NOTE: This post was created as final project for a course in Old Testament studies.
There’s a meme all over social media right now, “Tell me without telling me.” It’s basically about making things obvious without coming right out and saying them. Here are a couple of examples:
Them: Tell me you’re from Portland without telling me you’re from Portland.
Me: Well, I started my day with a VooDoo Donut and some Stumptown Coffee. or My Netflix password is RipCity1977 (it’s not, by the way).
Them: Tell me you’re a mom without telling me you’re a mom.
Me: I washed crayon off my walls and vacuumed cheerios out of my minivan yesterday.
In my first two semesters of Old Testament study, I’ve discovered that God’s “tell me without telling me” game is immaculate. The truths conveyed on the pages of Scripture go way beyond just the words that are printed on the page. I have also learned that the methodology for making meaning out of text and discovering these hidden-in-plain-sight truths is called hermeneutics. The Oxford Languages website defines hermeneutics as “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” For our purposes today, we can think of hermeneutics as the lenses we use to search Scripture for what God might be telling us without telling us.
In this post, we are going to examine the creation account in Genesis 1 and use two hermeneutical lenses to see what the Scripture may be “telling us without telling us” in its verses. We are going to compare and contrast Genesis 1 with another account of creation, Enuma Elish. Then we are going to use a “feminist lens” to see what God might have been “saying without saying” to and about women by telling the story of creation in the specific way that God did.
Enuma Elish is the name given to the Babylonian epic that tells the story of the creation of the universe. If you want to familiarize yourself with its contents, you can find information on it here and here. (Note: I’m not offering these up as definitive takes, they’re just overviews for the interested).
We are comparing Genesis 1 with Enuma Elish specifically because current scholarly consensus holds that Genesis 1 was written during the period when many Judeans were living in exile in Babylon c. 586-539 BCE. Does “written” mean that it originated then or had it been handed down orally for generations and was finally put “on paper” then? For our purposes, any stance you want to take on that is fine. The important understanding here is that God thought the creation story in Genesis 1 was particularly relevant during the Babylonian exile.
“Comparative Analysis” is a hermeneutical lens that has been applied to Genesis and Enuma Elish ever since the latter burst onto the scene in the second half of the 19th century. Fragments of the tablets containing Enuma Elish were first discovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1849 while excavating the palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, modern day Mosul, Iraq. Scholarly articles comparing and contrasting Enuma Elish and Genesis emerged in the decades following that discovery; the first were published even before the translation from the original Akkadian was complete! (Interested parties can read Layard’s own account of his quests in his book, succinctly titled Nineveh and Babylon: A Narrative of a Second Expedition to Assyria During the Years 1849, 1851, and 1853. Having perused it myself, it hits somewhere between Indiana Jones and Gilderoy Lockhart.)
The entire Enuma Elish is worth a read but for our purpose today, we are going to focus on these passages from the 4th and 5th tablets in which Marduk murders Tiamat and makes the universe from her remains:
96 He let loose the Evil Wind, the rear guard, in her face.
97 Tia-mat opened her mouth to swallow it,
98 She let the Evil Wind in so that she could not close her lips.
99 The fierce winds weighed down her belly,
100 Her inwards were distended and she opened her mouth wide.
101 He let fly an arrow and pierced her belly,
102 He tore open her entrails and slit her inwards,
103 He bound her and extinguished her life,
104 He threw down her corpse and stood on it.
137 He split her into two like a dried fish:
138 One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens.
139 He stretched the skin and appointed a watch
140 With the instruction not to let her waters escape.
55 From her two eyes he let the Euphrates and Tigris flow,
56 He blocked her nostrils, but left . .
57 He heaped up the distant [mountains] on her breasts,
58 He bored wells to channel the springs.
59 He twisted her tail and wove it into the Durmah(u,
60 [ . . . ] . . the Apsû beneath his feet.
61 [He set up] her crotch—it wedged up the heavens—
First of all, it’s violent, right? Enuma Elish emphasizes Marduk’s abilities as a warrior and conqueror. He is so dominant a victor, in fact, that he throws down the corpse of his adversary and stands on it! Then, he splits said corpse in two “like a dried fish” and fashions the heavens and the earth from it. Tablet 5, on which Marduk’s dismemberment of Tiamat is described, remains among the most fragmented so some details of this part are missing. We do see, however, that Euphrates and Tigris, the two water sources that were most crucial to Babylonian life, are said to be flowing from Tiamat’s eyes and that even her crotch was used for Marduk’s purposes. These actions were not designed to immortalize Tiamat, this was an act of dominance so that Marduk’s prowess and supremacy would forever be immortalized with a “LOOK WHAT HAPPENS TO MY ENEMIES!”
Genesis paints a much different picture of its God. First of all, earlier in Enuma Elish, we see that Marduk and Tiamat were just two in a pantheon of deities. In Genesis, there is only one God in whom the universe has its origins. Second, the God of Genesis does not require war, violence, and domination to create the world. Whereas Marduk kills and maims, God just speaks and stuff springs into existence and does God’s bidding. The God of Genesis is a generative God, not a destructive one.
In a closer reading of Genesis we notice small details that reinforce these differences. For example, right off the bat in verse 2 we see that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” By contrast, Marduk weaponizes the wind against Tiamat, the goddess of the waters, and brutally uses it as a tool of her demise.
Skipping ahead to verses 6-7, God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters…” In Enuma Elish, we see Marduk ripping Tiamat of the waters, in half “like a dried fish” to create the heavens and the earth and stretching her skin so that no waters could escape.
There is much more to uncover there and I would love to hear in the comments what you discover as you contrast the two texts!
But for now, I’m going to move on to our next lens, that of “Feminist Intepretation.” In her book, An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, Dr. Nyasha Junior writes, “Feminist interpreters would argue that their work is not more subjective than the work of other interpreters. It is just more transparent about its agenda.” I’m inclined to agree. If God wanted us all to read the Bible the same way, then why were we all created differently? If I notice things through my lens of lived experience as a woman that my male colleagues have missed, isn’t that valuable rather than vexing?
When I first read Enuma Elish, it immediately struck me that Tiamat, the deity who was conquered, killed, and brutally torn limb from limb to create the physical stuff of the universe was female. As a woman, I am acutely aware not only of the prevalence of violence against women but also of society’s general sense of entitlement, now and throughout history, to women’s time, attention, and bodies. I can think of nothing that would have reinforced that better than an etiological narrative that involved the murder and dismemberment of a female body as necessary for creation and as the ultimate display of victory and dominance.
So, back to hermeneutics: was God “telling us without telling us” something by dropping a creation account that did not canonize femicide specifically into a cultural context that did?
The God of Genesis did not have to violently defeat and slaughter a female body in order to create the universe and rule over it. What’s more, in Genesis 1:26, God made humankind in God’s image. Let that sink in for a moment: in the Genesis account, humanity is made in the image of a God who doesn’t need to conquer, subdue, and use women in order to be greater than all things.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to consider the women of Babylon for a minute. Our first instinct is to think about how God speaks to “God’s people,” but we often forget that technically, everyone is “God’s people.” God was telling this story in this way not just for the Judeans, but for the Babylonians as well. In my “sanctified imagination” (credit to the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Womanist Midrash), I picture the images in Genesis 1 as a love letter from God to God’s daughters in Babylon. This God does not use the wind to slaughter a woman, but instead caresses her face with it. This God does not demonstrate might through brutalizing women, but instead can create and rule the universe with only a word. Did this story make its way across language barriers to any Babylonian women? Did any of them discern God’s call and answer? I’d like to think at least one or two did.
This was long. Super long. And if you’re still with me, drop a note in the comments so I can give you a high five. But I love this stuff, you guys. And I love God. So much so that it has turned me from a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation to a Master of Divinity with a Biblical Studies focus. My cup of nerdy glee runneth over.
And I leave you with one last “Tell me without telling me”:
Them: Tell me you’re a mom without telling me.
Me: I seriously considered describing hermeneutics as “the Mousketools” of Biblical interpretation.