The third chapter of J. Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 concluded that the Mesopotamian cultural context had the dominant influence on the early chapters of Genesis and on the meaning of the image of God in Genesis 1 and that Genesis 1:26-27 represents an intentional democratization of the idea that kings and rulers were images of gods. In the fourth chapter Middleton explores the Mesopotamian cultural matrix in which this idea was developed. The fifth chapter considers the ways in which Genesis 1-11 critiques the Mesopotamian ideology – this is where we are heading.
But first a summary of the Mesopotamian matrix.
Over the last couple of centuries a number of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian creation myths of various sorts have been uncovered. I find it a bit difficult to keep the relative context straight, but the rough timeline above should help. Middleton considers five texts. Ewe and Wheat and Enki and Ninmah are Sumerian texts. KAR 4 is the cryptic label given a bilingual Sumerian/Akkadian text. The Atrahasis Epic is an Akkadian tale that was popular and found in various versions spanning 1000 years. There is some debate as to the origin of Enuma Elish – from ca. 1600 (old Babylonian) to 1100 BCE with most current consensus according to Middleton favoring the ca. 1100 BCE type date. This tale is found in Assyrian and Babylonian versions.
According to Middleton:
These texts testify to a common Sumero-Akkadian creation theology in which humans are created to serve the gods, thus relieving them of their burdens. Typically this service, which includes building and maintaining of temples, the provision of cultic sacrifices, and the upkeep of the irrigation and agricultural system upon which the temple economy depended, is viewed as the express purpose of human existence.
… The fundamental human destiny and duty is to care for the needs of the gods, which is understood as the provision of food and housing for them. (p. 149)
Summary of the Mesopotamian myths. In the Atrahasis Epic humans are created to relieve the lesser gods of their forced labor. Tablet I translated by Stephanie Dalley (Myths from Mesopotamia – Middleton generally uses different translations, but this is the only one I happen to have on my shelf) begins:
When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold.
This overwhelming workload led to revolt. To solve the problem the drudgery was imposed on humans created for this express purpose from clay and the blood of a lesser god. The Atrahasis Epic contains a substantial flood brought about by the gods to eliminate humans who had become too numerous and noisy. Atrahasis survives the flood thanks to Enki (one of the gods). After the flood Atrahasis prepares a sacrifice and the gods, who had become hungry during the flood, flock around: [The gods sniffed] the savor, They were gathered like flies around the offering. The far-sighted Enki rescued Atrahasis to continue to provide food for the gods and their population was controlled by other means (production of defective humans).
Enki and Ninmah is an older Sumerian text. The opening to the Atrahasis Epic appears to depend on this text. According to this tale humans were created by Enki at the bidding of his mother Nammu to allow the gods to relax from their toil – particularly from canal digging and dredging.
Ewe and Wheat is different in form from the previous two. In this Sumerian text neither gods nor humans initially had clothing or prepared food. Humans lived like animals. They were naked, eating grass like sheep, and drinking from ditches. Lahar (ewe) and Ashnan (wheat) (associated with wool, mutton, milk, bread, beer, and cultivation) are fashioned as female deities to enable food production for the gods. As Middleton summarizes the plot line:
Enki convinces Enlil to “send down Ewe and Wheat from the Holy Hill” (lines 40-42) to dwell among humans with the result that the land now becomes full of abundance and well-being (lines 56-63) (p. 157-158)
Enki’s motive is that the humans will now be equipped to provide abundance for the gods.
KAR 4. Again humans are created to build and/or maintain temples, to install the irrigation system, and to cultivate the fields of the Annuna (the multitude of gods).
Enuma Elish is a later and far more violent text where Marduk, the god of Babylonia assumes prominence. It was popular and is found in both Assyrian and Babylonian sites. In this tale Marduk creates humans through Ea to perform the work of the gods and thus unite the gods. As in the older Atrahasis Epic one of the rebellious gods is killed and his blood used in the formation of mankind. (This is detailed in tablet 6 of the tale.) Worship comes into the picture (particularly in Enuma Elish) but the primary task of humans is to house and feed the gods – to provide for the needs of the gods.
Legitimation of the temple system and the king’s authority. This understanding of the role of humanity played a significant role in the shape of Mesopotamian society and was in turn perpetuated to support that shape and structure. The temple and the palace were the primary organizations in the Mesopotamian city-state. The creation myths played an important role in the worldview that sustained this culture. Middleton concludes:
These creation myths thus have a clear ideological function, serving to legitimate the social role of vast numbers of human beings as vassals of the gods and servants of the temple and the priesthood in ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria, thus bolstering a sociopolitical arrangement characteristic of ancient Mesopotamian civilization for close to three thousand years. (p. 170)
It appears that in the earliest Sumerian civilization temple, palace, and free citizens coexisted. As time went on the temple and the land it controlled had moved under the direct control and ownership of the palace. The city-state consisted of free citizens and the palace. By Hammurapi’s time (1792-1750 BCE) the obligation of the free citizens to maintain the canal irrigation system was understood – under the supervision of the king. The kings was the “primary representative and mediator of the will of the gods on earth.” The image to the right (from Wikipedia) is the Hammurapi code stele in the Louvre, with Hammurapi standing and the god Shamash sitting.
Mesopotamian creation myths thus worked in tandem with Mesopotamian royal ideology to solidify the king’s authority.
If the purpose of the mass of humanity is to serve the gods and if the king represents those gods as their son and image, the the gods are served precisely by serving the king, who wills the present social order. (p. 173)
Middleton also argues that the use of the divine blood in the creation of human beings does not dignify humanity but rather has a negative connotation, especially in Enuma Elish. The god whose blood was used was a rebellious god, consort of Tiamut who was defeated by Marduk. This is perhaps better described as a demonic origin than a divine origin.
Enuma Elish served ideological functions in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires that went beyond legitimation of the social order (although contributing to it). One of these is particularly important for the purpose of Middleton’s book.
In the combat myth evil – represented by primordial chaos – is vanquished so that goodness or righteousness, represented by cosmic order, might be established. The battle with chaos, even when it is associated with creation (as in Enuma Elish) is thus fundamentally a redemptive or salvific act, usually understood as defeating or restraining the forces of evil, in order that the cosmos might be constructed. (p. 178)
The king, as the image of a god, acts as the image in war – restraining and defeating the forces of evil. This, of course, legitimated campaigns of conquest and expansion. The expressions of violence in the creation myths of Babylon and Assyria thus played a significant role. Middleton concludes:
Whereas the violent founding of the cosmos provides mythic legitimation for Mesopotamian imperialism, the violence at the root of human creation contributes to the legitimation of Mesopotamian social order in which the masses serve the temple and the king. … In this ideology, the king is the gods’ privileged representative (or image) on earth, who mediates and enforces their will both on his enemies and his subjects. (p. 181)
Middleton goes on to look at a Neo-Babylonian festival that supports the general worldview developed here. This is interesting, but doesn’t add any major new element to the argument. In the next chapter, and the next post, we will get to the point of all this background – Genesis 1-11 as Ideological Critique. The view of creation presented in Genesis is quite different and we will understand the significance more clearly in the context of the cultural background.
Does this Mesopotamian matrix contain elements that you find surprising?
Looking forward to the next post – What might change the way you look at Genesis?
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