Lecture 3. The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Genesis 1-4 in Context
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Lecture 3. The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Genesis 1-4 in Context

Professor Christine
Hayes: Today what I’d like to do is begin our survey of
Genesis 1 through 11, in order to illustrate the way
that biblical writers–and precisely who we think they were
and when they lived is something we’ll talk about later–but the
way biblical writers drew upon the cultural and religious
legacy of the Ancient Near East that we’ve been talking about,
its stories and its imagery, even as they transformed it in
order to conform to a new vision of a non-mythological god.
We’re going to be looking at
some of Kaufman’s ideas as we read some of these texts.
Now one of the scholars who’s
written quite extensively and eloquently on the adaptation of
Ancient Near Eastern motifs in biblical literature is a scholar
by the name of Nahum Sarna: I highly recommend his book.
It appears on your optional
reading list, and I’ll be drawing very
heavily on Sarna’s work as well as the work of some other
scholars who have spent a great deal of time comparing Israelite
and Ancient Near Eastern stories,
particularly these opening chapters, in order to see the
features that they share and to wonder if perhaps there isn’t
after all a chasm that divides them quite deeply.
In our consideration of Genesis
1 and 2, we first need to consider a Babylonian epic,
an epic that is known by its opening words at the top of the
column over there, Enuma Elish,
which means “when on high,” the opening words of this epic.
And the epic opens before the
formation of heaven and earth. Nothing existed except water,
and water existed in two forms. There’s the primeval fresh
water, fresh water ocean, which is identified with a male
divine principle, a male god Apsu.
You have a primeval salt water ocean which is identified with a
female divine principle, Tiamat.
Tiamat appears as this watery ocean but also as a very fierce
dragon-like monster. I will be reading sections from
Speiser’s translation of Enuma Elish,
part of the anthology put together by Pritchard.
It begins:
When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
[And] Mummu-Tiamat,
she who bore them all, Their waters co-mingling as a
single body; No reed hut had been matted,
no marsh land had appeared, When no gods whatever had been
brought into being, Uncalled by name,
their destinies undetermined–; Then it was that the gods were
formed within them. So there’s some sort of
co-mingling or union of these male and female divine
principals, a sexual union of Apsu and
Tiamat that begins a process of generation and it produces first
demons and monsters. Eventually gods will begin to
emerge. Now, in time,
Tiamat and Apsu are disturbed by the din and the tumult of
these younger gods. The divine brothers
banded together, They disturbed Tiamat as they
surged back and forth, Yea, they troubled the mood of
Tiamat By their hilarity in the Abode
of Heaven. …
Apsu, opening his mouth, Said unto resplendent Tiamat:
“Their ways are verily loathsome unto me.
By day I find no relief,
nor repose by night. I will destroy,
I will wreck their ways, That quiet may be restored.
Let us have rest.”

Then answered Mummu, [Mummu Tiamat]
giving counsel to Apsu; [Ill-wishing]
and ungracious was Mummu’s advice:
“Do destroy, my father, the mutinous ways.
Then shalt thou have relief by
day and rest by night.” When Apsu heard this,
his face grew radiant Because of the evil he planned
against the gods, his sons.
So he decides to destroy the gods and he is thwarted by a
water god named Ea, an earth-water god–sorry,
he’s a combination earth-water god–named Ea.
And Apsu is killed. Tiamat now is enraged and she’s
bent on revenge. She makes plans to attack all
of the gods with her assembled forces.
The gods are terrified and they need a leader to lead them
against her army and they turn to Marduk.
Marduk agrees to lead them in battle against Tiamat and her
assembled forces, her forces are under the
generalship of Kingu, and he agrees to lead them
against Tiamat and Kingu on condition that he be granted
sovereignty, and he sets terms.
His heart exulting,
he said to his father: “Creator of the gods,
destiny of the great gods, If I indeed, as your avenger,
Am to vanquish Tiamat and save your lives,
Set up the Assembly, proclaim supreme my destiny!
…Let my word,
instead of you, determine the fates.
Unalterable shall be what I may
bring into being, Neither recalled nor changed
shall be the command of my lips.”
And the agreement is struck. And Marduk fells Tiamat in
battle. It’s a fierce battle and there
is in fact a memorable passage that details her demise.
In fury,
Tiamat cried out aloud, To the roots her legs shook
both together. …Then joined issue,
Tiamat and Marduk…, They strove in single combat,
locked in battle. The lord [Marduk]
spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind,
he let loose in her face. When Tiamat opened her mouth to
consume him. He drove in the Evil Wind that
she close not her lips. As the fierce winds charged her
belly, Her body was distended and her
mouth was wide open. He released the arrow,
it tore her belly, It cut through her insides,
splitting the heart. Having thus subdued her,
he extinguished her life. He cast down her carcass to
stand upon it. Well, what do you do with the
carcass of a ferocious monster? You build a world,
and that’s what Marduk did. He takes the carcass,
he slices it into two halves, rather like a clamshell,
and out of the top half he creates the firmament,
the Heaven. With the other half he creates
the land, the Earth. He split her like a
shellfish into two parts. Half of her he set up and
ceiled it as sky, Pulled down the bar and posted
guards. He bade them to allow not her
waters to escape. Alright, so he has used her
body to press back her waters and that’s what the ceiling is,
the firmament, a firm sheet or structure
that’s holding back waters. When little holes come along,
that’s rain coming through. And the bottom part is the
land, which is pressing down waters below.
They come up every now and then in springs and rivers and seas
and lakes and things. That is the created world,
but he doesn’t stop there and he creates various heavenly
bodies at this point. “He constructed stations for
the great gods”–the heavenly bodies were understood as
stations for the great gods– Fixing their astral
likenesses as constellations. He determined the year by
designating the zones; He set up three constellations
for each of the twelve months. …
The moon he caused to shine, the night to him
entrusting. And then the complaints begin
to roll in. The gods are very unhappy
because they have now been assigned specific duties in the
maintenance of the cosmos. The moon god has to come up at
night and hang around for a while and go back down.
And the sun has to trundle
across the sky, and they’re pretty unhappy
about this and they want relief from working and laboring at
their assigned stations, and so Marduk accedes to this
demand. He takes blood from the slain
General Kingu, the leader of Tiamat’s army,
the rebels, and he fashions a human being
with the express purpose of freeing the gods from menial
labor. Blood I will mass and
cause bones to be. I will establish a savage,
“man” shall be his name, Verily, savage man I will
create. He shall be charged with the
service of the gods That they might be at ease.

“It was Kingu who contrived the uprising,
And made Tiamat rebel, and joined battle.”
They bound him, holding him before Ea.
Out of [Kingu’s] blood they fashioned mankind
[And] Ea imposed the service and let
free the gods. So the grateful gods now
recognize the sovereignty of Marduk and they build him a
magnificent shrine or temple in Babylon,
pronounced “Bab-el” which simply means gateway of the god,
the gate of the god. Babylon means the city that is
the gateway of the god. And a big banquet follows and
Marduk is praised for all that he’s accomplished,
and his kingship is confirmed and Enuma Elish ends.
It was the great national epic
of the city of Babel or Babylon. It was recited during the New
Year festival, which was the most important
festival on the cultic calendar, and Nahum Sarna points out that
it had four main functions which I’ve listed over here.
The first of those functions is
theogonic. It tells us the story of the
birth of the gods, where they came from.
Its second function is
cosmological. It’s explaining cosmic
phenomena: the land, the sky, the heavenly bodies
and so on, and their origins. It also serves a social and
political function, because the portrait or picture
of the universe or the world and its structure corresponds to and
legitimates the structure of Babylonian society.
The position and the function
of the humans in the scheme of creation corresponds or
parallels precisely the position of slaves in Mesopotamian
society. The position and function of
Marduk at the top of the hierarchy of authority parallels
and legitimates the Babylonian King ,
with others arranged within the pyramid that falls below.
The epic also explains and
mirrors the rise of Babel as one of the great cities in the
Ancient Near East. It explains its rise to power,
and Marduk’s rise from being a city god to being at the head of
the pantheon of a large empire. This also had a cultic function
as well. According to Sarna and some
other scholars, the conflict,
that battle scene between Tiamat and Marduk which is
described at some length, symbolizes the conflict or the
battle between the forces of chaos and the forces of cosmos
or cosmic order. And that’s a perpetual conflict.
Each year it’s dramatized by
the cycle of the seasons, and at a certain time of the
year it seems that the forces of darkness and chaos are
prevailing but each spring, once again, cosmic order and
life return. So the epic served as a kind of
script for the re-enactment of the primeval battle in a cultic
or temple setting, and that re-enactment helped to
ensure the victory of the forces of cosmos and life each year
over the forces of chaos and death.
So if we recall now, some of the things we were
talking about last time and the theories of Kaufman,
we might describe the worldview that’s expressed by Enuma
Elish in the following way, and this is certainly what
Sarna does. We’re going to consider first
of all the view of the gods, the view of humans,
and the view of the world: three distinct categories.
First of all the gods.
The gods are clearly limited.
A god can make a plan and
they’re thwarted by another god who then murders that god.
They are amoral,
some of them are nicer and better than others but they’re
not necessarily morally good or righteous.
They emerge from this
indifferent primal realm, this mixture of salt and sea
waters, that is the source of all being
and the source of ultimate power, but they age and they
mature and they fight and they die.
They’re not wholly good, not wholly evil,
and no one god’s will is absolute.
The portrait of humans that emerges is that humans are
unimportant menials. They are the slaves of the
gods, the gods have little reciprocal interest in or
concern for them, and they create human beings to
do the work of running the world.
To some degree, they look upon them as slaves
or pawns. The picture of the world that
would seem to emerge from this story is that it is a morally
neutral place. That means that for humans it
can be a difficult and hostile place.
The best bet perhaps is to serve the god of the
day–whatever god might be ascendant–to earn his favor and
perhaps his protection, but even that god will have
limited powers and abilities and may in fact be defeated or may
turn on his devotees. Now if we turn to the creation
story, the first of the two creation stories that are in the
Bible, because in fact there are two
creation stories with quite a few contradictions between them,
but if we turn to the first creation story in Genesis 1
which concludes in Genesis 2:4…and,
not for nothing, but everyone understands the
function of the colon, right?
So if you say Genesis 1:1, I mean chapter one,
verse one. And then it goes to Genesis 2
chapter two, verse 4; left side of the colon is
chapter, right side of the colon is verse, and every sentence has
a verse number in the Bible; approximately sentence.
If we look now,
we’ll see a different picture emerging.
The biblical god in this story, which I hope you have read,
is presented as being supreme and unlimited.
That’s connected with the lack of mythology in Genesis 1 or
rather the suppression of mythology.
Okay, there’s a distinction between the two and we’ll have
to talk about that, and I hope that you’ll get into
some of that in section as well. I’m using the term mythology
now the way we used it in the last lecture when we were
talking about Kaufman’s work. Mythology is used to describe
stories that deal with the birth, the life events of gods
and demi-gods, sometimes legendary heroes,
but narrating a sequence of events.
The biblical creation account is non-mythological because
there is no biography of God in here.
God simply is. There’s no theogony,
no account of his birth. There’s no story by means of
which he emerges from some other realm.
In the Mesopotamian account, the gods themselves are created
and they’re not even created first, actually;
the first generation of beings creates these odd demons and
monsters, and gods only are created after several
generations and the god of creation,
Marduk, is actually kind of a latecomer in the picture.
And this is also a good time
for us to draw a distinction between mythology and myth.
Kaufman and others have claimed
that mythology is not in, certainly, this biblical story
or if it’s not there it’s at least suppressed.
But in contrast,
myth is not mythology. Myth is a term we use to refer
to a traditional story. It’s often fanciful,
it relates imaginatively events which it claims happened in
historical time, not in a primordial realm
before time, and a myth is designed to explain some kind of
practice or ritual or custom or natural phenomenon.
“And that is why to this day,”
you know, “there…”, I don’t know,
give me some myth that we all know of,
you know, Paul Bunyan’s axe handle is something in
American nature which I now no longer remember!
But myths are fanciful, imaginative tales that are
trying to explain the existence of either a thing or a practice
or even a belief…sometimes it’s a story that’s a veiled
explanation of a truth, we think of parables,
perhaps, or allegories. And so the claim that’s often
made is that the Bible doesn’t have full-blown mythology.
It doesn’t focus on stories
about the lives and deaths and interactions of gods,
but it does certainly contain myths.
It has traditional stories and legends, some quite fanciful,
whose goal it is to explain how and why something is what it is.
So returning to Genesis 1,
we have an absence of theogony and mythology in the sense of a
biography of God in this opening chapter and that means the
absence of a metadivine realm. If you remember nothing else
from this course and certainly for the mid-term exam,
you should remember the words “metadivine realm.”
There’s a little hint for you
there. It’s an important concept.
You don’t have to buy into it,
you just have to know it, okay.
But there is an absence of what Kaufman would call this
metadivine realm, this primordial realm from
which the gods emerge. We also, therefore,
have no sense that God is imminent in nature or tied to
natural substances or phenomena. So, the biblical god’s powers
and knowledge do not appear to be limited by the prior
existence of any other substance or power.
Nature also is not divine. It’s demythologized,
de-divinized, if that’s a word;
the created world is not divine, it is not the physical
manifestation of various deities, an earth god,
a water god and so on. The line of demarcation
therefore between the divine and the natural and human worlds
would appear to be clear. So, to summarize,
in Genesis 1, the view of god is that there
is one supreme god, who is creator and sovereign of
the world, who simply exists, who appears to be incorporeal,
and for whom the realm of nature is separate and
subservient. He has no life story,
no mythology, and his will is absolute.
Indeed, creation takes place
through the simple expression of his will.
“When God began to create heaven and earth,” and there’s a
parenthetical clause: “God said, ‘Let there be light’
and there was light.” He expressed his will that
there be light, and there was light and that’s
very different from many Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies in
which there’s always a sexual principal at work in creation.
Creation is always the result
of procreation in some way, male and female principles
combining. There’s a very similar Egyptian
creation story actually in which the god Ptah just wills “let
this be.” It reads very much like Genesis
1 and yet even so there’s still a sexual act that follows the
expression of those wills, so it is still different.
Consider now the portrait of
humans, humankind, that emerges from the biblical
creation story in contrast to Enuma Elish.
In Genesis, humans are
important; in Genesis 1 humans are
important. And in fact the biblical view
of humans really emerges from both of the creation stories,
when they’re read together–the story here in Genesis 1 and then
the creation story that occupies much of 2 and 3.
The two accounts are extremely different but they both signal
the unique position and dignity of the human being.
In the first account in Genesis
1, the creation of the human is clearly the climactic divine
act: after this God can rest. And a sign of the humans’
importance is the fact that humans are said to be created in
the image of God, and this occurs in Genesis
1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
What might that mean?
Looking at the continuation of
the verse, of the passage, we have some idea because
humans, we see, are going to be charged
with specific duties towards, and rights over,
the created world. And it seems,
therefore, that the idea of being created in the image of
God is connected with those special rights and duties.
A creature is required who is
distinguished in certain ways from other animals.
How are humans distinguished
from other animals? You could make a long list but
it might include things like the capacity for language and higher
thought or abstract thought, conscience, self-control,
free-will. So, if those are the
distinctive characteristics that earn the human being certain
rights over creation but also give them duties towards
creation, and the human is distinct from
animals in being created in the image of God,
there’s perhaps a connection: to be godlike is to perhaps
possess some of these characteristics.
Now being created in the image of God carries a further
implication. It implies that human life is
somehow sacred and deserving of special care and protection.
And that’s why in Genesis 9:6
we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
in exchange for that man shall his blood be shed,
for in the image of God was man created”.
invoke that rationale from Genesis 1 in the absolute
prohibition on murder. There is no way to compensate
or punish someone for murder, it simply means forfeiture of
one’s own life. That’s how sacred human life is.
That’s the biblical view.
So, the concept of the divine
image in humans–that’s a powerful idea,
that there is a divine image in humans,
and that breaks with other ancient conceptions of the
human. In Genesis 1,
humans are not the menials of God, and in fact Genesis
expresses the antithesis of this.
Where in Enuma Elish, service was imposed upon humans
so the gods were free–they didn’t have to worry about
anything, the humans would take care of
the gods–we have the reverse; it’s almost like a polemical
inversion in Genesis 1. The very first communication of
God to the human that’s created is concern for that creature’s
physical needs and welfare. He says in Genesis 1:28-29,
he blesses them, “God blessed them and God said
to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and
master it; and rule the fish of the sea,
the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on
earth.'” In Genesis 2:16 after the
creation story there, “And the Lord God commanded the
man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to
eat.'” His first thought is what are
you going to eat? I want you to be fruitful and
multiply, and so on. So, humans in Genesis are not
presented as the helpless victims of blind forces of
nature. They’re not the menials and
servants of capricious gods. They are creatures of majesty
and dignity and they are of importance to,
objects of concern for, the god who has created them.
At the same time,
and I think very much in line with the assertion that humans
are created in the image of God, humans are not,
in fact, gods. They are still creatures in the
sense of created things and they are dependent on a higher power.
So in the second creation story
beginning in Genesis 2:4, we read that the first human is
formed when God fashions it from the dust of the earth or clay.
There are lots of Ancient Near
Eastern stories of gods fashioning humans from clay;
we have depictions of gods as potters at a potter’s wheel just
turning out lots of little humans.
But the biblical account as much as it borrows from that
motif again takes pains to distinguish and elevate the
human. First, the fashioning of the
human from clay is–again–in that story, it’s the climactic
or, well not quite climactic,
it’s the penultimate, I suppose, moment in the story.
The final climactic act of
creation is the creation of the female from the male.
That is actually the peak of
creation, what can I say [laughter]?
Second and significantly, not an afterthought,
it’s the peak of creation! Second and significantly,
God himself blows the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.
So while he fashions this clay
figure, this carcass actually–and then breathes
life, his own life into it. So, in the second creation
story just as in the first, there’s a sacred imprint of
some kind that distinguishes the human creation from the other
creatures. So this idea that the human
being is a mixture of clay, he’s molded from clay,
but enlivened by the breath of God, captures that paradoxical
mix of sort of earthly and divine elements,
dependence and freedom that marks the human as unique.
It should further be noted that
in the first creation account, there’s no implication that man
and woman are in any kind of unequal relationship before God.
The Hebrew word that designates
the creature created by God is the word adam.
It’s actually not a proper
name, small a; it is adam,
it’s a generic term. It simply means human or more
precisely earthling because it comes from the word
adamah, which means ground or earth.
So this is adam,
an earthling, a thing that has been taken
from the earth. Genesis 1 states that God
created the adam, with the definite article:
this is not a proper name. God created the adam,
the earthling, “male and female created he
them.” That’s a line that has vexed
commentators for centuries and has spawned many very
fascinating interpretations. And you will be reading some of
those in the readings that are assigned for section discussion
next week and I think having a great deal of fun with them.
Moreover, this earthling that
seems to include both male and female, is then said to be in
the image of God. So that suggests that the
ancient Israelites didn’t conceive of God as gendered or
necessarily gendered. The adam,
the earthling, male and female was made in the
image of God. Even in the second creation
account, it’s not clear that the woman is subordinate to the man.
Many medieval Jewish
commentators enjoy pointing out that she was not made from his
head so that she not rule over him,
but she wasn’t made from his foot so that she would be
subservient to him; she was made from his side so
that she would be a companion to him.
And the creation of woman, as I said, is in fact the
climactic creative act in the second Genesis account.
With her formation,
creation is now complete. So, the biblical creation
stories individually and jointly present a portrait of the human
as the pinnacle and purpose of creation: godlike in some way,
in possession of distinctive faculties and characteristics,
that equip them for stewardship over the world that God has
created. Finally, let’s talk about the
image of the world that emerges from the creation story in
Genesis 1. In these stories,
there’s a very strong emphasis on the essential goodness of the
world. Recall some of Kaufman’s ideas
or categories again. One of the things he claims is
that in a polytheistic system, which is morally neutral,
where you have some primordial realm that spawns demons,
monsters, gods, evil is a permanent necessity.
It’s just built into the
structure of the cosmos because of the fact that all kinds of
divine beings, good and bad,
are generated and locked in conflict.
So the world isn’t essentially good in its nature or
essentially bad. Note the difference in Genesis.
After each act of creation what
does God say? “It is good,” right?
Genesis 1 verse 4,
verse 10, verse 12, verse 18, verse 21,
verse 25… and after the creation of living things,
the text states that God found all that he made to be very
good. So there are seven occurrences
of the word “good” in Genesis. That’s something you want to
watch for. If you’re reading a passage of
the Bible and you’re noticing a word coming up a lot,
count them. There’s probably going to be
seven or ten, they love doing that.
The sevenfold or the tenfold
repetition of a word–such a word is called a
leitwort, a recurring word that becomes
thematic. That’s a favorite literary
technique of the biblical author.
So we read Genesis 1 and we hear this recurring–“and it was
good… and he looked and it was good… and he looked and it was
good,” and we have this tremendous
rush of optimism. The world is good;
humans are important; they have purpose and dignity.
The biblical writer is
rejecting the concept of a primordial evil,
a concept found in the literature of the Ancient Near
East. So for the biblical writer of
this story, it would seem that evil is not a metaphysical
reality built into the structure of the universe.
So all signs of a cosmic battle, or some primordial act
of violence between the forces of chaos and evil and the forces
of cosmos and good are eliminated.
In Enuma Elish, cosmic order is achieved only
after a violent struggle with very hostile forces.
But in Genesis,
creation is not the result of a struggle between divine
antagonists. God imposes order on the
demythologized elements that he finds: water,
but it’s just water. Let’s look a little bit more
closely at Genesis 1 to make this case.
The chapter begins with a temporal clause which is
unfortunately often translated “In the beginning,”
which implies that what follows is going to give you an ultimate
account of the origins of the universe.
You sort of expect something like, “In the beginning,
God created heaven and earth,” like this was the first thing to
happen in time. So, that translation causes
people to believe that the story is giving me an account of the
first event in time forward; but it’s actually a bad
translation. The Hebrew phrase that starts
the book of Genesis is pretty much exactly like the phrase
that starts Enuma Elish: “When on high,”
there was a whole bunch of water and stuff,
then suddenly this happened–very similar in the
Hebrew. It’s better translated this
way: “When God began creating the heavens and the earth… he
said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.'”
And that translation suggests that the story isn’t concerned
to depict the ultimate origins of the universe.
It’s interested in explaining how and why the world got the
way it is. When God began this process of
creating the heaven and the earth, and the earth was
unformed and void, and his wind was on the surface
of the deep and so on, he said, “Let there be light
and there was light.” So, we find that,
in fact, something exists; it has no shape.
So creation in Genesis 1 is not described as a process of making
something out of nothing: that’s a notion referred to as
creation ex nihilo, creation of something out of
utter nothing. It’s instead a process of
organizing pre-existing materials and imposing order on
those chaotic materials. So we begin with this chaotic
mass and then there’s the ruah of God.
Now sometimes this word “ruah”
is kind of anachronistically translated as “spirit”;
it really doesn’t mean that in the Hebrew Bible.
In later levels of Hebrew it
will start to mean that, but it is really “wind,”
ruah is wind. So: “when God began to create
heaven and earth–the earth being unformed and void,” the
wind of God sweeping over the deep.
Remember the cosmic battle between Marduk and Tiamat:
Marduk the storm god, who released his wind against
Tiamat, the primeval deep,
the primeval water, representing the forces of
chaos. And you should immediately hear
the great similarities. Our story opens with a temporal
clause: “When on high,” “when God began creating”;
we have a wind that sweeps over chaotic waters,
just like the wind of Marduk released into the face of
Tiamat, and the Hebrew term is
particularly fascinating. In fact, the text says “and
there is darkness on the face of deep.”
No definite article. The word “deep” is a
proper name, perhaps. The Hebrew word is Tehom.
It means “deep” and
etymologically it’s exactly the same word as Tiamat:
the “at” ending is just feminine.
So Tiam, Tehom–it’s the same word, it’s a related word.
So, the wind over the face of
deep, now it’s demythologized, so it’s as if they’re invoking
the story that would have been familiar and yet changing it.
So the storyteller has actually
set the stage for retelling the cosmic battle story that
everyone knew. That was a story that surely
was near and dear to the hearts of many ancient Israelites and
Ancient Near Eastern listeners, so all the elements are there
for the retelling of that story. We’ve got wind,
we’ve got a primeval chaotic, watery mass or deep,
and then surprise, there’s no battle.
There’s just a word,
“let there be light.” And the Ancient Near Eastern
listener would prick up their ears: where’s the battle,
where’s the violence, where’s the gore?
I thought I knew this story.
So something new,
something different was being communicated in this story.
And don’t think the biblical
writers didn’t know this motif of creation following upon a
huge cosmic battle, particularly a battle with a
watery, dragon-like monster. There are many poetic passages
and poetic sections of the Bible that contain very clear and
explicit illusions to that myth. It was certainly known and told
to Israelite children and part of the culture.
We have it mentioned in Job; we have it mentioned in the
following psalm, Psalm 74:12-17:
“O God, my king from of old, who brings deliverance
throughout the land;/it was You who drove back the sea with Your
might, who smashed the heads of the
monsters in the waters;/it was You who crushed the heads of
Leviathan,” a sea monster.
Other psalms also contain similar lines.
Isaiah 51:9-10: “It was you that hacked
Rahab”–this is another name of a primeval water monster–“in
pieces, / That pierced the Dragon./It
was you that dried up the Sea,/The waters of the great
deep.” These were familiar stories,
they were known in Israel, they were recounted in Israel.
They were stories of a god who
violently slays the forces of chaos, represented as watery
dragons, as a prelude to creation.
And the rejection of this motif or this idea in Genesis 1 is
pointed and purposeful. It’s demythologization.
It’s removal of the creation
account from the realm and the world of mythology.
It’s pointed and purposeful.
It wants us to conceive of God
as an uncontested god who through the power of his word or
will creates the cosmos. And he follows that initial
ordering by setting up celestial bodies, just as Marduk did.
They’re not in themselves,
however, divinities: they are merely God’s
creations. In the biblical text,
the firmament appears to be a beaten, the word in Hebrew is
something that’s been beaten out,
like a metal worker would hammer out a thin sheet of
metal. And that’s what the firmament
this by the way is the portrait of the world;
it looks a lot like my map of the Ancient Near East,
but it’s not. So you have this firmament,
which is beaten back to hold back primeval waters that are
pressing in; you have land which is holding
down the waters here. We inhabit the bubble that’s
created in that way. That’s the image in Enuma
Elish and it’s the image of Genesis 1.
And later on when God gets mad he’s going to open up some
windows up here, right, and it’s all going to
flood. That’s what’s going to happen
in the Flood. That’s the image of the world
that you’re working with. So, the firmament is sort of
like an inverted bowl, a beaten-out sheet of metal
that’s an inverted bowl, and again as I said:
echoes of Enuma Elish, where you have Marduk dividing
the carcass of Tiamat, like a shellfish.
He separates the waters above
and the waters below and creates this space that will become the
inhabited world. Now the story of creation in
Genesis 1 takes place over seven days, and there’s a certain
logic and parallelism to the six days of creating.
And I’ve written those
parallels here. There’s a parallel between day
one, day four; day two and five;
day three and six. On day one, light and dark are
separated. On day four,
the heavenly bodies that give off light by day or night are
created. On day two, the firmament is
established. That water is separated,
that bubble has opened up so we’ve got the sky created and
we’ve got the waters collected in certain areas down here,
and we’ve got sky. On day five,
the inhabitants of the skies and the waters are created,
birds and fish. On day three,
land is formed to make dry spots from the waters below.
So you have land being formed
on day three, it’s separated out from the sea
and on day six you have the creation of land animals.
But days three and six each
have an extra element, and the fact that the first
elements here pair up nicely with each other suggests that
the extra element on day three and the extra element on day six
might also be paired in some important way.
On day three, vegetation is produced,
is created, and on day six humans are created after the
creation of the land animals. So the implication is that the
vegetation is for the humans. And indeed, it’s expressly
stated by God that humans are to be given every fruit bearing
tree and seed bearing plant, fruits and grains for food.
That’s in Genesis 1:29.
That’s what you are going to
eat. There’s no mention of chicken
or beef, there’s no mention made of animals for food.
In Genesis 1:30,
God says that the animals are being given the green plants,
the grass and herbs, for food.
In other words, there should be no competition
for food. Humans have fruit and
grain-bearing vegetation, animals have the herbiage and
the grasses. There is no excuse to live in
anything but a peaceful co-existence.
Therefore, humans, according to Genesis 1,
were created vegetarian, and in every respect,
the original creation is imagined as free of bloodshed
and violence of every kind. “And God saw… very good.”
So on the seventh day,
God rested from his labors and for this reason he blessed the
seventh day and declared it “holy.”
This is a word we’ll be coming back to in about five or six
lectures, talking about what it is to be holy,
but right now it essentially means it belongs to God.
If something’s holy,
it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to God.
And part of the purpose of this
story is to explain the origin of the observance of the
Sabbath, the seventh day, as a holy day.
So this is a myth in the sense that it’s explaining some custom
or ritual among the people. So Israelite accounts of
creation contain clear allusions to and resonances of Ancient
Near Eastern cosmogonies; but perhaps Genesis 1 can best
be described as demythologizing what was a common cultural
heritage. There’s a clear tendency in
this story towards monotheism in the abstract terms that Kaufman
described. A transformation of widely
known stories to express a monotheistic worldview is
clearly important to these particular biblical writers,
and we’ll be talking later about who these writers were who
wrote Genesis 1 as opposed to Genesis 2 and 3.
But these stories rival, and implicitly polemicize
against, the myths or mythologies of Israel’s
neighbors. They reject certain elements
but they almost reject them by incorporating them.
They incorporate and modify
them. So, one of the things I’ve
tried to claim in describing Genesis 1 is that in this story
evil is represented not as a physical reality.
It’s not built into the
structure of the world. When God rests he’s looking at
the whole thing, it’s very good,
it’s set up very well. And yet we know that evil is a
condition of human existence. It’s a reality of life,
so how do we account for it? And the Garden of Eden story,
I think, seeks to answer that question.
It actually does a whole bunch of things, but one thing it
does, I think, is try to answer that question,
and to assert that evil stems from human behavior.
God created a good world,
but humans in the exercise of their moral autonomy,
they have the power to corrupt the good.
So, the Garden of Eden story communicates what Kaufman would
identify as a basic idea of the monotheistic worldview:
that evil isn’t a metaphysical reality,
it’s a moral reality. What that means ultimately is
that evil lacks inevitability, depending on your theory of
human nature, I suppose, and it also means
that evil lies within the realm of human responsibility and
control. Now Nahum Sarna,
the scholar whose work I referred to earlier,
he points out that there’s a very important distinction
between the Garden of Eden story and its Ancient Near Eastern
parallels. He says the motif of a tree of
life or a plant of life or a plant of eternal youth,
that’s a motif that we do find in other Ancient Near Eastern
literatures, in Ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual and
iconography, and the quest for such a plant,
or the quest for immortality that the plant promises,
that these were primary themes in the Mesopotamian Epic of
We’ll have occasion to talk in
great depth about this story next time.
But by contrast, Sarna says, we haven’t as yet
uncovered a parallel in Ancient Near Eastern literature to the
biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s not the tree of knowledge,
it’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–it’s a longer
phrase. What is the significance of the
fact that the Bible mentions both of these trees?
It mentions a tree of life and
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil;
and then goes on to just focus on the tree of the knowledge of
good and evil. It virtually ignores the tree
of life until we get to the end of the story,
and that’s important. But this tree of life which
seems to be central to many other myths of this time and
this part of the world… Sarna argues that the subordinate role
of the tree of life signals the biblical writer’s dissociation
from a preoccupation with immortality.
The biblical writer insists that the central concern of life
is not mortality but morality. And the drama of human life
should revolve not around the search for eternal life but
around the moral conflict and tension between a good god’s
design for creation and the free will of human beings that can
corrupt that good design. The serpent tells Eve that if
she eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and
evil, she will become like God. And he’s really not telling a
lie, in a certain respect. And God knows that,
that human beings will become like God knowing good and evil.
It’s one of the things about
God: he knows good and evil and has chosen the good.
The biblical writer asserts of
this god that he is absolutely good.
The humans will become like gods, knowing good and evil,
not because of some magical property in this fruit;
and it’s not an apple, by the way, that’s based on an
interesting mistranslation. Do we know what the fruit is?
No, I don’t think we really
know but it’s definitely not an apple.
That comes from the Latin word which sounds like apple,
the word malum for evil is close to the Latin word for
apple which if anybody knows… whatever.
And so iconography began to represent this tree as an apple
tree and so on, but it’s not an apple tree.
I don’t know if they had apple
trees back then, there!
But it’s not because of some magical property in the fruit
itself, but because of the action of disobedience itself.
By choosing to eat of the fruit
in defiance of God–this is the one thing God says,
“Don’t do this! You can have everything else in
this garden,” presumably, even, you can eat of the tree
of life, right? It doesn’t say you can’t eat of
that. Who’s to say they couldn’t eat
of that and just live forever? Don’t eat of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. Student: Is there any
sort of an explanation for why God says you can’t eat of this
tree when he’s given all of the fruit bearing trees…
Professor Christine
Hayes: There have been about–how many thousands of
years of speculation–on what’s going on and you’re going to be
reading a wonderful and interesting gnostic
interpretation. And so, yep,
there’s been lots of interesting… and this is all
in the realm of literary interpretation:
read the story closely, see if you can figure out
what’s going on here. Why does God do this?
Isn’t this, in a way,
putting an obstacle in front of someone almost ensuring they’re
going to trip over it? That’s been an argument that
some commentators have made. Others see it differently.
So, keep that thought,
take it to section and read Elaine Pagels’ work and some of
the other interpretations. That’s something that people
have struggled with for centuries.
Where does this come from? Who’s the serpent and what’s he
doing there? They’re all very important.
It is true–and maybe this will
go a little bit of the distance towards answering it–it’s by
eating of the fruit in defiance of God,
human beings learn that they were able to do that,
that they are free moral agents.
They find that out. They’re able to choose their
actions in conformity with God’s will or in defiance of God’s
will. So paradoxically,
they learn that they have moral autonomy.
Remember, they were made in the image of God and they learn that
they have moral autonomy by making the defiant choice,
the choice for disobedience. The argument could be made that
until they once disobeyed, how would they ever know that?
And then you might raise all
sorts of questions about, well, was this part of God’s
plan that they ought to know this and should know this,
so that their choice for good actually becomes meaningful.
Is it meaningful to choose to
do the good when you have no choice to do otherwise or aren’t
aware that you have a choice to do otherwise?
So, there’s a wonderful thirteenth-century commentator
that says that God needed creatures who could choose to
obey him, and therefore it was important
for Adam and Eve to do what they did and to learn that they had
the choice not to obey God so that their choice for God would
become endowed with meaning. That’s one line of
interpretation that’s gone through many theological systems
for hundreds of years. So the very action that brought
them a godlike awareness of their moral autonomy was an
action that was taken in opposition to God.
So we see then that having
knowledge of good and evil is no guarantee that one will choose
or incline towards the good. That’s what the serpent omitted
in his speech. He said if you eat of that
fruit, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
you’ll become like God. It’s true in one sense but it’s
false in another. He sort of omitted to point
out… he implies that it’s the power of moral choice alone that
is godlike. But the biblical writer will
claim in many places that true godliness isn’t simply power,
the power to do what one wishes.
True godliness means imitation of God, the exercise of one’s
power in a manner that is godlike, good,
life-affirming and so on. So, it’s the biblical writer’s
contention that the god of Israel is not only all-powerful
but is essentially and necessarily good.
Those two elements cannot
become disjoined, they must always be conjoined
in the biblical writer’s view. And finally,
humans will learn that the concomitant of their freedom is
responsibility. Their first act of defiance is
punished harshly. So they learn in this story
that the moral choices and actions of humans have
consequences that have to be borne by the perpetrator.
So, just to sum up,
Sarna sees in the Garden of Eden story, as I’ve just
explained it, a message that’s in line with
Kaufman’s thesis about the monotheistic world view.
He says this story conveys the
idea that, “…evil is a product of human behavior,
not a principal inherent in the cosmos.
Man’s disobedience is the cause of the human predicament.
Human freedom can be at one and
the same time an omen of disaster and a challenge and
opportunity”. We’ve looked at Genesis 2 and 3
a little bit as an attempt to account for the problematic and
paradoxical existence of evil and suffering in a world created
by a good god, and that’s a problem monotheism
really never completely conquers, but other perspectives
on this story are possible. And when we come back on
Monday, we’re going to look at it from an entirely different
point of view and compare it with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

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