The creation story in the Hebrew Bible is not the only creation story that history has passed down to us. That fact is often overlooked or merely goes unnoticed. A simple search shows that Israel wasn’t the only nation to consider how the world began and their distinctive place in that world. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and others all recorded their own views about the foundation of the earth. Many of them served to solidify current social practices in the creation of the world. It was done as if to say, “We are the way we are because this is the way our god created things to be.” If you’re a slave, it’s because that’s the way the gods intended it to be. If you’re the king, it’s because that’s the way the gods intended it to be. If my nations overtakes yours, it’s because my god is superior to yours and has ordained that we should be superior to you. Many of the creation stories of surrounding nations offer a decidedly different view of things than does the Hebrew creation story.
In reading THE LIBERATING IMAGE by J. Richard Middleton, competing stories such as the “Atrahasis Epic,” “Enki,” and “Ninmah,” were mentioned as some of the more well-known of the day. These three share a similar plot. A brief and simplified summary would go something like this: The greater gods exist together in various ways. Feeling the need to have someone else serve their needs, they create lesser gods to do the manual labor of maintain irrigation, cultivating crops, and building on the earth. Much of this labor is meant to satisfy the needs of the greater gods for food. Eventually, the lesser gods go on strike. Out of the conflict, the blood of one of the lesser gods is spilled resulting in the creation of humanity. However, it’s not long after their creation that the gods are annoyed at the prevalence and noise of the humans. They decide to do away with them.
Much can be said about the character of the gods in this story and the reason for being that is ascribed to humanity. Undoubtedly, the small nation of Israel would have been aware of these surrounding stories to one degree or another. It could be that that myth with which they were most familiar was the “Enuma Elish.” This was the creation story of Babylon, the nation in which some of the tribes of Israel would find themselves in exile. Some scholars suggest that the Hebrew people would have become very familiar with this creation story and would have found it to be a story that justified their exile and Babylon’s right to rule over them. It is also suggested that the Hebrew creation story was finalized in direct protest to those very ideas. Babylon’s creation story can be summarized as follows.
Apsu and Tiamat, order and chaos, male and female, are present together in the beginning. Together they create a new generation of gods; children so to speak. In this case, it is these younger gods who become rambunctious and annoy their “parents.” Apsu and Tiamat plan to do away with their offspring, but word gets back to one of the younger gods. They go on the offensive and kill their father before he can carry out his plan. This leave Tiamat to exact revenge for the slaying. Out of the ranks comes Marduk (god of Babylon) to say that if the other gods will make him supreme over the rest, he will certainly slay Tiamat. They agree. He does. Ruling over Tiamat (chaos), the female god, Marduk slices her open and stretches out her skin to make the earth. Humanity is born out of the blood of another slain god on the opposing side of the conflict. So, the world begins with divine violence.
Clearly, these stories are meant to assert one nation’s prominence over the rest and they are meant to root that superiority in the foundation of the world. Other implications include that creation is the result of violent conflict and that women are to be associated with chaos and brought to order by men. It is also true that we can see how surrounding nations also viewed humanity as made in the image of the gods. In these instances, humanity serves as a replacement for the lesser gods. In other words, humanity exists as laborers for the gods and the satisfaction of their pleasures. Or, as in the latter story, are created out of the opposition and can be viewed as rebellious.
Alongside these stories, we find examples in art and other aspects of civilization that reveal how the image of God was used. In its simplest form, to be made in the image of a god means to be a copy of that god. That could mean lesser gods of labor or the supreme god who rules heaven and earth. Many of the surrounding nations attributed that latter privilege solely to their kings. To be made in the image of a god would solidify the kings right to rule and the necessity to obey his every word and move. He, and it was always he, spoke the very words of god. An affront to the king was seen as an affront to the gods or, more specifically, to the supreme god. When we consider these competing myths and the illustrations from civilization, we find the Hebrew creation story to be a very compelling alternative to the surrounding myths. It is decidedly different. To read how, you’ll have to go to the next post.