Noah, the first Natsarene?
The flood was a divine judgment upon all mankind, one which came suddenly. But god gave Noah secret knowledge in advance: to build an ark. The ark itself represents and symbolizes the secret saving knowledge of god. After all, it was the ark that saved Noah. Thus it is no surprise that in the Akkadian flood story the boat is named natsirat napishtim, “Preserver of Life,” a phrase employing the root n-ts-r.6 It should also not surprise us that netsêru in Akkadian means “secret knowledge,” particularly that received from the moon god Ea/Enki (the god of the underword ocean).7 In the flood story, secret knowledge protects the wise person against that which destroys the entire world.
The Mandeans identified Noah with the Good Shepherd, and the ark with the ship of light:
A shepherd am I, whose ship will soon arrive. I come with my light-ship containing my sheep and my lambs… Every male and female lamb which lets itself wander is pulled under by the maelstrom, is entangled by the [all-encompassing] water. Whoever does not hear my call, sinks.8
In the Akkadian flood story the ark came to rest on the very top of Mt. Nitsir—again from the root n-ts-r. Given the etymology of the name, Mt. Nitsir represents the saving knowledge of god, the “secret knowledge” not vouchsafed to the rest of the world. Metaphorically speaking, it is a firm resting place—indeed, the only resting place in existence while the rest of the world is ‘under water.’ The top of Mt. Nitsir is halfway between earth and heaven, where god and man meet.
[An aside: Later, this locus is transferred to Mr. Hermon, also ‘half way between earth and heaven,’ and the meeting place of the gods (cf. Enoch 7:7). Since Neolithic times, Mt. Hermon had been the sacred place past which the sun was seen to descend into the western sea. It was the ‘gate’ of day/night—the metaphorical gate of death, the home of the ‘watcher’ Lahmu gods (see below) and whence came sacred waters—of the Jordan river. All living beings, like the sun, had to pass through and under the mountain at the Western horizon. Incidentally, Mt. Hermon in the Galilee was also the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration and of Peter’s receiving the ‘keys of the kingdom’ (Mt 16:13 ff. & pars.). At the foot of that mountain lay the holy shrine to the god Dan (in Ugaritic Danel, “Judge of God” = Last Judgment). Even Gilgamesh went to “the white mountain of Lebanon” in search of secret knowledge, where ‘lived’ Utnapishtim—Noah.]
In the simplest terms, Noah has miraculously pierced through the barrier (the flood) ordinarily separating life and death.9 He appears unscathed ʻon the other sideʼ10 (i.e., ʻafterʼ the flood). Secret knowledge allows the Natsarene to be ʻawakeʼ when others are ʻsleepingʼ (cf. Mk 13:35-37), to act when others do not, and in these ways to overcome death—that is, to attain immortality. In essence, Noah was the first Natsarene.
The flood story should be interpreted in a gnostic context. Atrahasis/Noah has secret wisdom (gnosis) which saves. The rest of mankind lacks that wisdom and dies in sudden disaster.
Gnosis and flowing, ʻlivingʼ water
Wisdom, particularly secret wisdom, was probably the first religion of man—it was the special dispensation of the Paleolithic shaman who descended deep into the dark underworld (caves) and there passed beyond the psychic vortex to “the other side,” and where he met the loving “being of light.” That meeting originally took place (as it still does)11 in the near death experience, often accompanied with loss of blood and hallucinations. The shaman evoked the psychic descent by going downwards into the earth. He would return to the world above with special wisdom, ʻgnosis,ʼ about the relations between man, animals, the divine, and nature.
Wisdom continued to be located in the realm below during the Neolithic Era. But during those six millennia (c. 9,500–3,500 BCE) the life-giving properties of water became prominent with the development of agriculture. The apt equation wisdom = water was made, for wisdom is spiritually life-giving, and water is physically life-giving. This was reinforced by the fact that fresh water, flowing water, appeared to come out of the deep recesses inside the earth, long considered sacred, through springs and wells.
If wisdom = water, one might consider it curious that, in the flood story, ʻwisdomʼ metaphorically kills mankind. After all, is not wisdom (particularly in a gnostic context) precisely that which saves mankind? The mystery evaporates, however, when we realize that wisdom is a two-edged sword: those who possess it are saved, while those who do not are lost. This insight was known to the ancients and lies at the foundation of the flood story. Mankind perished in the flood because it lacked secret wisdom. The water—that is, ʻtruthʼ—saved Atrahasis/Noah but killed the rest of mankind. This irony is exquisitely preserved in the Gospel of Thomas, where we read: “That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. That which you do not have within you will kill you, if you do not have it within you” (Logion 70). That is: gnosis saves if one has it, and gnosis kills if one does not have it.
In Mesopotamian religion of the Bronze Age, the lord of wisdom, Enki, made his home in the underground ocean (abzu). Places where water emerged from the abzu—wells and springs—were sacred. Those ʻplaces of gnosisʼ and ʻsources of gnosisʼ were guarded by divine servants of Enki known as Lahmu (m.) and Lahamu (f.). In Bronze Age iconography a Lahmu stands at each side of a gate, indicating that gnosis is an entryway to the divine. In this sense, wells and springs were entrances to the gnostic underworld.
En-ki in Sumerian means “Lord of the Earth.” But his Akkadian name is E-a (“House of Water”). The latter name perfectly corresponds with the most prestigious Iron Age temples. In them could be found a large tank of water, also called the abzu (no doubt symbolic of the underworld ocean of gnosis)—such as the “brazen sea” in Solomonʼs temple (2 Chron 4:2), and the imposing pool of water in Ashur at the temple of Sennacherib (r. 704–681 BCE).
J. Roberts has linguistically linked the name Ea to the Semitic hyy (“to live”), and in this way to the Hebrew god Yahweh.12 Roberts further shows that the term is related to the adjective hayy(um), “alive, living,” with the specific meaning of spring-fed or running water.13 The latter is of considerable importance in the early history of gnosticism, for it linguistically confirms the link between hidden wisdom (represented by Ea/Enki) and running, flowing, “living” water. That link—which is, nota bene, ancient and ʻgnosticʼ—manifests in late antiquity as the rite of baptism in the most sacred River Jordan—the river which flows from Mt. Hermon.
Baptism, water, and Bethlehem
Enki lived in the watery abzu, the place of gnosis located in the underworld. He was the divine mediator, friendly advisor, and advocate of mankind, known for intellectual cunning and the ability to find solutions to the most difficult problems confronting man. It was Enki, for example, who advised Ziusudra14 to build the ark and thus escape the flood. As lord of gnosis, Enki’s stature is unrivaled in the earliest records.
In both Sumerian and Akkadian religion, the Lahmus were divine helpers of Enki, the god of water and of wisdom (i.e., of ‘watery wisdom’). As mentioned above, a pair of Lahmus is often portrayed in Babylonian iconography standing one at each side of a sacred gate. I don’t wish to dwell too much on these divinities, but their intermediate status can be noted: the Lahmus stand between gnosis and mankind. In a sense, they prefigure later intermediate spiritual beings, i.e., ‘angels.’ We shall see that the Aramaic word for angel (‘ir) means “watcher,” and—most appositely—is etymologically related to natsar…
The Lahmus guarded and granted access to gnosis—an extremely ancient task—for gnosis (= divinity) was considered far too exalted for casual or unworthy approach. When/if the Lahmus open the gate, a deluge ensues—the deluge of wisdom which destroys all those who are ignorant. Only the very wise could rise above that deluge, as did Atrahasis/Utnapishtim/Noah (i.e., the ‘enlightened’ person). In fact, the flood story is one of the first metaphors for the predicament of life—all mankind drowns except he who is ‘Ultra-wise.’
If he wishes to reach immortality and transcend his ignorance, man must metaphorically pass through the gate to gnosis, sometimes conceived as occurring at death. (I.e., gnostic baptism = spiritual ‘resurrection.’) Entering water was certainly a gnostic metaphor for enlightenment in very ancient pre-Christian times. The gate or ʻhomeʼ at which that spiritual transition took place was known as Beit-Laḥmu, the “house of Lahmu,” that is, Bethlehem (House “of Lahmu,” not “of Bread,” lehem)15—the ‘birthplace’ of Jesus the Nazarene.
The Israeli archaeologist Aviram Oshri has shown that the settlement of Bethlehem in Judea (9 km south of Jerusalem) did not exist at the turn of the era when Jesus was allegedly born.16 In fact, no archaeological evidence of human settlement there exists before late Roman times. There are indeed Chalcolithic and Bronze Age remains below the steep Bethlehem ridge nearby, in a location called Beit Sahur, but “when the settlement [of Bethlehem] was first established is not known” (K. Prag). Furthermore, the Old Testament town is entirely unsubstantiated by the material finds. 2 Samuel mentions two gnostic symbols—a gate and a well—in connection with Bethlehem (see next paragraph). These have not been found in the archaeological record. 2 Chronicles 11:5–12 notes that Rehoboam made the “fortress” of Bethlehem “very strong,” but neither wall nor structures dating to biblical times have come to light.17 In other words, the settlement is—like Nazareth—amply attested in the literary record (in this case, Jewish scripture) but not in the material record.
“Bethlehem” was a purely mythical place. Indeed, we have seen that it was already the mythical gate to gnosis and the home of the Lahmu gods. An echo of this view can even be found in Jewish scripture. 2 Samuel depicts Bethlehem as the place of a sacred well from which David wished to draw special water. Our explanation above supplies the key to this rather bizarre Old Testament story:
Towards the beginning of harvest three of the thirty chiefs went down to join David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was at Bethlehem. David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to Yahweh, for he said, “Yahweh forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things. (2 Sam 23:13–17)
David at first yearns for the water of the Bethlehem well—a gnostic yearning. But later he pours that water out on the ground “to Yahweh.” This represents a conversion—illogical in the contrived Jewish setting (for David was already devoted to Yahweh)—but significant to the Hebrew priests and scribes who wished to make an all-important point: Yahweh is superior to the search for gnosis. They concocted an imperfect story which does precisely that. It is one of innumerable passages in Jewish scripture teaching that obedience to Yahweh supersedes manʼs inherent gnostic aspirations. That is, in fact, a basic and recurring teaching of Judaism.
NEXT: David, Bethlehem, and the scribes
6. Lambert and Millard 126 line 8.
7. CAD vol. 11.2: 276; C. Bezold, Babylonisch-Assyrisches Glossar, 1926:204. Also cf. Nielsen chp. 2, the section “N-ts-r and the lunar origins of the flood story,” esp. nn. 31 & 32.
8. M. Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer, 1915:48. Cf. Jn 10:1–18.
9. ‘Crossing overʼ is a universal religious metaphor for attaining enlightenment, e.g. in Buddhism where it is used frequently. In Paleolithic religion, one crossed the boundary between the mundane and the divine be mystically going through the subterranean cave wall (see Salm, Paleolithic Religion, 2010:34–39). That wall endures in the Akkadian flood story, where the divine Ea speaks to Utnapishtim through a reed wall (tabl.XI:20 ff).
10. See below for a discussion of this important phrase.
11. Salm, “Paleolithic Religion,” 22 ff; R. Moody, Life after Life (1975).
12. J. Roberts, The Earliest Semitic Pantheon, 1972:19–21 and p. 80, n. 117. Discussion is at S. Kramer, Myths of Enki, the Crafty God, 1989:244. Other parallels between Enki and Yahweh have been noted, e.g., the confusion of languages in the tower of Babel story (cf. Gen. 11:9). “It is Enki who, for reasons that are not made entirely clear, sets up ʻcontentionʼ in the speech of humankind and brings the Golden Age to an end” (Kramer:88).
13. Confirmation of this is found in the later identification of Ea with nagbu, “source, spring, groundwater.” See Kramer, op. cit., 145.
14. Ziuzudra is the Sumerian name of the flood hero. Atrahasis and Utnapishtim are Akkadian names, and Noah (“rest”) the Hebrew name.
15. “The former explanation that ʻBethlehemʼ means ʻhouse of breadʼ is pure folk-etymology. The name means ʻhouse of (the goddess) Lahama [sic].” (C. Kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels, Herder, 1963:3.) Some traditionalist scholars continue to reject the Lahmu/Lahamu derivation (e.g., B. Chilton, Rabbi Jesus, Doubleday, p. 8).
16. A. Oshri, “Where Was Jesus Born?” Archaeology, Nov-Dec. 2005:42–45.
17. A summary of the material evidence is in K. Prag, “Bethlehem: A Site Assessment,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 132 (2000):169ff.