After The Flood
11 ‑ The coming of the gods
With the deaths of the patriarchs Eber and his son Peleg within a century of each other, the Golden Age of the sons of Noah ended. For more than eight hundred years the people of Shinar had remained faithful to the God of Noah. The evidence lies in the form of innumerable inscribed clay tablets that have been unearthed and deciphered. Those which are later than about 2000 BC, roughly the times of Abraham, abound with references to the names of the many gods of Babylon, anything up to a hundred in number. Tablets earlier than that date refer to fewer and fewer names of gods, the farther one goes back in time, until by some four centuries earlier there are only three gods worshipped. Before that for as far back as any written records exist there is only one God known ‑ they called him An, the God of heaven, the Most High. Even in the later days of many gods An was always the supreme God, the creator and controller of all things. Strangely enough, the same tablets reveal no signs of war or warlike weapons until this same period. The evidence is that paganism and war came into the world together. One of the leading archaeologists of the last century, Stephen Langdon, expressed this fact in his book "Semitic Mythology" saying "both in Sumerian and Semitic religions, monotheism preceded polytheism and belief in good and evil spirits. The evidence and reasons for this conclusion, so contrary to accepted and current views, have been set down with care and with the perception of adverse criticism … the history of the oldest religion of man is a rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism". Writing during the early years of the last century, Langdon ‑ who died in 1937 ‑ never knew of the many modern finds which have confirmed his deductions. In the 19th century it was fashionable to insist that monotheism, the worship of one God, developed from preceding belief in many gods and is still asserted by many text-books which have failed to keep up with research. Today, there is abundant documentary proof, which cannot be denied, to the contrary. One of the most telling evidences in this connection is due to excavations in 1930 at the ancient 25th BC century city of Eshnunna, not far from Baghdad, by Frankfort. He found a mass of inscribed tablets and cylinder seals, some from the temple and some from private houses, which, he says "can all be fitted in to form a consistent picture in which a single god worshipped in this temple, forms the central figure….At this early period His various aspects were not considered separate deities in the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon" (Excavations at Tel Asmar-Eshnunna). In other words, the various attributes of the Most High, His love, justice, wisdom, and His methods of operation in the powers of Nature, the sunshine, the storm, the seasons, and so on, were gradually viewed in separation and personified under individual names. In this manner men became accustomed to the idea of a plurality of gods. Almost every modern excavation of 3rd millennium BC sites is now providing confirmation of Frankfort's findings.
The taint of idolatry affected the line of Abraham. Joshua, addressing Israel just before his death, told them that their fathers dwelt beyond the Euphrates in the remote past, and "served other gods" (Josh. 24.2). The "Book of Jubilees" declares that Serug, Nahor and Terah were all idolaters; this might be an old legend without foundation, nevertheless these are the only three before Abraham who could have worshipped pagan gods. This brings us to the introduction of those gods amongst men. Like so many later human philosophies, the development of the gods was inspired by a desire to explain the unrevealed things of God by means of human analogies. The first was an endeavour to explain how the world was created and life arose upon it. Genesis chapters 1 to 9 were certainly in existence in written form for two centuries before mythology began. Throughout mythology there are thoughts that suggest the remains of an earlier clear understanding of the Divine Plan.
So how did God bring life to the earth? Eve said when her first son was born: "I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord" (Gen.4.1) Next there had to be defined the power by which the earth itself, with all its vegetation and its animal wealth, was brought into being. Genesis says "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" and the work of creation proceeded apace. Just so, said the Sumerians and the Semites of Serug's day; the invisible power of An, the Most High, a silent and unseen energy like the wind, executed His commands. In their language that power was denoted by the word that meant wind, breath, spirit, exactly as does the Hebrew 'ruach' and the Greek 'pneuma'. So the unseen power of the Spirit of God became personified under the name of Enlil, meaning Lord of the Spirit, or Lord of the Air. This conception first arose in the Sumerian holy city of Nippur. Enlil became Says the special god of that city.
Enlil in later times was depicted as a fatherly, beneficent god, always solicitous for the welfare of his creatures. He gradually assumed the prerogatives of An his father, so that An the Most High God receded into His heaven but Enlil was more immediately at hand to see to man's interests. One of the hymns of praise chanted in his honour says "without Enlil, no cities …no sheep folds, fish would lay no eggs, birds would not build nests, plants and herbs would fail to grow… grain would fail to flower, the trees would not yield their fruit". Enlil became a manifestation of the Most High God in so far as his creative spirit was concerned. Down in the south country, on the shores of what is now the Persian Gulf, men's minds were working in a different manner. Men of Eridu and Ur öf the Chaldees were traders, merchants, seafarers, artisans. Their ships went as far east as India and Ceylon and down the coast of East Africa and brought the products of those countries back to their own. They were practical, hard-headed, men of the earth rather than the heavens, and they began to think of God in more concrete terms than the more visionary form of Enlil. So just as Enlil was the god of the spirit, of the air, and eventually of heaven, so now men in the south began to talk of God manifest in a more practical manner as the god of earth, sea and the world of the dead. They called him Enki, the lord of the earth and they too made him the son of An the supreme god.
In the days of Serug there were four gods instead of one and in later days were known as "creative gods". But Enki was not pictured as a benevolent, fatherly deity like Enlil; he was a rather brusque and short-tempered god, usually taking up an antagonistic attitude to Enlil. He was credited with inventing more than a hundred laws by which the civilised life of the community was to be regulated, and responsible for the development of agricultural and mechanical devices wherewith life became easier and the community richer. In these two deities, thinking men saw the two spheres of Divine power extended towards man. One, the spiritual and the other earthly, practical. That is how it must have been in the beginning; only later did they take on the form of distinct personalities.
The process did not stop there. Men were looking for something visible to the natural eyes in which the invisible God could be manifested. Men have been doing that ever since and this is the source of all idolatry. Faith in the unseen things does not come easily to the natural man. So they turned their attention to the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon and planets, and pictured them as the eyes of the Lord, watching everything that takes place on earth. In a fanciful way they considered those heavenly bodies as attributes of Deity and before long were venerating them as manifestations of the personal unseen God. So they gave Enlil five sons: Nannar, the Moon; Nebo, Mercury; Nergal, Mars; Niburu, Jupiter; and Adar, Saturn. Then they credited Nannar the Moon-god with a son and daughter, Utu, the Sun, and Inanna, Venus. These seven were termed the "immortal gods", the "watchers". They formed a second level of gods, whose duties were generally to oversee matters occurring on earth. A remarkable reference to the continuance of this belief into future ages is provided in the Book of Daniel (4.17). Nebuchadnezzar the king, recounting his dream of the tree to Daniel, says that "a watcher and a holy one" came down from heaven to declare the decree and told him "this matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones, to the intent that the King may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men..." Here is a singular evidence that the great king, Nebuchadnezzar, two thousand years after the emergence of idolatry, accepted the existence of the seven "watchers", their overlords, the "creative gods", the "holy ones" and above them all, the Most High God who, worshipped since the days of Noah, still retained His position as the supreme God of heaven. Even the Jews in later time were not immune from the same failing; Jewish legend had it that there were seven archangels in attendance upon God, overseeing various departments of world affairs. Michael ‑ the only archangel mentioned as such in the Bible ‑ was the champion and defender of Israel and Gabriel the messenger of God, just as Utu was the champion of the Sumerians and Nebo the messenger of An; and there were five others. It would seem there are no bounds to the ingenuity of men once they begin to depart from the living God. Tablets belonging to a couple of centuries later begin to reveal new gods, one after another, lesser gods, each devoted to the welfare of one particular sphere of human activity or one particular calling amongst men. Thus there suddenly appears Kulla the god of the brickbuilders, Ninkurra of the stonemasons, Ninilda of the carpenters; Adad the god of rain and storms; Ninurta of war; Arazu of prayer; Symugan of cattle and vegetation; Ninkurrak of medicine and healing. There were fifty of these altogether, known as the "great gods", all created by An. The individual citizen was expected when in difficulty to go to the appropriate god for help and only when that failed to go higher up the scale to one of the "watchers" or even to Enlil or Enki or An as a last resort.
As if this motley crowd of gods and goddesses was not enough, there next came, on the fourth level, three hundred spirits of earth and three hundred spirits of heaven, together with a multitude of fiends and evil spirits bent on harassing and persecuting defenceless humans. Much of the said humans' time was spent in supplicating the gods for deliverance from these terrors. The decline from monotheism into paganism was remarkably rapid. A matter of two centuries saw the entire pantheon of gods established: temples and ziggurats (temple-towers) which had been sacred to the Most High God from their foundations were re-named and made sacred to one or another of the new gods. For another five hundred years the system grew increasingly elaborate and complex to the point where every city and community had its own system of gods. This occurred to an extent that modern investigators are in despair endeavouring to make some sense of the often mutually contradictory beliefs of the ancient peoples. Eventually, a little before the time of Abraham, Marduk the deified Nimrod was introduced as the son of Enki and became particularly associated with Babylon, which by that time had become the capital of the whole country. Marduk was hailed as the world's redeemer and champion of all men and eventually superseded most of the others, except An the Most High. Millenniums later, a century before Christ, when the glory and power of Babylon had passed away and the great city lay in ruins and deserted, travellers found a decaying priesthood in the ruined Temple of Babylon continuing a ritual honour of An and Marduk. The Most High God of Noah was never completely forgotten.
It is possible that this incursion into idolatry did not go unchallenged. There must have been some who, like Eber and his fellows, would have none of it. In the 22nd BC century, by which time idolatry was firmly established ‑ and the birth of Abraham was to be only two more centuries away ‑ there began to appear in all the city-states of Sumer an element of the Semitic part of the population known as Hebrews. They were notably conspicuous as merchants and traders and this at a time when communication with countries was opening up and goods being transported and exchanged meant they became well known throughout the Middle East. Students of Genesis will of course recognise them as descendants of Eber, from whom they derived their name. Abraham, one descendant of his, is referred to in Gen.14.13 as "Abram the Hebrew". Now people in that 22nd century BC and onwards referred to God as "El" a word which in the Hebrew language means powerful or mighty. It is derived from the Semitic ilu which from earliest times meant 'God'. The Sumerian proper name "An" (Semitic 'Anu') for the Supreme Being was derived from the conception of His being the God of Heaven ‑ the Sumerian word for heaven or the sky is also An. This name 'El' for 'God' is found to have been in general use among the Canaanites of Canaan up to the time Joshua and his hosts entered the land a thousand years later, and is in fact the same word that denotes God in Arabic today ‑ Allah. The expression 'el elion' ‑'God Most High' occurs in Genesis and again in the Psalms. Perhaps this had its origin at this time in an effort to maintain the authority of the One True God of Noah against the rising tide of "gods many and lords many" which was being created by the ingenuity of man.
But the odds were too great. The number of false gods continued to increase and the corruption of their religion multiplied, until the Lord looked down from heaven much as He had done in the days before the Flood and knew that the time had come to intervene. In Abraham He found the man whose faith would set in motion a chain of events which at the end would bring about the execution of His purpose.
(To be continued)