Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

Legends and Other Tales

The interconnected influences of different traditions of ancient mythology on one another consumed the archaeological efforts of the late 19th and early 20th century, though much work in Britain and Europe was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. This fascinating 1918 study-adapted from a series of lectures delivered to the British Academy in 1916 rings with the frustration of its British author. A renowned classical scholar, King incorporates the then latest research from American academics into his intriguing analysis of the impact of Babylonian and Egyptian mythology on the foundations of Judaism.

Drawing on newly discovered five-thousand-year-old texts, he weaves a narrative of the folklore of human origins unbroken from our earliest collective memories. His comparison of the creation and deluge stories from a range of ancient Old-World civilizations remains compelling today.

Biblical myths are found mainly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. They are concerned with the creation of the world and the first man and woman, the origin of the current human condition, the primeval Deluge, the distribution of peoples, and the variation of languages.

The basic stories are derived from the popular lore of the ancient Middle East; parallels can be found in the extant literature of the peoples of the area. The Mesopotamians, for instance, also knew of an earthly paradise such as Eden, and the figure of the cherubim—properly griffins rather than angels—was known to the Canaanites. In the Bible, however, this mythical garden of the gods becomes the scene of man’s fall and the background of a story designed to account for the natural limitations of human life. Similarly, the Babylonians told of the formation of humankind from clay. But, whereas in the pagan tale the first man’s function is to serve as an earthly menial of the gods, in the scriptural version his role is to rule over all other creatures. The story of the Deluge, including the elements of the ark and the dispatch of the raven and dove, appears already in the Babylonian myths of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. There, however, the hero is eventually made immortal, whereas in the Bible this detail is omitted because, to the Israelite mind, no child of woman could achieve that status. Lastly, while the story of the Tower of Babel was told originally to account for the stepped temples (ziggurats) of Babylonia, to the Hebrew writer its purpose is simply to inculcate the moral lesson that humans should not aspire beyond their assigned station.

Scattered through the Prophets and Holy Writings (the two latter portions of the Hebrew Bible) are allusions to other ancient myths—e.g., to that of a primordial combat between YHWH and a monster variously named Leviathan (Wriggly), Rahab (Braggart), or simply Sir Sea or Dragon. The Babylonians told likewise of a fight between their god Marduk and the monster Tiamat; the Hittites told of a battle between the weather god and the dragon Illuyankas; while a Canaanite poem from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in northern Syria relates the discomfiture of Sir Sea by the deity Baal and the rout of an opponent named Leviathan. Originally, this myth probably referred to the annual subjugation of the floods.

Ancient myths are utilized also in the form of passing allusions or poetic “conceits,” much as modern Westerners may speak of Cupid or the Muses. In the prophetic books, for example, there are references to a celestial upstart hurled to earth on account of his brashness and to the imprisonment of certain rebellious constellations.

Prophet Isaiah Statue

The prophets used myths paradigmatically to illustrate the hand of God in contemporary events or to reinforce their prophecies. Thus, to Isaiah the primeval dragon was the symbol of the continuing force of chaos and evil that will again have to be vanquished before the kingdom of God can be established on earth. Similarly, for Ezekiel the celestial upstart serves as the prototype of the prince of Tyre, destined for an imminent fall; and Habakkuk sees in the impending rout of certain invaders a repetition on the stage of history of YHWH’s mythical sortie against the monster of the sea.

Legends in the Hebrew Scriptures often embellish the accounts of national heroes with standard motifs drawn from popular lore. Thus, the Genesis story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife recurs substantially (but with other characters) in an Egyptian papyrus of the 13th century BCE. The account of the infant Moses being placed in the bulrushes (in Exodus) has an earlier counterpart in a Babylonian tale about Sargon, king of Akkad (c. 2334–c. 2279 BCE), and is paralleled later in legends associated with the Persian Cyrus and with Tu-Küeh, the fabled founder of the Turkish nation. Jephthah’s rash vow (in Judges), whereby he is committed to sacrifice his daughter, recalls the Classical legend of Idomeneus of Crete, who was similarly compelled to slay his own son. The motif of the letter whereby David engineers the death in battle of Bathsheba’s husband recurs in Homer’s story of Bellerophon. The celebrated judgment of Solomon concerning the child claimed by two contending women is told, albeit with variations of detail, about Buddha, Confucius, and other sages; the story of how Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish” but was subsequently disgorged intact finds a parallel in the Indian tale of the hero Shaktideva, who endured the same experience during his quest for the Golden City. On the other hand, it should be observed that many of the parallels commonly cited from the folklore of indigenous peoples may be mere repetitions of biblical material picked up from Christian missionaries.

Folktales in the Hebrew Bible sometimes serve to account for the names of places in Palestine or for the origins of traditional customs and institutions. Thus, the familiar story of the man who must struggle with the personified current of a river before he can cross it is localized (in Genesis) at the ford of Jabbok simply because that name suggests the Hebrew word abḳ (“struggle”), and Samson’s felling of 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass is placed at Ramath-leḥi because leḥi is Hebrew for “jawbone.” Similarly, a taboo against eating the thigh muscle of an animal is validated in Genesis by the legend that Jacob was struck in the hip when he fought with an otherworldly being at Penuel (“Face of God”). The custom of annually bewailing the vanished spirit of fertility is rationalized in Judges as a lamentation for the hapless daughter of Jephthah.

Leonard William King

“Under the Sumerians the wife could not obtain a divorce at all, and the penalty for denying her husband was death.”

Born on 8 December 1869, Leonard William King was an Assyriologist and an English archaeologist who studied at Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge. He died on 20 August 1919 in London, United Kingdom. King taught Babylonian archaeology and Assyrian at King’s College for several years where he published many works on these subjects. He also collected stone inscriptions in the Near East. His translations of ancient works like the Code of Hammurabi gained wide popularity. He was also the Assistant Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum.

Science lost a genius scholar in Assyriology as announced in The Times last Saturday about the premature death of Dr. Leonard William King. Other than building a European reputation in the literary field, he was also an energetic person whose love for open air and adventure led him to see, travel and dig up the palaces of ancient Assyrian Kings—a dual capacity in demand in modern archeologists.

He entered the Egyptian and Assyrian Department of the British Museum after receiving an education at Rugby and King’s College, Cambridge. He released his first work, “Babylonian Magic and Sorcery,” in 1896, which was a symbol of his mastery in the subject combined with the attention and precision he was recognized for. Afterwards, the “Letters of Hammurabi” was released, which is still a classic work on the subject.

British Museum in London

Not long making an excavation trip to Mesopotamia, he reopened the diggings on the Konyunjik (Nineveh) site after a year where he worked for the British Museum for over one year, until he had to return home because of dysentery and give up his position to a colleague. He made an expedition into Persia to re-copy the great Inscription of Darius on the rock fact at Behistun during this excavation period (which was previously published by Sir Henry Rawlinson in the early days of his cuneiform decipherment) and camped for a fortnight beneath the inscription with his colleague to accomplish the job. With the assistance of ropes and tackling, the entire text was re-copied and eventually the British Museum published it with a full translation. It is needless to mention more than a few of King’s works, which the Semitic scholars know well. But his piece on the monumental history of Babylonia, which he was engaged with at the time of his death, ranks first among all his publications. Two volumes have already been published in this work.

He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and became a Litt.D. (Cambridge) early in his career. King was also elected as Professor of Assyrian and Babylonian Archeology by King’s College, London. He was often engaged in the unselfish masters of craft, always remembered his juniors, was always eager to help them, and was especially careful to give credit to the ones who deserved it; and anyone who worked with him can testify to his noble character. He used his knowledge of the Near East at the disposal of the Government in London after the war started. He left behind a wife, one son and a daughter.

Notable Works

  • 1898- Leonard William King. First steps in Assyrian: a series of historical, mythological, religious, magical, epistolary and other texts for beginners, printed in cuneiform characters having interlinear transliteration and translation and a sketch of Assyrian grammar, sign-list and vocabulary. Kegan Paul Trench, Trbner. p. 399. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
  • 1898 to 1900- Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi (3 volumes)
  • 1903- Encyclopaedia Biblica (contributor)
  • 1903- Babylonian Religion and Mythology.
  • 1907- Egypt and Western Asia in the light of Recent Discoveries
  • 1907- Chronicles Concerning Early Babylonian Kings (Volume 1 and 2)
  • 1946 – Schweich Lecture – Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition
  • 1902- The seven tablets of creation: or The Babylonian and Assyrian legends concerning the creation of the world and of mankind. 
  • 1899- The Code of Hammurabi (translation)

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