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’ve written previously, 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.
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