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Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrews

MESOPOTAMIA

Mesopotamia was the land of four primary civilizations: the Sumerian, the Akkadians, the Babylonian and the Assyrians. The Hebrews, like the Akkadians, belong to a group of people known as Semites and from there we can see the influence of Mesopotamian culture in some of the Hebrew traditions. During the same time, civilization began in Egypt, and there can be seen a distinct difference in the social, religious and political system from Mesopotamia; that the link between the two civilizations are the Hebrews, and although no historical records are available aside from the Holy Scriptures, it is believed that the Hebrews settled in Egypt during the era of Hyksos domination in the seventeenth century B.C.E. These three civilizations to be discussed were the foundation of today’s society and provided the common era with concrete religious beliefs still practiced today.

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Evidence of the mechanics on the evolution of social, religious and political values, as well as the fluctuating development of the role of women then and now, are present in these documents, beginning with the oldest document which is most likely the Epic of Gilgamesh, first passed on by word of mouth and later recorded by the Sumerians around the third millennium and finally edited and written down in cuneiform by the Babylonians.

This legend appears to have been used by all the civilizations in Mesopotamia in order to satisfy the need to know why we die and to justify the instincts that drove the people of these societies to war, to kill and to control as a must for survival. The gods were the only outlet available to justify such behaviour to grant permission to rule, to kill and subdue the weak.

The Epic of Gilgamesh does just that: It serves as a model for the warrior, the king and the tragic hero and the standards for divine right, friendship, brotherhood and loyalty. Finally, it becomes evident from the beginning of a higher consciousness that justifies love, brotherhood and loyalty in the midst of this need for war and gods.

The Epic is divided into seven main parts: the “Coming of Enkidu”, the “Forest Journey”, “Ishtar”, the “Search for Everlasting Life”, the “Story of the Flood”, the “Return”, and the “Death of Gilgamesh”.

The Creation of life was and is a mystery and therefore must be justified as it shows in the “Coming of Enkidu”, where he was created by Aruru by dipping “her hands in water and pinching off clay” (EOG 62). Clay was the most used material at the time, used to create structures from bricks to kitchenware and so used by the gods to create man.

In the “Forest Journey”, there is the justification used by Gilgamesh and Enkidu to slay Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, by labelling him evil, in order to fulfill the need for lumber by conquering the forest. The value of dreams is especially noted in this section and “Ishtar”. Dreams, a combination of reality and fantasy, were strange and seemingly unexplainable visions that were assumed to play a part in a communication system between the gods and the people.

The roles of women in the Epic are mixed. Women are represented as harlots, as wise and as gods, to present multiple feelings in regards to them. There are a substantial amount of gods that are represented as women and it could represent a society with multiple views towards women. A society where no definitive set of rules were made for women and perhaps more open to an equal perspective.

In “Ishtar”, the feelings of hate, love, rejection and punishment come to the surface to show that killing was not for all to do and that is permissible to a king two-thirds god and not to anyone such as Enkidu. Ishtar, the goddess, is a powerful woman as if to recognize the power of women as they give life to men through their love as well as their ability to destroy men.

The Epic represents some kind of order in the then chaotic experience of life. Represented in this line of progressive thought, where people are trying to make sense of their momentum in this progressive task of building a society that knew how to perceive itself only by means of myths and symbols.

The hero Gilgamesh cannot resign himself to die now that this awareness was brought forward by the death of his best friend Enkidu and he searches for everlasting life. In this segment, there is an attempt to portray the tragic hero, the once invincible, arrogant and intimidating Gilgamesh is now on the path of “enlightenment” where he experiences sorrow and endures the physically exhausting search. Here it can be seen that a little humility is yielded in exchange for Gilgamesh’s understanding of kindness, manifested by retrieving the secret plant that restores youth and preserving it for the elders of Uruk instead of taking care of himself first.

He finds Utnapishtim, the one in the Faraway place and the only mortal granted immortality by the gods. He wants to have what Utnapishtim has and he can’t: the “prize” granted to Utnapishtim for a task well accomplished in saving the species before the flood. The story of the flood is probably the strongest passage that connects Mesopotamian traditions to the Hebrews’ and the main difference lays in the moral value the Hebrews place on the story, versus the lack of it of the Mesopotamians. This lack of moral values is displayed in the story by destroying all of the civilization because the gods felt that the people were making too much noise.

In the “Laws of Hammurabi”, justice is not equal and it is measured and determined by class and gender. It can be said that the Mesopotamians achieved a certain degree of control and management in their society but naturally at the expense of women, ordinary citizens and slaves.

Hammurabi is demanding some kind of organization in order to preserve his kingdom and promote trade. In the progress of civilization, this is a success and the first successful set of elaborate laws that survive the ancient world. Nevertheless, religion is not separated from the management of men as the Prologue to the “Laws of Hammurabi” shows. The gods must be mentioned as a form of determent and justification for why is king and why the laws must be so. This connection is still present in today’s society whether to justify morality or the lack thereof.

EGYPT

The “Instructions of Kagemni” could be the first set of etiquette amongst noblemen and/or government executives. This superficial code describes proper conduct in order to survive the competitive status with the pharaoh and the upper-class echelons. To promote success much attention should be paid to table-manners and self-control.

This very important concept is introduced in “Instructions of Kagemni” and reappears in “Proverbs”, the Hebrew Scriptures and it plays a big role in today’s social-political structure as to differentiate between a peasant and aristocrat and in modern times the upper and lower class.

“Hymn to Aton” reflects the political and social status of the time and adds to the importance of the aid of god to proper management of a territory and the people within. This was the first and only attempt of an Egyptian ruler to monotheistic society. It could be argued that this could be an isolated attempt or that the Hebrews somehow influenced Amenhotep IV to this change. It is very important to consider this possibility since it would make the transferring of similar traditions between the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Hebrews civilizations understandable.

The role of women is important and well respected in Egyptian civilization, perhaps more than in Mesopotamian. The “Hymn to Aton” recognizes the importance of both sexes for procreation. This document is used just as the “Laws of Hammurabi” to better control his territory at a time when the clergy and the multitude of gods and temples are gaining popularity and, obviously, control.

HEBREWS

The Hebrews evolved from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic society and retained the latter due to its obvious benefit. The benefit is the consistency of one god and the inability to argue with other gods. This central deity is definitely a more efficient form of governing people as it can be noted from the progress of these civilizations.

In “Exodus”, there is a more elaborate and advanced form of management from the two previous forms of management. It contains both principles of Mesopotamian views and Egyptian views on a more advanced form of thought with one element that was never before present, and that is morality. In the exodus from Egypt Moses has been given a total of six-hundred and thirteen laws which comprise the Hebrew laws as the most elaborate set of laws ever in the ancient western civilization.

Unprecedented, this new set of management gives life to a new form of thought which sets the standards to today’s modern society, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. This emancipated society made room for the role of women in society but nevertheless always subordinate to men, and in “Genesis”, the reasoning is explained as punishment for disobedience to God. To the woman, He said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain, you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”.

In “Genesis”, God created man first and woman second. The woman is not disrespected but has a definite place and the place is defined throughout the laws. Nevertheless, women do not achieve equal status to men in any of the three Civilizations.

In “Job”, there is an argument between, God and Satan, a discussion which states that a man recognizes god when is doing well and that otherwise, God is nonexistent. This document is an example of faith and Job is the guinea pig of this experiment.

It is interesting to notice how modern western civilization has been influenced by the experimental processes of early civilizations and that it is a puzzle that is taking us so long to learn how to improve on it instead of repeating it. It could be suggested that perhaps the Hebrews are the by-product of the two greatest civilization, the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, and have been the only ones to successfully preserve their entire set of traditions in the western world and thus far are the most integral community which still retains the fundamental principles of the TaNaKh which has influenced all of western civilization.

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