Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Hebrew Creation Myth on "Who Is God?"

Many years ago I did a year of post-graduate study on an interdisciplinary team that studied the theme Creation and Cosmogony. The team included a geologist, a philosopher, an astrophysisist, an Old Testament scholar, and myself.

My role on the team, in part, was to translate Psalm 104, a creation Psalm, from Hebrew to English, and then compare that Psalm to ancient Sumarian, Akkadian, and Canaanite creation stories. Sumer and Akkad were ancient Middle Eastern empires whose myths were well known to the Hebrews. In fact, ancient Hebrew religious leaders actually rewrote those ancient myths to suit their own purposes. That is, the Genesis story of creation, and the Psalms of creation, are really ironic, almost sarcastic commentaries on the popular myths that the people living in and around the Hebrews believed.

So, in this post, I want to introduce you to an Akkadian scribe whose name was Ku-Aya. He is a real person who lived more than 2000 years before Jesus’ birth. Archeologists know that Ku-Aya was a real person because they have found his signature on a set of clay tablets that he copied for the Akkadian library. These clay tablets tell the Akkadian version of the creation story. This story is entitled the Ennuma Elish.

The world, as pictured in the Ennuma Elish is, in some ways, similar to the world as the ancient Hebrews understood it. Both Ku-Aya, the Akkadian scribe, and the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 104 shared the same primitive, mythic understanding of how the world worked. Ku-Aya thought that the gods lived up there, in heaven. And Ku-Aya thought that down there was an ocean of water on which the ground floated. Between the heaven above and the waters below was the world.

The Psalmist thought very much the same, and you can see that from the structure of this Psalm. In fact, Psalm 104 is actually a sort of map, where the words and structure of the Psalm, as well as its rhyme and alliteration (that can’t be translated), make the map’s design instead of the graphic lines and splashy colors that we’re used to on Google Maps.

At the top of the Psalm, that is, the top of the map, in verses 2-4, where heaven belongs, is a description of heaven. Heaven is where Yahweh—the Hebrew name for God—rides on the wings of the wind and where the winds are his messengers. Just before the Psalm's conclusion, in verses 24-26, at the bottom of the Psalm, the Psalmist describes bottom of the world, the sea upon which the world floats. In the sea are creatures beyond number, whales that frolic and play.

Like Ku-Aya, the Psalmist put the earth between the sea below and the heaven above. In verses 5-9 the Psalmist describes how Yahweh set the earth on its foundations, and near the end of the poem, just before the description of the sea, in verses 19-23, the poet describes how Yahweh orders the earth's seasons, night and day.

Finally, at the heart of his Psalm, in verses 13-15, the Psalmist describes the heart of his world, Judah. Judah is surrounded, in turn, by the Negev desert (10-12) and Lebanon (16-18). Even here, Ku-Aya would have agreed with the Psalmist—at least in principle, because if he had drawn a map, Ku-Aya would have put his empire, Akkad, at its center too.

Ku-Aya and the Psalmist shared the same mythical and prescientific understanding of the world. But the two stories they told about how that earth came to be represent very different religious understandings of the world. So let’s compare, in broad strokes, some of that myth that Ku-Aya told to the Biblical myth.

Ku-Aya's myth tells of a time before the creation of the world when the gods had to work for a living. Ku-Aya's gods planted crops and dug irrigation canals, but they detested this demeaning work. According to Genesis, however, Yahweh, the Hebrew God, enjoyed his six days of creative work, and only then, when he was finished on the seventh day, did Yahweh rest.

Ku-Aya's unhappy worker-gods went to their boss god, Enlil, and begged Enlil to find someone else to do their dirty work. So, to help the tired worker-gods out, Enlil created men and women to be slaves in the gardens of the gods. Humans were to work in the garden in order to grow food for the gods. According to the Genesis myth, however, Yahweh did it the other way around. Yahweh created Adam and Eve not as slaves, but as stewards, caretakers of the Garden of Eden, so that they could feed not the gods, but themselves. Yahweh made Adam and Eve co-rulers in the garden, rather than slaves.

Early on, Enlil was crushed to realize that the humans he created were so fertile that the earth was soom overrun by them. In fact, there were so many humans making such a racket that Enlil and the other Akkadian gods couldn't even get a decent night's sleep. According to the Ennuma Elish, Enlil cries out: "Twelve hundred years has not yet passed, and the people have over multiplied. Their land is bellowing like a bull, and I am disturbed by their noise and uproar. I cannot sleep with all those humans and their horns."

Of course, in the Bible, Yahweh told Adam and Eve not to worry about fertility; in fact, Yahweh told them to be fruitful and multiply and enjoy it.

Enlil's solution for his insomnia was to kill off as many humans as he could. Ku-Aya tells us that Enlil sent drought and famine; Enlil sent a wind to parch the ground and dry up the springs. Hopefully these plagues would solve the overpopulation problem. The Psalmist, on the other hand, notes that Yahweh provides springs to pour water into the ravines of the Negev desert. The Psalmist smiles to think of how the ceders in Lebanon are well watered by mountain streams. But most especially, the Psalmist rejoices because Yahweh waters the mountains of Judah from his upper chambers, the clouds in the heavens.

In the end, Enlil decides to destroy the noisy humans with a flood in which only one human family, the family of Atrahasis, escape, by way of an Ark. In scripture, the flood is described not as a noise reduction measure, but as an attempt by Yahweh to flush the world clean of wickedness.

What do we make of these two pictures? Well, on the science front, the Psalmist and Ku-Aya had similar understandings of how the world worked. The world is like a meatball sandwich, with slice of sea below and a slice of heaven above.

On the religious front, however, the stories of Ku-Aya and the Psalmist show that they had radically different understandings of what the gods—or the one God—was like. As I said earlier, Psalm 104, as well as Genesis 1 and 2, were certainly written as ironic, sarcastic rebuttals of Ku-Aya's popular myth. Biblical accounts of creation seem to have been written as a point by point refutation of the popular religious themes of Ku-Aya's story, themes that the religion of the surrounding Canaanites were full of.

Consider. Where Ku-Aya's gods created human slaves, the Biblical creation myth says humans were created to rule. Where Ku-Aya's world was a prison farm, the Hebrew world was a garden of delight. Where Ku-Aya and his friends were much too fertile for their gods' liking, the Hebrew myth commands humans to be fertile and multiply.

Where Ku-Aya thought that the gods detested humans, Psalm 104 portrays a world where Yahweh blesses humans. Yahweh, for example, waters the mountains from his upper chambers; Yahweh brings forth food from the earth, too, for humans: wine for our hearts and oil to make our faces shine—one of my favorite Bible texts.

So, what do we make of the Bible's creation myth, and the God at its centre?

Well, I think that what the Hebrews wanted to say about God was radically different than what the peoples that surrounded them believed. In short, the Hebrews believed that God was for them. God loved and valued them. God wanted to bless them and see them thrive. God might be powerful and distant, shrouded in mystery and hard to get to know—but still, this God is fundamentally for humans, not against them. God is on our side, blesses us with great opportunity as citizens of this planet, and desires that we, like Him or Her, do the same for and unto our neighbors.

And so we should.


  1. A great read. Thanks. It is also timely from my perspective. I was just putting together a meditation about the world (or worlds) beyond our own and re-read the Judeo-Christian myth, the Genesis story, of creation. I was of course, like many, taught that this story was a factual account of the creation of the world, of everything. However, I was struck in re-reading that this story is not really about creation of our solar system, the universe or universes but about us human beings, and perhaps less about out creation than our purpose or mandate. Your analysis and commentary on a comparative reading of the Genesis story has reinforced this impression. It opens up a whole other perspective, and I think a more useful way of approaching this story.

  2. I'd say that the most striking aspect of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it is God's calling card. We are introduced to a very different kind of God than the gods of surrounding nations. Thanks for your note!

  3. Beautiful post. Really resonates with me. And very enlightening. I too have been taught that Gen. 1-2 etc. are literal, doctrinal, and essential to believe as such. But as I read them, esp. the creation account, it is obviously written, not from God's perspective, but from a human perspective. And that it is more about a radically transformational worldview as opposed to a literal or religious treatise.

    1. Thanks. I guess we were all taught the literal approach. I was talking to some children the other day, and the flood came up. This is a Liberal Protestant church, and no one tries to read Genesis for history. But all the kids believed the flood was real. The incident has me thinking about how to tell the stories to children as stories . . . I guess you could call this the Santa Claus problem.


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