Synthesizing Gods

Alasdair Livingston, 101, calls attention to the following lines from a hymn to Ninurta,

Your teeth are Sibitti, who fells the evil ones.
The area of your cheek, lord, is the appearance of the stars of [. . .
Your ears are Ea and Damkina, the sages of wisdom [. . .
Your head is Adad who [. .] heaven and underworld like an artisan.
Your forhead is Šala, the beloved spouse who makes rejoice [. . .
Your neck is Marduk, judge of heaven and earth, the flood [. . .

The text is from KAR 102 and STT 118 II:19-24. I follow Livingston’s translation. Of this text Livingston says,

Works such as this which equate parts of one god’s body with other gods must be understood in the context of theology which could synthesize diverse gods into single gods, or explain gods in terms of other gods. In the hymn quoted it is clear that characteristics of Ninurta are being expounded and praised. Not only are parts of Ninirta’s body equated with other gods, but the particular characteristic of the god in question which is being attributed to Ninurta is explained. According to the hymnographer Ninurta embraced the warlike character of Sibitti, the apperarence of the stars, the wisdom of Ea and his spouse, the role of Marduk as judge, and other attributes . . . The hymn also has a syncretistic aspect in endeavoring to see the various gods mentioned as parts of one single god.

I wonder of the extent to which at one time YHWY’s body parts might have been thought of as like those of Ba’al, Shamash and others. In other words, was YHWY every, even in part, conceived as a synthesis of other gods in terms of some perceived physical characteristics? We do hear of YHWH’s eyes, ears, face (all in Psalm 34:16-17[15-16]), mouth (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:3), and nostrils (Psalm 18:16[15]) plus a few other parts. In context all of these read as figures of speech. But, from a somewhat different perspective, so do the references to body parts in the Nimurta hymn. I don’t know of any convening evidence pointing in the direction of a tradition that equated YHWYs body parts with those of other gods. But this is my blog and the rules allow me to wonder about abnormal things.

Livingstone, Alasdair, Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)

3 thoughts on “Synthesizing Gods”

  1. Haven’t yet read Benjamin Sommer’s book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, but in his podcasts at Foundation for Jewish Research, he discusses passages of this type as examples of corporeal fluidity of ANE gods (gods may mingle and inhabit each other), which he relates to ideas that gods have avatars and can inhabit multiple idols. Don’t know if he’s right that about these relationships, but his analysis of Jacob at Bethel in terms of last concept was appealing. You might check his book, if you haven’t already — perhaps he speculates along similar lines.

  2. This makes me ponder about a few things at once.
    1. What are “gods” in the end other than the anthromorphization of abstractions? This is true whether in monotheistic or polytheistic traditions. In monotheism, the single God is meant to humanize the entire universe and its unknowns at once while polytheism employs many gods to classify an infinite number of things in the cosmos.
    2. Is the notion of a god with many “body parts”, each with their own personalities, much different from the notion of a god “giving birth” to other gods? Two different ways of classifying things in a tree-like system.
    3. Certainly monotheism has no other gods to compete with so Yahweh himself will not have body parts acting at once as separate entities per se. However since monotheism derived out of polytheism, there should be traces in Old-Testament-based faiths of this or similar concepts. But then, come to think of it, the Trinity preaches that Jesus is in effect a part of God, and yet he’s also the son of God as a separate being.
    4. Ultimately religion was early humankind’s way of understanding things around us and classifying them. Yet proper classification is inherently non-tree-like and so neither the “body part” scheme mentioned nor the “family tree” scheme was ever fully adequate to describe our universe. Concepts can and often do overlap in a structure more akin to a web. So it makes that gods too overlapped constantly, merging and splitting over time in these religions. I suppose in this respect, monotheism was a means to quell that churn and simplify things, stabilizing the beliefs of the faith a bit in order to support a static list of long-term tenets for worshipers to follow more strictly and fanatically, for good or for bad.
    Hmmm… this all leads me to many other notions about religion, societal organization and the beginnings of science that are probably too off-topic for this discussion. Your contemplations however will certainly cure anyone’s writer’s block though. Thanks for the inspiration.

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