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The Ancient Near East and Genesis 1-2

Scripture is filled with symbolism and phraseology that means something different today than when the sacred words were written.  To properly interpret a passage and understanding of these are imperative.  In addition, the backgrounds of cultures and traditions of the ancient near east are also at play.  One must not discount these narratives, but rather embrace them and determine how these backgrounds shed further light on the biblical text.  The purpose of this paper is to discuss the methodology of comparing these texts with the texts of scripture.  Furthermore, the Babylonian texts of the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis will be compared to the biblical creation account and similarities and differences identified.

The Ancient Near East

In comparing Genesis 1-2 with the accounts of the ancient near east there seems to be three groups.  One group says that scripture has plagiarized the accounts of the ancient near east.  In doing so writing was edited to omit polytheism and other pagan ideals.  Another group accepts and acknowledges that there were people who were attempting to explain and understand the world around them in terms that they knew.  The Israelites were in close proximity to these cultures and understand what is being communicated.  Yet a third group, though a minority, says that other than some vague similarities, the accounts of the ancient near east have no bearing on the biblical accounts[1]

When comparing these accounts with Genesis one must do something difficult.  One must attempt, as best they can, to remove presuppositional bias.  These accounts were not written in our language or with western ideas in mind.  The ancient people were not uncivilized pagans of low mental stature.  They understood sense and perception and we need to attempt to understand their thinking.  Looking, and analyzing, the accounts of the ancient near east assists us in seeing similarities in scripture and how they differ[2].

Analyzing The Connections

There are many methodologies that can be used to assist in comparability.  For purposes of analyzing connections between the ancient near east and Genesis 1-2 I would use the historical and typological approach.  This is not to say that other methods are wrong, but as can be seen these two methods provide some insight into the cultures and the way the people think.  The historical comparative method gives us the full story and prevents us from analyzing a line or two out of its proper context[3].  The typological comparative method seeks to describe commonalities between various groups and their views on the world[4].  A word of caution should be mentioned here in regard to typology.  It is possible for presuppositions to creep in when utilizing this approach, and for this student should be used only when the historical is exhausted.

When utilizing the historical method, one comes across parallels in the various texts of the ancient near east, including Genesis 1-2.  The Babylonian documents of the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis are no exception.  Geographical proximity also plays a role as Babylon was only about 900 miles away from Jerusalem.  At the time of the writing of Genesis Jerusalem was not established as a capital so the people were most likely much closer together. 

When one goes back far enough it can be seen that Akkadian was the dominant language for what would become Babylon[5].  It is the oldest Semitic language and goes back to around 2300 BC.  It is also the language that would eventually evolve into Hebrew.  Many scholars notice the similarity between the Hebrew word tehom which means “deep”, and the account in the Enuma Elish of Tiamat the sea-goddess.  The Enuma Elish is a Mesopotamian creation epic that features the storm god Marduk leading an army of other deities and against Tiamat, and her legion of deities.  There is a Genesis parallel in regard to Tiamat, as she is associated with the ocean and chaos.  In Genesis 1:1 we read that the spirit of the Lord was over the waters and they were void.  God brings order to the chaos, and likewise this is what Marduk has to do.  Another similarity between the two is the cosmology in Genesis 1:6 and what is described in the Enuma Elish[6]

Other similarities between the two are light coming from the established deity or deities, the universe is created, dry land appears, and man is created.  In addressing these parallels evangelical scholars and non-evangelical scholars alike do not disregard them as not important.  They point to the fact that the account in Genesis is done by a sovereign God who is in control of creation[7].

Though there are parallels in the two accounts there are many dissimilarities.  In the Enuma Elish the sky and land are created by Marduk destroying Tiamet and tearing her asunder.  Creation happened as a result from conflict among the gods and not as an act of love of a sovereign God.  Just because parallels exist does not mean that one plagiarized the other but having an understanding of one does help to understand the other in a fuller way.  What is interesting is that this epic depicts a supreme God over all the gods which is echoed in the Old Testament.

The other work of the ancient near east to be examined is the Atrahasis.  This epic is one of three flood narratives from Babylon.  However, it also gives an account of the creation of man.  As with the Enuma Elish, there are also similarities with Genesis.  For example, Genesis 2:7 says that God made man from the dust of the earth, and the Atrahasis says man was created with clay.  Though the material is slightly different, there is a parallel in the account.  Both accounts depict the deity, or deities, inserting a spirit into man.  There is also an emphasis on sexual procreation in regard to marriage.  Evangelical scholars, and Catholic, point to the parallels as important to understanding how and why creation happened[8].  Rabbinic scholars point to the parallels in s different way and point to the material that man was made with.  Both are formed from the Earth.

The differences in the two works are many.  In the Genesis account we read of man being created and appearing.  In the Atrahasis, man was a result of a long pregnancy by the mother goddess Nintu.  When man was created in Genesis God breathed the spirit of life into Adam, but in the Babylonian epic this spirit is actually a piece of the god.  In this case it was the blood of Geshtu-e after he was destroyed by the direction of Enki.  Why was man created?  The answer to this question may be the most striking dissimilarity between the two.  In the Genesis account God creates man after he created everything else.  He rested because he saw that his creation was good.  Man was created with love.  In the Atrahasis man was created because the lower gods were tired of doing manual labor.  They pleaded with the higher gods to create man to do the work.  Man was created because of a revolt among gods, not as an act of love from a loving and sovereign God.

Big Differences

In conclusion the parallels of the ancient near east documents mentioned here and Genesis 1-2 are many.  Using the historical comparative method assists in not only noticing these parallels but looking at them in their proper context.  One can see these parallels and wrongly assume that Moses blatantly plagiarized the accounts in Genesis, but that is not the case.  Looking deeper into history shows the stark differences that the various creation accounts seek to convey.  The accounts mentioned in this paper depict creation arising from bloody wars between jealous gods, while Genesis shows a creator who is in control and creation as a manifestation of his love. 

An interesting part of looking at this methodology was the varying opinions on the parallels from evangelical and non-evangelical scholars.  A majority of scholars acknowledge the parallels and agree that understanding this literature helps in a better understanding of scripture.  There are a minority who discount it, which I found surprising.  Roman Catholic and Orthodox scholars that were researched agreed with a majority of evangelicals, but the use of typology was more prevalent.  Typology can definitely be useful, but in this students opinion, only be used after the historical comparative.  It can be used along side of it but not in place of it.  We need not be afraid of these parallels, but should embrace them.  It is part of history, but the Genesis account is vastly different and depicts a God that is not created in the image of man.

 

Bibliography

Abuda, Piotr L. “Typological Usage of the Old Testament in the New Testament.” The Person and the Challenges: The Journal of Theology, Education, Canon Law, and Social Studies Inspired by Pope John Paul II 1, no. 2 (2011): 167–82.

Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, Trent C. Butler, and Bill Latta, eds. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999.

G. G. Krivchik, “Comparative Method in Historical Sciences and Teaching,” Granì (Dnìpropetrovs'k), 2017.

Kugler, Robert A., and Patrick J. Hartin. An Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Smith, James E. The Pentateuch. 2nd ed. Old Testament Survey Series. Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 1993.

Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One. Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press, 2009.

Water, Mark. The Book of Genesis Made Easy. The Made Easy Series. Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2000.

[1]. Mark Water, The Book of Genesis Made Easy, The Made Easy Series (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2000), 3.

[2]. Walton, John, The Lost World of Genesis One (Madison, Wi: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 26.

[3]. G. G. Krivchik, “Comparative Method in Historical Sciences and Teaching,” Granì (Dnìpropetrovs'k), 2017, 73–80.

[4]. Piotr L. Abuda, “Typological Usage of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” The Person and the Challenges : The Journal of Theology, Education, Canon Law, and Social Studies Inspired by Pope John Paul II 1, no. 2 (2011): 167–82.

[5]. Chad Brand et al., eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), s.v. "Akkadian."

[6]. Robert A. Kugler and Patrick J. Hartin, An Introduction to the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 53.

[7]. James E. Smith, The Pentateuch, 2nd ed., Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 1993), 47.

[8]. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 114.

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