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Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context: An Introduction

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April 21, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context: An Introduction

Today's entry was written by Joseph Lam. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this blog, Joseph Lam introduces his scholarly essay of the same title.

It has been my experience that many Christians have not given sufficient thought to how the Old Testament was composed––that is, to the "human" side of the inspiration of Scripture. While the New Testament, for the most part, provides us with models of authorship that are familiar to us (e.g., one particular person writing a letter to another person or group), the Old Testament picture is inherently more complex; books like Psalms and 1-2 Kings, both of which seem to self-consciously reflect longer processes of composition, furnish relatively uncontroversial examples of this.

Incidentally, much of Old Testament scholarship in the past century has concerned itself with exactly such questions of composition and authorship, though (unfortunately) not always coming out of perspectives that desired to hold on to the divinely-inspired truth of Scripture.

As a Christian and a biblical scholar, I care both about Scripture as truth and about the ongoing scholarly conversation regarding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures. And so, when I was asked recently to speak on the story of creation in Genesis 1, I welcomed the opportunity to give my thoughts on the interaction between this text and its ancient Near Eastern context. However, it occurred to me that such a task would involve not merely presenting the apparent biblical and extra-biblical parallels, but also providing a way for my audience to understand them in their proper context. In particular, I wanted to articulate a broader framework of biblical composition that takes into account contemporary developments in the historical-critical study of the Bible, while remaining compatible with a Christian view of inspiration.

My recent essay is the result of my reflection upon these issues. My argument in brief is this: that Genesis 1 represents an Israelite "retelling" of the creation story in the face of the sea of alternate stories of origins that existed in the ancient world. This is not to assert that Genesis 1 was simply "made up" (though the exact processes by which God guided the human authors of Scripture necessarily involve some element of mystery); nor do I want to imply that the story is false in terms of its truth claims (properly discerned). Rather, my point is that the writer of Genesis 1, far from being just passively "influenced" by other ancient Near Eastern literatures (as is often assumed in biblical scholarship), was consciously aware of the motifs found in these alternate accounts of origins, and made deliberate use of them in crafting the biblical creation story. The biblical writer was essentially saying: "You have heard that the world came into existence some other way... but I'm telling you instead that it happened this way."

In particular, I note three points of deliberate contrast that Genesis 1 makes with respect to other ancient creation stories (especially Babylonian ones). First, the God of Israel is the supreme Creator, and performed the act of creation without having to contend with other inimical forces. Second, creation is intrinsically good, not dualistic or chaotic. Both of these first two points are quite distinctive from an ancient Near Eastern point of view, and regular readers of BioLogos may recognize some overlap here with Brian Godawa's scholarly article, especially his discussion of "Creation as Combat."

The third point of contrast has to do with the portrayal of the heavens and the earth as God's temple-abode in the Genesis account, and how (by implication) human beings function as God's image within that temple. If Genesis 1 indeed presents creation as God's temple, as recognized by many scholars (most recently and notably, John Walton), then it seems to me that the phrase "image of God" (Gen 1:27) begs to be understood within the symbolic world of ancient temples – namely, as analogous to the physical idol in the sanctuary. The second commandment bars the use of physical images in worship partly because it is living, breathing human beings who are to function as God's image in the world. In fact, it is possible to argue, on grammatical grounds, that the phrases "in our/his image"/"in the image of God" in Gen 1:26, 27 really have the sense of humans being made "in the function of" or "as" God's image, as opposed to being made out of some sort of divine "mold." Overall, this point is critically important for Christians who endeavor to live in a biblically-informed way: as human beings we are called to be God's image in the world, to display God's characteristics as an idol reflects the nature of the deity it represents.

As a final point, I see a close parallel between the task of Christian biblical scholars and the goal of BioLogos. Just as BioLogos seeks to articulate an approach to the Christian faith that makes room for honest intellectual pursuit of science, so biblical scholarship that is distinctively Christian ought to seek out an approach to the biblical text that is not only faithful to the divine authority and inspiration of Scripture, but also robust enough to engage with ideas coming out of the modern critical study of the Bible in general.

Joseph Lam is a faculty member of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He earned a Ph.D. in Semitic languages at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, where he focused on the study of Biblical Hebrew language and literature. He has taught at both the University of Chicago and Regent College, where he previously earned his M.Div. degree.

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BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #10597

April 21st 2010

The idea that Genesis One is an Allegory and not a literal telling of creation is not a modern novelty.  Philo of Alexandra, Augustine and Origen all taught this long before modern geo-science or evolution came on the scene.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #10598

April 21st 2010

To quote William Carrol quoting Aquinas “Aquinas remarks: “There are some things that are by their very nature the substance of faith, as to say of God that He is three and one. . . about which it is forbidden to think otherwise. . . . There are other things that relate to the faith only incidentally. . . and, with respect to these, Christian authors have different opinions, interpreting the Sacred Scripture in various ways. Thus with respect to the origin of the world, there is one point that is of the substance of faith, viz. , to know that it began by creation. . . . But the manner and the order according to which creation took place concerns the faith only incidentally.” Aquinas notes that although the interpretation regarding successive creation, or what we might call “episodic creation,” is “more common, and seems superficially to be more in accord with the letter,” still that of simultaneous creation is “more conformed to reason and better adapted to preserve Sacred Scripture from the mockery of infidels.”(24)“END QUOTE

Samuel Sutter - #10606

April 21st 2010

Good introduction, i’ll be reading the article

Glen Davidson - #10607

April 21st 2010

The battle over whether or not the world is even comprehensible extends to the texts, of course.

The trouble with trying to convince those who want a miraculous origin of life that context matters in the Bible is that they want Genesis to also be miraculous and unrelated to context.  Which is a good way to make Genesis dependent upon the alien context of today’s society.

It’s also a sort of naive demand that everything be immediately comprehensible, both life and the texts.  This is not a new demand, being a kind of Puritan/Yankee trait, “if I see it, I’ll believe it.”  The text should not require scholarship, and “if it looks designed” (in the recent social context that tends to see function as purposeful), then it must have been, never mind the fiddly stuff that scientists do.

Maybe, then, it’s not even a fight over whether the world should be comprehensible, rather a fight between those who think that comprehension is possible through the steady work of comparison and analysis, and those who believe that comprehension is imposed by miracle and by decree.

Glen Davidson

Roger D. McKinney - #10609

April 21st 2010

Lam: “The biblical writer was essentially saying: “You have heard that the world came into existence some other way… but I’m telling you instead that it happened this way.”

I really liked Lam’s article and don’t disagree with it. Yes, the author of Genesis is saying “it happened this way.” In other words, the author considers it historical.

“First, the God of Israel is the supreme Creator, and performed the act of creation without having to contend with other inimical forces.”

Exactly! The theory of evolution contradicts this and follows the pattern of other creation stories, especially the Greek, in which forces and physical laws “create” through conflict and massive destruction and death, or the “Creation as Combat” theme.

Joseph Lam - #10610

April 21st 2010


While I certainly agree that non-literal (or, as I prefer, non-literalistic) readings of Genesis are not a modern novelty, I also would not characterize my approach to Genesis 1 as “allegorical” either.  Rather, I think Genesis 1 provides us with a metaphorical (though still “representational” as properly defined) lens through which to understand creation, as opposed to an encoded account that speaks of creation in an oblique way (perhaps my definition of allegory is too narrow, but hopefully you get my point).  The parts of the creation account that need “decoding” for us have to do with our distance from the original cultural context.

Roger D. McKinney - #10611

April 21st 2010

“Second, creation is intrinsically good, not dualistic or chaotic.”

Again, evolution contradicts that. The world was not good as it evolved because after mankind had evolved to a certain point, God said man was not good and needed to be better. There was no fall from innocense or grace; God man man the way he was through the process of evolution and then told man he was not good enough.

Norm - #10622

April 21st 2010

Finally! Some one who gets it and puts two and two together. I have been pointing out some of these observations but people’s eyes seem to just glaze over. The idea that Gen 1 is a Temple creation motif is new yet old news. New to us but was contemporary with the ancients. Augustine states that Gen 1’s 6 Days of Creation were 6 different epochs of the Biblical narrative from Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, First Temple destruction and dispersion and lastly the sixth Day of Christ conferring the Image of God upon the faithful arriving at the Sabbath Rest. Now Augustine missed it a little because the Sabbath Rest was fully established once the old Covenant was destroyed via Christ prophetic declaration and fulfillment against the Temple and the Apostate Jews. The succession of the creation of the Temple from good to very Good with the establishment of the indwelling Spirit of God in the faithful is the appropriate function of that progressive establishment. It only became very Good when the Temple was fully created through Christ resurrection thus bringing the Holy Spirit to us.

Zec 6:12 … Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: and he shall grow up out of his place; and HE SHALL BUILD THE TEMPLE OF JEHOVAH;

Roger D. McKinney - #10629

April 21st 2010

Norm, that’s interesting but on what principle do you base allegorical reading of Genesis 1?

Norm - #10635

April 21st 2010

Roger I read it allegorically by identifying the Genre of the literature of Genesis by doing my due diligence. Just As I read and evaluate Revelation, Ezekiel, Daniel and other pieces I now recognize the usage of symbols by the OT and NT writers to display consistent themes that resonate from Genesis to Revelation.  In other words I train myself to read it like an ancient instead of a modern evangelical with all of its attendant baggage. I started with the easy stuff first such as researching what the language of Revelation was built upon.

I found that much was taken from Ezekiel and Daniel and so I set about to understanding those symbols and lo and behold I found out they were using the same symbols as Genesis and their applied definitions illustrated that the writers interpreted them in the same manner.  Once I learned the symbolic language then it started falling in place.  I might add that I have validated my application with other early Christian writings and second Temple literature such as the Book of Enoch that didn’t make the Jewish cut after they reorganized in the later half of the first century.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #10657

April 21st 2010

Joseph Lam,

I guess I’m equating allegory with metaphor.  It is my understanding an allegory is an extended metaphor wherein a story illustrates an important attribute of the subject.  I too prefer, “non-literalistic” vs “non-literal” but sometime one is forced to use popular linguistic convention in order to be generally understood.

Roger D. McKinney - #10664

April 21st 2010

Norm - #10635: “Roger I read it allegorically by identifying the Genre of the literature of Genesis by doing my due diligence.”

You didn’t answer my question. I asked why the first part is allegorical and the rest isn’t. And why you don’t take the Gospels as allegories too.

“I found out they were using the same symbols as Genesis..”

The fact that later writers make symbols out of historical events is no evidence that the original was not historical.

“I have validated my application with other early Christian writings and second Temple literature such as the Book of Enoch that didn’t make the Jewish cut after they reorganized in the later half of the first century.”

The book of Enoch takes Genesis very literally.

Joseph Lam - #10665

April 21st 2010


I appreciate your compliment, and you’re right to point out the important thematic connections that exist between Genesis 1 and other parts of Scripture.  I find less compelling, though, the specific correlation between the 6 days and the 6 epochs, which is not obvious from the Genesis text itself.  It’s interesting that the books you mention (Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, and Revelation) all have some association with the apocalyptic genre, which invites a certain type of allegorical ‘reading’ that I’m not sure is as appropriate to Genesis.  But I’ll grant that, in some sense, the proof is in the interpretive details, which need to be evaluated on a point-by-point basis.

Roger D. McKinney - #10668

April 21st 2010

Norm, I apologize! You did answer my question. I confused you with another post. I’m not good at multi-tasking.

Jim (Random Arrow) - #10670

April 21st 2010

Joseph Lam, thanks.  A little help. 

I’m looking intensely for an academic recommendation on a Hebrew Scripture (set of?) commentaries.  I did post-grad research at U. Chicago with L. Sullivan focusing on biological (ethological, evo-bio, etc) and quantitative correlates of judgments (casuistry) in concrete cases in which clerics use religious and theological rules to judge practical disputes (click my name for my profile)  – short point:  my focus was on empirical stuff, with theory/theology in the background as context (I’ve read my fair share of the dance tropes of hermeneuticists, James Barr, B. Childs, Bruggeman, Rendtorff, Alt, Bultmann, Levinson, Neusner, few others on the Jewish side, and so on).  But these are trope-artists (my bias).  So too are a few of the current minimalists in ANE studies (e.g., Liverani, “Israel’s History and the History of Israel” - though that direction is pretty cool). 

My greater perspective (biology undergrad and still a biophiliac) is theology in the larger context of science (Polkinghorne), that is, theology as empirically derived and theology as less-so textually derived (canons, creeds, dogmatics). 

(continued ...)

Jim (Random Arrow) - #10671

April 21st 2010


I just talked yesterday by phone to one of the Hebrew Scripture guys at your old stomping grounds (Regent) to ask for a recommendation on a commentary or a set that integrates all this junk into one mess: 1) liberal/conservative parallel treatments, 2) best of science findings/methods/current discussion, 3) Jewish/Christian/ANE perspectives – all rolled into one bowl of commentary-spaghetti. 

I’m Quaker/Vineyardite in worship and feeling; low-creedal (almost non-creedal), lowbrow and not highbrow in worship, and very active locally in caring/shepherding for hundreds of people as clients and counseless – and I’m feeling a pretty desperate need for my 15th look at the Hebrew Scriptures (Rolf Rendtorff taught me to say “Hebrew Scriptures” and not say “Old Testament” when he visited Chicago! – he’s got a thing about that for good reason). 

Bottom line: if such a commentary (set;  or is it hunt and peck?) exists, please say. 

Or, get your butt busy and write one!  Or may the demon-gargoyles at U.C. eat you alive ...



Norm - #10673

April 21st 2010

Joseph #10665

Yes it will be difficult to lay out the foundation of why this six Day reading makes sense in sound bites but let me begin.

The Barnabas epistle (circa AD70?)  repeats a common phrase apparently in vogue during Second Temple Judaism which is also used in 2Pet 3:8 “that with the Lord ONE DAY IS AS A THOUSAND YEARS, and a thousand years as one day.” 

This phrase if found in Jubilees describing the “Day of Adam’s Death” and so has been in play for maybe 200 years.  Jubilees reads the Genesis “Day” as metaphorical and appears to denote his life as one day that didn’t reach the eternal 1000 years which signifies eternal salvation. See in contrast the martyrs of Rev who lived 1000 years by being in Christ. In short this is Hebrew numeral symbolism.
Jubilees 4: Adam died, … And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS ARE AS ONE DAY IN THE TESTIMONY OF THE HEAVENS and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that ye eat thereof ye shall die.’ For this reason HE DID NOT COMPLETE THE YEARS OF THIS DAY;  FOR HE DIED DURING IT.


Norm - #10674

April 21st 2010

Now when we look at Barnabas we see him appropriating this phrase like Peter does yet he performs commentary along with it to describe its application not to Gen 2 and Adam but to Gen 1 instead. Where moderns go wrong in understanding Barnabas is they believe he is espousing a literal 1000 years or a total of 6000 physical years which is completely alien to what Barnabas is explaining. Barnabas is building upon the first century contemporary Hebrew numeral understanding which has been lost to us. He’s using the common metaphors of Judaism to explain that Christ coming will coincide with the end of Judaism. (see the end of verse 5 and compare it to Rev 21:23)

I believe the early church fathers like Augustine were taking their cue from writings like Barnabas as it was in vogue for the first 2-300 years. They gradually Hellenized it and lost the Hebrew understanding over time.  So Barnabas a contemporary of the times gives us a snapshot commentary that if we pay attention helps solve some of these murky details that cause us trouble.


Norm - #10675

April 21st 2010

Read his excerpt below with a metaphorical understanding of Genesis 1’s “Day” and notice that he is providing an outline for Gen 1 as confirming my point of the Temple Creation coming to a close with Christ as the Old Covenant (sun, moon and stars) are no longer needed for days in seasons as originally established in Gen 1:14. I’ll leave Barnabas application of the Image of God for another post.

Barnabas 15:4
Give heed, children, what this meaneth; He ended in six days. He
meaneth this, that in six thousand years the Lord shall bring all
things to an end; FOR THE DAY WITH HIM SIGNIFYETH A THOUSAND YEARS;and this He himself beareth me witness, saying; Behold, the day ofthe Lord shall be as a thousand years. Therefore, children, in six days, that is in six thousand years, everything shall come to an end.

5And He rested on the seventh day. this He meaneth; when His Son
shall come, and shall abolish the time of the Lawless One, and shall
STARS, then shall he truly rest on the seventh day.

6Yea and furthermore He saith; Thou shalt hallow it with pure hands
and with a pure heart.

Joseph Lam - #10680

April 21st 2010

BenYachov (#10657),

I must confess that, as someone in the process of writing a dissertation dealing with metaphor and the Hebrew Bible, my use of such terms tends to be more nuanced than one finds in ordinary discourse.  Nonetheless, I do think the distinction between allegory and metaphor is relevant to Gen 1.  Metaphor is (among other things) a means by which we “see” something “as” something else.  So a phrase like “the LORD is my shepherd” does not assert that the LORD is (literally) a shepherd, but rather invites us to “see” the LORD “as” a shepherd.  Similarly, Gen 1 invites us to “see” creation “as” a temple—and (as with all metaphor) we can’t discard the image (temple) without losing the force of the description.

On the other hand, allegory in its most extreme forms has a tendency to dispense with the original vehicle/form once the ‘real’ meaning has been discerned.  If one reads the Song of Songs as an allegory for Christ and the Church, then once one ‘gets’ the ‘real’ point, the original form becomes less relevant.  It is that kind of indirect reading that I think is inappropriate to Gen 1.

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