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Guest Post – Creation and the Flood in Ancient Myth and in the Torah: Ma’aseh Bereshit as Social Theory by Joshua Berman

October 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Tanach

Created Equal

Creation and the Flood in Ancient Myth and in the Torah: Ma’aseh Bereshit as Social Theory

by Joshua Berman

It might seem obvious that the Torah should begin at the beginning, with the creation of the world and of mankind.  Yet, the midrsah, made famous by Rashi, wasn’t at all sure that the Torah should begin with the account of Creation, and instead suggested that it should begin with the first mitzvah, of Kiddush ha-chodesh.

It is interesting to note that in the ancient Near East, there were lots of myths about the gods, but very few about how mankind came into being.  Essentially, to tell the story about how mankind came into being, is to make a statement about what being a human being is all about.  And it is precisely here that we can see an enormous chasm between the Mesopotamian creation legend, Atrahasis, which tells about the creation of man, and the account given us in the Torah.  Learning the story of Atrahasis can allow us to appreciate an important aspect of what Ma’aseh Bereshit has to teach us.  It isn’t simply a record of what happened at the earliest stages of time.  It’s a statement – a polemical statement – about what mankind is about, that was radical for its time.

The story opens with an account of the hierarchy of the gods. The upper class, or, Anunnaki, were served by the lower class, or, Igigi, who engaged in all manner of menial labor in the service of their lords, the Anunnaki. Their primary task was the excavation of the rivers and canals, so vital for the existence of the Mesopotamian economy. The myth tells that “hard work, night and day, they groaned and blamed each other” as they “grumbled over the masses of excavated soil,” until finally after 3,600 years of this, they engaged in what may be the first description of a mass job walkout in the history of literature. At this point, one of the worker gods instigates a decisive course of action: he proposes that a posse surround the house of their taskmaster, Ellil (yes, as in avodat elilim), counselor to the higher gods, and drag him out of his house. Now, the more things change, the more they stay the same: what labor demonstration is complete without the proverbial tire burning?  And so the disgruntled lower gods assemble their tools and spades, and set them afire. The posse of embittered laborer-gods reaches the overlord, Ellil’s house, and surrounds it. A lynching was in the offing.

A meeting of the upper class Anunnaki gods is hastily convened, and it is the god Enki/Ea who prevails, with a recognition of the problem, and a proposition for a solution:

“[Belet-ili, the midwife], is present.

“Let her then create a hum[an, a man]

“Let him bear the yoke [       ],

“Let him bear the yoke [       ]!

“[Let man assume the drud]gery of god…”

A deliberation then ensues concerning just how to go about fashioning this new being,  a human. He must be closer to the gods than are animals and thus a god is sacrificed and his flesh and blood mixed with clay. The first human is displayed to the other gods for approval, following which, mass production of the new “bio-technology” commences, so that a corps of new workers would be able to relieve the Igigi lower class gods of their former drudgery.

The tale is a virtual celebration of social hierarchy. From the beginning of time, the gods had already been divided along social lines. The rebellion of the lower gods simply serves as an occasion to bring humans onto the scene in order to occupy the lowest rung on the ladder. The purpose of mankind is to serve as a toiling servant of the gods, carrying out the most menial, back-breaking tasks on their behalf.  While the myth speaks of humanity’s existential purpose vis-à-vis the gods, it is clear that the relationship depicted is but a reflection of the earthly social hierarchy. The raison d’être of the common man is to serve the king, to offer him his constant labor, all to allow the king and his house to rule in comfort and splendor.

Some scholars have noted that there is strong resemblance between the account of the creation of man in Genesis 2, and in Atrahasis. According to Gen 2:6, man is fashioned out of dirt, and infused by God with “the spirit of life”. These scholars also rightly points out that it is here that the similarity ends. In Atrahasis, man is created to engage in back-breaking work on behalf of the gods. In Genesis 2, man is created to till the ground–but ultimately for his own nourishment and pleasure.

These scholars sought to compare the creation of man in Atrahasis and in Gen 2 because of the common theme of man being created through a fusion of physical and metaphysical elements. But if we look to compare not the question of how man was created, but why he was created, an even sharper contrast emerges when the creation of man in Atrahasis is compared with the account of the creation of man in Genesis chapter 1 (1:26-29):

And God said: Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth… And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.

In Atrahasis, man is created in order to be a servant; in Genesis, all men are created to have dominion.  There is no inkling in Genesis 1 that either man or the created world around him was created in order to provide for God in any way; rather, the world is created for man to have dominion of it, as expressed in Psalm 8:5-6:

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,

and hast crowned him with glory and honor.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;

thou hast put all things under his feet.

For the Mesopotamian imagination, the assignment of man’s role as but a toiling servant of the gods was not without problem. For if, in fact, man had been created to do the gods’ bidding why would the gods, who control all, introduce illness and famine in the world? What could possess the gods to inflict misery and death upon those whose very purpose was none other than to serve them?  The continuation of the myth of Atrahasis attends to this very point, in a fashion that further underscores the low metaphysical standing of the common man. It continues by enumerating how Ellil, the king of the gods, became disenchanted with the human race:

[The land had grown wide], the people had increased,

The [land] was bellowing [like a bull].

The god was disturbed with [their uproar].

[Ellil heard] their clamor

[He said to] the great gods,

“The clamor of mankind [has become burdensome to me],

“I am losing sleep [to their uproar].

The din of an overpopulated earth was apparently disturbing the divine serenity, making napping difficult! The story continues with Ellil concocting various methods of extermination to control human population growth, so that there would be less noise to disturb his sleep. When epidemic didn’t do the trick, he sent illness. And when that didn’t work he sent drought, which resulted in a famine. And when that didn’t work, he ultimately sent the flood.  Between the accounts of each attempted liquidation, the myth repeats the refrain about how mankind’s numbers continued to swell, thereby further disturbing Ellil’s sleep. Following the dubious success of the flood, the gods sought to find a way to reap the benefits of man’s labors, while yet restricting his reproduction, and agreed on three measures: First, that henceforth some women would be created infertile. Second, a new female demon would be created and charged with introducing stillbirth and infant mortality into the world. Finally, the gods would now demand the establishment of a caste of priestesses who, by sacral necessity, would not be allowed to be impregnated except by the king.  To summarize, the picture that emerges of the common man in Mesopotamian thought is an undignified one indeed. Created in order to serve and support the gods, man suffers various afflictions at their hands, is decimated by the flood, and all for the sole reason that his presence disturbs their sleep.

The conclusion to the flood narrative in Genesis could not stand in greater polemical tension with regard to the metaphysical standing of the common man. If the myth of Atrahasis sees human reproduction as distressful in the eyes of God, in Genesis the tables are turned completely. The flood narrative ends with the most ringing affirmation of human reproduction and the most stinging approbation of the taking of human life. Noah disembarks from the ark, upon which he receives a blessing (Gen 9:1-6):

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky–everything with which the earth is astir–and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand… For your life-blood I will require a reckoning: of every beast will I require it; of man, too, I will require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God was man created.1

The flood was indeed a punishment for the iniquities of man. But it was a punishment for the iniquities of a single generation. Far from seeking to limit the reproduction of man, God seeks to promote it. The metaphysical standing of man in future generations would remain unchanged: man, created in the image of God, is created in order to have dominion of the earth.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman is a lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at the Shalem Center.  This essay is adapted from his recent book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008).

  1. See Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance For our Understanding of Genesis 1-9,” Biblical Archaeologist 40:4 (1977): 150-52. []
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