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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Myths and Legends

People in antiquity were as concerned as modern people are with the way the world functioned, and they expressed their understanding of the origin and preservation of world order through their stories about the primeval conflict between chaos and order. Such accounts, which give us insights into the cosmology of the ancient Near East, are commonly called “creation myths,” even though in most cases creation is of secondary interest to the composers. The most famous of these myths is the Babylonian creation epic called Enuma Elish (“When on High”), a name derived from the opening line of the account. It begins with a time before heaven and earth were made, when only primeval fresh-water Apsu (English “abyss”) and salt-water Tiamat (biblical Hebrew tehom, “Deep”) existed. Soon after the gods came into existence, Tiamat conspired with Apsu to destroy them. Order was in jeopardy; chaos threatened to take over. Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was summoned by the deities to rescue them. The god marched into battle against Tiamat and her monstrous entourage, killed her, and divided her body into two. With one half of her body the heavens were made, and with the other half the earth. Thereupon, Marduk was acknowledged by the gods as king and he ruled henceforth as the supreme deity in Babylon, the city of his choice.

Although the account tells of the creation of the world, its focus is not on the origins of the cosmos per se. The motivation behind the story was not scientific but ideological. Whereas in other creation stories from the region Marduk plays a subordinate role, or no role at all, he is the hero in this account. It was he who brought order out of chaos. The myth was recited annually at the New Year to celebrate the refurbishing of the temple of Marduk in Babylon. Its purpose was, in fact, to extol Babylon's role in the establishment and maintenance of world order.

Creation accounts in Egypt, likewise, are ideologically motivated. This was the case with the so-called “Theology of Memphis,” a copy of which was inscribed on the Shabaka Stone. The text describes creation by the command of Ptah, the god of the sanctuary at Memphis; it stands in contrast to Atum's creation, which originated from primeval watery chaos. Memphis is regarded in this inscription as the center of life in all Egypt. The text thus argues for the superiority of the Memphite cultus over the more ancient one in Heliopolis. Atum, the creator god of Heliopolis, is said to have been created by Ptah and is portrayed as a mere functionary. According to this account, it was Ptah who made the souls of mortals and was responsible for the preservation of world order.

There are no indisputable creation texts from Ugarit, but there are conflict-myths that bear resemblance to the “creation myths” of Mesopotamia. Of course, the protagonist in these texts is Ugarit's deity, the storm-god, Baal. The most important texts occur in two variations, one concerning Baal's battles with Yamm, the deified Sea, and the other his conflict with Mot, Death. The enemies of Baal are accompanied by their entourage, which included one called Lothan (biblical “Leviathan”), a slithery dragon with seven heads. In the first variation, the messengers of Sea come before the divine assembly to demand the surrender of Baal. Thereupon, the gods of the council put “their heads on their knees,” a gesture which may be associated with a mourning ritual in Egypt. Baal's demise is too readily conceded by his peers in the assembly; they are already mourning his death! But Baal ventures forth into combat, defeats Sea, and is declared king. Parallels with the Mesopotamian conflict-myths are obvious. The people of Ugarit were probably aware of this fact, as well, for a god list from the city explicitly identified Yamm (Sea) with Tiamat.

In the other variant of the conflict-myth, Death actually overcomes Baal and swallows him. Baal is declared dead and he descends into the netherworld where he remains for some time. But the initial setback is reversed when Baal is resurrected. Death is eventually defeated and it is proclaimed: “Baal lives!”

As in the conflict-myths elsewhere, the Baal stories are ideological. Some scholars think of the myths as reflecting the agricultural seasons of ancient Canaan, with the alternating dominance of death in the dry months of the summer and the revivification of nature during the rainy seasons. The myths are also political, inasmuch as they tell of the rise of Ugarit's primary deity to prominence. As in the Enuma Elish, Baal's victory over the forces of chaos resulted in the establishing of a temple from which Baal would rule and maintain order.

The dominant motifs and basic pattern of the Ugaritic conflict-myths are reflected in ancient Israel's psalmody (e.g., Pss. 24, 29, 74 ), where the God of Israel is presented as the divine warrior defeating the forces of chaos, resulting in the deity's enthronement as king in Jerusalem, the elect city. The motifs are also prominent in the apocalyptic passages of the Bible, where God appears as a warrior slaying the mythological monsters and ultimately scoring the decisive victory by swallowing death (Isa. chs. 24–27 ). But the mythic pattern is discernible in biblical narratives, too, as in the initial setback but ultimate victory for the Ark of the Covenant, which represented Israel's deity in conflict with the god of the Philistines (1 Sam. chs. 4–6 ).

The dragon-slaying theme is found elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In the Hittite “Myth of Illuyankas,” the storm-god is initially bested by the sea-monster, but returns to defeat it. The theme of the repulsing of the dragon is also evident in Egyptian myth and ritual.

Apart from the conflict-myths there are stories in Mesopotamia about a great Flood that destroyed the world. There are several versions of the story, but the most well-known is the “Atrahasis Epic,” named after the king who is the protagonist in the story. The legend is told in the context of primeval history and the establishing of order in the cosmos. Humanity had been created to be of service to the gods, but the fecundity of mortals proved to be a problem, contributing to disorder and chaos in the world. The god Enlil made several attempts to destroy humanity, but each time the plan was foiled through the intervention of another god, Enki. At last Enlil decided to wipe out the human race through a great Flood. But Enki advised Atrahasis to build a ship, in which a remnant of humanity escaped the destruction of the deluge. After the Flood had subsided, Atrahasis offered sacrifices to the gods, who, having been deprived of human care during the deluge, then swarmed about like flies. Thus the epic is ultimately an affirmation of the place of humanity in the cosmos, although measures had to be taken in the new order to control the unchecked growth of the human population: in the new order there would be sterile women in addition to the fertile, there would be a demon who would snatch away infants from their mothers, and there would be women who would never marry.

Like the “Atrahasis Epic,” the biblical Flood account belongs with the creation of humanity in primeval history. But the Bible's assessment of humanity's function on earth differs significantly from that of Atrahasis. Moreover, the command to mortals at creation and after the Flood to “be fruitful and increase” (Gen. 1.28; 9.7 ) must be seen as a deliberate polemic against the perspective of Atrahasis that human fecundity is a problem for the deity.

Another version of the Flood story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, named after the legendary ruler of Uruk (biblical Erech) in Sumer who was “two-thirds god and one-third human.” When his friend Enkidu died, Gilgamesh became despondent about his own mortality and obsessed with overcoming death. So he set forth to learn the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim, who had survived the great Flood long ago. Utnapishtim related the story of the Flood and how he received instructions to build a ship to save his family. When the Flood subsided and the ship landed on a mountain, Utnapishtim successively sent forth a dove, a swallow, and a raven to see if the water had indeed diminished. When the raven did not return, Utnapishtim went forth and sacrificed to the gods (cf. Gen. ch. 8 ). Utnapishtim and his wife were made “like gods” living at the source of the rivers. Immortality was a gift of the gods, however, and Gilgamesh was unable to receive it. Like all mortals, he had to face the stark reality of death.

There is a scene in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Ishtar, the goddess of war, tries to seduce the hero. When spurned by Gilgamesh, Ishtar wails before her father Anu, the chief deity of the pantheon. A similar scene is found in the Ugaritic “Tale of Aghat,” where Anat the goddess of war tries to seduce Aghat by offering him immortality, among other things. When rejected by the hero, Anat complains to her father El, the Ugaritic equivalent of Anu in Mesopotamia. It is likely that some version of the Epic of Gilgamesh might have influenced the Ugaritic story, a possibility that is supported by the discovery of a fragment of the Mesopotamian story at Ugarit.

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