What about the content of other ancient documents?
The Bible teaches that the peoples were dispersed from Babel in the Plain of Shinar, given distinctive languages and developed their separate identities and histories from that time. So, they should have similar historical accounts up to that point. Do they? Yes, they do! Let’s have a look.
The Creation Account
So, how widespread is the knowledge of the Creation? The most widely known non-biblical source is the Babylonian version, Enuma Elish (meaning ‘When on high’, the opening words of the document). But, far from being the basis of the Genesis account, it is radically different. For example, it is polytheistic, the gods being equated with nature, and it is about conflict and battle, not about the ‘very good’ of the Genesis record.
A more interesting document is one originating in Ebla, which was located in modern Syria. Perhaps because of its location, the Eblaites had a close link to the Israelites. Their documents contain names similar to many biblical characters, though not necessarily the same people. Among the documents discovered there is one with a creation account which is very close in detail to the biblical account. It contains a Creation hymn1:
Lord of heaven and earth:
the earth was not, you created it,
the light of day was not, you created it,
the morning light you had not [yet] made exist.
It is dated earlier than the Pentateuch, so they probably had a source common to themselves and to Moses: the memories of the living patriarchs themselves.
This is a feature which we find in diverse documents related to Genesis 1-11. The closer they are chronologically to the Bible events, the closer their content is to the Bible record.
In keeping with our prediction we find more parallel stories of creation around the world, such as in Australia, India, Scandinavia, Middle East, Egypt, Greece, China and various indigenous groups in the Americas – and more. The nature of the accounts varies but the basic story is that of Creation.
The Fall of Man
Again, there are memories of man’s rebellion against his Maker. Often we find that the accounts of the Fall and of the Flood become fused. This is understandable in that both are accounts of man’s sinfulness, his rebellion against God and God’s judgment.
The Babylonian Enuma Elish, to which we have already referred, describes man exalting self to attempt to become God. There is also a famous Akkadian seal which pictures the temptation. The Sumerian record, the Gilgamesh Epic, also sees the cause of the Fall as man seeking to become as God. For example, it concludes: ‘You have become wise, Enkidu, you have become like a god.’ 2
The Flood account
This is recorded widely in man’s memory, covering a variety of continents and people groups. One Internet source lists over 160 accounts covering Europe, Near East, Far East, north, central and south America, Australia and the Pacific Islands and Africa. That would be amazing if the Genesis account is a fiction of the Jews in Babylonian exile. How did the memory of the events get so widely dispersed?
A clay tablet was found, dated to 2100BC, which is about the Flood. It is known as the Nippur Tablet CBM 13532, discovered by Hermann Hilprecht and is housed in the University of Pennsylvania.3 It was written in cuneiform but in a language close to biblical Hebrew. The document is older than most Babylonian documents, it is in ancient Hebrew and conforms to the biblical account. It does seem that the closer the documents are to the time of Moses (or the actual events), the closer they are to the biblical record.
A selection of the lines of translation yield the following account:
….[the conﬁnes of heaven and earth] I will loosen,
….[a deluge I will make, and] it shall sweep away all men together;
….[but thou seek l]ife before the deluge cometh forth;
….[For over all living beings], as many as there are, I will bring overthrow, destruction, annihilation.
.…Build a great ship
….total height shall be its structure.
….it shall be a house-boat carrying what has been saved of Iife.
….with a strong deck cover (it).
...[The ship] which thou shalt make,
...[into it br]ing the beasts of the ﬁeld, the birds of heaven,
...[and the creeping things, two of everything] instead of a number’
The Ark tablet
A more recent discovery was that of Dr Irving Finkel at the British Museum.4 Its physical discovery was some time ago, but it was recently uncovered in their archives and translated by him. It has been named as the ‘Ark Tablet’.
This Babylonian tablet was written some 1,000 years after the time of Noah, so is not the result of the Babylonian exile (in 6th century BC). It proposes that the Ark was a coracle in shape, the traditional shape of the Babylonian boat by this time. Though not in keeping with the more realistic design in the Bible, it is more reasonable than the later cubic design that appears in better known Babylonian tablets and which would be inherently unstable. Interestingly, it does also record that the animals went in ‘two by two’!
The Egyptian ‘Pyramid texts’ have significant records of the Creation through to the Flood, though obviously in terms of their concepts of deity. One inscription refers to the ‘emergence from a cosmic flood of a primeval hill’ (presumably Ararat?)5. These records are being studied by archaeologists and may yet reveal more significant information. Again, these are of early date.
The Babel dispersion
There are Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian records of the dispersion; the Greeks too have legends based on the Babel event. Further examples are to be found in Amerindian groups in North, Central and South American countries, Africa, India, Polynesia, China and Burma.
The Book of Jubilees is an ancient Jewish religious work of 50 chapters, which is considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Chapter 10.20-21, in R. H. Charles’s 1913 translation, reads:
‘And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with ﬁre, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height [of a brick] was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and [the extent of one wall was] thir- teen stades [and of the other thirty stades].’
A Sumerian epic, probably from the early third millennium, called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, says that there once was a ‘golden age’ when everyone spoke one language. It refers to the confusion of language in which the leading god Enki put an end to this ‘golden age’ by confusing the speech of mankind: ‘In those days... the people entrusted [to him] could address Enlil, verily, in but a sin- gle tongue. In those days... did Enki... estrange the tongues in their mouths as many as were put there. The tongues of men which [once] were one.’ 6
There is a comment by Nebuchadnezzar on this event too as he planned to rebuild the tower: ‘A former king built the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth, but he did not com- plete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps.’ 7
The difference between these non-biblical records and the Genesis account is clearly any mention of God himself. Nevertheless, they do point to the truth of the Bible as well as its uniqueness.
Firstly, they demonstrate the Bible account of how God created, judged and dispersed the people: they took the memory with them.
Secondly, we see the diversity of detail as we would expect as men reject God: it happens today with atheistic versions of the past.
Thirdly, we see how the Genesis account is the start of a continuing Bible time-line: it tells us how we broke with God (‘sin’) and so the need for God himself to provide a means of reconciliation.
Lose the Genesis account and the rest of the Bible floats away! Believe it and find your hope of salvation in the work of the New Creation.
John Peet is a member of Chertsey Street Baptist Church in Guildford
1. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebla–Biblical_controver-sy, accessed 12 July 2016.
2. The Domestication of Enkidu, www.piney.com/ Enki.html, accessed 12 July 2016.
3. G. Pinches and F. Hommel. 1910. ‘The Oldest Library in the World and the New Deluge Tablets’. Expository Times. 21: p.369.
4. I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, 2014, Hodder and Stoughton.
5. R. O. Faulkner, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Translated into English by R.O. Faulkner’ Supplement of Hieroglyphic Texts,1969, 238, p.46. Clarendon Press.
6. C. Aling, ‘Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer’ at www.biblearchaeology .org/post/2009/09/21/Cultural-Change-and-the-Confusion-of-Language-in-Ancient-Sumer.aspx. Accessed 12 July 2016.
7. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel. Accessed 12 July 2016.