Ancient Near-East Creation Myths (Pt.3)

1.      The Making of Man

In the pagan mythologies, we find that man is often formed both from an earthy element such as clay, and a divine element; something from a deity.  Thus, man is semi-divine in ANE cosmologies, though one should recall how this “spark of divinity” is greatly diminished when these gods are in view.   Of course, in the case of the biblical account man is not divine; he is not in any way made out of God’s essence.  Put more philosophically, he is not in any way an emanation of God.  Man is created from the dust of the ground which itself is created by God from nothing.

We notice the same thing with the Fall – in the biblical account Adam fell from his pristine state and moral purity, by disobeying God. But in other stories, for example, the Adapa story, which is an ancient Mesopotamian account, we have the man Adapa summoned up to heaven by the god Anu, but waylaid by the god Ae or Enki, who gives him some other instructions.  Unfortunately the instructions were not very good, and the fallout was that Adapa fell out of favor with Anu and therefore bungled the job.  He had an opportunity of becoming immortal, but because of his quandary about what he should do, and the deception of Ea, he ended up remaining limited and finite.

There are then very different conceptions of the creation and fall of man.  The pagan views are the stuff of genuine myth and do nothing to explain man’s purpose and dilemma.  The biblical view makes man the loving creation of the uncreated God who has fallen in Adam and who gropes in the dark until he sees himself as the Bible tells him he is.

2.      Transcendence versus Continuity

It is very important to notice the links between the creation accounts and ethical accounts.  In one way or another all non-biblical systems of belief paint a metaphysical picture of reality that is at once unified and diverse.  The unity is found in the indissoluble connection between heaven and earth, between man and the “higher powers”, or between the human animal and the Cosmos.  The diversity is seen in the various ways this connection is explained.  It may be explained by saying that we are merely the consequence of blind, purposeless matter coming together and developing in a certain way.  This is the secular evolutionary explanation in which man is no more significant than a slug (to cite atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer) because men, slugs and stars are composed of the same stuff arranged in different combinations.  The same feature is found in ancient pagan depictions of reality.  There is a real connection between the gods and the earth.  There are no exceptions, everything is connected; nothing is truly transcendent.

Old Testament scholar John W. Oswalt, in his recent book, The Bible Among the Myths, demonstrates that this “continuity” or connection between gods and humans and rocks is the key difference between the biblical worldview and its rivals, ancient and modern.  Rituals, however debasing they became, were thought to affect the god for whose benefit they were performed.  Just as the rumbling of thunder was construed as something happening among the pantheon above, so a festival or dance or sacrifice was believed to be noticed by those same gods.  This is the ancient idea of “the Great Chain of Being” which unfortunately got introduced into Christian thought through Aquinas and others and which may still be found in the works of Thomists like Norman Geisler.  This “hierarchy of beings” is well described by David Bentley Hart:

“God was understood as that supreme reality from which all lesser realities came, but also as in a sense contained within the hierarchy, as the most exalted of its entities.  Such was his magnificence and purity, moreover, high up atop the pyramid of essences, that he literally could not come into direct contact with the imperfect and changeable order here below.  He was in a sense limited by his own transcendence, fixed up “there” in his proper place within the economy of being.” – David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 203-204.

When Hart refers to God being “limited by his own transcendence” he is highlighting the incongruity of putting Him atop any chain of being.  In biblical terms, what we call God’s transcendence is His Lordship over everything He has made and upholds, together with His immanent working in providence.

Although there are things in common that the biblical creation narrative with ancient creation myths, these similarities shouldn’t surprise us once it is understood that these creation myths are partly derived from the original truths passed down from Adam and his descendents, twisted of course and corrupted as man rebelled against God and became polytheistic and superstitious, and lost the framework for true transcendence.

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