Tuesday, November 11, 2014

If Genesis Borrowed from Babylonian Epic, why an Egyptian ‘loan word’ for Noah’s Ark?

Damien F. Mackey




Pan-Babylonianism is a far too one-dimensional approach

to the study of the ancient Scriptures.




Professor A. Yahuda (The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian, Oxford, 1933)

dealt a shock blow to both the documentary theory and to the related Pan-Babylonianism. Yahuda, unlike P. J. Wiseman (New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1936), was an expert in his field. His profound knowledge of Egyptian and Hebrew combined - not to mention Akkadian - gave him a distinct advantage over fellow Egyptologists unacquainted with Hebrew, who could thus not discern any appreciable Egyptian influence on the Pentateuch.

Yahuda, however, realized that the Pentateuch was absolutely saturated with Egyptian – not only for the periods associated with Egypt, most notably the Joseph narrative including Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, but even for the periods customarily associated with Babylonia (presumably the Flood account and the Babel incident[*]).

For instance, instead of the Akkadian word for ‘Ark’ used in the Mesopotamian Flood accounts, or even the Canaanite ones current elsewhere in the Bible, the Noachic account Yahuda noted, uses the Egyptian-based tebah (Egyptian db.t, ‘box, coffer, chest’).

Moses, traditionally the author of the Pentateuch substantially speaking - and I believe the editor of Genesis - was he not, to all appearances, “an Egyptian”? Exodus 2:19: “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock”. (Cf. Acts 7:22).  



[*] Though Anne Habermehl has, in a recent ground-breaking article, Where in the World Is the Tower of Babel? (https://answersingenesis.org/tower-of-babel/where-in-the-world-is-the-tower-of-babel/) completely shifted the playing field, by re-locating the biblical “Shinar”, and the Babel incident, to the Sinjar region of NE Syria.

This may render even less relevant the Babylonian view.


Most important was this linguistic observation by Yahuda:


Whereas those books of Sacred Scripture which were admittedly written during and after the Babylonian Exile reveal in language and style such an unmistakable Babylonian influence that these newly-entered foreign elements leap to the eye, by contrast in the first part of the Book of Genesis, which describes the earlier Babylonian period, the Babylonian influence in the language is so minute as to be almost non-existent.

{Dead Sea Scrolls expert, Fr. Jean Carmignac (Birth of the Synoptic Gospels), had been able to apply the same sort of bilingual expertise - in his case, Greek and Hebrew - to gainsay the received scholarly opinion and show that the New Testament writings in Greek had Hebrew originals: his argument for a much earlier dating than is usual for the New Testament books}.


While Yahuda’s argument is totally Egypto-centric, at least for the Book of Genesis, one does also need to consider the likelihood of ‘cultural traffic’ from Palestine to Egypt, especially given the prominence of Joseph in Egypt from age 80-110. One might expect that the toledôt documents borne by Israel into Egypt would have become of great interest to the Egyptians under the régime of the Vizier, Joseph (historically Imhotep of Egypt’s 3rd dynasty), who had after all saved the nation of Egypt from a 7-year famine, thereby influencing Egyptian thought and concepts for a considerable period of time.

The combination of Wiseman and Yahuda, in both cases clear-minded studies based on profound analysis of ancient documents, is an absolute bomb waiting to explode all over any artificially constructed literary theory of Genesis. Whilst I. Kikawada and A. Quinn (Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11) have managed to find some merit in the JEDP theory, and I have also suggested how its analytical tools may be useful at least when applied to the apparent multiple sourcing in the Flood narrative (and perhaps in the Esau and Jacob narrative), see my:


Tracing the Hand of Moses in Genesis



the system appears as inherently artificial in the light of archaeological discoveries.

U. Cassuto (as quoted by Kikawada and Quinn) may not have been diplomatic (their view), but nevertheless he was basically correct in his estimation of documentism: “This imposing and beautiful edifice has, in reality, nothing to support it and is founded on air”.

It is no coincidence that documentary theory was developed during the approximate era of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (c. 1800), who had proposed an a priori approach to extramental reality, quite different from the common sense approach of the Aristotelian philosophy of being. Today the philosophy of science is saturated with this new approach. Kantianism I think is well and truly evident too in the Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen attitude to the biblical texts.

And Eduard Meyer carried this over into his study of Egyptian chronology, by devising in his mind a quantifying a priori theory – an entirely artificial one that had no substantial bearing on reality – that he imposed upon his subject with disastrous results. See my:


The Fall of the Sothic Theory: Egyptian Chronology Revisited


Again an “imposing and beautiful edifice … founded on air”.

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