Good question–is Genesis merely a rip-off of other ANE lit?
[Series Begin: Feb 2005 // Last update: Dec 9/2005 (Final Installment)]
Every so often I get a question like this:
Most of the skeptics (and atheists) believe that Old Testament writers borrowed from “epic of Gilgamesh” and other pagan sources found “at least one thousand years before Old Testament”… They often tell me: “Why do you believe a book that contains Sumerian/pagan stories” … They say: “especially Genesis 2:5-23 has amazing similarities with religion of Sumerians :There was Sumerian “paradise” called DILMUN and a Goddess made 8 vegetables in a garden, one of the Gods was sick (He has a problem with his RIB) The Goddess cured his RIB and that’s why she was called ‘woman of life’(NINTI) so The RIB story in Torah borrowed from this source even the story of eating apple is of pagan origin and according to sumerian legends the first human created from dust JUST LIKE TORAH SAYS”
I hope you can help me out here because it seems no one wants to give an answer about these stories…(maybe these are really “tough” questions)
This allegation — that the the bible authors appropriated large (or ‘controlling’) amounts of material from Mesopotamian sources — comes up with surprising frequency in the popular exchanges of the chatrooms, apparently. This is surprising, since this position hasn’t been the ‘consensus’ position of mainstream Assyriologist scholars in the field–regardless of ‘confessional stance!–for over thirty years. Your objector/skeptic friend has just taken some older (but still held by a few contemporary Assyriologists) data, mixed it with a little bit of ‘regular level’ chatroom hyperbole, and turned it into an ‘objection’. Although we will look at a number of ANE myths, the specific one he/she is referring to would be Enki and Ninhursag and we can probably tell the exact source of his/her data (in this case, probably the ANE scholar Samuel Noah Kramer), and we will deal with those specifics in the first piece of the series.
This series (“Oh, no, Glenn–not ANOTHER ‘soon to be unfinished’ series!!!…a never-ending series, of never-ending series?! How Cantorian of you!”–Hey, I finished the Miracles series, didn’t I?–smile) will go through all the relevant cosmogonic (i.e., dealing with the creation of the cosmos, and humanity) and try to show to the reader WHY the ANE scholars see ‘bits and pieces’ (at most), but no ‘real, heavy borrowing’ (some repudiation, some setting-the-record-straight, but NEVER conceptual-signoff or agreement).
We will look at all the major cosmogonies, a couple of minor ones, and perhaps some cosmogonic materials from within other genres–in detail (smile). Our focus will be mostly on Creation (Genesis 1-2, with only minor references to 3-11). Since the Enuma Elish is considered the closest to the Genesis story, we will have many citations dealing with it [since any alleged connections between the bible creation story and other ANE works will be ‘less plausible’, for this reason]. And the Epic of Gilgamesh will come up from time to time as well, for similar reasons. [We will also look at Enki and Ninhursag in detail, since it contains the Dilmun reference.]
I will be using these major texts in this article (biblio detail in the Book Abbreviations page–bookabs.html): [TCS1] Context of Scripture (vol 1, Hallo and Younger), [OT:CAANEB] Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (Clifford), [ISI] I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11 (Hess and Tsumura, eds.), [HI:EGE] The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Tigay), [PCE] The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment (Livingston, 2nd ed), [AILCC] Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Walton), Myths from Mesopotamia (Dalley). I will be following Clifford’s sequence below.
So, our outline will look something like this:
- Summary quotes from some of the majors in the field on the subject of “How sure are we the Hebrews borrowed the material for Gen 1-2+?” [This document, gilgymess.html]]
- Considerations, Method, and Issues for looking at the cosmogonic materials (gilgy00.html, Feb20/05)
- [Enki and Ninhursay/The Dilmun Myth]
- Sumerian Narrative Texts in the Nippur Tradition (gilgy01.html, Mar22/05)
- [Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld]
- [NBC 11108]
- [Hymn ot E’engura]
- [Praise of the Pickax]
- [Disputation: Tree and Reed]
- [Disputation: Ewe and Wheat]
- [Disputation: Hoe and Plow]
- [Disputation: Bird and Fish]
- [Disputation: Summer and Winter]
- Sumerian Narrative Texts in the Eridu Tradition (gilgy02.html, April 16, 2005
- [Enki and the World Order]
- [Cosmogonic introduction to Bird and Fish]
- [Enki and Ninmah]
- [The Sumerian Flood Story]
- [KAR 4]
- Akkadian Minor Cosmogonies (gilgy03.html, April 22/2005)
- [Rituals for the protection against evil]
- [Dedication texts for a temple]
- [Prayer for reconstruction of a temple]
- [Prayer at dedication of a temple]
- [Preamble to a prayer for a temple (Chaldean Cosmogony, The Foundation of Eridu)]
- [Introductions to Disputations (like the Sumerian genre)]
- [Prologues to the Great Astrological Treatise (dealing with planetary motion)]
- [Text dealing with creation of humans and king, VAT 17019]
- Akkadian Anthological Cosmogonies: Atrahasis (gilgy04.html, May 15/2005)
- Akkadian Anthological Cosmogonies: Enuma Elish (gilgy05.html, May 28/2005)
- Akkadian Dunnu Theogony (gilgy06.html, May 30/2005)
- Egyptian and Canaanite cosmogonic materials
- Residual cosmogonic literary data (gilgy08.html, Dec 2/2005)
- Major Flood Traditions–e.g., Atrahasis, Gilgamesh (gilgy09.html, Oct 13/2005)
- The methodological issues in [TS:250-255]: Tigay vs Lambert/Millard on the evidential value of “differences” (gilgy10.html, Nov 20/2005)
- Final Remarks (gilgy11.html, Dec 9/2005)
A century ago, your objector would have been in good scholarly company (albeit questionable political company…smile):
“By the end of the nineteenth century Old Testament scholars still ignored much of the textual material that might have put Babylonian civilization in a good light. They naively argued for the great superiority of Hebrew monotheism. But the Assyriologists fought back and defended the ethical and spiritual system of Babylonia, and even its ethical superiority. F. Delitzsch argued against the high-handed manner with which his subject was viewed by Old Testament scholars. Some argued that many Hebrew ideas actually originated in Mesopotamia and were borrowed by Israel. Much of this is understandable, if one realizes that before this, Assyriology had been seen as less than an auxiliary science of Old Testament and classical antiquity studies (see Zimmern 1889). The idea of Babylonian primacy was perfected by Delitzsch in 1902-1903. In his lectures, he argued that Israel could only be studied in light of Babylonia, and in fact Israelite civilization was derived from Babylonia. Thus, comparative analysis was ultimately not productive, since Babylonia was the source of Hebrew civilization. He then argued that many Babylonian features were still clung to by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition (by way of the Old Testament).
Delitzsch made public the views of many Assyriologists, who now espoused to a school of thought called ‘Pan-Babylonianism’, championed by H. Winckler, who argued that all world myths were reflections of Babylonian astral religion which had developed about 3000 BCE . H. Zimmern argued that the Babylonian creation epic was an older version of the New Testament and that the story of Christ’s passion was nothing but a repetition of the ‘myth of Bel-Marduk of Babylon’. P. Jensen argued that the Mesopotamian myths (Gilgamesh in particular) were the foundation for all world folk tales, including the Bible (Jensen 1890; 1906; 1924). Israelite history was simply a series of repetitions of the Gilgamesh story. Even the story of Jesus of Nazareth was simply a retelling of Gilgamesh. In fact, the Kaiser himself jumped on the ‘Babel bandwagon’ and argued that Jesus was a non-Jew who actually opposed the message of the Old Testament. Other German scholars at the turn of the century argued for all cosmology and other items coming from Babylon. Delitzsch himself continued to hold to his views (Delitzsch 1920; 1921). The Pan-Babylonians, however, were considered indiscriminate in their hypotheses, and most of their extreme ideas were rejected by both biblical and Assyriological scholars. [OT:MAB, 32, 43]
So, by mid-century (1940-1950) even those who saw ‘borrowing’ toned the rhetoric down to ‘parallels’, ‘echoes’, and softer terms. So, Kramer, who would still probably hold to some level of borrowing (or at least, real influence), will state in the 1947 preface to Enki and Ninhursag (in ANET) the possibility, in very cautious terms (emphasis mine):
“Nevertheless, it adds much that is significant for the Near Eastern mythological horizon, and perhaps even provides a number of interesting parallels to the motifs of the biblical paradise story…”
And, after Sumer, the next major alleged source for borrowing was Ugarit, but it too was discounted considerably by the specialists:
“Arguably, over the past 70 years there has been more written concerning the relationship of Ugarit and the Bible than any other single Syro-Mesopotamian site. The first generation saw a flurry of activity to show numerous parallels with Ugarit and the Bible, both real and imagined…By the 1960’s new developments arose. New mythical and liturgical texts from Ugarit were discovered that initially raised excitement among comparative scholars. However, some argued that the connections beween the two were ambiguous at best, and problematic.” [OT:MAB, 38]
So, by 1970-80, the borrowing claims were ‘softened’ considerably, and a pattern of interaction between biblical scholars developed:
“Typically, there was a furor becaus of the announcement of a rumor that a large archive was found that had the potential of verifying the biblical text [tn: same argument would apply to the finding of alleged ANE ‘sources’ for elements in biblical studies, btw]. Often, unverified statements were made by conservative Old Testament scholars [tn: same applies to comparative studies scholars, btw] who were concerned about the historicity of the text …Of course, the publication of a selected portion of an archive causes excitement because of the supposed biblical paralels. However, the publication of a larger corups permits the more precise contexts for many of these parallels, but the Assyriologist then shows the uniqueness of the area in question. The philologist begains to show that the linguistic parallels are superficial.” [OT:MAB, 44]
So, ‘times have changed’ since the early ‘omni-borrowing’ days, and scholars today are much less ‘assured’ of the connection between OT and ANE “precursors”…
So, what do ANE specialists in this field say about this ‘borrowing’ issue (Gen 1-11, from Mesopotamian sources)?
(Pardon the ‘bulk’ of these quotes, but I really want the reader to be clear that the scholarly world would not sign-off on ANY of the strong allegations made in the objection. [Note, however, that the questioner might have misunderstood the skeptical objections, might have overstated how extensive the opinions were, or might have expressed the position imprecisely. Likewise, I MYSELF could have misconstrued the objection. But in any case, I have heard the substance of these allegations before, so it might be of SOME use to go through the data.])
Let’s start with a quick summary from an Egyptologist, but one who is very familiar with Assyriology, K.A. Kitchen:
“The individual themes of creation and flood … recur in other writings. Thus the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish (called ‘Babylonian creation’ in most books), completed by circa 1000 from older sources, has been repeatedly compared with Gen. 1-2. But despite the reiterated claims of an older generation of biblical scholars, Enuma Elish and Gen. 1-2 in fact share no direct relationship. Thus the word tehom/thm is common to both Hebrew and Ugaritic (north Syria) and means nothing more than ‘deep, abyss.’ It is not a deity, like Ti’amat, a goddess in Enuma Elish. In terms of theme, creation is the massively central concern of Gen. 1-2, but it is a mere tailpiece in Enuma Elish, which is dedicated to portraying the supremacy of the god Marduk of Babylon. The only clear comparisons between the two are the inevitable banalities: creation of earth and sky before the plants are put on the earth, and of plants before animals (that need to eat them) and humans; it could hardly have been otherwise! The creation of light before the luminaries is the only peculiarity that might indicate any link between the Hebrew and Enuma Elish narrative; but where did it earlier come from? Not known, as yet. Thus most Assyriologists have long since rejected the idea of any direct link between Gen. 1-11 and Enuma Elish, and nothing else better can be found between Gen. 1-11 and any other Mesopotamian fragments.” [OT:OROT, p.424ff; Note: His footnote mentions/references J.V. Kinnier-Wilson, W. G. Lambert, A. R. Millard, T. Jakobsen, with this intro: “Assyriologists generally reject any genetic relationship between Gen. 1-2 and the Mesopotamian data because of the considerable differences”.]
Then, Jeffrey Tigay, one of the leading experts on the Epic of Gilgamesh:
“The Eden narrative affinities with primitive folklore and other biblical and Ancient Near Eastern, especially Mesopotamian, compositions are many, yet there is no single piece of ancient literature which resembles the narrative as a whole, either in its details or theological significance.“
“Yet another paradise narrative is the Sumerian tale of “Enki and Ninhursag” (Pritchard, texts 37-41), which describes the land (or island) of Dilmun, east of Sumer, as a pure, clean, and bright land, where there is neither sickness nor death, and where the animals live in harmony. One episode in the narrative involves the sun-god’s watering Dilmun with fresh water brought up out of the earth, thus making it fertile. The earth-goddess Ninhursag gives birth to eight plants, which the water-god Enki proceeds to devour. This leads Ninhursag to curse Enki; this nearly causes the latter’s death, but ultimately Ninhursag is made to heal him. Aside from the Eden narrative’s manifest similarities to these stories, the differences are also significant; most notable is the far more natural configuration of the narrative in Genesis 2-3, in contrast with the fantastic or supernatural nature of the other accounts...”
“Not all details of the relationship of the Myth of Adapa to the Eden narrative are clear or necessarily convincing, but some relationship does seem indicated. The contrasts, aside from obviously wide divergence in details and plots, are most profound and characteristic in the area of underlying religious outlook.“
“The above survey has led many scholars to the conclusion that the biblical Eden narrative has roots in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Yet, as stated above, these parallels are fragmentary, dealing with only a few motifs each, and the discrepancies in detail are often great. How these gaps were bridged cannot be said with certainty, presumably because of ignorance of the process of transmission of Ancient Near Eastern literature to the Bible.” [Ency. Judacia, s.v. “Paradise”, 13:82]
Then, John Walton:
“This sort of maximalist position would see the biblical authors as working directly from Mesopotamian exemplars as they carried out theological transformations. Though this sort of conclusion is common, the summary of comparative literary studies of Genesis 1-11 offered by R. S. Hess in the introduction to ‘I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood‘ demonstrates that [the maximalist’s] conclusions are far from universally held. D. Tsumura’s introduction in the same volume details the rejection of dependence on the Babylonian materials by such well-known Assyriologists as W. G. Lambert and A. Sjoberg….Nevertheless, given the complexity of the transmission of tradition and culture in the ancient world literary dependence is extremely difficult to prove.” [OT:DictOT5, s.v. Creation”]
“Similarities between Genesis and Enuma Elish have been frequently cited in great detail. While superficial parallels may be noted and do exist, the only substantial similarity occurs in the dividing of the body of Tiamat by Marduk to create the two separated spheres of water. This is comparable to God’s dividing the waters of the firmament on the second day of creation…In summary, then, it is difficult to discuss comparisons between Israelite and Mesopotamian literature concerning creation of the cosmos because the disparity is so marked. Differences include basic elemental issues such as theogony verus cosmogony, polytheism versus monotheism, and emphasis on organization versus emphasis on creative act. Similarities are either linguistic in nature or, as in most cases, due to the fact that the accounts are descriptive of the cosmos of which both are a part.” [AILCC, 26f]
“The two differing perspectives given concerning the creation of man are that either he sprang from the ground (Creation of the Pickax) or that he was formed from a clay mixture using the blood of a slain deity. From these details, it is clear that there are several differences between Mesopotamian and biblical beliefs concerning the creation of man.” [AILCC, p27ff; Note: Walton then lists/discusses the major points of discontinuity–material used, relationship to the Divine nature, monogenesis versus polygenesis (tn: humanity was created en masse in the ANE lit–not an original pair), and purpose of humanity]
“The similarities between Genesis and Enuma Elish are too few to think that the author of Genesis was in any way addressing the piece of literature we know as Enuma Elish.” [AILCC, p.34]
“The second possibility, that the Israelite account was borrowed from the Babylonians, has enjoyed an overabundance of popularity. In reality, there is nothing that would lend substantiating credence to this belief. The fact that Israel on occasion exhibits cultural characteristics assimilated from Babylon, as did most of the Ancient Near East, can in no way serve as independent proof that any given item was borrowed. Each potential case of borrowing must be studied on its own merits, for it is clear that there are several cultural elements from Mesopotamia that Israel rejected… The only evidence that can be produced to support the case for Israelite borrowing is the similarities we have already identified. These are hardly convincing, in that most of the similarities occur in situations where cosmological choices are limited. For example, the belief in a primeval watery mass is perfectly logical and one of only a few possibilities… Since there is little to suggest direct borrowing on the part of the Israelites, we would be inclined to accept a more cautious position…” [AILCC, p. 37]
Now, Alan R. Millard:
“Reconstruction of a process whereby Babylonian myths were borrowed by the Hebrews, having been transmitted by the Canaanites, and ‘purged’ of pagan elements remains imaginary. It has yet to be shown that any Canaanite material was absorbed into Hebrew sacred literature on such a scale or in such a way…However, it has yet to be shown that there was borrowing, even indirectly. Differences between the Babylonian and the Hebrew traditions can be found in factual details of the Flood narrative (form of the Ark; duration of the Flood, the identity of the birds and their dispatch) and are most obvious in the ethical and religious concepts of the whole of each composition. All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion that cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing. If there was borrowing then it can have extended only as far as the “historical” framework, and not included intention or interpretation. The fact that the closest similarities lie in the Flood stories is instructive. For both Babylonians and Hebrews the Flood marked the end of an age. Mankind could trace itself back to that time; what happened before it was largely unknown. The Hebrews explicitly traced their origins back to Noah, and, we may suppose, assumed that the account of the Flood and all that went before derived from him. Late Babylonian sages supposed that tablets containing information about the ante-diluvian world were buried at Sippar before the Flood and disinterred afterwards. The two accounts undoubtedly describe the same Flood, the two schemes relate the same sequence of events. If judgment is to be passed as to the priority of one tradition over the other, Genesis inevitably wins for its probability in terms of meteorology, geophysics, and timing alone. In creation its account is admired for its simplicity and grandeur, its concept of man accords well with observable facts. In that the patriarch Abraham lived in Babylonia, it could be said that the stories were borrowed from there, but not that they were borrowed from any text now known to us. Granted that the Flood took place, knowledge of it must have survived to form the available accounts; while the Babylonians could only conceive of the event in their own polytheistic language, the Hebrews, or their ancestors, understood the action of God in it. Who can say it was not so?” [[ISI, “A New Babylonian ‘Genesis’ Story”, p.126f]
“In the study of material on Genesis 1-3, consideration should be given to G. F. Hasel’s essays on the methodology and problems of applying the comparative approach to the first chapter of Genesis. In few other passages of the Bible have so many facile comparisons been made with ancient Near Eastern myths and so many far-reaching conclusions posited. Hasel provides observations on fundamental distinctions in the creation accounts, with a strong focus on an antimythological apologetic for Genesis.” [ISI, “One Hundred Fifty Years of Comparative Studies on Genesis 1-11”, p.19f]
David Toshio Tsumura:
“So, Genesis 1 and ‘Enuma Elish,’ which was composed primarily to exalt Marduk in the pantheon of Babylon, have no direct relation to each other...It is not correct to say that ‘Enuma Elish’ was adopted and adapted by the Israelites to produce the Genesis stories. As Lambert holds, there is ‘no evidence of Hebrew borrowing from Babylon’. Sjoberg accepts Lambert’s opinion that ‘there was hardly any influence from the Babylonian text on the Old Testament creation accounts.’ …Along the same line, Sjoberg as an Assyriologist warns Old Testament scholars that ‘it is no longer scientifically sound to assume that all ideas originated in Mesopotamia and moved westward.’ …It is difficult to assume that an earlier Canaanite dragon myth existed in the background of Gen. 1:2…Shea suggests that ‘it is possible to view these two separate sources [Adapa and Genesis 2-3] as independent witnesses to a common event‘…Niels-Erik Andreasen also thinks that ‘parallels do indeed exist between Adam and Adapa, but they are seriously blunted by the entirely different contexts in which they occur.’…”[ISI, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood, p.31ff]
“The similarities between the Genesis account and the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic’ do not support the idea that Genesis is a direct borrowing from the Mesopotamian but do indicate that Mesopotamian materials could have served as models for Genesis 1-11, as Jacobsen holds. P.D. Miller also admits that ‘there were Mesopotamian models that anticipate the structure of Genesis 1-11 as a whole.’ K. A. Kitchen notes a similar outline, namely ‘creation-flood-later times,’ and a common theme, namely ‘creation, crisis, continuance of man,’ of the ‘primeval proto-history’ in the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic,’ the Sumerian Flood story, and the Sumerian King List, as well as in the Genesis account. He recognizes here ‘a common literary heritage, formulated in each case in Mesopotamia in the early 2nd millennium b.c.’…However, there are also many differences between the Mesopotamian traditions and the Genesis account, in addition to the basic concepts of divine-human relationship.” [ISI, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood, p.47]
“As Lambert and Millard note [in Atra Hasis: Babylonian Story of the Flood], ‘It is obvious that the differences [between the Genesis Flood account and the Babylonian Flood Account in Atra-Hasis] are too great to encourage belief in direct connection between ‘Atra-Hasis’ and Genesis, but just as obviously there is some kind of involvement in the historical traditions generally of the two peoples.'” [ISI, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood, p.31ff; Note: if both peoples experienced a common flood, I think that might count as ‘some kind of involvement’!]
S. M. Paul:
“Nevertheless, the differences between the biblical and the Mesopotamian accounts are much more striking that their similarities; each of them embodies the world outlook of their respective civilizations. In Genesis there is a total rejection of all mythology…[Differences include:]…Cosmogony is not linked to theogony. The pre-existence of god is assumed–it is not linked to the genesis of the universe. there is no suggestion of any primordial battle or internecine ware which eventually led to the creation of the universe…The primeval water, earth, sky, and luminaries are not pictured as deities or as parts of disembodied deities, but are all parts of the manifold work of the Creator…The story in Genesis, moreover, is nonpolitical: unlike Enuma Elish, which is a monument to Marduk and to Babylon and its temple, Genesis makes no allusion to Israel, Jerusalem, or the temple.” [Ency. Judacia, s.v. “Creation”, 5:1062]
Richard J. Clifford:
“Genesis I is obviously a cosmogony, though (as will be seen) its dependence on other ancient cosmogonies cannot be specified with any exactness… Though its prefatory function is paralleled in Mesopotamia, attempts to show that Genesis I is directly dependent on Enuma elish cannot be judged successful.” [OT:CAANEB, pp.138,140]
“Given our present knowledge, however, it is difficult to prove that any single work is the source of Genesis I.” [OT:CAANEB, p.141]
“If comparison with other cosmogonies does not prove dependence, it does reveal the emphases in Genesis.” [OT:CAANEB, p.143]
“Genesis 2-11 moves in a different direction than the creation-flood genre of Mesopotamian literature…Atrahasis is a critique of the gods; their assembly is bumbling and fragmented; their leader is the bullying and cowardly Enlil [sic]. This unflattering picture is relieved only by the introduction of the wise and compassionate Enlil [sic] and Nintu. Fault lies with the gods rather than with human beings. The gods’ miscalculations lead to the annihilation of the race, and their needs to its restoration. In Genesis, God does it right the first time and after the flood re-blesses the human race with his original words…Both Atrahasis and Genesis were written with a sense of confidence. Atrahasis shows confidence in the human race; people are necessary because the gods are generally lazy, shortsighted, and impetuous. Confidence in Genesis is founded on God’s justice and mercy, and the reliability of the created world.” [OT:CAANEB, p.149]
“Though Egyptian wisdom literature directly influenced such biblical books as Proverbs, Egyptian cosmogonies evidently have no direct influence.” [OT:CAANEB, p.200]
“The story of Creation, or cosmology, that opens the Book of Genesis differs from all other such accounts that were current among the peoples of the ancient world. Its lack of interest in the realm of heaven and its economy of words in depicting primeval chaos are highly uncharacteristic of this genre of literature. The descriptions in Genesis deal solely with what lies beneath the celestial realm, and still the narration is marked by compactness, solemnity, and dignity.
There is abundant evidence that other cosmologies once existed in Israel. Scattered allusions to be found in the prophetic, poetic, and wisdom literature of the Bible testify to a popular belief that prior to the onset of the creative process the powers of watery chaos had to be subdued by God. These mythical beings are variously designated Yam (Sea), Nahar (River), Leviathan (Coiled One), Rahab (Arrogant One), and Tannin (Dragon). There is no consensus in these fragments regarding the ultimate fate of these creatures. One version has them utterly destroyed by God; in another, the chaotic forces, personalized as monsters, are put under restraint by His power.
These myths about a cosmic battle at the beginning of time appear in the Bible in fragmentary form, and the several allusions have to be pieced together to produce some kind of coherent unit. Still, the fact that these myths appear in literary compositions in ancient Israel indicates clearly that they had achieved wide currency over a long period of time. They have survived in the Bible solely as obscure, picturesque metaphors and exclusively in the language of poetry. Never are these creatures accorded divine attributes, nor is there anywhere a suggestion that their struggle against God could in any way have posed a challenge to His sovereign rule.
This is of particular significance in light of the fact that one of the inherent characteristics of all other ancient Near Eastern cosmologies is the internecine strife of the gods. Polytheistic accounts of creation always begin with the predominance of the divinized powers of nature and then describe in detail a titanic struggle between the opposing forces. They inevitably regard the achievement of world order as the outgrowth of an overwhelming exhibition of power on the part of one god who then manages to impose his will upon all other gods.
The early Israelite creation myths, with all their color and drama, must have been particularly attractive to the masses. But none became the regnant version. It was the austere account set forth in the first chapter of Genesis that won unrivaled authority. At first it could only have been the intellectual elite in ancient Israel, most likely the priestly and scholarly circles, who could have been capable of realizing and appreciating the compact forms of symbolization found in Genesis. It is they who would have cherished and nurtured this version until its symbols finally exerted a decisive impact upon the religious consciousness of the entire people of Israel.
“Ancient Near Eastern literature provides no parallel to our Eden narrative as a whole, but there are some suggestions of certain aspects of the biblical Eden. The Sumerian myth about Enki and Ninhursag tells of an idyllic island of Dilmun, now almost certainly identified with the modern island of Bahrein in the Persian Gulf. It is a ‘pure,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘bright’ land in which all nature is a peace, where beasts of prey and tame cattle live together in mutual amity. Sickness and old age are unknown. The Gilgamesh Epic likewise knows of a garden of jewels. It is significant that our Genesis account omits all mythological details, does not even employ the phrase ‘garden of God,’ and place gold and silver in a natural setting.” [JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, pp.3, 18)
G. Herbert Livingston:
“As a literary production, Genesis 2 and 3 have no parallel in ancient Near Eastern literature. The Epic of Adapa, often presented as a parallel, is not really so, either in literary structure, in moral emphasis, or in theological content.” [PCE, p. 143]
Ake W. Sjoberg (and W.G. Lambert, as referenced):
“As Gosta will see, I have in some cases parted from the ‘Uppsala School’ where, we have to admit, a strong stress was placed upon Mesopotamian influences on Old Testament concepts. I will begin with the Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elis, and agree with Professor W.G. Lambert that there was hardly any influence from that Babylonian text on the Old Testament creation accounts.” [“Eve and the Chameleon”, in In the Shelter of Elyon (Barrick and Spencer, eds), p217]
R. K. Harrison
“Genesis and Sumerian Historiography The Sumerians were evidently the first Near Eastern people to write as well as make history. They had a dynamic appreciation for life and kept records of all manner of happenings in both past and present. Some of these sources have survived in the form of king lists, official inscriptions commemorating the building of palaces and temples, court annals, chronicles, epic compositions (often based on historical personages and events, which had subsequently become overlaid with legend and myth), and a number of other nonliterary sources. Like most of the ancient Near Eastern peoples, the Sumerians were profoundly superstitious, and their great sense of inferiority virtually demanded that the course of events in the cosmos should be governed by decisions that came from superhuman beings. This feature was a prominent element in their myths and legends and indicated that, for them, history was primarily theocratic. The deities venerated by the Sumerians were originally the forces of nature as experienced personally; thus the metaphysical force that activated history had a distinctively elemental character to it and partook of reality in this special manner. The Sumerians began the Mesopotamian tradition of writing history against a cosmic background, presenting in their narratives what can best be described as a world view. In their cosmological material they represented themselves as one member-group of the human race that inhabited one of the four regions into which they had divided the world. The Sumerians had had a “golden age” in their history, when “there was no fear, no terror. Man had no rival” (S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians , p. 262). But because the gods had planned unethical, immoral, and criminal behavior as part of human conduct, this state of bliss was short-lived. One Sumerian composition even spoke of the creation of woman against the background of the paradise-like land of Dilmun, located E of Sumer. In the story, a goddess healed one of the god Enki’s diseased organs, which proved to be a rib. Consequently the goddess came to be known as “the lady of the rib,” or, as an alternative translation, “the lady who makes live.” While this narrative clearly has little in common with that in Gen. 2, it makes the latter much more intelligible if envisaged against a Sumerian literary background rather than one involving the second temple and a post-exilic date, as nineteenth-century literary criticism would have had its adherents imagine. ” [ISBE, revised Ed, 2:438f]
Now, this should be sufficient to at least re-set the objector’s thinking on this issue. There are solid ANE and solid biblical scholars who reject any ‘controlling’ influence or significant borrowing from the Mesopotamian sources. There are, of course, other scholars (but very few Assyriologists) who DO see wholesale borrowing-usage (with approval), but the trend today is away from this–and more toward a recognition of the overwhelming differences between any set of proposed parallels. [Some scholars DO see borrowing from the Canaanite/Ugaritic materials, however, and they believe this renders the position of Babylonian influence as ‘needs reconsideration’–a la W. G. Lambert. We will look at this issue after we have examined the Babylonian materials.]
We will go through all the data (in the individual pieces), but here let me give a quick overview of the current state of scholarly discussion (at least by many of the relevant scholars, some of which are cited above).
First, anytime a people try to write down their stories about creation, there are — by the necessity of the subject matter — common themes which “must” be addressed. What was created, who did the creating, why was it created, how did the process unfold, and the such like. Two stories which described a sequence which went “sea, and then fish” would involve a ‘thematic parallel’, but we would not immediately suspect borrowing–on the basis of such merely thematic parallels. Kitchen had a pointed sentence about this above: “The only clear comparisons between the two are the inevitable banalities: creation of earth and sky before the plants are put on the earth, and of plants before animals (that need to eat them) and humans; it could hardly have been otherwise!” For a simple example of this phenomenon, consider a college term paper assignment. If an ethics professor assigned her 25 students a term paper on the topic of “Capital Punishment–For and Against”, you can bet that many of the same arguments would crop up in almost all of the papers. These arguments (e.g., deterrence, the sanctity of life, psychological revenge, possibility of rehabilitation, etc.) would flow from the subject matter–not from any borrowing (hopefully–smile). The professor would not suspect that student A ‘borrowed’ from student B unless the borrowed content was ‘encased’ in significantly specific and ‘unexpected’ detail (e.g., odd choices of terms, grammatical mistakes shared, etc.). In other words, the mere presence of themes, topoi, arguments would not be prima facie evidence for borrowing. Likewise in our case–the mere presence of themes such as good, evil, man, woman, light and dark–when writing a term paper on “Creation of the Universe–What it was Like”–shouldn’t even raise the question of borrowing, unless the parallels adduced are non-thematic (i.e., particulars such as language or unusual forms, unrelated to the subject matter/themes under discussion). Many, many of the parallels which are supposed to indicate borrowing are in this category (as noted by Kitchen).
Secondly, we have the same problem with witnesses to a single event. If two of us (people or cultures) have a shared event in our past (e.g., creation, fall, flood, etc.), our accounts of that event will be similar (hopefully!) but still be independent witnesses (i.e., non-borrowing). As such, the commonalities are due to the experience-shared and not to some literary borrowing. For a trivial example/illustration, consider two people who watched a football game from different sides of the stadium, and thus wrote independent accounts. The stories would certainly have ‘parallels’ (players, plays, weather, etc.), but we wouldn’t remotely suspect that one of them ‘borrowed’ from the other because of this. In our case, many more of the parallels adduced to prove borrowing fall into this category. So, Tsumura’s account of Shea (cited above): “Shea suggests that ‘it is possible to view these two separate sources [Adapa and Genesis 2-3] as independent witnesses to a common event‘”.
Thirdly, some of the alleged parallels are genre-constraints or genre-conventions. For a biblical author to write a “general purpose” cosmogony for Israel (and her potential converts–the rest of the world) would have dictated that certain genres were appropriate. It would not have been ‘appropriate’ to have written the Creation story as a Bill of Sale, or a play, or a satire, or a riddle, or a legal text. Just as fairy tales start with “once upon a time”, and genealogies have “X begot Y”, so too there are some ‘forms’ useful in ANE cosmogonies. There is a wide variation in these, but one can see ‘frameworks’ in common, and perhaps even ‘models’ employed, but shared formal structures can be due to the genre instead of to ‘borrowing’. For a simple example, consider legal documents in lawsuits. If somebody first examined the document entitled “Mike Nelson versus YoYoDyne Propulsion” and then examined the document entitled “Remo Williams versus Finletter’s Pizza Parlor”, they would find the parallels in form “striking” (smile). However, we know that the “framework” similarities are due to legal genre, and would never suspect that the person who drafted the second lawsuit was ‘dependent’ in a literary sense on the first one.
Fourthly, more than a few scholars do see explicit parallels, but see Genesis as an explicit repudiation of those elements in Mesopotamian lore. The biblical author tells the Genesis story in such a way as to make it obvious to a pagan reader (or a pagan-leaning Israelite) how different the real truth is from their pagan myth. So, if the Genesis author portrays the creation of the great sea monsters as being just a ho-hum task for the One God, then this could be taken as a deliberate rejection of the (vast) majority of ANE lore which saw/portrayed a great struggle between the head God and the divine gods of the sea/chaos, etc. The problem with this view, btw, is that the parallels that are cited are not very good ones–it’s not clear who/what is being repudiated. It seems that more is repudiated by what is left out, than by what is ‘put in’. [This of course is part of why so many folk don’t even SEE the parallels there to begin with–they are NOT that obvious, when seen in context.] However, there are many careful scholars who see Genesis 1-11 as apologetic/polemic against these ‘stories’ and their worldview freight. Consider just a couple of statements by scholars in this regard:
“Having been highly educated in Pharaoh’s court as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:1-10), in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth dynasty (ca. 1400-1300 B.C.), Moses had unique access to the ancient Near Eastern myths that show close connections with Genesis 1 – 11. For example the Atrahasis Epic and the Sumerian flood story, both dated earlier than 1600 B.C., parallel very closely the thematic content of Genesis I- 11. The Sumerian king list, similar to the pattern in Genesis 5-11, includes a list of antediluvian kings with extravagantly long reigns (cf. Gen. 5), then a mention of the flood (cf. Gen. 6-9), and then postdiluvian kings with much shorter reigns down to ca. 1980 B.C. (cf. Gen. 11: 10-27). The creation account in Genesis I has parallels with the early second millennium B.C. Babylonian account of creation, the Enuma Elish. The closest comparison that can be made with Genesis 2-3 is with the Adapa myth. Adapa was summoned to heaven and offered the bread and water of life. Having been warned by his personal god to reject such an offer, he declined. The Genesis account of the Flood also finds striking parallels in ancient Near Eastern myths. These myths, against whose worldview Genesis I – 11 is in fact a polemic, were known after Moses’ time, so the parallels do not establish Mosaic authorship of Genesis l- 11, 18 but they also existed before his time and Moses had a unique opportunity to know and rebut them.” [WaltkeGen, p.23]
“Another reflection of very ancient traditions is found in Genesis 1.21. Since the entire story of creation refers only to general categories of plant and animal life, not to any individual species, the specific mention of ‘the great sea monsters’ alongside, and even before, ‘all the living creatures of every kind that move about, which the waters brought forth in swarms’ is striking. It is most likely part of the biblical polemic against the polytheistic version of a primeval struggle between the creator god and a marine monster which was the personification of chaos. In Genesis this story has been completely submerged. Its only remnant appears in the demythologized reference to the sea monsters as being themselves created by God, not as rival gods.” [S.M. Paul, op. cit.]
“Similarly, Moran and Frymer-Kensky hold that Gen 9:1ff is ‘a conscious rejection‘ of the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic.'” [ISI, Tsumura, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood, p.46]
Wenham [WBC, Genesis] points out that Israel shared the history (i.e., they “watched the same ballgame”), but radically rejected the Mesopotamian ‘interpretation’ (as recorded in her myths):
“Gen 1–11 as we read it is a commentary, often highly critical, on ideas current in the ancient world about the natural and supernatural world. Both individual stories as well as the final completed work seem to be a polemic against many of the commonly received notions about the gods and man. But the clear polemical thrust of Gen 1–11 must not obscure the fact that at certain points biblical and extrabiblical thought are in clear agreement. Indeed Genesis and the ancient Near East probably have more in common with each other than either has with modern secular thought.
“It has already been mentioned that Gen 1–9 records a bare outline of world history from its creation to the flood that finds a parallel in the Atrahasis epic and even more strikingly in the Sumerian flood story. Within this bare outline the stories of the flood in Gilgamesh (perhaps borrowed from a lost edition of the Atrahasis epic) and in Gen 6–9 are astonishingly similar. This is not to say that the writer of Genesis had ever heard or read the Gilgamesh epic: these traditions were part of the intellectual furniture of that time in the Near East, just as most people today have some idea of Darwin’s Origin of Species though they have never read it.
“Not only does Genesis share a common outline of primeval history with its neighbors, it also concurs with contemporary culture on various other points. Both agreed that an invisible supernatural world existed; that a God or gods existed; were personal; could think, speak, and communicate with men; indeed control human affairs. Genesis also agreed with oriental theology that man is more than material: he has a spiritual divine dimension. Atrahasis tells of man being made out of the mixture of clay and the flesh and blood of a dead god (A 1.208–60). This parallels Gen 2:7 where the Lord creates man out of the dust of the earth and breathes into him the divine breath of life. Similarly, Egyptian texts speak of man being made in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:26–27). Creation as an act of separation between light and darkness, land and sea, and by the word of God; all find parallels in Near Eastern theology.
“These similarities between biblical and non-biblical thinking, however, are overshadowed by the differences. Jacobsen points out that despite Genesis’s “probable dependency on the Mesopotamian version of origins” we must also note how decisively these materials have been transformed in the biblical account, altering radically their original meaning and import: “The “Eridu Genesis” takes throughout … an affirmative and optimistic view of existence: it believes in progress. Things were not nearly as good to begin with as they have become since.…In the biblical account it is the other way around. Things began as perfect from God’s hand and grew then steadily worse through man’s sinfulness until God finally had to do away with all mankind except for the pious Noah who would beget a new and better stock…The moral judgment here introduced, and the ensuing pessimistic viewpoint, could not be more different from the tenor of the Sumerian tale; only the assurance that such a flood will not recur is common to both (JBL 100  529).
“It is striking that Jacobsen arrives at this contrast by comparing the “Eridu Genesis,” his expanded flood story, with P, which is generally seen as much more optimistic about the human situation than J. But the biblical Genesis as it stands contains all sorts of other episodes illustrating man’s sinfulness: the fall (chap. 3), Cain and Abel (chap. 4), the sons of God (6:1–4), the curse of Ham (9:20–29), and the tower of Babel (11:1–9). These incidents, when added to the P outline of world history, make the situation even blacker and the contrast with the Sumerian flood story even more stark. Genesis is flatly contradicting the humanistic optimism of Mesopotamia: humanity’s situation in its view is hopeless without divine mercy.
“Many of the individual episodes in Gen 1–11 may be seen to have a distinctly polemical thrust in their own right, particularly against the religious ideas associated most closely with Mesopotamia. For example, Gen 11:1–9, the tower of Babel story, is a satire on the claims of Babylon to be the center of civilization and its temple tower the gate of heaven (EE 6:50–80): Babel does not mean gate of God, but “confusion” and “folly.” Far from its temple’s top reaching up to heaven, it is so low that God has to descend from heaven just to see it! (11:4–9).
“Babylonians and Canaanites practiced cult prostitution and sacred marriage, a fertility rite in which it is commonly supposed that the gods had sexual union with women. These rites were believed to promote the well-being of the nation by securing the fertility of the soil. Gen 6:1–8, however, looks on such customs with absolute horror: instead of promoting mankind’s prosperity they prompted God to send the flood which destroyed all life, except Noah’s family and the animals he brought into the ark.
“Mesopotamian accounts of the flood not only provide some of the closest parallels between the Bible and oriental literature, they also paint a completely different picture of the relationship between the human and divine worlds. They tell that the flood was sent by the gods piqued at man’s noisiness and overpopulation of the earth. The Babylonian “Noah” escaped because he happened to worship a god who did not support the flood decision. Once started, the flood was beyond the gods’ control, and they were terrified by it. In the closing scene, Enlil, the most powerful god, turns up at the sacrifice and is surprised to find “Noah” still alive. Genesis, while preserving a substantially similar story, paints a very different portrait of the actors involved. There is only one God, who is both omniscient and omnipotent. The flood is sent by his command and is totally under his control. Whereas the Mesopotamian gods destroyed mankind out of caprice and their “Noah” just happened to be lucky enough to worship the right deity, Genesis declares that man’s wickedness provoked the flood and that Noah was saved because he was righteous, a point demonstrated by his behavior throughout the flood. Finally, whereas after the flood the Mesopotamian deities looked for means to limit population growth, the Lord positively encouraged it. Noah, like Adam, was told, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:1, 7; cf. 1:28).
“In a similar way it seems that Gen 1–3 takes up ideas current in the ancient world and comments on them. Gen 1 again affirms the unity of God over against the polytheisms current everywhere else in the ancient Near East. In particular it insists that the sun, moon, stars, and sea monsters—powerful deities according to pagan mythology—are merely creatures. It may well be that Gen 1:1, “God created the heavens and the earth,” is affirming the creation of matter over against the widely held view of the time that matter was eternal and that creation just involved the ordering of pre-existing matter. Certainly Genesis gives man a very different place in the created order from that given him by oriental mythology. Man was according to this view created by the gods as an afterthought to supply the gods with food (A 1.190–91; EE 6:35–37). Gen 1 paints a quite contrary picture. Man is the climax of creation, and instead of man providing the gods with food, God provided the plants as food for man (1:29). The same theme of the Lord’s concern for man’s welfare is very apparent in Gen 2. Here he first creates man, then provides him with a garden to dwell in, with animals as his companions, and last of all, a wife. Finally, according to one Babylonian tradition, the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of each month were regarded as unlucky: Genesis, however, declares the seventh day of every week to be holy, a day of rest consecrated to God (2:1–3).”
The current situation might be summed up this way: The more a scholar sees borrowing (in the details–not the themes, frameworks, or genre structures), the more it is seen as repudiation–not adoption. I might could graphically illustrate the current situation in a chart:
Notice that the top left-hand quadrant is almost empty. The more ‘attention to detail’ the scholar has relative to the text (assuming they don’t just chuck out the disagreeable parts, of course, which some biblical scholars do), the more they ‘see’ the abject rejection of those ‘details’ by the Genesis author (who USED those details in his narrative). Those who see TONS of borrowing (the ‘maximalists’) still don’t see the Israelites as simply ‘plagiarizing’ or ‘wholesale adoption’ (“This sort of maximalist position would see the biblical authors as working directly from Mesopotamian exemplars as they carried out theological transformations.” [OT:DictOT5, s.v. Creation”]), and as noted above, this position is by no means the consensus (and, it seems to be losing ground, cf. the introductions by Hess/Tsumura in [ISI]). I don’t know of any scholar writing in the field during the last 50 years (it was common a century ago, though–as we will see later) who holds that the Genesis author borrowed-with-approval or borrowed-for-credibility or borrowed-for-relevance almost anything in large scale from Mesopotamian, Canaanite, or Egyptian myth (beyond generic themes and common understandings–a la Wenham’s and Kitchen’s remarks above).
Two other comments before we dive into the methodological issues of ‘borrowing’ (either from a literary source, from shared cultural traditions, or from foreign cultural traditions) in the next installment (gilgy00.html):
One. When scholars talk about ‘literary dependence’, you will notice they are often quick to admit no “direct” dependency. By this they mean that the biblical author did not have the ANE mythic text in front of him as they wrote, nor that there was a conscious intention to make Genesis ‘align with’ that specific document. Rather, scholars will accept ‘indirect‘ dependence, meaning that the prior literary document first influenced ‘popular belief’ directly, and this ‘popular belief’ then influenced the biblical writers. Some scholars will go another step, and reject direct Mesopotamian ‘popular’ influence (i.e., Meso-to-Israel transmission), and argue rather that it was mediated through a third party (e.g., West Semitic, Hurrian, etc.), making the influence even more ‘indirect’. [This later step, by the way, is how a few scholars avoid the implications of ‘disproved linguistic parallels’. For example, when the words in Hebrew and Akkadian (let’s say) were originally seen as parallel, but later linguistic study showed them to be unrelated (a common Assyriological event, I might add!), in order to hold on to the influence-theory they have to posit an intermediate language that would serve as a ‘missing link’ between Akkadian and Hebrew…(smile).] Strictly speaking, this won’t affect our argument much, since (a) we will be dealing with the WORST CASE scenario of HIGH borrowing from the Meso-lit; and (b) we will take a look at some of the non-Mesopotamian sources–e.g., Canaanite, Egyptian–after examining the Meso-materials.
Two. I want to point out that the issue of borrowing of literary data (as opposed to borrowing of pagan concepts/theology which would contradict the rest of Scripture!) is irrelevant to the inspiration of Scripture. John Walton (an evangelical scholar) can point this out [OT:DictOT5, s.v. Creation”]:
“At the other end of the spectrum [TN: from the maximalists], a minimalist position, typical of traditional evangelical interpretation, would deny any possibility of literary borrowing. For confessional scholars who consider it important to maintain the integrity of biblical inspiration, the idea that the author of Genesis made use of material from the ancient Near East need occasion no more concern than the idea that Solomon incorporated into the book of Proverbs some of the wisdom material of his world. Inspiration can operate through editors, redactors and tradents as effectively as it operates through authors. Nevertheless, given the complexity of the transmission of tradition and culture in the ancient world, literary dependence is extremely difficult to prove.”
Okay, that’s a start. We can see that the scholars don’t believe that Genesis “contains Sumerian/pagan stories” in any sense supportive of the objection(!), at least. We have noted that what borrowing there may be is all rejected, repudiated, or even semi-ridiculed in the Genesis account (according to the comments from scholars above). And we have noted that many, many parallels fall into ‘innocent’ and/or ‘expected’ classes: themes intrinsic to the subject, shared elements in independent witnesses to the same event, or aspects due solely to the genre in which the information is conveyed.
Let’s move on to methodology next, and then start into the detail of each of the texts…
Later, glenn (Feb 19, 2005)