Israel’s Origins – before Palestine

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

by Neil Godfrey

For earlier posts where I indicated the importance of some of Garbini’s approaches, see Testing (or not) Historical Sources for Reliability and Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1.

The current post follows on from the previous one where we outlined the identification as “forerunners” of Israel the Banu Yamina (Benjamin) with their “davids” in the northern Syrian steppes during the second millennium BCE. One detail I did not note in that post but am adding here is that those same people had a particular group of diviners known as “nabi’um” — from which the Hebrew “navi”, meaning “prophet”, derives. So Garbini drew attention to the “Benjamin” confederacy having connections with Yahud, “davids” and “prophets”.

Giovanni Garbini traced the origins, migrations and settlements of Israel through his research as a professor of Semitic philology. In Garbini’s view, both “maximalists” (those who interpreted all archaeological evidence through the Bible) and “minimalists” (those who relied upon archaeological evidence ‘speaking for itself’) overlooked the evidence of epigraphy — the study of place and ethnic names in both the archaeological finds and the Bible. Garbini wrote that he…

found himself alone in supporting the thesis that adequate linguistic and philological preparation, with the support of extrabiblical sources, makes it possible to reconstruct the ancient history of Israel differently from the biblical account, using the Bible itself as the main source . . . (Scrivere, p. 11 – translation)

Throughout much of that second millennium in the northern Syrian steppes tribal groups were changing their seminomadic and pastoralist lifestyles when they built and settled into cities, allowing for new groups to move in to surrounding areas, with those semi-nomadic groups ever-changing their confederations, with new tribes emerging and older ones disappearing, always over the centuries in ethnic and tribal flux.

Egypt dominated the coastal and hinterland region as far as today’s Lebanon up until the 1300s BCE when we have Egyptian records informing us that new tribal groups and mercenary armies were threatening the security of cities over which Egypt had been the hegemon.

When Garbini integrates these Egyptian records with those of the Assyrian kingdom covering the ensuing century he pinpoints a critical new group of people who will become major players in the Levant: the name by which they were eventually most commonly known was the Aramaeans. They are sometimes named in association with one of the tribes of the Banu Yamini (or “Benjamin”, whom we met in the previous post.)

The Assyrians first encountered the Aramaeans in the northern region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The region between the Tigris and Euphrates where the Assyrians first encountered these Aramaeans was known as Musri. Over the following centuries Musri was also identified on both sides of the Euphrates and in the ninth century, at the Battle of Qaqar on the Orontes River, some of the combatants were identified as Musri. Evidently they took their name from the region where they had originated. It appears that this branch of Aramaeans was gradually moving west.

1300’s BCE — Israel came out of ‘Egypt’, or Musri?

What are we to make of this name “Musri”?

Musri in the Bible

Musri is also mentioned in the Bible, or rather it was mentioned, because in the current text, both in Hebrew and Greek, this name has been systematically concealed through a series of textual interventions. (Scrivere, p. 22 – translation)

Garbini sets out the evidence that the Hebrew Bible we know today has several times replaced Musri with the name Egypt. When it was not replaced, it was spelled incorrectly to make it look like another name for Egypt (msrym instead of mwsr). At some stage scribes associated closely with Jerusalem and who were responsible for the Hebrew Bible attempted to downplay early links between Israel and the northern Aramaean people and region. They repeatedly stressed that though Abraham had come from Mesopotamia, Israel grew into a nation in Egypt and Yahweh who drew them out of Egypt. That was their identity.

But the evidence of philology, the names in the sources, indicate that Israel rather came from the north, from Musri and the Aramaic area, Garbini explains.

In Garbini’s view, some of the biblical books preserve very ancient traditions to this effect:

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, . . . Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” . . . . 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramaean . . .  — Deut. 26:1-5

Hosea fondly looks back on the time Israel was in Egypt and called out to be with God, but any perusal of that time in the Pentateuch quickly reminds us it was not a time of fond romance but one of tension, rebellion, so much so that God cursed the entire generation and even required Moses to die before entering the promised land. Hosea and Amos warn that Israel will be punished by being made to return to Assyria — and Egypt, in a context that suggests Egypt is near or under the dominion of Assyria. That makes more sense if the original text spoke of Musri, Garbini argues. There are other detailed arguments but I am avoiding the technicalities in this post.

The testimony of Hosea and the stories about the patriarchs, which were written at a later date, reveal the existence of a remarkably ancient tradition that traced the origins of Israel and Ephraim to the environment of the Aramaic-speaking seminomads who, starting from the 15th century BC, moved in the land of Musri, i.e. the vast steppe area of northern Syria that extended on both sides of the Upper Euphrates. Here, through processes that we do not know, a homogeneous group of tribes was formed, which took the name of Israel and at a certain moment began to move southwards. If several centuries later a prophet, who felt himself to be the custodian of the religious tradition of the group to which he belonged, launched reproaches and threats to his contemporaries who, in his opinion, did not honor the god who had brought them to the land of Canaan enough, it is very likely that the cult of that god played an important role in the formation of Israel. (Scrivere, p. 25 – translation)

Abraham, King of Damascus – and the Damascus Document

If, with Garbini, we leave aside the Bible and look at other traditions about Israel’s origins, we find that there was a tradition that Abraham was a king in Damascus: Continue reading “Israel’s Origins – before Palestine”


Where Did Israel – and David – Come From? Some Archaeological Evidence

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

by Neil Godfrey

* One of those tribes was named Rāfē’, which may be compared with the fifth son of Benjamin, Rapha, in 1 Chronicles 8:2. (see Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, p. 80)

Benjamin may have been the youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob according to the Bible but in the archaeological record his name – and tribe – is the first to appear. Or rather, the name, Banu Yamin, represents a coalition of about four or five tribes.* But Banu Yamin, sons of the right (hand), is their name in documents at Mari first appearing around the early second millennium, let’s say around 1600 BCE. That coincides with the time biblical chronology is thought by some to indicate the time of Abraham’s entry into Canaan. (One of those tribes was named Rāfē’, which may be compared with the fifth son of Benjamin, Rapha, in 1 Chronicles 8:2.)

Those who have dealt with the history of Israel so far may not have been pleased to learn that, in the 17th century BC, the youngest of Abraham’s great-grandchildren was circulating instead of Abraham himself.  (p. 17 – translation)

The sons of right refers to the people of the south, or southerners, because another Semitic tribe, one to the north, were the Banu Sam’al, the name meaning “left”. (Perspective is based on facing the rising sun.)

Now it is possible that “southerners” was a common term that could apply to any group of people at any time, and if so, then the Banu Yamin may have nothing more than the coincidence of the name in common with the biblical tribe of Benjamin. But there is more. To translate the comment by Giovanni Garbini:

The possibility of a homonymy between Banu Yamina and Benjamin cannot be completely excluded, but it appears unlikely for the reasons that will now be explained.

First of all, it should be said that the onomastic coincidence between the Mari semi-nomads and Semitic peoples documented at the beginning of the first millennium BC could also concern the “sons of the left”. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, a city named Sam’al flourished in Cilicia, ruled by an Aramaic dynasty whose members sometimes bore Anatolian names (Kilamuwa Panamuwa, etc.). The singularity of the toponym suggests that the foundation of this Semitic city in a non-Semitic area is somehow linked to the banu sim’al. When we consider that the name of the Semitic people of Sam’al was Ya’ud . . . , a linguistic form identical to Yahud, it will be difficult to attribute to chance that a Ya’ud/Yahud ethnic group was closely related to both the “sons of the left” to the north and the “sons of the right” to the south. (Scrivere, 17)

Yahud, you will suspect, bears some relation to Judah and Jehud (the Jewish province in the Persian era), the name being formed from Yah/Yahweh.

Before continuing, let’s be clear where we are:

The vast steppe areas that close off the northern part of the Syrian desert, bordered to the east by the Euphrates and to the west by the Afrin, Orontes, and Jordan rivers, constituted the environment in which numerous tribes of semi-nomads lived, mainly devoted to animal husbandry and raids while continuously moving. The presence and the very existence of these peoples, who have never left any trace of themselves, are revealed by information transmitted by written texts within sedentary cultures possessing writing, namely Mesopotamia and Egypt. . . . 


In the 3rd millennium and the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, all the semi-nomadic tribes were of Semitic language and appeared to be characterized by intense military activity.

The most significant information on Semitic semi-nomads comes from hundreds of letters written in Babylonian found in the royal archive of Mari, a Syrian city on the right bank of the middle Euphrates. Most of the letters date back to the first half of the 18th century BC. In this period, the term amurru, which designated the first semi-nomads who came into contact with Mesopotamia in the 24th century BC, had become a generic name to indicate the “West,” that is, Syria. We recall that the Hammurabi dynasty (1792-1750 BC), which ruled Babylon, was of Amorite origin. By the 18th century BC, the Amorites had already passed the semi-nomadic phase and had become largely sedentary. In their place, two large groups of tribes, the Suteans (Sutum) and the Banu Yamina, had entered the steppe of Syria. (Scrivere, 15ff)

The Banu Sam’al were spread across the north but the map below identifies the location of the city of Sam’al that we read about above:


The Davids

The texts at Mari even speak of “Davids” long before the biblical David:

[C]oncerning the banu yamina, the texts often speak of a dawidüm, who was also present in other tribal groups and sometimes in cities, where he was in close contact with the king or members of the royal house. The dawidüm appears in texts as a military leader during a battle, but he is a leader with such particular prerogatives that in texts the expression “to kill the dawidüm” is almost idiomatic to mean “to win a battle”; in some cases, the word dawidùm is synonymous with “victory”. The problem of the dawidüm is certainly complex, and the information we have is not sufficient to fully clarify it; . . .

And, as we would expect, religiously interested scholars have sometimes muddied the research efforts:

. . . what can be said is that it has been made even more complicated by the attitude of those scholars who have dealt with the dawidüm with the sole purpose of demonstrating the lack of any relationship between this character and his functions and the great King David of the Bible; however, we can immediately say that before him, in the whole Near East, there was never any person named David.

Every “david” of the Benjamin tribes who led his army to battle would either be victorious or be sacrificed:

The word dawid . . . is the passive participle (as in Aramaic) of the verb dwd “to love”; literally, it meansthe loved one“. Actually, it is a technical term that indicates a particular relationship between a member of the royal family, usually the king, and a noble. The Amorite dawid finds an exact semantic parallel in the mawd (passive participle of wdd “to love”), which is found in the oldest Sabaean inscriptions (7th century BC) and is usually translated as “friend”; many prominent figures declare themselves mwd of their sovereigns. The Mari texts, which highlight the military function of the dawid that invariably ends with his death, only illustrate one aspect of this figure, which must have carried a complex ideology. If every battle lost by the Banu Yamina inevitably resulted in the death of the dawid, this means that this person did not fall in battle but was put to death, probably in a ritual manner, after the victory achieved by the opponents on the field; reading the Mari texts, one gets the impression that a victory would not have been complete without the killing of the dawid. In confirmation of this, we can cite the inscription of Mesha, the Moabite king of the 9th century BC, in which a dwd is mentioned, which we will return to in due course.

What does all of the above mean, then, in relation to the Bible’s narrative?

In conclusion, the texts from Mari reveal much more than a mere coincidence of names with the world described in the Bible. That being said, it is not being claimed that the banu yamina of Mari were the direct ancestors of the Benjaminites, nor that the history of the Jewish people was already underway in the 18th century BC; this research has merely revealed that one of the components of future Israel had its remote origins in the varied and fluctuating environment of Semitic Amorite semi-nomadism, which was a protagonist in the historical events of the centuries around 2000 BC. (Scrivere, 17ff)

With thanks to a commenter’s recommendation to read Giovanni Garbini’s Scrivere La Storia D’israele.

Garbini, Giovanni. Scrivere La Storia D’israele. Vicende E Memorie Ebraiche. Brescia: Paideia, 2008.



Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]

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

by Neil Godfrey

Most of us have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom that the Old Testament books were written between the eighth and fifth centuries. But there is no independent evidence for the existence of any of the Bible’s books or any knowledge of biblical traditions (Davies, 1992 and Vridar.info notes), nor any evidence for the practice of Judaism itself (sabbath observance, dietary practices, etc) until the Hellenistic era — the third century (Lemche, 1993 and the post Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?Adler, 2022 and the post The Late Origins of Judaism). It is against this background of the hard archaeological evidence that we must approach Gmirkin’s thesis of Hellenistic influence on the Bible.

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

We come to the final, and longest, chapter of Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History by Russell Gmirkin. If the author of Genesis did use Plato’s Timaeus-Critias, what does that tell us about Jewish monotheism in the third century BCE?

In the discussion of Genesis 1 we saw Gmirkin’s case for the Genesis authors drawing upon Plato’s notion of “cosmic monotheism” — the idea of a sole creator god beyond space and time who brings about the universe, including time itself, and then retires from the scene. This god was of a higher order of divinity from other gods and it is in that sense that we speak of “monotheism” here.

In covering Genesis 2 we observed the narrative moving into a storybook world featuring a god who walked amidst his garden and spoke with his created humans and their offspring.

We read of God appearing to address a council of fellow divinities when he (or one of him/them) says, “Let us make humankind in our image….”, “Let us make him a helper….” and then at Babel, “Let us go down and confuse their language….”  The supreme deity creates the perfect world but it appears that lesser deities create potentially sinful mortals and interact with them. Sons of god are even said to bear children with human women. And then we encounter the patriarchs sacrificing at altars to gods recognized by their Canaanite neighbours.

Gmirkin compares this outline with Plato’s narrative in Timaeus and Critias. As in Genesis, Plato begins with a supreme craftsman (demiurge) god who is without human form or body and beyond space and time yet who is responsible for creating the perfect universe. After that, lesser gods take over and create corruptible humans and interact with them.

When we read Genesis against the background of Plato’s myths we begin to understand solutions to hitherto perplexing puzzles about Genesis, Gmirkin notes:

Various otherwise perplexing narrative details, small and large, attain a new clarity when interpreted in light of Platonic parallels. Most significant are those relating to a directly polytheistic mythical narrative context that complements (and in small details contradicts) the cosmic monotheism of Genesis 1: the appearance of a multiplicity of gods in both the First Creation Account (Gen 1:26) and the tale of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18 [LXX], 3:22); the contrast between the portraits of Elohim as supreme Creator in Genesis 1 and Yahweh as a storybook terrestrial god introduced in Genesis 2-3, and the marriages between gods and mortal women (Gen 6:1-4). The book of Genesis, like Plato’s Timaeus, promoted two complementary visions of the divine realm of the gods: a transcendent philosophical monotheism manifested in the creation of the perfect kosmos at the dawn of time, and a conventional terrestrial polytheism that accommodated the popular beliefs and cults of tradition. Both of these carefully balanced Platonic theological elements were highly innovative: that a single supremely good eternally existent god created the heavens and earth, and that the pantheon of well-known terrestrial gods, his sons and daughters, were also universally good and worthy of honor. (Gmirkin, 247)

There are also compound forms of these names for god, such as Yahweh-Elohim and El-Shaddai. There are various explanations for these in the literature — a) that the one god took on various “guises” (or hypostases), b) that they were different gods, c) that later editors were attempting to change the text (for which there is manuscript evidence) for theological reasons. Gmirkin understands that some of these later changes to the text were introduced by editors seeking to bring Genesis more closely in line with the theological perspective of Exodus-Deuteronomy.

The Genesis god of creation was called Elohim. The storybook god who appears after creation was given the name Yahweh. Yahweh, as you no doubt recognize, is also a transliteration of that famous tetragram YHWH, the god uniquely associated with the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 YHWH is not the creator.

So much for Genesis, but what about the world outside the literature?

Archaeological evidence informs us that before we have any signs of knowledge of biblical accounts Yahweh was a local deity of Jews, Samaritans and others along with other divinities, such as the mother-god Asherah. All the evidence we have for religious practices in the times of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah points to polytheism. Yahweh is simply one among a pantheon of deities.

When the Judahites were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and many of them transported to Babylonia, we know that there they continued to worship Yahweh along with other gods — in this case the Babylonian gods. Even into the Persian era, wherever archaeologists have uncovered Jewish settlements, they find the worship of other gods alongside Yahweh. Some readers may find this surprising or think the interpretation of the evidence is perverse, but until I post more about the evidence of what has been dug up from the ground here is a smattering of many publications that interested readers can turn to for further detail:

It is not only a question of whether or not the people of Judah worshipped Yahweh alone, but as indicated in the side-box above, in particular with the Adler reference (see also his academia.edu outline of the book), archaeological evidence points to practices contrary to biblical laws and religious customs until the second century BCE.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pentateuch was a Hellenistic era work so it follows that Hellenistic ideas should be seriously considered among its sources.

Since Gmirkin’s analysis places the origin of the first five books of the Bible in Hellenistic times (the third century BCE) it would follow from the state of the evidence as alluded to above that Genesis 1

arguably represents the earliest expression of monotheism among the Jews and Samaritans, alongside the equally novel benevolent terrestrial polytheism of the rest of Genesis. (249)

So in Genesis we have an expression of the Plato-like supreme and sole deity, existing outside space and time, creating the cosmos and then retiring, followed by references to what looks like another deity (Yahweh) living and interacting with mortals (e.g. in Garden of Eden, with Cain and Abel, visiting and eating a meal with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob), along with patriarchs honouring the gods of the Canaanites (e.g. with Melchizedek at Salem, Bethel, El Shaddai, El Olam . . .). At the same time we find the patriarchs enjoying positive relations with their “pagan” neighbours. Abraham bonds with Amorites, engages in peaceful negotiations with Hittites and Philistines, is honoured by Egyptians, while breakdowns only happen as a result of personal wrongs and not because of any “evil” inherent in the different races themselves.

After Genesis, Yahweh changed

In both the stories and legal content of Exodus-Joshua one sees the rejection of benevolent terrestrial polytheism in favor of a Yahwistic monolatry that equated the local patron god of the Jews and the Samaritans with the creator of the universe and which opposed the gods of the nations and their cultic practices. Given that Exodus-Joshua was arguably written contemporaneously with Genesis . . . , yet from a radically different perspective, this suggests a fundamental clash in philosophy and agenda between authorial groups involved in the creation of the Hexateuch ca. 270 BCE. (Gmirkin, 249)

There are other authors who argue that a single author was responsible for the Pentateuch: Bernard Barc, Thomas Brodie, Jan-Wim Wesselius and Philippe Wajdenbaum. (See the post, Did A Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings?) Barc, who also argues for a Hellenistic origin of the Pentateuch, views the respective appearances of the god El and the god Yahweh as two different “forms” (hypostases) of the Most High and each performs an allotted function in a single plan of history. Gmirkin argues for a deeper influence of Plato and other Greek ideas on the text. A difficulty for the average reader when pondering this question is the fact that most Bibles are translations of a Hebrew text that was finalized in the Christian era. To discover earlier versions requires a comparison with ancient Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls (first addressed here). We also have the question of how the final editor made changes to Genesis when he incorporated the work into a set with the following books.

Are the views of Barc, Brodie, Wesselius and Wajdenbaum able to respond adequately to the challenges Gmirkin raises? My next task is to step back and refresh my memory of the details of all of Gmirkin’s works and try to see how all of the evidence coheres.

Gmirkin does, however, offer a plausible response to those who find themselves troubled over what seems to be a fuzzy line between the gods and cults in Genesis but it casts an eye beyond Plato. Elohim is the creator but Yahweh-Elohim engages with humans; El Elyon and El Shaddai are both “Els”. In the views of the Stoic philosophers the many Greek gods were different aspects of “one god”:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.147.

The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however … called many names according to his various powers. They give the name Dia (Δία) because all things arc due to (διά) him; Zeus (Ζήνα) in so far as he is the cause of life (ζην) or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly, men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes.

It is possible that the well-known Stoic assimilation of the Greek gods to their monotheistic god, the creative fire, influenced the biblical conflation of deities associated with various titles of the ancient god El with the local patron god Yahweh. (Gmirkin, 300, my formatting)

Let’s continue Gmirkin’s discussion.

Something Completely Different: Here is a light-hearted digression on God’s treatment of the Egyptians at the Red Sea that comes from a study on the history of swimming through the ages:

The Hebrews left Egypt ‘with boldness’, but when they reach the Red Sea they accuse Moses, ‘Have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’ Moses (brought up by Egyptians, and perhaps therefore knowing how to swim himself ) soothes the Hebrews, and tells them not to be afraid. He stretches out his hand over the sea. God parts the Red Sea for the Hebrews, and then drowns the Egyptians. . . . .

This was the reverse of what readers might have expected, knowing that the Egyptians had always been strong swimmers and the Hebrews had never known how to swim. The parting of the Red Sea takes on new meaning when we realize that the Hebrews are non-swimmers, afraid of the water, being pursued by confident, experienced Egyptian swimmers.

from pages 55-56 (heard on Late Night Live)

It is only after Genesis, in the book of Exodus, that Yahweh claims to have been the God of the Patriarchs in Genesis and that he will tolerate no rivals. The covenant he makes with his people is to wipe out the Canaanites after having reigned death and destruction on the Egyptians.

God — Yahweh — has changed.

What of the god of the Flood, though? Did not Gmirkin say the biblical author had a more vicious view of god than Plato. At least Plato’s deity sought to discipline humans through calamity for their own good while the biblical god simply wanted to destroy humanity outright. Perhaps some of the Genesis authors also slightly wavered in their view of Yahweh’s character.

Plato’s Program and the Birth of Montheism

Gmirkin concludes from his comparative analysis that the Pentateuch was the work of authors united in seeking to introduce Plato’s program for an ideal society.

Plato taught that there was a supreme deity, formless and beyond space and time, yet who was perfectly good. Such an idea arose from the attempts of Greek philosophers to understand the origins of the universe. This concept of god (Gmirkin traces in some depth the history of the idea and the different functions of the gods of the Greek civic cults, the gods of the literary mythical world and god(s) of the natural philosophers) was the beginning of monotheism as we understand the term.

For Plato (and much of the western world has followed his idea) belief in the concept of a supreme, perfectly good deity is the first requirement of a virtuous society.

Civic authorities periodically accused and punished philosophers who openly taught “atheism” — which was how they understood the new monotheism with its implication of the rejection of other gods. Plato, however, found a role for these lesser gods in the wider society despite his philosophical preference for monotheism. But those lesser deities needed to be refashioned through literature and other arts and regular festivals as perfectly good. Old myths of gods misbehaving had to be banned. People could continue to cement their social bonds by gathering for the worship of these earthly, yet now “purified”, deities.

These ideas of Plato are what Gmirkin finds in Genesis.

Plato further envisioned a Nocturnal Council of the piously qualified as a vital institution to rule his ideal society. Members would be responsible for maintaining the morality of the public and public administration.

In Plato’s Laws, the divine philosophical ruling class elite exercised its power through an institution called the Nocturnal Council to accord with its meetings in the pre-dawn hours (Laws 12.95Id, 961b). Although Laws never explicitly mentions philosophers, “the members of the Nocturnal Council are philosophers in all but name” (Hull 2019: 217). The major function of the Nocturnal Council was to control the internal affairs of the nation. The ruling class elites of this “divine council” (Laws 12.969b; cf. the “divine polity” of 12.965c) would administer the nation’s new laws (Laws 7.809b; 12.951d, 952a-b) and education (Laws 7.811c-812a; 12.951d, 952a-b, 964b-c) from the earliest age on (Laws 12.952b), approve and strictly control its literature (Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-e) and enforce its religious beliefs (Laws 10.908e-909d), controlling the beliefs, and even the collective national memory of the populace, who would come to regard their constitution and way of life as established since time immemorial by their patron gods (Laws 7.798a-b). Through this new theocratic form of government in which the people believed they were under divine rule, the whole of national life would come under the perpetual control and guidance of philosophers, with the willing cooperation of the people who believed their leaders to be the divine agents of the supreme god. (Gmirkin, 268)


While the exoteric function of the Nocturnal Council was the administration of the state and its beliefs through control of its legislation, literature, education and religion, its even more important esoteric function was the continued pursuit of philosophical and scientific studies, thought to be essential to the proper administration of the polis. The Nocturnal Council thus functioned both as the ruling body of government and as a university for the continued study of theology, astronomy, ethics and international law, like Plato’s Academy (Morrow 1993: 509; Hull 2019: 228). Investing the nation’s highest educational institution with the full power of government not only ensured wise philosophical rule in the present but allowed the perpetuation of training in the arts of enlightened government from one generation to the next (Laws 12.960d-961b, 965a-b). (Gmirkin, 269)

Here we begin to overlap with what we have covered in other posts about Gmirkin’s earlier work. See the archived posts on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

Authors Divided

Continue reading “Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]”


Two Covenants: Israel and Atlantis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7f]

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

by Neil Godfrey

Russell Gmirkin concludes his second last chapter with a look beyond Genesis to highlight the plausibility of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias influencing some of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua.

In Critias Plato was composing an account of Athenian origins and its political organization, a politogony. Gmirkin cites Naddaf’s The Greek Concept of Nature which I turned to and read how various Greek poets and philosophers were interested in writing accounts that began with a cosmogony, then moved on to an anthropogony or zoogony, and finally came to a politogony — all of which seems to me to encapsulate the structure of Genesis and the Pentateuch: creation of the cosmos is the opening chapter, then the creation of humans and how humans came to be organized as they are across the inhabited world, and finally how thbe nation of Israel came about with its laws, priesthood, tribal organization as well as how its relations with other peoples originated. After writing the above I quickly checked the early chapters of Gmirkin’s book and found he had made just that point from the outset.

Plato’s account of Atlantis is set in mythical time: the god Poseidon married the mortal, Cleito, and fathered five pairs of twins who became princes ruling the ten tribes of the land. These ten leaders ruled independently as kings but swore allegiance to be one with each other in loyalty and policies and keep forever the laws of Poseidon. Those laws were inscribed on a pillar and kept in the temple. Gmirkin is, of course, prompting us to compare this scenario with the organization of Israel and its covenant with Yahweh.

One can point to the many obvious differences between Plato’s Critias and the biblical book of Exodus. My own approach to such comparative studies is to examine how unique the comparisons are and whether we can find in those similarities explanations for the differences that go beyond the ad hoc. The most significant place where a comparison must begin is the fact that in the following scene we look in vain, as far as I am aware, for parallels in the literature of the Levant or Mesopotamia.

National Covenant with Yahweh || National Covenant with Poseidon

Some similarities between Plato’s Critias and the scene of Israel swearing obedience to their god at Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus:

Exodus 24:3-8 Critias 119e-120b
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (4) And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. And whatsoever bull they captured they led up to the pillar and cut its throat over the top of the pillar, raining down blood on the inscription.
He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. And inscribed upon the pillar, besides the laws, was an oath which invoked mighty curses upon them that disobeyed.
(5) He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. When, then, they had done sacrifice according to their laws and were consecrating (120a) all the limbs of the bull,
(6) Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. they mixed a bowl of wine and poured in on behalf of each one a gout of blood, and the rest they carried to the fire, when they had first purged the pillars round about.
(7) Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”


And after this they drew out from the bowl with golden ladles, and making libation over the fire swore to give judgment according to the laws upon the pillar and to punish whosoever had committed any previous transgression; and, moreover, that henceforth they would not transgress any of the writings willingly, nor govern nor submit to any governor’s edict (120b) save in accordance with their father’s laws.
(8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” And when each of them had made this invocation both for himself and for his seed after him, he drank of the cup and offered it up as a gift in the temple of the God

The similarities between the passages were pointed out by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert and Gmirkin has gone another step in spelling out specific points for comparison:

  • the moment of the creation of a new nation is identified in a single episodic event;
  • all the tribes of the nation are assembled and participate;
  • a sacrifice seals the event, with bulls representing the tribes;
  • there is an altar with an associated pillar or pillars;
  • blood is (a) splashed about to consecrate the place of sacrifice and (b) poured into ceremonial vessels;
  • laws are inscribed on the pillar or altar [in Exodus the laws were written in a book, but later in Deuteronomy and Joshua they were inscribed in stone: see below];
  • a solemn oath or covenant to obey all the words of the law;
  • strong curses invoked for disobedience to the laws [see below – Deut 27, 28, 29];
  • the oath is binding on those present as well as their descendants [Deut 28].

Such strong and systematic literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and no other passage in Greek literature.29 Conversely, no literary parallels exist between Exodus 24 and Ancient Near Eastern literature or inscriptions, where there is no example of citizens entering into a covenant to obey a law collection, and where indeed the laws carried no prescriptive force.

29 A minor difference is that in Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy, it was the entire assembled children of Israel who were enjoined to obedience to the laws and who were entered [into] the covenant, whereas in Critias it was the ten princes who ruled in the kingdom of Atlantis.

(Gmirkin, 237, 241 — bolding is my own in all quotations)

Here is a little more detail on the inscribing of laws on pillars in the Greek world. It comes from another work cited by Gmirkin. (I have replaced Greek quotes with translations taken from the same work by Hagedorn or added my own translations alongside Greek text.) Continue reading “Two Covenants: Israel and Atlantis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7f]”


When Yahweh was at Peace with Other Gods — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7e]

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

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

When we read the Bible we assume that its references to God or Lord all mean the same idea: the deity of Judeo-Christian belief. So when we (non-scholars) read that the Bible’s references to the God of the Patriarchs were originally names of various local deities it can be a difficult pill to swallow. But a principal reason I began this blog was to share with the general reader what scholarly research has to inform us about the Bible, so let’s look more closely at the Genesis references to El Shaddai, El Elhon, and the various altars Genesis says the Patriarchs established in Canaan.

Here is Russell Gmirkin’s paragraph in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts that pulls up the reader who is not familiar with the scholarly background references:

Genesis 11-50 mention a number of local gods, such as El Shaddai, with an altar at Bethel or Luz (Gen 17:1; 28:3, 19; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25); El Olam, with a grove at Beersheba (Gen 21:33); El Elyon, with a temple at Salem (Gen 14:18-20, 22); and Yahweh, with altars at Bethel (Gen 12:8; 35:1, 3, 7) and Hebron (Gen 13:18); the god Bethel (Gen 28:17; cf. Cross 1973: 47 n. 14); cf. Baal Berit (Judg 8:33; 9:4) or El Berit (Judg 9:46), the god of Shechem (cf. Smith 1990: 6; Cross 1973: 39, discussing the Hurrian El Berit). Most of these are thought to be local titles or manifestations of the Canaanite deity El (Cross 1962, 1973: 6-69; Day 2000: 13-43). Yahweh was another local god, worshipped in Iron II Hamath (Dalley 1990), Samaria and Judah, alongside Baal, El, Bethel and other Canaanite gods. Far from being inimical towards their polytheistic religious heritage, the pantheon of Canaanite gods was carried over into the present text of Genesis as local divinities associated with numerous ancient altars and holy sites. In Ex 6:3, El Shaddai was explicitly assimilated with Yahweh, but the identity of the two deities is not evident in the text of Genesis itself. (Gmirkin, 233f — bolding is mine in all quotations)

Let’s take a closer look at each of the above. I have for the most part (not entirely) followed up on Gmirkin’s bibliographical references.

El Shaddai

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before me, and be blameless. (Gen 17:1)

May El Shaddai bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you . . . .  He called the name of that place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. (Gen 28:3, 19)

And may El Shaddai grant you mercy (Gen 43:14)

And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me (Gen 48:3)

by the God of your father, who will help you, and El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings of the sky above, blessings of the deep that lies below, and blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (Gen 49:25)

Here is what John Day in Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan has to say about El Shaddai. Italics are original.

El-Shaddai. The most likely interpretation of the divine name El-Shaddai is ‘El, the mountain one‘, with reference to El’s dwelling place on a mountain. . . . (Day, 32)

And Frank Moore Cross in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic:

A group of names from Ugarit gave additional confirmation of the etymology . . . 

The epithet šadday thus proves to mean “the mountain one.” (Cross, 54f)

Many Bibles translate the term as God Almighty, but that translation should be discarded:

Traditionally, El Shaddai has been rendered ‘God Almighty’, following the LXX’s παντοκράτωρ and the Vulgate’s omnipotens, but it is widely accepted that this is a later misunderstanding, possibly arising through association with Hebrew šdd ‘to destroy’ (cf. Isa. 13.6; Joel 1.15,  kešōd miššadday ‘as destruction from Shaddai’).

The two most widely accepted views today render the name El-Shaddai either as ‘El, the mountain one’, relating it to Akkadian šadû ‘mountain’ (and šaddā’u, šaddû’a, ‘mountain inhabitant’), or as ‘El of the field’, connecting it with Hebrew śādeh ‘field’. It is a disadvantage to the latter understanding that the Hebrew word for ‘field’ has ś, whereas Shaddai has š. (Day, 32f)

This same god appears among the Hurrians and Amorites:

Amorite states = Yamhad, Qatna, Mari, Andarig, Babylon and Eshnunna c. 1764 BC (Wikipedia)

Cross observes that in a Hurrian hymn El is described as ‘El, the one of the mountain‘ . . . . He also notes that an epithet resembling ‘ēl-šadday, namely, bêl šadêlord of the mountain‘ is employed of the Amorite deity called Amurru; judging from such facts as that this deity is also called Ilu-Amurru and has a liaison with Ašratum, the counterpart of Athirat (Asherah), El’s consort, Cross suggests that Amurru is to be regarded as the Amorite El. (Day, 33)

There is a “Balaam text”, the Deir Alla inscription, from Jordan:

This is a detail of the so-called “Bal’am Text” (also Balaam Inscription) which was discovered in 1967 CE at Tell Deir Alla, in modern-day Balqa Governorate, Jordan. It was written in around 800 BCE. It was written in black and red ink on wall plaster. (World History Encyclopedia)

Interestingly, in the Deir ‘Allā inscription, 1.5-6 we read,

I will tell you what the Shadda[yyin have done]. Now come, see the works of the gods! The gods gathered together;
the Shaddayyin took their places as the assembly.

In both sentences it is most natural to take the Shaddayyin (šdyn) and the gods (‘lhn) as parallel terms referring to the same deities, who constituted the divine assembly. Logically, El, the supreme deity, who also features in the text (1.2; II.6) would therefore be Shaddai par excellence. Since, moreover, this epithet is here applied to the gods in their role as members of the divine assembly, which characteristically met on a mountain, the meaning ‘mountain ones’ seems very appropriate, much more so than ‘those of the field’. (Day, 33 – my formatting)

El Olam

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, El Olam (Gen 21:33)

It seems inherently plausible that we have an Old Testament allusion related to El’s being an aged deity in Gen. 21.33, where the patriarchal deity at Beer-sheba is called El-Olam, ‘El, the Eternal One’, which may possibly have meant originally ‘El, the Ancient One’ . . . . Probably El-Olam was the local Canaanite god of Beer-sheba . . . . (Day, 19)

A Canaanite tablet proclaims ‘El is “eternal”, translating “olam”:

Indeed our creator is eternal [= ‘ôlam]
Indeed ageless he who formed us.

El (mythology.net)

Another series of epithets describe ‘El as the “ancient one” or the “eternal one” with grey beard and concomitant wisdom. One is cited above. In another Asherah speaks of a decree of ‘El as follows:

Thy decree O ‘El is wise,
Wise unto eternity [= ‘ôlami],
A life of fortune thy decree.

In the same context Lady Asherah addresses ‘El:

Thou art great O ‘El, verily Thou art wise
Thy hoary beard indeed instructs Thee.

(Cross, 16)

We are reminded of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 who sits on his throne in judgement when another god “like a man” comes riding on clouds  (Baal was the rider of storm clouds who defeated the beasts of the sea) to be given the rule over the earth.

Olam can be used alone to refer to El. Cross cites and comments on a Phoenician incantation:

The Eternal One has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.

The formulaic juxtaposition of ‘Ēl’s consort Asherah with ‘Ôlām . . . argues strongly for the identification of ‘Ôlām as an appellation or cult name of ‘Ēl. The two supreme gods are named and then follows:

And all the sons of El,
And the great of the council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth,
With oaths of Ba’l, lord of earth,
With oaths of Ḥawrān whose word is true,
And his seven concubines,
And Ba’l Qudš’ eight wives. (Cross, 17f)

Olam appears in a later (early fifth century BCE) Phoenician account of the origins of the gods as the first god perceptible to human intellect — as we learn from the Christian-era Damascius:

Phoenician mythology according to Mochos. Aither was the first, and Aer; these are the two same principles from which was begotten Oulomos [= Olam] the (first) deity that intellect can perceive, and he, I think, is unmixed mind. . . . This Oulomos himself is the mind that may be intelligible. (from Azize, 219)

Azize also turns back to Cross where he writes:

The name ‘Ôlām also appears in the Phoenician theogony of Moschos reported by Damascius, in the late Phoenician form transliterated into Greek: oulōm(os). Its context strongly suggests, however, that it applies not to a god of the cult such as ‘Ēl, but to one of the old gods belonging to the abstract theogonic pairs. This would equate Moschos’ oulōmos with Philo Byblius’ Aiōn of the pair Aiōn and Protogonos, and, of course, the Aiōn(s) of later Gnosticism.

We also find the epithet ‘ôlām applied to the “old god” Earth in the theogonic pair: “Heaven and Eternal Earth.” (Cross, 18)

Going back to the fifteenth century BCE we have Proto-Canaanite inscriptions in Sinai that point to an El cult in south-west Palestine and identify El Olam with the Egyptian god Ptah, the Egyptian “lord of eternity” (Cross, 18f).

The consort of ‘Ēl, Canaanite and Egyptian Qudšu, whose other names included ‘Aṭirāt yammi, “she who treads on Sea,” and ‘Ēlat, also is well documented in the south. (Cross, 20)


In the case of ‘Ēl ‘ôlām, “the god of eternity” or “the ancient god,” the evidence, in our view, is overwhelming to identify the epithet as an epithet of ‘Ēl. This is the source of Yahweh’s epithets “the ancient one” or “the ancient of days,” as well as the biblical and Ugaritic epithet malk ‘ôlām [eternal king] . . . At Ugarit and in the Punic world, ‘Ēl is the “old one” or “ancient one” par excellence: ‘ôlām, gerōn, senex, saeculum, he of the grey beard, he of eternal wisdom.

. . . . ‘Ēl ‘ôlām is an “executive deity,” a deity of the cult, namely the cultus of the (‘Ēl) shrine at Beersheba. (Cross, 50)

El Elyon

Elyon means “Most High”, hence El-Elyon is God Most High according to Day (1985, 129) though in the view of Cross,

The title theoretically could mean “the god ‘Ēlyōn, creator of (heaven and) earth,” or “‘Ēl, Most High, creator …,” or ‘Ēl ‘Ēlyōn, creator …” (that is, a double divine name). (Cross, 50)

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by El Elyon,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20And praise be to El Elyon,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

. . . 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth (Gen 14:18-20,22 — “to the Lord” translates “to Yahweh” but Cross notes that these words were not part of the original text according to comparisons of various manuscripts.)

[In] Gen. 14.19, 22, ‘El-Elyon, creator of heaven and earth’, . . . is depicted as the pre-Israelite, Jebusite god of Jerusalem. Elyon also occurs elsewhere as a divine name or epithet a number of other times in the Old Testament (e.g. Num. 24.16; Deut. 32.8; Ps. 18.14 [ET 13], 46.5 [ET4], 78.17, 35, 56, 82.6, 87.5; Isa. 14.14; Dan. 7.22, 25, 27). There is dispute as to whether Elyon was originally the same deity as El or not. Philo of Byblos (c. 100 CE) depicts Elioun, as he calls him, as a separate god from El. Interestingly, he refers to Elioun (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 1.10.15) as the father of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Ge), which is reminiscent of the creator god El, and also strongly supports the idea that the reference to El-Elyon as ‘Creator of heaven and earth’ in Gen. 14.19. 22 is an authentic reminiscence of the Canaanite deity, and not simply invention. Prima facie the eighth-century BCE Aramaic Sefire treaty also represents Elyon as a distinct deity from El, since ‘El and Elyon’ occur together . . . (Day, 20f)

Day concludes that El Elyon is a separate god from El, but El-like. Cross, however, leans towards Elyon being an epithet of El, the creator god of the Canaanites, and thus identical with El.

Sefire inscription – images from http://archive.org/details/aramaicinscripti0000fitz


Continue reading “When Yahweh was at Peace with Other Gods — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7e]”


Table of Nations and other Post Flood events — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7d]

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

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

The survival of humans and animals in an ark owes more to Mesopotamian than Greek antecedents, but the division of the known world into 70 nations in Genesis 10 follows Greek patterns of the genealogical organization of nations descending from eponymous founders . . . (Gmirkin, 230)

The Table of Nations

Once again Gmirkin detects a Greek-like interest in scientific thought of the day. (Compare earlier posts focused on the scientific interests underlying the creation chapter.)

The writings of the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus included the book Genealogies, which cataloged nations and migrations of peoples, supplementary to his creation of the first map of the world. (Gmirkin, 232)

Anaximander’s map of the inhabited world (Naddaf, 111)
Genesis 10, the “Table of Nations”, describes the post-flood division of the earth among (as traditionally acknowledged) 70 nations.

Compare Deuteronomy 32:8-9 that in its original wording (as established in part by reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls) says Yahweh (YHWH) was one of a host of lesser gods who was assigned a particular nation to possess:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God; The Lord’s (Yahweh’s) own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

The number of 70 nations may have derived from a Canaanite tradition that said the consort of the “most high god” (El) had 70 children.

At Ugarit we read in the Baal myth of ‘the seventy sons of Asherah (Athirat)’ (šb’m. bn. ‘atrt, KTU2 1.4.VI.46). Since Asherah was El’s consort, this therefore implies that El’s sons were seventy in number. (Day, 23)

Each nation acknowledged its own god(s):

Babylon (Bel-Marduk, Nebo, Tammuz), Mizraim or Egypt (the Queen of Heaven), the Canaanites (Baal and Asherah), the Arameans (Hadad) and Sidon (Ashtoreth). Later in Genesis we encounter other nations whose gods appear in later biblical books: the Philistines (Dagon), Moab (Chemosh) and Ammon (Molech or Milcom). (Gmirkin, 231)

Recall that Plato portrayed the primeval world as various localities divided up among the gods, the gods ruling the people assigned to them (or those they created) in their respective regions.

Also — though Gmirkin does not refer to the event in this chapter (he had raised it in another context earlier)  — compare the division of the cosmos among three divine brothers.

There are three of us Brothers, all Sons of Cronos and Rhea: Zeus, myself [Poseidon], and Hades the King of the Dead. Each of us was given his own domain when the world was divided into three parts. We cast lots, . . . (Homer, Iliad, 15. …) see below for a discussion of the relevance to Genesis.

I add these other possible links to Greek myth here to reinforce the case for the Hellenistic sources for the Bible. Gmirkin’s work, as the title itself makes clear, is primarily addressing the case for Plato’s Timaeus and its companion composition Critias lying behind Genesis 2-11.


Given the monotheism of the Bible, we expect to read that all founders are human.

Gmirkin does not discuss in this volume other studies that suggest the mythical origins behind the biblical account of Noah cursing Canaan, son of his youngest son, for “seeing” him naked when he was drunk:

Noah’s interactions with his sons, and how their offspring are thought to become progenitors for all humankind, may be based upon myths in which the main characters were originally gods, an instance of Euhemerism. Like Euhemerus, Israelite authors could interpret the gods acting in the primeval myths of other cultures as really having been “illustrious humans, later idealized and worshiped as gods.” (Louden, 87f)

The Bible itself takes the same road [as the Greek philosopher Euhemerus], as humans replaced the gods of Greek mythology. (Wajdenbaum, 108)


While these two mythic types [see adjacent column] are extant in several different traditions, the versions in Genesis 9, though highly truncated, not only seem closest to the forms the same two mythic types assume in Greek myth but also correspond in four particulars absent from the other known versions:

      • the corresponding names, Iapetos/Japheth;
      • the altered sequence given of the punished sons;
      • the connection with the eponymic Ion/Javan;
      • and the closely corresponding wordplays (yapt/Yepet, Τιτήνας/τιταίvoντας). (Louden, 87f – my formatting)

Great Ouranos [=Heaven] came, bringing on night, and upon Gaia =Earth] he lay, wanting love and fully extended; his son, [=Cronos] from ambush, reached out with his left hand and with his right hand took the huge sickle, long with jagged teeth, and quickly severed his own father’s genitals (Hesiod, Theogony, 176ff]

Plato thought that such a scandalous story should be censored. . . (Plato, Rep. 377 b). It seems likely that the biblical writer recycled that story but modified the detail of Cronos castrating his father into Ham seeing his father naked; it is most noteworthy that some Jewish midrashim interpret Ham’s deed as an actual castration. . . . (Wajdenbaum, 108)

Now behind Genesis there seems to lie a story in which Noah’s sons did more than see him naked: Gen 9:24 “When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his young son had done to him …” What can this have been but castrating him? The association of Iapetus with Kronos, and hence with the castration of Ouranos, suggests that he is the same figure as Japheth youngest son of Noah. (Brown, cited by Louden, 87)


I suggest, then, that to connect the Flood myth with stories set in subsequent eras, Israelite tradition utilized a combination of two common types of myth set in primeval times: one in which intergenerational conflict among gods resulted in a son taking power by castrating his father, the former king of the gods; and another in which three brother gods draw lots to determine their own portions of rule and to establish hierarchical relations between themselves.  (Louden, 87)

See also What Did Ham Do to Noah?

See the previous post for the flood event being the beginning of historical time. Once, he [= Solon] said, he wanted to draw them into a discussion of ancient history, so he launched into an account of the earliest events known here: he began to talk about Phoroneus, who is said to have been the first man, and Niobe; he told the story of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha after the flood, and the tales of their descendants; and he tried, by mentioning the years generation by generation, to arrive at a figure for how long ago the events he was talking about had taken place. (Timaeus 22a-b)

Genesis 10:1-32

Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.

And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtechah: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan. . . . And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, And Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim. And Canaan begat Sidon his first born, and Heth, And the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, And the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad.

19 And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.

20 These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations.

21 Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born. The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram. And the children of Aram; Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Mash. And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber. And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph, and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah, And Hadoram, and Uzal, and Diklah, And Obal, and Abimael, and Sheba, And Ophir, and Havilah, and Jobab: all these were the sons of Joktan.

30 And their dwelling was from Mesha, as thou goest unto Sephar a mount of the east.

31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.

32 These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.

While it is now widely acknowledged that the genealogical structure of Genesis, and especially the division of nations in Genesis 10, is broadly indebted to Greek antecedents . . . a specific indebtedness to Critias and Timaeus has generally escaped consideration. (Gmirkin, p. 232)

Critias 113e-114c

By copying this section of Critias below I do not intend it to be read as a direct hypotext for Genesis 10. Rather, what one finds in common with Genesis 10 is the cogently brief account covering the description of how an entire land was divided up, with geographic markers for verisimilitude, with geographic names taken from founding figures, and other details you may discern for yourself:

[Poseidon] fathered and reared five pairs of twin sons. Then he divided the island of Atlantis into ten parts.

He gave the firstborn of the eldest twins his mother’s home and the plot of land around it, which was larger and more fertile than anywhere else, and made him king of all his brothers, while giving each of the others many subjects and plenty of land to rule over.

He named all his sons. To the eldest, the king, he gave the name from which the names of the whole island and of the ocean are derived — that is, the ocean was called the Atlantic because the name of the first king was Atlas.

To his twin, the one who was born next, who was assigned the edge of the island which is closest to the Pillars of Heracles and faces the land which is now called the territory of Gadeira after him, he gave a name which in Greek would be Eumelus, though in the local language it was Gadeirus, and so this must be the origin of the name of Gadeira.

He called the next pair of twins Ampheres and Evaemon;

he named the elder of the third pair Mneseus and the younger one Autochthon;

of the fourth pair, the eldest was called Elasippus and the younger one Mestor;

in the case of the fifth pair, he called the firstborn Azaes and the second-born Diaprepes.

So all his sons and their descendants lived there for many generations, and in addition to ruling over numerous other islands in the ocean, they also, as I said before, governed all the land this side of the Pillars of Heracles up to Egypt and Etruria.


I omitted a section in the above chapter. The reason, again, is to cast an eye beyond what Gmirkin discusses and to note other Greek influence. Here we have a vignette breaking into a genealogy that reminds us of a famous Greek poetic genealogy of heroes who were born from gods.

The genealogies of the Old Testament, especially the Book of Genesis, are much more closely comparable to the Hesiodic ones [than to Mesopotamian lists], both in their multilinearity and in their national and international scope. (West, 13)

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.

The [Greek] genealogies are not homogeneous. They contain folktale, fiction, and saga in very varying proportions. These variations reflect the different sorts of material that were available in different regions for the construction of genealogies. (West, 137)

Fragments from Hesiod’s genealogy of founding Greek heroes:

Of mortals who would have dared to fight him with the spear and charge against him, save only Heracles, the great-hearted offspring of Alcaeus? Such an one was strong Meleager loved of Ares [= the god of war], the golden-haired, dear son of Oeneus and Althaea. From his fierce eyes there shone forth portentous fire: and once in high Calydon he slew the destroying beast, the fierce wild boar with gleaming tusks. In war and in dread strife no man of the heroes dared to face him and to approach and fight with him when he appeared in the forefront. But he was slain by the hands and arrows of Apollo, while he was fighting with the Curetes for pleasant Calydon. (fr 98 )

Aloiadae. Hesiod said that they were sons of Aloeus, — called so after him, — and of Iphimedea, but in reality sons of Poseidon and Iphimedea, and that Alus a city of Aetolia was founded by their father. (fr6 )

Abraham at War

The story of Abram’s military defeat of the coalition of Mesopotamian kings in Genesis 14 has motif and themes that are highly reminiscent of the conflict between Athens and Atlantis in Critias. The kings of Atlantis were portrayed as ruling righteously within their borders many years, until they engaged in a war of territorial aggression to enslave the peoples within the Mediterranean (Timaeus 24e, 25b; Critias 120d, 121b; cf. Gen 14:1-3). All would have been lost (Timaeus 25b-c; cf. Gen 14:4—12) had not the Athenians valiantly engaged the Atlantians in war and defeated them (Timaeus 25c; Critias 112e; cf. Gen 14:13-15). Abram similarly rose to the occasion, leading a small band that included Amorite allies (Gen 14:13-14) to rescue his nephew Lot from slavery, defeat the unjust invaders and liberate the local kings, much as the Athenians took the leadership of the Hellenes and defeated the invading forces of the Atlantians against overwhelming odds, liberating Egypt and the Greek world (Timaeus 25b-c). (Gmirkin, 232)

Abraham is presented as a national exemplar of righteousness and courage in war just as the Athenians were models worthy of their patron goddess of wisdom and courage in war, Athena.

A few pages later Gmirkin proposes that Joshua’s conquests of the Promised Land had a similar literary purpose.

Sodom and Gomorrah

There are many echoes of Plato’s Critias:

    • Yahweh’s portrayal as a terrestrial deity who dined and counseled with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18);
    • the ethical decline of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20; 19:4-13), precipitating judgment from God (cf. Critias 121 b-c);
    • a cataclysm of fire from heaven (Gen 19:24-29; cf. Timaeus 22c-d);
    • the saving of a righteous few (Gen 18:17-33; 19:14-23);
    • and the re-founding of civilization (Gen 19:30-38, locally, in Moab and Ammon).

One also sees echoes of the catastrophe that ended the pre-flood world:

    • the evocative comparison of the Jordan plain with the Garden of Eden (Gen 13:10);
    • the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20; 19:4-13; cf. Gen 6:6-7);
    • the survival of a righteous few (Gen 19:14-23; cf. 6:14-18; 7:1; 9:1);
    • new tribes descending from the survivors of the cataclysm, (Gen 19:31-38; cf. Genesis 10).

These echoes point to the re-use of story motifs from Timaeus-Critias in both the biblical flood story and the story of Lot’s rescue from Sodom. (Gmirkin, 233, my formatting)

Day, John. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2002.

Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.

Naddaf, Gerard. The Greek Concept of Nature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.

Louden, Bruce. Greek Myth and the Bible. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.

West, M. L. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins. Oxford Oxfordshire : New York: OUP Oxford, 1985.

Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Richard S. Caldwell. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2015.

Hesiod. “Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragments.” Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed January 19, 2023. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodCatalogues.html.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Émile Victor Rieu. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1950.



Sons of God, Daughters of Men … and “Giants” — Why are they in the Bible?

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

by Neil Godfrey

In Genesis 6 we read a most cryptic detail that leaves us wondering what it is all about:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth . . . 

On “giants” — a whole post or two could be written on this word. Suffice it for our purposes to note that the Hebrew word is “nephilim”. Nephilim, from the root nāpal, literally means “fallen ones” (cf Ezekiel 32:27 “They lie with the warriors, the Nephilim of old, who descended to Sheol with their weapons of war.”) We may think of them as mighty warriors now departed from the earth, heroes of old, and not necessarily as gigantic in stature — although many of them were depicted as larger than average. (cf Hendel, 21f)

We have been covering Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts, but as I was poring through the background reading I found myself drawn back to the question of why the story of the flood in Genesis begins with an account of “sons of god”, or as the Hebrew also allows, “sons of gods”. Why did the Genesis author open his flood story with such a curious episode?

Let’s begin at the beginning — with the noncontroversial fact that Mesopotamian myth lies behind the biblical story of Noah’s flood. But let’s also examine how Mesopotamian and Biblical narratives are so very different from each other.

In Mesopotamian flood myths the gods did not use the flood to punish humankind because of its immorality or violence. No, it was not a moral judgement sent by any of the gods. It was a decision of convenience and comfort: a god was complaining of overpopulation and the resultant noise of so many people on earth keeping him awake.

Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis epic in the British Museum. Wikimedia

The land grew extensive, the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull.
At their uproar the god became angry;
Enlil heard their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
“The noise of mankind has become oppressive to me.
Because of their uproar I am deprived of sleep. (Atrahasis myth as quoted in Hendel, 17)

Significant here is what happens after the flood. The flood marks a dividing line between two different ages:

To prevent future overpopulation, the gods take several measures: they create several categories of women who do not bear children; they create demons who snatch away babies; and . . . they institute a fixed mortality for mankind. The restored text reads: “Enki opened his mouth / and addressed Nintu, the birth-goddess, / ‘[You,] birth-goddess, creatress of destinies, / [Create death] for the peoples.'” Death, barren women, celibate women, and infant mortality are the solutions for the problem of imbalance that precipitated the flood. (Hendel 17f)

Here we find that although there were myths of great floods, the primary myth about the dividing of mythical from “historical” time was the Trojan War. And this mythical saga opened, like the Genesis flood story, with gods and mortals marrying and producing heroic figures.

In previous posts we have seen Gmirkin’s argument that the Genesis author began his flood narrative with gods marrying women under the influence of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. What I am interested in doing here is examining the wider tradition of that same Greek myth of gods and mortals and how other accounts more directly linked this myth with the end of the primeval world. There are additional influences from this wider world of Greek myth on the Genesis author, I believe.

The Trojan War as the Divider between Mythical Time and Historical Time

Surviving Greek tales of gods living on earth with humans are compiled in a work called the Catalogue of Women. This poem begins with gods (or sons of older gods) marrying mortal women and producing heroic figures.

The Catalogue . . . does not begin with an account of the flood but with a remark about the union of the gods with mortal women to produce the heroes who are the subject of the Catalogue. This strongly suggests that the [biblical author] has combined this western genealogical tradition and the tradition of the heroes with the eastern tradition of the flood story. (Van Seters, 177)

In this myth the chief god, Zeus, decided to put an end to the mixing of divine and mortal races by means of war: he manoeuvred events to bring about the Trojan War that was meant to kill off the semi-divine heroes. Many of these heroes were taken to the Fields of the Blessed but the point of their demise was to re-establish a clear division between gods and humans. (There is no general moral condemnation of these heroes in Greek myth, nor, as Gmirkin stresses in his own work, is there moral condemnation against these figures in the biblical narrative.) From the time of the Trojan War the “age of myths” basically comes to an end and “real history” begins.

Returning to the question of why Genesis 6:1-4 is such a brief account (so brief the author must have assumed his readers knew the larger story), it is interesting to learn that brief synopses of longer tales are also found in Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women. This work, too, often reads much like a compendium of mere outlines of myths.

As in the Theogony, the genealogies were interspersed with many narrative episodes and annotations of greater or less extent. We can see that these narratives were often very summary; but they are there, and are an essential ingredient in the poem. A large number of the traditional myths, perhaps the greater part of those familiar to the Greeks of the classical age, were at least touched on and set in their place in the genealogical framework. Thus the poem became something approaching a compendious account of the whole story of the nation from the earliest times to the time of the Trojan War or the generation after it. We shall see when we come to study its contents more closely that its poet had a clearly defined and individual view of the heroic period as a kind of Golden Age in which the human race lived in different conditions from the present and which Zeus terminated as a matter of policy. We shall also see that he organized his material with some skill so as to convey his sense of the unity of the period in spite of the multiplicity of genealogical ramifications. (West, 3)

The first readers or audiences were expected to know the details of what could be abridged so they could maintain their focus on the larger plot.

In Greek myth, the intermarriage of gods and mortals was the opening scene of the tale that led Zeus to destroy the race of heroic demi-gods and so restore a new world with a clear division between the divine and human. These myths were anything but consistent, however, and other accounts offered a different reason for Zeus deciding to depopulate the earth through the Trojan War. One other reason was that the earth was simply becoming overpopulated. It is possible that the Greeks borrowed this idea from the Mesopotamian myth (see above where a god complains about the noise so many people were making) but it is also possible — since there is a comparable Indian myth — that the concept had a more general Indo-European origin (Hendel, 20).

So we have different motives for Zeus’s decision to destroy the old world and bring about a new one: Continue reading “Sons of God, Daughters of Men … and “Giants” — Why are they in the Bible?”


Demigods, Violence and Flood in Plato and Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7c]

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

by Neil Godfrey

Is it possible to set forth a plausible case that the Genesis author of Noah’s Flood was inspired in any way by his reading of Plato’s myth of Atlantis? There can be no doubt that the author was influenced by an ancient Mesopotamian story so let’s establish that undeniable source for Genesis with Russell Gmirkin’s own acknowledgement:

The traditional view of scholars is that the Genesis flood derived from sources extant no later than the time of the seventh to sixth-century Babylonian captivity. Gmirkin expands the field for literary comparison to include third-century BCE Hellenistic-era works and identifies Berossus as the Genesis’ author’s source for the Mesopotamian myth. In the words of another author, Philippe Wajdenbaum,

Even if the most ancient version of the deluge comes from the Sumerian tradition, and even if the biblical writer knew of this tradition, he inserted it into a platonic framework. . . . The first eleven chapters of Genesis are indeed inspired by Mesopotamian myths, but there is a more recent Greek layer that is just as obvious. The evolution of humankind in the Bible—from the ideal life in Eden to the degeneration that led up to the deluge, and from the discussion of patriarchal life to the gift of laws— is all found in Plato’s dialogues. (Wajdenbaum, 107)

In the Primordial History, the Mesopotamian flood story, with its survival of Utnapishtim and his family and servants in a boat, had undeniable literary parallels to both the J and P versions of the Noachian flood. (Gmirkin, 10 — J and P are scholarly abbreviations pointing to different sources thought to lie behind the biblical literature: for a critical discussion on J and P in the Genesis Flood see Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 2))

What, then, is Gmirkin’s view of that “more recent Greek layer” that Wajdenbaum (see the side box) speaks about?

Here are the common elements between Plato’s story of Atlantis and the Genesis Flood:

    • Both stories are preceded by a “golden age” of innocence and abundance when the deity (Poseidon, Yahweh) ruled directly with his people;
    • Both stories depict a descent into corruption after sons of gods marry mortal women: in the myth of Atlantis immorality increases over generations as the divine element in the demigods becomes diluted through ongoing marriages with mortals; in Genesis the corruption is said to happen following the sons of the gods taking women and producing “nephilim”. (An important note needs to be injected here for those of us conditioned to think that Genesis 6 is referring to demons (“sons of god/s”) descending to earth to take human women. That interpretation arose later in Jewish tradition with works like Enoch and Jubilees. There is no suggestion in Genesis 6 that these “sons of god/s” were demonic or evil. They are introduced, rather, as producing “men of renown”, though they later descended into violence.)

      This image from https://www.greece-is.com/the-search-for-atlantis/ is a brilliant reminder that Atlantis was created entirely from Plato’s imagination.

.Plato’s Critias 121

[After earlier describing the god Poseidon taking the human girl Cleito and with her producing generations of highly renowned kings, the first named Atlas … ] But when the divine portion within them began to fade, as a result of constantly being diluted by large measures of mortality, and their mortal nature began to predominate, they became incapable of bearing their prosperity and grew corrupt. Anyone with the eyes to see could mark the vileness of their behaviour as they destroyed the best of their valuable possessions; but those who were blind to the life that truly leads to happiness regarded them as having finally attained the most desirable and enviable life possible, now that they were infected with immoral greed [or “lawless ambition”] and power.

Zeus looks down, sees the degeneration, and decides to pass judgment:

Zeus, god of gods, who reigns by law, did have the eyes to see such things. He recognized the degenerate state of their fair line and wished to punish them, as a way of introducing more harmony into their lives. He summoned all the gods to a meeting in the most awesome of his dwellings, which is located in the centre of the entire universe and so sees all of creation. And when the gods had assembled, he said . . . 

Genesis 6:1-12

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. . . . There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

Yahweh, like Zeus, sees the corruption and announced judgement:

Then [Yahweh] saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And [Yahweh] was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. . . . 

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 

Continue reading “Demigods, Violence and Flood in Plato and Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7c]”


Primeval History from Cain to Noah — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7b]

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

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

Continuing the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts . . . .

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden in Eden (note, not expelled from the land of Eden but only from Eden’s Garden) generally coincides with the Greek mythological Age of Zeus that succeeded the idyllic golden age of Kronos:

The proliferation of cities, kings and technology broadly conforms to the rise of civilization and self-sufficiency in the Age of Zeus in Greek sources from Hesiod to Plato. (Gmirkin, 210)

So let’s recap with Hesiod’s poem Works and Days:

The gods desire to keep the stuff of life
Hidden from us. If they did not, you could
Work for a day and earn a year’s supplies;
You’d pack away your rudder, and retire
The oxen and the labouring mules. But Zeus
Concealed the secret, angry in his heart
At being hoodwinked by Prometheus,
And so he thought of painful cares for men. (lines 42ff)

Hesiod wrote of the change Zeus sent through Pandora:

Before this time men lived upon the earth
Apart from sorrow and from painful work,
Free from disease, which brings the Death-gods in.
But now the woman opened up the cask,
And scattered pains and evils among men.
Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing,
Hope, only, which did not fly through the door.
The lid stopped her, but all the others flew,
Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth.
The earth is full of evils, and the sea.
Diseases come to visit men by day
And, uninvited, come again at night
Bringing their pains in silence, for they were
Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise. And so
There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus. (lines 90ff)

Hesiod pictured successive races, each having to suffer more than the previous one:

Far-seeing Zeus then made another race,
The fifth, who live now on the fertile earth.
I wish I were not of this race, that I
Had died before, or had not yet been born.
This is the race of iron. Now, by day,
Men work and grieve unceasingly; by night,
They waste away and die. The gods will give
Harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good. (lines 196ff)

Hesiod addresses his instruction to a nobleman, Perses, appropriately given that the nobility saw themselves as direct descendants of Zeus:

O noble Perses [literally, “Perses, of the genus of the gods], keep my words in mind,
And work till Hunger is your enemy
And till Demeter, awesome, garlanded,
Becomes your friend and fills your granary.
For Hunger always loves a lazy man. (lines 299ff)

And so Adam was charged with the toil and hardship to survive:

Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread (Gen 3:17-19)

Moving ahead to Cain’s exile from the land of Eden, we cover here chapters 4 to 6 that are each widely understood to be derived from different source material. In chapter 4 Gmirkin identifies Plato’s broad narrative framework although the detail of the text originated elsewhere.

Genesis 4

Genesis 4

16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. 17 And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he built a city . . . 

The problems in the narrative that have long confused readers — where did Cain get his wife? how could he build a city without other people? — disappear if read against the background of Plato’s myth in Critias, his successor to Timaeus. With Critias in the background we can picture Cain being expelled from the land of Eden, which was Yahweh’s territory, into another region of other people ruled by another deity.

Unlike omnipresent depictions of Yahweh in Psalms, Amos, Jonah, here one could escape beyond that god’s presence.

Plato’s Critias 109 b

Once upon a time, the gods divided the whole earth among themselves, region by region. . . . So each gained by just allocation what belonged to him, established communities in his lands, and, having done so, began to look after us, his property and creatures, as a shepherd does his flocks . . . 

. . . and called the name of the city after the name of his son—Enoch.

18 To Enoch was born Irad;

and Irad begot Mehujael,

and Mehujael begot Methushael,

and Methushael begot Lamech.

19 Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah. 

20 And Adah bore Jabal. He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute. 22 And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.

Lists of inventors were popular in both the Greek world and the Ancient Near East (Gmirkin, 210)

Yahweh Elohim was the god of the land of Eden and its people.

Cassuto in his commentary (pp. 228ff) argues that the grammatical construction of the key passage better suggests that it was Cain’s son, Enoch, who built the first city, Irad — which would coincide with the Babylonian tradition that the first city was Eridu.


The firstling of those cities, Eridu, she gave to the leader Nudimmud. (The Eridu Genesis — Jacobsen, 518)

These Apkallü . . . are the wise men known from mythology who rose from the sea in prehistoric times to reveal science, social forms and art to man. Since for the Sumerians there was something supernatural about these concepts, a primordial revelation was necessary. . . .

Ninagal . . . the blacksmith’s work; . . . Nungalpiriggal is . . . the inventor of the lyre (or the harp) . . .  (Dijk, 45, 49)

The fish-figurines …. the apkallus, often occurring in groups of seven . . . represent Oannes and the other fish-like monsters who, according to Berossos’ account, taught mankind all crafts and civilization. (Riener,  6)

First therefore he who introduced to the Greeks the common letters, even the very first elements of grammar, namely Cadmus, was a Phoenician by birth . . . The healing art is said to have been invented by Apis the Egyptian . . .  Atlas the Libyan was the first who built a ship, and sailed the sea. . . . (Eusebius, Prae X, v… vi)

Demeter – gave cultivation of grain; Dionysus, – viticulture; Apollo, the calendar and lyre; Prometheus, fire… (Seters, 83)

Arion … invented and named the dithyramb. . . . Glaucus … the inventor of the art of welding. . . .  (Herodotus, I)

With Genesis 5 we begin a new genealogy from Adam, the ten generations up to the Flood. Gmirkin first set out his case for this section being derived from the Hellenistic era author, Berossus in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus. While Mesopotamian years for each pre-flood generation was measured in the tens of thousands (totalling approximately two hundred thousand years) Plato spoke of a beginning closer to ten thousand years before his time, and a calculation of the Bible’s beginnings are shorter still.

The most that can be inferred from Genesis itself is that the Primordial History is set a few thousand years in the past, approximately in line with contemporary Greek theories. Although Genesis 5 also adopted a scheme of ten long-lived patriarchs before the flood, under the influence of the Babyloniaca of Berossus (Gmirkin 2006: 107-8), its chronological scheme is more in line with Greek than Mesopotamian estimates of the age of the world. (Gmirkin, 213)

Calculations for the time of creation vary, and the differences between the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are most pronounced. But those who are intrigued by the common calculation that Adam was created 1656 or 1657 years before the flood will be interested in how Cassuto relates this figure to the Mesopotamian methods of calculation:

Of the round numbers referred to, which are composed according to the sexagesimal system, one is 600,000—sixty myriads— a high figure that indicates an exceedingly large amount. Now 600,000 days make 1643 solar years of 365 days each. If we add seven plus seven, as was done in the case of Methuselah’s years, we obtain exactly 1657. We have here, then, a pattern similar to that of the Babylonian chronology: a number based on the sexagesimal principle with the addition of twice times seven. (Cassuto, 261)

Genesis 5

Genesis 5

This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters. So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.

Seth lived one hundred and five years, and begot Enosh. After he begot Enosh, Seth lived eight hundred and seven years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.

Enosh lived ninety years, and begot [a]Cainan. 10 After he begot Cainan, Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years, and had sons and daughters. 11 So all the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years; and he died.

12 Cainan lived seventy years, and begot Mahalalel. 13 After he begot Mahalalel, Cainan lived eight hundred and forty years, and had sons and daughters. 14 So all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years; and he died.

15 Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, and begot Jared. 16 After he begot Jared, Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years, and had sons and daughters. 17 So all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died.

18 Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years, and begot Enoch. 19 After he begot Enoch, Jared lived eight hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 20 So all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died.

21 Enoch lived sixty-five years, and begot Methuselah. 22 After he begot Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 23 So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 24 And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.

25 Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. 26 After he begot Lamech, Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years, and had sons and daughters. 27 So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died.

28 Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and had a son. 29 And he called his name Noah,[b] saying, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” 30 After he begot Noah, Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years, and had sons and daughters. 31 So all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years; and he died.

32 And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Despite several of the same or similar names appearing in Genesis 4 and 5, in a different order (Westermann 1984: 348-9), it is noteworthy that no narrative connections were made with the seven generations of the line of Cain in Genesis 4, nor any attribution of important inventions to Seth’s descendants, nor any anecdotes regarding the growing violence of the pre-flood world. Genesis 4 and 5 thus appear to be independently authored narratives of the antediluvian world, linked only by the artificial coordination of these two accounts at Gen 4:25-26 (cf. Westermann 1984: 338). The names common to the two genealogies suggest they both made use of related antecedent source material whose character cannot now be recovered.

The narrative objective of Genesis 5 appears to be extremely limited: to give a detailed chronological framework for the antediluvian world. (Gmirkin, 211)

Westermann, 349

Westermann’s inability to consider the possibility that the author of Genesis was indebted to Berossus is evident when he wrote:

Before the discovery of the cuneiform texts, one had seen the prototype of Enoch in the seventh king of the list of Berossos, Evedoranchos = Enmeduranki. It was said of him that he was taken up into the company of Shamash and Ramman and was inducted into the secrets of heaven and earth. Since the new discoveries have shown that the parallel between the series of ten in Berossos and Gen 5 is no longer tenable, one can no longer maintain a dependence of what is said of Enoch in Gen 5 on the seventh king in Berossos (nevertheless U. Cassuto still does). (Westermann, 358)

The Cassuto reference to which W. refers:

In the Babylonian tradition, the seventh king in the list of ante-diluvian kings—who thus corresponds to the Biblical Enoch, the son of Jared—is likewise distinguished from the other monarchs. His name appears as Enme(n)duranna in the list of kings; as Enmeduranki in another document, belonging to the worship of the diviner-priests (K. 2486); and as (this is apparently the correct reading) in Berossus. The inscription K. 2486 records all sorts of wonderful tales about this king. Although the text has been badly damaged, the essential subject-matter, despite the obliterations, is clear, to wit, that Enmeduranki was beloved of the gods Anu, Bel, Šamaš and Adad, and that these deities, or some of them, (made him) an associate of theirs, (placed him) on a throne of gold, and transmitted to him their secrets, the secrets of heaven and earth, and gave him possession of the tablets of the gods, the cedar rod, and the secret of divination by means of pouring oil upon water (a method of divination that was also known among the Israelites . . . ). Enmeduranki was regarded as the father of the diviner-priests— their father in the sense that he was the originator of their doctrine, and also in the physical connotation of the term . . .  every diviner-priest (barû) claimed descent from him. (Cassuto, 282f)

Poseidon pursuing yet another mortal woman

We have seen how Plato described the newly created earth being divided up among the various gods and goddesses, with each pair of deities appearing to create their own first humans from the dust of their respective allotted territory. Athena and Hephaestus gave their first humans of Attica or the city of Athens, divine forms of government, wisdom, crafts, prowess in war, and so forth. The god Poseidon was given the region beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the land of Atlantis. Poseidon … well, read for yourself Plato’s account of what happened next…

Genesis 6

Continue reading “Primeval History from Cain to Noah — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7b]”


The Ambiguity of the Serpent: Greek versus Biblical

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

by Neil Godfrey

Athena with owl and serpents

Recent postings on the evidence for a Hellenistic matrix for the book of Genesis and wider reading around that evidence have led me to wonder if the author who chose a serpent to tempt Eve was having a subtle dig at the wisdom of the Greeks. (If you have read this notion before do let me know — I would not be surprised if I am recollecting an idea from an otherwise forgotten source.) It’s an entirely speculative thought so don’t attribute to me anything more than that.

Classics professor Page duBois wrote an article for Arethusa titled “On Horse/Men, Amazons, and Endogamy” (1979) in which she drew upon ideas of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to propose that in both literary and visual arts of the fifth century, the Greeks imagined Centaurs and Amazons as symbolic of barbarism – in particular, Persian “barbarism”.

Of course, I thought, and is not the serpent in biblical literature symbolic of Athenian culture? The serpent was the symbol of Zeus, after all — as noted in a little detail in one of my posts on Revelation. (Zeus, recall, was the chief god of the Greek pantheon.) The serpent was also the favourite pet and signifier, along with the owl, of Athena, the goddess of wisdom among other things. If the Greeks could depict “the other” as wild animals then why not the Hebrews? We do read in the Book of Daniel (a text of undeniable Hellenistic provenance) that other nations are ravaging beasts compared with the “humanity” of the “people of God”.

Now the serpent was more עָרוּם than any other beast of the field. (Gen 3:1)

עָרוּם (‘ā·rūm) is the word translated “crafty” and “cunning” in many Bibles, but the word is ambiguous in connotations. It can in other contexts be understood to refer to a most positive quality: prudence, sense, wisdom. The ambiguity opens up the possibility of an interesting question. And the serpent promises the wisdom of God, the knowledge of good and evil.

As I read and think about the case for Hellenistic influence on the Bible I am reminded of those studies of more modern societies subject to colonialism. The Greeks in Alexander the Great’s wake brought their culture into the areas they came to rule and I imagine people back then were not very different from people today: the conquered tend to adopt the culture of the conquerors but very often adapt it and make a mutation of it distinctly “their own”. By this process, they are able to turn the tropes of the victor back on their conquerors and assert their cultural independence, even equality of spirit.

I wonder if the author of the “fall of humanity” scene was taking the symbol of Greek culture and wisdom, the serpent, and ambiguously attributing to it a wisdom that could also be interpreted as deceit. Whoever wrote the Pentateuch was/were very likely in tune with Greek thought, surely even Hellenophiles to an extent, but the wisdom they promoted was not the enquiring wisdom of Socrates but the revealed wisdom of their god.

But I speculate. And wonder if I read the same somewhere a while ago.

duBois, Page. “On Horse/Men, Amazons, and Endogamy.” Arethusa 12, no. 1 (1979): 35–49.



The Biblical Cain and his Greek Counterparts

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

by Neil Godfrey

From The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1949)

The first to murder a relative

The Greek poet Pindar informs us that Ixion was the first murderer, and a murderer of his kin:

He was the hero who, not without guile, was the first to stain mortal men with kindred blood (Pythian Ode 2:20)

Ixion did not kill his brother but in better-known versions of the myth he slew his father-in-law. (He had refused to pay him the dowry for marrying his daughter Dia.)

Destined to wander

In Genesis Cain relates the punishment that is in store for him:

Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me. (Gen 4:14)

One may compare what Plato wrote in Laws:

But if he fly and will not stand his trial, let him fly for ever; or, if he set foot anywhere on any part of the murdered man’s country, let any relation of the deceased, or any other citizen who may first happen to meet with him, kill him with impunity . . . (Laws 871 d)

One detail not mentioned by Wajdenbaum (not that I recall) I found of interest is a reason Plato give for the need for the murderer to go into exile. Recall that in Genesis we read that Abel’s blood cries out from below the ground:

The Lord said, “. . . Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gen 4:10-12)

The idea of the murdered victim’s blood crying out is not far from the tale that Plato tells:

But let him not forget also a tale of olden time, which is to this effect: – He who has suffered a violent end, when newly dead, if he has had the soul of a freeman in life, is angry with the author of his death; and being himself full of fear and panic by reason of his violent end, when he sees his murderer walking about in his own accustomed haunts, he is stricken with terror and becomes disordered, and this disorder of his, aided by the guilty recollection of the other, is communicated by him with overwhelming force to the murderer and his deeds. Wherefore also the murderer must go out of the way of his victim . . . (Laws 864-865)

The time of exile in Plato’s Laws varies according to the circumstances of the crime.

None will harm him

My resources are limited and I have not been able to find confirmation of Wajdenbaum’s suggestion that one of Ixion’s descendants was a hero named Caineus (Kaineus, Caeneus). Caineus, a name reminding us of Cain in this context, of course, though the descendant of the first murderer was not an unlawful killer himself. But he did experience the hatred of his enemies, the Centaurs, who tried repeatedly to kill him with weapons but through some form of divine grace those weapons proved ineffective. (This particular observation is my own quirky contribution, not Wajdenbaum’s.) The scene, told in Roman times by the poet Ovid, is of Caeneus in battle with the centaurs.

‘Meanwhile Caeneus had consigned five men to death . . .  Then Latreus, huge of limb and body . . . came flying forward. He was in the prime of life, midway between youth and old age, with the strength of a young man . . . and arrogantly poured out strings of taunts into the empty air. . . . . As he was hurl­ing such abuse, Caeneus flung his spear and, striking the centaur just where horse and man were joined . . . Latreus, mad with pain, struck the unprotected face of [Caeneus] with his lance, but the weapon bounded back, just like hail from a roof top, or pebbles from a hollow drum. Then he came up close, and strove to thrust his sword into Caeneus’ side, but the other’s body was so hard that there was no place where the sword could enter. “All the same, you will not escape!” cried Latreus. “The edge of my sword will slay you, since the point is blunt! ” and, turning his blade sideways, he reached round Caeneus’ thighs, with his long right arm. The blow resounded as if marble had been struck and the sword blade shivered into pieces on that hardened skin. (Ovid, Metamorphosis XII, 472ff — The Centaurs did eventually put an end to Caeneus by burying him beneath piles of uprooted trees.)

Finds a place to rest and rule

But there is another Greek myth that appears as a digression in the work of the historian Thucydides. We read here of one who murdered his mother and was divinely ordered to wander a fugitive, with land being polluted in a way that prevented him from settling until he he reached a time and place where he could finally put down roots and rule his own place.

There is a story about them and Alcmaeon, the son of Amphiaraus. During his wanderings after the murder of his mother the oracle of Apollo is said to have told him to live in this place. The words of the oracle were that he could find no release from the tenors that haunted him until he could discover a place to settle in which, at the time when he killed his mother, the sun had never seen and was not in existence as land, all the rest of the earth was polluted for him Alcmaeon, as the story goes, was at a loss what to do, but in the end he observed this alluvial deposit of the river Achelous, and came to the conclusion that sufficient land might have formed there to support life since the time that he killed his mother (he had already been a wanderer for some time.) So he settled in the district near Oeniadae, became the ruler of those parts, and from the name of his son, Acarnan, gave the name to the whole country. This is the story told to us of Alcmaeon. (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, II, 102)

Cain, too, finally found a place to rest and rule:

Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. (Gen 4:17)

As told by Steven Fry

IXION . . .

Steven Fry

His first crime was one of simple greed. We are familiar with the idea of dowries, the practice of families of prospective brides paying to have their daughters taken off their hands. In the very earliest days things were done the other way around: prospective husbands paid the bride’s family for the right to marry their daughter. Ixion wed the beautiful DIA but refused to pay her father, King DEIONEUS of Phocis, the agreed bride-price. In retaliation the affronted Deioneus sent a raiding party to take a herd of Ixion’s best horses. Hiding his vexation beneath a wide smile Ixion invited Deioneus to dinner at his palace in Larissa. When he arrived Ixion pushed him into a fiery pit. This flagrant breach of the rules of hospitality was trumped by the even grosser sin of blood killing. The slaying of a family member was considered a taboo of the most heinous kind. With this action Ixion had committed one of the first blood murders; unless he was cleansed of his transgression, the Furies would pursue him until he went mad. (Mythos, p. 256f)


. . . . the sad end of a Lapith called Caeneus. He had been born a woman, Caenis. She was spotted one day by Poseidon who liked what he saw and took it. Entirely delighted by the experience, the grateful god offered Caenis any wish. She had taken no pleasure at all in the violation and asked that she might be turned into a man and thus avoid any indignity of that kind in the future. Poseidon, perhaps abashed, not only granted this wish but also bestowed invulnerable skin upon her – now him. Caeneus was present at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia and fought the centaurs alongside Pirithous and Theseus. One of the centaurs, Latreus, mocked him for having once been a woman. Caeneus struck Latreus but was himself, due to his invulnerability, unharmed by a furious volley of counterstrikes. The other centaurs, discovering that their arrows and spears were bouncing off Caeneus’s impenetrable hide, resorted to heaping stones over him and hammering him into the ground with pine trees until he died by suffocation in the earth. (Heroes p. 396f)

Fry, Stephen. Heroes. Michael Joseph, 2018.

Fry, Stephen. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. London: Penguin, 2017.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.


“Garden of Eden” : Mesopotamian Perspectives

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

by Neil Godfrey

I couldn’t resist. I had to add the evidence for the competition to the previous post. There with reference to Russell Gmirkin I set out the evidence for the biblical Garden of Eden being inspired by Greek literature. I know many would prefer I find something that adheres to a more conventional perspective, an account owes more to Mesopotamian traditions. So here are the closest scenarios from that part of the ancient world that I can find that might remind us of Genesis’s Garden of Eden. I will leave it to you to compare them with the Greek writings.

There was the garden of the gods; all round him stood bushes bearing gems. Seeing it he went down at once, for there was fruit of carnelian with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea.  (Epic of Gilgamesh)

So Gilgamesh passes through a garden not for humans but for the gods on his way to see Utnapishtim, the Sumerian version of Noah.

There is a Sumerian description of “a land of immortality”, Dilmun:

In Dilmun the raven utters no cry,
The ittidu­-bird utters not the cry of the ittidu-­bird,
The lion kills not,
The wolf snatches not the lamb,
Unknown is the kid­devouring wild dog,
Unknown is the grain­devouring . . ,
Unknown is the widow,
The bird on high . .s not his . . ,
The dove droops not the head,
The sick­eyed says not “I am sick­eyed,”
The sick­headed says not “I am sick­headed,”
Its (Dilmun’s) old woman says not “I am an old woman,”
Its old man says not ”I am an old man,”
Unbathed is the maid, no sparkling water is poured in the city,
Who crosses the river (of death?) utters no . . ,
The wailing priests walk not round about him,
The singer utters no wail,
By the side of the city he utters no lament.

(Myth of Enki and Ninhursag, in Kramer, 144f)

In the Babylonian myth of Marduk humans are made to serve the gods:

In “A Bilingual Version of the Creation of the World by Marduk,” man is likewise made for the sake of the gods. There the gods solemnly proclaim Babylon as the dwelling of their hearts’ delight; but, in order to induce them to stay there, Marduk and Aruru create the race of men so that these might attend to the needs of the gods by building their sanctuaries and maintaining their sacrifices. According to a third version . . . humankind was brought into being because the gods desired to have someone to establish the boundary ditch and to keep the canals in their right courses; to irrigate the land to make it produce; to raise grain; to increase ox, sheep, cattle, fish, and fowl; to build sanctuaries for the gods; and to celebrate their festivals. All this man was to do for the benefit of his divine overlords, because “‘the service of the gods” was his ‘‘portion.”’ A similarity to this last tradition is found in the second chapter of Genesis, which mentions as man’s destiny the cultivation of the soil (vs. 5) and the development and preservation of the Garden of Eden (vs. 15). But this work obviously was in his own interest; the Lord God did not ask for any returns. (Heidel, p. 121)

Enkidu – represented the original untamed, savage man in the Gilgamesh epic

Another story from the same region introduces humanity as wandering nomads apparently leading a brutish life until a god has pity on them and decides to “bring them home” to profitable employment serving the gods.

Nintur was paying attention:
Let me bethink myself of my humankind,
(all) forgotten as they are;
and mindful of mine, Nintur’s, creatures
let me bring them back,
let me lead the people back from their trails.

May they come and build cities and cult-places,
that I may cool myself in their shade;
may they lay the bricks for the cult-cities
in pure spots, and
may they found places for divination
in pure spots!

(The Eridu Genesis)

From Optimism to Pessimism

Thorkild Jacobsen discusses this text and notes the sharp contrast with the Genesis account of humankind’s beginnings:

In the “Eridu Genesis” moreover the progression is clearly a logical one of cause and effect: the wretched state of natural man touches the motherly heart of Nintur, who has him improve his lot by settling down in cities and building temples; and she gives him a king to lead and organize. As this chain of cause and effect leads from nature to civilization, so a following such chain carries from the early cities and kings over into the story of the flood. The well organized irrigation works carried out by the cities under the leadership of their kings lead to a greatly increased food supply and that in turn makes man multiply on the earth. The volume of noise these people make keeps Enlil from sleeping and makes him decide to get peace and quiet by sending the flood. (p. 140)


The “Eridu Genesis” takes throughout, as will have been noticed, an affirmative and optimistic view of existence: it believes in progress. Things were not nearly as good to begin with as they have become since and though man unwittingly, by sheer multiplying, once caused the gods to turn against him; that will not happen again. The gods had a change of heart, realizing apparently that they needed man.

In the biblical account it is the other way around. Things began as perfect from God’s hand and grew then steadily worse through man’s sinfulness until God finally had to do away with all mankind except for the pious Noah who would beget a new and better stock.

The moral judgment here introduced, and the ensuing pessimistic viewpoint, could not be more different from the tenor of the Sumerian tale; only the assurance that such a flood will not recur is common to both. (p. 142)

Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. Second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Eridu Genesis.” In “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, edited by Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, 129–42. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2018.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man’s Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Sandars, N. K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh; Reprinted with revisions. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.



The Garden of Eden — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 7a]

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

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

This post continues the series discussing Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts.

After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden we enter a new series of adventures that find their counterpart in the next book by Plato, Critias. Here we are led to understand that the land of Eden was only one part of the created world and that Cain, on being exiled from Eden itself, enters another land presumably inhabited by other peoples removed from the presence of the god Yahweh Elohim. We read names renowned for inventing the various crafts and arts of civilization and the building of the first cities. We read of “sons of gods” marrying mortal women and producing heroic warriors. We read of violence spiralling out of control and of Yahweh deciding to end it all by wiping out all humanity and every living thing in a cataclysmic flood. He is persuaded, however, to spare one family to start anew. Finally, new ethnic groups are once again scattered across the world from the tower of Babel.

We know the story but as long as we are sure that it was composed long before the classical era of Greece (from the fourth century BCE) and look only to possible antecedents in the Mesopotamian region then we will miss the remarkably distinct parallels with Greek myth. Yes, there is no doubt that the Flood story in Genesis is derived from an early Babylonian story, and the tower of Babel is obviously focused on Babylon, — no question there. But keep in mind that “Hellenistic” culture was initially about blending, uniting, the cultures of the east and west, of the lands once ruled by Persia with the values and ideas of their Greek conquerors.

This is Russell Gmirkin’s contribution to the way we view the Bible — to test the possibility that Genesis and its companion literature were written as late as the Hellenistic era:

The current chapter shifts the focus to Critias, Plato’s sequel to Timaeus. The use of Critias as a model for the antediluvian world in Genesis has not previously been proposed by biblical critics. While Timaeus was concerned with the origins of the kosmos, of life and death, and of human moral sensibilities and failings, Critias presented a tale set in earliest mythical times that laid out the devolution of ideal political institutions, established by the gods, into a spiral of ambition and violence divinely punished by cataclysmic earthquake and flood that ended the Age of Heroes and overflowed the mythical continent of Atlantis. (p. 199 — my highlighting in all quotations)

Genesis is an odd mix. It begins with a stately account of creation in six days — all in coherence with the scientific thought of the Hellenistic era — but then shifts to mythical tales of talking snakes and “sons of gods” marrying mortal women. In Gmirkin’s view, it is as if we are reading a work that “consciously mimic[s] Plato’s Timaeus (the scientific and theological narrative) and Critias (mythical narrative).”

Jan Brueghel – Wikimedia

I had initially expected to post a discussion of the entire seventh chapter but instead have resolved to post a series of smaller units, each one covering one aspect of the primeval history from Cain to Babel. Instead of quoting Gmirkin and others he references, I have decided to cut to the chase and allow you to see for yourselves how episodes from Genesis compare with Greek literature. My quotations are selective. I have omitted details that do not find correspondence. For example, Plato’s account of Atlantis speaks of building a palace for Poseidon. Gmirkin remarks that in Genesis, since Yahweh Elohim converses with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it can be assumed that he has a temple or mansion of some kind there, too. But of course if that is what the Genesis author and his audience took for granted it is not mentioned. So I have omitted from my selections Plato’s description of the god’s palace.

Russell Gmirkin additionally discusses other options that have been proposed as models of the Garden of Eden: the royal parks of the kings of Assyria, temple gardens of Mesopotamia, and other Mesopotamian mythical stories such as Gllgamesh. He finds little strong comparison in any of those alternatives. (See the post following this one for some instances of what have ben considered “Garden of Eden” parallels in ancient Sumerian literature.) Why would a supply source for pagan temples be an inspiration for the Genesis author? Or why the hunting grounds of an Assyrian king?

Genesis 2-3


Homer, Hesiod, Pindar

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7) [Athens] was founded first, when the goddess received your rootstock from Earth and Hephaestus (Timaeus 23e)

There lived on this hill a man who was one of the original earth-born men of the land. (Critias 113c)

we’ve also heard from many about the kingship exercized by Kronos, And . . . that earlier men were born from the earth (Statesman, 269a-b)

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. . . .

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, 

where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)

The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. . . . 

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. 

Now the serpent . . . said to the woman, . . . The woman said to the serpent . . . 

. . . the serpent said to the woman “. . . your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom . . . *

Yahweh Elohim . . . was walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . .

(Gen 2:8-14, 25; 3:1-8)

Poseidon, as a god, easily organized the central island [of Atlantis]. Once he had fetched up two underground springs — one warm, the other flowing cold from its source — and caused all kinds of food to grow in sufficient quantities from the soil . . . . the island by itself provided them with most of the necessities of life. . . They had everything, [precious stones and metals] that could be mined from the ground, and in fact in many parts of the island there was dug up from the ground something which is now no more than a name, although in those days it was an actual fact and was second in value only to gold — orichalc [which gleamed like fire]. . . . Everything aromatic the earth produces today in the way of roots or shoots or shrubs or gums exuded by flowers or fruits was produced and supported by the island then. . . . Any water which overflowed was channelled to the grove of Poseidon, where all the various species of trees grew to be beautiful and extraordinarily tall thanks to the fertility of the soil, . . . Streams descending from the mountains drained into it, and it made a complete circuit of the plain, . . . and then the water was allowed to discharge into the sea.  (Critias 113e – 114e. 115a, 117b, 118d)

Trees and flowers and fruit, grow in proportion; and again, the mountains contain stones likewise, whose smoothness, transparency, and beauty of colour are in the same proportion; it is from these that the little stones we value, sardian stones, jaspers, emeralds, and all such, are pieces; but there, every single one is like that, or even more beautiful still. . . . But the true earth is adorned with all these things, and with gold and silver also, and with the other things of that kind as well. For they are plainly visible, being many in number, large, and everywhere upon the earth. (Phaedo 110d-111c)

. . .  the parts of the world-order having everywhere been divided up by gods ruling over them; moreover divine spirits had divided living things between them, like herdsmen, by kind and by herd, each by himself providing independently for all the needs of those he tended, so that none of them was savage, nor did they eat each other, and there was no war or internal dissent at all. . . . But to return to what has been reported about a life for human beings without toil, the origin of the report is something like this. A god tended them, taking charge of them himself,  . . . they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from abundant grass that sprang from the earth. What I describe, then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time Kronos . . . Well then, if, with so much leisure available to them, and so much possibility of their being able to get together in conversation not only with human beings but also with animals – . . . to do philosophy, talking both with animals and with each other, and inquiring from all kinds of creatures whether any one of them had some capacity of its own that enabled it to see better in some way than the rest with respect to the gathering together of wisdom, the judgement is easy, that those who lived then were far, far more fortunate than those who live now. (Statesman, 271c-272c)

. . . the Elysian plain at the world’s end, . . .  where living is made easiest for mankind, where no snow falls, no strong winds blow and there is never any rain, but day after day the West Wind’s tuneful breeze comes in from Ocean to refresh its folk. (Homer, Odyssey IV, 563-569)

The gods, who live on Mount Olympus, first Fashioned a golden race of mortal men; These lived in the reign of Kronos, king of heaven. And like the gods they lived with happy hearts untouched by work or sorrow. Vile old age never appeared, but always lively-limbed, far from all ills, they feasted happily. Death came to them as sleep, and all good things were theirs; ungrudgingly, the fertile land gave up her fruits unasked. Happy to be at peace, they lived with every want supplied, (Hesiod, Works and Days, 110-120)

But with nights equal forever, with sun equal in their days, the good men have life without labor . . . . Beside the high gods they who had joy in keeping faith lead a life without tears. . . . . But they who endure thrice over in the world beyond to keep their souls from all sin have gone God’s way to the tower of Kronos; there winds sweep from the Ocean across the Island of the Blessed. Gold flowers to flame on land in the glory of trees; it is fed in the water, whence they bind bracelets to their arms and go chapleted . . . (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2)


* I have added, rightly or wrongly, to Russell Gmirkin’s notes of comparisons Plato’s suggestion that the impulse for conversation between humans and animals was “the getting of wisdom.” For another interpretation of Plato’s influence on the Genesis temptation narrative see The Temptation in the previous post.

(There is one other detail that I might develop later: Gmirkin explains certain contradictions in Genesis 1-2 as the consequence of different authors being responsible for different sections, so that the scientific portion of Genesis 1 had one author while the myth of Adam and Eve another. That may be so, but I also note that Plato himself is not consistent and while at one place he speaks of an idyllic age without need for technology and other time he describes technologies in that ideal world of the past. He didn’t seem to worry if he told a different version when a different purpose for the story was called for. Plato could also write both highly technical “scientific” discourses as well as dramatic and colourful myths within the one work.)

Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterfield. OUP Oxford, 2008.
Plato. Phaedo. Translated by David Gallop. Clarendon Press, 1977.
Plato: Statesman. Translated by C. J. Rowe. First published 1995, Reprinted with corrections 2005. Warminster, England: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

Hesiod. Theogony ; Works and Days. Translated by Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1973.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1946.
Pindar. The Odes Of Pindar. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The University of Chicago Press, 1947.



The Second Creation Story in Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 6]

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

by Neil Godfrey

The stately narrative of the creation of the cosmos in six days crowned by a sabbath rest comes to an abrupt end as the reader is swept into a totally different dimension: an announcement of the “generations of heaven and earth”, a world of animals being created after the man, a garden with mythical geography and two forbidden trees, a talking serpent, and a god walking in the cool breeze wondering where his newly created man and woman are. If the first creation account draws on Plato and other Greek scientific thought, what are we to make of these following chapters?

For Russell Gmirkin, this Genesis second creation account is also inspired by Plato’s “second creation account” in Timaeus:

It is striking that both Plato’s Timaeus and the book of Genesis divide their account of the creation of the world into two parts, the first narrating the creation of the present universe as a whole . . . 

. . . and with the second part introducing the popular anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks, offering an explanation for mortality and how human wickedness came about without being the responsibility of the supreme creator god.

Thank God for Plato – or rather, Plato for God

It was Plato alone who postulated a truly eternal god that dwelled beyond the plane of sensible existence, beyond time, in the world of Being. This essentially monotheistic conception of a supreme transcendent god existing beyond the sensible universe was a major Platonic innovation, found neither in popular Greek myth nor in the writings of the pre-Socratics, though a commonplace belief today in the religions that are Plato’s intellectual heirs. Earlier natural philosophers who postulated a monotheistic deity, such as Xenophanes of Colophon, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Anaxagoras of Clazomene, did not localize the supreme god outside the realm of sensible existence, but rather as an intelligence pervading the physical universe. Plato’s view of this god as one, eternal and without bodily form, appears to most closely echo the views of Xenophanes. But Plato, by postulating a separate eternal realm of Being distinct from the temporal realm of Becoming, gave a novel ontological basis for the existence of a divine realm where both Forms and the Demiurge could have an abiding existence separated from the sensible physical kosmos. (Gmirkin, 159)

Plato wrote of the supreme deity commissioning his lesser gods to create mortals and Genesis 2 is consistent with this pattern:

  • in the first chapter Elohim creates the cosmos;
  • Elohim then appears to address a divine assembly, “Let us create humans…”;
  • in the second chapter a deity called Yahweh Elohim is depicted creating man and woman, walking in the cool of the day in the garden and engaging in conversation with earthly mortals.

The traditional view among scholars is that Genesis contains two quite different accounts, each composed many years apart, each depicting a different god, and being clumsily combined (certain contradictions between the two were allowed to stand) into a single narrative. Gmirkin argues that both of these different accounts were composed under the influence of Plato’s two-stage creation narrative.

The serious reader will want to investigate the details: what textual variants do we find in the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts? Gmirkin discusses these questions, engaging with various inconsistencies, and concludes:

it seems reasonable to posit that the original text of Genesis 1-3 was consistent in its use of Elohim and Yahweh Elohim in the First and Second Creation Accounts respectively. (p. 163)

I have to admit that I have some slight reservation over the similarity of the names of the deities: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. Is it possible that in the original text Yahweh Elohim was stressing a particular attribute of Elohim rather than being meant to be a second god? (Compare the many epithets associated with Zeus and Dionysus.) Another option proposed has been that the original text was referencing two different “hypostases” of the supreme god but I’ll save that discussion for another time when I post on some of Bernard Barc’s ideas. My question at this point does not at all overturn the basic principle of Gmirkin’s thesis, but I wonder if it does open up doors to further explorations of the details of how Hellenistic influence was embedded in Judean/Samaritan thought before the split between the two peoples and reactions against Hellenism.

Here are the generations of heaven and earth

A Roman mosaic depicting the Greek primordial gods Uranus and Gaia

Another curiosity in Genesis that has surely caused many readers at some stage to wonder is “here are the generations of the heaven and earth”:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth — Genesis 2:4

That’s one of the many curiosities that I asked about as a child. At the time I was assured that since this was holy writ the meaning had to be whatever followed, however unsatisfying the proposed answers were. One had to wait to reach adulthood to find the same questions are permitted and freely discussed by the scholars. The most likely explanation (uncomfortable for the innocent believer) is that we are reading a passage that had its origins in a view that Heaven and Earth were themselves gods. That’s exactly what we find in Greek mythology. Plato’s highest craftsman god was the father of numerous other deities, beginning with Ge, earth, and Ouranos, heaven.

Plato claimed that the traditional visible Greek gods, starting with Ouranos and Ge, were the offspring of the invisible Demiurge or Creator, and that these semi-mortal, corporeal gods in turn created mortal life, which exonerated the eternal Demiurge from having created mortals with their potential for evil. Likewise, in Gen 2:4 Ouranos and Ge appear as the first two offspring of the Creator of Genesis 1, and an account of their descendants is projected. In Genesis 2-3 the narration shifts from the Creator to the creation of mortal Efe by Yahweh Elohim, a visible god who is one of the descendants of the Creator of Genesis 1, alongside the other terrestrial gods alluded to in Genesis. Yahweh Elohim in turn created mortal life, like the lesser gods in Timaeus. (p. 165)


Continue reading “The Second Creation Story in Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 6]”

%d bloggers like this: