God as Loving Parent in Ancient Sumer

Samuel Noah Kramer, in his book The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (published in 1963), writes to fill the "gaps" of his previous book, From the Tablets of Sumer (published in 1956). In the preface to The Sumerians, he says the first book did not treat the political, social, or economic history adequately, nor did it teach the reader how the Sumerian language was discovered.

What is most interesting to me is mentioned in the book's title: the word "character." What was the character of the Sumerians? How is their character apparent in how they viewed relationships? Kramer discusses parent-child relationships as he interprets them from the edubba essays. He says, "In the edubba essays dealing with the Sumerian schools and schoolmen, the relationship between father and son, in particular, is revealed as close, intimate, and full of understanding" (257). He then describes the goddess Ninmah from Sumerian myths, who "was filled with compassion for her son, who had performed dangerous and heroic deeds in his struggle with the monsters of the Kur, to such an extent that she was unable to rest and sleep until she had traveled to the Kur" (257). 

Kramer also describes the close relationship between brother and sister. For example, Inanna turns to her brother, Utu, for help "when her sacred tree in Erech is invaded by the snake, the Imdugud-bird, and the vicious Lilith" (258). 

The Sumerians valued close family relations, especially of such a protective nature. How did this civilization view its relationship to God? Kramer discusses, "as for love divine, the love of god for man, it is to be borne in mind that, theoretically at least, the Sumerian theologians taught that man was created by the gods solely to serve and tend them and presumably, therefore, that the god-man relationship corresponded to that of master-slave" (258). However, Kramer argues that actual religious attitudes and practice aren't always in line with theory and theology, and that Sumerian documents seem to indicate the love of god patterned on the love between parents and children. Inanna's love for Erech and its people is one example of the loving god-man relationship. He describes another story:

"Ningal, the wife of the moon-god, for example, is depicted by the authors of 'The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur' as begging, pleading, and weeping before An and Enlil not to destroy her city and its people" (259). 

Kramer even describes "individual mortals" who were treated with love and compassion by the gods. An example is the story of An and Enlil who "cherished the Flood-hero Ziusudra [and] presented him with eternal life, and took him up to dwell among the gods in the 'place where the sun rises'" (259) – a parallel to the Mormon understanding of eternal life as life in God's presence, with that highest heaven being symbolized by the sun. 

Heroes of Sumerian stories look to god as parent: "Lugalbanda, sick to death, abandoned and forsaken on Mount Hurum, raised his eyes to heaven and wept before the gods Utu, Inanna, and Sin, and in each case–even in the case of Inanna–the poet says that he wept before the deity 'like his father who begot him'" (259). 

I pulled a few books from my bookshelf to see if I could learn more. In Dictionary of the Ancient Near East (ed. by Bienkowski and Millard), Lugalbanda's hero story is told this way: "Lugalbanda is presented as the eighth 'little brother' of seven mighty heroes, and succeeds in crossing dangerous mountains on his own, despite a near-fatal illness." Then, almost as an aside, the next sentence reads, "He clearly has a special connection with Inanna [sic]" (184). In A Companion to the Ancient Near East (ed. by Snell), the description is equally as brief: "In the first epic, the youngest of eight brothers (Lugalbanda) becomes ill on the way to fight beside Enmerkar in a battle against Aratta. His is left in a cave, and upon waking is able to survive by making the gods favor him" (279). Not much emphasis is given to the nature of Lugalbanda's plea to the gods, or to the help they gave him. 

So, I turned to the book of Job, which seemed fitting since the "Job" motif was present in Sumer. Kramer discusses in The Sumerians a poem very similar to the story of Job (he says the poem is similar, yet lacks the depth of the Book of Job). It seems interesting that Job suffers through almost everything, and even his friends aren't able to lift him out of his misery. However, Job continuously turns to God, who takes away Job's suffering and blesses him doubly.

Before Job was saved, he speaks about God with words that hint at a parent-child relationship. He says, "The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life" (Job 33:4). Job trusts that God will help him, when it will seemingly bring no profit to God: "He will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light. Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man, To bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living" (Job 33:28-30). This act of God, that he works "oftentimes with man," seems to me something a loving parent would feel compelled to do. There is a deep connection between man and God, one pleading to the other, the other filled with parental compassion. 


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