Bible and the Ancient Near East
At first sight, Sumer and Israel seem separated by an overwhelming distance. Apart by at least a millennium, different in ecology and in language. Nevertheless, the two cultures had much in common, and show many facets of the same cultural continuum. The Sumerian texts have a compelling importance to the study of biblical literature and thought. They illuminate otherwise undetected nuances in biblical texts and help us understand, sometimes by contrast and sometimes in continuation, many of the Bible's (and frequently our own) important concepts and institutions. It is with great pleasure that I dedicate this small paper to A. Sjöberg, whose important contributions to the study of Sumerian language and literature are incalculable, and who has nevertheless never lost his interest in, and love for, the Hebrew Bible.
Ever since the time of Hesiod, Western civilization has looked upon gender as an absolute distinction between men and women. The Greeks considered females to be inherently so different from males that they spoke of a genes gynaikon, a “race of women,” in effect calling woman an entirely different species from man. The Greek philosophical systems viewed the male-female polarity as the major axis of their thinking. In this dichotomy, women were the reflex of men in all aspects: men were cultured, women natural; men civilized, women wild; men god-like, women bestial; men aggressive, women submissive; and so forth. Man embodied all those characteristics that the Greeks considered the highest achievements of their civilization, and woman, by contrast, had all the characteristics that the Greeks denigrated and discarded. The contest between men and women and, in particular, the replacement of women's modality by the superior male culture is the theme of many Greek myths, from Hesiods Theogony and the Amazonomachia to Euripides' Oresteia.