Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  (Gen 1:1-5)
What better place to start than in the beginning.  Today, we will briefly discuss two very interesting features of these first five verses of the Old Testament.  We will first discuss the Hebrew word that translates to "formless void" and second, we will discuss the advent of God speaking creation into existence.  To understand what makes these two features of the biblical text interesting, however, we must turn for a moment to examine the ancient Near Eastern creation account of Babylon:  Enuma Elish.

Archaeologists discovered clay tablets containing the narrative of Enuma Elish in the late nineteenth century at the Babylonian town of Nineveh (the town to which God sends Jonah in the Book of Jonah).  The tablets originate from around the seventh century BCE ("before common era," academic equivalent to "BC"), but the story of Enuma Elish dates far earlier.

Enuma Elish features the Babylonian god Marduk, who served as the patron deity of the city of Babylon and was heralded as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.  In the creation account of Enuma Elish, Marduk's great-great-grandmother, Tiamat, and her husband, Apsu, conspire to kill all of their offspring because the other gods are making too much noise, which is preventing Apsu from resting.  One of Tiamat's and Apsu's grandsons, Ea, discovers the plot and calls a meeting of the other gods.  This meeting eventually results in the overthrowing and killing of Apsu.  Tiamat decides to wage war with the remaining gods.  Marduk meets Tiamat in battle and ultimately slays her.   Marduk then stands upon Tiamat's corpse and fashions from it the heavens and the earth.

Besides giving us the paradigm of the dysfunctional family, Enuma Elish allows us to glean two key insights from the Babylonian account of creation.  First, the gods only create the world as a result of a divine family struggle; and second, Marduk creates the world from the slain body of Tiamat.  Both of these points play a significant role in the Genesis account of creation in relation to the two features of the Hebrew text mentioned above.

We read in Gen 1:2 that "the earth was a formless void."  In Hebrew, the word for "formless void" transliterates as "tohu."  Akkadian, the language in which the authors of Enuma Elish wrote, and Hebrew share a common linguistic origin.  For this reason, many words within both languages stem from a common root.  It just so happens that the root for the Akkadian word from which we derive the name Tiamat and the root for the Hebrew word that we translate as "formless void" are one and the same.  What this suggests is that the authors of Genesis possessed an awareness of the Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish.

Please be aware that I am not trying to debase a faithful Christian reading of the Genesis text.  I am attempting to cast the text of Genesis in a light where we will be able to analyze and understand the literary movement intended by the author.  If the authors of Genesis did in fact have the story of Enuma Elish in mind, what an incredibly beautiful and profound way to declare the Babylonian pantheon as nonexistent while at the same time announcing their God as sovereign. For in saying that "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters," the authors of Genesis enlist the memory of Tiamat in order to express God's sovereignty over the face of the waters, which actually expresses God's sovereignty over the Babylonian pantheon.

In our second connection between the creation accounts of Genesis and Enuma Elish, we read that in Gen 1:3 God speaks creation into existence while in Enuma Elish a divine struggle resulting in death brings about creation.  What an incredible contrast.  The creation of the world and humanity in Enuma Elish was never a priority for the Babylonian pantheon, it was merely an unintentional result of a divine family feud.  In Genesis, however, God purposefully creates, and even more, God creates through speech.  God brings forth something--all of creation--from absolutely nothing--the complete nonexistence of the Babylonian pantheon.  In a way, we can read Genesis dually as a creation narrative for Israel while at the same time reading it as a non-creation account for Babylon.

The interplay between the Genesis creation account and the creation account of Enuma Elish continues throughout the remaining verses of Gen 1:1-19.  Reasons for the interplay between Israelite and Babylonian culture abound, and we will surely discuss some of these facets in future posts.  For the time being, though, we will end our discussion of Babylon and Enuma Elish here.  Please find below a short list of sources where you can go to read further about the topics discussed above:
Enuma Elish epic and Babylonian Pantheon (pp 362-370)

Also, Dr. Peter Enns has written a wonderful book that focuses on many of the features discussed above.  The book is called:  Inspiration and Incarnation:  Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and can be purchased here.

As always, feel free to comment, to ask any questions, or to push back.