During their time under foreign rule by the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, did those cultures influence the bible stories in other ways besides instilling a sense of homelessness?

That’s a very interesting question and yes, we can see the effect of exile on the bible stories in many ways: Cultural, linguistic, thematic, even religious.

The cultural impact of Babylon can be seen even in Genesis 1.

  • While in exile, Jews had to listen to the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, performed aloud on a regular basis. When we get to Genesis a bit later in the semester, our textbook points out that the creation narrative in Genesis 1, which is much newer than the one  in Genesis 2.2, seems almost like a revision of the Enuma Elish. In that story, the God figure, Marduk, defeats water deity Tiamat, whose Babylonian name is used for “the deep” in Genesis 1. He defeats her by cutting her in half and using one half of her belly as the sky and the other as the earth. In Genesis, also, God puts “a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  God called the dome Sky.” So God contains the rebellious waters (Tehom or Tiamat) but they keep trying to escape, successfully doing so during the flood. Even the order of creation is the same, beginning with chaos. But in their revision, the Jews had God simply speak things into being, not needing to disembowel his enemies. In other words, you could see Genesis 1 as the answer to the Enuma Elish.
  • Another Babylonian impact on Genesis 1 that we seldom think about is the seven-day lunar week God uses to organize his creation. The seven-day week was invented by Babylonians, so the Jewish concept of “shabbat” or “seven” came from them too.
  • The Eden story starting in Gen 2.1, the flood story, and the story of Moses’ childhood owe a great deal to the epic of Gilgamesh. That was an ancient Sumerian epic, but Jews would have encountered it in Babylon. Eden’s rivers place that primordial garden in Babylon, probably at modern Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet.
  • Similarly, Ezekiel’s vivid description of God’s chariot is borrowed from images of cherubim that he would have seen in Babylon, where he composed his prophecies. Those same cherubim make their way into most apocalyptic literature, including Daniel and Revelation.
  • Much of the apocryphal literature and New Testament gospels, especially the gospel of John, show the impact of Platonic philosophy, which posits a perfect divine “form” of which we are only copies. In the same way, John’s Jesus tells  his disciples that only those “born from above” in that divine place can return to that place after death.

Another way we can see the influence of these empires is in the language:

  • One way we can date second-temple texts is by the presence of Babylonian, Persian, or Greek loan words. I’ve mentioned both Tiamat and Shemesh (the Babylonian sun god) in Genesis. Part of Daniel is written in Aramaic, or Persian, which was the spoken language of the Jews by the 2nd c. BCE (it was still being spoken in remote locations; Jesus and his disciples spoke only Aramaic). Furthermore, the New Testament gospels are written in street Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. Their authors were also reading the Hebrew Bible in Greek; several important Christian ideas come from Greek apocryphal works, even if those works didn’t make it into the final Jewish canon.

Thematically, we can see the influence of exile and foreign rule in the bible. A couple of these will suffice here:

  • The idea of purity or “holiness” in Leviticus is defined in opposition to Babylonian practices.
  • The Torah’s stories frequently end outside the land of Israel (witness the exile of Cain, Joseph, of Esau, or Jacob). They end with the endangerment of the covenant line: Abel, Isaac, Joseph (again). They have a preference for younger sons and underdogs.

Many religious practices come from contact with other empires.

  • In the New Testament, Paul’s Jesus movement resembles several mystery religions popular in the empire such as Mithraism. A mystery religion is one in which followers attain eternal life by a secret practice such as ritually eating the body of the God (for those of you who take communion). By contrast, the Jesus movement followed by Jesus, Peter and James would have found such practices abhorrent. Jesus took over Mithras’s birthday and his sun rays (which became a halo).
  • The Persian religion gave Judaism and especially Christianity its dualism: A good god and a bad god or devil fight it out for the souls of humanity. (As mentioned elsewhere, Jews before Persia did not believe in a devil or an afterlife). The Persians also gave humans its angelic advocates such as Michael and Raphael, who appear in Daniel and Tobit, among other late works.  The Greek idea of Hades influenced the concept of hell, which was embraced by Christians and rejected, at least at first, by the Jews. And the Christian devil took aspects from Hades, the god of the dead, as well as Poseidon, the god of the ocean.
  • To this day, Jews celebrate Purim, a Persian holiday that resembles our Mardi Gras. One reason the book of  Esther stayed in the canon, despite its unpopularity with many people, is that it invents a Jewish origin and  justification for Purim.
  • By the first century BCE, Jews had incorporated ideas about the afterlife, predestination, and even reincarnation from other cultures they encountered in the Hellenistic empire. Not all those ideas made it into the bible, but Virgil’s idea of souls burning off their imperfections before they could be reborn influenced Christian ideas of purgatory.

Even before Babylon, Israelites did not exist in a vacuum. For centuries before the first monarchs, Israel was a vassal to Egypt, where circumcision and monotheism may have originated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *