This data might be old hat to some, but I finally got around to placing Gen. 1:1-2:3 in its context as an ancient cosmology in order to ascertain any similarities or differences it has with other creation accounts within the Ancient Near East. Hopefully this study help you allow Genesis 1 to function as intended, as a theological document (rather than a scientific document).
- The Separation of Heaven and Earth
- The Sumerians regarded the heavens and the earth as the result of the air god Enlil’s actions in which he violently severed one from the other.
- The Babylonians, in Enuma Elish, celebrated yearly at their New Year’s festival the death of the dragon Tiamat, whose body was cut in half by Marduk. The heavens were fashioned with Tiamat’s upper half and the earth from her lower half.
- The Phoenicians described the act of separating heaven and earth by using a cutting tool.
- In Egypt, the myth reports that the air god Shu had pushed the sky goddess Nut upward. This was an attempt to distance Nut from Geb, the earth god, both of whom were lovers.
- The Israelites, however, regard the separation of the firmament from the waters as the outcome of God’s spoken word (Gen 1:6). In obedience, the firmament is easily raised above the earth, without any sign of struggle, death, or cutting. In other words, Genesis 1 speaks polemically against its contemporaries in that Elohim, the true creator God, is the uncontested deity in his ability to separate the heaven from the earth.
- The Subjugation of Sea Monster Dragon (tannim)
- In a noteworthy Ugaritic poem, the goddess Anath describes the primordial opponents of her brother Baal:
What enemy has arisen against Baal,
What foe against the rider of clouds?
Have I not crushed the lover of El, ‘Sea’?
Have I not destroyed El’s flood Rabbim?
Have I not muzzled the Dragon (tannim)?
I indeed did crush the crooked serpent (lotan, cf. leviathan)
The foul-fanged, the seven-headed.
- The Israelites, in reaction to this Ugaritic myth, describe the tannim as follows:
“God created the great sea monsters (tannim) and every living creature that moves” (Gen. 1:21).
In Genesis 1, the sea monster dragons (tannim) are mere creatures, devoid of any mythological power or ability to oppose the creator Elohim. Furthermore, the verb bara (‘to create’) appears here for the first time since Gen. 1:1. This is hardly accidental and likely emphasizes that the sea monsters were formed by God in an almost effortless act of creation. In sum, the Israelite account of creation in Gen. 1:1-2:3 regards the sea creatures as simple creatures, not primordial opponents to Elohim.
- The Function of the Sun, Moon, and Stars
- The Sumerians worshipped their sun god Utu and the moon god Nanna.
- The Egyptians regarded the sun as their most exalted deity within their pantheon of gods.
- The Hittites likewise placed the sun as their primary deity, regarding it as the goddess Arinna.
- Several Ugaritic texts describe the goddess Sapas as the principal luminary of the gods.
- The Akkadians honored the moon god Sin as the chief deity of the city of Ur.
- The Babylonians, in Enuma Elish, do not mention the act of creating the sun, moon, and stars. In fact, they are simply mentioned as “assigned…in the heavens” without any indication that they are created entities. It is well-known that the Babylonians were rigorous astrologers and astronomers.
- The Israelite creation account in Gen. 1:1-2:3 strongly polemizes these tendencies in a number of ways. Firstly, there is no question that Elohim is the sole deity within the Israelite cosmology. Secondly, the sun, moon, and stars are clearly regarded as a part of the created order, being described as having a definite beginning (Gen. 1:14-18). Thirdly, Gen. 1:1-2:3 strategically avoids using the Hebrew words for “sun” and “moon” because those were regularly worshipped as gods by their contemporaries. Modern form-driven translations, such as the NASB (1995) have maintained this understanding and have not used the words “sun” or “moon” in Gen. 1:1-2:3. This is almost certainly a deliberate attempt at opposing astral worship. Fourthly, the luminaries in Gen. 1:16-18 have the functional roles of “giving light” and “to have dominion over” the day and the night. They are not gods to be worshipped. Fifthly, the seemingly parenthetical phrase “…the stars also” seems to be spoken of in a way to indicate that they were simply created and nothing more (Gen. 1:16). In fact, their brief mention, almost in passing, would indicate that the Israelites do not give the stars the status which was regularly attributed unto them on opposing cosmologies.
- Creation by a Word
- The Egyptians theology in Memphis states that the god Atum brings the creation to order through the means of speech belonging to Ptah. Furthermore, this speech resembles magical utterances, which exhibit strong parallels to magical actions which seek to animate matter.
- The Israelite account in Gen. 1:1-2:3 is dominated with the thematic insistence that Elohim brought the created order to pass with his seemingly effortless word (cf. Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29). In other words, ancient readers of the Israelite cosmology would have regarded that creation found its existence due to Elohim’s powerful and creative speech which is completely devoid of any magical tendencies, overtones, or echoes. This polemic would therefore function in a manner which distances Gen. 1:1-2:3 from pantheistic or primeval dualistic cosmologies.
- The Function of Human Beings
- The ancient Akkadian Atrahasis Epic offers the reason why the gods created human as “the gods’ load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much.” Human beings are therefore created to carry the toil of the gods.
- The Babylonian Enuma Elish similarly indicates that humanity was created to serve the pantheon:
Out of his blood they fashioned humankind.
Ea imposed the service and let free the gods.
After Ea, the wise created humankind,
They imposed upon them the service of the gods—
That work was beyond comprehension
- The Sumerian myth Enki and Ninmah also teaches that humans were created to free the gods from working for their sustenance.
- The Israelite creation account in Gen. 1:1-2:3 drastically differs from this picture in many regards. Firstly, humans were created in the image of God, a title denoting invested value and responsibility to reflect Elohim’s wise stewardship unto the created order. Secondly, humans are created specifically to rule over all of Elohim’s creation, namely everything which was created on days 1-5 (Gen. 1:26b-28). Thirdly, Gen. 1:29 indicates Elohim’s care and concern for humankind, offering them food in abundance. Therefore, the Israelite concept of humankind’s function is polemically charged and significantly differing from the contemporary ancient cosmological accounts.
In conclusion, it seems that while the ancient cosmology described in Gen. 1:1-2:3 shares much in common with other creation accounts in the Ancient Near East, it is in the matter which they differ which sets it apart and brings it distinction within Israelite (and Christian) theology. Genesis, like any other ancient document, needs to be appropriately placed in its ancient context in order to be both suitably appreciated and interpreted.
 ANET 67.
 ANET 137, with some minor modifications.
 ANET 68, where the Anunnaki are considered to be the celestial star deities.
 The Atrahasis Epic can be seen here: http://webserv.jcu.edu/bible/200/Readings/Atrahasis.htm.
 ANET 68, slightly modernized.