In the beginning, Marduk created the heavens and the earth.
There were many gods, and the cosmos were chaotic, wild, and unformed. Abzu, the god of fresh river water, and his wife, Tiamat, the goddess of the salt waters of the deep, ruled over all the gods. But the other gods created so much noise (literally “babel”), that Abzu could never rest, and he plotted to kill them all. However, when Enki and Mummu, the gods of knowledge, found out about Abzu’s plot, they killed him. Then came a great battle between Marduk and Tiamat. It went like this:
- Marduk killed each of the serpents that Tiamat had created to defend herself,
- Marduk killed Tiamat,
- Marduk used a great wind to split half of Tiamat into two,
- The first half of Tiamat became the ocean,
- Her other half became a dome of water above the earth,
- The remainder of her corpse created the heavens and the earth, and
- Her blood created humankind, who would become Marduk’s slaves and fight to defeat the world’s barbarian people—literally those who created too much “babel.”
This was the creation story of the Babylonian Empire, the military superpower of the 6th century BC. Their creation story was well-engineered to shape and reinforce a mindset among the masses that was favorable to the ruthlessness and cruelty of their empire—a war machine that marched through and conquered the entire Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Because the empire was in the service of Marduk, and everyone who got in its way was just babel, nothing that supported the empire could be understood as too cruel. The gods said so in their creation story.
And that gets me to a slave class who lived in the shadows of the empire and its war machine.
Israel is a narrow land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert, which historically had the misfortune of connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia. I say “misfortune” because any ancient king with half a brain knew that conquering the world required controlling this land bridge.
So in 589 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar was armed with a military and a creation story, and he took his turn.
When King Zedekiah of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) refused to pay the imperial tribute to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar dispatched his army in numbers that shocked the people of Judah. His infantry marched around the Sea of Galilee and then due south where it surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem for eighteen of the most miserable months humanity has passed down in the historical record. With Jerusalem unable to import food or any other resources, it descended into disease, starvation, terror, and even civil war. When the Babylonian army finally commenced attack and broke through Jerusalem’s walls, it was hardly a fight. The terrified population was quickly put in chains by the tens of thousands.
And the cruelty had only just begun. When Zedekiah and his family were captured, Zedekiah was made to watch Babylonian soldiers execute each member of his family, one by one. Then, having watched that event in all its agony it was Zedekiah’s turn, but he wasn’t punished by execution. Instead, the soldiers told him that his punishment would be for the last thing he would ever see to be the execution of his family.
And then they stabbed his eyes.
The prisoners began the agonizing and exhausting march to Babylon—a one thousand-mile overland journey in shackles through desert to a life of slavery. Many of them didn’t survive the journey. For the next half century, the Israelites were a spat-upon underclass—mere babel upon which to be trampled. The cruelty of the Babylonians and the breaking of the Israelites’s spirit are simultaneously captured in Psalm 137.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
So, when I say that the Babylonian creation story was an essential driving force of its empire and world view, I hope this helps you see that. Its ubiquitous presence served to reinforce the limits of the people’s imagination. The empire was all there was because its gods said so. This was just how the world worked.
Yet, out of this slave people—who for the rest of their lives would suffer the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from surviving war—nevertheless was born the courage to imagine a different sort of world than the one given to them by Marduk. History’s oppressed people have long given the world many of its most enduring artistic creations. What this slave people did was compose a new creation story—a subversive story that took all the elements of Marduk’s pro-empire, anti-humanity creation story and repurposed them into a pro-humanity, anti-empire creation story.
This is what you are reading when you open your Bible and in front of you is the Genesis story: an artistic act of rebellion.
In the new creation story, the God they called Elohim was not at war with the forces of nature, and humans weren’t created to be slaves to the power structure. Instead, humans were created in the very image of Elohim, and the earth was given to them and their inherent creativity to make it flourish. In this story, the first occupation of humans was not that of warriors to keep “barbarian” civilizations from being too “noisy.” The first humans were gardeners. And when humans were made, Elohim saw them and remarked that they were tov me’od (“very good”). And not only were they very good but the noise of their existence did not cause Elohim to lose rest. Actually, in the new story, rest was exactly what Elohim did when he finished creating humanity. And with a final artistic flourish from the old story, the new story explained that humankind lost its way to war and violence and death only when it embraced the various other analogues to the Babylonian story—the serpent and the gods of knowledge. As a modern reader, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil must be understood in the context of the gods of knowledge in the Babylonian story, who were simultaneously gods of violence and war.
All this artistic ingenuity and otherworldly imagination from a slave class. The Genesis story is sophisticated, poetic, and elegant, but you need to understand that it is not the scientific and journalistic story of the beginning of the world.
It was a middle finger to the creation story of their Babylonian slave masters.
(Before I go on, I wrote at length here why we’re pretty sure the creation story was written at this time and for this reason. Cliffs Notes version: (1) The Genesis story, as you can see, borrows so specifically and so often from the Babylonian story, (2) the geographic and anthropologic identifiers in Genesis reflect the world as it existed during Babylon’s time and not in the time when the stories were set, and (3) Genesis was written using the Babylonian alphabet).
And what about that pejorative slave-class label, babel? They wrote a story that worked on that too. Their story began that God created the first man (the “adam”) out of the earth (the “adamah”), which in Hebrew reads that God “created the adam out of the adamah” and then God named the first man, “Adam”—a pun that connects the goodness of humans with the beauty of the earth and the wellbeing of humans with the wellbeing of all creation. In the story that the slaves told, Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. When Cain killed Abel, Cain moved east of Eden and built the first city. The first hearers of the story would recognize this city to represent Babylon, which too was located in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and, from their perspective, was built on murder. Once the city in this story was fully constituted and powerful, it set its sights on ruling the world. To do so, it built a massive tower—a potent image to the slave class of Babylon’s war machine. As the story progresses, the reader is made aware that this was not how God wanted his world to be run, so God separated the people away from Babylon’s one-size-fits-all war machine and into flourishing and diverse nations. In other words, when the tower subsequently was named the Tower of Babel, this had the effect of turning the war machine merely into a monument to God’s love for the babel of the world.
Remember this story as you read the poem of Isaiah c2, the most quoted Old Testament passage of the Christian church in its first four centuries (before Christianity went to bed with the Roman Empire). In the prophetic imagination of Isaiah, instead of all the world’s people being concentrated at a tower to be ruled by the empire and its limited imagination, everyone will concentrate to a place where they will be ruled by peace.
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Eventually another global empire deposed Babylon, and it was when the slave babel in Babylon eventually returned to their homeland that their religion began to formalize and mature into more of the form you recognize today.
This religion was devoted fundamentally to the question of how to not be destroyed by big empires.
It was devoted to the question of what a just society looks like.
It was a religion that understood itself to be a global underdog and was devoted to all peoples seeing its essential dignity.
This religion is Judaism, and this was its vocation.
Remember this when you open your Bible and read about Judaism’s heavy stress against worshipping other gods. To modern readers, it’s easy to reduce the issue to simply should we worship Ralph or Bob or Elohim? That misses most of the point. The real issue is rooted in the reality, as you have just seen, that societies choose their power structures and then choose their gods. When you as a modern person grapple with what Judaism stands for, begin with the power structures it so imaginatively and ingeniously worked against—in particular, those of Babylonian society and its anti-human empire.
To be clear, this religion had nothing to do with how to not burn in fire for eternity when you die, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s possible you feel confused. No doubt you inferred the purpose of this series from the title, God Loves and Accepts the LGBT, and you’re wondering when I’ll get around to that.
Actually, I’m already well on my way.
Because when we talk about the writings of the Apostle Paul—who is the only New Testament writer to weigh in on the morality of homosexuality—we need a more sophisticated understanding of the trajectory of the Jewish vocation than is common among 21st century Christian churches. More broadly, if you want to understand Rabbi Yeshua’s teachings on what he called “the Kingdom,” as well as the meaning of his death on the Roman Empire’s device of intimidation, you need to start with the ancient religion of the slave class in Babylon that Jesus claimed he fulfilled. In other words, if we’re going to talk with any seriousness about the writings of Paul—that disciple of Gamaliel, who was the chief of the Jewish Sanhedrin and grandson of Hillel the Elder, the most important Pharisee in Jewish history—I need to make you more Jewish.
And I’m not done with that. In parts 3 and 4, I’ll build on this discussion and use it to show how the Jews’ understanding of how to fulfill their vocation evolved during the centuries that led to Rabbi Jesus.