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Most religions provide some version of a creation myth. This is, after all, necessary to elevate the role of a god or gods in the history of the world—to establish a Supreme Being’s supremacy by making Him the ultimate source and creator of all things. So it is natural that the Bible begins with its creation myth.
The first line of the Bible is: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Follow along in your hymnal, or read the King James Bible online.) The Hebrew word for “God” in this verse is “Elohim.” Anyone with a knowledge of Hebrew knows that the –im suffix is plural. So this verse would seem to read, “In the beginning, the gods created the heaven and the earth.” But instead, Hebrew tradition requires that the plural be ignored and that “Elohim” be translated as “God.”
Isaac Asimov—whose Guide to the Bible I am using as a fellow atheist’s reference source—notes that “It is possible that in the very earliest traditions on which the Bible is based, the creation was indeed the work of a plurality of gods. The firmly monotheistic Biblical writers would carefully have eliminated such polytheism, but could not perhaps do anything with the firmly ingrained term ‘Elohim.’” Bear in mind that the Bible was not definitively written down until the sixth century BC. Before that it was mostly memorized and passed down by oral tradition, much like the works of Homer (which were first written down at about the same time). So the initial verses would have been as firmly ingrained in the mind of the Hebrew public as “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles” was for the Greeks. It would be impossible to change. The solution was to simply agree, as a social convention, to give “Elohim” a singular meaning, referring to only one God.
Read part one of this series here: What has Homer to do with the Bible?
I should note that this is one theory and that there are alternative theories, such as the view that some Semitic languages used the plural as a form of emphasis to denote an abstract version of a concept as opposed to a concrete version. So in this view, the singular “eloah” referred to a particular god, but the plural “Elohim” referred to “godhood” or divinity as such, and it would therefore be natural to use as the word for a monotheistic god. On the other hand, in the old Semitic languages of the Middle East, there was a clear way of making sure you were talking about a single god. You could, for example, say “al ilah,” or “the god,” which would be contracted to “Allah” and used as the word for a monotheistic god in a certain troublesome religion.
In this second version of the creation story, God is referred to for the first time as “the Lord God” in the King James version. In the original Hebrew, this is actually “the God Yahwey.” As fans of Monty Python know, it was considered blasphemous to say the name of God, “Jehovah,” so devout Hebrews substituted “adonai” or “lord” in its place, and the translators of the King James version followed this age-old custom, translating it as “the Lord God.” But it actually says “the God Jehovah” or more accurately “the God Yahwey,” which has much more polytheistic overtones. To give your god a specific name implies that there might be other gods with other names. It is the term you would use when referring to the god of your city or your tribe, as opposed to the gods of other cities and other tribes.
It is a little unclear whether the Biblical Ur of Abraham is the same as the city where they built the Great Ziggurat, but that is not important. What is important is that Hebrews are Sumerians. Ancient Hebrew civilization was an offshoot of the original civilization.
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Take the Garden of Eden. The Bible gives very specific directions about where the Garden was located, and Asimov reasons through these and concludes that Eden was located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they formed a wider waterway that empties into the ocean. Today, the two rivers become what is known as the Shatt al-Arab, but the Biblical equivalent would have been some distance upstream from its current location, which has moved southward thanks to six thousand years of silt deposits.
A Sumerian origin also explains a lot of other Biblical stories, most particularly the flood. This is not the kind of cataclysm you would naturally fear as a nomadic herdsman living in the arid uplands of what is now Israel. But it is precisely what you would fear as a Sumerian living on a low, flat plain between two big rivers, where catastrophic flooding could and did occur.
In fact, the story of Noah and the flood seems to be lifted directly from the original heroic epic poem, the story of a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh. In his travels around the world, Gilgamesh seeks out a wise man named Utnapishtim, whose claim to fame is that he built an ark, filled it with animals, and survived a great flood sent by the gods as a kind of punishment for man’s wickedness. The Noah from the Bible is Utnapishtim from the Gilgamesh epic, point for point.
In effect, every purveyor of a new religious creed or revelation has to insist that his revelation is the real one which completes and supersedes everything that came before—in effect, that God’s prior attempts to transmit the truth to man were garbled and sporadic, but now it is all perfectly clear, complete, and final. This is, to put it mildly, implausible.
But it is not my purpose here to pick logical holes in the Bible. That ground is already well trod. Note, for example, that I have not attempted to compare the Biblical story of creation against the geological, paleontological, or anthropological record. There hardly seems to be much point to it. As an atheist reading the Bible, I take for granted that the stories in it are just myths, equivalent to the creation myths of the Greeks or of the Sumerians from whom they were borrowed. What interests me here is to ask how they borrowed from earlier traditions, how their myths are different from the mythology of other cultures like the Greeks, and what impact this had.
For example, most religions and mythologies have a story similar to the Garden of Eden, in which man disobeys God or the gods and incurs some kind of collective punishment as a result. The Greeks, for example, had the story of Pandora’s Box, in which Zeus gives the first man a woman and also gives her a container (in the original, it was not a box but a clay jar) with instructions not to open it. Naturally, her curiosity wins out and she opens it, releasing into the world illness and pestilence and various other human maladies. This is the usual solution to the problem of evil: if God is so great that he deserves to be worshipped, how is it that he allows so much suffering? Answer: because we brought it on ourselves, somehow, through our disobedience. It’s not him, it’s us. So the point of these stories is to explain the various maladies and misfortunes that naturally befall mankind and which, in a pre-scientific age, were inevitable conditions of human life that could not be ameliorated.
Yet notice the overall pattern of the early mythological stories in Genesis. After man’s expulsion from the garden, we get the story of Cain and Abel, in which one of Adam and Eve’s sons murders the other. It is a story of man’s wickedness and violence, which causes him to be cast out by God. Then after tracing Adam and Eve’s progeny through their younger sons, we get to the story of Noah and the ark, which begins on this cheerful note.
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, “That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”
You may notice one verse in there, Genesis 6:4, that is not quite on theme:
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
All right, so where are the giants and the mighty men of renown? What about them?
This is a very striking omission. The mythology of most other cultures is mostly about the giants and the “mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” I mentioned above the original heroic epic, the story of Gilgamesh, who obviously fits this description. Greek mythology is filled with heroes and demigods like Hercules and Theseus and—well, pretty much everything in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
I asked in the first installment of this series, “What has Homer to do with the Bible?” Now we can see why it’s such a relevant question. The works of Homer are generally regarded as functioning in the Greek mind as a combination of the Bible and Shakespeare: a central source for both religion and literature. But Homer is almost exclusively concerned with the giants and mighty men of renown, while in the Bible they get only a passing reference.
Why? The stories of mighty men and epic heroes are stories of mankind’s potential for greatness. The Bible’s concern is the opposite: it is interested in keeping man in his place. This is very striking in the story of the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 3:22: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” Notice the sense here that God is trying to preserve his superiority against a threat of equality from man. The whole point is to prevent man from becoming “as one of us,” from attaining equality with the gods. Contrast this to Greek mythology, in which it is common for a hero who performs great deeds to be made into a demigod, to “become as one of us” and be brought up to live with the gods on Mount Olympus.
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. “So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.”
Note again God’s use of “us,” which you can interpret as the “royal we,” or as God speaking to an angelic audience—or as Yahwey speaking to his fellow gods. But the theme is the same: the fear that men will grow to equal the gods because “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
Again, other mythologies have similar stories. The Greeks had the concept of “hubris,” an excessive pride that causes men to overreach themselves and get smacked down, sometimes through the direct intervention of the gods and sometimes just through their own errors. The closest Classical equivalent of the Tower of Babel would be the story of Icarus.
This mythology is the ur-source for Judeo-Christian theology, and it sets the tone for everything that comes after. We can also see it in the tribal history that begins in the next section of Genesis, as we finally circle back to that moment when Abraham departs from Ur—which is where we will begin the next installment of this series.
– Robert Tracinski a writer, lecturer, and commentator whose opinion columns have appeared in publications such as the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle, and who has appeared on The Rush Limbaugh Show and The O’Reilly Factor. Reprinted with permission from The Tracinski Letter.