Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

 One of the biggest mistakes we make when encountering ancient stories is to read them through modern eyes, and ignore the original context of those stories. Difficulties in understanding ancient texts go well beyond the language, as anyone who has read Shakespeare would realise. For example, while the universal nature of love makes Romeo and Juliet accessible even to school students, without an understanding of English history, the subtleties of the historical plays are easily missed.

The problem becomes even more pronounced when we go back thousands of years in time to the ancient near eastern world in which Genesis was written. This was a world in which the evolution / creation argument would have been incomprehensible. The question of whether the universe was created by a divine being was never in doubt. Rather, the question would be who created the world, and why.

This obliges anyone who wants to understand Genesis as the ancient Hebrews would have understood it to enter that world. This is not to say that Genesis is simply a ‘cleaned-up’ version of ancient Babylonian creation myths as some 19th century scholars argued. The reality is far more nuanced, as OT scholar John Walton notes:
“…we are not looking at ancient literature to try to decide whether Israel borrowed from some of the literature that was known to them. It was to be expected that Israelites held many concepts and perspectives in common with the rest of the ancient world. This is far different from suggesting literature was borrowed or copies. This is not even a case of Israel being influences by the peoples around them. Rather we simply recognise the common conceptual worldview that exists in ancient times. We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by what world – they were part of that world.” [1]
We’ve seen in earlier posts how the ancient Hebrews, just like the surrounding nations, regarded the Earth as flat, with a solid firmament arching overheard, around which the sun and moon revolved.  As Walton says:

“The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos. They did not know that stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air. They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.” [2]

Walton’s argument is hardly atypical [3] in the evangelical scholarly world, though it may be new to most Christadelphians. This is less to this idea being substantively new, and more to a lack of knowledge of what early Christadelphians were saying about this subject in the first part of the 20th century. The second editor of The Christadelphian magazine, C.C. Walker, in response to a correspondent who argued on the basis of a literal reading of the Bible that the Earth was flat:

Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history. [4]

This raises the question of what the claims of the gods of the nations were, which obligates us to examine the creation myths of the ANE in a little detail, if only to see the context in which Genesis was written. These claims can be examined in some detail in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and Enuma Elish.

Enuma Elish is commonly known as the “Babylonian Genesis” and was unearthed between 1848 and 1876 in the ruins of old Ninevah in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE). This story, found written on seven tablets is widely accepted as being much older than the version discovered in the Assyrian royal library, dating between the 12th and 18th centuries BCE.

There are many similarities between Genesis and Enuma Elish (darkness prior to creation, division of water) there are also significant thematic differences. The evangelical Christian and OT scholar Peter Enns observes:

"One of the chief differences is that the Babylonian story depicts the creation of the world as a cosmic battle between the god Marduk and his great-great-grandmother; the goddess Tiamat. Tiamat and her husband, Apsi, were the parents of all the gods. Apsu intended to kill his divine offspring, but his grandson Ea intervened and, in an act of trickery killed Apsu. In time Tiamat grew angry and planned to go to war agaisnt the other gods. Ea's son Marduk then fought Tiamat and killed her. From her slain body Marduk created heaven and earth, an act that won him notoriety and thus eventually the head seat at the Babylonian pantheon. (The purpose of Enuma Eluish seems to be to justify the worship of Marduk as the supreme god.)" [5]

Here at least, the differences can be seen in the fact that whereas Enuma Elish (and Atrahasis as we will see later) describe the creation in context of a dispute between rival deities, Genesis has but one God who is in complete control of creation. The moral tone of the Babylonian and Hebrew creation stories are markedly different.

Still, at a fundamental level, these narratives share much. As Enns puts it:

Despite these differences, however, the problem remains. However different the two stories may be, they unquestioningly share a common way of speaking about the beginning fo the world; both Genesis and Enuma Elish "breathe the same air". Whetehr or not the author of Genesis as familiar with the text known to us as Enuma Elish, he was certainly working within a similar conceptual world. So, as unwise as it is to equate the two, it is also ill advised to make such a sharp distinction between them that the clear similarities are brushed aside. The Genesis account must be understood in its ancient context, and stories like Enuma Elish help us glimpse what that context looked like.

The other Babylonian creation epic which is often discussed when the ANE parallels to Genesis 1-11 are raised is Atrahasis. Unlike Enuma Elish, this epic,  which dates to the 18th century BCE, covers both creation and the flood. The first tablet begins with the allocation of realms to the gods Anu (sky), Enlil (earth) and Enki (water). These gods in turn created lesser deities to perform menial agricultural labour, but after forty years, they went on strike, refusing to perform any further work. Enki's advice was to create human beings in order to carry out this menial work. One of the lesser gods was killed, and his blood mixed with earth. From this, the first humans were born.

Overpopulation of the world is a dominant theme of the second tablet. Enlil attempts to solve this problem by inflicting drought and plague upon the earth.  The flood story is found in the third tablet. Enlil attempts to solve the human overpopulation story once and for all by sending a flood. Enki warns Atrahasis to build a boat in order to escape the impending flood. Atrahasis does this, and along with his family and animals enters the boat. The flood ends seven days later, and Atrahasis offers sacrifice to the gods. The gods Enki and Enlil then decide to work on other methods of population control.

The parallels between Atrahasis and Gen 1-11 as Enns notes [7] are striking:

Agriculture by irrigation                                                  
Lesser gods (Igigi) original labourers                                
First humans created from blood and clay                        
Original humans anger the gods                                      
Original humans punished with plague                              
Flood sent by gods to destroy man                              
Enki tells Atrahasis to build a boat to escape flood          
Atrahasis survives flood, offers sacrifice                      

Eden watered by irrigation
Yahweh original planter of garden of Eden
Yahweh makes man from dust and breath of life
Man rebels against God by eating fruit
Man expelled from Eden and subject to death
Yahweh sends flood to destroy manYahweh commands Noah to build ark to escape flood
Noah survives flood, offers sacrifice to Yahweh

The similarities are hardly trivial, and downplaying these similarities based on an aversion to the idea that there could be any connection between them is hardly defensible. Enns notes:

Reading these stories side by side with Genesis 6-8 makes clear the extend of the similarities between Atrahasis/Gilgamesh and Genesis. As with Enuma Elish, one should not conclude that the Biblical account is directly dependent on these flood stories. Still, the obvious similarities between them indicate a connection on some level. Perhaps one borrowed from the other, or perhaps all these stories have older precursors. The second option is quite possible, since, as mentioned above, there exists a Sumerian flood story that is considerably older than either the Akkadian or biblical versions. In either case, the question remains how the Akkadian evidence influences our understanding of the historical nature of the biblical story. [8]

The naive critical view that Genesis is simply a cleaned-up version of Enuma Elish and Atrahasis is not sustainable. Likewise, the belief that the Babylonian stories are corrupted versions of Genesis is ruled out by the fact that the Genesis story as written dates well after these Babylonian tales, which in their original form stretch back to the second millennium BCE, well before the 1st millennium date for Genesis. The OT schoalr Gordon Wenham is simply echoing what OT scholars, irrespective of their view on how the OT was compiled accept - the Genesis account is compiled from a number of sources:

Furthermore, the general parallel between Gen 1–11 and the Sumerian flood story and the particular Babylonian parallels with the flood story suggest that the thematic unity of this biblical material antedates J or P. Most of the narratives in Genesis are so vivid and well told that it seems high-handed to deny their substantial unity and split them up into various much less fetching parts.

Nevertheless, within the gripping narratives that characterize most of the book, certain sections stand out as quite different: the genealogies in chaps. 5 and 11, the table of nations in chap. 10, and the war against the eastern kings in chap. 14 have a totally different feel about them. It seems likely that they come from a source or sources different from the surrounding materials. (Most of chaps. 5, 10, and 11 are traditionally P, and 14 is unattached). And when Gen 1–11 is compared with chaps. 12–50, a striking difference emerges: chaps. 1–11 are full of parallels with Near Eastern tradition, so that it looks as though Genesis is reflecting these oriental ideas both positively and negatively….The opening chapters use and modify stories well diffused throughout the ancient world, whereas the patriarchal stories with their focus on the origins of the nations may be presumed to have been passed down within the Israelite tribes. It seems likely then that a number of written and oral sources were used to compile Genesis.[9]

Arguing about whether Genesis depends on the Babylonian narratives or whether these narratives are corrupted versions of Genesis misses the point - both accounts most likely share a common ancestor. Wenham again:

In fact, the Atrahasis epic from the early second millennium shows that the basic plot of Gen 1–11 was already known then. The Atrahasis epic tells of the creation of mankind, then of various divine judgments on him, culminating in the flood which destroyed all but Atrahasis and his family, who escaped in a boat. As in Genesis they offer a sacrifice on leaving the ark. Clearly the Atrahasis epic shows that creation and flood were already part of a coherent story of world origins before Genesis was composed. [10] 

It it not my purpose here to evaluate the significance of this very important text for the interpretation of Gen 1–11. As Jacobsen points out the message of Gen 1–11 is very different from the Sumerian story despite many general points of similarity in the plot. What is interesting for the present is to note that no later than 1600 b.c. a story of origins was known in Mesopotamia that bears a striking resemblance to Genesis as it now stands. This makes it unlikely that the Genesis account was created by some editor who knitted together two independent Hebrew versions of origins (J and P). The outline of the plot antedates the work of the Hebrew writer. We therefore believe that the final editor, J, had before him an outline of primeval history, an abbreviated version of our present Gen 1–11, which he reworked to give the present form of text. [11]

As Wenham observes, a creation story quite similar to Genesis existed in Mesopotamia no later than 1600 BCE, which predates both the early and late dates for the Exodus (1450 and 1250 BCE). In its written form, the creation narrative in Genesis is younger than the Babylonian narrative. However, irrespective of when both were written, the underlying 'plot' likely predates both. This raises the question of 'who got it right' and suggests that Genesis may well be written as a riposte or polemic against the ANE creation myths common to that time. As C.C. Walker said, Genesis was written not to instruct Israel on the mechanics of creation, but to tell them that Yahweh was the creator, and do so against the claims of the surrounding deities. The OT scholar James McKeown observes:

The main difference is that Enuma Elish is unashamedly polytheistic while Genesis is not only monotheistic but is actually anti-polytheistic. Genesis takes every opportunity to deny divinity to heavenly bodies, referring to them as simply lights. In the same way, the account denies divinity to sea monsters, listing them as creatures God created in the same category as ordinary fish and fowl. Further evidence of the apologetic and polemic nature of the Genesis account is found when we compare it with the other Old Testament references to creation. Psalms, Job, and Isaiah include references to creation that use mythical language and refer to mythical forces that Yahweh subdued such as “Rahab” and “Leviathan,” whom he crushed and slew (Ps 89:9–12; Job 9:13–14; 26:12–13; Isa 27:1). In contrast to these references, Genesis leaves not a vestige of mythical language or thought; Genesis is a complete denial of the polytheistic and mythological worldview. No doubt the other biblical creation passages also attacked these views, but they employed a different strategy. Isaiah and Job asserted the superiority of Yahweh over the hypothetical mythological creatures and over every putative supernatural power, while in Genesis their very existence was denied. [12]

To argue as do the special creationsits that Genesis is a scientifically accurate account of creation not only forces the Bible into conflict with hard evidence from the natural world that the Earth is 4600 million years old, and that the diversity of life has arised via evolution. It completely ignores the ANE context of Genesis and the real reason it was written. Genesis makes sense when read against the polytheistic creation myths of the ANE. Genesis shares the common view of the ANE that the earth was flat with a solid firmament and a sun that revolved around the Earth. Where Genesis differs is in its powerful polemic against polytheism. Genesis satirises this idea, and completely subverts it. Whereas the creation myths of the ancients had warring Gods making humans as their slaves, Genesis has but one God, creating order from chaos, and making the covenant man in His image. When reading Genesis, we need to avoid reading it as science, but instead read it as theology and polemic. To do otherwise is to miss its powerful message.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here.


1. Walton J “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” (IVP 2009) – Introduction

2. ibid – chapter 1 “Genesis is Ancient Cosmology”

3. See for example Peter Enns “The Evolution of Adam” (Baker Publishing, 2012)

4. Walker C.C “CC “Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?” The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346-348

5. Enns P “Inspiration and Incarnation” (Baker Academic, 2005) p 26

6. ibid, p 26-27

7. See ref 3.

8. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, p 29

9. Gordon Wenham. Word Bible Commentary Genesis. Volume 1 (Thomas Nelson 1987) p xxxviii

10. ibid, p xl

11. ibid, p xli

12. McKeown J Genesis (Eerdmans 2008) p 15