Ancient Near Eastern Religion and the Old Testament (Part 1)

Twelve Hittite gods of the underworld

The discovery and publication of ancient Near Eastern literature has shed much light upon the religious beliefs and practices of earliest civilization. It has also generated much discussion about the relationship of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion to that of the Old Testament. In fact, many scholars view the similarities in cosmogonies, flood accounts, cultic ritual, legal texts, wisdom literature, and belief in the afterlife as proof that the Old Testament writers borrowed from or adapted the literary corpus of Israel’s neighbors. As a result, Old Testament religion is treated as essentially one more primitive religion among many, although slightly more advanced in the evolutionary stage of development.1 But there are also substantial and significant differences between Israel’s religion and that of her neighbors. Furthermore, the genuine similarities do not require literary dependence or borrowing. This article will summarize the primary features of ancient Near Eastern religion, contrast them with the Old Testament, and offer another explanation for the similarities between the biblical and non-biblical religions.2

Gods, Mankind, and the Cosmos

All ancients believed in a reality that transcended the physical world. But in contrast with Israel’s monotheistic world-view, the Mesopotamians and Egyptians saw a myriad of gods behind the cosmos.3 Of course, some deities were more prominent and popular than others.4 Often a city-state or region would have its own patron god.5 But no one god was absolutely sovereign over the others.6 Each had his or her respective sphere of influence, which usually corresponded to some aspect of nature, such as the sun, the atmosphere, the earth, or the underworld. Although the gods were behind every event, they did not ultimately control the future.7 And though they were immanent in the world, they remained somewhat aloof from their human devotees.8

The ancient Near Easterner sometimes expressed his polytheistic theology in the form of creation-myth. But unlike the Genesis account, which focuses primarily upon humanity’s origin, these pagan cosmogonies focus primarily upon the origin, relationship, and function of the gods. For example, the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation account, begins with two primeval gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who give birth to a host of other gods. Apsu then becomes irritated at the clamor made by his offspring and decides to destroy them in spite of Tiamat’s protests. However, one of the younger gods, Ea, slays Apsu. At this point, the gods divide and champions are chosen to do battle. Tiamat chooses Kingu and a host of demons, monsters, and dragons. Marduk, who happens to be Babylon’s patron god, volunteers to lead the other side. When Tiamat opens her mouth to swallow Marduk, the latter directs the four winds to fill her belly, and he shoots an arrow that pierces her heart. Then, using Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates the firmament and the earth. Later he slays Kingu and uses his blood to fashion mankind.9 It is worthy to note that in this story of creation, as well as Egyptian cosmogonies,10 the creation of humans is almost treated as an afterthought.11

In addition to creation accounts, Israel’s neighbors also told their own stories of the worldwide flood. Perhaps the most well-known is contained in the Gilgamesh epic. Enlil, one of the chief deities, becomes irritated with the “noise” of humanity. He holds counsel with his fellow gods, and a decision is made to destroy mankind with a flood. But one of the gods, Ea, warns King Utnapishtim and advises him to build a boat. He and his family survive the flood and are granted immortality.12

On a more practical level, the ancient Near Easterner looked to the gods for health and prosperity. Kings invoked their gods of war for victory. Farmers called upon the gods or goddesses of fertility to grant them a good production of crops. The sick and dying cried to the gods of healing that they might expel the demons of sickness and restore soundness to the body. The faithful Israelite also desired these blessings, but only from the hand of Yahweh.

Temple, Priesthood, and the Cult

According to Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion, humans were made to serve the gods. While the kings served the gods by administering the affairs of society, the priests served them by administering the affairs of the temple, which was viewed as the “house” where the particular god in view resided.13 In each temple there was an idol, usually made of wood, stone, or metal, and fashioned in the form of a geometric shape, animal, human, or hybrid.14 Through special rituals, this image became the vehicle by which the divine presence was manifested.15 Every morning the priest would bathe, clothe, and provide breakfast for the god.16 Later in the day, the god might, with the aid of the priest, give an oracle, receive visitors, or make a procession to another temple.17 The irony of gods depending upon mortals for life and well-being did not escape the ridicule of Israel’s prophets.18

The priests would also serve as mediators between the gods and the people. They sometimes offered animal sacrifices—in extreme cases human sacrifice19 —in order to appease the gods’ capricious anger and restore their favor. If an individual was sick, the priest might attempt to heal him by transferring his illness to an animal substitute.20 Priestesses were also employed in Mesopotamian religions as temple prostitutes who, as representatives of the fertility goddess, would perform sexual rituals to insure fruitful harvests21 or to symbolize the king’s marriage to the patron goddess.22 Needless to say, this immoral practice was without sanction in Israel’s religion and was repeatedly condemned by the Old Testament prophets.23

Notes

1 Since Friedrich Delitzsch’s 1902 lectures entitled, “Babel and Bible,” modern scholars have tended to downplay the uniqueness of biblical literature and stress its dependence upon the literature of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Delitzsch himself denied the inspiration of the Old Testament. Babel and Bible (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903), pp. 176-78. For the argument that the Old Testament represents a more highly evolved religion, see Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

2 For a compilation of ancient Near Eastern literature that relates to the Old Testament, see James Pritchard, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950). For a discussion of how these texts relate to the Old Testament, see Walter Beyerlin, Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978) and John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of the Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990). For a discussion of the limitations of these ancient texts, see Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa L. Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 21-28.

3 According to Helmer Ringgren, Ashurbanipal’s library contained a list with over 2,500 names of gods and goddesses! Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973), p. 53.

4 The primary gods of Sumer and Akkad were Anu, Enlil, Enki (Ea), Inanna (Ishtar), Shamash, Marduk, and Ashur; those of Canaan were El, Baal, and Astarte; those of Egypt were Amun, Ptah, Re, Osiris, Isis, and Horus. For a more extended discussion regarding the various deities of the ancient Near East, see S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), pp. 12-38, and H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948), pp. 3-29.

5 For a detailed study of the relationship between a particular deity and a regional territory in ancient Near Eastern theology, see Daniel Block, The Gods of the Nations, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).

6 Describing polytheism as a theological system, J. J. Finkelstein writes, “It implies the existence of a plurality of superhuman wills. This very condition precludes the absolute omnipotence of any one of these wills.” “Bible and Babel,” Commentary 26 (1958): 438, cited in Walton, 237. Indeed, in a polytheistic world an evil god might overthrow a good god (e.g., The Poem of Erra in Cohn, 52-53).

7 The gods could “decree” the future. But they could not always insure the efficacy of that decree, especially with regards to the day of one’s death. Cf. Ringgren, 109, 174.

8 Wiggermann remarks, “Notwithstanding their mutual dependency and the word ‘love’ that denoted their relationship in the native languages, there was little warmth between mortals and gods” (pp. 1860-61).

9 ANET, 60-71.

10 For the Egyptian stories of creation, see ANET, 3-10.

11 For this reason, Walton prefers to call them “theogonies,” rather than cosmogonies (pp. 21, 25, 26, 32, 60, 232).

12 ANET, 72-99.

13 In Canaan, worship was sometimes conducted in shrines set up under trees and on hill tops (Deut 12:2; 2 Kings 16:4; Isa 57:5).

14 Mesopotamian gods were usually anthropomorphic while Egyptian gods were often portrayed with a human body and animal head. Cf. H. Frankfort, pp. 3-14.

15 This ritual was called “mouth-washing” or “opening the mouth.” Cf. Hooke, p. 48.

16 Wiggerman wryly observes, “That the god indeed accepted what was offered, while the meal in front of the statue remained manifestly untouched, was the ultimate mystery of Mesopotamian theology.” “Theologies, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in vol. 3 of Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995), p. 1862.

17 Cf. K. A. Kitchen, “Egypt, Land of,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Frank E. Gaelelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 2:254.

18 See Isaiah 40:18-20; 41:7, 24, 29; 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:1-15.

19 Cf. 2 Kings 3:27. The Old Testament also condemns this practice in Leviticus 20:2, 3. Alan Millard cites some extra-biblical archaeological evidence of this practice. “Cradle of Civilization: the Ancient Near East,” Erdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), p. 67.

20 Hooke, 44. This is the closest pagans came to the concept of a vicarious sacrifice. But in this case, it is not the guilt but only the effects of sin that are removed.

21 The discovery of many female statuettes with exaggerated sexual parts testifies to the popularity of the fertility-goddess cult throughout the ancient world. As an aside, the fact that many of these idols date to the third millennium B.C. is inconsistent with the evolutionary view that human societies had not yet become agricultural by that time.

22 This hieros gamos ritual was usually connected with a New Year’s festival, and it involved the recitation of erotic love songs, which some scholars have compared to Canticles (e.g., Ringgren, 25-28). For further discussion on the relationship between Canticles and ancient Near Eastern sacred marriage texts, see Walton, 189-92.

23 Amos 2:7; Hosea 4:14; Jeremiah 2:20.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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AndyBoni's picture

Good work. I'm looking forward to Part 2

Andy Bonikowsky

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