Dr. Avalos Responds to Triablogue on the Sargon Legend!

Hector Avalos wrote: Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that the authors of Triablogue are familiar with cuneiform literature, or can verify any information for themselves outside of secondary sources such as those found in Hoffmeier, Hess, and other conservative scholars. I know the work of these conservative scholars well.

I am trained in cuneiform literature and I also studied the Dead Sea Scrolls under John Strugnell at Harvard (and under F. M. Cross who is still regarded as perhaps the foremost expert on the DSS).

I see no reference yet to perhaps the most important study of the Sargon legend— Brian Lewis, The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and The Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth (American Schools of Oriental Research: Cambridge, MA, 1980).

The authors of Triablogue make many factual errors and facile assumptions, but let me concentrate on three (in the post by Steve, 7-9-08 and Peter Pike):

A. There is also the linguistic evidence, which points to the Egyptian provenance of Exod 2—which undermines literary dependence on a Mesopotamian source.

Without the specifics of this linguistic evidence, this really does not mean very much. Mesopotamian and Hittite texts can have Egyptian words, but that alone does not render those texts of Egyptian provenance.

In the case of the Moses story, there are no stories with parallels as close as that of the legend of Sargon. The story of Horus has been suggested, but the parallels are not very good.

In contrast, there are numerous more exact parallels with Mesopotamian literature. For example, the idea of handing over a foundling to a wet nurse who raises him until he is weaned finds a more exact legal parallel in the Sumerian-Akkadian lexical series known as ana ittishu, which was edited by B. Landsberger in Materialien zum sumerischen Lexicon I, p. 112, especially column iii.

B. You’re equivocating between an account of X and a copy of an account of X. We have multiple lines of evidence that the Book of Exodus antedates our extant Hebrew MSS. We have nothing comparable for the legend of Sargon.

Actually, we have more for Sargon. We can trace Sargon stories and references from about the time of his reign (late third millennium BCE) down to the seventh century. We have evidence that Sargon was a real king because of multiple sources from HIS time. References to Sargon continue fairly consistently between the late third millennium and the seventh century BCE.

We also can see the potential development of some motifs rather early. For example, we have an Old Babylonian fragmentary manuscript published by A. Clay (Babylonian Records in the Library of J. Pierpont Morgan, Vol. IV, no. 4. p. 11), has a first line that reads (See also Lewis, p. 133).:

“I (am) Sargon, the beloved of Ishtar, who roams the entire world.”

This shows that the motif of Sargon being beloved of Ishtar, is already present hundreds of years before the Neo-Assyrian texts which contain the fuller account of the Legend of Sargon.

We have nothing from Moses’ supposed lifetime that mentions him or any of his features. Not even close. Indeed, where do we have anything similar about Moses hundreds of years before the oldest Exodus manuscripts?

C. Peter Pike said: Are you saying textual criticism and style analysis are not relevant and cannot provide knowledge to give accurate dating?

We can talk all day long about textual or literary criticism supposedly helps us reach earlier or to “original” compositions, but I think I have addressed this issue in great detail in The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2007), pp. 65-108.

Textual criticism won’t help you much here in proving that Exodus 1-2 is written before the Sargon legend. If I am wrong, give me one text critical detail that does.

Moreover, textual criticism and literary criticism would still favor the Sargon legends being earlier compositions. Lewis (The Sargon Legend, p. 265) himself says:
It would appear more likely that the Vorlage of the Moses story be sought in the direction of Mesopotamia or Western Asia.
We have four major manuscripts for the Legend of Sargon, and so we can do textual criticism. Motifs and other elements found in earlier omens, and inscriptions related to Sargon can help us conduct much better literary analysis than is possible for Moses.

In addition, we now have a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic from Palestine, and so we know that this story was there. In contrast, we don’t have any biblical texts in Mesopotamian dating from the time of the Gilgamesh epic.

We have mountains of Akkadian stories and others types of texts. In comparison, Israel was very poor in textual materials before the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, the OVERWHELMING weight of the evidence suggests that, if there were any copying, the Hebrews copied from earlier Mesopotamian literature, and not the other way around.


Good history begins with the extant sources. The Sargon legend is in actual manuscripts from the seventh century BCE. We can trace crucial elements of this legend hundreds (or even thousands) of years before that. The Moses story appears in manuscripts no earlier than the 2nd-3rd centuries BCE. We have NOTHING about Moses before this. Any textual or literary criticism we can apply will still result in Sargon stories being attested far longer and better than those of Moses.

Questions for Steve and/or Peter Pike:

1. How do you explain the parallels between the Moses story and the Sumerian ana ittishu legal directives?

2. What pattern of parallels from an Egyptian story is closer than the one from Sargon for the Moses story?

3. Could you provide ONE text critical detail that would help you
date the Moses story before the Sargon story.

4. Are you able to read: A. Assyro-Babylonian; B. Hebrew?

Dr. Hector Avalos
Professor of Religious Studies
Iowa State University
Ames, IA