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Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Fish Story

We've all heard the story of the old man who went fishing alone and caught something that he didn't manage to bring home with him.  He tells the story of his adventure over and over, and eventually it becomes a tale of epic proportions--he hooked a whale, which took him on a ride or pulled him from his boat before the line snapped.  Was the old man telling the truth, since no one else witnessed this "catch of a lifetime"?  Did he really catch anything, or was it just a submerged log that took his fishing lure?  Was he just trying to make himself sound like a hero?

In situations like these, when no one else was there, it is very easy to "embellish" the truth to fit some purpose.  Other people will never know exactly what happened, but they can be certain of one thing: something did happen.  The old man did go fishing, and he did lose his fishing lure.

The party game of "Telephone" works much the same way.  We all know that someone said something to the first person, but we cannot know, while the game is being played, if the message hasn't changed as it is passed from one person to the next.

This is, in my opinion, the way all myths are formed.  They begin with a kernel of truth, but are so embellished and elaborated upon, they become outright lies by the end of the process.  People who were not there at the beginning feel they have no other choice than to believe what they have been told, and so it moves from a campfire story to a matter of respecting the elders, and from there, it becomes a religion.  If you want to study myths, do so with care; they are full of embellishments that can lead a person astray if the wrong thing is taken for the truth.

Why Study Myth?

This past Friday I felt God leading me to study information on Baal, the pagan god of a religion early Israel was soundly punished for following.  I did so, and found out something that just reconfirmed what I already knew, and really expected to find.  I stopped at writing the post, though, because I couldn't think how any of that really fit in with the theme of this blog.  I mean, how would knowing about a defunct religion help anyone be more spiritually perceptive or better equipped to serve the Living God today?

After mulling it over for a weekend and talking to others about it, I decided that I was just thinking about this topic from the wrong perspective.  Of course, as a Christian I disapprove of other religions, because I believe they are false--this spoken from a scholar's point of view as well. I don't want to talk about anything that might lead another person into a false belief system.  I also don't want to waste anyone's time relating useless facts that are only needed on a television broadcast of Jeopardy! or some other game show.

The simple truth is, we don't study myth to learn about God or to strengthen our faith; we study myths to understand fallen man.  That is very useful, even today, even if we're talking about an ancient, defunct, religion.  Do you understand why you act the way you do?  Do you know what goes through the mind of the man who takes the train with you every morning?  If you could trace back through all the layers of embellishments in a myth, you could understand the man, and the motive, behind the first "big fish story," and if you look carefully enough, you might learn something about all people in general.

Getting at That Kernel of Truth

I looked up Baal and tried to learn something about the religion that drew in and destroyed so many Israelites through the centuries.  I discovered that it was an ancient Phoenician (Sidonian) religion, and that Baal meant "lord."  His "wife," or shall we just say, "mate,"  was called Astarte, or Ashteroth (which is actually a combination of her name and the Hebrew word for "abomination," like a slur of her name).  We don't really need to know the details of the worship of these deities to know they were evil (Deuteronomy 12:30).  In fact, I intentionally learned little about their religious rites, only that they included child sacrifice and wanton behaviors.

The Bible dictionary I was using made a couple of points that clarified for me the reason why I was studying it at all.  These two deities were, according to archeologists, similar to and possibly the origin of Zeus and Hera (the top god of the Greek pantheon and his wife) and their equivalent in the Roman pantheon, Jupiter and Juno, as well as the religious practices of the pre-historic residents of Britain.  The name Jupiter linked me to information on the Indian pantheon and the "sky father" and "earth mother," Dyaus Pita (Dyauspitr) and Prithvi Mata.  So, we see that this ancient Baal worship was not nearly as isolated or as unusual as we might think from reading about it in the Bible; in fact, most of the ancient world (if not all of it) worshiped some version of these two characters.

There was one other weird similarity, before I get to the culmination of my research: virtually all the myths I linked to Baal and Ashteroth also included something about a sacred cow, sometimes being the progeny of these two, sometimes being the nurturer of one or the other.

I kept digging, and found a final connection between the characters of Baal and Ashteroth and two characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian myth that was written down in the time of Abraham).  A college professor of mine had linked these two Epic of Gilgamesh characters to Adam and Eve in the Bible, since the Sumerian myth said that he was the first man, and she was made from his rib (by the way, for the curious, there are very few other similarities between the Epic and the Bible).  At this point, I found myself saying "Adam and Eve are Baal and Ashteroth?!?"

Now, I'm not an expert on this subject, but I can put together the findings of others and speculate about them.  I've got to wonder if there are any theories out there about why these similarities in religious figures exist.  The only workable explanation I have is that they all hearken back to a time when all people remembered a common origin story.  Could it be that these deities were all corrupted stories of the original couple?  In that case, through a lot of research, archeologists have uncovered the biggest "big fish" story in the history of mankind--in fact, deeply buried, it is the history of mankind!

Ah, but you have to believe, first, that there was only one original couple.  In all of these stories, the "first man" and "first woman" were only the father and mother of the nation that spoke of them in myth.  In other words, all creation stories other than the Bible, to the best of my knowledge, speak of their own nation as being the first,  from which all others came.  This is not the way the Bible tells the story.  In fact, we don't even read about the first Jewish person until rather far into the book of Genesis (chapter 11, to be exact).  The nation of Israel doesn't claim Adam and Eve as being their forefathers, exclusively, and this is the fairest treatment of Adam and Eve that I have encountered in my brief forays into myth.

I won't try, in this post, to argue the feasibility of the Bible or whether the Genesis creation account came first before all myths.  It would take too long to cover all of that ground in one post, and I'm sure I'm not qualified to do it, either.  I am going to just assume, for the sake of this post, that my readers agree with me that the biblical creation story is the true one.  I can say, in light of my research findings, that if the first man and woman (Adam and Eve, not Jupiter and Juno, etc.) inspired all of these myths, the mythology itself means that they got their wish.  Adam and Eve aspired to be "like God," (Genesis 3: 5, 6 NIV), and later their offspring worshiped them as gods, and went with them into the slavery and banishment of sin.  So much for godhood and ultimate wisdom!

As for the constant presence of the cow, I can only guess that it might have something to do with the skin that God used to make a covering for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3: 21), or perhaps the animal sacrifice that Abel observed (Genesis 4: 3-7).  On the other hand, this may just be one of the earliest embellishments of the story.

I don't go into all of this to try to shake other people's faith in the Living God, or to make them doubt the truth of the Scriptures. I'm actually suggesting, like I always have, that the truth that we are searching for is only found in God, as revealed through the Bible, though no one has ever truly been "ignorant" of the reality of God.  Paul explained this process masterfully in Romans 1: 18-25, and I think the last verse really sums up my point in this matter: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen" (Romans 1: 25 NIV).  Mankind has somehow always known deep inside, of the reality of God, but very few have sought Him out.  Big fish stories seem entertaining, and I guess that makes them easier to believe.

Studying myths only reconfirms another thing that I have often said on here, that the modern humanist's obsession with individual freedoms and rights is too often rooted in Adam and Eve's ancient aspiration to become "like God," that is, to make themselves into gods.  That is where the application to modern life comes in.  Most of Western civilization, and to some lesser degree, Eastern civilization, has been shaped by this humanistic desire which was in turn shaped by interest in Greek and Roman mythology.  The idea that human beings have "unalienable rights" and could contend with the gods inspired some politicians, and the end of that thinking has not yet been seen.

Now it's your turn to weigh in on this topic.  What do you think of my "big fish" explanation of mythology?  Do you have any information that you could add that would either support or defeat my theory?  Can you think of other things that the Baal and Ashteroth story might reveal about human beings?


Shannon said...

On the humorous side, it occurred to me as I read your post, that if I were God, I would have been looking down and saying, "Cows? Really? Cows. I made so much stuff that's waaaaaay cooler than cows."

On the serious side, the corruption of the creation story points to the egoism of mankind, and our desire to make sin "okay." Priority One was to remove God and Satan from the story. Next each nation had to have its own Adam and Eve, in order to be more important than the others. Leaving God out provided an excuse for evil behavior, and claiming that this behavior was modeled by the founders of one's nation makes it seem natural, or even necessary in order to belong.

Rachel said...

Excellent point there. I hadn't really thought out how claiming your own "Adam and Eve," as a nation, would be a justification for sin through peer pressure and peer approval. Thanks!