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!

Finding a better story 2

Since I have this unfortunate tendency to start a series and then never finish it, I’m not going to make any promises about how long this will go, how many installments it will have, or even if it will be all that coherent. However, I went back and re-read my “Finding a better story” entry from a few days ago and decided I really needed to elaborate more on some points in it and on the Biblical, historical, and philosophical background of some of the statements contained therein. In some ways this could be seen as an attempt to formulate a more comprehensive statement of what I believe about the church and theological politics, or it might just end up being a collection of thoughts related to the idea – we’ll see what happens.

A great many people today read Genesis with little-to-no knowledge of the historical context in which the stories compiled into the final form we have today were composed, or of the social realities of the world to which the texts witness. In our modern penchant for finding the one meaning that stands outside of time and is universally true in all contexts, we have come up with all kinds of applications for the text that have very little to do with the message it was actually written to communicate in the world in which it came into being. Understanding that message is extremely important if we are to understand its place in the Biblical canon and more appropriate applications for the text today.

I’m not going to attempt to undertake a full-on commentary on the whole book of Genesis, but there are a few particular highlights I think need to be hit, with a keen eye on the ancient near eastern context, in order to better understand the book and the important role it plays in the canon and in the formation of the Christian story. In many ways, Genesis is far more than just a prologue to the story of Israel (which itself is far more than simply a prologue to the story of Jesus).

The first and possibly most important highlight is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This may surprise some people to read today, but there is absolutely no indication in the text that the creation story is intended to be a scientifically-accurate depiction of the processes by which the world came into being. The 20th century debate over creation vs. evolution could hardly have been further from the author’s mind. Rabbinical and scholarly interpretations of the creation story have differed widely from ancient times until now on how literally, versus symbolically or allegorically, the account should be taken, and there has never been a consensus on how closely the events depicted therein had to match the facts of natural history for the story to be theologically true – and this long before the advent of modern science.

The likely reality is that Genesis 1:1-2:3 was originally composed as a liturgical text for use in worship rituals. Its form generally corresponds to other texts from ancient Mesopotamia that were used for this purpose, and it is highly probable that the purpose of the Genesis creation account was precisely to provide an alternative imaginative basis for conceiving of God, the place of humans in the cosmos, and the ordering of society than the mythologies of other ancient near eastern nations.

It’s difficult to date the composition of Genesis as a whole, much less its component stories, with any precision. The book contains much that is likely of great antiquity, going back to more than 1000 BC (if not centuries earlier), as well as marks of editing from later periods, possibly as late as the exilic and post-exilic periods. The creation account in Genesis 1 could have been composed at pretty much any time between the 12th and 6th centuries BC, give or take. The worldview it challenges was certainly dominant for at least that span of time.

The single work from ancient Mesopotamia that most closely resembles Genesis 1 is the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth. In the ancient world, there was not the separation of “religion” and “politics” we supposedly have today. Instead, the usual function of what we call “religion” was to give storied support to political, social, and economic structures. The religio-politico-socio-economic structures formed a tight web, the glue that held cities and nations together. Enuma Elish was performed every year in Babylon at the spring festival as a ritual re-enactment of the myth, and so the story was of great importance in determining the accepted nature of society in the Babylonian empire.

To understand Genesis 1, it is necessary to understand not just the Enuma Elish, but the broader worldview the myth underpinned and the forms of social organization it legitimated. In Biblical times, the strength of a nation’s gods was viewed as directly proportionate to the strength of the nation. If a nation was powerful and prosperous, its gods were mighty. If one nation conquered another, its gods were revealed to be stronger than the gods of the defeated nation. So Egypt’s gods were the most powerful, and then when Egypt declined and Assyria rose to prominence Assyria’s gods gained preeminence, and so on (a framework that greatly aids our understanding of the Exodus narrative!).

Furthermore, almost universally in the ancient near east, members of the ruling, priestly, and in some cases other economically powerful classes were seen as having some kind of special relationship to the gods. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt was viewed as the manifestation of the god Horus, who was reborn into each new heir to the throne. In Mesopotamia, the term “image of god” (Hebrew tselem elohim) was a technical term that ascribed attributes of at least representative (and perhaps inherent) divinity to those who were deemed images of gods. To be the image of a god principally meant two things: 1) that the person who was image of the god mediated the god’s presence wherever he was, and 2) that the authority of the god was re-presented by that person. So to say that the king of Babylon was the image of the god Marduk (as he was held to be), was to say that Marduk’s presence was seen with the king, and also that the king’s rule represented the authority of Marduk, who took on the role of king of the gods and creator of earth (contrast this with the Genesis statement that all humankind is made in the image of God).

A final point that needs to be mentioned is that societal structures in ancient near eastern nations were ordered to be earthly representations of the mythic divine reality. The myths explained not just how things got to be the way they were, but why it was necessary that things were that way. In other words, the myths legitimated the world in which the people whose lives were ordered by those myths lived.

The next time I write on this theme I’ll explore the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, in order to demonstrate the mythic underpinning of the dominant modes of society in the ancient near east and enhance our understanding of how Genesis challenged that worldview and the order of life according to it.

“Green energy” and Amazon rain forests

People need to to read things like this before they ignorantly ramble about how great biofuels are.

At the bottom of page one it talks about the possibility of the Amazon rain forest turning into something like a savannah or even a desert. It wouldn’t be the first time human deforestation has caused a vital and robust forest into a desert-like area. You know all those references in the Bible to the cedars of Lebanon? Lebanon used to be absolutely COVERED in the things – massive, ancient trees. They grow in Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, and surrounding areas. Today on Cyprus, only small trees up to 25 m tall survive, though Pliny the Elder recorded cedars 40 m tall there. Because of massive deforestation, only small remnants of the once-extensive forests survive. Not only that, but due to hundreds of years of erosion much of the terrain in once-forested areas is now desertized. It took the ancients several millenia to deforest Lebanon… it may only take modern people a few decades to do the same in the Amazon.

It also just happens that deforestation currently accounts for 20% of the world’s carbon emissions – and deforesting the Amazon destroys one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet.

Even the junipers and the cedars of Lebanon
exult over you (the king of Babylon) and say,
“Now that you have been laid low,
no one comes to cut us down.” (Isaiah 14:8, TNIV)

This is not even to go into the potential effects on agriculture being diverted from food to fuel on the ability of the world’s poor to be able to feed themselves. As the article says, A UN food expert has recently called biofuels “a crime against humanity”. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that biofuels “pit the 800 million people with cars against the 800 million people with hunger problems” – and that figure of 800 million has been predicted to increase to 1.2 billion in the wake of the growing use of agricultural products as fuel instead of food.

No type of “green consumption” is the answer. As one blogger from Portland, Oregon put it, we need to commit our allegiance to the story that will express God to the world around us.

Ironic quote about the efficacy of war

“The blood shed on the European continent in the course of the last three hundred years bears no proportion to the national result of the events. In the end, France had remained France, Germany Germany, Poland Poland, and Italy Italy. What dynastic egotism, political passion and patriotic blindness have attained in the way of apparently far-reaching political changes by shedding rivers of blood has, as regards national feeling, done no more than touched the skin of nations. It has not substantially altered their fundamental characters. If these states had applied merely a fraction of their sacrifices to wiser purposes the success would certainly have been greater and more permanent.”

— Adolf Hitler, in a speech intended to reassure the European powers of Germany’s benign intent in remilitarizing, which was against the provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, May 21, 1935. On the same day Hitler spoke those words he had secretly approved a secret Reich Defense Law which put Germany on a war economy and revived the Army’s General Staff organization – also forbidden by the Treaty. Four years later Hitler would invade Poland, setting off World War II in Europe.

Support our troops?

This morning, my grandfather sent me an email “action alert” from the American Family Association urging protest of the recent Berkeley, California City Council resolution that declared the downtown Marine recruiting office “unwanted” and urged the recruiters to leave town. This article does not respond to that issue, but rather to the subject line of the email he forwarded from the AFA, which was “Support our troops”.

I have to admit being somewhat perplexed by the exhortation to “support our troops”. Whose troops are they? They certainly aren’t mine – I’m not sending them anywhere, and they don’t represent me or my thoughts. It seems to me that the designation “our troops” implies a kind of kinship between us and the troops that does not really exist. Certainly it is true that my (step)brother is among those who are being sent over there, but it is not on my behalf that he is being sent, just as it is not on my behalf that any of them has been sent.

This entire enterprise of war in foreign lands has very little to do with the protection and preservation of American values, but it has everything to do with protecting and preserving business interests that profit heavily from maintaining a forced subordinate status in certain nations around the world. The United States has done the same thing for over a century now in Latin America, and has long maintained an official policy that essentially says “if you have something we want, a resource we ‘need’, then as far as we’re concerned it belongs rightfully to us, not to you”. This is the only rational explanation for the military interventions in Hawai’i for pineapples; in Guatemala for bananas; in Iran for oil (with the deposition of a popular government in order to reinstate the Shah, a move on our part whose eventual consequence was the Islamic Revolution of 1979); in Iraq not only for oil but also to create a living experiment in extreme neoliberal free trade as an example (and warning) to the rest of the world that consumer corporate “democracies” will have what they want from the “developing nations”, and we can get it the easy way or the hard way.

This critique stands regardless of one’s religious persuasion, but it is much more pertinent for me as a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace and king of all creation who urged his followers not to retaliate when evil was done to them, but rather to turn the other cheek. The unanimous response of the early church to persecution was not to respond by fighting back for their own gain, even in defense of their own personal liberties, but rather to witness to those who tormented them by showing the same attitude of Christ – loving and forgiving their attackers in the hope that they would be transformed. They believed the cross of Christ is the hope for the transformation of all doers of violence and opponents of God. To suggest that the idea of premeditated war for the economic gain of certain sectors of society (the corporate management classes first, and then to a lesser extent the consuming classes – which is to say that yes, you and I likely are beneficiaries of the violence), which was sold as a preemptive (or preventative, depending on who you ask) war to ostensibly “protect our way of life against the terrorists” would never have even occurred to them as a valid option for Christians.

Even three centuries after Christ when the church went from being a persecuted minority to the triumphant majority with the imperial sanction they did not develop a theology of warfare that went so far – instead, Augustine’s formulation of Just War doctrine carried the day. It is important to note that even Just War doctrine does not actually justify war for self-defense, to say nothing of preemptive warfare. Therefore, even on the less-strict Christian stance on war than that of Jesus himself, the type of activities in which the U.S. military has engaged in Iraq cannot in any way be construed as representative either of me or of my Lord.

They are not “our” troops, they are troops under the command of people in the thrall of the American political/business system which “make[s] unjust laws. . . deprive[s] the poor of their rights, withhold[s] justice from the oppressed. . . [makes] widows their prey, and [robs] the fatherless” (see Isaiah 10:1-2 in the NIV). They are being asked to die for a cause that, in the words of Alisdair McIntyre, is rather like being asked to die for the telephone company. They are not my troops, they are my fellow-human-beings being manipulated and exploited in more ways than they realize, and rather than praying for success in their mission I simply pray for an end to war and for the desire of men and women to make war. I pray that guns would jam and bombs would fail to explode, and that soldiers on all sides would simply lay down their weapons and refuse to engage any longer in this silly business of war. I support people, not troops, and I support them as potential brothers and sisters in the new world that God is creating even in the midst of this world of bloodshed and hatred, a new world of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation who walk in the ways of God’s shalom.

By the way…

If anyone hasn’t read NSPD 51/HSPD 20, they definitely should. It basically states that the president can take over all functions of the government as well as some private functions (read: corporate business interests) in the event of a “national emergency”. It was released May 9 of last year.

For some reason every time I think about this I can’t get images of the Reichstag fire out of my head. Less than a month after the fire Hitler was granted essentially dictatorial powers (timeline). Now, for American presidents, the pieces are in place to do the same, much more explicitly and easily than they were before 9/11 (which some have called “America’s Reichstag”).

Some people even believe the Nazis were directly involved with setting the fire.

Christians: haters of humanity

Michael Cline has written an excellent article over at Jesus Manifesto. An excerpt:

The charge of hatred is enmeshed with the idea of religious piety in ancient Rome. To be a good citizen in the Roman Empire meant to participate in the civic life of the state. The gladiator games, the burning of incense to gods, pledging loyalty to the emperor…all of these things were deeply ingrained in Rome’s vision of religious life. To be religious was not just to worship, but to care for the welfare of the State. When the people were fulfilling their religious obligations, peace abounded and the state prospered. . .

Holding to their belief that there could be no supreme authority other than Christ, Christians simply refused to bow to the Empire’s wishes. They could not admonish Caesar as if he was lord over anything. Furthermore, their opinions on violence and human worth led them away from the coliseums where blood often flowed for sport. In stepping out of public life, they were doing more than just being superstitious (another common claim by the mobs)—they were disrupting the religious piety of the empire. Their lack of commitment to the security of Rome surely meant that they wished harm on the State and its inhabitants. Christians hated Rome, which in their thinking, included all of humanity.

Cline closes with some very thought-provoking questions for the church today, I highly recommend that you read and comment.