I was really happy that 32 people turned up to the British Museum tour yesterday. It was the biggest tour group ever.
Alison Boniface posted a picture of the event on Facebook:
Among many other fascinating artefacts, we looked at a marvellous clay tablet which has a map of the world on it. It is usually dated to the 5th century BCE and was discovered at Sippar, southern Iraq, 97 km north of Babylon on the east bank of the Euphrates River. It is in fact the oldest known map of the world.
The map is circular with two outer defined circles. The inner circle represents the known world and the outer circle, the salt sea.
Babylon is in the centre of the map and the world is traversed by the two great rivers, the Purattu and the Idiqlat (Euphrates and the Tigris).
Parallel lines at the bottom seem to represent the southern marshes, and a curved line coming from the north, northeast appear to represent the Zagros Mountains. There are seven small interior circles at the perimeter areas within the circle, and they appear to represent seven cities.
Seven triangular sections on the external circle (water perimeter) represent named mountains (or some say islands) but the damaged clay tablet has lost the three mountains on the tablet’s lower edge.
If we take a side-view, rather than a bird’s-eye view, we can see that the Babylonians viewed the cosmos as a 3-tiered structure. The earth was circular, surrounded by the sea, then a shiny dome covered the entire earth and sea, held into place with another ring of land (sometimes a circular range of mountains) and below the world was Arallu, the underworld. The entire cosmos was then surrounded by the waters of chaos, both above and below.
To complete the image of the Babylonian concept of the world and add some characters to the story, we need to look at the Enûma Eliš, a tablet, one of the many tablets which records the Babylonian Creation and Flood stories. The Babylonians read this story every year during the New Year festival Akitu and it begins:
1 When on high, the sky was not named,
2 And the Earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
3 And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
4 And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both
5 Their waters were mingled together,
6 And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
7 When of the gods none had been called into being,
8 And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained.
Enûma Eliš – Tablet I
A Primeval Battle
The epic goes on to describe an epic battle between Marduk, king of the gods, and Tiamat, the godless of the chaotic sea. Marduk and Bel defeat her, and Bel cleaves her body in twain, and uses it to hold back the primeval waters above and below.
93 Tiamat and Marduk, the sage of the gods, came together,
94 Joining in strife, drawing near to battle.
95 Bel spread out his net and enmeshed her;
96 He let loose the Evil Wind, the rear guard, in her face.
97 Tiamat opened her mouth to swallow it,
98 She let the Evil Wind in so that she could not close her lips.
99 The fierce winds weighed down her belly,
100 Her inwards were distended and she opened her mouth wide.
101 He let fly an arrow and pierced her belly,
102 He tore open her entrails and slit her inwards,
103 He bound her and extinguished her life,
104 He threw down her corpse and stood on it.
135 Bel rested, surveying the corpse,
136 In order to divide the lump by a clever scheme.
137 He split her into two like a dried fish:
138 One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens.
139 He stretched the skin and appointed a guardian
140 With the instruction not to let her waters escape.
Enûma Eliš – Tablet IV
This should sound vaguely familiar to anyone who has ever read Genesis. Even though the epic battle and the gory details of the dismemberment of Tiamat’s body have been omitted from the story, in favour of a cerebral and vocal creation, you can recognise the elects of the the Babylonian story. (1) Instead of fighting with a great beast “Tiamat”, the spirit of Elohim hovers over the surface of the deep “tehom” and (2) Instead of cleaving the body of Tiamat and using it to hold back the waters above, Yahwéh Elohim merely speaks a firmament into existence to push back the waters above.
Incidentally, the word for “watery deep” is “tehom” in Hebrew and it is etymologically related to “Tiamat”, the name of the sea goddess whom Marduk fought with. Also, the word for “firmament” in Hebrew is “raqia” and carries the meaning of “beaten out”, just like Bel did with Tiamat’s body. So we can see the stories are related.
Even though the Genesis creation story itself is sanitised as a polemic against the polytheism of Babylon, a Hebrew myth of Yahwéh defeating a great sea creature is preserved in other Bible verses.
- Isaiah 51:9b-10 uses Rahab as a double image to represent Yahwéh’s ancient primeval battle with the sea monster at creation, and Yahwéh’s battle with the Red Sea during the Exodus: “Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep (tehom), Who made a Road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?”
- Job 40:25-26 mentions Liwyātān (Leviathan) an ancient sea monster who lives in the waters of chaos and whose name reflects the Canaanite myth of Lotan, a primeval monster defeated by the god Hadad (again Lotan and Liwyātān are etymologically related words): “Can you draw out Liwyātān with a fish-hook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a ring through his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a hook?”
- Psalm 74:13-17 links Leviathan to the creation of the world and to the seasons: “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Liwyātān and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springsand streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter”.
Keep in mind that the Babylonians recited the story of the creation of the world every year at the New Year’s festival of Akitu, so that explains why even though Liwyātān is slain, it is referred to as still existing. It also exaplains why some of the biblical references to slaying the great sea monster refer to the distant primeval past, some refer to the Exodus, and some come across as future prophecy. The slaying of the sea monster was not viewed as a single event, but as a cyclical and recurring cosmic event in cosmological time. The epic poem of Enûma Eliš was recited on the first day of the Babylonian month of Nisannu (1st Nisan), in spring, so the slaying of the sea dragon Tiamat was also viewed as the Sun’s annual defeat of Winter.
The similarities in the two stories are too great to ignore, and when you look at other Bible verses you can really see a picture come together of how the ancient Hebrews perceieved their world and of how much they got from the Babylonians, no matter how they tried to hide that.
The myth of God fighting a sea creature in a great battle and slaying it even passed into the Christian period, with John mentioning the great dragon whose head would be crushed in Revelation 12: 3, 4, 7-9
- “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. […] Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him”.
We can see that by this time, the Christians had mixed two separate Jewish traditions, (1) the tradition of the Great Dragon Leviathan/Rahab and (2) that of the satan, the prosecutor that Yahwéh used in order to mete out his justice.
Interestingly, Rahab, is now the official Hebrew name for the planet Neptune in a 2009 vote organised by the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
At the tour, I forgot to mention the satan, so I will be doing a blog post on it soon and will definitely remember to talk about it in the next tour.
The Ancient Hebrew concept of the World
- A firmament stretched like a dome and stopped the chaotic waters from breaching into the world. (Genesis 1:6-7 “And Elohim said, “Let there be a firmament between the waters to separate water from water.” So Elohim made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so”, see also Proverbs 3:20; 8:27-28, Job 26:7;
- The firmament was a shiny metallic object make of glass-like material or lapis lazuli (Job 37:15-18 “Hast thou with him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?” Exodus 24:10 “There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself”.)
- The firmament had windows and doors (floodgates or storehouses) to let rain through (Genesis 7:11b “On that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened”, see also Job 38:22).
- The firmament was held in place by the “foundations of the heavens” (2 Samuel 22:8, Psalm 102:25)
- The earth was a circular disc of land (Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27-28).
- The earth had a strong base called the “foundations of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:8, 2 Samuel 22:16, Psalm 18:15, Psalm 82:5, Psalm 102:25, Proverbs 8:29, Isaiah 24:18, Isaiah 48:13, Isaiah 51:13, Isaiah 51:16, Jeremiah 31:37, Micah 6:2)
- The earth was floating in the primeval sea “hanging upon nothing” (Job 26:7)
- Within the earth was Sheol, the underworld (Job 14:13)
- The cosmos was not composed of space, but of chaotic waters or “tehom” (Genesis 1:2 “In the beginning God created the sky and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of Elohim was hovering over the waters”, see also: Genesis 1:2, 6-7; 7:11, Psalm 24: 1-2; 36:6; 74:13-17; 78:15, Isaiah 51:10, Amos 7:4)
- In tehom lived Leviathan also known as Rahab (Isaiah 51:9b-10, Job 40:25-26, Psalm 89:8–10, Isaiah 51:9)
- Yahwéh defeated Leviathan in primal history (Psalm 74:13-17)
- Yahwéh defeated Leviathan during the parting of the Red Sea (Isaiah 51:9b-10)
- Yahwéh will continue to defeat Leviathan in the future (perhaps a yearly event marking the return of spring).
Circle of the Earth?
During the tour, a member of the public tagged along to listen to what we had to say. He turned out to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and visibly bristled at some of the things I had to say about various ancient artefacts.
By the time I reached the Babylonian Map of the World and started talking about the ancient near-east conception of the earth, a flat earth, he could bear it no more and asked me: “What about Isaiah 40:22 which refers to the ‘circle of the earth’?”. No doubt he believed that the Bible is scientifically accurate in describing the world as a “circle”. After all, a sphere does resemble a circle from all angles. However, there are a few points to note.
The Hebrew word “khug” does not mean sphere, it means a circle.
Other appearances of the word “khug” in the Torah tell us exactly what the word means. In Proverbs 8:27 it says:
“I was there when he set a circle (khug) on the face of the deep (tehom)”.
Some versions translate “khug” here as “edge”. The 1984 NWT (black Bible) translated it as “circle” and the new 2013 NWT (Silver Sword) translates it as “horizon”.
Elohim traces out a circle on the face of the deep which functions as the horizon, or the edge of the world. Again using the word “tehom” (deep) connects this act of creation in Proverbs with the creation in Genesis. The image is of an architect tracing out a line with a compass, and indeed the related Hebrew word for compass is “mekhugah” (literally, a “circle-maker”), which is mentioned in Isaiah 44:12-17 as a tool which idolaters use to mark their idols.
12 The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water, and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he shapeth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses (mekhugah), and shapeth it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the holm-tree and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest: he planteth a fir-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. 15 Then shall it be for a man to burn; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread: yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. 16 He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire. 17 And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god.
But did the writers of the Torah really mean sphere when they said circle?
No, there is a word for sphere or ball in Hebrew, “dur”, and the writers of Torah chose not to use it. Isaiah even used the word for sphere/ball in Isaiah 20: 18, where he said: “He will roll you up tightly like a ball and toss you into a wide land”.
This is irrefutable evidence that the Israelites and Babylonians had a very similar concept of the world.
Now, as I said during the tour. Whether you believe the Bible writers knew what the shape of the world really was and merely used these descriptions as metaphors, or you believe that the ancient Hebrews were ignorant desert dwellers who borrowed myths and legends from the peoples around them, it doesn’t change the fact that the Hebrew and Babylonian concepts of the word were very similar, and both are different from our modern 21st century perspective of a spherical Earth held in space by the gravity of the sun.
If you are a person of faith, this information doesn’t need to destroy your faith, and it is not its intention to do so. However, I don’t believe there is any value in trying to squeeze the Bible’s actual words into a modern scientific mould as the Watchtower often does, neither is it useful to claim that the Bible agrees with modern empirical science getting yourself tied up trying to explain away how a circle should really be interpreted as a sphere and how the expression “hanging upon nothing” really means hurtling through the solar system held only by the gravity of the sun.
The Bible is not a book of science, and it can be appreciated on its own terms, as a work of brilliant bronze-age literature which forms the basis of modern Western culture, without having to take every word literally.
After the tour we went to The Crown Pub at 51 New Oxford Street. Here are two pictures from Mary Viney and Jan Howson of the pub meet:
There was a bit of confusion because there is another pub called The Old Crown Pub at number 33. I’m sorry for all those who got lost. I’ll make sure it’s clearer next time.
Please do come again. Yesterday’s focus was more on the upstairs part and the Babylonians and Persians. Next time we’ll be touring the lower part of the British Museum and focusing more on the Egyptians and Assyrians and their relationships with the people of Israel and Judah.
- Finkel, Irving (2004). The Ark before Noah. Hodder
- Hayes, Christine (2012). Introduction to the Bible. Open Yale Courses
- Kaiser, Christopher B. (1997). Creational theology and the history of physical science. Brill.
- Smith, Mark S. (2003). The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. Oxford University Press
- Horowitz, Wayne (1998). Mesopotamian cosmic geography. Eisenbrauns.
- Collins, Adela Yarbro (2000). Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism. Brill. Dahl,
- Edward H.; Gauvin, Jean-Francois (2003). Sphaerae Mundi. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP.
- Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).