Finding a better story 3

In the last post in the series, I posted some general observations about the cultural context in which the Genesis 1 creation was composed. I contend that the Biblical creation story, as well as other parts of the primordial history (Genesis 1-11) were written to challenge the literary-symbolic world of the Ancient Near East, in order to engender a way of life within Israelite society that was not rooted in the pagan mythos, but in a vision of all life having its origin in the shalom of God’s good creation. By examining how Genesis does this, we can garner resources to do likewise in our world today, with imaginations based on the shalom of God’s creation in a world whose dominant mythos is rooted in violence.

There are many sources on which we could draw to demonstrate the nature of the world Genesis challenges, but the most potent for my purpose is the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish served as the ‘official creation myth’ of Babylon during a large part of the first millennium BC. It was performed every year at the spring festival, a practice that demonstrates its importance to forming the social imagination of Babylon. Also, among the Ancient Near Eastern epics, Enuma Elish most closely parallels elements of Genesis, so it is especially useful for showing how Genesis specifically engages the mythopoetic* devices of the ancient imagination. Furthermore, Enuma Elish was adapted from an older Sumerian epic that cast the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ninurta as the heroes, and was later adapted by the Assyrians who substituted their own head god Ashur for the Babylonian Marduk. This demonstrates a fundamental continuity in the mythos of the ancient Mesopotamian societies that shaped the world in which the Israelites lived, most dramatically during their time in exile.

I present here a summary of the Enuma Elish narrative with commentary on its role in forming the ancient Mesopotamian social imagination.

* “mythopoetic” refers to the imaginative devices that construct cultural mythos, and has nothing to to with “mythical” as opposed to “factual” or “historical”.

In the beginning, the world exists in a formless state, from which emerge two primary gods, one male and one female. The gods in Enuma Elish represent various facets of the physical world, with Apsu the god of fresh water, representing male fertility, and his wife Tiamat the goddess of the sea, representing chaos and disorder. Apsu and Tiamat give birth to gods who in turn give birth to other gods, including Ea. The younger gods make so much commotion that Apsu decides to kill them, but Ea hears of the plot and murders him. Ea sires Marduk, god of spring (replacing Apsu’s role in fertility) and patron of Babylon, with his wife Damkina. Tiamat is enraged and vows revenge, creating 11 monsters, and takes a new husband, Kingu, and puts him in charge of her army.

Tiamat prepares to unleash her monsters. Meanwhile, Ea learns of her plan and attempts to convince her otherwise. He fails, as does Anu his father. The gods become afraid that no one will be able to stop her. Marduk steps in and agrees to defeat her if the other gods will make him their king, a proposal to which they readily agree. The council of gods tests Marduk, and upon his passing the tests they enthrone him as king. Marduk assembles his weapons and goes out to fight, killing Tiamat and dismembering her body. The text goes into graphic detail describing the mutilation of Tiamat’s body, and Marduk uses her carcass to create the heaven and earth. He creates a barrier to keep the raging waters, imprisoned in the sky, from escaping and unleashing chaos upon the earth.

Marduk establishes order by creating dwellings for the other gods, who take their places and go about setting up seasons of the year. The city of Babylon is established as the the audience room for King Marduk. The gods begin to grumble about the hard work of building and farming, and so Marduk decides to create human beings as a labor force. The gods finger Kingu as the instigator of Tiamat’s rampage, and so Marduk kills him and uses his blood to create humankind to perform menial tasks for the gods. The gods honor Marduk, building a house for him in Babylon and praising him for his greatness. The fifty throne names of Marduk are pronounced, declaring his dominion over the earth. Then a blessing is pronounced, and the people are instructed to remember and recite Marduk’s deeds.

This summary is greatly shortened, leaving out most of the rich detail of the text. I encourage readers to read the full text carefully and pay attention to the language used to describe the emotions of the gods, the connection between death and creation, and the exaltation of Marduk.

As mentioned above, the text was ritually recited every year on the fourth day of the spring New Year festival to reinforce its mythopoetical function in Babylon. The next day the king of Babylon would take his place at the head of a ritual procession representing the gods, with the king identified with Marduk. The king led the procession outside the city gates and then back in again, and while much of the rest of the festival is unknown there were entreaties to the gods to “fix the destinies” of the universe.

The king is identified with Marduk, and the procession invokes the imagination of the conquering king’s armies carrying out the ongoing work of making order from chaos by assimilating peoples outside Babylon into the empire. We have inscriptions and writings from Babylon and Assyria identifying their conquests as such. Creation comes from a primal state of chaos and happens by violence and bloodshed, with the heavens and earth rendered from the slain carcass of Tiamat the chaos-monster-goddess, and the human race from the blood of her slain consort (this is known as “creation-by-combat”, a common theo-sociological motif in the ancient world). Humans are created to render menial service to the gods, which legitimates the social stratification of Babylon and its division between royal, priestly, and common classes. From other writings we know they viewed creation as always in danger of reverting back to chaos, with the threat of the waters escaping from their heavenly prison, but for the efforts of the king and priests in taking forward the conquest of Marduk both on earth and in the spiritual realm. Chaos and violence have ontological priority, and the “war against chaos” (also known as chaoskampf) is ongoing, without end.

Genesis paints  a very different picture of creation and human origins, and we will examine that in my next post. Shalom!

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