The Ur-Source

An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 2

Most religions provide some version of a creation myth. This is, after all, necessary to elevate the role of a god or gods in the history of the world—to establish a Supreme Being’s supremacy by making Him the ultimate source and creator of all things. So it is natural that the Bible begins with its creation myth.

The earliest parts of the Bible are the first five books. In the Jewish tradition, they are called by their Hebrew name: the Torah or “law.” In the Christian tradition, they are called by their Greek name: the Pentateuch or “five books.” Christianity spread through the Classical world, where Greek was the lingua franca, and early Christians used a third century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint after the seventy learned scholars supposedly responsible for the translation. Since I’m going the whole distance, through both the Old and New Testaments, and since I’m focusing on the King James Bible, and especially because my primary interest is the influence of Christianity on the West, I will be using the Greek versions of all of these names.

In the Greek/Christian version, each book of the Bible is given a descriptive name. The name of the first book is “Genesis,” the Greek word for birth or coming into being. It is a story of the creation of the world and of man. But right away, we encounter an intriguing clue about the origins of this origin myth.

The first line of the Bible is: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Follow along in your hymnal, or read the King James Bible online.) The Hebrew word for “God” in this verse is “Elohim.” Anyone with a knowledge of Hebrew knows that the –im suffix is plural. So this verse would seem to read, “In the beginning, the gods created the heaven and the earth.” But instead, Hebrew tradition requires that the plural be ignored and that “Elohim” be translated as “God.” Isaac Asimov—whose Guide to the Bible I am using as a fellow atheist’s reference source—notes that “It is possible that in the very earliest traditions on which the Bible is based, the creation was indeed the work of a plurality of gods. The firmly monotheistic Biblical writers would carefully have eliminated such polytheism, but could not perhaps do anything with the firmly ingrained term ‘Elohim.'” Bear in mind that the Bible was not definitively written down until the sixth century BC. Before that it was mostly memorized and passed down by oral tradition, much like the works of Homer (which were first written down at about the same time). So the initial verses would have been as firmly ingrained in the mind of the Hebrew public as “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles” was for the Greeks. It would be impossible to change. The solution was to simply agree, as a social convention, to give “Elohim” a singular meaning, referring to only one God.

I should note that this is one theory and that there are alternative theories, such as the view that some Semitic languages used the plural as a form of emphasis to denote an abstract version of a concept as opposed to a concrete version. So in this view, the singular “eloah” referred to a particular god, but the plural “Elohim” referred to “godhood” or divinity as such, and it would therefore be natural to use as the word for a monotheistic god. On the other hand, in the old Semitic languages of the Middle East, there was a clear way of making sure you were talking about a single god. You could, for example, say “al ilah,” or “the god,” which would be contracted to “Allah” and used as the word for a monotheistic god in a certain troublesome religion.

Moreover, Asimov points to other leftover linguistic suggestions of polytheism, such as in Genesis 3:22, when God realizes that man has eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” Um, “us”—who? Here again, there are other theories, such as the view that God is speaking to an audience of angels. But I’m with Asimov. The simplest, most plausible explanation is based on what we know about every other religious tradition: “early beliefs were always polytheistic, and monotheism was a late development in the history of ideas.”

This is bolstered, in my view, by a difference in two early versions of the Hebrew tradition on which the Bible is based. The Bible is believed to have been cobbled together from about four different sources, referred to by the abbreviations E, J, P, and D. “P” stands for the priests who began to write down the Bible in the sixth century BC, and “D” is the “Deuteronomist” responsible for writing the book of Deuteronomy. (Then there is a fifth player, R or “Redactor,” an editor who helped stitch the various versions together.) “E” and “J” refer to two different early versions, one of which uses “Elohim” as its usual word for God, and the other of which uses “Yahwey,” which was later transliterated as “Jehovah.”

You can see this linguistic difference in the King James version just after the familiar litany of the creation of the Earth: “On the first day,” and so on, until on the sixth day God creates man and on the seventh day he rests. But then with Genesis 2:4, the whole creation story starts over again, and in this version we get a few new twists, such as God creating Eve out of a rib taken from Adam. This is one of the things that lead scholars to believe there are different versions of the Bible being combined. We’re getting one variation of the creation story from one source, then another variation from another source, much in the same way that we get the story of Christ in slightly different “testaments” recalled by different apostles.

In this second version of the creation story, God is referred to for the first time as “the Lord God” in the King James version. In the original Hebrew, this is actually “the God Yahwey.” As fans of Monty Python know, it was considered blasphemous to say the name of God, “Jehovah,” so devout Hebrews substituted “adonai” or “lord” in its place, and the translators of the King James version followed this age-old custom, translating it as “the Lord God.” But it actually says “the God Jehovah” or more accurately “the God Yahwey,” which has much more polytheistic overtones. To give your god a specific name implies that there might be other gods with other names. It is the term you would use when referring to the god of your city or your tribe, as opposed to the gods of other cities and other tribes.

In historical terms, this could reflect a transitional stage between polytheism and monotheism: what is called monolatry. “Monolatry” means “one-worship.” The monolatrist may still believe that other gods exist, but he worships only one god, usually the god of his city or tribe. It would be natural, in this transitional stage, to write about “the God Yahwey” to describe your god, as opposed to other peoples’ gods.

So all of this suggests that the creation story in the Bible is an offshoot of a previous, polytheistic tradition. And we’re pretty sure what tradition it comes from. It becomes pretty obvious later on in Genesis when we first meet Abraham, the great patriarch of the Jewish (and Arab) people. Abraham comes, we are told, from “Ur of the Chaldees.” The Chaldeans controlled the city of Ur at the time the Bible was written down, around the sixth century BC. But in the time of Abraham, somewhere around 1800 BC, Ur was Sumerian.

This set off a lot of bells for me, because the Sumerians were the first great civilization, springing up among the farmers of Mesopotamia around 4000 BC and creating a surprisingly sophisticated culture. Some of the most fascinating Sumerian artifacts are clay seals marked with cuneiform writing that turn out to be deeds of property, or account ledgers, or bills of lading. Sumerians pioneered some of mankind’s first efforts in mathematics and astronomy, the first codes of law, the first great epic poems about gods and heroes, and many other firsts.

It is a little unclear whether the Biblical Ur of Abraham is the same as the city where they built the Great Ziggurat, but that is not important. What is important is that Hebrews are Sumerians. Ancient Hebrew civilization was an offshoot of the original civilization.

You occasionally hear someone talk about the “ur-source” of an idea. It is an etymological coincidence; the prefix “ur-” is based on a Germanic word meaning “first” or “original.” The ur-source is the ultimate source, the very beginning. Well, the ur-source of the Bible is Ur.

From this perspective, it’s no surprise that the Biblical creation myths are variations on Sumerian/Babylonian creation myths.

Take the Garden of Eden. The Bible gives very specific directions about where the Garden was located, and Asimov reasons through these and concludes that Eden was located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they formed a wider waterway that empties into the ocean. Today, the two rivers become what is known as the Shatt al-Arab, but the Biblical equivalent would have been some distance upstream from its current location, which has moved southward thanks to six thousand years of silt deposits.

This location for Eden also turns out to be exactly where the very first Sumerian civilization was formed. It is the creation myth you would have if you were a Sumerian passing down stories about your most ancient origins. It doesn’t hurt that “eden” is the Sumerian word for “plain,” as in a low, flat, fertile area of exactly the type where human civilization was first created.

A Sumerian origin also explains a lot of other Biblical stories, most particularly the flood. This is not the kind of cataclysm you would naturally fear as a nomadic herdsman living in the arid uplands of what is now Israel. But it is precisely what you would fear as a Sumerian living on a low, flat plain between two big rivers, where catastrophic flooding could and did occur. In fact, the story of Noah and the flood seems to be lifted directly from the original heroic epic poem, the story of a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh. In his travels around the world, Gilgamesh seeks out a wise man named Utnapishtim, whose claim to fame is that he built an ark, filled it with animals, and survived a great flood sent by the gods as a kind of punishment for man’s wickedness. The Noah from the Bible is Utnapishtim from the Gilgamesh epic, point for point.

There is a theological problem with borrowing so heavily from earlier traditions, because it invites the presumption that there is no special authority to your stories, that instead of receiving revelation directly from God, you’re just retelling the same old stories borrowed from the heathens who came before you. In effect, every purveyor of a new religious creed or revelation has to insist that his revelation is the real one which completes and supersedes everything that came before—in effect, that God’s prior attempts to transmit the truth to man were garbled and sporadic, but now it is all perfectly clear, complete, and final. This is, to put it mildly, implausible.

But it is not my purpose here to pick logical holes in the Bible. That ground is already well trod. Note, for example, that I have not attempted to compare the Biblical story of creation against the geological, paleontological, or anthropological record. There hardly seems to be much point to it. As an atheist reading the Bible, I take for granted that the stories in it are just myths, equivalent to the creation myths of the Greeks or of the Sumerians from whom they were borrowed. What interests me here is to ask how they borrowed from earlier traditions, how their myths are different from the mythology of other cultures like the Greeks, and what impact this had.

The mythology of Genesis contains stories that are not remarkable for what they include. They are remarkable for what they omit.

For example, most religions and mythologies have a story similar to the Garden of Eden, in which man disobeys God or the gods and incurs some kind of collective punishment as a result. The Greeks, for example, had the story of Pandora’s Box, in which Zeus gives the first man a woman and also gives her a container (in the original, it was not a box but a clay jar) with instructions not to open it. Naturally, her curiosity wins out and she opens it, releasing into the world illness and pestilence and various other human maladies. This is the usual solution to the problem of evil: if God is so great that he deserves to be worshipped, how is it that he allows so much suffering? Answer: because we brought it on ourselves, somehow, through our disobedience. It’s not him, it’s us. So the point of these stories is to explain the various maladies and misfortunes that naturally befall mankind and which, in a pre-scientific age, were inevitable conditions of human life that could not be ameliorated.

The Bible is not distinctive in having such a story. In fact, I found the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to be simpler than I expected. I have a lot of objections to the Christian doctrine of original sin, yet they don’t seem relevant to the story as originally told in Genesis, because the theological doctrines were piled on top of it later. The story itself is told in a relatively unadorned way.

Yet notice the overall pattern of the early mythological stories in Genesis. After man’s expulsion from the garden, we get the story of Cain and Abel, in which one of Adam and Eve’s sons murders the other. It is a story of man’s wickedness and violence, which causes him to be cast out by God. Then after tracing Adam and Eve’s progeny through their younger sons, we get to the story of Noah and the ark, which begins on this cheerful note.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

You may notice one verse in there, Genesis 6:4, that is not quite on theme:

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

All right, so where are the giants and the mighty men of renown? What about them?

This is a very striking omission. The mythology of most other cultures is mostly about the giants and the “mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” I mentioned above the original heroic epic, the story of Gilgamesh, who obviously fits this description. Greek mythology is filled with heroes and demigods like Hercules and Theseus and—well, pretty much everything in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

I asked in the first installment of this series, “What has Homer to do with the Bible?” Now we can see why it’s such a relevant question. The works of Homer are generally regarded as functioning in the Greek mind as a combination of the Bible and Shakespeare: a central source for both religion and literature. But Homer is almost exclusively concerned with the giants and mighty men of renown, while in the Bible they get only a passing reference.

Note that this passing reference is not given any further explanation. I presume that it needed no explanation, because when the original readers (or listeners) encountered that verse, they would have known these stories about “men of renown” from the other cultures around them in the ancient Middle East. But the message they get is that the Bible isn’t interested in those stories and has no room for epic heroes.

Why? The stories of mighty men and epic heroes are stories of mankind’s potential for greatness. The Bible’s concern is the opposite: it is interested in keeping man in his place. This is very striking in the story of the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 3:22: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” Notice the sense here that God is trying to preserve his superiority against a threat of equality from man. The whole point is to prevent man from becoming “as one of us,” from attaining equality with the gods. Contrast this to Greek mythology, in which it is common for a hero who performs great deeds to be made into a demigod, to “become as one of us” and be brought up to live with the gods on Mount Olympus.

Or consider the last big story in the early mythological sections of Genesis: the story of the Tower of Babel, in Chapter 11.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Note again God’s use of “us,” which you can interpret as the “royal we,” or as God speaking to an angelic audience—or as Yahwey speaking to his fellow gods. But the theme is the same: the fear that men will grow to equal the gods because “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”

Again, other mythologies have similar stories. The Greeks had the concept of “hubris,” an excessive pride that causes men to overreach themselves and get smacked down, sometimes through the direct intervention of the gods and sometimes just through their own errors. The closest Classical equivalent of the Tower of Babel would be the story of Icarus.

What is distinctive about the Bible is that these stories aren’t just one part of a larger mythology. They are the mythology. The Bible’s exclusive, almost single-minded focus is on ensuring man’s subordination to God. This mythology is the ur-source for Judeo-Christian theology, and it sets the tone for everything that comes after. We can also see it in the tribal history that begins in the next section of Genesis, as we finally circle back to that moment when Abraham departs from Ur—which is where we will begin the next installment of this series.


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5 Responses to The Ur-Source

  1. Erik Driessens February 5, 2013 at 12:41 AM #

    Very interesting reading.

    Can’t wait for next installment.

  2. Robin Craig February 5, 2013 at 2:06 AM #


    On the topic of how the Bible stories derive from what went before, a very interesting article is “The Genesis creation myth is not unique” in e-Skeptic ( ) which points out that the famous beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, is not actually teaching “ex nihilo creation” but is properly translated as a derivative of the Babylonian creation myth in which the heavens are separated from the earth.

    Anyone interested in how the Bible relates to other Mesopotamian myths should find that article worth reading.

  3. Heather February 6, 2013 at 9:12 PM #

    Thank you for this excellent read. I have made several attempts to get through the Bible and have yet to make it very far. I remember the clear polytheistic references in Genesis: when I was younger I couldn’t understand how other people could “miss” it.

    It’s good to read a nice long article from you again. I miss the Tracinski Letter, but I’m counting the pennies these days and my subscription will have to wait. Your public articles will tide me over in the meantime.

  4. Katarina February 16, 2013 at 10:29 PM #

    There are other instances of implied polytheism in the Pentateuch, as I recall from Torah lessons in elementary school. Pharaoh’s priests working magic, God’s overreaction to the Golden Calf, the first commandment that bans the worship of other gods, and I may have missed a few.

    Very interesting series indeed.

  5. Paul Goodell May 28, 2013 at 11:55 AM #

    This is an interesting enterprise, but right off the bat, with the E,J, D, P comments, it gets thrown off.

    If this were 1995, I would consider such comments useful and incisive. It’s 2013, though, and we have long since moved past the flawed understanding of the four different writers of the creation myth. Even in modern fiction, many authors put different specific elements (about which they know quite a bit) in their works, but this doesn’t signify that the sections with different distinct elements were written by different authors. (For example, I’m a fan of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, in which he spends significant amounts of time discussing cuisine, weaponry, heraldry, and politics. But I don’t think there’s a C,W,H, P dynamic going on because of that.) This series is certainly intriguing, but I hope the rest of it is not based on similarly outdated and discredited scholarship.