Thursday, July 30, 2009

Genesis 1 and pagan cosmologies (updated)

When the Babylonian creation accounts first came to light over a hundred years ago, they caused quite a stir because they had some notable similarities to Genesis 1-11. Some scholars argued that this showed the Biblical accounts to be a reworking of earlier forgotten pagan accounts, and therefore presumably not reliable or divinely inspired. More recent scholars have pointed out not only the similarities but also the striking contrasts between the narratives. It now appears that Genesis 1-11 was written primarily to refute certain pagan notions. Emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences between Genesis and pagan accounts would be like thinking that Copernicus' heliocentric theory is nothing more than an extension of Ptolemy's geocentric thinking. (By the way, probably the best book on this topic is Understanding Genesis: The Bible by Nahum Sarna.)

Genesis 1's cosmology establishes the Judeo-Christian world view. Since a world view is something we look through rather than look at, it is hard to see its importance unless it is contrasted with a different world view. But Genesis 1 has dominated western thinking so much that all other cosmologies were forgotten for a millennium; it takes effort for us to appreciate how revolutionary it must have been when it was written.

The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian poem which was recited every year during the New Year festival which celebrated the power of the Babylonian gods over the forces of chaos, and the security of the Babylonian system that rested upon those gods.

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Nothing but primordial Apsu [fresh water] the Begetter,
and chaos Tiamat [salt water], She Who Bore them All,
-–their waters commingling as a single body–-
No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined–-
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.

So begins the Enuma Elish. Our most complete copy of this poem dates to about 1100 BC, but it includes material which is much older, coming from the Sumerians more than a thousand years earlier.

Tiamat and Apsu beget a series of deities, including the sky Anu. Apsu then is angered by his children and conspired to kill them all. The god Ea son of Anu strikes down Apsu and becomes the chief god. He also conceives Marduk, the principal god of the Babylonians. Anu then rouses Tiamat to revenge for killing Apsu, and Tiamat sends terrifying monsters to fight the other gods and destroy them. Ea and Anu are too frightened to face Tiamat. Marduk, in exchange for the supreme authority over the gods, agrees to fight Tiamat.

Then the lord [Marduk] raised the thunderbolt, his mighty weapon,
He mounted the chariot, the storm unequaled for terror,
He harnessed and yoked unto it four horses,
Destructive, ferocious, overwhelming, and swift of pace;
Poisoned were their sharp teeth...
He posted on his right the Batterer, best in the mêlée;
On his left the Battle-fury that blasts the bravest,
Lapped in this armor, a leaping terror,
With overpowering brightness his head was crowned;
With a magic word clenched between his lips,
A healing plant pressed in his palm, this lord struck out.

The dramatic, heroic poem goes on to describe how Marduk kills Tiamat, and cuts her in two. With half of her body he forms the sky (note the reference to the waters above the sky here, as in Gen. 1), and half the oceans beneath. Marduk sets in place various deities as stars in Tiamat's body in the sky, and orders them "to mark off the days" and keep time.

Many other pagan cosmogonies from the ancient near east are similar: gods are born, there is a battle between the gods, and one god becomes supreme and destroys the others. Canaanite mythology had a similar saga of conflict with the monsters of chaos and the eventual triumph of Baal. Modern readers are probably more familiar with the similar Greek myths of the Titans and their struggle with the Zeus and the Olympian gods. In all these accounts, the creation of the world is a more or less accidental consequence of the outcome of the battle between the gods. The body of the dead god formed the world and the sky.

The nature of God: monotheism makes faith possible

The creation narrative in Genesis 1 has a few superficial similarities to the Babylonian account. For example, it starts with salt water ("Tiamat" is possibly a cognate of the Hebrew word tehom, "the deep"). The water is separated into the waters above and the oceans. Stars are for a calendar.

While the similarities are real, the differences are much larger, and the differences are what would have been noticed first by ancient audiences. It should be obvious to even a casual reader that the world of Genesis 1 is utterly different from the world of the Enuma Elish. Probably the most obvious difference is that Genesis 1 has no conflict. In comparison with the poetry of the Enuma Elish, Genesis 1 is a dull, plodding list. There is no violence and there is no sex. The mythological accounts of cosmology are frankly much more interesting as a story than anything in Genesis 1 or 2. But the fact that Genesis 1 is boring is what makes it so exciting. Reading a gripping drama is pleasurable and interesting, but living in one is unpleasant and terrifying.

Drama depends on conflict. Now we do not see the world as populated by independent, disagreeing, and unpredictable entities, but the ancients did. Gods were as unpredictable as weather; in fact, that's what caused weather. The supreme deity barely managed to keep all the fractious gods in line. There were lapses where his will was not obeyed, and there are limits to his power. This is the main plot device in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aneid, and various other classical myths such as the Prometheus story. The same is true of mesopotamian stories such as the Atrahasis Epic and the flood story in the Gilgamesh epic, and many other ancient works. In most of these epics, it is sometimes better for humans when the supreme deity's will is not obeyed. For pagans, no deity could be trusted; even if there were a deity with the character, he did not have the power. In contrast, if the Genesis 1 cosmology is true, the creator can be trusted because his will is always done. There are no limits to his power, and no one can stand in his way. Living by faith is impossible without monotheism.

This point is reinforced by what Genesis 1 does not mention. Genesis 1 goes out of its way to avoid even naming other possible actors. In other scriptural discussions of creation (e.g., in Proverbs or Job) we hear that Wisdom and the angels were in some way involved. But mentioning them here would weaken the argument that the author is making, that there are no other gods involved, because people from a polytheistic background would automatically think of angels or wisdom as distinct gods. Similarly, the sun and the moon are not even named. This is probably because they were widely worshiped in the ancient near east, and the author of Genesis wishes to demote them to mere created objects. So he calls them just "the greater light" and the "the lesser light". Such a slight on the celestial bodies would stand out to an ancient audience.

In the same vein, in 1:21 it says "God made the great sea monsters"--which would have been understood in ancient times as the sea monsters who were the imagined incarnation of frightening pagan deities, the monsters of chaos (like Tiamat). God made those too. There is no danger that these personifications of chaos will again swamp the creation--God made them.

Another difference between Genesis 1 and the other ancient cosmologies which would be blindingly obvious to a person in the ancient near east is that God has no origin. Most other ancient cosmologies are primarily cosmogonies (i.e., stories about the origin of the gods), and the origin of the visible world is usually an afterthought. Set against this pagan background, the omission of any history of God makes a powerful statement. "In the beginning, God created...": the fact that the God whom we worship now is the same God who was there at the beginning, without any development, is important for living by faith. If God changed in the past, then he might change in the future. If God changes and develops, then we cannot trust in his plan for all time--he might change his mind. The unchanging nature of God is often celebrated later in the scripture, because it gives us hope. "I, Yahweh, do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Mal. 3:6)

Vital to every mythological creation account is sex between the gods; all over the ancient world, sex seems to have been regarded as something that has power over even divinity. Once again, the Genesis account is completely different: sex is something that God created, not a fundamental force in the universe apart from God which controls even him. It should therefore be subservient to him. This is part of the foundation for biblical sexual ethics.

The nature of the universe

Another fundamental difference between Genesis and other ancient cosmologies is the clear separation between God and what he made. The world that is created is not part of a god (as in the Babylonian account), or something that proceeds from a god (as in several Egyptian accounts), nor is the universe equal to god (as in Stoicism and Hinduism and other pantheistic religions); instead, the world is something separate from God, that he created. The universe itself is not divine, nor does it have any divine essence.

What difference does it make whether God created the universe or God is the universe? It is obvious to everyone that the world has some serious flaws right now. If the world is divine, then God is the problem, and there is no hope that the world can improve. The best that we can do is to accept suffering (Stoicism or Buddhism), or to withdraw (e.g., to stop being reincarnated, as in the Hindu concept of Nirvana). But if the world was created by and is separate from God, then the Creator can make things new again. The entire Christian hope of redemption of the world depends on the concept of God as creator separate from and superior to the universe.

Although the creation is not divine, it is good. This assertion also has far reaching consequences. Later Greek thinkers tended to regard the material world as a mere poor copy of the nonmaterial world, the world of Platonic "forms" or ideals, where there was true perfection; the physical body was seen as a hinderance which would gladly be sloughed off. Still later, gnostics thought that matter is intrinsically evil; a bad god imprisoned our spirits in matter, and our hope is to rise above the material existence and enter the world of pure spirits.

Although the author of Genesis likely does not have these gnostic theologies in mind as he writes, this text nevertheless clearly contradicts these ideas, with important consequences for us. The simple Christian practice of thanking God for our food would make no sense if we did not believe that matter is a good creation of God. The body is not unnecessary or bad; far from it! The body is a good creation of God, and we cannot be what God intended us without it. This is why the ultimate Christian hope is resurrection from the dead rather than a disembodied existence in heaven; we long to be clothed with our new bodies, as Paul says, not to be unclothed (2 Corinthians 5:3). A mere nonphysical existence after death would be a defeat for the creator. Only resurrection of the physical body can swallow death up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).

The world view established by the Genesis creation account makes possible the Christian hope in God's good plan. More on this later....

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