Genesis Bible Study
Lesson Two: The Cultural Context of Israel
Historical and Cultural Background
There are two major hurdles that often prevent us from hearing the stories in Genesis. First, we tend to think that Israel emerged in a vacuum, fully formed and totally mature, nearly Christian, in their religious thinking. There are a lot of other factors that go into us making this assumption, such as ideas about the nature of Scripture forged in the 19th century (AD!), but the effect is that we have a hard time seeing Scripture against the cultural and historical background of the people who wrote it. Second, partly because of some of those same factors, we tend to assume that the Bible is directly addressing our concerns. We tend to spiritualize the text into addressing our questions without first asking what questions the text itself is actually addressing.
Both of these hurdles will take some effort to surmount, especially in these first chapters of Genesis, which are overlaid with centuries of interpretations and which have become battlegrounds for all sorts of religious wars. In addition to the guidelines expressed earlier, the goal here is to look at the biblical text in terms of: 1) the cultural and historical background of ancient Israel, especially as it shapes concerns and affects communication, and 2) the concerns with which that biblical community is dealing in the text, seen against the cultural and historical background and expressed in how the text tells its story. (See Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narratives). Two further principles will also guide this analysis: 3) the text is primarily theology, telling us about God, humanity, and their relationship; and 4) the text itself and its background are the primary object of analysis, with the guideline "stick to the text" intended to exclude interpretations imported from systematic theology or doctrinal assertions.
The Cultural Setting of the Ancient World
Let me begin by telling a story about a man named Apsu. Apsu was an old, gray haired man married to Tiamat. They had lots of children and grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren who all lived around him. Apsu needed his rest and liked to take long afternoon naps. One day he stormed to his wife complaining that the younger children were so boisterous day and night that he could never get enough rest. Tiamat had noticed the rowdiness of the kids as well, but she was a little taken aback at Apsu’s solution. He had decided that to silence the kids so he could get some rest that he would simply kill all the noisemakers and be done with it.
But before he could carry out his plan, one of his great-grandsons, Ea, found out about it. Catching Tiamat away from the house, Ea used his magical powers to cast a spell over Apsu. When he was asleep under the spell, Ea stole the symbols of Apsu’s position over the household, and killed him as he slept. Ea then settled into Apsu’s house and intended to take control of the family.
When Tiamat returned home and discovered that Ea had killed her husband she was enraged. She began assembling some of the children who supported her and prepared to do battle with Ea to take vengeance on him and his family for their treachery. She took a new husband, Kingu, and appointed him as commander of the army she was assembling. She also enlisted the aid of all the dragons and sea monsters, snakes and wild animals to help her fight Ea.
In the meantime Ea found out about the planned attack from Tiamat and her followers. He was understandably depressed that all the children seemed to be following Tiamat and that he found himself outnumbered. He sought out the counsel of his remaining allies, who agreed that Tiamat must be stopped, but none were able to face her. Finally, his advisors suggested that Ea consult his son Marduk, who was greatly respected in the family, to see what he would do. After being told of the problem, Marduk was scornful that a mere woman would come against Ea with weapons. He agreed to do battle with Tiamat, but only if he would be elevated to the head of the family. Ea and the children agreed and gave him great power, so Marduk took charge of the campaign.
He sent word challenging Tiamat who accepted in a fit of rage. The battle was fierce, but Marduk unleashed a magic wind that partially disabled her, and then with a well placed arrow, Marduk killed Tiamat. He immediately enslaved all her followers, including her husband Kingu. After tying up the lifeless body of Tiamat, he smashed her head with a mace, and then severed strategic arteries so that her blood ran all over the ground. Then he split her body in half. With one half Marduk formed the sky and with the other half he made the earth, with boundaries and guardians to keep each in its place. He continued making the stars and the sun and moon to establish seasons, months, and years. The children were all assigned roles in making certain that the boundaries were observed and his instructions carried out.
Finally, Kingu was brought out and killed and from his blood Marduk formed human beings to serve him and his allies so that they would never again have to work. After all of this, the family built a fine house in which Marduk could relax. They named the place Babylon, and Marduk and his friends rested, eating and drinking, while everyone sang the praises of the great deliverer Marduk by reciting 50 names that gave him homage.
Now, in case you have not already figured it out, this is the Babylonian (or Sumerian) myth of creation known as the Enuma Elish ("when on high," from the first words of the poem). It occurs in two different forms, but the basic elements are the same. The seven tablets of this poem were discovered in the ruins of ancient Nineveh in the vast library of the Assyrian king Asshurbanapal (7th century BC). However, these texts were based on earlier Sumerian versions of the poem from as early as 2,000-1,700 BC, the time of Abraham and Hammurabi of Babylon (read the full text of the Enuma Elish).
Israel Among the Nations
This is the cultural background out of which the Israelites came. Basic elements of this Babylonian myth and the world view that underlay it became the Ba’al myth in Palestine and surrounding areas. And of course, Ba’al worship supported by the Ba’al myth was the arch rival of worship of God among the Israelites. In our world of scientific investigation and the millennia-old worship of a single deity, we sometimes dismiss myths as simply false without realizing how incredibly important they were to ancient peoples. Myths were ways to describe how the physical world exists and what makes it operate, or to express complex social relationships.
The Enuma Elish is far more than a fanciful story. It is actually a carefully crafted story about the cycle of seasons, an attempt by ancient people to give some coherence and order to a world that they did not really understand in terms of cause and effect. The myth of Marduk is a cosmology, a story told to describe what they observed about the physical world. Marduk represents Springtime and the fertility of the land that Spring brings. Marduk is a god who brings Springtime when crops grow and when livestock give birth. Especially in Canaanite forms of the story where Ba’al is the hero (in Assyria Marduk was replaced by Asshur, the patron deity of Assyria), he is the Spring rain that brings life and newness into the land after the dry season. As such, Marduk represents the stability and security of a world that is safe and stable. Both Marduk and Ba’al are fertility gods that promise newness and continuing life.
Tiamat represents winter, or in Canaanite forms of the myth the dry season, and the barrenness and threat that winter brings. She was also personified as the primeval ocean, the deep, the unordered forces of chaos that threaten to engulf the order and stability of the world. In this role, she was also portrayed as a great Dragon or Serpent of the Deep. Her companions are the uncontrolled waters of Flood, River, and Sea.
To ancient people, it was a real threat that spring and the spring rains might not come. That represented a threat to the very existence of humanity. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat was a way to express the cycles of seasons, the struggle between chaos and order that the people experienced as they waited for the renewal of Spring. That battle was an annual event, incorporated into the worship rituals of Near Eastern culture. Marduk had to kill Tiamat every Springtime or Winter would continue to rule. There would be no rain, crops would not grow, grass for the livestock would not sprout, nothing would survive. That battle was played out every spring in the great worship festivals in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon. Marduk had to be alive and be crowned king so that rain would come. The concern in the myth was not so much with the creation, as it was with the defeat of Tiamat and the reign of Marduk.
As noted, in Palestine this became the myth of Ba’al who was also the god of rain and the god of Springtime. In Palestine there must be rain at a certain time of year to make crops grow. Ba’al as the god of rain (called "Rider of the Clouds" in some texts; cf. Psa. 68:4) was personified as a thunder storm sweeping in from the desert, bringing rain, and making life possible in that part of the world. The worship of Ba’al in Palestine involved imitative magic in the form of ritual prostitution and other fertility rituals. The idea was that Ba’al needed to be sexually aroused so that the rains would come, the crops would grow, and the people survive. (There are other OT connections to this cultural background, such as the agricultural images used for women producing offspring; they are either fruitful or barren.)
In this mythical way of conceptualizing the world, Tiamat and the various images of uncontrolled water or dragons or sea monsters associated with her, represented disorder or chaos in the world. Marduk (or Ba’al or Ashur) in this mythology was the one who brought stability and order to the world, and guaranteed human existence. The role of human beings was to be sure the gods were happy and had what they needed so they would do the things necessary to ensure humanity’s continued existence. Yet, the gods had no direct relation to human existence since they were simply the personified forces of what we would call nature. Human existence was more the "fallout" from the activity of the gods, which further underscored the need to be sure the gods were happy and content.
Israel's New Path
There is much more to the mythological cultural background of the ancient world, but perhaps this brief overview will provide a context to begin examining the Genesis narratives. (For more information see Speaking the Language of Canaan and links there). Myths speak about something on a cosmic level, trying to describe the unseen forces that shape human existence. However, the Bible is not directly mythological because the basic premise of Scripture arising from Israel’s experience of God is that God has revealed himself in history. He is not "out there" on some cosmic level, but has revealed himself here where we live as human beings.
In stark contrast to the mythology of the Canaanites, Israel began developing a very incarnational view of God very early in its history. That did not mean that Israel quickly abandoned all the vestiges of polytheism or the mythological world view associated with it. It would take Israelites nearly 800 years of fierce struggle to chart clearly that new path among the nations. Yet, what was often the minority voice in Israel understood that God had chosen to enter into relationship with humanity in the arena where we live. Israel knew what she knew about God not because they projected their ideas out "there" somewhere, or speculated about what God was, or what he might be, or ought to be, or what they needed him to be. They knew something about God because at one point in time in human history a group of people stood on the banks of the Reed Sea and watched God at work. And we as Christians know what we know about God, not because we have become more sophisticated in our speculation or our scientific inquiry than the Israelites were, but because at another point in time another group of people stood beneath a cross and at a tomb outside of Jerusalem and saw God at work in human history.
That fact not only separates Scripture from the myths of the ancient world in giving it a solid basis in human history, it also points to two aspects of understanding the Bible, and these Genesis narratives, that are crucial. First, the concerns of the Israelites who wrote this material had to do with how they were coming to terms with this radically new understanding of deity, and how that would be lived out in the world in which they lived. The people who wrote Scripture, who reported and reflected about things they had seen and heard, this person or community who wrote Genesis, what were they trying to communicate? What is it they were trying to say? What concerns lay behind the faith confessions they were making about God? They were most likely not trying to tell us about evolution, or attacking science, or burying secret codes in the text about World War III! What they needed to say was something that would tell people that Ba’al is not God! That Ba’al does not make it rain. That Ba’al does not control the world. They needed to move people beyond superstition and magic as the way to understand deity. They needed to affirm the God whom they had encountered in the Exodus in such a way that people would worship and serve him instead of frequenting the Ba’al temples and trying to manipulate the world by magic.
The only background they had to do that on the level of communication was the culture in which they lived. So they are not going to give us some scientific explanation about what makes it rain that would satisfy our 21st century minds. They only had two choices. If someone would ask an Israelite in the Old Testament, "What makes it rain?", they would either say "Ba’al makes it rain" or they would say "God makes it rain." There was simply no other way to say it! Yet, when they start describing how God makes it rain, they described God riding in on a thunder cloud from the desert, which is what they would say if they were Canaanites worshipping Ba’al. They would tell us the same thing the same way, except that it is God they are talking about rather than Ba’al. Those cultural perspectives are the only frame of reference they have; they cannot describe the world or God in terms of our modern perspectives, so they use the only language and symbols and metaphors they have to confess this radically new faith in a single Creator God. What other culture could they write in except their own?
If we do not allow this in the biblical text, then we must make other assumptions about Scripture that immediately move us beyond the text and its own world. The assumption must then be, in some form, that they didn’t really write much if any of the Bible and instead God wrote it or told them what to write. Yet, after looking closely at the text, with all the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language, with all the metaphors that have parallels in the ancient cultural world, with all the concerns that are thoroughly rooted in the problems of the ancient world, I think it is a mistake to make such assumptions. Maybe the text says more there in their culture than we have imagined, if we listen to it carefully.
Second, this material was not written as it happened, but was written long after anything described here, to address the perspective and concerns of the people who were writing it (this is the principle of the "two horizons" mentioned in last week’s lesson). If we are not deliberate in our thinking, we sometimes assume that there were scribes sitting over in the corner of the Garden of Eden writing this all down (or, as mentioned above, that God simply told people what to write). Yet, this was likely written long after the Israelites had encountered God at the Reed Sea, probably around the time of David near 1000 BC, with the final form of the stories as we have them in Genesis dating to the period after the exile (c. 500 BC).
After the Israelites had encountered God in the Exodus and at Sinai, after they had spent years struggling in the wilderness, after they had entered the land and been confronted with the Canaanites and their fertility religion, after centuries of struggling to come to terms with the nature of this God who was not at all like the mythical gods of the people in the land, they looked back and wondered how they had come to that place.
They had learned things about God over some 800 years of history because God had revealed himself to them through that history. If God was God and not Pharaoh; if God was the kind of God who could hear the cry of oppressed slaves, bring plagues upon Egypt, part the waters of the Reed Sea, give manna in the desert, bring water out of a rock, knock down the walls of Jericho, help them defeat the Canaanites and settle in the land promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier; if he is that kind of God, what is rain to him? It was only a short step to conceptualize God as Sovereign Creator, and to conclude that Ba'al was nothing but a stick of wood! Yet there were people who found the appeal of Ba’al worship overwhelming, and the faithful worshippers of God needed to express a profound faith in God that decisively rejected Ba’al as a competing deity. It is this purpose that the opening chapters of Genesis serve. And in some ways, that message may have more relevance for our modern world than we sometimes imagine!