For one of my classes this summer, I am reading Kenton L. Sparks Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible in which Sparks meticulously draws comparisons and outlines the relationships between the content, form and structure of the Hebrew Scriptures with other texts from periods and people groups predating, consonant with and following the potential dates of authorship of the various biblical texts. While I am barely into this text so far, I have come across some very interesting information.
For example, remember the genealogy of Genesis 5? In this section of Genesis, 10 persons, from Adam to Noah, are outlined, including their respective lengths of life. As Sparks points out, the genealogy in Genesis 5 is oddly out of place in Mesopotamian literature of the time, for the genealogies of other peoples did not include time frames. Rather, they were simply genealogies that outlined the descendency of families and tribes. However, and interestingly, there was a genre of literature that did include chronological informationking lists. For example, consider the following Mesopotamian/Sumerian kings list:
Name Length of Reign
1. Alulim————-28,000
2. Alagar————-36,000
3. EnmenluAnna—–43,200
4. EnmengalAnna—-28,800
5. Dumuzi————36,000
6. EnsipaziAnna——28,800
7. Enmeduranki—21,000
8. Ubar-Tutu——–18,600
Obviously, as compared to the genealogy of Genesis 5, the chronology listed above is quite exaggerated. However, as Sparks notes, the chronology was not based upon a belief in an actual passage of time, but rather represented the identification of the personages with specific astronomic values. He goes on to show, in a later chapter of this book, that the Hebrew genealogy functions in a quite similar manner.
Finally, one of the most interesting correlations between the earlier Mesopotamian king list and the genealogy found in Genesis 5 surrounds the seventh member in each list. According to Sparks, the seventh figure in this particular Mesopotamian king list (Enmeduranki) is recorded to have not died, but ascended into heaven. Interestingly enough, the seventh figure in the Genesis 5 list, Enoch, is claimed to have walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him. According to traditional interpretations, Enochs is an example of one being translated directly to eternal life without passing through the experience of death. Therefore, not only do both lists recite the occurrence that one of the people from the lists went to heaven, but moreover, the precise ordering of the individual is identical between lists.
Obviously, issues like this raise important questions about the Scriptures, not least of which is the concept of inspiration. It would seem that those who hold to a very strong or direct conception of inspiration would have serious problems with this information. Of course, protagonists of a strong view of inspiration could claim that the relationship is merely coincidental and that while the Sumerian king lists are obviously exaggerated in their recording of the length of lives of the kings, the Hebrew genealogy records accurate information. Obviously, there is no way in which to completely overrule this possibility. However, as Sparks notes, the correlation between the Sumerian king lists and the Hebrew genealogy is quite strong and provides for few other conclusions than that the latter is derived from and mimicks the former.***
While some may see this information as destructive to the Scriptures and their role in faith, I disagree wholeheartedly. In my understanding, the relationship between these two documents reveals that the Scriptures, rather than being magically transcribed, were written by real people within a real sitz em Laben that responded to revelation in a honest, embodied way. To attempt to remove the Scriptures from their larger historical context (which would be done if one were to deny the obvious similarities between the Sumerian king lists and the Hebrew genealogy) would be ultimately to deny that the Scriptures functioned in any meaningful capacity for the people by whom they were originally written and would represent nothing more than a literary narcissism on the part of the modern interpreter.
Of course, acknowledging the existence of correlations comes at a cost. It forces us to leave behind materialist interpretations of the texts, and stretches us to move beyond the blinders of our modern, hermeneutical prejudices in an attempt to understand and engage with the understanding and worldviews of the various writers of the Scriptures. While definitely a challenge, I believe such an approach will actually make the Scriptures more enriching for the reader, for entering into the sitz em Laben of the original writers will allow us to create an existential connection with them that is not possible when interpretation proceeds exclusively from the paradigms of the modern reader.
*** EDIT: In my original post, I noted, “so strong, both in content and form, that the probability that the latter is not directly related to the former is 4.5 x 10-11, a big number, to say the least.” In reviewing my material, I inadvertantly misapplied this statistic. In Sparks’ usuage, the probability is applied to the Hebrew utilization of certian numerical sequences (probably derived from astronomical data) and not derivation from the older Sumerian king list. My apologies.