We have become accustomed, in both Judaism and Christianity, to attribute to the Bible the origin of everything good and evil. Needless to say, such an attitude has no basis in fact: the world was not a barren wasteland before the writings of the Bible. Nevertheless, it has become the conceit of the Western religious tradition to imagine that the Bible came to bring light to those in utter darkness and to write God's word on the tabula rasa of humankind.
It should therefore not be surprising that ever since the publication of Lynn White Jr.'s seminal article,1 the Bible, in particular the Hebrew Bible, has stood accused of teaching us to kill the earth. White's article has been refuted hundreds of times on many different grounds, not the least of which are the many articles showing that the Bible simply doesn't support the “conquest of nature” theology that was imposed upon it a few hundred years ago.2 Despite all the refutation, it remains constantly cited whenever people once again discover that there is an earth and that the Bible has given us some problems with it.
I would like to take a different path, and tell a story from prebiblical ancient Babylonia that gives us a good indication of what a prebiblical Near Eastern view of the relationship of God and the earth was like. The story has a long history. Our copy was written around 1550 B.C.E. This copy is probably not the original composition, for the copyist tells us that he is a junior scribe.3 The story had at least a thousand-year history and we find tablets from a thousand years later that contain parts or all of this text, which we call the human Atrahasis epic, and they called, “When the gods act as humans.”