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Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

Leonard William King


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Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition includes three lectures given in 1916: Egypt, Babylon, and Palestine, and Some Traditional Origins; Deluge Stories and the New Sumerian Version; and, Creation and the Dragon Myth.

This book has 151 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1916.

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Excerpt from 'Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition'

At the present moment most of us have little time or thought to spare for subjects not connected directly or indirectly with the war. We have put aside our own interests and studies; and after the war we shall all have a certain amount of leeway to make up in acquainting ourselves with what has been going on in countries not yet involved in the great struggle. Meanwhile the most we can do is to glance for a moment at any discovery of exceptional interest that may come to light.

The main object of these lectures will be to examine certain Hebrew traditions in the light of new evidence which has been published in America since the outbreak of the war. The evidence is furnished by some literary texts, inscribed on tablets from Nippur, one of the oldest and most sacred cities of Babylonia. They are written in Sumerian, the language spoken by the non-Semitic people whom the Semitic Babylonians conquered and displaced; and they include a very primitive version of the Deluge story and Creation myth, and some texts which throw new light on the age of Babylonian civilization and on the area within which it had its rise. In them we have recovered some of the material from which Berossus derived his dynasty of Antediluvian kings, and we are thus enabled to test the accuracy of the Greek tradition by that of the Sumerians themselves. So far then as Babylonia is concerned, these documents will necessitate a re-examination of more than one problem.

The myths and legends of ancient Egypt are also to some extent involved. The trend of much recent anthropological research has been in the direction of seeking a single place of origin for similar beliefs and practices, at least among races which were bound to one another by political or commercial ties. And we shall have occasion to test, by means of our new data, a recent theory of Egyptian influence. The Nile Valley was, of course, one the great centres from which civilization radiated throughout the ancient East; and, even when direct contact is unproved, Egyptian literature may furnish instructive parallels and contrasts in any study of Western Asiatic mythology. Moreover, by a strange coincidence, there has also been published in Egypt since the beginning of the war a record referring to the reigns of predynastic rulers in the Nile Valley. This, like some of the Nippur texts, takes us back to that dim period before the dawn of actual history, and, though the information it affords is not detailed like theirs, it provides fresh confirmation of the general accuracy of Manetho's sources, and suggests some interesting points for comparison.

But the people with whose traditions we are ultimately concerned are the Hebrews. In the first series of Schweich Lectures, delivered in the year 1908, the late Canon Driver showed how the literature of Assyria and Babylon had thrown light upon Hebrew traditions concerning the origin and early history of the world. The majority of the cuneiform documents, on which he based his comparison, date from a period no earlier than the seventh century B.C., and yet it was clear that the texts themselves, in some form or other, must have descended from a remote antiquity. He concluded his brief reference to the Creation and Deluge Tablets with these words: "The Babylonian narratives are both polytheistic, while the corresponding biblical narratives (Gen. i and vi-xi) are made the vehicle of a pure and exalted monotheism; but in spite of this fundamental difference, and also variations in detail, the resemblances are such as to leave no doubt that the Hebrew cosmogony and the Hebrew story of the Deluge are both derived ultimately from the same original as the Babylonian narratives, only transformed by the magic touch of Israel's religion, and infused by it with a new spirit." Among the recently published documents from Nippur we have at last recovered one at least of those primitive originals from which the Babylonian accounts were derived, while others prove the existence of variant stories of the world's origin and early history which have not survived in the later cuneiform texts. In some of these early Sumerian records we may trace a faint but remarkable parallel with the Hebrew traditions of man's history between his Creation and the Flood. It will be our task, then, to examine the relations which the Hebrew narratives bear both to the early Sumerian and to the later Babylonian Versions, and to ascertain how far the new discoveries support or modify current views with regard to the contents of those early chapters of Genesis.

I need not remind you that Genesis is the book of Hebrew origins, and that its contents mark it off to some extent from the other books of the Hebrew Bible. The object of the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua is to describe in their origin the fundamental institutions of the national faith and to trace from the earliest times the course of events which led to the Hebrew settlement in Palestine. Of this national history the Book of Genesis forms the introductory section. Four centuries of complete silence lie between its close and the beginning of Exodus, where we enter on the history of a nation as contrasted with that of a family. While Exodus and the succeeding books contain national traditions, Genesis is largely made up of individual biography. Chapters xii-l are concerned with the immediate ancestors of the Hebrew race, beginning with Abram's migration into Canaan and closing with Joseph's death in Egypt. But the aim of the book is not confined to recounting the ancestry of Israel. It seeks also to show her relation to other peoples in the world, and probing still deeper into the past it describes how the earth itself was prepared for man's habitation. Thus the patriarchal biographies are preceded, in chapters i-xi, by an account of the original of the world, the beginnings of civilization, and the distribution of the various races of mankind. It is, of course, with certain parts of this first group of chapters that such striking parallels have long been recognized in the cuneiform texts.

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