Monthly Archives: May 2017

A Brief Digression on Semitic Languages

Scholars date the origins of Semitic languages to about 3800 BCE. They arose in the broad area of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa known as the Levant. The earliest has been identified as Akkadian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The evolving languages eventually produced Aramaic, Phoenician (the precursor of Greek), Arabic, and Hebrew, among others.

There’s a terrible irony in the linguistic closeness of Hebrew and Arabic, despite the ancient antipathy between speakers of the two languages. Here are a couple of relatives:

HEBREW                                                ARABIC
melech–king                                         malik–king
–study, interpretation         madrassa–school
menorah–lamp                                    minaret–tower (call to prayer )
kabbalah–esoteric wisdom               kibla--facing Mecca
rosh–head, first                                    ras--ruler

The revolutionary invention of writing appears to have originated in Mesopotamia (those Sumerians again!), perhaps to keep records. The wedge shaped figures incised on wet clay are known as cuneiform (public domain image).


Unlike Asian written languages, which evolved using images to represent things, Western writing used images to represent sounds. The Phoenician script from which our alphabet is drawn may have borrowed the images from Egyptian hieroglphs. For example, the Egyptian heiroglyph for head–a sketch of a head–may have been abstracted to a backwards P to represent the sound that began Ras, or head. This image by HoremWeb shows a possible route from a heiroglph to Phoenician and onto (in modern forms), Arabic and Hebrew.

Initially, Semitic languages were written without vowels (“adjabic” as distinct from “alphabetic” languages). Words were represented by letters for consonants only. For example, the letters SLM meant (Hebrew Shalom, Arabic Salaam). You might have noted that God’s call to Abraham, Lech Lecha, rendered in premodern Hebrew, uses the same characters for both words.


It’s as if “English words are odd” were written as “NGLSH WRDS R DD”. If you were fairly familiar with the written language, you could probably figure out the actual words and extract meaning.

And this is why the introduction of letters for vowels was revolutionary. Some thinkers associate it with the invention of democracy. Now that the vowels were there, it was easier to sound out the words. Many more people could read.



Come Away

And then, in Genesis 12, God takes a personal interest in one man. He calls on “a wandering Aramean” known as Avram: 1-Slide18

God says, Lech Lecha” meaning, “Go-you-forth” (from your land, from your people, from your father), … “and I will give-you-blessing and will make your name great!” God renames Abram Abraham.

Abraham, his wife Sarai, nephew Lot, and his entourage settled in the land of Canaan. God repeats his promise to Abraham, who builds altars to God at Shechem and Bethel.

A great famine set in–perhaps linked to the environmental/social cataclysm that shook the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE–and Abraham and Sarai went to Egypt (where Abraham presented his wife as his sister, for reasons that scholars are still debating). When he learns this, the Pharoah sends them away, with gifts, back to Canaan.


Genesis: The Prequel

So God creates the World and everything in and around it, as shown here by William Blake, with the spirit of God hovering over the formless void. In the Hebrew, the “spirit” is literally breath, ruah. The yogic tradition might call it prana.


In Blake’s image there’s a hint of future peril in the snake wrapped around the torso of the man God appears to be bringing into being.  Sure enough, Adam and Eve fall. They are shown fleeing Eden in the image on the left, painted by Massacio. They beget sons, Cain and Abel, which also does not end well. The image on the right that shows Cain fleeing his murdered brother and an astonished God is from Blake, again.

Human wickedness does not abate, and God punishes the whole world with a flood.


This painting is by Edward Hicks, a 19th century American folk artist. This post-flood God makes a covenant with Noah. This God is a universal god.

The Documentary Hypothesis

One other thing we should clarify before going to Genesis, the Beginning: the Bible has numerous authors. Scholars have identified four major voices.


The first two are so named because of the name they use for God, of which more will follow. “D” is the author of Deuteronomy, as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings and “P” is one or more writers believed to have worked during the time of the Babylonian Exile.

This is a theory, of course. But let’s note that Genesis begins with not one, but two origin stories.

This work, by the English poet and artist William Blake, shows the beginning as told in Genesis 1 and the first part of Genesis 2. In that version, God creates everything out of nothing, ex nihilo, over the course of seven days.


Genesis 2 tells the story of Adam and Eve, here portrayed by Michaelangelo, with God drawing Eve from Adam’s side while he is sleeping. This is before the business with the Serpent and the grief that followed.


Whether or not you accept the documentary hypothesis, it is clear that the Bible is a compilation of material from difference sources. Here it appears that two older stories were joined. The God of Adam and Eve definitely seems more approachable than the ex nihilo creator. He is called Elohim (literally, “the gods”) while the majestic Creator is called Jahweh, or more conventionally, Jehovah.

Now, on to the story.

Geography, Jerusalem, & Origins

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This is a terrain map by Google, centered roughly on the Middle East, a commercial and culture crossroads where ideas and people have intermingled for millennia. Jerusalem is a very old trading city and its name is derived from the Semitic root SLM—known in Hebrew as shalom and Arabic as salaam, meaning peace. Trust is a key element of trade, and it’s possible that religion and culture were ways of creating trust and solidarity among trading groups. At the very least, ideas moved.

Most religions of the time were polytheistic in that people worshiped numerous gods: for the sun, the moon, for dawn and evening, for storms and places.


This image represents the Babylonian Sun God. In the West, as Samuel Noah Kramer described it, History Begins at Sumer. There, in present-day southern Iraq, a (probably Asian) people created one of the earliest urban civilizations (dating perhaps to 5,500 BCE). Early urban civilizations also emerged in the Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan and northwest India (c. 3,300 BCE) and Nile River valley civilization in Egypt c. 3,000 BCE), and the the Norte Chico region of Peru (c. 3,500 BCE. (For what it’s worth, ancient Chinese civilizations along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers may date to 7,000 BCE).

But back to Sumer and polytheism, or the belief in the existence of many gods. Even polytheistic religions often had “high” gods—a little higher up and more powerful than the other gods. Think: Zeus, Marduk, Atun, Shang-ti.


The Nature of the Bible

The Bible influences anyone who grows up in or lives in a Western culture. Believers or not, we all hear the stories and see the art. The Bible is part of how we make meaning, especially in terms of purpose and trust. And, I would add, shame.

This is a scrap from the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which we stored in jars in a cave for centuries. It’s a passage from Genesis. The Bible is a collection of stories gathered from these and other scrolls and organized according to temporal and cultural needs.


The Hebrew Bible basically follows the history of the people Israel. Its Hebrew name is TNK, or Tanak, an acronym for its three parts: Torah (teaching), Nevi’m (prophets) and Ketuvi’m (writings).  Some of the stories are very old, dating back to 1200 BCE and before but the TNK was probably compiled during Babylonian Exile and the Second Temple period. (Using the terms BCE–before the common era–and CE–common era–is a way of accommodating the Christocentric dating system of BC and AD without offending other religions.)

Before we go any further, I should clarify that I am not reading the Bible as though it is Absolute Truth but rather as history, sociology, creativity.


Some Thoughts on Early Christianity & Judaism

In April 2015, on the seventh anniversary of my father’s death, I gave a talk in Israel. The talk was on the Bible, Bibles, really: the Christian one and the Jewish one, and how they tell somewhat different stories using essentially the same texts.

The Bible (the books), based on stories dating back about four thousand years ago and officially compiled in the 5th century BCE, has at least four versions: Hebrew, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

Left to right: Hebrew Bible (in Hebrew), Protestant Bible (in German), early Christian Bible (in Greek). Sorry’ I couldn’t find a public domain image of an Orthodox Christian Bible.

Each one organizes the individual books differently–the Hebrew Bible compresses 12 prophetic books into one, for example–so that the number of “books” in each differs, from a low of 24 books in the Hebrew Bible and a high of 53 books in the Orthodox Bible. You can learn more from this chart compiled by Felix Just.

But the key difference, and the source of my talk, is in the order of the books. All versions begin with the Torah, the five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch. Even here we should note that in the Hebrew Bible the Torah translates to “teaching.” In Christianity, these five books are known as “law”. So the foundations, though identical, are positioned differently.

The biggest change is the order of subsequent books. The difference, writ large goes:


The key difference is the placement of the prophets. The Hebrew Bible places them in the middle of the story, so to speak, where the Christian Bible places them at the end. So placed, they are clearly positioned to herald the arrival of Jesus Christ.

How and why did this happen?