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The mythological basis of the first creation account

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The biblical stories in Genesis use different styles other than straight narrative. The first creation story is poetry. The stories about Babylon and its tower and the prophecies of the non-Jewish prophet Bilam are satiric. The story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau is prophetic. Both creation stories, as well as the story of Noah, are polemics against Mesopotamian myth. In order to do this, they are built on a foundation of Mesopotamian myth. In other words, the Bible fights against the concepts of mythology by using its basic structure. In other words, the Torah’s creation accounts are anti-myths. The Torah’s creation accounts are protests against the philosophical basis of popular myths of that time. Mythology also reflected the science of that day.

Not everyone will feel comfortable accepting this idea. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that for a full understanding of the biblical text, some knowledge of Mesopotamian mythology is extremely helpful.

Mesopotamian creation myths describe how different gods came into being, their involvement with nature, and their relationships with mankind. 

Looking at the natural world around them, the Mesopotamians saw powerful forces determining their lives, especially with respect to their agriculture. Each day the sun moved across the sky. In spring, seeds germinated to produce crops. What controlled these forces of nature? A logical step was to assume that they were controlled by specific gods.

It was also evident to the authors of creation myths that the forces of nature were often in conflict with each other. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were prone to flooding that left destruction in their wake. Fierce storms could lead to damage within the towns and villages along the rivers. Droughts led to famine. Looking at the political situation within their country and their cities and villages, the authors of these myths saw tension, conflict, and violence. It was but a logical step therefore to conclude that conflict was part of the fabric of the universe. This ethos was incorporated into their creation myths. Their creation myths describe conflict between the gods controlling cosmic order, conspiracies and violence besetting the origins of the pantheons, and violence attending the creation of the universe.

 

The consequences of this way of thinking would be far-reaching. Creation myths functioned as the blueprint for the order of the cosmos, but also as a model for societal behavior and governance. What these writers had done was to take cues from their perceptions of the world around them and in so doing legitimized the hierarchical power structures of their cities. They had also legitimized the use of power as the arbiter of discord. 

The creation myths of Mesopotamia promoted a worldview based on power and the survival of the fittest. Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of the ancient world is the story of conflicts between great empires and predatory empires arising on the ruins of old empires.

 

This is not to say that the Mesopotamians had no respect for goodness and justice. Accounts of Mesopotamian monarchs make mention of the works they did to improve the lives of their subjects. The Mesopotamian king Hammurabi recorded a system of justice for his empire. Nevertheless, until the advent of the Bible, there was no philosophical underpinning for goodness and justice in the world, other than for the exigencies of an ordered society. The biblical project can be regarded, therefore, not only as a protest against paganism but as a protest against the Mesopotamian legitimization of power and violence.

 

There were probably a number of creation myths written in Mesopotamia, but one creation myth, in particular, was widely known. Enuma Elish was written in Babylon between about 1,500 to 1,700 BCE, and therefore predated the Torah by several hundred years. The name Enuma Elish means “when the skies” and comes from the first words of the myth. It was recorded on cuneiform tablets and these have survived almost intact.  

 

Enuma Elish was narrated publicly on the Babylonian New Year. There were political reasons for doing this. The king of the city ruled by divine appointment. He, in turn, built temples for the gods and appointed a priestly class responsible for offering sacrifices and propitiating the chief god Marduk. A creation myth such as Enuma Elish supported the power structure of Babylon, while its ethos supported a despotic rule based on power. 

 

Enuma Elish describes the ascendancy of the fourth-generation god Marduk to become chief god of Babylon. It is difficult to say categorically that the first chapter of Genesis had this myth in mind when it was written, but there are sufficient similarities and counterpoints to Enuma Elish to suggest that it was directed either at this myth or others like it.

 

An examination of selected passages from the Enuma Elish creation epic reveals the similarities as well as polar differences to its biblical counterpart.1 

 

In Emuna Elish, the heavens and earth are already in existence at the beginning of creation whereas in Genesis I, the heavens and earth are created by Elokim. In both accounts, a major aspect of creation is the molding of order from chaos. In the Bible, facets of chaos are described by the Hebrew words tohu and vohu and by the presence of darkness:

 

And the earth was without form (tohu), and void (vohu); and darkness was upon the face of the deep; but the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2).

 

The meanings of the words “tohu” and “vohu” are unclear, but they are usually thought of as expressing the desolation and disorganization of early planet earth.2 In the ancient world, darkness was considered a distinct creation rather than being the absence of light, and it probably has this significance in the above biblical sentence.

 

In contrast to Enuma Elish, Elokim achieves order not by battling other gods but by making divisions and differentiation within the primordial “formlessness” (tohu) and “void” (vohu) that characterize the beginnings of the earth. As an eagle hovers over its offspring, Elokim is “hovering” over the primeval waters to orchestrate the formation of order.

 

By contrast, the primordial aspects of creation in the Enuma Elish myth are the goddess Tiamat and her husband god Apsu. Tiamat is the goddess of the deep-sea waters and represents the forces of chaos. Her husband Apsu is the god of subterranean sweet waters from which all fresh water springs arise.

 

Enuma Elish opens as follows:

 

When skies above were not yet named [by the gods]

Nor earth below pronounced by name,

Apsu, the first one, their begetter

And maker Tiamat, who bore them all

Had mixed their waters together………

Then gods were born within them

Lahmu and Lahamu emerged, their names pronounced.3

 

To “name” an object, material, and even a person at this time in history meant to define its essence and have dominion over it. This is probably its meaning in Genesis I when Elokim “calls to” and thereby defines the domains of day, night, heavens, sea, and earth (Genesis 1:1-10). These realms of the universe become exclusively under His control. 

 

In Enuma Elish, subsequent generations of gods arise by sexual union, and in the above passage Tiamat and Apsu “mix their waters together” to form the gods, Lahmu and Lahamu. These siblings will stand at the end of the earth to hold up the heavens. They are also the two parents of Anshar and Kishar, the sky father and earth mother gods. 

 

But how will our world arise from this chaos? In Genesis, the process proceeds by divisions and separations under the direction of Elokim via the order, purposefulness and perfection He has ordained. In the universe of discord and violence of Enuma Elish, this will not be a peaceful process. A violent soap opera now ensues, and only when Marduk is able to defeat the older gods is he able to create order within the universe.

 

The story tells us that Apsu is disturbed by the noise of the younger gods and he decides to kill them. It may well be, parenthetically, that Mesopotamian cities were noisy places and without movie theaters, bowling allies and youth centers the young people had no place to go and they disturbed the tranquility of their parents. At this point in the myth, Tiamat informs the younger gods about her husband’s plot against them, and the younger gods kill her husband Apsu. Marduk now flaunts his ability to control whirlwinds and flood-waves. This is annoying to some of the other gods and they persuade Tiamat to take revenge for her husband’s death and kill the younger gods. Tiamat forms a coalition, elevates Kingu her new husband to a position of power and creates monsters to help in the forthcoming struggle against the younger gods. 

 

The younger gods now approach Marduk to save them, and he agrees to do so provided they appoint him as their permanent leader. Marduk challenges Tiamat to combat. Marduk, representing the forces of order, confronts Tiamat, representing the forces of chaos, in a momentous clash. Marduk prevails. Note the gruesome violence that accompanies this struggle:

 

He shot an arrow which pierced her belly,

Split her down the middle and slit her heart,

Vanquishes her and extinguished her life.3

 

The next tablet describes how Marduk creates the earth and heavens by slicing Tiamat in two:4 

 

The lord rested, and inspected her corpse.

He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it). . . .

He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:

Half of her he put to roof the sky,

Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold.

Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.5

 

This was the violent origins of the cosmic universe that the Bible would confront, and the first chapter of Genesis was its opening protest.

 

The purpose of God’s creation

 

The purpose of the Mesopotamian creation myths was an ordered world for the gods, while the purpose of Elokim’s creation was an ordered world for mankind.

 

The purpose manifested throughout creation in the Bible is emphasized by an interesting stylistic form. From days 1 to day 3, Elokim created stationary domains within the physical world, while on days 4 to day 6 their purpose becomes established when these domains are filled with moving entities – luminaries, fish, birds, animals, man and woman.6 This is illustrated in table 1 below:

 

 

 

 

 

Hence, we read in Genesis that day 1 is linked to day 4 when Elokim takes the light and places the heavenly constellations within the firmament created on day 2. The reasons for the creation of the heavenly bodies are described in the text: (i). To separate day from night; (ii). For signs, seasons, days, and years; and (iii). To provide light to the earth. Two of these reasons are mentioned in Enuma Elish and all may have been mentioned in the original version, as the fragment containing the description of the sun has been damaged. 

 

It is worth noting that the Torah’s creation narrative is modeled to a degree on the “science” that is also reflected in Babylonian creation myths. Hence, once Marduk has assumed supremacy, his first act after he has completed the heavens and earth is to create the constellations, sun, and moon:   

 

As for the stars, he set up constellations corresponding to them.

He designed the years and marked out its divisions,

Apportioned three stars each to the twelve months.

He founded the stand of Neberu (the planet Juniper) to mark out their courses

So that none of them could go wrong or stray.

. . . . . .

He made the crescent moon appear, entrusted night [to it]

And designated it the jewel of the night to mark out the days.

“Go forth every month without fail in a corona,

At the beginning of the month, to glow over the land.14

 

There is no description of the creation of the sun, as this particular tablet has been damaged. However, the presumption is that its creation by Marduk would have been similar to that of the other constellations. All this would explain the creation of the heavenly bodies as a late creation on day 4 and after the earth and its vegetation have already been formed on the third day.  

 

On day 2, Elokim forms a firmament or space that separates between the “deep waters” below from water above the firmament. This firmament is called heavens (shomayim) and would correspond to what we would regard today as a combination of the earth’s atmosphere and outer space. On its corresponding day 5, Elokim fills these two domains. He creates fish to swarm in the seas, and fowl to fly within that part of the firmament in proximity to the earth. Great monsters are also placed within the watery domain.

 

On day 3, dry land arises from within the “deep seas” (tehom), while the waters around the dry land are gathered together as seas. Vegetation sprouts from the earth. On its corresponding day 6, the earth domain becomes habited by animals, man and woman.

 

The perfection of God’s creations

 

The perfection of God’s creative activity in producing a flawless world for mankind is emphasized by another literary form seen at the end of each day of creation: “and God saw that it was good (tov in Hebrew).” In other words, each of God’s creative acts fulfilled the purpose for which it was intended. Unlike the contentious pagan world described by Enuma Elis, Elokim’s universe is in complete harmony.

 

Table 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It can be seen from the above table that there are two omissions in expressions of perfection. Day 2 is not declared “good” since the watery domain remains incomplete until dry land appears and oceans are formed. However, day 3 is declared “good’ twice, once for the completion of the work of the second day and again for that of the third day.15 Alternatively, once with the formation of the dry land and seas and again with the formation of vegetation. In anticipation of the Garden of Eden story, man’s creation is also not described as “good,” since man is not intrinsically good. However, by the end of the 6th day, by which time all creative activity had been completed, Elokim “saw all that he had made, and behold it was extremely good (tov me’od in Hebrew)” (Genesis 1:31). The sum total of God’s creative activity was extremely good.  

 

But is the animal world really so good as the Bible claims?  Does not the food pyramid by its very nature pit one living being against another? The answer provided by the Bible might be somewhat of a surprise to us - at the very beginning of the world, living beings did not eat each other!

 

This becomes very evident by comparing a passage in Genesis chapter I with verses from Noah and the Flood story.

 

In Genesis I, Elokim gives man dominion over all living creatures and also provides him with food:

 

And Elokim created man in his image, in the image of Elokim He created him, male and female He created them. And Elokim blessed them and Elokim said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that moves on the earth.” And Elokim said: “Behold I have given you every plant which bears seed, it shall be to you for food . . .” (Genesis i:27-30)

 

Adam’s role as ruler of the world is to care for his living “subjects.” It goes without saying that he cannot eat them. Moreover, his animal subjects are also meant to be herbivorous:

 

And to every beast of the field, to every bird of the sky, and to everything that moves on the earth, within which there is a living soul, all greenery which is an herb is for food. And it was so (Genesis 1:31).9

 

Nevertheless, this model of world harmony cannot last forever. Subsequent to the corruption of Noah’s generation, the nature of the world changes. Elokim’s blessing to Noah and his sons is similar to the one given to Adam, but there is a fundamental difference:

 

And Elokim blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And the fear and dread of you shall be upon all creatures of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky. . .  Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you . . ..” (Genesis 9:2-3).

 

Man has failed to maintain the world in peaceful harmony and can therefore no longer function as sovereign over nature. He must perforce become part of it, preying on those weaker than himself. Eating of meat is now permitted, and instead of harmony between man and animal, “fear and dread” of man is placed upon all creatures. The text does not say this, but the presumption has to be that the nature of the animal world has also changed.

The creation of man

 

The description of man’s creation in Enuma Elish is in direct contrast to the emphases of the Bible. Following the completion of the world, the gods who pledged their allegiance to Tiamat (i.e., the losing side) are forced into laboring for those who sided with Marduk. The presumption is that this would have been primarily agricultural work. The Euphrates and Tigris periodically overflow their banks and deposit silt. This provides fertile soil for crop cultivation but necessitates the laborious construction of ditches and irrigation channels to bring water to the fields.

 

Marduk has an idea. To free the gods from this labor, he decides to create human beings to do the work. Marduk kills Tiamat's husband, Kingu, and from his blood creates a person:

 

When Marduk heard the speech of the gods,

He made up his mind to perform miracles.

He spoke his utterance to Ea,

And communicated to him the plan that he was considering.

“Let me put blood together, and make bones too.

Let me set up primeval man: Man shall be his name.

Let me create a primeval man.

The work of the gods shall be imposed (on him),

And so they shall be at leisure….

 

Let one who is hostile to them be surrendered [up]

Let him be destroyed, and let people be created [from him] …

 

It was Kingu who started the war,

He who incited Tiamat and gathered an army!”

They bound him and held him in front of Ea,

Imposed the penalty on him and cut off his blood.

He created mankind from his blood.

Imposed the toil of the gods [on man] and released the gods from it.19

 

There is nothing dignified in Enuma Elish about the creation of man. He is almost an afterthought in the creation story. The creation of man as a workhorse for the gods is very much subsidiary to the myth’s theogony. The focus of Enuma Elish is the supremacy of Marduck amongst the other gods. There is, perhaps, a spark of divinity in man’s creation, but it comes from the blood of the forces of chaos.

 

Furthermore, in gratitude for being created, Marduk requires of man that he recognize Marduk’s supremacy and provide him with appropriate reverence:

 

Let him [Marduk] act as a shepherd over the black-headed people, his creation.

Let his ways be proclaimed in future days, never forgotten. . . .

Let him designate the black-headed people to revere him,

That mankind may be mindful of him, and name him as their god.20

 

The creation of man and woman described in Genesis chapters I and II presents a stark contrast to this pagan account. The entire universe is created for the sake of man. Man is not a non-entity to be exploited by the gods but akin to God, created “in the image of Elokim and in His likeness.”

 

And Elokim said: “Let us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animals, the whole earth, and every moving thing that treads upon the earth”. So, Elokim created man in His image, in the image of Elokim He created him, male and female He created them. Elokim blessed them and Elokim said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living thing that treads upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

 

The Bible pointedly distinguishes between the creation of man and all other aspects of creation by a number of literary forms that emphasize man’s dignity and autonomy: 

 

  • Elokim brings the Biblical reader into His thought processes. Speaking previously in the singular, He now speaks in the plural – “Let us make man!” (Genesis 1:26).

 

  • Man is made in the “image and likeness of God.”  

 

  • The entirety of chapter I is in a poetic format, but the Bible waxes particularly poetic at this point:  

 

So Elokim created man in His image, in the image of Elokim He created him, male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).

  

  • Man is given dominion over the earth and everything that Elokim has created.

 

  • Elokim blesses man and urges him to be fruitful.

 

What does the Torah mean when it says that man is made “in the image and likeness of Elokim”? 

 

The medieval Biblical commentator Rashi explained that although God has no physical form, man is, nevertheless, a physical representation of the attributes of God.12 It is these physical and intellectual attributes that will enable him to assert his role as caretaker of the world.

 

However. the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides put much effort into moving the Jewish people away from a physical conception of God, and it would have been inconceivable to him that man should be thought of as a physical image of God. He writes:

 

On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.13

 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writing in the 19th century also took this approach.14

 

The implications of the Bible’s description of the creation of man in terms of the progress of mankind cannot be underestimated. In pagan Mesopotamian thought man is a non-entity and a slave for the gods. It is not surprising, therefore, that historians describe Mesopotamian culture as being philosophically pessimistic. As a slave to the gods, there is no challenge for man to improve the world and no driving force to animate mankind’s intellectual progress.  

 

By contrast, in the Genesis story, man is designated as the master of a perfectly functioning world created specifically for him. The Bible has thereby placed mankind on a trajectory for intellectual, humanitarian and scientific progress.

 

Psalm 8 beautifully summarizes what Genesis I has achieved for man:

 

What is frail man that thou You should remember him?

And the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him? 

Yet You have made him slightly less than the angels,

And with glory and honor You have crowned him.

You gave him dominion over Your handiwork. 

You placed everything under his feet:

Sheep and cattle, all of them, even the beasts of the field . . .  .

YKVK our Master, how mighty is your Name throughout the earth (Psalm 8:5-10).

 

In sum, the creation story of Genesis I is not a scientific account.  It is an allegorical poem written with imagery that would have been familiar and understandable to the generation receiving the Torah. Despite its outdated science, the contribution of this one chapter to the moral, and even scientific progress, of mankind is inestimable. In contrast to Enuma Elish, the Bible describes a universe created with purpose and harmony that is not in conflict with itself. Violence is no longer the foundation of society and thus morality can flourish. Man is not a slave of the gods, but a dignified being to whom God has handed over direction of the world. He can now develop or damage the world with the physical and intellectual powers that God has bestowed upon him. There is also no request by Elokim for reverence, homage, praise or sacrifices. His only request is that He be recognized as Creator of the universe, and this can be done by ceasing from creative activity for one day of the week, on the Sabbath.  

 

 

References

1. Creation, Genesis 1-4 in Understanding Genesis in The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum M. Sarna, p4, Schoken Books, New York, 1970.

 

2. ArtScroll Tanach Series. Bereishis. Genesis/ A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources. Volume 1ªaº by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. P36. Mesorah Publications, Ltd. Hence, Rashi following a midrash translates it as “astonishment and amazement” or “astonishingly empty,” this being the reaction a person would have at the void. Targum Yonasan translates the words as “emptiness and desolation” and the Kuzari as “absence of form and order.”

 

3. The Epic of Creation, Tablet 1 in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, p233. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

4. The Epic of Creation, Tablet 4 in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, p253. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

5.  The Epic of Creation, Tablet 4 in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley. p254-255. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

6.  Introduction in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part One. From Adam to Noah by U.Cassuto, p17, The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1998, and Looking with Mind’s Eye: Intelligible Hierarchy in The Beginning of Wisdom. Reading Genesis by Leon R. Kass, p31. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2003.

 

7.  The Epic of Creation. Tablet 5 in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley. p255-256. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

8.  Rashi on Genesis 1:7 and Bereishis Rabba 4:6. 

 

9.  Isaiah’s portrayal of the messianic world could well be a recreation of the situation at the beginning of the world: “And the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be food for the snake. They shall not cause harm or corruption in all My holy mountain” (Isaiah 65:25).

 

10.  Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, The Epic of Creation. Tablet 6, p260-261. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

11.  Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, The Epic of Creation. Tablet 6. P264. Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

12.  Rashi on Genesis1:26.

 

13.  Chapter 1 in Moses Maimonides: The Guide for the Perplexed by M. Friedlander, second edition, p14. Dover Publications, Inc. New York.

 

14.  Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah writes: “Bezalmenu – in our sheath, i.e., if all the compassion and love, the truth and equity and holiness of the Divine Rule wished to appear cased in an exterior visible form, it would appear in the figure in which the Creator gave man.”  While this description describes the relationship to YKVK as in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, it is not clear to me that this describes the relationship to the name Elokim, and I feel that Rashi’s explanation may be closer to the plain meaning of the text.

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