Genesis vs Ancient Near East Polytheistic Myths: Plagiarism or Polemics? Part 1

Many critical scholars in Western universities suggest that the biblical Creation and Flood stories borrowed ideas from Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). For example, the Creation story in Genesis must be influenced by the Babylonian creation story of Enuma Elish since the story in Genesis is briefer and the preserved records of Genesis belong to a later date. However, Kenneth Kitchen rejects this notion. He writes, “The common assumption that the Hebrew account is simply a purged and simplified version of the Babylonian legend (applied also to the Flood stories) is fallacious on methodological grounds. 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. In the Ancient Orient, legends were not simplified or turned into pseudo-history (historicized) as has been assumed for early Genesis.”/1/

On the other hand, the relationship between Genesis and the Babylonian Flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh could be more nuanced. There are some similarities, but also differences (the form of the Ark, duration of the Flood and the birds sent out by Noah). Perhaps, the similarities and differences arose because the memories and traditions of the event of the Flood were transmitted differently by Israel and its neighboring societies.

More importantly, Genesis displays vocabulary similar to ANET not because it borrowed ideas from ANET but because it is mounting a polemical theology against the pagan polytheism of Israel’s neighbors.

As John Currid explains the goal of Israel’s polemical theology,
Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meanings. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world. Polemical theology rejects any encroachment of false gods into orthodox belief; there is an absolute intolerance of polytheism. Polemical theology is monotheistic to the very core…The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East…Polemical theology is one way in which the biblical writers demonstrate that uniqueness. The purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate the essential distinctions between Hebrew thought and ancient Near Eastern beliefs and practices.” [John Currid, Against the Gods (Crossway, 2013), pp. 26-27]

We shall in the next post compare and contrast the biblical stories of Creation and the Flood and their Babylonian counterparts in order to demonstrate how Genesis mounts its polemical theology against pagan polytheism. The word polemical theology may suggest that our analysis is unreliable since it is religiously biased. Hence, it would be good to share liberally, the learned judgment of well-known secular experts in ANE history and archaeology before venturing our views. We refer to the seminal and classic work, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay of Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East by H. & H.A. Frankfort, John Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen and William Irwin (Uni. Chicago Press, 1946, 1977), [IAAM] which is also published under the title, Before Philosophy by Pelican Press. The authors confirm that there is a significant gulf between the Bible and ANE myths.

Frankfort writes,
“When we read in Psalm xix that “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork”, we hear a voice which mocks the beliefs of Egyptians and Babylonians. The heavens, which were to the psalmist but a witness of God’s greatness, were to the Mesopotamians the very majesty of godhead, the highest ruler, Anu. To the Egyptians the heavens signified the mystery of the divine mother through whom man was reborn. In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent: the gods were in nature. The Egyptians saw in the sun all that a man may know of the Creator; the Mesopotamians viewed the sun as the god Shamash, the guarantor of justice. But to the psalmist the sun was God’s devoted servant who “is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.” The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature – and transcended, likewise, the realm of mythopoeic thought. It would seem that the Hebrews, no less than the Greeks, broke with the mode of speculation which had prevailed up to their time…

In both countries [Egypt and Mesopotamia], for instance, the existing world was believed to have emerged from the waters of chaos. In Egypt this primeval ocean was male — the god Nin. In other words, it was conceived as a fertilizing agent, and as such it was a permanent factor in the created universe recognized in the subsoil water and in the annual flood of the Nile. In Mesopotamia the fertilizing power in water was personified as the god Enki or Ea. But he was entirely unrelated to the primordial ocean. This ocean was a female, Ti’amat, the mother who brought forth gods and monsters in such profusion that her unbounded fruitfulness endangered the very existence of the universe. She was killed in combat by Marduk, who formed the world from her body. Thus water was significant to both Babylonians and Egyptians as the source and also as the sustainer of life. Yet these conceptions were very differently expressed by the two peoples.” [IAAM, pp. 363-365]

“[The Egyptians and Babylonians] agreed in the fundamental assumptions that the individual is part of society, that society is embedded in nature, and that nature is but the manifestation of the divine. This doctrine was, in fact, universally accepted by the peoples of the ancient world with the single exception of the Hebrews…The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God. Yahweh is not in nature. Neither earth nor sun nor heaven is divine; even the most potent natural phenomena are but reflections of God’s greatness. It is not even possible properly to name God…The God of the Hebrews is pure being, unqualified, ineffable. He is holy. That means that he is sui generis…Every finite reality shrivelled to nothingness before the absolute value which was God.

It has been rightly pointed out that the monotheism of the Hebrews is a correlate of their insistence on the unconditioned nature of God. Only a God who transcends every phenomenon, who is not conditioned by any mode of manifestation – only an unqualified God can be the one and only ground of all existence.” [IAAM, pp. 366-369]

Yehezkel Kaufmann emphasizes that for Israel, monotheism goes beyond just affirming a god who is an all-powerful creator since this idea is also found in the pagan world. Pagan religions envisage a more fundamental primordial realm from which the gods, including the god who created this world emerged. Since the gods are rooted in this realm, they are subject to its laws. Indeed, they must submit to the inexorable decrees of fate. In contrast, Israelite monotheism rejects the idea that all gods emerged from a primordial realm since the Creator God of the Old Testament is the source of all being who is not subject to a cosmic order. “The basic idea of Israelite religion is that God is supreme over all. There is no realm above or beside him to limit his absolute sovereignty. He is utterly distinct from, and other than, the world; he is subject to no laws, no compulsions, or powers that transcend him. He is, in short, non-mythological. This is the essence of Israelite religion, and that which sets it apart from all forms of paganism.” [Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Uni. Chicago Press, 1960),pp. 23,  60] /2/

The gulf between the high monotheism found in Genesis and the polytheistic myths of ANET is indeed a yawing abyss. In contrast to the one God of Genesis, the lesser gods of the pagan polytheistic myths are created through sexual acts. A major god could be killed and her carcass then used to make the earth and sky. Even the influential critic Herman Gunkel concurs, “In the Babylonian account everything is wild and grotesque; it is barbaric, riotous poetry. In Genesis 1 everything is quietly solemn and elevated; it is expansive and occasionally somewhat pedantic prose.” [Bernard Anderson, Creation in the Old Testament (SPCK, 1984), p. 47] One wonders how it is possible for sophisticated critics to fail to distinguish between historical facts and mythological fantasy when they suggest that Genesis borrowed mythological elements from the ANET.

Currid offers an alternative explanation that is more plausible, “In one sense, the Hebrew writers are “guilty” of borrowing expressions and concepts from the surrounding cultures. The idioms mentioned above are characteristically used of Pharaoh in Egyptian writings throughout the history of that land. Yet the biblical writers employ such borrowing for the purpose of taunting. The Hebrew authors use polemic to call into question the power of Pharaoh, and to underscore the true might of Yahweh! [Currid, Against the Gods, pp. 26-27].

To conclude, Genesis did not borrow ideas from pagan myths. Instead, it exploited common thought forms in order to critique pagan myths and to demonstrate the incomparability of biblical ethical-monotheism.

Related Posts
/1/ Re: earlier post, “Between Babylon and Egypt: Mythology or Historical Traditions in the Book of Genesis. Part 1” which critiques alleged parallels and Genesis’ dependence on Babylon myths. Quotation is taken from Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (IVP, 1966), p. 88.
/2/ Quoted in the earlier post, “Monotheism in Ancient Israel.