Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.
In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth. Later, the god(s) invent human beings.
That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.
Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish
The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.
The story begins when the two primordial gods “mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods. The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other. The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them. The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.
From his blood he created mankind,
On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)
Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 2
The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths. It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.
The second story begins:
On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground. But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)
adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.
vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)
In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt. This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.
And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)
God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake. Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.
God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 1
The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:
In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.
And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.
Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah
The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.
The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them. This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them. Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.
Thus said the god, God—
Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,
Spreader of the earth and her products,
Giver of breath to the people upon it,
And spirit to those who walk on it—
“I am God. I summoned you with right conduct,
And I held you firmly by your hand,
Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you
A covenant of a people, a light of nations.
To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)
ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you. (From the root yatzar.)
Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.
What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?
According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.
You are My witnesses,
And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)
In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings. In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.
In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.
In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.
In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.
Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.
But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose. What if there is a purpose for humankind in general? What might it be?