‘Once Upon a Time’ (i) Atrahasis


If we imagine that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament dropped ready-made from the skies above, we do it, and ourselves, a disservice, and miss out on some interesting and amusing stuff. The people of Israel were late arrivals in the ancient near east, others having already been there for thousands of years, especially in Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). These early civilisations had creation and flood stories, and epic tales, that were used to train scribes in the art of writing, and were therefore copied across a wide area over many centuries. The writers of the Hebrew Bible would have known them, especially after the successive deportations to Mesopotamia of almost all the people of Israel, from the 8th century BCE onwards. It’s no surprise, then, that ideas from these stories found their way into the Hebrew Bible, though altered to suit its distinctive points of view.

One of these ancient stories is that of ‘Atrahasis’, the earliest copy of which has been dated to at least 1700 BCE. One thousand years later, it was still to be found in the library of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. 

In the story, the gods are made in the image of human beings in how they relate to each another and behave. They have a ‘council of gods’, in which they argue the toss and come to decisions. The biblical writers/editors reverse this, and have human beings made in the image of God, although the word for God is sometimes intended to be plural, and mention is made, in the Book of Job for example, of a ‘divine council’.

In ‘Atrahasis’, there are upper and lower class gods. The latter were the under-gods and the under-dogs! They had to do all the hard work, including digging channels for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and preparing meals for the top gods. This notion that hard work could make gods tired, is reminiscent of Genesis, where God, after six days spent creating, needs to put his feet up on the seventh and have a coffee or a G&T. The under-gods eventually rebelled, with some success, because the top gods decided to create human beings to do the hard work instead. They did this by slaughtering a “god with intelligence”, (perhaps the ring-leader of the rebellion), and then mixing his flesh and blood with clay. There’s an echo of this in the book of Genesis, where the first humans combine a divine component, the breath of God, with clay from the soil. 

All went well, until the humans bred too rapidly and, characteristically some might say, became unruly and obstreperous, with their squabbles and fights, and their ancient equivalents of smartphones and ghetto blasters, so that “the country was as noisy as a bellowing bull”, and the gods couldn’t get a wink of sleep. They decided that action was required, and came up with successive attempts to reduce human numbers, such as plague, drought and famine. One of the gods, however, had a personal relationship with a favoured human called Atrahasis, meaning ‘very wise’, which recalls the biblical God’s personal relationships with Noah and Abraham and his successors. His patron god warned Atrahasis of the other gods’ various schemes, and the two them managed to sabotage them. 

Finally, the gods decided to send a great flood to wipe out all human beings, and here we’re on familiar ground. His patron god warned Atrahasis about what was about to happen, and told him how to build a boat big enough to accommodate his own family, as well as two representatives of the various birds and beasts. After seven days and nights of torrential downpour, the flood subsided. When Atrahasis disembarked, he lit a fire and barbecued some meat. The gods smelled the delicious odours, “gathered round like flies” and ate their fill. They now reckoned that the positives humans had to offer, outweighed the negatives, and spared them any further floods. And so they all lived happily together, gods and humans, ever after.

That the Bible was written by humans, and reflects the surrounding cultures of its time, while making a distinctive contribution of its own, is a straightforward fact, which needn’t undermine anyone’s faith. It should, however, deter us from using selected quotes to give ‘authority’ to opinions we hold on contemporary issues. The Bible will always be an important word, but not ‘the last word’. To maintain interest and relevance, it must be open-mindedly freshly understood by each succeeding generation.   

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