Genesis 1:1-12:3 “The First Things” (Ancient Near Eastern Traditions and Historical Context) Part 2

Introduction to the “First Things”: Genesis, Ancient Near Eastern Traditions, and Historical Context

The opening chapters of Genesis raise a lot of questions for many people. How do we square the earth being made in 6 days with what we now know about the age and progression of the universe? Where was the Garden of Eden? Were Adam and Eve really the first humans on the planet? What was the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Did Adam have a belly button? Where did Cain get his wife? How could angels have sex with women, and who were the giants that resulted from their unions? What about the flood which covered the whole earth? Could a boat hold two of every animal on earth for 40 days and 40 nights? How could people back then live to be over 900 years of age? Was there a time when everyone in the world spoke the same language? These are just some of the questions thinking people ask when they read Genesis. Today I hope to demonstrate that these are the wrong questions to be asking if we hope to get to the real meaning of this part of the Bible.

What we first need to realize is that Israel came late on the scene in the history of the ancient Near East. Mesopotamian cultures like Babylon and Sumer had been around for thousands of years. The same could be said of Egypt to the south. By the time of Moses, Egypt had already gone through four long stages: the Old Kingdom–the first period of instability—the Middle Kingdom–the second period of instability—and was well into the fifth period called the New Kingdom. Canaanite kingdoms existed many centuries before Abraham. When I was working on my dissertation for my Ph. D. I had to work with Canaanite texts from Ugarit that date from well over 1500 years before Israel even existed. The Old Testament recognizes that Israel came late on the scene. Where did Abraham live before he left for what would later become the land of Israel? Ur of the Chaldees, which is a part of Babylon.

What we first need to realize is that Israel came late on the scene in the history of the ancient Near East.

Israel was one of many nations and peoples who made up the ancient Near East. These nations and peoples shared a common background and history. And they also shared common traditions. Each culture used and interpreted these traditions in its own way, but there are enough similarities between these traditions/stories within these cultures to see a common background. For example, this morning I want us to look at the flood story. We all know the story of Noah. (You may want to reread the flood story in Genesis 6-9. If you do, notice the repetition and contradictions regarding the source of the flood waters, the numbers of the animals taken on the ark, and the names/words used for God.)

In the 1850s archaeologists unearthed clay tablets in what had been the Assyrian royal libraries of Nineveh. These tablets contained the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet who lived in what we now call Iraq more than 3700 years ago. The clay tablets were shipped to the British Museum where George Smith began sorting through the materials. He quickly discovered the remains of a great epic poem about a legendary king named Gilgamesh. In 1872 Smith gave a public lecture on the climax of the epic which was the famous Babylonian Flood Story. As Smith pointed out, the Babylonian flood story goes back to at least 1750 BCE– long before Israel became a nation.

He quickly discovered the remains of a great epic poem about a legendary king called Gilgamesh.

The story goes like this: King Gilgamesh, who is part god and part man, is a harsh ruler of his people. The people cry out to their gods for help and the gods create a wild man named Enkidu to counter Gilgamesh. Enkidu, however, gains wisdom and understanding and becomes Gilgamesh’s friend. After a period of time, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become bored and begin a great adventure. On this journey Enkidu tragically dies and Gilgamesh begins to think about his own mortality. He does not want to die and begins a quest for immortality. He hears of a couple who have been granted eternal life by the gods. The husband’s name is Utnapishtim, a virtuous man who obeys the gods and was saved by them from the Great Flood. He and his wife live far away at the mouth of all rivers, at the end of the world. After a long and dangerous journey Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim. He asks Utnapishtim how he received immortality, and Utnapishtim tells the story. In the time before the flood, there was a city, Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates River. There, the council of the gods held a secret meeting; they all resolved to destroy the world in a great flood. All the gods were under an oath not to reveal this secret to any living thing, but Ea (one of the gods who created humanity) came to Utnapishtim’s house and told the secret to the walls of the house, thus not technically violating his oath to the rest of the gods. He advised the walls of Utnapishtim’s house to build a great boat, its length as great as its breath, to cover the boat, and to bring all living things to the boat. Utnapishtim completes the great task by the new year, loads the boat with gold, silver, and all the living things of the earth, and launches the boat. Ea orders him into the boat and commands him to close the door behind him. The flood begins, the earth splits, and the light turns to darkness. The flood is so great that even the gods are frightened and shake like beaten dogs. The gods weep and tremble. The flood lasts for seven days and seven nights. Finally, the light returns to earth and Utnapishtim opens a window and sees that the entire earth has turned into a flat ocean. The boat comes to rest on the top of a mountain and remains lodged there for seven days. On the 7th day Utnapishtim says, “I released a dove from the boat. It flew off, but circled and returned for it could find no perch. I then released a swallow from the boat, but it also circled and returned for it could find no perch. Then I released a raven from the boat. By then the waters has receded. The raven eats, it scratches the ground, but it does not circle and return. I then sent out all the living things in every direction and sacrificed on that very spot. The gods smell the odor of the sacrifice (in Babylonian mythology, the gods are dependent on the sacrifices for sustenance) and begin to gather around Utnapishtim. He and his wife are blessed with immortality.

Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh that this was the way he and his wife became immortal. He then puts Gilgamesh to various tests which Gilgamesh fails. One of these tests is for Gilgamesh to go to the bottom of the ocean to obtain a secret plant which will make him young again. While he sleeps after getting the plant, a snake slithers up and eats the magic plant (which according to legend is why snakes shed their skins and receive a new body as they continue their immortality) and crawls away. Gilgamesh awakens to find the plant gone, and he weeps in despair. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh he cannot escape death. A humbled Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom and orders his story to be inscribed in stone.

That’s the Mesopotamian version of the flood story. As you can see there are many parallels to the Noah story.

That’s the Mesopotamian version of the flood story. As you can see there are many parallels to the Noah story. My point is this: there was a common tradition throughout the ancient Near East about a great flood which destroyed all human beings except one special family. That tradition included a large boat with some of all the animals on the boat. What we have in Genesis is the Israelite version of that common story. (Some scholars suggest that the story may have had as its origin a dim reflection of a great flood in the Mesopotamian area. The word “Mesopotamia” means “between the rivers.” The rivers are the violent Tigris and the Euphrates. These rivers did flood at times and did so violently. Unlike the Nile River which predictably and for the most part gently overflowed its banks, the Tigris and Euphrates were unpredictable and deadly in their flooding.)

So, what does all this mean? Let’s begin by making a couple of observations culled from science and common sense. There is no scientific evidence for the great flood described in Genesis or in the Gilgamesh Epic. (Fossils/sea shells on mountains date back 100s of millions of years before human beings were on the earth and when most of the earth was under water. Tectonic plates pushed the “ground” up to form the mountains. The fossils come from that period when most of the earth was under water millions of years before the advent of humans.)

Also, the very notion that a boat/ark could hold some of every animal on the face of the earth strains common sense. (Currently there are 297,326 species of plants, 28,849 species of fungi, 950,000 species of insects, 6199 species of amphibians, 8240 species of reptiles, 9956 species of birds, 5416 species of mammals—not to mention all those beings which have gone extinct over the centuries) The overwhelming evidence tells us there never was such a flood. This is a story, and in each culture, the story served to answer certain questions about life and the reason why things are as they are. (We find many similar stories in the Native American traditions. These stories are not factual but they are true as far as the wisdom they provide.) Once we realize that fundamental truth, then questions like “Where is the ark today? How did Noah get all those animals on the ark? How did water come from above and from below the earth? Why would God decide to destroy creation after going to all the trouble to create in the first place? Why would God admit that it was a mistake to destroy it after the flood is over?” are ludicrous. Such questions are like asking, “Where is Oz?” or “Where is Neverland?” This is a story, not a description of something which happened in history.

Now there are people who come up with some far-fetched answers to these questions. They must twist logic like a pretzel to do so. But every single question we can raise about Noah and the flood can be answered once we realize that this is not a historical account of a great flood which covered the whole earth—it is a story common to the peoples of the ancient Near East, and the purpose of the story is to explain some of the “whys” of life. Common sense should tell us that, but we have been wrongly led to believe the Bible is designed to give us scientific and historical facts.

Does this mean that Genesis is not true?

Does this mean that Genesis is not true? Well, what do we mean by “true”? If we mean Genesis is trying to report a scientific, historical occurrence– that there was actually a flood that covered the entire earth and destroyed every living creature except those on board an ark with some of every animal, an actual man named Noah, etc., then no, the story is not true. But as we saw in the previous sermon, the Bible is not a science book—the writers had no knowledge of what the earth was like 100s of millions of years ago or even 10,000 years ago. And although the Bible has history in it, it is not a history book. It is a book of faith bearing witness to the perceived presence and acts of God among a certain people over a period of 1000 years plus. So, is the flood story true? If we mean is there truth taught by the story—truth about God, us, the world, sin, and forgiveness, then yes, there is truth. These stories contain truth in a way similar to the way Jesus’ parables contain truth.

The Bible is not equipped to answer scientific questions like how, what, where, when, and cause and effect. But as a book of faith it is extremely valuable in answering the question of why in the sense of purpose. These opening chapters of Genesis provide some of the most profound answers to humanity’s questions of why: Why are we here? Why is there sin? Who is God, and what is God’s purpose for this world, humanity, and us as individuals? What is life all about? What is truly important? Why do we so often go wrong? Is there any hope for us or the world? Science cannot answer a single one of these questions because it is not equipped to provide answers to these types of queries. But religion is all about the questions of why, and the Bible, beginning with these opening chapters, provides some profound wisdom. People who think Genesis is just a fairy tale overlook this wisdom. And those who take these chapters as literal history and science also miss the message. You can believe every word in Genesis is true literally, scientifically, and historically and entirely miss the message contained in these stories. And isn’t the message the whole point?

How then should we approach this flood story in Genesis?

*We can compare and contrast Genesis with the Gilgamesh Epic and ask what makes Genesis unique. How does the faith of Israel shape this story?

*What purpose does the story serve in the overall scheme of Genesis 1-12:3?

*What does the story teach us about God, humanity, sin, nature, forgiveness, and the wider world?

What does the story teach us about God, humanity, sin, nature, forgiveness, and the wider world?

All this we shall see when we get to the chapters covering the flood story. What I want to accomplish in this sermon is to give one example of how stories common in the ancient Near East were used by Israel to tell us some fundamental truths about God and us. Needless to say, there are other examples.

There are also parallels to the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, the Adam and Eve story, the Cain and Abel story, the sexual joining of the sons of God with the daughters of men, the genealogies with people living hundreds of years, and the Tower of Babel (Babylon) within the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite traditions which date before Israel even existed as a nation.

Now once again, I don’t mean that Israel went over to Babylon or up to Ugarit, or down to Egypt and said, “Hey, we need some good stories. What can you give us?” I’m trying to say that Israel was a part of the ancient Near East and these stories belonged to them as much as to other cultures. These cultures and peoples shared a common tradition going back centuries and millennia. Each culture shaped these stories according to its situation, religion, and history. Israel did so in light of her understanding of the God she worshipped and who acted in her midst. If we look for the message/the main point/the purpose behind these stories, I believe we shall find some profound wisdom as we consider the why questions of life. If we are open to that same Spirit which guided those who shaped these traditions, we too might just hear the voice of God. And I think we would all admit that we live in a time when we can use all the divine wisdom we can muster.

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