Commentary Magazine

Before the Bible, by Cyrus H. Gordon

Hebrews & Hellenes

Before the Bible: The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations.
by Cyrus H. Gordon.
Harper & Row. 319 pp. $6.00.

Biblical Israel, for all its originality, cannot be studied in isolation from the Semitic cultures of the Ancient Near East. Yet these are not the only cultures that shed welcome light on the Bible; there are also the civilizations of the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Sumerians (to cite them in alphabetical order). It is not for nothing that written and iconic monuments of those peoples bulk large in, respectively, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, two quarto tomes which Bible students all over the globe are taught to regard as repositories of data of the utmost importance.

It would, however, be a mistake to regard as a closed system even the Ancient Near East as a whole, for it underwent a profound modification as a result of the Macedonian and Roman conquests. How intensive—to take one very pertinent example—was the Hellenization of Jewish Palestine between 150 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. has been demonstrated by Professor Saul Lieberman in Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (especially the latter). During the same period, of course, the Occident underwent an even profounder influence by Palestine, in the spread first of Judaism and then of Christianity, the latter becoming in time the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. What, then, about pre-Hellenistic antiquity? Needless to say, there were no Chinese Walls then either. As is well known, the Greek and Latin alphabets were borrowed from the Phoenicians. (The capital letters in these scripts resemble the ancient Hebraeo-Phoenician characters much more closely than the modern Hebrew ones do.) This borrowing may not have taken place much before 700 B.C.E., but contacts between Syria and the region of the Aegean Sea go back much further. Much beautiful Mycenean pottery came to light at Ugarit, a city at the northern end of the Syrian coast which was destroyed around 1200 B.C.E.; and the men who destroyed it were likewise an “import” from the Aegean world, one of those “Sea Peoples,” who, at that time, landed on the Syrian coast and proceeded down it in ox carts, eventually settling in the coastal plain of Palestine. The name Palestine itself is derived from that of the best known of these Sea Peoples, the Philistines.

In the light of all this, a scholar is not only apt but in duty bound to start speculating when he comes upon certain suggestive parallels between Homer and the Bible. What, for example, is he to make of the fact that the motif of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph appears in Homer—and not once but twice? (She gets even with the handsome youth for refusing to commit adultery with her by alleging that he tried to. The earliest text in which the motif occurs is the Egyptian tale of Bitis.) So, too, the scholar must also pause when he finds Homer expressing the notion of “in the past” by means of the phrase “yesterday and the day before,” just as the Bible does.



Stimulated by such parallels, Professor Gordon has undertaken to describe the cultures of the Ancient Near East and the contents of the Homeric epics with a view toward uncovering the common heritage out of which they all developed. This is undoubtedly an important undertaking, but the value of Professor Gordon’s book is unfortunately impaired by its lack of scholarly sobriety. What I found most suggestive in it was the observation that, whereas romantic love may safely be assumed to have occurred in every generation, Greeks and Hebrews alike feature it only in narratives about the Heroic Age, and that something similar is related in the Ugaritic Legend of King Keret. Even here, however, I should have liked it better if Gordon had indicated that, suggestive as are the common features of the Legend of King Keret and the story of the Trojan War, there are some obvious differences (a seven-day siege, apparently with no shooting and certainly with no ensuing destruction, is not the same thing as a ten-year siege with terrible casualties on both sides and the ultimate destruction of the besieged city), and if he had frankly indicated the doubts that attach to some of the parallel features which he represents as certain. And other features of the “common background” are even more disconcerting.

Gordon equates: (1) Gilgamesh’s washing before he sets out on his journey home from the “Mouth of the Rivers” where he has sought out Utnapishtim, the Babylonian hero of the Flood; (2) the Greeks’ immersions in the sea before Ilios (Troy); (3) the Jewish Tashlikh.

But Gilgamesh’s bath has nothing to do with sin or ritual. The journey to “Utnapishtim the Faraway” was so long that Gilgamesh lived for months on wild beasts and replaced his worn-out original raiment with the beasts’ skins. For the return journey, therefore, Utnapishtim instructs the boatman who has brought Gilgamesh as follows (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Speiser’s translation);

The man thou hast led (hither),
    whose body is covered with
The grace of whose members skins
    have distorted,
Take him, Urshanabi, and bring
    him to the washing-place.
Let him wash off his grime in
    water clean as snow,
Let him cast off his skins, let the
    sea carry (them) away,
That the fairness of his body may
    be seen.
Let him renew the band round his
Let him put on a cloak to clothe
    his nakedness,
That he may arrive in his city,
That he may achieve his journey.
Let not (his) cloak have a mouldy
Let it be wholly new.

The washing of the Greeks in the sea before Ilios (Troy), on the other hand, is a ritual. But it too has nothing to do with sin. To get dirty and sweaty with hard work is no sin, but it is improper to present offerings to the gods in that condition; for the washings in the Iliad are revealed quite clearly by their contexts as rituals preliminary to sacrifice. The Greeks, being encamped on the beach next to their ships, naturally washed in its convenient waters. The city of Ilios, however, stood some distance back from the sea, and in all probability its inhabitants did not trouble even in normal times to go down to it whenever they wanted to present an offering to a god. It is certain that they did not do so while the beach was occupied by the Greeks: from the Iliad 6:266—8, we can see that they considered washing the hands adequate purification for prayer and libation.

Micah 7:19, finally (“Oh, hurl into the depths of the sea all their [our] guilt”), has nothing to do with any kind of washing, either aesthetic-hygienic or ritual, and, on the other hand, alone of all the three cases we are considering, it does relate to sin. When God forgives our sins he, so to speak, consigns them to Davy Jones’s locker (we should say, he burns our IOU’s); when he does not, he guards them jealously in a sealed money bag or box (Hosea 13:12; Job 14:17; we should say, in a safe). There is, to be sure, a Jewish custom (which cannot be traced back further than the 13th century C.E., and is consequently ignored on principle by pious rabbinic scholars who look askance upon such late innovations) known as Tashlikh, in which (on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah, or on the second if the first falls on a Sabbath) the above verse (among others) is recited at the edge of (not in) a body of water and accompanied by a symbolic gesture. But not another word is needed to prove that this is wholly unrelated to the ablutions of Gilgamesh or of Homer’s Achaeans—and Dardanians.



The same thing happens when one examines closely Gordon’s assertions that the Egyptians and the Greeks are at times just as monotheistic as the Hebrews and the Hebrews at times just as polytheistic as the Egyptians and the Greeks. To begin with, in some cases where these pagans say “God” they clearly mean “a god”; in others they mean a particular god (especially if they use the article and say “the god”); and in still others they mean “the powers above,” with not the slightest notion of monotheism. That is not just my opinion, but the opinion of competent Egyptologists and Hellenologists. Homer’s Achilles, for example, was himself a son of the goddess Thetis, and in his last days he went about in the marvelous accoutrements that the craftsman god Hephaistos had fashioned for him. Hephaistos had done this as a favor to Thetis, to whom he was beholden for rescuing him when his mother Hera tried to do away with him because (as a result of being flung from heaven by his father Zeus) he was a cripple. That this Achilles became a monotheist between Iliad 19:204, where he learns from a prophetic horse’s mouth that Apollo has enabled Hector to slay many Achaeans, and 21:103, where he vows death to any Trojan that “God” (or “a god”) may deliver into his hands, is absurd. Conversely, it is absurd to make the Bible polytheistic when it speaks of the true God as elohim ; this word is formally a plural, but when it means YHWH it is almost invariably construed with singular adjectives and verbs. And it is again absurd to deny that elohim can also mean merely “a divine being, or celestial,” when Hosea 12:4—5 (counted 12:5—6 in Christian Bibles) employs elohim and mal’akh (“messenger, angel”) as synonyms.

And worse than absurd is Gordon’s midrash on the Lord’s “taking note of” (Hebrew: paqad) barren women and granting them children (Genesis 21:1; 1 Samuel 2:21). Gordon, by decreeing that paqad in those passages means “to visit for coitus” (he cites Judges 15:1 as proof), degrades the Bible to the level of the crude Egyptian theology, in which kings claimed that their mothers (though they had terrestrial husbands) had conceived them of gods. The fact is that the verb means simply “to remember, visit, attend to, or take notice of,” regardless of the purpose. The Lord attends to (paqad) the Israelites in Egypt and delivers them (Genesis 50:25, Exodus 4:31); or to those in the land of Israel, and gives them food (Ruth 1:6) or restores their political fortunes (Zephaniah 2:7); or to those in the Babylonian exile, and brings them home (Jeremiah 29:10). One can equally well say zakhar “to remember,” whether the object is a barren woman (1 Samuel 1:19) or Noah with his family and his “pets,” drifting on the Flood in his ark (Genesis 8:1). The purposes for which a human being can attend to (paqad) fellow human beings are no less varied, from giving them a decent burial (2 Kings 9:34) to inquiring about their welfare (1 Samuel 17:18). Only a desire to discover common backgrounds at all costs could have led to such an Einfall as Gordon’s.



Harmless in comparison, but still unwarranted, are some of Gordon’s new “insights” into the Patriarchs. At Ugarit there have come to light documents which speak about merchants from an Ur somewhere in the north. That the Ur from which Abram (Abraham) came (Genesis 11:28, 31; 15:7) is not the Babylonian city of that name but some northern locality, was surmised nearly a lifetime ago by Eduard Meyer and Adolphe Lods and is, for various reasons, plausible. Accordingly, Abram’s Ur may be, as Gordon surmises, identical with the one from which those merchants came to Ugarit. But that is not enough for Gordon. No, the Patriarchs have to be, like the Urites who came on a mission to Ugarit, merchants—or, as he says, “merchant princes.” Now, it is a fact that, both at Shechem (Genesis 34:10, 21) and in Egypt (42:34), Jacob’s family is accorded the right to settle in the territory and to sahar it, and it is also a fact that the latter verb is commonly assumed to mean in those passages “to engage in commerce in.” But even those who have accepted this interpretation have not, up to now, concluded that the Patriarchs and their children were “merchant princes”—for the simple reason that the Genesis account keeps emphasizing their pastoral character, rounded out with a little cultivation and, in the case of Esau, hunting. If one excludes Esau’s swap of his birthright for Jacob’s lentil porridge, the only thing the Patriarchs or their children are ever reported to have sold is Joseph. And of course a kidnaping which was isolated, and was motivated not by greed but by spite, did not make them traders: the text is careful to stress that they were shepherds; it is only the people they sold their brother to—Ishmaelites who were taking products from Gilead down to Egypt—who were merchants. To Gordon, buying a piece of land near Schechem to pitch one’s tent on, buying a burial plot near Hebron, and buying grain rations in Egypt when there are none to be gotten in Canaan, are all trading activities. But is a professor who buys groceries, or even a house, a car, or a burial plot, also a trader? Surely, nobody who wasn’t out for hiddushim (“discoveries”) would conclude from the Genesis accounts that the Patriarchal group ever bought anything for the purpose of selling it at a profit, but only that they probably sold some of the cattle they bred and possibly some of the grain they grew in good years. (What Joseph did in Egypt for Pharaoh is something else again.) As a matter of fact, Kimhi (Book of Roots) in the Middle Ages, and Yehoash (in his Yiddish translation of the Bible), Koehler (in his Lexicon), and Speiser (in articles in learned periodicals) in modern times have all noted that the verb sahar never means anything but “to move about freely in,” and only the nouns soher and sehar mean “merchant” and “gain” respectively. I also subscribe to that view; but as I have said, even if the traditional interpretation is correct, the Book of Genesis knows nothing about the Patriarchs being merchants.

Gordon has the precious advantage of being able to read Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek, and Ugaritic (among other languages), and he has contributions of real merit to his credit. He can make more, provided he reverts to what he himself has shown to be sound method.



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