Ancient Near-East Creation Myths (Pt.2)



1. The Fallibility of the Gods

In the previous article we noted that the creator gods of the ancient pagan world were very “un-God-like.”  None of them had the attributes of the Bible’s God; consequently none of them could do what the Bible’s God could do – viz. create out of nothing and govern as transcendent Lord of what He has made (cf. Psa.33:6, 9-11).

The pagan gods were engaged in daily routines and activities much like humans.  John H. Walton puts it this way: “The gods make mistakes, misjudgments, and even commit crimes; they can be surprised; so it is clear that they are not to be considered omniscient. They experience uncertainty and confusion, and at times make ill-devised decisions.”  Also, he says,  “the gods experienced the whole range of human emotions, whether negative or positive. Those familiar with the Bible would find it easy to imagine the gods having joy, pride, sorrow, or anger. In the ancient Near East however, the gods also experienced emotions such as shame and fear.”

Walton notes that they were involved in a community of gods.  In fact, the whole idea of the assemblies of the gods was very important in ancient religion. In the ancient world major decisions among the gods were group decisions. Walton concludes, “When functions and roles are defined in such a way, limitations are the inevitable result.” – See John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, p.104-105.

The God of the Bible does not fit this picture.  For example, when God said “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), he was not (as even some evangelical interpreters have said) speaking to a council of angels, but, as the next verse makes clear, was sovereignly declaring His intention to make man uniquely in His image, not the image of the angels.  He needed no council in order to do this.  The God of Scripture “does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.  None can restrain His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?” (Dan. 4:35).

In contrast to the biblical God, the mythical ANE gods do not transcend the creation, but instead are within it; they are part of the same sphere as plants and planets and animals and man: part of the same “stuff.” They are often indeed, pictured as acting in the continuum of the sky, the river, the weather, etc. and are restricted or confined to those elements of the world in which they work.  Their function was conceived of as a force inside the cosmos.  For instance, the sun god Shamash, though he was not to be identified as the sun itself, was identified as the activity and power of the sun; the function of the sun.  And he was brought into existence when the sun was brought about.  Moreover, he was confined to the existence and activity of the sun.  And as the sun strove daily to establish itself in the sky, so the god strove within the pantheon.  Walton characterizes them thus: “In pagan religion gods are born and suckled, grow to maturity, contest for satisfaction of appetites and emotions, battle for prestige and power and mastery, indulge in sex, and are subject to failure, defeat, and death.” – Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, p.103.

Provided one is not blinkered by natural prejudice, one starts to see very clearly that these ancient gods are nothing like the God of Israel.



2. Violence and Discord


In contrast to the ordered, purposeful, and loving approach we see in the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 and 2; a creation that is not forced or coerced on God by anything outside of himself, in the pagan cosmogonies what we often find is conflict among the gods.

Walton, for example, cites K. Van der Toorn’s observation that, “Mesopotamia’s religion was a receptive form of polytheism, ‘an open system,… a kaleidoscopic repertoire of divinities who personify various aspects of reality.’  These gods, like humans, were subject to spite, lust, and rage.  Each one of them tried to realize his own aims, if need be to the detriment of his colleagues.  Similarly to the members of an oriental court they sought to decide upon a common cause, which would be settled in the heavenly council.” (Ibid., pp.102-103).

Likewise, in commenting on the theogony (origin of the gods) of the city of Dunnu from the early second millennium B.C., Walton (p. 91) writes; “though the text is fragmentary, it is clear that the gods from the city of Dunnu achieved their authority and jurisdiction through acts of parricide and incest; new gods come into existence as they take over the function of older gods.”

In light of these facts Colin Gunton, in the book The Triune Creator (p.26), takes note of what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur said in reference to violence in the pagan creation accounts.  To a great extent the violence of ancient societies was justified by the violence of their gods.  Ricoeur, in his The Symbolism of Evil, made the point in connection with the Babylonian creation myth that, “human violence is thus justified by the primordial violence. Creation is a victory over an enemy older than the creator, that enemy, immanent in the divine, will be represented in history by all the enemies who the King in his turn, as servant of the god, will have as his mission to destroy. Thus violence is inscribed in the origin of things; in the principle that establishes while it destroys.”

Upon this Gunton comments: “The biblical view that the creation has its origin in the covenant love of God is thus a way of understanding the world different in principle from both the myths of the ancient world and much of the Greek philosophy which has its roots in them.  Consequently, it generates a different ethic, a different way of inhabiting the world, and treating its inhabitants.” (Emphasis added).

Thus, what we see in non-biblical creation stories is a tier of deities who emerge from the stuff of the universe, or from other gods, who are limited by their spheres of activity to the functions they are identified as performing (such as sun, moon, rain, harvest, etc.), and who fight and scheme and perpetrate evils while blundering about the heavens.  Occasionally they did “right” but were more often than not as capricious and as vulnerable as their human makers.  Their frailties reflect the imperfections of sinners.  They might have taken the name “god” but they are not up to the job!

Part Three

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