In that time the greater gods Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea swore to keep secret their plan to cause a great flood. The wind-water god Ea, however, soon appeared to the man Utnapishtim in a reed house, and through the reed wall, instructed him to destroy his house and to build a boat with specific dimensions, regardless of the cost. This boat, he said, would be used to save living beings. Promising to do as the god commanded, Utnapishtim asked Ea what he should tell to his people and the elders of the city. “Tell them you will go down to the Apsu (a freshwater marsh) ‘to live with my lord Ea'” the god told him.
Utnapishtim laid out the plans for the boat which was to be 120 cubits (~55 meters) and have six decks. When the building was complete animals were slaughtered and alcohol was distributed to the workers, as though celebrating the new year. Utnapishtim loaded the boat with silver and gold, “all the living beings that I had.”, his relatives and craftsmen, and “all the beasts and animals of the field”. The time came to seal the entry door.
In the morning the sky was blackened by a giant cloud and the weather grew frightful. Adad, the god of thunder, roared in the cloud and Shullar and Hanish, gods of clouds and storms went out over the land. The land was lit up by lightning and the earth shattered like a clay pot. All was turned to blackness and no man could see his fellow in the swell of the flood which overcame them like an attack. Even the gods, frightened, retreated up to the heavens. The waters raged for six days and six nights, and on the seventh day, when the land was flattened by flood and wind, the sea calmed. All of mankind had turned to clay.
Utnapishtim opened a window, feeling fresh air on his face. He saw that the boat had lodged firmly on mount Nimush. On this seventh day, Utnapishtim released a dove from the boat, but it came back to him. He prepared an offering of animals to the gods. Ea the took Utnapishtim and his wife up to the mouth of a river and declared that they were now among the gods and would have eternal life.
This is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of classic literature, which I have paraphrased for the sake of brevity, and to highlight certain aspects. In the excerpt (Tablet XI), the Mesopotamian epic poem describes an archetypal flood story, common to many different cultures. For comparison, below I will include an abridged version of the old testament story of Noah and the Ark (KJV; Genesis 5:32-10:1)
God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil. And the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air.” But Noah found grace with God, and God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before me.”
God instructed Noah to build an ark , 300 cubits (~130 meters) in length, with three decks. God told Noah of his intention to bring flood waters on the earth and destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life. God said to Noah “But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy family. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.
And Noah did as God had commanded, and God came to Noah and said “In seven days, I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth”. And it came to pass that after 7 days the windows of heaven opened up and the waters of the flood were upon the earth. And they went into the ark, two and two of all flesh.
Every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven. God remembered Noah, and made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged. The ark rested on the mountains of Ararat. And Noah opened the window of the ark he had made and sent forth a dove from him, and she returned and in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off. And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and offered burnt offerings.
And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.
It would be impossible to read these two diluvian stories and not see the striking resemblance:
-The gods (or God) decide to purge the earth of all living things,
-They decide to do so with a flood
-One man is warned and builds a large boat; the dimensions of the boat are specifically mentioned and prescribed by a deity, along with the interior organization
-He takes his family and mating pairs of all living things onto the boat
-The flood comes and he shuts tight the door
-The floods persist for a specific amount of time (in the biblical story 7 days’ warning is given before 40 days of flooding, in the Epic of Gilgamesh 7 days is how long the floods last)
-Descriptions of the destruction of all life in the flood are similar
-The boat washes up on a specifically named mountain, and the inhabitants open a window to see the rains have stopped
-The man sends out a dove (in the original versions they both also send out a raven/crow)
-The man then makes a burnt offering
-The man finds favor with the gods/God, and is granted eternal or very long life
This type of similarity is very common amongst religions of the ancient near east and the Jewish bible, or Tanakh, is no exception. Another example is the Ancient Babylonian creation myths, especially as laid out in Enûma Eliš, which contain many themes resembling the biblical creation story. These themes include the separation of a preexisting chaos into heaven and earth, references to this preexistence as water, and the term of the creation (7 days). See below for a comparison of excerpts from the first tablet of Enûma Eliš and the book of Genesis.
Their waters commingling as a single body; No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared – Enûma Eliš Tablet 1
The earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water – Genesis 1:2-3
The discovery of the Jewish bible’s similarities to myths from the same region was a focal point of many historical and comparative mythological analyses of the bible, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. This phenomenon, whereby parallels are drawn between the bible and often contemporary (reign of king David circa 1000 BC; standard Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh circa 1300-1000 BC) mythologies is known as parallelomania and was first introduced to scholarly circles in the 1960s by Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, although he attributed the origin of the term to French writings in the 1830s.
These analyses typically cast the biblical stories as an evolution from the previous religious stories of the ancient near east. It was argued that the development of monotheism from polytheism (wherein God replaced gods) was part of a natural progression.
Under this paradigm, polytheism (many gods) evolved into henotheism/monolatry (exalting one god above others), and that evolved into monotheism, characterized by only one sovereign God. This type of analysis was, in part, a product of who the religious scholars of the time were. Many were practicing christians or jews, and framing the growth of Judaism in the ancient near east as the next (and final) step in the evolution of religion meant that there was historical/cultural justification for placing one’s own religion above others.
Of course, while the tanakh can be viewed in many ways as evolving out of the religious context surrounding it, a simple gradual progression doesn’t quite capture the nuance of the early jewish faith. We are coming from a modern, lay perspective where everyone generally accepts Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) as monotheistic, and others (Hinduism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Shinto, etc.) as polytheistic. However, the lines can be more blurry than what we learned in world history, and this is especially true when it comes to early Judaism.
One of the challenges with studying ancient religion, is the lack of knowledge about how everyday practitioners practiced their religion, and what they thought they were doing. From religious texts, we can glean some understanding of what the orthodoxy (correct beliefs, adherence to religious creeds and the practice of rituals) and orthopraxy (correct conduct, concerns with purity or cultural traditions) of a religion were, but believers rarely have a strictly doctrinal experience of their religious beliefs.
For example, although keeping kosher and the sabbath are parts of jewish orthopraxy, there are plenty of reform jews (and some orthodox jews as well) who don’t keep kosher, or who do work on the sabbath. We see similar diversity in the muslim world, with varying adherence to the wearing of head coverings or eating halal. Even amongst those who do wear head coverings, there are a range of explanations for what wearing a hijab or niqab means to the adherent, from following the word of the one true god, to simply feeling more in-touch with one’s culture. This is to say, amongst believers, there are likely to be disagreements about the meanings of different rituals, and the execution of certain practices.
Adding to the complexity already presented herein is the fact that the Hebrew bible is not strictly a manual for how to live as a jew. The tanakh is more like a collection of histories with some religious tradition included; it is the story of a people, the Israelites. This may help us to unpack some apparent contradictions or heterogeneity in early jewish religion.
“In all likelihood Hebrews of an older time, the patriarchal period, the second millennium BCE…probably weren’t markedly different from many of their polytheistic neighbors”– Professor Christine Hayes in a 2006 lecture at Yale University
We can see clues hinting at this in the archaeological record as well as in the jewish bible itself. Whether it was the acknowledgement of local fertility deities, or keeping little household idols around, it is clear that ancient Israelite religion was not entirely removed from the environment of its people.
In Exodus, when Moses is given the 10 commandments by God or Jehovah, one of them states that the Israelites “shall have no other gods” before Jehovah. Why would the sole god in existence mention that his followers shouldn’t follow other gods? If you and your significant other were the only two people left on earth, wouldn’t it be rather silly to be concerned about infidelity?
Or perhaps in Genesis 6, when the divine nephilim descend to earth and mate with human females. We will see in the second part of this discussion how that violates certain precepts of the separation of the divine and human realms in monotheism. The bible has many other passages too which describe the gods of other nations, or cast God in a poetic sense as presiding over other gods in a council.
Still, in spite of all these not-strictly-monotheistic overtones in the bible, there are strong monotheist arguments made in the tanakh which clearly set God apart as different in kind than the other gods of that age. Not simply above the other gods, but an entirely different entity. Not an incarnation of power but power itself. Some of these important distinctions are fundamental to monotheism and the assumptions of our current understanding of monotheistic religions.
In part two, we will look at the work of Yehezkel Kaufmann, a 1930s philosopher and biblical scholar. He made strong arguments for the difference between monotheism and polytheism being one of nature, not simply of form. Although still coming from a judeo-christian perspective, Kaufmann makes the argument that jewish monotheism is not a progression out of the contemporaneous religions of the ancient near east, but rather a break from them. His analyses also allow us to subvert the potentially problematic characterization of monotheism as a more highly evolved polytheism. Rather than a monotheist evolution, let us consider the monotheist revolution.