Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story

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May 18, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story

In the middle of the nineteenth century, archaeologists were digging in the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) in the ancient city of Nineveh. They discovered thousands of clay tablets written in a language that came to be known as Akkadian (a distant and much older cousin to Hebrew).

These tablets contained things like laws, administrative matters, and literature. It was like unearthing a time capsule to see what life was like in the ancient Near East 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

But it was the religious texts found there that got the most attention. One of those texts bore striking similarities to Genesis 1.

How people viewed Genesis would never be the same again.

Found among the ruins was a Babylonian creation story referred to today as Enuma Elish. It is a story about a highly dysfunctional divine family engaged in a major power struggle at the dawn of time. The heart of the story is where the god Marduk kills his nemesis Tiamat and then fillets her body in two, making the sky out of one half and the earth out of the other. Thus, Marduk claims the throne as the high god in the pantheon.

Scholars have termed Enuma Elish the “Babylonian Genesis.” The reason is that both stories share some concepts that were immediately apparent.

  • In both stories, matter exists when creation begins. Similar to Enuma Elish, Genesis 1 describes God ordering chaos, not creating something out of nothing.

  • Darkness precedes the creative acts.

  • In Enuma Elish the symbol of chaos is the goddess Tiamat who personifies the sea. Genesis refers to the “deep.” The Hebrew word is tehom, which is linguistically related to Tiamat.

  • In both stories, light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.

  • In both stories, there is a division of the waters above and below, with a barrier holding back the upper waters.

  • The sequence of creation is similar, including the division of waters, dry land, luminaries, and humanity, all followed by rest.

Scholars knew they were on to something and it led to some predictable questions in both academic and popular circles. Maybe Genesis isn’t history at all, they thought, but just another story like Enuma Elish. In fact, maybe Genesis is just a later Hebrew version of this older Babylonian story.

One can’t really blame people for asking these questions, given the bombshell that just fell on them. Up to this point, Genesis 1 was unique. Now, we have a previously unknown Babylonian myth that is strikingly similar to Scripture.

At the time, many scholars thought that the author of Genesis 1 borrowed material from Enuma Elish. This led to the “Bible and Babel” controversy (“Babel” is Hebrew for Babylon). In fact, scholars commonly thought that Babylonian culture was the source for all ancient religions, including Christianity (i.e., “pan-Babylonianism”).

But with subsequent discoveries from other cultures (Sumerian, Egyptian, Canaanite) and other time periods, scholars came to a more sober conclusion: Babylonian culture did not have such a widespread influence, and Genesis 1 was not directly dependent on Enuma Elish.

Instead, these texts are two examples of the kinds of theological themes that pervaded numerous cultures over many centuries. The stories are not directly connected, but they share common ways of thinking about beginnings. They “breathe the same air.”

Scholars also came to appreciate the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish. A central difference is that Israel’s God creates on his own, with no divine melodrama or lengthy plot. Israel’s God works solo and in the space of a mere 31 verses (not 900 lines as in Enuma Elish). Genesis 1 is not just a lightly touched-up version of older creation stories. It is a unique piece of Israelite theology.

But this does not mean that the similarities can be minimized. Some scholars have gone to the other extreme saying there is no real value in comparing Genesis 1 to Enuma Elish.

Only a very small number of scholars think this way, however. It is very clear that these stories share a common, ancient, way of speaking about the beginning of the cosmos. They participate in a similar “conceptual world” where solid barriers keep the waters away, pre-existent chaotic material exists before order, and light before the sun, moon, and stars.

Those similarities should not be exaggerated or minimized. But they are telling us something: even though Genesis is unique, and even though Genesis is Scripture, it is an ancient story that reflects ancient ways of thinking.

Genesis 1 cries out to be understood in its ancient context, not separated from it. Stories like Enuma Elish give us a brief but important glimpse at how ancient Near Eastern people thought of beginnings. As I discussed in an earlier post, ancient texts like Enuma Elish help us calibrate the genre of Genesis. That way we can learn to ask the questions Genesis 1 was written to address rather than intruding with our own questions.

One of the main questions Israelites asked was how their God ranked among the dozens of gods in the ancient world—namely, what made him worthy of devotion rather than the gods of the superpowers like Babylon and Egypt. Reading Genesis as ancient literature highlights this polemical dimension.

Genesis 1 is a bold declaration that the God of a tiny nation with a troubled past is the one responsible for what you see. The gods of the superpowers didn’t do it, Yahweh did. In the ancient world, those are fighting words.

Genesis 1 is certainly not just a Hebrew version of Enuma Elish. But we cannot fully appreciate the distinct theology of Genesis 1 without first seeing what it shares with Enuma Elish and other ancient narratives.

Understanding the connections between Genesis 1 and other ancient texts like Enuma Elish is a reminder that we do a disservice to Genesis 1 when we view it only through a modern lens.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Rich - #14777

May 24th 2010

OK, Martin.  So you are now saying that, while you interpret all the details of the fall story more or less literally, you can conceive of an interpretation of the serpent, and maybe of the trees, which does not understand them literally, yet does not undermine the notion of a Fall or a Redemption.  Well, we are making progress. 

An unnatural reading?  I think you have in mind the inconsistency of asserting a literal Adam and Eve but not a literal serpent and trees.  Yes, but the problem there is with Stott, not with the mythical reading.  Stott understands “historical Fall” and “historical Adam and Eve” in a way which makes the rest of his reading awkward.  He just doesn’t go far enough.  One can affirm a real “fall”, i.e., a real decision of the human race to separate itself from God, while regarding *all* the story elements as mythical.  Indeed, that is the “natural” reading, given the meaning of the Hebrew word “Adam”—the generic term for “mankind”.  As for Paul’s “literal” use of the story, that’s a whole separate topic, and we’d disagree about that just as much as about Genesis.  So I’ll leave it there.  Thanks for clarifying.


gingoro - #14784

May 24th 2010

I find the term epic or heroic epic better than myth as it seems a more useful description even though to the scholar the difference is somewhat marginal.  The historicity of the details is up for grabs although I hold to the view that Adam and Eve were actual people who God made into his ikons or beings who possess the image of God.  But in all cases I do not consider the matter “of the essence of Christianity”.
Dave W


Joel Wingo - #15008

May 25th 2010

John H. Walton has written a good book on this topic, The Lost World of Genesis One.


John Heininger - #15152

May 26th 2010

Its just as likely that the primary report of events reported by Genesis was the one from which all the other were vaguely based, as was the case with embellished and distorted variations told by almost all early civilizations in regard to the flood event recorded in Genesis, considering God would have ensured that the more authentic version was on offer, and preserved.


Dale - #15426

May 28th 2010

AIG has decided that the book of Genesis has been interpreted improperly, thereby allowing it to be disproved by modern science.

He has decided to form a “team” to reinterpret Genesis so that it may be the foundation for a new science that will uphold the literal meaning of the text.


Dale - #15427

May 28th 2010

From AIG:

“Why study the chronology of the flood.”

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2010/05/27/why-study-flood-chronology

I am totally amused that they think that rearainging the verbs in the story will validate it as a literal text.  After all, the txt of Genesis has nothing to do with modern Geology which shows very clearly there is no evidence for a word wide flood.

Here is a basic refutation of the AIG article:

http://www.wearesmrt.com/blog/


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