Genesis 1-2 Parallels #1: Creation



enumaelishEnuma Elish

It may surprise some to learn that Genesis is not the oldest recorded creation account; prior to the Israelite people and the writing of Genesis were other cultures in the ancient near east with their own cosmological narratives concerning the origin of the universe. Take the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish. What’s fascinating about this creation account is that despite predating Genesis by at least 1000 years, it contains many similar mythical elements – showing that the authors of Genesis were directly or indirectly influenced by it. This should come as no surprise as the Israelites were exiled to Babylon (597-538 BC) and would have undoubtedly been exposed to their religious traditions.

Below are four of the major similarities between the two cosmologies. Citations to Enuma Elish are used in accordance with this translation (which I’ve added highlights to). [1]

1. The initial state of creation

Reading both texts side by side we see two parallel statements from the start concerning the state of existence, with heaven and earth having yet been created:

“…when God first created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1)

“When on high no name was given to heaven” (EE 1:1).

Even more striking is their shared use of a watery chaos. Genesis begins when “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters” (1:2). This atmosphere matches precisely the chaotic, formless void that the mother goddess Ti’amat ruled over and is identified with as a chaos monster. Interesting enough, the feminine plural form for “the deep” in Hebrew is tehom making it cognate with the name Ti’amat. [2]

2. Divine Combat and the Days of Creation

Since creation in Genesis relies on a single god, Elohim, the creation of the earth and other elements are immediate with the power of his voice. In Enuma Elish, it is the Babylonian pantheon that must first come into existence. Following a divine combat between Ti’amat and the high god Marduk, there occurs a sequence of creation events that mirrors the six days of creation. After slaying Ti’amat, Marduk slices her body in half – using the top half to create the firmament of heaven, holding back the waters above, and using the bottom half to create land, holding back the waters below (EE 4.138; 5.62)

Where is the combat motif in Genesis 1? While it would seem to have been edited out, small pieces of the divine combat between Yahweh and a chaos-dragon called Leviathan remain in other parts of the Hebrew Bible.(Ps. 74:13-14, 89:10; Isa. 51:9; Job 41:1)

3. Divine Rest at the End of Creation

After the other elements of creation fall in place, both Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish climax with divine rest. In Enuma Elish man is created by Maduk to give rest to the Igigi-gods (EE 6.134). Similarly, God rests on the seventh day after creating man (Gen. 2:2).

4. Depiction of the Cosmos

The Bible depicts the final state of creation with great similarity to that of Enuma Elish. In both:

  • The flat earth is covered by a heavens/sky dome (Isa. 40:22, Ps. 104:2; EE 4.138-139)
  • The heavens/sky hold back the primordial waters (Ps. 148:4; EE 4.140)
  • The sun, moon and stars are created for time keeping (Gen. 1:14-16; EE 5.2-12)

Below is an illustration I made of the cosmos as described in Enuma Elish. Click the image to see a list of citations regarding the numbered features of creation seen on the illustration. Furthermore, compare this depiction of the cosmos with the Biblical one seen earlier in the scholarly notes.

enuma elish universe small

Others creation myths

While Enuma Elish is the most similar creation myth to Genesis by far, parallels can also be made with the myths of other cultures.

In the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (dating to the Old Kingdom, 2575-2134 BCE),[3] the creator God Atum is also honored for creating the cosmos by means of speech, and references a point in time before the heavens and the earth – similar too the statements found in Genesis and Enuma Elish quoted above.

When the almighty speaks, all else comes to life.

There were no heavens and no earth.

In the creation myth of the Maoris of New Zealand,[4] the formation of the universe also begins with the summoning of light through speech:

Io dwelt within the breathing-space of immensity.

The Universe was in darkness, with water everywhere.

There was no glimmer of dawn, no clearness, no light.

And he began by saying these words—

“Darkness become a light-possessing darkness.”

And at once light appeared.

In the ancient Akkadian stories of Atrahasis,[5] the god Nintu-Mami creates workers (lullu) to care for the world by thinning clay with saliva – recalling how in Genesis God made man out of “the dust of the earth” and places him in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:7; 2:15).

In the Egyptian Hymn to Ptah (1307-1196 BCE),[6] “The ka-souls of all the living were created in the image of the craftsman god Ptah”, just as man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:3). Moreover, Ptah bests the god Atum with the ability to create the Ennead – the other deities – from only his speech. He then rests after finishing the rest of his work: “Atum had to masturbate to bring forth the Ennead. Ptah had only to speak, and the Ennead came forth…Having done all these things, Ptah rested and was content with his work.”

Lastly, the natives of the Kei islands of Indonesia tell how their ancestors were fashioned out of clay by the divine Creator, Dooadlera, who then breathed life into them. According to Hawaiian myth, the gods Kane, Ku, and Lono breathed into the mouth and nostrils of a clay image to give it life.

Of course, for every similarity there exists dozens of differences. One of the interesting ways other cultures differentiate from Genesis in their creation myth is the use of a cosmic egg as the course for all life, as found among the Chinese, Japanese and Greek Orphic traditions.

Sources and Further Reading:

[1] B.F. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature

[2] Alexander Heidel,The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation, p. 98-101; Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible, p. 37.

[3] Hymn to Atum, Columns xxvi:21-xxvii:5, found in Old Testament Parallelsp. 8, by Victor H. Matthews et al.

[4]  Richard Heinberg, Memories & Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age, p. 24

[5] Stories of Atrahasis, 1:250-59; K 3399+3934:8-18, found in Old Testament Parallels, p. 38, by Victor H. Matthew el al.

[6] Hymn to Ptah, found in Old Testament Parallels, p. 5, by Victor H. Matthews et al.


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