Fiery Gods: Yahweh, Marduk, Asshur, the Queen of Heaven, Ahura-Mazdah, et. al.
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03 July 2001 (Revisions through 19 March 2008)
The Pentateuchal narrator understands that the whole Israelite nation assembles itself about the foot of Mount Sinai to witness God's descent in full view of the nation and to hear him speak directly to them. We are told that God appears in the form a great storm-cloud full of lighting and thunder, and that when God actually descends upon the mount it erupts into fire. The nation is later reminded that they are to make no image of God to worship because when they looked into God's great fire, they saw no image, only fire.
In this brief article we will explore the Ancient Near Eastern notion of gods possessing fiery bodies and note the parallels with Hebrew concepts of Yahweh as a fiery God.
The earliest hint we get of God's fiery nature is in Genesis and Abraham's encounter with God. Abraham slaughters some sacrifical animals and cuts their bodies in half, then, evidently God passes between them in a fiery form as a flaming torch:
"As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years...When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abraham, saying, To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates..." (Genesis 15:12-19 RSV)
Cumming notes that Marduk. the supreme god of Babylon was likened to being a torch, apparently like Yahweh in Abraham's dream:
"Lofty in form, Marduk, shining sun god, bright torch, who by his rising illuminates the darkness, makes brilliant..."
(p.108, "Hymn to Marduk #1," Charles Gordon Cumming. The Assyrian and Hebrew Hymns of Praise. New York. AMS Press.  1966)
The "Queen of Heaven," the Sumerian Inanna/Inana, is also called a torch which lights up the heavens, alluding to her as Venus, the evening star:
"You alone are magnificent...Your divinity shines in the pure heavens like Nanna [the Moon-god] or Utu [the Sun-god]. Your torch lights up the corners of the heaven, turning darkness into light...You excercise full ladyship over heaven and earth." (ETCSSL, "A Hymn to Inana [Inana C])
"Great light, heavenly lioness...lioness of heaven...As you rise in the morning sky lie a flame visible from afar, and at your bright appearance in the evening sky...All the countries are building a house for you as for the risen sun; a shining (?) torch is assigned to you, the light of the land."
(ETCSL "Hymn to Inana as Ninegala [Inana D]; ETCSL= The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University, url :
God's fiery nature is alluded to again when Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness of Sinai:
"Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in;aw, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out the midst of a bush...God called to him out of the bush...Moses, Moses...I am the God of your father, and the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said I have seen the affliction of my people.... (Exodus 3:1-7)
Mettinger notes that Melqart of Tyre was another fiery god asociated with a fiery tree whose branches were not consumed:
"...Nonnos of the 4th century CE tells of an oracle instructing the first men on earth to build a ship and land on floating rocks...on which grew an olive-tree...enveloped by a fire that did not consume its branches...Nonnos is also the one who designates Melqart as "prince of fire," a designation to be compared with the reading on a seal found at Tyre: lmlqrt rsp, in which rsp might be a cognate of Hebrew resep, "burning coal."
(p. 97. Tryggve N.D. Mettinger. No Graven Image ? Israelite Aniconism in its Ancient Near Eastern Context. Stockholm. Almqvist & Wiksell. 1995. ISB 91-22-01664-3 pbk)
Moses recounts to his people the day they all saw God at Mt. Horeb/Sinai and heard his words:
"Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen..how on the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb...And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud and gloom. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant...Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure...For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God...Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live ? ...he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire." (Deut 4:9-36)
God assumes the form of a pillar of fire (I am not aware of any non-Hebrew myths where a god is portrayed as a "pillar of fire"):
"And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians and discomfited the host of the Egyptians..." (Exodus 14:24)
The "Queen of Heaven," Ishtar/Inanna is called "a flame," revealing her fiery nature:
"To the pure flame that fills the heavens, to the light of heaven, Ishtar, who shines like the sun, to the mighty Queen of Heaven, Ishtar, I address greeting." (p. 25. Langdon)
The evening star, the star which shines pre-eminent in the heavens is represented by...Ishtar:
"Light of heaven which flames like fire over the earth art thou." (p.109, Hymn # 6 to Ishtar, Cumming)
"She that flameth in the horizon of heaven." (p.109, Hymn to Ishtar # 4, Cumming)
Speaking of Marduk, before his confronation with Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish hymn:
"His body was filled with an ever-blazing flame. He made a net to encircle Tiamat within it..."
(p. 251, Stephanie Dalley. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Oxford University Press. 1991)
"...Marduk, or the god of fire. His assistance was implored with the following words: 'Fire, destroyer of enemies, terrible weapon which destroys the plague, brilliant fire, destroy this evil."
(p.105, Charles Seignobos [translator: David Macrae]. The World of Babylon, Nineveh and Assyria. New York. Leon Amiel , publisher [Paris. Libraire Armand Colin. Editions Minerva, S.A. Geneve. 1975])
"Nusku has an independent character as a god associated with fire and light. Sometimes Gibil the fire god is described as the son of Nusku. In magical incantations, Nusku is among the gods called upon to assist in the burning of sorcerers and witches. In the Neo-Assyrian period, Nusku was among the gods who were worshipped together at Harran...The symbol of a lamp sometimes occuring in Mesopotamian art from the Kassite to Neo-Babylonian periods is labeled on Kudurrus as an emblem of Nusku."
(p.145, "Nusku," Black & Green)
"Likewise Nusku is a solar deity:
Strong fire god who surveys the tops of mountains, mighty fire god, illuminator of the darkness." (p.108, "Hymn to Nusku #1, Cumming)
Sayce understands that the Phoenicians conceived their god, Melqart of Tyre, as a fiery god:
"The temples of Melkarth were said to have been without images, and no women, dogs, or swine were allowed within them. The fire that symbolized him burnt perpetually on his altar..."
(p.197, The Phoenicians," A.H. Sayce. The Ancient Empires of the East. New York. Scribner's Sons. 1911)
A West Semitic god associated with fire is Reshep, whose name rsp means "fire":
"Reshep. West Semitic god is connected with rsp, 'fire,.' He is an ancient god and already appears in the Ebla pantheon. In Ugarit...he was popular enough to receive regular offerings...He was identified with the Babylonian chthonic god Nergal. The Egyptians adopted him too; as a plague god he was invoked to fight against the forces of evil. The Phoenicians left several carvings of this god in Cyprus, Anatolia and Syria."
(p.143, "Reshep," Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London. Routledge. 1991, 1998)
The Persians evidently conceived of their god, Ahura-Mazdah, as fiery, being portrayed within a winged sun-disk, and the fire on the altar was understood to be a manifestation of his holy spirit:
"Deinon explains that the Magi sacrifice under the open sky because they believe that fire and water are the only emblems of divinty." (p. 478, Olmstead)
"As fire of Ahura-mazda, you are delightful to us, as his holiest spirit you are delightful to us. What name of yours is most propitious, fire of Ahura-mazda, with...Good thought, beneficient righteousness, deeds, and words and doctrine, we draw near to you." (p. 234, "Yasna to Atar or Fire," Olmstead)
Fire is portrayed erupting out of God's mouth:
"Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him." (Psalm 18:8, and 2 Samuel 22:9)
"Bel...was begotten...Marduk was born...when his lips moved, fire blazed forth,"
(pp. 235-6, "Epic of Creation," Stephanie Dalley. Myths From Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. New York. Oxford University Press. 1989, 1991)
Nergal is also portrayed as possessing a fiery mouth:
"Prince of shining face and flaming mouth, raging fire god." (p.114, "Hymn to Nergal # 5," Cumming)
God is capable of raining down from heaven fire on his enemies:
Elijah speaking to soldiers sent by king Ahaziah to arrest him:
"If I am a man of God, may fire fall from heaven and consume you and your company! Fire fell from heaven and consumed the officer and his men." (2 Kings 1:10)
A Neo-Assyrian hymn portrays Asshur, the supreme god of Assyria as a firey glow in the heavens -evidently he is the sun that comes forth from the heavenly gates each morning- hurling down fire on Assyria's enemies, just like Yahweh. Click here for an image of Asshur as a fiery god in a sun disk.
"You [the Assyrian King] opened your mouth and cried: "Hear me, O Asshur!" I heard your cry. I issued forth as a firey glow from the gate of heaven, to hurl down fire and have it devour them...I drove them up the mountain and rained (hail) stones and fire of heaven upon them."
(Simo Parpola, Assyrian Prophecies. State Archives of Assyria. Vol. IX. Helsinki Univ. Press. 1997)
"Marduk is frequently described as the fire-god, "the flame which causes the foes to be burned"
"With his flame steep mountains are destroyed." (p.136, Hymn to Marduk # 5, Cumming)
"Bel, thine abode is Babylon...thou contollest laws by thy laws...thou burnest up the mighty ones by thy flame (?)."
(p.315, Stephen H. Langdon. The Mythology of All Races, Semitic, Vol. 5. London. Oxford University Press. 1931)
Pritchard notes that Inanna/Ishtar, "The Queen of Heaven," is capable of raining down fire from
"...who rain flaming fire over the land."
(p.127, "Adoration of Inanna of Ur," James B. Pritchard, Editor. The Ancient Near East, A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Vol.2.Princeton University Press. 1975. ISBN 0-691-00209-6 pbk)
A Sumerian hymn to Inanna speaks of her ability to rain fire down from heaven upon the earth, just like Yahweh:
"As a flood descending upon (?) those foreign lands, powerful one of heaven and earth, you're their Inana. Raining blazing fire down upon the the land, endowed with divine powers by An...You confer strength on the storm." (ETCSL "The Exaltation of Inana [Inana B])
"Nusku who burns up and overpowers the foe." (p.138, Hymn to Nusku # 3, Cunmming)
"Nusku, mighty warrior god, who burns up the evil doer..." (p.151, Hymn to Nusku # 2, Cumming)
"Esarhaddon too uses the imagery of fire to describe his fierce onslaught, calling it 'a scorching flame, the fire (-god) untiring...So Tiglath-pileser I had called himself ' a burning flame,' a grand flame that is rained on the enemy land like a torrential downpour."
(p. 250. Martin L. West. The East Face of Helicon, West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1997)
Several hymns call Marduk "the sun" or "Bull-calf of the sun," (Sumerian myths make the sun the son of the moon-god, Nanna who was called the "young calf" in hymns, his daughter, Inanna/Ishtar, "the exalted cow of heaven," was the twin sister of the sun) which was understood to be of a fiery nature:
Sumerian hymns address the sun, called Utu, as a "calf":
"Youthful Utu..., calf of the wild cow, calf of the wild cow, calf of the righteous son, Utu, royal brother of Inana...Utu: the orphans look to you as their father, Utu, you succor the widows as their mother."
(ETCSL "A shir-namshub to Utu [Utu F])
On occasion, Sumerian hymns call the Sun a "Wild Bull":
"Gaze upon him, gaze upon him! O Utu gaze upon him, gaze upon him! O wild bull of the E-babbar, gaze upon him..."
"Marduk. His name was usually written logographically as amar.UD...amar.UD may be read as a genitive construction, 'the young bull of the sun,' or as an apposition, meaning something like, 'the son, the sun..." Although there was no genealogical relationship between Shamash and Marduk, there was much the two deities had in common, especially the aspects of justice, impartiality, and compassion...The nature of Marduk became increasingly complex as he gradually absorbed the functions and characteristics of many other gods."
(pp.115-6, "Marduk," Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London. Routledge. 1998. ISBN 0-415-19811-9 pbk)
"Marduk...it is difficult to identify specific traits in his character, but magic and wisdom (derived from his connection with Asarluhi), water and vegetation (connected with his father Ea) and judgement suggesting a connection with the sun god Shamash (Utu) can be adduced. In the reign of Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.), however, some aspects of Marduk's cult, mythology and rituals, were attributed to the Assyrian state god, Asshur."
(p.129, "Marduk." Jeremy Black and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press. 1992 ISBN 0-292-70794-0 pbk)
"Bull-calf of the sun" was a popular etymological explanation of Marduk's name..."
(p.129, "Marduk," Black and Green)
Nebuchadrezzar addresses Marduk as the Sun-god:
"King of Babylon whom Merodach, the Sun, the great Lord, for the holy places of his city Babylon hath called, am I: and Bit-Saggatu and Bit-Zida like the radiance of the Sun I restored: the fanes of the great gods I completely brightened."
(Library collection: "World's Greatest Literature" Published work: "Babylonian and Assyrian Literature"Translator: Rev. J. M. Rodwell, M.A. Publisher: P. F. Collier & Son, New York Copyright: Colonial Press, 1901)
The Zoroasterian prayer addressed to the fire on the altar alludes to its being of the sun, thus linking Ahura-Mazda in with winged sun-disc with the sun:
"But other ancient Indo-Iranian gods have returned as accepted deities little inferior to Ahura-Mazdah himself. First of all stands Atar, the fire-god, who is honored by one entire prayer:
'Through the action of this fire we draw near to you, Mazdah-Ahura, through your holiest spirit, who is also torment to him for whom you have hastened torment. As the most joyful may you come to us, fire of Mazdah-Ahura, as holiest spirit are you his joy. What name of yours is most propitious, fire of Mazdah-Ahura, with that would we draw near to you. With good thought, with good righteousness, with good deeds and words of the good doctrine would we hear you, we do obeisance to you, we thank you Mazdah-Ahura; with all good thought, with all good words, with all good deeeds we draw near to you, Mazdah-Ahura; here the light and there that highest of the high, which is called the sun."
(pp. 473-4, "Religions Dying and Living," Olmstead. History of the Persian Empire)
Bas-reliefs exist from the period of Darius I (ca. 521-486 B.C.) showing what appears to be their supreme god, Ahura-Mazda within a winged sun-disk hovering over a fire altar the king stands before. Still later, in the Sasanid period (2nd-3rd centuries A.D.), Sassanian coins show the head and shoulders of beared man wearing a crown amidst the flames of a fire altar. This motif suggests that Ahura-Mazda was understood to be present in the fire on the altar.
Xenophon, a Greek (ca. 5th century B.C.), noted the Persians worshipped the sun, probably alluding to Ahura-mazdah as the god in the winged sun-disc appearing on the walls of the Persian palace at Persepolis:
"...the worshippers sacrifice to Zeus and make a holocaust of bulls; they also burn bulls to the sun..."
(p. 478, Xenophon being cited on Persian customs in A.T. Olmstead. History of the Persian Empire. Phoenix Books. University of Chicago Press. 1948, 1963)
God's fiery nature is paralled by several gods and goddesses appearing in the pre-exilic myths of the Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Babylonians, Assyrians as well as the peoples of Harran, where Abraham's kin purportedly settled. The Persians also conceived of their high god, Ahura-Mazda as fiery too. These gods possess not only fiery bodies, but at times, fire comes out of their mouths like Yahweh (Marduk), and they can "rain fire down from heaven" on their enemies like Yahweh (Asshur, Marduk, and the Queen of Heaven, Ishtar/Inanna).
Malachi notes God will destroy his enemies with fire on "the Day of the Lord," but that the SUN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS WITH HEALING IN ITS WINGS will care for the righteous:
"For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evil doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them all up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings." (Malachi 4:1-3)
It is my understanding that Malachi's description of Yahweh, metaphorically likening him to the winged sun-disc, mirrors the concept that the Babylonians had of their supreme god, Marduk, who came to be assimilated to the Sun, which was associated with justice, the burning of the unjust, and compassion for the righteous. The Assyrians by Sennacherib's time had pre-empted Marduk's attributes assigning them to their supreme god, Asshur, who also appears in the winged Sun-disc. The Bible tells us the kings of Israel and Judah were influenced by Assyrian and Babylonian beliefs, and worshipped the sun, so Malachi's metaphorical imagery may be reflecting the pre-exilic notions of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian periods.
Yahweh is the leader of a host, or army, identified as a heavenly army. The Mesopotamians believed that stars possessed swords, they are warriors, for example the 7 Sebitti gods are symbolized by 7 dots or stars, representing the Pleiades star constellation, they were ferocious warriors who accompanied the great gods, like Asshur, Ishtar, Marduk and Erra. Yahweh "Sebaoth" (1 Sam 1:3), "Yahweh of the Heavenly army," is associated with warrior stars similar to the "Sebitti" (any puns here between Sebaoth and Sebitti ?) and like Marduk, is their leader (cf. also Judges 5:20, where the stars metaphorically fight in the heavens).
"Marduk. the god of Babylon, also known as Bel-Marduk, was the god of the sun and the prince of the legions of stars." (p.95, Seignobos)
Dalley notes that Erra was an aspect of Nergal, or Mars, one of the stars in the heavens, and that other stars carry swords:
"The star of Erra is twinkling and carries rays...His mantle of radiance will be activated(?) and all people will perish. As for (?) the dazzling stars of heaven that carry a sword (?)..." (pp. 295-6, Dalley)
It is my understanding that Yahweh's "fiery imagery," is then, a reflection of the imagery applied to the great national gods of Assyria and Babylonia in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian eras, the 9th-6th centuries B.C. as well as the Persian era, the 6th-4th centuries B.C.
There are some interesting biblical contradictions here within the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible):
The biblical narrator is attempting to "_give a reason_" for why no image of God can be made and worshipped by Israel (De 5:8; 4:23,33,36; 5:4-5; Lev 19:4; 26:1)
He claims that Israel "saw" God at Mount Sinai as "fire" and that fire was _not_ in a human form (Ex 24:17; De 4:11-18; 5:4, 22-26).
This explanation is _contradicted_ however in other verses found scattered throughout the Pentateuch.
Moses wishes to "see" God and is told no man may see his "face" (Ex 33:20) for to do so will cause that man to die. So God allows Moses to "see" his _back_, covering Moses with his "hand" (Ex 33:18-23). Now if God is beheld at Mount Sinai by all Israel as a formless "fire" how can he have a "face" to be seen, a "hand" to cover Moses and a "back"? Obviously we have a contradiction here, God has a human form: a "face," a "hand," and a "back."
That God has a human form is suggested when God tells Aaron and Miriam that Moses was allowed to see God's "form":
Numbers 12:8 RSV
"With him [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he [Moses] beholds the form of the Lord."
Later we are told Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy of the elders "saw" God, and a pavement under his "feet." "Feet" imply to me that they saw God in a human form (Ex 24:9-11).
Other contradictions exist. Genesis tell us man is created in the "image of God" implying God has a human form. God "walks" in the Garden of Eden fellowshipping with Adam and Eve suggesting they "see him" in a human form with feet for locomotion (Ge 3:8). The prophet Daniel "sees" God and describes him as possessing a human form, the hair of his head is like pure wool and he wears a white robe and sits on a throne possessing wheels (Dan 7:9) _contra_ the fact Israel saw God only as a fire "without any form" at Mount Sinai (Ex 24:17).
The Hebrew notion that God is "fiery" and possesses a human form and at other times is invisible is _not_ unique, the Mesopotamians had the same notions about their gods as I noted above, earlier.
The Pentateuchal narrator's explanation for "why" Israel is to make no image of God to worship, is then, _nonsensical_! He has described God throughout the Pentateuch as possessing a human form rather than being a _formless_fire_ at Mount Sinai:
Deuteronomy 4:11-18,23-24 RSV
"And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of word, BUT SAW NO FORM; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone...Therefore take heed to yourselves. SINCE YOU SAW NO FORM on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the MIDST OF THE FIRE, BEWARE LEST YOU ACT CORRUPTLY BY MAKING A GRAVEN IMAGE FOR YOURSELVES IN THE FORM OF ANY FIGURE, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth...Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a graven image in the form of anything which the Lord your God has forbidden you. For your God IS A DEVOURING FIRE, a jealous God."
Exodus 20:4 RSV
"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I am a jealous God."