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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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.

Finding a better story

The dominant modes of social, political, and economic discourse in our day may be fragmented, they may seem without coherence, and they may be characterized more by argument than agreement. Indeed, I think even a cursory survey of the ongoing public discussions reveals this to be true. The landscape of public discourse over pretty much every issue is littered with scars, discord, and mines waiting to be found and unleash their deadly fury. But there is one thing almost, if not absolutely every voice that garners a significant hearing in the public ear(s) shares, and that is the foundational story, the ground motive, the “metanarrative” that lies at its root.

This is the myth of the modern age, exemplified by Hobbes’ idea that the “natural state” of humankind was one of war, one against all, with the world as a fundamentally hostile place. Methods of control must be established to provide order where there would be unchecked chaos, control of other people, control of the natural world. The world and other people went from being gifts from God, to be loved accordingly, to being potential agents of discord and danger in need of being put “in their place”.

I do not mean to imply that Hobbes was the founder of this idea, it goes back much further – all the way back to ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. It is an idea almost as old as the human race. It is embodied in mythologies ancient and modern. Whether it is by a social contract, the “divine right of kings”, or the rulers’ being the “image of God/the gods”, the idea that some agents of humanity are needed to enforce order and fight back the forces of chaos has been around for quite some time.

The proclamation in Genesis 1 that the whole human race is created in the image of God mitigates precisely against this idea. Instead, humans are to co-rule, to mediate God’s presence and love to the whole creation, a story rooted in primal goodness, not primeval violence.

Furthermore, it is as agents of the New Creation that the church is to engage the world. God is coming to make his home with people, with creation. We shall be his people, and he shall be our God. Indeed, God has already come in the person of Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and now the Spirit is with us as we, as Christ’s body, continue the work he began. It is not that our work brings the kingdom, but because we participate in the divine life we are called to fulfill that purpose given to humankind so long ago – to enable each other and all creation to participate in the life and love that God has for all of us.

As such, we cannot be a people whose imaginations for engaging the world, the political, social, economic, and all other realities, are determined by modes of discourse rooted in a story of primeval violence. Violence does not redeem; rather, it is an aberration, it destroys, it mitigates against working according to the call God has given to us as daughters and sons, heirs of the kingdom and creation.

Let us no longer be subject to the imaginations that have their genesis in violence, but to the divine peace that is at the center of all things and the original heart of creation. As John Howard Yoder said, people who take up their crosses are not countercultural – they are going WITH the grain of the universe, because the universe is fundamentally God’s creation, moving towards the time when the New Heavens and New Earth will be revealed.

So I ask you, dear reader… what does it look like to talk about these things with imaginations rooted in the better story? I welcome thoughts, reflections, and suggestions in the comments.

Shalom,
Jason

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