On Fridays, we’re doing a series on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In his stunningly well-written chapter, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” Greenblatt begins to trace the origins of the Adam and Eve story and how it came to be placed in the Hebrew Bible.
If you want to understand Adam and Eve, don’t start in Eden; go to Babylon.
Stephen Greenblatt gives a vivid overview of the Babylonian Captivity, noting that the kingdom of Judah was one of a number of nations that were taken into exile, along with many of the Chaldeans’ own citizens, forced into slave labor through indebtedness. The Jews had roots in Mesopotamia, through their founding father Abraham, who was from nearby Ur. After King Zedekiah’s foolhardy uprising, the Babylonian armies besieged and sacked Jerusalem, burning the city and its Temple to the ground. In all, they suffered three deportations, and as Greenblatt says, “The lives of the Hebrews had been shattered.” (p. 25)
This led to a spiritual crisis for the theocracy: “For the faithful, in exile in Babylon, the central psychic experience was anguish. Where was Yahweh?” (p. 26)
In Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had built a temple and ziggurat in honor of the god Marduk, also known as “Bel,” the lord. Stephen Greenblatt describes an annual celebration of this god that the Jewish exiles had to endure for decades.
Every year the Babylonians observed a grand New Year’s festival in Marduk’s honor. Statues of other gods, paying homage to the city’s divine protector, were taken down from their niches and carried in a grand public procession to the main sanctuary. On the festivals fourth day, led by the king himself, there was a solemn recitation of a sacred text that had been first inscribed on clay tablets in the remote past. The venerable text, bearing the prestige of its immense antiquity, was the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian origin story.
…In the sixth century BCE, when generations of captive Hebrews were forced to encounter it year after year, the Enuma Elish was already shrouded in great antiquity. Its age conferred upon it a special prestige that it shared with several other ancient Mesopotamian stories of human beginnings. One, called the Atrahasis, told the story of a primoridal flood that almost destroyed all of humanity; another Gilgamesh, recounted the love of a semidivine hero for a human fashioned from clay. These works feature gods — a whole pantheon of them — but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master. So too they recount the creation of the first humans, but these are not called Adam and Eve and their maker is not the supreme Creator-God of the Hebrews. It would have made perfect sense for the Hebrew captives to embrace the beliefs of the Babylonian victors and to abandon a provincial, local, and, above all, failed god. But they — or at least a pious remnant among them — clung fiercely to his memory. (p. 27f)
After Babylon fell to the Persians under Cyrus, many of the Jewish exiles were permitted to return to Jerusalem and the land. There they undertook the task of rebuilding the Temple, the city, and their identity as a people. They also “embarked upon the comparably immense intellectual labor of forging out of all of their diverse records and repeated stories a sacred book.”
For a thousand years or more, the Hebrews had done without a single, collective sacred text. But in Babylon they had heard over and over again the Enuma Elish with its praise of Marduk, who created the first humans. The trauma of exile, along with the threatened loss of cultural memory, may well have triggered the key determination to bring together the stories and the laws with which the Hebrews defined who they were. For it is in this strange soil — a defeated and embittered people, repatriated at the whim of a foreign prince — that the Bible as we know it seems to have taken root. (p. 45)
Greenblatt notes that it was this book, this Torah (God’s instruction), that turned the Hebrews into the Jews, the Am HaSefer, the People of the Book.
And where did this book begin to tell its tale in hopes of re-forming the Jewish nation?
It began with the claim that Yahweh, the true and living God, created the universe. It continued with stories of this God making humans from clay and breathing life into them, bestowing upon them a divine vocation. These stories were set in Mesopotamia, in a “garden” not unlike the king’s gardens they had seen in Babylon. The Jews’ stories in Genesis 1-11, unlike those of their captors, did not contain tales about conflicts between the gods that affected humans, but of human conflicts and violence that prompted the living God to act in judgment and salvation. They too had a flood story, which taught a much different lesson than the Enuma Elish did. They also wrote about the building of a ziggurat, a “tower reaching to heaven,” like the one they had seen in the great city. Whereas the Chaldeans had called their temple “Etmenanki,” the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth,” the Jewish retelling cast it as a doomed monument to human pride.
As Stephen Greenblatt says in his next chapter, which focuses in more on these stories and how they relate to the stories of Babylon, “The Hebrews were determined to distinguish themselves — from the very beginning of time — from their former captors. The Genesis storyteller was in effect burying a hated past.” (p. 45)