Monotheism and gender

Cover of Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1–4In the introduction to Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1–4, Helen Kraus writes:

[C]lose exegesis is bound to confront the Old Testament scholar with the problem of monotheism that lies at the heart of the Creation narrative. As well as precluding feminine representation in the heavenly realm, it is monotheism that necessitates the creation of humanity from the earth rather than by sexual reproduction, which is the preferred method in other Near Eastern creation myths. (3)

In a certain way, I follow the logic here. If a monotheist uses the imagery of God as a father, s/he may feel compelled to populate a mother role as well. More often than some readers recognize, the biblical writers opt for placing God in both roles; Deuteronomy 32:18 may do this in nuce, if one regards the imagery in v. 18a as masculine (“the rock who sired you” rather than “the rock who gave birth to you,” since the קל form of ילד admits of both senses) to balance the undeniably motherly imagery in v. 18b (“El, who writhed in labor with you”). However, other biblical writers seem (though perhaps not unambiguously) to pair “Father God” with “Mother Earth,” as Kraus suggests here with Genesis 2 and as seems hard to deny in Psalm 139:15 (and perhaps v. 13 as well).

But I cannot agree with Kraus’s implication that monotheism necessitates the latter move, nor that Genesis 2 stands apart from other Near Eastern creation myths in this respect. To begin with, Genesis 1, surely as “monotheistic” as Genesis 2, pointedly does not connect humanity with the earth, quite unlike the connection it draws between the earth and the other terrestrial animals. (Kraus comes back to this point, briefly and unsatisfactorily, in chapter 2.) Perhaps more to the point, Near Eastern myths that feature sex between gods and goddesses tend to produce divine offspring, not humans. In Enuma Elish, Ea and Damkina produce Marduk, not humanity; humanity arrives on the scene when Marduk mixes Kingu’s blood with clay. In the Sumerian Song of the Hoe, Enlil creates people by making a master copy in a brickmold and then growing others from the ground like plants, to match the model. In the Eridu Genesis, the “fashioning” of humanity is a group project undertaken by An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga. In Enki and Ninmah, divine pregnancies result in divine births; the “birth-goddesses” fashioned/appointed by Enki make people not by getting pregnant, but by manipulating clay moistened with water from the Abzu. In Egypt, cosmogonies and creation myths tended to focus on the origins of the cosmos and the gods, with humanity playing a very minor role. One text, known inelegantly as “Papyrus Bremner-Rhind” (really the name of the physical object on which the text is written), has humans springing up from Atum’s tears. To be sure, many Egyptian texts depict Atum as procreating by masturbating, but here no goddess is involved, and the offspring are normally other gods, not humans. Kraus’s assertion that “sexual reproduction … is the preferred method [for creating humanity] in other Near Eastern creation myths” departs rather sharply from the evidence, distances the Hebrew Bible’s view of creation much farther from its cultural context than is warranted, and inappropriately ties monotheism to a phenomenon clearly visible in indubitably polytheistic texts.


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