In my first post in this series, I left you, I hope, pondering whether the knowledge of good and evil is a good thing. Given the choice between the knowledge of good and evil and life without death, as are Eve and Adam in the story, which would you choose? This dilemma at the heart of Genesis 3. More than that, it is at the heart of being human.
In presenting this dilemma, Genesis 3 engaged a broader cultural conversation. The same issue is pondered in several places in ancient Mesopotamian literature. And nowhere, perhaps, in quite so compelling a way as in the story of Adapa. Looking at the story of Adapa may help us to grasp what is going on in Genesis 3. But let me begin with a thoroughly modern story, about AI—Artificial Intelligence.
Paul Taylor, pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California and, in another life, a product manager for Oracle, had an epiphany. After watching a movie with his family, he commanded his Amazon Echo to turn the lights back on. It occurred to him
That what I was doing was calling forth light and darkness with the power of my voice, which is God’s first spoken command—‘Let there be light’ and there was light—and now I am able to do that. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Is it completely neutral? I don’t know. It’s certainly convenient and I certainly appreciate it, but is it affecting my soul at all, the fact that I’m able to do this thing that previously only God could do? [Quoted from “Can Religion Guide the Ethics of A.I.?” by Linda Kinstler (The New York Times, July 17, 2021)]
The questions that Taylor raises are at the heart of Genesis 2-3 and the story of Adapa. The Adapa story and the Eden story come out in very different places, but they are about the same issue, which is what it means to be human, about the promise and the peril of the human race.
In ancient Mesopotamian lore, Adapa was one of the seven pre-flood sages who brought the arts of civilization to earth. He was a devotee of the god Ea, the god of wisdom. Adapa was a practitioner of the magic arts and a fisherman (these often go together), and thereby hangs the tale. We know the story of Adapa basically from one document, a tablet found in Amarna, the city known in antiquity as Akhetaten, founded in the middle of the fourteen century BCE by Akhenaten, the heretical (from the point of view of the Egyptian priesthood) pharaoh of Egypt. (For more on Adapa and this tablet in particular, see Schlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death. Winona Lake: Eisenbraun’s, 2001; there are several other versions of the story, including two recently discovered Sumerian tablets from Tel Hadad, ancient Meturan.)
In the story, Adapa, protégé of Ea, is out fishing. The sea is like glass (literally, “like a mirror”). Suddenly the south wind comes up, and dumps Adapa in the sea, where he either drowns or almost drowns—the text is not entirely clear. Presumably before he drowns, he gets off a curse on the south wind, and, trained in the magic arts as he is, the curse works. By the power of words, he breaks the wing of the south wind. The wind magically stops blowing.
Stop there for a moment. You already get the idea of what the story is about. It’s about the power of human language. More than language, the power of human beings to create and, in this case, destroy. It’s about the questions raised by Pastor Taylor in the quotation above: granted that we have these powers, are they good or evil? What of the power of humans to affect nature? What about global warming? What about our forays into artificial intelligence? These questions and so many more.
Back to the story: after seven days the high god, Anu, notices that the south wind has stopped blowing. He asks one of his aides, “Why hasn’t the south wind been blowing?” The aide tells Anu what Adapa had done: broken the wing of the south wind. Anu is not amused. He summons Adapa to appear before him in the high court of heaven.
Adapa, a mere mortal, has little choice but to appear in the high court, but before he sets out for heaven, his patron god, Ea, grabs him (that’s literally what the text says), roughs up his hair, dresses him in the clothes of mourning (the equivalent of the biblical sackcloth and ashes), and instructs him on what to do and not do while he is heaven.
What he is to do is to tell a little joke to the two gods who guard the gate, Dumuzi and Gizzida. When they ask him why he looks the way he does, he is to say that he is in mourning for two gods who have disappeared from the face of the earth. Who are they? they will ask. Adapa is to say, “Dumuzi and Gizzida.” They will laugh, and they will be in a good mood when they take him to Anu, which is exactly the way it goes.
There’s more. Adapa is not to eat or drink anything while he is heaven. He may accept a change of clothing (at least in some versions of the story) and allow himself to be anointed with oil, but no food and no drink. They are, Ea tells him, the food and drink of death. You can wear heavenly clothes but not take anything heavenly inside yourself.
Here’s where the story takes a turn. When Adapa appears before Anu, the god asks Adapa why he broke the wing of the south wind, and he tells his story. Anu wistfully responds, “Why did Ea show to a human that which of heaven and earth is not good?” He adds, “Why did he establish in him a ‘fat heart?’ which presumably refers to human arrogance. In biblical terms, Anu is asking, why did Ea give Adapa (and, through Adapa, the rest of the human race) the knowledge of good and evil. The power of language. The power to affect the wind.
Then Anu does what Ea said he would do: he brings out food and drink. And Adapa does what he has been told to do: he refuses it. And then a surprise: Anu says, “Why did you not eat or drink? If you had, you would have been granted life.” “Poor benighted humanity,” he adds. A fragmentary later text says, “He [Ea] gave him wisdom, gave him knowledge of how the world works, granted him deep understanding, but did not grant him eternal life.” Here lies the plight and peril of humanity: we have godlike knowledge but we die. And we know we die. We live tragically, knowing the end is coming.
The Eden story in the Bible raises the same questions as the Adapa story does. Nor is the Adapa story alone in this; there are other stories that do the same thing. The Eden story is set up the opposite of Adapa. In Adapa, he refuses as it were the fruit of the tree of life. In the Eden story, Eve and Adam eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the Mesopotamian story, Adapa is not aware of he is making a choice. In the Eden story, the humans have been told that it is a choice: life or the knowledge of good and evil. You can have one or the other but not both.
Most commentators on the Adapa story believe that the villain of the story is Ea who tells Adapa not to eat or drink the food of heaven. They believe that had Ea not lied to Adapa about the effect of the food and drink offered by Anu humans would have had both wisdom and life, as if they had eaten of both trees. This is strange since in other stories Ea is the protector of humanity, and I think that in this case it is a misreading of the story. What Ea knows is that if Adapa is granted eternal life he will no longer be human. He will be a sort of god.
In the next post, I’ll explore this in greater depth. But for now, you can see where this is going. What does it mean to be human? It means that like Adapa we have amazing powers, the power to build and the power to destroy, good and evil. We lack little, as Psalm 8 has it, to being like God. But we are not God. We die, and thereby lies the essence of the human condition.
The rest of the Bible is the story how we come to share in the divine nature, as 2 Peter has it (1:4). The early church fathers called it theosis. And how God has come to share in human nature. All of this is set up in these early chapters of Genesis. I’ll explore this part of the story in the fourth of these posts. But first, before we get there, another story from Mesopotamia that frames and illumines the question, the story of the almost divine king known as Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. Stay tuned.