Book of Genesis vs Babylonian Creation (Enuma Elish) and Babylonian Flood (Epic of Gilgamesh)

Genesis vs Ancient Near East Polytheistic Myths: Plagiarism or Polemics? Part 2

A. Genesis and Babylonian Creation & Flood Accounts: Similar but Independent Accounts

The chart below lists several parallels between the Creation and Flood accounts of Genesis and the Mesopotamia Enuma Elish. [Source: Currid, p. 37-38]

Enuma Elish (Mesopotamia) Genesis
Divine spirit and cosmic matter are coexistent and coeternal Divine spirit creates cosmic matter and exists independently of it
Primeval chaos; Tiamat enveloped in darkness The earth a desolate waste, with darkness covering the deep (tehom)
Light emanating from the gods Light created
The creation of the firmament The creation of the firmament
The creation of dry land The creation of dry land
The creation of the luminaries The creation of the luminaries
The creation of man The creation of man
The gods rest and celebrate God rests and sanctifies the seventh day

How does one account for these similarities? We have mentioned earlier that many critical scholars in the Western academia conclude that Genesis is influenced by the Mesopotamians texts. As added evidence, they claim that the word tehom (deep) in Gen. 1:2 is derived from Mesopotamian myth where Marduk defeated Tiamat, the goddess of the deep sea, and dismembered her body to form the earth, sea and heaven. In short, Genesis 1 adapted elements of the Marduk myth. This suggestion is consistent with the critics’ theory of evolutionary development of Israelite religion which postulates that Hebrew scribes adopted and refined pagan concepts as the religion of Israel evolved from polytheism to henotheism, and finally monotheism. A similar transformation is allegedly observed as the name of pre-Israelite God, Elohim (the morphology bears a form of plurality) eventually became Yahweh who is One.

Against these critics, we have argued in Part 1 that similarities between Genesis and Babylonian Flood stories suggest they are independent narratives which developed from a common older historical memory of the original event. But if both narratives are derived from memories of the same event, one could argue that the simplicity and brevity of Genesis is evidence that it is a ‘purer’ text than the Babylonian texts since normally, accretions accumulate in later traditions. Scholars who postulate Genesis’ dependence on the Babylonian texts presuppose Genesis to be like any other ancient literary texts and regard the biblical accounts to be just another ANE myth. However, a closer analysis of Genesis would confirm that the Genesis Creation story is unique when compared to the pagan creation myths. This points to the polemical intent of the writer of Genesis. Bruce Walke explains, “Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the biblical authors stripped the ancient pagan literature of their mythological elements, infused them with the sublimities of their God, and refuted the pagan myths by identifying the holy Lord as the true Creator and Ruler of the cosmos and of history.” [Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), p. 200]

B. Analysis of  two major polemical motifs from Genesis.

1. Creation by Fiat vs Theogonies
One major feature of ANET is theogony (Greek: birth of the gods) when the pantheon of gods were created after a violent conflict between two supernatural powers who emerged from some primordial matter (water), that is, when Marduk defeated Tiamat. In contrast, there is no theogony in Genesis because Yahweh is portrayed as the sole deity of reality, eternal, and the creator of the cosmos. Not only is the suggestion that tehom (deep) is related to Tiamat proven to be questionable, there is not a hint of “the deep” as a deity or that God having to battle with the deep in creating the world. In the words of John Currid,

“The creation account of Genesis, in contrast, presents God as all-powerful, incomparable, and sovereign. “He owes nothing to the agency of another. In addition, creation did not occur as the result of a contest or a struggle between gods, as it did in the Mesopotamian myths. In the Enuma Elish myth, creation was a mere consequence of a war aimed at determining who would be the main god.” In Genesis 1–2, this is a question not even asked or worthy of consideration because there exists only one God, and he is all powerful.” [Currid, p. 41]

The pagan gods were ordered according to their magical powers. However, regardless of their power and position in the hierarchy, they were all subject to Fate, the ultimate magical power in the universe. In contrast, Yahweh is not subject to Fate because he transcends the universe since he created the universe ex nihilo. The polemics of Genesis is reflected in two examples in Genesis.

First, Gen. 1:21 describes how God created the tanninim (great creatures which include serpents, dragons, and even crocodiles). In Canaanite myths, a large serpent or sea creature was the main enemy of the fertility god Baal. In contrast, Yahweh is sovereign, and he needs not battle against rebellious creatures. He simply created them by fiat with his Word. [Currid, p. 41]

Second, it is noted that the ANET regard the heavenly luminaries as part of their mythological theogonies. For example, in the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the creator-god Marduk “constructed stations for the great gods, fixing their astral likenesses as constellations.” Likewise, in Egypt, the sun-god Re which rules the sky brought forth lesser gods into existence. Naturally, the Babylonian and Egyptians worshipped the heavenly luminaries are astral deities. The polemical intent of Genesis 1: 14-19 is clear – the heavenly luminaries are not deities. They are created by God who assigns them their respective positions and roles in the sky and in marking the seasons. No names were assigned to these luminaries as they are merely created material objects; not gods. Currid explains how Genesis demythologizes these ANE astral deities.

Genesis 1 sits in stark contrast to that dark mythological polytheism. The biblical account has as its chief purpose to glorify the one Creator God who is the sole God of all reality. The water at creation (Gen. 1:2) is certainly no deity, and it is not God’s foe that needs to be vanquished. It is mere putty in the hands of the Creator. There is no war between Yahweh and the gods of chaos in order to bring about creation. Yahweh is sovereign, and all the elements of creation are at his beck and call. Again, Genesis 1–2 is ardently zealous for monotheism. Not only does this literature not allow the inclusion of other gods but it stridently argues against them with clear polemics. [Currid, p. 46]

2. Primeval Flood: Moral or Capricious Judgment?
According to the Epic of Atrahasis, the lesser gods created humans to relieve them of hard labor. But humans multiplied and their noisy activities disturbed the sleep of Enlil, the chief god of the pantheon. Enlil got annoyed and ordered a flood to destroy humanity. But one of the lesser gods, Enki warned his favorite worshipper, Atrahasis about the impending catastrophe. He commanded Atrahasis to build a vessel and take his family and animals on board. Atrahasis was saved and subsequently carried to paradise.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Ea (Enki) commanded the hero Utnapishtim to build a cube-shape vessel and loaded all the living things he had. The vessel landed on Mount Nisir (Nimush). Utnapishtim released a dove and a swallow. Both returned. Finally, he released a raven which confirmed that the flood had receded. After the flood, Enlil in his mercy decided to confer immortality to Utnapishtim and his wife.

The chart below compares features of the Epic of Gilgamesh that are similar the Genesis Flood. [Source: Currid, p. 55]

Epic Gilgamesh-Tablet XI Genesis
Divine warning of doom – lines 20-26 Divine warning of doom – 6:12-13
Command to build ship – lines 24-31 Command to build ark – 6:14-16
Hero constructs ship – lines 54-76 Noah builds ark – 6:22
Utnapishtim loads ark, including his relations and animals – lines 80-85 Noah loads ark, including his family and animals – 7:-5
The gods send torrential rains – lines 90-128 Yahweh sends torrential rains – 6:17;7:11-12
The flood destroys humanity – line 133 The flood destroys humanity – 7:21-22
The flood subsides – lines 129-132 The flood abates – 8:1-3
The ship lands on mount Nisir – lines 140-144 The ark settles on Mount Ararat – 8:4
Utnapishtim sends forth birds – lines 146-154 Noah sends forth birds – 8:6-12
Sacrifice to the gods – lines 155-161 Sacrifice to Yahweh – 8:20-22
Deities bless hero – line 194 Yahweh blesses Noah – 9:1

The similarities in the two narrative structures and details are evident. Nevertheless, there are significant differences. The Babylonian flood stories are polytheistic, whereas Genesis is monotheistic. The pagan gods lack morality – they quarrel and fight among themselves as they exploit humans as laborers. The Babylonian Flood is sent because the chief god because he is irritated in his sleep, whereas the Genesis Flood is a punishment for mankind’s immorality. The Babylonian gods treat mankind according their whims. In contrast, God in Genesis initiates a covenant because he wants to bless Noah and his descendants. The reader of Genesis is assured when told that the rainbow is a sign of peace. In contrast, readers of the Epic of Gilgamesh is reminded of their precarious existence since the rainbow is a symbol of war placed in the sky to celebrate Marduk’s brutal victory over Tiamat, the goddess of chaos. In short, Yahweh is a moral God, unlike the pagan gods.

Yahweh as the sovereign Lord is in full control the Flood and everything on earth and in the sky, unlike the Babylonian gods who were at the mercy of the overwhelming flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh gives an unflattering description of their terror when faced with the uncontrollable flood.

The gods were frightened by the deluge,
And, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu,
The gods cowered like dogs
Crouched against the outer wall…
The gods, all humbled, sit and weep. [Epic of Gilgamesh, in Pritchard, ANE vol.1, pp. 68-69]

The pagan gods also come across as pathetic since they cannot do without sacrifices offered by humans. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how the famished gods gathered around like flies when Utnapishtim made an offering after the storm.

The gods smelled the savor,
The gods smelled the sweet savor,
The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer. [Epic of Gilgamesh, in Pritchard, ANE vol.1, p.70]

In contrast, Yahweh who has no need to be fed with sacrifices, calmly and graciously accepted the sacrifice offered by Noah as a gesture of thanksgiving in worship. Yahweh “smelled the pleasing aroma” (an idiomatic phrase of simple acceptance and delight in Noah’s sacrifice) and then pledged never to destroy mankind by a flood.

To summarize,
The stark contrast between Genesis and the polytheistic Babylonian myths is unmistakable. The ambience of the ANET myths is full of fantastical imageries and clashing gods while the biblical stories are down to earth narratives centered on the one God who created ordinary humans to enjoy beneficial relationships with him. Genesis portrays an almighty God who is sovereign and self-sufficient. He is righteous, reliable and faithful (hesed) even as he chooses to bless man who does not deserve his kindness. Yahweh confers dignity and freedom to man by creating him in his image, but humans are merely pawns and playthings of the capricious and sexually charged polytheistic gods. John Oswalt elaborates, “In the Babylonian account humanity is an afterthought, brought into being from a combination of dust and the blood of one of the chaos monsters in order to provide the gods with food and adulation. In the Bible, humanity is created last because it is the apex of all that has gone before and because humans are to be given lordship over all the creation.” [John Oswalt, Bible Among the Myths (Zondervan, 2009), p.70] 

Given the superiority of its religious and moral worldview, Israel must be boneheaded to imitate its neighbors. Yet this what critical scholars expect us to believe when they postulate that the Bible borrowed religious ideas from neigboring polytheistic societies. In these days, when religious syncretism has become fashionable, it is good for Bible believers to be reminded of the uniqueness and incomparability of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Victor Matthews & Don Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East 2e. (Paulist Press, 1997).
James Pritchard, The Ancient Near East. An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. 2 vols. (Princeton Uni. Press, Rpt. 1975).

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


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