Between Babylon and Egypt: Mythology or Historical Traditions in the Book of Genesis. Part 1

The Documentary Hypothesis (DH) posits that the Pentateuch is a compilation of four originally independent sources which Old Testament critics designate as J (Jahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly) and D (Deuteronomic). Julius Wellhausen, one of the chief architects of the DH suggested the following dates for the documents: J c. 850 BC, E c.750 BC, D c. 622 BC and P c. 500 BC. He further surmised that the documents were merged together by Jewish scribes during the Babylonian exile, so that the final redaction of the current Pentateuch was completed in the time of Ezra during the fifth century BC. However, critics of the DH have identified intractable problems which undermine the theory. As such, not many Old Testament scholars today overtly promote the DH. However, in the absence of an alternative critical theory, the DH remains the operating framework for many Old Testament critics today.

Two wide-ranging implications arise from the DH. First, if the Pentateuch assumed its conclusive redaction during the Babylonian period, that is, six centuries after Moses, then it cannot be relied on as reliable historical source of the Patriarchal period. Second, based on the DH, critics argue that the composition of Genesis 1-11 was influenced by Babylonian myths. Conversely, the purported influence of Babylonian myths in Genesis is forwarded as evidence of the DH.


Part 1 seeks to demonstrate that the theory of Babylonian mythological influence on Genesis 1-11 rests of precarious foundations and thereby questions one of the assumptions of the DH that the book of Genesis (and the Pentateuch) was essentially shaped in a Babylonian context.

Part 2 offers an alternative understanding of the trajectory of the historical traditions of the book of Genesis developed by Duane Garrett who argues that the historical setting of the sources of the book of Genesis is Egyptian. In particular, it was the Levites who recorded and preserved the historical traditions of Israel handed to them by Moses.


Part 1 – Critique of Theory of Babylonian Mythological Background of Genesis

Herman Gunkel suggested in 1895 that the background of the poetic texts in the Old Testament which describe the battle between Yahweh and various sea monsters like Yam (Sea), Rahab (Arrogant One), Leviathan (Coiled One), Tannin (Dragon) may be found in Babylonian myths. For Gunkel, this mythical tradition was the background of the creation story in Genesis, though it had been purged by a monotheistic faith. Since Genesis 1-11 reflects “a pre-literary and uncritical stage of society,” it should be interpreted as any other Ancient Near Eastern text. As John Skinner asserts in his ICC commentary on Genesis, “We are not entitled to assume a priori: That Israel is an exception to the general rule that a legendary age forms the ideal background of history.” Gunkel’s theory is highly influential among contemporary Old Testament critics. However, the arguments underlying Gunkel’s theory is open to criticism.

First, it is common for Old Testament critics to point to parallel themes between Genesis and the pagan mythology, e.g. the Gilgamesh Epic (the Babylonian flood) and the Enuma Elish (Babylonian Genesis). As evidence, critics point to the parallel between the story of Cain and Abel and the story of Enkimdu and Dumuzi as stories which reflect on the ancient feud between the pastoral nomads (here the shepherd-god Dumuzi) and the farmers (farmer-god Enkimdu). However, unlike Genesis, the Babylonian myth ends with the goddess Inanna (Ishtar) favouring the farmer-god, Enkimdu.

Nahum Sarna rejects the theory of rivalry between nomads and farmers as “extremely flimsy.” Indeed, Sarna emphasizes that the biblical text does not pit the two occupations against one another. The focus is on the heart attitudes of the men and not on their occupations which embody two religious insights that characterize the religion of Israel, (1) the individual is the distinctive personality in his relationship to God and (2) the necessity of relating worship to piety. [Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (Shocken, 1966), pp. 28-30] In other words, the alleged parallels between the Babylonian text and Genesis must be regarded as superficial.

Critics claim to have found a striking parallel in the story of the sending out of the birds told in the Babylonian epic and the Genesis Flood story. However, W.G. Lambert observes that the earliest copy of the Babylonian text (1600BC) lacks any reference to the birds. He asserts, “Thus the only surviving testimony to the most telling parallel happens to be later than the Biblical account, but nonetheless I hold that there is a certain dependency of the Hebrew writers on a Mesopotamian tradition.” The word “nonetheless” confirms that liberal scholars are not immune to dogmatism. The alleged dependence of Genesis on the Babylonian epic also violates the rule that “In the Ancient Near East, the rule is that simple accounts or traditions may give rise (by accretion and embellishment) to elaborate legends, but not vice-versa.” Based on this rule, one may logically venture that it was the later editors of the longer Babylonian myths who elaborated on the earlier shorter Genesis story!

Second, with regard to alleged philological parallels (e.g. ‘tehom’ = the deep is supposedly a parallel to the chaos-dragon slain by Marduk), some scholars have pointed out that there are philological problems in postulating that the term ‘tehom’ is borrowed from Babylonian (cf. Alexander Heidel). Furthermore, there is simply no need for the Hebrew language to borrow the word from Babylonian since it is a common Semitic term, evidenced by Ugaritic texts (cf. Kenneth Kitchen). Walter Kaiser cites the case made by Thorkild Jacobsen that Marduk means ‘son of the storm’ and therefore his conflict with Tiamat is a battle of the elements: the storm, rain, lightning, thunder and the sea. Furthermore, the same motif is given in the Ugaritic myth of Baal versus Yam. This raises the question of dependence and borrowing of the motif from Babylon. Finally, the imposition of a mythological reading of the Old Testament is a misreading of the text which ignores the linguistic usage of the Old Testament which is metaphorical rather than mythological (cf. Prov. 8:22-31).

Kaiser writes, “The conclusion seems to be building that neither the subject material with its apparent, but unfulfilled, parallelism to ancient Near Eastern mythologies nor the initial lexicographical studies involving words like the deep” and “to brood” will serve as guides in leading us to the conclusion that the literary genus (Gattung) of these chapters is the category of myth.”

Underlying all these errors of “critical dogmatism” is its parallelomania. Having fixed its interest on the slightest similarities it overlooks grave dissimilarities. More importantly, the observation by Nahum Sarna remains unchallenged, “Despite the familiarity of the Hebrew account with some of the motifs of the cosmogonic myths of the ancient Near East, all notion of a connection between creation and cosmic battles was banished from Genesis with extreme care.” [Sarna, p. 22]

Critics should further note that the literary style of Gen. 1-11 is prose and not poetry with the use of the waw consecutive with the verb to describe sequential, the frequent use of the direct object sign and the so-called relative pronoun, and the stress of definitions. Needless to say, the same applies to Gen. 12-50. For example, the phrase “These are the generations of,” along with specific customs, names, laws, places and times are indicative of the intention of the author to introduce each new Patriarch in his historical context. There are 64 geographical terms, 88 personal names and a score of identifiable cultural items (such as brass, iron, gopher wood, bitumen, mortar brick, stone, harp, pipe, cities, towers) in early chapters of Genesis. Indeed, there is growing confirmation of an early composition of the historical traditions of Israel as the details fit perfectly within the early second millennium BC. This is witnessed by findings from archaeological sites like Nuzu, Mari and Alalakh and throw into question the assumption that the shaping of the book of Genesis (and the Pentateuch) was essentially shaped in a Babylonian context. [See, Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (IVP, 1975)]

It is evident that critics perhaps have failed to take the book of Genesis on its own terms and have only been too eager to dissolve the semantic difficulties of the writer’s ‘legitimate metaphors’ [cf. Stafford Wright, “The Place of Myth in the Interpretation of the Bible,” (JTVI 1956), pp. 18-30] and wrongly class them as mythological clues.

To conclude, the theory of Babylonian mythological influence on Genesis 1-11 rests on precarious foundations and thereby raises doubts on one of the assumptions of the DH that the book of Genesis (and the Pentateuch) was essentially shaped in a Babylonian context.


Walter Kaiser, “The Literary Form of Genesis 1-11” in J. Barton Payne, New Perspectives on the Old Testament (Word Book, 1987), pp. 48-65.
Gary V. Smith, “Structure and Purpose in Genesis 1-11” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1977), pp. 307-319.
J. Stafford Wright, “The Place of Myth in the Interpretation of the Bible” in Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute (1956), pp. 18-30.

For Further Reading
John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Zondervan, 2018).
Richard Averback, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation (Hendrickson, 2013).

Next Post Part 2. The Egyptian Origins and the Levitical Transmission of the Historical Traditions of the Book of Genesis.