The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction by Charles Samuel Braden
Dr. Braden was Professor of History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University (1952). Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1952 by Charles S. Braden. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: Babylonian Sacred Literature
Archaeology seems to be of perennial interest to modern man. Probably as many articles on the subject appear in the Sunday supplements as on any other topic except those which are of romantic interest. Men of this age seem to be very much interested in either digging up the remains of past civilizations, or reading of the work of those who have themselves done so. Of all of the civilizations uncovered by the archaeologists probably that of the Babylonians and Assyrians has been of greatest interest. Why should this be?
Well, one reason for the interest of western civilization in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, lies in the close connection of that part of the world with the Bible. Indeed, a major incentive to archaeological discovery lay precisely in the desire of students of the Bible to find in the records of this ancient culture some support for their faith in the Bible. Concerning the Bible there was very little skepticism until about a hundred years ago, when the impact of the modern scientific age began to make itself felt. With the beginning of critical study of the Bible many questions were raised as to the accuracy of the historical record. It was in no small degree the desire to find corroboration for the Biblical narrative that led scholars to carry on their excavations in the Near East. Archaeology has now largely outgrown this primary interest, but there is no doubt that it played an important part as an incentive to widespread digging in the Babylonian and Assyrian area.
It was of course known from the Bible that there had been a very close relationship between the civilizations of the Hebrews and the Babylonian-Assyrian people. Abraham himself had gone out from Ur of the Chaldees, a migrant toward the West. The Assyrians and Babylonians had long been a political threat to the independence of the Hebrew people before the latter finally succumbed to superior force and were either destroyed or dispersed, in the case of the ten northern tribes, by Assyria, or continued, in the case of Judah, in a vassal relationship even after their return from the Babylonian captivity. Might there not therefore be left among the buried cities of the Mesopotamian region some records which would tell of these relationships and so confirm the Biblical stories?
So they dug in dozens of sites. Excavation at one site uncovered eleven different cities superimposed one upon the other. In a great many, there were as many as six or seven that had been built upon the same site; and out of these great mounds there came a vast wealth of information disclosing the nature of the great civilization that had flourished there. Incidentally, among these ruins were found many things which did indeed tend to confirm the story of Israel’s past. Old inscriptions of imperial movements did make mention of Israel and corroborate some of the assertions found in the books of the Kings and the Chronicles.
But other things were found which served not so much to confirm the Bible as to raise a question about it and its uniqueness. For amid the debris of these ancient cultures there were found remnants of literature so similar in general character to stories found in the Bible that at once the question was raised as to whether the Hebrew writers had not borrowed from their Eastern neighbors.
To suggest such a dependence of Hebrew upon Babylonian thought in the present day occasions no shock, and raises no serious question, but in an earlier day it proved very shocking indeed. If the Bible were the infallible word of God, in every respect, as was being constantly asserted, how could it have borrowed anything? Was God dependent upon any outside sources for his revelation? The finding of two things in particular, the Story of Creation and the Story of the Flood, stirred up a tempest which was long in subsiding, and which, even yet, in some circles, causes not a little difficulty. With the passage of time and more mature study of the nature of scripture, as disclosed by the application of the modern historico-critical method of investigation, it is seen that the possible borrowing of Bible writers from another source in no way affected its intrinsic worth, or even the belief that these writers were inspired in their writing. For the whole conception of inspiration has undergone a change.
In all the discoveries made through extended archaeological research, there has never appeared what might be called a sacred scripture of the Babylonians or Assyrians. Apparently they, like the Egyptians, never arrived at the point where they set aside certain books as of divine origin and accorded them an authoritative place in the regulation of their religious beliefs or practices. Why they did not do this, we can no more say than we could in the case of the Egyptians. Possibly, they might, in time, have done so had outside influences not deflected their interest and changed their religious outlook. But the fact remains that they do not have a canonical scripture. To be sure so distinguished a scholar as Robert W. Rogers1 does affirm that they had sacred books, that indeed they had little else in their literature. But they had no Sacred Book. What probably he means, for it is certainly true, is that they did have a great many writings which are of the nature of scripture, and might very well have been a part of a canonical selection, had one been made. That is, they had a very substantial amount of literature of varied kinds which corresponds closely with the kind of thing that is to be found among the scriptures of other people, notably those of the Hebrews and Christians. Whether the Hebrews are actually indebted to the Babylonians for anything found in their own scripture will always remain a question on which scholarly opinion may differ, but that there might have been some borrowing of one from another, there can be no doubt. That the dependence of either upon the other, if any, is probably that of the Hebrew upon the Babylonian, is indicated by the fact that the Babylonian is, in almost every case, obviously earlier than the Hebrew.
We shall mention five types of Babylonian writings: (1) The Creation Story and the Flood Story, that is, the story of mythological beginnings; (2) hymns and prayers, including their penitential psalms; (3) ritual texts; (4) their legal code; and (5) omens, all of which find some correspondence in the Bibles of most people.
The Babylonians did not, like the Egyptians, have at hand durable material in the form of stone upon which to carve their inscriptions. But they did have clay, and they early learned to write on it while it was still damp, then bake it in the fire, thus rendering it relatively permanent. Nor did they have the stones for building purposes that Egypt enjoyed. They built largely of sun-dried brick. This is very durable so long as it is protected from the rain, but once the roof falls in and the protective surface is worn away, the rain quickly erodes the buildings. It was in part this gradual eroding of the buildings that formed the mounds in which archaeologists now dig up the ancient culture. When enough of the eroded walls has been washed down it forms a covering of the lower part of the building. and this protecting layer preserves the remainder of the building from further erosion. So, into these mounds they have dug, and found innumerable clay tablets, shaped usually somewhat like a shredded wheat biscuit, in all sizes, from thumb-nail up to as large as an adobe brick. On these were written, in what is known as cuneiform, that is wedge-shaped characters, the texts they wished to communicate or preserve. Literally thousands of them have been dug up containing everything from profound moral and religious treatises to receipts for money paid; contracts for the sale of articles; personal letters; business letters; letters from fathers to sons, and sons to fathers; and interestingly enough, they contained very much the same kind of material that such letters contain today. There are textbooks of mathematics, books on astronomy, and a great many other things. Indeed, almost every kind of writing is found.
For a long, long time nobody could read these. They did not, as in Egypt, have the good fortune to find a Rosetta Stone where a single text was found in Egyptian -- two scripts -- and in Greek, which was easily understood. The account of the decipherment of the Babylonian text is one of the most interesting and romantic stories of scholarship. It is to be found very interestingly told in Robert W. Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria,2 and in They Wrote on Clay by Edward Chiera.3 It is well worth reading. Eventually the problem was solved, and specialists now read these ancient records with almost the same ease with which one reads a modern foreign language. Found in one of the ancient libraries one day was a group of rather better tablets of large size, which, when deciphered, turned out to be the story of creation. This aroused a veritable furor in the world of scholarship and of religion, for, as indicated above, it proved to be very similar in some respects to the story in Biblical Genesis.
The text is by no means complete, despite the fact that more than one set of tablets has been found containing the story, for most of the tablets have suffered some breakage; but its main lines can be discerned very well. If it proved to be alike in some respects to the Biblical story it proved very different in other respects. Over against the Hebrew creation story, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," the Babylonian story begins:
When on high the heaven had not been named
When none but the primordial Apsu and Mummu-Tiamat, mother of all, existed, then were the gods created one after another. But Apsu was not happy about his offspring and resolved to destroy them utterly that he might have rest.
Verily their ways are loathsome unto me.
Tiamat sought to dissuade him, but to no avail. Learning of the plot to destroy them, Ea, one of the gods, slew Apsu. Tiamat, angered, created a host of monsters to do battle with the gods. The gods chose Marduk as their champion. He was probably not the god originally mentioned in the telling of the story, but by this time he had become chief god of the city of Babylon and therefore greatest of the gods, so his name was substituted as champion. He drove a bargain with the other gods to recognize him as supreme if he led the battle. The story of the killing of Tiamat is dramatic in the extreme.
Marduk spread out his net to enfold her,
Presumably, the other half became the earth. Then he fixed the responsibilities of the various gods, before proceeding to the creation of life upon the earth. The particular tablet on which this is described is badly broken. Fortunately the account of man’s creation is preserved.
When Marduk hears the words of the gods
He then took Kingu who had led the uprising against the gods, severed his blood vessels and
Out of his blood they fashioned mankind.7
Babylonia also has its flood story, which, in some points of detail, is much closer to the Biblical account than the creation story. It occurs in the Gilgamesh Epic, found upon twelve large tablets in the great library of Ashurbanipal, though much older than that in origin. It too is much broken, but significant features of the story are still intact. Gilgamesh, lamenting the death of a loved companion, and fearful lest a like fate await him, goes away in search of an ancestor, Ut-Napishtim, who had been carried away to the life beyond. He is advised that the way to him leads over the sea of death, but with the help of a sailor of Ut-Napishtim he may be able to cross. Thus aided, he comes to the place of his ancestor, and there is told the story of Ut-Napishtim, the Babylonian Noah, in which appears the story of the deluge. In part it is as follows: Ea, god of waters, warns him to prepare for the flood.
Pull down thy house, build a ship,
This he must do because of the hatred of Bel, or Enlil, god of Nippur.
The ship was built.
When it was finished he moved in. With all of his silver and gold, living things, cattle, beasts of the field, his family and household he filled it. Then
The senders of the rain in the evening sent heavy rain.
The rains came, the water reached high
No man beheld his fellow
The gods sat bowed and weeping
On the seventh day the tempest spent itself and the sea rested. The flood ceased.
I looked upon the sea. There was silence come.
Twelve days later an island arose, and to it the ship was fastened. Day after day the waters went down, and on the seventh day he sent forth a dove. The dove flew away and came back, for there was no resting place. He then sent forth a swallow which likewise returned, finding no resting place. Then he released a raven which flew away to show that the waters were receding and she came not back. The ark settled down, apparently on solid ground. He left the ship and immediately made sacrifice.
The gods smelled the savor,
Later the God, Ea, drew near and caused Ut-Napishtim and his wife to kneel before him, then blessed them saying:
Formerly Ut-Napishtim was only a man but
With this, the story of the deluge ends. There is more to the epic than this, but we need not follow it further. In the end the search of Gilgamesh for eternal life was not successful, but he did find confidence in the assertion of the gods, that in the next world men find themselves among those whom they have known on earth.
Here is undoubtedly close parallelism to the Old Testament story at certain points. If one reads the entire story as found in both sources it is probable, however, that the differences rather than the likenesses will impress him most.
There is a great wealth of hymns, prayers, psalms of one kind or another in Babylonian literature, very much the sort that is found within the limits of the Hebrew Old Testament. Sometimes there are songs and prayers addressed to a score or more of divine beings; but they do seem to be the authentic, prayerful expression of the human spirit in varying moods. One thinks for example of the long prayer to Ishtar, much too long to quote here, but from which the following are brief excerpts.
Thou judgest the cause of men with justice and right;
Where thou dost regard the dead live, the sick arise.
My heart hath taken wing, it hath flown away like
Miseries, turning away of countenance, and fullness of
From the Assyrian literature which is very closely similar to the Babylonian, comes a prayer to the chief of gods of which the following is a part:
O Lord Chief of the gods Who alone art exalted on
Included in the psalm literature, of which there is not a little, there are many penitential psalms in which the penitent seeks forgiveness for his sins. They are addressed variously to Marduk, chief of the gods, Shamash, god of justice, Ishtar, and others. One there is which names no specific divinity. Apparently it might be used in addressing any one or all of them. We can here give only a small excerpt, but who can fail to see that in this psalm the human heart speaks sincerely out of a sense of guilt and a desire for pardon.
The anger of the Lord may it be appeased.
I sought for help, but none took my hand,
In a magic incantation text which does not rise to the moral level of these great psalms of penitence, there is nevertheless to be found a remarkable list of what must evidently have been regarded as wrong by the best Babylonian thought. Like the Hebrews, the Babylonians seem to have believed that sin brings punishment in the form of bodily suffering, loss of goods, friends, misfortune of many kinds. When one has suffered loss, or is in bodily misery he is certain that he has sinned. Here, apparently, a man has come to an exorciser to be freed from his affliction. The exorciser or priest desires to know the source of his guilt. He therefore inquires of the suppliant as recorded in the text -- here given only in part, separate lines chosen almost at random:
Has he offended his god, has he offended his goddess?
Has he not set free a prisoner or loosed a captive?
There is in it, to be sure, an apparent lack of discrimination between moral and ritual evil as possible causes of suffering and penalty, but this is not without parallel in other religions, including Judaism and Christianity, at times.
Finally there is one poem which has sometimes been called the Babylonian Job. It is not at all comparable in length, or in the completeness with which the problem of suffering is handled in Biblical Job, but it does voice complaints similar to those of Job.15
Wherever I turn there is evil.
The magician by his sorceries did not loosen my ban. . . .
If I look behind me, trouble pursues me,
That which seemeth good, that is evil with god
He who lives in the evening is in the evening dead.
My house is become a prison for me.
The god helped me not, he took me not by the hand
Like all other religions, that of Babylonia developed an elaborate cult. There were magnificent temples, a numerous and powerful priesthood, and a wealth of ritual and ceremonial. Not a little of this is preserved on clay tablets and has been deciphered. It runs closely parallel to what is found in those portions of the Old Testament which describe the tabernacle and the temple, and the sacrifices and ceremonies which the Hebrew faith developed in the course of time. These do not make very interesting reading. A few lines from a Temple Program for New Year’s Festivals at Babylon will suffice:
On the second day of the month Nisannu, two hours of the night (remaining) the -- priest shall arise and wash with river water. He shall enter into the presence of the god Bel, and he shall . . . a linen gadalu in front of Bel. He shall recite the following prayer.
Oh Bel, who has no equal when angry --
Then follow some 400 lines of direction as to the further conduct of the ceremony with occasionally interspersed hymns or prayers. A typical sentence is: These two images shall be of seven finger widths high. One shall be made of cedar, one of tamarisk, etc., etc. Very little is left to the imagination, everything specifically ordered. It is the way of all highly ritualized religions from that day until now.16
Other rituals included are that to be followed by the priest when covering the temple kettle drum; Ritual for the Repair of the Temple; daily sacrifices to the gods of the city of Uruk, etc.17
The discovery, in the year 1901-1902, of a black diorite stele covered with column upon column of cuneiform characters, was an epoch-making event in the study of ancient Babylonia. On examination, this column, which stands over two meters high and is engraved on all sides, proved to be a legal code, to which the name The Code of Hammurabi has been given, since it was collected under the reign of the great Babylonian king, Hammurabi.
At once it claimed the eager attention of Biblical scholarship. Would they find here, as they already thought they had found in the creation story and that of the flood, evidence of dependence of Hebrew culture upon Babylonia? Long familiar with the various Hebrew codes, the Covenant code, the Deuteronomic code, the Levitical code, the Priestly code, they turned to this newest find to see what, if any, similarity existed between them and the Babylonian discovery. There is still not entire agreement among scholars as to just what the influence of the Babylonian code has been. It seems quite apparent that there must have been some carry-over from the early Babylonian to the later Hebrew legislation. Anyone wishing to go into the matter will find lengthy and highly scholarly works on the subject.18
The code itself consists of two hundred and eighty-two laws covering a wide range of subject matter. It is all introduced by a discourse written just below a scene picturing the giving of the law by Shamash, god of justice, to the King. This at once suggests a parallel to the Hebrew decalogue, which Moses, purportedly, received directly at the hands of God. It declares in substance, "When the gods named me Hammurabi to cause righteousness to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from plundering the weak, to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people . . . I established law and justice in the land and promoted the welfare of the public."19 Lack of space prevents giving more than a few brief examples of laws taken from the Code, but these may serve to give the flavor of the whole. It begins with the declaration:
1. If a man accuse a man, and charge him with murder, but cannot convict him, the accuser shall be put to death.20
A considerable number of other laws deal with the securing of justice before the court. Even the judge is under a control not usual in our own time.
3. If a judge pronounce a judgment, render a decision, deliver a sealed verdict, and afterward reverse his judgment, they shall prosecute the judge for reversing the judgment which he has pronounced, and he shall pay twelve fold the damages which were (awarded) in said judgment; and publicly they shall expel him from his seat of judgment and he shall not return, and with the judges in a case he shall not take his seat.21
There is here, and throughout, a very definite assessment of guilt according to the status of the one who does the injury, or that of the injured. For example:
8. If a man steal an ox or sheep, ass or pig, or boat—if it belonged to a god or palace, he shall pay thirty fold; if it belonged to a common man, he shall restore tenfold. If the thief have nothing wherewith to pay, he shall be put to death.22
Public authorities are made responsible for good order. If a robber is not captured, the city and the governor in whose land the robbery was committed shall compensate the victim for his loss.23 Protection is thrown about property as well as about the person of the individuals. There are laws covering the obligation of landlords to tenants, and of tenants to those from whom they rent. One who rents a field and is negligent in cultivating it, must give produce to the owner of the field on the basis of production in adjacent fields.24 Since much of the land was under irrigation, strict laws applied to the use of water. Evidently money-lending was common, for a number of laws deal with putting out money at interest. The rate of interest was under control, as were prices and wages. The modern New Deal is not so modern as many people apparently think. Women are protected and likewise regulated. Some of the laws at this point resemble closely those of the Hebrew codes. Divorce was easy for a man, and next to impossible for a woman. Children were subject to rigid parental control. If a man struck his father, his hand should be cut off. Indeed, the principle of Lex Talionis is invoked throughout.
196. If a man destroy the eye of another man they shall destroy his eye.
200. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own race they shall knock out his tooth.25
The principle is carried to an utter extreme in the case of a builder who wrecks a house which collapses and kills the son of the owner of the house. In such a case: 26
230. If it cause the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall then put to death the son of that builder.
An amazing indication of medical skill is to be found in the law regulating the operation, with a bronze lancet, upon the eye socket. The physician is made responsible for any mistake he makes.
218. Should a physician make a deep incision upon a man with his bronze laricet and cause the man’s death or operate on the eye socket of a man with his bronze lancet and destroy the man’s eye they shall cut off his hand.27
The penalty was less if the operation was upon a man’s slave. A man is ordinarily responsible for anything that he has hired during the time of his possession, but,
249. If a man hire an ox and a god strike it and it die, the man who hired the ox shall take an oath before God and go free.28
There are a number of laws that deal with slaves and their rights. Included is the right to buy their own freedom. There is a lengthy conclusion of the Code in which the King declares, in part: "By the command of Shamash, the great judge of Heaven and Earth, may I make righteousness to shine forth on the land. . let any oppressed man who has a cause come before the image of me, the king of Righteousness! Let him have read to him the writing of my monument! Let him give heed to my weighty words! And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause and may he understand his case. May it set his heart at ease.". . . "In the days to come, for all time, let the king who arises in the land observe the words of righteousness which I have written. . let him not alter the judgment. . . which I have pronounced". . . etc.29
We conclude the discussion of Babylonian sacred literature with only a brief mention of the omen texts, of which a great many have been unearthed. The Babylonians, like most peoples, believed that the gods were concerned about what man did. Both in the conduct of private and public affairs they believed they should seek divine guidance. What was the will of the gods in any specific undertaking? How could it be discovered? The answer lay in omens through which their will was made known to man. Sometimes divination was by the reading of the stars, astrology, sometimes by reading the livers of sacrificial victims, or other means. There were special diviners, who were skilled in interpreting the omens. A recently translated document recording the restoration of the chief temple of the national god of Assyria, Ashur, illustrates the importance of the role of omens in the conduct of affairs. The temple had fallen into disrepair. Essarhadon, the king, was reluctant to do anything about it,
until by the implements of the haruspices, Shamash and Adad returned a true affirmative and for the rebuilding of the temple and the renewing of its cella they caused a liver omen to be written.
Then he, "the obedient lord," called the people and put them to work. He himself made bricks and carried them, and "the people of the land formed bricks in delight, joy and jubilation."
Unfortunately, few of the omen texts are available in English. A Hittite omen text is included in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 495-496.
This, it must be remarked, does not find a very close parallel in the Hebrew Bible, though there are not a few stories of the casting of lots, which is a form of divination of the will of the gods. But the desire to square conduct with the divine will is certainly there.
Sources for Further Reading
Robert W. Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Eaton and Mains, N. Y., 1908.
Ed., Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, Eaton and Mains, N. Y., 1912.
Morris Jastrow, Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1915.
Id., The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Ginn and Co., Boston, 1898.
J. B. Pritchard, Editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old
Testament. Princeton University Press, 1950. -- An excellent translation of well selected material illustrating every phase of Babylonian sacred literature. Covers much the same ground as Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels, but enjoys the advantage of forty additional years of archaeological and scholarly investigation.
Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. I.
The Hammurabi code appears in several editions by different translators.
1. The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Eaton and Mains, N.Y., 1908, p. 143.
2. Chapter 1.
3. Chapters 4 and 5.
4. J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Princeton University Press, 1950, pp. 60-61. Translation of E.A. Speiser.
5. Id., p. 61
6. Id., p. 67
7. Pritchard, op. cit., p. 68
8. The translation is that of Robert W. Rogers taken from his Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, pp. 91-101, passim, and The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 20. It is translated also in Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 73-98.
9. R.W. Rofers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, p.155
10. Op. cit., pp. 156-157.
11. R.W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, p.159
12. R.W. Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp.
13. R.W. Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 182-184, passim.
14. R.W. Rogers, Cueiform Parallels to the Old Testament, pp. 170-175, passim.
15. Id., pp. 165 ff. passim. See also Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 434 ff.
16. Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 330 ff. Translation of A. Sachs.
17. Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 330 ff. Translation of A. Sachs.
18. W. W. Davies, The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses, Cincinnati, 1903. S. A. Cook, The Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi, London, 1903.
19. J M. P. Smith, The Origin and History of Hebrew Law, University of Chicago Press, 1931, pp. 181-183, passim. Translation of D. D. Luckenbill, edited by Edward Chiera.
20. Ibid., p. 183
21. Ibid., p. 184
22. Ibid., p. 184
23. Sec. 23, Smith, op.cit., p. 186
24. Sec. 42, Id., p. 189
25. Id., pp. 209-210
26. Id., p. 213
27. Smith, op. cit., p. 211
28. Id., p. 215.
29. Id., pp. 219-221, passim
30. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.71, 1, pp. 5-6