Introductory Matters Concerning the Old Testament

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Advocacy, Dispute, 1997.

Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol I, 1957.

Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 1933, 1961.

James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, vol. I, II, 1958.

Anchor Bible Commentaries.

For histories, Encyclopedia Britannica.


The Patriarchal Period. 5

History of Mesopotamia Before Patriarchs – Sumerians and Akkadians. 5

~Summerians. 6

Man and his god. 14

Dumuzi and Inanna. 15

Set me free, my sister 16

~Akkadians. 17

The Epic of Gilgamesh. 24

Babylonian Theodicy. 28

Counsels of Wisdom.. 29

I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom.. 30

Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 2000 BC) 33

Code of Hammurabi (1700’s BC) 34

Egypt Before 2000 BC.. 41

History during Patriarchal Period. 47

Biblical material 48

Theology. 53



            The canonical text of the Old Testament and the dialogue contained within it is where we need to begin in our reflections. However, the text refers to events in history. In order for the Old Testament to demonstrate genuine power, the action of God in the world to which the text refers needs to continually renew itself and speak to future communities of believers. Those believers may be Jewish or Christian. Therefore, although narrative approaches to the text are helpful, we cannot set aside discussion of whether something like its core events occurred in history. For example, the story of Abraham is one that tells us much about the worshipping community of Hebrews and Jews. Yet, if something like that journey did not occur in history, it would be quite devastating to the faith about which we read. The same is true of the basic story of liberation from Egypt and entrance into Canaan. Other religions do not have the same concern. For example, the texts of the Hindus do not claim historical references. The canonical texts of the Jews do make such a claim. When dealing with ancient events, it becomes quite difficult to offer proof for any event. However, the position of some scholars that the exilic period created out of nothing its theology and history does not seem credible. Although period of exile was an incredibly literary period, it gave to shape to texts that already existed in history, wisdom, and prophecy. The period of exile is significant precisely because it found ways to connect itself to the patriarchs, Moses, the tribal federation, and kings like David and Solomon, even though they as writers suffered in exile. How could the small exilic community in Babylon make such a claim? That is why they wrote the histories. They had practical and theoretical reasons for making that claim.

            Hebrew monotheism led to a conviction of the unity of the human race and of the concern God has for humanity. It led to shifting from the acts of God in nature to the acts of God in history. This further led to strong ethical and moral concerns.

            Central to the value system of the Hebrews was the notion of holiness or separation. They considered God beyond human beings and the things of the world. God is mysterious, incomprehensible, majestic, and exalted. As the people of God, they participated in divine holiness and obligated themselves to remain in a state of holiness or separation from the world. Holiness embraced moral dimensions. Anything outside of its proper place in the world was unclean, and made anyone who came into contact unclean. One became unclean if one touched an unclean object at the wrong time. Everything had its order, and sacred rites stated that order. The hereditary priesthood presided over a system of animal and vegetable sacrifices. The sacrifice established relationship with the divine. It brought before the source of their being all the hope, fear, and guilt that life entails. It kept order. It kept pollution in check. It insured holiness. The sense of wholeness explains why deformity and defect were considered unclean.

            The dialogue within the text is between dominant themes and underlying questions concerning those themes. The dominant theme is like testimony given in a courtroom. This testimony, as well as underlying questions concerning that testimony, reflects vested interests and advocacy for those interests.

            One can summarize the core testimony of Israel in verbal sentences:

·        Yahweh, the God who creates

·        Yahweh, the God who makes promises

·        Yahweh, the God who delivers or redeems

·        Yahaweh, the God who commands

·        Yahweh, the God who leads

            One can also summarize the core testimony of Israel in adjectives that indicate characteristic markings of Yahweh. Psalm 136 refers to steadfast love or fidelity of Yahweh. Exodus 34:6-7 uses positive adjectives: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast love, faithful, forgives; but Yahweh takes affront seriously to the point where it will disrupt the relationship for four generations.

            One can also summarize the core testimony of Israel in nouns. However, the nouns are metaphors that do not fully capture Yahweh, for if they did, it would be reification and idolatry. Yahweh is judge, king, warrior (governance and power). Yahweh is father, artist (potter), healer, gardener, mother, shepherd (sustenance, feeding)

            This core testimony has a certain disjunction in Yahweh between mercy and moral fierceness. Yahweh is generous and compassionate, and has a potential for extraordinary destructiveness. We do not know if the judge will sentence or forgive, the warrior will fight for or against, the king will banish or invite to the table, the gardener will cultivate or pluck up, the shepherd will lead and feed or judge between sheep, the doctor will heal or pronounce terminally ill. Life with God seems to mean anxiety concerning how God will act in this instance. Yahweh is sovereign (glory of Yahweh, holiness of Yahweh, jealousy of Yahweh) and faithful (resilient relatedness in covenant and pathos or passion), full of self-regard and passionately committed to life with the partner.

            The Old Testament text questions the core testimony of Israel. The questions Israel poses are simple: How long will it take for God to act, why does God not seem to care about the suffering of Israel, and where is God. The questions arise out of unbearable injustice, usually in the form of complaint, and the supreme example is exile. In contrast to fidelity, Israel wonders if Yahweh has abandoned them. In contrast to sovereignty, Israel wonders if Yahweh lacks of power. Israel wonders about the hiddeness of Yahweh, in that Yahweh did not always have mighty acts, the wisdom tradition looks for order in nature and ethical life. It speaks of Yahweh as the hidden guarantor of order. It speaks of the plan of Yahweh. Such hiddenness can also lead to questioning whether God is present at all. Israel wonders about the ambiguity or instability in the character of Yahweh. Yahweh can entice someone toward wrong and this might be unreliable. Israel wonders if negativity exists in Yahweh, in that Yahweh takes up active opposition to Israel and thus betrays the covenant. Job and Ecclesiastes are good counters to the core testimony of Israel.

            Israel also viewed itself as having a link to the destiny to the nations. God loved Israel into existence, commanded it to obedience, scattered it to exile, and gathered it to obedience and hope. The point is this. Yahweh has a partner in Israel, individuals, nations, and creation. In each case, the human side of the partnership breaks the agreement. However, Yahweh acts to restore the partnership. Limitless generosity stands at the beginning of the relationship. A radical fissure of the relationship enters through failure on the human side. The story ends in hope as over against despair. Judaism has a drama of exile and homecoming, death and resurrection, pit and rescue, and chaos and creation.

            The testimony of Israel sometimes involved direct manifestation of the presence of Yahweh. However, it also showed itself in objective forms like the Torah, the King, the prophet, the worshipping community and its ritual (priest, sacrifice, tabernacle, and temple) and wisdom sages.

            I now want to share some of the general theories of compilation of the Pentateuch and the history contained in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Kings.  As I have already suggested, the revelation of God has come to us through a human process. 

            At one time, we viewed the first five books of the bible as written by Moses.  Today, most students recognize that a variety of traditions produced the Pentateuch.

            The J authors concluded most of their work around 950 BC.  It has an incisive style, economy of presentation and boldness.  It has an insight into human nature, and recognition that a higher order and purpose behind incomprehensible human events.  There is simplicity to this tradition that unites it with the wisdom tradition.  The inner life is what attracts this tradition.  Individuals have considerable freedom.  Their activity centered in the area around Jerusalem.

            The E authors concluded their work around 800 BC.  Their work centered in the northern kingdom or Samaria.  It does not have the same directness of relating to God as the former tradition does.  Thus, angels abound in this tradition.  The focus is on events and an attempt to explain or justify them, rather than letting them speak for themselves. 

            Another set of authors in Judea combined these two traditions between 714-686, after people from the northern kingdom fled south to Jerusalem after the attack from Assyria. 

            The P authors began their work in the 900’s BC, but did not complete it until the exilic period of the mid-500's BC.  They concern themselves mostly with the priestly line of descendants and with traditions surrounding the temple and its worship and care.  Ezra and other scribes compiled all of the traditions in the exile and probably completed the process in 400 BC.  They used these traditions to establish the post-exilic community, since the prophetic word was in the process of dying out.  There came to be reliance upon the written word.  Here are stories about the beginning of the universe, about the spiritual progress of the ancestors of the faith, stories about liberation, and the origin of the law that God gave to help order the community.

            The Deuteronomic (D) authors produced their work in the south before the Fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC.  It comprises most of Deuteronomy, and is a reading of the Law through the influence of the prophets.  It desires to regulate all of the life of the nation as the holy people of God.  It is concerned with the weaker members of society, with the prophetic influence evident in the view of God and religion as love for God and doing God's will, the polemic against Baal, and the stress upon ethics.  Though the prophetic and priestly traditions were often at war with one another, this work attempts to bring them together.  It continues through Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

            The variety of traditions discovered in the Old Testament does suggest a broad based concept of unity.  There is no reason for believing that the various schools that created these traditions did not have tensions between them.  For example, J and E have clear differences, as does "P." Yet, they were brought together in the Exilic period because it was recognized they had a common witness to what God was doing in their community.  We can say the same for the Deuteronomic history, also brought together in the exilic period.  It was itself an attempt to combine stories from the tribal federation and court records with prophetic legend and prophetic interpretation of events that often ran counter to the historical records available.  The later history of the chronicler gave another view to the history of the nation more in line with the emerging consensus of the post-exilic community.  The prophetic writings, often standing in judgment of what was happening officially at the court and in religious circles, provide a contrary opinion to the court records and to wisdom tradition, the latter being a product of the ruling classes.  Apocalyptic, with its emphasis on the critical battle between good and evil, that God is moving history toward a soon arrival of the end, runs counter to much of the old Testament teaching about creation and the political and religious world.  The worshipping community, with its emphasis upon the experience of God in the community, at a variety of points finds expression in these materials as well.  These materials, in spite of their variety, were brought together because they share a common witness to God's activity in Israel.

The bible maintains a spiritual power to cleanse, renew, and empower individuals and communities.  We can account for this power through its over-arching themes.  It has several paradigms that have moved people toward transformation.  I want to mention three such stories. 

One is the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.  This story shaped the Jewish Torah, as well as the early tribal federation period.  The story included not only the generation that left Egypt, but also all succeeding generations.  It is a story of bondage, liberation, a journey, and a destination.  Politics of oppression, economics patronage, and religion that gives divine support for oppression and patronage marks life in Egypt.  We see the power of God in liberation from oppression, in the journey, and in bringing the people to the Promised Land.  Such a story has a power, not only for the Jewish people, but also for Christians, and for us as individuals, who need our own liberation from the Pharaoh's that oppress us.  In the New Testament, Jesus as the risen Christ achieves victory of evil and demonic powers.  Christ brings liberation from the evil powers that hold humanity and us as individuals, in bondage. 

            Two is the story of exile and return.  The exile of the Jewish people began in 587, when Babylon defeated Jerusalem and carried its leaders to a foreign land.  They lived as refugees, separated from their homeland and under conditions of oppression.  The exile ended in 539, when the Persians conquered Babylon.  Their imperial policy allowed displaced persons to return to their homeland.  Exile is an experience of separation from all that is familiar and dear.  It involves powerlessness and marginality.  It often involves oppression and victimization.  Grief marks the psychological experience of exile.  In exile, the feeling of separation from home and longing for home runs deep within us.  We experience alienation and a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning.  We yearn for something that we only vaguely remember.  The solution to exile, like the solution to oppression, is a journey.  However, this time the solution is a journey home.  That invitation runs through Isaiah 40ff.  In the New Testament, Jesus is the one who discloses or reveals what God is like.  Jesus brings light into the darkness.  He shows the way back to God.

            Three is the story of temple, priest, and sacrifice.  Instead of an historical event, we now focus on an institution.  It begins with notions of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and sacrifice.  It begins with the concept of the universal stain on humanity.  Therefore, images of cleansing, washing, and covering over are important.  People are sinners who have broken the laws of God.  They stand before God as guilty sinners.  The religious life is one of sin, guilt, and forgiveness.  God loves us as we are.  We are precious in the sight of God.  God accepts us, just as we are.  In the New Testament, the death of Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of humanity.  The death of Jesus makes the forgiveness of God possible. 

The Patriarchal Period


Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol I, 1957.

Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol I, “The Name of the Covenant God,” 1933, 1961.


History of Mesopotamia Before Patriarchs – Sumerians and Akkadians

            The following history is largely taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I have tried to keep it to those portions of this history related to developments in the early portions of the bible. In particular, the bible recalls the origin of the Patriarchs from the Mesopotamian area. This history provides some background on people mentioned in the bible.

            Questions as to what ancient Mesopotamian civilization did and did not accomplish, how it influenced its neighbors and successors, and what its legacy has transmitted are posed from the standpoint of 20th-century civilization and are in part coloured by ethical overtones, so that the answers can only be relative. Modern scholars assume the ability to assess the sum total of an “ancient Mesopotamian civilization”; but, since the publication of an article by the Assyriologist Benno Landsberger on “Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt” (1926; “The Distinctive Conceptuality of the Babylonian World”), it has become almost a commonplace to call attention to the necessity of viewing ancient Mesopotamia and its civilization as an independent entity.

Ancient Mesopotamia had many languages and cultures; its history is broken up into many periods and eras; it had no real geographic unity, and above all no permanent capital city, so that by its very variety it stands out from other civilizations with greater uniformity, particularly that of Egypt. The script and the pantheon constitute the unifying factors, but in these also Mesopotamia shows its predilection for multiplicity and variety. Written documents were turned out in quantities, and there are often many copies of a single text. The pantheon consisted of more than 1,000 deities, even though many divine names may apply to different manifestations of a single god. During 3,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization, each century gave birth to the next. Thus classical Sumerian civilization influenced that of the Akkadians, and the Ur III empire, which itself represented a Sumero-Akkadian synthesis, exercised its influence on the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC. With the Hittites, large areas of Anatolia were infused with the culture of Mesopotamia from 1700 BC onward. Contacts, via Mari, with Ebla in Syria, some 30 miles south of Aleppo, go back to the 24th century BC, so that links between Syrian and Palestinian scribal schools and Babylonian civilization during the Amarna period (14th century BC) may have had much older predecessors. At any rate, the similarity of certain themes in cuneiform literature and the Old Testament, such as the story of the Flood or the motif of the righteous sufferer, is due to such early contacts and not to direct borrowing.


            The Sumerian people began writing about 3000-2750 BC, with the archaic civilization of Uruk. In Uruk and probably also in other cities of comparable size, the Sumerians led a city life. That life consisted in temples and residential districts; intensive agriculture, stock breeding, fishing, and date palm cultivation forming the four mainstays of the economy; and highly specialized industries carried on by sculptors, seal engravers, smiths, carpenters, shipbuilders, potters, and workers of reeds and textiles. Part of the population was supported with rations from a central point of distribution, which relieved people of the necessity of providing their basic food themselves, in return for their work all day and every day, at least for most of the year. The cities kept up active trade with foreign lands.

            That organized city life existed is demonstrated chiefly by the existence of inscribed tablets. The earliest tablets contain figures with the items they enumerate and measures with the items they measure, as well as personal names and, occasionally, probably professions. This shows the purely practical origins of writing in Mesopotamia: it began not as a means of magic or as a way for the ruler to record his achievements, for example, but as an aid to memory for an administration that was ever expanding its area of operations. The earliest examples of writing are very difficult to penetrate because of their extremely laconic formulation, which presupposes a knowledge of the context, and because of the still very imperfect rendering of the spoken word. Moreover, many of the archaic signs were pruned away after a short period of use and cannot be traced in the paleography of later periods, so that they cannot be identified.

            One of the most important questions that has to be met when dealing with “organization” and “city life” is that of social structure and the form of government; however, it can be answered only with difficulty, and the use of evidence from later periods carries with it the danger of anachronisms. The Sumerian word for ruler par excellence is lugal, which etymologically means “big person.” The first occurrence comes from Kish about 2700 BC, since an earlier instance from Uruk is uncertain because it could simply be intended as a personal name: “Monsieur Legrand.” In Uruk the ruler's special title was en. In later periods this word (etymology unknown), which is also found in divine names such as Enlil and Enki, has a predominantly religious connotation that is translated, for want of a better designation, as “en-priest, en-priestess.” En, as the ruler's title, is encountered in the traditional epics of the Sumerians (Gilgamesh is the “en of Kullab,” a district of Uruk) and particularly in personal names, such as “The-en-has-abundance,” “The-en-occupies-the-throne,” and many others.

            It has often been asked if the ruler of Uruk is to be recognized in artistic representations. A man feeding sheep with flowering branches, a prominent personality in seal designs, might thus represent the ruler or a priest in his capacity as administrator and protector of flocks. The same question may be posed in the case of a man who is depicted on a stela aiming an arrow at a lion. These questions are purely speculative, however: even if the “protector of flocks” were identical with the en, there is no ground for seeing in the ruler a person with a predominantly religious function.
            The picture offered by the literary tradition of
Mesopotamia is clearer but not necessarily historically relevant. The Sumerian king list has long been the greatest focus of interest. This is a literary composition, dating from Old Babylonian times, that describes kingship (nam-lugal in Sumerian) in Mesopotamia from primeval times to the end of the 1st dynasty of Isin. According to the theory—or rather the ideology—of this work, there was officially only one kingship in Mesopotamia, which was vested in one particular city at any one time; hence the change in dynasties brought with it the change of the seat of kingship:




The king list gives as coming in succession several dynasties that now are known to have ruled simultaneously. It is a welcome aid to chronology and history, but, so far as the regnal years are concerned, it loses its value for the time before the dynasty of Akkad, for here the lengths of reign of single rulers are given as more than 100 and sometimes even several hundred years. One group of versions of the king list has adopted the tradition of the Sumerian Flood story, according to which Kish was the first seat of kingship after the Flood, whereas five dynasties of primeval kings ruled before the Flood in Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak. These kings all allegedly ruled for multiples of 3,600 years (the maximum being 64,800 or, according to one variant, 72,000 years). The tradition of the Sumerian king list is still echoed in Berosus.

            It is also instructive to observe what the Sumerian king list does not mention. The list lacks all mention of a dynasty as important as the 1st dynasty of Lagash (from King Ur-Nanshe to UruKAgina) and appears to retain no memory of the archaic florescence of Uruk at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC.

            Besides the peaceful pursuits reflected in art and writing, the art also provides the first information about violent contacts: cylinder seals of the Uruk Level IV depict fettered men lying or squatting on the ground, being beaten with sticks or otherwise maltreated by standing figures. They may represent the execution of prisoners of war. It is not known from where these captives came or what form “war” would have taken or how early organized battles were fought. Nevertheless, this does give the first, albeit indirect, evidence for the wars that are henceforth one of the most characteristic phenomena in the history of Mesopotamia.

            Just as with the rule of man over man, with the rule of higher powers over man it is difficult to make any statements about the earliest attested forms of religion or about the deities and their names without running the risk of anachronism. Excluding prehistoric figurines, which provide no evidence for determining whether men or anthropomorphic gods are represented, the earliest testimony is supplied by certain symbols that later became the cuneiform signs for gods' names: the “gatepost with streamers” for Inanna, goddess of love and war, and the “ringed post” for the moon god Nanna. A scene on a cylinder seal—a shrine with an Inanna symbol and a “man” in a boat—could be an abbreviated illustration of a procession of gods or of a cultic journey by ship. The constant association of the “gatepost with streamers” with sheep and of the “ringed post” with cattle may possibly reflect the area of responsibility of each deity. The Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen sees in the pantheon a reflex of the various economies and modes of life in ancient Mesopotamia: fishermen and marsh dwellers, date palm cultivators, cowherds, shepherds, and farmers all have their special groups of gods.

            Over the last 4,000 years, Semites (Amorites, Canaanites, Aramaeans, and Arabs) have been partly nomadic, ranging the Arabian fringes of the Fertile Crescent, and partly settled; and the transition to settled life can be observed in a constant, though uneven, rhythm. There are, therefore, good grounds for assuming that the Akkadians (and other pre-Akkadian Semitic tribes not known by name) also originally led a nomadic life to a greater or lesser degree. Nevertheless, they can only have been herders of domesticated sheep and goats, which require changes of pasturage according to the time of year and can never stray more than a day's march from the watering places. The traditional nomadic life of the Bedouin makes its appearance only with the domestication of the camel at the turn of the 2nd to 1st millennium BC.

            Not until about 2700 BC does the first historical personality appear—historical because his name, Enmebaragesi (Me-baragesi), was preserved in later tradition. It has been assumed, although the exact circumstances cannot be reconstructed, that there was a rather abrupt end to the high culture of Uruk Level IV.

            In the quarter or third of a millennium between Uruk Level IV and Enmebaragesi, southern Mesopotamia became studded with a complex pattern of cities, many of which were the centres of small independent city-states, to judge from the situation in about the middle of the millennium. In these cities, the central point was the temple, sometimes encircled by an oval boundary wall (hence the term temple oval); but nonreligious buildings, such as palaces serving as the residences of the rulers, could also function as centres.

            Enmebaragesi, king of Kish, is the oldest Mesopotamian ruler from whom there are authentic inscriptions. These are vase fragments, one of them found in the temple oval of Khafajah (Khafaji). In the Sumerian king list, Enmebaragesi is listed as the penultimate king of the 1st dynasty of Kish; a Sumerian poem, “Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish,” describes the siege of Uruk by Agga, son of Enmebaragesi. The discovery of the original vase inscriptions was of great significance because it enabled scholars to ask with somewhat more justification whether Gilgamesh, the heroic figure of Mesopotamia who has entered world literature, was actually a historical personage. The indirect synchronism notwithstanding, the possibility exists that even remote antiquity knew its “Ninus” and its “Semiramis,” figures onto which a rapidly fading historical memory projected all manner of deeds and adventures. Thus, though the historical tradition of the early 2nd millennium believes Gilgamesh to have been the builder of the oldest city wall of Uruk, such may not have been the case. The palace archives of Shuruppak (modern Tall Fa'rah, 125 miles southeast of Baghdad), dating presumably from shortly after 2600, contain a long list of divinities, including Gilgamesh and his father Lugalbanda. More recent tradition, on the other hand, knows Gilgamesh as judge of the nether world. However that may be, an armed conflict between two Mesopotamian cities such as Uruk and Kish would hardly have been unusual in a country whose energies were consumed, almost without interruption from 2500 to 1500 BC, by clashes between various separatist forces. The great “empires,” after all, formed the exception, not the rule.
Kish must have played a major role almost from the beginning. After 2500, southern Babylonian rulers, such as Mesannepada of Ur and Eannatum of Lagash, frequently called themselves king of Kish when laying claim to sovereignty over northern Babylonia. This does not agree with some recent histories in which Kish is represented as an archaic “empire.” It is more likely to have figured as representative of the north, calling forth perhaps the same geographic connotation later evoked by “the land of Akkad.”

            Although the corpus of inscriptions grows richer both in geographic distribution and in point of chronology in the 27th and increasingly so in the 26th century, it is still impossible to find the key to a plausible historical account, and history cannot be written solely on the basis of archaeological findings. Unless clarified by written documents, such findings contain as many riddles as they seem to offer solutions. This applies even to as spectacular a discovery as that of the royal tombs of Ur with their hecatombs (large-scale sacrifices) of retainers who followed their king and queen to the grave, not to mention the elaborate funerary appointments with their inventory of tombs. It is only from about 2520 to the beginnings of the dynasty of Akkad that history can be written within a framework, with the aid of reports about the city-state of Lagash and its capital of Girsu and its relations with its neighbour and rival, Umma.

            More difficult than describing its external relations is the task of shedding light on the internal structure of a state like Lagash. For the first time, a state consisting of more than a city with its surrounding territory came into being, because aggressively minded rulers had managed to extend that territory until it comprised not only Girsu, the capital, and the cities of Lagash and Nina (Zurghul) but also many smaller localities and even a seaport, Guabba. Yet it is not clear to what extent the conquered regions were also integrated administratively. On one occasion UruKAgina used the formula “from the limits of Ningirsu [that is, the city god of Girsu] to the sea,” having in mind a distance of up to 125 miles. It would be unwise to harbour any exaggerated notion of well-organized states exceeding that size.

            For many years, scholarly views were conditioned by the concept of the Sumerian temple city, which was used to convey the idea of an organism whose ruler, as representative of his god, theoretically owned all land, privately held agricultural land being a rare exception. The concept of the temple city had its origin partly in the over-interpretation of a passage in the so-called reform texts of UrukAgina, that states “on the field of the ensi [or his wife and the crown prince], the city god Ningirsu [or the city goddess Baba and the divine couple's son]” had been “reinstated as owners.” On the other hand, the statements in the archives of the temple of Baba in Girsu, dating from Lugalanda and UruKAgina, were held to be altogether representative. Here is a system of administration, directed by the ensi's spouse or by a sangu (head steward of a temple), in which every economic process, including commerce, stands in a direct relationship to the temple: agriculture, vegetable gardening, tree farming, cattle raising and the processing of animal products, fishing, and the payment in merchandise of workers and employees.

            The conclusion from this analogy proved to be dangerous because the archives of the temple of Baba provide information about only a portion of the total temple administration and that portion, furthermore, is limited in time. Understandably enough, the private sector, which of course was not controlled by the temple, is scarcely mentioned at all in these archives. The existence of such a sector is nevertheless documented by bills of sale for land purchases of the pre-Sargonic period and from various localities. Written in Sumerian as well as in Akkadian, they prove the existence of private land ownership or, in the opinion of some scholars, of lands predominantly held as undivided family property. Although a substantial part of the population was forced to work for the temple and drew its pay and board from it, it is not yet known whether it was year-round work.

            It is probable, if unfortunate, that there will never exist a detailed and numerically accurate picture of the demographic structure of a Sumerian city. It is assumed that in the oldest cities the government was in a position to summon sections of the populace for the performance of public works. The construction of monumental buildings or the excavation of long and deep canals could be carried out only by means of such a levy. The large-scale employment of indentured persons and of slaves is of no concern in this context. Evidence of male slavery is fairly rare before Ur III, and even in Ur III and in the Old Babylonian period slave labour was never an economically relevant factor. It was different with female slaves. According to one document, the temple of Baba employed 188 such women; the temple of the goddess Nanshe employed 180, chiefly in grinding flour and in the textile industry, and this continued to be the case in later times. For accuracy's sake it should be added that the terms male slave and female slave are used here in the significance they possessed about 2000 and later, designating persons in bondage who were bought and sold and who could not acquire personal property through their labour. A distinction is made between captured slaves (prisoners of war and kidnapped persons) and others who had been sold.

            In one inscription, Entemena of Lagash boasts of having “allowed the sons of Uruk, Larsa, and Bad-tibira to return to their mothers” and of having “restored them into the hands” of the respective city god or goddess. Read in the light of similar but more explicit statements of later date, this laconic formula represents the oldest known evidence of the fact that the ruler occasionally endeavoured to mitigate social injustices by means of a decree. Such decrees might refer to the suspension or complete cancellation of debts or to exemption from public works.           Whereas a set of inscriptions of the last ruler from the 1st dynasty of Lagash, UrukAgina, has long been considered a prime document of social reform in the 3rd millennium, the designation “reform texts” is only partly justified. Reading between the lines, it is possible to discern that tensions had arisen between the “palace”—the ruler's residence with its annex, administrative staff, and landed properties—and the “clergy”—that is, the stewards and priests of the temples. In seeming defiance of his own interests, UrukAgina, who in contrast to practically all of his predecessors lists no genealogy and has therefore been suspected of having been a usurper, defends the clergy, whose plight he describes somewhat tearfully.

            If the foregoing passage about restoring the ensi's fields to the divinity is interpreted carefully, it would follow that the situation of the temple was ameliorated and that palace lands were assigned to the priests. Along with these measures, which resemble the policies of a newcomer forced to lean on a specific party, are found others that do merit the designation of “measures taken toward the alleviation of social injustices”—for instance, the granting of delays in the payment of debts or their outright cancellation and the setting up of prohibitions to keep the economically or socially more powerful from forcing his inferior to sell his house, his ass's foal, and the like. Besides this, there were tariff regulations, such as newly established fees for weddings and burials, as well as the precise regulation of the food rations of garden workers.

These conditions, described on the basis of source materials from Girsu, may well have been paralleled elsewhere, but it is equally possible that other archives, yet to be found in other cities of pre-Sargonic southern Mesopotamia, may furnish entirely new historical aspects. At any rate, it is wiser to proceed cautiously, keeping to analysis and evaluation of the available material rather than making generalizations.

            The deities of the earlier Sumerians tended to be localized, centering around the subsistence of the community. A primary concern in this and later periods was the fertility of the fields, waters, and flocks. During this period, the external manifestation of the deity took the form of the phenomenon that the deity represented. For example, the deity associated with the rain cloud was pictured as a dark, lion-headed bird hovering in the sky.

            The Assyrian and Babylonian gods did not displace those of the Sumerians but were gradually assimilated into the older system. The gods were seen to be active in the history of the area and within the changing relationships of the various city-states in the Tigris–Euphrates Valley. With the development of the extensive empires of Babylon and Assur, the model of the king was used to express the transcendence of the deity. In this later period, the deities were conceived in anthropomorphic terms. The image of the deity, in which the presence of the deity resided, was fed and clothed and waited upon in a manner analogous to that of the king and his court. Just as for the king, the primary responsibilities of the deity were fertility and security.

            National religion was organized around the care and feeding of the deity in his temple. In addition to its function as a religious centre, the temple also functioned as a food redistribution centre under royal control. While many of these temples may have been modest, some, such as the temple of Marduk in Babylon named Esagila, achieved worldwide fame. The religion practiced in these temples was not generally public. Only on special days was the image of the deity brought out of the temple and paraded through the streets before the citizens. On a daily basis, worship was carried out by the priests within the temple that was conceived of as the house of the deity. Possibly the most notable of the religious buildings of Mesopotamia is the ziggurat. Unfortunately, its function in the religion of the area is not known.

            Surrounding the deity in his temple were a number of officials connected with the cult. The first among these was the king himself, who functioned as the chief priest of the nation's deity. The king's role was particularly important at the new year festival held in the spring of the year in which the kingship was renewed and the triumph of the deity over the powers of chaos was celebrated. In these rituals it appears that the role of the deity was played by the king. Among the rituals was the “sacred marriage” which ensured fertility for the following year. Over 30 types of other cultic personnel are mentioned, including priests, priestesses, and personnel in charge of incantations and divination. An elaborate system of determining the will of the gods through the observation of omens was developed, a major element of which was haruspicy, the reading of the entrails of sacrificial animals.

            Although the number of deities represented in the Mesopotamian pantheon numbered in the hundreds, a relatively small number of deities played a prominent role in the texts. Especially important among the older gods were Anu, the god of heaven, who was the oldest of the gods; Enki, later identified with the Akkadian god Ea, who was the god associated with water; and Enlil, the earth god who apparently presided over the divine assembly. As was common in the ancient Middle East, these deities were associated with particular cities: Anu with the city of Uruk, Enki with Eridu, and Enlil with Nippur.

            In addition to these old, well-established deities, the pantheon also contained newer deities. As the political fortunes of a city increased, so did the stature of the associated deity. Marduk, the deity of Babylon, appears to have received many of the characteristics of an older god as the city of Babylon became predominant in the political affairs of Mesopotamia. A similar pattern can be observed for Ashur as Assyria gained political domination. It may be noted that while Mesopotamian religion remained polytheistic throughout, there were tendencies toward henotheism in which a deity such as Marduk was ascribed all the characteristics associated with the lesser gods.

            A number of lesser deities were active in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Most prominent among the astral deities were Shamash, the sun deity worshipped in Larsa and Sippar, and Sin, the moon god associated with Ur and Harran. Because of their careful observation of the heavenly bodies, the Mesopotamians were famous in their day as astrologers. Other deities included Adad, the storm god worshipped under a variety of names, especially in Assyria and to the west; Nergal, who was regarded as the ruler of the underworld along with his consort Ereshkigal; and Tammuz (Dumuzi), who was a fertility god. Particular mountains, trees, rivers, and even certain man-made items such as the plow were also considered sacred.

            Due to the religious sanction of law, legal records were often stockpiled in temple archives. These latter are also the source of more directly cultic texts, such as descriptions of rituals, which come under such headings as “Temple Program for the New Year's Festivals at Babylon,” “Ritual to be Followed by the Kalu (priest) when Covering the Temple Kettle-Drum,” “Ritual for the Repair of a Temple,” and “Program of the Pageant of the Statue of the God Anu at Uruk.” Prayers, lamentations, and hymns in both Sumerian and Akkadian are extant, addressed to deities such as the goddess Ishtar, the moon god Sin, the sun god Shamash, the great triad Anu, Enlil, and Ea, and the Babylonian patron god Marduk. The Sumerian “Lament for the Destruction of Ur” bemoans the city's fall to Elamites and Subarians. Often the king himself is the spokesman in the text. Wisdom literature, such as proverbs and fables (e.g., “Dispute between the Date Palm and the Tamarisk”), poetic meditations, oracles, divination records, omens, and prophecies are further examples of Mesopotamian genres that only epigraphy has preserved.

            Sumerian and Akkadian narrative literature is likewise of wholly inscriptional transmission. It contains man's earliest preserved literary creations in the Sumerian sequence, especially the texts from tablets found at Nippur. These include the “Paradise myth” of the god Enki and the goddess Ninhursag in the pure, clean, and bright land of Dilmun; the story of Dumuzi and Enkimdu (the petulant shepherd god versus the peace-loving farmer god, inversely reminiscent of the Cain–Abel antagonism in Genesis but not culminating in murder); “The Deluge” with its Noah-hero Ziusudra; “Inanna's Descent to the Nether World,” which prefigures the later Akkadian “Ishtar's Descent”; and the lays of Gilgamesh, which show the Sumerian traditions that were later partly organized and transformed into the Akkadian epic. The latter include “Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish,” a story of confrontation between early Sumerian city-states; “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living”; and “The Death of Gilgamesh,” with its haunting parallelistic refrain “he lies, he rises not.”

            The Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian) attitudes to death differed widely from those of the Egyptians. They were grim and stark: sickness and death were the wages of sin. Although the dead were buried in Mesopotamia, no attempts were made to preserve their bodies.

            According to Mesopotamian mythology, the gods had made humans of clay, but to the clay had been added the flesh and blood of a god specially slaughtered for the occasion. God was, therefore, present in all people. The sole purpose of humanity's creation was to serve the gods, to carry the yoke and labor for them. Offended gods withdrew their support, thereby opening the door to demons, whose activities the malevolent could invoke.

            The main strands of Sumero-Akkadian thought held no prospect of an afterlife, at any rate of a kind that anyone might look forward to. In the Gilgamesh epic, the aging folk hero, haunted by the prospect of his own death, sets off to visit Utnapishtim, who, with his wife, was the only mortal to have achieved immortality. He meets Siduri, the wine maiden, who exhorts him to make the most of the present for “the life which thou seekest thou wilt not find.” There was no judgment after death, a common fate awaiting the good and the bad alike. Death was conceived of in terms of appalling grimness, unrelieved by any hope of salvation through human effort or divine compassion. The dead were, in fact, among the most dreaded beings in early Mesopotamian demonology. In a myth called “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld,” the fertility goddess decides to visit kur-nu-gi-a (“the land of no return”), where the dead “live in darkness, eat clay, and are clothed like birds with wings.” She threatens the doorkeeper: “If thou openest not that I may enter I will smash the doorpost and unhinge the gate. I will lead up the dead, that they may eat the living.” Given this background, it is not surprising that offerings to the dead were made in a spirit of fear; if not propitiated they would return and cause all kinds of damage.

            The Babylonians did not dissect bodies, and their approach to disease and death was spiritual rather than anatomical or physiological. They did not speculate about the functions of organs but considered them the seat of emotions and mental faculties in general. The heart was believed to be the seat of the intellect, the liver of affectivity, the stomach of cunning, the uterus of compassion, and the ears and the eyes of attention. Breathing and life were thought of in the same terms. The Akkadian word napistu was used indifferently to mean “the throat,” “to breathe,” and “life” itself.

Man and his god

            One text from this period, titled Man and his God, has a theme similar to that of Job.


Let his lament soothe the heart of his god

(For) a man without a god would not obtain food.


The author goes on to say:


My righteous word has been turned into a lie…

You have doled out to me suffering ever anew,

I entered the house, heavy is the spirit,

I, the young man, went out to the street oppressed the heart,

With me, the valiant, my righteous shepherd has become angry, has looked upon me inimically,

My herdsman has sought out evil forces against me who am not (his) enemy.


As with Job, the author suggests that his friends are not helpful in his time of suffering:


My companion says not a true word to me,

My friend gives the lie to my righteous word.


He laments his situation:


Food is all about, (yet) my food is hunger,

On the day shares were allotted to all, my allotted share was suffering.

Lo, let not my mother who bore me cease my lament before you,

Let not my sister [utter] the happy song and chant,

Let her utter tearfully my misfortunes before you,

Let my wife voice mournfully my suffering,

Let the expert singer bemoan my bitter fate.

tears, lament, anguish, and depression are lodged within me,

suffering overwhelm me like one who does (nothing but) weep,


He wonders how long this can go on:


How long will you neglect me, leave me unprotected?

How long will you leave me unguided?


He demonstrates repentance at the end of his lament, which brings acceptance by his god.


My god, now that you have shown me my sins …

The man – his bitter weeping was heard by his god,

When the lamentation and wailing that filled him had soothed the heart of his god for the young man,

The righteous words, the artless words uttered by him, his god accepted,

The words which the young man prayerfully confessed,

Pleased the …, the flesh of his god, and his god withdrew his had from the evil word…

The encompassing sickness-demon, which had spread wide its wings, he swept away,

The …, which had smitten him like a …, he dissipated,

The demon of fate, who had been placed there in accordance with his sentence, he turned aside…

Dumuzi and Inanna

            This Sumerian period also has several love poems that remind the read of the Song of Songs in the bible. One text is Dumuzi and Inanna.


I will bring there my sweetheart,

I will bring there Amaushumgalanna,

He will put his hand by my hand,

He will put his heart by my heart,

His putting of hand to hand – its sleep is so refreshing,

His pressing of heart to heart – its pleasure is so sweet.


Another texts expresses this love in the following way.


Last night, as I, the queen, was shining bringt,

Last night, as I, the queen of heaven, was shining bright,

As I was shining bright, as I was dancing about,

As I was uttering a song at the brightening of the oncoming night,

He met me, he met me,

The Lord Kuli-Anna met me,

The lord put his hand into my hand,

Ushumgalanna embraced me.

“Come now, wild bull, set me free, I must go home,

Kuli-Enlil, set me free, I must go home.

“Let me inform you, let me inform you.

Inanna, most deceitful of women, let me inform you:

My girl friend took me with her to the public square,

She entertained me there with music and dancing,

Her chant, the sweet, she sang for me.

In sweet rejoicing I whiled away the time there –

Thus deceitfully stand up to your mother,

While we by the moonlight indulge our passion,

I will prepare for you a bed pure, sweet, and noble,

Will while away the sweet time with you in joyful fulfillment.


Another love song goes like this.


The sun has gone to sleep, the day has passed,

As in bed you gaze lovingly upon him,

As you caress the lord,

Give life unto the lord,

Give the staff and crook unto the lord.

She craves it, she craves it, she craves the bed,

She craves the bed of the rejoicing heart, she craves the bed,

She craves the bed of the sweet lap, she craves the bed,

She craves the bed of queenship, she craves the bed.

By his sweet, by his sweet, by his sweet bed,

By his sweet bed of the rejoicing heart, by his sweet bed.

The beloved speaks on his sweet bed,

Speaks to him words of life, words of long days.

Ninshubur, the trustworthy vizier of the Eanna,

Took him by his right forearm,

Brought him blissfully to the lap of Inanna:

“May the lord whom you have called to your heart,

the king, your beloved husband, enjoy long days at your holy lap, the sweet,

give him a reign favorable and glorious,

give him the throne of kingship on its enduring foundation,

give him the people-directing scepter, the staff and the crook,

give him an enduring crown, a diadem which ennobles the head.


Set me free, my sister

Another poem is Set Me Free, My Sister.


As … the beloved of my eye,

My beloved met me,

Took his pleasure of me, rejoiced together with me.

The brother brought me to his house

Made me lie on its … honey bed,

My precious sweet, having lain by my heart,

In unison, the tongue-making in unison,

My brother of fairest face, made 50 times.

My precious sweet is sated with me.


            This, then, is the horizon of Mesopotamia shortly before the rise of the Akkadian empire. In Mari, writing was introduced at the latest about the mid-26th century BC, and from that time this city, situated on the middle Euphrates, forms an important centre of cuneiform civilization, especially in regard to its Semitic component. Ebla (and probably many other sites in ancient Syria) profited from the influence of Mari scribal schools. Reaching out across the Diyala region and the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamian influences extended to Iran, where Susa is mentioned along with Elam and other, not yet localized, towns. In the west the Amanus Mountains were known, and under Lugalzagesi the “upper sea”—in other words, the Mediterranean—is mentioned for the first time. To the east the inscriptions of Ur-Nanshe of Lagash name the isle of Dilmun (modern Bahrain), which may have been even then a transshipment point for trade with the Oman coast and the Indus region, the Magan and Meluhha of more recent texts. Trade with Anatolia and Afghanistan was nothing new in the 3rd millennium, even if these regions are not yet listed by their names. It was the task of the Akkadian dynasty to unite within these boundaries a territory that transcended the dimensions of a state of the type represented by Lagash.
            According to the Sumerian king list, the first five rulers of
Akkad (Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin, and Shar-kali-sharri) ruled for a total of 142 years; Sargon alone ruled for 56. Although these figures cannot be checked, they are probably trustworthy, because the king list for Ur III, even if 250 years later, did transmit dates that proved to be accurate.

            As stated in an annotation to his name in the king list, Sargon started out as a cupbearer to King Ur-Zababa of Kish. There is an Akkadian legend about Sargon, describing how he was exposed after birth, brought up by a gardener, and later beloved by the goddess Ishtar. Nevertheless, there are no historical data about his career. Yet it is feasible to assume that in his case a high court office served as springboard for a dynasty of his own. The original inscriptions of the kings of Akkad that have come down to posterity are brief, and their geographic distribution generally is more informative than is their content. The main sources for Sargon's reign, with its high points and catastrophes, are copies made by Old Babylonian scribes in Nippur from the very extensive originals that presumably had been kept there. They are in part Akkadian, in part bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian texts. According to these texts, Sargon fought against the Sumerian cities of southern Babylonia, threw down city walls, took prisoner 50 ensis, and “cleansed his weapons in the sea.” He is also said to have captured Lugalzagesi of Uruk, the former ruler of Umma, who had vigorously attacked UruKAgina in Lagash, forcing his neck under a yoke and leading him thus to the gate of the god Enlil at Nippur. “Citizens of Akkad” filled the offices of ensi from the “nether sea” (the Persian Gulf) upward, which was perhaps a device used by Sargon to further his dynastic aims. Aside from the 34 battles fought in the south, Sargon also tells of conquests in northern Mesopotamia: Mari, Tuttul on the Balikh, where he venerated the god Dagan (Dagon), Ebla (Tall Mardikh in Syria), the “cedar forest” (Amanus or Lebanon), and the “silver mountains”; battles in Elam and the foothills of the Zagros are mentioned. Sargon also relates that ships from Meluhha (Indus region), Magan (possibly the coast of Oman), and Dilmun (Bahrain) made fast in the port of Akkad.

            Impressive as they are at first sight, these reports have only a limited value because they cannot be arranged chronologically, and it is not known whether Sargon built a large empire. Akkadian tradition itself saw it in this light, however, and a learned treatise of the late 8th or the 7th century lists no fewer than 65 cities and lands belonging to that empire. Yet, even if Magan and Kapturu (Crete) are given as the eastern and western limits of the conquered territories, it is impossible to transpose this to the 3rd millennium.

            Sargon appointed one of his daughters priestess of the moon god in Ur. She took the name of Enheduanna and was succeeded in the same office by Enmenanna, a daughter of Naram-Sin. Enheduanna must have been a very gifted woman; two Sumerian hymns by her have been preserved, and she is also said to have been instrumental in starting a collection of songs dedicated to the temples of Babylonia.

            Sargon died at a very old age. The inscriptions, also preserved only in copies, of his son Rimush are full of reports about battles fought in Sumer and Iran, just as if there had never been a Sargonic empire. It is not known in detail how rigorously Akkad wished to control the cities to the south and how much freedom had been left to them; but they presumably clung tenaciously to their inherited local autonomy. From a practical point of view, it was probably in any case impossible to organize an empire that would embrace all Mesopotamia.

            Since the reports (i.e., copies of inscriptions) left by Manishtusu, Naram-Sin, and Shar-kali-sharri speak repeatedly of rebellions and victorious battles and since Rimush, Manishtusu, and Shar-kali-sharri are themselves said to have died violent deaths, the problem of what remained of Akkad's greatness obtrudes. Wars and disturbances, the victory of one and the defeat of another, and even regicide constitute only some of the aspects suggested to us by the sources. Whenever they extended beyond the immediate Babylonian neighborhood, the military campaigns of the Akkadian kings were dictated primarily by trade interests instead of being intended to serve the conquest and safeguarding of an empire. Akkad, or more precisely the king, needed merchandise, money, and gold in order to finance wars, buildings, and the system of administration that he had instituted.

            On the other hand, the original inscriptions that have been found so far of a king like Naram-Sin are scattered at sites covering a distance of some 620 miles as the crow flies, following the Tigris downriver: Diyarbakir on the upper Tigris, Nineveh, Tall Birak (Tell Brak) on the upper Khabur River (which had an Akkadian fortress and garrison), Susa in Elam, as well as Marad, Puzrish-Dagan, Adab (Bismayah), Nippur, Ur, and Girsu in Babylonia. Even if all this was not part of an empire, it surely constituted an impressive sphere of influence.

            Also to be considered are other facts that weigh more heavily than high-sounding reports of victories that cannot be verified. After the first kings of the dynasty had borne the title of king of Kish, Naram-Sin assumed the title “king of the four quarters of the earth”—that is, of the universe. As if he were in fact divine, he also had his name written with the cuneiform sign “god,” the divine determinative that was customarily used in front of the names of gods; furthermore, he assumed the title of “god of Akkad.” It is legitimate to ask whether the concept of deification may be used in the sense of elevation to a rank equal to that of the gods. At the very least it must be acknowledged that, in relation to his city and his subjects, the king saw himself in the role played by the local divinity as protector of the city and guarantor of its well-being. In contemporary judicial documents from Nippur, the oath is often taken “by Naram-Sin,” with a formula identical with that used in swearing by a divinity. Documents from Girsu contain Akkadian date formulas of the type “in the year in which Naram-Sin laid the foundations of the Enlil temple at Nippur and of the Inanna temple at Zabalam.” As evidenced by the dating procedures customary in Ur III and in the Old Babylonian period, the use of such formulas presupposes that the respective city acknowledged as its overlord the ruler whose name is invoked.
Akkad, the Akkadian language acquired a literary prestige that made it the equal of Sumerian. Under the influence, perhaps, of an Akkadian garrison at Susa, it spread beyond the borders of Mesopotamia. After having employed for several centuries an indigenous script patterned after cuneiform writing, Elam adopted Mesopotamian script during the Akkadian period and with a few exceptions used it even when writing in Elamite rather than Sumerian or Akkadian. The so-called Old Akkadian manner of writing is extraordinarily appealing from the aesthetic point of view; as late as the Old Babylonian era it served as a model for monumental inscriptions. Similarly, the plastic and graphic arts, especially sculpture in the round, relief work, and cylinder seals, reached a high point of perfection.

            Thus the reign of the five kings of Akkad may be considered one of the most productive periods of Mesopotamian history. Although separatist forces opposed all unifying tendencies, Akkad brought about a broadening of political horizons and dimensions. The period of Akkad fascinated historiographers as did few other eras. Having contributed its share to the storehouse of legend, it has never disappeared from memory. With phrases such as “There will come a king of the four quarters of the earth,” liver omens (soothsaying done by analyzing the shape of a sheep's liver) of the Old Babylonian period express the yearning for unity at a time when Babylonia had once again disintegrated into a dozen or more small states.
            Of the kings after Shar-kali-sharri (c. 2217–c. 2193), only the names and a few brief inscriptions have survived. Quarrels arose over the succession, and the dynasty went under, although modern scholars know as little about the individual stages of this decline as about the rise of
Akkad. Two factors contributed to its downfall: the invasion of the nomadic Amurrus (Amorites), called Martu by the Sumerians, from the northwest, and the infiltration of the Gutians, who came, apparently, from the region between the Tigris and the Zagros Mountains to the east. This argument, however, may be a vicious circle, as these invasions were provoked and facilitated by the very weakness of Akkad. In Ur III the Amorites, in part already sedentary, formed one ethnic component along with Sumerians and Akkadians. The Gutians, on the other hand, played only a temporary role, even if the memory of a Gutian dynasty persisted until the end of the 17th century BC. As a matter of fact, the wholly negative opinion that even some modern historians have of the Gutians is based solely on a few stereotyped statements by the Sumerians and Akkadians, especially on the victory inscription of Utu-hegal of Uruk (c. 2116–c. 2110). While Old Babylonian sources give the region between the Tigris and the Zagros Mountains as the home of the Gutians, these people probably also lived on the middle Euphrates during the 3rd millennium. According to the Sumerian king list, the Gutians held the “kingship” in southern Mesopotamia for about 100 years. It has long been recognized that there is no question of a whole century of undivided Gutian rule and that some 50 years of this rule coincided with the final half century of Akkad. From this period there has also been preserved a record of a “Gutian interpreter.” As it is altogether doubtful whether the Gutians had made any city of southern Mesopotamia their “capital” instead of controlling Babylonia more or less informally from outside, scholars cautiously refer to “viceroys” of this people. The Gutians have left no material records, and the original inscriptions about them are so scanty that no binding statements about them are possible.

            The Gutians' influence probably did not extend beyond Umma. The neighbouring state of Lagash enjoyed a century of complete independence, between Shar-kali-sharri and the beginning of Ur III, during which time it showed expansionist tendencies and had widely ranging trade connections. Of the ensi Gudea, a contemporary of Ur-Nammu of Ur III, there are extant writings, exclusively Sumerian in language, which are of inestimable value. He had the time, power, and means to carry out an extensive program of temple construction during his reign, and in a hymn divided into two parts and preserved in two clay cylinders 12 inches (30 centimetres) high he describes explicitly the reconstruction of Eninnu, the temple of the god Ningirsu. Comprising 1,363 lines, the text is second in length only to Eannatum's Stele of Vultures among the literary works of the Sumerians up to that time. While Gudea forges a link, in his literary style, with his country's pre-Sargonic period, his work also bears the unmistakable stamp of the period of Akkad. Thus, the regions that furnish him building materials reflect the geographic horizon of the empire of Akkad, and the ensi's title “god of his city” recalls the “god of Akkad” (Naram-Sin). The building hymn contains interesting particulars about the work force deployed. “Levies” were organized in various parts of the country, and the city of Girsu itself “followed the ensi as though it were a single man.” Unfortunately lacking are synchronous administrative archives of sufficient length to provide less summarily compiled information about the social structure of Lagash at the beginning of the 3rd dynasty of Ur. After the great pre-Sargonic archives of the Baba temple at Girsu, only the various administrative archives of the kings of Ur III give a closer look at the functioning of a Mesopotamian state.
            Utu-hegal of Uruk is given credit for having overthrown Gutian rule by vanquishing their king Tiriqan along with two generals. Utu-hegal calls himself lord of the four quarters of the earth in an inscription, but this title, adopted from
Akkad, is more likely to signify political aspiration than actual rule. Utu-hegal was a brother of the Ur-Nammu who founded the 3rd dynasty of Ur (“3rd” because it is the third time that Ur is listed in the Sumerian king list). Under Ur-Nammu and his successors Shulgi, Amar-Su'ena, Shu-Sin, and Ibbi-Sin, this dynasty lasted for a century (c. 2112–c. 2004). Ur-Nammu was at first “governor” of the city of Ur under Utu-hegal. How he became king is not known, but there may well be some parallels between his rise and the career of Ishbi-Erra of Isin or, indeed, that of Sargon. By eliminating the state of Lagash, Ur-Nammu caused the coveted overseas trade (Dilmun, Magan, and Meluhha) to flow through Ur. As evidenced by a new royal title that he was the first to bear—that of “king of Sumer and Akkad”—he had built up a state that comprised at least the southern part of Mesopotamia. Like all great rulers, he built much, including the very impressive ziggurats of Ur and Uruk, which acquired their final monumental dimensions in his reign.

            Assyriologists have given the name of Code of Ur-Nammu to a literary monument that is the oldest known example of a genre extending through the Code of Lipit-Ishtar in Sumerian to the Code of Hammurabi, written in Akkadian. (Some scholars have attributed it to Ur-Nammu's son Shulgi.) It is a collection of sentences or verdicts mostly following the pattern of “If A [assumption], it follows that B [legal consequence].” The collection is framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The original was most likely a stela, but all that is known of the Code of Ur-Nammu so far are Old Babylonian copies. The term code as used here is conventional terminology and should not give the impression of any kind of “codified” law; furthermore, the content of the Code of Ur-Nammu is not yet completely known. It deals, among other things, with adultery by a married woman, the defloration of someone else's female slave, divorce, false accusation, the escape of slaves, bodily injury, and the granting of security, as well as with legal cases arising from agriculture and irrigation.

            Before its catastrophic end under Ibbi-Sin, the state of Ur III does not seem to have suffered setbacks and rebellions as grievous as those experienced by Akkad. There are no clear indications pointing to inner unrest, although it must be remembered that the first 20 years of Shulgi's reign are still hidden in darkness. However, from that point on until the beginning of Ibbi-Sin's reign, or for a period of 50 years at least, the sources give the impression of peace enjoyed by a country that lived undisturbed by encroachments from abroad. Some expeditions were sent into foreign lands, to the region bordering on the Zagros, to what later became Assyria, and to the vicinity of Elam, in order to secure the importation of raw materials, in a fashion reminiscent of Akkad. Force seems to have been employed only as a last resort, and every attempt was made to bring about peaceful conditions on the other side of the border through the dispatch of embassies or the establishment of family bonds—for example, by marrying the king's daughters to foreign rulers.

            Shulgi, too, called himself king of the four quarters of the earth. Although he resided in Ur, another important centre was in Nippur, whence—according to the prevailing ideology—Enlil, the chief god in the Sumerian state pantheon, had bestowed on Shulgi the royal dignity. Shulgi and his successors enjoyed divine honours, as Naram-Sin of Akkad had before them; by now, however, the process of deification had taken on clearer outlines in that sacrifices were offered and chapels built to the king and his throne, while the royal determinative turned up in personal names. Along with an Utu-hegal (“The Sun God Is Exuberance”) there appears a Shulgi-hegal (“Shulgi Is Exuberance”), and so forth.
            The highest official of the state was the sukkal-mah, literally “supreme courier,” whose position may be described as “(state) chancellor.” The empire was divided into some 40 provinces ruled by as many ensis, who, despite their far-reaching authority (civil administration and judicial powers), were no longer autonomous, even if only indirectly, although the office was occasionally handed down from father to son. They could not enter into alliances or wage wars on their own. The ensis were appointed by the king and could probably also be transferred by him to other provinces. Each of these provinces was obliged to pay a yearly tribute, the amount of which was negotiated by emissaries. Of special significance in this was a system called bala, “cycle” or “rotation,” in which the ensis of the southern provinces took part; among other things, they had to keep the state stockyards supplied with sacrificial animals. Although the “province” often corresponded to a former city-state, many others were no doubt newly established. The so-called land-register text of Ur-Nammu describes four such provinces north of
Nippur, giving the precise boundaries and ending in each case with the statement, “King Ur-Nammu has confirmed the field of the god XX for the god XX.” In some cities, notably in Uruk, Mari, or Der (near Badrah, Iraq), the administration was in the hands of a šakkana, a man whose title is rendered partly by “governor” and partly by “general.”

            The available histories are practically unanimous in seeing in Ur III a strongly centralized state marked by the king's position as absolute ruler. Nevertheless, some caution is indicated. For one thing, the need to deal as carefully as possible with the ensis must not be underestimated. A further question arises from the borders between and relative extent of the “public” and the “private” sector; the latter's importance may have been underrated as well. What is meant by “private” sector is a population group with land of its own and with revenues not directly granted by a temple or a “palace,” such as by the king's or an ensi's household. The traditional picture is derived from the sources, the state archives of Puzrish-Dagan, a gigantic “stockyard” situated outside the gates of Nippur, which supplied the city's temples with sacrificial animals but inevitably also comprised a major wool and leather industry; other such archives are those of Umma, Girsu, Nippur, and Ur. All these activities were overseen by a finely honed bureaucracy that stressed the use of official channels, efficient administration, and precise accounting. The various administrative organs communicated with one another by means of a smoothly functioning network of messengers. Although almost 24,000 documents referring to the economy of Ur III have so far been published, the majority of them are still waiting to be properly evaluated. Nor is there yet a serviceable typology for them; only when that has been drawn up will it be possible to write a book entitled “The Economic System of Ur III.” Represented in the main by contracts (loans, leases of temple land, the purchase of slaves, and the like), the “private” sector makes up only a small part of this mass of textual material. Neither can the sites at which discoveries have been made so far be taken as representative. In northern Babylonia, for example, scarcely any contemporary written documents have yet been recovered.
            From the ethnic point of view,
Mesopotamia was as heterogeneous at the end of the 3rd millennium as it had been earlier. The Akkadian element predominated, and the proportion of speakers of Akkadian to speakers of Sumerian continued to change in favour of the former. The third group, first mentioned under Shar-kali-sharri of Akkad, are the Amorites. In Ur III some members of this people are already found in the higher echelons of the administration, but most of them, organized in tribes, still led a nomadic life. Their great days came in the Old Babylonian period. While clearly differing linguistically from Akkadian, the Amorite language, which can be reconstructed to some extent from more than a thousand proper names, is fairly closely related to the so-called Canaanite branch of the Semitic languages, of which it may in fact represent an older form. The fact that King Shu-Sin had a regular wall built clear across the land, the “wall that keeps out the Tidnum” (the name of a tribe), shows how strong the pressure of the nomads was in the 21st century and what efforts were made to check their influx. The fourth major ethnic group was the Hurrians, who were especially important in northern Mesopotamia and in the vicinity of modern Kirkuk.

            It is likely that the geographic horizon of the empire of Ur III did not materially exceed that of the empire of Akkad. No names of localities in the interior of Anatolia have been found, but there was much coming and going of messengers between Mesopotamia and Iran, far beyond Elam. There is also one mention of Gubla (Byblos) on the Mediterranean coast. Oddly enough, there is no evidence of any relations with Egypt, either in Ur III or in the Old Babylonian period. It is odd if no contacts existed at the end of the 3rd millennium between the two great civilizations of the ancient Middle East.

            Intellectual life at the time of Ur III must have been very active in the cultivation and transmission of older literature, as well as in new creations. Although its importance as a spoken tongue was slowly diminishing, Sumerian still flourished as a written language, a state of affairs that continued into the Old Babylonian period. As shown by the hymn to the deified king, new literary genres arose in Ur III. If Old Babylonian copies are any indication, the king's correspondence with leading officials was also of a high literary level.

            In the long view, the 3rd dynasty of Ur did not survive in historical memory as vigorously as did Akkad. To be sure, Old Babylonian historiography speaks of Ur III as bala-Šulgi, the “(reigning) cycle of Shulgi”; however, there is nothing that would correspond to the epic poems about Sargon and Naram-Sin. The reason is not clear, but it is conceivable that the later, purely Akkadian population felt a closer identification with Akkad than with a state that to a large extent still made use of the Sumerian language.
            The decline of Ur III is an event in Mesopotamian history that can be followed in greater detail than other stages of that history thanks to sources such as the royal correspondence, two elegies on the destruction of Ur and Sumer, and an archive from Isin that shows how Ishbi-Erra, as usurper and king of Isin, eliminated his former overlord in Ur. Ibbi-Sin was waging war in
Elam when an ambitious rival came forward in the person of Ishbi-Erra from Mari, presumably a general or high official. By emphasizing to the utmost the danger threatening from the Amorites, Ishbi-Erra urged the king to entrust to him the protection of the neighbouring cities of Isin and Nippur. Ishbi-Erra's demand came close to extortion, and his correspondence shows how skillfully he dealt with the Amorites and with individual ensis, some of whom soon went over to his side. Ishbi-Erra also took advantage of the depression that the king suffered because the god Enlil “hated him,” a phrase presumably referring to bad omens resulting from the examination of sacrificed animals, on which procedure many rulers based their actions (or, as the case may be, their inaction). Ishbi-Erra fortified Isin and, in the 10th year of Ibbi-Sin's reign, began to employ his own dating formulas on documents, an act tantamount to a renunciation of loyalty. Ishbi-Erra, for his part, believed himself to be the favourite of Enlil, the more so as he ruled over Nippur, where the god had his sanctuary. In the end he claimed suzerainty over all of southern Mesopotamia, including Ur.

            While Ishbi-Erra purposefully strengthened his domains, Ibbi-Sin continued for 14 more years to rule over a decreasing portion of the land. The end of Ur came about through a concatenation of misfortunes: A famine broke out, and Ur was besieged, taken, and destroyed by the invading Elamites and their allies among the Iranian tribes. Ibbi-Sin was led away captive, and no more was heard of him. The elegies record in moving fashion the unhappy end of Ur, the catastrophe that had been brought about by the wrath of Enlil.

            The Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh is divided into 12 tablets, the longest of which is more than 300 lines; this “Flood Tablet” (the 11th) is virtually intact and comes, like almost all Assyrian-language Gilgamesh texts, from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (7th century BC). From the 2nd millennium there are fragments of a Hittite version from Bogazköy, as well as minor traces of a Hurrian translation. Old Babylonian correspondences to tablets 1–3 and 10 are found on a tablet from Sippar (c. 1800 BC). The 12th tablet is a literal translation from Sumerian, whereas the rest amounts to a self-contained Akkadian epic original, based on Sumerian motifs but with a thrust of its own. The most complete reconstruction involves a combination of Assyrian, Old Babylonian, and Hittite versions.

            The other famous Mesopotamian epic, Enuma elish, “When on high,” details the story of cosmic creation and of how Marduk became the great god of Babylon; it had more immediate cultic attachments because its recitation formed part of the New Year festival.

            Further Akkadian literary creation is attested in the epic of Atrahasis, a tale of mankind's punishment through pestilence and flood, preserved in fragmentary Old Babylonian and Assyrian versions. The story of Adapa, found in parts in the Tell el-Amarna archives and the library of Ashurbanipal, is similar to Gilgamesh's quest for immortality. The myth of Zu deals with the theft of the tables of fate and the usurpation of almightiness by the bird god Zu. The legend of Etana, a namesake of the shepherd-king who ascended to heaven in the mythical postdiluvian Sumerian dynasty of Kish, recounts in its Old Babylonian and Assyrian recensions the heavenly flight of Etana on the wings of an eagle in order to acquire the magic birth plant that would cure his childlessness. Death-oriented themes appear in the tale of Ishtar's descent, in the story of Nergal and Ereshkigal, and in various netherworld texts associated with the Tammuz myth and liturgy.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

            The Epic of Gilgamesh shows the climactic struggle of the protagonist to change his eventual fate, by learning the secret of immortality from the hero of the Great Flood of long ago, ends in failure. However, with the failure comes a sense of quiet resignation. It antedates the first millennium BC. It may date from middle of the second millennium. However, the Akkadian version is around 2000 BC.


Tablet I, ii

            Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.


Tablet III

Gilgamesh opened his mouth,

Saying to Enkidu:

“Who, my friend can scale heaven?

Only the gods live forever under the sun.

As for humankind, numbered are their days;

Whatever they achieve is but the wind!

Even here thou art afraid of death.

What of they heroic might?

Let me go then before thee,

Let thy mouth call to me, ‘Advance, fear not!’

Should I fall, I shall have made me a name:

‘Gilgamesh’ – they will say – against fierce Huwawa

has fallen!’ Long after

my offspring has been born in my house.”


Tablet VI

When Gilgamesh had put on his tiara,

Glorious Ishtar raised an eye at the beauty of Gilgamesh:

“Come, Gilgamesh, be thou my lover!

Do but grant me of they fruit.

Thou shalt be my husband and I will be thy wife.

I will harness for thee a chariot of lapis and gold,

Whose wheels are gold and whose horns are brass.


When Ishtar heard this,

Ishtar was enraged and mounted to heaven.

Forth went Ishtar before Anu, her father,

To Antum, her mother, she went and said:

“My father, Gilgamesh has heaped insults upon me!

Gilgamesh has recounted my stinking deeds,

My stench and my foulness.”


Tablet X, iii, is a text similar to Eclesiastes.

“Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?

The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.

When the gods created humankind,

Death for humankind they set aside,

Life in their own hands retaining.

Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly,

Make thou merry by day and by night.

Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,

Day and night dance thou and play!

Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,

Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.

Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,

Let thy spouse delight in the bosom!

For this is the task of humankind!


Tablet X, vi, is a text with similarities to Ecclesiastes.

“Do we build a house forever?

            Do we seal contracts forever?

Do brothers divide shares forever?

Does hatred persist forever in the land?

Does the river forever raise up and bring on floods?

The dragon-fly leaves its shell

That its face might but glance at the face of the sun.

Since the days of yore there has been no permanence;

The resting and the dead, how alike they are!

Do they not compose a picture of death,

The commoner and the noble,

            Once they are near to their fate?

The Anunnaki, the great gods, foregather;

Mammetum, maker of fate, with them the fate decrees:

Death and life they determine.

But of death, its days are not revealed.”


Tablet XI is a text similar to the building of the Ark in Genesis.

Utnapishtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:

“I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter

and a secret of the gods will I tell thee:

That city was ancient, as were the gods within it,

When their heart led the great gods to produce the flood.

man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tuto,

tear down this house, build a ship!

Give up possessions, seek thou life.

Forswear worldly goods and keep the soul alive!

Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things>

The ship that thou shalt build,

Her dimensions shall be to measure.

Equal shall be her width and her length.

Like the Apsu thou shalt ceil her.

I understood, and I said to Ea, my lord:

‘Behold, my lord, what thou hast thus ordered,

I will be honored to carry out.

But what shall I answer the city, the people and elders?’

Ea opened his mouth to speak,

Saying to me, his servant:

‘Thou shalt then thus speak unto them:

I have learned that Enlil is hostile to me,

So that I cannot reside in your city,

Nor set my foot in Enlil’s territory.

To the Deep I will therefore go down,

            To dwell with my lord Ea.

But upon you he will shower down abundance,

The choicest birds, the rarest fishes.

The land shall have its fill of harvest riches.

He who at dusk orders the husk-greens,

Will shower down upon you a rain of wheat.

Whatever I had I laded upon her:

Whatever I had of silver I laded upon her;

Whatever I had of gold I laded uponher;

Whatever I had of all the living beings I laded upon her.

All my family and kin I made go aboard the ship.

The beasts of the field, the wild creatures of the field,

            All the craftsmen I made go aboard.

Shamash had set for me a stated time:

When he who orders unease at night,

Boardthou the ship and batten up the entrance!

That stated time had arrived:

‘He who orders unease at night, showers down a rain of blight.’

I watched the appearance of the weather.

The weather was awesome to behold.

I boarded the ship and battened up the entrance.

The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased.

I looked at the weather: stillness had set in,

And all of humankind had returned to clay.

The landscape was as level as a flat roof.

I opened a hatch, and light fell upon my face.

Bowing low, I sat and wept,

Tears running down on my face.

I looked about for coast lines in the expanse of the sea:

In each of fourteen regions

            There emerged a region mountain.

On Mount Nisir of the ship came to a halt.

Then I sent forth and set free a raven.

The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished,

He eats, circles, caws, and turns not round.

Ea opened his mouth to speak,

            Saying to valiant Enlil:

Thou wisest of gods, thou hero,

How couldst thou, unreasoning, bring on the deluge?

On the sinner impose his sin,

            On the transgressor impose his transgression!

Yet be lenient, lest he be cut off,

Be patient, lest he be dislodged!

Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,

            Would that a lion had risen up to diminish humankind!

Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,

            Would that a wolf had risen up to diminish humankind!

Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,

            Would that a famine had risen up to lay low humankind!

Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,

            Would that pestilence had risen up to smite down humankind!

It was not I who disclosed the secret of the great gods.

Babylonian Theodicy

            From this period is a text known as The Babylonian Theodicy, a text similar in theme to that of Job. It contains a dialogue between a sufferer and his friends. The sufferer says:


I am finished. Anguish has come upon me.

When I was still a child, fate took my father;

My mother who bore me went to the Land of No Return.

My father and mother left me without anyone to be my guardian.


My body is … hunger is my fear;

My success has vanished, my stability has gone.

My strength is weakened, my prosperity has ended,

Moaning and trouble have darkened my features.

The grain of my fields is far from satisfying me …


His friends are not helpful to him.


Dearest friend, you advice is good.

Just one word would I put before you.

Those who do not seek the god go the way of prosperity,

While those who pray to the goddess become destitute and impoverished.

In my youth I tried to find the will of my god;

With prostration and prayer I sought my goddess.

But I was pulling a yoke in a useless corvee.

My god decreed poverty instead of wealth for me.

A cripple does better than I, a dullard keeps ahead of me.

The rogue has been promoted, but I have been brought low.


Like the friends of Job, the friend of this sufferer accuses him of wrongdoing.


My just, knowledgeable friend, your thoughts are perverse.

You have now forsaken justice and blaspheme against your god’s plans.

In your mind you think of disregarding the divine ordinances.


The friend also considers that the scales of justice will be balanced.


The rogue who has acquired wealth in a manner which is against the will of the gods

Is persecuted by a murderer’s weapon.

Unless you seek the will of the god, what success can you have?

He that bears his god’s yoke never lacks food, even though it be sparse.

Seek the favorable breath of the god,

What you have lost in a year you will make up in a moment.


The sufferer does not think the gods care about justice.


I have looked around in the world, but things are turned around.

The god does not impede the way of even a demon.

What has it profited me that I have bowed down to my god?

I must bow even to a person who is lower than I,

The rich and opulent treat me, as a youngest brother, with contempt.


The friend suggests the heart of the one who suffers is wrong.


O wise one, O savant, who masters knowledge,

Your heart has become hardened and you accuse the god wrongly.

The mind of the god, like the center of the heavens, is remote;

Knowledge of it is very difficult; people cannot know it.


The sufferer protests his innocence.


You are kind, my friend; behold my trouble,

Help me; look on my distress; know it.

I, though humble, wise, and a suppliant,

Have not seen help or aid even for a moment.

May the god who has abandoned me give help,

May the goddess who has forsaken me show mercy,

The shepherd, the sun of the people, pastures his flock as a god should.


Counsels of Wisdom

            Another work from the same period is Counsels of Wisdom. This text offers some guidance on talk.


Do not talk with a tale bearer,

Do not consult … who is an idler;

Because of your good qualities, you will be made into an example for them.

Then you will reduce your own work, forsake your path,

And will let your wise, modest opinion be perverted.

Let your mouth be restrained and your speech guarded;

That is a man’s pride – let what you say be very precious.

Do not speak ill, speak only good.

Do not say evil things, speak well of people.

Do not talk too freely, watch what you say.

Do not express your innermost thoughts even when you are alone.

What you say in haste you may regret later.

Exert yourself to restrain your speech.


The text gives counsel in terms of social relationships.


Do not return evil to your adversary;

Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you,

Maintain justice for your enemy,

Be friendly to your enemy.

Do good things, be kind all your days.

Do not honor a slave girl in your house.

Do not marry a prostitute, whose husbands are legion.


The text offers counsel in religious practices.


Worship your god every day.

Sacrifice and pious utterance are the proper accompaniment of incense.

Have a freewill offering for your god,

For this is proper toward a god.

Prayer, supplication, and prostration

Offer him daily, then your prayer will be granted,

And you will be in harmony with your god.

Reverence begets favor,

Sacrifice improves life

And prayer dispels guilt.


I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom

            Another text from the Akkadian period is I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom. The text offers a lament.


I will praise the lord of wisdom, the deliberative god,

Who lays hold of the night, but frees the day,

Marduk, the lord of wisdom, the deliberative god,

Who lays hold of the night, but frees the day,

Whose fury surrounds him like a storm wind,

But whose breeze is as pleasant as a morning zephyr,

Whose anger is irresistible, whose rage is a devastating food,

But whose heart is merciful, whose mind forgiving.


The text laments that god has forsaken the author.


My god has forsaken me and disappeared,

My goddess has cut me off and stayed removed from me.

The benevolent spirit who was always beside me, has departed,

My protective spirit has flown away and seeks someone else.

My dignity has been taken away, my manly good looks jeopardized,

My pride has been cut off, my protection has skipped off.

Terrifying omens have been brought upon me,

I was put out of my house and wandered about outside.


Others conspire against him.


They gather together telling things that ought not be said.

Thus the first, “I have made him want to end his life.”

The second says, “I made him vacate his post.”

Likewise the third, “I shall take over his position.”

“I will take over his house,” says the fourth.

They are one in flesh, united in purpose.

Their hearts rage against me and they are ablaze like fire.

They agree on slander and lies about me.

They have sought to muzzle my respectful mouth.


The author laments his present condition, especially as it compares to his previous good fortune.


I, whose lips always prattled, have become like a mute.

My hearty shout is reduced to silence,

My proud head is bowed to the ground,

Fear has weakened my brave heart.

Even a youngster has turned back my broad chest.

I, who used to walk like a proud man, have learned to slip by unnoticed.

Though I was a respectable man, I have become a slave.

To my many relations I have become like a recluse.

If I walk the street, fingers are pointed at me;

If I enter the palace, eyes blink.

My own town looks on me as an enemy;

Even my land is savage and hostile.

My friend has become a stranger,

My companion has become an evil person and a demon.

In his rage my comrade denounces me,

Constantly my associate furbishes his weapons.

My close friend has brought my life into danger;

My slave has publicly cursed me in the assembly.

When someone who knows me sees me, he passes by on the other side.

My family treats me as if I were not related to them,

The grave is ready for anyone who speaks well of me,

But he who speaks ill of me is promoted.

The one who slanders me has the god’s help;

I have no one to go at my side, nor have I found anyone understanding.

They divided all my possessions among foreign riffraff.

They stopped up the source of my canal with silt.

They have stopped the joyous harvest song in my fields,

And silenced my city like an enemy city.

They have let another take over my duties,

They appointed someone else to be present at the rites where I should be.

By day there is sighing, by night lamentation,

The month is waililng, the year is gloom.

I moan like a dove all day long.

Instead of singing a song I groan loudly.

My ill luck increases and I cannot find what is right.

As for me, exhausted, a windstorm is driving me on!

Debilitating Disease is let loose upon me:

An Evil Wind has blown from the horizon.

My malady is indeed protracted.

Through not eating, my looks have become strange,

My flesh is flaccid, and my blood has ebbed away.

My bones look separated, and are covered only with my skin.

My house has become my prison.

My arms are powerless – my own flesh is a manacle,

My feet are fallen flat – my own person is a fetter.

My afflictions are grievous, my wound is severe.

A whip full of needles has struck me,

The goad that pricked my was covered with barbs.

All day long the tormentor torments me,

And at night he does not let me breathe easily for a minute.

Through twisting my joints are parted,

My limbs are splayed and knocked apart.


The author calls to god, but god does not answer.


I called to my god, but he did not show his face,

I called to my goddess, but she did not raise her head.

For myself, I gave attention to supplication and prayer:

My prayer was discretion, sacrifice my rule.

The day for worshipping the god was a joy to my heart;

The day of the goddess’s procession was profit and gain to me.

The king’s blessing – that was my joy,

And the accompanying music became a delight for me.

I had my land keep the god’s rites,

And brought my people to value the goddess’s name.

I made the praise for the king like a god’s,

And taught the people respect for the palace.

I wish I knew that these things would be pleasing to one’s god!

My god has not come to the rescue nor taken me by the hand;

My goddess has not shown pity on me nor gone by my side.

My grave was waiting, and my funerary paraphernalia ready,

Before I was even dead lamentation for me was finished.

All my country said, “How he is crushed!”

The face of him who gloats lit up when he heard,

The news reached her who gloats, and her heart rejoiced.


Finally, however, god answers the prayer.


He who has done wrong in respect to Esagil, let him learn from me!

It was Marduk who put a muzzle on the mouth of the lion who was eating me.

It was Marduk who took away the sling of the one who was pursuing me and turned back his sling-stone.

The Lord took hold of me,

The Lord set me on my feet,

The Lord restored me to health,

He rescued me from the pit,

He summoned me from destruction.

Humanity, all of it, gives praise to Marduk!

Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 2000 BC)

26                If a man gives bride-money for another man’s daughter, but another man seizes her forcibly without asking the permission of her father and her mother and deprives her of her virginity, it is a capital offence and he shall die.

27                If a man takes another man’s daughter without asking the permission of her father and her mother and concludes no formal marriage contract with her father and her mother, even though she may live in his house for a year, she is not a housewife.

28                On the other hand, if he concludes a normal contract with her father and her mother and cohabits with her, she is a housewife. When she is caught with another man, she shall die, she shall not get away alive.

59        if a man divorces his wife after having made her bear children and takes another wife, he shall be driven from his house and from whatever he owns and may go after him who will accept him.

Code of Hammurabi (1700’s BC)

            This code has several significant parallels to the Old Testament legislation. The use of “seignior” is a term for a free person.


1                    If a seignior accused another seignior and brought a charge of murder against him, but has not proved it, his accuser shall be put to death.

8          If a seignior stole either an ox or a sheep or an ass or a pig or a boat, if it belonged to the church or if it belonged to the state, he shall make thirtyfold restitution; if it belonged to a private citizen, he shall make good tenfold. If the thief does not have sufficient to make restitution, he shall be put to death.

Exodus 20:15 (NRSV)

15 You shall not steal.

Deuteronomy 5:19 (NRSV)

19 Neither shall you steal.

Deuteronomy 22:1-4 (NRSV)

 You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. 2 If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. 3 You shall do the same with a neighbor’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbor’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.

4 You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.

Leviticus 19:11 (NRSV)

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

Leviticus 19:13 (NRSV)

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.

14        If a seignior has stole the young son of another seignior, he shall be put to death.

15        If a seignior has helped either a male slave of the state or a female slave of the state or a male slave of a private citizen or a female slave or a private citizen to escape through the city-gate, he shall be put to death.

Exodus 21:16 (NRSV)

Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

Deuteronomy 24:7 (NRSV)

 If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

21        If a seignior made a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and wall him in.

Exodus 22:2-3 (NRSV)

2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.

22        If a seignior committed robbery and has been caught, that seignior shall be put to death.

23        If the robber has not been caught, the robbed seignior shall be set forth the particulars regarding his lost property in the presence of god, and the city and governor, in whose territory and district the robbery was committed, shall make good to him his lost property.

24        If it was a life that was lost, the city and governor shall pay one mina of silver to his people.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 (NRSV)

 If, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3 The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4 the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6 All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8 Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

34        If either a sergeant or a captain has appropriated the household goods of a soldier, has wronged a soldier, has let a soldier for hier, has abandoned a soldier to a superior in a lawsuit, has appropriated the grant which the king gave to a soldier, that sergeant or captain shall be put to death.

38        In no case may a soldier, a commissary, or a feudatory deed any of his field, orchard, or house belonging to his field, orchard, or house belonging to his fief to his wife or daughter, and in no case may he assign them for an obligation of his.

57        If a shepherd has not come to an agreement with the owner of a field to pasture sheep on the grass, but has pastured sheep on the field without the consent of the owner of the field, when the owner of the field harvests his field, the shepherd who pastured the sheep on the field without the consent of the owner of the field shall give in addition twenty kur of grain per eighteen iku to the owner of the field.

60        If, when a seignior gave a field to a gardener to set out an orchard, the gardener set out the orchard, he shall develop the orchard for four years; in the fifth year the owner of the orchard and the gardener shall divide equally, with the owner of the orchard receiving his preferential share.

117      If an obligation came due against a seignior and he sold the services of his wife, his son, or his daughter, or he has been bound over to service, they shall work in the house of their purchaser or oblige for three years, with their freedom reestablished in the fourth year.

Exodus 21:2-11 (NRSV)

2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Deuteronomy 15:12-18 (NRSV)

12 If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. 13 And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. 14 Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. 16 But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever.

You shall do the same with regard to your female slave.

18 Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

126      If the seignior’s property was not lost, but he has declared, “My property is lost,” thus deceiving his city council, his city council shall set forth the facts regarding him in the presence of god, that his property was not lost, and he shall give to his city council double whatever he laid claim to.

Ruth 3:11 (NRSV)

11 And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.

Ruth 4:10 (NRSV)

10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.”

129      If the wife of a seignior has been caught while lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water. If the husband of the woman wishes to spare his wife, then the king in turn may spare his subject.

Deuteronomy 22:22 (NRSV)

22 If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

130      If a seignior bound the betrothed wife of another seignior, who had had no intercourse with a male and was still living in her father’s house, and he has lain in her bosom and they have caught him, that seignior shall be put to death, while that woman shall go free.

Deuteronomy 22:23-27 (NRSV)

23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. 27 Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.

132      If the finger was pointed at the wife of a seignior because of another man, but she has not been caught while lying with the other man, she shall throw herself into the river for the sake of her husband.

Numbers 5:11-31 (NRSV)

11 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 12 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; 14 if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

16 Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord; 17 the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the woman’s hair, and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, “If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you,” 21 —let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—“the Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; 22 now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”

23 Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain. 25 The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar; 26 and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.

29 This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife; then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.

138      If a seignior wishes to divorce his wife who did not bear him children, he shall give her money to the full amount of her marriage-price and he shall also make good to her the dowry which she brought from her father’s house and then he may divorce her.

154      If a seignior has had intercourse with his daughter, they shall make that seignior leave the city.

Leviticus 18:6-18 (NRSV)

6 None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord. 7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father. 9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad. 10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s flesh. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law: she is your son’s wife; you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are yourflesh; it is depravity. 18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.

Leviticus 20:10-21 (NRSV)

10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. 11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion, their blood is upon them. 13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 14 If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. 15 If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. 16 If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.

17 If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. 18 If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has laid bare her flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people. 19 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to lay bare one’s own flesh; they shall be subject to punishment. 20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall be subject to punishment; they shall die childless. 21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

Deuteronomy 27:20 (NRSV)

20 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Deuteronomy 27:22-23 (NRSV)

22 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

23 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

155      If a seignior chose a bride for his son and his son had intercourse with her, but later he himself has lain in her bosom and they have caught him, they shall bind that seignior and throw him into the water.

156      If a seignior chose a bride for his son and his son did not have intercourse with her, but he himself has lain in her bosom, he shall pay to her one-half mina of silver and he shall also make good to her whatever she brought from her father’s house in order that the man of her choice may marry her.

157      If a seignior has lain in the bosom of his mother after the death of his father, they shall born both of them.

195      If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand.

Exodus 21:15 (NRSV)

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

197      If he has broken another seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.

198      If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina of silver.

199      If he has destroyed the eye of a seignior’s slave or broken the bone of a seignior’s slave, he shall pay one-half his value.

209      If a seignior struck another seignior’s daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus.

Exodus 21:22-25 (NRSV)

22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

210      If that woman has died, they shall put his daughter to death.

Egypt Before 2000 BC

            The first king of the 4th dynasty, Snefru, probably built the step pyramid of Maydum and then modified it to form the first true pyramid. Due west of Maydum was the small step pyramid of Saylah, in the Fayyum, at which Snefru also worked. He built two pyramids at Dahshur; the southern of the two is known as the Bent Pyramid because its upper part has a shallower angle of inclination than its lower part. This difference may be due to structural problems or may have been planned from the start, in which case the resulting profile may reproduce a solar symbol of creation. The northern Dahshur pyramid, the later of the two, has the same angle of inclination as the upper part of the Bent Pyramid and a base area exceeded only by that of the Great Pyramid. Both pyramids had mortuary complexes attached to them. Snefru's building achievements were thus at least as great as those of any later king and introduced a century of unparalleled construction.

            In a long perspective, the 4th dynasty was an isolated phenomenon, a period when the potential of centralization was realized to its utmost and a disproportionate amount of the state's resources was used on the kings' mortuary provisions, almost certainly at the expense of general living standards. No significant 4th-dynasty sites have been found away from the Memphite area. Tomb inscriptions show that high officials were granted estates scattered over many nomes, especially in the Delta. This pattern of landholding may have avoided the formation of local centres of influence while encouraging intensive exploitation of the land. People who worked on these estates were not free to move, and they paid a high proportion of their earnings in dues and taxes. The building enterprises must have relied on drafting vast numbers of men, probably after the harvest had been gathered in the early summer and during part of the inundation.

            Snefru's was the first king's name that was regularly written inside the cartouche, an elongated oval that is one of the most characteristic Egyptian symbols. The cartouche itself is older and was shown as a gift bestowed by gods on the king, signifying long duration on the throne. It soon acquired associations with the sun, so that its first use by the builder of the first true pyramid, which is probably also a solar symbol, is not coincidental.

            Snefru's successor, Khufu (Cheops), built the Great Pyramid at Giza, to which were added the slightly smaller second pyramid of one of Khufu's sons, Khafre (more correctly Rekhaef, the Chephren of Greek sources), and that of Menkaure (Mycerinus). Khufu's successor, his son Redjedef, began a pyramid at Abu Ruwaysh, and a king of uncertain name began one at Zawyat al-'Aryan. The last known king of the dynasty (there was probably one further), Shepseskaf, built a monumental mastaba at south Saqqarah and was the only Old Kingdom ruler not to begin a pyramid. These works, especially the Great Pyramid, show a great mastery of monumental stoneworking: individual blocks were large or colossal and were very accurately fitted to one another. Surveying and planning also were carried out with remarkable precision.

            Apart from the colossal conception of the pyramids themselves, the temple complexes attached to them show great mastery of architectural forms. Khufu's temple or approach causeway was decorated with impressive reliefs, fragments of which were incorporated in the 12th-dynasty pyramid of Amenemhet I at al-Lisht. The best known of all Egyptian sculpture, Khafre's Great Sphinx at Giza and his extraordinary seated statue of Nubian gneiss, date from the middle 4th dynasty.

            The Giza pyramids form a group of more or less completed monuments surrounded by many tombs of the royal family and the elite, hierarchically organized and laid out in neat patterns. This arrangement contrasts with that of the reign of Snefru, when important tombs were built at Maydum and Saqqarah, while the King was probably buried at Dahshur. Of the Giza tombs, only those of the highest-ranking officials were decorated: except among the immediate entourage of the kings, the freedom of expression of officials was greatly restricted. Most of the highest officials were members of the very large royal family, so that power was concentrated by kinship as well as other means. This did not prevent factional strife: the complex of Redjedef was deliberately and thoroughly destroyed, probably at the instigation of his successor, Khafre.

            The Palermo Stone records a campaign to Lower Nubia in the reign of Snefru that may be associated with graffiti in the area itself. The Egyptians founded a settlement at Buhen, at the north end of the Second Cataract, which endured for 200 years; others may have been founded between there and Elephantine. The purposes of this penetration were probably to establish trade farther south and to create a buffer zone. No archaeological traces of a settled population in Lower Nubia have been found for the Old Kingdom period: the oppressive presence of Egypt seems to have robbed the inhabitants of their resources, rather as the Egyptian provinces were exploited in favour of the king and the elite.

            Snefru and the builders of the Giza pyramids represented a classic age to later times. Snefru was the prototype of a good king, whereas Khufu and Khafre had tyrannical reputations, perhaps only because of the size of their monuments. Little direct evidence for political or other attitudes survives from the dynasty, in part because writing was only just beginning to be used for recording continuous texts. Many great works of art were, however, produced for kings and members of the elite, and these set a pattern for later work. Kings of the 4th dynasty identified themselves, at least from the time of Redjedef, as Son of Re (the sun god); worship of the sun god reached a peak in the 5th dynasty.

The 5th dynasty (c. 2465–c. 2325 BC)

            The first two kings of the 5th dynasty, Userkaf and Sahure, were sons of a lady, Khentkaues, who was a member of the 4th-dynasty royal family. The third king, Neferirkare, may also have been her son. A story from the Middle Kingdom that makes them all sons of a priest of Re may derive from a tradition that they were true worshipers of the sun god and implies, probably falsely, that the 4th-dynasty kings were not. Six kings of the 5th dynasty displayed their devotion to the sun god by building personal temples to his cult. These temples, of which the two so far identified are sited similarly to pyramids, probably had a mortuary significance for the king as well as honouring the god. The kings' pyramids should therefore be seen in conjunction with the temples, some of which received lavish endowments and were served by many high-ranking officials.

Pyramids have been identified for seven of the nine kings of the dynasty, at Saqqarah (Userkaf and Unas, the last king), Abu Sir (Sahure, Neferirkare, Reneferef, and Nuserre), and south Saqqarah (Djedkare Izezi, the eighth king). The pyramids are smaller and less solidly constructed than those of the 4th dynasty, but the reliefs from their mortuary temples are better preserved and of very fine quality; that of Sahure gives a fair impression of their decorative program. The interiors contained religious scenes relating to provision for Sahure in the next life, while the exteriors presented his “historical” role and relations with the gods. Sea expeditions to Lebanon to acquire timber are depicted, as are aggression against and capture of Libyans. Despite their apparent precision, in which captives are named and total figures given, these scenes may not refer to specific events, for the same motifs with the same details were frequently shown over the next 250 years; Sahure's use of them might not have been the earliest.

            Foreign connections were far-flung. Goldwork of the period has been found in Anatolia, while stone vases named for Khafre and Pepi I (6th dynasty) have been found at Tall Mardikh in Syria, the capital of the important state of Ebla, which was destroyed around 2250 BC The absence of 5th-dynasty evidence from the site is probably a matter of chance. Expeditions to the turquoise mines of Sinai continued as before. In Nubia, graffiti and inscribed seals from Buhen document Egyptian presence until late in the dynasty, when control was probably abandoned in the face of immigration from the south and the deserts; later generations of the immigrants are known as the Nubian C Group. From the reign of Sahure on, there are records of trade with Punt, a partly legendary land probably in the region of Eritrea, from which the Egyptians obtained incense and myrrh, as well as exotic African products that had been traded from still farther afield. Thus the reduced level of royal display in Egypt does not imply a less prominent general role for the country.

High officials of the 5th dynasty were no longer members of the royal family, although a few married princesses. Their offices still depended on the king, and in their biographical inscriptions they presented their exploits as relating to him, but they justified other aspects of their social role in terms of a more general morality. They progressed through their careers by acquiring titles in complex ranked sequences that were manipulated by kings throughout the 5th and 6th dynasties. This institutionalization of officialdom has an archaeological parallel in the distribution of elite tombs, which no longer clustered so closely around pyramids. Many are at Giza, but the largest and finest are at Saqqarah and Abu Sir. The repertory of decorated scenes in them continually expanded, but there was no fundamental change in their subject matter. Toward the end of the 5th dynasty some officials with strong local ties began to build their tombs in the Nile Valley and the Delta, in a development that symbolized the elite's slowly growing independence from royal control.

            Something of the working of the central administration is visible in papyri from the mortuary temples of Neferirkare and Reneferef at Abu Sir. These show well-developed methods of accounting and meticulous recordkeeping and document the complicated redistribution of goods and materials between the royal residence, the temples, and officials who held priesthoods. Despite this evidence for detailed organization, the consumption of papyrus was modest and cannot be compared, for example, with that of Greco-Roman times.

            The last three kings of the dynasty, Menkauhor, Djedkare Izezi, and Unas, did not have personal names compounded with “-Re,” the name of the sun god (Djedkare is a name assumed on accession); and Izezi and Unas did not build solar temples. Thus there was a slight shift away from the solar cult. The shift could be linked with the rise of Osiris, the god of the dead, who is first attested from the reign of Neuserre. His origin was, however, probably some centuries earlier. The pyramid of Unas, whose approach causeway was richly decorated with historical and religious scenes, is inscribed inside with spells intended to aid the deceased in the hereafter; varying selections of the spells occur in all later Old Kingdom pyramids. (As a collection they are known as the Pyramid Texts.) Many of the spells were old when they were inscribed; their presence documents the increasing use of writing rather than a change in beliefs. The Pyramid Texts show the importance of Osiris, at least for the king's passage into the next world: it was an undertaking that aroused anxiety and had to be assisted by elaborate rituals and spells.

The 6th dynasty (c. 2325–c. 2150 BC)

            No marked change can be discerned between the reigns of Unas and Teti, the first king of the 6th dynasty. Around Teti's pyramid in the northern portion of Saqqarah was built a cemetery of large tombs, including those of several viziers. Together with tombs near the pyramid of Unas, this is the latest group of private monuments of the Old Kingdom in the Memphite area.

            Information on 6th-dynasty political and external affairs is more abundant because inscriptions of high officials were longer. Whether the circumstances they describe were also typical of less loquacious ages is unknown, but the very existence of such inscriptions is evidence of a tendency to greater independence among officials. One, Weni, who lived from the reign of Teti through those of Pepi I and Merenre, was a special judge in the trial of a conspiracy in the royal household, mounted several campaigns against a region east of Egypt or in southern Palestine, and organized two quarrying expeditions. In the absence of a standing army, the Egyptian force was levied from the provinces by officials from local administrative centres and other settlements; there were also contingents from several southern countries and a tribe of the Eastern Desert.

            Three biographies of officials from Elephantine record trading expeditions to the south in the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II. The location of the regions named in them is debated and may have been as far afield as the Butana, south of the Fifth Cataract. Some of the trade routes ran through the Western Desert, where the Egyptians established an administrative post at Balat in ad-Dakhilah Oasis, some distance west of al-Kharijah Oasis. Egypt no longer controlled Lower Nubia, which was settled by the C Group and formed into political units of gradually increasing size, possibly as far as Karmah, south of the Third Cataract; relations with this state deteriorated into armed conflict in the reign of Pepi II. Karmah was the southern cultural successor of the Nubian A Group and became an urban centre in the late 3rd millennium BC, remaining Egypt's chief southern neighbour for seven centuries. To the north, the Karmah state stretched as far as the Second Cataract and at times farther still. Its southern extent has not been determined, but sites of similar material culture are scattered over vast areas of the central Sudan.

The provincializing tendencies of the late 5th dynasty continued in the 6th, especially during the extremely long reign (up to 94 years) of Pepi II. Increasing numbers of officials resided in the provinces, amassed local offices, and emphasized local concerns, including religious leadership, in their inscriptions. At the capital the size and splendour of the cemeteries decreased, and some tombs of the end of the dynasty were decorated only in their subterranean parts, as if security could not be guaranteed aboveground. The pyramid complex of Pepi II at southern Saqqarah, which was probably completed in the first 30 years of his reign, stands out against this background as the last major monument of the Old Kingdom, comparable with its predecessors in artistic achievement. Three of his queens were buried in small pyramids around his own; these are the only known queens' monuments inscribed with Pyramid Texts.

The 7th and 8th dynasties (c. 2150–30 BC)

            Pepi II was followed by several ephemeral rulers, who were in turn succeeded by the short-lived 7th dynasty of Manetho's history (from which no king's name is known) and the 8th, one of whose kings, Ibi, built a small pyramid at southern Saqqarah. Several 8th-dynasty kings are known from inscriptions found in the temple of Min at Qift in the south; this suggests that their rule was recognized throughout the country. The instability of the throne is, however, a sign of political decay, and the fiction of centralized rule may have been accepted only because there was no alternative style of government to kingship.

            With the end of the 8th dynasty the Old Kingdom state collapsed. About this time there was widespread famine and violence; the consequent rise in the death rate can be seen in sharply increased numbers of burials in cemeteries. The country emerged impoverished and decentralized from this episode, the prime cause of which may have been political failure, environmental disaster, or, more probably, a combination of the two. In this period the desiccation of northeastern Africa reached a peak, producing conditions similar to those of modern times, and a related succession of low inundations may have coincided with the decay of central political authority. These environmental changes are, however, only approximately dated and their relationship with the collapse cannot be proved.

The First Intermediate Period

The 9th dynasty (c. 2130–2080 BC)

            After the end of the 8th dynasty the throne passed to kings from Heracleopolis, who made their native city the capital, although Memphis continued to be important. They were acknowledged throughout the country, but inscriptions of nomarchs (chief officials of nomes) in the south show that the kings' rule was nominal. At Dara, north of Asyut, for example, a local ruler called Khety styled himself king and built a pyramid with a surrounding “courtly” cemetery. At al-Mi'alla, south of Luxor, Ankhtify, the nomarch of the al-Jabalayn region, recorded his annexation of the Idfu nome and extensive raiding in the Theban area. Ankhtify acknowledged an unidentifiable king Neferkare but campaigned with his own troops. Major themes of inscriptions of the period are the nomarch's provision of food supplies for his people in times of famine and his success in promoting irrigation works. Artificial irrigation had probably long been practiced, but exceptional poverty and crop failure made concern with it worth recording. Inscriptions of Nubian mercenaries employed by local rulers in the south indicate how entrenched military action was.

The 10th (c. 2080–c. 1970 BC) and 11th (2081–1938 BC) dynasties

            A period of generalized conflict focused on twin dynasties at Thebes and Heracleopolis. The latter, the 10th, probably continued the line of the 9th. The founder of the 9th or 10th dynasty was named Khety and the dynasty as a whole was termed the House of Khety. Several Heracleopolitan kings were named Khety; another important name is Merikare. Whereas the Theban dynasty was stable, kings succeeded one another rapidly at Heracleopolis. There was continual conflict, and the boundary between the two realms shifted around the region of Abydos. As yet, the course of events in this period cannot be reconstructed.

            Several major literary texts purport to describe the upheavals of the First Intermediate Period, the “Instruction for Merikare,” for example, being ascribed to one of the kings of the 9th or 10th dynasty. These texts led earlier Egyptologists to posit a Heracleopolitan literary flowering, but there is now a tendency to date them to the Middle Kingdom, so that they would have been written with enough hindsight to allow a more effective critique of the sacred order. The “Heracleopolitan Age” may therefore be a fiction.

            Until the 11th dynasty made Thebes its capital, Hermonthis (modern Armant), on the west bank of the Nile, had been the centre of the Theban nome. The dynasty honoured as its ancestor the God's Father Mentuhotep, probably the father of its first king, Inyotef I (2081–65 BC), whose successors were Inyotef II and Inyotef III (2065–16 and 2016–08 BC, respectively). The fourth king, Mentuhotep I (sometimes numbered II; 2008–1957 BC, whose throne name was Nebhepetre), gradually reunited Egypt and ousted the Heracleopolitans, changing his titulary in stages to record his conquests. Around his 20th regnal year he assumed the Horus name Divine of the White Crown, implicitly claiming all of Upper Egypt. By his regnal year 42 this was changed to Uniter of the Two Lands, a traditional royal epithet that he revived with a literal meaning and presented in a new, emphatic iconography. In later times Mentuhotep was celebrated as the founder of the epoch now known as the Middle Kingdom. His remarkable mortuary complex at Dayr al-Bahri, which seems to have had no pyramid, was the architectural inspiration for Hatshepsut's later structure built alongside.

            In the First Intermediate Period, monuments were set up by a slightly larger section of the population and, in the absence of central control, internal dissent and conflicts of authority became visible in public records. Nonroyal individuals took over some of the privileges of royalty, notably identification with Osiris in the hereafter and the use of the Pyramid Texts; these were incorporated into a more extensive corpus inscribed on coffins (and hence termed the Coffin Texts) and continued to be inscribed during the Middle Kingdom. The unified state of the Middle Kingdom did not reject these acquisitions and so had a broader cultural basis than the Old Kingdom.


"The Instruction of Vizier Ptah-hotep," is an Egyptian writing of 2450 BC.


If you are one of those sitting at the table of one greater than yourself...Laugh after he laughs, and it will be very pleasing to his heart and what you may do will be pleasing to the heart.  No one can know what is in the heart.

If you are one of those sitting at the table of one greater than oneself, take what he may give, when it is set before your nose.  You should gaze at what is before you...Let your face be cast down until he addresses you, and you should speak only when he addresses you.

If you are a person of intimacy, whom one great person sends to another, be thoroughly reliable when he sends for you.  Carry out the errand for him as he has spoken... Grasp hold of truth, and do not exceed it.

If you are now important after your former unimportance, so that you may do things after a neediness formerly in the town which you know, in contrast to what was your lot before, do not be miserly with your wealth, which has accrued to you as the gift of god.

If a son accepts what his father says, no project of his miscarries.

If you are a man of standing, you should found your household and love your wife at home as is fitting....Make her heart glad as long as you live.  She is a profitable field for her lord....Let her heart be soothed through what may accrue to you; it means keeping her long in your house.

Do not be greedy, unless it be for thy own portion. Do not be covetous against thy own kindred. Greater is the respect for the mild than for the strong. He is a mean person who exposes his kinsfolk; he is empty of the fruits of conversation.

History during Patriarchal Period


            The stories of the Patriarchs occur between 2000 and 1600 BC. This includes the middle bronze age (1950-1550 BC) and the late bronze age (1500-1200 BC).

Egypt was the dominate world power during this period, controlling the Palestinian coastland, but not the interior.  Writing begins to flower during this period.  There is a more widespread use of bronze.

            The clans lived the life of pastoral semi-nomads, tending flocks and herds. They were peaceable, and lived in tends on the steppe, especially on the southern margin of the arable part of Palestine. In winter, they pastured their flocks there, and made the transition to farming on a modest scale. In the summer, in the course of shifting pasture, they ranged from it to and fro over the cropped fields of the arable land itself.

            People living off the little that the arid desert affords, with its scanty and irregular rains, have few options if they wish to survive.  Their culture, which is mainly an array of responses to challenges posed by the desert, cannot vary greatly from one place to another or from one period to another.  Hence, many aspects of biblical life, especially as lived by the patriarchs in the Judean and Negev deserts by the Israelites in Sinai, are similar to traditional Bedouin life as lived by most Bedouin in these areas until the 1960's, and still lived there by some even now.  Many facets of this desert culture common to the Bible and the Bedouin are manifest in common material culture: shelter, implements, and dress.  The cultural continuity of the desert, despite the passage of 3000 years, is also shown in the details of hospitality.  A contemporary poem praises the custom of a host emerging from his tent to show approaching visitors that they are welcome:


if you should spy travelers from lands far away,

stand in front of the tent till they see you and turn.


The rhymed word is given magical power in unlettered society.  The use of unleavened bread may distinguish themselves from sedentary Egyptians.  Even today, they can refer to the easy life negatively, referring to use of soft bread.[1] 


Biblical material

            These traditions are now embedded in written material that came from a much later time.  It contains stories about Abraham and his migration from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Israel. 


Genesis 12:6-9 (NRSV)

6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.


There may be a text from about 1500 BC in Genesis 14, recording a military campaign. 


Genesis 14 (NRSV)

 In the days of King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim, 2 these kings made war with King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). 3 All these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea). 4 Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5 In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and subdued the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, 6 and the Horites in the hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the edge of the wilderness; 7 then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who lived in Hazazon-tamar. 8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim 9 with King Chedorlaomer of Elam, King Tidal of Goiim, King Amraphel of Shinar, and King Arioch of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way; 12 they also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner; these were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.

17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,

maker of heaven and earth;

20 and blessed be God Most High,

who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. 21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share.”


The birth of Ishmael is recounted, largely from the J document. 


Genesis 16:1-2 (NRSV)

Now Sarai … had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2 and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

Genesis 16:4-14 (NRSV)

4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;

you shall call him Ishmael,

for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.

12 He shall be a wild ass of a man,

with his hand against everyone,

and everyone’s hand against him;

and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

13 So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.


There are several statements about the covenant established with Abraham. 


The destruction of Sodom is related in chapters 18 and 19.


Two stories exist of Abraham lying about Sarah, one from the J document in 12:10-20 and one from the E document in chapter 20.


There may be an isolated piece of tradition from Moab, a folk take from the 1200's BC, concerning the origin of the Moabites and Ammonites, in Genesis 19:30-38. 


The birth of Isaac and dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael are told about.  The J document offers a rather simple account of the birth of Isaac.


Genesis 21:1-2 (NRSV)

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.


The E document offers the birth of Isaac and the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael.


Genesis 21:6-21 (NRSV)

6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.


The potential sacrifice of Isaac is given. 


Genesis 22:1-19 (NRSV)

 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.


We hear of the expansion of the family of Abraham through Keturah in 25:1-6 and descendants of Abraham through Ishmael in 25:12-18.


The marriage of Isaac to Rebekkah is recounted in chapter 24.


Then there is the story of Isaac and Jacob.  The J document offers the birth of Esau and Jacob in 25:21-28. Esau gives up his birthright in 25:29-34. We read of the lying of Isaac to protect his wife in 26:1-14. God establishes a covenant with Isaac.


Genesis 26:24-25 (NRSV)

24 And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.


Jacob obtains the blessing of Isaac through fraud in chapter 27. Jacob has a dream of the presence of Yahweh in 28:13-16


Genesis 28:13-16 (NRSV)

13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”


This gives the birth of Esau and Jacob, the former giving up his birthright.  Jacob receives Isaac's blessing by fraud.  A dream of Jacob's, with angels ascending upon a ladder, is given in Genesis 28. Jacob marries two women, Leah and Rachel, in chapters 29-30, having himself been tricked to do so.  Jacob then tricks his father in law and becomes wealthy.  Jacob meets with God, just before his traumatic meeting with Esau, in Genesis 32


Genesis 32:22-33 (NRSV)

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.



In the E document, Jacob was in flight from his father-in-law in chapter 31 and a treaty. This document also contains the story of Joseph in 40-42.


Some ancient Stories are included chapter 34.

The rape of Dinah in chapter 34 may be one early story.

The matrimonial alliance with the Shechemites may be another early story.

The revenge of Simeon and Levi, probably dating from before 1200 BC.


            The story of the Patriarchs is one in which Israel remembers its history as one of God calling the people from among the nations and abandoning other gods. In response to Yahweh, they went to a new land. Enemies surround them. Yet, God calls them to extend hospitality and to be a blessing to the nations.

            As to the religious and cultic ties, these ancestors of Israel had no attachment to any specific place. It has no pattern of worship practices and it has no priests. God gives unobtrusive guidance. The unwarlike attitude in the stories of the patriarchs is due to cultural conditions, for they were not a people, but peaceable nomads tending sheep and cattle. They still lived before the fulfillment of the promise. Its characteristic feature is its invariable connection with a particular group of people and the fortunes of that group.

            The main emphasis was on the relationship between God and humanity, and between God and a group of people, without fixed attachment to a place, and on that account all the better adaptable to any changes in the fortunes of those devoted to this worship.

            Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the first to receive the revelation of a deity who pledged to care for them and lead them, and who promised them a portion in the arable land and a great posterity. The groups handed on from generation to generation through their worship this memory of election. Worship and all its promises of blessing derived its sanction from the revelation given to the ancestors. Reference to God as the father of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, and the Mighty One of Jacob suggest such a religious experience.

            They knew God as El, a name of several meanings, possibly related to strength or to a binding force. Worship of El was in contrast to the worship of Baal. Other divine names were built off this early form. El Shaddai refers to the mountain, or most high. Elyon denotes the deity as most high as apex of the pantheon of the gods. El Olam refers to God of Eternity. El Roi refers to God of appearance. El Elohe usually suggests El as the God of Israel. Elohim is an abstract plural, serving to expand and reinforce the concept in question, and to elevate the one designated. The groups may have remained distinct from each for a time, even though they eventually united.

            The divine intention showed itself in divine activity. In this period, Yahweh became visible in human form. The old folk-sagas tell of encounters with the deity in human for, such as Genesis 18 and 32.

            The most prominent item in the covenant with the patriarchs was the promise of the land. The recipient of the covenant establishes the sign in confessional form through circumcision. In content, the covenant with Abraham contains three promises.

  1. Abraham is to become a people.
  2. A new relationship to God begins, “I will be your God.”
  3. The possession of the land.

            The promise of land and people had reference to an imminent fulfillment in the settlement of the patriarchs in Canaan. They lived in the land, but they never possessed it. Those who inhabit it are still the Canaanites. The Priestly Document referred to this as the land of your sojourning. The orientation towards possession lies outside the limits provided by their history.

            The era of the patriarchs is the time of promise, an elaborate preparatory arrangement for the creation of the people of God and for its life. What is new is the theological employment of the promise as a word of God that set in motion the whole of the saving history down to the conquest under Joshua. Behind the stories of the patriarchs is amazement at the far-reaching preparations that Yahweh had made to summon Israel into being. They point out the mysterious postponement of the promised gift of the son, in the course of which the recipient of the promises stands or falls. These stories are not only interested in the fact of the divine promise and guidance as such, but they also bring within their view all the human experience of the recipient of the promise, in which reactions and conflicts the promise is reflected.

            The problem of faith lies behind these stories of Abraham. Until now, there have been episodes in the pre-history of the race as a whole.  Now the story moves to an individual, extending to his family, and later still a nation.  Rather than the story of individuals, it is the story of a society in quest of an ideal.  Nothing said before prepares us for Abraham’s mission.  The call comes suddenly, to a destination not yet disclosed.  He made a complete break with his environment.  The spiritual journey is for Abraham’s mission.  The spiritual objective is implicit, made clear in Joshua 24:2, "They served other gods." This was no routine expedition, but a journey to discover spiritual truths.  

            The call of Abram does more than separate a lone herdsman from his ancestral family.  This call separates the old animistic, anthropocentric notions of the universe from a remarkably new way of viewing the divine/human or creator/creation relationship.  The gods themselves behaved as people do, with human loves, hates, concerns, grievances, reactions.  Yet, while these gods were highly personified, they were deficient in meaningful personal relationships with mortal beings.  Only through this new notion of a pledged, covenantal relationship forged between a human being and a single, omnipotent deity, as described here in Gn. 12, is there established a genuine and unswerving communion between humans and God.  While it is unclear exactly what prompted Terah’s initial move from Ur to Haran, there is no ambiguity about what inspired Abram’s move.  God commands Abram to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house - everything, in fact that gave Abram his personal identity.  Abandoning the clan meant leaving one’s only source of law, morality, safety, security and identity.  For Abram to leave the enclave of his family was to put his future survival - both psychological and personal - very much at risk. The call of Abram (his name will not become "Abraham" until Genesis 17) opens a new chapter in biblical history. Up to this point in the Bible, history has been painted in the broadest possible strokes; from this point on, history will be viewed and interpreted through the aperture of a single social line, the seed of Abram, chosen by God to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

            The stories of Jacob confront the reader with the problem of the hiddenness of the actions of God with the patriarchs. Compared with the Abraham cycle, the one about Joseph is less spiritual. The picture is a worldly one. The malice of the men, the struggle of the women for the man, the undignified interpretation attached to the name of each of the ancestors of the race, as due to the momentary situation of a discontented woman.

            The texts of the story of Joseph are a connected and didactic narrative, similar to wisdom literature. This is the longest patriarchal Story.  They have a compact and straightforward approach to their theme. Instead of each chapter designating a unit of tradition, it designates one segment of the on-going story.  They never existed separately.  The mass of material is divided into various scenes or acts.  Each scene has its own climax, while not detracting from the larger story.  The basic Joseph story is 37, 39-47, 50. They unroll a canvas of worldly confusions and mounting conflicts. This is novelle rather than the saga of previous patriarchal stories. 

            The story of Joseph has guidance as its subject. God has directed everything for good. In deep hiddenness God has used all the dark things in human nature to further the plans of God. The leading theme is the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. The brothers are not tribal figures, but persons. It is not historical biography.  The Joseph stores show how the people who played a leading role in them were refined by suffering. Because he is impressed by Yahweh’s saving guidance, Joseph forgives his brothers. The brothers have become different persons in the interval. The story entertains.  However, beyond that, Joseph is an embodiment of the ideal youth of the wisdom school.  Joseph must give political counsel here, and even proper speech.  This required propriety and self-discipline.  Joseph and Potiphar's wife is also close to wisdom warnings against "strange women." The Joseph story speaks of God indirectly, with 45:5-7 and 50:20-21 being programmatic.  The faith of the Joseph story is separate from covenant theology. Note that Pharaohs did not move to lower Egypt until 1300 BC.  The writer has knowledge of Egypt, but based on his own day, probably in Solomon’s.

            When I turn to the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis, they contain inexhaustible wealth of highly characteristic and essentially unique happenings between a group of people and their God. The speaker in the story is Israel and the actor is Yahweh, and not the actual God the patriarchs knew. The stories now have a design to serve a later age.


Note that faith is not the subject of the confession of Israel, but only its vehicle. The subject is not the world of faith of Israel or the creative productivity of Yahwism.

One oversimplifies to explain the assimilation of tradition based on mythical, pre-logical, or archaic levels of thought.



[1] Clinton Bailey, "Bedouin Law Explains Reaction to Rape of Dinah, 11 Bible Review, August 199 1.