Exploring the Influence of Ancient Narratives on the Old Testament

Did you know about the connections between ancient stories and the Old Testament? Discover how biblical tales share similarities with myths from different cultures. Uncover the historical context and interconnectedness of these narratives. Join us on this thought-provoking journey of discovery.


Avi Shore

We've all seen it - that one student who hands in work uncannily resembling someone else's ideas. But when they claim it's the other way around, despite the clear time discrepancy? Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, buckle up. This isn't about academia gone wild. It's about a book we hold dear – The Old Testament.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the fervor of faith and forget that our scriptures are not immune to the same scrutiny applied to any historical text. A deep dive into history uncovers a compelling question: Is the Old Testament the original divine manuscript it's often hailed as, or is it a compilation of stories borrowed from pre-existing tales?

According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Exodus from Egypt occurred in 1312 BCE or 2,448 years since the creation of earth. However, it's intriguing that similar narratives can be found in texts from civilizations predating this era. Let's look at some examples that highlight this parallel:

  1. Noah's Flood Story: Noah's Ark story in Genesis talks about God's punishment, rescue, and a new promise with people. This story is similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh, an old story from Mesopotamia, around 1700 BCE. In this story, a man named Utnapishtim is told by a god to build a big boat to survive a huge flood, just like Noah. He also puts animals in his boat and sends out a bird to find dry land. These stories look like they come from the same old story or event.

    And even that was not an original copy: Atrahasis epic was a text form 19th century BCE which recounts a similar story.

  2. God's Plagues: The ten plagues from the Bible, sent by God to punish Egypt, are similar to some old stories from Egypt and the Hittites. An Egyptian text from 1900 BCE called "Admonitions of Ipuwer" talks about a river turning to blood (like the first biblical plague) and chaos. Hittite "Plague Prayers" from 1300 BCE ask to stop God's punishment. These stories show that people from different cultures were afraid of nature and God's anger.

  3. Promises and Laws: The ideas of God's promise, giving laws, and choosing special people are not just in the Old Testament. Hittite agreements from 1700 BCE show people promising loyalty to their king or face punishment from the gods. This is similar to God's promises with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The Code of Hammurabi, old laws from Babylon, are like the laws given by Moses. These stories show people's desire for order, fairness, and moral rules from God.

  1. Water Miracles: The parting of waters in the Exodus story is also in older stories like the tale of Gilgamesh from Sumeria. In this story, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, a divine barmaid, who tells him to cross the Waters of Death with a ferryman. This story, from around 1700 BCE, is like the Exodus story and shows the idea of divine help against nature.

  2. Wandering in the Wild: Stories of people wandering in harsh places are common in old cultures. The Atrahasis Epic and the "Burning of Bad-Tibira," both from Sumeria around 1700 BCE, tell about hard times in the wild, like the Israelites' 40-year journey. In these stories, the wild is a test for moral and spiritual growth.

  3. Creation Stories: The creation story in Genesis, with God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, is similar to other old myths. The Babylonian creation story, "Enuma Elish," tells how Marduk, a god, fought Tiamat, a monster, and split her into two to make the earth and the sky. These stories show the idea of a universe created from chaos by a god.

These compelling parallels not only puncture the inflated balloon of divine authorship but also shed light on the shared literary and cultural heritage of the ancient Near East. It shows how the Old Testament, like other narratives of its time, drew inspiration from common regional and historical contexts.

Thinking a book is purely original and divinely inspired, in a millennium when creating religions, beliefs, and myths was all the rage, feels somewhat ludicrous. Back then, the lack of communication between distant villages led to a rich tapestry of myths developing and evolving through generations. Considering the low life expectancy, generational turn-over of those times went by faster, these myths spread and were exaggerated over the years. As humans became more mobile, they encountered other cultures and faiths, integrating and adapting various stories into their beliefs.

Now, in matters of faith, there's a world of intrigue to explore. The paradoxes, amusing anecdotes, and mind-bending tales — all fair game. But sometimes, a question arises that, I dare say, is a deal breaker. These queries corner you; no escape, no plausible response unless you downright ignore the evidence.

Ancient people longed for captivating tales that could transport them beyond their mundane existence, eagerly embracing myths and setting aside skepticism. With limited scientific understanding, natural phenomena like lightning and thunder were attributed to powerful deities, offering a semblance of comprehension in the face of the mysterious.

In sum, the Old Testament, like any religious text, is a product of its time, influenced by a variety of sources and cultural narratives. It's crucial to approach such texts with an open mind, understanding their historical and cultural contexts, rather than treating them as immutable divine revelations. By doing so, we gain a more profound, nuanced understanding of our shared human narrative — and isn't that what true enlightenment is all about?

Lastly, I'd like to share a YouTube video that greatly inspired this blog. It adds some humor to the discourse, incorporating animated visuals and a sprinkle of irreverence.

Disclaimer: If you are a believer, watching this video is a sin.