The Kids Aren’t Too Loud (Genesis among Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths)
The governing principle of the home I grew up in was easy enough to understand: Don’t do things that will inconvenience or otherwise upset the man of the house. The difficult part was putting into practice that general principle. Words and actions that were okay today may or may not be okay tomorrow. Taking a glass of tea (i.e., sweet iced tea; I didn’t know “tea” meant anything else until much later in life) into the living room may have been fine last week, but tonight it’ll cause the sort of rage that still makes me tremble when I remember it.
Even though I found a way out of that home, I still struggle decades later with relating to people in authority over me because I can’t quite break away from the fear and uncertainty that was instilled in my adolescence. Imagine living in such a situation for your entire life—from birth to death never really knowing what will bring down fury or what might bring reward. For those in the Ancient Near East, it wasn’t a parent but the gods themselves who terrorized people. And today some people find themselves ducking for fear God will fling judgment their way if they step out of line.
The life- and hope-giving words of the Old Testament, however, challenged that prevailing notion and offered Israel a different view of deity, just like it counteracted the ancient Near East view that humans were created as slaves for the gods.
Death lurked just around the corner, though, because the gods couldn’t hear themselves think.
The Atrahasis Epic tells us (along with Eridu Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh) that the humans were going about their divinely assigned work, but were doing it too loudly. And because the noise was so annoying, the gods decided to kill all the humans with a flood. I’m a dad, so I can relate to what the gods were feeling and chuckle at memes about hearing yourself think. But the ancient myth meant business. So one of the gods—at great personal risk—lets the human Atrahasis in on the gods’ plan to kill everyone. Atrahasis, like Noah, builds an ark and so survives the flood.
The gods realize they’ve made a mistake when their food runs out (because all the humans are dead), but they learn that Atrahasis has survived and so they let him live and establish a few precautions—such as a demon to “snatch the baby from the lap who bore it”—to make sure the world doesn’t get too noisy again.¹
So, the human race survives, life on earth continues, and the gods remain sated by the sacrifices humans bring. All’s well that ends well, I suppose, but there’s a darker part of these ancient Near Eastern narratives—the part that I relate to because I grew up with a similarly capricious authority in my life. The humans didn’t know until it was too late that their noisiness endangered their lives.
The people in the ancient stories of creation and deluge thought they were doing what the gods wanted—digging out irrigation canals and delivering a steady supply of animal sacrifices for the gods to gorge themselves. Death lurked just around the corner, though, because the gods couldn’t hear themselves think.
Against its ancient Near Eastern cultural context, Genesis paints a stunning picture of Yahweh, the true God.
The beauty of the Genesis flood account, when viewed next to these ancient Near Eastern stories, is twofold. First, God himself—the only God in Genesis—orchestrated both the judgment and the rescue. It was no trick of a lesser god that rescued humanity and Noah didn’t have to sneak around to build his boat and escape God’s wrath. No, God demonstrated grace and mercy to Noah in personally warning him of the coming judgment. And God’s will was not subverted by any other being—he alone is Lord over all.
Second, the kids actually aren’t too loud. In Genesis God plainly tells humans what he requires from them (a theme we’ll see throughout the Old Testament). There are no guessing games with God, no caprice, no uncertainty over what he allows and doesn’t allow. God speaks plainly, coherently, and for people’s best interest. God doesn’t appoint the flood because he is annoyed with humans or because they are doing something they didn’t know was wrong. No, God destroyed the world because he “saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen 6:5 CSB).
The great flood is still a difficult story to read at times—and it certainly has no place in children’s nurseries!—but set against its ancient Near Eastern cultural context, Genesis paints a stunning picture of Yahweh, the true God. Yahweh is trustworthy. Yahweh communicates clearly and consistently. Yahweh is sovereign. Yahweh is just. Yahweh is merciful. As I’ve struggled to navigate a world that I learned was full of obscured trip wires and land mines, what a gift it has been to get to know Yahweh: the God who remains steady, unchanging, and clearly tells people what he requires from us (and it’s not sacrifices to keep his belly full).