Click here to watch a video on the first chapter of Genesis
Part 1: Identifying the Language Spoken by Adam (circa 3100 BC)
Part 2: From Adam to Noah, Decoding Ancient Numbers
Part 3: Identifying Noah and the Great Flood (circa 2900 BC)
Part 4: From Noah to Joseph, the Legacy of Babel (circa 2830 BC)
Part 5: Identifying Joseph in Egypt (circa 2660 BC)
Part 6: Ancient Editing of the Genesis Text
A similar attempt to set Genesis in its proper context can be found here.
(Click on images for their source and context information.)
"Genesis," the Greek title of the first book of the Bible, means "source," "origin," or "birth." The Book of Genesis has carried that title ever since it was originally translated from Hebrew into Greek, back during the third and second centuries before Christ. Since Greek was the language in common use by the early Christian Church, the Septuagint or LXX (the most common Greek version of the Old Testament) became the standard Bible used by the early church fathers. Saint Luke, and the author of the book of Hebrews were among the early Christian writers who quoted frequently from this version of the Old Testament. Here are the first five verses from the LXX:
ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν. ἡ δὲ γῆ ἦν ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, καὶ σκότος ἐπάνω τῆς ἀβύσσου· καὶ πνεῦμα θεοῦ ἐπεφέρετο ἐπάνω τοῦ ὕδατος. καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός Γενηθήτω φῶς· καὶ ἐγένετο φῶς. καὶ ἴδεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ φῶς ὅτι καλόν· καὶ διεχώρισεν ὁ θεὸς ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ φωτὸς καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ σκότους. καὶ ἐκάλεσεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ φῶς ἡμέραν, καὶ τὸ σκότος ἐκάλεσεν νύκτα. καὶ ἐγένετο ἑσπέρα καὶ ἐγένετο πρωί, ἡμέρα μία. - Genesis 1:1-5
Before Genesis was translated into Greek, it was written in what is commonly called, the "original Hebrew". Unlike Greek or English, this text reads from right to left. The title for the Hebrew version of Genesis is "B'rashyt" (בְּרֵאשִׁית) which is simply the first word in the book, meaning "In beginning." Here are the same first five verses of Genesis, but in Hebrew:
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. אב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. אג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר. אד וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאוֹר כִּי-טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ. אה וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד
And before this "original" Hebrew came into use, the text was written with an even older alphabet (left) which we now call "paleo-Hebrew." Actually, the real original text is older still. The events recorded in the first chapters of Genesis were not originally written in Hebrew at all. There is some evidence that the first ten chapters of Genesis were originally written in ancient Sumerian, and that they also spent a few centuries as an ancient version of Coptic (specifically the tongue of the Pharaohs), on their way to being translated into Hebrew (probably by Moses).
There are many arguments which will push us toward this conclusion. The first can found in Genesis 11:5-9; it might surprise a few of us:
Then the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men were building. And the LORD said, “If they have begun to do this as one people speaking the same language, then nothing they devise will be beyond them. Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
So the LORD scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Babel, for there the LORD confused the language of the whole world, and from that place the LORD scattered them over the face of all the earth. - Genesis 11:5-9 NIV (italics mine)
What language might everyone have been speaking before this happened? This turns out to be a very interesting question. Genesis 5 begins:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, ... Genesis 5:1 NIV (italics mine)
This appears to refer to a written record which preceded both Noah's flood, and the confusion of the languages which happened after that flood. In what language might these earlier events have been recorded?
The events which are descried in the first ten chapters (and the first part of the eleventh) are set in the southeastern part of what is now called Iraq (map of ancient cities - right). These events happened many thousands of years ago. At some point, a great deal of silting changed the courses of the rivers and filled in quite a bit of the gulf. When the Tigris and Euphrates changed their courses, the ruins of many ancient cities were left behind, strung out along two lines, where those rivers used to flow. It appears from the map that the present courses of those two rivers are now about three times farther apart than they had been in earlier times. As we will see, a few of those widely separated ancient cities had been buried by sediments which all dated to about 2900 BC.
When archaeologists began exploring the ruins of these ancient cities, they found a forgotten form of writing which we now call "Cuneiform" (left). Cuneiform writing was done by pressing a wedge-shaped stick into wet clay which was later sun dried or fired.
Like many Cuneiform tablets, this one ends with a "colophon" (enlarged text). An ancient Sumerian or Akkadian colophon is the approximate equivalent of a modern book's title page. It usually contains a name (something like "this book belongs to" or "this is the book of") and some attempt at a date.
The more recent colophons contained additional information, such as the name of the scribe, the person who commissioned the work, and to which library the work belonged. According to Kramer's book, The Sumerians p.35 the earliest attempts at dates were "experiments." They may have meant something to the people who originally wrote them, but they were not particularly useful to those who tried to make sense out of them later.
"Useful dates" start to appear about 2500 B.C., and with the useable dates, detailed king lists (far right) were compiled from earlier records (block-shaped text - right) so that readers could sort out what had happened when. Dating was usually done relative to various important events ("the fifth year of the reign of king Gilgamesh"). Unfortunately, the earliest sections of these lists contained many severe errors (presumably due to the language comprehension difficulties which we have been warned about in Genesis 11:5-9, above).
Deciphering Cuneiform was a difficult process. Unlike Egyptian Hieroglyphics, there was no single "Rosetta stone." Instead, there were many smaller clues which eventually led to the deciphering and recovery of the forgotten language. We now call this forgotten language "Akkadian," after the land of "Akkad" (the name given to that land by the Akkadian people - who originally lived there and spoke and rote the Akkadian language).
When scholars learned to read Akkadian, they discovered, through references in those ancient texts, the even more ancient civilization of Sumer. Among the Akkadian writings were Akkadian-Sumerian lexicons and other materials which explained how to decipher that language as well. (Here is John Halloran's English-Sumerian Lexicon) .
Both the Akkadian and Sumerian writing systems used a combination of different types of characters. Some were phonograms, (or syllabary characters), meaning that each character represented a whole syllable. Other characters were determinatives," which means they indicated the category to which a word belonged; and others were logograms," meaning they represented a whole word. Whether a particular character denoted an entire word or its equivalent syllable was not necessarily obvious. Instead of sentences or punctuation (which were much later developments), the symbols were often grouped into rectangular cells which each contained a single idea.
The more recent Sumerian tablets were written in a cuneiform script, similar to Akkadian, but the earliest tablets used pictographic characters. By studying the progression of writing style, (see also here), the meanings of many (not all) of those pictographic character have been deciphered. Although the question isn't settled, the first Sumerian pictographic writing is generally believed to have been the earliest form of writing in the world.
The earliest numbering system (left) consisted of a series of half-moon shaped impressions which were simply counted. Some time later, different types of impressions were used to represent larger numbers (right) similar to Roman numerals where an "I" means "one" and a "V" means "five."
This next tablet (drawing lower right), described as a "ration tablet," is found on page 53 of Cuneiform, Reading the Past Vol 3, (Walker). (See also here, and here). Like the previous tablet, it itemizes quantities of various items. Each row reads right to left and the rows are taken from top to bottom. What makes this tablet interesting to us here is the repeated and numbered symbol at the left (end) of each row. This symbol is a representation of the sun rising between mountains; it is the Sumerian pictographic character for day." The numbered items are divided into groups identified as "day one," "day two" etc. The other repeated symbols to the left are not presently understood. Not too surprisingly, this tablet has a very similar format to the first chapter of Genesis. The simple, somewhat repetitious, style of that chapter, and the termination of each short section with a repeated phrase and a numbered day, closely reflect this ancient writing style.
In Genesis 2:4. we encounter the phrase, "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when (literally 'in day') they were created." The relatively modern Hebrew word for "generations" is the plural feminine form of "birth" or "bringing forth." Since it comes at the end of the description of the creation of the heavens and earth, it is where a Sumerian colophon would belong. If this were the vestigial remains of an ancient Sumerian colophon, it would identify and date the text - which is exactly what it does. Both the ownership (these [written symbols?] are the "children" of the heavens and earth) and dating ("in day" [when] they were created) are both present. Further, they appear to be "uselessly" primitive, as we might expect the very most ancient colophons to be. A whole lot of time has passed since these words were recorded; but the ancient colophon can still be seen in the text by a sufficiently attentive modern reader.
Even though ancient accounts were often long enough to fill many clay tablets, they had no "page" numbers. Instead, the ancient scribes would link their tablets by repeating sentences. The first line of each subsequent tablet would repeat part of the colophon of the previous tablet - so a reader could figure out the order in which they were intended to be read (Walker p.39). As we might expect, the next line following the apparent colophon in Genesis 2:4, is, "In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," - repeating the colophon of the "previous tablet": "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when (in day) they were created." As many times as Genesis has been recopied and re-translated, this ancient Sumerian colophon, and the next tablet's "tag line" are still visible in the modern English version.
In fact, apparent colophons (and accompanying "tag lines") are found repeatedly through the first (and oldest) part of Genesis. Clear examples are seen in Genesis 5:1 and Genesis 10:1. In both cases, the colophons appear to belong to the immediately preceding text (even though it appears that those who added the chapter breaks tried to tag them to the beginnings of subsequent text). For more detail on the Genesis colophons, see Wiseman's book: Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis, (or Clues to Creation in Genesis).
By the time Joseph enters Egypt, there are no more of these Mesopotamian artifacts to be found anywhere in the text. This, presumably, is because Joseph was using a different system of writing by that time. (Probably the language which the ancient Egyptians spoke.)
The text of Genesis 5:1 is particularly interesting: "This is the book of the generations of Adam in the day that God created man." Here the word "book" (literally: to write) appears to be emphasizing that "these generations" are recorded using the "new" technology of "writing." None of the writers of later colophons appear to have felt the need to emphasize this point - possibly since writing was no longer a new thing. It is also interesting that the Hebrew word for "man" is "Adam" (just like that man's proper name) - further emphasizing the extremely primitive nature of the text.
All of these clues strongly suggest that the first parts of Genesis were originally written in Sumerian; but they are not the only clues: Notice the apparent contradiction between the following two verses:
1) And the man said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man she was taken.” - Genesis 2:23 NIV (emphasis mine)
καὶ εἶπεν Ἀδάμ Τοῦτο νῦν ὀστοῦν ἐκ τῶν ὀστέων μου καὶ σὰρξ ἐκ τῆς σαρκός μου· αὕτη κληθήσεται Γυνή, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς αὐτῆς ἐλήμφθη αὕτη. - Genesis 2:23 LXX
וַיֹּאמֶר הָאָדָם זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת - Genesis 2:23 Hebrew
2) And Adam named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all the living. - Genesis 3:20 NIV (emphasis mine)
Καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Ἀδὰμ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς γυναικὸς Ζωή, ὅτι αὕτη μήτηρ πάντων τῶν ζώντων. - Genesis 3:20 LXX
וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ חַוָּה: כִּי הִוא הָיְתָה אֵם כָּל-חָי - Genesis 3:20 Hebrew
Here we have Adam naming his wife two different names, for two different reasons. These attempts to translate the ancient puns appear to achieve mixed success. When St. Jerome translated "Eve's" name from Hebrew into Latin, He just transliterated the Hebrew הִוא (HeVA), ultimately coining a new Latin word which eventually came to be understood as a Latin synonym for "life." The English translator appears to have attempted to use the new Latin synonym to communicate "life" to sufficiently-educated English readerss.
Not too surprisingly, there is a Sumerian word "ti" which means both "rib" and "life" (Kramer p.149). If "Ti" was the original name Adam gave to "Eve," then both reasons would make sense. This tends to verify the theory that Sumerian was the language which Adam spoke. (A third definition for "ti" is "arrow" which was the symbol used to write "ti." (Walker p.12).
Here is another possible piece of evidence: Shortly after Adam named his wife "Eve," he was evicted from the garden, and the return access was blocked:
After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. - Genesis 3:24 NIV (emphasis mine)
A search on what the "cherubim" are supposed to be provides suspicious results (at best). Without dwelling on the traditional speculations, Halloran's Sumerian Lexicon simply defines "kar" as a "port authority" (p.135) and "rib" as "to be higher in rank" (p.218). "Cher-rub-im" is likely to be the Hebrew plural of the Sumerian "Kar-Rib" (after thousands of years worth of pronunciation variation), and adding the final "ם" (m) to make it a Hebrew plural. Whatever else the "cherubim" might also have been, they were obviously "serious gate guards," as the "original Sumerian" might have plainly stated. (A note on the inadvertent modification of ancient words: the King James Bible actually added a final "s" to "cherubim," making it the English plural of a Hebrew plural.)
Another link to ancient Sumerian is found in the name "Eden." The Bible explains that this garden was located at the joining of four rivers (whose courses have now changed). The distribution of ancient cities suggests an ancient merging of several rivers, not too far inland from where the Tigris and Euphrates presently join. The Sumerian word "Eden" had several definitions, including the grazing land between the two major rivers (see Halloran, Sumerian Lexicon p.59). This would put the Biblical garden at the eastern end of the region that the Sumerians called "Eden." This supplies the contextual foundation for Genesis 2:8: "The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom He had formed." (Halloran also has a free subset of his Sumerian Lexicon online here.)
This ancient connection can also be seen from the Hebrew word normally translated "mist" in Genesis 2:6 ("ade" Strong's number 108). There appears to be some discontinuity between this "Hebrew" word and it's presumed root (Strong's number 181), however, it is more likely that the word was a direct transliteration from the Sumerian word "a-de2" (or possibly "a...de2") see Halloran, p.2. If so, the word should have been translated something more like "flowing water" than "mist." Instead of "mist," the LXX (the Septuagint) used the word "fountain," which may have been a better translation.
Here is the framework which seems to do the best job of sorting out some of the tougher problems: According to quite a bit of evidence, Genesis 2:4-11:11... (as well as a few other early parts of Genesis) is an account which was originally written on a clay tablet, in the ancient Sumerian language, and describes the world which those Sumerians inhabited. Further, it initially positions Adam at the east end of the plain between the rivers.
A note regarding Genesis 4:16: Although Abraham's city "Ur" is identified on the map, Cain's "land of Nod" is not. There might be many reasons for this. Ignoring the obvious reasons, the Hebrew word "Nod" means something like to "agitate," "drive about," "wander as a fugitive," or "flee" (see Analytical Lexicon: "n - v/w - d"). This does not sound like something that even should be identifiable on a map of ancient archeology.
Genesis describes the interactions between God and man in relatively casual and matter-of-fact terms; if this sounds strange to a modern reader, Sumerian literature shows us that it would have sounded completely normal to the Sumerian patriarchs who originally wrote the early chapters of Genesis. The Sumerian Kings List, for example, begins with the matter-of-fact statement, "After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu." What would have sounded strange to a Sumerian, would be a world where deity did not interact frequently with humans.
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years. Alalgar ruled for 36,000 years. Two kings; they ruled for 64800 years.
Then Eridu fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, Enmen-lu-ana ruled for 43,200 years. Enmen-gal-ana ruled for 28,800 years. The divine Dumuzi, the shepherd, ruled for 36,000 years. Three kings; they ruled for 108,000 years.
Then Bad-tibira fell and the kingship was taken to Larak. In Larak, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28,800 years. One king; he ruled for 28,800 years.
Then Larak fell and the kingship was taken to Sippar. In Sippar, Enmen-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21,000 years. One king; he ruled for 21,000 years.
Then Sippar fell and the kingship was taken to Shuruppak. In Shuruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18,600 years. One king; he ruled for 18,600 years. [Some sources include Ziusudra of Shurrupuk, 36,000 years, even though information about Ziusudra does not really come from the king lists, but from other ancient sources such as the "Eridu Genesis."]
Five cities; eight kings ruled for 385,200 [sic] years. Then the Flood swept over.
That opening statement, "After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu," (ruins of Eridu pictured - left), may be the very first sentence of "secular" written history. It describes where and how "kingship" began. Further, as well as can be verified, it appears to be a correct statement. According to the archeological evidence, Eridu turns out to be the oldest city in ancient Sumer, and possibly even in the whole world. Referring again to the Sumerian map, Eridu is close to, but not exactly at, Adam's probable starting location.
In Genesis 5:3, (immediately after the colophon and tag line) we find a list of patriarchs which is very similar to the Sumerian Kings List. The King list records eight different Kings who reigned before "the flood," starting with Alulim. Genesis 5 records eleven pre-flood generations, starting with Adam. With one possible exception, these are not necessarily the same people. That exception is Ubar(a)-Tutu who, depending on the source, may have been either an alias for Zisudra (pdf) or the father of Ziusudra As we will see, the Sumerian "Ziusudra" was certainly the Biblical patriarch "Noah," known by another of several different names. Noah's Akkadian name, for example, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, (tablet right) was "Utnapishtim."
Notice the numbers given for the various reigns of the kings of the Sumerian King list. Even ignoring the ancient (and rather severe) addition (or translation) error found immediately before "the flood swept over," these extremely long rules appear to be errors. One obvious problem is that they all appear to be very round numbers - rounded off to the nearest 200 years. Closer inspection shows that all of the reigns are evenly divisible by 600, and most are exact multiples of 3600.
Both 600 and 3600 turn out to be very interesting numbers because they are both major divisions of the ancient Akkadian numbering system. Instead of using a base-ten numbering system, such as we use (the ancient Egyptians also used base-ten numbers), the Mesopotamians used a numbering system which usually alternated between base-six and base-ten. This is probably where some of our modern base sixty-numbers come from (seconds/minute, minutes/hour, and maybe even 360 degrees in a circle); it is also likely that this numbering system is tied to the ancient 360 day calendar.
Of particular interest, the "newer" Akkadian symbol for the number 3600 was very similar to the older Sumerian symbol for "year." (see here). Since these king lists were originally written in Sumerian, then later translated into Akkadian, this suggests that a simple translation error may have been the source for most of the apparent errors. It seems likely that an ancient translator misunderstood the symbol for "year" to be 3600 of something (which he presumed to be a year as well). If that was the problem, we could fix the king lists by dividing all of the numbers by 3600. When we do this, quite reasonable periods are obtained for the reigns of the various kings! Here is what we get:
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 8 years. Alalgar ruled for 10 years. Two kings; they ruled for 18 years.
Then Eridu fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, Enmen-lu-ana ruled for 12 years. Enmen-gal-ana ruled for 8 years. The divine Dumuzi, the shepherd, ruled for 10 years. Three kings; they ruled for 30 years.
Then Bad-tibira fell and the kingship was taken to Larak. In Larak, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 8 years. One king; he ruled for 8 years.
Then Larak fell and the kingship was taken to Sippar. In Sippar, Enmen-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 5 years 10 months. One king; he ruled for 5 years 10 months.
Then Sippar fell and the kingship was taken to Shuruppak. In Shuruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 5 years 2 months. One king; he ruled for 5 years 2 months.
Five cities; eight kings ruled for 67 years. Then the Flood swept over.
A very similar condition is seen in the genealogies of Genesis chapter 5 (below left). They tell us which patriarch lived for how long before he "begat" which son, and how long each lived. Here, the sums are correct. The graph to the right was generated from the dates provided in Genesis 5, 11, and elsewhere. The horizontal bars, identified down the right side, represent the lifetimes of some of the more important patriarchs, and the time scale represents someone's attempt to tie these lifetimes into history; The year of Noah's flood is also identified by the vertical red line. (As we will see, Noah's flood actually correlates with secular history at about 2900 BC.)
This graph appears to present a very precise representation of what happened during exactly which year of very ancient history. It seems to tell us that most men before the flood lived for very long periods of time; that at about the time of Peleg, lifetimes became much shorter; and that at about the time Jacob was born, all of the patriarchs born between Noah and Peleg died within a relatively short time period.
Unfortunately. there are many reasons to be careful about granting this the status of exact history. Probably the worst problem is that there are three different versions of these numbers found in the Masoretic Text (MT), the Septuagint (LXX), and the Samaritan text ("Sumaritan" is different from "Sumerian"). All three of these textual "traditions" are represented in the famous scrolls found in the Dead Sea caves. These copies all differ from each other. Furthermore, we are dealing with a text from the very same time and place as the Sumerian king lists; and we know that those lists were badly mistranslated for some reason. We might be dealing with some kind of translation error here as well.
With the exception of the sums (which are likely to have been added into the text at a later time), notice that all of the numbers end in either a zero, two, five, or seven. While this would be improbable for a base-ten numbering system, it would be more likely from base-six system, and inevitable if it were a mistranslation of a base-four system. One example of a base-four numbering system would be the division of each year into fourths, representing the four seasons. In ancient Sumer, fractions were often expressed using the same alternating six-and-ten-base numbering system, but shifted by an agreed upon although not explicitly stated amount. For example, according to Robert Best, p.113, in the place and time that Noah lived, quantities of wheat were expressed in tenth-units (called sila), units (ban), six-units (barig), and 48 (6x8) units (gur). To further complicate things, the number of "barigs" in one "gur" of wheat changed between dynastic periods and also varied from city to city; the range was from as few as four to as many as eight.
It is possible that the scribe who originally recorded Genesis 5 was using a fractional 8-barigs-per-gur kind of numbering system, and that he rounded seasons (or possibly sixth-years) to the nearest tenth. If so, it is probable that the scribe who later translated it would be unaware of this; it is likely that he would read it using the later "simple" integer ten-six-ten alternations. Although it would be very tedious to go through the detailed mathematics and ancient documents here (and since it has already been done for us by R. Best, pp. 103-129, just the conclusions are presented here:
1) The Septuagint copy of Genesis appears to be the best of the three versions.
2) Reverse engineering the Septuagint, using the specific method of mistranslation presumed above, produces very reasonable original dates.
3) Those recovered dates reveal some very enlightening correlations with the divided-by-3600 version of the king lists.
4) Adam's life began about 212.2 before Noah's flood - which would place it in the year 3112 BC - if the flood actually occurred in exactly the year 2900 BC (unfortunately, the date of the flood isn't precisely known).
Starting with an original Sumerian version matching this table (right), if we were to follow the procedure for mistranslation sketched out above, we would get almost exactly the present Septuagint version of Genesis chapter five. The only difference would be a single instance of a different kind of scribal error for the second number (and, consequently, for the third number as well) listed for Lamech. (For those who are interested, the error shows up when a digit which must be either greater than the base allows, or less than zero, shows up during the conversion calculations.)
But now we must ask ourselves why the Bible ever got mistranslated so badly. How could there have been so much confusion? As we will see, It turns out that there are actually a few verses later in Genesis which point to a likely source for these translation errors. We will examine this in more detail below;. In any case, even those of us who choose to regard the "autographs" as being inerrant must remember that mere translations are never immune to error; and the errors we are examining here are all the results of mistranslations; none of these errors were in the autographs.
Noah's flood makes such a great story that it keeps getting retold over and over - and in many different ways (such as in the 2007 movie Evan Almighty). Not surprisingly, it was also retold in different versions (both Sumerian and Akkadian) back in ancient Mesopotamia.
Secular sources often identify all accounts of the great Mesopotamian flood as mere "mythology," (the less rational of these even try to identify it both as "mythological" and as "a river flood"). The ancient Sumerians themselves, however, made no distinction between the reality of their great flood and the rest of their history. The existing fragments of the story tell how Ziusudra was warned by one of the gods to build a boat to save the seed of all living things from the coming flood - and how he did just that. Ziusudra's story can be read in the "Eridu Genesis (left)," or in some later versions: Xisuthros, Khsisuthros, Atrahasis, or the Gilgamesh Epic."
If my phrase "one of the gods," in the previous paragraph, bothers any of my readers, it is important to realize that it wouldn't have been likely to bother any of the men or women who participated in the original events. Even as late as Exodus 18:9-11, Jethro, Moses' father in law, was still sorting out how their "personal God" ranked among "competing deity":
Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” - Exodus 18:9-11 NIV
If the ancients had access to the resources we presently possess, or even to those which Moses himself was yet to learn during his lifetime, it is not likely that the ancient literature would not have been written as it had been. In actual practice, they still had some sorting out left to do back in those days.
Returning to the subject at hand: Even Bible-unfriendly sources agree that the sedimentary layer left by that flood was quite real. It carbon dates to about 2900 BC and covered enough of the surrounding cities that the size of the flood is essentially observable scientific fact: It would literally have covered all of the "land" (earth) under the "sky" (heavens) - all the way to the visible horizon. In fact, in order to add over fifty miles to the separation between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the sediment-rearranging "puddle" would have needed to cover tens of thousands of square miles at a minimum.
In my opinion, the most careful analysis of Noah's flood comes from secular writer Robert M. Best's book, Noah's Ark and the Ziusudra Epic (right). Even with what I consider to be a serious blind spot, this book helped me see my own blind spots and showed me ways, which I had completely missed, to approach the problems that Genesis presents. Among other useful information, Best's book contains English translations of all six of the flood accounts mentioned above (including the Genesis account).
The flood was indeed a river flood; one that appears to have covered considerably more than ten thousand square miles. Genesis 7 contains an accurate and verifiable description of what an observer might have seen from the deck of that famous boat. The flood was certainly not a myth! But neither was it what many misguided Bible scholars claim. The language of Genesis allows for a regional flood (at the risk of making dating myself, back when I originally noticed this, "the phone company would not have called it a 'local' flood"), even if those who try to interpret it without the knowledge of the historical context might claim otherwise.
The parts of modern Iraq which were occupied by the ancient Sumerians are extremely flat. The floodplain, surrounding the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, covers over 50,000 square miles which slope toward the gulf at less than one foot per mile (details here). Drainage is extremely poor and flooding is quite common, even without large rainstorms during the summer river-level peek (when Noah's flood happened). Studying the picture of Eridu (above left) will provide a feeling for just how flat the area is. The horizon is a straight line. It is also apparent from studying photos of Southern Iraq (where at least part of the flood happened), that if the river rose by even a few tens of feet, the entire area would completely disappear under the water.
Among the ancient cities which show sedimentary evidence for being buried by a giant flood in about 2900 BC, were Shuruppak, Urik, Kish, and, according to some sources, Lagish (see R. Best, p.29 and Fischer, p.274). At the time, there were more than fifty villages in southern Iraq that were completely abandoned (see R. Best, p.64).
Regarding the Biblical statement that the flood covered the "high mountains," although the ancient Sumerians had a word for something like "hills," it did not mean, to them, anything like what people from other parts of the world mean by similar terms. Even the very highest "hills" (of this very flat floodplain) would have been completely covered by a few tens of feet of water. (Incidentally, the words "hills" and "mountains" in Genesis 7:19,20 are both translated from the same Hebrew word "har." In either case, to a Sumerian, the originally intended meaning would have been closer to our term "mound.") The Biblical use of the word "mountains" is simply an error in translation.
There is an old (pre-cellphone) joke which goes, "A man with a watch knows what time it is; but a man with two watches is never sure." Since the details differ between the accounts of Ziusudra, Xisuthuros, Khsisuthros, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, and Noah, it may be difficult to decide which, if any, of the accounts to believe. The first question might be, What was Noah's real name?" Ziusudra was the name used in the earliest Sumarian accounts; Xisuthuros and Khsisuthros appear to be attempts to transliterate that same name to the Greek Language; Atrahasis and Utnapishtim are clearly both Akkadian translations from an earlier Sumerian account; but where did the name "Noah" come from? It seems to be very different from all of the others.
The Hebrew name "Noah" is pronounced the same as the Hebrew word for "rest," although it is spelled differently. The name is spelled with two Hebrew consonants: Nuwn (n) and Ceyth (German ch, pronounced kind of like clearing your throat); there were originally no vowels in Hebrew. This means Noah's Hebrew name is really "N-Ch." Ziusudra, on the other hand, is Sumerian for "eternal life." (Zi = breath/life/soul, usu(d)ra) = eternity, see Halloran, pp. 290, 313). What connection could the name "Noah" possibly have with the name "Ziusudra?"
Interestingly, the answer may be found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Ankh (the cross-shaped symbol with a loop on the top, seen in the illustration to the right) is the Egyttian Hieroglyph for "life" (see Roeder pp. 6, 60, and 65). It is commonly used in contexts which suggest an effective definition more like "eternal life" (see here) . Ankh can be written phonetically in Egyptian heiroglyphics as "arm-water-disk." If the name "Ziusudra" was translated into ancient Egyptian, it would have become the Ankh symbol. Then, if the Ankh symbol was transliterated phonetically into Hebrew, "arm-water-disk" would become the Hebrew "'Ayn-Nuwn-Ceyth." Since the "'Ayn" is considered to be "unappreciable," it would probably be dropped in a phonetic transliteration - leaving "Nuwn-Ceyth" or "N-Ch" (the Hebrew spelling for "Noah").
Might this be where the modern name "Noah" came from? It is actually likely. Remember where the book of Genesis ends; although it starts out in ancient Sumer, it finishes up in ancient Egypt with Joseph. Before the first part of Genesis was translated from Sumerian to Hebrew, at least some of it appears to have been translated into Egyptian. It appears that our version of the story of Noah's flood passed through Egypt on the way to Israel; this means it did not get picked up directly from Babylon during the relatively late (roughly 586-537 B.C.) period of captivity.
This appears to explain Noah's name, but what about the other differences between the accounts? Even the simple approach of simply sticking with "Noah's" account isn't going to be as simple as we might guess. The problem is that the Biblical account is, itself, a composite of multiple accounts. If we know what to look for, this can be seen in the colophon at the end of that section: Genesis 10:1 Now these are the generations (identifies the colophon) of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: (three names) and unto them were sons born (tag line to identify the next tablet) after the flood (the date). This account appears to have three or four different "owners," Shem, Ham, Japeth, and possibly Noah. A close look at the account reveals what might be multiple interleaved sources:
Many years ago I read the Gospels in Johnston M. Cheney's version: The Life of Christ in Stereo (right) where all four Gospels are interleaved into one single story. Although the work wasn't perfect, it was still a very interesting attempt to make one consistent account out of four. What we have in Genesis 6-8 looks like it might be the same kind of effort by some ancient and forgotten editor.
Here, I have attempted the reverse operation; I have cobbled together two different subsets of the flood story by breaking Genesis 5-8 up into pieces and reassembling those pieces into shorter accounts - while using all of the pieces, not using any pieces twice, maintaining the same order as the whole, maintaining the same general storyline, and trying to keep each account internally consistent in both detail and writing style.
6:1-4: And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
6:11-22: The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee. 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. Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them. Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.
7:11-14: In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark; They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort.
7:19-21: And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
7:24-8:5: And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days. And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged; The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained; And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated. And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.
8:13-17: And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry. And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, was the earth dried. And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.
6:5-10: And 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 continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 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; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
7:1-10: And the LORD said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation. Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. For yet seven days, and 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 Noah did according unto all that the LORD commanded him. And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah. And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth.
7:15-18: And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in. And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.
7:22-23: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And 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; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
8:6-12: And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
8:18-22: And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him: Every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, and whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, went forth out of the ark. And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
As can be seen, these two subsets use very different numerical precision, different repeated phrases, different emphasis, and different writing styles - yet they are each internally consistent. Notice that the writer of the first subset was doing his arithmetic correctly, and that he was using 30-day months, just like the ancient Sumerians did. The second subset is obviously from the same original source (although not necessarily the same immediate source) as the author of the Gilgamesh Epic used. Here is the overlapping section of the Gilgamesh Epic:
Version 3, Tablet XI, Lines 118-187, (See here)
Lines 118-128: Ishtar cried like a woman in travail, • Wailed the queen of the gods with her beautiful voice: • "Those creatures are turned to clay, • Since I commanded evil in the assembly of the gods; • Because I commanded evil in the assembly of the gods, • For the destruction of my people I commanded battle. • I alone bore my people; • like spawn of flies they fill the sea." • The gods along with the Annunaki wept with her, • The gods bowed, sat as they wept; • Closed were their lips; [silent their] assembly.
Lines 129-143: Six days and seven nights • Blew the wind, the deluge the flood overpowered. • When the seventh day approached, the deluge was prolonging the battle • Which, like an army, it had waged. • The sea calmed, the destruction abated, the flood ceased. • I looked upon the sea, the roaring was stilled • And all mankind was turned to clay; • Like logs all were floating about. • I opened the window, the light fell on my cheek; • I was overcome, I sat down, I wept; • Over my cheek streamed the tears. • I looked in all directions--a fearful sea! • After twelve days an island appeared; • Toward mount Nizir the ship stood off; • Mount Nizir held it fast, that it moved not.
Lines 144-156: One day, two days, Mount Nizier held it that it moved not, • Three days, four days, mount Nizir held it that it moved not, • Five days, six days, mount Nizir held it that it moved not, • When the seventh day approached, • I brought out a dove and let her go; • The dove went out and returned; • There was no resting-place and she came back. • I brought out a swallow and let it go; • The swallow went out and returned. • There was o resting place and it came back. • I brought out a raven and let it go; • The raven went out, the diminution of the waters it saw; • It alighted, it waded about, it croaked, it did not come back.
Lines 157-167: • I disembarked [all]; to the four winds I poured a libation. • I appointed a sacrifice on top of the mountain peak' • Seven by seven I arranged the sacrificial vessels; • Beneath them I piled reeds, cedar wood, and myrtle. • The gods smelled the savor, • The gods smelled the sweet savor. • The gods above the sacrificer collected like flies. • When at length the queen of the gods drew near, • She raised the great bows which An at her wish had made. • "O ye gods, as I shall not forget the jewel of my neck • These days I shall not forget--to eternity I shall remember!
The older Sumerian "Ziusudra" flood version can be found in the Edidu Genesis. The result of this experiment is extremely speculative, and doesn't prove anything at all; but it does suggest that an ancient editor may have cobbled together a composite "Flood in Stereo" account from multiple ancient Sumerian flood accounts. If we choose to take the colophon in 10:1 literally, we might conclude that the original sources of these accounts were members of Noah's immediate family.
Some of the differences may just be translation errors, like the numbers in Genesis 5 appear to have been. Where the Bible uses the phrase "Forty days and forty nights", the Ziusudra account uses the phrase "Seven days and seven nights;" the Utnapishtim account uses the similar phrase, "Six days and seven nights," followed by, "When the seventh day approached." These numbers are different by a rounded-off factor of six, which should at least raise some suspicion. Mistranslation might be responsible for a similar inflation (by a factor of six or possibly ten) to the dimensions of the ark; however, there would be no obvious way to test this. There are certainly other theories; for example, R. Best p. 81 has pointed out that if the length of Noah's ark had originally been given in spans, but was mistranslated as cubits, it would be the same as the length given in the Gilgamesh account.
In any case, the flood stories are in agreement with each other as well as could be hoped from such ancient accounts, having had so long a history of retelling and retranslation. Presumably, they are similarly in agreement with historical fact. The story of Noah's ark has every bit as solid a claim to being historical as anything does from that far back in time. We just need to allow for the translation errors it, most certainly, has acquired along the way.
As before, even if we regard the "autographs" to be inerrant, copies and translations are never immune to error. In this case, those of us who are Christians may not have a particularly useful standard for inerrancy, since our copies all seem to have been corrupted and we no longer have access to the autographs; but, useful or not, accept it or reject it, it is still the only real standard that we have to use.
As mentioned earlier, there are a few verses which suggest a high probability of there being some rather severe translation errors in the early parts of the Genesis text; there was a good reason that translators might have become confused. These verses concern the events surrounding the attempted construction of the tower of Babel:
Genesis 11:1-7 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar (Babylon); and they Dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime (Hebrew Chemar: bitumen) had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build Us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
Here we are told that this confusion was the result of a deliberate act of God. What we are not told is how God carried this out; but there is a clue in the text, "Let us go down" (in bold), which most of us usually miss: God tells us he enlisted some help from somewhere. Who might he have used?
As with Noah's flood, there is a parallel to this story found in ancient Sumerian literature. According to Samuel Kramer's book, History Begins at Sumer (pp.255-256), Sumerian literature speaks of a "golden age," long since passed, when all of the inhabitants of Sumer praised Enlil (their head god) with one tongue. The language which eventually replaced Sumerian was Akkadian. One easy way God could have accomplished this, which would be consistent with both Genesis 11 and Sumerian history, would be by simply enlisting Akkadian speaking people to join their ranks. This might take a little bit longer than we usually imagine, but it would certainly accomplish the necessary goal. Not only would this mess up communication, it may also have been responsible for some of the confusion in understanding the local flood and pre-flood literature.
The tower that Noah's descendents attempted to build on the plain of Shinar (Babylon) also appears to have become a part of ancient Sumerian history. This stone (left and far left) commemorates the rebuilding of the ancient tower by Nebuchadnezzar. It bears an image of Nebuchadnezzar, a likeness of the ancient Babylonian Ziggurat (or tower of worship); it also carries the following inscription by Nebuchadnezzar:
ETEMENANKI: ZIKKURAT BABIBLI: THE HOUSE, THE FOUNDATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, ZIGGURAT IN BABYLON.
ETEMENANKI, I MADE IT THE WONDER OF THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, I RAISED ITS TOP TO THE HEAVEN, MADE DOORS FOR THE GATES, AND I COVERED IT WITH BITUMEN AND BRICKS.
The stone describes the rebuilding of the "original" tower in Babylon. That "original" was believed to have been built around the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). According to the account in Genesis, the real "original" (possibly about 2860-2800 BC, see below) wasn't completed at all (at least not at that time). In any case, it probably would have looked very much like a similar tower (right) which is still at least partly standing in Ur.
When we think about those events at the tower of Babel, we prefer to believe that those people whose languages were scrambled were not, in any way, tied to the handing down of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. We want to believe that "we" somehow survived that event unscathed. It may not bother us if some "other" descendants of Noah once forgot how to read the records of how long each patriarch lived; but it is beginning to look as if we, ourselves, are victims of the textual corruption that happened at Babel.
The standard response to this claim is that, "God is able to protect his word!" I happen to agree that he is; but I must also accept that God is able to "confuse" language so that men cannot understand each other. This is what was claimed in Genesis 11:7,8. Why couldn't God have done this to "us" personally? The only reason I can think of is that we are too proud to consider the possibility that our own personal understanding might have been corrupted. But why should we believe our understanding exceeds our righteousness? Surely Isaiah (64:4) has, at least, left us no illusions about that.
The next step will be to try to make some sense out of the chronology between Noah and Joseph. According to Genesis 10:25: And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided. Some scholars suggest that this might mean that it was in the days of Peleg, five generations after the flood (or six in the LXX), that abandoning the Sumerian language occurred. Returning to the timeline/generation plot, if these scholars are correct, then the shift from mistranslated "long life spans" to shorter ones should happen at the same generation as the language were confused. The plot seems to show something like that happening at the time of Peleg, but this still doesn't appear to be enough to sort out the truth.
If we use the same system on the patriarchs between Noah and Peleg that we used on those between Adam and Noah, they all appear to have their first son when they are about thirteen years old. If we take the numbers after Peleg at face value, we get ages that look much too old. Clearly something more complicated has happened to these numbers. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that "something" might be. As we might have learned to expect by now, the Sumerian kings lists, present a very similar puzzle. The shortening of reigns for the kings following the flood closely parallels the apparent shortening of lifespans in the Biblical account following the flood. I have no idea what was going on there either.
Fortunately, there is another way to give us at leaset a very rough idea of what time span was involved in Genesis. We can calculate the average generation time for the patriarchs between Adam and Noah (just over eighteen years) and use this as a probable guide for the average generation time between Arphaxad (2 years after the flood, Genesis 11:10) and when Joseph's older son was born (when Joseph was established in Egypt). This was either twelve or thirteen generations depending on whether we use the Septuagint (and Luke 3:33-36) or the other Genesis texts (multiplied by just over eighteen years per generation to get years). This is not likely to give us very accurate numbers, but it should at least put us in the right "ballpark."
Taking the lower end of the range, eighteen years times twelve generations gives us about 216 total years. Starting from 2898 BC (two years after a very rough approximation for the flood), this takes us to about 2682 BC for a very rough guess at when we might first expect to find Joseph established in Egypt. Assuming nineteen years for thirteen generations (247 years) would give us 2651 BC for a very rough upper limit. Our target might be about 2682-2651 BC - a thirty-year window. Unfortunately, the 2900 BC date for the flood is sufficiently uncertain, and the generation time sufficiently uncertain, that we would have to be very lucky to find Joseph within this small window.
Incidentally, this is how I got my 2860-2800 BC estimate (above) for the time of the original attempt to build the tower of Babel: 2900 - 2 - (18 or 19) x (3 or 4) gives about 2844-2822 BC; I left some extra room for error.
Joseph was, of course, a very important man in the Egyptian government; in fact, he was Pharaoh's second in command. It might seem that he should be easy to find in Egyptian history, even if we don't really know exactly were to look for him.
Genesis 41:39-41: And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.
From the way this is worded, it sounds like having a second in command was a new idea to Pharaoh. There didn't seem to be anyone else who had to be removed from that position before Joseph took over. The first Pharaoh to have a second in command was Djoser (left) 2668-2649 BC, (see Clayton p. 30), the second Pharaoh of the third Dynasty (Old Kingdom). By some incredible stroke of luck, this lines up almost perfectly with our 2682-2651 BC window. This makes Djoser's right-hand man a likely candidate to be Joseph. Due to the recent Mummy movies (far right), the name of Djoser's vizer has now become better known than Djoser's own name: It was Imhotep, which means "comes in peace." Imhotep was not only the first second-in-command, he was also history's first genius. It might be fair to say that no one was as "discreet and wise" as he was. Could the real-life Imhotep (statue, near right) have been the Joseph of Genesis?
As we have seen above, history has a way of "changing" names. When Saint Nicholas was first recruited to serve as the saint in charge of cleaning up the Yule season wassailing festivities (short version, long version), the New York Dutchman who wrote "The Night Before Christmas" called him "Sancte Claus" (Dutch for St. Nicholas -- probably pronounced like "Klaus"). Those of us who are too lazy to pronounce unfamiliar sounds, soon butchered this into "Santa Claus."
It turns out that we have done the same thing to Joseph's name as well. There is no "J" in the Hebrew alphabet. This means Joseph was really named Yoseph. Next, there is no telling a final "ph" from a final "p" they are the same letter. Likewise for the ancient "s" and "sh." So, Joseph might really have been called something more like "Yosep" or "Yosheph" by his family. Next, he is sold into slavery in Egypt, thrown into prison, and finally dragged before an Egyptian-speaking Pharaoh to interpret a dream. Imagine how this might have gone down:
Pharaoh: "Hey kid, what's your name?"
Pharaoh: "Hotep?" (A common Egyptian name meaning "Peace")
Yosep: "YYY-osep."; (Emphasizes first sound, unfortunately, "Ye" is Egyptian for "come")
Pharaoh: "So, you come in peace?" (Courtiers laugh at Pharaoh's joke.)
Yosep: "Uh, Yes." (Not too good at Egyptian, and a bit unsure what's happening.)
If this make-believe story has anything to do with real history, "what's happening" is that "Yosep" has just been given the new name, "Imhotep"(like in Genesis 41:45). When Imhotep (Y-M-Htp) is written in hieroglyphics, the "Y" is written with feet under it, meaning that it is the action verb "come" instead of merely a sound. The "M" is sort of a generic preposition which is often understood to mean "in." Link here to notes on reading Egyptian Hieroglyphics This really isn't all that far off from "Joseph" for a 4600 year-old name.
The inscription on the left side of a stone which once comprised the base for a statue of Djoser (illustration left, and detail above right) reads, "The Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, the first after the King of Upper Egypt, administrator of the great palace, hereditary Lord, the High Priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the Builder, the Sculptor, the maker of stone vases." (See Here). From a different translation of the same inscription, Imhotep is identified as a vizier; "Overseer of the Seers," "First for the King," "Director of Public Works in Upper and Lower Egypt," "Keeper of the Seals of Lower Egypt," "Recorder of the Annals," "and "Supervisor of the Great Palace," (see Silverman, p.178).
In Genesis 41:45, we are told that Joseph was given the new name, "Zaphnath Paaneah." What that name is supposed to mean has been the subject of a great deal of speculation. Guesses include: "one who reveals mysteries," "savior of the world," "the god speaks, and he lives." "creator," "preserver of life," or even "governor of Pithom." However, none of the suggestions square cleanly with either Egyptian or Hebrew etymologies. I'm still looking for an answer for this one.
What do we know about Joseph and Imhotep?
1) Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis chapter 37) There is no record of Imhotep's birth or childhood. He was, at least, not of royal linage.
2) Joseph was a household slave of Potiphar (Genesis chapter 39) In about 490 BC, an architect claimed to have traced his ancestry (for about twenty-five generations, see Jamieson B. Hurry p. 99) through Imhotep to another architect (Imhotep's presumed father) named "Kanofer." Unfortunately, as we have seen, twenty-five generations of retelling might be expected to introduce some kind of error. In later periods, Imhotep became deified by Egyptian priests and was considered to be the son of the god Ptah.
3) Joseph rose, in one day, from a prisoner to the second in command under Pharaoh. Imhotep rose very quickly to second in command under Djoser. Unfortunately nothing is really known about him from before this time (J. Hurry p.3). Later (during the Middle and New Kingdoms), Egypt became too large to be managed by a single man; Pharaoh had to have a whole team of men under him.
4) Joseph saved Egypt from a seven-year famine by interpreting Pharaoh's dream (Genesis chapter 41). According to the Famine Stele (right), Imhotep saved Egypt from a 7-year famine by advising Pharaoh (complete translation here). "After" being advised, Pharaoh had a dream about the solution. As a result, a ten percent tax was imposed (as opposed to 20% Genesis 47:26). It is an historic fact that Djoser's reign was when the Pharaohs first became wealthy enough to build pyramids.
5) Joseph married the daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, the Greek name for On. (Genesis chapter 41). Imhotep became the high priest of Heliopolis. It is not known if the office of "Priest" was hereditary, but we do at least know that Joseph had "family ties" to the office and that he was in a very high-profile public position. He would have been a natural candidate.
6) Joseph's family (Abraham) emigrated from Iraq to Egypt. Imhotep designed the first step pyramid. It was very similar to the towers/temples in Iraq. (Imhotep was even given credit in Egypt for the invention of structures built entirely from stone.) Also, ancient statues and paintings always picture Imhotep with a scroll. This is the first historical evidence of literacy. He was even believed by some to have invented writing. Before his time, Egyptian writing involved little more than attempts to illustrate the acts of kings with pictures. Shortly afterwards, Egyptian hieroglyphics developed into a hybrid syllabary form of writing having a cellular layout. Although the pictographs had been adapted to the Egyptian language, the mechanics were unmistakably borrowed from ancient Sumerian which was also a hybrid syllabary form of writing having a cellular layout.
7) Joseph was thirty years old when he first stood before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46) and lived to be 110 years old (Genesis 50:22,26). This puts him in Egypt for about 80 years. It is believed that Imhotep served under four Pharaohs. Probably: Djoser (2668-2649 BC), Sekhemkhet (2649-2643 BC), Khaba (2643-2637 BC), And Huni (2637-2613 BC), (see Clayton p. 30). That's 36-55 years, after which the third dynasty ended. It was probably toward the 55-year end, since Imhotep had enough time to build Djoser's step pyramid). Imhotep, obviously, lived many years before he stood before Pharaoh, and certainly could have lived another 25 years or so after the end of the third dynasty as well.
8) Joseph's bones were carried out of Egypt (Exodus). Imhotep's tomb was never found. This would not be particularly surprising, except that it is believed to be somewhere at Saqqara and that it is thought to be the "Holy Grail" of Egyptian archeology. Finding is the tomb is expected to be well worth the effort ( Shaw, p. 92).
The similarities might appear to be a little bit too difficult to ignore. So why haven't we heard of this before? In part, the answer is probably because those who design the educational process in this country are not particularly interested in making this sort of information public knowledge. It is easy enough to come up with excuses why this information is not worth advertising.
For example, the Famine Stele is a Ptolemaic "forgery" - done by the Priests of Khnum who presented it as if it were an authentic third-dynasty record. Suspiciously, the stele asserts that wealth and power now belong to those priests, in compensation for their past service. However, like any forgery, to be effective it must match the intended "original" closely enough that it will fool the intended victims. Any history it might contain would have to be close enough to what was known at the time that it wouldn't give away the scam. Forgery or not, it is at least an ancient hieroglyphic inscription, carved in stone, and deserves better than to be simply ignored because of its "inconvenient" content.
Since the Famine Steele is a forgery, it might be easy to discount its claim that the taxation of Egypt began during the reign of Djoser. But it is not so easy to disregard the fact that Djoser's reign was when the Pharaohs suddenly became wealthy enough to build giant stone tombs for themselves. It is hard to deny that there is some very real truth present in the "forged" account.
Interestingly, since we've got a pretty good handle on who Joseph was, we can experiment with some consequences of this: First, this means we've also Identified the mysterious Imhotep of ancient Egypt. We now know the names of his parents and how he achieved his high position without leaving any Egyptian records. Instead, we can go by the Hebrew records. We also get a different take on why Imhotep stood out so starkly from among even the brightest of the other Egyptians.
Even ignoring the obvious spiritual advantages of his family heritage, there were many significant technological advantages. The name of Imhotep is closely associated with the invention of writing in Egyptian mythology; he is always pictured with a scroll on his lap and was thought to have invented the method of writing on papyrus. Also, it was at approximately this time that Egyptian writing took a quantum leap in its capacity for detailed expression. This took place when Egypt adopted a new system which matched, in many ways, the pictographic system used by the ancient Sumerians. Similarly, it was exactly at this time that the Sumerian idea of giant stepped towers found its way to Egypt; under the direction of exactly this man. The ancient Sumerians had a history of experimental medicine; Imhotep was later deified for his contributions to medicine. It is left as an exercise for the reader to discover in what other ways this match might help explain Egypt's sudden and historic rise to power.
Also, This gives us a "latest possible" date (about 2650 BC) for the splitting off of the Bible's: creation, Eden, and flood accounts, from the Mesopotamian traditions. The flood story was being told in Ancient Egyptian (ancient Coptic) when "Noah" aquired his modern Hebrew name. Unless there is some way to explain this happening at any time after the Exodus (and, more pointedly, after the Babylonian captivity), the Biblical version of Genesis easily predates any known Akkadian version, such as the Gilgamesh Epic. If we are looking for a reason to claim that the Biblical account is a corruption of the ancient Babylonian stories, we will have to look for its origins in very early Sumerian documents -- within a few hundred years of the flood itself. It is more reasonable to assume that as much corruption happened in the Babylonian versions over the same time period. Possibly even more, especially considering the differences between the two religious cultures.
In any case, we probably have a clear enough picture of who Joseph was at this point to take another look at the numbers in Genesis 11 (left). Imagine the powerful genius Joseph in Egypt. He is in charge of everything from feeding the hungry masses to keeping records. He also has his family records, possibly written in Sumerian (or, less likely, Akkadian, although it later became the diplomatic language of Egypt), in his possession and may be interested in translating them into whatever language his family is now speaking. He starts through the genealogies, maybe adding up the related numbers and sometimes writing in the sums.
Then he gets to the four (or five, LXX) generations just before his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Peleg and notices a problem. The text says those ancestors "died;" but the date of their deaths add up to be in Joseph's future. This is because they were all recorded using the unusual numbering system local to Shuruppak, and they all appear to have "lived" about 900 years. This is either because it has already been mistranslated or because Joseph himself is now mistranslating it.
So, Joseph asks his father Jacob, who is now there with him, and Jacob assures him those fellows had died long before he could remember. They discuss it, maybe they even pray about it, but they know they don't have the original family records - only copies, maybe translations. And they know they have found a mistake. What do they do? Maybe they fix the family records the best way they know how; they make the best guess they can, changing the text as little as possible - while avoiding the obvious error which is presently staring them in the face.
They change the text, trimming obviously wrong lifetimes off to some point just before the latest point to which those ancestors could possibly have lived. Are they guilty of changing Scripture? It's certainly Scripture to us now, but to them it was just their personal family history. And all they wanted to do was to try to make it as accurate as they possibly could.
Now let's stop imagining and ask ourselves, "Could something like this really have happened?" Did the ancient patriarchs actually edit the texts which were then in their care? The evidence suggests that they did. Further, a similar situation may have led to the "smoothing" between the long ages of the pre-flood kings of the Sumerian king lists and the short ages of those who ruled centuries later. This possible understanding will not help us get any closer to the truth, but it might at least help explain the mystery.
Let's take another look at Genesis 11 and pick up a detail we may have missed before:
Genesis 11:2-4 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
Who could have written the highlighted phrase, "they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar?" This phrase was obviously written by someone who was familiar with stone and mortar building instead of clay brick and slime. This phrase was not added by those people who originally built the tower in the plain of Babylon; those people would not have realized they were not building with stones and mortar; they had no stones with which to compare their mud. The author would have to have been from Imhotep's time or later - and from a place where stone construction was the norm, and clay bricks the rare exception.
An ancient person who has edited an ancient text is called a "redactor." We are starting to get a few clues here that Joseph may have been one of the early redactors to the Genesis text. Moses also might have written this phrase, but by Moses' time, at least the ages of the four generations preceding Peleg might not have looked too obviously wrong. Is redaction in Genesis an isolated event? It turns out that it isn't. Look at the usage of the phrase "unto this day" as it is found throughout Genesis:
19:37 And the firstborn bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.
19:38 And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.
22:14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
26:33 And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba unto this day.
32:32 Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day.
32:20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.
Clearly, the redactor who later added the phrase "unto this day," was commenting, on how this was still true, many years after it had originally been recorded. Also look how the following examples update an original name, so that a reader from a more recent culture can understand which city the original writer intended:
35:19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.
35:27 And Jacob came unto Isaac his father unto Mamre, unto the city of Arbah, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.
And here, someone has added a reference to the kings in Israel to a text that was written down many years before those kings existed:
37:31 And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.
What does all of this do to Biblical "inerrancy?" Surprisingly, nothing. As before, inerrancy does not claim that translations or copies are without error, only that the originals were once in that condition. In every case discussed above, the change, whether an improvement or an error, was always the result of translation, or of copying.
The goal here is not to condemn or berate the text itself, but to encourage better study and understanding of what it is really telling us. This is much better than clinging dogmatically to what seems likely to be a false understanding.
Watch 2009 PowerPoint (Before I learned how to pronounce Su-mer-ee'-un correctly.)