Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 16

Written by Jason Barr : March 5, 2008

Once again I have been having difficulties with my internet at home and have not been able to get online long enough to post the next installment in the series. We’re on the home stretch now, with the previously-promised brief commentaries on Biblical passages and then a series wrap-up, so if you’ve stuck with me through it all up to now know that the end is near.

The first text I want to look at is the creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3. To understand this story as a critique of power, it is essential to understand the world in which it was written. To do so, it is effective to read Genesis against the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. From a cross-reading of the two, it is clear that the text is not only setting forth the theological basis for Israel’s creation religion, it is attacking the oppressive social structures embodied in Babylonian mythology.

According to the Babylonian mythos, oppression and violence are a natural part of the creation order – as I said earlier, the world that is comes from the history of the world as it is told by the imperial mythology. The earth itself is created by violence, as creator god Marduk rips apart the carcass of his defeated enemy, the sea-chaos-goddess-monster Tiamat, and then he creates the human race using the blood of her slain consort to render service to the gods, who were apparently too lazy to work to feed themselves. Creation itself is the result of primordial combat in which the feminine is associated with chaos and rebellion, and must be suppressed.

Genesis has no such violence, not even a hint that anything works contrary to God’s will in bringing forth the earth. Even the great sea monsters are presented as a creature in accordance with God’s will, not as mortal enemies (especially not as female enemies) to be conquered. Furthermore, instead of using violence against the creation God actually enlists the creation to participate in its own making. In verses 11, 20, and 24 you see phrases like “Let the water” and “let the land” as life springs forth from the creation. The Hebrew construction in these verses implies that God actually enables creation to take a role in determining its own shape. Thus the work of creation is done with the creation’s own participation, rather than being imposed from the divine realm above the earth – an important parallel with anarchistic thinking.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 as a critique of the oppressive Babylonian social structure is in the famous “image of God” verse, Gen. 1:27. In the ancient near east, “image of God” specifically referred to two things: 1) the authorization to exercise rule on God’s behalf; and 2) the images one found in an ancient temple as objects for worship, pointing the worshiper to the god represented in the image. Image is representational, and the entire human race is created in God’s image.

This was not the case with Babylon. Instead, each year in Babylon they would re-enact the story of Enuma Elish, complete with human sacrifices, with the king taking the place of the god on his throne. The implication is clear: the performance of the myth existed to reinforce the social order by which the people exist to serve and provide for the king. The king’s conquests in war were presented as the continuation of Marduk’s defeat of chaos, and so the myth legitimated the very existence and extension of the imperial order.

This is in strong contrast to Genesis where all human beings are commissioned to represent God and participate in his rule over creation, a rule whose parameters are set by God’s allowing the cosmos to participate in determining its own shape. To multiply and fill the earth is to cover the earth with the presence of God, living in relational participation with the earth and with each other rather than creating domination systems.

The command to “rule and subdue” has nothing to do with domination, but rather with reciprocation and living in such a way that humans and creation exist in harmony – for “from dust [we] were made, and to dust [we] shall return” (cf. Gen. 3:19). The power struggle that seems to govern human existence is not part of the created order, but rather due to the failure of human beings to faithfully inhabit the divine presence and engage creation as subject, rather than as object (See Middleton and Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, IVP, 1995, 143-171).

For more on the relationship between Genesis and ancient near eastern empires I highly recommend J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image: Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos Press, 2005). Next time we will look at 1 Samuel 8 and God’s response to Israel asking for a king.

for further reading . . .

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3 Responses to “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 16”

  1. Jordan Peacock on March 5th, 2008 10:34 am


    That was a fantastic article. I’ll have to sit and process that for a little while. Thank you so much Jason.

  2. j evans on March 5th, 2008 10:38 am

    Part 16! Are you serious!? Barr, are you doing this or just typing about it? ;)

  3. Jason Barr on March 5th, 2008 11:44 am

    I’m getting there! *LOL* I’ve tried to cut some parts of this DOWN from my original presentation, which was about an hour and fifteen minutes long.

    Thanks, Jordan.

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