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5. Mesopotamia To 1600 B.C.

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The chronology of the Bronze Age follows the official Assyrian dates back to the 15th century B.C. and adjusts Babylonian chronology to them with the aid of the new Mari synchronisms between Assyria, Mari and Babylonia.1 (For an important note on priority of Mesopotamian civilization, see Finegan, In the Beginning, pp. 76ff.)

Geographic Situation

Zagros Mountains, desert, Fertile Crescent are the significant geographical features. Refer to the atlas and Finegan.2

Historical Outline

First Period. 5000-3000 (Finegan—Albright)

Ends in the flood according to the Sumerians (See ANET, 265). Albright divides it into the stone age and chalcolithic age.

Early Dynastic Period. Early Bronze 2800-2360 (c. 500 years)

Classical Sumerian age to the triumph of Sargon of Akkad. Sumerian King List. City states: Ur, Ereck, Lagash, Susa, Larsa, Eridu, Nippur, Kish, Babylon, Eshnunna, Nuzi, Mari. Civilization probably had links with the Indus Valley (because of common carved precious stones). There were Semites in the valley long before Sargon.3

The Old Akkadian Period—2360-2180 (c. 200 years)

Semite takeover under Sargon of Akkad (ANET, pp 267-68). His influence extended as far as the Mediterranean. The Sumerian ideal was the city state; Semitic ideal was “world” power—four quarters of the earth. The leader is not just a servant of God, but God.


The ancient city of Ebla was found in the mound of modern Tell Mardikh in North Syria, some 44 miles south of Aleppo. The excavation began in 1964, but in 1975 confirmation was found that this mound was Ebla indeed. Now for the first time it was known that Ebla was at one time an empire rivaling that of Sargon of Akkad, of Mari and of Assyria.

In 1974 42 clay tablets were found. Dated paleographically they belong to about 2300 B.C., roughly contemporaneous with Sargon of Akkad. In 1975 1000 tablets and fragments were found, and in another room some 14,000 tablets were found as they fell from burning shelves when Ebla was sacked by Naram Sin of Akkad in 2250 B.C. This comes to some 15,000 tablets altogether.

Linguistically, Eblaite belongs to the Northwest Semitic family.5 This material however comes from 1000 years before Moses and three or four hundred years before Abraham. Obviously, the impact on the Bible will be indirect. Sumerian was the pattern for both Akkadian and Eblaite. “There are 32 (perhaps up to 56) bilingual vocabularies, having each Sumerian word translated into Eblaite (i.e., early Canaanite). One superb example (with 18 duplicate copies!) contains 1000 words in both languages.”6 There are paradigms of verbs as well as lexical texts containing lists of birds, animals, fish, and other items.

Ebla furnishes us with names (Ebrum = Eber, Ishmail, Ishrail); places (Hazor, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Lachish, Dor, Gaza, Ashtaroth); religion (Dagan, El, Adad, Resheph, Asherah, Kemosh [known in the Bible]). Ebla has nabiutum as a class of prophets. This will add to the discussion of prophecy at Mari. As Kitchen says, however, “These men indeed delivered the ‘message’ of Dagan or other gods to the king of Mari—but always briefly, and purely in the king’s political or military interests, sometimes with promise or threat, depending on the king’s response. Never, however, do they adopt the stance of a Nathan, an Amos or a Hosea, or an Isaiah, to reprove and admonish on vital issues of personal morality, social justice, or obedience to God as man’s due to him. Apart from the eloquent (but relatively ‘secular’) pleas for just conduct of affairs in Egyptian works such as the Eloquent Peasant or the Admonitions of Ipuwer, the moral and spiritual tone of the later Old Testament prophets remains without real parallel in the ancient world.”7

The Gutian Period—2180-2070 B.C. (c. 100 years)

Caucasians from eastern mountain country invaded the valley. With the defeat of the Akkadian dynasty, the Sumerian culture was given an opportunity for renaissance. Abraham leaves Ur before 2086.8

The Neo-Sumerian Period. 2070-1960 (c. 100 years)

Gudea (c. 2050 B.C.) (ANEP, # 511ff). He left some of the longest Sumerian inscriptions (ANET, pp 268-69). Semitic and Sumerian existed side by side in apparent harmony with Semitic gradually gaining the ascendance.

The new dynasty or kingdom (Sumero-Akkadian) was founded by Ur-Nammu of Ur and lasted over a century. Kings of Sumer and Akkad, Ziggurat.

The Amorite Incursion—1960-1830 B.C. (c. 100 years)

A Semitic people called by the Babylonians Amorites (Westerners) began to invade the valley. The most important of the smaller states were Isin, founded by the Akkadian governor of Mari, and Larsa, headed by an Amorite. Nearly all these states eventually passed under Amorite rule.9

The Old Babylonian Period—1830-1550 (c. 300 years)

First dynasty of Babylon—Bab-i-lu. Hammurabi (1792-1750) conquered all (see atlas).10 This is the period of the epics. The Code of Hammurabi comes from this time.11

As noted above, the middle and upper Euphrates states eventually passed under Amorite control. Shamshi-Adad I (1813-1781 B.C.) ruled Assyria and Mari. At his death, his son, Ishme-Dagon ruled Assyria and his younger son ruled Mari. The people who had been pushed out of Mari were able to take advantage of the weakness of Shamshi-Adad’s successors and return to control Mari. Under Zimrilim, Mari became a great city because of her strategic location. It was the most important city during the 3rd and early 2nd millennium (see the section on Assyria). Hammurabi allowed Mari’s independence for a while but eventually took it over. 20,000 tablets were found at Mari.

Mari goes back to the third millennium and early names are Semitic under Sumerian influence. Zimrilim’s father may himself have been Amorite. The evidence is not clear.12

Culture and Religion of Akkadian Period

Scribal Activity. Kramer says, “One of the most human documents ever excavated in the Near East is a Sumerian essay dealing with the day-to-day activities of a school boy. Composed by an anonymous schoolteacher who lived about 2000 B.C., its simple, straightforward words reveal how little human nature has really changed throughout the millenniums.”13

Spread of Akkadian—lingua franca—Ras Shamra, Hittite Anatolia (some Gilgamesh tablets were found here), El Amarna Tablets.14

Religious psychological milieu of Mesopotamia

Heroic age—insecurity. Relation to Greek and Roman of later era.

Frustrations of life, fear of death.

Search for immortality (see the Gilgamesh Epic).

Gods made in image of man—fickle and fearful. Zeus, Chronos, Aphrodite, Athene, Enlil, Ishtar, Ea, Shamesh (Utu).

Fear of the nether world—crossing the ocean (River Styx).

Womanhood played down—love of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (cf. David and Jonathan).

Pathetic and hopeless. Out of this situation God called Abraham.

The Issue of Biblical Parallels (Read in ANET)


Fall—myth of Adapa—loss of eternal life.

Flood—Sumerian and Akkadian accounts (latter in the Gilgamesh epic). See Wright’s comments on Navarre in BASOR Newsletter #3, Oct. 1970.15

Note Albright’s explanation of the origins in From Stone Age to Christianity, p. 238. He assumes that all were brought to Palestine by Hebrews in early second millennium B.C. No borrowing from canonical Babylonian sources. See Kitchen, The Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, pp. 88ff, who argues that accretions are normal, not purgations.

These can only be explained as two accounts from one original source. Flood stories are to be found in almost all cultures.16 These are not “Israelite purgations” of polytheistic stories, but the transmission of the actual account probably through Abraham. John Oswalt has written a delightful little book describing and contrasting the Israelite point of view vis à vis the ancient near eastern view.17

1Albright, SATC, p. 147.

2Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, pp. 9-12.

3See Custance, The Three Sons of Noah, p. 23.

4For a very readable presentation of the Ebla material, see K. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, 37-55. See the popular presentation of the archaeologist in Paolo Matthiae, Ebla, an Empire Rediscovered, and from the point of view of the epigraphist, G. Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla.

5Though some argue that it is closer to Northeast Semitic (Akkadian).

6Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, p. 45.

7Ibid., pp. 54-55.

8See Unit VII and Speiser who says the Gutians played a limited part in the downfall. See also Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient, p. 23.

9J. Bottéro, CAH I, 1, p. 321 and C. J. Gadd, “Ur,” pp. 625-28.

10Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia.

11See Albright, SATC and Finegan for chronology and history of Mesopotamia.

12M. E. L. Mallowan, CAH 2,1:291-97.

13S. N. Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, p. 8.

14See Albright, SATC, p. 209.

15See Especially J. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

16John Bright, Has Archaeology Found Evidence for the Flood, BAR #1, pp. 32-40.

17John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, pp. 91-107.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History

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