Thursday, 6 February 2014

Considering Creation

The first two chapters of the Bible give us a story – in fact, two stories – explaining how the heavens and the earth were created.[1] For centuries, mainstream European culture assumed that this was a literal description of what happened. Archaeology however has put it in context by unearthing tablets of older texts from the region. Comparison of the texts shows that the writers of Genesis derived their creation myth from the existing literature and traditions of the ancient Near East.

The first similarity concerns the initial state of the cosmos. Before the God of Genesis acts, there exists an immense body of water. The ESV translation renders it like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The phrase ‘in the beginning…’ is a poor translation. It suggests an initial event, the first thing that ever happened. It would be better translated as ‘when God began…’ So this tells not of the creation of the universe, but of the creation of the Earth, and establishes some pre-existing conditions (darkness, a chaotic earth, and the waters).

For our first comparison, we will look at the Babylonian national epic Enuma Elish (‘When on high’). It was written in Akkadian on seven stone tablets, and the date of composition is usually estimated at no later than the 12th century BCE, making it several centuries older than the Bible. In the Enuma Elish, the initial state consists of water in two forms: fresh water associated with a male god Apsu, and salt water associated with the female Tiamat.

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen...

In the Babylonian account, the young god Marduk, patron deity of Babylon, kills Tiamat, who is portrayed as a monster, and divides her into halves. With the top half he creates the heavens, with the bottom one he creates land, and both hold back the waters above and below. In the Bible, God creates a firmament by separating the waters into heaven and earth.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse.

The Hebrew word for ‘the deep’, tehom, is believed to be derived from ‘Tiamat’. Another, less well-known reference to the process appears in the book of Psalms:

You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Psalms 74)

‘Leviathan’ is a great sea monster referred to several times in the Torah. This passage seems like a portion of a much older myth, alluding even more closely to the ancient tales in which slaying a sea monster is a common theme. In Mesopotamia, Marduk had to slay Tiamat; in Canaan, Baal had to slay Yam; and in Greece, Zeus had to slay Typhon. Perhaps Yahweh too once had to slay a monstrous foe in order to create ‘the heavens and the earth’.

Genesis continues to imitate the Babylonian myth in its ordering of creation: the firmament is followed by the sun, moon and stars, then human beings. Human beings are created on the sixth tablet of the Enuma Elish, and on the sixth day in Genesis.

Mesopotamia was home to a series of major powers, from Sumer to the Neo-Babylonians, and its culture dated back three thousand years. So it is no surprise that its literature was familiar to the Hebrew writers and made a profound impression upon them. The Judahite priests who played such an important role in writing the Bible would have had a particular connection to Babylonia, having been exiled there after 586 BCE.

The Babylonians’ turbulent saga is not primarily about the creation but Marduk’s rise to become chief god of the pantheon (thereby accounting for the dominance of Babylon as a power and justifying the hierarchy of Babylonian class society). The style of writing in Genesis 1 is much more brief, abstract and orderly. But both texts share the purpose of explaining where the world came from, and the conceptual similarities are unlikely to be coincidental.

Eden and the creation of humanity

This framework extended into the Bible’s vision of early Earth. The myths of Sumeria and Akkad, already ancient when the Bible was being written, provided the Hebrew writers with a prototype they could adapt.

Our earliest reference to a divine garden of paradise comes from Sumer, whose myth is told in variant versions. The poem Enki and Ninhursag describes a place called Dilmun, a pristine and virginal land without ageing or disease. Enki, the god of wisdom and sweet waters, orders the sun god to water the garden by raising water from the earth. He embarks on a series of sexual encounters, including his grand-daughter Uttu. The jealous Ninhursag removes his seed from Uttu and buries it, and eight plants spring up, which Enki eats, provoking the fury of the goddess. She curses him and he falls ill with eight hurting body parts. Dismayed, the gods persuade her to heal Enki. She asks him to name the eight areas which hurt, and for each she gives birth to a healing goddess. One of the parts was his rib – the goddess created for it was called Ninti.

‘My brother, what part of you hurts you?’
‘My ribs hurt me.’
She gave birth to Ninti out of it.

Now let us turn to the Bible. The garden of Eden is first described in chapter 2 of Genesis:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up – for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground – then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.

The first human is given the task of tending the garden, but he does not have a helper.

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

The choice of the rib is symbolic: Eve comes from Adam’s side, just as she will live by his side as his companion.

In Enki and Ninhursag a goddess creates another goddess to save the life of a god via his rib – this plays only a minor role in the story, but in this context the mention of a female created from a male rib is striking. The poem makes an ancient Sumerian pun on the word ‘ti’, meaning either ‘rib’ or ‘to make live’: Nin-ti therefore means either ‘lady who makes live’ or ‘lady of the rib’. Though this pun doesn’t work in Hebrew, ‘Eve’, or Hawwah, resembles the Hebrew word for ‘to live’, and her name identifies her as a ‘life-giver’ or ‘source of life’.

Different though the older Sumerian story and the Biblical one certainly are, there are some clear similarities: a garden paradise, watered by water from the earth; humans created by gods; a woman created via the rib of a man; a woman named as a life-giver; and the eating of forbidden fruit that brings down a curse.

We can also find a connection with the Enuma Elish, in which human beings are created as a labour force to make the gods’ lives easier, and creating them allows the gods to rest. In Genesis, the creation of human beings is followed by God’s day of rest.

The flood

The parallels with Mesopotamian literature continue with the flood story. The Sumerian flood story dates to around 1600 BCE and features the king Ziusudra, and we also have an Akkadian version known as the Epic of Atrahasis – though the flood only forms one part of the poem – whose best preserved version dates to about 1630 BCE. The poem begins with the gods having to perform physical drudgery and demanding a labour force. Enki and the goddess Mami/Nintu create human beings out of clay. Their creations multiply and start making a great noise on Earth, and this irritates the gods, who try various means to wipe them out. Humanity is saved each time thanks to Enki giving warnings to the man Atrahasis, ‘whose ear was open to his god Enki’. Eventually the gods decide to drown humanity in a great flood, and Enki tells Atrahasis to build a boat. When the boat is finished, Atrahasis goes aboard with his family, possessions and animals. After a storm lasting seven days and nights that wipes out the rest of humanity, the gods miss their workers and agree to let Atrahasis and his companions live.

There is alternative flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem, parts of which date back to at least 1600 BCE. The work tells of the adventures of a king named Gilgamesh, and is told on twelve stone tablets. The flood section appears on tablet 11. When the gods decide to send the flood, the god Ea warns the human Utnapishtim and tells him to build a boat:

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.

Utnapishtim obeys and loads his boat with family, possession, and animals. On the seventh day the torrential rain abates and the boat comes to rest on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim relates:

When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me.

These stories were known throughout Mesopotamia, and the parallels with the Biblical story of Noah as told in chapters 6-8 of Genesis are obvious. Whether the hero is Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim or Noah: a flood of divine origin destroys humanity, one individual is warned, he is told to build a boat, his family and many animals are rescued. In the two latter versions the boat comes to rest on a mountain, the man sends out a dove, and there is a thankful offering.

Interestingly, the Bible’s version offers a new perspective. In Genesis God destroys human beings not for making a ruckus but because ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’, i.e. he has a moral motivation. In the Bible, humans have a certain free will which can turn to evil and corrupt God’s good work. This flows from a very different conception of God.

A new conception of God

The obvious difference between Mesopotamian works like the Enuma Elish and Genesis is that the former have many gods and the latter has only one.

Pagan religious works are polytheistic and teem with gods, who exist within the confines of a pre-existing order termed by the Jewish scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann a ‘metadivine realm’. This is a framework which creates them, gives them power, limits their power, and so on. Although Marduk is the chief god of Babylonia, there were things that pre-existed him, just as there were things that pre-existed Zeus in the ancient Greek myths. The gods display human-like behaviour, and can be opposed and thwarted by other gods. Some are more moral than others, some are stronger than others, but none, even the chief god, are all-powerful. There are also gods tied to particular phenomena in nature, such as sun gods or water gods.

The Bible by contrast is a work of monotheism: the belief in a single all-powerful god. Genesis does away with mythological biographies of gods and heroes, and with the metadivine realm. There is one god, who has absolute and unlimited power – we are not told how he came to exist and he has no biography. He simply is. As he creates alone, by a simple act of will, there is no place for the sexual metaphors and seductions of the pagan stories.

It was not always this way. Archaeology shows us that the inhabitants of ancient Canaan, including the early Israelites, believed in many gods. Their presence survives in the Bible in its invective against false gods such as Baal, and the repeated lapses of the Israelites into idol worship. There may even be traces of an older polytheism in the text. Yahweh occasionally says things like ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26, my italics), which invite us to wonder who ‘we’ refers to; there are several references to a divine council of gods, a standard feature of polytheism; the ancient Near East generally believed in gods inhabiting certain places, and in Genesis 2 we see God ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’, a surprising image for a remote, all-powerful deity. There is also archaeological evidence that Yahweh, like many other gods of the region, originally had a wife named Asherah. Presumably she was written out, since under monotheism a consort or wife for God was an impossibility.

The Biblical Yahweh has, if not fellow gods, then at least divine servants. At the end of Genesis 3, for example, after Adam and Eve are thrown out, he assigns cherubim [2] to prevent humans from ever returning to paradise.

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

The cherubim, too, were first conceived in ancient Mesopotamia.

It’s impossible to say how much the source materials of the Bible had overtly polytheistic traits that had to be excised by the redactors. But one of the dominant themes of the Bible is its campaign against polytheism, false gods, and idols, a campaign which would not be so fierce if it were not perceived as necessary. This was possibly connected to the specific geo-political project in 8th-7th century Judah discussed in the previous article. Part of any national project is to define both what a culture is, and what a culture is not. Drawing a firm line against the mythological stories and cults of their neighbours may have helped the Israelites define themselves.

The ancient Israelites, then, drew inspiration from contemporary literature but recast it to develop a very different conception of god, nature and human beings. The concept of monotheism was later also accepted by Christianity and Islam. It was one of the most important ideas of human history. 

There is another implication of making Yahweh a single, all-powerful god. The pagan Mesopotamian religions depict the world as a morally neutral ground upon which order and chaos contest with one another, as in the struggle between Marduk and the monstrous Tiamat. For Yahweh, there is no one and no thing to struggle against. This is a rejection of the idea that creation results from a battle between good and evil. Instead, Genesis repeats several times that God creates something then ‘saw that it was good’. This establishes a different conception of morality, and of the behaviour of human beings.

The human condition

The Mesopotamian stories see humans as menial labourers, taking on a role familiar to the slaves and workers of the real world. In the Sumerian poem Enki and Ninmah, the minor gods start grumbling about having to do physical work:

The senior gods oversaw the work, while the minor gods were bearing the toil. The gods were digging the canals and piling up the silt in Harali. The gods, dredging the clay, began complaining about this life.

The mother goddess Nammu pleads with Enki to create a worker who will relieve the gods from their toil. Enki answers:

‘My mother, the creature you planned will really come into existence. Impose on him the work of carrying baskets. You should knead clay from the top of the abzu; the birth-goddesses will nip off the clay and you shall bring the form into existence.’

Thus the gods create humanity from clay. Then, in a change of scene, Enki and Ninmah – another name for Ninhursag – become drunk and hold a contest to see if they can make deformed, incomplete people and find uses for them.

The relationship with the Bible may seem tenuous. Yet both accounts agree that humans were created by gods and that they were made of either dust or clay. The word ‘Adam’ is not actually a proper name but a noun meaning ‘human’ or ‘earthling’, a thing taken from the earth. The first human was ‘the adam’.

However, there is also a very important difference. The humans of Genesis are the climax of creation, made in the likeness of God himself. They are dignified beings, not pawns created to be exploited for labour – in the Bible human life is sacred and anyone who disrespects it will be punished. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,’ says Genesis 9, ‘by man shall his blood be shed’.

In the Bible’s view, our humanity earns us rights but also implies duties. No reason is given for why they are created, but Adam is entrusted with looking after the garden, and given the power to name all living things. This is a dramatically different conception to the forced labourers of Sumer. The Bible’s first humans also enjoy a mixture of dependence and freedom. This is illustrated very well by the story of the trees in Eden. People often forget that there seem to be two trees:

The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

The motif of a tree of life can be found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, but there is no parallel to a ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. Why does the Bible show no great interest in the former, whereas the tree of knowledge of good and evil becomes the focus of a seminal scene? The answer lies again in the Israelite conception of God: the writers of the Bible were interested in questions of morality. God has issued an instruction that eating the fruit [3] is the one thing that Adam and Eve are forbidden to do, and yet they directly disobey him. Through their defiant eating of the fruit they become fully aware human beings, and acquire the power of moral choice. ‘Behold,’ says Yahweh, ‘the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil’ [4]. They are punished with banishment from Eden, but they have gained something as well, because their choices now have moral meaning. Time and again in the Bible, the Israelites are exhorted to keep to God’s covenant (and time and again, they let him down). How does one live a good, moral life? By keeping to the instructions set out in the Bible. We can see this in the light of the political ideology of the redactors who are using the Bible to impose monotheism on a polytheistic culture. But we need not only see it in those terms. The question of why there is evil and suffering in a world created by a supposedly good and loving God is one of the most profound problems of the Abrahamic religions, and humanity’s freedom to make choices between good or evil may be the best answer.


There are further instances of the Bible owing a debt to ancient Mesopotamian culture. For example, the Sumerian king lists claim incredibly long lifespans for their earlier kings, the birth legend of the Akkadian king Sargon closely resembles that of Moses, and archaeologists regard the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi as one of the likely inspirations for the laws set out in the Torah. The Sumerian poem Inanna and the Huluppu Tree tells how the goddess Inanna planted a tree in her sacred garden and a serpent (along with a bird and a spirit) makes its home there.

In short, the Bible was not handed down from on high as a pristine statement but grew, like any other literary work, from a complex relationship with well-known works that came before it. For a framework for understanding creation the Bible’s writers looked not to divine inspiration, but to an existing and already ancient literature, which they reworked to suit their own ethical and monotheistic purposes. Of course, this deeply compromises the Bible’s authority as a reliable statement from God.

Source texts/Further reading

All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV)
Enuma Elish at
Enki and Ninhursag from The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL)
Epic of Atrahasis (excerpt here)
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Enki and Ninmah from ETCSL

[1] References to God’s act of creation are also made elsewhere in the Bible, such as in Psalms, Proverbs, Job and Isaiah.
[2] Cherubim were not the chubby babies of modern picture postcards, but mysterious sphinx-like beings.
[3] The fruit is routinely depicted as an apple, but the Bible does not say it was an apple.
[4] Incidentally, another of those odd instances of Yahweh referring to ‘us’, as if addressing other gods.

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