We know that the Bible is mostly fiction, but did you ever wonder how some of the incredible stories got into the book? As a child, the story of Noah made no sense to me. Why would a supposedly loving God commit a genocidal holocaust by killing all humans on Earth except for one man and his family (a wife, three sons, and their wives)? The answer was that this perfect, all-knowing God somehow regretted that he made human beings and he grieved in his heart (Genesis 6:6) because, much to God’s surprise, there was violence on Earth. Only 600-year-old Noah found favor in God’s eyes. So God told Noah to build an ark and save only his family and pairs of animals from a life-destroying flood. Noah didn’t question God’s plan or show any compassion for his neighbors. Obedient Noah just followed orders. (By the way, how do Christian fundamentalists justify an abortion-loving god who killed all those innocent fetuses?) When the family finally left the ark for dry land, a grateful Noah burned some of the animals that were on the ark and offered them on an altar to God. When God smelled the burning flesh, he was pleased and promised never again to destroy all life by a flood. What did Noah then do? He made wine and became the first drunk in the Bible. He drank so much that he passed out while naked. One of Noah’s sons, Ham, saw his father naked. When Noah awakened, he got furious with Ham for seeing him naked and for some strange reason cursed Ham’s innocent son, Canaan, and said an appropriate punishment for Canaan and his descendants would be perpetual slavery. (The authors of the Bible probably focused on Canaan because in the Book of Joshua the Israelites slaughtered all inhabitants of Canaan on the way to their “promised” land.)
Though not biblical, some now claim that Ham’s descendants populated Egypt and the rest of Africa. The curse of Noah was later used by preachers and politicians in the American South to justify race-based slavery.
The biblical writers were not original in their flood story. They seem to have plagiarized (borrowed) from an older Mesopotamian tale known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 1800 BCE, long before the Hebrew Bible was written. In it, the Mesopotamian gods decide to punish humanity with a catastrophic flood. One man was chosen to survive using a specially constructed boat filled with animals. After the flood, birds were released to find dry land. On dry land, animals were sacrificed to repair the relationship between humanity and the divine.
The authors of Genesis were aware of the deluge depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Archaeologists have found bits of the Epic of Gilgamesh all over ancient Israel. It appears that the Epic of Gilgamesh was in broad circulation at the time Genesis was written.
Another puzzling story to me was the biblical story of Lot, another famous drunk, and nephew of Abraham. Lot invited two strangers, disguised as angels, to visit with him in Sodom. Some men of Sodom banged on Lot’s door, interested in the visiting men (hence the pejorative, sodomite, for a homosexual). Instead, Lot offered the men his virgin daughters (which was Lot’s right to do, since his daughters are his property). However, the men weren’t interested in having sex with Lot’s daughters. Next, God decided to kill everyone living in Sodom, except for Lot, his wife, and two daughters. He burned the city down, along with its twin city, Gomorrah. God told Lot and his family not to look back at Sodom burning, but out of curiosity Lot’s wife looked back. God then turned her into a pillar of salt.
Here’s what puzzled me. Why did God use a salt method, instead of killing Lot’s wife in his usual genocidal way? I’ll get to that shortly, but first the “happy” ending to Lot’s story.
Lot and his two daughters moved to a cave. Panicked because they were living in a wilderness cave where there were no other men, Lot’s daughters took turns on consecutive nights getting Lot drunk and having incestuous sex with him. Not only was Lot able to “get it up” when drunk and not remember his sexual encounters, but God blessed the incest by seeing to it that the two unnamed daughters each got pregnant and had sons (Moab and Ammon) to assure family descendants.
Now about why Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. While visiting Israel in 1999, I went to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the Earth’s surface and too salty to sustain life. Sodom, located around the Dead Sea, is the first biblical story about an actual place. Standing at the Dead Sea, I saw that some salt formations were almost shaped like human beings. That explains the “creativity” of a biblical writer.
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) were preceded and decisively influenced by followers of the earlier Persian prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), born somewhere between 1200 BCE and 800 BCE. Zarathustra rejected the religion of the Bronze Age Iranians with their many gods, believing in only one god. In Zoroastrian eschatology there is the concept of heaven, hell, angels, demons, an evil spirit, redemption, messiah, and a final battle for the salvation of man at the end of time.
The first encounter between the ancient people who developed historical Judaism and the Persian religious ideas of Zoroastrianism seems to have come around the time of the actual Hebrew captivity in Babylon, around 600 BCE. The Persian king, Cyrus, liberated the Hebrews from Babylon and they were allowed to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in 515 BCE, where it remained until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.
That Persian policy shaped what we know as Judaism. Isaiah described King Cyrus as a “messiah” and the chosen instrument of Yahweh. Long in place in Zoroastrianism, Isaiah 44:6
contains the first clear statement of monotheism in the Bible: “I am the first and I am the last; beside me there is no God.”
Deep affinities between Zoroastrianism and Judaism help explain what had been friendly relations between Persians and Jews. The influence of 20th century religious-political ideologies poisoned that relationship.
Now for Christianity, originally a cult of Judaism. In Matthew 2, the Magi or “wise men from the East” was a translation of the Greek “Magoi,” referring to a tribe of Zoroastrian priests. The Magi brought the new “King of the Jews” gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the latter two are still offerings made in Zoroastrian temples). “Magi” is the word from which the English words “magic” and “magician” were derived.
Isaiah 7:14 forms the basis of Matthew 1:23’s doctrine of the virgin birth. Many Isaiah passages gained popularity from the use of them by early Christian authors, especially true of the Book of Revelation, which depends heavily on Isaiah for its language and imagery.
Indications that traditional Islam adopted some Zoroastrianism practices include the exact number and timings of their five daily prayers. Both Muslim and Zoroastrian worshippers precisely follow the course of the Sun to determine their times of prayer, and both are required to wash their face and limbs before prayer.
Some other biblical stories seem to have been borrowed from the ancient Sumerians. For instance, in a Sumerian myth there was a beautiful garden with forbidden fruit and a curse on those who eat it. A man’s rib also comes into play. The Sumerian female wasn’t created from the rib of a man, but was created to heal the man’s rib. It’s interesting that many Bible believers refuse to accept that life could have come from non-life, yet they believe that the first human was made from dirt and the second human from the rib of the first. Did God run out of dirt?
As far as I can tell, other inventive stories in the Bible largely center around misogeny and homophobia. In Zoroastrianism there is free will and no concept of “original sin.” Good works, not belief, are what matter.
Perhaps in modern days what best reflects the influence of Zoroastrianism’s legacy is Richard Strauss’ musical composition Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which provided the booming backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The score owes its inspiration to Nietzsche’s novel of the same name, about a prophet named Zarathustra, although many ideas Nietzsche proposes are anti-Zoroastrian. Nietzsche was an atheist.
Like Nietzsche, I’m no Zoroastrian. On the other hand, the Zoroastrian religion seems more appealing to me than do the three Abrahamic religions.