Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s look a little more closely at the parallels between the Judean literature (canonical and pseudepigraphical) and that of Mesopotamia to see what might have been going between them. It’s one thing to say that we can see signs of Mesopotamian written records in Judean writings but a critical question to ask is by what means, how, the one came in contact with and influenced the other. That is the particular question Seth Sanders explores in chapter 5 of From Adapa to Enoch. I will highlight a few of the points he raises.

Esarhaddon Inspires Yahweh

Here is an adaptation of the chart from pages 171-172:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 13

You shall not hear or conceal any, … word which is not seemly nor good to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord, either from the mouth of his enemy or from the mouth of his ally, or from the mouth of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins, his family, members of his father’s line,  
Prophets or diviners

(2) If there should arise in your midst a prophet or oneiromancer who provides a sign or portent, (3) and should the sign or portent – concerning which he had spoken to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) so that we may worship them” – come true: (4) Do not heed the oracles of that prophet or that oneiromancer … (6) And that prophet or that oneiromancer shall be put to death, for he fomented conspiracy against Yahweh …

Family members

or from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters,
Family members

(7) If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own self,
Prophets or diviners

or from the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic, a diviner, or from the mouth of any human being who exists; you shall come and report (it) to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria … VTE § 10

Incitement to rebellion punished by instant death

If anyone speaks rebellion and insurrection to you, to kill … Ashurbanipal the [great prince] designate, son of Esarhaddon, …
If you are able to seize them and kill them, then you shall seize them and kill them! VTE § 12

Incitement to apostasy punished by instant death

entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known … –
(9) Do not assent to him or give heed to him! Let your eye not pity him nor shall you show compassion nor condone him
(10) – but you shall surely kill him! (Deut 13:2-10)

Did the author of the Deuteronomy passage have a copy of the vassal treaty before him? It is unlikely. It does not appear so. Deuteronomy is evidently not a translation at any rate.

Were these simply ancient Near Eastern clichés? Furthermore, while the Hebrew-Assyrian parallels have long been assumed to derive from historical contact, questions remain about the social and physical locations of contact, especially if the thesis of literary translation is unsustainable. A convincing account requires a plausible, well-documented mode of transmission.

Examining whole parallel passages side by side in light of known patterns of textual transmission in the ancient Near East suggests that rather than cuneiform and papyrus, the relationship between the two texts can most plausibly be explained by memory transmission, based on the oral performance of the curses in a ceremony of the sort required in VTE. (p. 173)

From pages 174-175:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 28

[Unburied corpse eaten by birds (floating element)]

(519) May Palil, the fore[most] lord, feed your flesh to eagles and vultures.
(521) May Ea, king of the Abyss, lord of the springs, make you drink the water of death and fill you with a fatal swelling.
(523) May the great gods of heaven and earth make water and oil [taboo for] you.
(524) May Girra, giver of food to small and great, consume your name and your seed.

Iron ground, bronze sky, curse on rain

(526) {if you should violate this oath} may all the gods [invoked by name] in th[is] treaty tablet make the ground as narrow as a brick for you. May they make your ground like iron so no offspring can grow from it.
(530) Just as rain does not fall from a sky of bronze, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; instead of dew may burning coals rain on your land.

Iron ground, bronze sky, curse on rain

Deut. 28:23 The skies above your head shall be bronze and the earth under you iron.
Deut. 28:24
The LORD will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.

Routing before the enemy

(534) Just as lead does not stand up before a fire, so may you [not s]tand before yo[ur] enemy (or) take your sons and your daughters in your hands.

Routing before the enemy

Deut. 28:25 The LORD will put you to rout before your enemies; you shall march out against them by a single road, but flee from them by many roads; and you shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.

[Unburied corpse eaten by birds (floating element)]
Deut. 28:26 Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.
VTE Traditional Curse Section

malaria, sleeplessness …

(418A) May Anu, king of the gods, let disease, exhaustion, malaria, sleeplessness, worries and ill health rain upon all your houses.


(419) May Sin, the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with leprosy and forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king. Roam the desert like the wild ass and the gazelle!

Deut. 28:27 The LORD will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, leprosy, and itch, from which you shall never recover.
Blindness and injustice

(422) May Samas, the light of heaven and earth, not judge you justly. May he remove your eyesight. Walk about in darkness!

Blindness and injustice

Deut. 28:28 The LORD will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay. Deut. 28:29 You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark; you shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help.

[Unhuried corpse eaten by birds (floating element)]

(425) May Ninurta, the foremost among the gods, fell you with his fierce arrow; may he fill the plain with your blood and feed your flesh to the eagle and the vulture.

Enemy sleeps with wives, loss of house, sons disinherited

(428) May Venus, the brightest of the stars, before your eyes make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy; may your sons not take possession of your house, but a strange enemy divide your goods.

Enemy sleeps with wives, loss of house, sons disinherited
Deut. 28:30 If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it.
Deut. 28:31
Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it; your ass shall be seized in front of you, and it shall not be returned to you; your flock shall be delivered to your enemies, with none to help you.
Deut. 28:32
Your sons and daughters shall be delivered to another people, while you look on; and your eyes shall strain for them constantly, but you shall be helpless. Deut. 28:33 A people you do not know shall eat up the produce of your soil and all your gains; you shall be abused and downtrodden continually,
Deut. 28:34
until you are driven mad by what your eyes behold.

Such treaties were lodged in temples throughout Middle Eastern cities where Assyria held sway.

Again, memory is offered as the preferred explanation for the similarities:

The combination of uniquely Assyrian thematic clusters with significantly different wordings in the two texts is best explained by memories of an Assyrian original which provided the basis of a new Hebrew composition. Recent work in the composition and transmission of texts in cuneiform, Egyptian, and North-West Semitic writing cultures shows the important and varying role of memory. Paul DelNero (2012) has demonstrated how key educational texts – but not all literature – in Sumerian were learned then recalled in varying ways, and therefore reproduced differently than visually copied texts in the Old Babylonian period. . . .

Among the typical features of memory transmission DelNero pointed out are omission or shortening, the loss of proper names and specific numbers, and a tendency to update and recontextualize, replacing elements that did not seem logical to the readers with material that better fit their experience, or substituting familiar expressions for more archaic language. Each of these seems to be at play, along with literary and poetic elaboration, in the Deuteronomy parallels to VTE. But what situations would give rise to such memories and reinventions?

With the geographic expansion of the empire, Assyrian rulers aspired to control broad groups without the direct use of military force. One concrete result of this was the increasing elaboration of the vassal treaty, the earliest surviving written texts of which appear in the ninth century. This imperial genre was designed to impress itself on the minds, memories, and behavior of its chief subjects. It did not just present the king’s power, but mandated a role for local rulers and people through public performance and spoken ritual. In the oath that the Assyrian kings required of conquered rulers, a group standing in for the whole population ritually took part in the oath, uttering scripted responses. They are addressed by the words of the treaty, commanded and threatened along with the vassal ruler. And they speak as “we” in the ritual portion, taking the treaty’s political obligations on themselves as a whole. (pp. 176 f)

Again, the similarities do not look like direct copying or translating:

The text of Deuteronomy 28 gives no sign that its creators chose to draw on any physical text or careful translation to create their curses – instead they created a text that never mentions Assyria and echoes Neo-Assyrian curses only in clusters. The Neo-Assyrian source of Deuteronomy 28 is a constellation of loose but indisputably connected memories, most plausibly configured in Hebrew in the late Iron Age when the genre of loyalty-oath was politically potent. (p. 179)

I wonder, though, if there is something missing here in Sanders analysis. My understanding of the evidence is that there is nothing to corroborate this form of worship in the pre-exilic period and that the archaeological record opens up questions about the existence of the sort of social stratification and infrastructure necessary for the support of a scribal class that would produce such literature in the pre-exilic kingdom of Judah. (The story of Josiah’s discovery of the book of Deuteronomy has little to commend it as history — unless there have been significant discoveries since I last took up any extensive reading around the topic.) Sanders is hewing to the conventional wisdom; an alternative thought about the inspiration for the adapting of an Assyrian vassal treaty as above was posted at The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers.

Exodus, Hammurabi and the Ox

Again, an adaptation from a chart on pages 179-180:

Hammurabi’s Laws §§ 250-252

Exodus 21:28-32

250 If an ox gores a man to death while it is passing through the street, that case has no basis for a claim. 28 If an ox gores a man or woman and he dies, the ox shall be stoned, its flesh shall not be eaten; the owner of the ox is not liable.
251 If a man’s ox is a known gorer, and his district has informed him that it is a known gorer, but he did not blunt its horns and did not control his ox, and that ox gores to death a free person, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver. 29 If an ox has been a gorer in the past, and its owner has been warned, but he did not restrain it, and it kills a man or woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner shall be put to death. 30If ransom is laid upon him, he shall pay the redemption price for his life, according to whatever is laid upon him.
(no corresponding section) 31 0r (if) it gores a son or daughter, it shall be done for him according to this law.
252 If it is a man’s slave, he shall pay twenty shekels of silver. 32 If the ox gores a male slave or a female slave, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to his (the slave’s) master and the ox shall be stoned.

The laws of Hammurabi are widely known but in fact the Exodus passage has more detailed parallels with the law code of Eshnunna that dates before Hammurabi.

Here an explanation for the closely matching details between two texts originally separated by many centuries is readily at hand.

The type of legal proclamation which LH represents was originally a public demonstration of justice on the part of a new king. By the late Iron Age [Laws of Hammurabi] had become a school-text in Mesopotamian scribal culture, no longer serving a political function. (p. 181)

In earlier posts we have addressed the later Judean literature, too: the Astronomical Book of Enoch and the Aramaic Levi Document. I find the following point of Sanders telling in the context of thinking through an alternative hypothesis:

We have already examined the evidence of the Astronomical Book and Aramaic Levi Document and here it suffices to emphasize two final points. First, as we have seen, the Babylonian scholarly material found in the AB and Levi has been integrated into the text in same way as earlier Babylonian legal and political material was integrated into the prior texts of the Pentateuch – by framing it in a narrative about an early founding figure. (p. 188)

Do we not observe exactly the same process with the earlier Mesopotamian material, the law codes and vassal treaties? As Enoch and Levi are used in new narrative frames for certain texts, so Moses and Yahweh are used as the new narrative frames for early political and legal texts.

Do we not see here evidence of a very similar process between the activity of the “canonical author” and that of the pseudepigraphical author?

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the two types of texts were composed within the same historical milieu?

Rather than “a shift in genre from political to esoteric content” with implications that the two are separated by major political upheavals, exile and return, etc. (Sanders, p. 188), why not propose the two are operating in the same world, whether in competition or in progressive dialogue?

I have not covered Sanders’ earlier chapter in which he engages with the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is seen as a link to the “pseudepigraphical” literature with its themes of trance, divinely powered transportation, the observation of measurements made by divine beings. The subject matter clearly resonated since we encounter interest in the same themes of measurements, of astronomy, divine ordering of history, in Qumran texts.

But a couple of pages earlier Sanders does make a comment that I think might support this “radical” viewpoint:

Unlike both Judahite and Mesopotamian scribal cultures, which retained a focus on native kings long after their regimes fell, Aramaic literature does not remember native kingship. Instead of tracing a lineage back to the Akkad period, with Sargon, or the early Iron Age with Saul, David, and Solomon, known Aramaic literature begins its political memories with other people’s empires. (p. 186 )

Here is the catch.

The stories of David have been argued as clearly deriving from the Persian matrix. See, for example, the five posts on this page.

The stories of David and Solomon were not looking back to a lost past, but were rather, more likely in my current view, created out of Persian era motifs. A past for returnees was being created, not remembered. Sanders writes:

The patterns of the [Astronomical Book of Enoch] and [Testament of Levi] take on added significance because they correlate with the limited but clear attested evidence of Aramaic adaptation of Babylonian textual material during the Persian period. (p. 194)

One can argue, I believe, the same for the stories of David. Stories of David do not contain any evidence, as far as I am aware, of a harking back to earlier times and reliance upon figures and events in the period of around 1000 BCE.

Sanders writes concerning the Aramaic script,

Perhaps the most remarkable change that the linear alphabet in its Aramaic form on parchment underwent was turning the tables on cuneiform. By the Hellenistic period it replaced cuneiform as the default writing system in many parts of the Near East. (p. 195)

Sanders posits a Near Eastern spread of scribal culture through the medium of Aramaic:

Pervasive in the training of writers all over the ancient Near East by the fifth century, Aramaic was a scribal culture whose power resided precisely in the fact that it did not seem like a culture at all.

The invisibility of Aramaic scribal culture helps explain what Babylonian and Judean scribes came to share in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Already in the Neo-Assyrian period intellectual traditions that had long been written down in the time-honored medium of cuneiform on clay were routinely translated and explained in Aramaic . . . . (p. 196)

At least by the Persian era,

Babylonian scribal culture was no longer marked as foreign knowledge. It was now simply scholarship, their own unmarked universal heritage as experts and scholars. (p. 196)

Questions remain. But the scope for answers is surely wider than that of the conventional wisdom.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

15 thoughts on “Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible”

  1. So Exodus, whose language has been dated before the Persian era, is linked to the Laws of Hammurabi, which has no link to the Persian era, therefore both should be dated to the Persian era? There is a lot more evidence that Solomon was originally based on King Jehoash from the monarchical era. Most of the details such as the length of reign, the name of his mother, and the circumstances regarding his death. There is also a good reason to believe the fictional Jeroboam I is based on the historical Jeroboam II. Given the connections that the early sources like J and E have to the late monarchical period, including mentioning the recent successful rebellion of Edom, as well as the established linguistic connections that Old Testament minimalists tend to ignore, that era makes much more sense as the time period for when that material was written.

    1. The Code of Hammurabi, as mentioned, was a scribal school text that was widespread centuries after Hammurabi’s own time. It was used as such right through the Persian era.

      If minimalists simply ignore evidence that contradicts their views then they have no scholarly credibility at all. But I believe a little digging will demonstrate that alternative explanations for the data come to the fore, not that they are ignored. Ditto for the supposed pre-Persian dating of the language of Exodus.

  2. Seth Sanders is pretty good on correlating Mesopotamian science with Astronomical Enoch and some biblical science, but he and the other scholars on the origins of “Jewish Science” (Ben-Dov, Drawnel, etc.) have yet to figure out the Mesopotamian connection. As I briefly noted in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, 144, the Neo-Assyrian province of Samerina (Samaria) was home to a significant population of deported Babylonians who (along with the Assyrian administrators) brought many Mesopotamian traditions with them and became the new educated elite of the province. This educated elite persisted in Samaria, and, although adopting Yahweh worship, they transmitted various Mesopotamian traditions into early Hellenistic times where they were incorporated into the Hebrew Bible. The occasional Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Laws in the Mosaic corpus is part of that local Mesopotamian-Samaritan legacy, as is the Babylonian calendar and many other Mesopotamian relics in scripture. For instance, Ezekiel 1 has numerous affinities to the Babylonian scholarly text KAR 307 and is clearly a Marduk text that has been domesticated by light editorial glosses at 1:1-3, 224, 28, although in 2000+ years of scholarship this obvious possibility has literally never appeared in the literature. The other interesting examples of Mesopotamian lore in the biblical text that Sanders discusses are similar manifestations of Babylonian influences persisting in Samaria at a late date. I discuss this in a little more detail in my forthcoming article on Solomon in the Thomas L. Thompson Festschrift coming out in 2019 or early 2020.

      1. Everyone kept the Festschrift a total secret until the recent August conference of the European Association of Biblical Studies in Warsaw, Poland, when the editors sprang a copy on Thomas. My contribution is

        Russell Gmirkin, “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom.” Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh (eds.), Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson (Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies series; London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2019 [forthcoming]), 77-91.

        “This volume collects essays from an international body of leading scholars in Old Testament studies, focused upon the key concepts of the question of historicity of biblical stories, the archaeology of Israel/Palestine during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the nature of biblical narratives and related literature.”

        The scheduled publication date is 11-14-2019.

    1. Thanks for the reminder. For the record I copy the end-note you added at this point:

      Samaria was converted into an Assyrian province in 720 bce and received an influx of deportees from Arabia in 716 bce and from Babylonia in the aftermath of Sargon II’s defeat of Merodach-baladan II in campaigns of 710-709 bce. See Na’aman and Zadok 1988; Zertal 2003; cf. 2 Kgs 17.24, 30-31. Assyrian provincial administrators and transplanted Babylonian ruling class elites must have represented a significant component of the educated upper class of Samerina, especially after the deportation of 27,780 conquered troops and native ruling class elites from Samaria to Assyria and Media in 716 bce. Judah was never converted into an Assyrian province. The Assyrian and Babylonian component of the population of Samerina are a far more plausible conduit for the import of cuneiform legal traditions to the region than either hypothetical Assyrian-trained scribes from Judah in 740-640 b c e (Wright 2009: 91-120, 346-64) or later diaspora Jews (Van Seters 2003: 173-4).

  3. “The stories of David and Solomon were not looking back to a lost past, but were rather, more likely in my current view, created out of Persian era motifs.”

    Problem: “the sort of social stratification and infrastructure necessary for the support of a scribal class that would produce such literature in the pre-exilic kingdom of Judah” was there in 8th century BC Israel and 7th century BC Judah. It wasn’t there in the Persian period. See Israel Finkelstein’s articles on this. Only the Late Hellenistic and pre-Exilic periods have any room for large-scale scribal activity in Palestine.

    1. was there in 8th century BC Israel and 7th century BC Judah.

      That appears to be a point in dispute. I found Finkelsteins’s and Thompson’s analyses at odds.

      1. It is said Assyria destroyed or took over the northern tribes, Israel, turning the land into Sumaria, samaritans, around 700 BCE. Babylonia and allied Persia took the south into captivity 586 BCE.

        From that point on, there were countless points of contact between Jews and these countries.

      2. Wiser to trust the archeologist; I think, since he’s more likely to have the potsherds on his side. There was Jewish writing in the Persian era (e.g., Elaphantine), but Judah does not seem to have had much of it. It had a total population of fourteen thousand and a literate population of maybe a couple hundred. Compare 7th century BC Judah (sixty thousand people, literate population of a thousand, disproportionately concentrated among the commercial and military elite)

        1. The archaeologist makes his case on the same evidence as the historian, and must meet the challenges of the historian to his argument. If the archaeologist can refute the historian by appealing to something that he “has by his side” and can publish that same information then the playing field is equal.

          I think we need to trust the evidence and the logic of the arguments and compare and question each equally, not side on the basis of a perceived authority of one profession over the other when both professions must rely entirely on published works to establish a case.

          (It makes as much sense to say that an archaeologist should not try to write history but merely publish his or her findings and leave the piecing of it all together for the historian.)

  4. In some cases, Assyrian treaty-language reads like a later development of themes in Deuteronomy. Both come out of the same matrix, which is northern Syria-Iraq, called “Jazira” in Arabic.

    The latest (likely not the last) word on the issue is Jeremy M. Hutton and C. L. Crouch, Deuteronomy as a Translation of Assyrian Treaties doi 10.1628/hebai-2018-0014.

    “Deuteronomy’s reliance on prior texts was unlikely to have been limited to a single exemplar, and more likely to have been based on a variety of texts within the Akkadian and Northwest Semitic treaty traditions.”

    1. I had an extensive discussion of the purported parallels with Assyrian treaty language in Deuteronomy in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, 125-136 (which showed that the impiety/treason laws of Deut. 13 and 17 drew on Greek impiety laws rather than Assyrian vassal treaties) and 190-193 (which argued against the biblical national covenant with Yahweh having been based on vassal treaties). There is similar curse language in Deut. 28 (also found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in multiple contexts with no connection to a covenant situation), but as I commented above, many Assyrian and Babylonian traditions arrived in Samerina after its creation as an Assyrian province and passed down through the Mesopotamian educated elites in Samaria to later times.

Leave a Reply to Yam Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.