Creation Accounts of the Ancient Near East: Influences on Ancient Israel’s Cosmogonies

By Lacy LeBlanc

The differences between the creation accounts in Genesis and those from other areas of the Ancient Near East are striking. There is no mythology in Genesis.1 There is no epic battle in Genesis.2 The accounts in Genesis do not perfectly match any one creation story from Israel’s ancient neighbors. In fact, the accounts in Genesis do not even perfectly match each other. And yet, “[… t]he more closely one studies [the] wealth of Creation narratives, the clearer becomes [the] impression [that] the same motifs are constantly recurring, and the result of this study is that it is not true that men in all parts of the earth and across the millennia have produced an unlimited diversity of Creation stories. There are relatively few consistent threads.”3 Although previous generations frequently held the belief that the Genesis cosmogonies were the literal, inspired word of God, recent scholarship has often focused on the similarities between the biblical creation accounts and those of Israel’s Ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

The creation accounts in Genesis did not arise in a vacuum, and although no single ancient creation narrative can be called the source of the Genesis accounts, it would be irresponsible of modern scholars to assume that Israel’s neighbors had no influence on her cosmogonies.4 Although one or two links could be dismissed as coincidence, the plethora of large and small links between the cosmogonies of ancient Israel and its neighbors mean that it is highly probable that Israel’s accounts were strongly influenced by pre-existing creation accounts, especially by those found in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

First and foremost, we must look at the act of creation. Throughout the Ancient Near East, it was not assumed that creation occurred ex nihilo. Instead, creation generally involved the creation of order, not matter.5 “[… I]n the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”6 Frequently, order was created by the word of the god(s). In Mesopotamia, Marduk created constellations through his words7; in Egypt’s Memphite Theology, “all existence was called into being out of chaos by [Ptah’s] heart and tongue;”8 in Genesis 1, God created through His word.

The state of pre-creation was often thought to be a unity9, therefore, the first action of creation was often separation. In Genesis 1, the first act of creation was the separation of light from darkness, or, in some modern interpretations, order from chaos. In some Egyptian cosmogonies, the waters above and below were separated by the air god, Shu; In Enuma elish, Marduk cleaved Tiamat in two to create the water and the sky; and in Genesis 1, God separated the waters on the second day.10

This brings us to the next uniting factor in many Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies: water. The form of the pre-creation universe was frequently described as a “watery chaos”11 and was personified by Nun in Egypt, Tiamat in Mesopotamia, and Nammu in Sumer.12 According to the Canaanite Philo of Byblos, a wind moving over the expanse of wet darkness created “non-sensing creatures and from them came “watchers of heaven” – an account which is very similar to that found in Genesis 1:2.13 In Memphite theology, the universe was a defined space “within an infinite expanse of dark, formless waters.”14 In the mythology of Heliopolis, the earth arose from a “primeval ocean.”15 In Genesis 2, creation (Eden) was surrounded by water in the form of four rivers.16

As previously mentioned, in Enuma elish, the primeval watery chaos was personified by the goddess Tiamat. The term tehom, which is related to Tiamat, appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 1:2 without the definite article. Therefore its meaning is not “the deep” but “Deep.”17 It is worth noting the possibility that tehom might once have been a separate entity, further linking the accounts in Genesis to others found in the Ancient Near East.

A third unifying factor in the cosmogonies of the Ancient Near East is the creation, form, and purpose of man. In most of these cosmogonies, man is closely associated with clay. In the Nippur texts, people grow out of the clay like plants.18 In Eridu tradition, Enki creates people from clay.19 The Neo-Babylonian tablet VAT 17019 describes Bēlet-iū snipping clay to form man.20 In Atrahasis, humans were created from clay and the blood and “ghost” of a rebellious god; in effect, man was made from dirt and intelligence.21 In what is presumed to depict the creation of all humans, a bas-relief from a temple in Luxor shows Amen-hotep III (1405 – 1370 BCE) being formed on a potter’s wheel by Khnum, who was a fertility god, and being granted life by Hathor through the touch of the ankh.22 In Genesis 2, God formed man from clay, then gave him life through divine breath. In virtually every Ancient Near Eastern tradition, man is comprised of earth and some form of divine spirit. Man is described as created in the image of God/the gods throughout the Ancient Near East. Egyptian literature describes man “as being in the image of his creator god; in Mesopotamian literature the king is sometimes called the ‘image’ of his deity.”23 In Genesis 1:26, man is created in the form of elohim,24 and God says “Let us make man in our image.”

Much as the creation and form of man is similar throughout the Ancient Near East, so too is the purpose of mankind. Again and again, it is stated that man’s purpose is to work for the gods. In the Eridu account “Enki and Ninmah,” people were created to do the work of the minor gods: line 24 states that man was “[c]reat[ed as] servants [?] for the gods, let them [the gods] throw their baskets away.”25 In the Sumerian KAR 4 text, the gods created the people to do the work of the gods by planting crops, making things orderly, and digging canals.26 In Enuma elish, Marduk said of man, “[h]e shall be charged with the service of the gods, / that they might be at ease!”27 In Genesis 2, man was given dominion over the earth and became God’s representative by carrying out His tasks.

There are also many smaller links between the cosmogonies of Genesis and those of the Ancient Near East. For example, many of the cosmogonies tell of a dragon or serpent that must be overcome: Apophis in Egypt, Lotan in Ugarit and Syria, and Tiamat, who has already been linked to the Hebrew Bible’s tehom, in Mesopotamia.28 In Mesopotamia, much importance was placed on a carob tree that supposedly grew on the banks of the Euphrates – much like two trees grew in the center of the Garden of Eden.29 In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden after they gained sexual knowledge, and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu was caused to leave his idyll with the animals because of the actions of a prostitute.30 Enuma elish and the P account of Genesis share the same sequence of creation: firmament, dry land, luminaries, man, divine rest.31 The items mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg of similarities between the cosmogonies of Genesis and those of Israel’s ancient neighbors.

Is it possible that each cosmogony mentioned above arose in a vacuum, created by an agricultural society concerned with the worship of their god(s)? Of course. Is it likely? Absolutely not. Although no one cosmogony can be pinpointed as the source of the accounts in Genesis, it would be virtually impossible to miss the influences of other Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies in the accounts of Genesis.

Bibliography

Allen, James P.  Genesis in Egypt.  The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts. Yale Egyptological Studies 2, ed. William Kelly Simpson.  New Haven:  Yale University, 1988.

Brandon, S. G. F. Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1963.

Clifford, Richard J. Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 26. Washington D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994.

Freedman, David Noel, editor. “Cosmogony, Cosmology [Old Testament],” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1: 1162 – 1168. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

James, E. O.  Creation and Cosmology:  A Historical and Comparative Inquiry. Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen), vol. 16.  Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1969.

Niditch, Susan. Chaos to Cosmos: Studies in Biblical Patterns of Creation. Chico: Scholars Press, 1985.

Skolnik, Fred and Michael Berenbaum, editors. “Creation and Cosmogony in the Bible,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 5, 2nd edition: 273 – 280. Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA in association with Keter Publishing House Ltd., 2007.

Walton, J. H. 2008. “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order Out of Disorder After Chaoskampf”. Calvin Theological Journal. 43, no. 1: 48-63.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Westermann, Claus. Creation. Translated by John J. Scullion, SJ. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

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