Genesis 1 and a babylonian creation story gas upper stomach

In the middle of the nineteenth century, archaeologists were digging in the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) in the ancient city of Nineveh. They discovered thousands of clay tablets written in a language that came to be known as Akkadian (a distant and much older cousin to Hebrew).

Found among the ruins was a Babylonian creation story referred to today as Enuma Elish. It is a story about a highly dysfunctional divine family engaged in a major power struggle at the dawn of time. The heart of the story is where the god Marduk kills his nemesis Tiamat and then fillets her body in two, making the sky out of one half and the earth out of the other. Thus, Marduk claims the throne as the high god in the pantheon.

Scholars knew they were on to something and it led to some predictable questions in both academic and popular circles. Maybe Genesis isn’t history at all, they thought, but just another story like Enuma Elish. In fact, maybe Genesis is just a later Hebrew version of this older Babylonian story.

At the time, many scholars thought that the author of Genesis 1 borrowed material from Enuma Elish. This led to the “Bible and Babel” controversy (“Babel” is Hebrew for Babylon). In fact, scholars commonly thought that Babylonian culture was the source for all ancient religions, including Christianity (i.e., “pan-Babylonianism”).

But with subsequent discoveries from other cultures (Sumerian, Egyptian, Canaanite) and other time periods, scholars came to a more sober conclusion: Babylonian culture did not have such a widespread influence, and Genesis 1 was not directly dependent on Enuma Elish.

Instead, these texts are two examples of the kinds of theological themes that pervaded numerous cultures over many centuries. The stories are not directly connected, but they share common ways of thinking about beginnings. They “breathe the same air.”

Scholars also came to appreciate the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish. A central difference is that Israel’s God creates on his own, with no divine melodrama or lengthy plot. Israel’s God works solo and in the space of a mere 31 verses (not 900 lines as in Enuma Elish). Genesis 1 is not just a lightly touched-up version of older creation stories. It is a unique piece of Israelite theology.

Only a very small number of scholars think this way, however. It is very clear that these stories share a common, ancient, way of speaking about the beginning of the cosmos. They participate in a similar “conceptual world” where solid barriers keep the waters away, pre-existent chaotic material exists before order, and light before the sun, moon, and stars.

Genesis 1 cries out to be understood in its ancient context, not separated from it. Stories like Enuma Elish give us a brief but important glimpse at how ancient Near Eastern people thought of beginnings. As I discussed in an earlier post, ancient texts like Enuma Elish help us calibrate the genre of Genesis. That way we can learn to ask the questions Genesis 1 was written to address rather than intruding with our own questions.

One of the main questions Israelites asked was how their God ranked among the dozens of gods in the ancient world—namely, what made him worthy of devotion rather than the gods of the superpowers like Babylon and Egypt. Reading Genesis as ancient literature highlights this polemical dimension.