The Ancient of Days (William Blake 1794)
Genesis 1 begins with creation ex nihilo or creation “out of nothing.” YHWH from no frame of reference appears to manifest all matter in the universe simply by speaking and thus his words become the physical reality for his presence to dwell. In the creation narrative, Chapter 1 gives a day by day creation account of the 6 days of God’s work followed by chapter 2:1-3 of a seventh day of completion where God rests to admire his work. 2:4 picks back up on the 6th day giving a detailed account of the creation of man, God’s favorite work amongst his creation. This section begins with the formula “these are the generations,” signifying that the book is taking a different direction. Instead of solely focusing on a macro-level of Creation, the author wants to focus on a particular aspect of creation and the relationship of God with mankind. This will eventually lead to the lineage of a specific family through its patriarch, Abraham, from whom will father a great nation that will bless the world. This is common way of story telling in which one begins very general to very specific.
The Creation narrative literally is “setting the stage” for God to act in order for the grand drama to unfold. Shortly after, in chapter three, the conflict is introduced and the first antagonist, the serpent, appears to tempt God’s perfect creation. His goal: to change order into chaos. The event of creation takes place within six days (Heb yom). They are outlined as this:
Day 1: Creation of Light, Night and Day
Day 2: Creation of the Heavens (expanse, Hebrew: raqia)
Day 3: Creation of Land and Vegetation
Day 4: Stars, Sun and Moon.
Day 5: Sea Creatures and Birds
Day 6: Land Animals and Mankind
Day 7: Sabbath, God finished his Work and Rested
Chapter 2 verse 5 gives exposition as to the creation of Man which happened on the sixth day. Critics of the Bible have often said that the Bible is contradicting itself or using two separate sources because of the discontinuity of these two chapters. However, the very same thing happens in Genesis chapter 1:1-2. The author says God created the Heavens and the Earth however, the text later informs the reader that the heavens and the earth was not created until Day 2 and Day 3. This means the author gives a summery statement “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” then in verse 3 informs the reader of how God accomplished this in the day-by-day formula finishing each day with the proclamation "and it was so" or “and God saw that it was good.”
Now, this passage along with other passages within the Bible has been juxtaposed with other ancient literary works such as texts from Mesopotamia, the Levant (Modern Day Israel/Palestine Syria and Lebanon) and Egypt. For the essence of time and length, I will focus on one specific creation myth, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, by giving a brief summery and showing where the two texts are similar and how they are different. I have focused on this one text because it is the one, which scholars assume, share the most themes, words and style with the Bible amongst other ancient Near Eastern epics.
Marduk and the Dragon
Enuma Elish also known as the “Babylonian Creation Myth” focuses on the Babylonian god, Marduk and his ascension to prominence in Mesopotamian society. Although Tablets I-VII were recorded relatively late (circa 7th Century BCE discovered at the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh along with another famous work, the Epic of Gilgamesh) it supplies traditions of the older creation myths. Therefore, Enuma Elish is not the only Mesopotamia creation myth as there are many creation texts have been discovered. This one in particular is of the most complete and best used for comparative study. The outline of this epic is as follows:
Tablet I: Apsu (god of fresh water) and Tiamat (goddess of salt water) were the primordial gods whom created the lesser gods. Apsu became annoyed with the noise of his children and planned to kill them. Tiamat, however put a stop to the plan. The younger gods heard about the plan, slew Apsu and angered Tiamat. Tiamat in response created eleven creatures (monsters) to do battle with the gods. Lesser gods Ea and Damika then created Marduk as a hero god to do battle with the eleven monsters and defeat Tiamat.
Tablet 2: Marduk receives his mission to do battle with Tiamat under the condition that if he succeeds, he will become the supreme god of the world.
Tablet 3: Marduk travels to the other gods in order to contract them into his supremacy if he wins his battle with Tiamat.
Tablet 4: Marduk does battle with Tiamat and uses his power of controlling the four winds to trap her. He uses his net, which was a gift from the god Anu, and sends an arrow through her heart, killing Tiamat. He captures the remaining monsters in his net, and then smashes Tiamat’s head with a mace. He splits her body in half, and one of the halves he makes a sky which will be the home for the gods, Anu, Enlil and Ea.
Tablet 5: Marduk makes the stars in the skies (which are supposed to be likeness of the gods), created night and day, and the moon. He also created clouds to send rain to the earth and collect on the ground forming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Tablet 6: Marduk uses mud of the earth and the blood of the god Qingu to create mankind to serve the gods in order that the gods may rest. Marduk then creates a hierarchy for the gods with Marduk at the top of the pantheon and they construct the city of Babylon along with its temple, Esagila as a Temple for Marduk.
Tablet 7: This is a list of Marduk’ s fifty names and titles announcing his supremacy.
After reading the story, and in the brief outline I have given, it is perhaps a wonder why the two texts are compared at all. Naturally, there are similar themes shared in both Enuma Elish and the Bible, but what is more striking is the differences one encounters in the two texts. Most notably are the story and clear purpose of both texts. The Biblical Text, as mentioned above focuses a very brief creation account elevating Yahweh as the sole maker of the heavens and the earth by a process of step by step development in order to set the stage for the drama to occur. On the other hand, Enuma Elish seeks to elevate Marduk and the creation account is a mere afterthought after the divine drama has already taken place.
The similarities are present and they should not be avoided. These similarities are as follows:
1. Primeval chaos
2. Number of days in creation (seven)
3. Creation of light
4. The firmament (similar Akkadian word to the Hebrew, raqia)
5. Dry land
6. A creation of man
7. God(s) resting
Cylinder seal impression depicting Marduk (middle figure) and Tiamat as the Serpent (dragon)
Years ago, scholars used the Enuma Elish account to state the direct influence and adaptation of the myth by the author(s) of the book of Genesis. Today this idea is still somewhat shared by majority of scholars however, they are quick to note the differences such as polytheism versus monotheism, as well as a lack of the monsters and battles in the Genesis text as opposed to the Babylonian creation myth. These similarities are now seen mostly as “common ancient Near Eastern religious parallels” rather than influences. This idea (of cultural parallels) is a very different concept as opposed to direct influence of one text upon another. John Oswalt describes it in a very relatable way:
“The same thing is true in the case of many other supposed identical parallels. If one merely lists the characteristics of a human being and a dog, for instance (one nose, two eyes, two ears, hair, circulatory system, etc.) one will certainly conclude the two are essentially identical. However, if you actually put the two side by side, you will reach a very different conclusion.” (Oswalt 2009: 100)
In this way, there does appear to be some themes and conflicts that are shared amongst the contemporaneous cultures which speak to their current reality. No doubt we have the same thing happening today in various mediums such as television, movies, music in which artists address a specific political, environmental or geographical climate. However, the way in which they perceive and express these ideals are various.
If we attempt what Oswalt states, by putting the two myths side by side, we can appreciate the world of the ancient Near East and gain a better grasp as to the themes that are revealed through these types of literature. Simply let the myths be what they are and glean the ethical, political and historical information of each text. They both tell us something about the ancient world as well as ourselves. Arguments about influence based off of our own presuppositions take away the power and relevancy from both texts.
The Bible had it own agenda, in declaring Yahweh as the creator of universe. It does so in its own way clearly separating itself from the other religions and cultures. Next month I will address the Flood epic and the other literature(s) with similar mythologies involving a deluge.
Please let me know what you think in the comments and supply your own insights and of course, feel free to ask questions!
Bibliography for further reading.
The full text of the Babylonian Epic of Creation can be found here.
Ehrilich, Carl. From an Ancient Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Roman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham, MD. 2009.
Hays, Christopher. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2014.
Oswalt, John The Bible Among the Myths. Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2009.