[b-hebrew] Nephesh Mesopotamian myths
Pastor Mark Eddy
markeddy at adams.net
Fri Feb 7 23:06:59 EST 2003
----- Original Message -----
From: "Walter R. Mattfeld"
Subject: [b-hebrew] Nephesh Mesopotamian myths
> IF, IF memory serves me rightly, I recall that in some Mesopotamian myths
> the dead were described as alive in the Underworld possessing FEATHERED
> BODIES, flying about, chirpping and twittering. Egyptian myths have the Soul
> or "BA," as a bird with a human head that leaves the body and flies about,
> always returning to the body.
> So, we have in Mesopotamian and Egyptian myths, notions of the dead
> possessing feathered bodies, capable of flight. As Israel did not come into
> being in "a vaccum" and as "some" scholars allow that Israelite beliefs
> evolved from those of the nations who preceeded her and co-existed with her,
> I see nothing strange in the Hebrew notion of the dead as twittering as a
> means of communication ( did not the Heavenly Spirit or Soul of God descend
> upon Christ in the form of a twittering Dove ?).
Nowhere does it say that the dove was twittering. Nowhere is the Spirit of God ever called a soul. Where
is any evidence that this teaching is a reflection of Egyptian myths?
Why do so many on this list seem to assume that the religion of Israel imitated, metamorphized, borrowed,
or otherwise was based upon the myths of other ancient societies? Israel's sacred writings from beginning
to end demonstrate that something quite different from that happened. The gods of Canaan (and to some
extent Egypt and Mesopotamia) were unknown to the people of Israel in the patriarchal period through the
settlement of Canaan (or at least not worshipped by them--with exceptions which were severely punished,
e.g. the golden calf incident).
In Deut. 13:6-10 Moses says, "6 If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or
the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, 'Let us go and
serve other gods,' which neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 some of the gods of the peoples who
are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, 8 you
shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall
you conceal him. 9 But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and
afterward the hand of all the people. 10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to
draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of
Going after "other gods" was a later development in Israel. And this was not done by the writers of the
Hebrew Scriptures. It was a practice of others, who were strongly condemned. How can people believe that
these writers actually based their religion on the religions that they condemned? For example, Deut 32
15 "But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. 16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with
abominations they provoked him to anger. 17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had
never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded. 18 You were
unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth."
Constantly Israel's God and religion is contrasted with that of its neighbors, and even of those nations
out of which Abraham and Moses came. Josh. 24 shows that at least the leaders of Israel were quite aware
of the false gods that Abraham's father served "beyond the Euphrates" (v. 2). That's why Yahweh took
Abraham out of that environment (v. 3). Yahweh showed that He is the only God that exists ("I am") to
Moses by freeing the people of Israel (v. 5-7). He overpowered the will of prophet-for-profit Balaam (v.
9-10). So Joshua concluded: 14 "Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in
faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the
LORD. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether
the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you
dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
So I find it literally incredible that so many people assert that Israel patterened its understanding of
the afterlife (or anything else) after Mesopotamian (or Egyptian or any other) religion. The Bible clearly
and vehemently rejects all such man-made religions.
Just because the myths and other sacred writings of other Near Eastern societies were written on stone or
clay and preserved longer in dry climates does not mean that their religion is older than the religion
that was passed down in Israel on materials that decay in more moist climates, and so needed to be copied
to be passed on. The very fact that almost nobody copied the other Near Eastern mythological texts but
that they did keep copying the Hebrew Scriptures testifies to the fact that those other religions were
weighed in the balance and found wanting, while the religion of Israel was based on actual revelations of
the God who created the world.
Similarities between ancient myths and Israel's religion would be expected if the Hebrew Scriptures are
historically accurate (which I am convinced they are). While God periodically appeared to keep Israel
straight (e.g. at Sinai, and through the prophets), other ancient societies developed myths as people's
memory of the true God and His teachings faded over the years. We know that knowledge of Yahweh was
already confused by Rebekah's brother Laban and his daughter Rachel (who took his household gods, Gen.
31:19). Think what has happened to biblical theology in the hands of pop religion in America today! All it
takes is one generation failing to pass on the true teaching about God, and the next generation comes up
with something that uses some of the same words, but with totally different meaning (e.g. the New Age
So ancient Near Eastern cultures all had a concept of the afterlife, because there really is an afterlife.
Perhaps no one received my post in which I cited Ecclesiastes 12:7. We can also add passages from Job that
envision a bodily resurrection (at the end of the earth, Job chapters 14 & 19) and Ezekiel's vision of the
dry bones (Ezekiel 37). How about Psalm 22, by David (certainly well before the exile), in which the
speaker first dies (e.g. v. 15: "you lay me in the dust of death") and then lives again to prais God (e.g.
v. 22). Or take Isaiah 53, which also has the suffering servant die (v. 8-9) before he lives again (v.
10f). Or take Jesus' disputation with the Sadduccees (who didn't believe in a resurrection), in which He
made the assertion that "I am the God of Abraham..." shows "He is not God of the dead, but of the living"
(Matt. 22:32 and parallels). This "silenced the Sadduccees" (v. 34), because Jesus had pointed out a truth
that all Israel accepted. If God is a God of the living, then Abraham must, in some way, still be alive.
But Jesus didn't say this to argue for the existence of disembodied spirits of Abraham, etc. He used it to
silence the Sadduccees argument against a physical, future resurrection. The current state of the blessed
dead cannot be permanent. They must regain their bodies in the future.
Why do I believe what Jesus had to say about the afterlife? Because after He died, He physically rose from
the dead, with a body that could be felt and needed to eat (Luke 24). His resurrection is better attested
than most facts of ancient history. Hundreds of people saw Him alive after His death (1 Cor. 15). So I can
also believe what He told the thief on the cross next to Him, who died that day: "Today you will be with
Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Although Jesus' body was in the grave that day, and who-knows-what happened
to the body of the dead malefactor with his broken legs, etc., some part of them that day already was
enjoying Edenic joys. Don't call it their soul, if that biblical term doesn't fit. Call it their spirit.
That term is used in both Old and New Testaments. But whatever their state was then was only temporary. A
physical resurrection had to follow. God created human beings with bodies from the beginning (Gen. 2). How
else can we picture human existence even in the temporary state in which body and spirit are separated?
And why do I believe that Israel's sacred writings were original and correct while other ancient Near
Eastern writings were secondarily derived and in error? Jesus accepted the Mosaic authoriship of the books
attributed to him. Since we know that He demonstrated His authority with "signs and wonders" culminating
in His own resurrection, we can and ought to read the Old Testament in the light of His teaching. (You
always start from the best attested facts, and then work to that which is harder to proove.) Later
generations in Israel (at least of those that remained faithful) believed that hundreds of thousands of
Israelites heard God speak to them at Sinai. The prophets and the Christian martyrs did not die for myths.
They saw and heard the voice and actions of God in ways that we do not.
> When Erishkal, the Queen of Hell in the Mesopotamian myths threatened
> mankind and the gods, she said if she didn't get her way she would release
> the Dead from Hell and they would terrorize the world by EATING the bodies
> of the living. Now Physical bodies of the dead arising from Hell EATING the
> Living makes sense to me, but NOT spirit beings "metaphysically" eating
> Living flesh.
We agree that most societies outside of Israel pictured even their gods as having bodies. And the Bible
pictures bodies in Sheol/hell. Israel, however, did not depict its God in bodily form. "You shall not make
any graven images" was given because Yahweh is NOT LIKE the so-called gods of Israel's neighbors, which
could be pictured in bodily form. Yahweh did not have a bodily form (until He became incarnate in Jesus).
That's why Israel was forbidden to depict Him in any form at all.
> The dead in the underworld eat and drink, now if they were spirits who could
> not die, why would they need to eat and drink to sustain their bodies and
> life (the same question could be applied to the Resurrected dead in the Book
> of Revelation- if they have immortality, why do they need to eat and drink
> to sustain their fleshly bodies ?
If Adam and Eve would live forever if they ate from the tree of life in Genesis 3:22, then why should
eating NOT be the means which God provides for people to enjoy immortal existence? The biblical teaching
of immortality was not based Greek philosophical notions about immortal souls, freed from their bodies.
The Bible envisions resurrected bodies living forever. See how Paul's teaching about the resurrection of
Jesus disconcerted both the Stoics and the Epicureans in Acts 17. Both of those philosophies assumed that
man's immortal state is without the body (therefore either the body is unimportant--Stoicism--or we better
indulge the body while we have the chance--Epicureanism). The Biblical view that God's intention is for
mankind to live with their bodies forever goes all the way back to Gen. 3 and all the way to the end of
the Revelation, in which the tree of life again appears.
> The same goes for God, why does he NEED
> sacrifices and drink offerings at the Jerusalem Temple, if he already
> possesses immortality and cannot die ? For my "rational" mind this makes no
> sense (the feeding of a God, and of the resurrected dead who possess
Who says that God NEEDs to eat the sacrifices? The Bible never says that God eats the sacrifices. It says
the opposite. The priests eat part of the sacrifices (as a fringe benefit of their calling). The people
who offered the sacrifices (at least the thanksgiving sacrifices) got to eat part. God's part was consumed
by fire, not by God. The Angel of the Lord ascended in the fire of Manoah's sacrifice, but refused to eat
it (Judges 13:16-20). Since He was God (v. 22), they should have known that He didn't need to eat. By the
way, this Angel of the LORD was obviously visible as a sort of human body, but what sort of body ascends
in the flames? Just because people saw human bodies of non-human beings (or former human beings, like dead
Samuel?) doesn't mean that their bodies had all the characteristics that ours have. Other nations thought
that their gods needed to eat. Not biblical Israel.
Biblically speaking the people needed the sacrifices. From the very beginning death was the penalty for
offending God. But God is merciful, not wanting any to die (a big theme in Ezekiel, among other places).
People needed the reminder of these facts by killing an animal in their place. God allowed them to kill a
lamb in place of their firstborn in Egypt, and ever after as a memorial of this substitutionary sparing of
their lives. People needed what the sacrifices pictured. God didn't need to eat. The Scriptures of Israel
clearly teach this. What else do the rhetorical questions of Psalm 50 mean?
7 "Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. 8 Not
for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. 9 I will not accept
a bull from your house or goats from your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on
a thousand hills. 11 I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. 12 If I
were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. 13 Do I eat the flesh of
bulls or drink the blood of goats? 14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to
the Most High, 15 and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."
Look especially at verse 12 above. If God were hungry, which He is not, He wouldn't have to ask for a
sacrifice to eat. He could eat any animal in the forrest or fields he wanted (v. 10). And the answer to
verse 13 is "No, You (God) do not eat the flesh of fulls or drink the blood of goats."
Pre-exilic Israel believed that God is a spirit, not a being with a body. What other picture of God stands
behind Isaiah 31:3 "The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit"?
Obviously God is pictured as "spirit" (as in Gen. 1:2), in contrast to the mere flesh of the Egyptian
> An Assyrian king, upon conquering Elam and its capital, had the graves
> opened of the earlier Elamite kings and their bones removed, carrying them
> off to Assyria. He did this because the Elamites had scorned Assyria's gods.
> He said that these Kings in the underworld would suffer as a result of their
> bones being taken away, because drink and food offerings could no longer be
> performed before their graves by their descendants. So they would suffer
> hunger pangs, I guess, in the underworld.
We know that other ancient Near Eastern societies thought that people needed to eat in the underworld. The
provisions that accompanied the Pharaohs in their tombs are well known. But Israel never provided this way
for their dead! Why not? Because they had a different conception of what happened in Sheol and after the
resurrection. These Assyrian myths say nothing about what Yahwists in Israel believed.
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