Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. 2 – The First Creation Narrative

The two creation narratives can be thought of as myths. John Skinner distinguishes between legend and myth by saying that “legend does, and myth does not, start from the plane of historic fact.” Davidson points out that the meaning of myth as something “wholly illusory or devoid of any truth” is not what is meant by scholars referring to Genesis 1 – 11 as “myth.” The creation narratives can be regarded as aetiological myths, from the Greek word aitia, meaning “cause.” Aetiological myths answer the questions that people ask about life, society, and the world around them. They explain why things are as they are.

The First Creation Narrative

This section will examine the first creation narrative found in the Bible, that of Genesis 1: 1- 2: 4b. The prominence and usage of numbers will be discussed, followed by a discussion of the Mesopotamian influences on the narrative and cosmology. The Mesopotamian influences include ideas such as the power in giving something a name, the action of dividing or setting apart, and chaos as something threatening to be vanquished. Lastly, the appropriation of Mesopotamian motifs will be examined.

The use of numbers in the first narrative is interesting. The scheme of six days plus one day is a literary convention which is found in the ancient Near East and serves to emphasize the seventh unit. Conrad Hyers explains the use of numbers as follows:

Seven has the meaning of completeness, wholeness, and totality. This derives from a combination of two other numbers with the same meaning in more limited form: three and four. The number three corresponds to the three main zones of the cosmos pictured vertically (heavens above, Earth below, and the underworld floating on a cosmic ocean beneath). The number four corresponds to the four zones of the cosmos pictured horizontally (the four directions, four corners of the earth, and four quarters). Most suggestive of completeness, wholeness, and totality would then be to put the vertical three and the horizontal four together – hence, the number seven as the more powerful and “complete” number for completeness. …

The number twelve is also worked into the structure in that on each of the six days of creating there are two main divisions: light and dark, waters above and below, seas and dry land, Sun and Moon and stars, birds and fish, land animals and humans. Six days, multiplied by two groupings each day, realizes twelve regions of the cosmic totality.

The narrative structure highlights days three and six, while each of the first three days have a correspondence to one of the last three days. Day one has the creation of light and corresponds to day four with the creation of the luminaries. Day two sees the creation of the sky and corresponds to day five with the creation of birds and fish. Day three with the creation of land and plants corresponds to day six with the creation of animals and mankind. One Babylonian tradition regards the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eight days of each month as unlucky. The days stated in Genesis are literal days, as attested by the mention of morning and evening.

Within the Genesis narratives of creation, one can find a Mesopotamian inspiration. Kenneth Mathews states that the closest continuous example of the first 9 chapters of Genesis is the Babylonian Atrahasis, which dates from about 1600 B.C.. Ephraim Speiser states that the Priestly writer’s account of creation is fundamentally different from the Yahwist’s and that the Priestly writer’s account corresponds in a large way with the Babylonian creation narrative Enūma eliš, also called the Babylonian Creation Epic. The extant texts date to the first millennium B.C., but it is agreed that the origin of the text lies in the second millennium B.C. Speiser states that the biblical author then “raised such data to its own theological standards.” It was a common feature of Mesopotamian literature to backtrack back to Creation, especially in historical writings. Other texts of Genesis also have Mesopotamian flavour, e.g. the massive life spans of the antediluvian (pre-Flood) people reflected the use of such life spans within Sumerian literature and the names of antediluvian patriarchs have an Akkadian formation.

The order of events in Genesis 1 and the Enūma eliš are the same. Speiser set the similarities of events out as follows:

Enūma eliš                                                      Genesis

Divine matter and cosmic matter are              Divine spirit creates cosmic matter and exists

coexistent and coeternal                                 independently of it

Primeval chaos; Ti’amat enveloped                The earth is a desolate waste, with darkness

in darkness                                                      covering the deep

Light emanating from the gods                      Light created

The creation of the firmament                        The creation of the firmament

The creation of dry land                                 The creation of dry land

The creation of luminaries                               The creation of luminaries

The creation of man                                        The creation of man

The gods rest and celebrate                            God rests and sanctifies the seventh day

Marduk’s battle with Tiamat. Cylinder seal.

In the Egyptian creation myths found in the Coffin texts (available here) and the Memphite Theology, the god Ptah is the source of creation. In the Theban theology, Amun is seen as the creator. Atum of Heliopolis is also a creator god and he creates Shu and Tefnut, the primal elements of the atmosphere, by sneezing, spitting, or masturbating. The earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut are the offspring of Shu and Tefnut.

Geb and Nut. At night, Nut would come down to Geb. Their children are Osiris, Horus the Elder, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. 

It is interesting to note that in the creative process, God separates certain things from each other. The dividing of heaven and earth is familiar to ancient cosmologies. According to Egyptian creation narratives, Nut, the sky goddess and Geb, the earth god were united at first until they were divided by Shu, the air god. In the Enūma eliš, after Marduk kills Tiamat, the primeval waters, he slices her carcass “like a flat fish into two halves” and uses one part for the sky and the other for the earth . There one can also see the notion of dividing in order to create. In Egyptian cosmology, there existed a heavenly ocean, which was the “upper waters of Horus,” the sky god. Light and darkness are divided from each other. In the Enūma eliš the creation of light is not mentioned, because Marduk is the god of light. Light and darkness was thought of as independently existing elements that did not need the sun, moon, and stars. Thus, it was entirely sensible for light to be created before the sun. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the darkness was seen as the domain of demons, which are often seen as being banished by the sun. In Egyptian mythology, Apophis is the embodiment of the threatening forces which can endanger the sun and the dark is its domain. The sun and moon where seen as deities, e.g. the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash, the Egyptian sun god Re, and the Ugaritic moon god Yarik. The heavens had a prominent place in the Sumerian pantheon. The Mesopotamian religions believed that the stars dictated one’s destiny, but the writer of the first creation narrative explicitly states that they are only there as markers to distinguish seasons, days, and years.

Set spearing Apophis

God demonstrates his authority by naming the different parts of creation. In the time of Israel, naming something signified and defined the existence of the thing being named, but also demonstrated the superiority and authority of the one giving the name. The Enūma eliš starts with “[w]hen on high the heaven had not been named, / Firm ground below had not been named” and an Egyptian text describes the world before the act of creation by saying “when no name had yet been named.”

The primeval chaos features prominently in Mesopotamian narratives. The storm god Baal-Hadad defends the earth against the threatening chaos and the sea, personified as Yam. In the Babylonian creation epic, the powers of chaos were Apsu, Tiamat, and Mummu. Marduk battled against the primeval chaos, personified as Tiamat, and then formed the cosmos and mankind. Chaos is often personified as a monster, e.g. In the Indian, Hittite, Mesopotamian, and Greek creation myths. The chaos monster is represented in many forms, including a beast with several heads (e.g. the hydra), a large serpent (e.g. Apophis), a fire-spewing crocodile, and a composite animal of half lion and half eagle (e.g. a griffin). The victorious deity is a hero because they provide order. In contrast to the primeval battle myths, the chaos monster is no threat to YHVH and serves as an object of amusement to the sovereign lord. In the Israelite tradition, YHVH has put the threatening waters (Tĕhôm) in their place and thus the sea has been demythologized.

Tiamat depicted as a half-eagle, half-lion composite creature.

The Priestly writer took over the form from the Babylonians and not the other way around, because the cuneiform accounts of the Enūma eliš and other narratives predate the biblical sources. Mesopotamians were scientifically further advanced than the Israelites and the creation narrative uses the accepted science and cosmology known at that time, which was Mesopotamian. Ancient science was not the same discipline as it is today, as ancient science and religion were often blended, especially on subjects such as cosmogony and the origin of humankind. As Othmar Keel explains it, “[a] continuous osmosis occurs between the actual and the symbolic, and conversely, between the symbolic and the actual.” The Israelite version of creation would differ from the Mesopotamian narrative, because of religious differences. In the Babylonian narrative there are several deities who are in rivalry with each other where the biblical version speaks of only one God. Speiser states that “[i]n common with other portions of the Primeval History, the biblical account of creation displays at one and the same time a recognition of pertinent Babylonian sources as well as a critical position toward them.” Mathews states that rather than being a polemic as we understand the term today, the Genesis account are “inferentially undermining the philosophical basis for pagan myth.” As Bill T. Arnold stated: “Ancient religion was polytheistic, mythological, and anthropomorphic, describing the gods in human forms and functions, while Genesis 1 is monotheistic, scornful of mythology, and engages in anthropomorphism only as figures of speech.” The Mesopotamian sources were utilized, but their polytheistic content was reappropriated into a monotheistic view, “it rejects the polytheistic reading of the cosmos and restructures the cosmogonic form and content to read monotheistically.”

Sources:

Davidson, R. 1973. Genesis 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hyers, C. 2003. Comparing Biblical and scientific maps of origins. In: Miller, K B (ed). Perspectives on an evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Keel, O. 1978. The symbolism of the biblical world: Ancient near eastern iconography and the book of Psalms. London: SPCK.

Mathews, K A. 1996. The new American commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. Volume 1A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.

Skinner, J. 1976. The international critical commentary: A critical and exegetical commentary on Genesis. Second edition. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. (pdf available here)

Speiser, E A. 1990. The Anchor Bible: Genesis. New York: Doubleday.

Wenham, G J. 1987. Word Biblical commentary. Volume 1: Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books.

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Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. I

We embark on the more theological part of the journey and the next couple of posts will be about reading Genesis 1-3.

The creationist Henry Morris argues that all true science and true religion are based upon Genesis, that all doctrines are based on Genesis, and that the book itself is based on its first chapter. Mark Isaak asks why, if creationists esteem Genesis so highly, do they not accept the serious, scholarly study of the book? Scholarly study of Genesis includes recognizing the different authors of Genesis and that the Flood narrative is comprised of two narratives, one by the Yahwist and one by the Priestly writer. J, the Yahwist, is the earliest source, from about the ninth or tenth century B.C., and comes from the southern kingdom of Judah. J uses the divine Tetragrammaton YHWH to speak of God. E, the Elohist, originates from about a century after J, from the northern kingdom. E only appears from Genesis 15 onwards. P, the Priestly source, is the latest at about the fifth century B.C. and provides a framework for the other sources. Bram Van de Beek explains the complexity of reading and interpreting biblical texts when he states that there exists a many-layerdness, which includes the symbolic universum of the reader, the symbolic universum of the writer(s), the experience of the writer(s), and the way the writer(s) perceived the experience. A literal reading disregards these aspects. Gordon Wenham warns against looking for answers to questions that the writer did not concern himself with, e.g. historical and scientific questions.

The claim made by Henry Morris that if “the Bible cannot be trusted on scientific and historical matters, then it cannot be trusted on matters of salvation and spirituality” is a non sequitor, because the Bible was never supposed to be a science or history book and it does not have to follow that if something is wrong in one area that it is necessarily wrong in all others. Van de Beek states that creationism does not defend the confession of God as Creator, but simply one theological model based upon one reading of Scripture which does not take the many-layerdness into account. Conor Cunningham points out that a mistake people make with regard to the Bible is that they think of it as “a self-enclosed, discrete text that can simply be opened, read, and understood.” Unfortunately the Bible cannot simply be read, taken at face value, and then be correctly understood and interpreted.

The Literal Reading of Genesis

Fundamentalism upholds a literal meaning of biblical texts, as Luc Plateaux explains: “fundamentalism denotes the attitude which attributes a literal meaning to the biblical texts (at least in translation), refusing the shifts in meaning which others accept by referring to cultural changes which have come about since the redaction of biblical texts.”  Plateaux goes on to say that:

To tell the truth, no one ever puts this attitude into practise completely. In the Bible there are always texts which are clearly narrative rather than exemplary. It can even be noted that at all times the biblical texts have always been more or less interpreted by the religious and inspired minds which have used them. Be this as it may, a relatively fundamentalistic attitude has long been prevalent in the reading of the Bible, giving numerous terms their literal meaning without excluding their message of revelation. This attitude has had the merit of preserving faithfully the form of this message at times when there was a danger that repetition from memory, or later re-copying, might distort it. However, as human civilization has been transformed by the acquisition of more precise knowledge about the universe, the earth and the living world, fundamentalist attitudes have come up against serious obstacles.

It is important to note that the literal reading of the Bible is never adhered to absolutely and that the texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages. From early times, the literal interpretation was not seen as the only way to interpret the Bible. The Church Fathers Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea, as well as the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, saw the creation narratives in Genesis as having a deeper “veiled” meaning which would be destroyed by a literal reading. During the Middle Ages, Scripture was interpreted according to a fourfold plan:

  1. The literal meaning, which is the straight forward or historical meaning.
  2. The allegorical meaning, which is the spiritual or symbolic meaning.
  3. The tropological meaning, which is the moral or ethical meaning.
  4. The anagogical meaning, which is the eschatological or heavenly meaning.

A fourfold pattern is also found in the Jewish exegetical tradition:

  1. Peshat, the plain meaning.
  2. Remez, the allegorical meaning.
  3. Dercsh, the homiletical meaning.
  4. Sod, the mythical or secret meaning.

Bailey notes that most modern-day Bible scholars do not agree with the literal, inerrant reading of the Bible that ignores the human element. Pennock agrees when he says that “[e]ven holding that the Bible is inerrant does not require that we think of it as giving a plainly literal account, especially with regard to scientific matters. Indeed, some argue that faith in a biblical inerrancy requires that we not use a literalist hermeneutic, because taking all biblical statements at face value leads to dozen of explicit internal self-contradictions.” It is probable that the writers of Genesis did not intend for the texts to be read in a literal fashion. Karen Armstrong states that the text of Genesis “was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life” and James E. Talmage, an Apostle of the Latter Day Saints, said the following in 1931: “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the Scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation” (my emphasis). Misapplication and misuse of biblical texts is treating the texts without respect and responsibility. Davidson agrees when he states that “[t]he appeal of Genesis 1 is to the imagination; it is poetic, a hymn written by faith for faith. It is not a scientific hypothesis, nor does it need to be reconciled with any such hypothesis”.

Francisco Ayala argues that science cannot prove religious beliefs to be true or false and that “we should not interpret the Bible as an authoritative textbook on astronomy, geology, or biology.” It is not only in modern times with modern science that Bible scholars do not see the Scriptures as a factual source of scientific knowledge. In his commentary on Genesis, St Augustine warned Christians against attempting to use the Bible to settle matters of science.  In the early and medieval church, the Scriptures were interpreted as allegory. Johannes Kepler argued that the texts of the Bible regarding the natural world should not be seen as accurate science, because the Bible uses commonplace imagery to speak about theological truths. Galileo Galilei quoted Caesar Cardinal Baronius, who stated that “[t]he Bible tells us how to get to Heaven, but not how the heavens go.” During the Reformation a more literal stance was taken, but science was still accommodated. John Calvin taught that the Scriptures were dictated to human authors by God, but that God had to use language that those people would understand. Pope John Paul II wrote that “[t]he Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and the universe. …sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer.”  It is completely acceptable to think of God as accommodating the limited knowledge of humans in the time they are living. In light of the cosmology of the time, it would not have made sense to speak of evolution, natural selection, quantum physics, etc. As already stated, the Bible was never meant to be a book of science and to be unaccommodating to ancient cosmologies would imply that the correct cosmology would have to be taught first and it would then distract from the actual aim of Scripture.

Within the ancient cosmology, there are many aspects with which we do not agree today, due to our current understanding of the natural world. Examples of passages in the Bible which we do not regard as literal anymore due to scientific discoveries are numerous.  During the time the books of the Bible were written, the cosmology was geocentric, with the sun, moon, and stars moving over the earth from one side to the other. The earth was flat, standing upon pillars and had four corners. I Sam 2:8, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, and Eccl 1:5, among other verses, claim this cosmology, yet it is not taken literally today. Stanley Rice adds two more examples of the selected literalism when it comes to statements about the natural world: “when Job referred to “storehouses of the wind,” creationists do not build a creationist version of meteorology upon the belief there are actually big rooms where God keeps the wind locked up, nor that God opens up literal windows for rain as is written in Genesis 6.” If Christians who do not accept creationism are compromisers, then creationists themselves are compromisers when it comes to these aspects of ancient cosmology.

Theologians from across the field of denominations choose to accept science and the theory of evolution. In the following quote, critical thought is called on as a virtue that should be used by those who are believers. Ayala quotes the ecumenical Clergy Letter Project:

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.

In the next installment we’ll look at the creation narratives themselves (one of my favourite parts of the research).

Sources:

Ayala, F J. 2009. Charles Darwin: Friend or foe? Word & World 29/1, 19-29.

Bailey, D H. 2010. Creationism and intelligent design: Scientific and theological difficulties. Dialogue: A journal of Mormon thought 43(3): 62-81.

Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Isaak, M. 2007. The counter-creationism handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Rice, S A. 2007. Encyclopedia of evolution. New York: Facts on File.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schlepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern   denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Wenham, G J. 1987. Word Biblical commentary. Volume 1: Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books.