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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.


Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies


Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies

The terms "Middle East" and "ancient Near East" assume a Eurocentric view of the world, and these monikers sum up why I so often feel conflicted about the moorings of my training in biblical studies.

As many of you know, the literature and art of the so called "ancient Near East" (ANE) has provided invaluable insights into the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible. It has heavily influenced my own academic research and creative writings. But the study of the ANE didn’t just emerge at the height of British colonization, but as an extension of it. The whole enterprise grew out of this context and the current discourse carries with it the language and baggage of a Western gaze.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that my favorite scholar on Assyro-Babylonian art is Iraqi scholar Zainab Bahrani. She was educated in Western contexts, but is native to one of the regions (Iraq) that was home to ancient Mesopotamia. (We use "ancient Near East" as a drip-pan phrase to refer to any or all of the ancient peoples and civilizations that lived in these regions over the span of several millennia--talk about generalization! For a breakdown of the modern names, see Wikipedia.)

Because Bahrani is native to Iraq, she has a vested interest in de- and re-constructing the discourse on Assyro-Babylonian art. Much of her work goes into explaining why/how this art has been misinterpreted/seen as inferior because of a Western gaze that exoticizes the East and/or views it as the antithesis of "superior" Western rationalism.

When I reflect on it, I realize that my own interest in writing about Mesopotamian cult images is becoming more and more about truth-telling. As long as the West maintains that it is synonymous with the spread of Christianity and continues to interpret the Bible in this way, it will continue to think of the biblical stories of Abraham and Israel as equivalent to Western rational monotheism. The story then becomes the (Westernized) Abraham/Israel pitted against the otherness of Mesopotamian polytheistic religions, which the Western gaze then uses as its lens to read all Eastern forms of religion as inferior.

All of these are false constructs. The biblical stories about Abraham and Israel are far removed from Western rationalism, as are the literature and art of the many polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia. Even bundling them together under the label "polytheistic" is an unhelpful conflation of distinct histories and religious practices.

I am interested in understanding (as much as any Westerner can) both the Bible and Assyro-Babylonian art and literature as Eastern works that really do challenge many Western assumptions about the nature of religion, politics, spirituality, community, and a host of other things.

When many of these texts were first discovered, they were understood as foils to the Hebrew Bible--their value was in how they would illuminate the world of the Bible. This focus has shifted somewhat to study these texts as valuable in their own right, but the framework of the discipline still carries the Eurocentric baggage.

I am not sure--given the initial ideological moorings of the study--if it's possible to escape them (nor is any reading of history without ideology). But I do believe that the more we are able to see the histories of Mesopotamia as worth studying simply to tell a true story--and not as the "other" to "our" (Westernized) Bible--the more we will understand not only the landscape of ancient of Mesopotamia (in all its myriad, diverse details), but also ourselves and the texts of the Bible.

As a Western Christian (and as a Western human being) it seems important to me to realize that if I think of ancient Mesopotamia as an inferior other, then the logical step is to also understand the texts my Christian faith holds as sacred in the same way, understanding them as equally strange and inferior to contemporary Western ears. But this is not what Western Christians have done. Instead, we have dressed up the Bible to masquerade it as a Western text so that it would support our own ideology instead of challenging it, while at the same time using the Bible as an excuse to read other Eastern texts as inferior.

I want to be honest about the inherent conflict in this gaze, and try as much as possible to relinquish my stranglehold on history. To let go of my gaze of dominance and let history challenge me. If these texts appear strange to me as a Western reader, I need to take them as challenges to my own modern Western sensibilities rather than a sign of their inferiority. These ancient words and images have things to teach us, but so long as we insist on ogling them, we won't be able to hear a word they say.