Language and the Bible

Discoveries of clay cuneiform tablets made in ancient Iraq have shed some new light on Biblical studies. When found, the wedged-shaped cuneiform was believed at first to be nothing more than decoration, but after diligent studying, language experts were finally able to work out what came to be two separate languages: Sumerian and Akkadian. Sumerian was clearly the first as it was much more suited to the language system. It had been lost from the world for at least 2000 years, and had ceased to be spoken as anything other than an esoteric language for about another 1000 years. Akkadian was in many ways not suited to the cuneiform system. For instance, Sumerian cuneiform distinguished between an e and i, but the Akkadian language lost that characteristic. The name 'Sumer' is derived from the Babylonian name for the southern part of Babylonia. The Sumerians actually called their country Kengi ("Civilized land") and called themselves Saggiga ("The black-headed ones" or perhaps "bald-headed ones"). The Sumerian language started off as pictograms etched into wet clay tablets and is believed to be the inspiration for Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Sumerians are generally believed to have invented writing as some of the earliest known texts come from them in Uruk around 3400 BC. By then it was already a complex system with over 700 signs. (Kramer). Although the language itself bears no relation to any other surviving language, the pictography is believed to have been adapted into other languages, including the language of the Elamites in Iran and of the language of the Indus Valley civilization, a culture that thrived in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan and Northern India around 2500-1750 BC. Symbols drawn on Indus Valley pottery recently excavated from Harappa predate even the earliest Sumerian writing (3500 B.C.), but are not as complex (Whitehouse). Although no one knows for sure where the Sumerians came from, they may have been Caucasians (migrants from the Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian sea) like their eastern neighbors from ancient Iran. (Roberts). There's no way to tell if the Sumerians were descendants of the Ubaid culture- which is only known from their pottery style- or if they simply conquered it, but they were firmly established in southern Babylonia in Iraq by at least 3500 BC (Kramer). They are the first people known to use the 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour, the 360-degree circle and the 24-hour day (which they divided into four sets of 6 hours). This 60-base system was tied in with the fact that 60 was the sacred number of An, the head of their pantheon who resided in the heavens. Likewise, 50 was given to the air god Enlil and 40 to the god of the waters, Enki (Saggs. 365-367.).

Around 2900 BC, Sumerian pictography was simplified into cuneiform ("wedge form"), which was named for it's left wedge-shaped strokes. Cuneiform was written sideways, losing the pictographic quality it once had. This is generally believed to be the first evidence of true language, although some archaeologists believe that inscriptions found in the tomb of the Scorpion King, Egypt's first monarch, and dated to 3400-3300 B.C., qualifies as symbolic representation and therefore beat the Sumerians to the punch (Quirke). Three different forms of Sumerian cuneiform developed before the language became widespread. Some of their language, which they called 'Emegir' survived to this day: The Sumerian words mayakku ("confuse"/"intoxicate") and kohl ("eyeliner") are related to the Hebrew kakhal ("paint") and the Arabian al-Kahl ("the eyeliner"), which is today termed 'alcohol'. Similarly, the Sumerian word kanubi ("cane of two [sexes]") is the root of the modern word 'Cannabis' (Kramer). The language was lost not long after the creation of the first Babylonian Empire, who replaced it with its own language, a shorthand form of Akkadian.

In the Hebrew Bible, after God creates the world, he forms the first man out of dust. When he creates man, he names him Adam, which is not just a name but also the word for "human". The word sounds like and is related to the Hebrew word for ground, adamah. Since there is no capitalization in Hebrew, the passage could just as easily be translated as God naming the first man "Human". After God forms Eve from Adam's rib, Genesis reads that "The human called his woman "Hawah," because she was the mother of all living." (Gen. 3:20). He calls her this because hawah is the Hebrew word for life.

Now, it has been wondered many times before, why the rib? One of the Sumerians texts unearthed tells a story of Enki ("Lord of the Earth"), who is the Sumerian version of Prometheus, and the goddess Ninhursag ("Lady of the Mountain"). The two gods create a island paradise called Dilmun, now believed to be ancient Bahrain. The text describes it as an ageless paradise where you could not age or get diseases, echoing the words of Isaiah when it says, "The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten." (Isa. 11:6-7; 65:19-20). In the story, Enki gets sick after eating a magic plant and so Ninhursag has to be called in order to heal him. A fox agrees to find her if Enlil will erect two standards of him in his city. Enlil agrees and when the fox finds her it tells her how all the other cities are suffering. Ninhursag rushes back to Enki and asks him where it hurts. Enki names eight parts of him that are in pain, so Ninhursag gives birth to eight deities to heal each body part, each with a name subsequent to that body part. When Enki's ribs hurt, Ninhursag gives birth to Ninti, which can be translated "Lady of the Rib" or "Lady of Life" since the Sumerian word ti means both "rib" and "life". Even though the Hebrew word for rib, tsay-la', is different than their word for life, hawah or Eve, the symbolism of the rib representing life seems to hearken back to when the two terms were synonymous (Kramer).

Moving on, there is is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature named Richard Friedman, who holds the Katzin Chair at the University of California and has written several books on the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was fully formed around 100 years ago in Germany by Julius Wellhausen (Friedman. 26.) and states that the first five books of the Bible are a combination of four authors: J, which stands for the divine name Jehovah, or Yahweh, because this is the name the author uses for God; E, which stands for the more common name for God or gods, Elohim, and is used for the same reason; P, the Priestly documents, which is most of the material surrounding Leviticus and generally believed to have been written by a Levitical Priest; and fourth, D, the Deuteronomist, whose work many scholars connect with the discovery of Moses' lost book of laws by the high priest Hilkiah and presented to the 18-year old monarch of Judah, King Josiah in 7th Century B.C. (2 Kings 22).

In his book Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman uses the story of Noah's ark as a model for how the easily the narratives can be seperated, producing two totally unique and continuous versions of the Flood Story. What is so impressive about this is not only are the two versions of the Flood uninterrupted, but they are both consistently use their own language. The first part, which Friedman identifies as J, always uses the name Yahweh, while the second part, which he identifies as P, continuously uses the name Elohim. J says everything "died", while P says everything "expired". J twice refers to the sex of the animals as "man and his woman" and to the birds as "male and female", while the P text uses only the term "male and female".

Details of the stories are also constenant within themselves while conflicting with each other. P has only one pair of each kind of animal enter the ark. J has seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals because in its version Noah had to use some of them to sacrifice afterwards. In J, the flood lasts 40 days and 40 nights, while P lays out the event as all happening within a year (370 days). In J, Noah sends out a dove. In P, Noah sends out a raven, the same bird that the Babylonian "Noah", Utnapishtim, sent out in the Ark story that's related in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Another thing that makes J unique from P is the anthropomorphic nature of God. In the J text, Yahweh "regrets" that he made human and was "grieved in his heart". Yahweh personally closes the ark and smells Noah's sacrifice, all qualities that are lacking in P. It's only after these stories are separated that you notice the peculiarities of the combined text: Why do the animals enter the ark again after the floodwaters have already started coming down? Why does Noah use two different kinds of birds? And so on. (J: Gen. 6:5-8; 7:15,7,10,12,16b-20,22-23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22)

Moving on to Jacob and his twelve sons. In the book of Genesis, Jacob is given the name Israel by a shadowy figure he wrestles with on the night before he is to meet his twin brother Esau, who he expects will kill him. Israel itself means "Wrestles with God", which seems an appropriate name, and Jacob names the place Peni-El, meaning "Face of God", because he "saw Elohim face to face" and lived (Gen. 32:30). But the Book of Hosea refers to Jacob saying, "And with his strength he fought with God; And he fought with an angel and prevailed." It's in the Jewish poetic tradition to describe the same event twice through two parallel lines of a bicolon, and here Hosea seems to be equate fighting with God and fighting with an angel in the same breath.

Jacob fathers twelve sons, each one becoming the forefather of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. But if you don't use a Bible without annotations, you may not see exactly how each of these names corresponds to certain virtue or emotion, each in relation to an ongoing competition between Jacob's two wives. When Yahweh sees that Jacob did not love his first wife Leah, He opened up her womb but made Jacob's favorite wife barren. So when Leah gives birth to a child, he names him "Reuben" because it means "He has seen my misery". Her second son was named "Simeon", meaning "One who hears" because God "heard" that she was not loved and gave him that one too. The third time she gave birth, she said, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons", so she names him Levi, which sounds like the word "attached". The fourth son she named "Judah", meaning "Praise", after saying, "This time I will praise Yahweh." Rachel grew jealous of her sister Leah, so she gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine to Jacob, and he fathers Dan, whose name means "Vindicated" because she felt that God had listened to her plea and vindicated her. Rachel named the next child "Naphtali", or "my struggle", because she felt she had won the struggle with her sister. After Leah stops having children, she gave Jacob her own maidservant Zilpah. Feeling fortunate that Zilpah bore her another son, Leah names the Zilpah's son "Gad", meaning "fortune". The next son was similarly named "Asher", or "happiness". Leah then buys Jacob for a night from Rachel using her son's mandrakes, a highly narcotic plant believed to increase fertility. She then conceives and names her son "Issachar", which sounds like "reward", because she believes that God has rewarded her for giving Jacob her maidservant. Leah's 6th son was named "Zebulun", meaning "honor", saying, "This time my husband will honor me because I have borne him six sons." Some time later she bears a daughter named "Dinah", but there is no word association with her name. Rachel then conceived again and gave birth to Joseph, meaning "He may add" because God had added to her another son. Much later Rachel conceives again, but has complications during birth. Before she dies she names her son "Ben-Oni" meaning, "Son of my trouble", but Jacob renames him "Benjamin", meaning "Son of my Right Hand".

Keeping on the subject of etymology, in the last few years of Sigmund Freud's life, the psychpathologist wrote a book called Moses and Monotheism. It was written during World War 2 and even has an intermission in the middle of the book to explain how he had to escape Germany to move to the United Kingdom since he was a Jew. In the book, he postulates that Moses and the Tribe of Levi were Egyptian, specifically followers of Akhenaten, the pharaoh immediately preceding Tutankhamen, who shut down all of Egypt's temples in the 14th century B.C. to promote the monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten. The idea that Moses was an Egyptian was not entirely new; the Jewish historian Josephus retaliated against this viewpoint in his book Against Apion, referring to a contemporary Roman historian who also lived during the time of Jesus. Akhenaten led his own Exodus to a city he had built on the Nile north of Thebes, which he called Akhetaten, today called Tel Armana. Some of Akhenaten's tablets found at Tel Armana include the "Hymn to Aten", which bears a striking resemblance to the 104th Psalm (Huber. 45.). After his death, the boy-king Tutankhaten, who was probably related to him, was made Pharaoh, but was forced to renounce ties to Aten and change his name to Tutankhamen. Everything surrounding Akhenaten and his religion was destroyed; even the history of his reign was covered up, but ultimately the attempt failed.

In his book, Freud analyzes the story of the baby Moses on the raft of reeds. He notes that this story has been told many times before, usually in relation to someone who founds a nation. The first of these is Sargon, or Sharru-Kin ("Legitimate King"), who founded the Akkadian Empire, the first empire centered in Iraq. The Empire's name, which was used to name the Akkadian language, is derived from the city Sargon founded, called Agade, the same location as the ancient city of Babylon and today's Baghdad. Also narrowly surviving a trip downstream in their infancy was Romulus, the mythical founder of the Roman Empire, who, similar to Cain, murders his brother after building a city (In Cain's case, he builds the city afterwards). A third reed-rafter was Cyrus, or Koresh, founder of the Persian Empire, who became a Messiah to the Jews after rescuing them from bondage in the city of Babylon by the Chaledeans, or New Babylonians, during sixth century B.C. Freud then dismisses the Hebrew etymology of Moses' name as described in the book of Exodus, which says that the Egyptian Princess gave him the name "Moshe" because she "drew him from the waters". Freud contends the identification is tenuous and at best his name would make Moshe the one doing the lifting. Freud instead believes that the name is Egyptian, since "Mose" is such a common logogram, meaning "Son of", and appearing at the end of many names such as Ah-Mose, Ra-Mose, or Ptah-Mose. Freud writes that he believes the first part of the name was cut off and only the second part of it now survives. Freud then contemplates the nature of the basket-in-the-river theme, believing it to be symbolic of the representation of birth: the basket being the womb and the stream being the breaking of water.

Freud goes on to say that he sees Moses as the one who first instilled monotheism on the Hebrews, that the Hebrews rose up against him and killed him, that they threw off his religion as the Egyptians had done, united with some related tribes in Sinai, and then adopted the religion of a Midianite volcano god named Yahweh through a personality that was later combined with the first Moses. To Freud, the second religion endorsed by this second Moses was eventually downplayed, with the monotheistic religion of Moses winning out amongst the Jews in the end. Freud then takes a look at the word "Adonai", a term meaning "Lord" which Jews use in place of the name Yahweh out of respect for the divine name. He conjectures that the word may have some primeval unity with the name Aten and with the Syrian name Adonis, but admits he is unqualified to answer that question and was unable to find much about the etymology of the word in literature.

Moving on past the Torah, I'd like to take a look at the great sea monster Leviathan, who makes appearances in the Pslams and the books of Job and Isaiah, and has always been a powerful image in the Bible. Leviathan is a gigantic multi-headed dragon representing the primeval waters of chaos, whom Yahweh is said to have slain with a great sword in the book of Isaiah. A similar image is found in Revelations, where the archangel Michael fights a great red dragon, who is identified as Satan and associated with Babylon, which many scholars believe is a metaphor for Rome.

The image of the cosmic battle between god and dragon is a widespread phenomenon throughout all of antiquity. The earliest account actually comes from Babylon, in their own creation story as elaborated in the Enuma Elish ("When on High"). In it, the Babylonian god Marduk, son of Ea (Enki), is elected by the divine council to slay the great dragon Tiamat, whose carcass he divides in half to create the sky and the earth. The Canaanites also had their own story of how their god Ba'al slew a great sea monster named Yahm. In Greek mythology, Zeus fights with the god Typhon at Mt. Cassius, which is where our own word "typhoon" comes from. Typhon wasn't a dragon himself, but had dragon heads sprouting from his shoulders. The Greek story is generally believed to have been derived from a Hurrian myth the Hittites picked up about their own god, Teshub, fighting a great diorite man named Ullikummi at Mt. Hazzi, the name of which is a derivative of the word "Cassius."

In Psalm 74, the bard Asaph writes, "But you, Oh Elohim, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert." Again, these two descriptions- the splitting of the sea and the slaying of the Leviathan- are described in the typically Jewish pattern of parallel references to the same event. This splitting of the sea seems to be relevant to the Second Day of creation in Genesis, which reads that God "made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it." God then calls this expanse "Shamayim", meaning heaven, or sky. When the floodwaters come down during Noah's time, it is described as God opening the window in heaven to allow all the water above it to fall to the earth. The very beginning of Genesis starts off by saying "In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of Elohim was hovering over the waters." The word here used for formless is tohu and the word for deep is tehom. Both of these words are derived from the same semitic root as the Babylonian name "Tiamat".

The Babylonians themselves seem to have personified an earlier Sumerian concept in their own creation story. The Sumerians called the water above the earth Nammu, who corresponds to the Babylonian Tiamat. To the Sumerians, Nammu gave birth to all the gods and also to humans after Enki and Ninhursag formed them from clay. Out of all the tablets that have surfaced, none of them give the impression that she was ever killed. The water that is below the earth is called abzu, which is the root for the word "abyss" (Kramer.). The Sumerians, abzu was nothing but the freshwater under the earth where Enki lived, but after Hammurabi created the first Babylonian Empire, the propagated creation story was that Tiamat's husband, Apsu, attempted to kill the gods he fathered, but in turn was slain by Ea (Enki), which initiates the epic battle between Marduk and Tiamat. Marduk's slaying of the dragon of chaos may itself be a metaphor for Hammurabi consolidating the warring city-states of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians into one great empire. Just as Marduk used the carcass of Tiamat to create the world, Hammurabi used the slaughtered remains of Iraq's city-states to form his empire.

In this essay I have tried to expound on the stories of Adam and Eve, the Flood, The twelve tribes of Israel, the Exodus, and the splitting of the primeval waters to show how ingrained the words of the Hebrew language are with the symbols they produce and to show how these concepts are linked by relation of the Semetic languages to the same idea of the Babylonians, and even to the language the Sumerians, as in the case of Adam's rib. Even keeping within the scope of the Bible, language survey has allowed scholars to separate the lines in between the text on the grounds of style, vocabulary and emphasis to restore the original sources that were used to construct the narrative, as Richard Friedman has done by extracting what he identifies as the J source in his book, The Hidden Book in the Bible. Like the image of the divine Son in the Gospel of John is linked to the Greek Logos, or "word", so the memorable images that the Bible produces are intrinsically linked to its language, a medium the general public has only been able to witness through the diligent work of the translators who recreated their world in our own terms.


Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Translated from German by Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books, 1939.

Friedman, Richard Elliot. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997. Originally published by Summit Books, 1987.

Huber, Robert V., ed. The Bible Through the Ages. New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1996.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine "Firsts" in Recorded History. 3rd Edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956.

Quirke, Stephen and Jeffrey Spencer, eds., The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Roberts, J.M. History of the World. Great Britain: Hutchinson Publishing, 1976.

Saggs, H.W.G. The Babylonians. 3rd Edition. Previously titled: The Greatness that was Babylon. London: The Folio Society, 1962.

Whitehouse, Dr. David. "The Write Stuff." BBC News May 4, 1999: 17-19.