Category Archives: ancient civilizations

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.



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.