Comparing and Contrasting Genesis 1 with Ancient Near Eastern Cosmologies

adameveThis 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).

  1. The Separation of Heaven and Earth
    1. 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.
    2. 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.[1]
    3. The Phoenicians described the act of separating heaven and earth by using a cutting tool.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
  2. The Subjugation of Sea Monster Dragon (tannim)
    1. 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.[2]

  1. 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.

  1. The Function of the Sun, Moon, and Stars
    1. The Sumerians worshipped their sun god Utu and the moon god Nanna.
    2. The Egyptians regarded the sun as their most exalted deity within their pantheon of gods.
    3. The Hittites likewise placed the sun as their primary deity, regarding it as the goddess Arinna.
    4. Several Ugaritic texts describe the goddess Sapas as the principal luminary of the gods.
    5. The Akkadians honored the moon god Sin as the chief deity of the city of Ur.
    6. 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.[3] It is well-known that the Babylonians were rigorous astrologers and astronomers.
    7. 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.
  2. Creation by a Word
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
  3. The Function of Human Beings
    1. 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.”[4] Human beings are therefore created to carry the toil of the gods.
    2. 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[5]

  1. The Sumerian myth Enki and Ninmah also teaches that humans were created to free the gods from working for their sustenance.
  2. 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.

[1] ANET 67.

[2] ANET 137, with some minor modifications.

[3] ANET 68, where the Anunnaki are considered to be the celestial star deities.

[4] The Atrahasis Epic can be seen here: http://webserv.jcu.edu/bible/200/Readings/Atrahasis.htm.

[5] ANET 68, slightly modernized.

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17 thoughts on “Comparing and Contrasting Genesis 1 with Ancient Near Eastern Cosmologies

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been reflecting on Genesis a lot lately, trying to get a better understanding of its intended message. It’s a difficult book, especially when reconciling it with modern scientific knowledge. At the core it is a beautiful spiritual expression of God’s creative workmanship and it sets Him apart as bigger and better than all the other gods you may have heard of.

    1. Thanks for reading! I am subtly trying to say that coming to Genesis with our 21st century science questions will wrongfully force the text to answer then in a manner which was not intended by its author. Rather, it seems to be contending that the God of Israel is superior than the other gods and that human beings have a special destiny as heirs of the world.

      1. One-up-manship of the gods (my god is better than your god, my god is a god above the gods) was a game EVERYONE was playing back then, and in fact the Hebrews came toward the end of the game rather than toward the beginning. I pointed that out in the posts I shared.

  2. Hi Dustin.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    I can appreciate your aim, but it does not really require “modern science” to appreciate that the account of the fourth day is patently false. The sun, the moon and the stars are placed in the firmament which was created by separating the waters below from the waters above. So, the sun, the moon and the stars were below the waters above (which came down in the flood.) What sense can we possibly make of this?

    1. I could be wrong, but I think the author of Gen. 1 is indicating that waters above (which hold the rain) and the waters below were originally one and the same. They were separated with an easy act of God with no signs of struggle (against those works which say otherwise). Then the sun, moon, and stars were placed in between the lower waters and the higher waters. See also this picture: https://p2alm.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/ancient-hebrew-conception-of-the-universe-cropped1.jpg

      Hope that helps. I am admittedly not a Hebew Bible scholar, so this is certainly not my field of expertise.

      1. Yes, I think it is important to recognize that the author(s) of Genesis had an ancient understanding of science. If it were written today, it would read differently, but the point would be the same. They approached the topic of creation with awe and wonder. Now, thousands of years later, we can still have the same awe and wonder, because well, we still only know a small fraction of what there is to know! And maybe someday God will reveal the rest of that to us, and it will only increase the awe and wonder.

        The point is the same, then and now. As I see it, God took something that was without form and empty, created form by creating these divisions, then filled all the spaces with things that belong there. Hardly scientific, but not meant to be. The author used the culturally accepted understanding at the time as a vehicle to express God’s creative power.

        Could God have revealed a more accurate understanding of the world to the author? Sure. Would it have aided the text in communicating its point and purpose? No. And I would go further to say it would distract from it.

      2. “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.”
        – Martin Luther, Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43.

        “God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,’ and God made the firmament, and separated the waters which were below the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament… Then God made the two great lights…(and) the stars also. And God set them in the firmament to light the earth.”
        – Genesis 1:7,16-17

        “Praise the Lord!…Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him stars of light! Praise Him highest heavens, And the waters that are above the heavens!”
        – Psalm 148:1,3-4

  3. Thanks, Dustin. That is how I understand the text, too; but the idea of the sun, the moon and the stars being beneath the waters above, makes absolutely no sense at all.

    1. I agree…from a modern scientific perspective. However, I have to allow for the author to possess his own worldview shaped by the culture in which he lives and breathes.

  4. Thanks, Dustin.

    I don’t really see it as a modern scientific “perspective.” It seems to me the incontrovertible reality which the invention of telescopes has enabled us to discover. Is not the author ultimately God? I can understand things being written within the framework of the worldview of the human authors, but I have difficulty with something that is such a blatant flouting of reality. It seems to me that it would have been better just not to say it, than to say something so unreal. And surely even the ancients could have understood that the stars were beyond the water, especially if God revealed it to them.

    I haven’t noticed any evidence of the New Atheists having picked up on this yet. It could give them a field day.

  5. I’m glad that you at least seem to appreciate the problem. Other Christians seem to be burying their head in the sand.

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