A very important question indeed!
Since the discovery of ancient Mesopotamian/Sumerian tablets in the 1850s containing mythological creation stories, many of which share uncanny similarities with the narrative from the early chapters of Genesis, liberal scholars have jumped at the opportunity to prove that the Biblical authors plagiarized from much older myths and that there was no historical basis for the events described in the Biblical narrative. This fervor gave rise to a school of thought called Pan-Babylonianism, championed by Hugo Winckler, which posited that all world myths were ultimately derived from these Mesopotamian-Babylonian stories.
However, by the mid 1900s, critical scholars began to realize that the parallels drawn between these ancient myths and the early chapters of Genesis were largely superficial, repudiatory, or otherwise wanting in evidence of direct borrowing, while the differences were oftentimes stark and contradictory. Old Testament scholar Richard Hess writes: “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.” Today, the idea that the author of Genesis directly borrowed from ancient Mesopotamian myths is largely rejected by Assyriologists, Egyptologists, and Biblical scholars alike, and is mostly defended by skeptics on YouTube and online forums.
To demonstrate why, we’re going to take a look at the alleged parallels from these Sumerian myths and see where they fall short. But first, there are a few points I wanted to make clear.
- Even if the author of Genesis DID directly borrow from these myths, one cannot therefore conclude that the events described in Genesis are ahistorical. To do so would be to commit the genetic fallacy.
- Borrowing from source material and/or describing non-historical events have zero impact on the doctrines of Biblical inspiration or inerrancy. Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen classifies Genesis 1–11 into the genre of mytho-history: a mythical narrative with underlying historical elements. It is certainly possible that the author of Genesis, under the supervision of the Holy Spirit, used the prevailing creation myths of the time to convey theological truths about God, and in so doing, repudiated the polytheism of Israel’s geographical neighbors.
- No one knows when Genesis was written, with scholars accepting dates anywhere between 1800 – 800 BC. It is even less clear how far back the oral traditions comprising Genesis’ source material go. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say which story or tradition predates which.
- Since Sumer, Babylon, and Israel were all neighbors in ancient Mesopotamia, it is extremely difficult to say with any degree of certainty which direction(s) cultural influences spread in. Similar themes or motifs in their creation narratives may suggest borrowing, but could also be indicative of a shared oral history and/or independent witnesses of the same historical events.
In light of these considerations, I think the skeptic has already failed in this line of attack against Judeo-Christian theism. But to demonstrate just how off base our skeptic friends are, let’s move on to the first myth with alleged parallels.
This Akkadian (ancient Babylonian) tale is typically dated to around the 1600s BC. It tells the story of the formation of mankind after the working-class gods complained so much of their hard labor that the mother goddess Mami is commissioned to create men and women who are able to reproduce in order to lighten their workload. However, because mankind populates so quickly and irritates the chief god Enlil with how much noise they make, Enlil attempts to destroy mankind with a famine, then a drought, and then a flood, each attempt being foiled by the hero Atrahasis with help from the gods Ea and Enki. The story ends with the gods assembling to decide how best to deal with mankind.
The first alleged parallel is the creation of mankind. According to Genesis, God creates Adam from the dust of the earth and breathes into him the breath of life, and then creates Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. So how does this compare to the account in Atrahasis? Not very well it turns out. According to Atrahasis, Mami creates 7 men and 7 women out of clay and the blood and flesh of a deceased god, first trod by Enki and then molded by 14 midwives. These 14 pieces of clay are then involved in a (shocking!) 9-month gestation period before breaking out of the womb, umbilical cords and everything. From the details alone, it should be obvious that these are entirely separate stories with hardly any relevant parallels. Some insist that there are similarities in man being made from dust/clay and being make in the image/likeness of God/gods, but upon closer inspection, these simply do not hold up. Dust is not the same as clay, and whereas the latter required complicated processing, the former needed only a breath from God. In Genesis, man being made in God’s image refers to trait and status, whereas in Atrahasis, man is literally created from the remains of a dead god. No sign of borrowing here.
What about the flood narrative? Among all the alleged parallels to Genesis, this is by far the best contender. In the Sumerian story, after having survived two attempts to destroy mankind, Atrahasis is told by Enki to build a boat that would house his family and many animals. The flood raged on for 7 days, after which Atrahasis sacrifices an offering to the gods and humanity is spared. At first blush, it would appear that there are striking similarities to the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis: a global flood, God’s command to build an ark, the near destruction of humanity, the bringing of animals onto the ark, the offering, and God’s decision to spare mankind. However, there are a number of significant differences in detail as well. Whereas the flood is a central part of the Genesis narrative, it is only an afterthought in Atrahasis, serving as only one of three attempts by the gods to destroy humanity. Whereas the flood in Genesis lasts 40 days (and the water remained for 150 days), the flood in Atrahasis only lasts 7 days. Whereas the flood in Genesis is God’s punishment for the people’s wickedness, the flood in Atrahasis is a result of the gods’ annoyance over the noise generated from an exponentially increasing human population. When we break the stories down to their basic plot points and compare the details, we find that the differences far outweigh the similarities.
Furthermore, aside from the obvious differences, the similarities, strange as it may seem, are not necessarily evidence of literary dependence or borrowing either. A survey of myths from various world cultures reveals the shocking ubiquity of global flood narratives. The motif of the creator sending a flood to punish mankind for some wrong while rescuing one virtuous man and his family is observed not just in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hebrew myths, but also Greek, Indian, Native American, South American, and Philippine myths, spanning several entirely separate continents. One can speculate that the global flood narrative naturally emerges from the human psyche or that its presence in virtually every culture is indicative of a very ancient oral tradition going back to the first human civilization, but the bottom line is that there need to be much stronger parallels (e.g. textual dependence) to justify the claim that one culture directly borrowed this story from another. The sharing of elements common to all flood narratives between two flood narratives is no more a sign of borrowing than two cake recipes sharing flour and sugar as ingredients.
Some may bring up the flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has the additional episode of Gilgamesh releasing three birds (a dove, a swallow, and a raven) to confirm that the land is dry, which allegedly parallels Noah releasing a raven and then three doves over four 7-day intervals. Again, the details (e.g. the number/types of birds, their behavior/function, the time intervals) are dramatically different and the general motif (i.e. bird reconnaissance) appears in many different flood narratives. But that’s not even the main downfall of this argument. The bird episode is a late addition not found in early versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, appearing no earlier than 750 BC, which postdates Genesis. In fact, the entire flood narrative was not even in the oldest versions of the Gilgamesh story and has been decisively shown to be borrowed from none other than Atrahasis itself, as evidenced by lines copied over verbatim. Given the late date of the Gilgamesh bird episode and its absence from Atrahasis, there is absolutely no justification for the claim that Genesis borrowed its bird episode from either. In fact, turning the flawed methodology of our skeptic friends the other way, we would conclude that Gilgamesh actually borrowed from Genesis!
In summary, there’s no evidence that Genesis borrowed from Atrahasis.
Enuma Elish is an old Babylonian poem that dates to the late 2nd millennium BC. It tells the story of the god Marduk slaying the ocean goddess Tiamat, taking rulership over the pantheon of gods, and creating the Earth out of Tiamat’s carcass. Based on the premise of this story, one might be left scratching their heads wondering where parallels to Genesis might exist. Of the alleged instances of borrowing, I will address the three I find most plausible: the primeval waters existing at the beginning of creation, the splitting of the waters of the firmament, and the linguistic connection between the Hebrew word for deep/ocean (“tehom”) and the name Tiamat (all three of which I find spurious at best).
The primeval waters as the original state of the universe was a common theme in the Ancient Near Eastern world; it’s not particularly shocking that it appears in both works. Furthermore, unlike Genesis, the ancient Babylonian conception of the primordial waters entailed chaos and undifferentiation. The prevailing belief was that all of creation, including the gods themselves, emerged from these waters in a process of an original pure substance morphing and differentiating into the various elements comprising the universe as the ancients understood it. In contrast, the waters in Genesis 1:2 refer to the same water that you and I observe today. The Hebrew phrase “formless and void” (tohu wa bohu) has been cited by skeptics to suggest that the ancient Israelites had the same pagan conception of creation, but this reflects a misunderstanding of the phrase. “Tohu wa bohu” appears again in Jeremiah’s vision in Jeremiah 4:23 to describe the desolation of the land of Judah as a result of God’s wrath. This demonstrates that “tohu wa bohu” doesn’t describe the same undifferentiated state as in the Babylonian myth but rather a state of lifelessness, unproductivity, and uninhabitability. No parallels here.
There does appear to be a genuine parallel in the splitting of the waters, as this motif does not appear in other creation myths, and indeed many modern scholars do treat this as a parallel, but the differences in detail are striking enough to discount the hypothesis of direct borrowing. In Genesis, God creates an expanse (the sky) to separate the waters (heaven and earth) on the 2nd day of creation, whereas in Enuma Elish, Marduk splits Tiamat’s body in half, creating the sky out of her top half and the earth out of her bottom half, transforming her various organs into mountains, rivers, and mankind itself. Discounting the clear differences in the manner of creation, it seems absurd to think that the author of Genesis would look to not just a polytheistic, but visceral and repugnant creation narrative as inspiration for Hebrew tradition. So while the act of splitting the waters (or in the latter case, the body of the ocean goddess) seems to be a shared tradition from somewhere, this single parallel is simply not specific or compelling enough to support the allegation of borrowing.
What about the assertion that the Hebrew word “tehom” in Genesis 1:2 is linguistically related to the name “Tiamat” in the Akkadian language? Well, yes, they are linguistically related but this particular phrasing is a little deceptive. Akkadian and Hebrew are both Semitic languages, which means that they both derive from a common proto-Semitic ancestral language in the Middle East. As such, “tehom” and “Tiamat” are both derivations of the same Semitic word “tiham,” meaning “cosmic waters,” in their shared ancestral language. There is no evidence suggesting that “tehom” was incorporated into the Hebrew language as a result of Sumerian influence, nor vice versa.
In summary, there’s no evidence that Genesis borrowed from Enuma Elish.
Enki and Ninhursag
Last but not least, Enki and Ninhursag tells the hilarious story of the water god Enki’s sexual misadventures. In the flourishing land of Dilmun, Enki sleeps with the goddess Ninhursag, who gives birth to the goddess Ninmu. Enki then sleeps with his daughter Ninmu, who gives birth to the goddess Ninkurra. Enki then sleeps with his granddaughter Ninkurra, who gives birth to the goddess Uttu. Before Enki can sleep with Uttu, Ninhursag intervenes and persuades Uttu to sleep with Enki only if he gives her a gift of cucumbers, apples, and grapes. After delivering this gift, Enki sleeps with his great granddaughter Uttu, but instead of impregnating her, Ninhursag uses his semen to produce eight different fruit plants. Enki decides to eat one of each fruit, and in doing so, incurs Ninhursag’s wrath (for some unknown reason). Ninhursag then places a curse on Enki, who begins to shrivel and die, and leaves him. A fox comes along and convinces the chief god Enlil to persuade Ninhursag to return and heal Enki. Ninhursag does so by placing Enki on her vagina and heals eight of his organs (one of which was a rib), each time giving birth to a new deity. The story ends with Enki decreeing the fate of these eight deities, one of whom would become the lord of Dilmun.
At face value, we can see some similarities with the Eden narrative in Genesis 2–3, namely a pristine land (Dilmun/Eden), death as a consequence of eating a forbidden fruit, the presence of plants, a talking animal, and a female character being born in relation to something happening to a male character’s rib. Now the first thing you may have noticed is that this is not a creation narrative (i.e. cosmogony) at all! Indeed, many scholars have characterized Enki and Ninhursag as more of a comedy about absurd sexual escapades than a creation myth. Thorkild Jacobsen described it as a court tale meant to entertain visitors using crude sailor humor, which is a far cry from the creation narrative in Genesis. If you found it absurd that the author of Genesis would base the creation narrative on Marduk shaping things out of Tiamat’s bloody organs, the notion that he would draw on any of this jester’s tale to tell the Eden narrative is even more bonkers. But for completeness’ sake, let’s look at these alleged parallels.
Honestly, all of these (the land, the fruit, the plants, the animal, the curse, the rib) can immediately be dismissed as superficial similarities borne out of selective cherrypicking with significant differences in specific details. God creates the Garden of Eden, inhabited only by animals and Adam/Eve, whereas the land of Dilmun has presumably always existed and was populated with many gods. God specifically commands Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereas there are no humans, no trees, and no moral injunctions in Enki and Ninhursag. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is the villain (i.e. Satan) whereas the fox is a good character who helps the protagonist. God curses the ground (not Adam) and punishes Eve with childbearing, whereas Ninhursag strikes Enki with a deadly illness. Eve is created out of Adam’s rib whereas the goddess Ninti (1 out of 8 deities) is born when Enki’s rib (1 out of 8 organs) is healed. Not a single serious parallel in sight.
Some scholars have brought attention to the fact that Enki and Ninhursag utilizes a literary pun in that Ninti (which could mean “the lady of the rib” or “the lady who makes live”) is born when Enki’s rib (“ti”) is healed. According to skeptics, this, in conjunction with Eve being called “the mother of all the living” in Genesis 3:20, leads to the conclusion that the author of Genesis clearly borrowed this linguistic device from the Sumerian tale. Unfortunately, when we consider that the Hebrew words for “rib” and “to make live” are “tsela” and “hoveh” respectively, the pun disappears and this hypothesis, which involves a shallow pun with zero theological significance to begin with, completely falls apart.
In summary, there’s no evidence that Genesis borrowed from Enki and Ninhursag.
This is the longest answer I have ever written so I have no doubt that I’ve lost readers along the way, but for anyone who made it through the whole thing, I hope this helped to answer the question!