1. Genesis and Enuma Elish: Opposing Worldviews
May 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Beginning at the Beginning
I think the best way to capture the full meaning of God’s story is to go back to the beginning and try to understand the story as its first audience did. This is why I begin this study with the Pentateuch and not Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel of John, or one of Paul’s letters. The Pentateuch is the foundation of the entire Bible, Old and New Testament alike, and every Biblical writer—the poets, prophets, historians, and even the disciples—used the Pentateuch to help them understand their personal insights, visions, and experiences.
Jesus, Himself, said that the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms all spoke of Him and that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Luke 24:44, Matt. 5:17). And so to understand Christ’s story we must understand the various books of the Bible as a cohesive collection working with a common purpose to reveal the nature and plan of God. That story has a beginning, and it starts with Genesis. But before we delve into the first book of the Bible, let us contemplate what God’s message was up against and how that message was first received.
Because the Bible refers to the Pentateuch as the Law of Moses, Moses is understood to be its primary author by the other Biblical writers and is credited as penning Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While some modern scholars question this assumption, we will work from this perspective because it is how the Bible presents itself and evidence exists to support this position (see my pages “Why Yada?” and “Biblical Context” for a brief discussion on this topic). From this we can determine that the first audience of Genesis was the people of the exodus whom Moses led out of Egypt.
The exodus is believed to have occurred as early as 1450 BCE or as late as 1280 BCE. The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, is thought by many archeologists to have been recorded by this time period and is considered to be based on a much more ancient Sumerian creation myth common to the area. Therefore, the basic story of Enuma Elish would have reflected the way people thought in the region at the time Moses and the Israelites set out for the land of Canaan. To understand the mindset of the day we will take a look at its story.
An Opposing Tale: Enuma Elish
In the Babylonian saga, Enuma Elish, the founding gods Apsu and his wife Tiamat produce children and grandchildren that create so much noise and commotion that Apsu, the patriarch, decided to destroy his offspring. Fortunately for the offspring, one of the great-grandchildren hears of the plot and kills Apsu first. However, on learning of her husband’s death, his wife Tiamut vows vengeance. She creates eleven monsters to carry out her revenge and places a new husband, Klingu, in charge of them.
None of the other gods are able to stop Tiamet, Klingu, or their monsters until Marduk, the great-great-grandchild of Apsu and Tiamet challenges them. Marduk eventually traps Tiamet and smashes her head with a club. He then divides her corpse into two halves to create the earth and sky. After which he kills Klingu and uses his blood to create man so that the gods have servants to work for them so they might live in ease (Arnold and Beyer, 2002, 31-50.)
Each of the gods in the myth of Enuma Elish represents a force in nature or psychological ideal such as the sun, sea, wind, wisdom, or chaos. The epic battle that takes place reflects the desire for certain forces in nature as embodied by the hero gods to dominate other more frightening forces of nature which are embodied by the villain gods so that in the end order rules over chaos.
The theories of how this myth functioned in society are quite varied and the myth is likely to have served more than one purpose. Besides giving a basic explanation of the forces of nature and man’s existence in the world, the Enuma Elish likely justified the social hierarchy that existed in the area including the preeminence of the king of Babylon, who served Marduk, and the city itself which was dedicated to the god and believed to be his home.
In any case, the myth reveals how the people of the time understood the character of god(s) and their own place in nature. In the Babylonian worldview gods are petty, harsh, manipulative and egotistical. Creation results from murderous conflict, and man is the byproduct of revenge. Humanity’s sole purpose of existence is to serve the indolence of immortal despots.
Exposing False Gods
Today, Christians have the tendency to approach the first chapter of Genesis as if they are reading a journal, a play-by-play of the events of creation. But Genesis is not a journal, and while it is true it is still a narrative. In view of this we understand the first chapter as a stylized account of the basic events of creation that in many ways directly opposes the belief system put forth by such accounts as Enuma Elish. The story Moses told presented a distinctively different worldview, and it was meant to change the world (Genesis 12:3).
If you read the Biblical creation story in Genesis in comparison to Enuma Elish several differences will jump out at you. At least one of these differences will be the absolute absence of violence and conflict in the Biblical account. While both accounts utilize a repetitive, rhythmic quality in its storytelling they do it quite differently.
The Babylonian myth uses the tool to emphasize the conflict and later aggrandizement of Marduk, while the Biblical account uses this literary tool to describe the unadorned power of God and emphasize the goodness of the elements within creation and the harmony that existed between them. The God of the Bible Himself is so unified in nature that it is not until man’s creation that we are given a hint that more than one personality may be involved.
A savvy reader will also understand that the details of the Biblical creation directly oppose the type of personification and deification of natural forces that are found in Enuma Elish and all other creation stories other than the Bible. In other words the Biblical account presents the natural world as it is.
For instance, the sun and moon are purposefully not identified by name and are simply referred to as “greater” and “lesser lights” whose function is to “give light on the earth” and to “serve as signs to mark the seasons and days and years” (Genesis 1:14-15). The seas are simply bodies of water gathered in one place and the creatures within them are merely aquatic animals (Gen. 1: 9, 20-21). There are no monsters, only animals. The only power greater than man is the one who made him as His image.
Furthermore, reproduction is intrinsic to God’s plan. There is no need to petition or perform special favors in order for fertility to be granted. In the Biblical account it is God’s desire that living things be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” and He equips them with the mechanisms needed to ensure reproduction will take place. And since the God of the Bible intends for His living things to thrive, plants are specifically given as food to sustain the living elements of creation (Gen. 1: 22, 28-29).
Genesis: A Story of Love
In the Biblical story of creation the provision, the elevated status of man, and the peaceful existence found in God’s midst all reassure man there is no cause to fear. On the other hand, in the Enuma Elish gods destroy one another and manipulate each other to gain status. The question that no doubt plagued man would have been, “What will stop the gods from destroying us if we displease them?” Based on the character of the gods the answer would have been, “Nothing.”
But those who believed Moses’ account would have had a very different understanding of God. The story itself attests to God’s general favor and His desire for creation to continue. In the opening verses the Spirit of God is said to be “hovering” over the waters. The image that is being evoked is that of a mother hen “hovering” over her baby chicks.
Moreover, when it comes to man the image becomes particularly personal. In Chapter 2, verse 7, God is described as forming man from the dust and breathing the breath of life into his nostrils. Both man and animals are created from dust and have been given the breath of life, but the picture we have with man is one of embrace. Unlike the Babylonian myth in which creation is the result of rebellion and rage, the Biblical God creates out of love. And to ensure that fellowship between God and His creation is nurtured, the God of the Bible sets aside a day of the week to stop work and spend time with His beloved creation (Gen 2:2-3).
Resisting God’s Love
One would think that the story told by Moses would be like a breath of fresh air after a long stay in the hospital. And while that story is very appealing, living according to its truth was very much resisted even by the Israelites who were given special favor by God. Time and again the story of the Old Testament recounts how the Israelites were wooed by the gods of their neighbors. It was only when the impotence of these gods was exposed and the Israelites were in mortal danger that they turned back to their true God. Why such resistance?
The story that Moses told called for a whole new worldview. At the heart of that worldview is a loving Creator God who requires a very different relationship with His Creation then the false gods to whom the Israelites were attracted. Unlike the typical gods of the day who were satisfied with gifts and tribute, the type of loyalty the Biblical God seeks is one of fellowship with His creation, particularly man who is His image.
But here is the rub—for fellowship with God to be genuine it must include respect for the relative positions of Creator and created within the relationship. It must also be marked by the kind of faithfulness and devotion that is usually reserved for marriage. Humility and authentic devotion—these are the requirements that cause man to balk at the love of God.
Author, Melinda C. Jones
Blog Title, YadaYada
Post Title, Genesis and Enuma Elish: Opposing Worldviews
Original Publication Date, May 30, 2013