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5.2 Ancient Near East Context

5.2 Ancient Near East Context

The Earth according to the civilizations of the Ancient Near East was a flat disk, with infinite water above, below and around it. The dome of the sky was thought to be a solid metal bowl -tin according to the Sumerians, iron for the Egyptians- separating the surrounding water from the habitable world. The stars were embedded in the under surface of this dome, and there were gates in it that allowed the passage of the Sun and Moon back and forth. This flat-disk Earth was seen as a single island-continent surrounded by a circular ocean, of which the known seas -what we call today the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea- were inlets. Beneath the Earth was a fresh-water sea, the source of all fresh-water rivers and wells. It is the creation of this world which is described in Genesis 1-2.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East see Yahwistic monotheism as emerging from a common Mesopotamian/Levantine background of polytheistic religion and myth. The narrative elements of Genesis 1-11 draw specifically from four Mesopotamian myths: Adapa and the South Wind, Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish.

According to the Enuma Elish, the original state of the universe was a chaos formed by the mingling of two primeval waters, the female saltwater god Tiamat and the male freshwater god Apsu. Through the fusion of their waters six successive generations of gods were born. A war amongst these gods began with the slaying of Apsu, and ended with the powerful god Marduk killing Tiamat by splitting her in two with an arrow. Marduk then used one half of her body to form the earth and the other half to form the firmament of the heavens. It is from the eye-sockets of the slain Tiamat that the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers emerged. Marduk then created humanity -in seven pairs, male and female, and from clay mingled with spit and the blood of another slaughtered god- and placed them on the earth to tend the Earth for the gods, while Marduk himself was enthroned in Babylon in the Esagila, “the temple with its head in heaven.”

Genesis 1-2 parallels the Enuma Elish, not only in its creation myth, but also in its religious message, which sets up one specific god as Creator and ruler over all things. While the Enuma Elish promotes the power of Marduk, patron god of Babylon, as king over all gods and people, Genesis 1-2 places Yahweh Elohim (Yahweh God) as king over everything. But despite their similarities, there is an important and stark difference between Genesis 1-2 and the Babylonian myths with regard to world view. The world view of the Ancient Near East was one that saw the world as beginning negatively: Man began as nothing more than a “lackey of the gods to keep them supplied with food.” It was only with time that things became increasingly better. The world of Genesis, in contrast, starts out “very good,” with man and woman at the apex of created order. It was not until after this initial state of “goodness,” when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree “in the midst of the garden” from which God had forbidden them to eat “lest [they] die”, that God became angry with them.