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The Second Creation Story and “Atrahasis”

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May 25, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

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

The Second Creation Story and “Atrahasis”

Last week we looked at Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish. Another very important discovery in Ashurbanipal’s library is the story commonly referred to as the Atrahasis Epic. Though in the nineteenth century only fragments of the story were found, a more complete version was found in 1965, dated to the seventeenth century B.C.

Atrahasis is the name of the Noah-like figure in this story and it means “exceedingly wise.” The Atrahasis Epic and another ancient story called the Gilgamesh Epic overlap a lot with the biblical flood story. We will get to that issue in a future post. Atrahasis, however, is more than just a flood story. It is a story of the origins of the gods (theogony) and of the cosmos (cosmogony).

Atrahasis is important to biblical scholars because of it similarity to Genesis 2-9. Both stories share a similar storyline: creation, population growth and rebellion, flood. They also share some important details within that storyline.

The degree of overlap between the stories suggests to some scholars that Genesis 2-9 may be an Israelite version of Atrahasis, although it is best not to be dogmatic about that. It is very clear, however, that there is a lot of conceptual overlap between them.

The best way to show the similarities between these stories is in a chart. The one below is from Daniel Harlow, which is adapted from a chart by Bernard F. Batto1. I have made slight adjustments for clarity.

It goes without saying that there are clear differences between the stories (which we will see in more detail when we get to the flood story). But, just as we saw last week with Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, (1) the differences only stand out because of the similarities, (2) the differences do not justify minimizing the similarities.

As we saw with Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, Genesis 2-9 and Atrahasis breathe the same air. They share ancient Mesopotamian ways of talking about origins. This is a clear indication that the second creation story does not speak to contemporary science. Hence, (1) it cannot and should not be harmonized with contemporary science, (2) it should not control what can be concluded from scientific investigation.

Genesis 2-9 is an ancient story asking addressing ancient issues. Understanding that ancient context will keep us from asking this story to deliver more than it is prepared to. And it will also help us mine the theological depths of what this story said to ancient Israelites nearly three millennia ago.

Israel’s two creation stories are clearly distinct, which makes one ask why there are two to begin with and why they are placed side-by-side as they are. Unfortunately, Genesis does not come with an introduction explaining why the author did what he did.

The conventional scholarly explanation is a bit involved, but here is the main outline. The second creation story in Genesis is actually Israel’s older creation story, written perhaps sometime during the early period of the monarchy and fully engaged with common Mesopotamian traditions. The first creation story in Genesis was written second, after the return from Exile (539 B.C.), and was influenced by Israel’s long experience in Babylon captivity.

Genesis 1 highlights God’s complete control over creation, employing and transforming familiar Mesopotamian themes such as the cosmic battle motif. That story was placed at the beginning of Israel’s Scripture. The older creation story was edited to reflect its new position as subordinate to Genesis 1.

As I have suggested in previous posts, one way of looking at it is this: What had been Israel’s original story of creation (the Adam story) was transformed to a story of Israel’s creation.

As I stressed earlier, such a suggestion is not meant to cut off discussion but promote it. The meaning of Israel’s creation accounts has been pondered since before the time of Christ, and no one should think that conversation has come to an end in an internet post or two.

Whatever one concludes about Israel’s creation stories, the extra-biblical stories should not be kept at arm’s length from Genesis. They are clearly very important for understanding the nature of Genesis and what it means to understand it properly today.

Notes

1. Harlow, professor at Calvin College, gave a lecture at the ASA meeting at Baylor University in August 2009, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science.” That lecture will appear in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith in an upcoming issue. Batto’s chart can be found in his classic Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Westminster John Knox, 1992), pp. 51-52.


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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Pete Enns - #15197

May 26th 2010

Dick,

Science is the issue I am addressing in these posts, not history. I am choosing my words with intention. As for a regional flood, or perhaps better a series of regional floods, that were depicted in varying yet similar ways by several ANE cultures, I have no problem at all with that. Of course, that simply means there is a historical trigger/s for the flood traditions of the ANE, not that any of these texts yield what we would call today a historical account.

As for the statue, I have no idea. I don’t grab the images for the posts.

By the way, archaeology is not “science.” At least don’t try convincing a scientist that it is. There is methodology, there are data, but it is not science unless you define the term rather loosely.


Gregory - #15207

May 26th 2010

Hi Pete, Why can you not address *both* science *and* history for a more holistic perspective?

You say, “By the way, archaeology is not “science.” At least don’t try convincing a scientist that it is.”

On what grounds do you say this? It is a philosophy of knowledge question. You are, imo, playing the demarcation game according to rigged rules. Archaeology *is* a science, it doesn’t matter if phys-chem-biologists would like to reserve the term just for themselves. Even history *is* called a ‘science’ in many non-Anglo-American meanings of the word ‘science.’ You are not speaking ‘contemporary’ language on this topic, Pete.

If one substitutes ‘history’ for ‘science’ in your statement, the result changes:
“the second creation story does not speak to contemporary history. Hence, (1) it cannot and should not be harmonized with contemporary history, (2) it should not control what can be concluded from historical investigation.”

The problem with saying ‘No real Adam and Eve’ is just as much about *history* as it is about *science.*


Jim - #15286

May 27th 2010

Archaeology could not be called as a “science” in general sense because any archaeological data gives any significant meaning only through the process of interpretation. There are so many cases that exact same archaeological materials give various meanings according to their interpreters.


Gregory - #15293

May 27th 2010

So you are suggesting, if I understand you Jim, that ‘multiple meanings’ & ‘interpretation’ serve to *disqualify* the possibility of calling (in a general sense) a ‘science’ an academic & professional discipline like archaeology, which publishes peer reviewed journals, holds conferences around the world, has several international associations/societies, grants degrees to students advised & mentored by teachers & leaders in the field, offers classes based on theory & practice that involve cutting-edge & classical sources, receives funds for investigations from scientific bodies, makes advances in knowledge based on discoveries & observations, goes through trial-&-error processes while doing research & reflects upon its subject & object to make improvements to its methods & theories?

Or perhaps you hold far too *narrow* a view/definition (i.e. outdated) of what ‘science’ is & is not, Jim? Is that a possibility too?

Would you be willing to re-consider archaeology as a science or historical science?

This is why Pete’s ‘ahistorical’ approach is problematic: at some point one simply has to ‘get historical.’

Just having read Thomas Kuhn is not enough to make a serious claim here.


Mairnéalach - #15302

May 27th 2010

“Science” just means “knowledge”. That encompasses both raw facts that people find out, as well as the logical and moral extensions that people attach to the facts. Biology, astrophysics, history, archaeology. It’s all science.

Yes, I know, this makes the whole world a lot harder to pin down. But sometimes in our desperate attempts to pin things down we become unhinged.

Basically, if you dislike something that somebody is saying, just say “that’s bad science”. It’s kind of like saying “you have not appeased my god properly.” Folks were doing good and bad science long before the modern paradigm was developed. That’s not to say the modern paradigm isn’t helpful, but it does demote that paradigm to its proper place. “Science” is not some god to whom we can appeal.

Note that wisdom ain’t science. But they do go very nicely together, like a fine Scotch and a good cigar.

Of course, you can disagree with me. But that would be bad science, and unwise to boot.


Pete Enns - #15318

May 27th 2010

Gregory (15207)

You make good points here and, it might surprise you, I am in general agreement with you, despite what it might look like in this post. Let me suggest that you are interacting with my comments on “science” on a nuanced level. My post, as they all are, is popular. So, Gen 2ff. and Atrahasis alert us (in my opinion) that we should not be looking for two humans at the dawn of time and pose that as an argument against evolution, as many do. I know you and most people who comment here are far beyond that. For what its worth, an integrated “holistic” (as you put it) understanding of science that includes history (among others things) is very important. Rigid categories are rarely helpful. So in brief, on this, we are on the same or similar page, but my approach in this post was more restricted. Still, I will aim to make myself clearer in future posts. It is always good to try to be clearer. But, one last jab   archaeology and the biological and physical sciences cannot be reasonably labelled “science” without serious qualification for lay readers.


HornSpiel - #15343

May 27th 2010

Thanks Pete, and Diane, Norm, MWK, and Scanman, for your responses to my earlier post @15035. Looks like I have my homework cut out for me. I can’t say as I mind, since the subject intrigues me. I do appreciate your counsel to continue to trust God and not my current ” understanding of how the Bible works”.

One observation: In my previous comment I tried to express how I think many others would react to your post, not only my personal reaction. Along those lines, I can’t see that we can expect most Evangelical Protestant Christians to engage in this kind of in-depth study.

In the Catholic (and Orthodox?) church, people tend to accept the authority of the priests more readily, so this is not such a big deal. In Protestant Christianity, we are encouraged to search the Scriptures for ourselves. I think this could partly explain the much more literalistic view of most US Christians.

Obviously clear, compassionate, and faith affirming pastoral leadership will be a key to integrating faith and science in the US church. Yet how and when that will happen is hard for me to imagine.

Praying blessings on your ministry.


Norm - #15351

May 27th 2010

HornSpiel - #15343

Those are appropriate observations IMO.

This is going to be a process because it will be a cultural movement to a large extent and we simply can’t expect people to drop everything and become engaged in these discussions. Some of us that are addicted to the debate simply can’t expect the same commitment from others especially when it may take years to move ones own paradigm.

I think what needs to happen is to have more scholars like Pete Enns and John Walton talking and interfacing to those who are interested. Scholars who remain in the Ivory Tower so to speak will really only foster the status quo largely.

Something similar to what is happening here on Biologos needs to happen more.  These folks need to be highly commended IMHO.


Pete Enns - #15352

May 27th 2010

Thanks, Norm.

but the ivory tower is so nice and cosy….


Norm - #15354

May 27th 2010

Pete,

Yes, Yes I probably need to drop the Ivory Tower mantra a little as I’m beating a dead horse.   Ops there I go again!


Pete Enns - #15362

May 27th 2010

I wasn’t offended, Norm. The problem is that the ivory tower is a good place to learn but not always a good place to live. It is hard sometimes to know where one is.


BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15462

May 28th 2010

>In the Catholic (and Orthodox?) church, people tend to accept the authority of the priests more readily, so this is not such a big deal.

I hate to quibble but in the Church serious Catholics actually accept the authority of the formal teachings of the church as a whole.  In my experience the individual Priests are often clueless.

Cheers.


Gregory - #15471

May 28th 2010

Hi Pete,

Thanks for #15318. It is good to hear that we are on a same or similar page.

You are correct, in suggesting that I don’t look “for two humans at the dawn of time and pose that as an argument against evolution.” There are other arguments ripe & reasonable for making ‘against evolution’, especially in the human-social sciences (e.g. economics, anthropology and psychology), which can help people better understand humanity, including the real, historical persons known as “Adam” & “Eve.” I’m happy to leave the ‘dawn of time’ stuff to others.

Wrt integral or holistic knowledge (e.g. understanding of science *and* history), glad we agree.

But I didn’t understand this wording: “archaeology and the biological and physical sciences cannot be reasonably labelled “science” without serious qualification for lay readers.”

To say archaeology is not a ‘science’ is unecessary. Why would you insist upon it for lay readers but not for experts?


Dick Fischer - #15516

May 29th 2010

Hi Pete:

Let’s say for arguments sake (and also because I believe it) that starting with the second chapter, Genesis was written by the original authors, whoever they might have been, for the express purpose of recording the history of the Semites for the sole benefit of the Semites.

There was no attempt by the human writers to apply any theological coloration at all.  That is not to say there is theological content in Genesis, quite the contrary, but the theological messages emanate from the influence of the Holy Spirit on the human writers and upon latter day readers.

If we apply Occam’s razor that the simplest solution is usually correct we have a good reason for a lot of theologians requesting early retirement.


Dick Fischer - #15626

May 30th 2010

I’ll rephrase that as I got hung up in a double negative.

Starting with the second chapter, Genesis was written by the original authors, whoever they might have been, for the express purpose of recording the history of the Semites for the sole benefit of the Semites.  There was no or very little attempt by the human authors to apply any theological coloration at all.  That is not to say that Genesis lacks theological content, quite the contrary, but the theological messages emanate from the unseen influence of the Holy Spirit on the human writers and upon latter day readers.

If we apply Occam’s razor that the simplest solution is usually correct we have a good reason to revamp our thinking on Genesis.


Brandon Maddux - #57545

April 9th 2011

Loved the article


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