Viewing entries tagged

Marduk, Son of the Gods


Marduk, Son of the Gods

I'm thinking about the language of "sonship" after just reading through Enuma Elish (also known as The Glorification of Marduk). The story is about how Marduk became enthroned as king of the gods at his temple (Esagila) in Babylon (after quelling the rebellion of Tiamat, goddess of the ocean, by hacking her to pieces and creating the heavens and earth from her body and then creating humans out of the blood of rebel god in order to serve the gods--yeah, it's gross).

The Anunnuki gods (as homage) build a temple to honor Marduk, and then all the gods sit down to a celebratory banquet where they grant Marduk kingship of the gods and confirm his dominion. The gods are referred to multiple times throughout the epic as Marduk's "fathers," and he is referred to as their firstborn. When they confirm his dominion, they say, "Most exalted be the son, our avenger. Let his sovereignty be surpassing, have no rival." They also charge him with providing not just for creatures, but for the gods: "May he establish for his fathers the great food-offerings."

This is just one more window into how "sonship" was associated with rulership in ancient Mesopotamia. When talking about rule, it's not about the dads, it's about the sons. In Mesopotamia, a human king was often referred to as the "son of god" or "image of god" (or both). We see this language in the Hebrew Bible, too. The term "son of god" is sometimes applied to an angelic figure, Israel, or Israel's king, perhaps most notably Psalm 2 (Yahweh's anointed king is also Yahweh's son).

And then there's the famous 2 Samuel 7 passages where King David wants to build a house (a temple) for Yahweh, but Yahweh responds to David's offer by saying (this is my  super-short paraphrase), "I've been living in a tent since the days I brought Israel up from Egypt, and I've never asked for a house. Nope. You won't build a house (a temple) for me, but I'm going to a build a house (offspring/kingdom) for you. I'll raise up one of your offspring and establish his kingdom. And he'll build a house for my name. I will be a father to him, and he will be to me a son."

We know from the rest of the story that David's son Solomon ends up becoming king and building Yahweh's temple.

Yahweh's initial rejection of David's offer to build him a temple is an interesting contrast to Marduk's desire for the building of Esagila. The interplay between "fathers" and "sons," tells us much about the interplay of divine and human rule in the Hebrew Bible.

Yahweh's divine kingship is often assumed throughout, but you don't get the sense that Yahweh feels the need to legitimize or prove his kingship. This is perhaps what we might expect in a monolatrous context: when you've only got one god to worship, that god doesn't need his kingship to be established by others gods and he doesn't have any rivals. (Except, perhaps, the humans that he has made just the teensiest bit lower than gods (Psalm 8), when they start to think that their spectacular humanity isn't fantastic enough, that the glorious freedom of the sons of god just isn't free enough.)

The portrayal of Yahweh's interaction with David makes it clear that Yahweh is the one who will  establish the kingship of David's descendant, not the other way around: it's not David who establishes Yahweh's rule in a temple, but Yahweh who establishes the rule of David's son. The son doesn't make the father, the father makes the son.

But unlike the the Marduk's "fathers," who take the backseat now that Marduk's at the wheel, Yahweh doesn't fade into the background. The elevation of his own "sons" (be they Israel's kings, Israel, or the primordial humans in Genesis 1-2) doesn't threaten his own sovereignty. He's not afraid that humans will usurp him (they can't), but things get complicated when humans stop leaning into their human rule and potential and instead busy themselves trying to to be Yahweh's rival.

This is a recurring theme we see in many parts of the Hebrew Bible: the deliberate distancing of Yahweh from anthropomorphism. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of verbal anthropomorphisms (e.g., you can speak of Yahweh's body, even if metaphorically, "hand of god," "eyes of god," etc.). And of course there are visions of Yahweh and times where a messenger of Yahweh appears to be human, but he kind of might be Yahweh as well, and it isn't always clear (Genesis 18, anyone?).

But when compared to the unabashed portrayals of gods in human form in Mesopotamia, you can feel the difference in the Hebrew Bible: Yahweh can be imagined in human language and terms, but he's also not like humans as well. Gods in Mesopotamia eat and drink, have sex, grow tired, etc. Not so Yahweh. Oh, wait...he kinda sorta eats. He receives food offerings, but he receives them by smelling the smoke instead of direct consumption, emphasizing that while he's interested in enjoying the relational benefits of a meal, he's not dependent on it for nourishment.

This de-anthropomorization of Yahweh actually alleviates a lot of the tension between divine and human rule felt in texts like Enuma Elish.

Creation in Enuma Elish is a cosmic battle against Tiamat. Marduk creates the world by vanquishing Tiamat and her rebel forces and cutting her up to make the world. In Genesis, god simply separates the waters above the earth from the waters below, whereas Marduk looked at Tiamat's body and "split her like a shellfish into two parts: half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky, pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them allow not her waters to escape" (Tablet IV, lines 137-140).

Humans in the biblical creation myths are made from dust and divine breath, while in Enuma Elish, humans are created through violence: Marduk kills one of the rebel's from Tiamat's band and makes humans from its blood. The express purpose for the creation of humans in Enuma Elish is to relieve the gods of their work. Genesis 1-2 certainly has the idea of humans doing working (cultivating and keeping the garden and reigning over the earth), but it isn't work for Yahweh god, but simply the normal work of human life: cultivation for food and survival, care of other creatures, and the building of culture.

Humans in Enuma Elish are basically servants, while gods get to rule and feast and have awesome temples. The de-anthropomophization of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible lets him be the divine creator king and frees humans to be the awesome, glorious, spectacular humans he made them to be. Yahweh doesn't need humans to serve him--they can just enjoy the world he created as long as they don't abuse their freedom and power.

We see more of this sort of thing in Genesis 1-2. Enuma Elish is the story of how Marduk became king of all the gods in Babylon (taking up residence in his temple), while Genesis 1-2 is a story about the establishment of humans as rulers on the earth, and (perhaps) the enthronement of Yahweh, but Yahweh's divine kingship is once again assumed more than broadcasted.

If Genesis 1-2 were primarily about the enthronement of Yahweh, we'd expect a fancy temple-building scene at the end like there was for Marduk. The god who creates the world is entitled to a temple and kingship. There's certainly temple language in Genesis 1, but it's much more subtle, and the creator god's kingship is presumed more than declared. The god in Genesis 1 creates the world by issuing commands much like a king, and at the end of his creation, he "rests" from his work in creating the world (Gen. 2 1-3). The language of "rest" often appears in Mesopotamian texts in reference to the idea of god's presence coming to occupy a temple. If this god is coming to rest enthroned in his temple, it's the temple of creation, which is the domain he's just given to the humans to rule. Is he threatened by this overlap in domains? Nope. He's happy to sit back and let humans rule.


My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)


My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)

Part 4 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 12, and 3.

I am not sure where I’m going with all this. When my friend asked why I am still a Christian, I actually started writing the story/explanation below about why I haven’t gone the “spiritual but not religious route.” But then I stopped and wondered if I was really getting to the issues that frustrated me so much about my experience of Christianity. By relying so heavily on my own interaction with scripture as the basis for why I considered myself a Christian, wasn’t I once again pull out the evangelical stops? What if I was just reverting to the old, gutted belief that beliefs themselves are what make a Christian? Am I again engaging in the very bibliocentrism that I’ve tried so hard to get away from?

Maybe so. Still, this seems to be what I have. Here I am: Pope Rebekah. Me and my exegetical tools and my imagination. I offer you what may in fact be a contradiction to the story I have told above.

This is the story that makes sense to me.

God's Missing Body

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian.

Maybe I shouldn't be. There might be any number of compelling reasons not to be. Couldn't I just be "spiritual, but not religious"? Active, thoughtful, not tied to religion?

I don't begrudge those who go that route. It might even be necessary for some folks. Sometimes religious trauma can only be dealt with by leaving the structures that housed the abuse. And maybe stepping away from evangelicalism (even if not from Christianity as whole) is a similar kind of divorce.

But that's not where I am. The Bible education that has proven so toxic for many young Christians (I know this from many, many conversations with peers who graduated with a Bible degree) has been my lifeblood.

If I hadn’t been so textually-oriented from the beginning, things might have been different. But I’ve loved words and interacting with stories ever since I was a little girl. My mother encouraged me from a young age not only to write, but to engage life creatively, generatively. Words have been my life.

My mother’s creative bend laid the groundwork for the handful of college professors (some of whom were later ousted from their teaching positions–go figure) who opened my eyes to the dynamism of Judaeo-Christian scripture and its history of interpretation. The Bible was not a static, monolithic body of text or monologue, but a constant dialogue back and forth.

And gradually, the girl who used to bunker down and wait for the world to end caught sight of the world outside her dugout and stepped out into. God grew bigger, and the earth did, too.

But the bigness of God was only one side of it. The scope of my world, my self, my God–all this grew in relation to God's smallness. And it still does.

I keep coming back to the story of a God who has legs, skin, hands, eyes, teeth. The story of Jesus' incarnation–God becoming human in a specific person–is what takes me beyond the god of the apocalypse. God's body, God as organic matter, is the definitive affirmation of this-worldly existence, hinted at from the beginning of Hebrew scripture and climaxing in Jesus.

You can read the stories of the Bible different ways, and the fact that it's stuffed the gills with lots of different metaphors and stories is an open invitation to do so. (It's the classic problem of trying to write a comprehensive biblical theology–there are so many themes and so many threads, you can't just pick one and say it's the central theme.)

The story that's always stuck with me, though (if I took it into my head to attempt a biblical theology) is the story of God's missing (or hidden) body. It's this story that fuels my passion to live, to create, to build the world we long to inhabit.

You can feel God's absent body hovering everywhere in Hebrew scripture, a sharp breath from an unknown deep rippling across its surface.

The writers of Hebrew scripture have always been a bit squeamish when it comes when it comes to depicting their god (Yahweh by name) in corporeal terms. They engage in a deliberate and difficult dance between talking about Yahweh using pictures and metaphors from human life, while at the same time insisting that Yahweh is not reducible to these verbal images. And while verbal anthropomorphisms abound, visual depiction, specifically the making of cult images of Yahweh, is strictly forbidden.

The peoples of the ancient Near East had no such reservations when it came to depicting deities whether it was in literature or visual representation. The faces of gods could be seen all across the ancient world, from the sacrosanct cult images that lay hidden in the great temples most of the year, to the statues sitting in the shrines that dotted the hills, to the small images of household shrines. Gods had arms and legs and heads like humans and beasts, sometimes wings or claws or talons. Gods ate and drank and had sex.

But did Yahweh, too, have a body?

“The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.”

“His hands formed the dry land.”

“The eyes of Yahweh search the whole earth.”

“May Yahweh make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.”

Mouth, hands, eyes, face–if Yahweh’s body could be envisaged in verbal form, why this resistance to visual depiction?

We could spend years and volumes trying to answer that question (many have). But let's just approach it through one doorway, one theme: creation.

In both ANE literature and the Hebrew Bible, creation is linked to rulership. The god who creates the world is enthroned over it and determines its destiny. But we also see this rulership delegated in various ways. In ANE literature, the "image" of a god is tasked to be the god's reigning presence–an extension of the god, not just the god's legal authority, but its real presence (scholars debate on how exactly to tease this out). In the ANE, sometimes the king is referred to as the "image of god," and other times "image of god" refers to the god's cult image housed in its temple. In Genesis, however, the divine image is not cult statue of wood or stone nor is it the king. The image of god is humankind.

The Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, sees the “image of god” as a statement not just about the god and its image, but the fate of Israel (and ultimately the cosmos). Through a series of polemics against the making of Babylonian cult images (Isa. 40:18-25; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-7), the writer of Isaiah 40-55 insists that making cult images is an attempt to supplant both humans and Yahweh, thereby subverting or denying the power of both to act and change the course of history.

The human craftsmen (who, in the context of Isaiah, appear to typify both the other nations and Israel itself) try to make an image that resembles a god, but they actually end up making an image that resembles a human being. The very humans that are themselves the image of Yahweh, tasked to advance the destiny of the cosmos, use their creativity to make their own replacement image to rule instead. The cult image, in turn, ends up being conflated with a god, and receives the worship due to Yahweh. In reality, the prophet insists, these other gods don't have the power of the Creator and thus cannot act in Israel's history or save them. Yahweh, by contrast, is the god who formed Israel and can rescue her from her oppressors.

This is one way of looking at the mystery of God's missing body. It isn't so much missing as it is hidden in plain sight. We are God's body. Humanity is God's image, God's "son." Just as Adam fathered a son in his own image and likeness (Gen. 5:4), so God "fathered" humankind in his image and likeness. The image has the power to create, to shape the world.

This power comes with a responsibility. The image must emulate the the Creator's own generous spirit, for God shaped the earth, filled it with creatures, and provided food for all. "Multiply, fill the earth, subdue it." Don't let an obsession with militarism distract you from the richness of these words in their context. What we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is actually two creation stories juxtaposed to one another, which have two kinds of language to talk about humanity.

First, we have the regal view in Genesis 1: humans as monarchs, exercising dominion and spreading throughout the world. (In this first story, humans and God are both regal: God creates the world by speaking, by giving commands like a divine king: "Let there be light!" and the cosmos obeys.) In Genesis 2, we see humans as people of earth, tenders of the garden: "Cultivate and keep." (God, too, gets dirty: he doesn't create humans by speaking, but by forming and breathing into them. This God is a gardener more than a king.)

By placing these two stories together, Genesis qualifies the kind of kingdom to be advanced by and through humankind: not a rule of plunder and pillage and scorched earth, but of tending, tilling, and cultivating.

If you've read the rest of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, you know that the images of God struggle to embody this kind of generative rule. Genesis 3 shows us the images of God staging a mutiny, trying to usurp the place of the very deity who made them. They are sent into exile outside the garden of God, away from Yahweh's presence.

God's body goes wandering, estranged from the Creator that formed and animated it.

That's not the end of the story, of course. God keeps reaching down, searching for images who want to embrace their divine resemblance, lean into it, to be the gods he formed them to be. He appeared to Abraham and proffered a similar gift: land, descendants, and blessing. The land itself wasn't cosmic in scope, but the reach of it's influence was meant to be: God told Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. And Abraham, unlike Adam and Eve, believed God would make good on his promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of God reaching down and humans reaching up. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in many ways. Through the prophet Moses and the giving of the Law. Through Elijah and Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Through the prophets whose names have been obscured or forgotten.

But in these last days, God has spoken to us in his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. This son is the radiance of the glory of God, the spitting image of his nature.

In Jesus, the mystery of God's missing body reaches its zenith, collapses, and rises again. At the very point in time where God is reunited with his estranged image–the moment of power when the image flawlessly embodies its Creator–he surrenders his body, gives it over to death. By leaning into death, Jesus fulfills humanity’s generative destiny.

By participating in humanity’s corporate fate of death (brought on by humanity’s rebellion) despite his own individual innocence, he simultaneously inhabits the corporate body and prophesies against it. Instead of insisting on his rights as God’s faithful heir to forgo the suffering brought on by the human rebellion, he suffers with humanity and so embodies the kind of self-offering righteous rule that God desires. At Jesus’ resurrection, the body of God that has gone into hiding emerges from behind the veil.


Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism


Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism

After watching this video by John Oliver on the RNC, it made me think again about why Trump appeals widely to white evangelicals in America.

Trump's appeal is not so surprising when you think about how American evangelicalism was shaped by the Great Awakenings, its emphasis on salvation as an individual decision or moment (read: emotional experience), and its focus on personal piety/inward purity as taking precedent over social justice issues or outward works/actions.

I remember experiencing a lot of angst as a teenager about God's disposition toward me because mainstream evangelicalism is all about being inwardly pure and having devotional feeling towards God. I knew that I was a sinner (y'know, stuff like pride, getting mad at my siblings not sharing my stuff), but I had no dramatic testimony and so I was at a loss as to know what I should be *doing* other than trying to feel right towards God and cut down on the pride and not annoy my little sister.

I had essentially no framework to do or be good because I knew from a tender age that it was all about what Jesus did on the cross, and I couldn't add anything to that. And since the whole point was Jesus saving my individual soul, the only "good" thing I could even do was evangelize to people so that Jesus could whisk them out of the world, too. I felt I had no power to affect change in the world, nor any sense that "saving the world" meant anything more than God redeeming peoples' hearts. It was all very apocalyptic in a narrow sense.

It's this apocalyptic theology that Donald Trump appeals to. His message is: "America was once great, but now it's not (because of all the Muslims, Mexicans, woman, and black people), so let's take back America by kicking out folks who don't belong." His message is completely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that began in Genesis. 

I know many people have said this before, but we need to begin our Gospel story in Genesis 1 and see it through to the present day and beyond. The story begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and filling it with all forms of life. After forming each aspect of the world, God declares it good--and by the end of it, he sits back in his throne, looks at it all and declares it "very good"--exceedingly, overwhelming good. He creates the humans in his image (in the ancient Near East, a regal role--the humans are monarchs of the earth, appointed to manage, tend, and care for the earth and its creatures). He gives the humans and animals food to eat.

The humans have but two tasks: eat and cultivate the earth (so that all may eat). God blesses them and the other animals to multiple throughout the earth, and as they do, they are to eat and tend. But then a serpent draws the humans' attention to the one fruit that God had told them not to eat. They began to believe that God was withholding something good from them, that he was not to be trusted, that in fact eating the forbidden fruit would make them like gods (ironically, they are already like gods by virtue of their status as God's images).

Instead of eating the good food of their creator and basking in the delights of the garden, they fixate on this other fruit and end up breaking their creator's trust. And when the humans began to distrust the goodness of the world their creator had made, they actually started to live that way. They could not trust God. They could not trust each other. And people have been warring with each other ever since, and the whole earth has felt its effects. Because we believed the world was evil, we actually began to make it evil.

But since then, God has been calling human beings to start listening again to his voice and making the earth good again--not by ridding the land of people we perceive as threatening, but by loving the world, caring for it, and feeding it. And indeed, much of the earth's goodness still remains, though we still have much to do. In Jesus, we know what it looks like for a human to believe in God and work this out--not just a pious feeling, but embodied action. God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the affirmation of this good creation. If we are in need of an apocalypse, we have it right there: Jesus dying the death of the world and then rising from the dead to show that even the earth in its broken state can't keep humans and God from partnering together to fix it, to make it yield life.

Trump does not believe the earth is good. He doesn't believe it is worth saving. His message is not salvation, but purging. In Trump's world, only certain kinds of humans deserve to eat. The gospel of Trump is not "cultivate and keep," but stockpile and batten down the hatches. And Trump may try to convince people that he's got great food that will make us like gods, but don't be fooled: that fruit's rotten to the core.