Humanity and the divine: Comparing the Bible to the myth of Atra-Hasis (Isaiah 66)

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Illustration: Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis epic in the British Museum

The Bible, along with numerous other ancient Near Eastern texts, recounts the stories of creation and a great flood. The commonality of a flood story can be misleading, however, causing the reader to suppose that the Bible has essentially the same outlook as that found in other ancient cultures. In fact, the Biblical understanding of God and of His relationship to the world sets the Old Testament record apart from pagan notions of the divine.

One Old Babylonian text that recounts the events of creation and the flood is called Atra-hasis (named after the hero of the story, a Noah-figure). The tale begins with a lower class of gods, the Igigi, who are discontented because they have been forced to do all of the drudge work for the higher gods (e.g. dig irrigation canals and clear marshlands). One night their frustration boils over and they march against the houses of the high gods. Cooler heads prevail, however, and the high gods offer a solution: They will create human beings to do the drudge work for the Igigi. A god is sacrificed, his blood is mixed with clay and humans are formed under the direction of the mother goddess, Mami.

The humans multiply, however, and this creates a new problem: The people make so much noise that the gods cannot sleep. They try to reduce the human population through disease and famine, but it swells again. Finally, they determine to strike humanity with a flood. One man, Atra-hasis, is warned of the coming deluge, however, so that not all humans are wiped out. A solution is finally found: Through infant mortality and the sterility of some women, the human race will be kept to a manageable number.

By contrast, Isaiah 66:1-2 reads: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came inti being?’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word’” God needs no one to do His drudge work, nor is He disturbed by the most raucous or boisterous behaviour of people. What He does seek is a humble heart. This is in keeping with what we see in Genesis, where God created only by His word, needing no assistance, and where He judged people for their sins – not because their decibel level annoyed Him. Superficial similarities between the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern myths should not blind us to their profound differences in outlook.


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