The Bible and Babylonian Myth (ii)

My previous post showed how the Hebrew Bible writers made use of the Babylonian myth ‘Enuma Elish’ in finalising their own great national epic, and how the conflict between the god Marduk and the goddess Tiamat, hinted at in Genesis 1:2, finds clear parallels in the books of the Psalms and Job. 

In the Babylonian myth, this conflict leads to the creation of the cosmos, which Marduk achieves by putting Tiamat’s dead body to good use ..

This is reminiscent of Genesis 1:7, where God makes the dome of the sky, separating the waters above from those below. As in ‘Enuma Elish’, he puts in place a mechanism to prevent the ‘waters above’ from escaping. What that mechanism was, is revealed when the great Flood begins in Genesis 7 – “the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth”. So next time there’s a thunderstorm and an accompanying deluge, you can send God an email, asking him if he’d mind closing his windows in the sky.

In the ‘Enuma Elish’, there is also the creation of human beings. Marduk’s defeated enemy Tiamat had, as a chief ally, a god called Qingu, who was therefore now considered to be expendable. Once he’d been killed, Marduk mixed his blood with earth, and used the resulting clay to fashion men and women. In Genesis, God also creates the first man from clay, but then blows his breath into his nostrils to bring him to life. So there are differences, as we’d expect, but the point of both these versions of human creation, is that we all have an inbuilt ‘divine’ aspect. More is expected of us, then, than of our fellow creatures. If such respect ‘from above’ has been shown to us, then we ought to show like respect for those who are ‘below’. 

There’s another similarity in that in the ‘Enuma Elish’, humans are Marduk’s thank-you present to the rest of the gods for appointing him their chief. The humans are to do all the menial and manual work which previously had been the lesser gods’ responsibility, such as digging the irrigation ditches, and cooking the gods’ food. In Genesis, God puts the first man into the Garden of Eden, “to take care of it and look after it’ – a much less strenuous responsibility. After the Flood, some cooking is done in Genesis 8, when Noah sets up an altar and starts a fire. “The smell of the burnt offering pleased God”, who perhaps came down to sample some of the delicacies his servant Noah had prepared for him. In Genesis, however, humans are not created to be slaves in the world, but “have dominion” over it, presumably with the intention that they be good stewards rather than ruthless exploiters ! 

There are various other ‘parallels’ in Genesis. In the sky, Marduk sets up the planets and constellations to determine the calendar, the months of the year, and phases of the moon. Similarly, God appoints the lamps in the sky (not called ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’ to emphasise they’re not divinities) “to show the time for seasons, special days, and years”.  

Before Marduk kills Qingu, he discusses the matter with his Council of Gods. The existence of such a council is surely the reason why God, in Genesis 1:26 and 3;22 makes reference to “our” and “us”. Sure enough, Jeremiah 23:18 asks, “who among them has stood in the Council of Yahweh to see and to hear his word?” And Psalm 82:1 says that, “God is standing in the Council of God. In the midst of the gods, he judges.” It took a long time for all the Israelites to believe in one God only. They worshipped many of the gods of their fellow Canaanites, which is why their prophets and priests repeatedly denounce their ‘religious adultery’. 

The Babylonians held an annual New Year Festival to re-enact and re-affirm the creation of order from the primordial chaos, and the ‘enthronement’ of the god Marduk. During these ceremonious rituals, the ‘Enuma Elish’ would have been recited, along with associated hymns of thanksgiving and praise. There are scholars who suggest that the Israelites also held a ‘New Year Festival’, at which the early chapters of Genesis would have been read, along with the various Psalms celebrating the primeval, cosmic victory over Leviathan or Rahab, and the ‘enthronement’ of Yahweh as King in his Temple on Mount Zion. Stirring stuff !!

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