|The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration|
Contact the author, Duncan Heaster
Digression 3 The Intention And Context Of Genesis 1-3
Moses' Intention In Genesis
Let’s remember that under inspiration, Moses wrote Genesis, presumably during the 40 years wandering. He therefore wrote it in a context- of explaining things to Israel as they stumbled through that wilderness, wondering who they were, where they came from, where they were headed- and which of the myths about 'beginnings' they heard from the surrounding peoples were in fact true. The Israelites, for example, encountered the Kenites [Heb. Qeni], a wandering, nomadic tribe whom nobody wanted much to do with as they were perceived to be cursed (Gen. 15:19; Num. 24:21,22). Gen. 4 explains why they were like this- they were the descendants of Cain [Heb. Qayin], who was punished with an unsettled existence because of his sin. Having recently left Egypt, the Israelites had been exposed for 400 years to the idea that Ra, the sun God of Egypt, was ruling the world. But Gen. 1:16 teaches that the God of Israel created the sun, the sun was not uncreate as the Israelites had been taught, and he ruled by God's fiat and allowance. Even if people wanted to believe in a sun God who ruled- the point being made was that the God of Israel was far above that sun god, had created the sun, and given it power to 'rule'. The Son of God seems to have in essence employed a similar approach in dealing with belief in demons at His time.
This approach explains why there are so many links within the Pentateuch- e.g. the Spirit “flutters” over the waters in Gen. 1:2, just as God like an eagle [a symbol of the Spirit] “flutters” over Israel in bringing about their creation as a nation (Dt. 32:1). The point is, what God did at creation, He can do at any time. As He made the waters “swarm” in Gen. 1:20, so He made the waters of the Nile “swarm” with frogs (Ex. 7:28) in order to save His people from a no-hope, chaotic, disordered, hopeless situation. The lights were to be for signs, for fixed times (seasons AV), for days and for years. The Hebrew word for ‘seasons’ doesn't refer to the climate or the weather. It is the word used for the religious festivals which God commanded Israel in the wilderness - therefore the creation record was in the context of Israel understanding that the lights in Heaven are there for Israel to know when to keep the feasts which Moses had commanded them. The command to subject the animals in Eden [the land promised to Abraham?] corresponds to later commands to subject the tribes living in the land (Gen. 1:28 = Num. 32:22,29; Josh. 18:1). The “fear and dread” of humans which fell on the animals after the flood is clearly linkable with the “fear and dread” which was to come upon the inhabitants of Canaan due to the Israelites (Gen. 9:2 = Dt. 1:21; 3:8; 11:25). When Moses “finished the work” of the tabernacle (Ex. 40:33), there is clear allusion to God ‘finishing the work’ of creation (Gen. 2:2). As God walked in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8), so He would walk in the midst of the camp of Israel in the wilderness (Dt. 23:15). The whole phrase “Behold I have given you…” (Gen. 1:28) occurs later when the Priests are told what God has given them (Ex. 31:6; Lev. 6:10; Num. 18:8,21; Dt. 11:14). The reference to Cain as the builder of cities in Canaan (Gen. 4:17) was to pave the way for Moses’ later commands to Israel to destroy those cities. Moses records the braggart song of Lamech, uttered in the presence of his wives, as a warning as to what had happened as civilization developed in the very same area that Israel were now to colonize and build a society within- the warning being that as any society develops, there arises increased temptation to demand retribution for the slightest offence, and to assert oneself rather than trust in God (Gen. 4:17-26). And obviously the sanctification of the 7th day was based upon God’s ‘resting’ on the 7th day in the Genesis record. The later command not to covet what looks good is very much rooted in a warning not to commit Eve’s sin of seeing the fruit and yielding to temptation (Ex. 20:17 = Gen. 3:6).
The repeated references to the “journeys” of the people in the wilderness had as their basis the description of Abraham taking his journey through the desert to the promised land (Gen. 13:3); the very same two Hebrew words in italics recur in the command to Israel to now ‘take their journey’ (Dt. 10:11), following in the steps of their father Abraham. As Abraham was commanded to "be perfect" (Gen. 17:1), so Israel were told: "You [after the pattern of father Abraham] shall be perfect with the Lord" (Dt. 19:13). Moses’ books were helping the wilderness generation to see where they were coming from historically. Passages like Gen. 12:6 now take on special relevance: "The Canaanites were then in the land". Moses was saying this as his people were about to enter a Canaan likewise occupied by Canaanites. He was bidding the people see their connection with their father Abraham, who then lived with Canaanites also in the same land. Gen. 15:1 introduces us to Abraham as a man who had God as his "shield"; and Dt. 33:29 concludes the Pentateuch by saying that Israel as a nation should be happy because they have Yahweh as their "shield".
The flood myths give basically two reasons for the cause of the flood- the world was overpopulating [especially according to the Enuma Elis], and there was a battle between the gods which resulted in earth being flooded. Moses' explanation was radically different- the population growth was a result of God's blessing, and the flood came because of human sin. And, no cosmic battle which resulted in earth's inhabitants suffering because of it. Time and again, the surrounding myths sought to minimize sin, whereas Moses' record highlights it. Sadly, Jewish interpretations went the same way as the flood myths, with the Book of Enoch likewise attributing the flood and all human suffering to an Angelic revolt. Time and again, the difference between Moses' account of history and the surrounding myths is seen in the fact that Moses emphasizes human sin. There was a common ancient Near East belief in Azazel as a desert demon who looked like a goat. Perhaps Moses wished to address this idea when he called the scapegoat of the day of Atonement ritual "Azazel" and sent the goat into the desert (Lev. 16:21)- as if to say 'Now for you, Israel, no belief in that Azazel- the Azazel for us is simply a literal goat, bearing our sins in symbol, which we let loose into the desert' (1). Again and again, Moses sought to refocus his people on the practical, the literal, the concrete, and away from the myths which surrounded them. And yet he does this by alluding to those myths, so as to alert Israel to the fact that the new, inspired record which he was writing was fully aware of the myths God's people were being assailed with. This would explain the similarity of expressions between some of the myths and the Genesis record- e.g. "The Lord smelled the pleasing odour" (Gen. 8:21) is very similar to the Gilgamesh Epic, 9.159-160: "The gods smelled the odour, the sweet odour". The Biblical record is one of hard human reality, undiluted with the fantastic or mythical: "The central figures of the Bible saga are not, as in so many hero-tales, merged in or amalgamated with persons belonging to mere mythology; the data regarding their lives have not been interwoven with stories of the gods. Here all the glorification is dedicated solely to the God who brings about the events. The human being... is portrayed in all his untransfigured humanity" (2). The whole account of Moses in the bulrushes- Moses' history of himself, his autobiography- is full of reference to the story of how King Sargon of Akkad was born in hiding, placed in a stream in a reed box sealed with pitch, found and raised by a gardener, and then noticed by the goddess Ishtar who loved him and enthroned him (3). The parallels with Moses are clear, but note the mythical element in the pagan tale- the baby was found by a goddess. The Biblical record replaces that with a real, concrete, human situation- the daughter of Pharaoh king of Egypt noticed Moses and adopted him.
The people were frightened by the "giants" they met in the land of Canaan (Num. 13:33), likely connecting them with superhuman beings. These nephilim [LXX gigantes] had their origin explained by Moses in Genesis 6- the righteous seed intermarried with the wicked, and their offspring were these nephilim, mighty men of the world. Note in passing how Ez. 32:27 LXX uses this same word gigantes to describe pagan warriors who died- no hint that they were superhuman or Angels. We speak more of this in section 5-3. According to Jewish traditions (as reflected in 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees), the supposedly sinful Angels ("the Watchers") morally corrupted human beings in the lead up to the flood by teaching them to do evil, astrology, weapon making and the use of cosmetics (1 Enoch 7-8, 69; 10; 21.7-10; 64-65; 69; Jub. 5:16-11; 8:3). Yet the Genesis record simply states that the descendants of Cain started to do all those things, their wickedness increased, and so they were punished through the flood (Gen. 4:20-22). Constantly in the Jewish Apocryphal writings there is a shifting of blame from humanity to Angelic beings. Umberto Cassuto was one of 20th century Judaism's most erudite and painstakingly detailed Bible students. He demonstrated at length that the Canaanites believed there were various gods and demons responsible for the various events on earth, and that the Torah picks up these terms and applies them to God and His [all righteous] Angels. The examples he cites include the term "the most high God" (Gen. 14:18-20), "creator of heaven and earth" (Gen. 14:19,22), and the idea of supernatural demons coming to earth and wrestling with men (Gen. 32:29,31). These ideas and terms are used in the Torah and applied by Moses to God's Angels, and to God Himself. Cassuto went on to show that this kind of deconstruction of pagan myths about demons and 'Satan' is common throughout the Bible- e.g. the references to Israel's God Yahweh 'riding on the clouds' (Ps. 104:3; 147:8; Is. 5:6; Joel 2:2) are an allusion to how the surrounding peoples thought that Baal rode upon the clouds; the "morning stars" were understood as independent deities, but Job 38:7 stresses that they are in fact Yahweh's ministers. He pays special attention to the reference to the sons of God and daughters of men in Gen. 6, demonstrating that the "giants" are mortal, they were to die at best after 120 years; and they were on earth not in Heaven. Thus the Canaanite myths, which ironically later Judaism re-adopted, were deconstructed by Moses. He summarizes Moses' intention in the Genesis 6 passage as being to teach Israel: "Do not believe the gentile myths concerning men of divine origin who became immortal. This is untrue, for in the end all men must die, because they, too, are flesh... you must realize that they were only "on earth", and "on earth" they remained, and did not become gods, and they did not ascend to Heaven, but remained among those who dwell below, upon earth... the intention of the section is to contradict the pagan legends regarding the giants" (4).
It's significant that the various Mesopotamian legends about a flood all speak of there being conflict between the divinities before the decision to flood the earth was taken; and then quarrels and recriminations between them after it. The Biblical record has none of this- the one true God brought the flood upon the earth by His sovereign will, and He lifted the flood. In the legends, the hero of the flood [cp. Noah] is exalted to Divine status, whereas in the Biblical record Noah not only remains human, but is described as going off and getting drunk. Throughout pagan legends, the Divine-human boundary is often blurred- gods get cast down to earth and become men, whilst men get exalted to 'Heaven' and godhood. This gave rise to the idea of 'angels that sinned' and were cast down to earth. But in the Biblical record, the Divine-human boundary is set very clearly- the one God of Israel is so far exalted above humanity, His ways are not ours etc. (Is. 55:8), that there can be no possibility of this happening. The exception of course was in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ- but even He was born as a genuine human upon earth, and [contrary to Trinitarian theology] He was no Divine comet who landed upon earth for 33 years. The whole idea of the Divinity and personal pre-existence of Jesus Christ is simply not Biblical.
The Mesopotamian legends speak of the flood being sent to stop man destroying Enlil's "rest" by his noise. The Mesopotamian gods sought for a "ceasing from toil", "rest from labour"- identical ideas to the Hebrew concept of shabbat. This was why, it was claimed, the gods first created man and put him to work in their garden- so that they could "rest" (5). This background is alluded to in the way that Genesis speaks of man being cast out of tending the garden of Eden as a punishment- scarcely something the gods would wish if man was there to save them working there. God speaks of Him giving man a shabbat as a rest for man from his labour. And the flood, although it was Divine judgment, ultimately worked out as a blessing of 'rest' for man in that the 'world' was cleansed from sin. Thus 'Noah' was given that name, meaning 'rest', "because this child will bring us relief from all our hard work" (Gen. 5:29 G.N.B.). Adam's work in Eden wasn't onerous; his work when cast out of the garden was hard. The wrong ideas are clearly alluded to and often reversed- in order to show that a loving God created the world for humanity, for our benefit and blessing- and not to toil for the gods in order to save them the effort. The 'rest' so sought by the Mesopotamian gods was actually intended by the one true God as His gift to humanity.
The Biblical account of the flood gives details which are imaginable, earthly realities; there is nothing of the grossly exaggerated and other-worldly which there is in the pagan flood legends. Thus the Biblical dimensions for the ark are realistic, whereas the boat mentioned in the Babylonian legend recorded by Berossus was supposedly about one kilometre long and half a kilometre wide. Noah was 600 years old according to the Biblical record, whereas Ziusudra, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, was supposedly 36,000 years old at the time of the flood.
The Biblical Flood and the Gilgamesh Epic
The Babylonian Epic Of Creation (6.82) claims that after Marduk's victory, he set his bow in the sky and it became a constellation. He also supposedly used his bow to shoot arrows at the clouds which caused the deluge. "So, too, the pagan Arabs related of one of their gods that after discharging arrows from his bow, he set his bow in the cloud" (6). These myths are alluded to and corrected by the statement that God's bow is simply the rainbow (Gen. 9:13), a purely natural phenomenon which is merely an optical feature and certainly not a literal bow of any god. Yahweh's bow, the rainbow, is a symbol of His grace and love towards His creatures. The later Old Testament repeatedly uses the idea of the true God shooting His arrows as a figure of His judgment of His enemies and salvation of His people (Hab. 3:9,11; Zech. 9:14; Ps. 38:2; 64:8; 77:17; 144:6; Job 6:4; Lam. 2:4; 3:12). The whole mythical, pagan idea of a god having a literal bow and arrows is thereby deconstructed. The question arises, however, as to why Moses is alluding to Babylonian myths which were current only centuries after his time. My response is threefold. Firstly, God could have inspired Moses to speak in terms which would later take on relevance to the myths which God foresaw would arise. Secondly, the Babylonian myths may well have developed from myths which were current in Moses' time. A third possibility is that the Pentateuch was re-written under Divine inspiration whilst Judah were in captivity in Babylon, and the historical accounts presented in such a way as to have relevance to the Marduk worship and other Babylonian mythology which surrounded God's people in Babylonian captivity. I have given further evidence for this possibility elsewhere (7).
Here are some other examples of the Biblical record of the flood deconstructing pagan mythology:
- The Gilgamesh Epic specifically records that Utnapistim gave the workmen wine to drink whilst they built the ark (Tablet 9, lines 72-73). The Biblical account appears to consciously contradict this by stating that Noah was the first to make wine- and he did this after the flood (Gen. 9:20).
- The Mesopotamian myths speak of how the hero of the flood (cp. Noah in the Biblical account) was raised to divine, immortal status. Gen. 9:29 comments simply upon Noah: "And he died".
- The myths all emphasize how depleted humanity after the flood started to re-grow in size by miraculous means- the Atrahasis Epic claims that magic incantations of the god Ea over 14 lumps of clay gave birth to many new humans after the flood; the Greek flood tradition asserts that Deucalion threw stones which turned into men. The Biblical record states simply and realistically how the population re-grew through natural procreation.
I explained in the above section concerning the flood how Moses' words in Genesis deconstruct later Babylonian myths. Perhaps the clearest case of this is in the record of Babel. The Babylonian myths boasted of the building of the city of Babylon and its tower / ziggurat. The tower of Babel was built in a plain (Gen. 11:2); and both Strabo and Herodotus mention that Babylon was built in a wide plain. The record of the tower being built with bricks is so similar to the Babylonian Epic Of Creation, Tablet 6, lines 58-61, which held that "For a year [the gods] made bricks" to build the ziggurat of Babylon. Their myths claimed that after the deluge, humanity came to Babylon and the Anunnaki deities, who had supported Marduk in his battle, built the city. But Gen. 11:5 labours that it was "the sons of men" who built Babel. Cassuto describes the Genesis record as "a kind of satire on what appeared to be a thing of beauty and glory in the eyes of the Babylonians" (8). The phrase "city and tower" is so often found in Babylonian writings with reference to Babylon; but the phrase is used of Babel in Gen. 11:4. The temple of Marduk in Babylon had a sanctuary, the Esagila- "the house whose head is in heaven" and a tower called Etemenanki, "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth". Marduk supposedly lived on the seventh storey. The Babylonian inscriptions speak of the ziggurat tower as having its top in Heaven. The Genesis record deconstructs all this. The tower of Babel was built by sinful men and not gods; the one true God came down to view the tower- its top did not reach to Heaven, and there is a powerful word play on the word Babylon, meaning 'the gate of Heaven' in their language, and yet 'Babel', the equivalent Hebrew word, means 'confusion'. What the Babylonians thought was so great was in God's eyes and those of His people the Hebrews simply confusion and failure. The Genesis record goes on to show how that it was Abraham who had a great name made for himself (Gen. 12:2), whereas the Babel builders failed in their desire to make a permanent name for themselves. God's intention that mankind should spread out and fill the earth after the flood did eventually triumph over the builders of Babel-Babylon who tried to thwart it. Zeph. 3:9-11 allude to the Babel record- at the time of Judah's restoration from Babylon, it was God's intention to undo the effects of Babel and "change the speech of the peoples to a pure [united] speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering". Those dispersed would then gather as one, i.e. Babel would be reversed.
The Joseph Story
Several studies have revealed the similarities between Moses' account of Joseph and the Gilgamesh Epic and other Mesopotamian writings. World-wide famines of seven years' duration are a common theme in many of the Epics. But they are usually explained as arising from the death or anger of a demon / god (9). Gilgamesh 6.104 describes Ishtar as preparing for the seven year famine in an almost identical way to Joseph. Ishtar is being deconstructed, and brought down to a human level- a faithful human being, Joseph, rather than any god or Ishtar, was who prepared for and staved off the effects of the famine through his obedience to God. And it was the one God of Israel who brought the seven year famine, rather than any demon or Satan figure. The similarities between Joseph and Osiris, the Egyptian fertility god, 'the provider of food', also can't be lightly dismissed. Like Osiris, Joseph was confined until the word of his prediction came true, and afterwards he taught wisdom to the elders of Egypt (Ps. 105:19,22). The allusion is surely intended to rid the Israelites of any hankering to still believe in Osiris, within whose cult they had lived for 400 years, and instead to believe that it is Yahweh who provides fertility and the blessing of food through His obedient servants here on earth like Joseph. The pagan fantasies are alluded to but brought down to more human, earthly terms, with Yahweh being presented as the only true God.
The Egyptian tale of Anat tempting Aqhat is similar in outline terms to Potiphar's wife tempting Joseph; as the god Khnum hides a precious object in grain, so does Joseph; the Egyptian fertilitiy deities were gods of dreams and associated with the stars; they are at times slain by wild animals and their blood stained clothes presented as evidence (10). Having lived several generations in Egypt, the Israelites for whom Moses was composing Genesis would've been aware of these myths. And Moses is clearly referring to them- and applying them to a real, historical person, an Israelite, who had lived 400 years previously.
In a dated but fascinating book entitled The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian (Oxford: O.U.P., 1933), A.S. Yahuda demonstrated that the syntax and vocabulary of the Joseph story is very similar to Egyptian idiom. This would strengthen my suggestion that Moses is consciously seeking to engage with and deconstruct the Egyptian stories, amongst whose influence Israel had lived for four centuries. Moses is writing what we will later refer to as 'The Israelite epic', in response to the 'stories' and epics of the surrounding peoples amongst whom they lived and through whom they travelled. But Moses paints this picture, constructs the true, Divinely inspired version of the story, through engagement with and allusion to the incorrect stories and epics of the Gentiles. And in linguistic terms, Yahuda shows at depth how Moses is writing with allusion to Egypt and Egyptian in a manner which only the Israelites who had lived in Egypt would have perceived- e.g. Moses records how the cows in Pharaoh's dream represented years, but the hieroglyphic symbol for "year" was a cow.
The Law Of Moses
Throughout the Torah, we see the same pattern- of allusion to surrounding beliefs in order to show Yahweh's supremacy. The nations surrounding Israel had legal codes which defined the punishment for breaking certain laws. Yahweh's law featured this, but it also in places lacks any stated penalty for disobedience. The commands to not covet in the heart are obvious examples. This reflects God's perspective- that sin is an internal matter, in the heart, and will meet with Divine judgment at a later date even though humans will not judge such matters as legal disobedience. And there are other significant differences between Moses' law and the legal codes of the surrounding nations. Thus these codes often held that certain physical, sacred places could be entered and provide even murderers with freedom from judgment. The Torah allows this in some cases, but not in the case of deliberate murder. Thus when Joab grabs the horns of the altar, thinking he therefore couldn't be slain for his sin, he is dragged away and slain (1 Kings 2:28). This would've read strangely to many of the surrounding peoples. Hammurabi's laws had a sliding scale of punishment according to the social status of the person who had been harmed by misbehaviour- if a rich man struck out the eye of a 'commoner', he had to pay less compensation than if he did so to a person of higher status. The Torah reflects the immense value placed by God upon the human person; for such distinctions are totally absent in it.
It has been widely noted that many elements of the ten commandments are to be found in the legislation of Mesopotamia. Thus there are references to the Sabbath being kept as a monthly festival; and later "the name Shabattu was applied by the Babylonians and Assyrians to the day of the full moon, the fifteenth of the month, which was especially dedicated to the worship of the moon-god... the days of the full moon were considered days of ill luck... the Israelite sabbath was instituted, it seems, in antithesis to the Mesopotamian system" (11). Thus most pagan festivals of the time were begun by the lighting of a candle in the home; but a candle was not to be kindled on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:3). Yahweh blessed the Sabbath (Ex. 20:11). Work was not to be done so as to rest and remember God's creative grace; whereas in pagan thought, work wasn't done because 'Sabbath' was an unlucky day on which it was best to do as little as possible in case some 'Satan' figure struck. Such belief was being deconstructed in the Sabbath law. The Mosaic 10 Commandments included the unique commandment not to covet / lust. This was unknown in any Mesopotamian legal code- because obviously it's impossible to know what a person is thinking within themselves, and so impossible to judge or punish it. But God's law introduced the whole idea that sin / transgression of law is ultimately internal, and this will be judged by the one true God.
We can easily imagine how the people of Israel were prone to be confused by all the mythology they had encountered in their surrounding world. Being illiterate and having no inspired record from their God as to how to understand the past, they relied on dimly recalled traditions passed down. Hence Moses was inspired to write the Pentateuch. It is full- as so much of Scripture is- of allusion to the surrounding religious ideas- not because it in any sense depends upon them, but because it seeks to allude to and correct them. And further, the Torah labours how the one true God is so far superior to all the other gods whom Israel were tempted to believe in. In contrast with Near Eastern mythology, which had men as the lackeys of the gods to keep them supplied with food, the God of Genesis makes man and woman in His own image and gives them responsibility for His creation.
The Divine commands about the tabernacle likewise allude to the ideas of the surrounding nations, and yet bring out significant differences. In the same way as the Babylonians believed that the temple of Marduk in Babylon was a reflection of the Heavenly temple, so the tabernacle was also a reflection of the pattern of Yahweh's Heavenly temple. The Canaanites spoke of their god El as living in a tent- just as Yahweh dwelt in a tent. The Ugaritic epic of King Keret speaks of how "The gods proceed to their tents, the family of El to their tabernacles" (Tablet 2 D, 5, 31-33). El's tabernacle was thought to be constructed of boards- just as Yahweh's tabernacle was. Both had a veil, just as the Moslem shrine in Mecca has one. But there were significant differences. The Canaanite legends speak of the gods building their temples themselves; Cassuto points out that the very terms used about Bezaleel's skill and talent in building the tabernacle are used in Canaanite legends about the skill and talent of the gods in supposedly building their own temples. Perhaps the Exodus record so labours the point that Moses and the Israelites built Yahweh's tabernacle is in order to highlight the difference between the one true God and the pagan gods, who had to build their own tabernacles.
The Ugaritic poems speak of the furniture in Baal's heavenly temple, and it's very similar to that in the Most Holy Place. But the poems especially focus upon Baal's bed and chests of drawers for his clothing. These are noticeably absent in Yahweh's tabernacle furniture. The pagan god tabernacles all feature some kind of throne, upon which the god visibly sits. The cherubim of the Israelite tabernacle are similar to the Mesopotamian karibu, cherubim, upon which their gods sat. Phoenician and Egyptian art uncovered by archaeologists shows they believed in cherubim very similar in form to those described in Ezekiel's visions of Yahweh's cherubim. The throne of Yahweh was the ark, covered by the cherubim. There, above the blood spattered lid of the ark (or "mercy seat"), supported by the cherubim, the pagan mind expected to see Israel's God enthroned. The similarities to the pagan shrines were intentional- to set up this expectation. But there was nothing there. It was, to their eyes, an empty throne- just as God appears to be absent to so many people today. There was no visible image resting upon the wings of the cherubim, nothing on the throne / lid of the ark but the blood of atonement (which pointed forward to that of God's Son). The ark is called both the throne of God and also His footstool (Ps. 94:5; 132:7,8; 1 Chron. 28:2). Above or sitting upon the cherubim, the pagan mind expected to see Israel's God. But there was (to their eyes) an empty throne. Yahweh had to be believed in by faith. And His supreme manifestation was through the blood of sacrifice. Cassuto gives evidence that the Egyptians and Hittites placed their covenant contracts in a box beneath the throne of their gods; and the tables of the covenant were likewise placed beneath the throne of Yahweh. This similarity begged the comparison yet stronger- Israel's God was not seated there. He had to be believed in by faith. Such a concept of faith in an invisible god was quite foreign to the pagan mind; and yet the whole tabernacle plan was designed to have enough points of contact with the pagan tabernacles in order to elicit this point in very powerful form: the one true God is invisible and must be believed in.
The same point is taught by how Yahweh had a "table". The Mesopotamian gods likewise had a table (passuru) upon which food was placed as a meal for the god (as in Is. 65:11). But the beakers, cups and vessels on Yahweh's table remained empty (Ex. 25:29); the wine was poured out onto the sacrifices and vaporized; the priests ate the shewbread. There was no pretence that Yahweh was a hungry god who needed to be fed by His worshippers. To the pagan mind, this would've meant that if He didn't eat, He wasn't actually around nor powerful. Again, the difference and similarities were intentional, in order to point up the need for faith in the power and existence of Yahweh. Most of the surrounding tabernacles featured quite a lot of noise- especially incantations and spoken formulas regarding the holiness of the god and shrine. There were few spoken words in the Mosaic rituals; "Holy to the Lord" was written upon the forehead of the High Priest rather than stated by incantations (Ex. 28:36). We could maybe go so far as to say that we see here the exaltation of God's written word, with all the faith and understanding which this requires, as opposed to the incantations of other worship systems.
The stars in particular were thought to be in control of human destiny but the Genesis record emphasizes that they are merely lights created by God with no independent influence, therefore, upon human life on earth. The sun, the moon and the stars were all worshipped as gods in the Middle East but in Genesis 1 they are simply created things made by God. Genesis 1 is based around the number 7- and the practical issue of the creation record was that Israel were to remember the seventh day as Sabbath. Yet this was a purposefully critical commentary upon the Babylonian views. "According to one Babylonian tradition, the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of each month were regarded as unlucky: Genesis however, declares the seventh day of every week to be holy, a day of rest consecrated to God (2:1-3)" (12).
Thus we see the way God's word deconstructs error without as it were primitively confronting it in a 'I am right, your ideas are wrong and pitiful' kind of way. I find this bears the stamp of the Divine and the ultimately credible. Cassuto has a very fine comment upon this, made in the context of his view that Genesis 6 is deconstructing Canaanite legends about sinful gods, demons and giants: "The answer contradicts the pagan myths, but without direct polemic. This is the way of the Torah: even when her purpose is to oppose the notions of the gentiles, she does not derogate, by stooping to controversy, from her ingrained majesty and splendour. She states her views, and by inference other ideas are rejected" (13). This has bearing on why the Lord Jesus didn't in so many words state that 'demons' don't exist; rather by His miracles did He demonstrate "by inference" that they have no effective power or existence. More on this in section 4-12.
The closer we look at the Pentateuch, the more we see the huge emphasis placed by Moses upon deconstructing the wrong views about Satan and presenting Yahweh as omnipotent, and the ultimate source of both good and evil in the lives of His people. Thus in the prayer of the first fruits recorded in Dt. 26:5-11 we have the Hebrew verb "to give" repeated seven times. The first and last three usages of it refer to what God has 'given' to Israel; but the centrepiece reference is to Israel being 'given hard bondage' in Egypt (Dt. 26:6). Thus Yahweh is presented as the ultimate giver- of both good and evil.
And so time and again we find that the local pagan myths about Satan are alluded to and deconstructed by Moses. It has been observed that the Passover ritual of smearing the blood of the sacrifice on the doorposts was very similar to what Bedouin tribes have been doing in the Middle East for millennia- they smear the blood on their tent poles and tent entrances when they erect a new home or tent, in order to keep 'satan' figures away (14). But the Exodus record is at pains to point out that the 'Destroyer' was one of Yahweh's Angels; and thus it was ultimately Yahweh Himself who slew the firstborn in those homes without the daubed blood. Again- yet again- we see a pagan idea concerning 'satan' being taken up and reinterpreted in light of the fact that the 'satan' figures don't really exist, and God is the ultimate and unrivalled source of disaster. Ex. 21:6 speaks of bringing a slave "to God", i.e. to the door post of the home, and nailing his ear to it. "God" is paralleled with the door post. R.E. Clements notes that this alludes to the ancient pagan practice whereby "a household god would have been kept by the threshold of a house to guard it" (15). Moses is attacking this idea- by saying that God, Israel's God, is the One there- and not the household gods which those around Israel believed were there. The Pentateuch in similar vein uses the term 'to see the face of God', usually translated as 'to come into God's presence' (Ex. 23:16); this was a pagan term used at the time to describe seeing an image of a god (16). But as we noted when discussing the tabernacle, Israel were being taught that their God had no image, but all the same, they could come into His presence.
Genesis 1-3 In Context
The early chapters of Genesis were intended as the seed bed from which Israel would understand that they had grown. The nature of the record of creation was therefore primarily for their benefit. The lesson for us likewise must be- that what God did at creation, He can in essence do in our lives and experiences too. The record of Gen. 1-3 especially opens up in a new way when viewed from this angle. Difficult parts of the account seem to fall into place. Gen. 2:5 says that the creation account explains how God created "every plant of the field before it was in the earth / eretz / land [promised to Abraham]". Quite simply, the plants Israel knew had been made by God and somehow transplanted or moved into the land, just as one does when developing a garden. It was Moses' understanding that on entering the land, God would be planting Israel there (Ex. 15:17; Num. 24:6), just as God had planted in Eden (Gen. 2:8 s.w.). And when we read that Eve was "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20), this was in its primary application explaining to the Israelites in the wilderness where they ultimately originated from. Israel were to trace their first origins and parents back not merely to Abraham, but to Adam and Eve. Num. 35:3 [Heb.] uses the term to describe the "all living" of the congregation of Israel; indeed, that Hebrew word translated "living" is translated "congregation", with reference to the congregation of Israel (Ps. 68:10; 74:19). Note how the Hebrew idea of 'all living' repeatedly occurs in the account of the flood (Gen. 6:19; 8:1,17 etc.)- which we will later suggest was a flood local to the area which the Israelites knew and which had been ultimately promised to Abraham. "All living" things which were taken into the ark therefore needn't refer to literally every living thing which lives upon the planet, but rather to those species which lived in the flooded area, the earth / land / eretz promised to Abraham. I've explained elsewhere that the garden of Eden can be understood as the land promised to Abraham, perhaps specifically being located around Jerusalem, the intended geographical focus for God's people; and that the term eretz can be used to describe the land promised to Abraham rather than the whole planet.
In fact the whole record of Adam and Eve in Eden is alluded to multiple times in Moses' law. As they were given a command not to eat, so Israel were asked not to eat certain things. As there was a snake who was there in the 'land' of Eden, so there was the equivalent amongst Israel- the false teachers, the tribes who remained, etc., the "serpents of the dust" (Dt. 32:24- an evident allusion to the language of the snake in Eden). As Adam and Eve were to "be fruitful and multiply" in the land / Garden of Eden (Gen. 1:28), so Noah and his sons were to do just the same in the same land after the flood (Gen. 9:7); and the children of Abraham were promised that they would do likewise in the very same land (Gen. 35:11). The descriptions of the promised land, covered with good trees, whose fruit could be freely eaten, were reminiscent of the descriptions of Eden. Israel were to enter that land and tend it, as Adam should've done; they were to learn the lesson of Adam and Eve's failure in their possession of Eden. But as Eve lusted after the fruit, so Israel lusted after the fruits of Egypt. As Adam and Eve failed to "subdue" the garden of Eden (Gen. 1:28), so Israel failed to fully "subdue" [s.w.] the tribes of the land (Num. 32:22). They subdued a few local to them; but they never really rose up to the reality of being able to have the whole land area promised to Abraham subjected to them. And so Lev. 26 and Dt. 28 promised a curse to come upon the land [of Eden / Israel] for their failure within it, just as happened to Adam and Eve; and of course ultimately they were driven out of the land just as Israel's very first parents had been. As the eretz / earth / land was initially "without form and void", so the same term is used of the land of Israel after the people had been driven out of it (Jer. 4:23). As thorns and thistles came up in the land [and those plants are unknown in some parts of the planet], so they did again when Israel were driven from their land (Gen. 3:18; Hos. 10:8). As Adam was punished by returning to dust, so Israel would be destroyed by dust (Dt. 28:24).
Umberto Cassuto, as one of Judaism's most painstakingly detailed expositors of the Torah, has observed that the entities referred to in Genesis 1-3, such as the serpent, the cherubim etc., are spoken of in such a way that implies that Israel were familiar with the ideas. Cassuto notes the use of the definite article- the cherubim, the flaming sword- when talking about things which have not been mentioned earlier in the record. He concludes that therefore these things "were already known to the Israelites. The implies that their story had been recounted in some ancient composition current among the people" (17). The intention of Genesis was therefore to define these ideas correctly, to explain to Israel the truth about the things of which they had heard in very rambling and incorrect form in the various legends and epic stories they had encountered in Egypt and amongst the Canaanite tribes. Thus the description of the fruit as "pleasant to the sight" (Gen. 2:9) is found in the Gilgamesh epic about the trees in the garden of the gods. But that myth is alluded to, and Israel are told what really happened in the garden.
There can be no question that the Genesis record presents the serpent as a literal animal, the most cunning "of all the beasts of the field which the Lord God had made" (Gen. 3:1). This is highly significant- for many of the creation myths feature some kind of serpent, but always as some entity far more than a literal animal. The myths tend to present the serpent as a dragon figure, similar in appearance to the Biblical cherubim. Some cherubim-like figures uncovered in Egypt are in fact winged cobras (18). But the Genesis record clearly differentiates between the serpent and the cherubim. "Serpents figure in various Ancient Near Eastern myths in a demonic way" (19). The Sumerian god Ningishzida [meaning 'Lord of the tree'] was portrayed as a serpent (20). But the Genesis record is insistent that the truth is different, and that for the Bible believer, the serpent was a snake, not a god, not a cosmic dragon nor a demon, but a literal "beast of the field" created by the one God just as all the other animals were created.
Sin and Death in the Gilgamesh Epic
It's been suggested that the Canaanites and Egyptians were fond of epic poems and stories, those of Gilgamesh and the conflict between the gods Baal and Mot being examples. Cassuto analyzed these at length and compared them against the Pentateuch. He noted many examples of similar wordings and phrasings punctuating both the Pentateuch and the pagan epics- e.g. "he lifted up his eyes and saw", "he lifted up his voice and said", "and afterwards [person X] came" (21) . The point seems to be that Moses wrote the Pentateuch to be as it were the Israelite epic- and Israel's Divinely inspired epic deconstructed all the other Gentile ones, very often at the points where they speak of cosmic conflict between the gods, or 'satan' figures. One of the great themes of the Babylonian epics, especially Gilgamesh, was the problem of death. My quotations from the Gilgamesh Epic are all taken from the English translation in Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963)- a study which has stood the test of time and is well worth reading in this connection. Genesis 1-3 likewise addresses the problem of death, clearly locating the reason for death as human sin, and defining death as a return to the unconsciousness of dust. The Babylonian and Assyrian speculations about death held that death in the natural creation and also for man was the outcome or by-product of superhuman conflicts between the gods over which man had no control. They also held that the gods were only immortal in the sense that they couldn’t die a “natural death”; but they could perish as a result of violence from other gods. Thus Apsu and Mummu were killed by Ea; Tiamat by Marduk, Tammuz by Ishtar (Gilgamesh, Tablet 6:46,47). In this we see the significance of the Old Testament’s frequent claims that Yahweh as the only true God is immortal by nature and cannot die for any reason. Further, the Enuma Elish (Tablet 6:120) claimed that death existed well before the creation of the universe. These ideas, we can suppose, were likewise held by the tribes amongst whom Israel moved. Moses in Genesis, confirmed by Paul in Romans 5:12, emphasizes that sin and death entered the world after creation as a result of human sin. The pagan creation myths saw a relation between sin and death, but blamed this upon the nature with which man was created, and traced this back to the fault of the gods: “According to the main Babylonian creation story, man was formed with the blood of wicked Kingu and was therefore evil from the very beginning of his existence. Furthermore, we read in the Babylonian Theodicy: “[the gods] who fashioned them [men] have presented to mankind perverse speech, lies and untruth they presented to them forever”” (22). The Genesis record presents man’s fall into sin as totally his fault, and his punishment reflected that fact. Gen. 2:16,17 is clear that man had no necessity to sin, he had freewill to obey or disobey, and he chose disobedience. The very existence of the tree of life in Eden shows that God intended man to “live forever”; He didn’t create man an inevitable sinner and hopelessly mortal, cursed being from the beginning, as the myths claimed. Death was a punishment for human sin, according to Genesis; not something which existed from before creation, as the myths claimed.
(1) For more on this see P.D. Hanson, "Rebellion in Heaven: Azazel and Euhemeristic Heroes", Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 96 (1977) pp. 195-233.
(2) Martin Buber, Moses (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1947) p. 17.
(3) Buber, ibid p. 34.
(4) Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1973) Vol. 1 pp. 21-28.
(5) Joseph Campbell, The Masks Of God: Vol. 3, Occidental Mythology (New York: Viking Arkana, 1991) p. 103.
(6) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 p. 136.
(7) In Bible Lives Chapter 11.
(8) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 p. 227.
(9) See documentation in Donald Redford, The Biblical Story of Joseph (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) p. 98; C.H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York: Norton, 1965) pp. 69,88.
(10) Documented in Donald Redford, The Biblical Story of Joseph (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) p. 100; W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Oxford: O.U.P., 1957) p. 241; A. Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911) Vol. 2 p. 64.
(11) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1997) p. 244.
(12) Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary Genesis 1-15, (Waco TX: Word Books) Vol. 1 p. 49.
(13) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 p. 24.
(14) Roland De Vaux, Studies In Old Testament Sacrifice (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961) p. 7.
(15) R.E. Clements, Exodus (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1972) p. 133.
(16) Clements, ibid., p. 152.
(17) Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 p. 104.
(18) Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon, Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1992) p. 60.
(19) J. R. Porter, The Illustrated Guide to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 29.
(20) John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews & Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary To The Old Testament (Downers Gove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000) p. 32.
(21) Umberto Cassuto, 'The Israelite Epic', reprinted in his Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 pp. 69-109.
(22) Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963) p. 138.
(23) Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997) p. 126.