Hebrew and Mesopotamian Civilizations: A Study of Parallels

An essay written for Western Civ 101

Western civilization owes much of its cultural heritage to the traditions of the ancient Middle East, particularly the Hebrew and Mesopotamian civilizations. This handing down of cultural traditions is nowhere more evident than in the epic fiction and canons of law that these civilizations produced. Evident in the differences between their respective works of literature and legislature is the cultural and sociological variances in Hebrew and Mesopotamian civilization.

At the heart of the long-established Western tradition of the epic hero, one finds a very ancient series of cuneiform clay tablets which recount the adventures of a demigod named Gilgamesh. One-third man and two-thirds god, he possessed superhuman strength and endurance. The Epic of Gilgamesh is centered upon Gilgamesh's obsession with the ideas of death and immortality. Also central to the Epic is a great deal of violence. Throughout the Epic, Gilgamesh is constantly engaged in battling various foes, obviously reflecting the continually war-making Mesopotamian culture. Because of the geography of the land in which these people lived, many wars of invasion were fought in Mesopotamia.

Another interesting aspect of this epic is a an account of a great flood caused by the god Enlil to exterminate humanity for no other reason than, "The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel." The goddess Ea warns Gilagamesh of Enlil and the other gods' plan, and he is instructed to build a boat with which to preserve himself, his family and "the seed of all living creatures." Gilgamesh does as the goddess commands and saves life from the flood.

An account of a flood is also told in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew bible, and is similar to the Mesopotamian account to a remarkable degree. In this account, however, the god of the Hebrews punishes men for their wickedness, rather than on some arbitrary whim. The Hebrew deity was inherently very different than the gods of the Mesopotamians. While gods such as Enlil and Ea were very much as fickle as nature itself, the god of the Hebrews was definitely separated from the world of men, and being of an abstract nature, required that men follow an abstract ideal of "righteousness." Thus, the Hebrew god appoints a man named Noah to save life from annihilation under the waters of the flood because Noah is a just man.

The parallelism and differences between the Hebrew and Mesopotamian civilizations are further illustrated by their respective codes of law. The Code of Hammurabi, sixth king of the Amorite Dynasty of Old Babylon, is best known from a beautifully engraved diorite stela now in the Louvre Museum which also depicts the king receiving the law from Shamash, the god of justice. This copy was made long after Hammurabi's time, and it is clear that his was a long-lasting contribution to Mesopotamian civilization. It encodes many laws which had probably evolved over a long period of time, but is interesting to the general reader because of what it tells us about the attitudes and daily lives of the ancient Babylonians.

The Code outlines precepts regarding the treatment of slaves, women and property. Many of the laws which were codified by Hammurabi are very similar to the Mosaic laws as defined in the Book of Exodus. Both are important as examples of written, codified law- an important step in the evolution of legislature. The Book of Exodus does also present some further evolution in the matter of equal treatment for all members of society regardless of what class they belong to. This stands in contrast to the method of differentiating between different classes as seen in the Code of Hammurabi.

Though they were each unique in their own way, each of these two great Middle Eastern civilizations made Western civilization what it is today. Probably the single most important aspect of the cultural contributions of Hebrew and Mesopotamian civilizations was the fact that they were written and preserved and thus they came to influence people thousands of years after they were created. Through this method the achievements and ideas of these cultures have been imparted to our own- may we only hope that we, in turn, may do the same.

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