The Old Testament is a compilation, and like every compilation it has awide variety of contributors who, in turn, have their individual influenceupon the final work. It is no surprise, then, that there exist certainparallels between the Enuma Elish, the cosmogony of the Babylonians, andthe Book of Genesis, the first part of the Pentateuch section of the Bible.In fact, arguments may be made that other Near Eastern texts, particularlySumerian, have had their influences in Biblical texts.
The extent of this’borrowing’, as it were, is not limited to the Bible; the Enuma Elish hasits own roots in Sumerian mythology, predating the Enuma Elish by nearly athousand years.A superficial examination of this evidence woulderroneously lead one to believe that the Bible is somewhat a collection ofolder mythology re-written specifically for the Semites. In fact, whatdevelops is that the writers have addressed each myth as a separate issue,and what the writers say is that their God surpasses every other. Eachmyth or text that has a counterpart in the Bible only serves to further animportant idea among the Hebrews: there is but one God, and He isomnipotent, omniscient, and other-worldly; He is not of this world, butoutside it, apart from it. The idea of a monotheistic religion is firstevinced in recorded history with Judaism, and it is vital to see thatinstead of being an example of plagiarism, the Book of Genesis is ameticulously composed document that will set apart the Hebrew God from theothers before, and after.To get a clear picture of the way the Book of Genesis may have been formed(because we can only guess with some degree of certainty), we must place insomewhere in time, and then define the cultures in that time.
Theinfluences, possible and probable, must be illustrated, and then we maydraw our conclusions.If we trace back to the first appearance of the Bible in written form, inits earliest translation, we arrive at 444 B.C..
Two texts, components ofthe Pentateuch referred to as ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts, can be traced to around650 B.C. Note that ‘J’ refers to Yahweh (YHVH) texts, characterized by theuse of the word ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Lord’ in accounts; ‘E’ refers to Elohisttexts, which use, naturally, ‘Elohim’ in its references to God.1 But 650B.
C. isn’t our oldest reference to the ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts; they can betraced, along with the other three strands of the Pentateuch, to at least1000 B.C. Our first compilation of these strands existed in 650 B.C.. Wemust therefore begin our search further back in time.
We can begin with the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. We can deducewhen he lived, and find that he lived around 1900 B.C.
in ancientMesopotamia2. If we examine his world and its culture, we may find thereasons behind certain references in Genesis, and the mythologies theyresemble.The First Babylonian Dynasty had begun around 1950 B.C. and would lastwell into the late 16th century B.C..
The Babylonians had just conquered aland previously under the control of the Assyrians, and before that, theSummering. Abraham had lived during a time of great prosperity and aremarkably advanced culture. He was initially believed to have come fromthe city of Ur, as given in the Bible as “…the Ur of Chaldees”. Earliertranslations read, however, simply “..
.Land of the Chaldees”; later, it wasdeduced that Abraham had come from a city called Haran3. In any case, helived in a thriving and prosperous world. Homes were comfortable, evenluxurious. Copies of hymns were found next to mathematical tabletsdetailing formulae for extracting square and cube roots.4 The level ofsophistication 4000 years ago is remarkable. We can also deduce that itwas a relatively stable and peaceful society; its art is characterized bythe absence of any warlike activity, paintings or sculptures.
5 We also have evidence of an Israelite tribe, the Benjamites, in Babyloniantexts. The Benjamites were nomads on the frontier of its boundaries, andcertainly came in contact with Babylonian ideas- culture, religion, ethics.The early tribes of Israel were nomadic, “taking with them the earlytraditions, and in varying latitudes have modified it”6 according toexternal influences. The message remained constant, but the context wouldsubtly change. In addition to the Benjamites in Mesopotamia, there weretribes of Israel in Egypt during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period7, whichcertainly exposed these people to Egyptian culture as well as Babylonianculture as a result of trade between the two kingdoms.
Having placedAbraham and certain early Semites in this time, we can now examine theculture they would have known.The Babylonian Dynasty had as one of its first leaders a man known asHammurabi. In addition to being the world’s first known lawgiver, heinstalled a national god for his people named Marduk 8. Marduk’s story isrelated in the Enuma Elish:It begins with two primordial creatures, Apsu and Tiamat. They havechildren, who are gods. These children became too noisy and disruptive toApsu, who wished to kill them.
One of these gods, Ea, kills Apsu first. Tiamat becomes enraged, and increasingly threatening towards Ea and theremaining gods for killing her mate. One by one, the gods seek to quietTiamat, but each fails. However, one god, Marduk, agrees to stop Tiamat,but only if he is granted sole dominion over all other gods. They agree,and Marduk battles Tiamat, killing her and creating the world from hercorpse. In addition, Marduk slays one of the gods who allied himself withTiamat, and from this dead god’s blood, Marduk creates man. 9On the surface, it looks and sounds nothing like Genesis. However, we canbegin to draw our parallels as we go into more detail.
For example,Babylonian poetry has no rhyme, but it has meter and rhythm, like Hebrew10. Notice the similarity in the next two passages:”Half of her he set in place and formed the sky… as a roof.He fixed the crossbar..
. posted guards;He commanded them not to let her waters escape” 11and”Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome… to separate one body of water from the other.'” Genesis 1:6″All the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and thefloodgates of the sky were opened..
.” Genesis 7:11Also compare the creation of days and the special significanceconferred upon the seventh:”Thou shalt shine with horns to make six known days, onthe seventh with..
. a tiara.” 12>From Genesis (1:31-2-1):”Evening came and morning followed- the sixth day…”So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it Herested from all the work he had done in creation.
” We can summarize the similarities like so: each created the firmament, dryland, the celestial bodies, and light. Each makes man the crowningachievement. On the seventh day, God rests and sanctifies the day. In theseventh tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods rest and celebrate. Thesesimilarities strongly suggest a common knowledge of the Enuma Elish amongwriters of the Book of Genesis (each section of Genesis is composed of fourdifferent sets of writers). In addition to Babylonian influence, look atthe following taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which can be tracedback to 3000 B.C.:”I am Re.
.I am the great god who came into being by himself…
“13Compare that to the familiar “I am who am.” These similarities are ofsecondary importance, however; we now begin to see the departures. Forone, if Marduk is all-powerful, why does he do battle with Tiamat, when aword would suffice? For example:”Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.’ And so it happened..
.” Genesis 1:3, 1:6God’s word alone is sufficient to render unto the world any change Hewishes. This is a radical innovation in a world where pantheistic religionmore closely resembles a super-powered family that doesn’t get along verywell. The Egyptian god Re may have been self-created, but he is by nomeans all-powerful, and not at all the only of his kind.
Marduk is awarrior who can defeat primordial serpents, but the Hebrew god has but tospeak:”…and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast.
” Psalms, 33:9The word of God is all-powerful.. And here we begin to see our greatestdepartures. We have a monotheistic religion, the first of its kind,created amidst a culture that, in the case of the Babylonians, has up tofifty gods!14 Not only is there but one god, but he is all-powerful, somuch so that he does not find it necessary to wrestle with nature or defeatmighty primordial gods. He simply speaks and it is done. It is our firstoccurrence of divine will impose upon the world. Furthermore, it is a godwithout a precursor, without creation.
He is something apart from thisworld. Tiamat and Apsu lived in a world already created (and by whom?);the Egyptian gods have a multitude of births of gods in their texts15. In fact, there was once a debate on the translation of a single verb inthe Bible, “bara”, meaning “to create”. Later translations modify this to”bero”, meaning”to create from nothing”. When written in Hebrew, only careful scrutinywould distinguish the two. The distinction is important, however, becauseit changes the implications involved in creating. Does God create theworld from something or nothing? In the following passage,”When God began to create heaven and earth- the earth being a desolatewaste, with darkness upon the abyss and the spirit of God hovering over the waters- God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.
“it is inferred that God is creating with something. The next translation,”When God began to create the heaven and earth, the earth was a desolate waste and darkness was upon the abyss and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there belight!’ And there was light…”implies that God began by creating a desolate waste, then creating light,then shaping the waste, and so forth. All this as a function of oneverb16. As another departure, examination of creation stories bySummering and Babylonians show that they begin with subordinate clausessuch as “when” or “On the day of.
“17 Genesis clearly diverges from this:”In the beginning” clearly sets apart the text from any other, making itthe actual start of all time and space as we know it. It also puts theHebrew god outside of time and space. There would be no point in arguing that the Old Testament wasinfluenced by the contemporary cultures of its writers; the facts clearlypoint to innumerable external sources of inspiration.
But while we canacknowledge these similarities, we must also acknowledge that the writersof the Book of Genesis are making a radical departure from the norm: theyhave created a monotheistic religion, and their god is all-powerful, beyondthe scope of human comprehension. Typically, gods are represented assomething akin to humans on a grander scale; the Hebrew god is simply notmeasured or scaled; He is an unknown quantity, set apart from the bounds ofhuman knowledge. These similarities serve a function as a contrast to thedifferences between these religions. It would seem that the writersacknowledged these other religions, and addressed each one by creating agod that surpasses all others. The god that creates himself is one ofmany; the Hebrew god stands alone in his might. The god that created theworld defeated another god, and formed the earth from the corpse; inGenesis, God speaks and his words transform into actions. God existsbefore the matter He shapes to His will.
The writers have then, in fact,minimized the actions of all other gods in comparison to one all-powerfuldeity such as this. By drawing comparisons to other texts, the message canbe lost in attempting to find the roots of certain ideas. But the originsof the stories are not nearly as important as the overall message beingstated, and while the ideas they resemble may be old, the message is clearand unique: there is but one, and He is beyond all that is. His will alonesuffices, and He predates even time itself. And that message has changedthe world.