Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recovering the African Background of Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

Modupe Oduyoye is a Nigerian philologist whose book "The Sons of Gods and the Daughters of Men" helped me make connections between the book of Genesis and Africa in the 1980s. The book was published in 1984 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

In his book, Dr. Oduyoye notes the connection between Adamu Orisa (of Lagos State) and the Hebrew r’ison Adam. He notes that Hebrew Qayin (Kain/Cain) and the Arabic word for smith qayn are cognates. He says these words are related to the Yoruba Ogun and Fon Gun, both meaning “patron saint of smiths.” Other cognates include Ebira Egene (the metalworker caste) and Hamn Kuno (who invented iron smelting). This connects Kain to the city of Kano, which is north of the ancient complex at Nok, the place to which Kain likely "wandered" after he was sent away, and where he married a daughter of the ruler of Nok. Oduyoye notes that the Hebrew Nod נוד and Nok נוך are almost identical.

Oduyoye’s book was a response to the 1969 publication "Biblical Revelations and African Beliefs," a report of the first consultation of African theologians held in Ibadan in 1966. Oduyoye is a member of the Anglican Church and has served as a Bible teacher, a seminary professor, and the literature secretary of the Christian Council of Nigeria.

Modupe Oduyoye
Dr. Oduyoye studied English, Latin and History at University College, Ibadan, Nigeria, before theological studies at Yale Divinity School. He also studied Comparative Semitic Linguistics at Ann Arbor and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics at London University Extra-Mural Dept. He is the author of "Words and Meaning in Yoruba Religion" and "The Vocabulary of Yoruba Religious Discourse" (1972).

Oduyoye is a humble man.  He has acknowledged his debt to Archdeacon Olumide Lucas who taught his father. Lucas was appointed Vicar of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Breadfruit, Lagos in 1936. Oduyoye sought Lucas' advice while writing "The Sons of Gods and the Daughters of Men."

Acknowledging his debt to earlier pioneers, Oduyoye wrote, "The thoughtful restudy of past scholarship is not criticism for the sake of criticism, but an attempt to elucidate the principles involved in the discovery of truth… in doing this, however, it is right that we express our gratitude and respect to those whose work is being used and restudied, and, without whose pioneering zeal and daring, the present evaluation will not have been attempted."

Oduyoye Challenged Seminarians

In August 1979, Dr. Oduyoye was asked to lead a Bible study by the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Odogbolu (Ogun State). The Rt. Rev. I.B.O. Akintemi asked him to teach seminarians. This marked the beginning of serious exploration into the linguistic intricacies of Genesis 1-11.

Oduyoye asked the seminarians why the Hebrew language uses the plural suffix (-iym) for God in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 6:1 when the Hebrew religion is anti-polytheistic. In the beginning eloh-iym (the gods) created the heavens and the earth. Why the plural form? Is this the Old Testament counterpart of the Baptism of Jesus in which the Trinity is manifested?

In Genesis 6:1, who are the sons of the Gods? Some say they are the nephilim, others say angels, and still others argue for the Israelites. The clue to understanding Genesis 6 is the word gibbor-iym (powerful ones). This passage is speaking about ancient Horite rulers, the "sons of the gods" or deified kings. This is a common theme in Africa, especially among the Buganda of Uganda, the Yoruba, and the ancient Egyptians.

Oduyoye says, “The sons and daughters of Naa Nyamo (“Father God”) are known to us as jemawoji, 'the gods of the world.' They are powerful and intelligent beings who walk about the world, but they have their own abodes in the seas, lagoons, mountains and other natural objects. Having been delegated by Naa nyamo to be his vicegerents, they are in active contact with the world of nature in man.”

In other words, the Genesis text reveals a henotheistic worldview, typical of the oldest tribal societies. Henotheism is the view that there is a single supreme Creator who is served by lesser assisting powers (baals). God alone is worshiped, but the lesser powers are venerated as good since they are not free to defy the Creator. These are the messengers (angels) of God.

The idea of fallen angels rests on the assumption that the word nephilim is the masculine plural participle of Hebrew naphal, meaning to fall, but this likely reflects the Jewish tendency to disdain the powerful rulers of their past. In the Book of Daniel the Aramaic term used to denote angels is `îrîn (watchers). Each is also called `îr weqadîsh (watcher and holy one). "Watcher" implies that angels act as God's sentinels, as did the angels appointed to guard the entrance to Eden.

Oduyoye wanted the seminarians to dig into the text because they needed to understand its cultural context, a context suggested by the etymology. He explained,“Christian preaching certainly needs a stronger pillar to lean upon than a basis of obscurantism.”

In seeking to understand Genesis 1-11, Oduyoye drew from many of the Afro-Asiatic languages and encouraged his students to consider their own African dialects and folklore. Having considerable acquaintance with many languages, Oduyoye's vantage point enabled him to ask questions that European and Anglo Bible scholars were not asking. He also questions many of the long-accepted interpretations of Jewish scholars.

Connecting the Linguistic Dots

One of the most significant contributions of Dr. Oduyoye has been to demonstrate common roots in Yoruba, Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Arabic and Hausa.  European and Anglo linguists already acknowledged a relationship between Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, but it took this Nigerian philologist to demonstrate a clear connection to African languages like Tiv, Efik, Yoruba, Ibibio, Igbo, Fon, and Twi.

Oduyoye pointed out that Igbo dibia (medicine man) is cognate with the Arabic tibia (doctor) and that the Yoruba ajo is cognate with the Hebrew haj and the Arabic hajj. He notes also that the word ha-rison-iym (ancestors) in Psalm 79.8 is related to the Ijebu lisa (first in rank), to the igbo olise (God as in Olisemeka), to the Arabic ras, the Aramiac resh, the Akkadian rishu and the Yoruba orisha.

Oduyoye noted that the Arabic word harem and the Hebrew heremboth convey the idea of something set apart as sacred. Oduyoye explains that the /h/ is missing in Yoruba because “Yoruba nouns generally do not begin with an /h/ or any h-type sound.” This is more characteristic of the Afro-Arabian languages.

Oduyoye notes that confused in Hebrew is balal, but the Genesis writers use babel (b-b-l). Oduyoye explains that the writer of Genesis is basing etymology on a single leg of sound similarity without any consideration for the other leg. Hebrew balal means mingle, mix, confuse, confound and is cognate with Chichewa balala-balala which means to scatter or disperse. Oduyoye says, "Here, etymology has two legs to stand upon. Phonology and semantics."

“Babel is the name of the Babylonian capital whose only gate was memorably designed with religious motiffs. It came to be known by the Babylonians as baab ilu, "the gate of God." Babylon was very powerful and very ambitious. The Jews therefore saw the ruins of its ziggurats as divine punishment.

Oduyoye argues that at some point the historical becomes mixed with a redactor's agenda. He writes,  “The etymology of Genesis 1-11 are based on fancy, not fact. They serve the purpose of mythology, not that of linguistics or philology.”

Oduyoye goes on to say, “The truth is that the story is one of many told by the Hebrews to ridicule nations against whom they harbor a grudge.” The Jews labeled their Canaanite kinsmen “idolaters” which justified their attempts to annihilate them in the name of Yahweh. They labeled their Moabite kinsmen as an incestuous race. They suggested that God destroyed all the other peoples of the earth in a catastrophic flood, save Noah and his family.

Oduyoye notes the relationship between the Yoruba Lamurudu (N-m-d / l-m-d) and the name Nimrod. He says, “Given this anterior greatness of the Kushite Nimrod, the first gibbor, the writers of Genesis did with Nimrod what they did with Nebuchadnezzar. For no reason other than his greatness, they stated that Nimrod’s greatness was offensive to God.”

Related reading: Why Does Genesis Speak of Gods?Who Were the Nephilim?; The Nilotic Substrata of Genesis 1; Kain's Princess Bride; Nimrod was a Kushite Ruler; Was the Land of Nod Enoch's Territory?; Ancient African Astronomers; Kushite Kings and the Kingdom of God; African Religion Predates Hinduism


DDeden said...

Tera is a language/people in Chad.

"shall have no other gods before me" = polytheistic commandment

"shall have no other gods except me" = montheistic commandment

Persian words for "I am" = adam

How to distinguish age of African languages compared to Euro-Asiatic etc. before writing, modern words in Yoruba may be derived from older Semitic words & vice versa

DDeden said...

Russian word for one is ras, which doesn't fit with IE 'one' but maybe with English 'first/prime', perhaps Hindu pertama/pra(s)thama and Philippino 'isa'/one.

re. "He notes also that the word ha-rison-iym (ancestors) in Psalm 79.8 is related to the Ijebu lisa (first in rank), to the igbo olise (God as in Olisemeka), to the Arabic ras, the Aramiac resh, the Akkadian rishu and the Yoruba orisha".

Alice Linsley said...

Great connections, Dedan. There are several populations of Tera in Africa and Arabia. One group lives in Palestine.

Words or phonemes that represent the oldest religious practices tend to be more universal. An example is nagas. Nagas means serpent in many languages. In Yoruba, ngas means "beings of knowledge and power."

Usually, tracking etymology is not this easy when working with African languages because they have the highest rate of consonantal changes. The consonants p and b are over interchanged, so Habiru and Hapiru are the same word. The letter v is often a b or f. The letter l often becomes r, and s and sh are often changed, which is why Enosh is rendered Enos in some Bibles. This makes the work of tracing roots more difficult.

Alice Linsley said...

Tera is also the word for "priest" among the Ainu of Japan. They originated in the Nile Valley.