Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I Just Want Some Rest: Ancient Longings in Babylon and the Bible

Tiamat v. Marduk
"Their ways have become very grievous to me, by day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep. I shall abolish their ways and disperse them! Let peace prevail, so that we can sleep." [1]

No, this is not the exclamation of a parent of twins when one child wakes the other and causes mad chaos at 3 a.m. This also is not a direct quote from a middle school youth pastor when on "retreat" with 30 confirmation students.

This is the voice of Apsu, a primordial god in the ancient Babylonian "Epic of Creation," also known as "Enuma Elish. [2]

One of the many plotlines within Enuma Elish regards Apsu's and Tiamat's desire to be liberated from the clamour caused by the lesser gods they created when they "mixed their waters together." [3] They cannot tolerate the noise and long to be set free from disturbance. The agitated Apsu plots against the lesser gods, only for his scheme to be intercepted by Ea, who then conspires and slays his begetter. The corpse of Apsu becomes the very dwelling place for Ea and his lover, Damkina, who conceive Marduk, the savior of all the lesser gods. It is said of Marduk, "The nurse who reared him filled him with awesomeness."

Almost as good as being created in the imago Dei, but not quite.

The gist of this ancient epic consists in a vengeful Tiamat going to battle against awesome Marduk, who has been annointed by Ea and the rebel gods as their defender. Tiamat longs for rest. Marduk longs for deliverance. A violent war, according to Enuma Elish, is the only possible means to achieve either or both.

Marduk ultimately defeats Tiamat and creates the heavens and the earth from her body split in two. Creation is born out of violence. Deliverance from chaos achieved through the means of war. The hope for rest by this primordial goddess of the oceans is thwarted.

Then we turn to Genesis 1.

The writer declares that a "wind from God swept over the face of the waters" within a formless and void earth.

God stills the chaos and births creation:

light separated from darkness

sky separated from seas

seas separated from land

vegetation and fruit everywhere

day and night in right rhythm

living creatures and swimming fish

humanity made in the image of their Creator

a call to co-labor and bear fruit in the world God made

and rest.

"So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation" (2:3).


The stories could not be more different. Yet both stories traveled the oral tradition grapevine at the same time and in the same place- Babylon of sixth century B.C.- home to both oppressive empire and exiled Israel.

The Babylonian story intertwines a longing for rest within a story of violence, vengegance, chaos, and rage.

The story told by ancient Israel, probably on the shores of Babylon, illustrates rest as the culmination of God's brilliant and generous act of creation, a creation deemed as good.

No violence. No vengenace. No death. No chaos.


If we are honest, the voice of Apsu and the misison of Tiamat jives with our own longings. We want to slay clamoured schedules, eradicate ruckus pressures, and silence disruptive voices that make us feel as though we are never doing enough. We live in a hurried culture that makes the sacred rhythm of Genesis appear as fantasy and the sabbath rest a blockade to efficiency. We are exiled from harmonious habitation and wonder if we will ever return to the way the Lord of Creation intended.

As those situated in Babylon wondered if they would ever return home to Jerusalem, we also wonder if we may make it back to Eden. We long for the story of Genesis but live in the story of Babylon. We wonder if we can have at least one day a week for rest.

Because when rest is neglected we become quite irritable, potentially hostile, and even volitile in our words and deeds. This God knows. We were created to be fruitful and multiply. We were created to reflect the image of God in ourselves and others. We were created to care for the creation God made as good. We were also created for sacred rhythm and rest. [4]

May it be so.

Before we stir up more chaos.


[1] Taken from, Myths from Mesopotamia, by Stephanie Dalley (Oxford 2008). Tablet I.

[2] This past Sunday, I led a conversation with high school students on both the creation stories in Genesis and this well-known creation story from ancient Babylon. We would be naive to think the stories in our Old Testament are the first, or last, of their kind when it comes to the narration of how all came into existence. That said, I took a chance in exposing youth to an exercise in contextualization. In other words, we considered the subversive nature of the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 when situated in a foreign land, i.e. Babylon, whose culture had a creation story of their own. I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm. Next week: Atrahasis!

[3] Apsu is known as the primordial God of fresh water. Tiamat is the primordial goddess of salt water and oceans. Some refer to her as the goddess of chaos. This makes for another interesting biblical contrast. Walter Wink provides incredible insight on this in his book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.

[4] Check out Abraham Heschel's, The Sabbath, as tool for youth retreat.