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

Mesopotamian Deities

The religion of Mesopotamia presents a kaleidoscope of hundreds of deities and demons ever assuming new patterns in response to changing political fortunes. Its world of supernatural powers was rooted in two different cultures, a later Semitic deposit overlaying an older Sumerian level, the latter derived from a people resident in southern Mesopotamia but of unknown origin and employing a language without known affiliation. The oldest Sumerian deities were identified with the powers believed immanently manifested in natural phenomena and with economically important entities: Anu the god of heaven, Nanna the moon, Utu the sun, Ezen the goddess of grain, Enlil the lord of wind, Ninsuna mistress of wild cows, and so forth, each with their particular realm of power and special cult places. Most cities had their patron deities. With the gradual unification of the region, a loosely defined pantheon of gods developed, many associated with one another in terms of family relations or along the lines of political and administrative functions. In myths about the origins of divine beings and the cosmos found in the epic of creation (designated by its opening phrase, Enuma elish, “when above”), primordial beings such as Apsu (fresh water), Tiamat (sea water) and their immediate descendants functioned as ancestral parents of the gods but played no real role in the religious and cultic life of the people.

During the biblical period (after 1000 B.C.E.), the highest triad of Mesopotamian deities were Anu, god of the heavens and king and father of the gods (who functioned as a rather inactive background figure); Enlil, god of wind and storms (who embodied transcendental and judgmental aspects of divinity); and Ea or Enki, god of wisdom and magic and lord of underground fresh waters (who embodied immanental aspects of divinity). All three possessed consorts who were reflections of their male counterparts. The people's myths illustrate how they conceived of the deities and their interaction. In the Mesopotamian myth of Atrahasis, with its accounts of the deluge, Enlil decided on the destruction of humankind because of its noise-making. Enki, through cunning and scheming, saved the human race from total destruction in the flood while subsequently devising means (barrenness, childhood diseases, and so on) for population control. In Enuma elish, Enki saved the young gods from destruction by Apsu. Enki was conceived of as the source of world order, as the provider of the gifts of human civilization, and the source of power against demons.

Although goddesses played significant roles in early Sumerian religion, by the first millennium only two goddesses were prominent, Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, and Inanna/Ishtar, identified with the planet Venus. With her husband/lover, Dumuzi (Tammuz), Ishtar was closely associated with fertility. The death of and search for Tammuz as part of the seasonal cycle was apparently even known in Judah (see Ezek. 8.14 ). In her many roles, predominantly as the morning and evening star, Ishtar was goddess of love and war. She may have been the deity known in the final days of Judah as the queen of heaven (Jer. 7.18; 44.18–19, 25 ) but this is not certain.

In addition to the star goddess Ishtar, other celestial bodies were considered deities: Sin, the moon-god, and Shamash, the sun-god. Since the sun, in its daily cycle across the heavens, witnessed everything happening on earth, Shamash was understood as the god of justice, the enemy of the wrongdoer and oppressor, and the defender of the just and the oppressed. On Hammurabi's stela, Shamash is shown commissioning the king to write down his laws which “caused the land to take the right way and have good government.” Frequently associated with Shamash was the god Adad, a storm god, the source of life-giving rains.

With the development of the city-states of Babylon and Ashur into national states and subsequently into empires, the gods of the capital cities greatly increased in importance. Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, and Nabu, Marduk's son and patron of the nearby city of Borsippa (as well as of scribal art), played central roles in the state cult during Babylonian dominance, as did Ashur in the days of the Assyrian empire. Many aspects and functions of other gods were absorbed by them. Marduk (whose name was replaced with Ashur in Assyria) became the supreme figure in the creation epic Enuma elish. In the myth, Marduk, a son of Ea, was appointed leader of the younger gods whom some of the older deities wished to destroy because their noisy commotion deprived the geriatric group of their rest. Empowered so his word would come true and with promises of reward if successful, Marduk took on the enemy. He slaughtered Tiamat, the primordial sea, and from her body created the universe, fashioning and ordering the constellations, stars, sun and moon, and the calendar. After the building of the city of Babylon, Marduk presided over Ea's creation of humans, fashioned from the remains of the slain rebel god Kingu. Humans were assigned the task of being servants to the gods so the latter might be at ease. The assembly of the deities hailed Marduk as eternal king of the gods and proclaimed his fifty names, each expressing some aspect of his power. The seven tablets of the Enuma elish (with the themes of the triumph of order over chaos, the greatness of Babylon, and the kingship of Marduk) were read on the fourth day of the annual eleven-day Babylonian new year festival, and its recital helped create the order it proclaimed.

Demons played a major role in Mesopotamian life, one that is unparalleled in ancient Near Eastern religion. Both good and bad demons existed and the latter were enemies of humans and gods. Demons lurked in any place fraught with danger and unfamiliarity and were especially active in crisis situations, such as childbirth. Evil demons who caused illnesses and other calamities were considered to have diverse origins: some were created by Anu, others came from the underworld, while others were the souls of dead human beings. Mesopotamian religion developed no concept of meaningful postmortem existence either in the underworld or beyond, so at best the deceased were not well off. Those who had died violent deaths or whose bodies were not properly buried might haunt the living. Numerous spells and incantation rituals existed to protect one from threatening demons or to rescue one from their clutches.

Often the worshiper had the sense of having “acquired a god,” sometimes unnamed, who was the personal protector and object of devotion for an individual and the person's family. This personal religion was expressed especially in prayers similar to the penitential psalms of the Bible, but also in complaints like those of the Book of Job when individual worshipers considered their suffering unjustified.

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