When I was a kid, MTV was in its infancy. They still played music videos back then. In fact, that was all they played, if you can believe it. It was during that time that I started to really like the band Van Halen. Of course, the band was named after Eddie and Alex Van Halen, who were both amazing musicians in the band, but back in those days, I didn’t really care about the music so much. I remember watching Van Halen music videos and really loving them because of the insane antics of their front man. David Lee Roth would jump off of speakers, do karate kicks, and yell out nonsensical words, while wearing what looked like clothing made from cut up strips from 4 other outfits. He was the reason I liked Van Halen.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, various factors drove a wedge between the guys in the band. So, after their successful 1984 album, David Lee Roth was replaced by lead singer Sammy Hagar.
Now don’t get me wrong, Sammy Hagar is cool, and a good singer and all, but it wasn’t really Van Halen to me. It wasn’t what I had come to expect or enjoy. So I did what many of us do when real life doesn’t align to our desires. I ignored it. Whenever Van Halen would come on MTV, if it was David Lee Roth, I would keep it on. If it was Sammy Hagar, I would turn it off, so I wasn’t reminded of the reality. I would insist that my friends who liked Van Halen with Sammy were not true fans of the band.
In short, I was in denial.
We can be like that with our faith, too. If you have faith long enough, ideas and opinions will come along that challenge the way you have believed or thought. Sometimes, these aren’t a big deal. For example, finding out that the Sabbath was Saturday in the Bible, not Sunday. Others, however, can be a very big deal indeed. For example, creation.
We all know how the story goes. There was chaos and darkness, then the divine got involved. Light was created. Then waters above and below were separated from each other. Then dry land was created. The sun, moon, and stars were next. Finally, humans were created as the capstone of this new world. This was all ordered around the number 7, and after it was all done, the divine rested.
Unfortunately, this story has caused many people to lose their faith. Because this isn’t just the story of Genesis in the Bible. This is also the Enuma Elish.
The Enuma Elish is an ancient Babylonian creation story, written down on seven tablets. It was discovered in the library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq in 1849. It predates the writing of the Bible by hundreds of years. If you are tempted at this point to stop reading, you are not alone. There have been many who simply can’t process this because of an earnestly held belief about the Bible that they can’t bear to challenge. And there are many who would like nothing more than to use this text to destroy the faith of truly believing people who simply can’t explain how this new information can exist alongside their deeply held beliefs.
Hold onto that tension for a moment. The fear of letting go of a deeply held and important belief comes from not knowing.
What will it mean if I give up this belief about God? Can I still be a person of faith? If what I believed about this thing is wrong, what else about my faith have I got wrong? How far does this rabbit hole go?
The reason we are often too scared to confront these questions is that we don’t know the answers. We shouldn’t blame radically atheistic college professors for causing young people of faith to give up their religion. If a college kid decides that the things they learn at a college or university cannot co-exist with their faith, it is likely because that is what they have been told in their homes and churches. Well-meaning religious folks have often placed science or education at odds with faith, as if we have to choose one or the other, and we are told that “good Christians” will choose faith over science every time. Forced to make that decision, deeply committed people of faith have a decision to make. Many choose to give up on their faith, looking for a worldview that is more reasonable and logical. Others choose to simply deny the facts or science or history that they learn in favor of maintaining their faith. They treat education and learning like I treated Van Halen once David Lee Roth was replaced. The thought of losing something precious to them is so painful that it is easier, and often more authentic to their experience, to simply deny what is reality.
But what if there is a better way than either denying faith or denying facts? What if a different way, a 3rd way, actually leads to a more responsible engagement with life than either of those? What if it turns out that what God was and is doing through the scripture is far more radical and engaging than we ever thought? And what if it doesn’t mean we have to deny the truths of the universe to embrace it?
You see, before the Bible was written down, the majority of it was passed down orally. The big exception being their laws. But for the most part, families and tribes would sit around a table or perhaps a fire, and tell and re-tell the stories of their people and their land that formed them and gave a certain order and story to their lives. Many of these stories told of what God had done for them in times past. Stories of ancestors and traditions and feasts. Stories of God.
Eventually, there was a need to write these stories down. That reason was Babylon.
When the huge number of Jews were taken from Israel to exile in Babylon, things changed dramatically for them. Everything about their life was thrown into chaos. They knew how to live life back home. They knew the best places to eat, they knew how to make a living.
Their relationship with God made sense.
But in Babylon, none of that mattered. They had to start over. And another thing… if God was so great, why didn’t God do something? The Babylonians had an answer for that one. For the Babylonians, if you were taken over by them, it meant that their god was more powerful than yours. Your god was beaten by theirs. And in Babylon, there were plenty of gods to choose from.
The story of Babylon threatened to overtake the story of the Jews. Imagine the little Jewish children being educated in the ways of Babylon. Imagine that instead of the story of the God of the universe being king over all that is, and having created it and loving it, instead you have the Enuma Elish.
The Babylonian story told of how the world was chaos. This chaos had a name. Tiamat. The great dragon. The linguistic root of the word Tiamat is the same as the Hebrew word Tahom, the deep. That is because she was the Babylonian goddess of the seas. A number of gods contended with Tiamat, with murders and trickery occurring, and lots and lots of yelling and thrashing and noise. The Enuma chronicles a younger god named Marduk making deals with the other gods in order to become king of the gods if he vanquishes Tiamat for them. Marduk battles Tiamat and rips her in two, forming the heavens with one half and the earth with the other. Marduk goes on to create the stars, moon, and sun. After, Marduk enslaves all of the other gods who sided with Tiamat. They are freed from this arrangement when Marduk kills Tiamat’s husband and uses his blood to make humanity, as slaves to the gods.
If this is how our story starts, with violence, conquering, disharmony, slavery, then won’t this form us into a particular people? What if that thought was simply unacceptable to the exiled Jews? What if they did something about it?
Stories have power. And so it appears that the Jews took the language of Babylon’s creation myth, filled it with what they knew their God’s character to be, and wrote it down in the form of what is called “temple literature.” First though, the similarities between the Enuma Elish and the Genesis account are not accidental, nor are they problems. The similarities are meant to evoke certain emotions and insert particular meaning to the story.
For example, if I start out a sentence with the phrase, “I pledge allegiance to the…,” most of us in America will know the next word is “flag,” followed up by, “of the United States of America.” Similarly, if I start out a sentence by saying, “Once upon a time, in a far off land…,” you know immediately that what you are about to hear is a fairy tale. There are shortcuts in our minds that let us know how our brains should process what comes next.
Now what if I say, “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United Cartoon Kingdom of Mickey Mouse?” or what if I began a speech by saying, “Once upon a time, in a far off land, water can be formed by combining 2 hydrogen atoms with 1 oxygen atom?” Those statements mess around with our pre-conceived ideas about how those statements should end.
When Babylonians heard the Jews’ new take on their epic, it must have made them both confused and angry.
And for a group of oppressed, beaten down, broken, poor exiles, looking for a way to subvert an empire that seemed as large as the world itself, this must have been exactly what they needed to fight back.
You see, in this story, there were no gods fighting. There was no yelling or screaming. There was no conquering. There was no slavery. There was 1 God, who didn’t shout, but whispered. This God didn’t need to strive and conquer to create. This God simply spoke. And this God did not find contempt in what was created, and enslave them. This God loved what was made and called it good. Not violence, conquering, disharmony, slavery. But conversation, peace, harmony, care. The difference is more powerful than the similarity.
But the language wasn’t all that was radical about the Genesis creation story. The framework, the poetry was important, too. The format of the Genesis story is what is called “temple literature.” This is an ancient form of religious poetry which details the building of an earthly temple as a residence for the god who would be worshipped there.
The temples in temple poems started off as non-functional. They weren’t built and weren’t doing what they should. The poems describe first how the temple is built, with material. Now, the poems weren’t meant to provide a literal depiction of how the facilities of the temple were built, but instead, it laid out, in poetic forms, how the structure was organized for a particular function. After the structure of the temple was in place, it still wasn’t a temple proper. In order for a temple to be a temple, the structures had to be fulfilling their function. They had to be inaugurated and the structures used for their own particular function. To this end, the poems described how the previously discussed structures were then filled by functionaries and put to work. Then, after all of those things were in place, the god was said to “rest” in the temple that was provided for them, and they dwelt in this temple ever after.
The way that the god was said to dwell in the temple was through some sort of statue that was placed in the center of the structure. This idol of sorts represented the god in a very particular way. The difference between the god and the idol was often blurred so that it was taken for granted that whatever you did to the idol was considered as being done to the god. If the idol was worshipped in the temple, the god was considered to have been worshipped. If the idol was washed, the god was washed, etc… This was taken so seriously that when the idol of the god Marduk was stolen from his temple in Babylon, it was said that Marduk himself went into exile until the statue was returned.
Now read Genesis 1 again. The structure of it is that of a temple poem. But instead of a literal building being built, the world itself is God’s temple. And, after having created the “structures” (seas, land, heavens, lights, etc…), those structures are filled with functionaries (vegetation, animals of various types, and finally, humans), just like in temple poems. Of course the capstone of temple poetry is the placement of the idol in the center of the temple. And the same is true for Genesis 1. The phrase the Bible uses is “let us make humanity in our image.” The word image is from the Hebrew word “selem,” which also means idol. And when all of the prep work is done for God’s cosmic temple, God rested in it. Not that God ceased working on behalf of the universe, but that God took up residence among us.
You see, even from the beginning, God has not been trying to invite us up to God’s place. God has been telling us that the divine is coming down to be with us.
These Hebrews, by using the language of Babylonian myth, the poetic structure of ancient near-east temple poems, and infusing them with the character of their faithful and loving God, transformed and transcended that literature, subverting their oppressors, and saying something profound about God and God’s relationship with humanity that had never been said before. You might even say that it revealed the character of God in such a way that it was inspired.
And the end result is not anti-darwinist, nor is it simply a nice bit of fluff to explain things the ancients didn’t understand. It was a way of rebelling against an unjust empire, and in the process, making a profound theological statement that whatever you do to God’s image/idol – humanity, you have done to the creator God.
A message that Jesus would pick up and run with centuries later.
Perhaps it is time to reject the old false choice between giving up on faith or sticking our rational head in the sand. What if we have a God that would never force us to choose between faithfulness and reality? And what if that God might just be up to something far more interesting and powerful than simply deciding between religion and science?