I’m currently reading a book by Thomas Cahill called “The Gifts of the Jews”, in which his thesis is that we (people of the modern western world) get our worldview from the Jews. If it wasn’t for the Jews, we would perceive the world completely differently. The Jewish worldview is the dominating one today, but this was not always the case. To begin his book, we dive into the worldview that was found everywhere in ancient cultures since the beginning of civilizations. And we see it first in the Sumerians, in a city called Uruk. But how do you go about discovering the mindset of a people who lived about 5,000 years ago? Cahill says, “The worldview of a people . . . is to be found in a culture’s stories, myths, and rituals, which, if studied aright, inevitable yield insight into the deepest concerns of a people, by unveiling the invisible fears and desires inscribed on humans hearts.” And so, we have to go back to perhaps the oldest piece of literature, written on 12 clay tablets in cuneiform script: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh probably lived during the middle of the 3rd Millennium B.C. where he reigned as King of Uruk, a city that sits on the banks of the Euphrates River in present day Iraq. According to the Epic (which was passed down orally for a long time before actually being written, hence the embellishments), Gilgamesh is part human and part divine, since his mother is the wild cow goddess, Ninsun (I’m sure young kindergarten Gilgamesh loved Career day… “Um, my mom is the infamous wild cow goddess, she couldn’t make it today”), and his father is Lugalbanda, who was also a King of Uruk. Now, to the Sumerian, the most important quality was extreme ambition. These people were wealthy businessmen, who sought worldly prestige, victory, and success above all else. And Gilgamesh epitomized all that the Sumerians idolized. But there is no peace in Uruk because of Gilgamesh’s behavior and superiority. So the people call to the universal mother, Aruru, to send someone to contend with Gilgamesh. She creates and sends Enkidu, a man described more like a werewolf than a human. Enkidu is supposed to find Gilgamesh and fight him. But before he can, Gilgamesh sends a powerful weapon: a woman. When the woman, Shamhat, encounters Enkidu he is suddenly transformed from wild beast into civilized man (beware… the powers of women…), where he is then fit for the urban life of Uruk. In the end, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become very close companions, until Gilgamesh provokes the wrath of Ishtar (Uruk “goddess of love and war”, a logical combination) to the point that she sends down the “Bull of Heaven” to destroy them. Well, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the bull, but one of them must die to pay for their impious acts against the gods. And Enkidu is chosen. Gilgamesh is deeply troubled by the loss of his close friend. He resolves to escape his human fate and find the secret of immortality, a status that has been granted to only one man: Utnapishtim (In the epic, Utnapishtim saves his family and a remnant of animals from a universal flood, thus making him worthy of being immortal). So Gilgamesh seeks the advice of Utnapishtim, and travels with his wife to the paradise of Dilmun, where Utnapishtim resides “like a god” living forever. But before they arrive, the wife of Gilgamesh, Siduri, gives him some intriguing advice:
Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life you seek.
When the gods created mankind
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands,
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.
This is fascinating. The Sumerians viewed the heavens (stars, moon, and sun) as being like gods. They, like most ancient cultures deified the heavens and worshiped them. The heavens were eternal but the earth was cyclical. And so they viewed life as the great Wheel. People are born, they live they die. Cahill says, “Human life, seen as a pale reenactment of the life of the eternal heavens, was ruled by a fate beyond the pitifully limited powers of human beings.” The moon became a huge heavenly figure, because it is born, waxes, wanes, and dies, just like we do. The Epic of Gilgamesh shows one of the deepest desires of every normal Sumerian living in the city of Uruk: eternal life. They wanted to be like the stars that show brightly in the heavens forever. But they were instead left with the disappointing fate of inevitable death. Their gods created them to live, enjoy pleasures, die. Their gods “appointed death to mankind”, and “kept eternal life in their own hands”. And so, the center of life became pleasure, and your god became a good luck charm, helping you achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible. With these gods, we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.
Then, Yahweh steps into the picture.
In the town of Ur, a Sumerian city-state located just up the river from Uruk, there lived a man named Terah, who was the father of Abram. Terah takes his family to Harran, a sister city of Ur. This is where the story found in Genesis goes from genealogy to narrative again. It’s been centuries since the flood, and also centuries since God has spoken (as far as we know). Yahweh calls upon a Semite, who has been raised in the Sumerian culture, named Abram. And Yahweh’s first message is to leave (Genesis 12:1). This wealthy business man is going to leave the center of business, the source of all his wealth, and go to a land he’s never heard of, with people who (according to the Sumerians) are uncivilized and poor. As Cahill puts it, this was a migration “in the wrong direction”. But, Yahweh promises to make Abram into a great nation through whom all would be blessed, so the incentive is there, if he can believe what Yahweh is saying.
Fast forward. Abram is still without child. And he’s old. And his wife, Sarai, has been on Medicare for a couple of decades. The promise of descendants “as numerous as the dust of the earth” is starting to appear more like empty words, considering Abram doesn’t even have one son. So Abram decides if this plan falls through he will just be leaving his estate to his chief servant of Damascus. But God says, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Now, surely this is déjà vu for Abram. He’s seen the stars thousands of times. Perhaps when he was younger his dad would take him outside and say, “Look up at the heavens and look at the stars. That is where the gods live.” But now, Yahweh is giving Abram the heavenly tour, and He says, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be,” (Genesis 15:4-5). This is huge. Not only will his descendants be like the dust of the earth, but now Abram is told they will be like the stars of the heavens. This, to a Sumerian, means eternal. Suddenly, Yahweh introduces eternity into the heart and mind of Abram. The only way a Sumerian could even get close to immortality was through children. Fertility was so important, because you lived on in your children. But Abram’s descendants will be like the stars, shining in the heavens forever, because he is about to covenant with the only true, eternal God. In fact, when God covenants with Abram (something a businessman like Abram would have been very used to - you cut a covenant by killing an animal and walking in between the two halves of its body), it is God and not Abram who moves between the cut up animals (Genesis 15:17), which means that if the covenant is broken it is God who will be “cut”, just like the animals lying on the ground before them. This God is willing step out of the heavens, and put himself on the line. He is willing to sacrifice for this Semitic nomad, all to share his eternal life with him, and all his descendants. Gilgamesh was seeking for eternity, but could not attain it, because he was talking to the wrong gods. But Yahweh is different. He is not a lucky charm that you carry around to ensure a good crop, or great wealth. Unlike the other gods, he is not distant, somewhere up in the heavens, but rather he has come to earth, clothed in his eternal power, to enter into a relationship with Abram. And in doing so, Yahweh has not “kept eternal life in (his) own hands”, but rather has come to give eternal life. Life is no longer a cycle of death, the great Wheel, but starting with Abram, Yahweh is making life an epic journey. From Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Egypt, from Egypt back to Canaan, and so on until we get to the cross, where eternal life was poured out for all. So that we, who are already made in His image, can become one with this God, and shine like stars in the Heavens.