I’m working on a section of my thesis wherein I inductively try to piece together common ideas from the ancient Near East regarding the nature and function of divinity. The portion on I worked on yesterday had to do with the common idea that divinity is distinguished from humanity by immortality. Gilgamesh’s famous lament is that the gods made humans mortal and kept immortality for themselves. We find this distinguishing mark of divinity just about everywhere in the ancient Near East. We also find exception to this rule, though. Gilgamesh would later fall in with Utnapishtim and his wife, who were the divinized Mr. and Mrs. Noah of Assyria-Babylon. They were going to live forever. Psalm 82 has the gods condemned to mortality. The Kirta Epic has Ilhau wonder how it is possible that his father, a son of Ilu, could die. Marduk kills Tiamat and Qingu to create the universe and humanity. God died.
Jonathan Z. Smith, in his insightful article on dying and rising gods for the Encyclopedia of Religion, states that immortality cannot be considered one of the chief attributes of divinity:
Despite the shock this fact may deal to modern Western religious sensibilities, it is commonplace within the history of religions that immortality is not a prime characteristic of divinity: gods die.
I think Smith is wrong here, and I’m not the only one. In The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Mark Smith comments that, in addition to modern sensibilities, such a notion would have also been a shock to ancient readers. He cites Ilhau’s comments as a sign that immortality certainly was a fundamental expectation vis-à-vis divinity. I would expound on this a bit and say that it has to be a fundamental characteristic of divinity, otherwise the death of the gods is rhetorically weak. The very notion that some gods die is what creates the literary tension that captures a reader or listener’s attention and produces the desired rhetorical effect. It’s the reason writers have bad guys doing good, good guys doing bad, etc. For a biblical example, compare Exod 33:20, which says no man can see God and live, to the numerous examples of people seeing God and marveling that they did not die (Gen 16 and 32, Exod 3, Judg 6 and 13). Exceptions to rules are what mark specific narratives or characters as significant. Jonathan Z. Smith is usually sensitive to these literary dynamics, but I think he’s overlooked them here. Immortality is a fundamental attribute of divinity, even if exceptions abound.