Forthcoming Book Alert: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible

Although it will not be published for quite a while, I am looking forward to a forthcoming publication from de Gruyter: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible by Martti Nissinen. For those who are not aware, Martti Nissinen is well known for his work with Near Eastern literature and prophecy. One of his books was, in fact, one of the first academic books which I ever read. So, he is very much the reason why I do what I do today.

On the Mahābhārata: Similar Material

kurukshetraIf you have been following recent posts, you’ll know that many of my recent posts have considered the Mahābhārata and the Hebrew Bible in light of each other. Here, I will explore a similar thing, namely parallel material. Although each parallel is by no means developed, I hope these comparisons will eventually shed light on the uniqueness of each idea/story and the similarities between the stories.

First, the Mahābhārata contains much material considering the idea of what is, in Judaism, called the Levirate marriage. In the Mahābhārata, there are various accounts of a brother (a) impregnating the wife of his brother (b). They do this because the brother (b) dies. His family lineage, though, must live on. In the Hebrew Bible, Levirate marriage is also a major issue. In Ruth, we see a very clear case of Levirate marriage, or something like it. We also see it in the narrative of Zelophad’s daughters. While I don’t think the texts are in anyway historically related, they do address similar issues in similar ways. I’d like to explore the nuances of each text and how they conceptualize the idea of a levirate marriage.

Second, as I wrote previously, there is a tale in the Mahābhārata that is similar to Moses, Cyrus, and Sargon. A child is placed on the water or given to another person. In turn, they are raised outside of their “assigned” class. Although outside of their assigned class, they tend to acquire some sort of great wisdom, knowledge, or capability. Generally, at least in my little amount of research, scholars mention the similarity to Moses. There is an absence, though, of comparative analysis concerning all the figures: Karna (Mahābhārata), Moses, Cyrus (Persian King), and Sargon (Akkadian King). I’d like to explore the nuances and similarities between each of these accounts.

I have no idea what study of these things could yield; yet, it may be fruitful for both Biblical Studies and the History of Religions.

UPDATE (January 12, 2017): Some work has been done to compare the origin stories; however, there is still very little work done. In particular, there is little work done which explores the question of historical developments. Available work focuses on the origins as myths. How, though, do these myths fit into a historical context? That is my question.

On the Mahābhārata: History of Scholarship

kurukshetraPreviously, I briefly discussed a few of my interests in reading the Mahābhārata. One of these was the potential to learn methods from the History of Religions. Consequently, I could utilize the methods for new approaches to the Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern material. Although I haven’t figured out how to do this yet, I have been fascinated by the parallels between the history of scholarship on the Mahābhārata and the history of scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Also, some of the ideas are strikingly similar.

One of the earliest scholars of the Mahābhārata was Adolf Holtzmann, Sr. Holtzmann argued that, originally, the losing party was actually the victor. So, in the current state of the Mahābhārata, the Pandavas are the victors over the Kaurava. This recension, though, is a modification of the original story in which the Kaurava are the victors over the Pandavas. Those involved in biblical scholarship may recognize a similar trend in biblical scholarship. Many biblical scholars highlight the conflict between Northern Israel (Samaria) and Judah. Likewise, there is much conflict between surrounding people groups. Within biblical texts, there are many conflicting accounts which have been reworked in order to account for the incongruities.

Another major scholar of the Mahābhārata was E. Washburn Hopkins. Hopkins wrote in 1895, around the period as major biblical studies figures: Gunkel and Wellhausen. Hopkins intensely analyzed the Mahābhārata in terms of meter, philosophy, and languages. He concluded that within the Mahābhārata is an original epic. The current state of the Mahābhārata, though, was agglutinated with many “pseudo-epics.” Needless to say, Wellhausen argued similarly in the same time period. Unlike Mahābhārata studies, though, biblical studies continued intensely throughout the 20th century. Mahābhārata studies slowed substantially at the onset of the 20th century. Of course, both fields, Biblical Studies and the History of Religions, developed in substantially different ways.

Clearly, study of the Mahābhārata and Hebrew Bible in the modern period come from very similar roots. These roots ultimately grew in very different directions. Perhaps by considering why each field developed how it did, we can shed new light on both the Hebrew Bible and Mahābhārata by utilizing new methods. After all, the field of Biblical Studies and the History of Religions seem to be distant cousins.



Buitenen, J. A. B. van. 1973. The Mahābhārata. Book of the beginning: University of Chicago Press, 1973. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2017).


Initial Thoughts on “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus”

In Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus – Hellenistic Histories and the date of the Pentateuch, Russel Gmirkin argues that “the Hebrew Pentateuch was composed in its entirety about 273-272 BCE by Jewish scholars at Alexandria that later traditions credited with the Septuigant translation of the Pentateuch into Greek” (1). I am in Chapter Three. Thus far, though, I have a few initial comments.

His criticism of the documentary hypothesis is weak. In his argument, he attempts to destabilize the documentary hypothesis in order to create a space to construct his argument. Problematic within his presentation of the documentary hypothesis, though, is how broadly he paints it. Thus, he argues against the stability of the documentary hypothesis in a weak and undeveloped manner. Through the short chapter, only 10 pages, he comes to the conclusion that “the historical construct proposed under the Documentary Hypothesis cannot be accepted” (33).

To him I raise another question: Which documentary hypothesis? No (good) scholar who adheres to the documentary hypothesis blindly accepts it as an authoritative, binding division of material in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, they thoroughly consider the text through critical analysis. They don’t just consider Wellhausen’s formulation of the documentary hypothesis to be the end-all-be-all.

Perhaps, then Gmirkin’s critique is more accurately a criticism of Wellhausen’s formulation of the documentary hypothesis. After all, scholars like Joel Baden and Jefferey Stackert have done substantial work with the documentary hypothesis. Both scholars have moved the hypothesis forward substantially, not accepting the “standard” source divisions. Rather, they take up the text critically on their own. At bottom, his argument against the documentary hypothesis lacks substance.

Perhaps his forthcoming publication will engage the subject in more depth. I’d love to see him offer a substantive criticism of the documentary hypothesis, examining the varieties of documentary hypotheses.

I’m also interested in how he uses Greek sources for understanding Jews. I must comment no further than this, though, because I am only about halfway through Chapter Three.

On the Roots of the Hebrew Bible: Mesopotamian or Greek?

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In the Hebrew Bible, no copyright page exists. In other words, there is no concrete way of knowing exactly when or where it was written or compiled. From evidence within the Hebrew Bible itself, we know that it was rooted within a Mesopotamian context; however, this is not the full story. Certain elements are not present in Mesopotamian literature. Take, for example, the Primeval Story of Genesis 1-11.

Niels Peter Lemche (2016) discusses this particular issue. Scholarship established, for example, that Genesis is rooted in and influenced substantially by the Gilgamesh. Niels Peter Lemche briefly explicate:

The version in Genesis is more or less a rewritten Gilgamesh (cf. Lemche 2012a). The introduction of the raven as the first bird sent out by Noah, but not returning, is an intertextual reference to Gilgamesh (Genesis 8:7). In the version in Gilgamesh, the raven is the third bird sent out from the ark, the bird that does not return because it finds the world dry again (Gilgamesh XI:153-154) (Lemche 2016: 69).

With this in mind, we should be aware that certain elements of Genesis 1-11 are absent from Mesopotamian traditions. The conflict between Cain and Abel is such an instance. As far as I am aware, there is not extant (existing) Mesopotamian tradition of one brother killing the other out of some sort of jealousy. While the myth of Cain and Abel may be rooted in the authors personal ideas, it is, nonetheless, in line with the motif of brotherly conflict in Livy’s history (Livy was a Roman historian at the turn of the millennium.

I point this out in order to highlight an important part of reading the Hebrew Bible: although it utilizes many ancient Near Eastern and Mesopotamian myths, it did not necessarily only exist and be influenced during that period. Some scholars, in fact, suggest the Hebrew Bible was written in Alexandria. Consequently, its traditions are firmly within the Mesopotamian cultural milieu and a Greek cultural milieu. In other words, reading the Hebrew Bible from a historical perspective is difficulty because it stands at the crossroads, not in terms of the Levant, but it terms of culture.

Re-Discovering the Darkness of the Biblical Flood Account: Brief Comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 8

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

As I suggested in my previous blog post and as is well-established in scholarship, the Hebrew Bible is within the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean region. It is culturally related to societies in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Assyria, and others. Because it is embedded within that environment, there are certain words and narratives for which we are unable to fully grasp the significance. Before I explore my example within the Hebrew Bible, allow me to provide a modern example.

Imagine that 2,000 years in the future a person discovers a newspaper. This newspaper contains an descriptive article about Donald Trump’s political stance. It is dated to June, 2016. While the person who discovers the article may understand how Trump is understand from one perspective, without other sources, such as other articles, books, blog posts, etc., the person will never fully appreciate the depth of the article. In order to do this, the person must explore literature which is culturally related to the topic of Trump. Only then can they begin to fully grasp the article about him.



Likewise, the Hebrew Bible can sometime only be fully understood in light of other, culturally related texts. One account in particular is the flood account, which finds an amazingly similar parallel in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, written c. 2100 BCE (Tablet XI; read it for free here). But first, Genesis 7. As the flood begins in Genesis 7, we see several phrases for which modern readers may easily miss the significance:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open… The Flood continued forty days on the earth… When the waters had swelled such more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered… all the flesh that stirred on the earth perished… All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out… they were blotted out from the earth

– Genesis 7:11-23, Jewish Study Bible

Any keen reader recognizes the darkness in this passage in terms of the destruction of the entire earth. Perhaps some readers may even recall that death, originally introduced in Genesis 3, has been moved to an entirely new level: the destruction of humanity. What the

modern reader misses, though, is one major cultural element only apparent to those situated within the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu: the divine realm[1].


In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), we read about how the gods caused, and reacted to the Flood:

Just as dawn began to glow
there arose from the horizon a black cloud.
Adad rumbled inside of it,
before him went Shullat and Hanish,
heralds going over mountain and land.
Erragal pulled out the mooring poles,
forth went Ninurta and made the dikes overflow.
The Anunnaki lifted up the torches,
setting the land ablaze with their flare.
Stunned shock over Adad’s deeds overtook the heavens,
and turned to blackness all that had been light.
The… land shattered like a… pot.
All day long the South Wind blew …,
blowing fast, submerging the mountain in water,
overwhelming the people like an attack.
No one could see his fellow,
they could not recognize each other in the torrent.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
‘The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!’
The gods–those of the Anunnaki–were weeping with her,
the gods humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief(?),
their lips burning, parched with thirst.

Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), at Academy for Ancient Texts

Note a few things within this passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Several gods are depicted as violently beginning the flood, allowing the dikes to overflow, releasing a torrent of rain, submerging the mountains in a way akin to an attack. Eventually, the gods are unable to recognize each other in the chaos: “No one could see his fellow, they could not recognize each other in the torrent.” Following this phrase, the Flood account indicates that all of the gods cowered in fear, retreated to heaven, wept, and sobbed.

Although it is too much to claim that the ancient Judahite who compiled/wrote Genesis 7 was fully aware of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is reasonable to claim that, to a certain extent, the divine conflict which occurs during the epic is present in the conceptual, cultural, and historical weight of the language of Genesis 7. Consequently, when reading Genesis 7, we should remember the weight of what the text means by Flood. It is not merely about the death and destruction of all humanity, a conflict between humanity and divinity. When we peel back the layers of Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern culture, it becomes apparent that the Flood incites fear within the divine beings, causing them to retreat into the heavenly realm due to terror.

Remembering this when we read Genesis 7 allows to be more understanding of reality of the Flood. The Flood, in the mind of the author, is a horrific, terrifying occurrence. Beyond the realm of earth and destruction of all life, the Flood casts a dark shadow within the divine realm and divine beings therein.

[1] There is absolutely more than one element; however, for the sake of time and interest, I am focusing on one element.


The Babylonian Creation Myth, Genesis, and Reading the Bible

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Intro to Hebrew Bible and Jewish Thought course, we were asked to consider the importance of a Babylonian creation myth (available here) in rechaos_monster_and_sun_godgard to the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4a-24. Extensive scholarship exists on the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the Genesis creation accounts and the Babylonian creation myth. As I read these texts a few nights ago, I noticed words of praise in the Babylonian creation myth. The apparent genre of this portion of text read more like a Psalm than a creation account. The words praise Marduk and celebrate his success after defeating Tiamat, who seemingly instigated a civil war amongst the gods and goddesses (translation from Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses, p. 468):

Over all things that your hands have created,
Who has [authority, save for you]?
Over the earth that you created,
Who has [authority, save for] you?
Babylon, to which you have given name,
Make our [stopping place] there forever.

I find this portion of the Babylonian creation myth intriguing because it occurs within the epic narrative that constitutes the myth. The text switches from a mode of narration to a mode of praise. Perhaps, at some point in time and space, this poetic worship (liturgical, perhaps?) made its way into the Babylonian creation myth.

When we consider the greater landscape of the ancient Near East, in particular ancient Israel, it seems to be even more of a possibility. A poem in Exodus 15, for example, is one which many scholars suggest stood outside of the Hebrew Bible originally as a poem. According the the margin commentary in the Jewish Study Bible, “the language style of the poem are archaic and share many features with Ugaritic poetry of the Late Bronze Age, suggesting that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible” (136).

Like the Babylonian creation myth, the poem embedded in Exodus occurs in the process of narration. Although I am not suggesting any sort of special relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian creation myth based on these observations, I do suggest that the way in which poetry in embedded into the narrations demonstrates that they are within the same general framework of the ancient Near East. Thus, whenever we read the Hebrew Bible, we must consider how contemporaneous literature (i.e. the Babylonain creation myth, Egyptian texts, Akkadian texts, etc.) was was constructed into coherent texts.