This is another post that was originally written for Dr. Smith’s blog Good Question and is being republished here at a reader’s suggestion.
Q. Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths? Some argue that the Israelites were influenced by surrounding cultures and so they told similar creation stories when forming their own national and religious identity. One can take the similarities between Israelite creation stories and those of the nations around them to argue that they were simply a product of human culture. Alternatively, one can say that the differences between the Israelite stories and those of other nations show where they drew the line in defense of revealed transcendent truths (about God as sole creator and so forth). There are a myriad of other positions in between, of course. What do you think?
To the extent that there may have been borrowing, I think this is actually another case of the phenomenon of appropriation that we find throughout the Bible. The community of faith takes objects, practices, institutions, etc. that are being used in the worship of false gods and reclaims them for the praise and honor of the true God.
For example, Israel made regular use of the bull in its sacrificial system, even though this animal was also a prominent symbol of Baal. The tabernacle in Israel consisted of an outer court, main hall, and inner shrine, even though this threefold architectural division also typified Canaanite temples. The Israelites offered some of the same kinds of sacrifices as their neighbors; they sometimes even called them by the same names. For example, both Israelites and Canaanites had a fellowship offering or “peace offering” that they described by a shared Semitic root, sh-l-m.
This process of appropriation is also seen in the case of literary archetypes. Many interpreters believe that Psalm 29, for example, which the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) calls a “hymn to the God of the storm,” has been appropriated from a song that was originally sung in worship of the storm-god Baal. But it has been judiciously altered to make sure that the true God is honored as the master of such powerful natural phenomena.
And so, if a creation story was in circulation among ancient Israel’s neighbors that depicted the realms of sky and land being separated out from the watery chaos—for example, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, in which Tiamat, goddess of the oceanic waters, is slain and the land and the sky are fashioned from the two halves of her divided body—then I think the similarities between such a story and the Genesis creation account are best understood as another case of appropriation.
Even so, the differences are significant. As you say, the Genesis version maintains crucial theological distinctives such as the unique status of Yahweh as the only true God and the position of humans as divine image-bearers and vice regents over creation—not slaves of the gods, as in the Enuma Elish. In fact, what strikes us most about the Genesis account, when we compare it with similar ancient creation stories, is its thoroughgoing monotheism. Creation and humanity are not by-products of a battle between the gods for supremacy. Rather, everything in Genesis proceeds with stately grandeur as a single all-ruling God speaks and is obeyed.
However, I’m not sure that we actually have to posit borrowing or appropriation to account for the similarities. It seems to me that all of these accounts can be understood as a response to the same observed phenomenon—the three-fold division of creation into land, sea, and sky (even as we today observe matter existing in three states: solid, liquid, and gas). This common object of observation is interpreted within the framework of an ancient world view, but in the Israelite case, the interpretation is informed by a relational understanding of the true God. That may be all we need to say.
Below is a sketch of the Genesis cosmology from the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. The designer of the sketch notes, “This is remarkably similar to the cosmology of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the biblical authors.”