‘Once Upon a Time’ (ii) Enuma Elish

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As I noted in my 1st post on this theme, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament contains many echoes of far older, interesting and amusing creation myths, flood stories and epic poems which, because used to train scribes, were widely spread in location and time across the ancient near east. The Hebrew writers/editors used a number of their ideas and themes, while altering them to reflect their own religious beliefs and distinctive viewpoints.

Another of these ancient stories is the ‘Enuma Elish’, from around a thousand years earlier than the Hebrew Bible, which deals with the creation of the world, and what that led to. Just as in the book of Genesis, at the beginning there’s nothing other than a watery chaos. This divides, however, into fresh and salt water. Unlike in Genesis, fresh water is personified as a god, Apsu, and salt water as a goddess, Tiamat. Just as the fresh waters of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates mix with the salt waters of what is now the Persian Gulf, so Apsu and Tiamat ‘mixed together’ and produced the younger gods. Like typical ‘teenagers’, they became unruly, rebellious and noisy, so much so that Apsu and Tiamat couldn’t get any rest or sleep.

Apsu finally flipped, and decided to destroy them all but, for Tiamat, that was going a bit too far. She didn’t take to the idea of suddenly and violently losing all her offspring. But as it happened, one of the younger gods got wind of what was going on, and put a stop to it by killing Apsu. That didn’t please Tiamat either. She declared war on the younger gods, and won the early rounds on points. Then, however, the opportunistic young god Marduk volunteered to sort her out, but only on condition that he would become the chief god. This was agreed.

Marduk took on Tiamat, the monstrous goddess of the salt waters. He threw a huge net over her and, when she roared in anger, forced the four winds into her mouth so that her jaws gaped open. Into that cavernous gap he drove a spear and split her in two, and this is where there are more echoes in Genesis. Her top half he used to make the dome of the sky, allowing only occasional rain to fall from the waters above it. Into that dome, he placed the sun, moon and stars as a guide to time and the seasons of the year. Then he said, “I will make man, who will inhabit the earth“, and did so using the blood of Tiamat’s slain ally, the god Kingu. As in the bible, humans have therefore a divine component in their otherwise earthly make up. 

Once the other gods had build the city of Babylon, Marduk established himself in its temple, and was worshipped as its chief god. In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name was Yahweh, and many of the Psalms celebrate his kingship, and his presence in his Temple in Jerusalem. He was the chief god, and in the first of his ten commandments, he ordered the Israelites to put none of the other gods before him, knowing full well they were, as yet, far from being being believers in one god only.

The goddess of the salt water ocean, often depicted as a multi-headed serpent or dragon, also gets an echo in the opening verses of Genesis, where the Hebrew word for the watery ‘deep’ is tehom, which is related to the name Tiamat. There’s no battle in Genesis between Yahweh and a sea monster, but there is in other places in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Isaiah, for example, pictures Yahweh taking his “sharp, great and mighty sword“, bringing “judgement on the coiling serpent“, and slaying “the dragon of the sea“. In patriarchal societies, the female, goddess or otherwise, was seen to represent a monstrous threat of chaos to the male order of things, and had therefore to be kept in her place. Some things, it may seem to many of us, are very slow, if ever, to change.  

As I wrote in my 1st post on this theme, the Bible was written by humans, and reflects its surrounding cultures, whilst making its own distinctive contribution. This fact needn’t undermine anyone’s faith, but should deter us from selecting quotes to give ‘authority’ to our opinions about contemporary issues. The Bible is an important word, but not ‘the last word’. It needs to be freshly explored and understood by each succeeding generation.

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