How are Israel’s creation accounts similar to and distinctive from other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts?
[ok- so this is a bit different from my normal posts. But it was interesting to have to look into this stuff for my studies. I’m not making any great claims about the quality of this essay [!] but it is here because it should encourage us regarding the Biblical account. The tide seems to be turning among some scholars at last, as they recognise that it is not simply Hebrew mythology borrowed from the Babylonians. At last!]
Hebrews 11:3 states that it is, ‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command’. In this essay I will attempt to show the similarities and differences that seem to exist between Genesis and ANE creation accounts and how both should strengthen our confidence in the Biblical account.
Comparative Studies in this field found great impetus with the work of H. Gunkel, who in conjunction with the Assyriologist H. Zimmerman compared Babylonian creation accounts and a fragment known as the Gilgamesh flood story to Genesis in the 1890’s, arguing that Genesis 1-11 displayed ‘extensive dependence on the mythological tradition of Babylonia.’ As Walton makes the point, we should be careful in labelling ANE documents used in this respect as ‘creation accounts’ because ‘ancient thinkers did not typically think of creation as an end in itself and ‘these reports are often embedded in other types of literature.’ What is plain is that the theme of creation is involved in some quite extensive ways within such literature and there are some very intriguing parallels as we will hope to see.
The first parallel that we will consider is the comparative treatment of the relationship between creation and beginning. The Genesis account begins with some of the most famous words in the whole Bible ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…’ (Gen 1:1). Walton writes that ‘Ancient conditions do not typically begin with nothing. Instead they start with a condition devoid of order, function or purpose.’ Walton says that Genesis is similar in this respect because he believes that Genesis is not concerned with the physical making of things and therefore the question cannot be approached through the text. He writes: ‘The author’s concern was much like those in the ancient Near East. There the greatest exercise of the power of the gods was not demonstrated in the manufacture of matter, but in the fixing of destinies.’ The issue of naming and ordering is therefore far more important for Walton as we see in Enuma Elish (EE from this point forward) which includes at the start of it’s account the words, ‘When yet no gods were manifest or names pronounced…’
Whilst ANE accounts may operate in this way, the Bible does seem to be different. Wenham takes the view that that the word for beginning in Genesis 1 ‘refers to the beginning of time itself, not to a particular period within eternity (cf Is 40:21; 41:4)’ That God did not create the world out of nothing is something that he says cannot be argued conclusively from Genesis 1, though is a possible interpretation that is strengthened by other Old Testament passages which speak of him creating everything by his word and his existence before the world (Ps 148:5; Prov 8:22-27). This certainly seems to be the case. Wayne Grudem in his systematic theology states that it is essential that we believe God created ex nihilo, explaining that ‘to deny creation out of nothing, we would have to say that some matter has always existed and that it is eternal like God.’ J.P. Holding contrasts EE and other Babylonian texts which begin with words such as ‘on that day’ or ‘when’ and notes that the Hebrew word for beginning ‘finds no parallel’ in the cosmogonies of Babylon. In light of this, though it is certainly contested, it seems there is a strong case that the Genesis account is distinctive in its claim that the creation act is at the beginning of time and that the creation was from nothing.
There is a remarkable similarity however in that many ANE texts share a similar reference to primal conditions: ‘Ancient sources are unanimous that the primal chaotic condition included two characteristics: water and darkness.’ This is something that we see in Genesis where we are told that ‘darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.’(Gen 1:2). Tsumura explains that since Gunkel’s famous book SchÖpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895), scholars have taken it for granted that the Hebrew tĕhÔm for ‘the deep’ in Gen1:2 is related to the ancient Babylonian goddess Tiamut of EE, in which the storm-god Marduk fights with the sea dragon Tiamut, establishing the cosmos. EE states: ‘he caused a wave and it roiled Tiamut, Tiamut was roiled churning day and night…’ Westermann says, however, that ‘The evidence does not allow for the demythologising of a mythical idea…’
One of the key differences is that in EE there is not only disorder, but also a threatening and aggressive situation: ‘The gods of that generation would meet together and disturb Tiamut, and their clamour reverberated. They stirred up Tiamut’s belly, they were annoying her…’This is very different to the creation account, where God is not presented as morally ambiguous or aggressive in any way. The water is also not the source from which the creation emerges in Genesis.
In Genesis, wind sweeps over the surface of the deep. In EE there is also reference to wind as the God Anu creates the four winds that stir up Tiamut. Some have argued that, in Genesis, the wind is simply expressive of the power of God and others that Rûah corresponds to the winds which Marduk sends against Tiâmat. However, DeRoche holds that rûah ’ĕlōhîm is not a ‘wind sent by God,’ that is to say, a creature, but ‘a hypostasis for ’ĕlōhîm.’ Therefore, where as in EE the potentiality is somehow within the water, in Genesis the potentiality is within God.
On the first day, God commands ‘Let there be light’ and we are told that there was light (Gen 1:3). Walton explains that this is similar to the Sumerian Praise of Pickaxe where the separation of heaven and earth is followed by making light shine in the cosmos. Tsumura comments on how this differs from Genesis however, saying, ‘Not only is creation by divine fiat in Genesis unique in the ancient Near East, the creation of the light as the first creating act appears only in Genesis.’
Separation occurs in verse 4 when God separates the light from the darkness and in verse 7 when he separates the waters. ANE accounts have also been shown to exhibit this feature of separation, for example with Marduk splitting Tiamut in EE: ‘The Lord rested, and inspected her corpse. He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it). He sliced her in half like a fish for drying: half of her he put up to roof the sky…’ Lambert comments that while this parallel exists there is no proof of a cosmic battle as a prelude to the dividing of the waters in Genesis. In other words the circumstances are very different compared to EE. In addition, Genesis does not involve the dividing of a god or the death of that god. Time and again, the perception that arises from studying the Genesis text is that unlike the gods of the ANE texts, the Genesis God is not disorderly or morally ambiguous in the way he acts. The creation is not the result of a battle between gods or chaotic.
Tsumura writes of the phrase ‘without form and void’, which has led some to conceive of a chaotic state that, ‘the phrase tōhû wābōhû has nothing to do with primeval chaos; it simply means ‘emptiness’ and refers to the earth in a “bare” state…’ Some have suggested that other creation accounts in the Bible display a struggle between good and evil (for example, Is 40:25-26, 28, 42:5, 45:18, Jer 10:12-16, Psalm 33:6,9, Job 38:4). However, far from portraying a dualistic struggle between good and evil, the argument is usually designed to be corrective, with the Lord reminding mankind that he is the creator God and there are none beside him: ‘’To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift your eyes to the heavens: who created all these?’ (Is 40:25-26). Such statements are not designed to be read as empty boasts, but rather statements of reality proven by His work in creation.
The creation of animals is not something that is recorded in ANE accounts. This is with the exception of sea creatures, as in EE: ‘Mother Hubur, who can form anything, added countless invincible weapons, gave birth to monster serpents, pointed of fang…Fierce dragons she clad with glories, causing them to bear auras like gods…’ In Ugaritic the name for sea monster in the Hebrew (tannîn) is the name of the primeval dragon who helped Yam against Baal. There are of course references to a dragon in several Old Testament passages (Job 7:12, Ps 74:13, Is 27:1, Is 51:9). Here, however, they are created by God and therefore not rivals to be defeated in the same sense. With respect to the sea monster in Genesis, it is worth noting that there is no suggestion of combat or aggression that would, as Walton puts it, ‘associate the Genesis account with its mythological cousins.’ Perhaps one of the most significant observations we want to make from Genesis, is that in contrast to the chaotic descriptions we have in other texts, the creation is repeatedly described by God as being ‘good’. In fact on that day that God creates man, we are told that he pronounces that his creation was ‘very good.’
The creation of man in Genesis is presented as being the pinnacle of God’s creative work. The Antrahasis Epic also contains a creation story of man being made where man is described as being formed from clay mixed with the blood of a dead God. The account states: ‘Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood…The womb-godesses were assembled. He trod the clay in her presence…when she had finished her incantation, she pinched off fourteen pieces (of clay)’. This formation of man from the dust of the ground is perhaps one of the most significant parallels of any ANE text with the Bible. However, the profound difference in Genesis is that man is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Whereas in ANE accounts we have descriptions of gods creating other gods in their image, as when Anu begets his own image Nudimmud, or of kings being in the image of the gods, as in the 9th century inscription from Syria describing king Haddu-yisi, here we are told that all of humanity is made in the image of the creator God. As J.P Holding puts it, in ANE texts ‘man’s purpose is to serve the gods, build their temples, and make sacrifices to them. Men are the gods’ boot-polishers.’ Genesis paints quite a different picture.
The account of Adam in Genesis has been perceived by many to have a number of similarities with the Adapha Epic. For instance, both Adam and Adapha underwent a test before the deity that involved the eating of food. Unlike Adam, Adapha was actually meant to consume the food concerned, but he chose not to, causing the god Anu to punish him. The story states: ‘They fetched him the bread of (eternal) life but he would not eat.’ A further similarity suggested by some scholars is that the names Adam and Adapha can be equated linguistically. Despite this, the stories are clearly different in some important ways. For instance, while both Adam and Adapha are sentenced to death, it is clear that the message of Adam’s story is quite different. We are told for instance that Anu laughs at Adapha when he fails the test, while in Genesis the circumstances are presented as both solemn and profoundly serious. The conclusion the reader reaches is also that Adapha has been tricked or let down by Ea, the earth god. In this way, the circumstances and message of the Adapha Epic, are actually quite different to the Genesis story although there are obvious similarities that should not be overlooked. The creation of woman is also very significant, with no other ANE account referring to such an event.
As we conclude, we might therefore say that reading Genesis in comparison to other ANE texts, might lead us to very different conclusions about both the creator they portray and the world in which we live. As Paul Blackham summarises:
‘Ancient myths speak of the universe being formed by a war between the gods and modern myths of order randomly arising out of chaos…The Bible explains that everything was created without any conflict or compromise.’
Again we are reminded of the fact that the creation in the Bible portrays the Living God and is therefore monotheistic and polemical, inherently contradicting the polytheism of ANE texts. Genesis also seeks in this way to convey that the one God it portrays is not morally dubious, but that both He and His creation are good. Our understanding of this and our confidence in the Biblical text, should not be undermined by the difference that we observe in ANE texts. Nor should we assume that the Genesis account is simply a refined version of the stories they depict. Millard makes a case for the flood stories, that while they both describe the same event, ‘the Babylonians could only conceive of the event in their own polytheistic language’. He writes also:
‘All who suspect or suggest large scale borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion which cannot be substantiated from the Ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing…’
This is the view also taken by Tsumura who cites the work of Lambert to propose that there is ‘no evidence of Hebrew borrowing from Babylon’.Could it be, therefore, that the similarities are testimony to the common origin of ideas that were transmitted orally and written down at different times? The differences that exist, we can perhaps conclude, are the result of one people recording their account according to the wisdom of God and the other groups according to their own polytheistic language and the wisdom of primeval man.
Blackham, P. (2003) Book by Book: A Study Guide to the Book of Genesis (Authentic Lifestyle)
Dalley, S. (1991) Myths from Mesopotamia (OUP)
Desmond Alexander, T., Baker, D. (eds) Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (IVP, 2003)
Grudem, W. (1994) Systematic Theology (IVP)
Hess, R.S. ‘One Hundred Fifty Years of Comparative Studies on Genesis 1- 11: An Overview’ in Hess, R.S., D.T. Tsumura (eds), I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood (Eisenbrauns, 1994)
Hallo, W.H. (1997) Context of Scripture, Vol 1 (Brill)
Lambert, W.G. ‘A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis’ in Hess, R.S., D.T. Tsumura (eds), I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood (Eisenbrauns, 1994)
Millard, A.R. ‘A New Babylonian “Genesis” Story’ in Hess, R.S., D.T. Tsumura (eds), I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood (Eisenbrauns, 1994)
Tsumura, D.T. ‘Genesis and ANE Stories of Creation and Flood’ in Hess, R.S., D.T. Tsumura (eds), I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood (Eisenbrauns, 1994)
Walton, J.H. (2006) Ancient near Eastern thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids)
Wenham, G.J. (1987) Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Word Books)
Westermann, C. (1984) Genesis 1-11 (Augsburg)
 Hess in Hess and Tsumura (1994:7)
 Walton in Desmond Alexander and Baker ( 2003:156)
 Walton in Desmond Alexander and Baker (2003:156)
 Walton (2006:183)
 Enuma Elish (Tablet 1: 7-8) in Hallo (1997)
 Wenham (1987:14)
 Grudem (1994:264)
 Walton in Desmond Alexander and Baker (2003:157)
 Tsumura in Hess and Tsumura (1994:31)
 Enuma Elish (Tablet 1 Line 105) in Hallo (1997)
 Enuma Elish in Dalley (1991:133)
 Tsumura in Hess and Tsumura (1994:34)
 Walton in Alexander Desmond and Baker (2003:158)
 Tsumura in Hess and Tsumura (1994:31)
 Enuma Elish in Dalley (1991:254)
 Tsumura in Hess and Tsumura (1994:33)
 Enuma Elish (Tablet 1:133-138) in Hallo (1997)
 Walton in Alexander Desmond and Baker (2003:160)
 Enuma Elish in Dalley (1991:16)
 In Dalley (187:36)
 Blackham (2003:2)
 Millard in Hess and Tsumura (1994:128)
 Millard in Hess and Tsumura (1994:128)
 Tsumara in Hess and Tsumura (1994:32)