Ancient History & Civilisation


The Judaean Experience

‘The horror of that moment,’ the King went on,

‘I shall never, never forget!’

‘You will though,’ the Queen said,

‘If you don’t make a memorandum of it.’

Lewis Carroll

The previous chapter has, I hope, demonstrated that the story of the Flood in the Bible came into Hebrew from an older story in Babylonian cuneiform. We have seen, too, that the stories of the infants Moses and Sargon in their respective coracles reflect a similar borrowing, and that there are other elements in the Book of Genesis in particular (the Great Ages of Man) that suggest the same process. How was it, then, that the ancient story of the Flood and the Ark could pass from Babylonian cuneiform into biblical Hebrew?

On the whole, people have run away from this question. The pith of the problem concerns the transmission of written text from one ‘difficult’ type of script to another, that is, Babylonian cuneiform to alphabetic Hebrew, and to answer it we need to establish plausible circumstances in time and place, an explanation of why it happened at all, and a convincing mechanism to allow it. In as much as these problems have been faced at all with regard to the Flood Story there have been, broadly speaking, two approaches.

The first approach sees the Flood Story as having survived independently from the second millennium BC onwards both in Babylon and among the Hebrews, deriving from a shared ancestor. In other words, Abraham at Ur will have known the Flood story, and the narrative will have been passed down from that time as part of Hebrew oral, and ultimately written, tradition. In my opinion the textual parallels between Gilgamesh XI and the Genesis account are too close to represent the fruit of two long, independent streams. We can see, for one thing, that the Babylonian story in cuneiform circulated in different forms and with considerable variation over that interval (more than one thousand years) and was not itself an unchanging single tradition. Given this background, and the span of time involved, I think that the Hebrew account would have ended up as a very different construction, telling the same basic story with similar components, perhaps, but recognisibly the outcome of a separate history.

The other approach has been to assume that the Exile in Babylon exposed the Judaeans to stories current among the home populations. Here some kind of literary osmosis is apparently thought to have operated whereby people who are in the same place as people who know a story – in this case downtown Babylon – somehow ‘pick it up’. According to this theory, Babylonians simply liked telling foreigners the story – or, perhaps, it got into the drinking water! Leaving aside the intrinsic improbability, such undemonstrable processes likewise would not produce Hebrew narrative that would parallel the carefully structured literary account that we know from Gilgamesh XI.

The two-part solution proposed here came into the writer’s head in the middle of a crowded public lecture entitled ‘New Light on the Jewish Exile’ given in the British Museum on the evening of Thursday 26 February 2009. It was the consequence of my having spent the preceding two years or more thinking and writing about Babylon in preparation for the exhibition ‘Babylon: Myth and Reality’, which ran in the British Museum from 13 November 2008 to 15 March 2009. Round and round went the materials, ancient voices in Babylonian, Aramaic and Hebrew, like spun clothes in a washing machine. It was not until the exhibition was almost over and the lecture programme that accompanied it nearly completed, that the simple idea presented here articulated itself.

The place and time for the encounter with the cuneiform tradition must be at Babylon during the period of the Babylonian Exile, when the Judaeans were actually there. This basic idea has been proposed by many people and thus is nothing astonishing, although there are certainly new considerations to be clarified.

The explanation must be that the borrowing took place when the Hebrew Bible, created out of existing Judaean documents, was first being put together, and narratives about very early times were needed. This is, as far as I know, a new idea.

The mechanism was that certain crucially placed Judaeans learned to read and write cuneiform, and so became directly familiar with the Babylonian stories for themselves, which they recycled for their own purposes with new messages. This too, as far as I know, is a new idea.

Can the validity and cohesion of this four-part argument be convincingly demonstrated?

To do so we need briefly to look at how the Judaeans ended up in Nebuchadnezzar’s capital in the first place, to try to imagine the effect that this experience had on them, and see how and why the Great Ages of Man, the Flood Story and the Baby in the Boat were absorbed at that time into their own literary tradition. There are some really wonderful cuneiform tablets to help us with this plan, mostly in the British Museum.

Why were the Judaeans in Babylon?

On the morning of 16 March 597 BC, Jehoiachin, the eighteen-year-old king of Judah, woke in Jerusalem to find the army of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, encamped round his city. According to the Bible:

Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months. His mother’s name was Nehushta daughter of Elnathan; she was from Jerusalem. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father had done. At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner … He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans – a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. He also took from Jerusalem to Babylon the king’s mother, his wives, his officials and the prominent people of the land. The king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men, strong and fit for war, and a thousand skilled workers and artisans. He made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah.

2 Kings 24:8–17; see also 2 Chronicles 36:9–10

Judaea was strategically placed on a much broader stage – sandwiched between the superpowers of Babylon and Egypt – and Nebuchadnezzar’s military behaviour was concerned with far wider issues than come across in the biblical record.

The surrender of young Jehoiachin meant the first stage of the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The consequences were thus incalculable. It is no exaggeration to say it was to affect the history and progress of the world from that moment onward.

Uncle Zedekiah, whom the Babylonians installed in his stead, flirted disloyally with the Egyptians, and the second campaign meant punitive destruction in full by Nebuchadnezzar’s storm troopers under no-nonsense Nabuzaradan a decade later in 587/6 BC. The temple was robbed of all its venerated contents and destroyed, the city was laid waste, and the story ended in the wholesale deportation of the royal Judaean family, the government and administration, the greater part of the military, and all useful craftsmen, artisans and other personnel to Babylon. The lifeblood of the country in terms of intellect, intelligence and ability was snatched away.

For the Babylonians this operation was standard military procedure. It swelled the royal coffers, put a permanent stop to difficulties with a troublesome native dynasty, and meant extensive human resources were incorporated into their kingdom, strengthening the army, helping with building and construction, and producing high-class goods. The deportees, after the most formidable journey, came face to face in two big waves with the ancient, superpower culture of their conquerors. The impact of this experience must have affected all aspects of their lives. It was during the traditional seventy years of exile that followed – (in fact it was fifty-eight calendar years, from 597–539 BC) – that the Judaeans were directly exposed to a new world, new beliefs and cuneiform writing and literature. It was also at this crucial time that they became familiar with the Babylonian story of the Flood, the boat-builder and his Ark.

In addition to the passage above from the Hebrew Bible, we have Nebuchadnezzar’s own account of the first Jerusalem campaign in the form of the standard Babylonian court chronicle, which records occurrences throughout a reign by day, month and year. This particular tablet runs from Nebuchadnezzar’s accession until his eleventh regnal year, giving therefore the Babylonian view of the first Jerusalem campaign described in the biblical Books of Kings and Chronicles, which took place in his seventh year (597 BC).

The seventh year: in the month Kislev the king of Akkad [i.e. Babylon] mustered his army and marched to Hattu [i.e. Syria]. He encamped against the city of Judah and on the second day of the month Adar he captured the city (and) seized its king [Jehoiachin]. A king of his own choice [Zedekiah] he appointed in the city (and) taking the vast tribute he brought it into Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Chronicle, rev.: 11–13

Nebuchadnezzar’s Court Chronicle, the back view which describes the capture of Jerusalem.

(picture acknowledgement 11.1)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Chronicle for the second campaign has not come to light but we hear all about what happened from the prophet Jeremiah:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through. Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon …

So Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard, Nebushazban a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officers of the king of Babylon sent and had Jeremiah taken out of the courtyard of the guard …

Jeremiah 39:1–14; see also Jeremiah 52:3–23

In 2007 Michael Jursa, an Assyriologist from the University of Vienna, made a stunning new discovery in the British Museum among trayfuls of unexciting-looking and (to tell the truth) slightly soporific business documents of the Nebuchadnezzar period.

Nabu-šarrussu-ukin deposits his gold.

(picture acknowledgement 11.2)

This is how this particular tablet reads in English:

Regarding 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-šarrussu-ukin, the Chief Eunuch, which is entrusted to Arad-Banitu the eunuch, which he sent to [the temple] Esagil: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esagil. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Aplaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni.

Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

There were many eunuchs in the Neo-Babylonian court but only one Chief Eunuch at a time, so we know that Nabu-šarrussu-ukin who served under Nebuchadnezzar must be the same person as Jeremiah’s ‘Nebo-Sarsekim’. We can be sure that the biblical title conventionally translated ‘chief officer’ literally means Chief Eunuch, for rab-sarīs is the Hebraised form of Babylonian rab ša-rēši, ‘chief eunuch’.

The tablet came to public attention quietly. Having been a colleague and friend of Jursa for many years it is my habit to stroll past his desk when he is on a visit in our Students’ Room – the magnificent Victorian library where we house all our tablets – and ask patronisingly whether he has managed to find anything at all interesting over the last week, or whether he has encountered any difficult cuneiform signs with which a more experienced colleague might be able to help. Usually this sort of enquiry provokes little more than a sigh, but on this occasion he mentioned that he had found a tablet mentioning Nebo-Sarsekim, rab sarīs, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s chiefs of staff named by Jeremiah as being at Jerusalem. This was not in the least bit soporific, and off I rushed to muster all the forces in the kingdom to make sure somehow or other that anyone who had ever read the Bible knew that an individual mentioned in the text had been found on a clay tablet in the British Museum inscribed in cuneiform writing. Before long it was Michael who had to face the camera.

What is extraordinary about this tablet is that one previously unnoticed individual recorded among other names in the Old Testament (and not a king) should suddenly emerge as a real person; we see him going about his business, sending underlings to pay gold into the temple in 595 BC, fourteen years before the second Jerusalem campaign, when – because of his high political office – he no doubt came face to face with troublesome Jeremiah himself.

Putting together the cuneiform evidence, by the way, including an extraordinary document in Istanbul called Nebuchadnezzar’s Court Calendar, we can actually draw up – with apologies – a more accurate list of Nebuchadnezzar’s five highest-ranking officers than Jeremiah could manage, for we know of these people Assyriologically:






The names and titles, perhaps alien-sounding, suffered understandably in transmission. What is interesting is the Judaean urge to record by name for posterity the specific individuals who were responsible for the destruction of their temple and city.

State Records in Hebrew

The Books of Kings and Chronicles give good historical material in chronological order, but what is really of concern to them is whether a given king was god-fearing, idol-rejecting and, generally, a ‘Good Thing’, or the opposite. Diagnostic data to this end are excerpted from longer accounts which were available to the compilers at that time and incorporated into the Bible. The Old Testament not infrequently names the source from which information has been derived. There are two versions of the curriculum vitae of ‘Good King’ Jehoshaphat, for example. The first concludes:

As for the other events of Jehoshaphat’s reign, the things he achieved and his military exploits, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?

1 Kings 22:45

The parallel reads:

The other events of Jehoshaphat’s reign, from beginning to end, are written in the Annals of Jehu son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel.

2 Chronicles 20:34

The reader is thus referred to source accounts rather in the manner of a modern footnote with references; i.e.:

1 For fuller details on this period see the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah; cf., with additional material, the Annals of Jehu son of Hanani, in the Book of the Kings of Israel.

The Israelite source was evidently more detailed than the Judaean. Both must have been court chronicles of the type produced for the kings of Babylon, recording political deeds, religious activities and military accomplishments by day, month and year, and, like the Babylonian examples, free of any assessment of the king’s morals or behaviour. That was for the Bible to provide. The sources excerpted for the biblical histories will have been written in Hebrew script on leather or parchment scrolls and safeguarded in the royal chanceries of the houses of Israel and Judah.

This acknowledgement of manuscript sources anticipates a literate readership that – theoretically at least – could follow them up, and seriously reinforces the authority and historical reliability of the ‘published’ account. There are many of these umbral works, which also seem to include poetry. Here are some of their titles: The Book of Jasher, The Book of Songs, The Book of the Wars of the Lord, The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, The Book of Shemaiah the Prophet, The Visions of Iddo the Seer, The Manner of the Kingdom, The Book of Samuel the Seer, The Acts of Solomon, The Annals of King David, The Book of Nathan the Prophet, The Book of Gad the Seer, The Prophecy of Ahijah, The Acts of Uzziah, The Acts and Prayers of Manasseh, The Sayings of the Seers, The Laments for Josiah and The Chronicles of King Ahasuerus.

This makes quite a bookshelf. Its importance in the context of Arks and Floods is this: we can see explicitly that at least part of the biblical text was distilled out of existing written sources, and extracts were put to new purposes within the context of the biblical message. This compositional process underlies the creation of the biblical text as a whole: the narrative incorporates very diverse types of records, oral and written, that were available to the compilers for the Great Work. The same principle will operate for the Flood Story.

What written resources were likely to have been available in Jerusalem prior to the arrival of the Babylonians in 597 BC? Scrolls will have existed with, at a minimum, the following contents:

Shelf 1. Court chronicles from Israel and Judah

Shelf 2. Royal correspondence

Shelf 3. Political writings; treaties; trade matters; censuses

Shelf 4. Court poetry; songs; proverbs

Shelf 5. Cultic protocols; sacrifices; temple administration

Shelf 6. Prophetic writings

Shelf 7. Any other business …

Material of all these kinds is incorporated into the historical books of the Old Testament. The probability is that writing proliferated at the court of Judah as it does everywhere, and the singular preoccupations of biblical authorship preserve only parts of a far bigger whole. Certain royal privileges might have been accorded to King Jehoiachin on the wearisome road from Jerusalem to Babylon; what we can be sure of is that the heritage Hebrew scrolls cannot have been torched by Nabuzaradan’s men but must have been taken with them too. Otherwise there would be no Old Testament.

Israelite refugees being deported: on the road from Lachish after the city was sacked by Sennacherib’s army in 701 BC, long before the Babylonians did the same to the Judaeans at Jerusalem.

(picture acknowledgement 11.3)

Judaeans Encountering Babylon: The Tower of Babel

The Judaean exiles approaching the city in 597 BC, and again those in 587 BC, will have glimpsed the Tower of Babel from a long way off, for the great stepped temple tower or ziggurat that reposed in the centre of Nebuchadnezzar’s capital attained a height of well over seventy metres, its base measuring ninety-one square metres. The ever-growing profile against the horizon must have struck awe into all those who approached the city. It is perhaps hard to imagine the impact of that skyscraper on outsiders who saw it for the first time; there was no building in Jerusalem that could have prepared them for the sight.

Building the Tower of Babel in about AD 1754, showing the making of bricks. Artist unidentified.

(picture acknowledgement 11.4)

The Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis is no literary conceit invented for didactic purposes. The great building was slap bang in front of them, built as high as possible to facilitate contact between the king of Babylon – favourite of the god Marduk – and Marduk himself. The ziggurat was a ladder to heaven to allow the king’s voice, confident, intercessional or pleading, the best chance of being heard. We are not well informed about the exact use of the building or of the small temple that reposed on top, but its function as a royal ‘hot line’ to heaven is beyond dispute.

The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is one brief, nine-verse episode but the tower has in some measure loomed over human society with its sombre message ever since.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1–9

There can be no doubt that the composition of this passage was the consequence of the physical presence of the Judaeans in Babylon. The ‘land of Shinar’ referred to reflects the old Sumerian name for southern Mesopotamia, Sumer. The overweening zigguratwas, as described, built of brick and mortar. The whole city in fact was built of clay bricks, thousands upon endless thousands of them, some glazed, many stamped in cuneiform with Nebuchadnezzar’s name and titles. Unimaginable numbers had been used to build the ziggurat itself, intended by Nebuchadnezzar’s architects in every way to surpass what any predecessor had ever achieved.

In the context of Genesis we can discern two distinct components in this story. One, since the principal phenomena of the world are being explained, answers the question, Why are there so many languages in the world? Many children, bewildered by unfamiliar tongues in the street or on the bus, ask the same natural question today. The explanation is that the super-abundance of mutually unintelligible languages is punishment by God: men should have understood what they could and couldn’t do. The intrusion of humans into the kingdom of heaven like so many intrepid firemen clambering up the steps would be intolerable. To Hebrew sensibilities the urge in any man for physical proximity to heaven was blasphemous. The moral lesson is strict and unforgiving, and is a direct illustration of the Hebrew mind at work. The child’s naive question is turned round, and used to underwrite a deeper message.

There is, moreover, disdain and reserve running under this text for the ‘them’, who are the Babylonians. For the construction of the arrogant building was an alien episode in earlier times that was none of the Hebrews’ doing but which was seen as responsible for how things had become in the world. The Judaean view is that the Babylonian tower, what it stood for and the religious ideal it embodied was sinful. The Hebrew text thus embodies detachment from, if not hostility towards, the state cult of Marduk.

There is a further point. The Hebrew term for the ‘tower’ in the expression Tower of Babel is migdal. This word is certainly correctly translated as ‘tower’, but in the usual meaning of the word a tower is – more or less – straight-sided, even if its base is wider for stability, as in a lighthouse. The profile of the Babylonian ziggurat, however, is opposite. It seems quite probable to me that the building’s very profile will have suggested to the Judaeans that the ziggurat was unfinished. If the building was really meant to be a tower that would reach from earth to heaven, it would have looked as if the work (or the funding!) had run out in the early stages. The top was nowhere near the clouds and the whole operation hardly got off the ground. To the Hebrew mind the Babylonians’ tower work must have been brought to a halt by a divine hand. This brief passage, so familiar and often so swiftly read over, can thus be seen, in the context of the first unwilling Judaean presence in the city, to be pregnant with highly intelligible meaning.

Nebuchadnezzar’s capital was then the world’s greatest city. The king was all-powerful, his empire was huge, his riches inexhaustible and on the whole life was stable. The city itself was the jewel in the crown; it was dedicated to and under the protective eye of Marduk, the greatest of the gods of Babylon, who had vanquished the forces of darkness as described in the Epic of Creation, establishing the world as it should be and setting up Babylon for ever as his cult home. The king was his agent on earth.

Judaeans Encountering Babylon: Immigration, Culture and Writing

To understand the incorporation and presence of Babylonian traditions within the Bible we must consider the religious and psychological state of the Judaeans who first encountered the towering capital that was to be their home. They were an entire community of, so-to-speak, enforced refugees, bodily transported from a ruined capital into that of an alien and vastly superior country. Berated by their prophets for their sacrilegious behaviour, reeling from long-threatened and unimaginable punishment, and carrying but a fraction of their wealth and possessions, they finally arrived at the gates of Babylon as displaced persons.

We still know next to nothing of what happened to this incoming population. We know that the more skilled found places at the capital, while great swathes of immigrants were no doubt relocated outside the main cities to wherever they were most needed. One group of Judaeans in particular can be followed through Nebuchadnezzar’s city gate with the help of the so-called Palace Archive tablets. These itemise prosaic items like oil, barley and other commestibles for the support of people brought from across the Babylonian Empire, including the young king Jehoiachin from Jerusalem and his entourage, who were thus ‘guests of the state’:

30 litres (of oil) for Ja’ukin, king of Judah

2½ litres for the five sons of the king of Judah

4 litres for the eight Jahudeans, ½ litre for each.

Royal provisions: Babylonian ration list mentioning Jehoiachin by name.

(picture acknowledgement 11.5)

Also included in these records are Judaean carpenters and boatmen, just as are described by Jeremiah as being among the deportees. Later, things improved a bit for Jehoiachin:

And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-Merodach [Amel-Marduk] king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived.

2 Kings 25:27–30

This Amel-Marduk was Nebuchadnezzar’s crown prince and unenviable successor, who managed to rule for only two years, 562–560 BC, before he was assassinated. According to the Chronicle of Jerachmeel, compiled by a French rabbi in the twelfth centuryADfrom sources unknown to us, the prince, then called Nabū-šuma-ukīn, was thrown into Jehoiachin’s prison by his father because of a court conspiracy. (This episode is not recorded in the Bible, but a cuneiform tablet from Babylon exists with Nabū-šuma-ukīn’s poetic appeal to the god Marduk written in that prison; later he took what was to be his throne name, Amel-Marduk, ‘man of Marduk’, in gratitude for his rescue.)

Following the Judaeans further is impossible, given our present archaeological and written resources. Some personal names in the records appear to be Judaean, or Hebrew, but this can be uncertain evidence.

We can make certain observations on another level, however. Given the Babylonians’ utter destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and city in 587 BC the Judaean deportees must have found themselves with nothing substantive at all to define their culture or hold their identity together. They had lost their political and religious capital, spelling the end of their ancient line of kingship, descended from David. In addition, they now had no cult centre to provide the focus of their religious life, which meant no cult practice; the complex round of worship, sacrifice and liturgy that had been practised in the Temple for endless generations was brought to an abrupt end.

In principle the Judaeans’ religious life was supposed to sustain itself without images of their god to provide a physical focus of worship. Their religion, at least as it is transmitted to us, when free of the adulterations so bemoaned by its prophets, was essentially monotheistic, vested in a single omnipotent god who could never be seen. The second Commandment – Thou shalt have no other gods before me – is no flat statement that there are no other gods; if anything, the language can be taken to reflect that there may well be other gods but they are for other nations. Theirs was a male god with no name, no wife and no children. The religion of the Judaeans, therefore, especially out of its normal context, was purely conceptual, dealing in the intangible and unsupported by comforting likenesses and paraphernalia. Unlike the Babylonians all around them the Judaeans had no divine statue resident on a divine throne who would accept their offerings and hear their exhortations, staring down from above with the assurance of a wise parent. The religion of the Old Testament Hebrews from its inception differed crucially from that of all its predecessors and contemporaries, in the abstraction of the Hebrews’ god to a concept, remote and invisible, with no graven image, and no surrounding family. No other religion of antiquity could have survived focused exclusively on one god who could never be seen. Once they arrived in Babylon the Judaeans had little beyond this highly elusive abstraction to exemplify their belief or give structure to their displaced identity.

If we imagine a Babylonian and a Judaean immigrant in friendly conversation in that market, in other words, the latter would have no answers at all to perfectly natural questions such as: What is your god called? What does he look like? Where does he live?Who is his wife? How many children does he have? At the same time, there were significant religious changes under way in Babylon throughout the period of the Judaean Exile. There had been an evolving idea that the Babylonian state god Marduk was not so much king of the gods – his traditional status – but rather the one single god who mattered. For the best part of three millennia the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia had served a profusion of gods great and small, but in the period of these Neo-Babylonian kings we can see a new monotheistic framework evolving out of this rich pantheistic background. Consider the message of this innocent-looking little theological text:




of planting




of ground water




of the hoe




of war




of battle




of lordship and deliberation




of accounting




as illuminator of the night




of justice




of rain




of hosts




of …




of the trough




of potter’s clay …

Monotheism in the making: structuring Marduk theology.

(picture acknowledgement 11.6)

This is a truly remarkable document, for in it we witness theological innovation in process, fixed in time. A theologian is speculating that Marduk is ‘really’ the only god, expressing this by the proposition that fourteen major and ancient gods, independent deities with their own temples, cult and followers, are but aspects of Marduk, his offices, so to speak. This text does not stand in isolation. There are similar ‘syncretisms’ laid out for Zarpanitu, Marduk’s wife, and their son Nabu, making what in other contexts might be called a divine trinity, and there are longer theological disquisitions in the same vein.

Marduk’s unique status as the god under Nebuchadnezzar undoubtedly paved the way later for a similar development with the Moon God, Sin, under Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon before the Persian period, who had been brought up by his rather formidable mother as a hardcore Moon God devotee. There was tension aplenty between the Marduk priesthood and the devotees of Sin, sufficient for Cyrus, the incoming conqueror, to take advantage of it. Prior to this period it is hard to point to any sign of religious hostility or prejudice in Mesopotamian society that has found its way into written expression. Foreigners were foreigners; one kept on one’s guard and probably despised their ways, but no one ever declared hostility to a person of ‘another religion’ on those grounds. Everyone knew of and believed in many gods, and divine newcomers were welcome; statues of foreign gods were imported after successful warmongering as a matter of course, to be installed in the temples of Assyria or Babylonia. Gods from outside, like foreign magic, could be powerful, especially if they had belonged to powerful enemies, and with a new seat and cycle of sacrifices they would hopefully transfer their loyalties. In due course their names were even entered, barbaric-sounding though they might be, in official god lists. It is only with the promotion of exclusive monotheism that religious intolerance can be the consequence, and Babylon in this very period saw the emergence of such monotheism for the very first time in Mesopotamian culture.

The Judaeans were thus to encounter a native religious system more akin to their own than would have been the case at an earlier date. Babylonian monotheism, whether a matter of wider state policy or closed theology within the colleges (let alone debated loose on the streets), must have offered a threatening backdrop to Judaeans with their own belief in a single god and responsibility to preserve that belief from contamination. It is also worth pointing out that the epithets of praise that were heaped on Marduk (shepherd, champion of the poor and weak, protector of widows and children, fighter for justice and truth) would not have sounded strange to Judaean ears brought up in their own tradition.

For a variety of reasons the passing of the Judaean population into the cosmopolitan mass of sixth century Babylon might be expected to have seen its complete absorption and the ultimate disappearance of its religion within a relatively short time. This is especially the case since both communities, incoming minority and resident majority, shared the Aramaic language in common on top of their own substrate: Hebrew in the former case, Babylonian in the latter.

A Babylonian schoolroom challenge: Who can write the Aramaic alphabet in cuneiform signs? Answer: a bi gi da e u za he tu ia ka la me nu ṣa a-a-nu pe ṣu qu ri shi ta.

(picture acknowledgement 11.7)

In addition, although such an issue is hard to calibrate, the populations were on some level ‘cousins’ in terms of Semitic-speaking Semitic stock. Under predictable conditions, without intervention, the Judaeans and their elusive, non-idolatrous faith would have surely disappeared from view. Support for this argument comes from the fate of the Israelites a century earlier, who were transported to Assyria and beyond by the Assyrians in military campaigns, and who are – more or less – entirely lost sight of as a result. Given this situation, it is thus intelligible that those who felt themselves responsible for the Judaean populations – both from a social and religious point of view – should have considered that preventative action should be taken to bind them together.

It is these very circumstances, in the present writer’s view, that provided the first stimulus for the drawing up of the Hebrew Bible as a full work. The need was pressing from the outset, not at some point during the Persian or Hellenistic period (as is usually suggested), but from the inception of the Exile. It was necessary to provide a satisfactory explanation for the Judaeans of just how they could all come to be in Babylon in their present state, with their home country and all it meant to them in ruins.

The whole had to be a long and convincing story, commencing with the very creation of the world, and proceeding down through the Patriarchs and the Monarchy and what came after, coming right up to date. The backbone of the whole would be the historical continuum through all its vagaries and disputes and confusions. The rounded text, along the way, would incorporate a rich collection of cultic traditions, poetry and wisdom, but its essential function would be to provide a lucid explanation for what had happened from the beginning of time and to demonstrate explicitly that the whole historical process from the inception of the world had been the unfolding of a divine plan of which they – the chosen people – were the central concern. The resulting compilation with its skilfully blended narratives emerged as a virtual handbook for ex-patriot Judaeans.

In the light of this argument the constituent parts of the Old Testament all fulfil a transparent role. The great emphasis on family trees and genealogy throughout constitute the very materials on which threatened Judaean identity was predicated. Due to this collecting and listing of all the tribal descent information that survived, no one could remain in doubt as to who belonged and who didn’t. The first volume of Chronicles emerges as a sort of telephone book in which all the names were to be found, indispensable when it came to dealing with suitors for daughters.

The written text of the Hebrew bible (whatever inspiration might have engendered it or arisen from it) is the work of human hands. Reading through it with this principle in mind shows this truth to be everywhere apparent. A basic list of features includes, for example, unnecessary repetitions and inappropriate insertions on the one hand, conflicting and overlapping accounts, and, as we have seen, specific acknowledgement of utilised writings on the other. Granted this, certain rational conclusions about the processes which produced the biblical text can be drawn, analogous to the production of any large-scale and complex literary compilation, such as a multi-volume encyclopaedia.

The Hebrew text is infinitely more than could have been accomplished by any single individual; many were therefore involved, with a few in charge of the project. The production was – in large part – dependent on diverse pre-existing materials that could be reworked or streamlined into a whole. From this, certain points emerge:

1. There must have been both some specific event or need to trigger such an undertaking, and a chronological moment when the work actually began.

2. There must have been a clear vision that endured throughout the labour and resulted in internal consistency.

3. Eventually there must have been a consensus as to the point when the primary work, at least, was finished.

In my view, therefore, the Bible first developed into the work that we have today in the period, location and circumstances of the Babylonian Exile, as a direct response to that Exile.

This broad principle does not conflict with the long-running internal analysis of the received biblical text that distinguishes separate authorship (such as J, P and E) on a line-by-line basis, for I assume that all available sources would be utilised, some coming with a history of internal editing; further moulding, interweaving and editing would be a long and ongoing process.

That such a complex production could be so effectively engendered out of such diverse sources has several implications. The work of compilation must have been carried out by a group of specific individuals who had access to all existing records, under an agreed editorial authority. One must envisage a Bureau of Judaean History. That the whole, or almost the whole, was written in Hebrew and not Aramaic gives, I think, a clue to the agenda of political identity. It was for one readership only.

It is against this backdrop that the incorporation of particular Babylonian traditions becomes intelligible. Perhaps there was a shortfall of native ideas among the Hebrew thinkers about the beginning of the world and civilisation. Whatever the case, certain powerful Babylonian narratives were taken up but, crucially, not adopted wholesale. The beginning of the Book of Genesis especially would be unrecognisable without the cuneiform substratum, but the stories were given a unique Judaean twist that allowed them to function in a wholly new context. There are three unambiguous cases that we can consider here.


The Book of Genesis attributes superhuman longevity to Adam and his descendants all the way down to Lamech, the father of Noah, all of whom lived before the Flood. The champion, of course, is Methuselah:

Adam: 930 years

Seth: 912 years

Enosh: 905 years

Kenan: 910 years

Mahalaleel: 895 years

Jared: 962 years

Enoch: 365 years

Methuselah: 969 years

Lamech: 595 years.

The Babylonians earlier had a similar tradition in cuneiform, for the earliest kings in the Sumerian King List had hugely long reigns expressed in the same ŠÁR units of 3,600 that we encountered in Chapter 8 in the Ark Tablet’s specifications:

When kingship was lowered from heaven

The kingship was in Eridu.

In Eridu Alulim became king

and reigned 28,800 years;

Alalgar reigned 36,000 years.

2 kings reigned 64,800 years;

Things changed

Kingship went to Bad-Tibira

In Bad-Tibira Enmenluanna

Reigned 43,200 years;


Reigned 28,800 years

Divine Dumuzi, the shepherd, reigned 36,000 years

3 kings

reigned 108,000 years.

Sumerian King List: 1–17

The Judaeans, anxious to establish lineage, undoubtedly took over this grand-scale idea, but they concluded that these early rulers with such long lives must have been giants, although the idea does not appear in the cuneiform tradition. The attempt by some scholars to treat the Genesis Great Ages tradition as if it had nothing to do with the cuneiform world seems to me utterly absurd.


Universal destruction by water is imposed on mankind in the Atrahasis story because humans were so noisy, and we are left uninformed as to what qualified the Babylonian hero for selection as saviour. The flood in the Bible, and the Koran after it, was punishment for wickedness. Noah was chosen explicitly because of his upright character and behaviour.


Sargon’s mother (Legend of Sargon, Chapter 8, p. 16) was a priestess who had no business having a baby in the first place and nobody was quite sure who the father was. His origins were thus murky, even a trifle sordid, and he grew up watering tomatoes in the country. Moses in the Book of Exodus was rescued by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter. Unwittingly, they paid his own mother to suckle him, and the boy grew up with every possible advantage in the fat of the palace. It was necessary for such an iconic personage as Moses to have romantic or miraculous beginnings, but when the Babylonian story is given its new Judaean colouring the whole episode carries a different message. I think the milk-money episode must have induced roars of laughter at the stupid Egyptians.

How then did these specific cuneiform materials find their way, reworked with moral flavour, into the biblical narrative?


The Hebrew Bible tells us in so many words that a hand-picked group of Judaean intelligentsia were inducted into the mysteries of cuneiform at the capital, and I see absolutely no reason not to take this statement at face value:

3Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court.

Daniel 1: 3–5

The Book of Daniel is composed of tales about the Babylonian court interspersed with great visions, set in the time of the Exile, under the Neo-Babylonian kings and their Persian successors. Whereas it was once believed that the book dated to the sixth centuryBC, scholars now consider the editing of the whole, which incorporates older, traditional material, to date to the second century BC, just four hundred years after the Exile. This verdict may be true in general but to my mind the opening chapters of the book give, just for a moment, an oddly convincing flavour of Nebuchadnezzar’s court, and with regard to particularly the reference to learning the literature and language of the Chaldeans cuneiform classes, which are given such pointed attention right at the beginning of the book, I follow the text resolutely.

There can be no doubt that what is meant, by this, is instruction in the cuneiform writing system and the Babylonian language. The Judaeans spoke Hebrew; the educated among them knew Aramaic. The programme was evidently part of Babylonian state policy to avoid long-term difficulty with imported populations: the cream would be acculturated to Babylonian life and ways, and the most effective and lasting way to achieve this was through reading and writing. We are told that Daniel and his intimates went on to become judges: all legal matters were conducted in Babylonian and recorded in cuneiform for a long time to come.

As far as I know, my idea that this three-year teaching programme must refer to cuneiform has neither been proposed nor defended before, largely due perhaps to the absurd dismissal of the Book of Daniel as a reputable witness, but it is easy to show that, from the point of view of the humanities, this is one of the most significant passages in the Hebrew Bible. It allows us to make sense of many matters that are both unexplained and often left unconnected with one another.

Curricular exercise no. 1: The Great Ages of Man. This tablet is inscribed with an interlinear Babylonian translation of the traditional Sumerian preamble to their list of antediluvian kings, with their great reign lengths, for study in school. This composition is known today as the Dynastic Chronicle; it derives directly from the Sumerian King List.

(picture acknowledgement 11.8)

We know from very abundant numbers of curricular tablets what went on in Babylonian schools of the Nebuchadnezzar period. The young candidates will have had the best of teachers. Hebrew and Aramaic were sisters to Babylonian, so mastery of the tongue for bright young persons was nothing. There were established ways to learn scribal technique, and before long they would be writing lists of signs and numbers, followed by words and formulae, names and a great variety of literary passages.

What is so compelling for my argument is that we actually have cuneiform school tablets from Babylon of this period with study of and extracts from the Great Ages of Man, the Sargon Legend story, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, showing that the three works that best exemplify the process of borrowing were on the school curriculum. The trainee Judaeans would have encountered these very texts in their palace classroom.

Curricular exercise no. 2: The Baby Sargon in his Coracle. A quotation appears in the second column, between other literary extracts and lists of signs. It covers lines 1–6.

(picture acknowledgement 11.9)

The existence of these three tablets suffices to identify the conduit that has previously eluded us. What is more, it is very straightforward. Judaeans learned to read cuneiform tablets.

Curricular exercise no. 3: a classroom extract from Tablet III of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

(picture acknowledgement 11.10)

For the sharpest Judaean brains, encountering the vastness of the cuneiform heritage at the beginning of the sixth century BC must have been electrifying in its effect and must undoubtedly have launched certain individuals on long-term study and into participation in many kinds of work in which mastery of cuneiform was essential.

In the years before Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC the Judaeans certainly did more than sit about and weep. They adjusted and settled. In time they became Mesopotamian citizens. By the time Cyrus arrived, by no means all of Nebuchadnezzar’s displaced persons wanted to go ‘home’ to Jerusalem. However, the Judaeans’ ancient and somewhat ramshackle religious identity had meanwhile been crystallising into permanence due to their encyclopaedia of history, custom, instruction and wisdom. They became literally the people of the book. From this angle it can be argued that the Babylonian Exile, far from being the disaster it is usually judged, was ultimately the process that forged what became modern Judaism.

The development of the Hebrew Bible introduced something new into the world. For the first time scripture came into existence, a finite text corpus with beginning and end on which religious identity was predicated. Prior to this the world had only known religious texts. A pattern was established which has endured also through Christianity and Islam; a monotheistic religion with scripture at its core, which, being finite, generates commentary, explanation and interpretation, and often has to deal with apocrypha.


The behaviour mechanics of the Judaean exiles once settled within Babylonia probably conformed to patterns discernible in the modern world among displaced and incoming large communities, whether compulsory immigrants or political and religious refugees. A mass of individuals, initially close together, in time fans out, ultimately around the country, if not already settled in areas by authority. In the case of the Judaeans, in particular, much as with the Jewish population that ended up in London or Manhattan after the Second World War, social or national identity and religious identity were simultaneously powerful factors. The consequent evolution of this complex identity within Babylonia over time would result in three broad categories among the Judaeans that operated on a level separate from traditional tribal allegiance:

1. those who were strongly aware of their history and culture, determined to continue as before and, while adjusting to the reality of the destruction of the Temple, were waiting to return to Jerusalem as soon as possible to rebuild it;

2. those whose cultural allegiance and personal religious adherence was to traditional Judaean practice but without embracing a fully exclusive lifestyle;

3. those who simply immersed themselves in Babylonian life in every way and to all intents and purposes became fully assimilated.

To individuals in the third group, and possibly the second, the distinction between Marduk and their own Judaean god would come to seem far from clear. If both were, so to speak, the one god, then Marduk might well triumph as the visible counterpart of the other, and it seems probable that to many individuals, especially those of the second or third generation after the arrival, there might not have seemed much to choose between the two. Possibly both groups would have been quite content to give their children Babylonian names formed with those of Marduk, or his son Nabu, or Bel. Group 1 would avoid such names and use … -yahu names or names without any divine element. To the first group the separation of Marduk from the god of the Hebrews would remain an essential and cohesive preoccupation.

Later documents from after the arrival of Cyrus the Great in 539 BC give us a fragmentary glimpse of these Judaean communities living together in Iraq after the departure of the others to Jerusalem. One of these places was called Jahudu, ‘Judaean Town’. The communities were well settled and organised, answerable to central authority, but still preserved the customs and practices they had brought with them, and they were certainly not ‘slaves in bondage’. Furthermore, their documents were written in Babylonian cuneiform.

A cuneiform tablet from Jahudu, a marriage contract including individual Judaean names.

(picture acknowledgement 11.11)

Ultimately it was descendants of these Judaean settlers in Babylonia who generated the Babylonian Talmud in their academies between the second and fourth century AD, writing in several Aramaic dialects mixed with biblical and later Hebrew. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah (‘case histories’) and the Gomorrah (principles). The essential preoccupation is to facilitate the clarification of exact meaning in a given textual passage. This is achieved by a variety of learned approaches, in which different views are very often attributed by name to those revered teachers and individuals who thought of them, built up from insights and interpretations that developed in the academies over many generations. At the heart of all the ordered discussion is, of course, the Bible.

The Talmud is the latest corpus of writings in which the direct influence of earlier Babylonian tradition and learning is discernible. Such influences can take the form of loanwords from Babylonian into Aramaic, or the survival of Babylonian ideas and practices (medicine, magic and divination or the playing of the Royal Game of Ur, for example). Particularly revealing in this regard are Talmudic word play and interpretation which parallel those long established in the native Babylonian academies, such as in the commentaries quoted in Appendix 1. These devices are ultimately due to the multivalent characteristics of cuneiform signs and their presence in rabbinic learning written in alphabetic Aramaic undoubtedly reflects the consequence of that first Judaean acquaintance with cuneiform scholarship. The influences of the specifically cuneiform world on the Judaean exiles and their successors have often remained unexplored, but they were certainly far-reaching and long-lasting. One eloquent measure of permanent Babylonian influence is the fact that the month names used today in the Modern Hebrew calendar preserve the ancient names as used in Nebuchadnezzar’s capital:



























In contrast we know the names of only four native ancient Hebrew month names: Aviv (which in modern Hebrew is the word for spring, but which was previously used for the month Nisan), Ziv (Iyar), Ethanim (Tishrei) and Bul (Marcheshvan). Living in Babylon the Judaeans naturally adopted the prevailing calendar. The old names fell out of use, but the Babylonian words live on and are heard in daily conversations all over the world today.

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