The origins of the Ten Commandments

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Someone on Facebook posted recently that the Ten Commandments are nothing but a rip-off from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Of course, these kinds of claims always make me suspicious since so many of them are very problematic. But I like to check these things out and I just happened to have a copy of the Book of the Dead at home (don’t ask).

And I did, in fact, find the relevant passage in The Book of the Dead: The Hieroglyphic Transcript and Translation into English of the Papyrus of Ani (Gramercy Books: New York, 1960).

The Biblical Ten Commandments: a refresher

In total, the Ten Commandments are listed three times in the Old Testament. Two of the versions, Exodus 20:3-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, go as follows:

  1. No other gods before God
  2. No graven images
  3. No taking God’s name in vain
  4. Keep the Sabbath
  5. Honour your parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No false witness against a neighbour
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions

There’s a third version over in Exodus 34:15-26 that’s quite different:

  1. Worship no other gods
  2. Make no idols
  3. Keep the Passover
  4. All first born belong to God
  5. Keep the Sabbath
  6. Keep the feasts of weeks, of the fruits and wheat harvests, and of ingathering
  7. No blood sacrifice should be made along with leavened bread
  8. Don’t keep leftovers from Passover
  9. The first fruits from the ground should be given to God
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk

Clearly, the Exodus 34 commandments are much more cultic than moral in focus, so they aren’t really applicable in this discussion.

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead tradition originates with the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, writing that would have been carved and painted onto the walls and coffins in a burial chamber, dating as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Around 1800 BCE, these had morphed into the Book of Coming Forth by Day, what we call the Book of the Dead, and was painted on papyrus instead. The text contains a number of spells intended to assist the deceased on their way to the afterlife.

Though there is no canonical Book of the Dead and each one seems to have been unique to the particular deceased, the copies we have do seem to follow a common pattern described by Paul Barguet. You can read more about that over at Wikipedia.

In the Papyrus of Ani, Spell/Chapter 125 describes the deceased’s judgement before Ma’at, goddess of justice, in which the deceased must be able to make the following “negative confessions,” each addressed to a particular god (you can follow along on Wikipedia):

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men and women.
  5. I have not stolen grain.
  6. I have not purloined offerings.
  7. I have not stolen the property of the god.
  8. I have not uttered lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not uttered curses.
  11. I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men.
  12. I have made none to weep.
  13. I have not eaten the heart [i.e I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].
  14. I have not attacked any man.
  15. I am not a man of deceit.
  16. I have not stolen cultivated land.
  17. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  18. I have slandered [no man].
  19. I have not been angry without just cause.
  20. I have not debauched the wife of any man.
  21. I have not debauched the wife of [any] man. (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god).
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have terrorised none.
  24. I have not transgressed [the Law].
  25. I have not been wroth.
  26. I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
  27. I have not blasphemed.
  28. I am not a man of violence.
  29. I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace).
  30. I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste.
  31. I have not pried into matters.
  32. I have not multiplied my words in speaking.
  33. I have wronged none, I have done no evil.
  34. I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King).
  35. I have never stopped [the flow of] water.
  36. I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger).
  37. I have not cursed (or blasphemed) God.
  38. I have not acted with evil rage.
  39. I have not stolen the bread of the gods.
  40. I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the Spirits of the dead.
  41. I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.
  42. I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god.

Similarities and differences

I’ve organized the negative confessions into the Exod. 20 / Deut. 5 version of the Ten Commandments as follows:

  1. No other gods before God: Given that the Ancient Egyptians were (mostly) polytheistic, it makes sense that this commandment would have no parallel.
  2. No graven images: Again, cultural differences mean that this commandment would make absolutely no sense in an Ancient Egyptian context.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain: I’ve treated this as a general “no blaspheming” commandment and included negative confessions #27, #37, and the second half of #41.
  4. Keep the Sabbath: I’m not seeing parallels for the Sabbath in the negative confessions. I think this one can be chalked up to cultural differences as well.
  5. Honour your parents: There’s really nothing specifically about honouring one’s parents in the negative confessions.
  6. No murder: This one is covered by #4.
  7. No adultery: Covered by #11 (which also covers homosexuality specifically, something not addressed in the Ten Commandments).
  8. No stealing: Quite a few of the negative confessions address stealing, and they can be roughly divided as follows:
    1. Stealing from others: #2, #3, #5, #9, #16, and the first half of #41.
    2. Stealing from the gods or the spirits of the dead: #6, #7, #39, #40, and #42.
  9. No false witness against a neighbour: I’ve subdivided these as follows:
    1. Lying: #8, #15, #18, and possibly #32.
    2. Uttered curses: #10.
    3. Other improper speech (such as speaking arrogantly or with a raised voice): #36.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions: Coveting is not specifically covered in the negative confessions, but I would still include #20 and #21 in this category.

Of the remaining negative confessions, I think that they can best be organized as follows:

  • Don’t sin or make yourself impure: #1, #22, and #24.
  • Don’t cause harm to others (not covered by the specific categories of commandments 5-10): #12, #14, #23, #28, #29, and #33. #34 also belongs, though it refers to not causing harm to a specific individual (the king).
  • Regarding improper emotion: #13, #19, #25, #30, and #38.
  • Mind your own beeswax: #17 and #31.
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Fail to listen to the truth: #26.
    • Stop the flow of water: #35.


It does indeed seem that most of the Ten Commandments have parallels in the negative confessions of the Book of the Dead. As for whether the Ancient Hebrews actually stole their moral code from the Ancient Egyptians, that’s a much more difficult case to make.

The Mediterranean and Near East regions saw the writing of several such codes of law (which, like the Ten Commandments, mingled moral, cultic, and political concerns). Here’s a few for your perusal:

Trying to argue that the Ancient Hebrews stole their code specifically from another culture is far more difficult to argue, I think, than simply that the Ancient Hebrews were part of a broader cultural movement in the region.

Lost in translation #2: Cultural memory and the Fallen Angel

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I’ve mentioned before how my perceptions of some of the Bible’s stories are much longer, and more detailed, than the stories themselves. This is because the Bible’s stories are – despite the sola scriptura posturing of many protestant denominations – largely transmitted culturally rather than textually, and that means that details, associations, and references all get added and mixed in with the pure text versions (though, even here, the textual variations between manuscripts and, especially, between translations make things even more complicated).

The example of what I mean that most people would be familiar with is the harmonization of the New Testament gospel stories. When we build a nativity scene, we have a little crèche, three wise men, the shepherds, and a star overhead – but how many people know that the shepherds are only found in Luke and that the star and wise men are only found in Matthew? The fact that these are details of two separate stories has been entirely lost in the cultural tradition.

But what I wanted to talk about today specifically is a text called Genesis B or “The Later Genesis.” This text is found in the “Codex Junius 11,” spliced into an entirely different version of Genesis known as Genesis A, despite being very different in style and repeating some of the same story-lines. We don’t know why someone thought it would be a good idea to just stick the one into the middle of the other, but it makes for an interesting reflection of what happened with the Bible’s own two creation stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

The version of the story that I will be quoting from is Charles W. Kennedy’s translation, found in Early English Christian Poetry Translated into Alliterative Verse (Hollis & Carter: London, 1952), but I found another translation online if you would like to read the whole thing for yourself.

In the Bible

From 'The Garden of Eden' by Jacob de Backer, 16th cent

From ‘The Garden of Eden’ by Jacob de Backer, 16th cent

To recap the Bible’s version of this story, Genesis 1 has God creating the heavens and the earth, including a blow-by-blow account of his daily To Do list, culminating in his handing over of the earth to Adam for “dominion.” Genesis 2 repeats the same portion of the story.

In Genesis 3, a serpent (not identified as Satan, Lucifer, or anything other than simply a snake) chats with Eve with convinces her to eat a piece of fruit from a special tree, and Eve then convinces Adam to do the same. The two humans suddenly realize that they are naked, are caught by God, punishments are dolled out, and the couple is expelled from Eden.

It’s a pretty bare bones version of the story that most people are familiar with. But, as you will see, much of what many who haven’t directly read the Genesis account (and even some who have!) think is part of the Biblical story is actually missing, but can be found in Genesis B.

In Genesis B

Genesis B picks up with a description of God’s favourite angel, whom he has made especially strong and “mighty of mind,” making him his right-hand and “next unto God.” But this angel was “ungrateful and bold”:

By his own strength only     he thought to construct
A mightier throne     and a higher heaven.

(Curious about the odd spacing? It’s called a Caesura.)

So the angel convinces a group of his fellow angels to join him and they rebel against God. Understandably, God is not pleased, and he banishes the rebel angels to Hell, changing them into “fiends” and giving the lead angel the name Satan.

Satan is upset and feels like he and his companions have been treated unfairly:

He has wrought us wrong,
In hurling us down     to the fiery depths of hell,
Deprived of heaven.     He has marked those heights
For man to settle.     ‘Tis my greatest sorrow
That Adam, fashioned     and formed of earth,
Should hold my high seat     and abide in bliss
While we suffer this torture,     this torment in hell.

So Satan concocts a plan to get revenge. He isn’t powerful enough to attack God directly, as his earlier rebellion showed, but he can attack God’s “thralls” – Adam and Eve:

Let us wrest heaven’s realm     from the sons of men,
Make them forfeit His favour,     break His command.
Then His rage will be kindled.     He will cast them from grace;
They shall be banished     to hell’s grim abyss.
We shall have them to serve us,     the sons of men,
As slaves fast-bound     in these fettering bonds.

As in the pagan Germanic war stories that Genesis B copies, Satan asks for volunteers from among his thanes to conduct an attack against God’s thanes.

When the two trees of the garden are introduced, Genesis B tells us that God had put them there so that the sons of men “might choose of good or evil,     weal or woe.”

So Satan “put[s] on     the form of the serpent” and approaches Adam. He tells Adam that he is a messenger, sent by God to tell Adam to eat the fruit. This, he claims, would increase Adam’s strength, attractiveness, and mental might as a reward for having obeyed God so well.

But Adam isn’t fooled. God had warned him not to be “beguiled / Or ever tempted” into eating from the “tree of death,” and Satan hasn’t brought a token of faith to prove that he was sent by God.

Satan then appeals to Eve and tells her that God will be so mad that they aren’t listening to His messenger. Not only can she spare her future children God’s wrath if she obeys, she’ll also get a few perks: “Over Adam thereafter     you shall have sway.”

Eve, convinced, bites the fruit.

You’ll note that this account makes Eve’s culpability far more clear than the Biblical account (in which Eve may have been the one to succumb simply because she was the first to be approached). The added detail of a failed temptation involving Adam reflects the evolution of thought about Eve, and the desire to make her special guilt in the story absolutely clear.

To get her to agree to convince Adam to eat the apples as well, Satan changes Eve’s vision so that everything seems even more beautiful. Thinking the change comes from eating the fruit, Eve goes to Adam and tells him about her wonderful new powers of vision, arguing that such a cool power could only have come from God.

Eve is successful in seducing Adam on Satan’s behalf, and Adam eats the apple. Satan gloats, Adam and Eve are ashamed. Adam gets the last speech and uses it to yell at Eve.

The Fallen Angel

So where does all that stuff about Satan being a “Fallen Angel” come from? It certainly doesn’t come from Genesis 1-3, despite what our cultural instruction might tell us. In the canonical Bible, we have the following references:

Genesis 6:1-4 – In this passage, we’re told that the “sons of God” (assumed to refer to members of God’s heavenly court, i.e.: angels) descended to earth of their own accord in order to mate with human women.

Isaiah 14:1-17 – This is where we get a reference to someone nicknamed “the morning star” who has “fallen from heaven” (Isaiah 14:12). But within the context of the text, this refers to the king of Babylon, not to an angel and certainly not to Satan.

Revelation 12:3-14 – This is our closest match, in which a dragon with angels on his side fights against Michael and his angels. The dragon loses the fight and, therefore, his “place in heaven.” The dragon is called “ancient serpent,” “devil,” and “Satan.” The whole story of the battle is given in a single paragraph and lacks all detail as to the possible motives for the battle.

(There’s a bit more extra-canonical stuff, particularly Enoch 7-8, which expands on Genesis 6:1-4 story. Though in this case, the beings of God’s court are called “the Watchers.”)

And that’s it – such a well-known part of the Genesis story is not part of the biblical Genesis story at all. The fact that the Bible is a written text gives it the aura of unchangeability, but the stories of the Bible are still part of a living tradition. The stories that children are taught in Sunday School, or that we use to construct our holiday decorations, or that we imagine when given prompts from the text are imbued with details and associations that are extra-biblical.

So when we talk about the immutability of the Words of God as set forth in the Scriptures (capitalisation conveys authority, didntcha know!), we’d do well to remember that they aren’t quite so immutable as we may think.


NOTE: The story of Genesis B may sound a little familiar to anyone who has read, heard of, or studied Milton’s Paradise Lost. Certainly, the general details of the story are eerily similar.

Franciscus Junius, who published the first edition of the manuscript containing Genesis B in 1655, was a contemporary of Milton’s and, apparently, the two seem to have been acquainted. This has led some to speculate that Milton drew at least some of his inspiration from the Genesis B text.

This is Ishtar: Pronounced “Easter”

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For the most part, my Facebook friends are a pretty awesome group of people. The majority of them are atheists and skeptics, and they tend to be really good about fact checking and demanding sources. But for some reason, all of that gets thrown out the window as soon as the topic is religion, suddenly it’s okay to hit that “share” button without even the quickest of fact checks.

So this week, I’ve been seeing a few of these This is Ishtar: Pronounced “Easter” memes posted pretty much every day.

Ishtar Easter

No, guys. No. Just quit it, okay?

The issue in this instance is, of course, that Ishtar has nothing to do with Easter. As The Daily Beast points out, the linguistic argument is simply false. “Easter” is a germanic word, used exclusively (as far as I know) in English and German (where it’s called Ostern). Back to The Daily Beast: “The Greeks and Romans called it Pascha, which is why Easter is Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, and Paques in French.  How exactly did the name of a Canaanite fertility goddess skip all the way to England from the Middle East without stopping in Rome or Byzantium?”

So where does the name “Easter” come from? Well, it may come from a Pagan goddess, the Germanic Eostre. The month that roughly correlates to April is recorded as having been named after her, so it makes sense that a major celebration being held during that time would pick up the name. (Of course, even this interpretation is a little problematic. Cultural shifts are rarely noticed and recorded while they are happening, and those who are trying to piece together the timelines and influences after the fact are just as prone to error and bias as anyone else.)

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the Ishtar graphic or the origins of Easter, The Belle Jar blog has a pretty good post covering the basics.

Here’s the thing, guys: I know that dudes like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris (who wrote in The End of Faith that Isis was a “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns”) and others have a certain status in the atheist movement, and that it’s tempting to assume that people who make their careers out of debating religion might actually know a little bit about that of which they speak. Thing is, they don’t. They really don’t. They may have facts and figures about modern expressions of religion, or blasphemy laws, or the teaching of Creationism in classrooms, but these are men who don’t give two flips about theology. They are not spending their time learning about mythology or the history of religious belief.

So just because the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Science and Reason’s FB page posts some little “gotcha” graphic doesn’t mean it’s true. So please, please don’t repost it without using a little of that skepticism you’re so proud of. Thanks!

EDIT: Tom Verenna has a good post up about the Ishtar meme as well. Go read it!


*There’s a much larger discussion to be had about the accusation of Christianity “stealing” from other religions, and what that really means both in a historical context and as it is applicable to modern theology and practice. But let’s just stick to one topic at a time. 

What’s with the horns?

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Moses by Michelangelo, c. 1513-1515

Moses by Michelangelo, c. 1513-1515

If you are extraordinarily perceptive, you may have noticed that Moses is sometimes depicted as having horns. Like, full on demonic horns. If you noticed this and didn’t immediately Google the answer – caring, yet not caring enough to overcome a lifetime habit of laziness – this is the post for you!

(I suppose it’s possible that you’re reading this several months from now and this is you actually Googling it, in which case, good job! You’re not lazy! Or you have a smartphone!)

Sometimes, these are real horns, the kind we see in popular depictions of demons, as in Michelangelo’s carving of Moses pictured to the left. Other times, the horns look more like two beams of light shooting out from Moses’s forehead, as you can see in the image further down this article.

So why does Moses have horns? Well, it’s all the Vatican’s fault.

In Exodus 34:29, the second time Moses came down from the mountain after chatting with God, we’re told that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” We can understand this to mean that some of God’s glorious light rubbed off on him – not that he’s pregnant or anything.

In Hebrew, the word “to shine” is “karan.” This word is very similar to – and shares a root with – the word “keren,” or “horn.” When St. Jerome was writing the Vulgate translation of the Bible, he used the Latin word for “horn.” Therefore, according to the Vulgate, spending time with God makes you horny.

Moses and the Law by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, 1818

Moses and the Law by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, 1818

The Vulgate was intended to be the translation of the Bible, and it was adopted by the Vatican as their official text.

But the story doesn’t end there. There’s some question about whether St. Jerome actually made a mistake, or, if he did, what that mistake was. In a commentary, he wrote that Moses had “become ‘glorified’, or as it says in the Hebrew, ‘horned’.” In other words, he may have thought that “horned” was simply a poetic way of describing someone as being specially blessed. We also know that St. Jerome had access to the Septuagint, where the passage describes Moses’ face as having been “glorified,” so it’s hard to think that he actually believed in a literal horning.

There’s also some question about whether Michelangelo meant the protrusions to be actual horns, or merely reflected the difficulty in representing light beams in stone. My untrained eye sees Michelangelo’s horns as being too smooth to be representations of literal horns (which tend to have ridges). It’s also true that we see many depictions of Moses between the writing of the Vulgate and the 16th century without horns, so it would be wrong to say that there was a common belief in a behorned Moses during that period.

It’s interesting to note that many gods and goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean world sported horns, particularly on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. One might wonder if this influenced depictions of Moses (as, perhaps, sun disks in Egyptian art to mark deities may have influenced the depictions of halos in Semitic art).

What’s going on with bronze-age goat herders?

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I had the sincere pleasure of attending the Eschaton2012 conference this past December (and helping to organize it, which was one of the reasons for the big pause in my posting). We had a fantastic religion track, which is something that I don’t think gets seen too often at Atheist conferences.

One of the highlights for me was getting to see Dr. Jim Linville of the Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop blog take many prominent Atheists to task for the casual dismissal of “bronze-age goat herders.” The sound quality leaves a little to be desired, but the talk was really fabulous and highly worth the 45 minutes it takes to watch.

The Politics of the Ten Commandments

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Many scholars have understood that the passages in which the ten commandments are given resemble certain kinds of treaties, such as Assyrian and Hittite vassal-suzerain treaties. As Collins points out, these “are not made between equal partners but involve the submission of one party (the vassal) to the other (the suzerain)” (p. 64, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible).

There are several components to these types of treaties. For example, the suzerain would demand that the vassal serve no other overlord (Collins, p. 67), which is precisely what we find in the first commandment.

In the treaties, there would often be an introduction that names the suzerain and describes the historical context, as we find when we read: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). Further, this follows the same logic as the treaties. “The Isrealites are obligated to obey the law because of what God has done for them in bringing them out of Egypt” (Collins, p. 65-66), just as a vassal might be compelled to serve a suzerain in return for military protection.

The major part of the treaty is the portion that holds the requirements or terms. “These are often couched in highly personal terms. An Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, demands loyalty to his son Ashurbanipal by telling his subjects, ‘You will love as yourself Ashurbanipal’ ” (Collins, p. 65).

The message is clear. The Israelites may have their own kings, but they are still subject to God. The authors are using a recognizable form of writing to further illustrate relationship between God and the Hebrews. Or, if you prefer, “when God establishes His covenant with Israel, He does so using a legal language that they could understand” (p. 108,Geoghegan and Homan, The Bible for Dummies).

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

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(h/t Scotteriology)

If you’re a dufus like me, you’ve probably gone to big buildings called Museums to look at ancient artefacts, to see with your own eyes what you’ve previously only read about (most likely in books). But that’s because I’m a 20th century gal and that’s just how we did things in my day.


Well the Dark Ages are over, and you can now view the Dead Sea Scrolls online!

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls is a beautiful project that allows you to look through several complete scrolls, and provides some additional information about the works.

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

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ehrman-bart-misquoting-jesusIt is often said that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. But which Bible?

In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman takes the reader through some of the changes that have been made to the Bible over the years, both deliberate and not, and the techniques scholars can use in an attempt to uncover what the original might have said. He does an amazing job of making some pretty complex material accessible to a lay reader.

My first encounter with Ehrman was through his textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. I was a Christian at the time, and, while I knew that the Bible had been translated and that it was therefore subject to the manipulations inherent in translation, I had no idea just how deeply the transmission errors lie.

As I read through Ehrman’s textbook and studied the material in class, I found my faith deeply challenged. Just as Ehrman describes in his introduction, our way of knowing God is through scripture. And if scripture is flawed or inaccessible, what can we truly say we know about God?

This thinking put me on a path that eventually led to my deconversion.

Misquoting Jesus is every bit as challenging as The New Testament. I find it rather interesting that the most damning argument against Christian belief comes from the Bible itself – from reading it, from understanding it within the context of its writing, and from learning just how fragile texts can be.

But Ehrman never argues against the Christian faith. He is by no means a Dawkins or a Hitchens. Rather, he simply presents the research and allows it to stand, or fall, for itself.

Issues in verification

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In a previous post, I talked about fact-checking the Bible. Whenever the stories mention a fact, something potentially verifiable, I try to look it up to see if it’s true.

But there’s a problem with that. In referring to the lack of surviving Egyptian evidence for the country’s foreign policy in the early 21st dynasty, Nicolas Grimal writes in A History of Ancient Egypt that “the main non-Egyptian source available is the Bible” (p.318). This gives me a feedback loop. If sources aren’t cited and I try to verify a factoid from the Bible, I may well be getting confirmation from the Bible.

So when I wrote in Genesis 50 about double-checking that the Ancient Egyptian embalming process really did take 40 days, am I merely confirming information that was derived from the Bible in the first place?

This makes my job very hard. I may be granting myself the belief that the Bible is far more accurate than it actually is. All this is just to say that I really, really, wish that books and websites would cite the provenance of the information they post.

Sargon of Akkad

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Much has been made of the similarity between the infancy stories of Moses and of Sargon, king of the Akkadian empire. These come from a text purporting to be Sargon’s autobiography, in which he states that his mother bore him “in secret,” then “set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me.”

Collins calls it a “common folkloric motif” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.57), while my study bible says that “aspects of this story are paralleled in the legends of other national heroes.” In both cases, however, only Sargon is named. Further, my study bible continues by saying that both Moses and Sargon were “saved from danger by being put in a basket of rushes sealed with pitch and floated on the river.”

sargon-of-akkadThis is a little problematic for a couple reasons, the first being that Sargon’s tale doesn’t show us a mother trying to save her baby so much as disposing of him as some horrible people might get rid of a bagful of kittens, whereas Moses’ mother was clearly trying to save him.

The other issue is one of dates. Let’s say, for a moment, that both stories were originally written in the time that they claim to be (or, in the Bible’s case, our best guess for when the story is set). This would place Sargon’s story in 2300BCE and Moses’ story in 1390BCE. Sargon wins by nearly a thousand years!

But if we try to go by when these accounts are more likely to have been written, Sargon’s story can easily be placed in the 7th century CE. Moses’ story is a bit more difficult to date, but I do think that elements of the story we’ve read so far make the period of the Babylonian exile, around the 6th century CE, likely. Sargon still wins, but he loses his comfortable margin.

Because both stories were probably passed down orally long before they were ever written down, it’s impossible to determine which came first, or even if they arose together in a cultural environment where it was fashionable to claim that one’s historical leaders were dumped into rivers as babies. It’s certainly impossible to say which may have been inspiration for the other, let alone exclude a third, unknown, story that spawned both.

One possibility lies in Moses’ name. As I discussed in Exodus 2, the name does sound Egyptian and was commonly used as part of Egyptian names. But it also has a Hebrew meaning – “to draw,” just as the Egyptian princess drew Moses out from the water. So it’s possible that the Egyptian name was associated with the story (whether to make it sound more “authentic” or because there really was a figure named Moses), and Hebrews telling the story noticed that the name had a meaning in their own language. This could lead to confusion which, in turn, would lead to a story about Moses being “drawn” from the water. This would make sense since the same people who were likely telling each other the story of Moses were probably telling each other stories from Genesis as well, and Genesis is the chapter of the allegorical names.

Another interesting connection is between Sargon and Nimrod who is described in Genesis 10:10.


EDIT: I’ve just found an interesting post on the “exposed child” motif in ancient literature over at The Naked Bible.

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