Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Myths About Work Part 1: Beginning at the Beginning

I began this series back in 2012 but never finished it. This is a reboot, so I’m revising the posts I wrote earlier and (I hope) finishing the series.

According to ancient Babylonian legend, the world began with a god and a goddess who gave birth to several other gods. The younger gods became disruptive, so their parents decided to destroy them. Naturally, the younger deities didn't want to be destroyed, and a cosmic battle began. Eventually Marduk, one of the younger gods and the chief god of Babylon, won the battle and was installed as king of the gods. This primeval conflict brought the forces of chaos under control, allowing Marduk and the other gods to form everything in existence.

Marduk and his fellow deities wanted to sit back and relax, enjoying their triumph. However, there was still work to be done. After all, immortals have to eat too. Marduk considered making the losers of the war do the work as punishment, but it didn’t seem fitting for divine beings to do such menial tasks. So the gods created human beings to do this work and free up all the gods, winners and losers alike, to relax and enjoy their unending lives.

“That’s nice,” you’re probably saying, “but why should I care what the ancient Babylonians thought? I don’t know anyone who still believes in Marduk.” No, I’m sure you don’t, but myths both reflect and shape a culture’s underlying assumptions about what (and who) is valuable. And I many of the assumptions expressed in this myth are surprisingly prevalent today. The Babylonian creation myth could have led people to conclude that …

1. Work is bad. After all, it was beneath the dignity of gods, even the gods who lost the war, to work. People were created as the gods’ slaves to do unpleasant things.

2. Work is the purpose of life.  According to the Babylonians, we were created to work, which makes work our purpose.

3. Inferior people do inferior work. This story doesn’t make distinctions between classes of people, but if the gods pass unpleasant tasks on to inferior beings, there’s no reason for humans not to do the same.

4. Work defines our relationship to the gods. Since the Babylonian gods see people primarily as workers, it would be logical for humans’ relationship with them to depend on how well people fulfill their function.

Do any of these attitudes look familiar? They should, because even though the story I drew them from has passed into obscurity, these ideas are alive and well.

Like the Babylonian myth, the creation account in the Bible says that God created the world, then created human beings and gave them work to do. This led some scholars, like the college professor who first taught me the Babylonian story, to compare the two. But behind any superficial similarities stand two completely opposed worldviews. The Bible presents work as something that is good but that does not determine a human being’s value or relationship with God. In future posts, I hope to look at each of the myths I listed in detail and contrast them with the Bible’s view of work.

Update: The series continues in part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5.

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