Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, 5-32.
Copyright © 2011 Andrews University Press.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE
OLD TESTAMENT AND THE ANCIENT
NEAR EASTERN TEXTS
Adventist School of Theology
Sagunto, Valencia, Spain
In 1902, the noted Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch presented a series of
lectures on comparative studies under the auspices of the German Oriental
Society. Delitzsch’s lectures, entitled “Babel und Bibel,” claimed that the
literature of the Bible was dependent on, and even borrowed from, the
literature of Mesopotamia. He questioned the appropriateness of the
traditional theological terminology used to describe the Bible (e.g., revelation,
inspiration) in light of its now evident dependency.1
Delitzsch’s work spawned
a movement called “Pan-Babylonianism,” which argued that all world myths
and Christian Scriptures (OT and NT) were simply versions of Babylonian
As the series developed, however, it became clear that the
lecturer’s motives were not entirely pure. His interest was to minimize the
values of OT teaching so that it could be contrasted with that of the NT.3
The widespread interest in finding connections between the Bible and
other ANE cultures has bred its own reaction in the warning raised by several
scholars against exaggerating the importance of such similarities, a practice
baptized with the name “parallelomania.”4
Of particular concern has been
the often tacit assumption that such parallels can be construed as evidence
for a genetic connection between the cultures that share them. Despite such
warnings, the pendulum of biblical studies has continued to swing back and
forth with remarkable regularity over the generations, as initial archeological
discoveries have led to enthusiastic claims of similarities with various biblical
practices and the implied, if not always stated, conclusion that these constitute
the source for the biblical practice in question. Only in the afterglow of more
For further discussion on the question of revelation and inspiration, see A. M.
Rodríguez, “Ancient Near Eastern Parallels to the Bible and the Question of
Revelation and Inspiration,” JATS 12/1 (2001): 51-57.
See M. W. Chavalas, “Assyriology and Biblical Studies: A Century of Tension,”
in Mesopotamia and the Bible, ed. M. W. Chavalas and K. L. Younger Jr. (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 2002), 21-67, esp. 34.
See H. B. Huffmon, “Babel und Bibel: The Encounter between Babylon
and the Bible,” in Backgrounds for the Bible, ed. M. P. O’Connor and D. N. Freedman
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 125-136.
S. Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” JBL 81 (1962): 1.
6 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
careful inspection has the questionable nature of these parallels become
Changing views about the biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
provide a vivid example of this process. Many of the supposed parallels
turned out not to be parallel at all. Often Israelite practices had been read into
the cuneiform texts rather than legitimately being found there. What valid
parallels did exist turned out to have been widely practiced, often over a long
period of time, rather than limited to any particular epoch, much less the early
Methodological maturity began to be displayed in the careful work of W.
W. Hallo, who promoted a balanced method called the “contextual approach,”
which seeks to identify and discuss both similarities (comparative) and
differences (contrastive) that may be observed between the Bible and the texts
from the ANE by looking for diachronic and synchronic variations.6
goal, ‘is not to find the key to every biblical phenomenon in some ancient
Near Eastern precedent, but rather to silhouette the biblical text against its
wider literary and cultural environment.’ Thus, we must not succumb either
to ‘parallelomania’ or to ‘parallelophobia.’”7
This methodological corrective
has exposed the dangers inherent in research that ignores either similarities or
differences between the OT and the ANE.
Therefore, there are similarities between the ANE and the OT on
historical, cultural, social, and religious backgrounds; but there are also
differences on conceptual, functional, and theological backgrounds. J. M.
Sasson has promoted some goals that should be set forth before making
biblical connections: What are the differences in contexts? Are the texts in
question of the same literary genre? Is etymological kinship always useful in
helping to make comparisons?8
Our study is focused on several topics such
as the gods, cosmogony and cosmology, and temples and rituals, and will
investigate both similarities and differences between the OT and the ANE.
Methodological Principles of Comparative Study
A major methodological problem confronts anyone wishing to relate ANE
texts to the OT.9
Control needs to be established over matters such as genre,
F. E. Greenspahn, “Introduction,” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near
East, ed. F. E. Greenspahn (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 6-7.
W. W. Hallo, “Biblical History in Its Near Eastern Setting: The Contextual
Approach,” in Scripture in Context: Essays on the Comparative Method, ed. C. D. Evans, W. W.
Hallo, and J. B. White, Theological Monograph Series 34 (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1980),
J. M. Sasson, “Two Recent Works on Mari,” AfO 27 (1980): 129.
See Rodríguez, 48-51, for discussion on the problem of similarities.
Similarities and Differences . . . 7
purpose, and religious and theological backgrounds. Unfortunately, there
is evidence that scholars have tended to “biblicize ancient Near Eastern
documents before they are compared with OT materials.”10 At the same time,
the biblical documents are often interpreted mythologically.
Sasson has suggested that “it is imperative that the literature of each
culture be appreciated on its own merits” before it is compared with the biblical
texts.11 Whenever we discuss the “relationship,” “connection,” “association,”
“correspondence,” “parallelism,” “similarity,” and so on between them, as
Kitchen notes, “it is necessary to deal individually and on its own merits
with each possible or alleged case of relationship or borrowing by making a
detailed comparison of the full available data from both the Old Testament
and the Ancient Orient and by noting the results.”12
Over thirty-three years ago, S. Talmon published what has become a
classic essay on the principles and problems of using the comparative method
in biblical interpretation.13 He isolated four major principles:
(1) Proximity in time and place, that is, geographically and especially
chronologically distant comparisons.
(2) The priority of inner biblical parallels, that is, analysis of a particular
text comprehensively on its own merits, followed by a careful analysis of and
comparisons between the various biblical texts of a topic before comparing
them with other ANE texts of a topic.
(3) Correspondence of social function, that is, the need to treat societal
phenomena by paying close attention to their function in the developing
structure of the Israelite body politic before one engages in comparison
with parallel phenomena in other ANE societies. With regard to texts in
particular, the point is that if a certain (kind of) text has a specific function
in a society, comparative work should see to it that the corresponding (kind
of) text in the other society has a similar function in that society. This
principle is actually a plea for paying due attention to the literary Gattung
(genre) of the composition and its concomitant Sitz im Leben (setting of
life), and using that as one of the major criteria for comparison with other
compositions within its historical stream.
10J. M. Sasson, “On Relating ‘Religious’ Texts to the Old Testament,” MAARAV
3/2 (1982): 223.
12K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,
13S. Talmon, “The ‘Comparative Method’ in Biblical Interpretation—Principles
and Problems,” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. F. E.
Greenspahn (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 381-419 [Reprinted by
permission of E. J. Brill from Supplements to VT 29 (1977): 320-56].
8 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
(4) The holistic approach to texts and comparisons, that is, the holistic
approach always should be given preference over the atomistic. Similar
elements in two different cultures should be compared under the control of
their shared comparable function within their distinctive cultures. If a genre
of text had a particular function in the civilization in which it was composed,
then it is important that one compare it with the corresponding genre of text
from another culture that fulfills the same function there.14
When we come to the matter of the relationship between Ugaritic
literature and the OT, the comparison is basically between different genres of
literature. As P. C. Craigie says,
Ugaritic has provided no prophetic poetry. It has left us no unambiguous
examples of psalmody, with the exception of those passages which
might be identified as originally hymnic, but have survived only through
integration within different and larger literary forms (myth or legend), and
it has no extensive examples of literary narrative prose. This observation
is important, for it means that virtually all Hebrew-Ugaritic comparative
studies involve the comparison of different literary forms.15
Now, more than twenty-five years later, the situation has not changed
much. It has become almost customary in modern scholarship to hold,
for example, that Habakkuk 3 was influenced by Canaanite poetry. It may
be questioned, however, whether this argument pays due attention to the
difference between the two literary genres. Therefore, what scholars have
actually practiced when comparing Ugaritic texts and Habakkuk 3 is not really
a comparison of two literary wholes from different cultures and religions, but
an ad hoc comparison of several fragments of Ugaritic myths and a part of the
OT prophetic literature.16
In studies comparing Ugaritic mythology and OT literature in general,
too much emphasis has been put on similarity or the “fact” of sameness in
form,17 and insufficient distinction has been made between the synchronic
approach and the comparative-diachronic approach.
According to Walton, there are ten important principles that must be
kept in mind when doing comparative studies:
1. Both similarities and differences must be considered.
2. Similarities may suggest a common cultural heritage or cognitive
environment rather than borrowing.
15P. C. Craigie, “Ugarit and the Bible: Progress and Regress in 50 Years of
Literary Study,” in Ugarit in Retrospect: Fifty Years of Ugarit and Ugaritic, ed. G. D.
Young (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 107, emphasis original.
16See D. T. Tsumura, Creation and Destruction: A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf
Theory in the Old Testament (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 148.
17Cf. A. Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), 140, 24.
Similarities and Differences . . . 9
3. It is not uncommon to find similarities at the surface but differences at
the conceptual level and vice versa.
4. All elements must be understood in their own context as accurately as
possible before cross-cultural comparisons are made (i.e., careful background
study must precede comparative study).
5. Proximity in time, geography, and spheres of cultural contact all
increase the possibility of interaction leading to influence.
6. A case for literary borrowing requires identification of likely channels
7. The significance of differences between two pieces of literature is
minimized if the works are not of the same genre.
8. Similar functions may be performed by different genres in different
9. When literary or cultural elements are borrowed, they may in turn be
transformed into something quite different by those who borrowed them.
10. A single culture will rarely be monolithic, either in a contemporary
cross-section or in consideration of a passage of time.18
The areas in which comparison can take place are many and varied.
Similarities of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax have all been enormously
helpful in working out some of the obscure details of Hebrew. Religious and
social institutions such as sacrifice, priesthood, temples, prophecy, kingship,
and family structures can each be studied, comparing what is found in the
ANE at large to what is attested in Israel. Similarities can help us to appreciate
areas of continuity and influence, while differences are often traceable to
Concepts and beliefs such as the origin of the cosmos, the structure
of the cosmos, the origin and role of humanity, the existence of evil, the
afterlife, and the retribution principle all have a basis for comparison. Each
of the categories listed above depends on analyses of the pertinent literature.
Nevertheless, the literature itself is yet another area in which similarities
18J. H. Walton, “Cultural Background of the Old Testament,” in Foundations for
Biblical Interpretation, ed. D. S. Dockery, K. A. Mathews, and R. B. Sloan (Nashville:
Broadman & Holman, 1994), 256; idem, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the
Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids:
Baker Academic, 2006), 26-27; see also J. Tigay, “On Evaluating Claims of Literary
Borrowing,” in The Tablet and the Scroll, ed. M. Cohen et al. (Bethesda, MD: CDL,
1993), 250-255. For discussion of these points of theory and others, see T. Longman
III, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1991), 30-36; K.
van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1985),
1-9; and W. W. Hallo, “Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical
Literature,” in The Bible in Light of Cuneiform Literature: Scripture in Context III, ed. W. W.
Hallo, B. W. Jones, and G. L. Mattingly, Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies
8 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 1-30.
10 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
and differences occur. Various genres were common to a number of Near
Eastern cultures (e.g., wisdom, hymns, history, law). Often the very forms of
the literature can be profitably compared (e.g., proverbs, treaties/covenants,
casuistic law). Even literary devices may be shared by cultures and compared
(e.g., certain metaphors, word pairs).
Finally, as Ringgren points out,
Comparative research in the Biblical field has often become a kind of
“parallel hunting.” Once it has been established that a certain biblical
expression or custom has a parallel outside the Bible, the whole problem is
regarded as solved. It is not asked, whether or not the extra-Biblical element
has the same place in life, the same function in the context of its own
culture. The first question that should be asked in comparative research
is that of the Sitz im Leben and the meaning of the extra-Biblical parallel
adduced. It is not until this has been established that the parallel can be
utilized to elucidate a Biblical fact.19
When we compare the ANE ideas of theogony to the biblical portrayal of
YHWH, the most obvious difference is seen in the absence of any theogony
in the OT. The biblical text offers no indication that Israel considered YHWH
as having an origin, and there are no other gods to bring into existence
either by procreation or separation. Since the cosmos is not viewed as a
manifestation of divine attributes, Israel’s cosmogony develops without any
need of theogony.
The worship of YHWH was to be monotheistic and exclusivistic. Cities
in the ANE often were filled with temples to various gods. Each of Babylon’s
nine city gates was dedicated to a different god. Furthermore, the practitioners
of the other religions often expended great effort either identifying their
gods with the gods of other nations or demonstrating the subordination of
other gods to their patron deity. Such god lists or stories of how YHWH had
assumed the powers or duties of other deities would have been inconceivable
to orthodox worshipers of YHWH. Israel’s God demanded more than a
special place in their pantheons and hearts; he demanded their entire hearts,
souls, and strength (Deut 6:5).20
The OT portrays orthodox Yahwists as consistently and vehemently
opposed to the worship of any gods alongside or in competition with
19H. Ringgren, “Israel’s Place Among the Religions of the Ancient Near East,”
in Studies in the Religion of Ancient Israel, VTSup 23 (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 1, cited in
20See D. I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National
Theology, 1st ed. (Jackson, MI: Evangelical Theological Society, 1988), 67-68.
Similarities and Differences . . . 11
YHWH. The book of Deuteronomy is characterized by a harsh polemic
against any compromise with foreigners lest they turn their hearts away from
YHWH. The prophets follow in the tradition of Deuteronomy, denouncing
the veneration of deities other than YHWH with the strongest language.
Idolatrous practices are treated as spiritual harlotry (Judg 2:17; 8:27, 33),
an abomination (Deut 13:14-15), detestable (Deut 29:16), foolishness (Isa
40:18-20; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-2; Jer 10:1-10), and utterly disgusting (Ezek
8:10 + 37 times in Ezekiel). According to the orthodox Yahwist, the God
of Israel would brook no rivals. In this respect, the Hebrew view of Israel’s
relationship to its patron deity differed fundamentally from the perceptions
of all the other nations around.21
Within the ANE context the words of Moses in Deut 4:5-8 were
revolutionary. According to this text, the Israelites’ knowledge of the will of
their divine patron and their sense of his living presence among them were
unique in their time. The Hebrew record of the self-disclosure of the God
of Israel—who was at the same time the Lord of heaven and earth—by his
mighty acts and by his revelation at Sinai, describes a unique moment in the
history of the ANE.22
The God of Israel was not the personification of the forces of nature
and did not need the assistance of other gods or the participation of a king
and his subjects in a divine struggle to maintain order in the universe, nor
did he need to be tended or fed in temples. He is the transcendent one who
created an inanimate universe of nature out of nothing and who continually
maintains and controls it by his power. Oswalt states: “In many ways this is
the profoundest insight of Hebrew religion. Whatever God is, he is not the
world around us.”23
Furthermore, “Moses understood fully that unless the link between
Creator and creation was broken, it would become impossible in any ultimate
sense to maintain God’s unity and exclusiveness, and his immunity to magic,
all of which were central to the new faith.”24 Brichto notes that in the OT,
nature is impersonal and the realm of ultimate power is personal, occupied
by YHWH alone. In contrast, the ANE at large perceives nature as personal
(the realm occupied by the gods) and the outside sphere of control attributes
21D. I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National
Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 69-70.
23J. N. Oswalt, “Golden Calves and the ‘Bull of Jacob’: The Impact on Israel of
Its Religious Environment,” in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration, ed. A. Gileadi (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1988), 13.
25H. C. Brichto, The Names of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 61.
12 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
Existing above and apart from nature, God has not kept hidden his
character and will. The gods of the other peoples did not reveal their will in
clear and certain terms. As Jacobsen describes Enlil, “Man can never be fully
at ease with Enlil, can never know what he has in mind . . . In his wild moods
of destructiveness he is unreachable, deaf to all appeals,”26 and as Kramer
explains, “The proper course for a Sumerian Job to pursue was not to argue
and complain in the face of seemingly unjustifiable misfortune, but to plead
and wail, lament and confess, his inevitable sins and failings. But will the gods
give heed to him, a lone and not very effective mortal, even if he prostrates
and humbles himself in heartfelt prayer? Probably not.”27
Revolutionary, then, was Deut 4:6-8 in praise of the Mosaic law as “your
wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” and of Israel’s
secure relationship to the Lord. Unlike Enlil, God is characteristically one
who has revealed “what he has in mind” and who hears our appeals. The
other nations needed divination through such things as household deities
and departed ancestors, to discover how to deal with situations in their lives.
Furthermore, such supernatural assistance often demanded great human agony
and physical pain, even bodily mutilation (cf. Deut 14:1; 1 Kgs 18:26-29).
The basis for differences in gaining divine access or attention is yet
another area of divergence of Israel’s faith from that of her neighbors: the
nature of the relationship between the people and their god/gods. The gods
of the nations were said to have created the world for themselves; humankind
was an afterthought, a necessary nuisance whose function was only to serve
the gods. Aside from irritation, about the only emotional response we find
from the gods toward their human creatures is an occasional sense of pity or
remorse for their grievous situation. The OT, however, presents humankind as
the “crown of creation” and the natural world as theirs to oversee and enjoy.
Also, Block has shown that the gods of the nations were primarily gods
of the land and only secondarily gods of the people of the land. They had a
kind of feudal relationship in which the gods were lords of the estate and the
people, whose sole purpose was to tend the land, were their serfs. The religion
of Israel was unique in understanding God’s relationship to his people as
primary, formed before he provided them a land, and continuing after their sin
resulted in the loss of that land (cf. Deut 32:9; 2 Kgs 17:26; Ezek 11:16).28
YHWH had formed a people, bound them to each other and to
himself by covenant, and pledged to shepherd them faithfully.29 Biblical
26T. Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 101-102.
27S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1963), 125-126.
28Block, The Gods of the Nations, 1st ed., 7-23, 28, 60, 96-97.
29See J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, TOTC (London: InterVarsity,
Similarities and Differences . . . 13
religion gives at the same time a higher view of humanity and a higher
view of God—omnipotent, undivided, purposive, merciful, and uniformly
righteous (Exod 34:6-7). Finally, while the worship of YHWH included
ritual as an expression of dependent faith, loyalty, and obedience, that ritual
was never to be an end in itself (cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6; 50:8-15; 51:16-17;
Hos 6:4-6). There was to be an internal quality to the faith of Israel that was
not found in the other religions. The other religions aimed at manipulating
the gods into granting favors. Thus they were driven by ritual. But YHWH
looked on the heart, and he abhorred ritual that did not arise from righteous
devotion. From the beginning Israel was enjoined not only to love the Lord,
but also to “rejoice before the Lord your God” (Deut 12:12, 18; cf. 14:26;
16:11, 14-15; 26:11; 27:7) and they would be judged because they did not
“serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity”
(Deut 28:47). Thus Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, singing to the
Lord and declaring his glory among the nations day after day, “For all the
gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (1 Chron
Cosmogony and Cosmology
The word “cosmogony” is derived from the Greek words kosmos (“order,
ornament, the universe”) and genesis (“origin, generation”); it means the origin
of the (ordered) world (or process). Cosmology is the ordering, or mental
construction, of the world (or structure).30 In the OT, the early chapters of
Genesis contain much cosmogony and cosmology, but Psalms and Job also
add cosmologic information. The main issues for comparison are the creation
of the cosmos, the creation of humanity, and the flood.
The main information concerning ideas about creation in Mesopotamia come
from the work entitled Enuma Elish. In actuality, what similarities exist are
superficial and could well be incidental. The differences, on the other hand,
1972), 98-99; see also J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, TOTC (Leicester: InterVarsity,
30For Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Israelite cosmogonic and cosmologic
accounts, see N. Wyatt, Space and Time in the Religious Life of the Near East, Biblical
Seminar 85 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 53-146.
31For a helpful summary, see W. G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian
Background of Genesis,” JTS 16 (1965): 287-300, cited in I Studied Inscriptions from
Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1–11, ed.
R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 96-113.
14 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
(1) There is nothing lasting that is created by the deity (Marduk) in Enuma
Elish. Instead, his activity of dominion involves the organization of the cosmos.
In contrast, Genesis portrays YHWH as Creator as well as organizer.
(2) Elements of the cosmos are seen as coming into being in Enuma
Elish by means of the birth of the god who is associated with that element of
the cosmos (e.g., fresh water, sky). In this sense, cosmogony is expressed in
terms of theogony (origin of the gods). This theological concept is countered
quickly in Genesis with the words “In the beginning God.” There is no hint
of theogonic mythology in the straightforward biblical narratives.
(3) A key difference is that creation (organization) in Mesopotamian (and
Canaanite) texts takes place by means of, or in the aftermath of, conflict.
Defeat of rebel forces or overcoming chaos opens the way for the deity to
impose his order on the cosmos.32 The theological concept that appears in
the Genesis creation account is an abiotic concept of the earth, that is, it
describes an earth in which there is no life; it presents the absence of life—
vegetable, animal, and human. That life then appears in the further verses of
Genesis 1 by the fiat of God. In no case does Genesis describe a chaotic state
of the earth as the result of mythical combats between the gods of the myths
and legends of the ANE.33
(4) Not only is the creation by divine fiat in Genesis unique in the ANE,
the creation of light as the first creating act appears only in Genesis.34 Sjöberg
accepts that “there was hardly any influence from that Babylonian text on
the Old Testament creation accounts.”35 Hasel thinks rather that the creation
account of Genesis 1 functions as an antimythological polemic regarding
other cosmologies of the ANE (e.g., with the “sun,” the “moon”).36
32See J. Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the
Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and C. Kloos, YHWH’s
Combat with the Sea: A Canaanite Tradition in the Religion of Ancient Israel (Leiden: Brill,
33For a detailed study of God’s history with the earth and life “in the beginning,”
see R. Ouro, “The Earth of Genesis 1:2: Abiotic or Chaotic? Part I,” AUSS 36 (1998):
259-276; idem., “The Earth of Genesis 1:2: Abiotic or Chaotic? Part II,” AUSS 37
(1999): 39-53; idem., “The Earth of Genesis 1:2: Abiotic or Chaotic? Part III,” AUSS
38 (2000): 59-67.
34See Lambert, A New Look, 96-109; idem., “Babylonien und Israel,” TRE 5
35A. W. Sjöberg, “Eve and the Chameleon,” in In the Shelter of Elyon: Essays on
Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G. W. Ahlström, ed. W. Boyd Barrick and
John R. Spencer (Sheffield: JSOT, 1984), 217.
36G. F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” EvQ 46 (1974):
81-102; see also idem, “The Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis 1 in Relation to
Ancient Near Eastern Parallels,” AUSS 10 (1972): 6.
Similarities and Differences . . . 15
(5) Lambert and Millard point out that “in all probability the Babylonians
conceived of man as matter (‘clay’) activated by the addition of divine blood,”
while, on the other hand, “the Hebrew account of creation in Gen 2 explains
that God imparted ‘the breath of life’ into man, and so animation began. . . .
No similar doctrine is known among the Babylonians or Sumerians.”37
Gunkel establishes, “The difference between the Babylonian creation
account and that of Genesis 1 is great; it could hardly be more pronounced. In
the Babylonian account everything is wild and grotesque; it is barbaric, riotous
poetry. In Genesis 1 everything is quietly solemn and elevated; it is expansive
and occasionally somewhat pedantic prose. There the gods emerged in the
course of things; here God is one and the same from the very beginning. In
the Babylonian account there is the deity who slays the monster in heated
combat and forms the world out of its corpse; in Genesis 1 there is God ‘who
speaks and it is so.’”38
According to Sjöberg, who recently reexamined Sumerian connections
with regard to the “tree of life,” there is no evidence for such a tree in
Mesopotamian myth and cult. He says, “The identification of different trees
on Mesopotamian seals as a Tree of Life is a pure hypothesis, a product of
pan-Babylonianism. . . . There is no Sumerian or Akkadian expression ‘Tree
Egyptian creation accounts appear in several different versions featuring
different gods. While the intermixing of theogony with cosmogony is again
prominent, the Memphite theology portrays a creator god (Ptah) creating by
means of the spoken word, as in Genesis.40 In this sense, the Egyptian material
provides for closer parallels than the Mesopotamian literature, though the
differences remain substantial.
Humankind Creation Accounts
Similarities exist in the creation of human beings to the extent that clay or
dust is used by the deity as the molding material with an additional divine
ingredient provided as a catalyst. In the Mesopotamian accounts, it is most
often the blood of a slain rebel deity that is mixed with the clay, as well as spit
in Atra-Hasīs. In the Egyptian Hermopolitan account, the tears of the creatorgod are the active ingredient. The biblical account does not mix anything in,
37W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-Hasīs: The Babylonian Story of the Flood
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 22.
38H. Gunkel, “The Influence of Babylonian Mythology Upon the Biblical
Creation Story,” in Creation in the Old Testament, ed. B. W. Anderson, Issues in Religion and
Theology 6 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 47.
40For further discussion, see J. Hoffmeier, “Some Thoughts on Genesis 1 and 2
and Egyptian Cosmology,” JANES 15 (1983): 1-11.
16 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
but it is the breath of life from YHWH that animates the new creation. This
breath of life also may be referred to in Egyptian wisdom in the Instruction of
The Genesis account portrays people as having been created in the
image of God. Again, it is the Egyptian Instruction of Merikare that offers
the closest parallel. There, people are stated to be the likenesses of Re and
as having come forth from his body.42 The suggestions of similarity on
this point in Akkadian texts are much more problematic and have not been
The principal difference in the area of cosmology concerns the purpose
and function of humanity. In Mesopotamian literature, people were created
to provide relief for the gods. The work of maintaining the civilization the
gods had created had become too strenuous and led to social stratification
in the divine realm. To resolve these problems, people were created as slave
labor to do the work the gods had previously been obligated to do and, thus,
to provide for the needs of the gods. It was the latter function from which
humankind derived its dignity—the gods needed them—rather than from
some high purpose for which they were destined. On that count they had
been only an afterthought for the sake of convenience.
In contrast, the Israelites viewed people as central to the eternal plan of
God. Everything else that had been created had been created with them in
mind and to suit the specification that would most benefit them. God entrusted
to them the care of his creation, but he himself was beyond needs they could
provide. The life of toil and hardship was not what they were created for; they
had brought it upon themselves by their disobedience. Inherent dignity is to
be found in their lost estate and in the surviving image of God.
An additional difference could be found in the biblical claim that God
initially created one pair from whom all others were descended. It is this
factor that serves the theological purpose of transmitting the sin of the first
couple to all of their descendants. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, there
is never an indication that only one or two were created. In some contexts
seven pairs are mentioned, but usually it appears to be creation en masse.
While Egyptian and Canaanite sources are virtually silent regarding a massive
flood in antiquity, Mesopotamian literature preserves accounts for us in a
number of different pieces of literature. Similarities include a decision by
the deity to ravage the earth by means of a flood, the warning of a particular
41For further discussion, see J. M. Plumley, “The Cosmology of Ancient Egypt,”
in Ancient Cosmologies, ed. C. Blacker and M. Loewe (London: George Allen & Unwin,
Similarities and Differences . . . 17
individual and instructions to build a boat to provide for the deliverance of
some, a flood of vast extent, grounding of the boat on a mountaintop, the
sending of birds to determine whether rehabitation is possible, the offering
of a sacrifice by the survivors, and a subsequent blessing on the survivors
bequeathed by the gods.
Differences would include the type of boat, the length of the flood, the
people who were saved, the outcome for the hero, the reason for the flood,
and the role of the gods. The latter is particularly noticeable as the gods are in
constant tension with one another in the Mesopotamian accounts. As a matter
of fact, the intention of the divine council was that none would survive the
flood. It was only an act of treachery on the part of the god Ea/Enki that let
the information slip out to the one who was eventually saved.
Though the similarities between the respective literatures are striking,
the case for literary borrowing is hard to make. Many of the similarities are
of the sort that could occur coincidentally, i.e., any story of a flood might be
expected to have them. The Israelite author, however, never really heard the
story in its Babylonian form, for it would have been totally incomprehensible
to him. In the Babylonian accounts, although the flood is sent by the gods,
the events are described from the human point of view; it is a tale of the
experiences of human beings. The biblical story is but a chapter in a larger
work, in which every episode is construed as a revelation by YHWH of his
will together with its earthly consequences. The perspective of the biblical
flood account is from the vantage point of the divine, and not that of man.43
Cassuto in his commentary lists nineteen parallels and sixteen differences.44
Kitchen, who, unlike Cassuto, had access to Lambert and Millard’s 1969 AtraHasīs, lists seven similarities and nine differences.
(1) A divine decision is made to send a punishing flood.
(2) One chosen man is told to save self, family, and creatures by building
(3) A great flood destroys the rest of the people.
(4) The boat grounds on a mountain.
(5) Birds are sent forth to determine availability of habitable land.
(6) The hero sacrifices to the deity.
(7) Humankind is renewed upon the earth.45
43J. J. Finkelstein, “Bible and Babel: A Comparative Study of the Hebrew and
Babylonian Religious Spirit,” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. F.
E. Greenspahn (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 355-380, esp. 373-374,
44U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two: From Noah to Abraham
(Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964), 16-23.
45K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World (Exeter: Paternoster, 1977), 28-29.
18 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
(1) The Mesopotamian gods tire of the noisiness of humankind, while in
Genesis God sees the corruption and universal wickedness of humankind.
(2) The Mesopotamian assembly of gods is at pains to conceal their flood
plan entirely from humankind (this is not evident in Genesis at all).
(3) In the Mesopotamian epics, the saving of the hero is entirely by the
deceit of one god; while in Genesis, God, from the first, tells Noah plainly
that judgment is coming, and he alone has been judged faithful and so must
build a boat.
(4) The size and type of craft in Gilgamesh is a vast cube, perhaps even
a great floating ziggurat, while that in Genesis has far more the proportions
of a real craft.
(5) The duration of the flood differs in the Mesopotamian and biblical
accounts. Atra-Hasīs has seven days and seven nights of storm and tempest,
as does the Sumerian version; Gilgamesh has six (or seven) days and nights,
with subsidence of the waters beginning on the seventh day; none of the
Mesopotamian narratives gives any idea of how long the floodwaters took
to subside thereafter. In contrast, Genesis has an entirely consistent, more
detailed time scale. After seven days of warning, the storm and floods rage
for forty days, then the waters stay for 150 days before beginning to recede,
and further intervals follow until the earth is dry one year and ten days from
the time the cataclysm began (Gen 7:11; 8:14).
(6) In the Mesopotamian versions, the inhabitants of the boat also
include, for example, a pilot and craftsmen; in Genesis, one finds only Noah
and his immediate family.
(7) The details of sending out birds differ entirely in Gilgamesh, Berosus,
and Gen 8:7ff.; this is lost in Atra-Hasīs (if ever it was present).
(8) The Mesopotamian hero leaves the boat of his own accord and then
offers a sacrifice to win the acceptance of the gods. By contrast, Noah stays
in the boat until God summons him forth and then presents what is virtually a
sacrifice of thanksgiving, following which divine blessing is expressed without
(9) Replenishment of the land or earth is partly through renewed
divine activity in Atra-Hasīs, but simply and naturally through the survivors
themselves in Genesis.46
Temples and Rituals
There are similarities between the Israelite cultus and the ANE cultic practices.
Temples were common in the ANE, and we even know about sacrificial altars
like the one in the Israelite sanctuary. In Canaan, burnt sacrifices and peace
Similarities and Differences . . . 19
offerings were offered to the deities.47 These two sacrifices were very common
in the Israelite sanctuary/temple rituals. However, when we place the specific
terminology within the broad religious context of each religion, the differences
are significant. Each religion expressed what was originally one basic practice
or belief in a particular way, introducing significant differences but preserving
some similarities. In the OT, through divine revelation, the Israelite cultus
was divested of ANE distortions, rejecting, polemicizing, adapting, redefining, and
reformulating some of the cultic practices of the ANE in order to use them as a
proper vehicle to communicate the divine message to YHWH’s people.48
Talmon’s second methodological principle is that “The interpretation of
biblical features . . . with the help of inner-biblical parallels should always
precede the comparison with extra-biblical materials.”49 For example, assuming
that one has analyzed a particular text comprehensively on its own merits,
one needs to do careful analysis of and comparisons between the various
biblical accounts of temple building (see esp. Exodus 25–40, the tabernacle
construction account; 1 Kgs 5:1–8:66; 2 Chronicles 2–7; Ezekiel 40–48)
before comparing them with other ANE temple-building texts, such as the
However, this is just as important for the nonbiblical comparative material.
The Gudea Cylinders, for example, also need to be analyzed in comparison
with other texts of their type from within their own immediate cultural and
literary milieu. But there is one especially important difference. The Gudea
Cylinders present the temple building and dedication process as essentially a
step-by-step ritual process. Ritual actions and processes saturate the text and,
in fact, structure it. This is not the case in the parallel biblical temple-building
accounts. It requires a literary focus that pays attention to the peculiarities of
this particular temple-building text. It is true that the dedication procedures
for the tabernacle and temple in the OT involved elaborate ritual procedures,
but that in no way compares with the obsessive concern for ritual guidance
and confirmation in the Cylinders.
From the initial call to build the temple to the preparation of the
construction area, the fashioning of the first brick, the design of the temple,
the actual laying of the foundation, construction of the superstructure, the
calling of Ningirsu (the patron deity of Lagash) and Baba (his consort) to
occupy the temple, the staffing and furnishing of the temple on the divine
47J. Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the OT
(Leiden: Brill, 1965), 192; B. A. Levine, In the Presence of the Lord: A Study of Cult and
Some Cultic Terms in Ancient Israel, SJLA 5 (Leiden: Brill, 1974), 8-20.
48See Rodríguez, 62-64.
49Talmon, Comparative Method, 419.
20 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
level, the actual induction of Ningirsu and Baba into the temple, and the
temple dedication feast of the gods—everything was permeated with ritual
procedures. Thus Gudea had to pry the specific desires and plans for the
temple out of the heart of the deity for whom the temple was to be built (i.e.,
Ningirsu, the patron deity of Lagash). There was no ready revelation as we
have it in the OT (Exodus 25–40). This feature of the Gudea Cylinders has
gone relatively unnoticed in the comparative discussion.50
God showed Moses the model to be used in the building of the Israelite
sanctuary (Exod 25:8-9). The earthly was to be patterned after the heavenly—
that is, the earthly sanctuary is a symbol of a heavenly reality. This idea belongs
to the phenomenology of temples in the ANE. The mentality in the ANE
envisioned the earthly dwelling of the gods as corresponding structurally with
their heavenly abode.51 Ideas such as these are also found in literature from
Mesopotamia that compares temples to the heavens and the earth and gives
them a cosmic location and function.52
According to the biblical text, this idea was incorporated into the Israelite
religion at a particular time and through a divine revelation. The conception
of the temple is not noticeably different in Israel than it is in the ANE. The
difference is in the God, not in the way the temple functions in relation to the
God. The cycle of cosmic life is construed differently in Israel, since God’s
provision of food does not ultimately serve his own purposes by meeting his
Moreover, in contrast to the idolatrous cults, in which the deity was
thought to indwell the image of himself or herself, Yahwism was a spiritual
religion.53 The temple in Jerusalem housed no image of YHWH; his presence
was represented by his glory, the kābôd, which under normal circumstances
rested above the sacred Ark of the Covenant inside the most holy place.54
50R. E. Averbeck, “Sumer, the Bible, and Comparative Method: Historiography
and Temple Building,” in Mesopotamia and the Bible, ed. M. W. Chavalas and K. L.
Younger Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 95-96, 118.
51“The notion of a heavenly model for temples, cult objects, and laws is universal
in the ancient Near East” (J. C. Rylaarsdam, “The Book of Exodus,” IB 1:1021). See
also G. E. Wright, “The Temple in Palestine-Syria,” BAR 15 (1975): 180; B. A. Levine,
“The Descriptive Tabernacle Texts of the Pentateuch,” JAOS 85 (1965): 307-318; R. J.
Clifford, “The Tent of El and the Israelite Tent of Meeting,” CBQ 33 (1971): 221-227.
These parallels do not show that Israel borrowed its theological ideas from the other
ANE religions. Rather, they may go back to a common source.
52See V. A. Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in
Light of Mesopotamian and North-West Semitic Writings, JSOTSup 115 (Sheffield: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1992), 335-337.
53Cf. H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 66-71.
54Cf. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 297-302.
Similarities and Differences . . . 21
Hurowitz has shown that with necessary variations the tabernacle
construction and erection account in Exodus 25–40 follows the general
pattern of temple-construction accounts in the ANE: (1) the divine command
to construct the tabernacle (Exod 24:15–31:18); (2) the transmission of the
divine command to the people charged to implement it (Exod 34:29–35:19);
(3) the collection of construction materials and enlistment of artisans (Exod
35:20–36:7); (4) the account of the actual construction of the tabernacle and
its furniture (Exod 36:8–39:43); and (5) the final erection and dedication of
the tabernacle (Exodus 40; cf. Leviticus 8).55
In the ANE, the consecration of the temple is the moment in which
the divinity affirms its sovereignty. In the same way, YHWH, by coming to
dwell in the midst of Israel, affirms his sovereignty over the people of Israel
and over the universe. Israel is the people of YHWH and of no other god.
The consecration of the Tent of Meeting corresponds to the categorical
affirmation of the first commandment of the law: “I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2-3, NKJV).56
Investigation into some Mesopotamian accounts of dedication
ceremonies shows that the events described in 1 Kings 8 on the dedication
of Solomon’s temple derive from a common ANE pattern. The similarities
lie in the essence of the ceremonies, the structure of the descriptions and
numerous details (the participants in the festivities, the site of the festivities,
the duration of the celebration, countless offerings, and sending the people
home). The biblical account is divided clearly into three parts: (1) entry of
the Ark and YHWH into the temple to the accompaniment of countless
sacrifices (1 Kgs 8:1-11); (2) the king’s prayers (1 Kgs 8:12-61); and (3) the
popular celebrations in the temple courtyard (1 Kgs 8:61-66). This threestage celebration has parallels in the inscriptions of Sargon and Esarhaddon.
It should be compared especially to the account of the dedication of DurSharrukin found at the end of Sargon’s annals.57
However, the descriptions of the buildings and vessels in 1 Kings 6–7
are different in nature from descriptions of buildings or vessels found in
extrabiblical building accounts. The Mesopotamian building accounts describe
the structures and furnishings in poetic but very general language. The
Mesopotamian scribes emphasized mainly the valuable and rare materials—
wood, precious stones, and metal—that were used in the buildings. Similarly,
they often mention the high artistic level of the craftsmanship, stating
55V. A. Hurowitz, “The Priestly Account of Building the Tabernacle,” JAOS 105
56R. Ouro, Old Testament Theology: The Canonical Key (Zaragoza, Spain: Lusar, 2008),
57Hurowitz, I Have Built You, 271, 273-277.
22 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
frequently that the buildings and vessels were beautiful, sophisticated,
immensely overwhelming, striking, and superior in some way or another to
their predecessors. All the characteristics of these descriptions mentioned
here are totally lacking in the biblical descriptions. In contrast, the descriptions
of buildings found in Kings, and, for that matter, in Exodus and Ezekiel, are
striking in the exact details given, and especially the fact that dimensions are
It is true that dimensions are not entirely absent in the Mesopotamian
texts. As a matter of fact, certain Neo-Assyrian building accounts may even
display a tendency toward providing them. Even so, the given dimensions
are never sufficient to allow a reconstruction of the building. Dimensions of
vessels or furnishings are never provided. In cases where the dimensions of
buildings are stipulated, the information is limited to the external dimensions
of the buildings (length, width, and height). In contrast to this, the information
provided by the biblical descriptions seems to be intent on enabling the reader
to visualize the building or object described.58
Hurowitz concludes: “Therefore, even if the biblical and Mesopotamian
descriptions share a tendency to mention the metals and wood used, it is clear
that they are vastly different in nature and intent. The biblical descriptions
totally lack the laudatory aspect, tending instead towards precision, tangibility
On the other hand, Fretheim points out that the shift in the divine abode
from the mountain as dwelling place to tabernacle in the midst of Israel is not only a
spatial move, it is an important theological move. The language used for God’s
presence on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:15-18) becomes the language for God’s
tabernacle dwelling (40:34-38), enclosing the entire tabernacle account. God
leaves the mountain (the typical abode for gods in the ANE), and comes to
dwell among the people of God. God, who is not like the other gods, leaves
the mountain of remoteness and places his ineffable majesty and tabernacle
right in the center of a human community. No longer are the people, or their
mediator, asked to “come up” to God; God “comes down” to them.60
In the OT theological system, the concept of the holiness of time takes
precedence over that of the holiness of space. Such a hierarchy of values is
unique in the context of the ANE. The polar contrast between Israelite and
extrabiblical concepts is vividly illustrated by the fact that the Mesopotamian
creation epic—Enuma Elish—closes with the building of a temple to the god
Marduk, that is, with the sanctification of space.61
60T. E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 272-
61See ANET, 68-69.
Similarities and Differences . . . 23
In the biblical creation account, it is the sanctity of time—the Sabbath—
that is first celebrated. The sanctity of space appears explicitly for the first time
in Exodus. The Israelite tabernacle in the wilderness inherently exemplifies
this principle, for by virtue of its mobility the ground on which it is assembled
can possess no intrinsic or permanent sanctity. The locale of the sanctuary
becomes sacred space only temporarily, and it loses that status the moment
the tabernacle moves to another site.62
Anything connected with sexual function was part of the physical world;
it was categorized as common, not holy. Sex could never be brought into
the sanctuary, for unlike the Canaanite worldview, sexual activity was not a
way to enhance spirituality or commune with God.63 In the religions of the
ANE, sexual activity among worshipers was believed to activate the gods
into fertilizing the soil with rain. This activity was often performed within
the sacred precincts of the god’s shrine. In Israelite religion, it would be
an abomination to engage in sexual activity in the tabernacle precinct (Lev
Finally, there are also significant similarities and differences between
the OT and the ANE regarding the motif of divine abandonment of the
(1) The repeated references to the evils being committed in Jerusalem
emphasize that YHWH’s abandonment of the temple is provoked by human
action. YHWH declares his response in terms reminiscent of the extrabiblical
accounts (Ezek 8:18; 9:10).
(2) YHWH leaves his temple of his own volition. Although the ANE
accounts of divine abandonment generally create the impression that in a crisis
the gods left their shrines voluntarily, underlying these accounts are enemy
invasions and the spoliation of divine images. Since the temple contained
no image of the deity, however, such spoliation with respect to YHWH is
impossible. On the contrary, Ezekiel highlights YHWH’s independence at
each stage of his departure: (a) The kābôd rises from the cherub over the Ark
of the covenant within the holy of holies and moves over to the threshold
of the temple, filling the entire court with its emanating brightness (Ezek
9:3; 10:4); (b) a magnificent vehicle with total and absolute freedom of
movement appears, bearing an object resembling a throne (10:1-13); (c) the
kābôd moves from the threshold and rests above the vehicle (10:18); (d) the
vehicle, bearing the kābôd, rises from the earth and pauses at the entrance of
the east gate of the temple (10:19); (e) the kābôd departs from the midst of
62See N. M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York:
Schocken, 1986), 214-215.
63See J. E. Hartley, Leviticus, WBC 4 (Dallas: Word, 1992), 214.
64See B. A. Levine, Leviticus, JPSTC (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), 207, n. 10; and
24 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
the city and stands over the mountain to the east (11:23). But the description
of the vehicle bearing the throne, with its absolute freedom of movement
and limitless maneuverability, sends a clear and unequivocal message: YHWH
will not be transported like any other image from his dwelling place by any
(3) The vision describes the disastrous effects that would attend the
departure of the deity from the city. YHWH would turn upon his subjects,
delivering them into the hands of strangers who would execute them with the
sword (Ezek 11:7-11) within the border of Israel, which had, ironically, been
viewed as sacrosanct. This description is reminiscent of extrabiblical texts in
which divinities abandon their shrines and then turn on their subjects as if
they were the enemy.
(4) Whereas extrabiblical texts tend to emphasize the deity’s change of
heart prior to his or her return to the shrine, Ezekiel emphasizes that by a
divine act the subjects’ hearts will be changed (11:18-21; cf. 36:16-32). Instead
of having his subjects polish the exterior of a dirtied image, YHWH declares
that he will cleanse his subjects of their iniquity from the inside out, giving
them a new heart so they will walk in his ways, and so he may renew the
covenant with them. Those who insist on going their own way he will reject.
(5) The links between Ezekiel’s vision of YHWH’s departure from the
temple in chapters 8–11 and the extrabiblical accounts of divine abandonment
suggest to the reader that the prophet’s story cannot end with YHWH’s
exit from the land (11:22-23). The pattern of the Mesopotamian accounts
leads one to expect the regathering of the people to their homeland, the
appointment of a new king, the institution of peace and prosperity to the
people, and the return of YHWH to his temple. Although Ezekiel is silent
on these matters in this context, in long-range terms he does not disappoint.
Indeed, these four elements represent major motifs in his restoration oracles,
proclaimed after Jerusalem had fallen in 586 b.c. (33:21-22).66
In the ANE at large, the performance of the cult was central and foundational
to religion; it was the people’s principal responsibility and superseded the
element of belief (the mental affirmation of doctrinal convictions). The
shape of one’s belief was less significant in the ANE. It was not belief
that counted, but performance of the cult that was the essential expression
of belief, but there was adherence to the covenant, which included cultic
performance but was not dominated by it.67 Assmann states: “The world of
the deities of Egypt was not an object of belief, but rather of knowledge:
65D. I. Block, Ezekiel 1-24, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 90.
66Block, Gods of the Nations, 2d ed., 140-143.
67Walton, ANE Thought, 132.
Similarities and Differences . . . 25
knowledge of names, processes, actions, and events that were superimposed,
in a manner that explained and made sense of, saved, transfigured, on the
realm of manifestations in the cult and in nature.”68
On the other hand, according to Hallo, the cultic calendar of ancient
Mesopotamia, like its civil calendar, was largely tied to the phases of the
moon, and not at all to the week or a week; in Israel, the cultic calendar was
only minimally connected to lunar phases, whereas the sabbatical cycle was
all-important. The ancient Mesopotamian year was based on the month, and
the worship of the moon went hand in hand with it. The Israelite year was
based on the week, and remained independent of the month even when the
luni-solar calendar was adopted from Babylonia. Moon worship flourished
wherever Mesopotamian culture spread. But in Israel it failed to gain a
foothold; the full moon was not worshiped, the quarters were not specially
observed, and even the new moon was ultimately relegated to the status of a
half-holiday. Here, then, lies one of the great contrasts between biblical Israel
and its Near Eastern matrix: sabbatical cycles versus lunar calendars.69
The sacrificial system in the ANE seemed to have had the fundamental
purpose of feeding the gods or providing for their needs, while in the OT
that particular purpose is absent and rejected (Ps 50:12-13). In the Israelite
religion, it was not only inconceivable to associate concepts of eating and
drinking in their material sense with the conception of divinity, but it applied
even to a human being such as Moses when he drew near to the divine sphere
so that “he neither ate bread nor drank water” (Exod 34:28, NKJV; Deut 9:9,
18). This stands in contrast to the standard daily practice in the ANE ritual
cult in which the placing of bread and pouring out of libation before the cult
statue of the deity was conceived to be feeding the deity.70
Once the cleansing of the sanctuary is finished, in the ritual of the
scapegoat in Leviticus 16, the sin and uncleanness of the Israelites are placed
on the goat for Azazel, which is then sent to the wilderness. Several ritual texts
describing a similar rite have been found among the Hittites and Babylonians.
A number of Hittite rituals feature the transfer of evil to an animal that is
then sent away.71 This type of ritual is called an elimination rite, whose purpose
was to eliminate or remove from the community sin or impurity. There are
68J. Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
69W. W. Hallo, “New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-Study in the Contrastive
Approach,” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. F. E. Greenspahn
(New York: New York University Press, 1991), 315.
70See R. E. Gane, “‘Bread of the Presence’ and Creator-in-Residence,” VT 42
71See D. P. Wright, The Disposal of Impurity: Elimination Rites in the Bible and in Hittite
and Mesopotamian Literature, SBLDS 101 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1987), 15-74.
26 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
some similarities, but when the ritual is placed within the conceptual context
of each religion, the differences are significant.
In the Babylonian religion, what contaminated the temples was not the
sin or impurity of the people, but rather demons. These demons posed a
threat to the deity, and it was necessary once a year to remove them from the
temple. This was done through the carcass of the ram. The demons became
attached to the flesh of the animal and were returned to the underworld from
whence they came. In Babylonian mythology, demons dwelt in the underworld
and had access to the world of the living through rivers. By throwing the
carcass into the river, they were sent back to their place of origin. Babylonians
threw a slaughtered ram into the river and Israelites chased a goat into the
wilderness. Mesopotamian rituals that transfer impurity often see the animal
as a substitute for an individual—a substitute that will now become the object
of demonic attack rather than the person. In the Asakki Marsuti ritual for
fever, the goat that is the substitute for the sick man is sent out into the
All of these differ significantly from Israelite rituals. In Israel, the temple
was cleansed from the sin and uncleanness of the people and not from the
threatening presence of demons—a concept totally absent from Israelite
ritual. Additionally, the Israelite religion shows no intention of appeasing the
anger of deity or demon, whereas this is the most common conception in the
ANE rituals. However, in both cases there is a removal of evil and its return
to its place of origin. God was employing a common ritual practice from the
ANE and investing it with a very different meaning that was foreign to it to
convey a biblical truth.73
Yearly judgment of human fates by deities appears in Mesopotamian
festival texts. Particularly striking parallels to the Israelite Day of Atonement
are found in the Sumerian New Year celebration at the temple of the goddess
Nanshe and the Babylonian New Year (Akitu) Festival of Spring,74 which
were believed to enact renewal of relationships between deities and their
72See J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, AB 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1078.
73See Rodríguez, 61.
74The Nanshe Hymn is an Ur III period (ca. 2100-2000 b.c.) Sumerian text. It
focuses on two New Year’s Day celebrations at the temple of Nanshe, called Sirara,
in the city of Nina. It is possible that the text was intended to be recited during the
New Year celebration. The Nanshe Hymn does not indicate the season in which New
Year’s Day occurred.
75M. Weinfeld, “Social and Cultic Institutions in the Priestly Source against Their
Ancient Near Eastern Background,” in Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of Jewish
Studies; Panel Sessions: Bible Studies and Hebrew Language (Jerusalem: World Union of
Jewish Studies/Perry Foundation for Biblical Research, 1983), 105-109, 116-117.
Similarities and Differences . . . 27
There are similarities between the Nanshe New Year Mesopotamian cult
and the Israelite Day of Atonement, as prescribed in Leviticus 16 and 23:26-
32. Renewal of yearly contracts at the Nanshe New Year is analogous to the
yearly review that takes place on the Israelite Day of Atonement. Somewhat
like the Day of Atonement, the Nanshe New Year includes the possibility
that persons can be cleared, that is, restored/vindicated, to good and regular
standing: “The ordeal river in the house of Nanshe clears a person (line
The Nanshe New Year, like the Israelite Day of Atonement, shows a
connection between cult and theodicy in that it involves judgment of persons
on the basis of loyalty that must be demonstrated by adherence to the deity’s
Elsewhere in the OT, YHWH’s divine perception is made explicit. For
example, “The Lord watches over the stranger; He gives courage to the
orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked tortuous” (Ps 146:9;
NJPSV). Notice the parallel with lines 20-24 of the Nanshe Hymn: “She
knows the orphan, she knows the widow. She knows that person oppresses
another. A mother for the orphan, Nanshe, a caretaker for the widow, finding
a way for houses in debt, the lady shelters the abducted person, seeks a place
for the weak.” Here the special powers of Nanshe enable her, like YHWH,
to help the socially disadvantaged who would otherwise suffer injustice (cf.
Both in Mesopotamia and in Israel, divine administration of justice is
based on divine rule over a human community. Thus the scope of judgment
covers a community that is defined in relation to a temple/sanctuary and its
deity. Nanshe determines fates of people who receive food from her temple
(line 96) because she rules them. Similarly, YHWH rules the Israelites from
his place of enthronement in the sanctuary above the Ark of the Covenant
(1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; cf. Exod 25:22; Num 7:89). Therefore, he
judges them. Psalm 9:8 makes the connection explicit: “But the Lord sits
enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment” (NRSV).
According to Gane, there are also significant differences between the
Nanshe New Year and the Israelite Day of Atonement:
(1) The judgment at Nanshe’s temple takes place on New Year’s Day.
The Israelite Day of Atonement, on the other hand, is the tenth day of the
seventh month (Lev 16:29).
(2) The cleaning of Nanshe’s house by sprinkling with water appears
to be purification simply from ordinary dirt. There is no indication that this
76W. Heimpel, “The Nanshe Hymn,” JCS 33 (1981): 67-69.
77R. E. Gane, Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 358.
28 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
activity has a result such as the purgation of sin of YHWH’s sanctuary on the
Day of Atonement.
(3) The Nanshe Hymn explicitly describes divine justice. Leviticus, on
the other hand, implies divine justice through YHWH’s requirement that his
sanctuary be cleansed from the sins of his people in order for him to continue
residing among them (see Lev 16:16b).
(4) In Israel, wanton sinners are condemned before the Day of Atonement
(Lev 20:3; Num 15:30-31; 19:13, 20). The Nanshe Hymn, however, does not
provide evidence that contracts of offending temple dependents are revoked
on days other than the New Year.
(5) The Sumerian hymn describes judicial investigation leading to verdicts
that are reached through the testimony of witnesses. Leviticus 16 does not
explicitly refer to judicial investigation.
(6) In the Nanshe Hymn, clearing from wrongdoing is through ordeal,
and the text does not indicate whether the cleared person was actually guilty
or was only suspected. The Day of Atonement procedure deals with actual
guilt and involves rituals performed by the high priest, accompanied by selfdenial and abstaining from work (Leviticus 16).
(7) Nanshe is assisted by other deities, such as Hendursaga and Nisaba.
YHWH has no other deity to assist him.78
On the other hand, there are similarities between the Babylonian
ceremonies of Nisannu 579 and the Israelite Day of Atonement.80 Like the
Israelite Day of Atonement ceremonies, the Babylonian rituals of Nisannu
involve cleansing temple precincts and divine judgment at a yearly time of
renewal, during which the religious and social order is reaffirmed.81 Like the
Israelite rituals, the Babylonian rites are of three types with regard to the ritual
calendar: regular, festival, and special.82
79Partially preserved Akkadian tablets prescribe the rituals of the Babylonian
New Year (Akitu) Festival of Spring, which were to take place during the first eleven or
twelve days of the month of Nisannu. The text relevant to Nisannu 2–5 was published
in cuneiform, transliteration, and English translation by A. Sachs, G. Çairgan, M.
Cohen, and J. Bidmead.
80R. E. Gane, Ritual Dynamic Structure, Gorgias Dissertations 14, Religion 2
(Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2004). Gane’s dissertation includes the translation of the
text relevant to day 5, along with detailed analysis of the rituals as activity systems
(ibid., 199-243, 319-323).
81K. van der Toorn, “The Babylonian New Year Festival: New Insights from the
Cuneiform Texts and Their Bearing on Old Testament Study,” in Congress Volume:
Leuven, 1989, ed. J. A. Emerton, VTSup 43 (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 339; cf. 343-344.
82R. E. Gane, “Schedules for Deities: Macrostructure of Israelite, Babylonian,
and Hittite Sancta Purification Days,” AUSS 36 (1998): 231-236, 239-244.
Similarities and Differences . . . 29
Milgrom has pointed out several similarities between the fifth day of
the Akitu festival and the Day of Atonement: “On both occasions, (1) the
temple is purged by rites that demand that the high priest rise before dawn (m.
Yoma 1:7), bathe and dress in linen, employ a censer, and perform a sprinkling
rite on the sanctuary; (2) the impurity is eliminated by means of slaughtered
animals; (3) the participants are rendered impure; and (4) the king/high priest
submits to a ritual of confession and penitence.”83
Cleansing the Israelite sanctuary involves three stages, dealing with its
three parts: inner sanctum, outer sanctum, and outer altar. Purifying the
Babylonian temple precincts is also a three-stage process: cleansing of the
great Esagila temple complex as a whole (lines 340-345), which includes
the sanctuary of Marduk and his consort, and then two purifications of the
smaller Ezida, the guest cella of Nabû (lines 345b-365, 366-384).84
Gane summarizes some similarities between use of the Babylonian ram
and that of the slain Israelite animals:
1. Ritual activities purge a sacred dwelling. 2. Animals function as ‘sponges’
to absorb evil nonmaterial entities that are not represented by any material
symbols. 3. Animal ‘sponges’ are disposed of away from the sacred
precincts—the Israelite animals by incineration and the Babylonian ram
by throwing its head and body into the river. 4. Animals are regarded as
The king’s reconfirmation before Marduk involves a kind of judgment
according to divine cultic and ethical standards. Such accountability for loyalty
to the deity somewhat parallels the concern for loyalty on the Israelite Day of
Atonement. In Babylon, it is the king who goes before the deity for judgment,
just as the Israelite high priest represents his people before YHWH.
According to Gane, differences between the Israelite Day of Atonement
and Babylonian ceremonies on the fifth day of the Akitu Festival of Spring
include the following:
(1) The Day of Atonement takes place in the seventh month (Tishri),
in the autumn. The Babylonian festival, on the other hand, is in Nissanu, the
first month in the spring.
(2) The Babylonian festival lasts several days, but the Day of Atonement
(3) The Babylonian day includes not only purification of the sacred
precincts, but also a special reconfirmation of the king to prepare for his role
on subsequent ritual days. Day of Atonement ceremonies, on the other hand,
do not involve a human king.
84Gane, Cult and Character, 364-365.
30 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
(4) Whereas plurality of deities and sacred locations were factors in the
multiplication of Babylonian ritual activities, such plurality did not affect the
Israelite Day of Atonement due to the monotheistic nature of the normative
Israelite cult. YHWH fulfilled all divine roles that were divided among other
deities in other ANE religions. “He alone was the King and Judge of the
(5) The Day of Atonement is a climactic event within the Israelite cultic
system, but the fifth day of the Akitu festival prepares for a climax that comes
later in the festival.
(6) Whereas the Israelite sanctuary cleansing constitutes an enactment
of theodicy, the Babylonian purification of temple precincts simply removes
impurity in order to prepare for the roles of gods participating in the
(7) Whereas the Babylonian cleansing of sacred precincts includes
sprinkling water, in the Day of Atonement rituals it is blood that is sprinkled
for the purification of the sanctuary. The blood rites familiar in the OT are
not replicated in other ANE cultures.87
(8) There are a number of differences between the Israelite purificationoffering of purgation complex that purges the sanctuary and the Babylonian
Kuppuru activities that contribute to purification of the Ezida. For example,
whereas the former is a complex consisting of two individual rituals, the
Kuppuru “rite” is only a subsytem of an individual ritual.88
(9) Whereas the Heb. rpk in ritual contexts represents the goal/meaning
of activity, the Akk. Kuppuru denotes the physical activity itself: “wipe/rub”
or “purify by wiping.”
(10) Evils removed by purification rituals are not the same. In Babylon,
impurity comes from evil spirits, but there is no purification for sins committed
by the Babylonian people. In Israel, on the other hand, impurities that affect
the sanctuary come from human beings, and the impurities are purged from
the sanctuary along with moral faults that the people have committed (Lev
16:16).89 There are no incantations to exorcise demons.
86J. C. de Moor, New Year with Canaanites and Israelites (Kampen: Kamper Cahiers,
87See T. Abusch, “Blood in Israel and Mesopotamia,” in Emanuel: Studies in Hebrew
Bible, Septuagint, and Dead Sea Scrolls in Honor of Emanuel Tov, ed. S. M. Paul et al., VTSup
94 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 675-684. G. Beckman indicates that among the Hittites the
throat of the animal was slit with the blood being squirted toward the statue, and blood
was used in purification ceremonies (“How Religion Was Done,” in The Companion to
the Ancient Near East, ed. D. Snell [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005], 349-350).
88Cf. B. Sommer, “The Babylonian Akitu Festival: Rectifying the King or
Renewing the Cosmos,” JANES 27 (2000): 92.
89Cf. Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1960), 56, 103-105.
Similarities and Differences . . . 31
(11) The speech of the Babylonian king consists of self-righteous
denial of his own wrongdoing (lines 422-428). He admits no need for moral
cleansing. By contrast, the speech of the Israelite high priest over Azazel’s
goat (Lev 16:21) is a real confession, admitting the moral faults of the entire
nation.90 This is a crucial difference.
(12) Only the Babylonian king is “judged” on the fifth day of the Akitu
festival, but all Israelites are explicitly in view on the Day of Atonement.
There is no evidence that the Babylonian king represents his people, as does
the Israelite high priest, in the sense that he performs purgation on their
behalf. So, in spite of significant parallels, the fifth day of the Babylonian
festival should not be regarded as a Babylonian “Day of Atonement.”
(13) Objects of purification differ. The Day of Atonement rituals are
concerned with purg ation of sacred precincts, sancta, and persons. The
Babylonian purifications of Nisannu 5 deal only with sacred precincts.
(14) Whereas the Israelite high priest performs the sanctuary purification
rituals and is apparently immune to defilement through the process, the
Babylonian high priest cannot even look on the first phase of the Ezida’s
purgation without becoming impure (lines 364-365).
(15) Finally, severity of impurity resulting from ritual participation
differs greatly. Israelite assistants who lead Azazel’s goat into the wilderness
and dispose of carcasses contract minor impurity that lasts only until they
launder their clothes and bathe, after which they are permitted to reenter the
camp (Lev 16:26, 28). Babylonian functionaries who participate in the kuppuru
purification of the Ezida are much more severely affected. They must remain
outside Babylon for the rest of the festival—that is, until the twelfth day of
Nisannu (lines 361-363).91
Since the biblical text has a theological significance emerging from an ancient
context, we should pay due attention to the ANE ideas, concepts, beliefs, and
worldviews because they may then be necessary for discerning the meaning
of the text. So the aid of comparative study might sometimes be needed to
help with the meaning of the text. More important are the many occasions
in which the core meaning of the text is misinterpreted for lack of assistance
from the ANE. If we do not bring the information from the ancient cognitive
environment to bear on the text, we will automatically impose the paradigms
and models of our modern worldview, thus risking serious distortion of
To investigate Israelite theology in relation to any other ancient theology,
we must go beyond the simple identification of similarities and differences to articulate the
91Gane, Cult and Character, 370-374.
32 Seminary Studies 49 (Spring 2011)
relationships on a conceptual, functional, and behavioral level. For example, it is one
thing to say that both Israelites and Babylonians used rituals for transference
of offense. It is another matter altogether to understand the conceptual,
functional, and behavioral implication of those rituals and the role they played
in the larger theology.
Similarities could exist because Israel adapted something from the
ANE culture or literature or because they simply resonated with the culture.
Differences could reflect the Israelites’ rejection of an ANE perspective,
in which a practice was either ignored or proscribed, or they might emerge
in explicit Israelite polemics against the views of their neighbors, in which
extended discourse drew out the distinction. In all such cases, the theology
of the text may be nuanced or clarified by an understanding of the cultural
context, whether it resonates with its environment or stands in sharp relief
When it comes to the formulation of our modern theology based on
the biblical text, we may logically conclude that without the guidance of
background studies, we are bound to misinterpret the text at some points.
Often the words the writer or speaker uses and the ideas he is trying to convey
are rooted in the culture and therefore need the assistance of background
studies. Thus comparative study offers an alternative, and arguably more
accurate, interpretation of the text.