Gospel & Universe

The Currents of Sumer 1: The Whore

❧ This page briefly explores the animosity of Jews and Christians to the Mesopotamians and their religion ❧

One of the great historical inaccuracies that we lived with in the West for centuries was that Babylon and its Mesopotamian civilization were fundamentally negative, even evil. In his history of literature, Doug Metzger notes some of the reasons for this:

The greatest villains in the Old Testament are probably the Assyrians. And archaeology and the Bible alike agree that waves and waves of Assyrians moved into the northern kingdom of Israel. Attempts at diplomatic relations were made, with Israel always being the disadvantaged underling, but when these relations repeatedly broke down, Israel was destroyed in 722 BCE, and alien populations flooded into the northern part of Canaan. [...]

In 586 BCE, after numerous fallings out with the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, a large population of Judahites were deported and forced to live in the city of Babylon. There, they continued work on the earliest books of the Old Testament, augmenting, editing, and revising ancestral stories, and systemizing the religion that would later be called Judaism. [...]

On October 12th, 539, the city of Babylon underwent a peaceful power transition. Its nominal king, the poor, bookish Nabonidus, was captured. [...] Persian forces, under the masterful leadership of the king of kings Cyrus, took over the leadership of Babylon. And soon thereafter, the exiled worshippers of Yahweh were allowed to return to their home city of Jerusalem, and rebuild their temple. 

(The Tower of Babel: Cuneiform in the Fertile Crescent, 3100-500 BCE - literatureandhistory.com/index.php/episode-001-the-tower-of-babel).

The Christian rejection of the polytheistic Ancient world was based on the Jewish rejection — a blanket rejection that applied to the religions of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and especially Babylonians. Indeed, for Christians, Babylon became a byword for blasphemy, corruption, and abomination. In the Book of Revelation, Saint John of Patmos writes of a woman who is

arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

Despite Jewish antipathy to Assyria and Babylon, key aspects of Jewish language, law, and narrative appear to come from the polytheistic civilizations of Mesopotamia. I'd add the following obscure, subterranean flow-lines to what appears to be a clean break between polytheistic Mesopotamia and monotheistic Judaism:

 4000 —— 1000 BC - Classical - 500 AD - Medieval 

Polytheism: Sumer to Rome ||

    \   \   \   \   \   \   \   \

—-> Judaism \ \ \ \

Monotheism: Judaism —-> Christianity, Islam

Jews and Christians didn't acknowledge their Mesopotamian heritage (represented by the slanting lines above) for a number of reasons. Among these, the alphabet they inherited from Phoenician and Aramaic was radically different from the cuneiform used in the four major previous Mesopotamian civilizations — in chronological order, Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria.

Cuneiform: wedge-shaped marks made with a stylus in soft clay.

Cuneiform: wedge-shaped marks made with a stylus in soft clay.

Phoenician or early Hebrew: the 10th century BC Gezer Calendar

Phoenician or early Hebrew: the 10th century BC Gezer Calendar

In Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (2010), Paul Kriwaczek notes the enormous impact of this shift from cuneiform to alphabet: 

the Arameans brought with them a secret weapon so overwhelmingly powerful that it was able to bring the long Mesopotamian tradition to a halt, eventually to crush it, and finally to cover over the remains so thoroughly as to make all direct evidence of the splendour of two and a half millennia vanish from the face of [the] earth. And at the same time to begin the next wave of history, at the end of which we ourselves now live, by passing on to others the baton of civilization, and laying the foundations of the modern world. The weapon with that colossal achievement to its credit was an entirely novel way of freezing evanescent speech in time: the alphabet. (Chapter 10: Passing the Baton: An End and a Beginning After 700 BCE).

Cuneiform was used for commerce, mathematics, religion, astronomy, and literature for about three thousand years, yet it was forgotten by the end of the Classical Age. As a result, the Judeo-Christian version of history wasn't directly contested by Mesopotamian sources. It was only in the middle of the 19th Century that Europeans deciphered cuneiform. Most of the extant texts still haven't been deciphered. There are at least a half million tablets, most of them in the British Museum and the Louvre (also Berlin, Istanbul, Bagdad and Yale). 

It's possible that even if the Jews had understand (or had translations of) earlier Mesopotamian texts, they wouldn't have been interested in them. Mesopotamia, and in particular the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC), was a polytheistic threat to their monotheistic religion, a cultural threat to their tribal culture, and a military threat to their struggling nation.

Yet while the Jewish people were deeply resentful of Babylon, which forced them into exile and destroyed Jerusalem, along with Solomon's Temple in 586, they must have been deeply influenced by its rich and powerful culture. In his introduction to the Pentateuch (in the 2018 New Oxford Annotated Bible), Marc Brettler writes that the result of major redactions, "which most likely took place during the Babylonian exile (586–538 bce) or soon thereafter in the early Persian period, was the creation of a very long book, narrating what was thought to be the formative period of Israel, from the period of the creation of the world through the death of Moses."

Although one wouldn't know it by the biblical accounts, Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II was a marvel of cosmopolitan life. It was a large and prosperous urban conglomeration with canals and prosperous surrounding lands. The arts and sciences flourished. Visually, it was stunning: it had a stone bridge over the Euphrates, a temple to Ishtar and the enormous ziggurat of Etemenanki, dedicated to the supreme god Marduk. 

A detail from the Ishtar Gate, constructed under Nebuchadnezzar II (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

A detail from the Ishtar Gate, constructed under Nebuchadnezzar II (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

Reconstruction of Etemenanki, based on Schmid. A Neo-Babylonian royal inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II on a stele from Babylon, claimed to have been found in the 1917 excavation by Robert Koldewey, and of uncertain authenticity, reads: "Etemenanki Zikkurat Babibli [Ziggurat of Babylon] I made it, the wonder of the people of the world, I raised its top to heaven, made doors for the gates, and I covered it with bitumen and bricks." (From Wikipedia, “Etemenanki”)

Reconstruction of Etemenanki, based on Schmid. A Neo-Babylonian royal inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II on a stele from Babylon, claimed to have been found in the 1917 excavation by Robert Koldewey, and of uncertain authenticity, reads: "Etemenanki Zikkurat Babibli [Ziggurat of Babylon] I made it, the wonder of the people of the world, I raised its top to heaven, made doors for the gates, and I covered it with bitumen and bricks." (From Wikipedia, “Etemenanki”)

Yet Jewish writers saw Babylon through a very particular lens. One sees their deep antipathy in the prophecies of Jeremiah. According to tradition, Jeremiah began his ministry in 626 BC and foresaw the destruction of their Babylonian persecutors at the hands of the Medes and Persians. Here, the richness of Babylon is seen in terms of waywardness, drunkenness, madness, and monstrosity. Babylon is only worthy of being razed to the ground:

Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will raise up against Babylon and against those who dwell among those rebelling against Me a destroying wind and spirit; And I will send to Babylon strangers who will winnow her and will empty her land; for in the day of calamity they will be against her on every side (Jeremiah 1-2).

Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord's hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad (7). 

The land trembles and writhes in pain and sorrow, for the purposes of the Lord against Babylon stand — to make the land of Babylon a desolation without inhabitant (29).

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has devoured us, he has crushed us, he has made us an empty vessel. Like a monster he has swallowed us up, he has filled his belly with our delicacies; he has rinsed us out and cast us away (34).

Therefore thus says the Lord: Behold, I will plead your cause and take vengeance for you. I will dry up her lake or great reservoir and make her fountain dry. And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant (36-7).

This antagonism is at its most poetic in the New Testaments's Book of Revelation, written by the mysterious 'John' of the late first century AD. Revelation picks up, with hallucinogenic, apocalyptic splendour, many of the motifs in the Old Testament. Here, Babylon the Great becomes the Whore of Babylon, an elaborate metaphor for abomination:

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries. Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

BABYLON THE GREAT

THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES

AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.  (Book of Revelations 17:1-6)

William Blake's  The Whore of Babylon  (1809)

William Blake's The Whore of Babylon (1809)