Way Two: The Creation Hymn As Directed Against Babylonian Polytheism
Next I propose to consider a second way of understanding the hymn, a more complicated way, and in order to introduce it, I must first say something about the Mesopotamian mythology as accepted, with variations, by the successive cultures that occupied the Tigris-Euphrates basin before the Persian conquest. The seven planets were identified with seven gods. You understand that these are planets in terms of the belief that the earth stands still in the middle of the system and everything in the sky revolves around it. Besides the stars, which always keep the same position relative to each other, and besides occasional appearances like meteors and comets, the sky has seven objects visible to the naked eye which appear to move against the background of the fixed stars, and these were known to the ancients as the seven planets. In order of what was supposed to be their distance from the earth, these are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The belief in the seven planets circling the earth in that order survived from the time of ancient Mesopotamian civilization well into the seventeenth century (it was taught at Harvard, side by side with the newer Copernican view), and has greatly influenced Western literature and thought. But here we are concerned only with the fact that the Mesopotamians associated the planets with seven of their gods, and also with the seven days of the week. The Romans, although a seven-day week was not part of their normal calendar, borrowed the scheme for astrological purposes, and from them it spread throughout Europe, as shown in the naming of days.
English French Spanish Planets Akkadian
Sunday dimanche domingo Sun Shamash Monday lundi lunes Moon Shin Tuesday mardi martes Mars Nergal Wednesday mercredi miercoles Mercury Nabu Thursday jeudi jueves Jupiter(Jove) Marduk Friday vendredi viernes Venus Ishtar Saturday samedi sabado Saturn NinurtaIn the attached table, if you compare the English names in the first column with the name of the planets (which are also mostly names of Roman gods) in the fourth column, you can see the connection quite nicely with Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but with the other four days there has been an attempt to replace each Roman god by the most similar Teutonic god, which obscures the pattern. In the second and third columns, you see the French and Spanish names for the days of the week, and you can perhaps see the resemblance to the names of the planets, at least for the middle five days. (Sunday and Saturday have come to be known as the Lord's Day and the Sabbath respectively, and so the resemblance is not there.) The order of assigning the days is not arbitrary. If you start with the second day and list every second day for a fortnight, you will obtain the list: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. This is the order of the planets from the earth outward in the Ptolomaic system. This association of the planets with the days of the week was part of the common culture for Chaucer in the fourteenth century, as is shown by this fragment from the Knight's Tale:
Just like a Friday morning, truth to tell,
Shining one moment and then raining fast.
So changey Venus loves to overcast
The hearts of all her folk; she, like her day,
Friday, is changeable, and so are they.
Seldom is Friday like the rest of the week.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, THE CANTERBURY TALES, Nevill Coghill, trans., Penguin Paperbacks, Baltimore, 1952, p. 66)
So then, we have a planetary deity associated with each of the days of the week. And if we consider what the ancients believed about each of these deities, we shall find evidence that the author of the Creation Hymn had these deities in mind when he wrote, and that he was setting out to claim, on behalf of the one God, the glory that the pagans offered to the various planets.
The first day is sacred to Shamesh, the sun. Clearly the sun god will be thought of as the giver of light. But the Hebrew writer says, "No, it is not Shamesh who gives light. It is the Lord who is the Creator and Giver of light. Praised be His Name!"
The second day is sacred to Shin, the moon. The association of the moon with air and water is less obvious than that of the sun with light, but is nonetheless found in many cultures. The moon, the closest of the planets, is often thought to be in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and to affect the weather. A ring around the moon means a storm coming. Also, of course, the moon causes the tides, the constantly shifting boundary between the realm of water and the realm of air. But the Hebrew writer says, "No, it is not Shin who controls the tides. It is the Lord who says to the waters: thus far you shall come and no farther. It is not Shin whom you must ask for good weather. It is the Lord who sends rain or drought, cool breezes or sirocco, as He wills. Praised be His Name!"
The third day is sacred to Nergal, or Mars. Nergal eventually becomes a god of war, but he does not start out as one. Originally he is a forest god, a god of vegetation, a personified tree. His name means "he who comes up out of the earth." A parallel development is found in Roman mythology, where Mars, who ends up as a war god, started out as a forest god. And so we find that on the third day, the Lord made the earth bring forth trees and green herbs. It is not Nergal, says our writer, whom we have to thank for earth and vegetation. They are the gifts of the Lord. "Thou visitest the earth and blessest it. Thou makest it very plenteous. The hills rejoice on every side, and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing." This is the Lord's doing. Praised be His Name!
The fourth day is sacred to Nabu, or Mercury. Nabu is the god of scribes, of writing and record-keeping. He is the inventor of the calendar. And so we find that on the fourth day, God set the sun and moon in the sky and said, "Let them mark the set times--the days and the years." You will note that they are called simply the greater and the lesser light, rather than the sun and the moon. The Hebrew word for the sun is "shamesh", which is also the name of the Mesopotamian sun god, whom the writer is pointedly ignoring. And indeed, throughout the entire Bible, the writers do not refer to any day of the week, except the Sabbath, by name. It is always simply the N'th day of the week. (Those of you who are familiar with Teutonic mythology may be wondering, "Why do we call this day Wednesday? How did Wotan come to be identified with Mercury, rather than with Jupiter?" The reason is that Wotan invented runes, invented writing and record keeping and the calendar. This identifies him with Nabu, who did likewise, the connection being made through Mercury, who is the patron of merchants, and so of records and so on.) It is not Nabu, our writer assures us, who made the calendar. It is the Lord who ordains the seasons, the set times, the days and the years. A thousand years in His sight are like yesterday when it is passed, or like a watch in the night. "Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy fingers. They will perish, but Thou remainest. They will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle Thou wilt roll them up, and they shall be changed, but Thou art from everlasting, and Thy years shall not fail." In His hand are the living and the dead, the past, the present, the future, and all eternity. Praised be His Name!
The fifth day is sacred to Marduk, or Jupiter, and since he is the ruler of the gods it is a bit difficult to pick out just one thing as his chief characteristic. But birds are created on the fifth day, and I believe that the eagle was sacred to Marduk, as it certainly was to Jupiter. And if we had to say just one thing about Marduk, it would surely be that he achieved his position as ruler of the gods by fighting and killing the great sea monster, the dragon Tiamat, or Leviathan. And according to Genesis, it is on the fifth day that God created the great whales, the great sea monsters. Notice that God as here portrayed is on a level far above that of Marduk. The sea monsters are not His enemies, His rivals for power, something that He must struggle against. They are no threat to Him at all. He zapped them into existence with a word, and He can zap them out again any time He pleases (see Psalm 104:24-26; Psalm 74:12-17; Isaiah 27:1). He is not a god, one power among many. He is God, the Creator, and all things are subject to Him. Praised be His Name!
The sixth day is the day of Ishtar, or Venus, the goddess of love and fertility and reproduction. On this day God made the land animals, including man. A biologist may object that sex is not confined to the land animals, but is shared by the birds and fishes, and even the trees and green herbs of the third day. But to most people, then as now, the sexuality of plants and fish, perhaps even of birds, is not as blatant as that of mammals, and Ishtar tended to be associated mostly with flesh, as opposed to fish and fowl. But Ishtar is an illusion, a mockery. It is the Lord Who sets the solitary in families, and makes the barren woman to be a joyful mother of children. It is He Who has blessed both men and beasts, commanding them to be fruitful and multiply. It is the Lord Who made all cretures, great and small. "When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast established; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou dost care for him? ... Thou hast given him dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passes along the paths of the sea. O Lord our God, how excellent is Thy Name in all the earth!"
The final day is that of Ninurta, or Saturn, and it is hard to say much about him directly, because the Mesopotamians did not write very much about him. He is mentioned occasionally in connection with agriculture, and with wells, brooks, springs, and fountains, and with the underworld, the cold dark realm under the earth where the springs and fountains originate. He seems to be in some sense a sinister figure, possibly in origin a god of death. His day, the seventh day, is unlucky, and the nineteenth day of the month is doubly unlucky. (It is counted as the forty-ninth day of the previous month, and the seven times seven means especially bad luck.) On the nineteenth, no contracts were signed, no business was transacted, no one went out of his house unnecessarily, no one began any undertaking of any sort. The day was cursed. And the seventh day of the week was likewise unlucky, although less so. If the Hebrews got their Sabbath observance from the Mesopotamians, it is truly remarkable what they did with it. It remained a day on which people did not do anything. But it was no longer an unlucky day, a cursed day. Rather, it was a day that God had blessed, a day for rejoicing, for taking one's ease and contemplating the accomplishments of the previous week, as God contemplated His Creation on the Sabbath. After the Exodus, we find the Jews speaking of the Sabbath not only as a commemoration of God's rest after the creation, but also as a commemoration of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
I spoke of the Sabbath as the day on which God contemplated his work of the previous six days. But perhaps that misses the point. Although God is known to us primarily as the Creator of the world, it is not to be supposed that all of creation, all of space and time, FILLS the Divine Mind. That would be the error of the very young child, who supposes that his mother lives only to care for him and to make him happy, and cannot conceive of her as a person in her own right, who has many other interests as well. In the account of the Sabbath, we are reminded that the six days, which show God creating the world and acting upon it, are not all there is to God, that He can get along perfectly well without the world, that it is not in the least necessary to Him, and that He is God-in-Himself as well as God-as-Creator.
Comparing The Days In Genesis And In Mesopotamian Thought
The Second Interpretation of the Creation Hymn as just outlined is based on lining up, side by side, in two parallel columns as it were, the events assigned to the seven days of the week in Genesis and the characters of the planetary deities associated with those same days in Mesopotamian mythology. Given the correspondence, how are we to explain it?
One possible answer is that the correspondence has been read into the data rather than found in them -- that the characters of the days and the characters of the gods are both sufficiently plastic so that it is not surprising that they can be pressed into some kind of fit. One of my students says:
> If Jupiter-Marduk were associated with Friday rather than
> Thursday, you would argue that this is appropriate, because
> Marduk is the king of the gods, and it is on Friday, according
> to Genesis, that Man, the pinnacle and crown of creation, is
> created. If Nergal and Ninurta were reversed, you would have
> no difficulty in arguing that Ninurta, the god of wells, is a
> patron of agriculture and appropriate for the Third Day, while
> Nergal, the god of war, is therefore the god of death (and, by
> extension, of sleep and inaction) and appropriate for a day on
> which one avoids action. You have the moon associated with the
> tides, and this is plausible. But you could just as easily
> have associated the moon with Day Three and vegetation,
> pointing out the custom of planting crops according to the
> phases of the moon. You could have associated the moon with Day
> Four and the calendar, particularly in the Mesopotamian culture
> where the lunar month was standard. You could have associated
> the moon with Day Six and reproduction, pointing out that the
> menstrual cycle coincides with the lunar month.
I am not convinced. Associating the sun with light, for example, is hardly an arbitrary matching. I invite the reader to take the seven days of Genesis, and the seven planetary gods, as described by me or as described by any reference work of his choosing, and attempt to construct the best, the most appropriate, matching up of gods with days. (I am asking, not for a pairing that can be defended, but for one that the reader honestly feels is at least as natural, as appropriate, as the one I have offered.) If his pairing has, say, N gods associated with the same days of the week as my pairing, then the following table will show him the probability that the list of days and the list of gods would dovetail so well by chance.
N p(N) 0 1.000000000000000 1 0.632142857142857 2 0.264087301587302 3 0.080753968253968 4 0.018253968253968 5 0.004365079365079 6 0.000198412698413 7 0.000198412698413(It is the classic envelope-stuffing problem. If a secretary has seven letters and seven envelopes, and stuffs the letters into the envelopes without looking, what is the probability p(N) that at least N of the seven letters will be correctly sent? How large does N have to be before we conclude that the secretary must have peeked?)
Actually, putting it in these terms is misleading, since the relevant questions are not of the form: "Given that one item on the Genesis list is Light and that one item on the Babylon list is the Sun, what is the probability that these would end up by chance in the same slot (out of seven possible slots)?" Obviously the answer to that is: "One seventh!" But the question is rather: "Given that the one list contains the sun, what is the probability that the other list would contain (in any of its seven slots, never mind the same slot) something so appropriate as light. Unfortunately the answer to the second question cannot be so neatly calculated. But I should be disposed to doubt the sincerity of anyone who claimed that he judged this probability to be as high as one-seventh. And similarly for the other days.