Genesis 5: the history of Sumer
Here I argue that Genesis chapter 5 could be a history of Sumer, the land that gave us cities, kings, writing, etc. Put briefly, the names (Adam, Enoch, etc.) can be understood as descriptions. E.g. the word "Adam" just means "man" or "soil", the word "Noah" just means "rest", and so on. The dates in Genesis 5 match the historical eras in Sumer: early Uruk, late Uruk, the destruction of Shurrupak, etc. Phrases like "and he had sons and daughters", implying this was a person rather than a group, were probably added later.
Genesis 5 is mythology. Mythology is how history was recorded in ancient times, before writing was common. For example, the Iliad is a stylised version of the Trojan wars, and Gilgamesh is the exaggerated stories of a real king. Even apparently simple images can encode a great deal of information. The images at Gobekli Tepe must have meant something, and in this video from the Penn Museum, Dr. Jeremy McInerney (of the University of Pennsylvania) argues that an image of Bellerophon and Pegasus defeating the Nemean lion, the Lyrna Hydra, and the Sikyon chimera, represents Corinth's conflict with its neigbours Nemea, Lyrna and Sikyon.
In this essay I will argue that Genesis 5 is like that image. Genesis gives us images like "the soil", "the mountain", "the spear carrier" and it would originally have been udnerstood as a story of different people, or of stages in the life of groups who were later united, just as Corith, Nemea, Lyrna, and Sikyon later became part of Greece.
For convenience, here is Genesis 5, as it has come down to us (King James translation):
"1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;
2 Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.
3 And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image; and called his name Seth:
4 And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:
5 And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.
6 And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos:
7 And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters:
8 And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.
9 And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan:
10 And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters:
11 And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died.
12 And Cainan lived seventy years and begat Mahalaleel:
13 And Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters:
14 And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died.
15 And Mahalaleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared:
16 And Mahalaleel lived after he begat Jared eight hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters:
17 And all the days of Mahalaleel were eight hundred ninety and five years: and he died.
18 And Jared lived an hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch:
19 And Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:
20 And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died.
21 And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah:
22 And Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:
23 And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years:
24 And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.
25 And Methuselah lived an hundred eighty and seven years, and begat Lamech.
26 And Methuselah lived after he begat Lamech seven hundred eighty and two years, and begat sons and daughters:
27 And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.
28 And Lamech lived an hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son:
29 And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.
30 And Lamech lived after he begat Noah five hundred ninety and five years, and begat sons and daughters:
31 And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years: and he died.
32 And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth." (Genesis 5, KJV)
I will argue that the years refer to dates in the history of Sumer, the first great civilisation of the middle east. Here is a map of Sumer, in what is now southern Iraq. Key cities are circled: Eridu, the first city; Uruk, the dominant city for the first thousand years; Shurappak, location of the Great Flood, and Babylon, capital of the later Babylonian empire. The location of Akkad, capital of the Akkadian Empire (the empire after Sumer, and before Babylon) is not known. Because the city of Akkad was later destroyed and never resettled.
Image source: John D. Croft, license GNU 1.2
Here is an overview of Sumer's history, using the descriptions given in Genesis 5. E.g. Genesis refers to the "late Uruk Period" as the Hebrew word "Enoch" which means "taste Godhood":
Now for the details.
Genesis 5 is probably based on an earlier source. We may even have that document, lying unidentified among the Nineveh tablets. But we cannot be sure.
The evidence for an earlier source.
Genesis 5 is set in Mesopotamia. It starts in Eden (that is, the source of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and two other rivers that used to exist there). It ends in Shuruppak, (that is, the city of the Great Flood: Shuruppak is specified in the early flood accounts). Later chapters are about Shinar (Mesopotamia) and how the ancestors of the Jews came from there. So Genesis 5 is set in Mesopotamia.
All of the other early Genesis material set in Mesopotamia is based on known texts. The creation story is based on the Enuma Elish, the Great Flood is based on Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, etc., and so on. Why would this document be different?
When we check those sources, we find that the Documentary Hypothesis is wrong, and Genesis is accurate in all the important points.
The author of Genesis 5 had no reason to make it up. If he wanted a genealogy for Noah he could have just used the Sumerian king list. There were plenty of copies around. If he felt the reign lengths were absurdly long he could just "correct" them: he did not hesitate to change other parts as needed. Besides, Genesis 5 fits what we know about the history of Sumer. For the part of history we know best, the flood at Shuruppak, it fits every detail and puts the event at exactly the date suggested by archaeology. That's pretty impressive. For the rest, external history only gives is us broad date ranges, within fifty years or so. Genesis 5 had those dates long before the archaeologists, and gives us the precise year when they happened.
All of this means that Genesis 5 is probably based on an older Msopotamian text giving the history of Sumer.
If Genesis 5 was written in the period it describes, then it must have been written in proto-cuneiform. That is, something like this:
This is a proto-cuneiform tablet from the Jemdet Nasr period, c.3100–2900 BC. See how it is divided into boxes, each with some images and (usually) big and small dots representing numbers. This happens to be the same way that Genesis 5 is constructed: ten sets of names and numbers. At this stage most writing was simply pictures of objects, then numbers, usually for use in trade, but it also has other uses. There is no alphabet, and only a limited number of pictures. So there are no sentences. They certainly don't waste space with repetitive material like "and so and so had sons and daughters" after every single name. That kind of thing was inferred by the reader:
"[T]hese archaic proto-cuneiform texts were not technically 'read' in the normal sense because the script was not yet advanced enough to mirror spoken language. In essence the function of proto-cuneiform was essentially the same as if we were to show a quantity of apples by sketching a small picture of an apple with tallies beside to show how many, thus depicting that there were a specific number of a specific good. In the beginning proto-cuneiform didn’t follow speech, so there was not convention or underlying rules for word order. The ancient Sumerians compensated with a standard tablet arrangement so that the accounting information was organized in an understandable fashion that would have otherwise been the role of grammar." ("The Invention of Writing :: Proto-Cuneiform in the Uruk Period")
But could it be that an original source was not proto-cuneiform, but an oral history preserved across two thousand years? Maybe, but the earliest date in Genesis 5 is after 4000 BC, after the Ubaid period. The Ubaid people people already had sophisticated houses, centralised government, and long distance trade. So they could obviously record tallies of numbers.
And we know they could paint and carve images: we have their pottery, and seals they used for packaging containers for trade. Why would they only memorise images and numbers when can just write them down? So the original of Genesis 5 was probably a kind of proto-proto cuneiform: images of their heroes and tallies of numbers. It could even be "full" proto-cuneiform. The earliest date in Genesis 5 (the start of "Seth") is about 3870 BC. by the time they needed two numbers it was 3775 BC. By 3400 we have many examples of proto-cuneiform. If we had every example ever made, no doubt some would go back to 3800 or so.
So let's consider a typical section of Genesis 5 in proto-cuneiform. Here it is in English:
"And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died. And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan. And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died." (Genesis 5:6-11)
In proto-cuneiform, this would be a picture or pictures that represents "Seth", then dots to represent the number 105. Then perhaps dots to represent the number 807, and so on. There would be no sense in carefully carving the names twice, or the total numbers: drawing all those shapes took time. Besides, writing was still new: most people were used to memorising, and they did not have shelves for writing tablets. So the smaller and simpler the better. So that section same section, in proto-Cuneiform, would be something like this:
"Seth 105 807 Enos 90 815 Cainan"
But how would they write "Seth"? How would they write "Enos"? I am glad you asked.
Names in proto-languages
All the names in Genesis 5 are also words for things or ideas. So they would be easy to draw. What do they mean? Different dictionaries give different meanings. Because there is no pre-Bible Hebrew dictionary. Even the greatest Hebrew scholar can only know what the words mean by comparing other Hebrew words. And maybe get hints about the culture from archaeology. Take the name Methuselah for example. The word is mat- shallah or man-throwing, and seems to suggest a javelin. So it is sometimes translated "man of the javelin". but what does that mean? Is it because he had big muscles? Or because he kills people? Or because he has high status (javelins ere expensive)? Or that he is the best soldier in an army (javelins were their elite weapon)? All we can do is become extremely familiar with the stories and words and archaeology, and see what makes the most sense.
Which brings us to Abarim Publications. The Abarim web site is by far the best source I know for extreme focus on Bible names. Occasionally the conclusions are not the meanings we find in standard dictionaries, but after examining all the meanings you understand why. Here, then, are the meanings of the names in Genesis 5. Remember, these may not even be names. Or if they are name they might be symbolic. Proto-cuneiform simply has the image and number. It is up to you to decide if this is a person or an idea.
Adam = soil, implying "beginning" (Hebrew "dmm")
Seth = national dress. (Hebrew "shyt": occupational garb, the dress upon which the profession stands. Also "shat", the national foundation; whatever a nation is set on. Some other sources say "appointed" based on Genesis 4:25, but that's a different word)
Enos = the weak, together, are strong. (Hebrew "anash": to form a clan for defence: implying that a person is weak, but unites with others to be stronger. This might explain why Genesis 4 ends with: "he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the Lord." - this is when people, feeling weak, united together and adopted Yahweh as their tribal god. Before that Yahweh may have been just one of "the sons of god", one of "the elohim". But now he was the god of this tribe.
Cainan = trading. (Hebrew "qanan", to weave a nest. Similar words are about other kinds of networks: the idea is to weave parts together to make a home. Similar to "qana" meaning to obtain, and "qyn" meaning a metal spear, indicating a free man. Given those words with the same root, Abarim suggests that a network of people is the best way to understand "quanan" on its own: "it may be acts of trade and routes of commerce that together combine into a bustling economy."
Mahalaleel = praise El. (Hebrew "mahalal" or praise, and "el", the generic name for a high god)
Jared = descend (from God's mountain). (Hebrew "yarad", to descend. Often used in the sense of coming down from a mountain. When Noah started a new world from "Ararat", "Ararat" might just mean "har" (hill) "yarad" (come down). It suggests a new start, such as when Moses came down from Mt Sinai, or when Abraham came down from Mt Horeb. Interestingly, this might link him to Babylon's patron deity Marduk. Marduk's name comes from the Sumerian words amar utu.k, or "bull of the sun god Utu", but the Hebrews called him "morad-k" meaning "your morad". "Morad" is a late form of "yarad", to descend. So to the Hebrews, Marduk, descending from the sun god, was like Jared, the one who descends from a high place. The Book of Jubilees says "he [Mahaleel] called his name Jared; for in his days the angels of the Lord descended on the earth, those who are named the Watchers, that they should instruct the children of men, and that they should do judgment and uprightness on the earth."(Jubilees 4:15). These are the Watchers who, according to the apocryphal book of 2nd Enoch, were the sons of god who married the daughters of men, leading to great evil that the flood was intended to stop. Another old tradition says, "Idolatry began in the times of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, and it spread to such an extent that, when Noah was born, there were not eighty persons who worshipped the true, and living, and only God. Jared fought Satan, the prince of demons, and captured him, and led him about in chains wherever he went." These later traditions are our only guide to how the ancient Jews may have understood the meaning of "Jared". It does seem to suggest descending from on high with powerful and dangerous ideas.)
Enoch = taste godhood (Hebrew "hnk" from first tasting, like "hanak" to take foods by the mouth: the Bible has many metaphors comparing wisdom to tasting something, and this having the required knowledge, being properly prepared. Hence many people translate Enoch as "dedicated" or "consecreted". We see this imagery for example when Isaiah is called: " Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." - Isaiah 6:6-8. The word "hnk" gives its name to the feast of Hanukkah, or dedication, where later Jews remembered the moment they were righteously ready for battle. Genesis emphasises the meaning of being chosen by God, ready for something amazing, by saying"And Enoch walked with God", and with all the later legends that Enoch visited heaven, Enoch was "the son of man", coming with hosts of angels to bring a new age, etc.)
Methusalah = military strength. (Hebrew "mat", man + "shalah", send, or "shelah" missile. Usually translated as "man of the javelin" but this misses the symbolism: javelin throwers were high status fighters.)
Lamech = economic strength. (Hebrew "le" push toward, and "muk", bring low in socio-economic sense. The name of the letter "le" is "lamed)", meaning a cattle prod or goad. This meaning is confirmed by how in Genesis Lamech boasts of killing a man, and being seven times worse than Cain. For why this is the same Lamech as in Cain's line, see the discussion of Cain's genealogy on the page about the Documentary Hypothesis. This similarity is an important part of the story: this appears to be the point when the original followers of Yahweh re-merge with the people of Seth. Genesis later describes how this was a period when the sons of god mixed with the daughters of men, and this led to violence that was only ended by the Great Flood.)
Noah = to rest (Hebrew "nuah".)
Shem = fame, renown (Hebrew "shem": name, in the sense of making a name for yourself: reputation and fame)
Ham = fireplace (Hebrew "ham": warm, but closely related words are about heat, and in cognate languages "hmh" means protective wall. So the idea is probably a warm fire)
Japheth = expansion (Hebrew "pata")
Lines like "and he had sons and daughters" are very repetitive, and would be very awkward to write in proto-cuneiform: proto-cuneiform was a memory aid, not a full writing system. It was not designed to encode subtle ideas. Tablets are not long enough for full stories. They seem to be designed so that a person who already knows the story does not forget the most important parts, like names and ages. So "and he had sons and daughters" was very unlikely to be in the original text.
It is also possible that the tablet did not give the total age of each person. This is not needed, because the same information can be found from adding the age at having a child and the remaining ages. Or maybe it did? For simplicity I will leave the totals out from here on. They make no difference to the argument.
So the proto-cuneiform source for Genesis 5 would be something like this:
Soil (beginning of growth): 130,800
National dress: 105,807
The weak, together, are strong: 90,815
Praise El: 65,830
Descend (from God's mountain): 162,800
Taste godhood: 65,300
Military strength: 187,782
Economic strength: 182,595
Renown, fire, expansion
These are group names, not individual names
In Genesis, "adam" means soil, but it also means a person. So any person could be an Adam. His first born son was Cain, which means "metal worker". This is a class of people. His later son Enos, means "national dress". His son's name means "the weak together become strong". And so on. Each name is a group name.
How can a group walk and talk like an individual? How can a group have wives and children? Group names are often titles for their rulers. Takes Shakespeare's history plays for example. Henry IV part 1 has characters wiht the names of British regions: "Northumberland", "Lancaster", "Gloucester", etc. "Northumberland" means Henry Percy, first earl (ruler) of the county of Northumberland. So "Northumberland" can refer to land, or the ruler of the land. The third Earl of Northumberland was also called Henry Percy. And so was the fourth, and fifth, and sixth, and eighth. So we could write a history that mentioned Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, doing something in the year 1364. And later we could mention Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, doing something in the year 1632. Readers might think he lived for over two hundred years! We might then mention that Northumberland won the MCCA Knockout Cricket trophy in 2006: readers might be impressed that a man could still play cricket at the age of 642.
Given that these group names often live on for over nine hundred years, they cannot refer to individuals.
The strange 800 numbers
The first number after each topic looks like something from real history, but what about those 800 numbers? They look too similar to be random. And if this is some kind of king list, why does a king list need two numbers? The Sumerian king list only needs one number per person.
Some have linked these to days, since "Enoch" has 365 years. But that is a single copincidence, and probably irrelevant since the Sumerians apparently preferred 360 to 365. Other attempts to fit the years into days seem forced and imprecise. The original claim, that they are years, fits the archaeological record.
It is possible that the person who decided to read the names as people also decided they needed a death date. So he then guessed the second number, much as early map makers would guess the coastline in between known points. Why he chose numbers around 800 does not matter if they are made up. If they are genuine records of Sumerian history then they also do not matter much, because the similarity between them suggests that they refer to something either routine and fairly predictable, or easy to control. That is, of less intertest to historians. For example, perhaps every major event led to a temple being erected. Then the second date is when the temple was taken down, and there as a tradition of keeping them for around 800 years. Note that this tradition lasted less than 400 years: the first time ("Adam") could be random. The second time makes it a tradition. The space between the second time and when the tradition was broken was less than 400 years. Whatever the true reason, the first date is far more important than the second one.
The numbers refer to the same group
Genesis is the Genesis ("origin") of the people of Israel. So it refers to just one group, not several different groups. This becomes clear when we extend the history in Genesis 5 to include what happened later:
Soil (beginning of growth): 130
National dress: 105
The weak, together, are strong: 90
Praise El: 65
Descend (from God's mountain): 162
Taste godhood: 65
Military strength: 187
Economic strength: 182
Conflict before the flood
Life in Ur, etc.
In the promised land
Bondage in Egypt
Exile in Babylon
State of Israel (today)
So what are those earlier dates in Genesis 5?
The history of Sumer in Genesis 5
The anchor date: 2348 BC
We need to anchor the dates in Genesis 5 to external history. The most notable event in Genesis (after the creation), and the biggest event in Sumer's history (judging by the King List), was the Great Flood. Genesis dates this to 2348 BC. Archaeology dates it to around 2350 BC. For details, see the FAQ at the end of this essay. This agreement on dates is our first indication that Genesis 5 is real history. Once 2348 is fixed, we can work back and assign dates to the other events:
4004 begin or produce
3874 National dress
3769 The weak, together, are strong
3609 Praise El
3544 Descend (from God's mountain)
3382 Taste godhood
3317 Military strength
3130 Economic strength
(3017 end of 'taste godhood': "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.")
[2469 Shuruppak is given 120 years' warning, see Genesis 6:3]
2448 Renown, fire, expansion
[2348 the flood]
Now let's look at each date, and see what was happening in Sumer at that time.
4004 BC: men from the soil
4004 in archaeology
Sumer begins with the end of the Ubaid period. Ubaid had pottery, trade, and large villages with two story houses. But it did not have kings, walled cities, large temples, and writing. This all began to appear in 4000 BC. The people built the first "Annu Ziggurat" in Uruk, the largest town. This began what archaeologists call "the Uruk period" (4000 -3100 BC). This ziggurat was the forerunner of the gigantic stepped temples that would dominate each city. They were no longer going to live as farmers, close to the soil. Humans had begun to challenge the gods!
4004 in Genesis
Genesis 5 records this as the when the "adam", the man of the soil, began to defy the gods. So the date is correct.
3874 BC: national dress
3874 in archaeology
It is very difficult to get precise dates from this era. But we know that two enormous things happened around this date:
- Urbanisation. This period, from around 4000 to 3100 BC, is called the "Uruk" period, after the large city of that name. The Uruk period can be divided into "early", "middle", "late" and "decline". This "early" period is defined by more urbanisation - that is, more people living around towns instead of in the countryside - and a more distinct separate culture.
- A new language. The oldest written Semitic words (that we have recorded) are some Akkadian names from around 2700 BC. Based on this, and comparisons with other languages, and how quickly they change, linguists estimate that Akkadian speakers started to feel they had a different language (and not just a dialect) around 3750 BC. It could be a few hundred years either side.
3874 in Genesis
Genesis 5 remembers this as "national dress": the moment when the people felt they were separate and distinct, with their own identity. Presumably in 3874 BC they started dressing distinctively.
3769 BC: the weak, together, are strong
3769 in archaeology
At this point archaeologists find mass graves at Tell Brak, between the Tigris and Euphrates, to the north of Sumer (the present day far east of Syria, just north of Iraq). The graves cannot be dated more precisely than 3800-3600 BC, but the suggests "advanced warfare" (Wikipedia).
3769 in Genesis
Genesis 5 remembers this as "weak friends come together": they are no longer just a small break off from their previous culture. Now they feel strong enough to fight. And the author of Genesis adds a comment about this moment, the "birth of Enos", in the last verse of Genesis 4: "then began men to call upon the name of Yahweh." Yahweh was later described as "Yahweh sabaoth", the god of armies. It was normal to call on your god most loudly in times of war.
3679 BC: trading
3679 in archaeology
We are now into the "middle" Uruk period. This is dominated by expanding trade. Here is the abstract of a research paper on the topic:
"This research examines broad regional patterns of inter-regional trade for the world's first colonial trading system, the economic expansion of southern Mesopotamia into southwest Iran and southeast Anatolia. Stable carbon and deuterium isotope analyses of bitumen artefacts from several Uruk enclaves and colonies show diachronic changes in trade routes as well as changes in the nature of the Uruk expansion from the Middle to Late Uruk periods. Hacinebi Tepe, a Chalcolithic Anatolian site located on the upper Euphrates River had material primarily from northern Mesopotamia in the period before the Uruk expansion. These findings highlight the importance of sites such as Tell Brak and Hamoukar which reached a high level of complexity in the early fourth millennium BC and influenced societies prior to trade with southern Mesopotamia. In the late Middle Uruk Period, during the Uruk expansion, bitumen found in trade colonies in the northern Euphrates regions derived mainly from central and southern Mesopotamia and an unidentified source area, while later colonies from the Late Uruk period acquired most of their material from the northern Mesopotamian sources. The significantly large quantity of bitumen from the sources near Hit and Khuzistan at the site of Hacinebi during Uruk contact suggests a high volume of trade in this area. The changes over the course of the Uruk expansion demonstrate shifting emphases in the upper Euphrates from riverine trade routes oriented north–south back to overland trade routes running east–west. These changes are consistent with the idea that Late Uruk colonies were focused on settlement and colonization rather than exchange. The preliminary results of these analyses demonstrate the utility of bulk isotopic analyses as a first step in the identification of broad regional patterns, which then can be bolstered with detailed isotopic and molecular work on asphaltene extractions of bitumen (Connan and Nishiaki, 2003)." (Mark Schwartz and David Hollander, "The Uruk expansion as dynamic process: A reconstruction of Middle to Late Uruk exchange patterns from bulk stable isotope analyses of bitumen artefacts")
3679 in Genesis
Genesis dates the start of this trade expansion to 3679 BC, and names it simply "trading".
h1>3609 BC: praise the gods
3609 in archaeology
Now we come to perhaps the most powerful invention of all time: writing. Or rather, proto-writing. But at the time that is not how they saw it. To them, writing was a step downwards. The real story was the explosion of wealth arriving at the temples every day!
"The earliest known written texts were found in Uruk and date to ca. 3600-3500 BC. They amount to little more than temple inventories detailing the assets, the labor force, and the stored resources at the disposal of a priestly establishment. Temple priests attempted to catalogue these resources using pictographic representations of items such as sheep or measures of grain." (Purdue course materials, "The Bronze Age Near East")
Think what this meant! They had too many temple goods to count in the old way! The expanding trade was bringing in so much wealth, they were building so many temples, that they couldn't handle it in the old way! This is like something Malachi later described:
"Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." (Malachi 3:10)
The temples were receiving so much wealth every day, transferring it in and out so quickly, that they needed a new I.T. system! The old way was much easier for small amounts: just draw a picture of what toy wanted to describe, or maybe some tally lines for counting. Any child could do that. But never before in history had a temple been so blessed that they could not write it down fast enough! They had to create a new way to record it all. The new rules required training, and the writing was harder to read. But it was the only way to cope with the rush of gold and grain and workers passing through the ever expanding temples. What a time to be alive!! In a hundred thousand years of proto-writing nobody had ever been blessed like this!
3609 in Genesis
Genesis records this explosion in temple wealth with a simple phrase: "praise the gods!!""
Akkadian vs Sumerian religion: kings vs priests
Notice how Mahalaleel is "praise El" and not "praise Yahweh" (Mahala-ya). That is, "praise a generic god" and not "praise our local god". They were Yahweh worshippers. It was Yahweh who fought their battles. But they were now trading with many different tribes and cities, each with its own local god. The next sack of grain, with its accompanying writing, might be shipped to any number of villages, each with their own god. Like a modern corporation, these proto-Akkadians had to treat all religions with respect, but they were more corporate at heart.
This is a huge change in religion, a revolution in thinking. Most readers don't notice the difference because the Akkadians adopted the same gods as the Sumerians. Where possible, the Akkadians grew through diplomacy, not war:
"[N]owhere in the textual record can one find one group complaining about the other group's traditions or customs. Furthermore, textual sources never identify either group in terms of ethnic identity. Nowhere do we read about Sumerians vilifying Akkadians as Akkadians or vice versa. [...] [T]he Akkadians adopted and adapted to the local culture while simultaneously instituting certain religious and political changes. This was done with a good deal of diplomatic skill rather than brute force, as historians had once thought." (a historian, when asked how Akkadians and Sumerians were different)
This diplomacy masked a fundamental difference in culture:
"[R]ulership in the north [Akkad] tended to be more authoritarian and the palace was an important institution, but in the south [the rest of Sumer], the temple appears to have been the most prominent institution, with the rulers being subservient to the main deity." (ibid)
Notice that? To Akkad, the king came first. To Sumer, the gods came first. That is a big difference. Of course, in Akkad the king would also sacrifice to the gods, like everybody else. But Akkad wanted power for humans. It was about power. So Akkad ended up conquering everybody else. And then everybody else had to do the same if the wanted to survive. And so the arms race began.
How did "kingship descend from heaven"?
The Sumerian king lists begins when "kingship descended from heaven". Interestingly, it does not list kings in Uruk until some time after the flood, in the 2000s BC. Even though archaeologists can see that Uruk was the most powerful city long before that, in the 3000s. The difference is that Uruk was ruled by a priest-king, not a king. In Uruk, a priest king could only do what the ancient religion said. But the new Akkadian idea was to have a separate king: a little bit more free to do things that had never been done.
Perhaps this is what they mean by kingship descending from heaven: the king cutting his connection with heaven.
Kingship and science are different
Here I argue that the Sethites (Seth Enoch, Noah, the Semites who wrote the Bible) were Akkadian. And the Cainites (Cain and his descendants) were Sumerian. But the Cainites (the metalworkers) were the first to have metal technology, cities, and music. How can this be if it was the Sethites who were more willing to defy the gods?
Science requires humility: to realise we were wrong. It is based on a love of nature: the person who discovered metal did so because they noticed unusual hard lumps in a fireplace. And they patiently wondered why nature had done this.
Kingship requires arrogance: to believe you are right. It is based on a love of self: the person who enslaves another does so because they wanted something. And they would ignore nature's suffering in order to get it.
Science and kingship are opposites. But kingship needs science. So it pretends to be nice. Just as Akkad accepted Uruk's gods and fitted in to Sumer. Uneil Akkad was strong enough to conquer. And even then Akkad needed public relations, to present itself as godfearing. But really all Akkad wanted was power.
Wait, is this antisemitic?
I am anti-kingship. Because I am anti-slavery, and kingship is a form of slavery. Akkadians appear to be pro-kingship, so that makes them the bad guys. But the Akkadians were Semitic. However, at other times Semitic people have been anti-kingship, and therefore the good guys. I think the balance of evidence puts Semites as mostly anti-kingship. So on balance, I am pro Semitic. If that even means anything,
The most influential Semite who ever lived (or allegedly lived) was Moses. Moses was defined by being anti kingship: let my people go! And he has the most important teaching ever: share land!! The most famous Semites, the Jews, have been anti kingship (in practice) for most of the past two thousand years. That is, they did not try to dominate other people through force. That makes them, on balance, the good guys.
Of course, kingship might also be inevitable. Being anti-kingship just made the Jews politically weak, and they suffered two thousand years of persecution, ending on the Holocaust. So in order to survive they now have their state again, and statehood is a form of kingship: all states survive through monopolising violence. If kingship is inevitable, this raises bigger questions about the physical world. The Gnostics and Buddhists may be right: he physical world is based on conflict, so all existence causes suffering. But that is a separate topic. The point is, I cannot blame the Akkadians for being pro-kingship. They just embraced the reality of the physical world: conflict.
Separation of church and state
Akkadians began the separation of church and state. Most Sumerians combined church and state. Today, separation is a good thing, because it allows more freedom. Don't like the state? Join a church and find like-minded people. Don't like the church? Rely on the state to protect you from those madmen.
Separation of church and state is needed when both have too much power. But power is the problem. When they have less power, combining the is better. Because the state needs the long cultural memory of the church. And the church needs the accountability of the state. Instead, today, the state has amnesia, forgetting the millennia of experience that churches remember. And the church can avoid accountability by hiding behind supernatural claims. Churches need accountablity in this life, and the state needs the multi thousand year memory.
Before Sumer, before the rise of walled cities, if you hated the church-state you could just leave. You could even set up your own church-state. The world was not overpopulated, and the power imbalance between groups and individuals was smaller. Of course it was never perfect: whenever there is any kind of group they have more power than individuals. So hunter gatherers on America's Pacific North West could enslave defeated enemies, and wives and children in violent families can be intimidated. And the first farmers could grab the best land and defend it with armies, meaning the escapee had a long way to run and faced unknown dangers and less fertile land. But it is a question of degree. In all cases, before the invention of walled cities, running away if the suffering became too bad, running away is a realistic option. Once the oppressor has stone walls, and similar oppressors control every inch of land, you cannot run away.
3544 BC: descend (from God's mountain)
3544 in archaeology
Now we finally come to the height Sumer's greatest (or most terrible) achievement: the invention of cities. Around 3500 BC the first great cities arose. That is, not just cities like Jericho: just villages with walls. But fully fledged cities with very strong walls, a temple in the middle, and a king who ruled a complex society that relied on writing. The key moment was the building of The White Temple on top of the original temple at Uruk.
Image: public domain, from 1898, via Wikipedia
This was the beginning of the great stepped temples or ziggurats. They were designed to look like a great mountain in the centre of each great city. The mountain connected heaven and Earth. The king would ascend this mountain to sacrifice to the gods and receive their words or blessings. It established the king as more than human, as a link with the gods. The king would then descend from the mountain and bring the sacred words: perhaps a command to go to war, perhaps new laws, perhaps reassurance that the gods continued to favour the city, or whatever.
The building of the White Temple marked the start of the "late Uruk" period, when the city had its greatest power and prestige. Uruk, the world's first great city, extended its influence to effectively rule all the other cities in Sumer. The walls of Uruk were often enlarged and strengthened, more temples were built, great works of art covered the walls, states were built, wealth followed in, and Uruk became the model for all cities that followed. When the king built the White Temple, and descended from the mountain, it was the sign that Uruk's destiny was to be like the god and rule over the Earth.
3544 in Genesis
Genesis calls this moment "descent from God's mountain" and dates it to the year 3544 BC.
3382 BC: taste godhood
The late Uruk period is so important that it is the only period in Genesis 5 with not just a start point, but also a meaningful end point: it covers the years 3382 BC to 3017 BC.
3382 in archaeology
We now come to the most famous period in ancient Sumer: what archaeologists call the "late Uruk" period. This was the closest any human has come to being a god in the entire history of the world (see below for why). Most of these cities are long since destroyed, so we do not have direct evidence of what happened. Archaeologists have to piece together the changes in culture from fragments of pottery or broken clay tablets. This lets them date the Late Uruk period to roughly 3400 BC - 3000 BC. Give or take fifty years.
Why these beginning and end dates? 3400 BC is when archaeologists see distinctive advances in pottery, writing, and other artefacts. For example, we see dramatic changes in proto-cuneiform. What was driving all this change? A possible answer is bronze. This was called "The Bronze Age", after all. 3400 BC saw a new discovery: a kind of super bronze. Whoever had it could, in theory, conquer the world.
3382 in proto-cuneiform
Elsewhere in this essay I have used the term "proto-cuneiform" in just a general sense: writing before cuneiform. But that is technically proto-writing in all its forms.
Proto-cuneiform is a very precise meaning, and poiints to around 3350 BC.
Before around 3350 (starting in around 3600) scribes experimented with many recording methods. One popular method was the clay "bullae", a kind of hollow clay football containing tokens representing items or numbers. By the "Uruk IV-A" period, that is, around 3350 BC, they abandoned the football method and switched to clay tablets with simplified images and dots for numbers. This is the kind of proto cuneiform most people think of when they think of cuneiform: not a football full of tokens, but something that looks just like cuneiform, but with pictures.
3382 and super-bronze
The discovery of bronze allowed stronger weapons and tools: it therefore revolutionised warfare, farming, building, and everything else that civilisation does. But early bronze was hard to make, and resulted in very crude objects. But then somebody made a great discovery. Bronze is just copper with some additve like arsenic to make it more useful. Then somebody discovered that if you add tin, you can make stronger objects, in more precise, intricate forms. Even better, you can make them at a lower temperature, so it's much easier to do. And finally, it doesn't poison the person who makes it, unlike arsenic!
When was this super-bronze discovered? We can date it to the start of tin mining, because tin had very few other uses. The most notable early tin mine for Mesopotamia was at Kestel in Anatolia. Mining there is dated to 3290 BC. Of course, the local kings around Anatolia would naturally grab everything they could. It may even have been a state secret. Either way, it took centuries for Mesopotamia to get the quantities it needed for every soldier and every farmer. But Uruk was trading with Anatolia, and already knew the value of copper:
"By 4000 B.C.E. the Sumerians had simple furnaces in Mesopotamia that could melt copper [...] Mesopotamian copper workers had advanced copper techniques by 3500 B.C.E. [e.g. methods for removing impurities] [...] Metallurgists dealt with copper for thousands of years until bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, was discovered. The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia started around 3300 B.C.E. and it denoted that bronze tools, decorations and weapons were commonly used and owned items." (Diana R. Haidar, Assyrian Iron Working Technology and Civilization")
3382 might seem ninety years too early for the king of Uruk to learn about this new super bronze. But the fact that they started mining indicates they were looking for tin: so they already knew about the super-bronze. How would the king of Uruk know? Because he trded with Anatolia. Why would he care so much? After all, we don't have many examples of bronze in archological finds until centuries later. But this is because they were too valuable to throw away: chemical analysis of the bronz ethat was eventually thrown away whow it is often melted downand reused. Bronze was the god-making technology of the day, so the king of uruk would definitely care!
3017 in archaeology
As usual, precise dates are very difficult to determine, but the late Uruk period ends around 3000, becoming the Jemdet Nasr period. This marks arrival of full cuneiform and use of cylinder seals (small cylinders for rolling a kind of official signature onto clay tablets). It also sees the end of Uruk being unique: other cities are now starting to catch up. it is the end of the beginning!
"During the Jemdet Nasr Period, which flourished around 3000-2900 BC, writing began and the earliest cylinder seals also came into use in southern Mesopotamia. Jemdet Nasr also represents the urban revolution when the numerous small Mesopotamian settlements developed into major cities. [...] Particularly important is the so called 'City Seal' impression, with symbols for perhaps two dozen cities, including Ur, Nippur, Zabalam, Larsa and Kesh, and accompanying inscriptions which suggest these cities were some kind of a league, possibly engaged in sending offerings to Uruk. [...] The Jemdet Nasr period is now believed to have been short, about a century, 3000-2900 BC, succeeding the earlier Uruk culture and represents the final stage before the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period in southern Mesopotamia." (US Central Command, Cultural Property Training Resource #40)
Late Uruk: the closest to being a god
Imagine how it felt, to stand on the White Temple in Uruk and look down on your subjects. There had never been tall buildings before. You were walking in the heavens! There had never been powerful priest-kings before. You were becoming a god!
Uruk was ruled by a priest-king, not a king. He was his god's mouthpiece, not a politician. So when his god blessed him with more power than any man had ever had, what was the man to conclude?
Image: Uruk king priest from 3300 BC, Louvre museum, photo by 'ALFGRN', Creative Commons 2.0, via Wikipedia
Of course, later millennia would have even bigger temples, higher walls, even larger empires. But later millennia also saw empires fall. They knew kingship was fragile, But in 3382, Uruk had never seen failure. As far as he knew, this was a one way street to ultimate power. And that is why late Uruk, for the king, was the closet any human had ever been to being a god.
3382-3017 in Genesis
Genesis calls this period "Enoch", and personifies it as a man who "walked with God", and did not die but instead "God took him". For thousands of years, stories were told about Enoch, in apocryphal books like 1st Enoch, 2nd Enoch, 3rd Enoch, the Rabinnic Kabbalah, and so on.
"These recount how Enoch was taken up to Heaven and was appointed guardian of all the celestial treasures, chief of the archangels, and the immediate attendant on the Throne of God. He was subsequently taught all secrets and mysteries and, with all the angels at his back, fulfils of his own accord whatever comes out of the mouth of God, executing His decrees." (Wikipedia, Enoch, retrieved 10th Oct 2020)
And ancient Jewish tradition said Enoch was not always good. So God had to stop him before he did great harm.
"Enoch was a hypocrite, acting sometimes as a righteous, sometimes as a wicked man. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'While
he is righteous I will remove him" (The Genesis Rabbah, 25:1)
So Genesis agrees with archaeology: this is the period when the ruler began to think of himself as a god.
Enoch son of Cain
There is aalso an earlier period called "Enoch": this was personified as the son of Cain, the father of metalworkers. This Enoch built the first ever city. No dates are given, and with so little detail we can only speculate, but the evidence seems to point to Cain representing the Sumerian line and Seth representing the Akkadian line. This earlier Enoch period would be the settling of Bad Tibera, the second city after Eridu.
This topic needs a whole book, but here is the simple version. Genesis is written to explain the origins of the Jewish faith. It compresses everything down to the simplest, most important ideas. So do not worry if Genesis links the Kenites (nomads who travelled the fertile crescent and settled in Canaan some time after 1000 BC) with the first Sumerians. Three thousand years of history are covered in just a few words, and only the parts of interest to the Jews are mentioned. But the story goes like this.
Archaeology shows that the Kenites are the first tribe to use the name "Yahweh", which may simply mean "Ea exists", in the sense of "I am", the name that God tells Moses. Moses' father in law was a Kenite, and this is where the priesthood came from: from "the priests of Midian". Genesis has to explain why Moses did not already know about Yahweh: how did the chosen people get their god from some nomads?
Kenites are just Cain-ites. It is the same word. It means metal workers. The Cain-ites were the experts in metal. Metal was power: this period was called "the bronze age" for a reason. Whoever had bronze had the best weapons and the best tools, and could therefore rule. So the kenites, the metalworkers, were the king-makers. Genesis had to explain how the Jews got their religion from Cain, while also explaining why the Jews were the chosen people and the Cain-ites were not. So Genesis explains how Cain was Adam's first born. Cain's descendants created metalwork, and cities, and music. They were clearly the smart ones. But they were not the obedient ones. So Cain was cast out.
According to the Sumerian King List, the first ever city was Eridu, then on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Eridu is from the word "eridug" meaning "mighty place" or "guidance place". This is where it all began: we could call this the city of Adam. "City" just meant "village with walls": it might be just two houses and some goats, with a fence around it. The next city was Bad-tabira, meaning "wall of the metal workers" or in other words, the wall of Cain-ites. So this would be the city of Cain. Their expertise in metal would make them like the gods, hence this was their own Enoch period.
There is no other link between the two Enochs: they are simply different cultures (Cain-ite and Seth-ite), who achieved their god-like periods at different times. But later on, according to Genesis, the two cultures appear to converge. They both end with a "Lamech" period. The Seth-ites remember this period of one where two groups combined: the "sons of the gods" married "the daughters of men". This led to great violence. This is recalled on the Cain-ite line as Lamech boasting that his killing was far worse that Cain's. This period of intermarriage and killing led to the Great Flood.
Archaeology confirms that Eridu was probably the first city. But archaeology shows that Uruk became the most powerful and advanced city, dominating the others well before 3000 BC. Interestingly the King List does not mention Uruk until around 2600. This suggests that the authors of the King List did not like Uruk's influence early on, but accepted it later. To cut a long story short, it looks like Uruk was Akkadian. It grew in power until by 2600 everybody had to admit they were top city. Then Sargon of Akkad defeated every other city, and from then on Sumer was all Akkadian. Genesis records this as Cain (Sumer) and Seth (Akkad) being separated long ago, but then recombining, thre was violence, then a flood, and Seth (Akkad) won.
3317 BC: military strength
3317 in archaeology
This period of military expansion is known as "The Uruk Expansion". As usual it is difficult for scholars to be precise with dates, and the reliance on tiny fragments of pottery means other scholars can disagree. But many scholars agree that Uruk tried to expand by military force in this period:
"(ca 3300-3100 BC) the so-called Uruk Expansion involved the direct colonization of Northern Mesopotamia and Syria and the imposition of purely Sumerian urban enclaves into the existing rural culture." (University of New Mexico)
3317 in Genesis
Genesis refers to the Uruk Expansion as simply "military strength".
3130 BC: economic strength
3130 in archaeology
The period of military expansion lasted for a century or so. There were not enough bronze weapons for a city to maintain rule by force. So Uruk found that it had to use more peaceful means: use their economic power to spread their culture. The earlier quote about the Uruk Expansion continues:
"The second 'wave' of expansion in the Jemdet Nasr Period (ca 3100-29/800 BC) derived from the initial 'enculturation' of the societies of the Susiana Plain (Elam) just to the east of Sumer in extreme southwestern Iran. These societies adopted most aspects of Sumerian culture to their own local uses during the earlier Uruk period then in the Jemdet Nasr extended their own version of southern Mesopotamian culture far across the Iranian Plateau in the Proto-Elamite expansion." (University of New Mexico)
This cultural expansion was a time of many artistic and cultural achievements. Here is just one: one of the world's first realistic depictions of a human face. Possible the very first, depending on what you count as realistic. This is the marble "Warka mask" from 3200-3000 BC. It was probably originally part of a full sized statue, with shells for eyes and lapiz lazului for pupils.
3130 in Genesis
Genesis refers to this post-expansion enculturation of surrounding lands as simply "economic strength".
2948 BC: rest
2948 in archaeology
Once Uruk's culture spread to other cities the origin period, the "Uruk Period" was over. The period 3100 to 3000 is the "Jemdet Nasr" period: it seems to be a consolidation. That is, setting down efficient administration, instead of growth and change. A great deal of art has been found in a central administrative building: scholars date other sites to his period of they have the same kind of art. All the records from this period are of trade with surrounding cities. There are no King Lists, no hymns, and little long distance trade.
"Jemdet Nasr period characterized by a reduction in former Uruk culture influence:
* Supplanted by some Jemdet Nasr influence, albeit not quite as far-reaching.
* Uruk culture influence disappears mostly in Susiana (SW Iran)" (Gregory Mumford, "Jemdet Nasr (protoliterate period) and Early Dynastic cultures in Southern Mesopotamia")
The main significance of the Jemdet Nasr period is the transition from the Uruk period (4000 BC - 3100 BC) to the Early Dynastic period (2900 BC - 2350 BC). The Early Dynastic period, as the name suggests, is about dynasties. This is the time when dynasties emerged: not merely lone kings battling to survive, but an entire elite class. Before this period, almost eveybody had to do manual work. But from now on, if you are related to the king or one of his top officials, you could rest. Live a life of luxury. perhaps do some interesting job that involved ordering people around, but mainly enjoy your palace. No more manual work for you! The kingship project was a great success.
2948 in Genesis
Genesis refers to this five hundred year period simply as "rest". Clearly Genesis sees this from the perspective of the ruling elites.
2448 BC: 2448 Renown, fire, expansion
2448 in archaeology
Big things happen around 2450 BC: the start of the instanbility that led to the Akkadian triumph just over a hundred years later.
The "Early Dynastic" (ED) period (2900-2350 BC) is usually split into four parts:
ED I: 2900-2750. Not much known. Jemdet Nasr trends continue.
ED II: 2750-2600. A period of classic kings like Gilgamesh. But not much from archaeology.
ED IIIa: 2600-2450. Even more power to the elites: bigger political groupings, more inequality.
ED IIIb: 2450-2350. This is when it gets interesting!
As usual archaeology must piece together tiny clues, and can seldom put precise dates on things. But for ED IIIb we are lucky: we have thousands of cuneiform tablets from the city of Lagash (called Sipurla by the Sumerians, called Tell al-Hiba today). It shows that big things happened, centring on 2450 BC. Quotes are from the History Files:
Around 2494 BC (another source dates this to shortly after 2450) "The last of the traditional priest-kings of Lagash is replaced by Ur-Nanshe" Ur-Nanshe is the first king of the city to not to be a priest. He is more interested in conquest than religion, though of course he claims to follow Nanshe, goddess of fairness (hence his name). Note the similarity with modern politicians: he claims to be god fearing, and concerned with fairness. But is actually more interested in himself:
Ur-Nanshe rebelled against Ur (previously the top city), and had various battles with surrounding cities. He seemed obsessed with great building projects and putting his own name on tablets everywhere. His grandson, Eannatum, conquered the whole of Sumer, including Akkad. he even conquered part of neighbouring Elam (Persia), "apparently using terror as a matter of policy. The Stele of the Vultures describes the violent treatment meted out to his enemies." This is the "Stele of the Vultures", showing Ningursu, god of war, holding Eannatum's enemies in a net:
Around 2430 BC (some say later) Eannatum is defeated by king Lugalzaggesi, who left a big impression because the King List records him as the sole representative of the Third Dynasty of Uruk, and defeated by Sargon. (The King List is just a "best guess" based on late evidence, and is discussed elsewhere.)
Finally, about the time of the Great Flood at Shuruppak (the 2340s), king Urlumma drains the boundary canal at Girsu and destroys the religious shrines.
In summary, the best evidence we have for Sumer in the Early Dynastic period, shows a breakdown in religion that began around 2450 BC: first the old priest-king system ended, then endless wars of conquest, and finally the religious shrines were destroyed. And the chaos only ended when Sargon of Akkad defeated the whole of Sumer and created the world's first major empire, the Akkadian empire.
24494 in Genesis
Genesis records this period as "renown, fire, and expansion". A good description of the pride, aggression and expansion of the kings of Lagash, and presumably other cities of this period. Notice how the canals at Lagash were destroyed at around the same time as the canals at Shuruppak were destroyed, causing the flood in that city. This is just as Genesis 6 describes the era: violence and chaos, ending in the flood and a new start under the Semites (the Akkadians), not the Sumerians. Note also how the violence under Ur-Nanshe and Urlumma could be seen (at the time) as anti-religious. The mixing of the Semitic Akkadians and the original Sumerians could be seen as the sons of God (Sumerians, ruled by priests) mixing with the daughters of men: lesser people who gave them bad ideas (the idea of not having priets to rule).
In conclusion, all of the dates and years in Genesis 5 match up perfectly with the dates and events later revealed by archaeology. Except that Genesis 5 gives more precise dates. So I conclude that Genesis 5 is a history of Sumer.
Of course, I could be wrong. Given enough motivation, anybody can "prove" anything. But this cannot be worse than the Documentary Hypothesis nonsense. Or insisting that Mark is late, when it could just as well be early. The real conclusion here is that we interpret the Bible based on what we want to see in it. Professional scholars are no different.
Frequently asked questions
Dating the flood at Shuruppak
Adding up numbers in the Bible
How they measured time
Where is the tablet now?
Dating the flood at Shuruppak
The flood story
The biggest event in Sumerian history is the Great Flood. The most detailed accounts say that it took place in the city of Shuruppak. The "gods" were clearly the local rulers: they even had a minister of canals! They waited for the annual rains to come, and then they saw the black clouds coming over the mountains they smashed the dams and set fire to the houses and crops:
"Just as dawn began to glow there arose from the horizon a black cloud. Adad rumbled inside of it, before him went Shullat and Hanish, heralds going over mountain and land. Erragal pulled out the mooring poles, forth went Ninurta and made the dikes overflow. The Anunnaki lifted up the torches, setting the land ablaze with their flare." (Gilgamesh tablet 11)
Sumer was a very level flood plain, and people lived in small reed houses. Normal flooding, plus burning the houses, plus breaking the dams (and removing mooring poles so they have no boats) would be catastrophic. Worse, the fire would make made the downpour even worse:
"Air pollution and smoke suppress rainfall, but cause the remaining rain amounts to fall in greater intensities, with lightning and hail, says a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. [A group of scientists] conducted measurements of smoke from forest fires and its impact on the development of clouds and precipitation in the Amazon tropical rainforests of Brazil. [...] They showed that smoke from these fires delays the release of water from clouds in the form of rain, thus preventing depletion of the water in the clouds as they grow. As these water-laden clouds reach great heights, they produce thunderstorms and hail instead of relatively moderate rain." (source)
The case for 2900 BC
There are two events that might fit the description of a flood at Shurrupak. One from 2900 BC, and one from 2350. First, the 2900 BC flood:
"At the end of the Jemdet Nasr period [i.e. around 2900 BC], there was an archaeologically attested river flood in Shuruppak. Polychrome pottery from a destruction level below the flood deposit has been dated to the Jemdet Nasr period that immediately preceded the Early Dynastic I period." (Wikipedia, Shuruppak, retrieved October 6, 2020)
Two texts are dated to around 2500 to 2600 BC, and were later implied to be after the flood. Let us look at them.
1. The "Instructions of Shuruppak" is dated to around 2600 BC, and claims to be wise proverbs given by Shuruppak, son of Ubaru-Tutu, to his son. In later versions that son is said to be Ziusudra, the hero of the flood, but the name does not appear in the 2600 BC version. Also, the text says nothing about any flood. It looks like somebody tried to link it to the flood story later. True, the King List places Ubaru-Tutu as last king before the flood, but the King List is a late attempt to fit names together. So the King List probably got the name from this text.
(James R. Davila, "The Flood Hero as King and Priest", Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 54, No. 3)
2. There are references to Gilgamesh around 2600 BC. Centuries later, the later Epic of Gilgamesh place him after the flood. But around the same time the editors of the King List placed the dynasties one after the other instead of side by side. This pushed the flood back in time, before the time of Gilgamesh. it was then natural to write a story where Gilgamesh learns of the flood and meets its hero.
In summary, the King List was an attempt to fit together earlier texts to form a chronology of kings. The compilers only had whatever texts survived the chaos of 2330-2100 BC: the destruction of Shuruppak, the Akkadian conquests, the other wars, and the Gutian dark age. The compilers did their best, but the decision to put all the dynasties one after the other pushed the flood too far back in time. And that changed how other writers interpreted history.
The case against 2900 BC
There are at least five problems with placing the flood at 2900 BC.
- Genesis places it at 2350. True, it could be a coincidence, but it's pretty impressive coincidence: everything fits, including the events before and after.
- The amount of detail. The details match up with the 2350 event, but would have to be a lucky accident for the 2900 event. Because writing was still proto-cuneiform, which is not designed to record that much detail. But by 2350 BC full cuneiform was available.
- Ironically, the 2900 flood is too big. All the accounts imply that this was a deliberate act of sabotage by the local rulers: they untied boats, burst the dams, etc. A natural disaster like a major river flooding would be a punishment from heaven. But these "gods" include the minster of canals and other government officers. The flood in Atrahasis and Gilgamesh was a man made event, not a natural one.
- While the flood was too big, the human result was too small. In 2900 all the cities were smaller than in 2350, and a river flood is in itself not so unusual. It happens sometimes. Shuruppak recovered and continued to grow. Archaeology does not record any long term effects. This was not a world history changing event like the 2350 flood.
- Gilgamesh says that part of the deliberate act of sabotage was setting fire to everything. I have not seen any mention of fire accompanying the 2900 BC flood. Natural floods seldom bring fires! But fire was major part of the 2350 event.
The case for 2350 BC
What people often forget, when they look at the flood story, is that the flood described in Gilgamesh would not show up in archaeology. If you're looking for unusual layers of silt the you're looking for the wrong thing. Those areas flooded every year. Breaking the dams made it worse, but not on the level of a natural disaster. The flood was not a natural disaster, it was man made. We need to look for the fire, and the complete destruction of the city. And that is what we find in 2350 BC:
"The city expanded to its greatest extent at the end of the Early Dynastic III period (2600 BC to 2350 BC) when it covered about 100 hectares. At this stage it was destroyed by a fire which baked the clay tablets and mudbrick walls, which then survived for millennia." (Wikipedia, citing "Leick, Gwendolyn (2002). Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-026574-0."
People also seem to forget that the flood was a really big deal. According to Genesis it marked a new start, a different world. The Atrahasis epic shows it as the greatest event since creation. The king List makes it the defining moment, the point that separates the mythical past from recent events. The Gilgamesh Epic ends with the great hero finding the flood hero to learn the meaning of life. The flood changed everything, and that is what history tells us happened after 2350. Before the flood, archaeology tells us that Shuruppak was at its greatest size. Tablets say that it coordinated the other cities' armies:
"The texts from Shuruppak, dating to ED IIIa, also seem to confirm the existence of a ki-engir league. Member cities of the alliance included Umma, Lagash, Uruk, Nippur, and Adab. Kish may have had a leading position, whereas Shuruppak may have been the administrative center. The members may have assembled in Nippur, but this is uncertain. This alliance seems to have focused on economic and military collaboration, as each city would dispatch soldiers to the league. The primacy of Kish is illustrated by the fact that its ruler Mesilim (c. 2500 BC) acted as arbitrator in a conflict between Lagash and Umma." (Wikipedia, Early Dynastic Period, Mesopotamia)
Then suddenly this great city was destroyed, and Sumer was fatally weakened. Just fifteen years later, a single man, Sargon the Great, was able to conquer every city and create the world's first empire. From then on empires would dominate. After two thousand years, the land that created writing, cities, kingship, and much more, was defeated. The world's birth pains were over. The flood changed everything. So everything fits. The Great Flood took place in 2350 BC, and created a new world, just as Genesis said.
Adding numbers in the Bible
Different numbers in different translations
The dates in this essay are based on the Masoretic text, the most common source for English Bibles such as the King James Version. But much older versions, the Septuagint and the Samaritan Bible, sometimes have different numbers! So why use the Masoretic, which is newer? Because the whole point of the Masoretic text was to find which version was the best. Early texts exist in multiple different versions due to copyists errors, translation errors, and differences of opinion over the meaning of words. Back then, new texts were stil being written, so nobody expected each text to be word perfect. But by the time of the Masoretic text, the Jews had become obsessive about the text. Not only must it be word perfect, every "jot and tittle" must be perfect! A "jot" is the smallest letter possible, and a "tittle" is the smallest stroke of the pen when making that letter. These Masoretic Jews were insanely perfectionist. They took three hundred years (from the AD 600s to 900s) to examine every previous version, including the Septuagint and Samaritan texts, and endlessly debate the reason for every prior decision. And the result was the Masoretic text. Since then, some evangelicals have preferred the Septuagint, as it was the version Jesus used. But that was because most people did not speak Hebrew: the Septuagint is a Greek translation. The Masoretes tried to get back to the original Hebrew.
Since then the major source for new information s the Dead Sea Scrolls. But there is only one tiny fragment from Gensis 5 (as far as I can tell) and it does not have any numbers or change anything.
Ironically, the Jewish date for creation, 3760 BC, is later than the 4000 BC that the Masoretic might suggest. This is because the Jewish calendar, which starts at the creation, was already established before the Masoretic text was complete. However, there are a couple of places in the later Old Testament chronology where the wording is ambiguous, or dependent on outside sources. By reading these differently, the Masoretic can be made to fit a creation at 3760. For example, the rabbis date the destruction of the first temple to 423 BC, instead of the date of 587 BC preferred by most scholars.
The date 2348 BC is from Archbishop Ussher's famous chronology, where he added up the numbers in the Masoretic text. Due to the ambiguities in places, for the flood date in particular he may have relied heavily on the Sefer haYashar. The title means the "Book of the Correct Record" and claims to be the original Book of Jasher mentioned in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18. It is a history based on the Bible and other Jewish traditions, and each chapter began with a date though this is missing from some copies when dating fell out of fashion. For the flood, the text begins as so:
"1656 AM – The Flood occurred. – At that time, after the death of Methuselah, the Lord said to Noah, Go thou with thy household into the ark; behold I will gather to thee all the animals of the earth, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and they shall all come and surround the ark." (Sefer haYashar, 6:1)
"1656 AM" ("anno mundi", the year of the world) refers to the number of years after Adam's birth or creation. That is, based on his age given in Genesis 5. This start date is obtained by starting with reliably known dates in ancient history, then using Biblical passages and other evidence to work backwards. The Sefer haYashar cares about dates because its purpose is to create a year by year history using the Bible and other traditions. References like "all the animals of the Earth" mean this must be dated after the older flood stories, but the amount of detail shows that the author is not merely paraphrasing the Bible. The length and detail indicate that it is a serious work of scholarship, and not a simple forgery. Because the longer and more detailed the forgery, the more likely it is to be discovered. Modern scholars think the Hebrew grammar indicates that it was compiled in the sixteenth century. But as a work of serious scholarship it must have been based on much older sources. The work is of a much higher quality than other books that have claimed to be "the book of Jasher". For example:
"I have in my possession three different works that go by the title Sepher Hayasher or The Book of Jasher. This first is, of course, this book. The second is the 13th century ethical treatise that I mentioned earlier. It makes no claim to being the Biblical Jasher and would never be taken for it. The third book is widely recognized for the fraud that it is. It has been republished by the Rosicrucian Order. It claims to have been discovered by Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus, Abbot of Canterbury in the 8th century, while on a pilgrimage. It is the briefest outline of the first six books of the Bible, consisting of about 70 pages of large print. It contains no useful details, and only the barest account of the familiar Hebrew stories. It seems to have been prepared hastily and with little attention to detail. The most obvious feature is that it claims to be the work of a man named Jasher who was the son of Caleb and one of the Judges of Israel. This seems to be its entire reason for existence. It is clear that the author had no real knowledge of Hebrew and failed to recognize that Jasher is not a proper noun. It is not anybody's name. It rather carries the meaning of the upright book or the faithful record. Clearly this book is a fake. It has all the characteristics that you would expect to see in a forgery. It is very brief and contains no unique information except the one thing that is so absurd as to expose it as a hoax. So the contrast between that imitation and this book is very telling. It is easy to see which is genuine." (From an anonymous modern commentary).
So if this Jasher was a fraud, it is by a careful scholar with access to many earlier sources. The point is that Ussher's chronology is sometimes dismissed as relying on key dates that sere basically guesses: a couple of ambiguous links in the chain of dates, or a desire to fit everything into six thousand years for dogmatic reasons. It is also often noted that the Masoretic numbers differ from the numbers in the Septuagint, and others who add up the numbers have come to different dates. But the reliance on Jasher shows that this is not merely one person picking numbers from the air. At the very least, this is a chain of careful and well informed scholars who have thought very carefully about how the numbers fit together, using the best evidence available.
An example of the older sources is the book of Jubilees. As the name suggests, Jubilees is a list of every jubilee (a period of 49 years, seven weeks of years). It divides world history into blocks of 49 years since the creation, and then describes what events happened in each jubilee. So the author had to use many different historical sources, see how the dates fit together, and resolve any disagreements. Jubilees is in the Coptic Egyptian Bible, so would have been available to a serious scholar such as the author of the Sefer haYashar. Of course it is not perfect: there are mistakes in every work, and the moral teachings in Jubilees are sometimes reprehensible (the author seems to hate women), but it was written around 160 BC (and is included in the Dead Sea Scrolls) so its author had access to many texts that are now lost.
The author of Jasher no doubt had other texts and traditions that we no longer have: modern scholars do not have every book ever written! The more old texts we have, the more likely we are to have clues about even earlier texts.
How they measured time
The earliest part of the Sumerian King List has muddled dates, and dynasties in the wrong order (sequential when they should be parallel). This can be explained by the chaos in Sumer between 2350 and 2000 BC. The nature of the Genesis 5 document (its very small size, and being created in a more stable era) means it should have survived without problems. For details, see the section on "finding the document". But how was time measured accurately for almost two thousand years before the King List?
Olympics and other clocks
Most scholars look on 776 BC, the first Olympic games, as the start of reliable history. This is because, every four years from 776 BC, many cities would come together to compete in the games. So texts from different cities to refer to "the second olympiad" or "the tenth olympiad". This allows historians to connect events over long periods of time, and also connect dates between different cities. So the olympics is a universal clock. Before the olympics, inscriptions typically referred to "the third year of king X" or "the seventh year of king Y", but did not say when the kings reign began.
There are at least two other kinds of ancient clocks that can measure hundreds or thousands of years: temples and jubilees. They only work within a single culture, and then need to be anchored to some outside date, but that is all we see in Genesis 5: isolated year numbers that we then calibrate by linking to the flood at Shuruppak.
Theory 1: temples
The Sumerians built temples. They were only small at first, but they sometimes lasted for thousands of years. Each temple had its priests, and its annual festivals. It would be natural to a priest to at least mark a notch in a clay brick to mark that another year went by. Here for example is a clay brick from the temple at Ningishzida the Christoph Bacher private gallery, from around 2200 BC. This is full cuneiform, a dedication to the goddess. Proto-cuneiform scratches would be much simpler. An ancient traveller would dismiss it as graffiti.
Humans have always left marks on stones. Long before there was proto-cuneiform, the same 32 symbols are found throughout the world. Ofte they are next to murals, much as proto-cuneiform has dots next to simple pictures. We don't know what the 32 symbols mean, but at least some of them must be numbers. This image is from the excellent new Scientist article on the topic:
So recording mark on the temple each year would be trivially easy. Temples are usually created to mark some important event. So the number of notches, maybe hundreds of them, gives the length of that era in history. Maybe they did not do it this way, but they could have done easily.
Theory 2: jubilees
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain parts of fifteen copies of "The Book of Jubilees". Fifteen copies! The Book of Jubilees is a history of the world from the very beginning, and measures time in jubilees: periods of 49 years. By the time Jubilees were written in the second century BC) a jubilee was already an ancient relic, because jubilees do not really work in a complex society like Rome (see below). But the book shows that the Jews measured world history in terms of jubilees.
The ancient Egyptians had a similar periodic celebration called the "sed festival". In the dynastic period this was tied to each king's reign, but there are reasons to think that if the Sumerians had something similar then it might be cyclical, like the later jubilee. The sed festival originates probably centuries before 3150 BC, so that's the right time period for Genesis 5, but at the other end of the fertile crescent, where nomad routinely travelled back and forth.
A Sumerian jubilee is only a theory of course. It is not proof. I just want to show another way that the early Sumerians could accurately record long periods of time: just keep a tally of the jubilees.
What was a jubilee and why did it matter?
A jubilee was a festival every 49 years (that is, seven "weeks of years"). In a jubilee all debts are cancelled and slaves go free. This does not work in the modern world because it means nobody would lend money for cars and houses in the years before the jubilee. So the economy would slow down in those years. Yet, in theory, without a jubilee, the economy would not merely slow, it would die! Because debts tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, until the economy collapses.
The modern world has other ways to prevent the economy collapsing, but none of them work: the best they can do is make life even worse for future generations. For details, see "the theory of jubilees". The need for jubilees was much clearer in the days just before cities. Back then, the only way to avoid economic collapse was to keep the jubilees. For details, see "why civilisation was built on jubilees".
The theory of jubilees
To understand why we need jubilees, consider the game of Monopoly. It was originally called "The Landlord's game" and was invented by Lizzie McGee as a way to teach economics. She wanted people to understand why the economy always leads to a monopoly: whenever people can own land they can collect rent. Inevitably one person will gain more and more rent until everybody else has no money. Then nobody can buy or sell, the economy dies, and the game ends. Jubilees solves this by rebooting the system every few years. But isn't that too drastic? Isn't there an easier way? Let's look at the alternatives.
Alternatives to jubilees?
Governments have an alternative to jubilees: social safety nets. But the powerful tend to weaken these nets until they provide nothing more than basic food and shelter. The same things that a slave has.
The right wing has an answer: economic growth. A poor person can have some new idea, or find some unused land: start thrifty and poor, and grow your wealth, without relying on governments. But this "growth" is simply extracting more from the land. What happens when the land runs out?
Technology has an answer: wealth from ideas, not natural resources. But we are physical beings. We still need food. We still use metal. Technology simply streamlines the extraction process, hiding it in some foreign underclass of workers.
The left wing has an answer: stronger rules to enforce safety nets. But stronger rules give more power to the people at the top. Hence George Orwell's Animal Farm: the revolutionaries become indistinguishable from the rulers they replaced.
Lizzie McGee had an answer: the person who owns the land should also pay rent, to be shared by the community. This is similar to what Adam Smith said: ground rents (and also rents on useless luxuries) are the most efficient way to fund a government. So why don't all governments run on ground rent instead of taxing work? Because the economy is complex. So land owners always find ways to pay less and less.
So there is no alternative to jubilees. This would have never been clearer than in the period immediately before cities.
Sed festivals were jubilees
The Jewish idea of jubilee is similar to, and perhaps evolved from, the Egyptian sed festival. There are superficial differences: the jubilee was about cancelling debts, and the sed festival was where the pre-dynastic Egyptians could kill a king who did not please them. But the idea is the same: after a fixed period of years (thirty for the sed, forty nine for the jubilee) you get a new start. So the poor workers would put up with suffering, knowing that however bad things got, on a fixed date in the future they could start again and do it right. We still have that idea today: we call it the election. Citizens put up with a government they don't like, because on a fixed date in the future, things will change. The pre-dynastic Egyptians even got the chance to kill a king they did not like, Today we merely vote them out, but it's the same idea.
This idea of a national reboot has many names: sed, jubilee, election, revolution, etc. It has to exist if a complex or semi complex society is to be stable for hundreds of years. We don't know exactly the form it took in early Sumer, but it was presumably something like the Egyptian sed. Same time, similar culture, just the other end of the fertile crescent. here I will refer to the event as a jubilee, because most reader will be familiar with the idea: national happy time after a fixed period. But the original sed was a serious thing: the king was judged by the people, and if they didn't like the previous thirty years, they killed him.
The original sed festival
The sed festival was the most important festival of kingship in ancient Egypt. it appears to have started before the first dynasty (that is, before 3150 BC). It took place when the king had reigned for thirty years (and every three years after that), and was presented as a celebration to renew his strength. But it looks like it originally meant something more serious:
"The festival is believed to have originated from the very beginning of Egypt's recorded history during the Pre-dynastic era. The oldest example of this Sed festival is believed to be that found on the decoration of the ritual mace head of King Narmer (1st Dynasty), though it is possible that it does not represent the Heb Sed. A small ebony label found attached to a jar from the tomb of King Den (1st Dynasty) at Abydos depicted the king running around the ritual course and carrying the Heb Sed insignia. To the left of the figure is a platform raised on few steps on which a double shrine stood. The king is once again depicted in the shrine sitting on a throne and wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt." (source)
So in the pre-dynastic era, when the king was less powerful, he was expected to run around some kind of course, presumably to test his strength, and if he succeeded then he could sit on his throne and carry on being king. The sed was sometimes called "the feast of the tail" because the king had to war a bull's tail. Some have suggested that perhaps earlier kings wore the skin the whole animal, though a bull is much larger than a human. Given that the king had to prove his strength, and given that fighting bulls was a common sign of strength (see Knossos, Gilgamesh and the bull of heaven, etc.) it seems more likely that in earlier times the king was expected to run the course while chased by a bull. of course, once the king gained more power this became just symbolic. And instead of the sed being about proving his strength, it was about celebrating and obtaining strength, with no hint that he could ever be removed. Quote the opposite!
The sed festival later featured the king symbolically dying, as Orisis, being placed in a coffin and later being reborn as a new king. This, and how the old king had to run round a course to prove his strength, led many scholars to think the origins of the festival were in killing the weak king and finding a new one:
"One theory held by many early scholars, such as A. Moret and G. A. Wainright, suggests that in predynastic times if the king was unfit he would be ritually murdered as part of the sed-festival and a new king brought forth." ("Queenship and Eternal Life [...] Sed- Festival Thrones of Amenhotep III")
Later critics argued that we have no proof of this, but that is because we have very few inscriptions of any kind from before 3000 BC. And Pharaoh would not want any reminders that a king could be legitimately killed! In fact, why did they have a sed festival at all? Does a king really want to draw attention to the fact that he grows weak with age? Does an old king really want to run round an obstacle course? It looks like this was a festival a king could not avoid. So all he could do was change its meaning, making it a celebration and rejuvination, not a test.
Early Sumer must have has a jubilee of some kind
When we have very little evidence, we have to piece together history from the tiniest fragments, and then apply reason. And reason demands that a king must earn his position. A bad king means everybody suffers. A tribe that tolerates a bad king will not last as long as a tribe that changes a bad king. This is why we have elections. It is why we have revolutions. It is why a king must always watch his back. It is the strongest chimpanzee will challenge the head chimpanzee if he looks weak. It is a matter of survival for the tribe.
So in the early days of Sumer, when kings had less power, they must have been more accountable. In what way were they accountable? The only hint is the sed festival: after a fixed period the king must be tested. Perhaps it was after thirty years, perhaps some other number. But a people who hold their leaders to account are more likely to succeed. And the early Sumerians succeeded in a spectacular way.
The jubilee was likely to be at fixed periods>
The later Jews claimed that god wanted his jubilees at fixed periods, and not based on the king's reign. This is the only effective way to test a king. If you only test a king after a thirty year reign, then most kings don't get tested at all. And those who do have thirty years to mess things up. But testing at fixed intervals ensures that you are never too far from a test.
Why not simply increase the frequency? Test a king after ten years, or five? Because that creates instability. This is the same reason why we don't replace our governments every year or every month. True, we do replace them every five years, but most of the institutions stay the same: the political parties are not replaced, the judges are not replaced, the schools are not replaced. If we replaced every institutions all at once every five years our nations would be too chaotic to survive. We need to balance accountability with stability. The fact that Sumer achieved so much suggests that they got their accountability about right. Of course, once the kings got too much power, the accountability ended, and the cities were soon defeated.
Where is that tablet now?
Is this the Sumerian King List?
The Sumerian King List begins only a short time before the flood. The dates in Genesis 5 (other than the birth of Noah's sons) are all long before this. So, Genesis 5 is the era before the kings. First we will look at issues with the king list, before moving onto the location of the original version of Genesis 5.
Attempts to make Genesis 5 into the King List
Many people have compared Genesis 5 to the start of the Sumerian King List. Why? Because Genesis 5 is a history of ten important people, with extremely long lives, then the Great Flood. The Sumerian King List has eight kings with extremely long lives, then the Great Flood. And the rest of Genesis clearly draws on similar stories, so at first it seems that the King List might be the source for Genesis 5. But look closer.
Despite many years of trying, nobody has managed to link the names and numbers in Genesis to the names and numbers in the king list. There are some ingenious theories out there, but they all involve changing the names and numbers in Genesis. But what if the names and numbers in Genesis are correct? And how does that fit with the extreme lengths of the early King List reigns?
How can Genesis 5 be accurate when the King List is not?
The extreme reigns in the King List are easily explained. These cities often fell in war. Plus, in the 2330s BC, Sargon the Great conquered all the cities of Sumer. He tore down their walls, and no doubt caused further destruction. Worse, from 2147 to 2047 BC there was a dark age, when the new rulers (the Gutians) had no interest in writing. We do not know if the deliberately destroyed records, but we do know that they disliked farming so released all the farm animals. After all of this the records would be a mess. Add to this that the Sumerian and Akkadian languages are very different, and the tablets only had a few dots for writing, and relied on the reader understanding what it all meant (often in mathematical base sixty!). So when the King Lists were compiled form this mess some time before 2000 BC, no wonder the earlier numbers look crazy.
So the long human ages in Genesis and the King List are both mistakes due to later compilers not understanding. But the King List problem is very serious: we do not know how to recover the original numbers. The Genesis problem is hardly a problem at all: the numbers are correct, and they match up with history. We have simply confused individuals with dynasties.
The King List should be dated after Genesis 5
The King List places all the kings in a single line, but it is clear from archaeology that many of them should be contemporary. Given that earlier material is more easily lost, surviving material will tend to be later. But when?
The Great Flood can be reliably dated to around 2350 BC (see the history of Sumer, later). Modern scholars place some of the early kings around 2600 BC, but all dates for this time are tentative. Of course, the Flood only involved one city (Shuruppak), so all other cities could have multiple dynasties before that date. The earliest King List, from 2000 BC, is centuries after the flood, and after a revolution, multiple wars, a famine and a dark age. To them the flood must have seemed a very long time ago.
So in general, the earliest parts of the king list should probably dated at not much earlier than 2600 BC.
The "birth of Noah" in Genesis 5 takes place over three hundred years earlier. Even if we allow some earlier dates for the first Sumerian kings, that still places them after Noah. And if, as seems likely, the "death" dates were not in the original version, then all the events of Genesis 5 (except for Noah's sons) take place comfortably before the events of the King List. So the King List is about kings, and Genesis 5 is about the time before kings. Genesis 6 then covers the conflicts in the centuries before the Flood, particularly the last 120 years (Genesis 6:3).
How could Genesis 5 survive intact, when the King List could not?
The survival of Genesis 5 demonstrates a big advantage of proto-writing over full writing. Proto-writing is vastly more space efficient. The whole of Genesis 5, the whole history of Sumer for two thousand years, can be reduced to ten names and ten numbers. This can easily fit onto a single small clay tablet and slipped into your pocket.
So if Sargon of Akkad attacks, just slip it into your pocket, or give it to a child and say "run away and bury it!" Or even just let Sargon keep it - he won't know what it means, and you can probably recreate it from memory. You can even make ten copies in a single day, without any special training. So it is very difficult to lose Genesis 5.
In contrast, writing Genesis 5 in cuneiform, and including all the repetition and asides, that would need a scribe with years of training to read or write it. And the resulting tablet would be too heavy to just slip in your pocket and run. And too big and awkward to have too many copies. So if Sargon attacks, those clay tablets are damaged for all time. But the proto-writing version survives.
Why don't we have multiple copies of Genesis 5, as we do of the King List?
We might have copies of Genesis 5 that we don't recognise (see below), but the Sumerians were less interested in the pre-king list era. We know this because of Uruk. Archaeology shows that Uruk was the greatest city in the world for a thousand years, and where writing was invented. But the King List only mentions Uruk later, some time after the flood. So the people who preserved the King List were only interested in those kings who ruled rival cities. That is, kings who ruled other kings! They were much less interested in the earlier period. But the writer of Genesis wanted a connected history from the beginning. So they asked the temple librarian for the missing link, the small forgotten tablet that summarised life between the Adam story and the Flood. And we are very lucky that they did!
So where is that tablet now?
The down side of proto-writing is that it is just a memory aid: it relies on a human to explain what it means. This is not difficult, as there are only a few pictures to learn: any child can learn it. But if you don't know the context, it's just pictures and dots. For example, remember our proto-cuneiform version of Genesis 5:
To an archaeologist this looks like a tax receipt. It might be assessing a rich man with 130 units of land, 105 robes, 90 slaves, 70 pieces of gold, plus 65 dedicated to a god, and so on. The scholar interprets it in the context of other tax receipts, puts it in a pile of Sumerian tax receipts, and feels disappointed that he never finds anything interesting. Which means, we might have the original version of Genesis 5 in some museum archive, and nobody would even realise!
Or more likely, it is simply lost. The vast majority of everything ever written in ancient times is lost. It is only luck that we have anything at all.
Or it could have been mistaken for a tax receipt two thousand years ago, and thrown away as unimportant. To interpret proto-cuneiform we really need to know its context. It only takes one archivist to guess the wrong context and it could be thrown away as worthless. In ancient times a Sumerian tax receipt would not have much value.
Except... it is not really lost. The proto-cuneiform version of Genesis 5 exists, with intact numbers and imagery, in every Bible in the world. It is simply embedded inside a story about people called "Seth" and "Enos" and "Methuselah". The history of Sumer is hiding in plain site. Ready for anybody who recognises it.
Is it in the library of Ashurbanipal?
Today we have a good idea of what the Babylonians had, because we have the ruins of one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world: the library of Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal was the last great king of the Assyrian Empire. He was obsessed with collecting al the world's knowledge. So he amassed a library of thousands of clay tablets in his capital city, Nineveh. Then disaster struck: in 612 BC the Babylonians (with some help) defeated Ashurbanipal, destroyed Nineveh, and burnt the library to the ground! But his disaster was the modern world's good fortune: although most of the tablets were broken, the fire baked them hard, so they survived for the thousands of years until they were discovered in 1849. We don't have everything (some is too badly destroyed, lost, etc.), but we do have an enormous sample of the knowledge of the great empire that came after the Akkadians, who came after the Sumerians. And this was just 25 years before the Jews were taken captive to Babylon, So these records are very close to the kind of thing the Jews would use to create the book of Genesis. The is our main source of ancient texts from the region: we have the ancient story of the creation (the Enuma Elish), the most popular ancient adventure story (Gilgamesh) and much more. Even better, Much of the library is now online! We don't have transcripts of everything online yet, but at least we have a an idea of the contents. Much of it is still to be translated, so perhaps the original source for Genesis 5 is there somewhere, mistaken for just another tax receipt. If we are lucky.
But when you actually look at the library, we notice something very strange. Remember that the library was built to house the greatest wisdom from all the world. It was in the greatest city (and the largest for a while), a city devoted to the great goddess Ishtar (one of her names was "Nin", which probably gave "Nineveh" its name). The gods were at the heart of everything the ancients did: if you want success, you appeal to the gods. if you want to understand, then you must understand the gods. But look at the great library, and do you notice something odd?
I have circled the really odd parts. The library of Ashurbanipal has all kinds of documents, as you would expect. Hundreds of incantations. Hundreds of dictionaries. Thousands of omens. But when it comes to the most sacred parts, the foundational myths that explain everything, the library has... two. Not thousands. not hundreds. Just two. It is the same for sacred rituals: just one of this ritual or two of that ritual. Not dozens as we would expect. And it only has one king list, - and it's not even the famous one, this one is listed as "unknown". There are only ten or so historical documents. yet over two thousand letters and nearly a thousand legal documents. What's going on here? Why build the greatest library in the world, why send people around the world to find the greatest, Most important, most sacred texts, and then have hardly any of them the library?
The answer is simple when you look at the history. Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC, but they had four years' warning. In 616 BC the Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians teamed up to take down the mighty Assyrian empire. In that year they destroyed the strategically important city of Kalhu (now called Nimrud), just thirty kilometres away. The Assyrians fought back, but eventually the Babylonian alliance won. So the librarians knew for four years that their priceless sacred texts were in danger. It is no wonder that the most valuable texts that we would expect - the sacred histories and rituals - are almost all missing by the time the library burnt. If the Genesis 5 history of Sumer was there, then it would be among the most valuable items, and also among the smallest. At the slightest hint of danger it could be slipped into a pocket and taken to safety. The only sacred documents that were left would be either the less important ones, or the ones where they had multiple copies.