The Image of Marduk; or How the Babylonians Took Advantage of the Absence of Post-Modernists and Enslaved Society

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Babylon Gate” by F. Tronchin under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Remember when all the post-modernists were shouting about the vile oppression of meta-narratives?

You don’t remember that? What, you had better things to do, like go to work and earn a living?

Well, trust me, it was a thing, and it went like this.

Meta-narratives are big, far-reaching stories we tell ourselves and those around us to make sense of life. These stories aren’t big in the life-of-the-party sense, but they’re big in the all-encompassing sense. Here’s an example: Have you heard the one about the freedom-loving, god-fearing nation set as a democratic city on a hill for the rest of the world to witness? The American story, as many of us learned it, is a meta-narrative.

Well, back in the day, post-modernists were grousing that these types of stories oppress people by forcing them into certain singular ways of thinking, governing them with an iron fist—or iron tongue. Instead, they argued, we had to emphasize local stories, the stories of the neighborhood or family unit or, to the extreme, individual stories above all others.

Naïve.

Meta-narratives, the old t-shirt goes, happen. We cannot deny them. We all carry deep in our psyche worldviews—basic ways of interpreting the world around us that answer very basic questions about our core identity. Shout all you want about the “oppressive” nature of a meta-narrative, but we still have them, even when we’re not attempting to impose them on anyone.

But the post-mods were right about one thing. (Well, two things, really. They were right to say that individuals’ stories matter … deeply.) They were right to point our attention to the oppressive potential of meta-narratives.

You see, when we buy into certain overarching stories, we do so to our own detriment. This is one of the big lessons from Middleton’s Liberating Image.

Way back before the post-mods, you had the ancient Babylonians, and boy did they have a story to tell. Their big story, at least one of them, detailed how the gods conspired to create human beings and why. The long and short of it is that the gods were tired of doing the backbreaking labor of agriculture. Sure, the gods needed to eat, but did they really need to do all that hoeing and weeding and harvesting?

So the gods fashioned humans … as slaves. Let them do the hard work of maintaining irrigation ditches. Let them do the hard work of sowing the seed. Let them do the hard work of bringing in the ripe harvests. And let them bring that food for sacrifice to the temple, so that we the gods can eat.

But these humans can be unruly. They’ll need a master. Thus, the gods created someone in their own image (sound familiar?): a king. Yes, the kings of Babylon were shaped in the image of Marduk, the dominant god, and thereby given authority to rule over the people. And they, in turn, were to continue their toil in the hot Mesopotamian sun.

That’s a meta-narrative. And unless you happen to be king of Babylon, it’s an oppressive one. Buying into this story puts you in your place, saying you’re no better than a god’s slave and you never will be. Your only purpose is to supply the gods with food. There is no rising to a higher calling.

Contrast this with a biblical notion of humanity’s purpose—a competing meta-narrative. In this story, God creates all of humanity in his image. He places on all humanity the royal purpose of governing the earth. So it says in Genesis 1:26-28:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

So, the post-mods were right about this: meta-narratives matter. And we should be careful of the stories we buy into.

But there are—and this is really the point of Middleton’s study—liberating meta-narratives out there. In fact, from a biblical point of view, we should say there is one liberating meta-narrative out there. There is a foundational story that, should we buy into it, would lead to freedom, to life, to shared responsibility and, ultimately, to the flourishing of the earth itself.

You are going to live within a great story one way or another. Make sure its a good one.

The Image of God: Israel vs. Babylon

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So I finally got around to reading J. Richard Middleton’s Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, and I’m moderately ashamed it took me so long. You see, I’d been seeing citations to this text in other books for years. I should have picked it up ages ago.

I expected, based on said citations, to find fundamental support for the notion that the Image of God—I only feign Latin proficiency to look smart—is effectively a statement about humanity’s commission to govern the earth. That’s not what I found.

It’s true that “image of God” is a statement about human authority on the earth, a commission to act as God’s representative governors. In fact, it seems nearly every Old Testament scholar out there believes as much.

But Middleton offers so much more than that, since his primary goal is to set Genesis 1-11 in contrast to ancient Babylonian myths about creation and their implications for Babylonian culture and societal structure. (His conjecture is that Genesis at least took its final form in response to Israel’s exilic experience in Babylon—a real possibility.)

So here’s a nugget to nibble on: in ancient Babylon, just one person was made in the image of the dominant god. That person was their king. The king bore the image of Marduk, thereby giving the king the authority to rule the people and to have the people serve him.

Were normal blokes made in their god’s image? No way. The hoi poloi—I actually do know some Greek—were made so they could grow food and offer sacrifices, thereby feeding the gods—something the gods either could not do or did not want to do themselves. That puts the masses in a crummy spot.

Now compare that notion with Genesis 1:26-28. The first mention of the forming of humanity, and the Creator has an idea: “Let’s make all human beings to be like kings, to act as my representatives in protecting and cultivating the earth.”

It’s a lofty bit of theology embedded in a tiny piece of Scripture and set squarely against a dominant rival culture. In fact, Israel’s concept of humanity is a drastic reversal of what may have been the most dominant worldview in the ancient world for centuries. We are all kings on this earth.

Could Jesus’ Humanity Mean More Than We Allow?

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And that’s just the first couple pages.

I know you know this, but the Nicene Creed, a core statement of faith for many churches, says that Jesus was “begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.” Maybe you’re more of a Chalcedonian man—and who doesn’t aspire to be?—and you go for the more concise “truly God and truly Man” when describing Jesus.

Ascribe to either, and you’re saying what orthodox Christians have said for almost as long as the gospels themselves have been around. The Council of Chalcedon met in 451; the First Council of Nicaea over one hundred years earlier in 325. That’s a long time for believers to be saying, in essence, Jesus is God.

On this issue, the science, as they’re saying now, is settled.

But here’s an interesting question: When did the science get settled? If you go back beyond AD 325, were Christians saying “Jesus is God” before then? And if we go all the way back to the actual gospels, is that what they were saying about Jesus?

Well, when it comes to John, yes. He more or less settles the science on the first page. There’s no question John’s Word is Jesus, and John is reasonably explicit: “The Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

Still, it only takes a minute to see that the other gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are of a different sort than John. None of these Synoptic Gospels (so called because they tell very similar types of stories about Jesus) makes the same kind of outright attribution of divinity to Jesus. Was Jesus God for Matthew, Mark and Luke?

Enter J.R. Daniel Kirk, who just a few months ago released a substantial study asking this interesting question: What are the Synoptic Gospels trying to say about Jesus on the humanity-deity spectrum?

I thought we said the science was settled? What kind of heresy is Kirk trying spread in A Man Attested by God?

Well, none heresy. Kirk isn’t questioning whether Jesus is God. Rather, he recognizes things the gospel writers say about Jesus that we have typically taken to mean “Jesus is God”—walking on water or raising the dead—but maybe they weren’t meant to. Perhaps they meant something different to the Jewish Christians who first heard and read these stories.

In short, perhaps saying Jesus was a human being meant a lot more to Jewish Christians in the first century than we allow today. I suppose we could say, biblically speaking, we’re not giving humanity as much credit as God does.

Or, we should say, we do not give enough credit to what Kirk calls “idealized human figures”. His words:

“Idealized human figures” refers to non-angelic, non-preexistent human beings, of the past, present, or anticipated future, who are depicted in textual or other artifacts as playing some unique role in representing God to the rest of the created realm, or in representing some aspect of the created realm before God (3).

Say it plainly, Mike. OK. There are plenty of instances throughout Jewish literature—both biblical and otherwise—where Jews could conceive of people doing Godlike things without themselves being God or God’s authority being usurped or compromised. More, it may well be that this is what human beings were supposed to be like all along.

Applied to Christ, we again turn to Kirk’s own words: “Human Christology can be divine Christology, without imputing inherent divinity to the human in view, because God creates humanity in God’s own image and likeness, to exercise God’s sovereignty over the earth in God’s stead” (4).

Now that’s interesting.

Skipping Israel

Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command to refrain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and so were banished from his presence. That, in short, is the sad ending the opening narrative of Genesis.

Similarly, many Christians are taught, have we all sinned against God and have, by our own actions, banished ourselves from God’s life-giving presence.

Therefore, we need Jesus. In particular, we needed his death and resurrection on our behalf to bring about a renewed offer of humanity-in-communion-with-God.

It’s a familiar painting, if you grew up in some variety of the evangelical church. On a personal level, the picture portrayed is that I have sinned, therefore I need Jesus. From a scriptural perspective, the sketch is Adam and Eve sinned, therefore they—and all humanity with them—needed Jesus.

It’s all true. But if that’s the story, why does the Bible include so much more in the story? I don’t know about your Bible, but mine is, like, you know, a long book with several hundreds of pages of text after Adam and Eve’s story before you get to the New Testament.

What I’m trying to ask is why, in our summation of the Gospel, do we skip from Genesis 3 to Matthew 1? In short, our Gospel has had no need of Israel.

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Old Bible by Felicia Atkinson under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my estimation, it’s a grave mistake to remove so vital a piece of God’s history with his people. It’s like tearing a great big hole in your Bible. It’s bound to elicit the wrath of … or at least blind us to things we ought to be seeing.

So we must ask, what was God trying to do with Israel for all those pages?

When we looked at the basic narrative of structure of Adam and Eve’s story, we found that the Creator had a goal of sending his life-giving presence into the whole world. And we saw that he had chosen humanity, represented initially by Adam and Eve, to be the agents through whom God’s governance was administered on the earth. The story crumbed, of course, in Genesis 3.

But is that the end of the story? Is there a possibility the narrative of Genesis 1-3 may be rescued? Is there a chance the heroes God had chosen to govern his good creation on his behalf may be redeemed and the Creator’s purposes renewed? In short, does the Lord close the book at Genesis 3 and move on to a better tale? Or does he continue writing?

You know the answer, naturally. Among the great and beautiful truths about the God of the Bible is his relentless persistence. God never stops doing good and he never gives up when something goes wrong.

But his salvation for humanity does not move directly to Jesus, as our shorthand Gospels have taught us to think. No, God moves to rescue humanity and continue the story begun in Genesis 1 with another humble individual.

Abraham is sent now to save what Adam and Eve had fumbled.

Genesis: 1970’s Melodrama or Act I of an Epic?

During my senior year of high school The American Film Institute released their top 100 movies of all time. When I saw the list, I immediately started checking off flicks I had seen over the years. I was surprised, as an 18 year-old, how many I could check off the list, but many still remained. I had myself a challenge.

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1.22.11 – “The French Connection” by Movies in LA under license CC BY-NC 2.0

Little by little I would see one or another movie on the list and keep inventory. Over time, I began to see a disturbing pattern, particularly with films from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Deer Hunter, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown: Depressing. Even solid gold, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—spoiler alert—they die!

Now, fairy tales, for the most part, have relatively simple plot lines. Part of their allure and longevity is a result of their brevity, while still containing powerful, widely applicable lessons. They are, nevertheless, straightforward: one hero with one objective, one cruel villain and one major crisis before a happy and satisfying resolution.

But what happens when the hero of the fairy tale does not win his battle? What happens when we don’t get “happily ever after”?

It means one of two things. It means we’re either watching one of those myriad depression-fests of the 1970’s, or it may very well mean we’re simply in store for a longer, more complicated story than we had anticipated. Following the initial failure, a new layer of the story is introduced, with a goal for redemption.

The initial pages of Scripture may outline a fairy tale at the beginning, with God the Creator employing humanity, the pinnacle of his creation, to administer his life-giving glory throughout the creation. An enemy arises in the form of the serpent to threaten this endeavor, but the Lord supplies the tempted humans with a clear command with which to combat the snake’s charms.

But, as we all know, there is no “happily ever after” in Genesis 3.

Rather, Adam and Eve fail. The first couple, humanity’s archetypes, are given one simple task: trust God and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Easy, right? But the serpent’s wiles gets them to question their Creator, to pluck the forbidden fruit and partake.

As a result, the creation itself is cursed and the Lord’s first priests are banished from the beatific natural temple of Eden. Humanity—meant to be God’s representatives pushing back chaos on the earth—is severed from the life-giving God.

So, what sort of story are we in for? Is the Bible a 70’s melodrama? Or could it be we’re embarking on a longer journey toward redeeming God’s first objective?

Villains and Sidekicks

Human beings, from the beginning, have been tasked with the all-important mission of transmitting the Creator’s glory—and thereby bringing life and order and abundance—to the entire creation. That’s we discovered last time in the pages of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.

As we explored earlier, however, every good story has a villain who seeks to thwart the hero’s efforts to accomplish her objective. The Opponent threatens the whole endeavor and brings drama to the narrative.

Who is the Opponent of humanity in the creation narrative? As the Bible begins its saga, who threatens humanity’s job of governing the earth of God’s behalf?

It’s among the most well known tales in all the world: Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Will the first couple succeed in extending the order of creation beyond the borders of Eden? Will they continually eat of the Tree of Life—a symbol, not only of the free-flowing life of God to them, but to the whole of creation?

The serpent has other ideas. He’s out to reassert the realm of chaos, to bring disorder back into the peaceful space the Creator has carved. Agent and Opponent are in a fixed struggle in the early verses of Genesis 3.

A fulfilling tale, however, does not leave the Agent to her own devices. Typically, the Agent receives some kind of Helper. In fact, an audience generally knows this to be a necessary component of a good drama.

Playing in the backyard with the neighbors, we might regularly invent for ourselves superhero identities and enter into pitched battle for an afternoon:

I call out, “My guy can fly!”

“Yeah?” says Greg, indignantly. “Well, my guy shoots lightning bolts. Kapow! You’re dead!”

“Nuh-uh,” I retort. “My guy has an invisible Faraday cage around him at all times. Electricity has no effect!”

No fair! Why? Because it’s cheep victory. My guy has overcome without any real struggle. Indeed he was never in danger from the lightning bolts.

So in a good story, including the biblical story, there must be an external Helper who enters the scene to aid the Agent in accomplishing her goal. In the superhero example, if my guy is to over come the lightning bolts, the help must come from outside himself. He needs a lightning absorbing Helper, a sidekick.

What Helper do Adam and Eve receive to overcome the serpent’s wiles?

In this case, the help has come prior to the serpent’s introduction. The first couple has received help even before they’re tempted. In fact, their help comes from the Lord himself, in the form of instruction. They’ve been pre-warned:

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Scripture’s initial storyline. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17, NRSV).

God’s commandment, his word of warning is their Helper to combat and overcome the serpent’s crafty temptations. If Adam and Eve—if humanity—rely on God’ word, defeat their Opponent, the serpent, and proceed to delivering God’s life-giving glory across the entire world. The future hangs in the balance.