Sunday, July 25, 2010

A myth about myths

You may have heard sentiments such as "All religions have their creation myths. Genesis is just one of those. They all basically saying the same thing ...."
It was only a few years ago that I read the Babylonian epic, Enuma elish. I wish I had read it earlier because it so enhances a reading of Genesis. Here is a little of Karl Barth's commentary comparing the two:

The epic Enuma elish is not a history of creation, nor "pre-history," but a portrayal of the constantly recurrent change of relationships which is exactly the same in pre-historical time as any other within the cosmos as it has come into being and now exists. The unity, totality and singularity of the cosmos are not altered by the fact that there are in it the dreadful contradictions, changes and convulsions, bases and emanations, causes and consequences, births and deaths, conflicts, victories and defeats, divisions, reconciliations and fresh divisions, which are the theme of myth. But all this is merely the inner rhythm of the cosmos and has nothing to do with its creation. 
Tiamat, the mother of the gods, the gods who originate in her, and her youngest and most successful scion the hero and later demiurge Marduk, who by his final victory over the original power which is both friendly and hostile comes to the aid of the other more or less impotent divinities-all these are of one species and kind. And if heaven and earth arise because Marduk ..... literally attacks the arch-mother of all the gods and all beings, cleaving and dismembering her and turning her into heaven and earth...... In these forms and events we nowhere see a genuine horizon of this One and All as it is found in the concept of creation. There is no qualitative difference between divine and every other reality. What kind of a deity is it in whose very bosom there is so much darkness and such a dialectic of good and evil, in whom conflict, victory and defeat, life and death, reign side by side?

The god Marduk with his dragon, from a Babylonian cylinder seal. 
.....We may calmly ask indeed if there is any true or final distinction between [man] and these gods; between these gods and gigantic but shadowy projections of human experiences and needs, struggles and sufferings, hopes and possibilities; between the Babylonian deity and the Babylonian king and Babylonian man. In the figure of Marduk the three are in fact indistinguishable. There can be no question in this epic of any prehistory, of any genuine history of creation. On the contrary, we have only the transparent apparel of a deep insight into the already existing reality of the world and of man. This reality and its inner problem have here no boundary, no beginning and no end, no given determination enabling it to escape the caprice or fate of its own movement. 
What we read in Gen. I and 2 are genuine histories of creation. If there is a connexion with the Babylonian myth or its older sources, it is a critical connexion. Everything is so different that the only choice is either to see in the Jewish rendering a complete caricature of the Babylonian, or in the Babylonian a complete caricature of the Jewish, according to the standpoint adopted.
In Gen. 1 and 2 no less than everything obviously depends on the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Creator and the creative act- so much so that a reciprocity of creaturely speech or activity is not even mentioned in the first account, and only incidentally at the end of the second (in the naming of the animals and the saying about the woman brought to man). 
Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, p. 89
Reading this one can also see how and why in Barth's doctrine of creation there is such an emphasis on the creation being a reality distinct from the Creator.

1 comment:

  1. One thing that struck me about Enuma Elish is the incidental nature of creation. We are essentially created as the refuse of a war between deities, an incidental by-product.

    EE and Gilgamesh were two epics that really changed the way I thought about the Bible (Gen and Ecc in particular for these two), because bits and pieces of these are essentially copy and pasted, or else completely inverted into the biblical narrative. I like this about the Bible, but it really informs the way you view inspiration etc (well it did for me)

    One other thing: When I was studying EE, I found that my 13 year old Sunny school students knew all the names (well the bad guys, Tiamat and her inept husband, amongst others). So it seems that Final Fantasy, (or whatever other popular RPG) is providing a much needed education in ancient literature for our little ones!