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Lecture 10: Astro-Theology and the Moral Element in Babylonian Religion

A HUNDRED years ago, writers on the history or philosophy of religion had much to say about what they called Sabaism. The earliest form of idolatry was supposed to have been a worship of the heavenly bodies. A passage in the Book of Job was invoked in support of the fact, and beautifully executed drawings of Babylonian seal-cylinders were made for the sake of the pictures of the sun and moon and stars that were upon them. Sir William Drummond resolved the sons of Jacob into the signs of the Zodiac;1 Dupuis derived Christianity itself from a sort of allegorical astronomy.

“Sabaism” has long since fallen into disrepute. Anthropology has long since taught us that primitive religion is not confined to a worship of the stars. The cult of the heavenly bodies was not the source of polytheism; indeed, there are systems of polytheism in which it has never existed at all. Of late the tendency has been to discount it altogether as a factor in the history of religion.

But the tendency has gone too far. There was one religion, at all events, in which it played an important part. This was the religion of ancient Babylonia and of those other countries which were influenced by Babylonian culture. But even here the decipherment of the inscriptions seemed to show that it belonged to a late age, and was an artificial product which never affected the people as a whole. When I delivered my Hibbert Lectures, I believed that I could dismiss it in a few words as merely a kind of subsidiary chapter added to the religion of the State by pedants and scholars.

Certain it is that the elaborate system of astrotheology which characterised Babylonian religion was an artificial creation. It was the result of a combination of religion with astronomy which was elaborated in the schools. Astronomy, like all other sciences, was under the control of the priests, the observatory rose by the side of the school within the precincts of the temple, and the dependence of the calendar on the observations of the astronomer gave them a religious character. Moreover, the astro-theology of Babylonia did not go back to primeval times. The identification of the official gods with the heavenly bodies belongs to an age when the official religion had already been crystallised into shape, and a map of the heavens had been made. We can almost watch its rise and trace its growth.

Nevertheless the rise and growth are of far earlier date than was formerly imagined. Astro-theology was not a mere learned scheme of allegorised science, the plaything of a school of pedants; it exercised a considerable influence upon the religion of Babylonia and upon the history of its development. It had, moreover, a background in the faith of the people. Like the rivers and streams, the stars also were really worshipped,2 and the symbols drawn on the seal-cylinders show that this worship must go back to the oldest period of Babylonia. Even the ideograph that denotes “a god” represents an eight-rayed star. The fact is significant. At the time when the pictorial hieroglyphics were first being formed out of which the cuneiform characters were to grow, the star was already the symbol and representative of the divine. It was not as yet the more general and abstract “sky,” it was the particular star that was adored as a god. Babylonian religion, as far back as its written history leads us, really begins with Sabaism.

How is this fact to be reconciled with the further fact that the gods of Babylonia were once spirits and ghosts, the zi's of Eridu and the lil's of Nippur? To this question no answer at present is possible; at most we can only suggest that the zi, or spirit, was localised in the star. A spirit of the sun was as conceivable as a spirit of Ea, and the son of Ea, it must be remembered, became a sun-god. “The zi of the god” meant originally in the primitive picture-writing “the spirit of the star,” and the literal rendering of the invocation in the early spells would be “the spirit of the star who is lord of Du-azagga,” “the spirit of the star who is mistress of the holy hill.” In the Boob of Isaiah the Babylonian king is made to say that he would enthrone himself among the gods on the summit of the Chaldæan Olympos “above the stars of El”; and Nin-ip, the interpreter of En-lil, was at once the sun-god and the moon. Istar, it must not be forgotten, was primarily the evening star; and Istar was not only supreme among the goddesses of Babylonia, she was the type and representative of them all. The signs of the Zodiac had once been the monster allies of the dragon of chaos.

With all this, it may hereafter prove that the conception of the divine as a star was introduced by a different race from that which saw in it a spirit or a ghost. At all events, it was a conception which the inscriptions of Southern Arabia have shown to have prevailed among the Western Semites. Professor Hommel has made it clear3 that the Semitic tribes to which the Arabs of the south, the Aramæans, and the Hebrews alike belonged, worshipped four supreme deities—Athtar, the evening and morning star; the moon-god and its messenger or “Prophet”; and the goddess of the sun. Athtar is the Babylonian Istar, who has become a male god in her passage to the Semites; and, while the people of Hadhramaut borrowed the name of Sin from Babylonia, those of Qatabân borrowed the name of Nebo (Anbây). Samas, the sun, has become a goddess; the moon-god has taken the foremost place in the pantheon, and the sun has accordingly been transformed into his colourless reflection. As in the case of Istar, so too in that of the sun-god, the genderless grammar of Sumerian facilitated the change. Â, the sun-god of Sippara, had become his wife under Semitic influence,4 and from Sippara the conception of a solar goddess passed to the Semites on the western side of the Euphrates.

The supreme Baalim of the South Arabian inscriptions must thus have been of Babylonian origin. Name and character alike were derived from Sumerian Babylonia. And from this the further inference is obvious: Arabian and West Semitic “Sabaism,” with its worship of the heavenly bodies, was not indigenous. It must have been the result of contact with Babylonian civilisation, a contact which gave Ur and Harran a mixed population, and caused them to be the seats and centres of the worship of the moon-god. The primitive Semitic Baal—the “lord” of a specific plot of earth or tribal territory—became a moon-good or an evening star, while his wife was embodied in the sun.

This conclusion is confirmed by a study of the religion of Canaan. Here the place occupied by the moon-god among Arabians and Hebrews is taken by the sun. The supreme Baal is the sun-god, and the female Ashtoreth is identified with the moon. As I endeavoured to show in an earlier lecture, there was a period in the history of Babylonian religion when here also the sun-god was supreme. The gods were resolved into solar deities, or rather were identified with the sun. The solar element in Merodach threatened to absorb his human kingship; it was only his likeness to man that saved him from the fate of the Egyptian gods.

It is just this phase in the history of Babylonian theology that we find reflected in the theology of Canaan. Baal has passed into the sun-god, and his characteristics are those of the sun-gods of Babylonia. The historical monuments have told us how long and deep was the influence of Babylonia upon the culture of Canaan, and it was exercised just at the time when the solar faith had triumphed in the Babylonian plain. It is not without significance that Sargon of Akkad, who first brought the civilisation and arts of Babylonia to the shores of the Mediterranean, should have had his capital in a city which adjoined Sippara, the special seat of solar worship, While Arabia drew its inspiration from Ur, the religion of Canaan was modified by contact with a culture and theology that were more purely Babylonian. Phœnician tradition stoutly maintained that the ancestors of the Canaanitish people had come from the Persian Gulf.

“Sabaism,” therefore, to use the old term, must really have been an early form of Babylonian belief. It was communicated to the Semites west of the Euphrates at different times and in different ways. To the Western Semites of Arabia and Mesopotamia it came through Ur, and consequently set the moon-god at the head of the divine hierarchy. To the Canaanite it was carried more directly, but at a later period, when the solar worship had become dominant in Babylonia. The influence of Nippur had waned before that of Eridu, and out of Eridu had risen a culture-god whose son and vicegerent was the sun.

The moon-god was addressed in Southern Arabia by different titles, one of which was that Ἀmmi or Ἀmmu which forms part of the name of Khammurabi. Professor Hommel hints that even the Hebrew Yahveh may once have been a title of the moon-god among the Western Semites of Babylonia. As I was the first to point out, the name of Yahveh actually occurs in a document of the age of Abraham, where it enters into the composition of the name Yahum-ilu, the Joel of the Old Testament. Professor Hommel has since found other examples of it in tablets of the same period, thus overthrowing the modern theory which derives it from the Kenites.5 It was already known to “Abram the Hebrew” in Ur of the Chaldees.

The hymn to the moon-god of Ur, to which I have referred in an earlier lecture,6 is almost monotheistic in tone. To the writer he “alone is supreme in heaven and earth.” He is the creator of the universe; he is also the universal “Father,” “long-suffering and full of forgiveness, whose hand upholds the life of all mankind.” More than that, he is “the omnipotent one, whose heart is immensity, and there is none that may fathom it.” Among the other gods he has no rival; he causes the herb to grow, and the cattle and flock to bring forth; and he established law and justice among mankind. The angels of heaven and the spirits of the earth alike do homage to him; there is no goddess even who appears at his side. The hymn formed part of the ritual of the great temple at Ur before the birth of Abraham, and the Hebrew patriarch may well have listened to its teaching.

From Ur and its mixed population we can trace the worship of the Babylonian moon-god along the coasts of Southern Arabia as far as Egypt. In Hadhramaut, as I have already said, the very name of Sin was retained, and even in North-western Arabia the name of the sacred mountain of Sinai bears witness to the cult of the Babylonian deity. Early seal-cylinders associate with the moon-god both an ape and a dwarf-like figure, called Nu-gidda, “the dwarf,” in Sumerian, who dances in honour of the god, like the Danga dwarf in Egypt, or the cynocephalous apes of Thoth. In Egypt, however, the dwarf assumes the shape of Bes, who is often represented with an ape on either side; and Bes with his crown of feathers, along with the apes (or monkeys) that accompany him, came from the south of Arabia to the valley of the Nile.

The monotheistic tendency of the hymn to the moon-god stands in marked contrast to the polytheism of the solar hymns. The solar ritual, in fact, was essentially polytheistic. But Nannar or Sin, the moon-god, was “the prince of the gods,” the ruler of the starry hosts of heaven. By the side of him the stars were but as the sheep of a flock in the presence of their shepherd, or as the people of a State in the presence of their deified king. Hence he was lord over his brother gods in a way that the sun-god could never be; they became the hosts that he marshalled in fight against the enemies of light and order, the multitude that obeyed his voice as the sheep follow their shepherd. The moon-god was emphatically “the lord of hosts”!

The title was applied to other gods in later days. Nebuchadrezzar calls Nebo “the marshaller of the hosts of heaven and earth,”7 and Tiglath-pileser I. makes Assur “the director of the hosts of the gods.” The kings transferred the title to themselves, changing only “gods” into “men,” and so becoming “kings of the hosts of mankind.” But the first signification of the term was “the host of heaven,” the stars of El above whom the king of Babylon sought to erect his throne. One of the primeval divinities of the pantheon—a divinity, indeed, who scarcely emerged from his primitive condition of a primordial spirit—was En-me-sarra,8 “the enchanter of the (heavenly and earthly) hosts,” to whom in some of the old Babylonian cities a feast of mourning was celebrated at the time of the winter solstice in the month Tebet. A hymn entitles him “the lord of the earth, the prince of Arallu, lord of the place and the land whence none return, even the mountain of the spirits of earth … without whom Inguriśa cannot produce prosperity in field or canal, cannot create the crop … he who gives sceptre and reign to Anu and El-lil.”9 He is invoked, like the moon-god, to establish firmly the foundation-stone that it may last for ever. But it is not only over the spirits of the underground world that he holds sway; he reigns also in heaven, in the close vicinity of the ecliptic, and “the seven great gods” who were his sons were stars in the sky. His attributes, therefore, closely resemble those of the moon-god of Ur: like the moon-god, he is at once lord of the sky and of the underworld, a father of the stars of night who makes the green herb grow in the earth below. In En-me-sarra, “the enchanter of the (spirit)-hosts,” the realm of the moon-god was united with that of En-lil; as lord of the night he ruled in Hades, and was supreme even in that “mountain” of the ghost-world from which En-lil derived one of his names.10

But I must leave to others the task of further pursuing the path of exploration which I have thus sketched in outline. That Yahveh was once identified with the moon-god of Babylonia in those distant days, when as yet Abraham had not been born in Ur of Chaldees, explains his title of “Lord of hosts” better than the far-fetched theories which have been invented to account for it. The explanation has at least the merit of being supported by the ancient texts of Babylonia. Adventurous spirits may even be inclined to see in Sinai, the mountain of Sin, a fitting place for the promulgation of the Law of the Lord of hosts; but such speculations lie beyond the reach of the present lecturer, and the lectures he has undertaken to give.

The name of En-me-sarra, “the enchanter of the (spirit)-hosts,” brings us back to that dark background of magic and sorcery which distinguished and disfigured the religion of Babylonia up to the last. The Sumerian element continued to survive in the Babylonian people, and the magic which was its primitive religion survived also. It was never eliminated; behind the priest lurked the sorcerer; the spell and the incantation were but partially hidden beneath the prayer and the penitential psalm. One result of this was the exaggerated importance attached to rites and ceremonies, and the small space occupied by the moral element in the official Babylonian faith. There was doubtless a certain amount of spirituality, more especially of an individualistic sort; the sinner bewails his transgressions, and appeals for help to his deity, but of morality as an integral part of religion there is little evidence. We look in vain for anything analogous to the judgment-hall of Osiris and the negative confession of the Egyptian dead; the Babylonian gods, it is true, preferred that a man should walk uprightly, but his future salvation did not depend on his conduct in this life. He was punished in this world for his sins and shortcomings, but the sins were not confined to sins against morality; they equally included ceremonial transgressions.

At the same time, a sort of catechism which forms part of the ritual of the seers shows that a recognition of the moral element in religion was not altogether wanting. The following is Professor Zimmern's translation of it: “Has he estranged the father from his son? Has he estranged the son from his father? Has he estranged the mother from her daughter? Has he estranged the daughter from her mother? Has he estranged the mother-in-law from her daughter-in-law? Has he estranged the brother from his brother? Has he estranged the friend from his friend? Has he estranged the companion from his companion? Has he refused to set a captive free, or has he refused to loose one who was bound? Has he excluded the prisoner from the light? Has he said of a captive, ‘Hold him fast,’ or of one who was bound, ‘Strengthen his bonds’? Has he committed sin against a god, or has he committed sin against a goddess? Has he offended a god, or has he held a goddess in light esteem? Is his sin against his own god, or is his sin against his own goddess? Has he done violence to one older than himself, or has he conceived hatred against an elder brother? Has he held his father and mother in contempt, or has he insulted his elder sister? Has he been generous in small things, but avaricious in great matters? Has he said ‘yea’ for ‘nay,’ and ‘nay’ for ‘yea’? Has he spoken of unclean things or [counselled] disobedience? Has he spoken wicked words? … Has he used false scales? … Has he accepted a wrong account, or has he refused a rightful sum? Has he disinherited a legitimate son, or has he recognised an illegitimate son? Has he set up a false landmark, or has he refused to set up a true landmark? Has he removed bound, border, or landmark? Has he broken into his neighbour's house? Has he drawn near his neighbour's wife? Has he shed his neighbour's blood? Has he stolen his neighbour's garment?”11

The list of questions reminds us of the negative confession of the Osirian creed, but the end and purpose of it is different. They are the questions put to the penitent in order that the priest may discover why the wrath of the gods has fallen upon him. They relate to this life only, not to the next; conformity to the moral code they imply brings with it no assurance of eternal happiness, it is a guarantee only against suffering and misfortune in the present world. The point of view of the Babylonian was that of the friends of Job.

Morality, in fact, was left in large measure to the legislator. An old code, which seems to have been ascribed to the god Ea, asserts explicitly the responsibility of the ruler, and his amenability to divine punishment for unrighteous dealing.

“If the king does not give heed to justice,” it begins, “his people will perish and his land be enfeebled.12

“If he gives no heed to the law of the land, Ea, the king of destinies, will change his destiny, and visit him with misfortune.

“If he gives no heed to his nobles, his days shall [not] be long.

“If he gives no heed to the wise, his land will revolt against him.

“If he gives heed to the (law-)book, the king will behold the strengthening of his land.

“If he gives heed to the writing (sipir) of Ea, the great gods will establish him in counsel and knowledge of justice.

“If he smites a man of Sippara and gives a wrong decision, the sun-god, who judges heaven and earth, will appoint another judge in his land, and a just prince and a just judge instead of unjust ones.

“If the sons of Nippur come to him for judgment, and he accepts bribes and treats them harshly, Bel, the lord of the world, will bring a foreign enemy against him and destroy his army; the prince and his general will be hunted like outcasts through the streets.

“If the sons of Babylon bring silver and offer bribes, and he favours the Babylonians and turns himself to their entreaty, Merodach, the lord of heaven and earth, will set his foes over him, and give his goods and his treasure to his enemy. The sons of Nippur, or Sippar, or Babylon who act thus shall be cast into prison.”13

The dissociation of ethics and religion in Babylonia was due to a considerable extent to the practical character of Babylonian theology and the limitation of the doctrine of rewards and punishments to this life. In contrast to the Egyptian, who may be said to have lived for the next world, the Babylonian lived for this. It was here that he was rewarded for his piety or punished for his sins. The world beyond the grave was a place of unspeakable dreariness. I have already described it in a previous lecture. It was a prison-house of darkness and unsubstantiality; a land where all things were forgotten, and those who inhabited it were themselves forgotten of men. It resembled the Hebrew Sheol; indeed, it is probable that the name of Sheol is borrowed from Babylonia,14 and borrowed names are apt to indicate that the ideas connected with them were borrowed too. In the gloom of that underworld, where the ghosts of the dead fed on dust and refuse, the hideous monsters of chaos still moved and dimly showed themselves, while “the kings of the nations” sat on their shadowy thrones, welcoming the slaughtered king of Babylon with the words: “Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us?” The dead man never again saw the light of the sun. There was no Osirian paradise to receive him, with its sunshine and happy meadows; even the brief period of light which the solar creed of Egypt allowed the bark of the sun-god to bring to the denizens of the other world, was denied to the dead Babylonian. Over the gates of the world beyond the grave the words were written: “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” There was no return; none, even with the help of Merodach, could come back to the home he had left on earth; the sevenfold gates of Hades opened only to admit those that entered it. Death meant the extinction of light and hope, even of the capacity for feeling either pleasure or pain.

It was on this life, therefore, that the religious thoughts of the Babylonian were centred. And his view of his relation to the gods was a curious mixture of spirituality and the commercial instinct. On the one hand, it was a question of barter; if the man was generous in his gifts to the gods, if he did what they approved and abstained from what they condemned, above all, if the rites and ceremonies of religion were correctly fulfilled, the gods were bound to grant him all that his heart desired. On the other hand, if misfortune fell upon him, it was a proof that he had sinned against them. And as the centuries passed the consciousness of sin sank more and more deeply into the heart of the Babylonian. At first, indeed, the sins were offences against the ritual rather than against the moral and spiritual code. The ghosts and spirits of the old Sumerian faith were non-moral; if some of them inflicted pain and disease upon man, it was because it was their nature to do so, and the only defence against them was in the charms of the sorcerer. But with the arrival of the Semite, and the consequent transformation of the goblin into a god and of the sorcerer into a priest, a new conception was introduced of the divine nature. The gods became human, and the humanity they put on was that of civilised man. They became moral agents, hating iniquity and loving righteousness, ready to help the creatures they had made, but chastising them for their offences as the father would his son. “Father,” in fact, is one of the commonest titles given to the god in the new age of Babylonian religion. It was only in the conception of Hades that the old ideas still maintained their influence, that the powers who ruled there still continued to be the malignant or non-moral monsters of an earlier belief, and that a common lot was believed to await in it all mankind, whatever might have been their conduct on this side of the grave.

In this world, on the contrary, the conviction that sin brought punishment with it became more and more pronounced. And with the conviction came an increasing belief in the efficacy of prayer and repentance, and the necessity for purity of heart. The words supposed to have been put into the mouth of Merodach after his creation of man, late in date though they may be, testify clearly to the fact. I give them in Mr. King's translation15

“Towards thy god shalt thou be pure of heart, for that is the glory of the godhead;

Prayer and supplication and bowing low to the earth, early in the morning shalt thou offer unto him. …

The fear of god begets mercy, offerings increase life, and prayer absolves from sin.

He that fears the gods shall not cry aloud [in grief],

he that fears the spirits of earth shall have a long [life].

Against friend and neighbour thou shalt not speak [evil].

Speak not of things that are hidden, [practise] mercy,

When thou makest a promise (to give), give and [hold] not [back].”

Already, in the age of Khammurabi, the author of the story of the Deluge makes it the punishment inflicted on mankind for their misdeeds, and the Chaldæan Noah is rescued from it by Ea on account of his piety. The penitential psalms and ritual texts are full of illustrations of the same fact. It is true that the misdeeds are often merely involuntary violations of the ceremonial law or offences against the ritual, but the sense of guilt attaching to them is already profound. It required centuries before the Babylonian was able to distinguish between moral and ceremonial sin,—if, indeed, he ever succeeded in doing so,—but at an early period a consciousness of the heinousness of sin already lay heavily upon him, as well as of the need of repentance. A profound sense of his transgressions, and of the punishment they deserved, had grown up within him long before he had learnt to confine it to moral guilt. In this respect, again, he differed from the Egyptian: penitence and the consciousness of sin belonged to Babylonia; we look in vain for them in the valley of the Nile. The light-hearted Egyptian was too contented to feel them; the gods he worshipped were, like himself, kindly and easy-going, and the pantheism of the upper classes offered no place to a reproachful conscience.

But the gods of Babylonia, in the days when the Sumerian and the Semite had become one people, were stern judges. The theology of Eridu was coloured and darkened by that of Nippur; Ea might save Xisuthros from the waters of the Flood, but En-lil had doomed all men to destruction. And whether it was the sun-god who was worshipped, or the moon-god of Ur, it was still a judge who beheld and visited all the deeds of living men. In the sun-god the judge predominated, in the moon-god the father, but that was all. The father was also a judge, the judge was also a father, and the same word might be used to denote both.

But it must be remembered that the judgeship of the son-god and the fatherhood of the moon-god were confined to the present world. They were not dead gods like Osiris, whose tribunal was in another world. There was no postponing the evil day, therefore; a man's sins were visited upon him in this life, just as it was also in this life that his righteousness was rewarded. A deathbed repentance was useless; penitence, to be effective, must be manifested on this side of the grave.

Hence came the penitential ritual which forms so striking a feature in the service-books of Babylonia. It was reduced to a system, like the confessional in later days. The penitent was instructed by the priest what to say, and the priest pronounced his absolution. For the exercise of priestly absolution was another essential feature of Babylonian religion.

Besides the consciousness of sin and the conception of repentance, the idea of mediation must also be traced to Babylonia. On the earliest seals the priest is represented as acting as a mediator between the worshipper and his god. It is only through the priest that the layman can approach the deity and be led into the presence of the god. This idea of mediation has a twofold origin. On the one side, it goes back to the beliefs which saw in the magician—the predecessor of the priest—the possessor of knowledge and powers that were hidden from the rest of mankind; on the other side, it has grown out of the doctrine that the priest was the vicegerent of the god. It was thus the result of the union of two conceptions which I believe to have been respectively Sumerian and Semitic. The deified king or pontiff necessarily took the place of the god on earth; Gudea, for instance, at Lagas was the representative of the god Inguriśa, and therefore himself divine. The fact that the gods were represented in human forms facilitated this conversion of the minister of the deity into his adopted son and representative; the powers and functions of the god were transferred to him, and, like the vassal-prince in the absence of the supreme king, he acted in the god's place.

The Semitic Baal was a lord or king of human shape and passions. He thus stood in marked contrast to the Sumerian ghost or spirit; and, as we have seen, the gulf between them is too deep and broad to be spanned by the doctrine of evolution. For the Sumerian the world outside man was peopled with spirits and demons; for the Semite it was a human world, since man was made in the image of the gods. The triumph of the gods of light and order over the monsters of chaos symbolised not only the birth of the present creation, but also the theological victory of the Semite over the Sumerian. And with the victory came a conception of the divine which was modelled on that of the organised State. As the human head of the State was himself a god, delegating his authority from time to time to his human ministers, so too in the world of gods there was a supreme Baal or lord who was surrounded by his court and ministers. Foremost among these were the sukkalli or “angels,” the messengers who conveyed the will of their lord to the dwellers upon earth. Some of them were more than messengers; they were the interpreters and vicegerents of the supreme deity, like Nebo “the prophet” of Borsippa. And as vicegerents they naturally became the sons by adoption of Bel; Aśari of Eridu first takes the place of Ea, whose double he originally was, and then in the person of Merodach becomes his son; Nin-ip of Nippur, the messenger of En-lil, is finally transformed into his son, and addressed, like Horus in Egypt, as “the avenger of his father.”16 The hierarchy of the gods is modelled upon that of Babylonia, and the ideas of mediation and vicegerency are transferred to heaven.

Repentance, the consciousness of sin, and mediation are thus conceptions all of which may be traced back to Babylonia. And each of them leads naturally, if not inevitably, to other and cognate conceptions. Mediation, as I have pointed out, is partly dependent on a belief in a doctrine of vicegerency, which, in combination with a profound sense of sin, leads in turn to the doctrine of absolution. And mediation itself is given a wide meaning. The priest mediates between the layman and his deity; the lesser gods between mankind and the supreme Baalim. M. Martin aptly compares the intercession of Abraham for the doomed cities of the plain, and the doctrine of the intercession of the Saints in the Christian Church.17

The consciousness of sin, again, is similarly far-reaching. It extends to sins of ignorance and omission as well as to sins of commission. Time after time the penitential psalms ask forgiveness for sins the very nature of which was unknown to the penitent. “The sin that I have done I know not,” he is made to say, “The transgression that I have committed I know not.”

“An offence I have committed unwillingly against my god.

A sin against my goddess unwillingly have I wrought:

O lord, my transgressions are many, manifold are my sins!”

The disease or misfortune that had overtaken him was a proof of the sin, even though it had been committed involuntarily or in ignorance that it was wrong. “When I was little I sinned,” says another psalm, “yea, I transgressed the commandments of my god.”18

Repentance has its corollary confession, whether public or private. And the ritual texts show that both public and private confession was practised in Babylonia. Indeed, private confession seems to have been the older and more usual method. The penitential psalms are in the first person singular, like the Hebrew psalms; in public confession the Babylonian probably believed that a man was more likely to think about the sins of others than about his own.

Penitence implies a need of absolution. It also implies a belief in the sinfulness of human nature and the purity of the divine. The purity, it is true, may be ceremonial rather than moral, and in the early days of Babylonian religion the ceremonial element almost obscured the moral. But as time went on the moral element grew ever stronger, and the ritual texts began to be superseded by prayers of a more spiritual character. The prayers addressed by Nebuchadrezzar to Merodach rise almost to the height of a passionate faith in the absolute goodness and mercy of the god.

Speaking generally, then, we may say that the religion of Babylonia was essentially anthropomorphic, with all the faults and virtues of an anthropomorphic conception of the divine. But it was grafted on a primeval stock of Sumerian shamanism from the influences of which it never wholly shook itself free. It thus differed from Hebrew anthropomorphism, with which in other respects it had so much in common. Behind the lineaments of Hebrew anthropomorphism ghost or goblin are not to be found.

And yet between the religion of Babylonia and that of Israel there was much that was alike. It was natural, indeed, that it should be so. The Babylonians of history were Semitic, and Abraham the Hebrew had sprung from a Babylonian city. In the last lecture I drew attention to the similarity that existed between the temples of Babylonia and that of Jerusalem, a similarity that extended even to details. There was the same similarity between the Babylonian rituals and the Mosaic Law; the priesthood, moreover, was established on the same lines, and the prophets and seers of Israel have their analogues in those of Chaldæa. The religious law and ritual of the Hebrews looks back like their calendar to the banks of the Euphrates.

The same lesson is taught by the literary traditions of the Hebrew people. The cosmology of Genesis has its roots in the cosmology of Eridu, and the first home of mankind is placed by the Old Testament in Eden, “the plain” of Babylonia, which was watered by the Tigris and Euphrates. The Babylonian story of the Deluge is the parent of that which is recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, while it was at Babylon that the dispersal of mankind took place. The background of Hebrew history is as purely Babylonian as the background of Hebrew ritual.

And, as Gunkel has shown,19 the old Babylonian traditions embodied in the Book of Genesis must have made their way to the West at the very beginning of Hebrew history. They enter into the web of the earliest Hebrew thought, and are presupposed by Hebrew literature. The cosmology which saw the primordial element in the watery deep, and told of the victory that had been won over Tiamât, the dragon of chaos, must have been already known in Canaan when the language and script of Babylonia were taught in its schools, and Babylonian literature studied in its libraries. Long before the Mosaic age, the literary culture of Babylonia had profoundly affected the peoples of Syria, and had penetrated even to the banks of the Nile. Need we be surprised, then, if we find a “sea” in the temple of Solomon, the symbol of beliefs which had their origin on the shores of the Persian Gulf, or priestly ordinances which recall those of ancient Chaldæa?

The ordinances and temples were but the outward symbols of the ideas that had created them. The anthropomorphism of Semitic Babylonia is reflected in the anthropomorphism of the Israelites. The sense of sin and of the overwhelming power of the deity, the efficacy of penitence and the necessity of a mediator, are common to both Babylonia and Israel. Hence it is that the penitential psalms of the Babylonian ritual bear so striking a resemblance to the psalms of the Old Testament; hence, too, the individual element and deep spirituality that characterise them. Israel was indebted to Babylonia for something more than the seeds of a merely material civilisation.

It is true that there is a gulf, wide and impassable, between the Babylonian religion as we decipher it in the cuneiform tablets, and the religion of Israel as it is presented to us in the Old Testament. On the one side, we have a gross and grotesque polytheism; on the other, an uncompromising monotheism. Babylonian religion made terms with magic and sorcery, and admitted them in a certain degree to its privileges; they were not incompatible with polytheism; but between them and the worship of the one God there could be no reconciliation. It was the same with the sensualities that masqueraded at Erech in the garb of a religious cult; they belonged to a system in which the sun-god was Baal, and a goddess claimed the divided adoration of man. To Israel they were forbidden, like the necromancy and witchcraft with which they were allied.

But deep and impassable as may be the gulf which separated the Mosaic Law from the official religion of Babylonia, different as may have been the development of prophecy in Babylonia and Israel, the primordial ideas from which they started were strangely alike. The same relation that is borne by the religion of ancient Egypt to Christianity is borne by the religion of Babylonia to Judaism. The Babylonian conception of the divine, imperfect though it was, underlay the faith of the Hebrew, and tinctured it up to the end. The Jew never wholly freed himself from the dominion of beliefs which had their first starting-point in the “plain” of Babylonia; his religious horizon remained bounded by death, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continued to be the God of the living and not of the dead. It was in this world that the righteous were rewarded and the wicked punished; the world to come was the dreary shadow-land of Babylonian teaching, a land of darkness where all things are forgotten, but also a land where “the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.”

  • 1.

    Ædipus Judaicus (London, 1811).

  • 2.

    So in the second book of the Surpu series (WAI, iv. 59, Col, ii. 106, Col. iv. 7–9, translated in my Hibbert Lectures, pp. 508, 509); WAI. iii. 66. a 9, 13.

  • 3.

    Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, ii. pp. 149–165.

  • 4.

    See my Hibbert Lectures, pp. 177, 178.

  • 5.

    Expository Times, ix. (1898) p. 522; March 1900, p. 270.

  • 6.

    P. 316.

  • 7.

    WAI. i. 51. 1, 13.

  • 8.

    Pronounced Ên-sarra, Ênu-sa-kissati in Semitic.

  • 9.

    See the translation of the hymn in my Hibbert Lectures, p. 301. The text has been commented on by Fr. Martin, Textes réligieux assyriens et babyloniens, pp. 77–80.

  • 10.

    The god of the “great mountain,” see above, pp. 376, 452.

  • 11.

    Zimmern, Die Beschwörungstafeln Shurpu, p. 3 sqq.

  • 12.

    We may notice that it is the people, and not the king, who will suffer for the misdeeds of the latter; cp. 2 Sam. xxiv. 17, and Horace, Ep), i. 12, 20: “quicquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi.”

  • 13.

    WAI. iv. 55. The inscription was first translated by George Smith, Assyrian Discoveries (1875), pp. 409–411, and by myself in the Records of the Past, first ser., vii. (1876), pp. 119–122. Mr. King has recently given the first part of the text in his Babylonian Religion, pp. 217, 218.

  • 14.

    Hommel suggests that silân, “the hollow place underneath the earth,” is derived from sa'ûlânu, “sheol” (Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, iii. p. 347).

  • 15.

    Babylonian Religion and Mythology, p. 83. See George Smith, Chaldæan Account of Genesis, pp. 78–80 (11. 10–13, 16–23).

  • 16.

    K255, Obv. i. 19, Ablu dannu mutir gimilli Bili abi-su, “the mighty son, the avenger of Bel his father.”

  • 17.

    Textes religieux assyriens et babyloniens, p. xvi.

  • 18.

    Martin, l.c., p. 14.

  • 19.

    H. Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895).