What was the world like in the time of Abram? This must be considered before we can fully understand the message in Genesis, why it was created, and who the target audience was.
Mesopotamia literally means “land between two rivers”, the people in southern Mesopotamia simply referred to it as “the land” *1, this denotation will become important when we examine Genesis in detail.
Just as we tend to anthropomorphize animals, giving them credit for near-human intelligence (thanks to cartoons like Disney), we also tend to modernize our ancient ancestors, assuming the only difference between us and them is technology. The fact is, their understanding of the world was completely different than that of modern society.
Hammurabi had recently conquered northern Mesopotamia (1792 BC), Amenemhet III and IV were Pharaohs in Egypt (end of the Middle Kingdom), and Assyria was just becoming a power.
Mesopotamia was in the middle Bronze Age, this age is characterized by a society just learning how to create bronze out of copper and tin (the early Bronze Age is really the Copper Age, which is not a uniquely recognized category). At this point in time, the people of the Mesopotamian region were starting to use bronze for weapons and tools, adornments are still a few years away.
The Zodiac was just about 200 years old at the time of Abram, and there were thirteen signs, not our current twelve. Ophiucus (the snake handler) was later dropped, no one seems to be clear just when or why this sign was eliminated, some theories stating the universal switch to a twelve-month year under the Roman Empire.
The people of the Mesopotamian region were still using a lunar calendar; as a result the year was broken up into thirteen months of four weeks, each week containing seven days. The reason for a seven-day week was due to the moon’s phases, seven days being the length of each of the four major phases of the moon: new, first quarter, full, and third quarter. In a numerological culture numbers take on significance, seven was seen as an important number (days in a lunar phase, number of visible planets), and would retain its’ importance in the new religion of Abraham.
When Abram traveled into Egypt he would have run into a far different culture; for example, Egypt was the first major power to develop a solar calendar. Egypt divided the year into twelve months of 30 days each *2, with five days tacked onto the end of the year to align the calendar with the solar cycle. It is probably his stay there, and that of Jacob’s family, where twelve gains its’ significance as a number of importance in the new religion.
Another important cultural norm at the time of Abram was the Nomadic culture *3. Nomadic tribes were highly important to the society of Abram’s time, and it was through the Nomads that goods traveled from one region to another, and where animals were raised for food, clothing, and other needs. Animals, especially sheep, require large areas in which to graze, and herds had to be moved about to ensure a constant supply of food (a herd of sheep could easily consume all of the vegetation in an area, ask Texas cattlemen).
Since Nomadic tribes were constantly on the move, it became important for the tribe to have a constant identity when dealing with other tribes or cities *4. For this reason, tribes took on the name of the Patriarch, and would continue that name well after the death of the individual. Eventually, for any of a number of reasons, these tribes would split, the result of the splits might bring about the end of the parent tribe, or the parent tribe might continue on, just spawning new “children” tribes. These new tribes would still refer to the original tribe as their “parent” to identify themselves when dealing with others. So, as an example, John Smith’s family would continue to refer to itself as Smith long after John had passed away. At some point in time the Smith tribe might become too large for their pastoral land, at this point there existed two choices: the tribe could split into two new tribes, Jones and Davis, or a part of the Smith tribe could break away and create the Jones tribe, with the original tribe still going by the name of Smith. In either case the Smith tribe would be referred to as the parent of Jones and Davis.
Abram would have been born near the end of the Third Sumerian Dynasty in Mesopotamia (2100-1800 B.C.) *6, a time after the Sumerian people had been conquered by the Semites (who adopted the Sumerian culture and religion) and before their assimilation into the Babylonian kingdom. Their religion was polytheistic, with powerful gods, demons, and monsters. *7
According to their creation myth the sea was eternal *8; from it the first goddess (Nammu, goddess of the primeval sea) came into being. Nammu created An (god of heaven), Ki (goddess of earth, also known as Ninhusag), and Enki, god of the underworld and semen; she was also An’s wife.
An and Ki came together and created most of the remainder of the gods, including Enlil (god of air). The lights in the skies (sun, moon, planets and stars) were but brighter portions of the air that filled the space between heaven and earth, with the sea encompassing everything.
The gods were anthropomorphic, as were the Greek and Roman gods with which we are more familiar. They had all our needs and faults, but were immortal (so long as they weren’t killed). In the beginning gods and goddesses were responsible for growing their own food and keeping the earth, but eventually they tired of this task and went to Enki (the god of the watery abyss, wisdom, and semen) for advice. Enki created man from clay and breathed life into the clay, but he limited their lifespan to appease the gods. Man was then put to work in the garden of the gods (Dilmun), they were permitted to keep a portion of the food for themselves but the remainder was to be given to the gods.
In a dispute with Ki, Enki is wounded in several places, one of these places is his rib. In the process of healing Enki, Ki creates one child from each wound, from the wound in the rib a woman (Ninti) is created.
After a time the gods grew to regret their human creations *9, the regret went so deep that the gods took out revenge against the humans and wiped them out by a flood. One man heard about the plan from Enki and escapes the flood with his family by building a boat that he loads with his family and many animals. After seven days the flood waters recede, the man offers sacrifices and prostrations to Utu, An, and Enlil, who are so overcome that they grant the man eternal life in Dilmun.
Each family (tribe) had a private god, as tribes merged into cities one of the gods was deemed the god of the city. The city god’s power extended to the limits of the city’s influence. Over time, as one city conquered another, a hierarchy of gods developed. If Nipur defeated Ur, then Nipur’s god was seen as more powerful than Ur’s, and his influence was now over both cities. This hierarchy worked its’ way up to the “national” level; national gods were seen as the ultimate in power.
Over time an entire hierarchy of deities developed *10: four gods ruled the gods (An, the god of heaven; Ki, the goddess of earth; Enlil, the god of the air; and Enki, the god of the watery abyss); a council of seven gods decreed fate – along with the four primary gods the seven included Nanna, god of the moon; Utu, god of the sun and justice; and Inanna, goddess of love and war. Below these seven were a plethora of gods (500 in all), angels (separate ones for heaven and earth), demons and monsters. All were superior to man.
It was in this background that Abram grew up, learning about the Sumerian gods, working with his father and brothers creating idols. According to the Midrash, Abram was always discontented with the myriad of gods and frequently rebelled against his father’s idol making.
With this understanding in mind, we can now delve into Genesis itself, and better understand the chapters before God’s covenant with Abraham. We will begin our exegesis into Genesis with the next installment.
*1 The story of Chaldea, Ragozin, Zénaïde A.
*3 The story of Chaldea, Ragozin, Zénaïde A.
*4 The story of Chaldea, Ragozin, Zénaïde A.
*5 http://www.realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/Sumer/Sumerian_Religion.htm and The story of Chaldea, Ragozin, Zénaïde A.
*9 Epic of Gilgamesh http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/