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recurring themes in literature is the exploration of the relationship between the human and the divine. Several different literary works have explored that relationship. Interestingly enough, many of those works are from antiquity, so their stories are considered fictional. Others of those texts refer to living religions, so people are less likely to consider the stories from the basis of fiction or allegory, and approach them as if they are non-fiction. As a result, it becomes far too simple for a modern Christian to embrace the relationship between the divine and humanity in the Old Testament without critically examining that how that work actually portrays the relationship. A critical analysis reveals a much more complex relationship than the message conveyed by modern Christians, and makes it easier to compare that Old Testament with the polytheistic mythology that forms the background of a work like Gilgamesh. A religiously-invested inspection can hamper the literary analysis of the work, because of a reluctance to compare or contrast it to other similar works that discuss the relationship between humans and the divine. Therefore, from a literary perspective, it is important to try to keep a religious detachment from the messages conveyed, when look at different works to see how the relationship with the divine is portrayed. In this essay, I will examine the relationship between humanity and the divine in two historic works: Gilgamesh and the Old Testament. While my own religious beliefs are built upon the foundation of the Old Testament, I will try to be conscious of when preconceived religious perceptions and ideals are impacting my reading of the work.
However, it is important to keep in mind that, regardless of one's individual religious or spiritual beliefs, stories that talk about humanity's relationship with the divine can give insight into human nature. In fact, while the stories discussed talk about the divine, divinity is something that seems almost amorphous. There is nothing inherently good or bad in the divine as it is discussed in Gilgamesh or in the Old Testament. God or the gods can have moments of compassion, but they can also have moments of anger and hatefulness. Moreover, the presence of the divine in the lives of man can bring out either good or bad in the person. It does not seem to matter whether the divine is represented as a monotheistic entity or in a polytheistic system; divinity is never portrayed simplistically. This provides a stark contrast to how modern Christianity portrays God, which is as a loving and compassionate figure. Instead of the simple loving, paternal relationship that God is said to have with modern Christians, the divine beings in these older stories have much more complicated relationships with their followers.
Of course, to me, the idea of a polytheistic religion is one that is easy to dismiss, and it initially marks the story as one about people that I might automatically consider less than myself. After all, as a believer in a monotheistic system, it seems almost juvenile that either the characters in or the author of Gilgamesh could have believed in a polytheistic system. Then, I remind myself to approach the story as an allegory. The divine may be called fate or something else less hostile to my own religious beliefs. What becomes clear is that elements of the divine are actually intervening in the lives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, so that the character's actions are not the only things that determine the outcomes of their lives.
In fact, the whole story behind the action in Gilgamesh comes about because Gilgamesh has refused the advances of a goddess and is then drawn into an epic battle with the gods because of his impertinence. These advances are romantic advances, which differ from the type of love that one might expect a god to have for a human. However, throughout different religious/literary works, one sees a recurrent theme on the divine wanting or needing affirmation from human kind. In the Old Testament stories, God wants obedience and love from his human creation. While not a sexual love, it would be premature to dismiss this as something altogether different from what Ishtar sought from Gilgamesh. Moreover, the stories reveal that the gods have frail egos. When humans fail to cooperate with divine plans, suddenly the divine begins operating in questionable and dangerous ways in the lives of the divine.
Another element that recurs in the stories is the power of mankind. Obviously, both the Old Testament and Gilgamesh place emphasis on the idea of divine power. God or the gods are able to directly intervene in human life. However, there is a limitation on this power, which almost seems to contradict the idea of divinity. Even in the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as all-powerful, he either lacks the ability or refuses to exercise the ability to influence individual actions.
One of the unifying elements in both stories is the loss of a brother-figure, and how that loss was related to the interaction of the divine in the story. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are not actual brothers. Instead, they have begun as enemies, but, became friends and worked together as brothers. While not physically brothers, Enkidu and Gilgamesh represent the type of brotherhood that demonstrates the best of elements of humanity. Therefore, it is no surprise that, in the story, the two men are locked into battle with the gods. It might be said that the best elements of humanity really have no need for religion, because, at their bests, humans display the type of love and compassion that people seek when looking to religion. Here, these two men are willing to die to save one another, even though societal norms dictate that the two should be enemies. When they succeed in their goal by working together, that seems to pose the greatest threat to the gods. In fact, Ishtar demands that they pay for the destruction of the bull, even though the gods sent the bull against Ishtar. The final outcome is that Enkidu must die for the bull's destruction because the gods did not send the bull against him; he was only involved in its death because of his friendship with Gilgamesh. This story displays a significant amount of divine jealousy about the relationships and love that can develop between human beings. Rather than being proud that human beings can develop such strong and loving relationships, the gods punish them for that relationship.
The Old Testament also tells a story about brotherhood. "The First Murder" tells the story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. Unlike the pair in Gilgamesh, Cain and Abel are actual brothers, but they do not share the same close relationship that Gilgamesh and Enkidu share. Instead, Cain becomes jealous of his brother. It would seem that jealousy, a human emotion, has nothing to do with the divine. However, it is important to realize that Cain was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd. God rejected Cain's offerings of produce, which were the fruit of Cain's labor, while accepting Abel's sacrifices. Why God chose to differentiate between the offerings is not explained; instead, God chastises Cain about the idea that sin is waiting for him. From an objective perspective, it almost appears that God is manipulating the brothers to cause tensions. After all, both farmers and shepherds were needed to provide sustenance for the people that lived during Biblical times. Moreover, both types of men would have to work hard and sacrifice to be successful in their fields. By validating Abel's offering but not validating Cain's offering, God was sending a message that Abel was favored in his eyes. Moreover, if one reflects on the ideas told in the story of the Garden of Eden, Cain probably had tremendous reason to worry about incurring God's disfavor. Therefore, he kills his brother, seeking to be his brother's replacement. It would be easy to suggest that killing his brother was the ultimate act of sin, but, again, within the context of the story, it is important to understand this as the first murder that occurred in all of humanity; would it even have been possible for Cain to understand the repercussions of his actions? It probably would not have been. He certainly was not raised with something like the Ten Commandments, urging him not to murder. Instead, his interactions with God lead him to make a horrible decision and take his brother's life.
However, the story of Cain and Abel also introduces an interesting wrinkle to the idea of the divine. Cain killed Abel. God's punishment for Cain could have been to kill him. Instead, he chooses to render Cain incapable of farming. This is interesting, given that farming was at the root of the dispute between the brothers. Moreover, when Cain indicates that he is worried that he will be killed, God places him under his protection. Why does God choose to protect Cain? When one…[continue]
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