and the lack of knowledge of third-millennium
Mesopotamia in these same chapters is also very striking. The Table of
Nations has no name covering the Sumerians, though for a thousand years
one of the most important peoples in the Near East, and the 'Table’
gives plenty of attention to the Babylonians and Assyrians. Thus on the
available evidence it seems that the Babylonian traditions behind
Genesis 1-1 1 date in their Mesopotamian context to a period not earlier
than about 1500 B.C. The dating of the Hebrew form of these same
traditions is, of course, difficult and complicated, but at the present
time it will not be doubted that they are pre-Exilic. That they attained
canonical status is evidence that loyal Yahwists respected and revered
them. From the time of Solomon and onwards material of foreign origin
would hardly have been acceptable in orthodox Hebrew circles, and its
presence in the Pentateuch is therefore good evidence that it goes back
among the Hebrews to pre-monarchical times. In all probability these
traditions were part of Hebrew lore when the nation was establishing
itself in its land. Thus the gap in time between the Mesopotamian
materials terminus a quo and the Hebrews’ adoption of it is not
more than two or three centuries, and the Amarna period is the most
likely time for the transmission of the traditions from Mesopotamia to
Syria-Palestine. It is a fact that Babylonian myths and legends did
circulate in Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt at this time. The
differences are explained in that the material reached the Hebrews
orally, and was no doubt passed down among them first in this form. Any
more precise suggestion as to how the material reached the Hebrews will
depend on a theory of Hebrew origins.
Law is another case where Sumero-Babylonian texts are relevant. The
oldest Hebrew civil code, the Book of the Covenent , (Exod.
21-23), has some close parallels with the Laws of Hammurabi and the
earlier Mesopotamian laws. For example, the section on the goring ox (Exod.
21 ; 28-32) is partly identical with the law on the same topic from
(§§ 53-4). This
similarity remains in Deuteronomy, since this book takes over the laws
of the Book of the Covenant, but the Priestly laws of Leviticus
and other parts of the Pentateuch do not have any connection with
Mesopotamian codes. This case, unlike the traditions in Genesis 1-11, is
not one of borrowing, but rather of parallel development. The lex
talionis, with its ân ˜eye for an eye' and ‘tooth for a tooth’, is a
revealing point. In the earliest Sumerian code, that of Ur-Nammu (c.
2100 B.C.), bodily injury was compensated for with
payment of silver by the guilty party, and tins continued in the
earliest Babylonian laws, those of Eshnunna (c. 1800 B.C.).
The lex talionis first appears in Mesopotamia in the Laws of
Hammurabi, where it is enunciated explicitly for bodily injury, and the
principle appears in a number of other laws; e.g., that if a house
collapses and kills the owner`s son, the builders son shall be put to
death. There was
no social change in Hammurabis time to explain the sudden, and to us
retrogressive, appearance of the lex talionis. On the contrary,
Hammurabi was an excellent and just administrator of his empire. He was,
however, an Amorite in origin, and the most plausible explanation of the
facts is that the ‘eye for an eye' and ‘tooth for a tooth’ was an old
Amorite legal precept that reached Babylon and the Hebrews from a common
origin. No society imperatively needs a tradition of a string of
long-lived worthies followed by a Flood, but every society must have
some customary law, even if it is never written down.
It further reason for doubting whether the Hebrews had borrowed the
Mesopotamian laws is lack of evidence that such material ever travelled
in written form, unlike myths and legends. The Laws of Eshnunna were
never, to our knowledge, copied like a work of literature. Harnmurabi`s
laws were eventually treated in this way and became a text handed down
by scribes (not, be it noted, a code observed as law), but so far
nothing of this kind has been found in the west.
lt is impossible to prove Babylonian influence on the Hebrews in
non-literary matters at the time of the settlement, and such influence
is not likely. ln art the Canaanites did borrow Babylonian motifs and
used them to better effect, but such things were despised by the
The Exile and Post-Exilic Period
The cultural interchange that had characterized the Amarna period was
rudely shattered as the Hebrews settled down. First, the migrations of
the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’ threw Syria and Palestine into chaos; then,
from about 1100 to 900, the Aramaeans invaded Mesopotamia. With these
events the cultural penetration of Syria and Palestine by Babylonian
civilization came to an end. Thus, when Hebrew civilization was
developing under the early monarchy it was free from any current
except in so far as Phoenician and Aramaic neighbors mediated a little,
but this was little indeed. lt was only with the rise of the Assyrian
empire that Mesopotamian influence began to be felt again in Palestine,
and this trend continued after the fall of the Assyrians with the rise
of the Neo-Babylonian empire. However, during these periods the
Assyrians and Babylonians were the avowed enemies of the Hebrews, and
this must have restricted the extent of cultural borrowing by the
Hebrews. Even in exile, where they were exposed to the alien culture, a
large number clung to their traditional beliefs and so resisted any
absorption of Babylonian culture. For example, the writings of
Deutero-lsaiah reveal no understanding of the complexity of the
polytheism and idol worship that is denounced. An educated Babylonian
would not have been impressed by the criticisms. However, in small
matters the Hebrews were inevitably influenced. Their old pre-Exilic
month names were replaced after the Exile by the standard Babylonian
names. Also, so far as there was a Hebrew art, one may suspect that some
Babylonian influence was apparent in it Just before and after the Exile.
The post-Exilic world was dominated more by the Aramaic language and
culture, which were under Babylonian influence to some extent, as the
Babylonian loan words illustrate. Thus the post-Exilic world was more
Aramaic than Babylonian, and the only real contribution of the
Babylonians at this time was mathematical astronomy. The Hebrews had no
competence at such forms of science and were therefore not influenced.
While the Babylonians were dying out amid the rise and spread of
Hellenism, the Hebrews were held together by their distinctive religion,
and so survived.
1. For a survey of cuneiform writing; see G. B. Driver,
Semitic Writing (1954), Ch. 1.
2 . A selection of letters in translation, with an
Introduction, is given by A. L. Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia
3. See V. von Soden, Die Welt als Gcschichte, ii (1936),
pp. 418 ff.
4. B. Landsberger and H. Tadmor, I.E.J. xiv (1964),
5. Taha Baqir, Sumer vi (1950), 39 ff.
6. On this whole subject see the masterly survey of O.
Neugebauer, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,
cvii (1963), 528 ff.
7. A. ]. Sachs, J.C.S. vi (1952), 49 ff.
8. ‘Chaldaea' and ‘Chaldaean’ are used elsewhere in the
O.T. to refer to Babylonia or Mesopotamia.
9. The best available English translations are by A.
Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (1951), and by A. Speiser, in
A.N.E.T., pp. 60 ff.
10. The major text on which this is based was published
by T. G. Pinches in Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria
Institute, xxviii (1896), 1 ff.; his conclusions are fully valid,
and now supported by other evidence.
11. A recent publication of a big collection of seals,
with appropriate comment, is Briggs Buchanan, Catalogue of Ancient
Near-Eastern Seals in the .Ashmolean Museum, i: Cylinder Seals
12. ].N.E.S. xvii (1958), 28 ff.
13. H. W. F. Saggs, Iraq, xxii (1960), 200 ff..
14. See G. Buccellati, The Amorites of the Ur III
15. A study of Amorite names is offered by H. B,
Huffmon, Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts (1965). A
document from the reign of Ammi-saduqa distinguishes between ‘Amorites’
and ‘Akkadians’. F.R. Kraus, Ein Edikt des Königs Ammi-Saduqa von
16. A detailed study of this Merodach-baladan is given
by J. A. Brinkman in Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim
(1964), pp. 6 ff.
17. See A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles
(forth-coming); and for the present D. ]. Wiseman, Chronicles of
Chaldaean Kings (1956), p. 73.
18. English translations are available in A.N.E.T., pp.
Siegelova, Archiv Orientalni, xxxviii (1970), 135 ff.
20. D.J. Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (1953).
21. See G Dossin, R.A xxxv (1938), 115 ff.; idem,
Correspondance de Iasmah-Addu (Archives Royales de Mari 5, 1952),
22. See T. Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List
23. W. G. Lamhert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasis: The
Babylonian Story of the Flood (1969).
24 A.N.E.T., pp. 93-6.
25. Ibid. 164.
26. A. Boissier, R.A. xxix (1932), p. 98, l. 4:
ip-pa-am-ba-li…a-lisa-a-ti, ‘In Babylon…the primeval city’.
27. A.N.E.T., p. 163.
28. J.J. Finkelstein, ].C.S. xxii (1969), 70.
29. A.N.E.T., p. 163, §§ 42-7.
30. Ibid. 175, §§ 196-7 (lex tulionis) and
176, § 230. The reason that the lex talionis in the Laws of
Hammurabi does not apply to the `commoner’(actually a person in the
king’s service) and slaves is the same reason for which today a crime
committed by a member of the armed forces is not dealt with by a
civilian court. A tied legal status means that those under it are not
strictly free, and so not responsible for their actions as free citizens