Friday, 21 February 2014

Lilith: the rebel between the texts

The ‘Queen of the Night’ relief from the
British Museum, identified by some
scholars as Lilith. Old Babylonian,
1800-1750 BCE.
One of the Hebrew Bible’s many inconsistencies gave rise to an intriguing and powerful myth: Adam had a first wife called Lilith, who left the garden of Eden rather than submit to her husband.

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, Adam is created with a partner from the outset:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (1:27)

(The word ‘man’ used in this ESV translation should be understood in the sense of ‘humankind’.) In the next chapter, by contrast, Adam is created alone (verse 7) and there is a considerable delay before a female companion is created for him (verses 21-22).

To explain contradictions like this in the Tanakh, Jewish scholarship developed a system of interpretation known as the midrash, a form of rabbinic literature which used great ingenuity to resolve gaps and problems in the text. The midrash scholars felt an explanation was needed for the differing accounts above, so they proposed additional elements to the creation story. The Genesis Rabbah, a midrash of uncertain date (possibly the 5th century CE) offering interpretations of the text of Genesis, says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. God creates a woman simultaneously with Adam as related in Genesis 1:27, but Adam finds her ‘full of discharge and blood’, so God removes her and tries again. When Cain and Abel fight, one rabbi proposes the cause of their quarrel was ‘the first Eve’.

In the Talmud, a rabbinic commentary on Judaism completed in about the 5th century CE, a character called Lilith appears, incidentally, like someone who needs no introduction. She is a succubus with long hair and wings, who steals sperm from Adam while he sleeps to sire evil demons.

The only mention of Lilith in the Bible is a single verse from the book of Isaiah which may or may not mention her, depending upon your translation. The NRSV says:

Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. (Isaiah 34:14)

The Hebrew word is liyliyth, and this is its only appearance in the Bible. Scholars don’t agree on what it means. It may refer to the Mesopotamian demon, lilitu. Other translations render it ‘screech owl’ (KJV), or varieties of night creature – ‘night hag’ (RSV), ‘night creatures’ (NIV) or ‘night bird’ (ESV) – because of the word’s similarity to the Hebrew word for ‘night’. Whatever is intended, it is very unlikely to be a reference to a supposed first wife of Adam.

The association of Lilith with the ‘first wife’ originates centuries later in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous compilation of proverbs and stories probably dating to somewhere between 700-1000 CE. The cause of the couple’s problems was Adam’s insistence that Lilith submit to his authority:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name [the true name of God] and flew away into the air.

This is the first identification of Lilith as the rebel first wife of Adam.

Adam complains to God, who sends three angels to fetch Lilith back. They tell her that if she does not return, one hundred of her children will die every day. She retorts that harming newborns was the reason why she was created, but agrees not to harm any infants wearing amulets with the names or images of the three angels. God then creates Eve as a more agreeable partner for Adam. She is more subservient, for she was created from Adam’s side, not from the earth as Lilith was.

Amulet for protection against Lilith,
18th century
The Alphabet is not midrashic literature but popular entertainment: a satire that parodies Biblical characters and rabbinic lore, possibly to entertain the rabbis themselves. The key to understanding its incidental reference to Lilith may lie in the mention of the amulets. To keep child-stealing demons at bay, incantation bowls with protective inscriptions would be buried in the ground, and amulets hung round the necks of pregnant women, so the Alphabet passage may have been an irreverent attempt to explain this old practice. Whatever the truth, the story seems to have made an impression on the medieval Jewish imagination, and Lilith became part of folk tradition.

Lilith also appears in Kabbalistic literature. In the 13th century CE she appears in the Zohar, a set of commentaries on the Torah. This was presented as a discovery by the Spanish rabbi Moses de León, but the likelihood is that he wrote it himself, and that he was aware of the Alphabet. The Zohar reprises the familiar Lilith story, showing her in all three of her aspects: as primitive Eve, child-harmer and succubus. It also associates her with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve, and thus with Satan. This folktale may have inspired the medieval and Renaissance depictions of the serpent with a female head and/or body, though it’s possible this imagery was instead intended as a comment upon Eve, implying she is a temptress by association.

The demon

The Alphabet’s author begins by reference to the existing tradition of the prototype first wife, then feeds in the Talmudic references to Lilith as a demon. This characterisation evokes earlier Sumerian-Babylonian myths about winged spirits who lurked in deserted places and preyed on humans during the night. The Sumerian lilitu and the Babylonian Lamashtu killed infants and threatened women and babies during pregnancy and childbirth. The first literary mention of Lilith may occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh by way of the poem Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree, though whether it refers to Lilith is disputed, and the ancient Israelites could easily have come into contact with such stories via the hegemony of Assyria and Babylon. The character of the Jewish Lilith therefore could be a mixture of the ‘first wife’ theory with ancient Mesopotamian superstition.[1]

We may interpret these female demons in a couple of ways. Firstly, like other gods, spirits and myths, they offered ancient people an explanation for things that happened in their lives. Why are children sometimes born dead, or suffer ‘cot death’? Why do women die in childbirth? By inventing malicious demons, people identified a cause and, reassuringly, made it possible to take action: protective objects like amulets provided a sense of control in the face of frightening and mysterious forces.

The other role of the female demons is as symbols of lust. Not only is Lilith a killer, she is a seductress. Male priests and scribes seem to have projected some of their sexual fantasies into their picture of Lilith as a femme fatale. What modernity understands simply as wet dreams were explained by superstition as the work of a female night demon or succubus, seducing men in their sleep. Through devilish intercourse, Lilith gave birth to a hundred demon children every day, populating the world with evil. This layer of negative sexual meaning has tended historically to drown out the legend’s positive aspect of female empowerment. If Lilith turned evil when she stood up to Adam, any woman who does not accept male authority could end up the same way.

Wild-haired, naked, and
intimate with a phallic
serpent – John Collier’s
19th century Lilith.
Some writers enjoy ascribing this hostility to a psychological ‘male fear of female sexuality’ but the ultimate origins of inequality are more material. During the Neolithic Revolution, men acquired a disproportionate control over social resources that were rapidly growing thanks to new techniques of farming and domestication. However, even when women are oppressed, they can still exert power over heterosexual men through sexuality – sex is an instinct with no respect for societal constructs of class and gender. Thus female sexuality has been a source of suspicion for centuries, as a weapon women can use to subdue men. The Talmudic references to Lilith’s long hair may be significant in this context, since during the Middle Ages keeping the hair covered was a convention for married Jewish women: Maimonides and the Zohar for example stress its importance. Loose, long hair has often been a symbol of sinful female sexuality.

In the 19th century, Lilith enjoyed a new phase of interest as a sexual fantasy. She made her first significant literary appearance since the Zohar in Goethe’s Faust, followed a few years later by Keats’ Lamia. In these poems she is a mysterious figure of beauty and seduction, with some of her darker behaviours removed, a trend that continued forty years later when she was painted as a luxuriantly haired narcissist by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This incarnation of a more modern Lilith, with the supernatural horror eased out for the comfort of Victorian gentlemen, opened the doors for more positive interpretations of the character.

Ironically, God’s famous exhortation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis Chapter 1, the first thing he says to the new couple, indicates he doesn’t have a problem with sex. Chapter 2 tells us “a man shall… hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”, another strong indication that for the Bible, sex is part of human nature from the outset.[2]

The feminist

In the 20th century, the myth entered another new phase, as feminists – playing down her demonic aspect – began to claim Lilith for their own. It is not difficult to see why. Lilith is an assertive and sexually independent woman who refuses to submit to a social order defined by men. She assumes she has the right to equality with Adam, and when this is denied she insists on her independence. She escapes to the Red Sea, symbolically retreading Moses’ path to freedom, and becomes the opposite of the stereotypical supportive mother.

In 1976 a group of Jewish feminists took her as an inspiration when creating the magazine Lilith; one of its co-founders, Aviva Cantor, wrote about her in very positive terms as a role model for Jewish women:

Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimisation. By acknowledging Lilith’s revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith’s power.[3]

Cantor points out that Lilith is the ‘negative, shadow role, the flip side’ of Eve, who appears as Adam’s helper and is a more acceptable female archetype than a woman who insists on equality.

In creating the Lilith shadow role, men are telling a woman that if she is independent, assertive, free, as Lilith was, she’ll end up a frigid nymphomaniac childless witch. 

We pointed out in our previous article that Eve too was viewed as morally suspect, blamed for humanity’s fall from grace and for original sin. But Lilith was far more powerfully associated with wayward female sexuality than Eve. Various cultures have made comparisons between a ‘negative’ feminine and a ‘positive’ feminine, the Judaeo-Christian tradition included. In Christianity, all women, including Eve the sinner, were given the impossible task of living up to the example of the flawless virgin, Mary. In the Zohar Lilith is contrasted, as an unholy harlot, with the holy and wholesome Shekhinah, the divine presence of God in female manifestation.

It may seem paradoxical that a myth so adaptable to feminism was written by men. But society consists of both sexes and multiple viewpoints, and sexism is therefore never unchallenged. Contrary to the simplistic view, men are not uniformly hostile to women, and women are not uniformly submissive to men. Women of all historical periods are active members of society in spite of sexism, and the ‘rebel wife’ aspect of Lilith may be a manifestation of independent-minded women who could be found in the ancient Near East like they could everywhere else.[4]

Between the texts

As we’ve seen, the Torah was put together from a variety of source texts, and when sources are pasted together with little or no editorial smoothing-over, it can create problems. The Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman however points out that the Bible is more than the sum of its parts. The juxtaposing of texts created meanings that neither the original writers nor the redactors foresaw.

In Who Wrote The Bible?, Friedman gives the example of the Bible’s conception of God. The God of J, E and D tends to be seen in personal ways, walking in Eden and talking directly, even debating, with human beings. The God of P is very different: he tends to be remote and transcendent, and doesn’t make physical appearances or chat with his followers. The combination of these two conceptions of God, the personal and the transcendent, inadvertently created a new kind of deity: a cosmic god who could be experienced in very personal ways.

It was not planned by any of the authors. It was probably not even the redactor’s design. It was so embedded in the texts that the redactor could not have helped but produce the new mixture as long as he was at all true to his sources.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of the ‘God of mercy’ pictured by J, E and D with the ‘God of justice’ pictured by P leads to a new conception, in which justice and mercy are in tension or balance. Like a parent, God is sometimes loving, sometimes angry; he is sometimes intimate, sometimes remote. Friedman concludes:

The mixing of the sources into one text enriched the interpretive possibilities of the Bible for all time.

In a different way, Lilith too is an unforeseen consequence of the Bible’s process of construction. The mismatch of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis was essentially an accident that arose from the combination of two independent texts. But it opened a space which Lilith stepped in to fill, thanks largely to the imagination, ingenuity and sexual hang-ups of male writers in the ensuing centuries.

Whatever the precise origins of the Lilith myth, this fiction has acquired a life of its own. The prototype wife of the Genesis Rabbah – already an unattractive image of women – developed into an evil succubus, then recently became a feminist icon. The story can serve two completely different communities equally well. On the one hand, she is the first feminist, a woman who refuses to accept being treated as Adam’s unequal. On the other, she is a patriarchal warning against women who get above themselves. There is no ‘correct’ Lilith, only a multitude of Liliths, in different times and places, making her difficult to pin down. (This may contribute to her popularity in mysticism and New Ageism, which thrive upon smoke and mirrors.) Like any product of the symbolic imagination, she can become whatever successive generations want her to be.

Further reading

Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
Amy Scerba, Changing Literary Representations of Lilith and the Evolution of a Mythical Heroine on the Feminism and Women’s Studies website, 1999.

[1] This sinister ancestry has informed more recent versions of Lilith. Through Lamashtu’s habit of sucking the blood of men and bringing nightmares, Lilith entered into vampire myth as well, appearing for example as a vampire goddess in the TV series True Blood.
[2] The image of course is heterosexual. We shall look at the Bibles attitude to homosexuality another time.
[3] Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
[4] Karl Marx pointed out that the progress of a society could be measured by the status of its women: hopefully one day men and women will be able to relate to each other without the stupidity of sexism and superstition.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The sexual politics of paradise

Throughout the Bible, God is assumed to be male. For centuries, artists have portrayed him, when in a human form, as a patriarchal older man with a white beard. In the last few decades in particular, largely thanks to feminism, this has been challenged. After all, according to Genesis 1:27, both men and women were created “in the image of God”.

The archetypal image of God,
as imagined by Michelangelo
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Defenders of the Bible concede it makes no sense for a lone and absolute deity to have a sex, and the usual modern view, including among believers, is that God is actually sexless. The common argument runs that we should respect the use of male imagery and language because that is how God chose to reveal himself to the Biblical writers, and thus to humanity: either as Yahweh or (in Christianity) as Christ.

God is presented unequivocally as a male. He is referred to using masculine pronouns and his name Yahweh is of masculine gender; though he is occasionally seen through female imagery, as in Isaiah 42:14 where he says “I will cry out like a woman in labour”, feminine pronouns and names are never used. In his earlier incarnations he seems to have had a female consort, Asherah, who appears on inscriptions and votive figures. He is seen in traditional masculine roles of father, fighter and king.

I don’t intend to study the gendering of the Abrahamic god. But the Bible was written in a culture where authority was mostly male and the priesthood was barred to women, and this shaped how its authors wrote about women. For centuries, it has usually been used not to liberate women but to justify their oppression. The roots of this can be found at the very beginning of the anthology, in the story of the garden of Eden.

The making of men and women

What does the Bible say about Adam and Eve?

The first two chapters of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of men and women. Chapter 1 is by the source text known as P:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:26-27]

God blesses them, bids them to be fruitful and multiply, and grants them dominion over every living thing on earth. There’s no suggestion that the sexes are not created equal. The ESV translation above uses the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘humankind’ – the Hebrew word, adam, is a noun meaning ‘earthling’ or ‘human’, though it serves as a proper name for the first man later. The adam is created both male and female, and they are both in God’s image.

So far, so good. Then Chapter 2 tells the story again, at much greater length.

The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed... The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it... Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.’[1]

The source text here is J, the Yahwist. This account differs to Chapter 1’s, e.g. things are created in a different order. The inconsistencies occur because the Torah was constructed out of several source texts with sometimes contradictory viewpoints, which were then woven together without removing the inconsistencies.

In the previous article we saw how the Mesopotamian myths presented human beings as workers created to spare the gods from toil. In Genesis humanity is the climax of creation. The text doesn’t give a reason for why Adam is created, though we could argue that he fills the vacancy for a gardener. J’s God then creates the animals, but finds no suitable companion for him from amongst them, so he creates the woman from Adam’s rib.

The phrase ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ could be read as supporting equality – it emphasises that all humans are made of the same stuff. The positive spin offered by apologists was summed up long ago by the Baptist preacher John Gill:

It is commonly observed, and pertinently enough, that the woman was not made from the superior part of man, that she might not be thought to be above him, and have power over him. Nor from any inferior part, as being below him, and to be trampled on by him. But out of his side, and from one of his ribs, that she might appear to be equal to him.[2]

But although the text doesn’t say explicitly that Eve is unequal to Adam, we can infer it. The woman is created from part of the man, which implies a secondary status (hence the title of the feminist magazine Spare Rib). Whereas the man is definitive, the female is a version of him. This time a reason for her creation is given: so she can be a ‘helper’ for the man. She doesn’t even have a name until Adam names her. As the New Testament would later interpret it:

“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” [1 Corinthians 11:8-9]

If we want to be more positive, chronologically it is with Eve that the process of creation is complete, i.e. the climax of creation is Woman. It’s amusing to point this out, but I don’t think it compensates for what’s gone before. The Church fathers preferred to honour Adam for being created first.

The Fall

In the next scene, the first humans eat the forbidden fruit, with terrible consequences. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden in an event known to Christianity as the ‘fall of humankind’, or the Fall. It is when humanity passed from living in innocence and peace in God’s garden to becoming mortal, suffering beings. This doctrine is only an interpretation of the text, as it is not named or explicit in the Hebrew Bible.

Here’s how it happens. In Chapter 3, the serpent [3] talks to Eve about the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The fateful act of eating the forbidden fruit is described next. Incidentally, the apple, which in the West is the most famous symbol of the story, isn’t specified in the Bible. The text refers only to a ‘fruit’.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

On eating it, the two humans acquire the knowledge of good and evil, which is usually understood as the self-awareness that separates us from other animals. As a symbol of this separation, the very first thing they do is clothe themselves:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

When they hear God walking in the garden, they hide from him, ashamed of their nakedness. Eventually they confess what they have done, and God is angry. He condemns the serpent to forever crawl on its belly [4] and live at odds with humans, and tells Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Presumably Eve’s body was originally formed in such a way that childbirth would have been painless. If so, women have good cause to feel aggrieved against God for what he does with their bodies here. Then Adam is told:

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground.”

But this is not all.

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever –” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

William Blake: God Judging Adam, 1795
Eating of the fruit has given humans a god-like awareness of their moral agency: their ability to choose between good and evil. There are two trees in Eden, and God fears they will now eat from the tree of life as well. If they do, they will become immortal and truly like gods, so they are banished from the garden. Humans have let Yahweh down, and they will continue to do so – in subsequent history the Israelites let him down again and again. Symbolically, the two humans move from a state of nature, where all is good and there is no violence, to a state of culture, where life is hostile and difficult. The chapter straight after the Fall, Genesis 4, already shows Cain committing the first murder.

Only after the disobedient eating of the fruit does God say to Eve that her husband shall rule over her. We could take this as evidence that in their original state of nature men and women are equal, and that only in a state of culture is there sexism. However, the issues of the rib and Eve being a ‘helper’ seem to speak against this reading. Either way, the sexism after the Fall is explicit. There is no way for apologists to spin Eve being told her husband will rule over her. Perhaps God meant only that Adam would rule over Eve, not that all men would rule over all women. But the story serves to provide the ancient Israelites with an explanation of the world as they knew it. Why are men dominant in society? Why is childbirth so painful and dangerous? Why is it such hard work for settled Iron Age cultures to feed themselves? In this context it is fair to take Adam and Eve as symbols for all men and women. After all, God’s curse of painful childbirth clearly applies to all women, so his edict on male rule must do too.

In conclusion: although the opening passages of Genesis are open to a multitude of complex interpretations, more than I could possibly outline here, on balance they are sexist. The first woman was made from a body part of the first man; women are men’s helpers; and God decrees women’s husbands shall rule over them. Why does the Bible say this? Because it was written in a male-dominated society that took the secondary status of women as a given.

Original sin

The story of the Fall persuaded St Augustine that human nature was fundamentally sinful, and inspired the Christian Church’s doctrine of ‘original sin’. Adam and Eve’s disobedience towards God did not only lead to painful births and to laborious farming. Their descendants – the entire human species – were born inherently sinful, marked with the stain of the transgression.

Original sin is a doctrine unacceptable to Judaism.

Not every Christian believes that the Eden story is literally true. But the theme of original sin is still central to Christianity. The purpose of baptism is to symbolically wash away, in name of Jesus, that original stain. Yet there is no ‘doctrine of original sin’, as such, in the Bible. It was created for a pressing ideological reason: if humanity hadn’t fallen, we wouldn’t need a saviour in Jesus Christ. The very existence of the West’s dominant religious institution [5] is built upon this interpretation of what happened in Eden.

For Christianity, the story has been very important for defining society’s attitude to women, teaching that Eve was responsible for humanity’s ejection from paradise. The misogynist Paul of Tarsus wrote in the New Testament:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
[1 Timothy 2:12-14]

The church fathers had the same view. The Gallic bishop Irenaeus (second century CE) wrote in Against Heresies:

Having become disobedient, she [Eve] was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race.

His contemporary Tertullian, from Carthage, was even harsher. In On The Apparel of Women he likened all women to Eve:

You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.

St Augustine’s tutor Ambrose (fourth century CE) wrote of Eve in On Paradise:

She was first to be deceived and was responsible for deceiving the man.

You get the picture. There are plenty more disparaging views about women that we could quote from the Church fathers. Passages like these established the traditional Christian view that all women bore the guilt of Eve, and that their subordination to men was a permanent divine punishment of women.

In some of these accounts Eve was not only disobedient, but an agent of the devil. In the Christian tradition, the serpent is interpreted to be Satan. The Bible never says anything of the sort, and the concept of the Devil didn’t exist when the Genesis texts were written.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. [Revelation 12:9]

The Jewish tradition has a very different view of the ‘adversary’, which we won’t go into here. In the Hebrew Bible the serpent is described as ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’, not ‘evil’, and it is probably just a smart talking animal, of the sort that populates fables across ancient literature.[6] The serpent tells Eve:

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

And this is perfectly true. He may have an ulterior – and unexplained – motive for talking to Eve, but he doesn’t ‘deceive’ her as she later claims.

Lucas Cranach the Elder depicts Eve
feeding the fruit to Adam
As we’ve said, this episode was used by Christianity for centuries to blame women for humanity’s fall from grace. There is a tradition that Eve eats the fruit, then talks Adam into eating as well. Is it really only Eve’s fault?

Genesis 3:6 refers to “her husband who was with her”, indicating that Adam and Eve were at the tree together. Adam is present when the serpent addresses Eve, but he passively says nothing, and he eats the fruit that is handed to him without protest, although he had been warned not to by God personally. When confronted by God, Adam tries to divert the blame (just as Eve tries to blame the serpent):

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

God doesn’t accept this and punishes them both. The commentators who laid the whole blame on Eve were wrong. And, in fairness, Christian institutions past and present have often recognised this too.

Is the Fall necessarily even a bad thing? It initiates the human race into suffering and hard labour, but also into culture, civilisation and moral awareness. Eating the forbidden fruit opened our eyes to our own moral agency – without it we would not be who we are.


As a very long and complex text, the Bible is not unremittingly sexist. There are powerful female figures such as Deborah, a prophet and the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, who leads the Israelites into battle against the Canaanites. The Song of Deborah from Judges 5 is a hymn of victory celebrating the accomplishments of two women: the other is Jael, who bravely kills the enemy commander Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his head. Other major female characters include Abigail from 1 Samuel, Esther and Ruth. Women could be prophets, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). And we have seen how some of the traditional accusations against Eve, such as her responsibility for the Fall, are questionable.

Despite this, there is no escaping sexism in the Bible. Women in the Bible are usually defined as wives, daughters and mothers, and are expected to play a subordinate role. Even when the Bible text is open to interpretation, the interpretations (by men) generally have not treated women as equals.

Given how she has been used as a justification for oppressing women, it is ironic that Eve’s ancestry goes back to the goddesses of Sumer, who were powerful, life-giving deities. Monotheism was invented during a period of history that grants males privileges over females, and the one true God of the Abrahamic religions has been presented in male terms. It is no surprise therefore that all three religions, despite the protests of their apologists, have disempowered women.

[1] The Hebrew word for woman (ishshah) sounds similar to the word for man (ish).
[2] John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1746-63).
[3] The Hebrew word nachash, often translated as ‘serpent’, also has the meaning ‘the shining one’ and conveys enchantment or fascination. Whether the writer of J intended us to picture a snake is open to debate.
[4] The serpent acquires its present form only after the disobedient eating of the fruit. We can’t know what it looked like before, but the implication might be that it had legs before it was cursed. This is a detail artists have often ignored.
[5] I am generalising for reasons of space. Of course, the ‘Christian Church’ is not a single institution, nor do its many denominations agree ideologically.
[6] The other Biblical example of a talking animal is Balaam’s donkey from Numbers 22.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Considering Creation

The first two chapters of the Bible give us a story – in fact, two stories – explaining how the heavens and the earth were created.[1] For centuries, mainstream European culture assumed that this was a literal description of what happened. Archaeology however has put it in context by unearthing tablets of older texts from the region. Comparison of the texts shows that the writers of Genesis derived their creation myth from the existing literature and traditions of the ancient Near East.

The first similarity concerns the initial state of the cosmos. Before the God of Genesis acts, there exists an immense body of water. The ESV translation renders it like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The phrase ‘in the beginning…’ is a poor translation. It suggests an initial event, the first thing that ever happened. It would be better translated as ‘when God began…’ So this tells not of the creation of the universe, but of the creation of the Earth, and establishes some pre-existing conditions (darkness, a chaotic earth, and the waters).

For our first comparison, we will look at the Babylonian national epic Enuma Elish (‘When on high’). It was written in Akkadian on seven stone tablets, and the date of composition is usually estimated at no later than the 12th century BCE, making it several centuries older than the Bible. In the Enuma Elish, the initial state consists of water in two forms: fresh water associated with a male god Apsu, and salt water associated with the female Tiamat.

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen...

In the Babylonian account, the young god Marduk, patron deity of Babylon, kills Tiamat, who is portrayed as a monster, and divides her into halves. With the top half he creates the heavens, with the bottom one he creates land, and both hold back the waters above and below. In the Bible, God creates a firmament by separating the waters into heaven and earth.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse.

The Hebrew word for ‘the deep’, tehom, is believed to be derived from ‘Tiamat’. Another, less well-known reference to the process appears in the book of Psalms:

You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Psalms 74)

‘Leviathan’ is a great sea monster referred to several times in the Torah. This passage seems like a portion of a much older myth, alluding even more closely to the ancient tales in which slaying a sea monster is a common theme. In Mesopotamia, Marduk had to slay Tiamat; in Canaan, Baal had to slay Yam; and in Greece, Zeus had to slay Typhon. Perhaps Yahweh too once had to slay a monstrous foe in order to create ‘the heavens and the earth’.

Genesis continues to imitate the Babylonian myth in its ordering of creation: the firmament is followed by the sun, moon and stars, then human beings. Human beings are created on the sixth tablet of the Enuma Elish, and on the sixth day in Genesis.

Mesopotamia was home to a series of major powers, from Sumer to the Neo-Babylonians, and its culture dated back three thousand years. So it is no surprise that its literature was familiar to the Hebrew writers and made a profound impression upon them. The Judahite priests who played such an important role in writing the Bible would have had a particular connection to Babylonia, having been exiled there after 586 BCE.

The Babylonians’ turbulent saga is not primarily about the creation but Marduk’s rise to become chief god of the pantheon (thereby accounting for the dominance of Babylon as a power and justifying the hierarchy of Babylonian class society). The style of writing in Genesis 1 is much more brief, abstract and orderly. But both texts share the purpose of explaining where the world came from, and the conceptual similarities are unlikely to be coincidental.

Eden and the creation of humanity

This framework extended into the Bible’s vision of early Earth. The myths of Sumeria and Akkad, already ancient when the Bible was being written, provided the Hebrew writers with a prototype they could adapt.

Our earliest reference to a divine garden of paradise comes from Sumer, whose myth is told in variant versions. The poem Enki and Ninhursag describes a place called Dilmun, a pristine and virginal land without ageing or disease. Enki, the god of wisdom and sweet waters, orders the sun god to water the garden by raising water from the earth. He embarks on a series of sexual encounters, including his grand-daughter Uttu. The jealous Ninhursag removes his seed from Uttu and buries it, and eight plants spring up, which Enki eats, provoking the fury of the goddess. She curses him and he falls ill with eight hurting body parts. Dismayed, the gods persuade her to heal Enki. She asks him to name the eight areas which hurt, and for each she gives birth to a healing goddess. One of the parts was his rib – the goddess created for it was called Ninti.

‘My brother, what part of you hurts you?’
‘My ribs hurt me.’
She gave birth to Ninti out of it.

Now let us turn to the Bible. The garden of Eden is first described in chapter 2 of Genesis:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up – for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground – then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.

The first human is given the task of tending the garden, but he does not have a helper.

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

The choice of the rib is symbolic: Eve comes from Adam’s side, just as she will live by his side as his companion.

In Enki and Ninhursag a goddess creates another goddess to save the life of a god via his rib – this plays only a minor role in the story, but in this context the mention of a female created from a male rib is striking. The poem makes an ancient Sumerian pun on the word ‘ti’, meaning either ‘rib’ or ‘to make live’: Nin-ti therefore means either ‘lady who makes live’ or ‘lady of the rib’. Though this pun doesn’t work in Hebrew, ‘Eve’, or Hawwah, resembles the Hebrew word for ‘to live’, and her name identifies her as a ‘life-giver’ or ‘source of life’.

Different though the older Sumerian story and the Biblical one certainly are, there are some clear similarities: a garden paradise, watered by water from the earth; humans created by gods; a woman created via the rib of a man; a woman named as a life-giver; and the eating of forbidden fruit that brings down a curse.

We can also find a connection with the Enuma Elish, in which human beings are created as a labour force to make the gods’ lives easier, and creating them allows the gods to rest. In Genesis, the creation of human beings is followed by God’s day of rest.

The flood

The parallels with Mesopotamian literature continue with the flood story. The Sumerian flood story dates to around 1600 BCE and features the king Ziusudra, and we also have an Akkadian version known as the Epic of Atrahasis – though the flood only forms one part of the poem – whose best preserved version dates to about 1630 BCE. The poem begins with the gods having to perform physical drudgery and demanding a labour force. Enki and the goddess Mami/Nintu create human beings out of clay. Their creations multiply and start making a great noise on Earth, and this irritates the gods, who try various means to wipe them out. Humanity is saved each time thanks to Enki giving warnings to the man Atrahasis, ‘whose ear was open to his god Enki’. Eventually the gods decide to drown humanity in a great flood, and Enki tells Atrahasis to build a boat. When the boat is finished, Atrahasis goes aboard with his family, possessions and animals. After a storm lasting seven days and nights that wipes out the rest of humanity, the gods miss their workers and agree to let Atrahasis and his companions live.

There is alternative flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem, parts of which date back to at least 1600 BCE. The work tells of the adventures of a king named Gilgamesh, and is told on twelve stone tablets. The flood section appears on tablet 11. When the gods decide to send the flood, the god Ea warns the human Utnapishtim and tells him to build a boat:

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.

Utnapishtim obeys and loads his boat with family, possession, and animals. On the seventh day the torrential rain abates and the boat comes to rest on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim relates:

When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me.

These stories were known throughout Mesopotamia, and the parallels with the Biblical story of Noah as told in chapters 6-8 of Genesis are obvious. Whether the hero is Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim or Noah: a flood of divine origin destroys humanity, one individual is warned, he is told to build a boat, his family and many animals are rescued. In the two latter versions the boat comes to rest on a mountain, the man sends out a dove, and there is a thankful offering.

Interestingly, the Bible’s version offers a new perspective. In Genesis God destroys human beings not for making a ruckus but because ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’, i.e. he has a moral motivation. In the Bible, humans have a certain free will which can turn to evil and corrupt God’s good work. This flows from a very different conception of God.

A new conception of God

The obvious difference between Mesopotamian works like the Enuma Elish and Genesis is that the former have many gods and the latter has only one.

Pagan religious works are polytheistic and teem with gods, who exist within the confines of a pre-existing order termed by the Jewish scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann a ‘metadivine realm’. This is a framework which creates them, gives them power, limits their power, and so on. Although Marduk is the chief god of Babylonia, there were things that pre-existed him, just as there were things that pre-existed Zeus in the ancient Greek myths. The gods display human-like behaviour, and can be opposed and thwarted by other gods. Some are more moral than others, some are stronger than others, but none, even the chief god, are all-powerful. There are also gods tied to particular phenomena in nature, such as sun gods or water gods.

The Bible by contrast is a work of monotheism: the belief in a single all-powerful god. Genesis does away with mythological biographies of gods and heroes, and with the metadivine realm. There is one god, who has absolute and unlimited power – we are not told how he came to exist and he has no biography. He simply is. As he creates alone, by a simple act of will, there is no place for the sexual metaphors and seductions of the pagan stories.

It was not always this way. Archaeology shows us that the inhabitants of ancient Canaan, including the early Israelites, believed in many gods. Their presence survives in the Bible in its invective against false gods such as Baal, and the repeated lapses of the Israelites into idol worship. There may even be traces of an older polytheism in the text. Yahweh occasionally says things like ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26, my italics), which invite us to wonder who ‘we’ refers to; there are several references to a divine council of gods, a standard feature of polytheism; the ancient Near East generally believed in gods inhabiting certain places, and in Genesis 2 we see God ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’, a surprising image for a remote, all-powerful deity. There is also archaeological evidence that Yahweh, like many other gods of the region, originally had a wife named Asherah. Presumably she was written out, since under monotheism a consort or wife for God was an impossibility.

The Biblical Yahweh has, if not fellow gods, then at least divine servants. At the end of Genesis 3, for example, after Adam and Eve are thrown out, he assigns cherubim [2] to prevent humans from ever returning to paradise.

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

The cherubim, too, were first conceived in ancient Mesopotamia.

It’s impossible to say how much the source materials of the Bible had overtly polytheistic traits that had to be excised by the redactors. But one of the dominant themes of the Bible is its campaign against polytheism, false gods, and idols, a campaign which would not be so fierce if it were not perceived as necessary. This was possibly connected to the specific geo-political project in 8th-7th century Judah discussed in the previous article. Part of any national project is to define both what a culture is, and what a culture is not. Drawing a firm line against the mythological stories and cults of their neighbours may have helped the Israelites define themselves.

The ancient Israelites, then, drew inspiration from contemporary literature but recast it to develop a very different conception of god, nature and human beings. The concept of monotheism was later also accepted by Christianity and Islam. It was one of the most important ideas of human history. 

There is another implication of making Yahweh a single, all-powerful god. The pagan Mesopotamian religions depict the world as a morally neutral ground upon which order and chaos contest with one another, as in the struggle between Marduk and the monstrous Tiamat. For Yahweh, there is no one and no thing to struggle against. This is a rejection of the idea that creation results from a battle between good and evil. Instead, Genesis repeats several times that God creates something then ‘saw that it was good’. This establishes a different conception of morality, and of the behaviour of human beings.

The human condition

The Mesopotamian stories see humans as menial labourers, taking on a role familiar to the slaves and workers of the real world. In the Sumerian poem Enki and Ninmah, the minor gods start grumbling about having to do physical work:

The senior gods oversaw the work, while the minor gods were bearing the toil. The gods were digging the canals and piling up the silt in Harali. The gods, dredging the clay, began complaining about this life.

The mother goddess Nammu pleads with Enki to create a worker who will relieve the gods from their toil. Enki answers:

‘My mother, the creature you planned will really come into existence. Impose on him the work of carrying baskets. You should knead clay from the top of the abzu; the birth-goddesses will nip off the clay and you shall bring the form into existence.’

Thus the gods create humanity from clay. Then, in a change of scene, Enki and Ninmah – another name for Ninhursag – become drunk and hold a contest to see if they can make deformed, incomplete people and find uses for them.

The relationship with the Bible may seem tenuous. Yet both accounts agree that humans were created by gods and that they were made of either dust or clay. The word ‘Adam’ is not actually a proper name but a noun meaning ‘human’ or ‘earthling’, a thing taken from the earth. The first human was ‘the adam’.

However, there is also a very important difference. The humans of Genesis are the climax of creation, made in the likeness of God himself. They are dignified beings, not pawns created to be exploited for labour – in the Bible human life is sacred and anyone who disrespects it will be punished. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,’ says Genesis 9, ‘by man shall his blood be shed’.

In the Bible’s view, our humanity earns us rights but also implies duties. No reason is given for why they are created, but Adam is entrusted with looking after the garden, and given the power to name all living things. This is a dramatically different conception to the forced labourers of Sumer. The Bible’s first humans also enjoy a mixture of dependence and freedom. This is illustrated very well by the story of the trees in Eden. People often forget that there seem to be two trees:

The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

The motif of a tree of life can be found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, but there is no parallel to a ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. Why does the Bible show no great interest in the former, whereas the tree of knowledge of good and evil becomes the focus of a seminal scene? The answer lies again in the Israelite conception of God: the writers of the Bible were interested in questions of morality. God has issued an instruction that eating the fruit [3] is the one thing that Adam and Eve are forbidden to do, and yet they directly disobey him. Through their defiant eating of the fruit they become fully aware human beings, and acquire the power of moral choice. ‘Behold,’ says Yahweh, ‘the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil’ [4]. They are punished with banishment from Eden, but they have gained something as well, because their choices now have moral meaning. Time and again in the Bible, the Israelites are exhorted to keep to God’s covenant (and time and again, they let him down). How does one live a good, moral life? By keeping to the instructions set out in the Bible. We can see this in the light of the political ideology of the redactors who are using the Bible to impose monotheism on a polytheistic culture. But we need not only see it in those terms. The question of why there is evil and suffering in a world created by a supposedly good and loving God is one of the most profound problems of the Abrahamic religions, and humanity’s freedom to make choices between good or evil may be the best answer.


There are further instances of the Bible owing a debt to ancient Mesopotamian culture. For example, the Sumerian king lists claim incredibly long lifespans for their earlier kings, the birth legend of the Akkadian king Sargon closely resembles that of Moses, and archaeologists regard the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi as one of the likely inspirations for the laws set out in the Torah. The Sumerian poem Inanna and the Huluppu Tree tells how the goddess Inanna planted a tree in her sacred garden and a serpent (along with a bird and a spirit) makes its home there.

In short, the Bible was not handed down from on high as a pristine statement but grew, like any other literary work, from a complex relationship with well-known works that came before it. For a framework for understanding creation the Bible’s writers looked not to divine inspiration, but to an existing and already ancient literature, which they reworked to suit their own ethical and monotheistic purposes. Of course, this deeply compromises the Bible’s authority as a reliable statement from God.

Source texts/Further reading

All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV)
Enuma Elish at
Enki and Ninhursag from The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL)
Epic of Atrahasis (excerpt here)
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Enki and Ninmah from ETCSL

[1] References to God’s act of creation are also made elsewhere in the Bible, such as in Psalms, Proverbs, Job and Isaiah.
[2] Cherubim were not the chubby babies of modern picture postcards, but mysterious sphinx-like beings.
[3] The fruit is routinely depicted as an apple, but the Bible does not say it was an apple.
[4] Incidentally, another of those odd instances of Yahweh referring to ‘us’, as if addressing other gods.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Who wrote the Hebrew Bible?

Moses Coming Down From Mount Sinai, by Gustave Doré
Readers of the Bible took it for granted for centuries that the Hebrew Bible was an accurate history inspired or even dictated by God himself. According to tradition, though not the books themselves, the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses. This tradition is at least as old as the Talmud, the immense book of Jewish doctrines produced around 200-500 CE, which discusses how the Torah was communicated to Moses; the eminent twelfth-century Jewish scholar Maimonides asserted in his 13 Principles of Faith that the Torah that we have is the one given to Moses by God.

The books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel were supposedly written by the prophet Samuel, and the two books of Kings by the prophet Jeremiah. Books were further ascribed to other Biblical prophets and to the kings David and Solomon.

However, as the Bible came under scrutiny, it became clear that neither tradition nor the text itself could be relied upon.

Anyone who reads the Bible attentively notices inconsistencies, inaccuracies and repetitions. Sometimes the same events are related twice, in different styles, and with different or even contradictory content. Take the first book, Genesis, in which there are many pairings and retellings. The first two chapters tell the creation story twice, each version with its own style and perspective. Stylistically, Genesis chapter 1 is structured and abstract, whereas chapter 2 is more earthy and anthropomorphic. Chapter 1 uses the Hebrew for ‘male’ and ‘female’, whereas chapter 2 talks of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Chapter 1 calls the creator ‘Elohim’, meaning ‘God’; chapter 2 uses his personal name, ‘Yahweh’ (rendered in English Bibles as ‘the Lord’). In chapter 1 God creates plants and animals before men and women, but in chapter 2 humans are created before the plants and animals, and this time Adam is explicitly created before Eve. Later on, the Flood and other events are treated in similar fashion.

This doesn’t read like a single account by a single writer. Textual evidence of this kind strongly implies the text has been reworked by multiple sources. There are other problems, too. It was noticed already in the Middle Ages that part at least of the Torah cannot plausibly have been written by Moses, because in Deuteronomy 34, he records his own death and burial. This was a miracle too far for the Jewish scholars who decided those verses must have been added by Moses’ successor Joshua. Archaeological indications suggest Moses must have lived in the 13th century BCE, but historical anachronisms in the texts show they were written considerably later. The kings listed in Genesis 36, for example, weren’t around until David and Solomon’s time in the 10th century. There are also comments on how the impact of certain events could be seen “to this day”, as if Moses’ time was being viewed from a later perspective. As Spinoza observed: “It is… clearer than the sun at noon that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after Moses.”[1]

If Moses didn’t write the Torah, who did, and when? This is a fascinating question irrespective of whether one’s interest is religious or literary. In the discussion below we shall focus on the five books of the Torah/Pentateuch and the history books that follow Deuteronomy.

The documentary hypothesis

The hunt for the source texts of the Bible is known as source criticism. In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, an increasing number of voices were searching for a more convincing theory of Biblical authorship. The idea of an original Mosaic text that was amended by later writers paved the way for a more radical theory. The key lay in the ‘doublets’: instances where the same event was told twice in different ways, such as the two creation stories. In the 18th century Jean Astruc and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, working independently, noticed that the doublets tended to use different words for ‘God’, and proposed that the Torah was based on two separate works which were known as ‘J’ (for ‘Yahweh’, which is spelled with a J in German) and ‘E’ (for ‘Elohim’). It was starting to look as if an editor – or Moses, who had not disappeared from the debate – had taken two original documents and woven them together. Then scholars in the early 19th century claimed evidence for two additional source texts. One was a source concerned with priestly interests of law and ritual, known as ‘P’; the other was based on the arguments of W.M.L. de Wette that Deuteronomy had its own style and authorship, giving us source ‘D’. The Torah had gone from the single authorship of Moses to being a work edited from at least four source materials written by persons unknown.

Of course, trying to reconstruct these sources and how they and their writers related to each other was a formidable task. A seminal figure in the process was Julius Wellhausen, a German Biblical scholar whose book The History of Israel (1878) is the classic statement of what has become known as the documentary hypothesis. Drawing together the work done so far as well as his own research, Wellhausen built a case for the four alleged sources and their place in history. Each of the sources dated to a different period and had its own style and concerns, and they were interwoven to form the narrative core of Bible. But they tell us about the Israelites of a period several centuries later than Moses’ supposed time.

The kingdoms of Israel and Judah in
the 9th century BCE.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.
According to the Bible, the Israelites had a kingdom in Canaan ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon in a period known to modern scholarship as the United Monarchy. After Solomon’s death the kingdom divided, in around 922 BCE, into two smaller kingdoms. We shall have more to say on this Biblical version of history another time. Archaeology tells us that the two kingdoms, leaving aside their origins, were a historical reality. The northern kingdom, Israel, was wealthy and fertile, and an advanced state compared to the poor kingdom of Judah in the sparsely inhabited hill country to the south. Both were Israelite, but represented very different sides of that nation’s identity.

The kingdoms were located between two mighty rivals: Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east. The northern kingdom was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, leaving Judah the only Israelite state and the cradle of the Davidic dynasty. It held on a little longer as an Assyrian client state until a new empire, the Babylonians, conquered it in 586 BCE, capturing the capital Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. The Judahites were sent into exile. They lived as captives until Babylonia’s defeat by the Persians fifty years later, whereupon they began to return to Judah and the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt, though from this time onward there was also always a diaspora living outside the original homeland.

In this light, let’s take a closer look at the four sources.

J is the ‘Yahwist’ source, and begins with the second creation story. The writer is a good storyteller and writes in an earthy style. God is anthropomorphic – he walks in his garden, makes clothes, etc – and deals with people directly. The writer is more interested in the southern kingdom of Judah than in Israel to the north, suggesting a source of Judahite origin. The evidence from social, geographical and historical references leads scholars to believe the source was written from the perspective of the united monarchy or Judah no earlier than the 10th century BCE.

E is the ‘Elohist’ source. Its version of God is remote and abstract – instead of talking to his subjects face to face, God mediates through intermediaries such as visions, angels or dreams, such as the burning bush. It is mostly interested in the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, suggesting it was written there at some time prior to the kingdom’s destruction in 722 BCE. 

P is the ‘Priestly’ source, found mostly in Leviticus and Numbers, which has a special interest in ritual, law, sacrifices, institutions, genealogies, and so on. The style is abstract and orderly, and God is more remote.

Source D is basically the book of Deuteronomy, supposedly a collection of speeches made by Moses as the Israelites prepare to enter Canaan, and has a distinctive style. It opposes the use of local shrines for ritual sacrifices – all sacrifices must instead be made in the central sanctuary, often assumed to be the Temple at Jerusalem, although Jerusalem is never mentioned. This book therefore takes a very different position to the earlier books in which we see many local shrines and sacrifices. Its emphasis is on settled agricultural interests and centralisation, possibly implying a northern origin.

The redactors who put the Torah together added connecting texts and comments, but they seem to have had too much respect for the source texts to remove contradictions or repetitions – tradition was more important to them than an exact correspondence of details. Wellhausen believed P was the source responsible for the final editing of Bible, bringing together J, E and D and adding Leviticus and Numbers; and he dated the process during the exile after 586 BCE.

Wellhausen’s work has been criticised from various perspectives. The documentary hypothesis is unacceptable to many conservatives for the simple reason that it refutes tradition by exposing the Bible as the work of multiple human contributors rather than a coherent divine voice.Others accept the general proposition but differ on the details.

The documentary hypothesis remains a theory, despite the excellent evidence, since none of the proposed source texts has been found in its original form. Of course, no ritual or literary tradition is created out of nothing. It is reasonable to assume that the four sources, assuming they existed, must themselves have had sources, in the form of even older customs, practices and stories. One of the pioneers of this field was the German scholar Hermann Gunkel, who noted that the Bible itself sometimes mentions early texts, now lost, such as the ‘Book of Yashar’ mentioned in Joshua 10:13, or the ‘Book of the Wars of Yahweh’ mentioned in Numbers 21. He was interested in oral history as expressed in fragments of poetry, proverbs and myth – picking out for example the strange instance of the giants (Nephilim) mentioned in Genesis 6, and suggesting it was a fragment of an ancient legend. Bits of text like these may have helped, in the Biblical authors’ view, to explain or clarify some aspect of the narrative, or were preserved by force of tradition, to survive into the sealed canon.

The Torah, then, is the product of an extremely long history of transmission and adaptation, probably reaching back into an oral legacy from the Bronze Age.

The great project

The challenging of scripture prompted scholars in the nineteenth century to start visiting Palestine and use archaeology to prove the accuracy of the Bible. With a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other, as the phrase had it, the founders of the ‘Biblical archaeology’ movement drew maps and set up excavations, uncovering dozens of long-forgotten sites. Though it persists today, this current was out of favour by the middle of the twentieth century, to be replaced by a more scientific approach that attempted to understand what actually happened in the Iron Age Levant, rather than trying to force the evidence into a pre-established narrative.

The languages, histories, agriculture etc of the ancient Near East become better understood every year. Since Wellhausen’s time this archaeological research has allowed us to make much better informed comparisons between the Bible and the material evidence. Some of the most persuasive contemporary ideas about the Bible’s composition have been put together by Biblical scholars like Richard Elliott Friedman, whose book Who Wrote The Bible? is an excellent modern statement of the documentary hypothesis, and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of The Bible Unearthed, who have used archaeology to throw fresh light on the accuracy or otherwise of what the Bible tells us.

The Bible texts contain all sorts of clues to their date of composition. The mentions of the Philistines in Genesis indicates a time period after 1200 BCE, which is when they enter the historical record. There are many references to camels, which were not widely domesticated until the first millennium BCE, and the mention in Genesis 37 of “camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh” betrays a familiarity with the goods of the Arabian trade routes which took off in the 8th–7th centuries BCE.

From internal evidence, the two source texts J and E were written before the Assyrians destroyed Israel. J was probably written in the kingdom of Judah between 848-722 BCE, E in the kingdom of Israel between 922-722 BCE. There is no strong reason to think each was not written by a single person. By the time they were combined, it is likely that both texts were already well known, and their combination may have been politically useful in uniting the people of the two kingdoms.

In the late 8th century BCE, during the reign of King Hezekiah, Judah’s population swelled dramatically as it received refugees from the destroyed northern kingdom. In a few decades its main city, Jerusalem, was transformed, growing to ten times its former size. Judah was experiencing full state formation for the first time, and its leaders hoped to play a more significant role in the region. It is around this time, under Hezekiah, that a campaign may have begun against idolatry and in favour of Yahweh as the one and only true God who should be worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although attested in the Bible, there is very little archaeological evidence for this ‘Yahweh-only’ programme. Either way, Judah had a new weight in the region and as the centre of the Israelite people. Friedman argues that P was written around this time, possibly as an alternative to J and E, posing the policy of centralisation against the use of many local places of worship. The later combination of these incompatible texts is one of the causes of contradictions in the Bible.

Presented in c.700 BCE with the choice of submitting to the Assyrian king Sennacherib or retaining independence, Judah made the mistake of defying one of the world’s most frightening military machines, and was punished for it by the destruction of Judah’s second city, Lachish. Hezekiah’s successors chose vassalage over the obliteration experienced by the northern kingdom. But by around 640 BCE the Assyrian empire was weakening under pressure from the rise of Babylon. This opened a space for Judahite dreams of liberation and expansion. Under King Josiah a great project was born: to conquer the northern territory and build a united, pan-Israelite kingdom.

Josiah ordered the renovation of the Temple, and during this work in 622 BCE the high priest Hilkiah announced the discovery of a ‘book of the law’, or more correctly ‘scroll of the Torah’ (reported in 2 Kings 22). God had made a covenant with the Israelites, promising them glory if they lived according to his religious laws. The story goes that as the book was read to Josiah, he became distraught, because his people had been breaking divine commandments. His response was to launch a radical religious reform. There should be no worship of any other gods and goddesses, and no rural shrines and local sacrifice – the Temple at the centre of Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. “In that innovation,” write Finkelstein and Silberman, “modern monotheism was born.”

Most scholars believe that the ‘book of the law’ was actually the original text, since edited, of the book we call Deuteronomy. The books of history that follow the Torah – Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings – are sometimes called the Deuteronomistic History because of their affinity of language and attitude with Deuteronomy.

It’s impossible to say whether the discovery of the book was genuine or a convenient way to introduce a text specially written to justify the reform project. Deuteronomy may have been based upon a legal core written in the kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE and brought south after 722. The books of history, incorporated into Deuteronomy as a unit, were probably also composed during Josiah’s time and and reflect those politics, casting the northern kingdom in a very bad light for its plurality of cults. This gives us an origin for the Deuteronomic books of around 622 BCE in Judah. Friedman argues that the writer may have been the prophet Jeremiah, or his scribe Baruch ben Neriah.

The centralisation of the cult – all Israelites worshipping one God, in one place – brought the huge, scattered religious establishment of the Israelites under the control of the king, and was therefore a key step in the centralisation of state power. The rejection of foreign idols may represent in part a reaction against the influence of Assyrian religion, and by association, politics. Obey the covenant with Yahweh, and he would bring victory and prosperity. In the same period, the Pharaoh Psammetichus had a similar project to restore the power of Egypt. This, in the relative absence of Assyria, posed the main obstacle to Josiah. In a context of possible conflict between Judah and Egypt, a story that showed the Israelites defeating the great empire – Moses’ triumph over Pharaoh in Exodus – acquired new potency.

Jerusalem, a small market town with only a modest palace and temple complex, was intended to become the centre of a pan-Israelite empire ruled by the Davidic dynasty. Finkelstein and Silberman argue:

Such an ambitious plan would require active and powerful propaganda. The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and the centrality of their national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that would create an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dreams. This is presumably the reason why the authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people of Israel: to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.

The new movement of Josiah produced, at least, seven books of the Bible, a remarkable piece of propaganda that justified Josiah’s project. The authors continue:

Embellishing and elaborating the stories contained in the first four books of the Torah, they wove together regional variations of the stories of the patriarchs, placing the adventures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in a world strangely reminiscent of the seventh century BCE and emphasing the dominance of Judah over all Israel. They fashioned a great national epic of liberation for all the tribes of Israel, against a great and dominating Pharaoh, whose realm was uncannily similar in its geographical details to that of Psammetichus.

The historical core of the Bible – J, E, P, D and the Deuteronomistic History – came together between the 10th-7th centuries BCE.

According to the Bible, it was Egypt that brought Josiah’s supposed mighty and divine destiny to a premature end when he was killed by the Pharaoh Necho II, dying either at Megiddo or Jerusalem depending on which book of the Bible you read. After this event the starry-eyed hopes of the Deuteronomistic texts must have looked suddenly foolish. Friedman believes that a second edition was created twenty years after the original, by the same writer, who inserted a number of warnings about exile to make it look as if the danger of Josiah’s death had been foreseen.

The exile

The next great phase of the codifying of the Hebrew Bible probably came in the 6th century BCE. The Babylonians (also called the Chaldeans) of Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 597, and a second invasion in 586 led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The episode is vividly described in 2 Kings 25:

And in the ninth year of [King Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it. So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, and the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon. In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month – that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon – Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile.[2]

Archaeological evidence of intense fire damage supports the historicity of the event. It was a catastrophic blow for the Israelites. Judah was smashed, the Davidic dynasty ended, a large proportion of the population transported to Babylonia, and the only legitimate place for the worship of Yahweh, the Temple, was looted and destroyed.

The Babylonian exiles included priests who brought their sacred documents and traditions with them, and at some point there was a redaction that brought together the various source texts to form the Torah proper. In the Deuteronomistic History, the last dated event is the release of King Yahwehachim from Babylon in 562, telling us that those books were edited and updated to reflect the experience of exile. The Biblical account is then taken up in further books ascribed to prophets writing from an exilic perspective such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Most cultures in the ancient world, once they were conquered, would become assimilated into the religion and identity of their conquerors, and disappear from history. The Israelites of the northern kingdom seem to have been assimilated in this way, but the Israelites of the southern kingdom were not. Among the many peoples of the ancient Near East – Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians, and many others – the Israelites alone built a culture that achieved continuity up until the present day. The exiled priests struggled to reconcile God’s grandiose promises to the Israelites with the disaster of 586. The explanation they settled upon was that the Israelites had failed to keep to the covenant and worship Yahweh correctly, and this perspective colours the final edit. (They did not accept the obvious explanation that their god was a fantasy to begin with.) The Torah may therefore be seen as an attempt to warn the Israelites and prevent disaster happening again, while clinging to the eventual fulfilment of God’s promises for an unknown time in the future. The Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann argued that this was when the Israelite kingdom ended and Judaism began – that is, when the Israelites’ focus shifted away from a particular temple, dynasty or territory and towards the correct observation of religious customs regardless of where one was living.

When under the auspices of the Persians the exiled Judahites returned home in the 530s to rejoin those that had remained, their land had become the Persian province of Yehud, a name that gives us the term Yehudites, or Jews. In 516 they rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, establishing what we call Second Temple Judaism [3]. Without a king, the focus of Jewish identity passed to the priesthood. In short, the period after 586 lays the foundations of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Finkelstein and Silberman propose that the priesthood, representing the ‘P’ source, redacted the Torah during the exile, then the post-exilic period saw a final edit. For Friedman, P was written much earlier, and he ascribes the redaction to the priest Ezra in the 5th century BCE, during the post-exile Second Temple period. Ezra is described in the book of Ezra as arriving in Jerusalem bearing the ‘Law of your God, which is in your hand’.

They agree however that by some point in the Second Temple period, the texts from Genesis through to 2 Kings reached the form we know today.

The theme of exile and return is one of the most recurring themes of the Bible: Abraham journeys to Egypt and returns, the Israelites migrate to Egypt and are led back to Canaan by Moses, Jacob journeys to Haran and returns, and so on. The redactors’ experience of exile is stamped powerfully upon their work.


Moses’ authorship of the Torah is no longer accepted outside of some religious circles. It is perhaps embarrassing for the Church to get wrong the authorship of its own scripture. But there is no good reason why we should know precisely who wrote such ancient texts. The only named Biblical author who was certainly a real person was the New Testament writer Paul of Tarsus.

The documentary hypothesis is a very strong theory, so compelling that it is now taught in seminaries, and no rival theory seriously challenges it. But it remains a theory, because the original texts that would provide its hard evidence are long lost. If modern scholarship is mostly confident about the general pattern of composition, namely the assembly of several source texts into a ‘single’ text, there is no unity about the details: about the number of proposed sources, what passages belong to each, the dating of the redaction process, etc.

The Torah and Deuteronomistic History are the product of several centuries of religious and literary activity, offering perspectives from different sections and periods of Israelite society. But we must remember that these books were intended to be read as a unified final form. The final redaction united the diverse discourses of the Israelites into a single story. It is not only a religious text: it is a holistic work of art. As we study the contradictions and problems, we must also consider what the writers and redactors achieved artistically [4].

Thanks to archaeology and other disciplines, it seems we can conclude that the early books of the Hebrew Bible, drawing upon earlier materials that are now lost, achieved their present form in two main phases: during the 7th century BCE in Jerusalem and during the 6th century BCE in Babylonia, with some final editing in the post-exile period. Like any book, they emerged from sets of social and historical conditions, not in response to a supernatural being, but according to the very earthly reality of a minor Levantine culture. The Hebrew Bible is essentially an unusual weaving of divine action into history – a history of God’s relationship with the Israelites from the Creation to the Exile. The Jews have never sought to try and convert the world; it was only centuries later that this text, written to present an ideology to a narrow audience of Iron Age Israelites, acquired a universal meaning when adopted by the missionary Christians as part of their own scriptural corpus.

Further reading

Richard Elliott Friedman: Who Wrote The Bible? (2nd ed. 1997)
Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman: The Bible Unearthed (2001)

[1] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico Politicus (1670) 
[2] All quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version.
[3] The Second Temple stood on Temple Mount until 70 CE, when it was destroyed by the Romans. 
[4] An excellent introduction to the Hebrew Bible’s literary merits is Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981).