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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