by Richard Peachey

This fall I was privileged to teach an evening course, “Genesis 1–11,” at Willingdon School of the Bible in Burnaby, B.C.  One of the handouts I prepared is given below.

The claim is sometimes made that the early chapters of Genesis were derived from Babylonian myths. But when one reads the content of those myths and realizes the significant differences between Genesis and the Babylonian stories, the force of such a claim is considerably weakened.

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Ancient Near Eastern Literature Considered to Parallel Genesis

Quotations of “Dalley” are from Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. (revised edition). (Oxford, UK: Oxford World’s Classics [Oxford University Press], 2000)

1. Atraḫasis  <> (an abridged version); <> (an audio reading of   Dalley’s translation of Atraḫasis, about 36 minutes)

Tablet I: The older generation of gods (Anunnaki) has required the next generation of gods (Igigi) to bear the workload of digging canals. After 3600 years the Igigi revolt, burn their tools, and surround the house of Ellil (or Enlil), the leader of the younger generation of gods. Ellil appeals to the Anunnaki, and receives an answer from his father Anu, the leader of the older gods. Anu agrees that their work has indeed been too hard. Mami, the midwife of the gods (also known as Nintu and Belet-ili) is called upon to create man as a replacement worker for the Igigi. She agrees to do this with the assistance of Enki, the god of wisdom (also known as Ea). The god Ilawela is slaughtered; Mami then mixes clay with Ilawela’s flesh and blood, and the Igigi spit onto it. Pinching off fourteen pieces of clay, Mami makes seven male and seven female humans. After another 600 years or so, the humans become so numerous and noisy that they make Ellil grow restless and lose sleep. Ellil calls for disease to break out. At this point in the story the hero Atraḫasis (“Extra-wise”) is introduced as a devotee of Enki. With Enki’s help, Atraḫasis makes the disease leave the people.

Tablet II: Following further episodes of drought and disease to deal with the noisy humans, Ellil finally calls for a flood.

Tablet III: The gods in council agree to send a flood, but Enki secretly warns his servant Atraḫasis to build a boat with upper decks and lower decks, using bitumen (pitch). The hero, his family, and apparently some animals and birds (lots of gaps in this section), escape the violent flood, which lasts seven days and seven nights. During the flood the gods are thirsty and hungry because no one is providing offerings for them. Mami wails over the wickedness of the destruction caused by Anu and Ellil. After the flood Atraḫasis offers food and the gods gather around “like flies” over the offering. Ellil spots the boat and is furious that any human survived the flood. Anu blames Enki, who responds with defiance. The gods then devise ways to limit human population growth, including infant mortality, and celibacy of some females.

[Within the 27 pages of text of Atraḫasis, with a maximum of 40 lines per page, Dalley indicates gaps of (a) 457 missing lines, (b) 77 partially missing lines, and (c) two gaps of unknown length.]

2. Enuma elish (Epic of Creation)  <>

Tablet I: The original deities Apsu (god of fresh water) and his consort Tiamat (goddess of salt water) generate Laḫmu and Laḫamu, who produce Anshar and Kishar, whose firstborn son, Anu, begets Ea (also known as Nudimmud) “in his likeness.” The younger gods annoy Tiamat and Apsu by making too much noise, disturbing their sleep. Tiamat is indulgent, but Apsu and his vizier Mummu plot to “abolish their ways and disperse them.” Ea discovers the plot, puts Apsu to sleep with a spell, and kills him. Ea and his consort Damkina have a son, Marduk (also known as Bel), who is proud, powerful, and “superior in every way.” Anu creates the four winds as playthings for Marduk. These winds stir up the ocean (Tiamat’s “belly”), disturbing other gods as well as Tiamat herself. These gods incite Tiamat to a war of vengeance. Tiamat creates a variety of fearful monsters; she appoints the god Qingu as commander, decreeing that he will prevail over his enemies.

Tablet II: Ea hears of Tiamat’s plotting; he goes to his grandfather Anshar and reports to him concerning Tiamat’s preparations for war [much of this is a repetition of material from Tablet I]. Ea determines that he himself is not equal to the task of taking on Tiamat. In despair the assembled gods wonder who can face Tiamat. Ea then calls upon his son “Marduk the Hero.” Anshar commissions Marduk to go and defeat Tiamat.

Tablet III: Anshar sends his vizier Kakka to tell Laḫmu and Laḫamu about Tiamat, and   to convene an assembly of all the gods to “decree a destiny for Marduk their champion.” Anshar instructs Kakka on what to say, repeating Ea’s speech from Tablet II, and adding the news about Marduk. Finding Laḫmu and Laḫamu, Kakka repeats Anshar’s whole speech. The gods then decree “destiny for Marduk their champion.”

Tablet IV: The gods give Marduk “sovereignty over all of the whole universe.” At Marduk’s word a constellation vanishes then reappears. Marduk prepares his powerful weapons. Tiamat rages out of control and casts a spell. Marduk calls Tiamat to one-to-one combat. Marduk spreads his net to encircle her, forces a wind inside her to inflate her, and kills her with an arrow in her belly. Marduk surrounds and imprisons the gods allied with Tiamat. Marduk slices her corpse in half: “Half of her he put up to roof the sky, / Drew     a bolt across and made a guard hold it. / Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.” Then Marduk sets up cult centres for Anu, Ellil (a son of Anu), and Ea.

Tablet V: Marduk sets up constellations for the twelve months. He makes the crescent moon, entrusts night to it, and instructs it regarding times of the month. From the spittle of Tiamat (?) [the text is fragmented here] Marduk arranges clouds, winds, rain, and fog. From Tiamat’s eyes Marduk makes the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates gush out. From other parts of Tiamat’s body Marduk makes various features of the earth [again, the text is fragmented here]. Marduk leads his enemies as captives before the gods, who acclaim him as king. Marduk gives a speech naming Babylon as the “home of the great gods” [in this section mention is made of “mud bricks” and “a high ziggurrat”].

Tablet VI: Marduk announces the creation of “primeval man” to do the work of the gods, “so they shall be at leisure.” The gods accuse Qingu of starting the war; then they kill him, and Ea creates mankind from his blood. Marduk assigns the gods their roles; the Anunnaki (senior gods) take two years to build Babylon. Marduk invites the gods to a banquet in his newly created dwelling. The gods begin to exalt Marduk, bestowing many names upon him.

Tablet VII: The gods finish bestowing names (a total of “fifty epithets”) upon Marduk. The narrator concludes by exhorting humans to exalt Marduk and “call upon his name.”

[Within the 42 pages of text of Enuma elish, with a maximum of 40 lines per page, Dalley indicates gaps of (a) 20 missing lines and (b) 48 partially missing lines, mostly from Tablet V.]

3. (Epic of) Gilgamesh, Tablet XI  <>

Utnapishtim the flood-survivor tells Gilgamesh the story of the great flood. The gods in council decided to make a flood, swearing an oath of secrecy. The god Ea, however, advised Utnapishtim to build a boat to “save lives,” including “the seed of all living things.” Ea gave detailed instructions regarding the boat’s dimensions and roof. Ea also told Utnapishtim to lie to the men of the city (Shuruppak), giving them a false story about why he was building a boat. Utnapishtim describes how the boat was built, including six decks and thousands of gallons of bitumen and pitch. He loaded the boat with silver and  gold, and all his relatives, “all the seed of living things” (“cattle” and “wild beasts” are specified), and “all kinds of craftsmen.” As the storm approached, Utnapishtim boarded the boat and closed the door. “Everything light turned to darkness.” For six days “the wind blew, flood and tempest overwhelmed the land.” “Even the gods were afraid of the flood-weapon;” they withdrew and cowered; they screamed and wept, humbled and full of regret over their action. On the seventh day the sea and wind grew calm. Hearing the silence, Utnapishtim realized that “all mankind had returned to clay;” he opened a porthole and wept. The boat rested on Mount Nimush for six days. On the seventh day Utnapishtim released a dove (it found no perching place, and returned), then a swallow (same result), then a raven (it did not return). Utnapishtim evacuated the boat, then he offered a fragrant sacrifice. The gods smelled this and “like flies gathered over the sacrifice.” The goddess Ishtar blamed the god Ellil for the unwarranted destruction. Ellil was furious that humans had survived the flood. The god Ninurta (a son of Ellil) blamed Ea, who responded by blaming Ellil for his overbearing action, claiming also that he “did not disclose the secret of the great gods” but merely “showed Atrahasis a dream.” Ellil then came into the boat and proceeded to grant immortality to Utnapishtim and his wife.

[Within the 12 pages of text of Gilgamesh, with a maximum of 40 lines per page, Dalley indicates gaps of (a) 1 missing line and (b) 8 partially missing lines.]

4. Sumerian King List (SKL)  <>

Very long-lived kings reigned before “the Flood,” but afterward much shorter-lived kings reigned. 

Features of ANE literature

(a) Large Gaps (Lacunae)

“Most of the [Mesopotamian] stories have considerable gaps, for which estimated lengths are given where possible, to remind the reader of the fragmented nature of the source material. As new clay tablets come to light, it may gradually be possible to fill the gaps in each version of the stories, but we are still far from such a theoretical and anticipatory state of bliss.” (Dalley, p. viii)

“It is particularly difficult for the modern student of Gilgamesh to come to grips with the subject, for no new edition of the epic has appeared for half a century. In that time many new fragments of the epic have been discovered on a variety of archaeological sites and in museums, and our understanding of the historical background has improved very considerably. But the new information has made it increasingly apparent that we cannot often use one fragment to restore another, because each period and area has its own version of the story, so we cannot simply reconstruct a master version with variants in the way that Hebrew and Classical texts can be edited, and a new fragment may perplex us rather than elucidating an old problem. In fact, the more text fragments  come to light, the harder it becomes to produce one coherent edition.” (Dalley, p. 39)

“It is evident from the wealth of background stories, to which the different versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh may be added, that in many ways the Gilgamesh literature provides ideal material for studying the formation of the epic. However, the difficulties are still enormous because the material is so fragmentary. Seldom indeed do extant fragments of different versions cover the same episodes. Some tablets were written by schoolboys whose muddles and omissions reveal their immaturity and, perhaps, the speed of dictation, rather than true textual variation. Some important episodes are still missing from all versions, and some chapters of the standard version contain a number of fragments which cannot be placed in the correct sequence with any confidence. . . .

  “The Old Babylonian tablets written in Akkadian, which date to the early second millennium, in some passages diverge fairly widely from the standard version, although there are other passages which are virtually identical. They may have formed a single, integrated epic, but this is uncertain; they definitely lacked the prologue and may have lacked the Flood story.” (Dalley, p. 45)

[Regarding the Epic of Creation:] “A surprising lack of textual variation is to be found in the tablets, which came from a variety of sites and periods. This may be explained either as indicating that composition is relatively late, and that there is no oral background; or as showing that a text became ‘canonized’ if it was used for a particular ritual, as this epic was. When Sennacherib described scenes from the epic with which he decorated the doors of the Temple of the New Year Festival, he included details which are not found in the extant version, such as that the god Amurru was Assur’s charioteer, and so we may deduce that there were indeed different versions in circulation.” (Dalley, pp. 228f.)

“A ritual tablet is extant giving instructions for the performance of the New Year Festival in Babylon, and it says specifically that the Epic of Creation is to be recited (or possibly enacted) on the fourth day.” (Dalley, p. 231)

(b) Creativity (“Contest Literature”)

“These stories all concern the deities and people of Mesopotamia, a rich, alluvial country which lies between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates in modern Iraq. . . .

Leisure at courts of kings or on long trading caravans gave time and opportunity for telling stories, which even in their earliest written forms show the influence of ‘contest’ literature, one of the earliest Sumerian literary forms known, in a spirit of inventive competition for the sake of entertainment.” (Dalley, p. xv)

“. . . ‘contest’ literature, a form of entertainment in which opposing points of view are aired, whether the merits of two deities, two people, two different animals, or two metals, for example. Such verbal contests were popular at royal courts even in medieval times, and can be found among the Arabian Nights.” (Dalley, p. 42)

“The specific purpose for which it [the Epic of Gilgamesh] was composed is a difficult question, but the general purpose for which the epic and its constituent stories existed in oral form is very probably entertainment, whether in royal courts, in private houses, around the camp-fires of desert caravans, or on the long sea voyages between the Indus [River] and the head of the Arabian Gulf.” (Dalley, p. 40)

(c) Poetry

Unlike Genesis, all Mesopotamian creation and flood stories are written as poetry.

“It is peculiar, and culturally significant, that among ancient peoples only Israel should have chosen to cast its sacred national traditions in prose.” (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative [revised edition]. [New York: Basic Books, 2011], p. 27)

“Though many have assumed that the Bible shares the world view of the ancient orient, the creation accounts we have from that period are all distinct from the Bible. They are distinctly

poetic and manifestly mythological. The biblical account, by contrast, is thoroughly narrative in form and decidedly non-mythological. . . . The primary reason the biblical narratives have been compared with ancient Near Eastern poetry is that no Near Eastern narrative parallels exist. That, in itself, testifies to the distinctive world view of the biblical creation account.”

(John H. Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account [Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996], p. 81)

(d) Polytheistic

Unlike Genesis, all Mesopotamian creation and flood stories involve multiple gods, often in conflict with each other.

“The main Babylonian flood legend [i.e., in Gilgamesh tablet XI], in particular, is ‘steeped     in the silliest polytheism,’ to quote the words of Dillmann. The gods are divided in their counsel, false to one another and to man; they flee in consternation to the highest heaven and cower like dogs in their distress; they quarrel and lie and gather over the sacrificer like  a swarm of hungry flies! In the Babylonian accounts the moral or ethical motive is almost completely absent. . . . in the Babylonian stories it is nowhere emphasized that the gods were actuated by moral ideals or that the flood was a divine visitation on human corruption. Rather, considering that the gods were intent on destroying the whole human race without discrimination between the just and the unjust, it is apparent that the gods were prompted more by caprice than by a sense of justice. It is true, the deluge hero was saved by a friendly deity because of his piety; but that was done clandestinely, through trickery, and against the decree of the gods in council.” (Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic. [2nd edition]. [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949], p. 268)

Enûma elish, on the one hand, contains an account of the birth of the gods and the various conflicts between them, the building and dedication of a temple complex, and a hymn in honor of the creator. Of this, Genesis says nothing. The biblical account, on the other hand, speaks of a separation of light and darkness, of the creation of plant and animal life, of a charge given to man, and of a blessing bestowed on him. Of this, Enûma elish makes no mention. . . .

  “Enûma elish refers to a multitude of divinities emanating from the elementary world-matter; the universe has its origin in the generation of numerous gods and goddesses personifying cosmic spaces or forces in nature, and in the orderly and purposeful arrangement of pre-existent matter; the world is not created in the biblical sense of the term but fashioned after the manner of human craftsmen; as for man, he is created with the blood of a deity that might well be called a devil among the gods, and the sphere of activity assigned to man is the service of the gods. In Gen. 1:1–2:3, on the other hand, there stands at the very beginning one God, who is not co-united and coexistent with an eternal world-matter and who does not first develop Himself into a series of separate deities but who creates matter out of nothing and exists independently of all cosmic matter and remains one God to the end. Here the world is created by the sovereign word of God, without recourse to all sorts of external means. God speaks, and it is done; he commands, and it stands fast. Add to this the doctrine that man was created in the image of a holy and righteous God, to be the lord of the earth, the air, and the sea, and we have a number of differences between Enûma elish and Gen. 1:1–2:3 that make all similarities shrink into utter insignificance. These exalted conceptions in the biblical account of creation give it a depth and dignity unparalleled in any cosmogony known to us from Babylonia or Assyria.” (Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis. [2nd edition]. [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951], pp. 129, 139f.)