Pagan creation myths
—the key to understanding Genesis?
What a joy it is when young people decide to be baptised because they want to follow Jesus! But, as a pastor, I had a specific type of joy when young people not only wanted to serve Jesus, but also decided to go to a Bible college to train for ministry. Such was my joy when a young man in our church decided to go to study at a Bible college. And when, after the first year, he wanted us to meet for a chat, I was really looking forward to that.
Sadly, the discussion was to bring me great sorrow. I have known this young man for quite a few years, since he and his family started attending our church. He also attended the house group that I was leading. He was a fervent conservative believer, quite able to defend the teaching that God created the Earth in six days, some six thousand years ago. Yet when we met recently, after his first year in Bible college, he told me he didn’t believe that anymore.
So, what happened? Why this sudden change? It appears that it is because the college promotes the teachings of Old Testament scholar John Walton. My young friend suggested that I should watch a video series that he found compelling. That I did! And then I sent him my response, copied below. We’re publishing this in hope that it may help you if you’re struggling with these teachings. Or maybe you could forward this article to someone who does. The response is meant to be light-hearted, and even tongue-in-cheek, friend-to-friend, but it does come from a heavy heart.
My dear friend,
I have now watched the video you sent me (linked here)1 and here are my comments. I’ve added the timestamp (minute and second) of the video and quoted or at least tried to summarise what the video is saying at that point. Then I put my comments below.
0:02 “Genesis chapter one, one of the most controversial passages man has ever written down.”
What is so controversial in this passage? It describes how God created everything in six days. It’s only controversial if people refuse to believe it and twist its clear meaning. It’s only controversial when you try to make it fit with man-made theories.
0:47 “This has led many trying to interpret the text through their own cultural lenses.”
What are the current cultural norms in terms of creation? They are: “The universe appeared via the big bang, billions of years ago; life evolved on earth; evolution works by ‘survival of the fittest’; there never was a paradise earth.” I would say that when someone tries to make Genesis fit with these teachings, then they are guilty of trying to make Genesis 1 fit with the cultural norms. On the other hand, saying that God created in six days is completely counter-cultural!
2:27 “Something could be manufactured physically but still not ‘exist’ if it has not become functional.” (John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, reviewed here: Dubious and dangerous exposition)
Where does the Bible say that? Do we all have to become experts in Ancient Near East literature in order to understand the Bible? And how many books of ancient literature do we have to read? Should we read them in the original language?
Did God really do such a terrible job when He wrote the Bible? Did He tie it so badly to a culture, that He requires us now to first be familiar with what the pagans believed? The Apostle Paul lived about 1500 years after Moses. He lived in as different a culture from Moses as we live in a very different culture from Paul. Yet Paul never taught his disciples: “Hey, if you want to truly understand the Law of Moses, you first have to study Enuma Elish.”
2:38 “Ancient Near Eastern creation myths typically begin with ‘when’.”
We take the Bible to be the truth about creation as revealed by God. God inspired Moses to write the truth. On the other hand, all the other writings that the video mentions (Enuma Elish, Epic of Atrahasis) are myths—they are fairy tales. So, because these fairy tales start with ‘when’, do we then have to also assume that the inspired, infallible Word of God must also start with ‘when’? What in the name of common sense is going on here, trying to make the Bible fit with fairy tales? (See Is Genesis 1 just reworked Babylonian myth?)
3:34 “When of the gods none had been called into being.” (Enumah Elish).
It sounds to me like these creation myths teach that even the gods came into being. And then you want me to allow this text to teach me how the true, immortal, eternal God created all things? I can’t recall Isaiah or Jeremiah ever encouraging Israel to study the writings about ancient gods, such as Baal and Asherah, in order to better understand Yahweh, the true God! Indeed, they were calling Israel to do the exact opposite!
4:27 “… the context of understanding the Old Testament is the context that produced it, which we don’t have any more. We have vestiges of it. We have memories of it.” (Michael S. Heiser)
That made me laugh, sorry! So, the video says that we no longer have the cultural context of Genesis, just scraps, memories and vestiges. Yet somehow, we need to treat these vestiges as of the utmost importance and allow them to determine how we understand the Bible? We just have a few fairy tales of the ancient world, but we must allow them to teach us?
5:12 “… in trying to force it [Genesis 1] to fit our cultural expectations.”
You mean the cultural expectations that the earth is billions of years old? Or the cultural expectation that it all came about through evolution? I’ve never really heard of any ‘cultural’ expectation that the earth was created in six days some six thousand years ago.
5:49 “So the opening line of Genesis [Hebrew, Bereshit … ] should be translated ‘when’.”
Have a look at the meanings of the word in Hebrew: Definitions: “rêʼshîyth, ray-sheeth’; … the first, in place, time, order or rank (specifically, a firstfruit):—beginning, chief(-est), first(-fruits, part, time), principal thing.”2 Notice the meaning: “the first, in place, time, order or rank”. The meaning of ‘beginning in time’ is there. Why exclude it? Because that’s how a handful of the ancient fairy tales started?
6:02 “Instead of [Genesis 1:1] reading as an independent clause, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,’ it reads, ‘When God created the heavens and the Earth’. This makes verse one a dependant clause of verse two.”
Not really! Verse two starts with the Hebrew letter ‘waw’, followed by a non-verb and is best translated as a waw disjunctive (sometimes termed a waw circumstantial). This indicates that, from Genesis 1:2 onwards, we’re reading an in-depth description of Genesis 1:1 (certainly without a time gap between verses 1 and 2). Genesis 1:1 is indeed an independent sentence, and a good translation of the waw of verse 2 is “Now”, as e.g. the NIV renders it. Thereafter (verse 3 onwards), the narrative continues with the use of the waw consecutive, usually translated by ‘and’. So verse 2 builds on verse one, not the other way round.
7:15 “[In the time of Zedekiah king of Judah] The king’s first year did not begin with his accession to the throne, but later, on the first day of the coming new year” (John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound, reviewed here: Unbinding the rules).
Context, context, context! This is their argument: ‘Because a king’s reign is taken to have started in the first full calendar year (but it began earlier), the universe must have existed before Genesis 1.’ The argument just doesn’t follow. As we have seen, the word ‘bereshit’ does have the meaning of ‘first in time’—and since the context is the creation of heaven and earth (which for a Jew meant ‘the universe’),3 then there is no contradiction.
More than that, they give the example of Jeremiah 28:1 and they say that we should interpret Genesis 1 in the same way. But why? Moses wrote Genesis about 1,000 years before Jeremiah. Are we saying that we should interpret Moses based on a custom that is recorded 1,000 years after he wrote Genesis? I’m sorry, but Jeremiah’s cultural context is not the same as Moses’ cultural context.
The slide in the video says at the bottom, “Same with Nimrod’s kingdom Genesis 10:10”. How is this verse relevant for this discussion? This is what Genesis 10:10 says: “The beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, Erech [Uruk], Akkad [Accad] and Kalneh [Calneh], in the land of Shinar.” I see no connection.
7:58 “Sailhamer [believes in] an extended period of chaos prior to Genesis 1:1, when God showed up to transform the Earth from a chaotic state to an ordered state.”
Where does the Bible clearly speak about such a thing? It sounds to me like the only way to draw such a conclusion is by reading into Scripture the pagan creation fairy tales that were in existence at the time of Moses.
9:02 “This actually makes Genesis 1 cohere more with how ancient near eastern creation accounts began.”
Your heard it from the horse’s mouth: They are trying to squeeze the inspired, inerrant word of God to fit with the pagan fairy tales about creation. It makes Genesis 1 to be just another creation account, just like the pagan ones. That’s outrageous, if not blasphemous when we remember that the ultimate author of the Bible is God the Holy Spirit! Shouldn’t we rather condemn the other creation myths as false since they do not conform to the Bible?
More than that: That’s exactly what they try to do with the Bible and current fairy tales about creation, such as big bang and evolution. Just as they try to make the Bible fit with those ancient tales, they also try to make it fit with the modern fairy tales.
11:43 “There are places where ‘bara’ could mean material manufacturing but it’s never a necessary reading.”
So ‘bara’ in Genesis 1 can be taken as material manufacturing. So why does the author refuse to take it with that meaning? Simple: It doesn’t fit with the ancient near eastern myths. Doesn’t your blood boil when you hear such outrageous stuff? If anything, I would say that ‘bara’ in Genesis 1 should be taken to mean material manufacturing, as this text is about the creation of the universe (see also: Can the Hebrew word, ‘bara’ be translated as re-create?).
12:00 [Referring to God’s creation of male and female (Genesis 5:2)]: “… Walton notes the Hebraic syntax more refers to them being assigned the roles of male and female within a marriage, not necessarily a material creation.” (referring to: Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, pp. 161–162)
Did God create two asexual beings and then he assigned them sexes so that they could function within marriage? Of course not! As soon as he created them male and female, they had a role: to be husband and wife; to reproduce and populate the earth.
The emperor is naked!4 God materially created Adam from the dust of the ground, and he materially created Eve from Adam’s rib. That’s a material creation by necessity. In giving them the right sexual organs, they could function as husband and wife. God did not create Adam to be an asexual blob, and then give him a function.
15:00 The actual creation of the heavenly bodies or merely the assigning functions for them?
The author of this video seems to create a false dichotomy between ‘assigning functions’ and ‘material creation’. Why? Why can’t Genesis 1 speak of both material creation and assigning functions? See Is Genesis 1 only about functional creation?
16:10 “The use of seven was a typical cultural symbol for temple inauguration.”
Is the number seven special because of the temple inauguration? Or was it special because God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh? Since creation comes first, then I should presume that’s what makes number seven special, not the other way round. This is anachronistic: instead of assuming that all the other bits in the Bible that speak of periods of seven are based on the pattern set out by the creation week, they make the creation week fit patterns found later on in the Bible (or worse, patterns in pagan writings).
More than that, are we to believe that Moses wrote about creation in six days, with God resting on the seventh, merely because of how the temple was built? In other words, are we to believe God did not actually create in 6 days and rest on the seventh, but that’s just Moses forcing his theology on the creation account? If so, how about Exodus 20:11 where God himself says that he created in six days and rested on the seventh? (see also: Did God inscribe the Creation Week in stone?)
20:58 “To the original authors, light appearing before the sun would have been just as ridiculous as it sounds to us.”
And how exactly did the author of the video determine that? How does he know for sure that light without sun is ridiculous? Does he also believe that the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:23 is ridiculous too? There also we have light, yet no sun or moon. Do you really believe it ridiculous that God can give light without creating a sun?
21:09 “The opening lines of Genesis 1 seem to imply an unknown time period, … not an absolute temporal beginning. God enters into this chaotic state of the universe and begins to order and assign proper functions to things, as to how they will operate for human societies; like how the Sun and moon will be for determining seasons and months.”
So the sun and moon existed for billions of years before humans appeared yet they had no function? No clothes on this emperor! Why can’t God materially create Sun and moon and at the same time give them function? Is it because that doesn’t fit with ancient pagan myths of creation?
21:56 “And finally, it ends with God resting and taking up residence in the cosmic temple.”
Genesis 1 and 2 say nothing about God taking residence in his creation. That is probably taken from the pagan myths (see The Lost World of Walton).
22:50 Reference to Jeremiah 4:23-26, “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void… [etc.]”
Jeremiah expresses the desolation of the Northern Kingdom in poetic form by comparing it to the state of the earth on day 1, before God worked his creative plan for the next six days (but see: From the beginning of the creation). The reversal (the land going from inhabited to desolate) goes back to the state of Genesis 1:2, where the earth was formless and void, and not before Genesis 1:1 when time and space did not exist. The author creates here a straw man argument, claiming that time and space should have disappeared when the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. But just because Jeremiah uses poetic language to describe the destruction of Israel, this doesn’t mean that there was no material creation in Genesis 1:1.
24:23 “Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian creation accounts didn’t really care about [material origins]. … They were more interested in questions of order, purpose, and function.”
There we go again! Because Ancient Near Eastern accounts are not interested in material creation, therefore the inspired, inerrant Word of God could not possibly speak about material creation.
25:06 “We ought to do our best to let the text speak for itself.”
I agree! We should not force the text to fit with pagan creation myths!
I’ll tell you how I feel after watching this video: I feel the same way when I see how Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults twist the Bible to make it say something it clearly doesn’t. So, my advice to you is the advice that I received in the seminary: start with the Bible. The great blessing that we have today is that we have the Bible in our own language. We can read it ourselves and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can understand it. (When preparing a sermon, it may be tempting to jump to commentaries of the text and see what other people said about it. While commentaries and other faith-affirming, biblically-faithful articles and books are useful, please remember to read the text for yourself—several times. Read it in several translations; make good use of Hebrew and Greek interlinears; consult lexicons etc. Make sure you have personally and properly struggled with the text. It is only then that you should have a look at what other people said.)
So please put Walton, Sailhamer, and other ‘neo-evangelical’ authors aside, and just read the Bible. We really don’t need ancient pagan writings such as Enuma Elish to teach us what the Bible really says. And neither do we need the current pagan myths of creation, such as big bang and evolution.
References and notes
- Genesis 1a: And God Said! Youtube.com, 7 June 2019; last accessed 14 Oct 2021. Return to text.
- Lexicon: Strongs H7225, Blue Letter Bible, blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h7225/kjv/wlc/0-1/. Return to text.
- The phrase ‘heaven and earth’, along with phrases like ‘far and near’, ‘high and low’, are merisms. “The phrase ‘heaven(s) and earth’ in Genesis 1:1 is an example of a Hebrew figure of speech called a merism, in which two opposites are combined into an all-encompassing single concept,” quoted from: Grigg, R., Morning has broken … but when? Creation 23(2):51–53, March 2001. Return to text.
- ‘The emperor’s new clothes’, phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-emperors-new-clothes.html; accessed 19 Oct. 2021. Return to text.