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The Bible & History: Creation (Part 1)

Genesis 1Open Link in New Window is a creation myth that was constructed for political and theological reasons. Older versions of Yahweh’s creation, including the parts that were preserved in Genesis 2Open Link in New Window, grew out of the ancient Mesopotamian mythic system.

The two creation stories presented in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are obvious examples of mythmaking with many similarities to other ancient regional creation myths. Genesis 1Open Link in New Window’s account of creation paints a much more mature and sophisticated picture of God than what is found in Genesis 2Open Link in New Window. In Genesis 1Open Link in New Window God is portrayed as a cosmic, transcendent being with seemingly unlimited powers. The world is shaped merely by His words while the whole time He seems distant from His creation. Because of this story’s more advanced theology and careful structure (seven days of creation), its authors were likely members of a class of priests who lived sometime just prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE. For this reason, scholars refer to this biblical source as the Priestly, or “P” source.

During the time that the priests would have assembled their creation story Babylonia was beginning to strengthen its influences in the ancient Near East. Archaeologists have uncovered baked clay tablets that contain original inscriptions of the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian creation myths. The Sumerian epic predates the Babylonians and contains a format that is fairly familiar to us: Out of the pre-existing watery abyss the god or gods separated heaven from earth and form the stars, planets, plants, animals, and eventually man. The Babylonians altered material from the Sumerians to create their own creation myth, called the Enuma Elish, which turned Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, into the king of the Gods. Assyrian versions replace Marduk with the patron deity of Assyria, Ashur.

It is clear that ancient Near Easterners had no problem adopting and changing other nation’s creation stories to make them their own. Thus, the people who produced these mythic variations were not interested in recording an actual history of the beginnings of the world, but rather, were more interested in asserting their nation’s political dominance by placing their own gods and heroes at the center of the general creation myth familiar to the people of the area. Whichever nation’s god or gods controlled the course of human history would be the most prosperous. Tim Callahan, in his book Secret Origins of the Bible (2002, Millennium Press), notices this trend and remarks that “it demonstrates that among the ancient peoples religious material was not considered so sacrosanct that it could not be changed to fit a political agenda. Indeed, since politics and religion were united, political agendas required religious change, and religious change was inherently political” (pg. 33).

The Enuma Elish may be dated as early as 1600 BCE or as late as 1100 BCE, both dates well before the biblical account was ever composed. The Priestly account in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window, previously mentioned, greatly mirrors the pattern of story found in Enuma Elish minus Enuma Elish’s combat myth. The order and nature of the creative acts carried out by God are the same as those carried out by Marduk, with the only significant difference being that God is said to have created all matter out of nothing, while Marduk coexisted with all matter prior to creation in a primordial, watery abyss. The creation in Enuma Elish proceeds through six distinct stages just as Genesis 1Open Link in New Window proceeds through six distinct days. After the sixth stage Marduk and the rest of the minor gods rest and celebrate, and after the sixth day in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window God is also said to have rested.

However, it appears that the interpretation that God made creation out of nothing is incorrect. “The deep” mentioned in Genesis 1:2Open Link in New Window comes from the Hebrew word tehom, which actually refers to a primordial, watery abyss. Thus, God proceeds to illuminate and divide this original chaos into His creation in the same manner as Marduk. This idea of forming Earth from water is likely linked to the fact that Sumerians and Babylonians came from a flood prone area near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This area was repeatedly flooded and the rivers would constantly deposit large quantities of silt as they intermingled, causing new land to emerge from the waters.

One thing that was particularly prevalent in the Mesopotamian mythic system out of which Genesis emerged is the presence of a divine war in which the king of the gods or the creator god claims victory over chaos. In the Enuma Elish, the battle with the primordial sea, called Ti’amat occurs before Marduk creates the firmament that supposedly separates the heavens from the Earth. In Genesis an epic battle is completely lacking. However, there is some evidence that suggests that earlier traditions of God’s creation actually included a combat scene. Consider Psalm 89Open Link in New Window:

“You [Yahweh] control the pride of the ocean, when its waves ride high, you calm them; you split Rahab in two like a carcass and scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.”

Rahab means “raging” or “boisterous”, which is a direct parallel to Ti’amat, the raging primordial sea. That a tradition once existed about Yahweh’s battle with chaos is also quite evident in Psalm 74Open Link in New Window:

“By your power you split the sea in two, and smashed the head of monsters on the waters. You crushed Leviathan’s heads, leaving him for wild animals to eat, you opened the spring, the torrent, and dried up inexhaustible rivers. You are master of day and night, you instituted light and sun, you fixed boundaries of the world, you created summer and winter.”

In this picture of creation, the primordial sea is divided, the Leviathan (likely equivalent to the Canaanite Lotan) is defeated, floods are dried up and turned into dry land (like what happens when flood waters in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin recede), light is created, the firmament dividing the Universe is established, and the seasons are put into place. The order of creation parallels both Genesis 1Open Link in New Window and Enuma Elish. The only difference is that the authors of Genesis 1Open Link in New Window decided to get rid of the combat myth.

So now the question becomes, why did the authors of Genesis 1Open Link in New Window decide to exclude the combat myth that was so prevalent in other versions of the Mesopotamian creation myth? The answer lies in the period and attitudes in which Genesis 1Open Link in New Window was assembled. The century prior to the Babylonian exile saw a number of radical reforms to the Israelite’s faith. For the first time in its history a strict form of monotheism was institutionalized which proclaimed Yahweh as the one and only true God. Thus, in an effort to emphasize their God’s sole and undisputed power over the Universe, the Priestly writers had to strip away the polytheistic aspect of the Mesopotamian creation myth and transform it into one in which God was the sole actor. Omitting the combat myth from their new creation account asserted, in their mind, Yahweh’s (or Elohim, as the Priestly authors write) supremacy.

Oddly enough, the Priestly writers did not successfully eradicate all old polytheistic traditions about Yahweh from their creation account. An example of an older tradition of Yahweh that was omitted from Genesis is the tradition that Yahweh presided over a council of lesser gods. In Psalm 82Open Link in New Window God denounces these deities for their failure to enforce justice. Job 1-2Open Link in New Window shows God reigning over a court made up of “sons of the gods”. While the Priests do not directly mention God’s divine council (they were, of course, strict monotheists), they do, for whatever reason, preserve a tradition that alludes to a divine council:

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26Open Link in New Window)

To whom is God speaking when He says “let us make man in our image?” Since the rest of the creation story maintains that God was the sole active force in creating the Universe, this sudden shift to plural (which is immediately shifted back to singular in the next passage) seems very out of place. Thus, this suggests that this passage was originally a part of the older tradition that placed God in the center of a council of divine beings that He consulted about His creation. For whatever reasons, the Priests referenced it but declined to identify them.

This conclusion illuminates the strange and hotly debated idea that God created man in His own image. The original tradition, it seems, had God use his heavenly council as models for human beings. As Psalm 8:5Open Link in New Window notes, God made man a little less than these heavenly beings (see NIV), which would have been only slightly inferior to the heavenly “sons of god” that sat at His council. Since the older Mesopotamian traditions, including Genesis 2Open Link in New Window, described largely anthropomorphic (human-like) gods, the idea of making man in the image of the gods would have made sense. The later Priestly writers, however, describe a God who is cosmic, transcendent, and formless. The idea of making man in this kind of image simply doesn’t work. Instead of trying to resolve this difficulty or dropping it all together, the Priestly writers simply preserved the reference to God’s divine council. Ancient Near Easterners reading the passage probably would have known what it meant, but to modern readers it is not immediately clear.

References to God’s divine council appear elsewhere as well. In Genesis 3:22Open Link in New Window Yahweh observes that man had “become like one of us, with knowledge of good and evil.” At the beginning of the flood story in Genesis 6:1-4Open Link in New Window these heavenly “sons of the gods” mate with mortal women to produce a generation of celebrated heroes (this story is more extensively worked out in the non-canonical book of 1 Enoch).

Genesis 1Open Link in New Window is a creation myth that was constructed for political and theological reasons. Older versions of Yahweh’s creation, including the parts that were preserved in Genesis 2Open Link in New Window, grew out of the ancient Mesopotamian mythic system. The Israelites adopted these already well known myths into their own in order to create their own national identity that was distinct from that of their neighbors. When the religious beliefs of Israelite authorities evolved into a strict form of monotheism, this mythic tradition had to be updated and revised to conform to the new beliefs. This task was carried out by the Priestly authors, who used their new creation account to assert their God’s supreme control over the destiny of the world.

Yet, even though it is clear that the Priestly account was meant to replace or revise the older traditions, one such older tradition nevertheless appears in Genesis 2.

Continue to Part 2

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

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