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.
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.