Is Genesis 1 Just Reworked Babylonian Myth?
(This an abridged version of a longer article submitted to Journal of Creation)
On 13th January 1902, the German scholar Friedrich Delitzsch gave an epoch-making lecture to the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in Berlin entitled “Babel und Bibel” (“Babylon and Bible”), in which he alleged that much of the material in Genesis was merely borrowed from Babylonian mythology, reworked by unknown Hebrew authors during the Babylonian Exile. So began what has become a scholarly tradition, repeated ad infinitum to this day, that the Genesis creation story, for example, was merely adapted from the Babylonian Enuma Elish.1
The epic Enuma Elish, often misnamed the Babylonian Creation story, is extant in seven tablets (figures 1–3 show three of them), the greater part from the Great Library of Assurbanipal in Nineveh. Meanwhile, other fragments have turned up at various sites over the years such that in all, we now have much of the epic, although Tablet V (figure 3) is still fragmentary.2
Hence difficulties of interpretation of the tablets remain, and our understanding is thus incomplete.
Outline of the Story
Apsu, the freshwater ocean male deity, mates with Ti’amat, the saltwater ocean goddess, yielding offspring which are a host of lesser deities representing various aspects of nature. However, Apsu becomes irritated with their noise and resolves to destroy them, but he fails, and is killed by Ea the god of wisdom (l.68–69). Ea in turn fathers the god Marduk (figure 4). Ti’amat becomes enraged, and gives birth to a host of dragons to fight Marduk; but Marduk, not intimidated by Ti’amat’s threats, gathers the other gods together in a great banquet, and they resolve on war with Ti’amat, with Marduk as their representative. So a great war erupts, from which Marduk emerges victorious by killing Ti’amat. He first splits Ti’amat’s skull open with his mace, and then splits her whole body. The upper half he makes into the sky; the lower half into the earth. From this chaos comes order: the sun, moon, and stars appear, and the calendar is formed.
Finally, there is Qingu, Ti’amat’s general. Marduk speaks to Ea of his desire to make man, who will wait on the gods so that the latter can rest. Marduk addresses both the Igigi (sky gods) and the Anunnaki (underworld gods), and the Igigi reply that since Qingu started the war, he should therefore pay the penalty. Marduk slays Qingu, takes his blood and some earth, and makes man. Then the Anunnaki toil to create Babylon, and the Esagila, one of the prime temples in Babylon. Finally, Tablet VII relates the fifty names of Marduk in order to exalt the patron deity of Babylon:
With fifty epithets the great gods
Called his fifty names, making his way supreme.3
One might well wonder how in the world anyone could find “parallels” with Genesis in such a crude and bloodthirsty story, unless the wish be father to the thought. Needless to say, the whole theme of conflict among the gods is entirely absent from Genesis 1, and belongs to the essence of polytheism. Some critics have appealed inter alia to Isa. 51:9–10 and Psalm 74:14 to find the remnants of such an idea, but these passages deal with the historical event of the Exodus, using perhaps the language of mythology, but without the substance. We do similar things in our own culture: several of the names of our calendar months derive from Roman gods, while the days of our week for the most part derive from the Norse gods. No-one thereby suggests that Westerners believe in those deities or their respective mythologies.
Observations on Enuma Elish
The first observation is that this is a political document, setting forth why Babylon is the pre-eminent city in the world with its pre-eminent deity, Marduk, as opposed to Anu or Ea or whoever. As such it constituted part of ritual for the Akitu new-year festival which re-confirmed the kingship for the coming year. Genesis 1 has no such function, and assertions to the contrary—commonly alleged by critical or secular scholars—are merely circular reasoning.
Second, it is a theogony rather than a cosmogony, that is, its basic intent is to explain the origin of gods rather than the origin of the universe, where the latter is more of an afterthought. Thus the major part of Tablets I–V relate the generation of gods and their fierce battles, with a small section at the end of Tablet IV (figure 2) about the creation of the cosmos. The main part of “creation” story occurs in Tablet VI, relating the origin of man and the establishment of the various temples. In fact, Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University argues that the original story was not a creation story at all—that element was incorporated later.4 Such a theory would explain the basic incoherence of Enuma Elish as a whole, and also provide a clue to the origin of creation stories in the ancient world.
Third, in Enuma Elish the world and man are emanations from divine substance, i.e. both are of the “stuff” of gods. There is no Creator-creature distinction. Moreover, Marduk is a fashioner, not a true creator.5 Creation ex nihilo seemed to be beyond the conception of the Babylonians.
Fourth, Enuma Elish has no six-days-plus-one format. The seven tablets of the epic are irrelevant; they have nothing to do with days (or long periods either, for that matter). In this respect (among many others) Genesis 1 stands alone and unique in the ancient world.
The final overall point concerns the chronological setting of what we might call “origins literature” in the Ancient Near East. K.A. Kitchen argues that this is clearly the early 2nd millennium BC, as opposed to later periods of Near Eastern history.6
He then concludes:
“In short, the idea that the Hebrews in captivity in Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylon (6th century BC) first ‘borrowed’ the content of early Genesis at that late date is a non-starter.”
Although I do not accept the conventional 2nd millennium chronology, otherwise his point still holds: the early second millennium BC (and earlier) is the period for Mesopotamian—and Hebrew—‘origins literature’, and not later.
Ancient Greece: Hesiod’s Theogony:7
This story is of the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods, and the kingship of Zeus over all other gods, and over the cosmos. In the story Ouranos and his consort Gaia attempt to beget gods, but Kronos attacks his father and his blood spills to the earth, from which gods generate. However, more gods emerge when Kronos throws his father’s genitalia into the sea. Then war erupts between Kronos and the Titans, lasting ten years, and finally Zeus takes control of the cosmos. He begets by Gaia a series of offspring, over which Zeus eventually becomes pre-eminent.
The early Christians were aware of this and other myths and attacked them vociferously.8 However, the motif of inter-necine conflict between the gods is a feature of this myth, as also in Enuma Elish. Apart from the war motif, however, we can discern a number of other parallels between Enuma Elish and Hesiod:
- Marduk and Zeus have a number of features in common, especially as Zeus emerges as lord of the cosmos.
- Kronos is very much a Qingu-like figure, especially in his battles with Ouranos, and as he emerges as lord of the cosmos.
- Likewise, there are parallels between Ti’amat of Enuma Elish and Gaia, who stirs up her children—the Titans—against their father.
The Norse Mythology9
Another myth, which apart from the understandable features of a cold Northern climate, bears some striking parallels to Enuma Elish, i.e. that from Norse folklore:
In the beginning there was a giant fountain called Hvelgelmer. Water from this source eventually froze into ice, but when the ice began to thaw drops from it sprang to life and Ymer was born. A deep sleep came over him, and from his perspiration came a son and a daughter. More gods emerged from these gods, and one of them, Odin, who became chief ruler of the Asa-gods.
Now Ymer and his evil sons resolved on war with the rest of the family of gods, but after a bitter conflict eventually Bure, first of the Asa-gods, was triumphant. When Ymer was dead the other gods laid out his body on a mill: the maids ground it. Stones were smeared with blood, and the flesh-grist was fashioned into earth. From his bones were made the rocks and mountains, while his ice-cold blood became the waters of the sea.
Finally, the gods having finished shaping the earth they took Ymer’s skull and made from it the heavens. The sun and stars came from a god of the south named Muspel-Heim who spewed sparks of fire into the empty sky. The gods then assigned to them order and motion to mark time and seasons.
We can see a number of parallels to Enuma Elish in this myth, more so than even in Hesiod. I will mention two:
- Ti’amat, the goddess of the saltwater ocean, gives birth to a host of lesser deities just as Hvelgelmer, the fountain of water, is the source and origin of a string of various deities.
- The story of creation from the corpse of Ymer bears striking similarity to the fate of Qingu in Enuma Elish, so much so that one could in theory postulate “literary borrowing” from the Babylonian to the Norse. However, it is a non-starter: to my knowledge no-one seriously suggests such a dependence; all agree that the Norse mythological lore is sui generis. Still less does anyone believe that Genesis 1 depends on the Norse myth.
This survey of ancient mythology is not intended as a mere exercise in cultural anthropology, but seeks to make the point that a simplistic Enuma Elish–Genesis comparison will not do; one must consider the larger body of evidence. When this is done distinct patterns emerge: pagan, polytheistic mythology moves in the same groove, whatever the culture—generation by sexual union, conflict among the gods, continuum of gods and earth substance, and the emergent supremacy of one god among the many.
By contrast the narrative of Genesis 1 begins with the one true God who is there at the beginning; there is a clear Creator-creature distinction; there is a pure and exalted tone about Genesis 1, untainted with the crudities of mythology and showing forth a transcendent God. Hence pagan mythology is basically all of one genre; Genesis is in a very different league.
Another important conclusion to emerge from this survey is to expose a simple, but common fallacy, i.e. that if B resembles A, therefore B has borrowed from A. Therefore … nothing of the kind! There could be several plausible explanations for the resemblance, literary dependence being only one of them. Yet this fallacy has dominated comparative mythology and religion studies, apparently in the hunt for literary parallels to Genesis—and Christianity generally—in pagan literature and motifs. It is time for this unscientific “logic” to cease!
Finally, the phenomenon of creation stories seemingly “tacked on” to stories about the generation and conflict of gods (as Dalley argues) has considerable plausibility. Accepting Genesis 1 as the true and factual creation story would therefore explain how increasingly garbled versions of creation circulated independently in differing forms among various ethnic groups in antiquity, and eventually came to be attached to debased, polytheistic myths at some early stage in the post-Flood era. Meanwhile, Genesis preserves the pristine and pure form of the creation narrative.
- In recent years, this view has been popularised in evangelical circles in Australia through such as John Dickson, The Genesis of Everything, ISCAST Journal for Christians in Science and Technology v.4, pp.1–18, 2008, and John Dickson, Greg Clark and Simon Smart, God Science: Creation, Darwin And The End Of Faith, (DVD), Centre for Public Christianity, 2010. Return to text.
- For a good contemporary English translation see Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford, pp.233–77, 1988. Return to text.
- Dalley, ref. 2, p.273. Return to text.
- S. Dalley, ref. 2, p.230. She further remarks that some Amorite deity, rather than Marduk, may have been the original hero of the epic. Return to text.
- Some may object that in Genesis 2:7 Yahweh is a fashioner also, but two important points need to be made here: (i) the “dust of the earth” does not come from a dead god, as in Enuma Elish; (ii) there is no hint in Enuma Elish that Marduk “breathes into man the breath of life”, as in Genesis 2:7. Return to text.
- K.A. Kitchen, The Bible in its World, Paternoster, pp.34–35, 1977. Return to text.
- See Hugh G. Evelyn-White (tr.), The Theogony of Hesiod, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm, accessed 14.3.2013. Return to text.
- For example, Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, III; in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Eerdmans, p.272, 1967. Return to text.
- See, e.g. D.L. Ashliman, The Norse Creation Myth, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/creation.html, accessed 14.3.2013. A search on the Internet will reveal several versions of the Norse myths. Return to text.