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Norman Solomon

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2024

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Genesis and the Twilight of the Gods

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https://thetorah.com/article/genesis-and-the-twilight-of-the-gods

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Norman Solomon

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Genesis and the Twilight of the Gods

"

TheTorah.com

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2024

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https://thetorah.com/article/genesis-and-the-twilight-of-the-gods

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Genesis and the Twilight of the Gods

The creation accounts, the Garden of Eden, the innovations and life spans of early humans, and the flood story are best understood as an Axial Age critique of polytheistic, mythical cosmology.

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Genesis and the Twilight of the Gods

The Assembly of Gods around Jupiter's Throne, Giulio Romano, ca. 1532–1534. Wikimedia

Genesis: The Great Denial

Genesis is frequently misread as a compilation of myths that have been finally discredited by science.[1] However, when we read Genesis in the context of 1st-millennium B.C.E. thinking, it comes alive as perhaps the earliest and certainly the most outspoken critique—a great denial—of the prevailing, mythical cosmology.

The period of 800 to 200 B.C.E. has been called the “Axial Age,” a time when many parts of the world developed what we might call critical thought and the questioning of traditional patterns of religion and morality.[2] In this era—most obviously in Greece, but also in Mesopotamia and eastwards as far as China—we find a growing unease with traditional talk of the gods and their doings.

This is the period in which the biblical book Genesis was finally edited. Genesis 1–11, describing the origin of the world and survival of the flood, is highly polemical: It recasts ancient Mesopotamian themes, weaving creation and antediluvian life together with the origin of technologies, then the flood and its aftermath, culminating in the (non-divine) “hero,” Abraham.

Who is Missing at Creation?

The first account of creation (1:1–2:3) sets out a six-day scheme of creative activity, arranged in matching groups of three, followed by a seventh day on which God “rested.”[3] How would this story have been received by the people who first heard it?

They might have asked, “Who is absent from the party? Where are the gods, demons, spirits, the intermediate beings between God and humanity, the mythical monsters, the forces of evil?” (If you have ever had the privilege of organizing a wedding party, the list of whom you don’t invite may be more interesting than the list of those whom you do.)

Unmistakably, the all-powerful creator-God is proclaimed and celebrated. But there is also denial—radical denial—of at least the significance, and most likely even the existence, of the numerous supernatural entities such as gods, angels and demons generally believed in the ancient world to control or influence events. For example, the reference to “the deep” (Gen 1:2) may be a pointed denial of the battle with Tiamat (Hebrew tehom “deep” = Assyrian Tiamat).

One possible concession to convention is the verse:

בראשית א:כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ...
Gen 1:26 And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”

To whom does “our” refer? Is it a metaphor in which God is portrayed, as often enough elsewhere in the Bible, as ruling over some divine assembly? Or is the plural a hangover from some earlier, polytheistic, version?

Evil: Not an Independent Power

The second, complementary, creation narrative (2:4–3:24) presents a different, highly anthropomorphic, view of God:[4]

בראשית ג:ח וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶת קוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּגָּן לְרוּחַ הַיּוֹם...
Gen 3:8 They heard the voice of YHWH God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day…

It accounts for the origin of evil and for the disadvantaged position of women, both attributed to human disobedience; Adam, Eve, and the serpent each take a proportionate share of the blame.

No special powers are attributed to the serpent, who is simply described as “wily”; he is not a supernatural being, certainly not a rebellious angel, nor is he personified here, as he is in some later traditions, as “Satan,” let alone “the devil.”[5] If Genesis was redacted under Persian rule, as most scholars hold, this may be a polemic directed against the Zoroastrian teaching, later absorbed in Gnosticism, that evil is the work of an independent Power, opposed to God. Eve is neither coerced nor tricked by the serpent; she eats the fruit of her own free will because it appears “good for food and desirable to the eyes.”

Innovation: A Human Undertaking

Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, is punished for the murder of his brother Abel. Seven generations of Cain’s descendants are listed, culminating in Lemekh, whose two wives bore him three sons and a daughter:

בראשית ד:כ וַתֵּלֶד עָדָה אֶת יָבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי יֹשֵׁב אֹהֶל וּמִקְנֶה. ד:כא וְשֵׁם אָחִיו יוּבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי כָּל תֹּפֵשׂ כִּנּוֹר וְעוּגָב. ד:כב וְצִלָּה גַם הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל קַיִן נַעֲמָה.
Gen 4:2 Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. 4:3 And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. 4:4 As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.

This sounds innocent enough, until you notice what is being denied. Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain, like their ancestor Cain, are wanderers—in the early Iron Age all three occupations attributed to them were itinerant. They are not gods, nor do they learn their arts and technologies from gods. Arts and technologies, in direct contradiction to ancient myth, are human innovations. As for fire, there is no Prometheus to steal fire from the gods; that the origin of fire is not even mentioned is itself a denial of the pagan gods.

Lifespans: Long Yet Mortal

We then return to Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, the “replacement” for the murdered Abel, and trace his descendants to Noah, in whose 600th year God sent the Flood. These men (not gods, not even kings) appear to be long-lived—that is, until you compare their ages with those of the antediluvian kings in the Sumerian king lists:[6]

Sumerian King List

Genesis Ancestor List

Name

Length of reign (years)

Name

Life span (years)

Alulim

28,800

Adam

930

Alalngar

36,000

Seth

912

En-men-lu-ana

43,200

Enosh

905

En-men-gal-ana

28,800

Kainan

840

Dumuzid the shepherd

36,000

Mahalalel

895

En-Sipad-zid-ana

28,800

Jared

962

En-men-dur-ana

21,000

Enoch

365

Ubara-Tutu

18,600

Methuselah

969

 

 

Lemech

777

 

 

Noah

950

A modern reader of Genesis will gasp at the ages ascribed by Genesis to the antediluvians. In contrast, ancient listeners, familiar with the traditional Mesopotamian account of affairs before the flood, would expect the ancients to be long-lived; after all, they were descended from the gods and must have been superior to us in every way.

What would strike them as extraordinary would be the clear implication in the Genesis account that none of these great ancestors lived as much as a thousand years! That alone would be sufficient, even if it were not plainly spelled out, to make clear that the ancients were mere mortals, not gods.

The Psalter describes a thousand years in divine terms:

תהלים צ:ד כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל כִּי יַעֲבֹר וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה.
Ps 90:4 A thousand years in Your sight are as a day that has passed, as a watch in the night.

Anyone familiar with the words of the psalm would truly take to heart his own mortality, and acknowledge that there was an insuperable gulf between even the greatest of the ancients and God; God was not a man or woman,[7] and no man or woman was God, or “descended” from God.[8]

Flood and Survival

Then comes the Flood (Gen 6–9). Details in the Bible’s account are reminiscent of the much older Mesopotamian story of Atrahasis/Utnapishtim.[9] Genesis seizes on an ancient narrative and works it over in the light of Israelite understanding.

Cause of the Flood

Mythical elements have been excised—there are no squabbling gods seeking to take advantage of one another or of the human race, or unable to sleep because people make too much noise; there is no suggestion that God needs humans to do all the hard work for him or that, after the flood, their numbers have to be limited—to the contrary, they are told again to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:7). A sharp line is drawn between the human and the divine.

The Ark: A Box, Not a Boat

The Hebrew תֵּבָה (teva), translated “Ark,” simply means “box.” Biblical Hebrew has several words for ships or boats; that the redactor chose to say “box” rather than “boat” suggests that he is trying to convey the idea that when Noah floated on the water, he had no means of navigation, but that, together with his family and the animals, he was completely dependent on God’s providence for his survival. Contrast this with Utnapishtim, who on the advice of his patron god takes a navigator with him to guide his boat out of reach of the other gods.[10]

Sacrifice: Gratitude, Not Food for the Gods

When Atrahasis/Utnapishtim succeeds in outwitting those gods who sought to destroy humanity he offers sacrifices, over which the gods “hover like flies,” since they had lost out on their sustenance when there were no men to provide them with meat. God does not stand in need of the meat of sacrifices, but He does expect humans to show gratitude for His saving acts, and therefore “smelled the sweet savor” of Noah’s thanksgiving offering (8:21).[11]

Human Weakness and God’s Compassion

God’s response, however, is curiously ambivalent:

בראשית ח:כא ...לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת־כׇּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.
Gen 8:21 …I will not curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

Does this mean, as suggested by Jon D. Levenson (Harvard Divinity School), that “the sacrifice appeases the Lord… who thus moves from anger at human beings to acceptance of them in their weakness”?[12] Or does it imply something altogether darker, a kind of divine resignation to human sinfulness?

The Flood story is followed by the “Rainbow Covenant” with “all flesh,” i.e., with animals as well as humans; this sets out basic moral values for humanity as well as God’s concern for all the species He has created.[13]

Nothing in this narrative would have appeared implausible or unnatural to its original hearers. Far from being a fantasy, it was a bold attempt to remove fantasy from the story of human survival, turning it instead into a story of God’s compassion in the face of human weakness.

Sons of God and Daughters of Men

The lead-up to the flood incorporates the strange episode of the sons of the gods and daughters of men:[14]

בראשית ו:ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ.
Gen 6:2 The sons of the gods saw how beautiful were the daughters of men, and took wives from among those that pleased them.

Other possible translations of sons of the gods include: “the sons of God”; “divine beings”; “great men.” As with “Let us make man” (Gen 1:26), it is unclear whether this is a leftover or concession to mythology or something else altogether. Yet despite these potential lapses, the overall “demythologizing” message of Genesis 1–11 is clear.

Who Invented Monotheism?

Genesis recasts the ancient mythological narratives in such a manner as to proclaim that there is one, supreme God, prior to all creation and to the division of people into nations; He is all-powerful, just and merciful, and cares for and about His creation. No other supernatural beings—if indeed they exist—have independent control of human life.

Yet who was the first true monotheist? The distinction between belief in One God (monotheism) and belief in many (polytheism) ought to be simple: a monotheist believes in one God, a polytheist in many gods, an atheist in none, and an agnostic can’t make up her mind. So why is there so much confusion on this issue?[15]

Divine Hierarchies

The straight answer is because it is not simply a matter of number. We don’t even know what people meant when they said, “There is only one God,” or “Such-and-such a God is one.” Does “Such-and such a god is one” imply that no other divinities exist (whatever is meant by “divinities”)? Or does it just mean “He is the supreme god,” rather like the fact that designating Cyrus as the unique “king of kings” doesn’t deny, but positively asserts, that there is a hierarchy of lesser kings below him, enhancing his glory?[16]

Indeed, what could “supreme” god or king mean if there wasn’t any hierarchy over which to exercise supremacy? Or does it just mean, “Only One God is worthy of worship, even though there might be others”?

All these interpretations can be supported by quotations from the Bible, which is anything but consistent on the point: even the Shema is a bit hazy—what does it mean by saying that haShem is “our God”—isn’t He the only God and therefore everybody’s? Ancient Israelites simply didn’t think in the categories devised by medieval and modern theologians.

Lesser Divine Beings

Sang Youl Cho, in a sustained comparison of the role of “lesser divinities” in the Ugaritic texts and the Bible, notes:

[The] apparent polytheistic setting of Ugaritic and Hebrew descriptions implies the fact that the divine assembly consists of the supreme god and other lesser gods…. [The supreme god] summons the divine assembly and asks opinions from them… although the supreme god has his own absolute authority.[17]

Lesser deities carry out his commands and relay his messages; there are warrior deities, mediator deities, guardian deities, chanter deities and servant deities, merging ultimately with angels (messengers).

Biblical Hebrew often subverts the polytheistic meaning while retaining its wording. So, for instance, Jacob meets angels and declares, “This is God’s camp, though I knew it not” (Gen 32:2–3); God is referred to (1 Sam 1:3) as “YHWH of Hosts” i.e., of armies; in Ezekiel’s vision the angelic creatures make “a tumult like the din of an army” (Ezek 1:24).

The Bible, that is, uses language reminiscent of the Ugaritic texts, but the context suggests that its use of language is poetic rather than literal. As we might put it now—without suggesting that an ancient Israelite would have thought of it that way—it is a way of describing human experience of the divine, rather than a catalogue of the inhabitants of mountains and sky.

Akhenaten and Moses

The earliest historical figure known to have proclaimed unambiguously that there was only one God is the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1400–1334 B.C.E.), better known as Akhenaten, father of the even more celebrated but historically less significant Tutankhamun. Akhenaten was the autocrat of a great empire; his theology (“one supreme ruler”) reflected his position in society, though the message was lost on later Pharaohs who rejected his reforms.[18]

Then there is Moses. Of course, he is not presented in scripture as the originator of monotheism, but rather as in a line of those who proclaimed One God, back through the Patriarchs and Noah and Enoch and Adam and Eve, way beyond history as we know it. Jan Assmann has summarized:

Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory.[19]

Akhenaten built the city of Amarna, which still stands today to testify to his attempt to replace the pantheon of Ancient Egypt with the single Aten, the sun’s disk; but he did not become part of the “living memory” of Egypt in the way that Moses, through the biblical narrative, entered and shaped the collective memory of Israel, and eventually of Christianity and Islam.

From Inclusive to Exclusive Truth Claims

Assmann applies to both Akhenaten and Moses the concept of the “Mosaic distinction” (Mosaische Unterscheidung). This is the distinction between true and false in religion. Assmann argues that primary religions, such as the polytheisms of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, affirm the world and all its gods; they are cults, articulated in myths, not linked to exclusive truth claims.

Secondary religions, specifically the henotheism or monotheism of Akhenaten/Moses and ultimately of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do make exclusive truth claims; they rest on cognition, whether through direct revelation or through written texts, and depend on the rejection (rather than reinterpretation) of primary religion. Israel’s God is not equivalent to Zeus; He is a “jealous” God and demands the destruction of idols, for they are “false.”

God’s Character

Looked at this way, the claim that there is only one God is a great denial; there are no comparable beings. Yet Israel’s proclamation of God’s unity was only partly about how many gods there were; it was a proclamation of the character of God as not merely powerful, but as supremely just and compassionate and demanding those qualities in his chosen worshippers, the people of Israel.[20]

The prophets, when they denounce idolatrous worship, focus on what they perceive as the evils associated with it, ranging from child sacrifice to sexual immorality to injustice and violence; they do not present philosophical arguments. Deuteronomy declares:

דברים יח:יב כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְ־הוָה כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ. יח:יג תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Deut 18:12 For all these are abhorrent to YHWH, and it is because of these abominations that YHWH is driving [the nations] out from before you. 18:13 You must be whole-hearted with YHWH your God.

Biblical monotheism is about the character of divinity as much as about its number.

The monotheism of the Torah of Moses is more about ethics than about metaphysics. It carries consequences for both practice and belief, and though it can be articulated only within a specific socio-historical context it carries consequences for people and nations beyond those boundaries. Its revolutionary nature is evident not only in its iconoclasm, but in its recasting of the ancient myths of origins and escape.

Distinguishing between Myth and History

When an ancient Assyrian heard a bard or priest recite a story about Marduk and Tiamat, did he imagine the gods as larger-than-life people, with emotions and even dietary requirements similar to our own, or did he understand the story as a metaphor of some kind of universal forces? Did he even think about such a distinction? Did it matter? Did anything matter beyond the story itself?

No one can answer that. The question is based on a misunderstanding. Until people found a distinction significant, they did not develop language in which to articulate it. No one can put a precise date on when people began to distinguish between myth and history, or when they developed language in which to articulate the distinction.

But certainly, by the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., during the Axial Age, individuals in many cultures were asking whether their priests and poets were really talking about supermen and superwomen who inhabited the mountains and the sky, whether they were talking pious nonsense, or whether they were using metaphors or images to point to something that could be described in a more down-to-earth way.

Questions persisted, and the old superhuman gods began to fade into the twilight. Poets and priests continued to recite the ancient stories, but people heard them differently; philosophers reinterpreted, criticized and even expressed skepticism.

In ancient Greece, for instance, Xenophanes (c. 500 B.C.E.) poked fun at the way people conceived of the gods in their own image:

If horses and oxen had hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like horses and oxen.[21]

He complained about the unflattering depictions of the gods in Homer and Hesiod[22] and instead proposed:

One god greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.[23]

This is no great distance from Deutero-Isaiah,

ישעיהו מ:כה כה וְאֶל מִי תְדַמְּיוּנִי וְאֶשְׁוֶה יֹאמַר קָדוֹשׁ.
Isa 40:25 To whom will you liken Me, or shall I be equal, says the Holy One?

However, unlike the prophets of Israel, neither Xenophanes nor subsequent Greek philosophers called for the abandonment of popular religious practice and the destruction of idols.

A Gradual End to Mythology

Monotheism was a difficult conception to absorb. By the late fifth century B.C.E. Jews collectively had abandoned any attachment to “other gods”; they did not revert, as they had done in earlier times, to polytheism, which they had learned to associate with the evil ways of the nations roundabout.

The Psalmist rhapsodizes:

תהלים עד:יג אַתָּה פוֹרַרְתָּ בְעׇזְּךָ יָם שִׁבַּרְתָּ רָאשֵׁי תַנִּינִים עַל הַמָּיִם. עד:יד אַתָּה רִצַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁי לִוְיָתָן תִּתְּנֶנּוּ מַאֲכָל לְעָם לְצִיִּים.
Ps 74:13 You who drove back the sea with your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters. 74:14 You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.

By the time these words were composed, only the imagery remains of the cosmic battle of Marduk and Tiamat; the gods themselves have long been rejected.

The people of the kingdom of Judah heard Isaiah proclaim that YHWH will slay the leviathan:

ישעיה כז:א בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִפְקֹד יְ־הֹוָה... עַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ בָּרִחַ וְעַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ עֲקַלָּתוֹן וְהָרַג אֶת־הַתַּנִּין אֲשֶׁר בַּיָּם.
Isa 27:1 In that day YHWH will punish… leviathan the elusive serpent and leviathan the twisting serpent; and He will slay the dragon that is in the sea.

They may have recognized images of Assyria, Babylon and Egypt (or perhaps Tyre), or else understood the prophecies in a general way as foretelling the decisive end of current chaos; they were not seriously thinking of divine beings actively participating in battles.

The Emergence of One True God

Genesis signals the twilight of the ancient gods, so far as Israel is concerned; they are never revived, though they leave their imprint on poetic imagery, in the profiles of ministering angels and in the dark corners of demonology. The gods had shrunk to nothingness before the majesty of the One True God.

Published

March 18, 2024

|

Last Updated

April 13, 2024

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven