Monday, January 29, 2007

Ancient Texts - Part 2: Enuma Elish & Atrahasis

Enuma Elish - Mesopotamia

One of the biggest and earliest questions mankind has tried to deal with is "How did we get here?" The question we Americans tend to have today is "Why am I here?" with little concern for the bigger issues. One of the earliest attempts to answer that question was mythologized by the Mesopotamians in Enuma Elish. King Ashurbanipal (of Ezra 4:10) had this text copied and placed in the Assyrian library in the 7th century B.C.

There are several polemics against pagan "gods" in the Old Testament. Some of them are found in the psalms (psalm 148:8 - Yahweh is God of the storm, not Baal). Others are found in our earliest biblical texts, such as Genesis. Genesis tells us how the one true God created everything. In Genesis we learn something of God and we learn something of man. God is eternal, without beginning. He made order out of chaos. He made humanity with a purpose.

The Mesopotamian story of creation starts with nothing except for father and mother gods Apsu and Tiamat. The gods start with two bodies of water and make them one (in contrast to the Genesis account of separating the water - Gen 1:2-6). Unlike our God, their "gods" had origin from the "Divine womb." Marduk is god of the storm and fills the divine warrior motif by taking on bow and arrows. The earth and the heavens were formed from the two halves of Tiamat's corpse, whom Marduk slayed. These gods were granted their divinity and some were made more divine than others. Quite a contrast to our God.

Mankind - They believed that mankind was created to do work for the gods. In essence, mankind was an afterthought to keep the gods from having to labor. "The Aborigines will do the god's work. The savages will set the gods free." This is not the kind of relationship between humanity and divinity that is found in scripture.

Atrahasis - Sumeria:

Mankind aleviating the work of the gods is also echoed in the Sumerian flood story of Atrahasis. The Sumerians believed mankind was made by the gods from a mixture of clay (Gen 2:7), flesh, and blood. Soon mankind multiplies out of control and makes so much noise it disturbs the gods' sleep! The gods decide to send a plague to kill mankind. But the gods fail. So they send drought and famine on the land to make the noisey humans quiet. But the gods' plan fails. In fact it turns out that, "the people are not diminished. They are more numerous than ever." So the gods decide a flood is the only option (Gen 6-8). The plan is revealed to Atrahasis and he is told to build a boat and fill it with animals. The gods are saddened, not because of the loss of life but because there are no more people to carry out their work! The flood subsides and Atrahasis emerges from the boat and makes a sacrifice to the gods. Their reaction? "The gods smelled the aroma. They swarmed like flies around his sacrifice." Not a very pleasing or picturesque portrait of the gods. In Genesis 8, God's reaction to the sacrifice is a promise to mankind.

What do we learn from these tails? When cultures attempt to answer questions about their origin and about the nature of divinity they end up creating gods that look a lot like themselves. When we open the Bible and read about God - we find someone not like us. He is not having relations with other gods. He does not have a beginning. He was not bestowed divinity. Our God does not resemble mankind and that is what gives us hope!

For more on these texts see:

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