Around 5,000 years ago, there were three languages spoken in the Middle East that have no relationship whatsoever to any other known language – present or ancient. These three languages – Sumerian, Elamite and Hattic – are older than the pyramids. They are older than even the Egyptians.
We have no clue where these languages came from or why the people who spoke them spoke them. They are prehistoric languages. They are quite literally the languages men and women were speaking when it first occurred to them to start using symbols in clay to represent their words. They are the languages people were speaking in their respective regions when they came up with the idea of the wheel, and possibly even agriculture and fire.
In many ways, the stories of these languages are the stories of human history in the Middle East. They are worth considering, not only because of their ancient origins but also because of their relatively recent extinctions.
Sumer sits in ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. We don’t know exactly how long the Sumerians lived in the region, but we think they were responsible for the domestication of cattle and sheep, the development of staple crops such as barley and emmer wheat, and the basic structuring of human society into towns. They developed the wheel and struck on the idea of keeping records by pressing a sharpened read into tablets of wet mud to make symbols.
They lived and worked happily in their region until about 4,500 years ago when another group of people, who are known today as the Amorites, swept down from modern day Syria and conquered them. The Amorites set up what is known as the Babylonian kingdom, and their language became the language of trade and government.
In Mesopotamia, they became the Akkadians, and their language became the lingua franca of most of the Middle East. But Akkadian gave birth to a number of other languages, related to it in varying degrees. Eventually, the languages spoken to the west in Palestine would evolve independently into their own language group and give birth to the languages of Canaanite and Hebrew. These would be heavily influenced by Egyptian, which shared a common origin with Akkadian although it developed along completely different lines.
Akkadian took the Sumerian method of writing for its own, using many of the symbols to represent their own words, and Sumerian in turn borrowed a lot from Akkadian as it made its long, slow march toward extinction. But Akkadian was an entirely different language, the first of what are known as Semitic languages.
Within a millennium, Sumerian was all but extinct and although it persisted as something of a classical language until around the time of Christ, it was pretty much gone by about 3,500 years ago.
To the Sumerians’ north in modern day Turkey, there was another language group that called themselves the Hatti. They spoke a wildly different language and contented themselves with basic farming, a semi-nomadic existence and experimenting with metal work.
They did not build cities or even towns at first. In fact, at Çatalhöyük (pronounced however you want to!), archaeologists uncovered one of the strangest living experiments ever known. The town has no streets or paths. It does not even have doors. People entered their homes through holes in the roofs. They buried their dead under their floors. They farmed, but their farms were seven miles from the village. There are no public buildings, so if they had any form of government, it must have met offsite.
For thousands of years, the Hatti seemed to have lived all by themselves in a land that no one was terribly interested in. They spoke their own language, of which we don’t have a single inscription; but it obviously existed through allusions in the writings of their conquerors. They had a very loose form of regional government, more of a “we’ll help you if you help us” arrangement than a government.
Around 4,000 years ago, another people called the Nesa invaded Hattusa (the land of the Hatti). They swept down from the region of the Black Sea, and one by one they conquered the Hatti regions. The Nesa, who spoke Nesili, a language that has loose but definite ties to other languages spoken in the world.
The Nesa, who history calls the Hittites after the people they conquered, were a ruling minority. They kept the Hatti in a feudal state and used them in their armies. In the Bible, the Nesa and Hatti are both called Hethiy (Hittites) because by the time the Bible was written, their culture was already an old one.
No one knows when Hatti died out as a language, but it is likely that by the time of the Assyrian empire, it had already been extinguished.
Of the three, Elamite lasted the longest. It was still being used as a liturgical language in what is today Iran when Alexander the Great’s armies conquered the known world.
In the mountains of western Iran, the people who called themselves the Haltamti managed to perpetuate their culture and language through multiple phases of ruling and being ruled. For a time, they dominated the Sumerians and Akkadians.
Around 2,600 years ago, the Haltamti were subjugated by invading Aryan tribes which called themselves the Parsua, or Persians. The Parsua brought their own language with them, but they adopted much of the Elamite way of life. In time, the two groups became indistinguishable, but Elamite as a language died out.
Why Does This Matter?
These three languages isolate form the core of a world that was then dominated and controlled by people we call “Semitic”, after Noah’s son Shem. The Semitic peoples came from somewhere and over the course of about two thousand years displaced or destroyed the three cultures that existed before them. Archaeology has shown that the Nesa and Amorites were Semitic, as were the Arameans, Chaldeans, Canaanites, Phoenicians, the Edomites, and the Ammonites. Although genetically the Egyptians were distinct from the Semitics, they spoke a Semitic language.
When we study the Bible and read about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Exodus, David and all the other people of the Hebrews, it is easy to forget that what we are reading is the tail end of a huge story. We are reading some of the last migrations of Semitic peoples on a landscape that had already been worn down by the feet of migrations, invasions and assimilations.
By the time Moses and Joshua led the sons of Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Canaanites had been living there for three thousand years or more. The Hebrews and Canaanites, linguistically and archaeologically, were descendants of the same groups that had swept over the Sumerians a millennium before but the distance of time and language had so separated them that would never have known.
After all, a modern Englishman looks and talks nothing like his Saxon, Norman or Dane forebears. Most Scotsmen would recoil if they knew that they share more of a genetic heritage with Germans than with the Celtic people who inhabited his land before the Romans. And the Celts themselves displaced yet another people group, of which we know only in legend. Millennia do a lot to change our perspectives and thoughts.
Before the earliest period of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were others living in the lands we read about. That’s something that is hard to process for people who tend to see the history of the world only in terms of the Biblical narrative. The idea that our story as human beings is really a recent innovation takes some getting used to, but there it is.
It requires some serious rethinking about how we read the Scriptures, and it should call us to ask some really hard questions of ourselves. In no way am I saying that the Bible is not accurate or that it is untrue. But it is worth asking whether our interpretation of it is not based on an incomplete understanding of what it has to say.
Just some things to think about this morning.