Creation Accounts and Ancient Near Eastern Religions
By John A. Bloom and C. John Collins
Over the past two hundred years, the science of archaeology has developed and given us direct access to documents and artifacts from the lands of the Bible.
While often fragmentary and difficult to interpret, these ancient writings flesh out the cultures that surrounded and influenced ancient Israel. Of particular interest are ancient near eastern religious texts, because they allow us to compare the gods of Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt with the God of the Bible.
Since their discovery, many scholars have claimed that the religious views found in these ancient documents are hardly different from those in the Bible; in fact, the ancient Israelites simply borrowed the beliefs of their neighbors. Nowhere are these scholars more assured that Israel parroted others than in the creation account and early history found in Genesis 1–11.
While years of study are necessary to read these creation accounts in the original languages, good English translations are now available, so that I [JB] can pass along some good advice that I received some years ago. In a class discussing the canon of Scripture—which books should be included in the Bible, and which ones should not be—the instructor made this comment: “It’s actually very easy to tell: just read them.” When investigating claims that the biblical creation account is just borrowed from elsewhere, my advice is the same: read the other accounts, noting not only the slight similarities but also the significant differences between them, and the Genesis account will clearly stand out as superior.1 In fact, many scholars today recognize that these creation stories, from which earlier scholars thought Israel had borrowed, actually have very little in common with the Bible.
A BABYLONIAN GENESIS?
No ancient creation account is cited more for its supposed parallels to early Genesis than the Babylonian poem called Enuma Elish (from its two opening words in Akkadian, “when on high”).2 This story includes a description of the conflict between the younger god Marduk and the older goddess Tiamat; after Marduk slew Tiamat, he used her body to make the world.
Part of the appeal for this comparison comes from the simple fact that Enuma Elish was one of the first texts discovered from the ancient Near East that covers the making of the world. Further, the Akkadian name Tiamat seems to be parallel to the Hebrew word for “the deep,” tehôm (Gen. 1:2), which led some scholars to think of Genesis 1 as describing a conflict of sorts between God and the forces of nature, or even a sea monster; this gains some traction from the possibility that “without form and void” is a paraphrase for “chaos.” The opening words of the Akkadian story, “when on high,” also influenced some to argue that the opening words of Genesis should be…
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