Genesis 1 – A Critique (iii)

“The Old Testament : A Historical & Literary Introduction : Michael D. Coogan

When we read Genesis 1, we should bear in mind that the ancient Israelites, like the peoples around them, had a different world-view from ours. Their universe was very small, and our world was at the centre of it. God, whose throne was above the sky, was close at hand, and well able to keep an eye on things below, and to drop down whenever intervention was thought necessary.

The authors/editors of Genesis were acquainted with the ancient myths of the  surrounding peoples, and echoes of these can be found in their writings. The Babylonians had a myth (the “Enuma elish”) in which Marduk became their top god after defeating, in battle, the sea monster named Tiamat – a victory of order over chaos. Marduk “dispatched the evil wind” against her, and “split her down the middle”. One half was made the “roof of the sky” and the “waters he arranged so that they would not escape.” Echoes of this are heard in the “powerful wind” from God that buffets the waters in verse 2, and the “dome” in verses 6 & 7, that separates the waters in the sky from those below.

In verse 1, the Hebrew word for the watery deep is “Tehom”, linguistically related to the name “Tiamat”. The author in Genesis 1 leaves out the idea of the battle between God and the sea monster, but others elsewhere make use of it. In Psalm 74:13, for example, it’s said of God, “You shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water.” Also noteworthy about “Tehom” is that, whereas the myths of other peoples made gods and goddesses out of the Sun and Moon and other natural entities, the authors/editors of Genesis did not. “Tehom”, however, is one possible, if unintended, exception. As is the case with names, it’s not written with the definite article. Instead of “the deep”, a more accurate translation would be “there was darkness on the face of Deep”, as if “Deep” is a personification of the stormy waters of chaos.

Also in the myths of surrounding peoples, are many gods, who meet in council with a chief god presiding. The same was true, to begin with, of the Israelites, and this is why, in verse 26, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.” It took a long time, and a lot of persuading and threatening from various kings, prophets and priests, before Israel became thoroughly monotheistic, worshipping a ‘one and only one’ God. This is why the 1st of the 10 commandments, rather than claiming there aren’t any, demands that the Israelites put “no other gods before” Yahweh. 

In the case of the Canaanite peoples, the chief God was called “El” or “Elyon”. Two fascinating verses are Deuteronomy 32: 8 & 9. In these, “Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance .. Yahweh’s portion is .. Jacob” (another name for Israel). The chief Canaanite God, in other words, shares out his ’empire’ among his underlings, and the people of Israel are given to Yahweh. 

Yahweh, incidentally, is quite simply God’s name. We’ve lost sight of this, initially because Jews, out of respect, don’t pronounce it, but also because English translations substitute “the LORD”, with capital letters. Perhaps, for some, it’s a bit embarrassing to be reminded that the Judeo-Christian God of the entire universe began life as the tribal god of the earliest Israelites. On the other hand, such a  reminder might bring home to some people that they should exercise the greatest care and restraint, in applying some of the values, and rules and regulations, of the tribal god Yahweh, to the urbanised and globalised world of the 21st century.

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