Saturday, November 24, 2012

Myths About Work I: Beginning at the Beginning

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, and their parents soon 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, defeated his enemies (including the first two deities) 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 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.

I imagine my readers looking disappointed that I'm addressing ancient myths, not the modern variety. But actually, I plan to do both. The Babylonian story says a great deal about how the Babylonians viewed work, and many people today see it the same way. For example, it suggests:

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 things the things they shouldn’t have to do.

2. Work is the purpose of life. People often look at life’s purpose in terms of what they were created for.  According to the Babylonians, we were created to work.

3. 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.

4. 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. This could lead to oppression and slavery or to the view that people who do jobs we see as inferior are less valuable.

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.

Many people point out similarities between the Bible and Babylonian myths, but behind any superficial similarities stand two completely opposed worldviews. In fact, all of the myths about work that I just listed go directly against the Bible’s teaching. I hope that this will be the first of a series of posts that address each one of these myths, along with any others I think of. I don’t know how long it will take me, but I hope what I write will be helpful as you think about your own job and the role work plays in your life.