Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?

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.”

Do the first three days of creation really parallel the next three days?

This post was originally written for Dr. Smith’s blog Good Question. At a reader’s suggestion, it’s being republished here because it also relates to the concerns of this blog.

Q. I like that you translate the opening of the account as saying “sky” and “land,” since most people assume what’s being mentioned there is the creation of the universe.

Several people I’ve read have been fairly critical of the “Framework View” of this account, mainly because they don’t see the parallelism between the days. I would tend to agree that it does seem like day 2 is the better parallel for day 4 than day 1 (since, if I’m not mistaken, the Hebrews thought that the sun, moon, and stars were in the dome). It also seems like day 3 describes the space created for the sea creatures in day 5, not day 6. Finally, in day 3, there isn’t just a domain created for something to fill but there is also the simultaneous creation of plants to fill the land.

How would you interpret these observations?

My layout of the opening creation account in Genesis does follow what is customarily known as the “Framework View.”  Here’s how I’d answer the criticisms of that view which you cite.

First, I see Day 4 as the clear counterpart to Day 1 because Day 4 provides the rulers for the realms created on Day 1.  And the language is clearly reminiscent: On Day 1 God separates the light from the darkness, and on Day 4 God creates lights to “separate the day from the night,” to “separate the light from the darkness.”  On Day 1 God calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night,” and on Day 4 God creates two great lights to rule the day and the night. (As I explain in my Genesis study guide, that’s how this account operates. Each realm of creation has its sub-regents, under God’s authority. Humans are created at the end as God’s vice-regents, responsible for all of creation under God.)

Day 2 is the clear counterpart to Day 5 because on Day 2 God makes the dome to separate the waters below the dome from the waters above the dome, i.e. to carve out a demarcated space within the chaotic pre-existing waters. (See this post on the Hebrew view of these waters, which seem to us like eternally existing matter.)  Then on Day 5 God populates this carved-out realm, the sea, along with the realm created by the dome itself, the sky.

Day 3 is not about the creation of the seas, it’s about the creation of the land—this is the clear purpose of God’s creative fiat:  “Let what is dry appear.”  But it is by contrast with the new thing, the land, that the sea is definitively differentiated and named—just as the already-existing darkness gets a name, “Night,” by contrast with “Day.”  Sometimes to know what a thing is, you need to know what it is not!

Finally, the green plants are created in the second creative act of Day 3 (“The land brought forth greenery, plants that bore seeds according to their kind, and trees whose seed was in their fruit according to their kind”), and they are mentioned again, in parallel language, in the second creative act of Day 6: “ I have given to you humans as your food every seed-bearing plant that is upon the face of the whole land, and every tree whose fruit makes it a seed-bearing tree.”  So we need to understand these plants, even though they are living things (in our view), not as part of the population of the land, but rather as part of that realm itself, making it habitable for people and animals, who are its population proper.

Thanks very much for your questions, and I hope these clarifications are helpful!

Land emerges from the sea as a new volcanic island is formed south of Japan. Land emerging from the sea is the concern of Day 3 of creation in the Genesis account, although a very different mechanism is envisioned.

30 Snow melt

Gasson Hall, Boston College

One sunny winter day while I was doing my doctorate (whose story I’ll introduce near the end of this post), I sat by a window in the Boston College library. A loud swishing sound interrupted my reading. I looked up just in time to see a heavy column of snow slide down a broad chute formed by the corrugations of the copper roof on an adjacent building. Other columns made similar downward flights throughout the afternoon. The sun had been slowly, indiscernibly melting the bottom of the snow until, column after column, it slid off the roof on a cushion of water. Sometimes changes that seem dramatic when they occur are actually the result of incremental influences that have accumulated over time.

This was the case with my ultimate abandonment of the belief that the earth was only a few thousand years old. I never experienced “rock shock” the way my brother-in-law did. (This may be because I’d held an “old earth” view as a child before becoming a creationist as a teenager, though I didn’t know enough to use those terms at the time.) But eventually a growing body of evidence, a more satisfying way of interpreting the Bible, and my increasing awareness of intermediate positions made me free to hold the all-or-nothing young-earth paradigm I’d been taught in creative tension with other possibilities. At one point, some of these other possibilities simply began to appear more reasonable.

As anticlimactic as it may sound, I accepted the reasonableness of the earth’s antiquity one day while sitting in my living room watching television! I’m not sure exactly when this incident took place, but it was in the years after I had left seminary and the ministry, while was working as a writer, and clearly some time after I taught my Genesis course. I was watching an educational program that was not primarily about evolution, but rather about a certain region of our country which is now inland and gently mountainous, but which also contains marine fossils. I was now somehow able to accept that the area had been covered by seas once; then mountains had thrust upwards; then these mountains had eroded. And this, I was able to admit, had to have taken a long time!

I still didn’t know how this recognition could be reconciled with the biblical chronology that, taken as a whole, seemed to require a young earth. But I felt that some explanation could eventually be found, and so my new time frame for natural history did not really upset my faith very much. Nevertheless, I did not rush to embrace a Darwinian model of biological development, either. I was still aware of enough unresolved problems within that paradigm that it did not appear to be a completely satisfactory account of the origins and development of life. So I moved from a position in which I had a personally satisfying and harmonious vision of science and the Bible to one in which I suspended judgment on many questions.

Five years after I left seminary, I returned to Gordon-Conwell to complete a master’s degree in theological studies, graduating in 1988. From there, after a year of further preparation, I entered the joint doctoral program of Andover Newton Theological School and the Boston College Department of Theology. At the same time, I accepted a call to the First Baptist Church in Newton as assistant minister, and I began pursuing ordination with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Each of these three endeavors presented challenges that at one point or another refined and shaped my understanding of the early chapters of Genesis.

First, during the fall semester of my first two years of doctoral studies, I met weekly in a colloquium with the other members of the program who were similarly still in course work. They represented different specialties: systematic theology, historical theology, and ethics. Many, like me, had Bible minors. Our task was to work our way through the Western theological and philosophical tradition by reading and debating the writings of its greatest figures.

In one of our discussions, a student, without using the actual term, characterized people as beset by “original sin.” Another student became indignant. “Come now,” he protested, “you don’t mean to tell me that there are people in this room who still believe in the myth of Adam and Eve!” A third student responded cautiously, “That depends what you mean by ‘myth.’” The rest of the group, knowing slim conversational prospects when they saw them, moved on to other issues.

But the question stayed with me. I did believe in “original sin,” in that I believed all people needed God’s deliverance from innate self-destructive and spiritually deadening tendencies. This is all my classmate had meant by the “myth of Adam and Eve” that he didn’t believe in. But did believing the story mean more than that?

I recognized that I now held two possibilities in creative tension: The human race may have been descended from a first pair, about which some historical details have been preserved; or, the story may have originated as an explanation and exposé of the innate destructive behavior patterns humans are only too ready to ignore or deny. The tension was tolerable, and thus did not cry out for immediate resolution, but at the same time it was creative and stimulated my thinking.

Another endeavor presented a second challenge to my thinking. As I moved through the ordination process in those same years I eventually wrote a paper, meant to be read aloud in my ordination council, describing my faith journey and sense of calling, and outlining my positions on a specified list of theological subjects. In advance of the council, I discussed my paper with ministerial preparation committees of my local and regional associations.

The draft I shared with the local committee included, under the subject of “creation,” the sentence, “Man and woman were made last but highest, to rule over creation as God’s stewards.” When I read this sentence, one minister on the committee said aloud, “No.” He insisted that man might have been made last according to Genesis 1, but that according to Genesis 2, he was created first. When I looked at him with uncomprehending eyes, he said simply, “Read it for yourself.”

We moved on, but when I got back to my office at the church, the first thing I did was read it for myself. And sure enough, he was right. More than a little embarrassed that I had never observed this before, my first step was to change my paper to read, “Humans were created with a special responsibility to superintend creation, as God’s stewards.” My next step was to figure out how the Bible could claim, in adjacent accounts, that man was created both before and after the animals.