Literature has been borrowed from all sources of the world and frequently transformed to give it a national character. German-speaking children grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales. They read Rotkoppchen. They read Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge. They read Goldlockchen und die drei Baren.
French-speaking children read the same stories. They called them Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Blanche Neige et les Sept Nains, and Boucle d’Or et les Trois Ours. Russian-speaking children read those very same stories and called them Krasnaya Shapochka, Belocnechoka I Cerni Gnomov.
Our Israeli Hebrew-speaking children read them as Kipa Aduma, Shalgiya v’h Shiva Ha Gmadim and Zahava v’Shloshet ha Dubim.
And Anglo-Saxon children read them as the beloved tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
And children around the world read Heidi, written in German by Johannes Spyri and translated into more than 90 languages.
These wonderful stories were written to amuse all the children of the world. They were borrowed from their original language, German, and translated into languages understood by children everywhere.
So too was it with our Hebrew Bible. The first 11 chapters of Genesis (Beraishit) are called pan-Semitic literature. They were written three thousand years before a single Hebrew walked upon the earth. They were written in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages on cuneiform tablets in ancient Babylonia and formed the literature of the Semitic world.
Enuma Elish is the Babylonian version of our Creation of the world. It tells that the earth was empty and void until the gods created light and life.
The Gilgamesh Epic, written more than three thousand years ago in Babylonia, tells the story of a great flood, of a man who was told by the god Ea to build an ark which came to rest on Mt. Ararat.
These stories were loved by the ancient Babylonians who told them over and over again. And our first patriarch, Abraham, who was a Babylonian, knew them well. These ancient tales were borrowed by the writers of our Bible but were revised to give new spiritual meaning to those who were later to become Jews.
We use the words Hebrews and Jews intermittently. There were no Jews in Egypt to be freed by Moses. Those people were only known as Hebrews or Israelites. There were no Jews before the time of King David in 1000 BCE giving birth to a kingdom called Judea or Judah and its people, Yehudim (Jews).
Hebrew history begins only with chapter 12 in the Book of Genesis with God’s call to Abraham to leave his land, the country of his birth, and go to a new and unknown land. Orthodox Jews understand that Abraham made the move because he heard the voice of God. Most Biblical scholars (not among the Orthodox) relate the exodus of Abraham as a result of a war between the Persians and the Elamites who had conquered his city of Ur. Abraham left or fled and became a refugee. He did not settle at first in the land of Canaan but rather made his home in Syria, in the city of Haran.
Legends were told about him, how he smashed the idols made by his father, Terach, and how he came to the realization that the sun, moon and stars had been created by One power. Jews regard him as the first monotheist after having been a worshipper of the moon god.
Egyptian archaeologists and historians credit pharaoh Akhnetan (Amenhotep IV) who worshipped the sun god as the first monotheist centuries before Abraham. He made worship of the sun god as the One and Only god of Egypt to the displeasure of the priests of Egypt. After his death, the priests abolished worship of the sun god and reverted back to the worship of many deities.
It is not an act of plagiarism to copy if changes, additions, or subtractions are made to the original tale version. We all grew up on borrowed tales which enriched our young lives. The first 11 chapters of Genesis… tales of an Adam and an Eve, of a Cain and an Abel, of a tower of Babel which reached into the heavens and is the origin of so many different spoken languages, of a Noah who built an ark and saved animal life to procreate but selfishly had no concern for his human neighbors as long as he and his family were to be spared…. all of these tales were borrowed from ancient lands and languages. Their beauty and greatness is due to the changes written by our Hebrew scribes to teach the magnificence of our One God.
Reading those chapters is inspiring, But I still love poor Snow White who ate a poisoned apple and slept until awakened by a kiss from her Prince Charming.