History Files
 

 

The Middle East

Testament

From the Channel 4 series by archaeologist John Romer, 1988

 

 

"Hear, O Israel! Thou art to pass over Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than thyself, cities great and fenced up to heaven.

"Get thee up into the land that is over against Jericho, and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession.

"For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of roots and water, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig grass, a land that flows with milk and honey as the Lord God of thy fathers has promised thee. For thou art a holy people. The Lord they God has chosen thee to be a special people unto himself above all people that are on the face of the Earth."

This god who gives away whole countries is the god the English Bible called Jehovah. The land of Canaan, which he gave to the Israelites, was a tough little bunch of city states set between Egypt and Lebanon. But who were the Israelites? There's almost no trace of them in the ancient world. There isn't a museum anywhere that has an Israelite gallery in it. Yet Israel's history as it's written in the Bible has become a part of western history. So it's hardly surprising that generations of Westerners have been tempted to return to the ancient land of Palestine, to look for their beginnings.

Can the Bible be believed? Can it be proved? We live in a scientific age, so people often ask scientists and archaeologists that question instead of priests. It's not always an easy combination of subjects. If someone believes in the Bible, and is also an archaeologist, people just think they are being preached to straight away when they are told something like "I've found a wall from the time of King Solomon." It can be a hopeless situation. In actual fact, it's very important to compare scientific history with the Bible. It can help us understand something of the motives and methods of the ancient people who wrote it. That's important because their ancient words have such an effect on us still.

Just fifteen miles north-east from Jerusalem is the site of Jericho. It's a site famous for being one of the earliest and biggest victories of the invading Israelite tribes. It was a rich city at the edge of an oasis by the river Jordan. On the modern site are mounds of red earth. They are the remains of the ancient city that has fascinated archaeologists for over a century. They hacked at it, dug trenches through it, and argued over it. And made wonderful discoveries too. But the most important thing they have given us is a good idea of the way the Bible's word may or may not be trusted.

The Oldest City

Even if the Bible had never told us that Joshua and his Israelites had come here, Jericho would still be one of the most famous cities on Earth. To start with it's the oldest city on Earth, dating back as a large, walled settlement to around 9,000 BC, and it was built at the lowest point on Earth.

A stone tower that still survives has been dated to around 10,000 years old, and is the oldest surviving man-made structure in the world. When it was built it stood on a plain. The huge mounds of earth around it, archaeological strata, represent various cities that were built up though the ages. It's an incredible time chart of Man's progress on Earth. Somewhere in there may be the dust of ancient Israel. Perhaps even the Bible's characters.

The archaeologists who dug out the tower continued their trench right to the outskirts of the city. As they cut through the mound, they cut through the city walls, walls of various ages. One of the walls they uncovered was rather an unusual one dated to about 1600 BC. It was found to have a smooth, shiny plaster surface. It's the sort of wall that came into existence just after chariots came into the area. What they were for was stopping charging chariots, the shiny plaster would cause the chariots to skid and run off their path to be picked off by the city defenders.

Archaeologists were digging up this type of wall all over the place, but everybody was giving their discoveries different names. To some people this was called a Hyksos wall, after the people who probably attacked it. Most others gave biblical names, because the people on those expeditions seemed to like that sort of thing. In 1922 the British decided to put it on a scientific foundation. The man in charge of the archaeological mandate of British Palestine, John Garstang, decided to name all the strata in archaeological excavations after the scientific terms used in European museums. That is; Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. So that everyone after that date had to specify to which of those three categories their work belonged.

The specifically interesting point was where the Bronze Age met the Iron Age, because that was about 1200 BC, the date around which the ancient Israelites were supposed to have entered Canaan.

A layer of Jericho wall was uncovered and dated incorrectly by Garstang to the time of the Israelite invasion, citing a providential earthquake as its cause of collapse. Years later, another archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyan, proved with much-improved techniques that the wall was a thousand years older than previously thought, so that it bore absolutely no relation to Joshua's supposed attack on the city. What was also proved was that at the time the Bronze Age and Iron Age met, the time at which everybody agreed the Israelites had arrived, there was nobody at all living at Jericho. The city was completely deserted, and had been that way for hundreds of years.

So often has this happened, that an archaeologist has made a find that has later been discredited, that scholars now realise that the Bible can not been taking as a completely literal account of events in that ancient world. The problem is not whether the Bible is accurate, but how the Bible is accurate. The Bible is not an economic or political history of the ancient world. What it is, is a history of belief, and of how that belief led this conglomeration of twelve tribes in their faith to conquer for themselves a new homeland. Modern archaeology is now managing to dig up the evidence of the circumstances of that history.

In the dark recesses of the Cary Museum is a great grey granite stela (pr. steel-er), or block, that holds in its inscription the first known mention of Israel, in the year 1207 BC. The stela has a victory hymn on it, telling of a war the Pharaoh Menepatah's army fought in Canaan. "The fortress city of Askelon is taken," it says. "The fortress city of Giza is captured," it boasts. "The fortress city of Yanohem is disappeared," it announces. Then it continues, "The People of Israel lie desolate. There seed is no more." It is especially interesting that Israel is not called a fortress city but a People.

The Temple of Carnak

In the great Temple of Carnak in upper Egypt, by the Nile, there's something that bears that out exactly. An unlikely looking ruined wall carries another stela upon which there is a very important historical inscription. There are scenes on either side of it that had always been thought were the ordinary trappings of the architecture of a victorious Pharaoh. But on closer examination it was found that the scenes were from the reign of Menepatah, the Pharaoh of the Israel stela. The scenes show the Pharaoh attacking various fortresses, with his chariot grinding the dead beneath its wheels. Some of the scenes are not too clear after all this time, but there are still decipherable.

One of the scenes is recognisable as being the attack on the fortress of Askelon, with one figure hacking down a door, and a defender lowering a dead boy, arrow sticking from his body, to the inhabitants of the fortress who are praying for the attack to stop. At the top of the stela, being crushed by the Pharaoh's chariots and the Egyptian cavalry, was a Bedouin tribe which was also mentioned on the Israel stela. In fact, they are the oldest known pictures of the ancient Israelites.

Unfortunately, at the ancient city of Meggido, according to the Bible one of the first Canaanite cities to be captured by the invading Israelites, archaeologists working there have not found a single trace of them. But one thing is certain, whether the Israelites were ever here or not, these Canaanite cities had a powerful influence on the people who wrote the Bible. The cities can be found right through modern Israel and Syria. They are usually found on trade routes, often amid fields of corn, and sometimes by the sea. It was the rich land all around these small city states that kept the local courts in a fair degree of luxury.

There is a fine, lively picture of one of these Canaanite courts, found cut onto a slip of ivory from the tusk of a Syrian elephant. It shows the ruler, proudly sitting on his recently imported Egyptian throne, all feathers and skinned leopard's legs, and in front of him is all his court, a musician with lyre, a spear carrying guard, a captain of the chariots that they loved so much they used to race in them. It is a descriptive drawing, but it is not great art, the Canaanites were never great artists. They still made a great influence on posterity through their literature and their religion. Through those two things they influenced the Old Testament and Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible.

At the centre of all ancient cities stood the gods. The Canaanite cities were no exception. In fact they were built around even more ancient and high places, that is, hills that from time immemorial had been regarded as sacred spots. One, well known to modern scholars, is the ancient sanctuary of Meggido, the High Place of Meggido, or as the Bible calls it, Armageddon.

There was another of these Canaanite high places in Jerusalem. That was the seat of a god called Baal-Zethon. That became the Christian's Mount Zion. Diggings there uncovered the top of the high alter, and found it to be covered in burnt bones. Animals were sacrificed on the alter in great quantity, and then burnt. The offering was called Olah. It's where the Bible's holocaust comes from - a burnt offering. The alter was built around 3000 BC, and before long, Meggido became quite a rich town, so its people built the Great Temple behind the alter for more elaborate rituals for the gods.

With the temple and its place for burnt offerings, a place inside for washing, and the holy of holies, the high alter, comes a certain familiarity. These are exactly the same elements that are found in King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, two thousand years later. That too had its burnt offering, its brazen bowl, and its alter. King Solomon's name itself contains the name of a Canaanite god, the god Solom, the god of the evening star.

Although there is not much remaining intact on the site, in its day the temple at Jerusalem was a great black building with tiny little slits for windows. Shafts of light would fall inside on two great columns in the centre. There were beautiful little incense alters along the front decorated with tiny little figures of musicians, something at which the Canaanites were very good. They adored music, and they decorated these alters with all sorts of various instrument players using drums, pipes and so on. They would use all these instruments as a sort of in-house band to play for their god during ceremonies. Something of this can still be found in the Bible.

Look at the Psalms in an old Bible and you will find strange words set between the verses, sometimes after the title of a Psalm. They are old musical instructions. Their meaning is unknown today, and they have been left out of modern Bibles, but they are something to do with the wonderful music that was made in the ancient Canaanite temples that are now so silent.

There are yet more connections with the Canaanites. Think of Psalm 137, and of the verse "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning." That is a very clever English adaptation of a very difficult Old Hebrew line that nobody really understood before. As we now have Canaanite originals which point the way, the verse should read "...may my right hand whither," which, although not quite so poetic, is much more accurate.

Tribes from the North

Traditions of Canaanite literature are very strong in the Old Testament. Just as the Bible says ancient Canaan was destroyed, archaeologists have found all these cities burnt and ruined. They have also found that this wasn't done by the Israelites, but by a lot of other people, a great mass of tribes coming down from the north. And once again, at Thebes in Egypt, pictures of them can be seen. After they destroyed Canaan, these same tribes went on to attack Egypt.

In the end, only the Egyptian armies were strong enough to stop them. After their defeat, one of these tribes went back to Canaan, and settled down along the coast. The Egyptians have called them the Pelyset. The Bible knows them as Philistines, the mortal enemies of ancient Israel.

About a century after the Egyptians had repulsed the terrible invasion of the tribes a priest set out from Thebes to go to Lebanon, sailing right up the Mediterranean coast to buy some cedarwood for his temple. In the course of his journey he stopped on the coast at Dor. By this time the Canaanites were no more. The land was no longer called Canaan. The coastal area was called Philistia, modern Palestine, and the Philistines lived there. Those same people who had attacked Egypt and had been swept back had settled right along the coastal plain and built big, strong cities. They found that the long coastline was made of petrified sand banks, and they were able to cut into it quite easily and make all sorts of harbours.

Some of the oldest slipways in the world are still in evidence there. The Philistines had brought with them a completely new culture and a new religion. When they moved about they had only mobile things, things they cold carry; splendid swords, fine helmets, all the paraphernalia of mobile peoples. When they settled down they started to make all sorts of things. They made especially fine pottery, and were respectable metalworkers, being able to fashion quite fine necklaces in gold. On the whole, their civilisation was quite refined, they were not Philistines at all. They have been given rather a bad press, wholly by their enemies, the Israelites of the Old Testament, who even took most of their victories over the Canaanites and attributed them to Israel.

And where were the Israelites at this time? They were not on the coast, nothing of them has been found there. In fact, nothing to do with them has been found for miles around the coastal area, nor on the plains behind it. If you take the Bible's word for it, however, you can assume that they were up there in the mountains, because that is where the Bible stories of early Israel are set. King David was once a shepherd boy in these hills. When he fought Goliath in Philistine he collected the pebbles for his sling from the bed of a mountain stream.

Most of the combats in the early history of Israel take place in a small area, in the zone between the green fields of the Philistines and the uplands of the Israelites. In David's stories much of the landscape is clearly laid out; chalky mountains with caves for hideaway kings, traditional crops - olives, grapes - abound. The Bible has painted such an accurate description of exactly what was going on in Israel at that time in history. What can archaeology tell us about what was happening up in the mountains at the same time?

The poor people who had moved into the mountains were obsessed with storing food. It was a very hard life. They were even obsessed with water. This fits. Most of the big rooms of the houses in the mountains were used to store rainwater. When the archaeologists came to dig them out, they found old pits under the house ruins. These pits were absolutely enormous, big enough to stand up in, and big enough to hold enough water to see the inhabitants through the entire summer. The pits were cut out of the ground before the houses were built around them. Realising as they arrived in the inhospitable region that this was where they had to live, the people built their elaborate cisterns, then put the houses on top.

These people, the historical Israelites, could also read. Tiny fragments of Canaanite texts were found, so small they could not be read, but big enough to see that some of the people in this region were literate. Then a tiny limestone tablet was found, covered in scratches and looking pretty miserable. The scratches turned out to be what is now called Paleo-Hebrew, because it was an alphabet that would later develop into Hebrew. Hebrew itself was a language which came from Canaan, the home of the original form of the Hebrew language.

The dwellers of this mountain region were intelligent people, living as settlers with an imported technology. Where did this people come from? All the archaeological evidence says that they were refugees from the old Canaanite cities. Refugees from invasions that were coming down the coast. From invasion by people who were the Philistines. So, up in the hills, looking for the Biblical Israelites, one finds a picture of little groups of refugees, coming up to the mountains to live in small, open settlements. Modern archaeology has begun to reconstruct the lives of these ancient people. In doing that an amazing coincidence begins to come to light between scientific theory and the words of the Bible.

Supposing, for a moment, that these people had had to fight off a Philistine invasion. Supposing they wanted to go down to the plain and fight for better land. They would obviously have needed to have formed themselves into a coalition. So who would run the coalition? These people were too poor to pay taxes to support any central authority, and the Bible says that they weren't too keen on kings. In the ancient world abstract ideas were very few and far between. The word 'coalition' for example is a concept that an ancient person could not have understood. But he would have comprehended the concept of 'king' or of 'god'.

So it is possible that the coalition was formed by belief in the same god, and that the priests of this god preached that everybody had to join together under the rule of this god so that they would be strong, with a powerful army and some prosperity. But if anybody dropped out of the holy coalition then there would be disaster and defeat.

They bound themselves together with an oath of fealty to their single god. So there would be travelling priests, and they would go around the separate groups holding the identity of their god. Their religion would be based upon the idea of oneness, of joint identity shared, of an idea that they were different from their new, conquering, neighbours. It would have been an identity that was very strong.

This, then, is the situation in the earliest parts of the Old Testament and the history of Israel. The travelling priests are the Biblical prophets, and the god of the coalition is Jehovah, whose Arc of the Covenant, the rules of the coalition, the twelve tribes carried into battle.

The Re-Conquest

Slowly, the Israelites start to emerge. It seems that that their tribes were the descendants, the survivors of the Canaanites who were pushed out of their land by the invading Philistines. They struggled to survive in the hills and mountains to the east for a while, until they were strong enough to band together in a coalition. Then they moved westwards and began the re-conquest of their lands. By this time though, their Canaanite identity had been changed by time and circumstance, and they became Israelites. Despite the change of name, they still held on to many of their ancient customs.

The fortress of Arrad, on the desert edge of southern Israel, was continually inhabited from around 1000 BC, about the time of King David. The ruins also contain a temple from about the same time. Ancient Hebrew texts tell of an Israelite garrison there a few centuries later. Thousands of years after the huge Canaanite temple of Meggido, Israelites have made their little temple to precisely the same design. There is still, at the middle of the longest side of the temple, the actual alter of the sanctuary.

At Meggido the incense tables are gone, but in the Israelite temple two were found, incense marks still in place where great winds of smoke would have wafted to the high ceiling. Behind that the high shrine would have sat. All in all, even outside the sanctuary, in the courtyard of the temple, the resemblance to the Biblical Temple of Jehovah, Solomon's Temple, and to the ancient Canaanite temples of two thousand years before, is very strong.

This new god himself was quite a different kind of god from those that had been worshipped in the past. Other ancient gods were often gods of parts of things; gods of medicine, and of mathematics, gods of life and of death. Jehovah was a god of everything, a god of gods.

Arrad's temple is contrary to Jehovah's law, which says that Israel must have but one temple, and that in Jerusalem. The Bible says that David took Jerusalem for Israel and named it the City of David. It also tells us that David's son Solomon built a temple there. A home for Jehovah to hold the Arc of the Covenant. Yet outside of the pages of the Bible there is no evidence whatsoever that the kings, David and Solomon, ever lived. No record from the early days of Israel has ever been found that mentions even their names. There is the Bible, and there are myths, but nothing else.

Sad to say, it is not only David and Solomon who don't seem to exist, at least in scientific history, it's really all of ancient Israel up until about 900 BC. On the site of ancient Jerusalem there is nothing to suggest that walls and pottery found were not made by Bronze Age people, the culture is continuous, with no breaks found to allow for a conquering flood of invaders. There was nothing to suggest that the Biblical conquest of Jerusalem had ever occurred.

Until a few years ago the written Hebrew word from the time of ancient Israel was very thin on the ground. There were just a few ancient seals, inscribed with the name of the scribe who used them. Then in 1980, in Jerusalem, somebody actually discovered a Bible text, digging it up. It turned out to be a very important text, being written just as the Prophet Jeremiah said, on sheets of silver inscribed with a pen of iron. It was a tiny little plaque, but it was also a fragment of the oldest Bible text in the world. It had to be very carefully unrolled, because originally it had been written on, then rolled up very tightly with string passed through it, and it was probably worn on a child's neck.

When the deciphering of the almost unreadable text began, the very first word to be translated was Jehovah. The name was discovered two further times on the plaque before anything else could be read. That in itself was exciting enough, because it was the oldest occurrence of the name Jehovah in Jerusalem. In about the 6th or 7th century BC Jehovah had come back to his own city. The plaque is part of the Book of Numbers, and is the priestly benediction, the words that Jehovah gave to Moses to give to the priest Aaron and his sons, the blessing of the children of Israel. It is a well known benediction that is recited in a great number of Christian and Jewish churches and school assemblies right up to the modern day.

The Bible tells us that the Israelites were in deep trouble when that silver plaque was made. It tells that the nation was stumbling ever deeper into sin. Jehovah's inexorable judgement was falling on those who broke his law. After Solomon's death, the Bible tells us, David's great kingdom was split into two halves. There was a southern kingdom called Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, and a northern kingdom called Israel, with its capital at the hilltop palace of Samaria.

Bible history and Israelite archaeology finally join together at Samaria. On the site was found an Iron Age palace. On the same site, the Bible says that King Omri built a palace. That palace is also mentioned in contemporary records from outside ancient Israel, where it is referred to as Bayt-Omri, the House of Omri.

At last there is undeniable proof of the existence of an Israelite king. It is Omri's son who is the more famous, the King Ahab who refused to follow the basic doctrines of belief. What the Bible doesn't say is what an excellent soldier Ahab was. In the 9th century he built up a coalition of lots of the smaller local kingdoms, and together, under his overall leadership, they went out and defeated the mighty Assyrian army in battle, beating what was then a superpower which used to send out large raiding forces from its central kingdom in Mesopotamia to the coasts of the Mediterranean practically every year.

The Assyrian Conquest

King Ahab and his smallish Coalition Army had managed to stop the Assyrians from doing that for a couple of years. Unfortunately, the Assyrians were not stopped for good.

They recovered rapidly from their defeat, and kept on coming down into Israel year after year, taking tribute and prisoners, destroying cities. That, in the year of 701 BC, was the sorry fate of the city of Lakkish, of the south of Jerusalem. Lakkish must have been a hard nut for the Assyrian army to crack. Pictures describing the victory were taken from the throne room of an Assyrian palace, a place to show off only the greater victories. The pictures show all the classic ingredients of close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting, complete with the claustrophobic sense of fear such combat must have induced.

There were ramps against the city walls, and siege engines sitting in the sandy ground, looking like ancient tanks. There were archers, and sappers, and the hard-pressed Lakkishites up on the battlements, fighting for their lives. In the Bible the prophets bewail its fall. As the people leave their city for the last time, they pass the elders of their town, impaled and stretched out, flayed, upon the ground.

The families of Lakkish, with their loaded carts, their women and their children and what few pots and bundles they could gather, are led off to become eternal refugees, parted from their own land forever. This is the first time such a scene has been noted in history, although it must have been a common enough sight at that time, on the roads that led eastward, from the cities of Israel and Judah to the lands of Assyria, and beyond.

These were turbulent times. About a hundred years after the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, Assyria itself was destroyed by a group of cities it had earlier conquered, led by that most ancient of cities, Babylon. Of course, this didn't make much of a difference to the peoples who lived on the edge of such events. They were now attacked and led of in chains by the Babylonians instead of the Assyrians, who built their own empire on much the same bloody basis.

In 586 BC Jerusalem itself finally fell. The Old Testament tells that its king, Zedekiah, was dragged from the city, his sons were killed, and then he was blinded. Then he was put in chains, along with his courtiers, and his priests of the Temple of Jerusalem, and they were dragged away.

The people were taken into captivity en masse. They were dragged through the gates of Babylon, the gates that swallowed up what was left of ancient Israel. The Great Whore is how the prophets call the city in their curses, because it was here that Hebrew was almost forgotten as a spoken language. Here it was that some of the Judaens took up worshipping foreign gods. It must have seemed to the other Judaens in their small ghetto inside the city that their history, the history of ancient Israel, had come to a full stop.

That history now seemed to be finite. It had a beginning, a middle, and now an end. They must have looked back over that history and seen that when they actually kept to the Covenant they did okay, and their god Jehovah smiled on them. But when they started to break the Covenant and follow sinful ways their kings died and finally their country was smashed and they were led into exile. It seemed too that they needed to write this history down, all of it, in the light of this new experience.

Most of Babylon's captured princes had been told, when they were led into their exile, to bring their local gods with them. Usually these took the form of small idols or statues. The Judaens couldn't exactly do that with their more ethereal god so they brought the temple treasures from Jerusalem, which the Babylonians put in their treasury, and they must have brought some sacred writings too, because the Old Testament actually mentions all the writings that were around at the time of ancient Israel. There were lists of laws, and talk of sacred books, there were histories and hymn books, and much else besides. It was this that they would use to make their history, the history of their country which had now come to an end.

They didn't want to write an archaeological history, nor did they want to write a scientific history. This was to be a summation of a nation, its apotheosis. And it started with a revelation on the wondrous beginning of their world.

 

Middle Eastern archaeological digs

The ruins of Old Jericho

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Abraham's Journeys

The Book of Genesis is filled with clues to tell us where and when this all took place. Abraham lived at Harron, before he started his long trek south. Today Harron is a well known archaeological site in south-east Turkey, with a village lived in by nomads who settled down. It is still as it would have been for Abraham. The name Harron means crossroads. Harron stood at approximately the heart of the ancient world. A thousand miles to the south-east is the Persian Gulf. The two great rivers that run into it, the Tigris and the Euphrates, start their epic journey not too far to the east. All down the sides of those rivers are the great cities of the ancient world, the cities of Mesopotamia, the Land of Sumer, what the Bible calls the Land of Shinar.

To the west and south-west is where Abraham went to next; Syria, Canaan, and then down into Egypt. In his time Syria and Canaan were rather rough places to be. They consisted mostly of mountain towns, getting most of their culture from Mesopotamia. Egypt had always been fairly insular, not bothering to interest itself in the events of the middle eastern lands. When Abraham and his wives and his herds were travelling, they weren't just wandering aimlessly in the desert, they were travelling the ancient trade routes, along the whole arc of the Fertile Crescent, the great ancient trading route. The journey involved travelling along the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates, sometimes in boats, trekking over to Harran, and then down towards the Mediterranean coast. They didn't travel through the centre because there was the desert, and the traveller and his donkeys would have died of thirst.

Camels, with could make the journey across the desert, holding water for about three days, arrived in the middle east from Africa by about 600 BC. Therefore, stories which describe Abraham riding a camel must have been made at or soon after that time. Also, the phrase Ur of the Chaldees (pronounced Cal-dees) is interesting in its Biblical use. The word Chaldea is a word for Mesopotamia, and that wasn't used until about 600 BC either.

So that serves as another pin point to the date of the stories. There are many other stories concerning Abraham that show that his sort of lifestyle was thousands of years older than the man himself. Evidence that could be attributed to Abraham has been turning up for years, but there is still no definite proof, and no real evidence that the people of Genesis ever actually lived at all. The evidence found, however, gives a lot of clues to Abraham's contemporary world.

A great deal about Mesopotamian civilisation has been discovered in the last 150 years. After digging up palaces and houses, pottery and jewels, the item that gives real insight into the region is the writing. Most of the people lived in mud-brick houses that have disappeared, but their cuneiform writings survive on traditional tablets of clay.

Discoveries at Harron include many of these Mesopotamian-inspired cuneiform tablets, and many of these are langrons, business contracts. They often document land sales, and how much land is involved. Langrons are usually dug up by city gates because that is where these tablets were written out and where the public announcements of changes of property ownership would take place.

This is exactly what is found in Genesis, where Abraham is buying the land on which he is to bury his wife. This adds a dramatic and lifelike hue to the dryness of the legal documents themselves. Dozens of Biblical customs can be found on similar tablets; the custom that Abraham and his family followed where they swore an oath by putting a hand under their thigh, the event where, just as Isaac's dying words are taken as a written will in the Bible, so the same thing is recorded on Mesopotamian tablets.

Another discovery is a list of Mesopotamian laws, made about 1760 BC, and they are written out in just the same way as the list of Jehovah's laws in the Old Testament. There is a Mesopotamian king receiving his laws from a god at the top of a mountain in just the same way that Moses received the Ten Commandments from his god at the top of another mountain.

Great numbers of the Mesopotamian tablets are actually dated. Scholars have spent many years trying to use these to fix Abraham to a specific point in history. At present the tablets that describe the lifestyle of Abraham's contemporaries date to between 2500 BC and 500 BC. Anything more specific than that seems to be nothing more than educated speculation. Abraham and his family were very much like the modern Bedouin tribes. They would simply pack up their tents and disappear over the horizon.

Ancient Mesopotamia

In ancient Mesopotamia the world and all its gods were explained in the form of sacred stories. The stories, of course, were myths. Myths that is, not in the modern meaning of the word as lies or falsehoods, but in the sense of a story that told of the underlying order of the world. Myths could explain the beauty of a spring, or a fish, they could explain good fortune or bad fortune. They helped the people of those times feel secure. Like all ancient people, Abraham would have seen his life in terms of myth. The people who wrote up the Genesis creation story also knew of these myths, and they used some of them in their description of the beginning of the world.

Mesopotamia was very fertile, but it also held random violence in it. For the Mesopotamians life was precarious. Crops and cities were often parched, or washed away by violent storms and floods. There was the threat of plague, and of tribesmen who often made raids from the hills and mountains to the north and east.

The Mesopotamian myth of the creation gave order to uncertainty. It gave the people a definite beginning, and a sense of purpose because of that beginning. The ancient priests recited the myths to their people, of a time "when, on high, the heavens were not yet named." They went on to tell an ancient and terrifying story of a family feud, of how, one day, the great Mother Goddess declared war on all six generations of her family because they were making too much noise. The gods appointed Mardok, a warrior of the sixth generation, as their champion. Mardok fought the Mother Goddess and her husband and their demon army on the great wide plain of Mesopotamia.

Finally he overcame them all. As for the Mother Goddess, he pushed the wild wind into her mouth, bloated her stomach, shot arrows into her, and Mesopotamia was born. With a butcher's knife, Mardok split the corpse of the Mother Goddess in half and made the sky and the earth. From the arch of her thighs he made the vault of heaven, her head he buried under the northern mountain, and he pierced her eyes so that Mesopotamia's two great rivers would run down her cheeks.

It is extraordinary to think that the Mesopotamian story of the creation is the same story that underlies that solitary, majestic creation story of Jehovah in the Book of Genesis. Through the story of Genesis, the west has gained something of the original story. It has gained a very particular model of the Universe, of a certain sort of structure, of a single unit with stresses and strains in it, just like a family. How is it that the Mesopotamian story is buried in the first page of the Book of Genesis? It's not a literal copy, or even an evolved version. The concordance between the two stories is one of structure and number.

There were six generations of Mesopotamian gods, just as Jehovah took six days to make the Universe. On each day Jehovah makes a part of that Universe; sun, stars, sea, animals, plants, and birds. The Mesopotamian gods of each of those six generations are the gods of exactly the same items. So underneath this text, there live the Mesopotamian gods. To start with, on the first day Jehovah makes the firmament and divides the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament, the waters below ground and above ground, salt water and freshwater. The waters are the two rivers of Mesopotamia going into the Persian Gulf. This covers the gods of the first generation. The great Mother Goddess was the god of the salt water, her husband was the god of the fresh water.

This pattern continues through the creation text, until it reaches the fourth generation. On the fourth day the Bible relates that Jehovah made two great lights, the greater and lesser lights, the sun and the moon. The Mesopotamian gods of the fourth generation were the gods of the heavens, of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The stars were also made on the Biblical Fourth Day. This pattern continues through to the sixth day. Mardok, of the sixth generation, makes Man so that the other gods can rest, as they were building a temple dedicated to him. He takes pity on them and creates Man to use as a slave so that the gods can rest. Jehovah also makes Man on the sixth day, then himself takes a rest.

The difference here is in the sort of Man that is being made. Mardok makes Man to be a slave, Jehovah makes Man in his own image. Man is given responsibility. It's as if the people who were writing Genesis fully understood the Mesopotamian world in which they were imprisoned, but that they wanted a different world for Men. In changing this aspect they also described a god unlike that of anything the Mesopotamians had known. So if the god of Genesis isn't a Mesopotamian god, where did he come from?

 

Map of the Middle East

Map of the Middle East in 1800 BC

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Think again of Abraham, and of his journey from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and of the influence of what he saw had on him and on his descendents. On closer examination the god of Genesis was not like the gods of Mesopotamia, but far more like the gods of Egypt.

   
 

 

     
Text copyright Channel 4 taken in note form from the original broadcast. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred.