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The Western Abzu

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The Lair of the Faithful Heretic

The Western Abzu

This essay started life a hundred years ago, in 2008, when I had a web site named The Western Abzu. I wrote completely alone and had no idea of the impact my words would have on both fellow skeptics and fellow traditional Christians.

I sounded like a pagan. The Rt. Rev. John Guernsey, Bishop of the Diocese of the Holy Spirit of the Anglican Church in North America called me on it. A bishop is first a pastor and then a guardian of the faith and his emails and conversations gave evidence he is both. I thank him for doing what I should have been doing: testing my writing against Scripture. Also, my scientific friends challenged some of my expressions. To both the church and science I sounded like a pagan, complete with mythic beliefs and magical thinking.

The irony is large and embarrasses me. I never lost my skeptical attitudes toward gods and supernatural events. And I never lost my faith in the biblical God who became the man Geshua of Nazareth. But what I wrote sounded like YHWH, the biblical God, evolved out of the pagan god, Enki of Eridu in ancient Shumer.

The irony is large and embarrasses me. I never lost my skeptical attitudes toward gods and supernatural events. And I never lost my faith in the biblical God who became the man Geshua of Nazareth. But what I wrote sounded like YHWH, the biblical God, evolved out of the pagan god, Enki of Eridu in ancient Shumer.

This essay is my attempt to explain what happened to me, why is was not as bad as I made it sound, and to begin the work of depaganization that this intellectual journey has brought me to. And, yes, fellow skeptics, there is magical thinking and mythic belief to weed out in science as well as in the church.

I went on a journey of learning to the earliest civilization: ancient Shumer (the new spelling/pronunciation of Sumer). These first–of–all–cities began 5,500 years ago! The invention of writing, trade and accounting, the earliest recorded mythologies, the beginnings of science and mathematics, and the well known links between their stories and the first eleven chapters of Genesis fascinated me then and still does today. Their language is odd, without any known relationship to any other human language and with different dialects for men and women. I enjoyed learning a few lines of their poetry in Shumerian.

Here was a god totally opposite to the god of Plato and Aristotle. He was nasty, earthy, and impulsive. Not at all like the God of the Original Testament? Well, neither is that God anything like the remote and impersonal Platonic god. At least Enki had a personality and a will and a name and deeds accomplished. The Platonic god just shines there, not acting or doing or thinking anything, a sort of force of nature like light or dark. My attraction to Enki was a reaction to the Greek philosophers and their artificial dualism. Also, Enki was not the cosmic creator like Marduk of Babylon. His battle with the Sea Monster was local, specific to the rivers and the sea, and not the cosmic creation of the whole universe out of a dead female god.

Now, listen to me carefully as I try to explain. On some continuum of theology between Plato and Shumer, a continuum without the corrective revelation of the Bible, YHWH, who speaks and acts in human history, is far closer to Shumer than the Greeks. The distance between Enki and YHWH is vast, galactic cluster vast, but the distance between Plato's speculations and YHWH is infinite. You may disagree with this but, whatever else is wrong with it, this view is not pagan or is it magical thinking.

So, for a short while in the 1990's I thought that the biblical God named YHWH traced His beginnings to the Shumerian god Enki. Today I believe that the Spirit took me there, not so I could explain God for myself, but so I could learn something. He let me go right to the edge of paganism so that when He called me back I would see just how vast the gulf was between Enki, the god of Eridu, and YHWH, the God of the Bible. The knowledge I gained on this journey has made me immune to the modernist paganism that has infiltrated even the most orthodox Christian bodies. Unfortunately, I was way too relaxed in editing myself and some of those earlier expressions, written when I was at that edge, survived in the regretted essay. Since then, I have found others scattered around my web site and I am busy fixing them.

I am still interested in this most ancient time. Connections between them and us, filtered through the Greeks and the Original Testament, are many and strong. But now I will use this knowledge to root out the paganism that remains with us. I will debunk the theory that the Original Testament is nothing new in the history of religion. I will be most careful to make clear my loyalty to the lord Geshua above all else. And to keep a clear vision of truth and reason as well. As to liberty, well, I abused my liberty to speak. The only coin I can pay back with is more speech, this time more responsible speech.

The Abzu and the Western Abzu

Abzu (also spelled Apsu) is a mythic term drawn from the dawn of human civilization and writing. At the Western Abzu the word refers to the hideouthideout (the lair, not the god) of Enki, the god of Eridu, a Shumerian city at the edge of the Persian Gulf over five thousand years ago. His name means Earth Lord. According to the mythology of Eridu, Enki created mankind and saved one man and his family from the flood that Enlil, Sky Lord, sent to kill all people. These stories on cuneiform tablets were the received science of Mesopotamia when Israel began recording her history some two thousand years later. Of course they read the stories and knew the vocabulary of civilization. But instead of just one more version of a mythology, Israel's lord led them to make changes that radically revised the mythic elements to eliminate other gods or goddesses, heavenly battles, and divine families. Most of all, the theory of myth itself, the idea that gods and events in heaven drove and determined the lives of men and empires on earth, was utterly rejected, even ridiculed. At times the Original Testament stories sound like parodies of their sources. In broad outlines and plot details there is similarity. In theology and central Character, there is a wide gulf.

I take my information about the Abzu from the excellent book by Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier, Myths of Enki, the Crafty God. Enki made the Abzu into a secret home (away from the temple made for him by his priests) by hollowing out the remains of a mythic creature named Abzu. The song from my youth by Donovan called Sunshine Superman reminds me of the Abzu because of the line, …make like a turtle and duck for my home in the sea. Enki kept the Abzu under water, in the sea, at the edge of the Persian Gulf, near the city where his temple was, Eridu. While most gods in the ancient world retreated to the sky or the heavens to get away from earth and people, this god hid out under water just at the point where the fresh water from the two rivers of Mesopotamia pushed away the salt water of the sea. Thus his battle with the sea monster was not a cosmic creation myth, but a local myth of this god providing irrigation water to feed his people. By the way, sometimes Abzu is the Deep or just the ocean, female or male, the father of all the gods or not.

Two thousand years later, Marduk killed Tiamat, the Babylonian name for the pre Shumerian Abzu, cut her in half and made the earth out of her carcass. By this time she had become female, the size of the whole planet, and the dead mother of all living things. This battle in heaven made Marduk king of the gods. Nothing of that appears in the earliest cuneiform tablets. Instead, in rather bawdy language, Enki is the fresh water god who kills the salt water god, Abzu. Instead of making an earth out of the remains, all he does is make a hideout from the shell. This is still myth, but not yet the cosmic mythology of Babylon or the Assyrians, or, for that matter, the Greeks. Myths are political and Eridu was a city, not an empire. These stories were told from before writing was invented about 3,500BC and were still being told at the time of the Roman Empire. Enuma Elish, When on High, was a later and longer version of the Babylonian creation myth. Over that span of 3,000 years from Enki odd and varied tales were told but the same mythic theories remained. I am not very interested in the Assyrian or Babylonian periods. By the time of Enuma Elish the impish and almost human Enki was replaced by the pompous and boring Marduk. For me it is the early stuff, the Shumerian, the first writings, the primitive and undeveloped myths. For I see in them hints and remains of the biblical God speaking to men before all civilization. Corrupted, mixed up, cloudy, but still this yearning for explanation, revelation, provision, and redemption that our Creator breathed into Adam. Think of a lost child tugging on the skirt of every woman in the park, hoping to find mother but finding a demon.

If you are interested in more depth than this short essay, search the web for Abzu and Enki. As always on the web, keep your salt shaker handy. Even here, at The Western Abzu.

I must emphasize that the edge of belief that I came to had nothing to do with accepting the pagan world view. Science and skepticism is too deep in my soul for me ever to believe magical explanations for the material universe or for human beings. But I did get too close to believing that the biblical God evolved out of the earlier gods. I repent that foolishness. But it is still clear to me that Scripture used the myths and names current in those cultures to reveal to us the truth about Himself.

The cosmic myths are, of course, radically different from the way that the Hebrew Scriptures explain things. The great sea monster is mentioned but only in an aside as a creature made by our Creator, not a mythic dead god who's body was carved up to make the land or a secret lair for a god. The Bible was speaking to a culture that was mythic and so used the ancient names and references. References to the Big Bang or an earth globe would not have spoken as powerfully against those religions. The assumption that there was a sea monster is left alone. But the myths about the creature are dismissed and discarded in an in your face declaration of Who created who. Every one of the old stories was boldly seized (ceased?) and turned on itself.

Much of what we are as civilized and literate people traces to Shumer. Yes, the poems are crude and the theology is childish. Their flood story is alien to our religious culture. First Enlil is happy that Enki made people because they can work the fields and feed the gods. Then Enlil becomes fed up with people because they are noisy and he decides to kill them all with a giant flood. Not the most sophisticated science of origins and some of it is downright nasty and not suitable for children. Yet our civilization evolved from their primitive crudeness. Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks all owe their bits of progress to the beginnings made in Shumer hundreds or thousands of years earlier. And through them the Christian West built on these first recorded flickers of human reason and faith trying to figure out how the world works.

I believe that even these childish beginnings came from the biblical God. Corrupted and blurry, the things He taught us in the act of creating us lay behind what Shumer believed. The seeking for truth and meaning, the need to understand how and why, the yearning for connections to our Creator, the accumulation of art, knowledge, skills, and wisdom, all these are as much gifts of the biblical God to all men and women as our voices and brains. With such we are all endowed by our Creator. (Today evolutionary and biological explanations for these human characteristics are also available. Some, including me, believe the two views are compatible. In part, that vision is what this web site is about.) How we misused these gifts explains the stories in early Genesis of a wrathful and angry God in the Garden, with Cain, at the Flood, and at Babel. Nothing explains why He chose to pick a barren couple, Abram and Sari, to begin anew, to bring back truth and grace to a fallen race. Nothing but love.

To be clear, there are two paths from the biblical God to us and our faith. We are each made in the Image of God, complete with language, basic morality, and a curiosity or yearning to know how the universe works. But that Image has been corrupted by human sin, specifically, not our breaking the natural laws of our species, which is bad enough, but in setting aside those ways to fit our will and desire. It is one thing to break a law, it is entirely another to discard a law. Those of a more scientific frame of mind might see this as the troubles of a tribal genome living in an artificial city. In any case, He, the great YHWH of the Bible, had mercy on us and initiated revelation. He spoke to us in our language, gave us a Covenant of Grace and Gratitude, and finally joined us as a human person Himself. We, our persons and cultures, have been corrupted or find ourselves in situations we are not adapted to. But His Word is not so corrupted as it becomes another, the primary, channel of communication with His people.

He spoke to them as He speaks to us: in the language and culture and science of the day. Not with compromise and a blur over distinctions, but with grace and art. I am convinced, brought to this conviction in part by seeing what He did with the lore of Shumer, that He is able to redeem any human culture and turn it to His purpose. What He did with Shumer He did with Egyptian culture. And Canaanite, and Babylonian, and Persian, and Greek, and pagan Europe. Whether it is the Christmas tree or dualism, the images and vocabulary and tales of the pagan and mythic worlds have been absorbed, circumcised, and baptized. And that is what The Western Abzu and Bible Freedom Science Network celebrates. Again, not compromise, but with the sharp tools of His Word making a new cultural home for Him to dwell in with us.

It is, after all, not so unusual that a Christian writer or apologist uses the vocabulary and philosophy of pagans and unbelievers in his proclamation of the Gospel. Augustine used Platonic ideas, Luther used tunes from the inns for his chorals, we have ancient mosaics that portray our lord as Orpheus, Milton did not get his imagery from Scripture, and the Original Testament was written in Canaanite language and script.

I called my web site the Western Abzu because the tree that has grown from the roots of Shumer is five thousand years later. We are not mythic dreamers any longer. Today, and more in the future, we find our truth in reason, science, and the free inquiry and speech necessary to move forward. And yet we are not so different from those people. Like children to parents, we are linked by genes, culture, and loyalty. We are not clones, we are not identical, but instead we are elaborations on a constant theme, we are descended with variation. To deny this and claim we can ignore the ancients is poppycock arrogance. It reminds me of the silliest slogan of the sixties, Never trust anybody over thirty!

Western also means Christian. For what we are does not come from an evolution of lesser forms but from revelation.

My Abzu is an unfinished basement and the study, lab, and workshop I have tunneled out of it for myself. Unlike Enki's lair, I am able, with just a turn of the head, to look out a garden level window at the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, which gives me the Western part of The Western Abzu. In some poetic hole in my head, this introduction of light and distant vision into my Abzu fits with the revelation of the biblical God bringing light and distant vision into the darkness of the human mind.

Copyright © 2008, 2011, Charles Henry Johnsen, III