Historians call the land the Ancient Near East. It stretched from what today would be Iran and Iraq, west to Egypt. This is where all of the events described in the Bible take place. The region was home to the first civilizations in world history: Egypt and Mesopotamia. Later, a smaller civilization developed on a sliver of land between the two giants. This was Israel, and its belief system was revolutionary.
Mesopotamia and Egypt: Where Civilization Was Born
Mesopotamia was a collection of self-governing city-states, such as Sumeria, Akkadia and Assyria, originating in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Egypt developed a single, national civilization along the banks of the Nile. Environmental factors shaped the character of each civilization. The rivers of Mesopotamia were unpredictable and the climate harsh. With survival seemingly dependent on random factors, Mesopotamians worshipped a vast pantheon of gods who required constant tribute in the generally vain hope of quelling their brutal whims. Egyptians also worshipped a multitude of gods. But with the more stable environment provided by the predictability of Nile flooding, Egypt’s gods followed an orderly system and were generally seen as benevolent toward humans.
The Judaic Revolution
Israelites originated in Mesopotamia then lived as slaves in Egypt, before escaping. Yet the belief system they developed turned the religions of those two great civilizations on their heads. Judaism believes in one god and one god only. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the numerous gods behaved like humans. Humans understood the gods; they just couldn’t control them. The Judaic god was all-powerful. Everything was part of God’s plan, which humans could never understand. Even evil had a purpose. Humans had to keep faith and follow the laws that God laid down. For the first time in human history, Judaism offered a unified system of belief that guided every aspect of life.
Egyptian and Mesopotamian Influence on Judaic Beliefs
Judaism was not a total break with the past. Some Egyptian and Mesopotamian themes remain in Judaic texts. The story of Noah and the flood is one of the most famous incidents in Judaic scripture, the Torah. But both Mesopotamians and Egyptians had flood myths. Mesopotamia had a Sumerian and a Babylonian version. Both involve a man who builds a boat and rides out the storm with his family and a menagerie of animals, as did Noah. In Babylon’s myth, the boat lands on a mountaintop. Noah’s boat settles on Mount Ararat. The Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe features a hero who flees Egypt and enters Canaan, as did Moses and his people in Exodus (though Moses himself died before reaching Canaan). Sinuhe’s story also may have influenced the Torah’s Abraham narrative, with Sinuhe wandering as a nomad around much the same area that Abraham is said to have covered.
Other Innovations of Judaism
Egypt and Mesopotamia saw nature repeating with regularity. The sun rose; seasons changed. Events of the past had no influence on the future. Time just repeated. In Judaism, the future was predictable only by remembering history -- a linear concept of time that exists to this day. But other than the idea of a single god, Judaism’s most important new idea was that humans entered a covenant with God. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, people related to the gods the way they related to nature. With their covenant, Israelites became the first to choose a relationship with their god. No longer were humans at the mercy of many gods, with no choice in the matter.
- PBS Nova: The Rise of Judaism
- Jewish Virtual Library: Egypt
- Encyclopedia.com: Ancient Religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia
- Myth Encyclopedia: Floods
- Boston University: Israelite History in the Context of the Ancient Near East
- Ancient History Encyclopedia: Mesopotamia
- Ancient History Encyclopedia: Egypt
- Jewish Virtual Library: The Land of the Hebrews
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images