Sun-God: Lawgiver of Mesopotamia

It’s clear that the pagan gods of the ancient world were more important to the people around the prophets and apostles than we’ve been taught. So far, we’ve discussed several:

  • The moon-god, called Nanna, Sîn, and Yarikh, was the patron god of the kings who founded Babylon and the king who ruled Babylon when it was conquered by the Medes and Persians.
  • “The” god, variously called Enlil, Dagan, El, Kronos, Saturn, Baal-Hammon, and Molech, was connected with death, the underworld, and the horrific practice of child sacrifice. 
  • The storm-god, mainly known as Baal, Zeus, and Jupiter, who was the king of the gods from Mesopotamia to Greece to Rome–identified by Jesus in Matthew 12:22–26 and Revelation 2:13 as Satan.

But there are yet more conspirators in this supernatural plot to steal the throne of the Most High. For example, Christians digging into the pagan religions of the biblical era may be a little surprised to learn that the sun-god wasn’t more important than he was. Well-meaning teachers have taught for generations that pagan worship can be traced to Nimrod and his wife, Semiramis. We’re told the two created a solar cult that manifests today in certain traditions of the Roman Catholic Church—including, among other things, the celebration of Christmas.

Sun-god Shamash gives law code to Amoreite king of Babylon, Hammurabi.

To be blunt, such teachings are not based on what pagans of the ancient world believed. There is no evidence whatsoever that Nimrod was worshiped by anybody, anywhere, at any time. If anything, rabbinic tradition has ascribed to Nimrod attributes of the Mesopotamian god Ninurta, who was not a sun-god,[1] but that doesn’t mean anyone alive prior to the modern era worshiped him.

Nimrod is venerated by the highest levels of Scottish Rite Freemasonry,[2] but that’s a modern cult.

Other gods have likewise been incorrectly linked to the sun, such as Baal, Osiris, and Apollo, none of whom were sun-gods. Baal was the storm-god, Osiris was god of the dead (hence the green skin), and Apollo was a plague-god. The sun-gods of the ancient world were Utu (Sumer), Shamash (Akkad/Babylon), Ra and Amun (Egypt), Helios (Greece) and Sol (Rome).

In the ancient Near East, the sun-god was always subordinate to the moon-god. Called Utu in Sumer, Shamash by the Semitic-speaking Akkadians, and Shemesh by the Hebrews, the sun-god was believed to be the son of the moon-god, Nanna/Sîn. Utu/Shamash was the twin brother of Inanna/Ishtar. The two had a close relationship in Mesopotamian myth that bordered on incestuous, to be honest.

These three, represented in the sky by the sun, moon, and Venus, were depicted in art as a cosmic triad throughout the ancient Near East. Many stelae and cylinder seals from the Old Babylonian period through the time of Jesus include a crescent moon representing Nanna/Sîn, a radiant solar disc depicting Utu/Shamash, and an eight-pointed star, Venus, representing Inanna/Ishtar. One famous inscription commissioned by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned between 883 BC and 859 BC (a contemporary of Omri, Ahab and Elijah in Israel, and Asa and Jehoshaphat in Judah), featured the cosmic triad alongside the symbols of the storm-god Adad (Baal) and Assur, the Assyrian version of “the” god.

The one civilization in the Near East where the sun-god reigned over the pantheon during the time of the patriarchs was Egypt. In the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the sun-god Ra was worshiped there as the creator of all things. He emerged as the head of the Egyptian pantheon during the Fifth Dynasty, which roughly coincided with the period covered by the tablets found at Ebla in ancient Syria (ca. 2500 BC–ca. 2350 BC).[3]

Ra’s cult center was On, a city in northern Egypt now mostly buried under a suburb of Cairo that is better known by its Greek name, Heliopolis (“Sun City”). If On sounds familiar, it should:

And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On.

Genesis 41:45 (ESV)

Interesting, isn’t it? God not only preserved Joseph through his trials, He elevated him to a position of power and brought him into the family of a priest of the chief god in the land where his family would spend the next two centuries.

Joseph probably arrived in Egypt in the first half of the seventeenth century BC, in the middle of what scholars call the Second Intermediate Period, roughly 1750 BC to 1550 BC. This was when Semitic kings called Hyksos ruled northern Egypt. Not surprisingly, they brought along their gods—mainly Baal, Astarte, and one we’ll meet shortly, Resheph.

However, to legitimize their rule, the Hyksos stuck with Egyptian convention and included Ra in their throne names. The two best-known Hyksos kings, Khyan and Apophis of the Fifteenth Dynasty, were also known as Seuserenre (possibly “the one who Ra has caused to be strong”) and Auserre (“the strength of Ra is great”).

This is a little weird for a couple of reasons. First, scholars are certain that the Hyksos kings didn’t worship Ra, at least not as one of their chief gods. The king of the pantheon for the Semitic Hyksos was Baal, whom they merged with Set, the Egyptian god of storms, the desert, and foreigners.[4] In fact, a Nineteenth Dynasty text called “The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre” attributes to Apophis a radical religious reform that’s usually credited to Pharaoh Akhenaten—monotheism. Apparently, Apophis decided to worship Baal-Set and only Baal-Set, something that was unheard of back in the day.[5] This was about two hundred years before Akhenaten suppressed the worship of all other gods in favor of Aten, the solar disc.

Bad Moon Rising

To make things odder, Apophis was named for the chaos serpent in Egyptian religion. They believed Apophis, a giant, cosmic snake, waited just below the horizon to eat Ra and the solar boat just after sundown. Set-Baal rode with Ra every evening to defend the boat and guarantee another day. How do you think native Egyptians reacted when they discovered that the Asiatics in the Nile delta had a new king who’d taken the name of the monstrous serpent that tried to destroy their chief god every night?

Here’s a clue: Apophis was the next-to-last king of the Hyksos. Their capital city, Avaris, was abandoned around 1550 BC, about a century before the Exodus, and Egyptians regained control over their entire country. Around that time, the sun-god worshiped by the native Egyptians who ruled from the southern city of Thebes, Amun, was merged with Ra into a new and improved sun-god, Amun-Ra. This deity was not only the Egyptian creator-god, but it apparently represented a reunified Egypt.

Although Utu/Shamash was a second-tier god among Semites below the great deities Anu (sky-god), Enlil (“the” god), Enki (lord of the abyss), Nanna/Sîn (moon-god), and Inanna/Ishtar (gender-fluid goddess of sex and violence), the sun-god was considered the lawgiver of the ancient world, responsible for establishing right and wrong and judging how well humans lived up to those standards. The famous law code of Hammurabi was preserved on a stela that showed the Amorite king receiving the law from Shamash.

But that wasn’t the oldest set of laws from the ancient Near East that’s been preserved. Hammurabi’s legal code was established at least three hundred years after that of Ur-Nammu, founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was the ancient city of the moon-god. But even there, in the moon-god’s city, Ur-Nammu established the law “in accordance with the true word of Utu.”[6]

Because of the sun-god’s daily travels across the sky, it was assumed that Utu/Shamash visited the underworld each night to judge the dead. This role was expanded in later Amorite religion; at Ugarit, Shapash, the sun-deity (who changed genders from god to goddess at Ugarit, for unknown reasons) accompanied the dead to the underworld—what scholars call a psychopomp, similar to the role played by Charon, the ferryman who carried the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology.

The other facet of the sun-god in the ancient Near East that’s worth mentioning is the role of Utu/Shamash in divination. Perhaps because of the sun’s apparent ability to see all things, Utu/Shamash was one of two deities called upon by fortune-tellers in the ancient Near East. Along with the storm-god, Adad/Haddu (i.e., Baal/Satan), Utu/Shamash was the god diviners sought out when they wanted to know what the future held, especially in haruspicy, which is the practice of divining the future by reading patterns in animal entrails. (Yes, there is a word for that.)

Why the sun-god and storm-god? Maybe it had something to do with calling on the gods responsible for sunshine and rain. Whatever the reason, if you wanted to know your future, you called on a priest and had him read messages hidden in the shapes of animal guts, usually a sacrificed sheep, with the help of the sun-god, Utu/Shamash.

But it’s the lawgiver aspect of the sun-god that concerns us. Nearly every religion on earth other than Christianity has this in common with the ancient Near East’s sun-god: Salvation comes through following a set of divinely inspired rules. While the laws of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi dealt with civil government, which is unquestionably important (we are, after all, commanded by Yahweh to pray for those in authority so “we may live a peaceful and quiet life”),[7] our God has freed us from the bondage of rules and laws that must be learned and carefully followed to earn a place in paradise.

While the sun-god wasn’t as important in the Mesopotamian pantheons as the others profiled in this section, he clearly influenced the Hebrews. As we noted earlier, God’s arrows and glittering spear weren’t just directed at the moon-god in the Valley of Aijalon. And though it’s not mentioned in the Bible, holding Shemesh/Shamash in place also kept the war-goddess Astarte/Ishtar, represented by the planet Venus, out of sight and out of the battle as far as the pagan Amorites were concerned.

So, that line from a prayer by the prophet Habakkuk confirms that we should take Joshua 10:14 literally: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.”[8] In one shot, Yahweh demonstrated His power and authority over the most prominent deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon—the very beings God warned Israel to avoid.

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:19, ESV)

The sun, moon, and “host of heaven” were allotted to the nations as their gods, but Israel belonged to Yahweh. Yet, despite warnings and the miracle at Aijalon, eight hundred years later, in the days of Ezekiel, the sun-god was being worshiped in the Temple itself.

And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.

Ezekiel 8:16 (ESV)

Jeremiah, born about thirty years before Ezekiel, apparently witnessed this pagan worship in Jerusalem with his own eyes.

At that time, declares the Lord, the bones of the kings of Judah, the bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs. And they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have gone after, and which they have sought and worshiped.

Jeremiah 8:1–2 (ESV)

Although the sun-god was clearly more important in Egypt than in Mesopotamia, he (or she, depending on time and place) was obviously on God’s radar. And, like the rest of the major deities of Mesopotamia, the sun-god—or, more accurately, the fallen angel masquerading as the sun-god—has been hard at work over the last two thousand years to try to frustrate God’s plan for humanity.

[1] K. van der Toorn and P. W. van der Horst, “Nimrod Before and After the Bible.” Harvard Theological Review 83:1 (1990), 8–15.

[2] Derek P. Gilbert, “The Double-Headed Eagle: Scottish Rite Freemasonry’s Veneration of Nimrod.”

[3] Ian Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 482.

[4] At this point in history, Set was still one of the good guys in Egyptian religion. It was about a thousand years later, after Egypt had been invaded and/or conquered by Nubians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians that Set—the god of foreigners, remember—became the villain who killed his brother Osiris and cut him into fourteen pieces.

[5] Orly Goldwasser, “King Apophis of Avaris and the Emergence of Monotheism.” In: Timelines, ed. E. Czerny et al., vol. II, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 149/II (Peeters: Leuven, 2006), 129–133.

[6] Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 339.

[7] 1 Timothy 2:2.

[8] Joshua 10:14 (ESV).

1 Comment

  1. Well writ, and many many thanks for the time, effort, research and clarity in presenting the facts here in this, the 1st ever “blog” I have ever read.

    May GOD richly bless you and enable you to continue the ministry to which you are obviously called and gifted to do.

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