The Sins of the Gods: Divine Attitudes Toward Mass Retribution in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the
Biblical Noah Saga By N. Kraus
The texts of both Genesis and Tablet XI of The Epic of Gilgamesh bear out that Enlil and Yahweh, respectively, have issued devastating floods meant to target not only the guilty, but the innocent as well. This raises questions regarding the moral quality of such acts, and, by extension, the character of both deities involved. Additionally, what does this say for their relation to man, in general? It is the intention here to look for clues in both the text itself and in various interpretations of the text, as well as in the broader cultural context of the ancient Near East, in order to shed light on these issues. It will emerge that Yahweh’s actions are predicated on his own emotional passions, whereas Enlil has acted within the framework of ancient civilization’s tendency to look at the collective, and ignore the individual.
Ultimately, both narratives feature moments of seeming regret on the parts of the two deities, after the flood. Close attention will be paid to determine the exact quality of that regret, and what it indicates about prospects of attitudinal change for Enlil and Yahweh, in regards to the punishment of innocents. It turns out that the emotional nature of Yahweh’s initial misdeed allows him space to recover from it. By contrast, Enlil does not regret having killed the bystanders -- he is ultimately stuck adhering to the value of collective retribution, and cannot see past it.
In fairness, there is no explicit mention in Tablet XI of Enlil having caused the flood, to begin with -- it is only said that “the great gods resolved to send it.” Still, there is little doubt that Enlil was behind the whole affair, as his god-colleagues Ea and Ishtar seem to hold him accountable for it, after the fact. (Heidel 232) Additionally, the exact reason for the flood is not made clear immediately, but it is implied from that very interaction with Ea that humanity had committed some grave sin. Some have posited that, as in other Babylonian flood narratives, their misdeed was overpopulation. (Simoons-Vermeer 22) However, it should be noted that the deities of Mesopotamia relied on human residence of great cities for food and labor. (Lambert 118) Ambiguous “sin” is then a likely reference to some human failure to satisfy the gods’ material needs.
The assumption that Enlil had killed innocents with the issuing og the flood is based on the proposition that surely, not every single last man, woman, and child had sinned. Even if Enlil’s verdict is a just one for those who have committed whatever crime against him, surely there are those who have done no offense. If this is the case, then Enlil, by issuing the flood, has terminated the lives of innocents, even by his own standards of justice. The question is then what mindset would have prompted him to do so.
Presumably, Enlil subscribed to a god-man relation that held humanity (or at least the population of the given city) as one collective. So when it came to judgment, no attention was to be paid to which individual was guilty and which was not -- everyone would end up in the crosshairs for having belong to the convicted community. This outlook was not Enlil’s invention. The notion of collective judgment was commonplace, in the ancient world, between god and man, and between nations. (Pelton 737; Kapelrud 35) One’s identity (or culpability, as it were) was largely determined by familial or national affiliations. Personal standing was immaterial. It is without doubt, then, that Enlil is playing by this ancient worldview, as well. He has judged the community as a whole, and now intends to follow through, with no regards for the individual. It is not that Enlil deserves to be excused for having killed innocents, it’s just that there is at least a framework with which to understand Enlil’s decision.
Yahweh’s mass destruction, however, does not fit this context well, nor can it even be said conclusively that Yahweh harmed innocents, at all. Initially, it does seem like Yahweh has wishes to destroy the human race as a whole, with no regard for the individuals therein. However, that initial statement of intent must be taken in context with the rest of the actual story. Yahweh is clearly open to acknowledging the distinct character of individuals (such as Noah) within the broader collective. So it may be presumed that had anyone else been truly “innocent,” Yahweh would’ve granted them salvation. The fact that everyone but Noah was doomed to die is then indicative that, in fact, each and every one of them was guilty (at least by Yahweh’s standards). This is made clear by Yahweh himself in his revelation to Noah- “you alone are righteous in this generation.” (Gen. 7:2 RSV) Noah was the only outlier in this world of sinfulness. Everyone else was rightfully cast away in the divine basket of deplorables. If this is the case, then Yahweh never actually delivered “collective retribution,” per se -- it was more a mass retribution of individuals, all of whom were found guilty.
- Quote paper
- Nechemia Kraus (Author), 2017, The Sins of the Gods. Divine Attitudes Toward Mass Retribution in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical Noah Saga, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/369102