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Building Blocks  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  19:40
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Notes & Transcripts | Handout
My topic for this morning is "service", and it seems like this should be a simple topic.
As far back as the creation narrative, we see that humankind was created for service. In Genesis 2.15-17, we read
Genesis 2:15–17 ESV
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Throughout the course of the Bible,
The sermon is over, right?
But of course I'm sure you're expecting something more than that, and I don't really feel good about preaching until I've said something that I think can get me in trouble, so let's talk about
That's a pretty obvious leap right? …No? …Well, stay with me, and I'll try to make the connection clear.
As I've noted before,
The Biblical writers—and their original audiences—had a shared context with the cultures surrounding them, and they often exploited this awareness when composing their material. For some reason, many Christians become uncomfortable when they first encounter the idea that the text of the Bible might somehow engage with extrabiblical material. There seems to be a belief that asserting that a Biblical text is influenced by the literature of the surrounding nations is the same as asserting that the Biblical text isn't true.
This belief simply isn't true, and we should be neither surprised nor concerned if we find evidence that the Bible interacts with extrabiblical material.
To take a modern example, how many of you have started a story about your own life with the phrase, "Once upon a time…", or even "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away"?
We use openings like this—or other structural and plot elements from popular culture—in order to set audience expectations, so that we can effectively foreshadow parts of our narrative and to create—or subvert—expectations on the part of our audience. As long as we choose references and structures that are familiar to our audience, they serve to help us communicate our message more effectively than if we hadn't used them.
However, in telling such a story, you would be shocked if someone interpreted your opening to mean that your story was fictitious. The "implied historicity of the narrative" (to use overly academic language) is provided by other cues.
In the same way, if someone points out similarities—for example—between the flood narrative of Genesis and certain elements of Egyptian or Mesopotamian mythology, we don't need to be terribly concerned. Rather, such parallels give us an opportunity to see the Bible with fresh eyes. By paying close attention to where the accounts agree—and especially where they differ—we can acquire a much more nuanced view of what the Biblical writers may have been attempting to communicate.
So with this in mind, I'd like to look at some elements of other creation accounts from the Ancient Near East and show how they can inform our reading of the creation narrative in Genesis, which in turn affects how we see the topic of service.
First, let's look at a bit of Egyptian mythology. Strangely, although the Egyptians had several creation narratives, it is somewhat difficult to find any that discuss human origins. One account that does explain the origin of humanity is this excerpt in which Atum—one of the original gods—describes the origin of two other gods.

I sneezed Shu and spat Tefnut.

It is my father, the Waters, that tended them,

with my Eye after them since the time they became apart from me.

After I evolved as one god,

that was three gods with respect to me.

The sun (27, 2–4)

When I evolved into this world,

Shu and Tefnut grew excited in the inert waters in which they were,

and brought me my Eye after them.

And after I joined together my parts,

I wept over them:

that is the evolution of people,

from the tears that came from my Eye.

So Atum creates Shu and Tefnut, becomes separated from them, and weeps when he's reunited with them. The tears become humans, and…that's it really. There's kind of an implication that maybe humans share some of the divine attributes because both humans and the other gods come from Atum's…bodily fluids…but after that, the narrative basically forgets about humans and returns to talking about the gods.
Next, we'll talk about the Epic of Atra-hasis, which is an Akkadian account of the creation of humankind and the subsequent attempts to kill of humanity after the humans become too rowdy. (spoiler: the attempts culminate in the gods sending a flood, which one man—Atra-hasis—survives because of the aid of another god, Ea)
In Atra-hasis, our story begins—believe it or not—with a labor dispute among the gods. Here are some excerpts:

The seven (?) great Anunna–gods were burdening

The Igigi–gods with forced labor.

[The gods] were digging watercourses,

[Canals they opened, the] life of the land.

[The Igigi–gods] were digging watercourses,

[Canals they opened, the] life of the land.

(25) [The Igigi–gods dug the Ti]gris river,

[And the Euphrates there]after.

[Springs they opened up from] the depths,

[Wells …] they established.

[They heaped up] all the mountains.

[ ]

[ years] of drudgery,

(35) [ ] the vast marsh.

They [cou]nted years of drudgery,

[ and] forty years, too much!

[ ] forced labor they bore night and day.

[They were com]plaining, denouncing,

(40) [Mut]tering down in the ditch:

“Let us face up to our [foreman] the prefect,

He must take off (this) our [he]avy burden upon us!

[ ], counsellor of the gods, the warrior,

Come, let us remove (him) from his dwelling;

(45) Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,

Come, let us remove (him) from his dwelling!”

So we have this group of gods in Akkadian literature called the Igigi, and they're upset because they have to work all the time. So they stage a revolt and set up a siege against the other gods in the middle of the night. When these other gods hear the complaint, one of them suggests a solution:

(a) Ea made ready to speak,

And said to the gods [his brothers]:

“What calumny do we lay to their charge?

Their forced labor was heavy, [their misery too much]!

(e) Every day [ ]

The outcry [was loud, we could hear the clamor].

There is [ ]

[Belet–ili, the midwife], is present.

Let her create, then, a hum[an, a man],

(j) Let him bear the yoke [ ],

Let him bear the yoke [ ]!

[Let man assume the drud]gery of god …”

After hashing out the details, they finally get to the business of creating mankind:

The great Anunna–gods, who administer destinies,

(220) Answered “yes!” in the assembly.

On the first, seventh, and fifteenth days of the month,

He established a purification, a bath.

They slaughtered Aw–ilu, who had the inspiration, in their assembly.

(225) Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.

<That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.>

For the rest [of time they would hear the drum],

From the flesh of the god [the] spi[rit remained].

It would make the living know its sign,

(230) Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, [the] spirit remained.

After she had mixed that clay,

She summoned the Anunna, the great gods.

The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.

(235) Mami made ready to speak,

And said to the great gods:

“You ordered me the task and I have completed (it)!

You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.

(240) I have done away with your heavy forced labor,

I have imposed your drudgery on man.

You have bestowed (?) clamor upon mankind.

I have released the yoke, I have [made] restoration.”

They heard this speech of hers,

(245) They ran, free of care, and kissed her feet, (saying):

“Formerly [we used to call] you Mami,

Now let your n[am]e be “Mistress–of–All–the Gods (Belet-kala–ili)”

This is a very unglamorous description of human origins, and at first glance, it seems to have almost nothing in common with the Genesis narrative.
It shows humans as sharing some divine attributes, but aside from that, it's violent and unpleasant. Unlike Genesis, where humans are made as the pinnacle of creation, we see humankind as almost an afterthought—a solution to an inconvenient situation.
Finally, let's turn to Enuma Elish. This epic is Babylonian in origin and was composed long after Atra-hasis.
This particular epic had a specific agenda in Mesopotamian theology—it sought to show Marduk, the god of Babylon, as superior to the other Mesopotamian gods. It places Marduk in the role of saving the other gods from Tiamat—who represented "the waters", and consequently, chaos—and a bunch of monsters that she had created. Towards the conclusion of the epic, it is Marduk who creates humans. Note how it remixes some of the content from Atra-hasis:

(1) When [Mar]duk heard the speech of the gods,

He was resolving to make artful things:

He would tell his idea to Ea,

What he thought of in his heart he proposes,

(5) “I shall compact blood, I shall cause bones to be,

I shall make stand a human being, let ‘Man’ be its name.

I shall create humankind,

They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.

I shall artfully double the ways of the gods:

(10) Let them be honored as one but divided in twain.”

Ea answered him, saying these words,

He told him a plan to let the gods rest,

“Let one, their brother, be given to me,

Let him be destroyed so that people can be fashioned.

(15) Let the great gods convene in assembly,

Let the guilty one be given up that they may abide.”

Marduk convened the great gods in assembly,

He spoke to them magnanimously as he gave the command,

The gods heeded his utterance,

(20) As the king spoke to the Anunna–gods (these) words,

“Let your first reply be the truth!

Do you speak with me truthful words!

Who was it that made war,

Suborned Tiamat and drew up for battle?

(25) Let him be given over to me, the one who made war,

I shall make him bear his punishment, you shall be released.”

The Igigi, the great gods answered him,

To Lugaldimmerankia, sovereign of all the gods, their lord,

“It was Qingu who made war,

(30) Suborned Tiamat and drew up for battle.”

They bound and held him before Ea,

They imposed the punishment on him and shed his blood.

From his blood he made mankind,

He imposed the burden of the gods and exempted the gods.

(35) After Ea the wise had made mankind,

They imposed the burden of the gods on them!

In Enuma Elish, the position of humanity is slightly better: Marduk wants to create them out of a desire to be artistic, apparently. But it's still quite violent, and the end result is that humans are created primarily for purpose of working for the gods.
Now, what do we gain by comparing these accounts to the Bible?
First off, everything seems much more orderly. Like most of the creation accounts, Genesis refers to "the waters",
Genesis 1:6–8 ESV
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
which represent chaos in Ancient Near Eastern thought, but nowhere are they presented as problematic—because God controls them.
The position of humans in creation is quite different, as well.
Genesis 1:26–30 ESV
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Rather than being an afterthought, or a being meant to take on "drudgery", humans are shown to be the pinnacle of creation as the image of God. Far from being assigned "burdens", humans are blessed and given dominion over creation.
Now, Genesis 2 does make it clear that Adam was created for the purpose of service, but let's go back and look at a bit more of the context:
Genesis 2:5–9 ESV
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Genesis 2:15–17 ESV
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
So Adam is placed in the garden to "work it", but God actually planted the garden, and as we see from the next chapter, there aren't really any weeds.
…so what is he supposed to do, exactly? He names all the creatures—which, incidentally, is presented in other Ancient Near Eastern literature as a divine task—but aside from that, it seems like he's got a pretty cushy job. God seems to have already taken care of all the hard parts.
And this is a thread that we can trace through the entire Bible: whenever God asks something of someone, whenever he makes a covenant, whenever he requests service, he does the hard part.
This thread ultimately reaches its climax in Jesus, who specifically says that he came to serve when James and John ask him for exalted positions in the kingdom:
Mark 10:38–45 ESV
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So on one hand, the opportunity to serve others should fill us with excitement: it is one of the ways in which we reflect the divine attributes!
On the other hand, this thread woven through the Bible should give us cause for humility. Because no matter how well we serve—even if we go so far as to serve our enemies—we aren't doing anything new.
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See the rest →