Hebrew and Islamic Mythology Essay
Hebrew and Islamic Mythology
While science and religion are notorious for their contentious and often violently contrasting relationship, they bear much in common in their agenda. Both set out to provide explanations for the world’s mysteries. And as such, they also share a large hand of unanswered questions. Perhaps chief among them, the question of the earth’s creation, and by extension, man’s ascension to awareness, is one with very few empirical explanations. And in an absence of any conclusive evidence, theories abound from all camps.
A common thread in history’s chapters, myths regarding the Earth’s conception provide insight into the lives and cultures of their respective societies. In western society, the Judeo-Christian anecdote is easily the most well-known. This story is the primary creationist mythology for many monotheistic sects. Herein, God creates the earth in six days, with man arriving on the last. On the seventh day, the omnipotent rests and thus, delivers man the Sabbath.
However, in the centuries that preceded the inflection point where monotheism began to take popular hold, polytheistic idolaters provided the most commonly held ideas about the earth’s origin. One of the earliest examples of the literate and elaborated nature that these myths could take on comes from the rich tapestry of Greek mythology. The Greeks were idol-worshippers who had developed a complex and extremely colorful cast of gods. Though not omnipotent like the Judeo-Christian almighty, these gods were believed to possess real and considerable power over the lives of their human subjects.
The Greek myth of creation is an exposition of that relationship. It was believed that, prior to earth, there was nothing but darkness. And amid this darkness, the only object was a black-winged bird called Nyx. This bird, alone in the void, was impregnated by the wind. (Note the parallel to the immaculate conception of Christ. ). As a result of this cosmic union, she yielded a golden egg, which she proceeded to roost upon for many thousands of years. Eventually, this egg hatched and the god of love, Eros, sprang forth.
Just as Eros was born, so too were his siblings, whom he was given the honor of naming. They were the upper and lower halves of his shell, which rose to the air and sank to the ground respectively. They became the sky and the earth. Eros called them Uranus and Gaia and blessed them with love. This love resulted in children and grandchildren who would blossom into twisted, war-bent gods whose better judgment would be often blinded by a hopeless quest for power.
A first-generation child of Gaia and Uranus, Kronus took a wife in Rhea and produced many children, whom he grew to fear immensely. Kronus, a problem-solver by nature, swallowed his children while they were still infants, thus preventing what he considered to be the inevitable threat of usurpation. The youngest of his sons, however, was also the most beloved to Rhea so she deceived her husband into consuming a rock in the child’s place. This youngest child, Zeus, would grow strong in manhood and ultimately bring to realization Kronus’ greatest fear.
Zeus liberated his brothers and sisters from his father’s malicious and all-consuming grasp. Then he led them to revolution, waging a war against the tyrannical god. In their victory, they turned their benevolent attention to the great creations of Nyx. The gods began to populate Uranus with the stars thus creating space. They began to furnish Gaia with life, thus birthing nature. After creating the appropriate backdrop, the gods recognized that the earth was correct excepting its want for animals and humans.
Zeus set to the task his sons Prometheus and Epimetheus, whose names translate literally to mean forethought and afterthought. This provides some interesting insight, perhaps, into the Greek perspective about man’s intellectual capacity and eventual self-awareness. In addition, it offers literal details about the unique abilities and idiosyncrasies that mark the species which populate the earth. When assigned to the job of designing creatures, the brothers were given a variety of gifts to offer their creations.
While Epimetheus set upon the task of creating the animals and awarding them all with gifts, Prometheus carefully sculpted man to be in the image of the gods. (Again, man’s definition as being in the image of god holds much in common with Judeo-Christian creationism). When he completed his task, he found that Epimetheus had given away all the gifts, leaving humankind with the shaft. Prometheus sought to rectify the matter by stealing a trace of fire from the setting sun and giving it to man. When Zeus awoke to find man in possession of that which was to belong only to the gods, he was furious.
He punished Prometheus to an eternity stapled to a tree, having his liver chewed on by vultures. But the damage was done. Man had been created and given the power of fire. There is a great deal more to Greek mythology, as with the bible. The role of the gods takes on a wide array of purposes, gradually divining all of man’s vices and virtues. But in the story of the earth’s creation alone, there is much illumination. The Greek legend begins to tell part of the story of Greek culture insofar as it offers some true self-examination.
In this story of violence, deception and a natural tendency toward roguishness, the Greeks provide a piercing look into a psyche long since perished from the world. Surviving with far greater ideological intensity are those creation myths driving modern faith. The traditional structure of the dominant monotheistic faiths incorporates a narrative regarding the creation of earth and man into its formative doctrines. Herein is typically contained an originating explanation for the relationship between god, man, heaven and earth that provides grounding for the entirety of the faith’s sacred text.
This is a fundamental commonality between the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Holy Qur’an, both of which dedicate significant portions of their second chapters to delineating the story of the first man. It is striking to compare the passages concerning the creation of the first man as they appear in the two texts. Though today Judaism and Islam function almost as antecedents to one another, with their practitioners often viewing their respective texts as placing them into diametric and practical opposition of one another, these passages provide evidence of their common derivation.
The creation myths of the two religions suggest that their political, social and cultural differences today may stem from the nuances therein, which had the effect of placing their interests in close confines with one another while arming them with divergent perspectives on how best to achieve said interests. The details surrounding God’s deliverance of Adam to the Garden are essentially the same according to the two texts, but the wording of each calls for closer speculation.
In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, God follows his work of creating the heaven and the earth by creating man: “Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.. ” (Gen. 2:7) From here is taken a substantial assumption in the Judeo-Christian faith which proceeds from it, that man is created in the image and likeness of God. The breath of God, this passage indicates, circulates in the body of every man, suggesting a responsibility to godliness for all of us.
The Qur’an, in its recognition of the same deliverance to the Garden, paints a different image in acknowledgment of God’s endowment of life. In keeping with a prominent thematic impulse of the Qur’an, convicting its readers to note the distinction in fates for believers and nonbelievers, the phrase depicting Adam’s creation is posed with a similar connotation: “How do you deny Allah and you were dead and He gave you life? Again He will cause you to die and again bring you to life, then you shall be brought back to Him.
” (Koran, 2:28) This is a passage which demands not just belief in the creationist role of Allah but also a devotion to eradicating or combating non-belief. More explicitly and ideologically pertinent though, it carries with it a description of the process of reincarnation. Man, in this passage, is described as an entity being fully at the mercy of God within the bonds of the creator-to-created relationship. And where the berth into God’s image, held in the Hebrew Bible, ultimately predisposed man to divine immortality, this infinitude is represented differently in Islam.
The overtones of reincarnation here suggest that man is not considered to be made in the image of God, nor even an element of the earth as also implied by Genesis 2:7, but is a soul perpetually disposed to take forms according to the will of Allah. This does not necessarily indicate a fundamental difference in the dispositions of the gods in question, Yahweh and Allah in the bible and Qur’an respectively. In Genesis, there is an articulated statement regarding God’s willingness and right, as creator, to snuff out his subject for transgression of his law.
At the time, this law was constituted summarily of one directive in which “the LORD God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. ‘”(Gen. 2:16-17) These foreboding words are those which assured our mortality on an earth characterized as the forum for exile from the Garden. The air which god breathed into us through Adam’s nostrils would, as God promised, be the price paid for partaking of the fruit.
This fall from the grace of godly immortality would define the nature of man’s life-cycle, and by extension, theoretical concepts such as time and space and spiritual assumptions about death and the afterlife. God’s proposition to Allah as depicted in the Qur’an is not endowed with the same consequence, perhaps a product of the initial divergence between the two texts with regard to the fundamental construct of man in relation to his god: “And We said: O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the garden and eat from it a plenteous (food) wherever you wish and do not approach this tree, for then you will be of the unjust.
” (Koran, 2:35) The fall from grace is described quite differently here, with man incurring no such threat as explicit as a certain death. This is a condition already possessed of man in the passage concerning his formation. It is not a punishment but a state of being given grounded in man’s relationship to Allah. Original sin is still a common element to the doctrines of the two faiths, but its consequences appear as quite different actually. In the Hebrew Bible, the serpent is a creature which plays the role of deceiver and, by metaphorical extension, the antithetical and fundamentally evil counterpart to God’s unchanging benevolence.
This is contrasted by the Qur’an’s direct address of a Satan figure, a development affirming its composition as having occurred at a far later date than that of Genesis: “But the Shaitan made them both fall from it, and caused them to depart from that (state) in which they were; and We said: Get forth, some of you being the enemies of others, and there is for you in the earth an abode and a provision for a time. ” (Koran, 2:36) A punishment dealt herein concerns man’s occupation of earth as a home, with God endowing it only a finite capacity to host mortal life.
Again, the contrast between the implications to man’s punishment for Original Sin in the two texts can be traced to the contrast in man’s assumed composition. In the Hebrew Bible, God punished Eve and her offspring to a perpetuity of painful childbearing “and unto Adam He said: ‘Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. ” (Gen. 3:17)
In this passage, a fundamental difference in perspective is illuminated, that man’s lot, to toil on the land, is a punishment profoundly connected to his violation of God’s will and his organic relationship to the soil. Where the Garden of Eden was a sanctuary at Adam’s disposal, the Earth would be his responsibility and his shackles. His mortality would be profoundly chained to his capacity to manage the earth. Where Islam casts its subjects as inhabitants of a land inevitably bound to eventually leave them to resource-deprived oblivion, Judaism confines its followers to a eternity of suffering knowledge of the earth’s hard reality.
God tells Adam of this fate as being a mixed blessing, with the knowledge equally capable of delivering him to pain and pleasure, “ for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil. ‘” (Gen. 3:5) In a way, this is a complete fulfillment of man’s emulation of the creator-image just as it is the downfall from godliness. Indeed, the serpent cavorts Eve by telling her that she and Adam will be endowed with knowledge and fortitude, and be gods themselves.
In exchange for this transgression, god casts man without guidance into the desert abyss. This is contrasted by the denouement of original sin in the Qur’an, where Allah casts his children out but does so under the auspices of mercy: “We said: Go forth from this (state) all; so surely there will come to you a guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. ” (Koran, 2:38) Here, God reaffirms his commitment to man even in his failing, offering him an unconditional love as sanctuary for the pain and suffering of the land.
The intricacies that differentiate the two texts offer a useful set of variations on a creation story that is highly associated with the evolution of monotheism. Particularly, the mutual centrality of the texts on man’s role and purpose in the earth’s creation and the heaven’s sanctity illustrates the capacity of each to elucidate its pursuant culture’s views on God’s divine plan for humanity. Bibliography: Fahs, Sophia Lyon, Spoerl, Dorothy T. Beginnings: Earth, Sky, Life, Death.
Beacon Press. Boston. 1965. Freund, Philip. Myths of Creation. Washington Square Press, Inc. New York City. 1965. Koran Text. (1997 edition). The Holy Qur’an. University of Virginia: Online Book Initiative. Online at <http://etext. virginia. edu/etcbin/toccer-new2? id=HolKora. sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=teiHeader> Masoretic Text. (JPS 1917 Edition). A Hebrew-English Bible. Mechon Mamre. Online at <http://www. mechon-mamre. org/p/pt/pt0. htm>