Sabbath Origins, Mankind's Clamor for Rest from Toil

Walter Mattfeld mattfeld at
Sat Sep 16 03:27:43 EDT 2000

Recently, Pat Power made the following observation:

"I was intrigued by the author comparing Gen 1-11 to other creation myths,
finding a similar 5 part structure dealing with creation, three cycles of
human beings multiplying [or the Hebrew Bible's reticence of human beings to
be fruitful and multiply], the punishment for overpopulation [or the HB's
consequences for human beings not spreading out and populating the earth]
and the final solution of birth control [or forced populating]. Assumes the
comparative lateness of its composition with respect to the ancient myths,
giving this author more sophistication and an audience who would be familiar
with the old, old stories. Similar historical events are reinterpreted to a
new conclusion - Israel's God expects them to be fruitful and multiply and
fill the earth. It is not their NOISEY numbers that causes God to act, but
their moral failure to obey him."

I would like to point out (from a "Humanist" perspective) that according to
the Mesopotamian myths, the cause of mankind's NOISE was that he had been
created to toil ceaselessly for the gods, to provide them food, and his
noise was that he was objecting to this toil and wanted "a rest from the
toil." So, man's desire for a rest from toil was the cause of his noise that
disturbed the gods, who could not rest by day or sleep by night because of
the ceaseless noise or clamor.  The gods finally resolved that they would
get "their rest" by destroying noisy mankind with a flood (as they were
unwilling to give into mankind's clamor for rest from the god-imposed toil).

As noted by Foster, the Anunna gods dwelling in the heavens had originally
imposed back-breaking toil on the lesser Igigi gods confined to the earth,
who had to clear drainage canals, irrigation ditches, grow and harvest food,
day and night, without a break. The clamor or noise of these gods, disturbed
"the rest" of the Heaven dwelling gods. Only when open rebellion was about
to occur was the decision made to create mankind as a substitute for the
toiling gods, allowing them to enter into "the resting" of the Heaven
dwelling gods.

So, the Mesopotamian myths portray man's lot as not only to do ceasely
god-imposed toil, but the clamor for a rest, like that enjoyed by the gods
in heaven, has been transferred from the Igigi gods to man.

I suspect that the ancient Hebrews, IN RESPONSE TO THESE MESOPOTAMIAN MYTHS,
created a loving, caring God, one who would provide a day of rest (a
Sabbath) for toiling mankind, contra the gods who denied man a rest from

The Mespotamian myths explained that the Flood which destroyed all mankind
had been brought about because man's "noise or clamor" was disturbing the
god's rest by day and sleep by night, year after year without let-up. These
myths also noted that in the beginning the 7 great Anunna Gods of Heaven had
imposed back-breaking labor making and clearing irrigation ditches, by day
and by night, without rest, on the Igigi gods confined to the earth. These
gods are described as muttering, complaining and constantly creating "a
clamor," which at first is ignored by the Anunna gods. The threatened
rebellion by the Igigi gods is forstalled by making man from the ringleader
of the Igigi, slaughtering him and mixing his flesh and blood with the clay.
The myths at this point stress that with the making of man, not only do the
Igigi gods get to enter into "the rest from toil," enjoyed by the Anunna
gods, but that "their clamor," their noisey complaining about hardwork is
transferred to man. In otherwords, man's "noise" is because he is overworked
and not allowed to have "rest" from his god-imposed toil (cf. pp.52-62, "The
Story of the Flood," [The Atrahasis version], Benjamin R. Foster, From
Distant Days, Myths Tales and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda,
Maryland, CDL Press, 1995, ISBN 1-883053-09-9, paperback)
"When the gods were man, they did forced labor, they bore drudgery. Great
indeed was the drudgery of the gods, the forced labor was heavy, the misery
too much: The seven (?) great Anunna-gods were burdening the Igigi gods with
forced labor...[The gods] were digging watercourses, canals they opened, the
life of the land...They heaped all the mountains. [ years] of drudgery, [ ]
the vast marsh. They counted years of drudgery, [ and] forty years too much
! [ ] forced labor they bore night and day. They were complaining,
denouncing, muttering down in the ditch, "Let us face up to our foreman the
prefect, He must take off this our heavy burden upon us ! (pp.52-3, Foster)
The Anunna gods acknowledge the burden of the Igigi and their "clamor":
"Ea made ready to speak, and said to the gods [his brethren], what calumny
do we lay to their charge ? Their forced labor was heavy. [their misery too
much] ! Every day [ ] the outcry [was loud, we could hear the clamor]. There
is [ ] [Belet-ti, the mid-wife], is present. Let her create, then a human, a
man, let him bear the yoke...[let man assume the drud]gery of god...She
summoned the Anunna, the great gods...Mami made ready to speak, and said to
the great gods, "You ordered me the task and I have completed (it) ! You
have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration. I have done away with
your heavy forced labor, I have imposed your drudgery on man. You bestowed
(?) clamor upon mankind..." (pp.58-59, Foster)
The Igigi gods in gratitude fall at her feet, kissing them, she having freed
them from toil, and declare a new name for her "Mistress of All the gods"
Now the gods complain that man's "clamor" disturbs them, resulting in a
decision to send a Flood to destroy man and obtain peace and quiet and their
longed-for "rest." :
"Twelve hundred years had not gone by, the land had grown wide, the peoples
had increased, the land bellowed like a bull. The god was disturbed with
their uproar, Enlil heard their clamor, he said to the great gods, The
clamor of mankind has become burdensome to me..." (p.62)
"I am disturbed at their clamor, at their uproar sleep cannot overcome
me..." (p.65)
The gods try various ways to reduce mankind's clamor by decimating mankind's
numbers, and in the end they resolve upon a Flood to destroy them all.
However, one god stands apart as man's friend, he is Enki. An enraged Enlil
accuses Enki of thwarting the agreed-upon plan of the gods, that man should
toil ceasely, he accuses him of lightening man's burden, allowing him to
enjoy the fruits of his labor, the fruits to be harvested for the god's
food, and providing shade for him as he toils in the hot sun :
"All we great Anunna-gods resolved together on a rule. Anu and Adad watched
over the upper regions, I watched over the lower earth. You went, you
released the yoke, you made restoration. You let loose produce for the
peoples. You put shade in the glare (?) of the sun." (pp.69-70)
Enlil, not trusting Enki, tries to get him to swear an oath not to betray
the god's plan to destroy man with a flood. Enki agrees, but slyly lets
Atrahasis (Utnapsihtim) know by addressing "the wall" of the house he lives
in, thus not directly revealing the flood decision to a man, "face to face."
(p.71, Foster)
The notion of God's advising Noah of a Flood is being drawn evidently from
this myth. Enki has become in the Hebrew re-telling, Elohim (El or Yahweh).
Conservative scholarship has provided, I suspect, the correct insights as to
the reason for God's portrayal and his Sabbath, the Hebrews wanted to
transform the capricious, fickle gods into a Loving, Caring God, who wanted
only the best for Man, his pinnacle of creation. So Genesis is a polemic
against the Babylonian concepts of the gods and their despising man and
destroying him because he violated their rest with their noise. They made
man to serve them in toil and fear, to obtain their rest from labor. Genesis
sees God in a completely different light, as noted by Wenham:
"Viewed with respect to its negatives, Gen 1:1-2:3 is a polemic against the
mythico-religious concepts of the ancient Orient...The concept of man here
is markedly different from standard Near Eastern mythology: man was not
created as the lackey of the gods to keep them supplied with food; he was
God's representative and ruler on earth, endowed by his creator with an
abundant supply of food and expected to rest every seventh day from his
labors. Finally, the seventh day is not a day of ill omen as in Mesopotamia,
but a day of blessing and sanctity on which normal work is laid aside.
In contradicting the usual ideas of its time, Gen 1 is also setting out a
positive alternative. It offers a picture of God, the world, and's
true nature. He is the apex of the created order: the whole narrative moves
toward the creation of man. Everything is made for man's benefit..." (p.37,
Vol. 1, "Explanation," Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 [Word Biblical
Commentary, 2 vols.], Word Books, Waco, Texas 1987, ISBN 0-8499-0200-2)
In the original version (the Gilgamesh myth) we are given to understand that
in 6 days and nights a world was destroyed by vengeful gods bent on man's
annihilation. The Hebrew author deliberately re-interpreted this hatred into
a "reversal" of a loving God who cared about man, so he took the 6 days of
destruction and transformed them into 6 days of creation. The gods who
sought man's harm with this dreadful event were transformed into a loving
caring God who created the world for man's benefit. God was one to be loved
by man, not held in "terror, dread and horror of," by man.
The Atrahasis myth portrayed Enki as "caring" for man's welfare, he
"suffered" the anger, rage and abuse of the other gods who wanted man to
toil ceasely, they even begrudged man any of the fruits of his labor (or
food he was cultivating for them) and he risked the displeasure of his
fellow gods in warning Utnapishtim of the Flood. I suspect that these
themes, of a god who cared about man and who wanted his workload reduced,
inspired the Hebrew author to envision a God as wanting to provide man with
a rest day. The notion of God's (Elohim's) "suffering" because man (Adam)
"turns on him," (by not obeying him) and not appreciating all he has done
for him, "grieveing his heart," is being drawn from Enki who "suffers on
man's behalf." So, I understand Enki and God (Elohim) to be suffering gods,
and caring gods, both of whom wanted to alleviate the toil of mankind, and
seeking his welfare. God provided abundant food for Adam in the Garden of
Eden, Enki risked the displeasure the gods by letting man enjoy some the
fruits of his toil. God doesn't have Adam toil for food in Eden, as man had
to in the Atrahasis myth (I would characterize this "a new twist"to an old
We see now, that Genesis has preserved several "key concepts" albeit, in a
transformed and somewhat re-interpreted manner, from the ancient
Mesopotamian myths about man's creation; the theme of gods needing to rest;
the importance of attaining rest for mankind who now "clamors" and desires
"a rest" from his god-imposed toil, and how a Flood was resorted to, to end
man's "clamor for a rest," because the gods could not themselves attain
their rest by day nor sleep by night.
Christianity, still later, picks up on this ancient theme of man entering
into a "God's rest," (Hebrews 3:11,18; 4:1-11) a type of "Sabbath" if you
will, where the righteous will, after death, no more have to toil, they will
wander the banks of the river of life flowing from under God's throne in
Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, and feed off the trees of life lining the river's
banks, rather like Adam did in the Garden of Eden (cf. Revelation 22:1-2).
They will, according to this myth, at long last, enter into "the rest"
enjoyed by the gods as portrayed in the ancient Mesopotamian myths, a rest
which according to those myths, had originally been "denied to man." And so,
the myth of a "Sabbath and a Rest" for God and his creation, mankind, has
come "full-circle," with the Christian re-interpretation of the ancient
Mesopotamian myths, giving hope to millions over the ages.

All the best,


Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld
Walldorf by Heidelberg

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