I put this page together back in 2007 in light of all the happenings in the middle east and especially Iraq. It was a subject that I was somewhat versed on, and thought it might be an interesting read. At the time, I contemplated adding on to it, but doubt if I will ever get around to it. What I have attempted to do here is only to summarize some of the "high points" of the book of Genesis with what is generally accepted by scholars, along with a few opinions of my own. My references include such books as "Light from the Ancient Past," Finegan; Asimov's guide to the Bible; the Bible, and other misc. publications. As for Internet references: primarily Wikipedia to make sure my dates for specific events reflected the current consensus. The fact that ziggurats created a platform above flood stage was pointed out on some web page that I once read; however, I completely lost track of the page and the author. Any scholar who might disagree with anything on this page is welcome to state their case.
It is generally accepted by scholars that the first five books of the Bible (and perhaps the sixth) were probably written sometime between 597 and 539BC by Jewish exiles living in Babylonia (Mesopotamia - the Chaldees - Iraq). In 598BC, the king of Babylonia at that time, Nebuchadnezzar, had rounded up the wealthy and elite from Jerusalem and deported them to Babylonia after an ongoing dispute. He was also busy at the time rebuilding a large cubical ziggurat (a ceremonial platform) in Babylon, which would end up being one of the largest, and certainly the tallest, ever built. The tradition of building ziggurats in Mesopotamia is one that goes back to at least 3100BC, with the earliest known ziggurat in Mesopotamia being the White Temple of Uruk. Also, a king named Ashurbanipal had previously assembled an extensive library in the upper Mesopotamian city of Nineveh from sources gathered far and wide in the 7th century BC, which no doubt provided the authors of Genesis with much material to draw from; texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts that can be traced back to the Sumerian culture.
The Sumerians: Some of the folklore that would later inspire the Book of Genesis literally began with history itself in an area of the world that is now known as southern Iraq. The region of Sumer encompassed a flood plane surrounding the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and experienced periodic flooding. An elaborate irrigation system was eventually constructed to divert the water from the rivers for agricultural purposes. The system supported a large population of city-kingdoms, which had the freedom of time to eventually create a system of law and order, writing, and governments that would inspire every future civilization (the Garden of Eden). The people who lived there are known as the Sumerians, and they spoke a language that bares no obvious similarities to any other.
The Sumerians would eventually be invaded by a Semitic people from northern Mesopotamia at about 2300BC, led by a warrior king named Sargon. He would found the city of Akkad, and his people would adopt the title Akkadians. Much of the Sumerian's culture would be absorbed and refined by the Akkadians, including their system of writing. Indeed, if one is to better understand the book of Genesis, one must first understand the Sumerians and familiarize themselves with the texts that must have existed around Babylonia at the time of the Jewish exile.
The Sumerians are known for their legends of a great flood; not surprising given their geographic location. Early cuneiform versions of the story have been found that have many similarities to the biblical version. The indications that have been derived, however, from the ancient tablets, the Sumerian time line, and flood strata that has been excavated in the area, is that the flood was merely a local flood and not a worldwide event.
The ten patriarchs from Adam to Noah and the Sumerian King List: In addition to the flood legends, the Sumerians also possessed a list of kings who ruled lower Mesopotamia before and after a great flood. While the inspiration for Noah's flood could have been one of many later floods to have plagued lower Mesopotamia, there is evidence of a flood having occurred at the site of the last city mentioned in the King List, Shuruppak, about 2900BC, and another one at the site of the first city mentioned after the flood--Kish. The earliest cuneiform version so far found, circa 2000BC, names eight antedeluvian kings, while a later 7th century BC version lists ten. The length of rule attributed to these kings is astronomically long, with one listed as having ruled some 43,200 years. The king with the shortest rule is the last one to rule before the flood - Ubar Tutu - with a rule of 18,600 years from the city of Shuruppak. After the flood, the King List continues, only gradually becoming more realistic in the lengths of rule that it attributes.
Also, just as we do in the modern age, the tradition of applying a double meaning to the terminology for "large physical size" goes back to ancient times, as evident by victory stelas depicting a particular king towering over his enemies. A classic example of using a gross misrepresentation of physical size to represent one's achievements is the 7th century BC Senjirli Stela of Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon was the father of Ashurbinapal, and this particular stela depicts the king some three of four times larger than his enemies. The inscription reads . . . "I am powerful, I am all powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal." (So much for modesty). Hence the stage was set for the Garden of Eden, the Hebrew patriarchs and their associated 1,000-year life spans.
[Genesis, chapter 6, verse 4 (King James version): There were giants on the Earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men of old, men of renown.] (The original Hebrew text used the word Nephilem in the place of giants, although the most accurate interpretation is probably: There were men of great achievment . . .) Apparently, there has been speculation as to just whom the authors of Genesis were referring to in chapt. 6, vs. 4, and just why the passage was inserted in Genesis ever since it was written. The book of Enoch, for example, contains an elaborate and imaginative explanation of fallen angels and demons. However, another explanation is that chapt. 6, vs. 4 is simply another description of the patriarchs. Common sense would say that the purpose the authors of Genesis had in mind for creating the text of Genesis was to further explain to the Hebrew people who they were and why they were important to God. In this context, the passage perhaps makes sense as a coded, somewhat-esoteric message to the Hebrews that the patriarchs from which they were all descended were a divine race of man that were superior to "ordinary men." This may or may not be compatible with the idea of Noah's flood having wiped out all life on Earth except for his family and his menagerie of animals; and that all the people living are his descendents, in that it could imply that Noah himself was the first, or one of the first, "Nephilim" to marry an "ordinary woman," thus beginning what has come to be known as the Hebrew Decline of Man.
The Hebrew Decline of Man begins with Noah's children, with Noah himself having lived to ripe old age of 950 years; Shem -600, Arphaxad -438, and so it continues for no less than 17 generations until ending with Moses, who lives to be 120 years old. It's interesting to note that even though these Hebrews supposedly had lifespans stretching much longer than what's considered humanly capable, the time span between the generations is largely within reason. In addition to the King List as having been a probable inspiration for the decline of man, there is also this line from the first tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh that sheds light - "Gilgamesh, the greatest king on Earth, two thirds god and one third human."
Other sources the authors of Genesis had to draw from were, of course, the written and oral traditions of Yahvism they had brought with them from Jerusalem. It is likely that, once the exiles discovered the wealth of information that existed in Babylon, they took on the task of incorporating the information into refining their ancestral roots and the beginnings of their religion. Abraham, after all, (the first Hebrew monotheist) had emigrated out of lower Mesopotamia perhaps some 1,300 years beforehand. However, when the exiles began to return to Judea, their new version of Yahvism would not be received well.
Abraham, of course, represents a Semitic ancestor of the Hebrews. It is clear that the story of creation in Genesis, the ten anti-deluvian or pre-flood patriarchs, and the story of Noah's flood were all heavily inspired by Sumerian folklore. It would seem unlikely then that Abraham was a direct descendent of the Sumerian flood hero, but who knows? In 2900BC the early Sumerians and Semites were two distinct cultures that spoke different languages, lived in close geographic proximity, and had cross-cultural connections. Later they, of course, became more intertwined, so however improbable it may be, it is possible.
It's almost incomprehensible that the name of the pharaoh that reined during the Exodus is not given. In fact, none of the pharaohs are mentioned by name anywhere in the Pentateuch. The lack of any particular pharaoh's name and any dating system certainly serves to make the timeline laid down by the Old Testament hard to trace and verify. On top of that, no record of the events described by the book of Exodus has been found in Egypt. As a result, no one is absolutely certain just when the Exodus took place, nor any other early Biblical event, for that matter. In general terms, the timeline of the Bible seems to indicate Noah's flood as having occurred sometime around 2200BC. This is very near the time that Sargon - the Semitic warrior king mentioned earlier - began his conquest of lower Mesopotamia in 2280. As to whether or not the biblical patriarch Noah was actually a representation of Sargon, to which an old Sumerian flood tale has been attributed, is, of course, theoretical. Scholars usually speculate that Nimrod (Genesis 10, vs. 8) represents Sargon. One would think, though, given the size that Sargon's kingdom eventually became, that he would have figured more prominently in the book of Genesis.
A very familiar story surrounds our pal Sargon. It seems Moses was not the first baby placed in an ark of bulrushes and set adrift to be found by someone else. What are we to make of all this, but that stories can be re-applied to the hero of the moment, long after the original character has all but been forgotten.
In conclusion: Exactly how or why some things came to be written in Genesis remains a mystery, but it would seem that the author's of Genesis felt a need to somehow incorporate the polytheistic texts they found in Babylonia into a historical revision of the Hebrew people's ancestral roots. (It would also seem that the authors, in their efforts to tie everything together, took much poetic license and altered some aspects of the stories for reasons we will probably never know for sure). The longevity of the ten Patriarchs from Adam to Noah is nowhere near the exaggeration used in the King List, yet the flood story has been grossly exaggerated over the original Sumerian version. Overall, the book of Genesis is probably the least historically accurate book of the Bible, and represents a true meld of stories and folklore. The tale of the Tower of Babel, for example, was probably not inspired by just one ziggurat at Babylon, but rather all of the ziggurats that had been constructed up to that time such as the one at Ur and the one at Uruk. The details are too sketchy, of course, to draw any firm conclusions, but the book of Genesis might very well be implying that mankind has descended from the melding of a lineage of ordinary men/woman with a lineage of people possessing God-like qualities, or, that only certain peoples are decendents of these patriarchs, including the Hebrews. Whether or not there actually was any sort of superhuman beings living in Mesopotamia at some point in time is, of course, unverifiable - at present.
End Note: I'm sure I am not the first to ponder a connection between the ziggurat and the impossibly large ship used by the flood hero. Scholars usually speculate that the flood survivor - if he did indeed ride out the flood in a boat - was probably washed down river and out into the Persian Gulf, with the dimensions of his boat being exaggerated over time. The Bible, of course, describes the ship as huge rectangle. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes it as a cube 200 feet square. The earliest version of the flood story found so far describes a "great ship." Somewhere along the line, it would seem, the size and the significance of the ziggurat crossed paths with the flood story. Ziggurats tended to have square bases; the base of the White Temple measured about 140 by 150 feet. They were the exclusive domain of the priests, and in addition to raising the priests "closer to the gods," they also raised the temples above the flood stage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One can easily imagine a priest-king gathering his family and making it to the top the mighty tower that he had just commissioned while watching his kingdom being washed away in a particularly catastrophic flood; except perhaps for a few lucky individuals and animals that manage to find the steps of the steep walled structure and climb out of the rising water. After the flood, the king would probably have had no place to go. The city-states that existed at that time tended to have rivalry between one another. Indeed, the first wars are considered to have started in early Mesopotamia. The king would probably have feared for himself and his family. And so, the king leaves the area; perhaps he loads his family in a boat and simply rides the current down the Euphrates. He becomes legendary among the remaining city-states, and somewhere along the line, his ziggurat and his boat become fused into a single "great ship." Actual boat or ziggurat, I personally would feel much closer to Noah and his ark upon visiting the crumbling remains of the ziggurat at Uruk than I would searching for the remains of a ship on the desolate elevations of Mount Ararat.
A good link for learning more about Sumer: Ancient Sumer
2/06/17: I happened to catch an episode of Nova titled Secrets of Noah’s Ark. The show is based on a cuneiform tablet recently translated by the British Museum, and the reconstruction of a downscaled version of the ship described in the tablet. The tablet apparently describes the flood survivor’s ship as being round—a coracle (reed ship) some 67 meters (220 feet) wide. The show also suggests an alternative reason as to how the ark eventually ended up being square, which is the Sumerians' use of square measurements to describe diameter. Dating to around 1700BC, the tablet would be the oldest account yet containing a detailed description of the ship; however, as mentioned, the oldest version of the King List—which also mentions a great flood—dates to around 2000BC. According to a dailymail.co.uk article I came across, the translator of the tablet—Dr. Irving Finkel—thinks the tablet probably refers to a flood that occurred around 1750BC. But given the wildly impractical dimensions of the vessel—especially impractical for a round ship—it would seem more likely to me, anyway, that the size of the ship became exaggerated over a much more lengthy time period.