This is from an assigned paper for a class I’m in-Old Testament-and thought I’d put it out there. If you’re interested in knowing more of this kind of material, this will be enjoyable. Those who don’t care about any of the subject matter will probably find this to be a bit of a drudgery and should probably click the X on this tab (or share it with a nerdy friend).
A Comparative Evaluation of Near Eastern Creation Myths and the Biblical Creation Myths
“In the beginning.” Such has been spoken of all over the world. Different cultures, different Gods, different stories-all seek to address the question of where everything came from. Often, these stories contain less of a direct answer to this question and instead more of an etiological reasoning for a culture’s understanding of the way the world is ordered and maintained. In other words, the task of understanding the theological genesis of existence is taken up and forgotten within the same story, and instead a more practical pursuit is engaged by means of a mythological account of creation. Near and Middle Eastern creation myths did the same, though with a tendency toward increased emphasis placed upon the divine creator’s continued existence, dominance, and relevance within the created order. Today, the Bible’s creation accounts are the most well-known, and most misunderstood. However, what has become increasingly understood by scholars over the past 100 years is the similarity between Biblical creation and other contemporary regional accounts of creation. It is not uncommon to find arguments stating that the Biblical authors and redactors of Genesis wrote and edited the accounts in chapters 1-11 with texts and stories contemporary, and thus relevant, to their times in mind, or perhaps even beside them as they worked. Evaluated here will be both the similarities and differences between the creation in Genesis and other Near Eastern accounts.
The Enuma Elish is one such ancient creation story. Its current form is mostly a revised version of an even more ancient version of the story, retold by the Babylonians, currently thought to have been transcribed sometime around the 12th century BCE. In the Enuma Elish, we find the creation of 1) the gods, 2) the world/sky/stars/etc 3) an ordered hierarchy of the gods 4) an explicitly stated reason for the creation of man, ie, our purpose.
These Babylonian accounts use, of course, the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods. Though there is some discrepancy on as to whom the chief or king God is, it doesn’t ultimately affect the story. Starting out, nothing exists. There is only Apsu, the pre-existent, and Tia-Mat, the mother of all, and these two beings exist alongside chaos. Essentially, the universe was not ordered, and that, therefore, is chaos. Based on the text itself, it would appear that Apsu and Tia-Mat could both be considered “Gods of the water,” as the text says that they “intermingled their waters together,” which is what gave birth to their children, the gods. This could be a simple matter of translation, or mistranslation though. In a more theological sense, however, neither of them are truly “Gods,” but instead are simply “being.” They are what is, and out of them flows the reality we live in.
It must be made clear that at this point in the story, there is no Earth, nor sky, there is only the “Gods,” and, presumably, chaos has been defeated, as the birth of the gods is the catalyst for order and there is no further mention of it. What follows, then, is a series of begats in which more gods are born to those created by Tia-Mat and Apsu. As the story goes, the younger gods are noisy and annoying, and Tia-Mat grows angry and wishes to destroy them all. After a series of attempts by other gods, Marduk rises up and overthrows Tia-Mat, slicing her in half “as one cuts a dried fish.” As a result of Marduk’s victory, he is made king over the gods and the one who decrees the fates of the gods.
This former portion of the story with divine battles and the creation of heavenly beings appears to be set in some form of “Godly court.” Put another way, all the gods seem to be living in a cosmic-sized house. The driving factor behind Tia-Mat’s rampage is her annoyance with her offspring’s noise and the desire to rest. This, combined with the idea of Marduk becoming king over the gods, reveals a huge degree of anthropomorphic qualities bestowed upon the gods. Whether this is because the storytellers actually viewed the gods this way or if it is to make them more relatable to human ears is not clear. Regardless, the theology could be summed up by stating that the Mesopotamian/Babylonian gods are basically super-powered humans whose primary claim to “god-hood” is ultimately a result of this power as well as their pre-existence.
The Earth and the Sky is then created by the gods out of Tia-Mat’s corpse, with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing from her eyes. Humans are made from her spouse’s blood, and upon them is bestowed all of the God’s work, though what exactly that work is isn’t clear. Essentially though, the humans were created so that the gods may rest, and the humans are also to offer sacrifice to their creators, which comes across in the story as a sort of etiology.
So, in short, there are many gods, there is a divine abode for the gods-which in the Babylonian retelling of the story is, of course, Babylon-there is a king god and all the others are below him, the gods have sex and produce children, and the actions of humans affect the happiness of the gods.
Another ancient story, this time from the Akkadians-though related to the Babylonian mythology-describes both the creation of man, a great flood, and provides an etiological explanation behind death, infertility, miscarriage, and the institution of making some women be temple virgins, as well as answering the question of why natural disasters occur. It’s known as the Epic of Atrahasis, named after the human protagonist in the story.
At the beginning of this story, the gods and the Earth are already created, as well as a hierarchy of gods already in existence. In many regards it could be considered a continuation of the Enuma Elish, though with some differences in content. The oldest recorded version of the story is from the 17th century BCE, which predates the 12th century recording of the Enuma Elish. However, it’s generally agreed that both stories are descendent from older oral traditions in circulation throughout the region, and it’s almost a certainty that what we have today is but one surviving version among what would’ve been many during its time.
The opening scene is with a group known as the “lesser Gods” working away at digging the canals for the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, reportedly for 40 days. These gods grow weary of their hard labor and rebel, demanding a solution. The solution comes in the form of a new creation: humans. The purpose of humankind would be to do the work of finishing the Earth, which was unfinished at the time. Created from the blood of a god who sacrificed himself to make humans and the skin of another God, mankind was created. Their population then swelled, and they became noisy and annoying to the king of the gods, Enlil, who then decided to destroy the humans-or at least severely deplete their population. He sent plague, drought, and famine upon the land, but upon seeing the ultimate failure of these measures, he decides to convince the gods to join forces and flood the Earth.
A man loyal to the gods, named Atrahasis, was warned in a dream of the god’s plans to flood the Earth and is instructed to build a great ship and to fill it with two of every kind of animal. Though the gods are angry with Atrahasis for thwarting their plans, they ultimately decide to spare him as they no longer had crops to eat nor beer to drink, thus reducing the gods to mourning. Furthermore, they were terrified of the great storm they’d created. Eventually the storm ends and Atrahasis makes sacrifice to the gods, who come to eat and take Atrahasis up to live away from the other humans-essentially turning him into a human-god hybrid, typically referred to as a demigod. Enki decides instead to enact other measures for population control, namely miscarriage, demons who steal babies away, and pious observance of celibacy.
Here we see a similar theological understanding of the gods as in the Enuma Elish. However, what is of interest is the role of sacrifices as being literal food offerings to the gods, who would come and eat of the sacrifice. We see one god-Enlil-take special interest in human welfare, even going so far as to betray the plans of the gods to save humanity. We also see an explanation for mankind’s purpose: to essentially “co-create” in the world. Furthermore, there’s the etiological nature of why natural disasters happen, namely population control enacted by the gods, as well as the age-old human problem of miscarriages, and infant mortality, and an etiological explanation in defense of the institution of pious celibacy. In both stories the gods are anthropomorphic in nature, are affected by and affect the events occurring on the Earth, and exist once again as essentially superhuman and preexisting beings whose only claims to supremacy over humans are that they are more powerful, created humans, and are preexistent. This two stories do a good job of summarizing Near/Middle Eastern theologies as they pertain to creation, the flood, and the creation and purpose of mankind, which will now be compared and contrasted with the account(s) in Genesis 1-11.
Genesis 1 starts out with “in the beginning, God…” The account then goes on to detail creation as having occurred by one God’s hand over the course of 6 days. The existence of God isn’t particularly addressed, but is assumed to have been preexistent, like the gods in the Enuma Elish. It is simply said that everything was formless, and that the spirit of God (wind) resided over the waters (chaos/disorder). God then decided to create and then spoke out, and whatever was spoken was created. Last created in this account are humans, whom he creates as male and female. Thus, the means of creation in Genesis 1 wasn’t physical, nor is creation built off of something else, but is entirely brought into being by God and God alone, and by only his words.
This creation account posits some huge differences with that of those in other Near Eastern accounts. As mentioned, everything is brought into creation simply by speech, no further action needed. No god was sacrificed to create the Earth or humans. God isn’t recorded as needing to dig ditches for rivers nor place mountains upon the breasts of another god, as is recorded in the Epic of Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, respectively. However, the idea that God is the only divine being is not upheld by Genesis 1. Upon creating humans, the text states, “let us create humans in our own image.” On the Seventh day, God rested.
Genesis 1, having been edited during or just after the Babylonian exile, includes source material that predates its actual current form. Thus, the idea of there being only one God in existence was not a belief of the authors-the exiles from Judah. Rather, it was believed that there was a pantheon of Gods and other divine beings, all of whom served the one chief God-Yahweh, or Elohim-though the creation of these beings is not included in this account, so it’s indeterminable whether or not these beings were also pre-existent like Yahweh. Regardless, humans were created in the image of Divinity. In this we have similarities and a disparities between the Jewish creation story of Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern stories. God/the Gods as preexistent is similar. Humans in the image of the gods may be similar as the humans in the Enuma Elish and EOA (Epic of Atrahasis) are created from pieces of the gods. Creation or “all that is” being disordered/chaos is similar. Furthermore, God or The Gods rest in both stories. The main differences are really that God doesn’t get dirty, and God speaks to create out of nothing.
Etiologically, the story serves to establish the idea of the seven-day week, the seventh day being for rest, or “sabbath.” The story, therefore, reinforces the Jewish Sabbath. It serves to show why, or how, humans are different from other animals: we’re created in the Divine image. Furthermore, it shows us why we are “male and female,” instead of just “man,” as would’ve been easier to understand in a patriarchal society: humans are supposed to fill the Earth and subdue it. Thus, women are for reproductive purposes so that man can fulfill the work of subduing the Earth. This particular matter could be seen as both similar and different from the other Near Eastern stories. Humans are created to do work, but what work and why the creation took place appears to be different. In the Enuma Elish and the EOA, the humans are created so the gods don’t have to work. However, in Genesis 1 no such reason is given, instead only a purpose is provided. While the purpose bears similarity to that of EOA and the Enuma Elish, it is not similar enough to consider it identical. It may be reasonable to suggest that the Jewish understanding of the purpose of mankind is a retelling, or at least influenced, by the EE and EOA. Furthermore, and this may or may not be purely etiological, God declares creation to be “good.” No such verdict is declared specifically regarding creation in the other stories and is unique to Genesis 1 alone. As an author’s note, I’ve never come across any other creation story that declares such an inherent moral quality upon creation, and may actually be totally unique to all other creation stories.
The second Hebrew creation story is found in chapter 2 of Genesis, though the actual narrative of which it is part continues on for several chapters. It is, in it’s own right, the “Hebrew Epic of Creation.” Though it bears evidence of the same editing/redaction/compiling as other Biblical texts, including Genesis 1, it’s source material is generally agreed to have come from the 8th century, approximately, though of course all of these recorded stories, whether Biblical or non-biblical, are descended from older oral traditions, which are largely impossible to accurately date. In this story, God creates man first, out of clay-though the translation generally denotes any sort of earthen material, meaning it could be dirt, dust, mud, and so on. Before God has made anything else on the Earth, He erects a garden and places the man within it. However, God has made a mistake. He realizes that man, whom he names “Adam,” is lonely. So, He creates animals and brings them to Adam to name and to hopefully find companionship. Even after bringing forth the dog to Adam for inspection, Adam is still lonely. So, God makes Adam fall into a deep sleep, and from man’s rib He creates a human in Adam’s image. When Adam awakes he declares that this is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and names her Eve, declaring her to be mother of all others. The story uses this as an etiological explanation for why men and women long for each other and have sex.
The Adam and Eve then live in this garden together as caretakers, with their only command being to not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, with punishment for disobeying being death. However, a serpent comes to Eve and convinces her that God lied, and that by eating the fruit from that tree they would be like Gods themselves, knowing good from evil. So, Eve decides to eat the fruit and gives it to Adam as well to eat. Immediately they realized they were naked, covered themselves with leaves, and fled and hid. Later, in the cool of the evening, God was walking in his garden. He called for Adam but could not find him. Upon discovering him, Adam tells God that he hid because he was naked, and he was ashamed of this. God, furious, demands to know who told him he was naked, and Adam says that it’s not his fault, that it was because of Eve that he ate the fruit, and Eve rats out the talking snake. What follows is a series of curses. The snake will be cursed to slither upon the ground for the rest of eternity, which it apparently hadn’t been doing beforehand. Furthermore, humans will forever attempt to stomp the snake’s head with their feet, and the snake will forever attempt to bite humans. Eve’s curse is to be eternally subservient to her husband, setting a pattern for men to always be lords over their wives, and women will now suffer great pain in childbirth. Adam’s curse is to be forced to work for food, toiling in the ground to produce crops, but the ground will always be an enemy and produce thorns. After a brief meeting with the divine host, God determines that if Adam and Eve stay in the garden, they’ll eat from the tree of life and live forever, so all of them are cast out of the garden. The garden is now forever defended by divine beings whose task is guaranteeing that humans will never be able to re-enter the garden. In an act of kindness though, God crafts clothing for the humans out of animal skins.
In this story we see a far more anthropomorphic God. God makes mistakes, gets dirty in the act of creation, walks in the garden in the cool of the evening, doesn’t know where Adam is, and can’t see the future. Thus, while the actual narrative is hugely different from that of the EE and EOA, the theological content and ultimate etiological ramifications of the events therein don’t differ all that much. Regarding etiology, this story is full of it. Why don’t animals speak like humans? Well they can’t now, but they used to be able to. Why don’t humans live forever? Well, here’s this story. Why do women have pain in childbirth? Because we disobeyed God. Why do we wear clothes and feel ashamed if we’re naked in public? Well, because we know good and evil, we recognize that being naked is evil. From death, to the events that fill our lives, to the existence of evil, this story answers all of these questions from the perspective of the Jewish people. It is not altogether different from creation mythology both regionally and globally, and answers what may be considered to be “core universal questions” humans have asked, as well as providing answers to questions particular to the region and storytellers themselves.
While it may be of some worth to also discuss the story of the flood in the Bible, it comes across as somewhat redundant. The flood narrative in the Bible and the flood narrative of the EOA is nearly identical. The gods decide to destroy all of creation, declaring it to be wicked, but save one man (and his family). Noah, righteous in the eyes of the Gods, is warned in a dream of the impending deluge and is instructed to build a boat. The boat will be filled with provisions, Noah family, and two of every animal-though the priestly source records a different number and differentiates between clean and unclean animals, reflecting the tradition of editing stories in later years to fit the needs of the current owners of the story. God then unleashes a flood, the flood subsides, Noah comes out and makes sacrifice to the Gods, and they promise to never again flood the Earth. Reading the story of the flood with the Epic of Atrahasis in mind ultimately reveals the numerous similarities in the text, making much further analysis pointless. The theology is similar, even though the narrative particulars differ. The result is also the same in both stories. Furthermore, such flood narratives are entirely commonplace in any populated area where floods are commonplace.
Ultimately, we can see that these stories are similar to those of other Near Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. While we can never be one hundred percent certain, it stands to reason that the creation stories of the Jewish people were influenced by those far older stories, albeit modified to fit their own contexts. None of this is an anomaly in the study of mythology. Such influence, or cultural borrowing, is commonplace anywhere you go where different people groups interact or interacted with each other. To find this occurring in Biblical stories is, therefore, unsurprising, and only comes as shocking to some of us as a result of our conditioning to believe that the Biblical stories are somehow separate or removed from the historical contexts in which they were written. The fact is, the Jews are a Near-Eastern people descended from Near Eastern people. Their culture, and thus their stories, reflect this fact, and we shouldn’t expect anything different.
Unfortunately, people of faith in the modern world misuse the term faith. When they hear such analysis of their prized stories, they grow angry, or they abandon it all, claiming it challenged or destroyed their faith. The fact is, what they had was never faith. It was blind obedience. What faith they had was in their own minds. The conflict arises only because our beliefs are conflated to mean faith, so much so that to discuss one almost always elicits the need for discussion of both. For people of faith, our beliefs are irrelevant. We recognize our own inability to fully grasp the truth, and we recognize that the stories we tell are equally inadequate to the task of containing and conveying ultimate truths about the world or God. Thus, such discussion doesn’t hinder true faith, it can only ever destroy our beliefs.
Genesis. (2011, March 9). New American Bible Revised Edition. Charleston, South Carolina, United States: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
Lambert, W. G. (1999). Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- King, L. (n.d.). Enuma Elish Vol 1 & 2: The Seven Tablets of Creation; The Babylonian and Assyrian Legends Concerning the Creation of the World and of Mankind. Retrieved 2 26, 2018