An Epiphany about Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish and Genesis and the Joys of Being a Geek
As much as I have recently made a case for Advent, and then for Christmas, you might have expected that I would write something about the season of Epiphany, now over a week past.
Instead, I’ve been too busy reading about the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish.
Well, that and my daughter came down with strep and we’ve been busy making fairies and watching Little House on the Prairie. And we’re moving.
But my delay has mostly been bound up because I’ve been distracted by Ancient Near Eastern Literature, and have been happily geeking out for over a week straight.
(And I am not alone: one friend put me onto the children’s book version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a friend said, “Oh, and remember that Star Trek episode when Picard travels to the planet which speaks in metaphor, and he ends up reciting the Epic of Gilgamesh!” Made my heart flutter. My father, from whom I get most of my geekly tendencies, has several copies of both. The other day, over at my parents’ home, I realized that I’d forgotten my volumes at my OMG study. I whispered to my little boy with a traumatic brain injury, “Sweet boy Karl, can you ask Opa whether he has some spare copies of the Enuma Elish?” Which he did, clearly enunciating the title, and giving my father extra cause to pour an extra libation in celebration that geekiness carries more truck in our family than a TBI)
Warning: this is a long post. But if you want to hear about a paradise, an ark and flood and doves, a tree of life, firmaments being stretched out and so forth that come from literature far older than the familiar tales from Genesis, it’s worth your time to slog through the below, and even more to read up on the links at the far bottom.
Geeks of the world, unite.
I began fussing with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish because a group of people with whom I work were curious about Noah.
And I can’t, of course, teach about Noah and the Flood without teaching about the different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2.
And I most assuredly can’t do them any credit if I don’t make a nod to other Ancient Near East literature.
(Utterly unrelated to the task at hand, this little nugget from Gilgamesh [and I love it that my spell-checker knows this word without even being so programmed. Smart Mac.] caught my little eye.
“Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering? Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly, day and night make merry, let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes, and wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in your embrace. These things alone are the concern of men.”
Some say it is the oldest recorded advice in literature.
But vis-à-vis Old Testament tales of creation and floods, these two stories shaped the texts we know so well…even though we don’t know these primary texts well.
Or at all.
The Enuma Elish was crafted around the 12 century BCE.
It’s a tale of two divine figures, the fresh-water male god Apsu, and the salt-water female god Mummu-Tiamat (she was called Tiamat for short). Tiamat is depicted also as a dragon from the sea (think, “Leviathan”).
Their, um, waters mingled, and created more gods. These ragamuffins made Apsu and Tiamut nuts with their racket.
What is inappropriate may be age-appropriate, I always say, but Apsu and Tiamut didn’t see it that way, and decided the best thing to do to quiet the noise was to kill the kids.
The kids, however, found out about this plot, and figured that doing unto others as they intended to do to you was a good policy, and so they offed Apsu.
Tiamat was displeased, and so according to established family dynamics, she decided to go to war with her children: finish them off, once and for all.
The god-lets realized that they had crossed the line, and like it’s been said, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Desperate to save themselves, they found Marduk, a warrior, who overcame Tiamat’s threat by blowing a wind into her as she gaped her mouth open to devour him. Into her mouth he flung an arrow; that and the air which filled her belly, distending it, killed her, leaving only a carcass amongst the waters.
And so he split her body like a shell, pressing the top across the skies, and the bottom to become the earth, and insisted that her waters be held back. He created constellations, and vegetation, and becomes the Man of the Hour.
That is, until the gods realize that he had assigned tasks: one had to be the sun god, one the star god, one the moon god, and so on and so forth.
The gods began to get irritable, and so to appease them, Marduk struck on the idea of creating humankind by mixing up the blood of Tiamat’s general so that the gods would have servants.
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells a different tale.
It was written around 2000 BCE.
(We’re still working with Epiphany, believe it or not)
King Gilgamesh was unpleasant. He was a dictator, a rapist, and capricious. His people cried out to the god Aruru for relief, and Aruru sends Enkidu, a man-beast, who, according to Christine Hayes, was very Adam-esque. He was to tame Gilgamesh, but before he could, Gilgamesh, who had heard of this Enkidu, sent a woman (perhaps a prostitute?) to tame Enkidu.
The two fell in love, and Enkidu found the inspiration, maturity, and transcendence to address Gilgamesh.
This decision, however, forces him out of paradise: he clothes himself, he loses his relationship and identity with the animals, and can not return.
Long and short of it is that Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight, they become fast friends as a result, and against the better judgment of all, they leave town to fight Humbaba, an evil monster god.
Together they overcome their fears and their disadvantage, and kill Humbaba. Ishtar, goddess of war and sex (go figure), finds herself attracted to the man behind all of this violence and asks Gilgamesh to marry her. He, however, doesn’t reciprocate her desire, in part because he’s well aware that she tends to inflict pain on her lovers.
She is displeased.
She vows revenge (trust me, this all has something to do with Epiphany) by way of harnessing the Bull of Heaven, which destroys Gilgamesh’s town Uruk.
But her revenge is short-lived, as Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill the bull and chuck its tail at Ishtar in a spiteful display of victory.
A word to the wise: do not annoy the Ishtars in your life.
In retaliation, she struck Enkidu with a fatal illness, and claimed him.
Gilgamesh was distraught at his death, and set out to discover the gods’ secrets of immortality. He began a quest, then, and sought Upnapishtim, the legendary immortal human.
Upnapishtim, a very moral man, had been warned in a dream that a tremendous flood was imminent due to the evil of humanity. He was commanded to build an ark with very specific dimensions, and gather the seeds of all living things to preserve life so that new life could begin after the waters subsided. Three birds were brought on board and released to see whether land was near. The dove and the sparrow returned, but the raven disappeared.
The god who caused the flood was reprimanded for the severity of the flood, and as compensation for the destruction, Upnapishtim and his wife were rewarded with eternal life.
This eternal life was not possible to be given to Gilgamesh, who was given yet a parting possibility at youthful living until he died by way of a plant of life at the bottom of the ocean. He fetched it, only to have it stolen by a serpent.
Crushed by the futility of his quest, Giglamesh returned to Uruk, where he had to face his mortality and die.
Do you see the clear connections between what you’ve read so far and the season of Epiphany?
No, you say? Not at all? Have I been imbibing of my daughter’s strep medicine, you wonder?
Well, let me help you have an epiphany then.
Clearly, there are overlaps between these two stories and the creation and flood stories in Genesis. A man and woman in paradise, an ark with dimensions in which righteous creation is saved, firmament spread out keeping the waters above and below at bay, and so on.
Yet while there are similarities between these stories, there are also key differences, both of which reveal (i.e., offer the chance for an epiphany) something of the Jewish/Christian notion of God, and of creation, and of humanity.
Chances are, the ancient Hebrews had heard these stories, not least of all when they were in exile in Babylon. So the tales were familiar to them.
Christine Hayes, professor at Yale, tells us that the famous first words of Genesis, “In the beginning” would be better translated with the sense of “When from on high,” the beginning words of the Enuma Elish…which are, by the way, “Enuma Elish.”
And she does such marvelous work with the connection between the wind of Marduk, and Tiamat being from the deep, that I’m going to quote her at length here:
Remember the cosmic battle between Marduk and Tiamat: Marduk the storm god, who released his wind against Tiamat, the primeval deep, the primeval water, representing the forces of chaos. And you should immediately hear the great similarities. Our story opens with a temporal clause: “When on high,” “when God began creating”; we have a wind that sweeps over chaotic waters, just like the wind of Marduk released into the face of Tiamat, and the Hebrew term is particularly fascinating. In fact, the text says “and there is darkness on the face of deep.” No definite article. The word “deep” is a proper name, perhaps. The Hebrew word is Tehom. It means “deep” and etymologically it’s exactly the same word as Tiamat: the “at” ending is just feminine. So Tiam, Tehom — it’s the same word, it’s a related word.
THAT’S SO COOL!
But as Christine Hayes points out, these same stories were rejected by adapting them.
Your gods are the moon and the stars and the sun?
Our God made your gods.
Your gods made humans to serve them?
Our God made humans to be in God’s image. They are in that way sacred. They are called to tend to creation, not split it, destroy it, and see it as an enemy.
In Genesis, evil need not be seen as inherent in creation. Instead, God saw it all and called it “good.” “Very good,” as a matter of fact.
Instead, evil is a choice that humans have by way of their autonomy. Hayes notes that although there are all sorts of parallels to the tree of life in Ancient Near Eastern Literature (think of the plant on the bottom of Gilgamesh’s ocean), there is no parallel to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s only that tree that humans are commanded to avoid. She writes:
It’s one of the things about God: he knows good and evil and has chosen the good. The biblical writer asserts of this god that he is absolutely good. The humans will become like gods, knowing good and evil, not because of some magical property in this fruit…but because of the action of disobedience itself. By choosing to eat of the fruit in defiance of God — this is the one thing God says, “Don’t do this! You can have everything else in this garden,” presumably, even, you can eat of the tree of life, right? It doesn’t say you can’t eat of that. Who’s to say they couldn’t eat of that and just live forever? Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
[But] it’s by eating of the fruit in defiance of God, human beings learn that they were able to do that, that they are free moral agents. They find that out. They’re able to choose their actions in conformity with God’s will or in defiance of God’s will. So paradoxically, they learn that they have moral autonomy. Remember, they were made in the image of God and they learn that they have moral autonomy by making the defiant choice, the choice for disobedience…
So the very action that brought them a godlike awareness of their moral autonomy was an action that was taken in opposition to God. So we see then that having knowledge of good and evil is no guarantee that one will choose or incline towards the good. That’s what the serpent omitted in his speech. He said if you eat of that fruit, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’ll become like God. It’s true in one sense but it’s false in another. He sort of omitted to point out… he implies that it’s the power of moral choice alone that is godlike. But the biblical writer will claim in many places that true godliness isn’t simply power, the power to do what one wishes. True godliness means imitation of God, the exercise of one’s power in a manner that is godlike, good, life-affirming and so on. So, it’s the biblical writer’s contention that the god of Israel is not only all-powerful but is essentially and necessarily good.
Such epiphanic good stuff in there, good stuff that is perhaps best seen in relief to these formative stories.
Your gods are options, the ancient Hebrews seemed to say, but here is what our God is about, and not about:
It’s not that we are to be in servitude to other gods (what sort of gods are out there, offering themselves to your life, or to the lives of those whom you love, or to our culture?).
It’s not that creation is evil, and to be despised.
It’s not that immortality is where it’s at.
And it’s not even that the world was created exactly as this is written down.
It’s (in part) that God calmed the chaos; provided for God’s creatures; established expectations of goodness and reverence toward God, creation, and each other; and that creation is, at root, good.
As I told my daughter last Sunday, an epiphany is an a-ha moment, and Epiphany, then, is the season of a-ha moments.
My preparation for this presentation last week yielded a bunch of a-ha moments:
A reminder that the Jewish-Christian tradition did not begin in a vacuum; an offering of new knowledge about ancient Hebrew; a gift of renewed clarity that God loves creating and creatures, and…
an affirmation that I am unapologetically and irreversibly a geek.
Christine Hayes, Yale Professor. Her lectures seen here can also be viewed online.
Dennis Bratcher, of the Christian Resource Institute.