Identifying Genesis' Mid-First Millennium BCE  Origins  
via Onomastic Research on Cain and Nimrod

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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09 March 2002

Update at end of article: 10 Jan 2005

Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, is portrayed the world's first murderer. His descendants are credited with the arts of civilization, founding cities, musical instruments, and inventing metalurgy.

Myers was of the opinion that the biblical explanation of Cain from qana was unacceptable:

"There is no etymological relationship between Hebrew qayin (Cain) and Hebrew qana (acquire)..." 

(p. 181. Allen C. Myers. Editor. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1987)

Hess attempted to document the existence of the various personal names appearing in Genesis in extra-biblical sources of the Ancient Near East. While he was successful in identifying many of Genesis' personal names as appearing in 2d millennium BCE contexts, he hit a brick wall with "Cain."  His research concluded that Cain, Hebrew qayin/qyn was most probably derived from a South Arabic onomastic environment. The earliest attested appearance of qyn as a personal name was Qaynu, son of Geshem, a king of the Kedarites, who opposed Nehemiah's rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls in the 5th century BCE.  

Hess was able to identify qyn as an "administrator's title" in Old South Arabic inscriptions, it appearing in Sabaean and Qatabanian inscriptions of the 1st millennium BCE.  He also noted that epigraphic sources for the Old South Arabian inscriptions do not exist for 2d millennium BCE times. On the basis of the present evidence, Hess concluded that Cain (Hebrew qyn) if derived from South Arabic qyn, ( qyn meaning a "metal smith" in later South Arabic) indicated that Genesis' Cain could be no older than the mid-first millenium BCE.  If his suppositions are correct, then I must conclude that Moses could not have written Genesis in the 2d millennium BCE, ca. 1446 BCE (cf. 1 Kings 6:1) as maintained by Conservative scholars.

Hess's observations:

"Cain (qayin) seems related to the Semitic qyn. This root does not occur in Hebrew of the biblical period. It appears in Arabic of a later period with the meaning "smith." The modern scholarly interest in connecting Cain and his line with the Kenites and with metal working, particularly in the desert, often assumes the name's association with metal forging. An advantage of this would be the function of the name as a description, role, or occupation, as we have seen with Adam and Eve. However, the lack of a sufficient context in the Hebrew text to establish this meaning for the name has meant that this interpretation is not certain.

A third suggestion derives from the lexica of Old South Arabic. This is the qyn root used for the title of an administrator. The term appears both in Sabaean and in Qatabanian. A root qyn has been found in personal names in Old South Arabic inscriptions, including a qynw who appears as a Qedarite ruler in a 5th century BC Aramaic inscription from Tell el-Maskuteh at the entrance to Wadi Tumilat." 

(pp. 24-25. Richard S. Hess. Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11. [Alter Orient und Altes Testament], Verlag Butzon & Bercker Kevelaer. Neu Kirchener Verlag Vluyn, Germany. ISBN 3-7887-1478-6 )

"Cain has an onomastic environment only in the South Semitic onomastica of the first millennium BC. " 

(p.34, Hess)

"Cain...If it is attributed to the later qyn of the South Semitic languages, then it could be dated to the latter part of the first millennium." 

(p. 35, Hess)

Hess did note that the Bible's author(s) understood that Cain/qayin was derived from the root qnh meaning, "to acquire." 

(pp. 26-27, Hess)

"Studies have placed Cain in particular geographical and chronological contexts in the Ancient Near East. The figure of Cain has been associated with the region south of ancient Israel, i.e., the modern Negev and the Arabian peninsula. In part, this is because (as noted above) the qyn root occurs in names of persons in South Arabian tribes of the first millenium. It does not occur in the second millennium. Both the geographical and chronological parameters on this name should allow us to locate specifically in first millennium South Arabia." 

(p.37, Hess)

"Having made this observation, the names of Cain and Nimrod seem to be exceptions to the generalization of an early second millennium origin for the names of Genesis 1-11. The etymologies of both names have attestations in onomastica which are found only in the first millennium. However, both these names present other difficulties. Cain's etymology may involve a root found in epigraphic South Arabic. If this root has been correctly identified, we are left with the problem that there is no written evidence for epigraphic South Arabic in the second millennium antecedent to South Arabic in Arabia."
(pp.104-105, Hess)

Hess on "Nimrod":

"Nimrod presents a different problem. It is the only personal name identified among the offspring of either Ham or Japheth. Its appearance in Genesis 10 is unique. The fact of first millennium attestations of the root in personal names may suggest a later date for this narrative and its contents. The associations with Ninurta; if accepted, would allow for a much earlier date for the name, while not excluding a first millennium date as well." 

(p.105, Hess)

"The particular vocalization of the name is related to its form in Hebrew as first common plural imperfect Qal stem of the root "we will rebel." This root does not occur in West Semitic onomastica until the later Palmrene and Epigraphic South Arabic inscriptions." 

(p. 74, Hess)

"Mrd- a Palmyrene name (Stark 1971:37, 97), see Ryckmans (1934: I.132) for epigrphic South Arabian evidence." 

(p.74, Hess)

J. Vermeylen (1991: 181-2) has concluded that the names of Cain's descendants, with etymological origins no earlier than the first millennium, dates Genesis to a redactor of this period (p.57, Hess, note 165, citing Zeitschrift fur die altestamentliche Wissenschaft 103:175-193 "La descendance de Cain d` Abel")

Hess's research reveals that the root mrd, found in Nimrod, is unattested before Palmyrene times, that is ca. first century BCE at the earliest. Some scholars have suggested that the Nimrod pericope was inserted at a later date into Genesis by a later redactor. If their hunch is correct, then the date of this "insertion" would appear be to be no earlier than the 1st century BCE.


Two names appearing in Genesis, Cain and Nimrod, are unattested in second millennium BCE sources according to Hess, they appear only in first millennium BCE contexts, from the mid-first millenium BCE to the 1st century BCE.  It is my opinion that Moses did not write Genesis and the Pentateuch ca. 1446 BCE (cf. 1 Kings 6:1) as maintained by Conservative scholarship.  Elsewhere, I have argued that the Primary History, Genesis- 2 Kings, is no older than 560 BCE, which is the mid-first millenium BCE.

10 Jan 2005 Update: Nimrod is Ninurta?

Dalley suggested that the Sumerian god Ninurta might be Nimrod:

"Nin-urta (probably pronounced Nimrod and Enurta at times) -Sumerian warrior god, heroic winner of many famous victories...son of Ellil...Epithet: 'avenger/champion of Ellil'." 

(p.326. "Glossary." Stephanie Dalley. Myths From Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. New York. Oxford University Press. [1989], 1991 World's Classics paperback. ISBN 0-19-281789-2)

Leick on Ninurta :

"His name 'Lord Earth' probably derives from the old vegetation god Urash (Jacobsen 1973, 127 suggested 'Lord Plow')...he was called the firstborn son of Enlil...After the Old Babylonian period, Ninurta's popularity waned since Marduk assumed some of his characteristics (for the precedent of Ninurta's role in fighting Anzu for the Enuma Elish, see Lambert, in Heckler, Sommerfeld, 55-60). In Assyria, however, since the Late Middle Assyrian times, he was much promoted as a fearsome warrior."

As his name implies, Ninurta was originally an agricultural and rain deity...He was called 'farmer of Enlil' and praised as the life-giving semen, the source of fertility and abundance throughout the land: you fill the canal, let grow the barley...For some reason Ninurta changed from an agrarian god to the archetypical 'young god' or 'god of wrath'. Several compositions, mainly from the Neo-Sumerian and Ur III period emphasize this warlike character of the 'champion' (ur.sag) Ninurta: 'eternal warrior, greatly respected, with broad chest, the strength of a lion (...) stepping into battle (...) the heroic warrior, the right arm of Enlil' (Sjoberg 1976). Some of his power derives from the violent floods of springtime; in the Atrahasis myth he is the one who opens the dikes (see Flood Myths). a NIR.GAL, 'king, storm whose splendor is overwhelming' (also known as lugal.e). The text manages to reconcile both the fertility and martial aspects of the god." 

(pp.135-137. "Ninurta -Sumerian god." Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London & New York. Routledge. 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998. ISBN 0-415-19811-9 paperback)

Black and Green on Ninurta covers pretty much the same information as Leick, but adds more detail about he being a war-god of the Assyrians:

"Ninurta. There is no evidence for the meaning of the name...The most pronounced aspect of Ninurta's personality was his warlike nature. Several myths relate his martial exploits, mainly directed against the enemies of Sumer and in particular against the so-called 'rebel lands' or 'hostile lands' (the regions in the mountains to the east of Mesopotamia)...The Assyrian kings were devoted to the cult of Ninurta, as a warlike god who would help them against their enemies. At his new capital of Kalhu (Genesis' Calah, modern Nimrud), Assurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) built a temple to Ninurta adjacent to the ziggurat (which may also have been dedicated to Ninurta). The scene carved on stone relief slabs at either side of the main doorway of the temple may represent, uniquely in Neo-Assyrian monumental art, a mythological scene: Ninurta's defeat of the Asakku (Asag) or else of the Anzu bird (Imdugud)." 

(pp. 142-143. "Ninurta." Jeremy Black & Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, An Illustrated Dictionary. London. British Museum Press. 1992. Published at Austin, Texas by the University of Texas Press)

Some scholars have noted that the Hebrew Bible appears at times to deliberately "mispronounce" the names of pagan gods, perhaps as a form of ridicule and contempt, they being viewed as not being gods (?), so the "mispronunciation" of Ninurta into Nimrod is a possibility ( m and n are also frequently interchangeable consonants among the Ancient Near Eastern languages). In Hebrew Nimrod is said to mean "we will rebel" could this be an allusion to Ninurta's fame in fighting the eastern mountainous 'rebel lands' of the Mesopotamian myths, Assyria was located at the edge of these mountains?

I suspect scholars are correct, _it is Ninurta_ who lurks behind Genesis' Nimrod. Assyria is referred to as 'the land of Nimrod' (Micah 5:6), and Nimrod is likened in the Bible to  being 'a mighty hunter' before the Lord (in myths, Ninurta _hunts down_ the all-powerful Anzu bird and slaying it, recovers the tablets it has stolen): 

Genesis 10:9-11 RSV

"Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, "Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord." The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth into assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city."

Note that Ninurta's "origin" is Sumer and Akkad in the Mesopotamian myths, only LATER is he "borrowed" by the Assyrians to become a fearsome warrior god who will give them victory over their enemies. The Ninutra temple at Kalhu, Genesis' Calah, also fits the locale. That is to say, Genesis' author is correctly relaying the origins of Nimrod as first being lower Mesopotamia and LATER moving north into Assyria. The Hebrews, denying that there are any gods but theirs, understandably, have recast Ninurta the god into a man. 

As regards the association of Ninurta with agricultural motifs, as noted above, he was a god associated with water in the dykes, and releasing the dikes to flood the earth in the Atrahasis Flood epic; he was also the Spring Thunder storms which can bring on flooding of the land. The Neo-Assyrian kings frequently boasted of "overwhelming their enemies like a flood-storm" that innundates the land leaving cities as ruin mounds. Perhaps this notion of waterover flowing dikes and destroying cities gave Ninurta the connotation of being a watery-warrior who overwhelms like flood-waters, all in his path ?

Micah 5:6 RSV

"...they shall rule the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod with the drawn sword; and they shall deliver us from the Assyrian when he comes into our land and treads within our border."

Micah's concern with a threatened invasion of his homeland from Assyria suggests to me, his composition is ca. the 8th-7th centuries BCE, thus the "land of Nimrod" would appear to be of this era and not of the later Palmyrean era.

Below, an old engraving of a bas-relief found at the Ninurta temple at ancient Calah (Genesis 10:11) in Assyria, of Ninurta (Nimrod ? Genesis 10:9-12) the "mighty hunter" of the gods, and warrior god of the Assyrians (for the drawing cf. p. 66. Henrietta McCall. Mesopotamian Myths. Austin, Texas. The Tustees of the British Museum in conjunction with the University of Texas. 1990. ISBN 0-292-75130-3. paperback)

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