Posted by: religionthink | September 10, 2009

Psalm 12: The Destruction Of Humankind.

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?” “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever. On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind. (Psalms 12:1-8 NRSV)

The above text is a community text lamenting the wickedness of mankind. The text has the same theme as the account of the flood, Sodom and Gomorra, and Nineveh. The writer laments how no one on earth is godly and how lies are spoken to one another. Later the instrument of the sins, in this case the boasting tongues, are cut off. The needy groan and Yahweh rises up. The writer then remembers the promises, protection, and refinement of Yahweh. There are many topics here; the idea of being refined seven times in a furnace for purification, Yahweh’s protection of the poor, and the lack of order that seems to be prevailing. While it may be proper to talk of the idea of the use of silver smelting, or a god having pity on the poor, or an Egyptian prophet complaining to the pharaoh about the political hardships in the land; we will instead turn to the motif of the gods destroying mankind because of their displeasure with humanity they created. We will explore two stories outside the biblical texts where this motif comes into play. We will explore the accounts of Atrahasis, and also almost the same story in the account of the flood, relayed in the Gilgamesh epic, and an Egyptian account.

In this particular motif there are a few important themes. First there are people who survive the destruction. Those few who survive appear to be the only just people in the world, or the only person who is in good favor with the god is spared. For example in the text of Atrahasis we read:

“Now there was one AtrahasisWhose ear was open to his god Enki.He would speak with his godAnd his god would speak with him.” (Dalley p.18)

The text above reads like the biblical Noah and Yahweh.

“But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.” (Genesis 6:8-12 NRSV)

Next, the gods take council on how to handle the issue. As we will see, in a rather humorous way, the methods of destruction are not always the most effective. Finally we will see the gods relenting about the decision that was made. One may ask how such analogies can be related to Psalms 12. The following relates, because from reading the text, it is thought that the only one righteous, according to the writer, is the writer himself.

As relayed above, Atrahasis was told by his god Enki that the earth was to be flooded. The council of the gods had decided that no one from humankind would be left. Enki told Atahasis about the plot and he built a boat to with stand the great flood. The text comes from the clay tablets of the Old Babylonian era, which is dated to around 1700 BC. Here the story deals with the god complaining of the people being noisy; and a way to deal with noise and over population is needed. After disease and drought prove ineffectual, it is decided that something else is needed to be done. After a fight between the gods Enki and Ellil, a flood is planned by Ellil with out approval from the other gods. However Enki warns Atrahasis and tells him to tare down his house and build a boat. Atrahasis in distress does as he is told:

“He invited his people.. to a feast.
…put his family on board.
They were eating, they were drinking.
But he went in and out, could not stay still or rest on his haunches,
His heart was breaking and he was vomiting bile.
The face of the weather changed.
Adad bellowed from the clouds.
When..he( Atrahasis) heard his noise,
Bitumen was brought and he sealed his door.
Adad kept bellowing from the clouds.
The wind was raging even as he went up
(And ) cut through the rope, he released the boat.

So in the story involving Atrahasis, the displeasure with humankind was over noise and overpopulation. Although there are differences in the accounts between the story of Atrahasis and the biblical texts, there are implications in the biblical flood account that deal with the same issues. Yahweh limits the years of humans, and after the humans mate with the gods and become wicked he decides on the flood. Below we read:

“When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:1-5 NRSV)

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, unlike Atrahasis, the story here has more detail. Names for the gods are different. The acts once attributed to Atrahasis, later, are attributed to the one called Utanapishtim, but they play the same roles. Here we see the god La lamenting mans destruction:

‘Who else but Ea could devise such a thing?
It is Ea who knows every machination!’
La spoke to Valiant Enlil, saying:
‘It is yours, O Valiant One, who is the Sage of the Gods.
How, how could you bring about a Flood without consideration
Charge the violation to the violator,
charge the offense to the offender,
but be compassionate lest (mankind) be cut off,
be patient lest they be killed.
Instead of your bringing on the Flood,
would that a lion had appeared to diminish the people!
Instead of your bringing on the Flood,
would that a wolf had appeared to diminish the people!
Instead of your bringing on the Flood,
would that famine had occurred to slay the land!
Instead of your bringing on the Flood,
would that (Pestilent) Erra had appeared to ravage the land!
It was not I who revealed the secret of the Great Gods,
I (only) made a dream appear to Atrahasis, and (thus) he
heard the secret of the gods.
Now then! The deliberation should be about him!’
Enlil went up inside the boat
and, grasping my hand, made me go up.
He had my wife go up and kneel by my side.
He touched our forehead and, standing between us, he blessed us:
‘Previously Utanapishtim was a human being.
But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!”
(Carnahan, Tablet 11)

In the Egyptian account of the destruction of mankind it reads almost like the story of the Tower of Babel, where the god feels that he is being conspired against. In this particular account, Ra first consults the gods before he makes a decision on what he will do. We read :

“Then Re said to Nun: “O eldest god, in whom I came into being, O ancestor gods, behold mankind, which came into being from my Eye-they have plotted things against me. Tell me what ye would do about it. Behold, I am seeking; I would not slay them until I had heard what ye might say about it.” (Pritchard p. 11)

In summery we can see that there are a few themes that evolve through the comparisons. When reading these texts in full one will find that the themes discussed are there. The same motifs are found in the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorra. Yahweh consults Abraham on the issue and Abraham tries to intercede for the citizens of the doomed city. Although Yahweh never repented for the destruction the other themes are prevalent. Psalms 12, in light of these themes, is seemingly a precursor to the destruction that will come from Yahweh if the acts of the wicked are not reversed. And the author of the Psalm knows that if he is righteous, even if being the only one, Yahweh will protect him from the coming destruction.

Carnahan, Wolf. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Electronic Edition, I998.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1968.

Dally, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press Inc., Oxford, New York 1989.

Pritchard, James. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New York 1950.

Walton, John H, Matthews, Victor H. and Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. InterVarsity Press. Illinois 2000.

Quoted biblical texts are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

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