While the primary concern of the Old Testament is the history and faith of the Hebrew people, the first eleven chapters of Genesis provide by way of background a primeval history of all mankind. But as the Genesis narrative thus begins with prehistoric time, the events recorded in chapters 1-11 should not be considered as historical fact. Rather these events are based upon an assortment of myths and traditions, most of which were originally common to all the peoples of the ancient Near East.
The role of this mythological material in the literature of the early Hebrews is a very important one. For a myth is far more than fiction; mythology among the ancients was a quite sincere though necessarily limited interpretation of existence--it was "an expression of man's understanding of reality." 1 Thus the compilers of Genesis 1-11 were concerned with interpreting the general world-view of the ancient Near East in the light of their own particular understanding of God and his relationship to man. And as a result the myths of Genesis far surpass their prototypes in religious and ethical value.2
"In the beginning God created." So
The Bible teaches. Science tells us, though,
That we evolved. Well then, did God create?
Did things evolve? Must we equivocate?
I'll grant that things evolve. What we must do
Is ask: "Can we still say the Bible's true?"
We can if "true" means something more than "free
Of error." Study shows it cannot be
True word for word, creation (both accounts
In Genesis) is hardly what amounts
To history. In Genesis we've got
The work of ancient scribes whose aims were not
Scientific but religious. Genesis,
According to the best hypothesis,
Is not the work of one but many hands; 3
We can distinguish several different strands
In the "Five Books of Moses" (Genesis
Through Deuteronomy--they are not his
Nor claim to be, it's just tradition that
One author [Moses] wrote them). Looking at
Creation, we're concerned with J and P,
As scholars label the two sources we
Find in the first few chapters of the book
Of Genesis. Now J and P both took
What they desired from the mythology
Of Babylonia. But let us see
How they remolded it to fit Hebrew
Theology. (I should explain to you
That God's name in the J source is Yahweh,
Which starts with "J" in German--that's the way
The J source got its name. J's older and
More readable, less stuffy, than the strand
That's called the Priestly source or P.) With this,
Let's go now to the myths of Genesis.
The Bible starts with P. It may seem odd
To find here Elohim the name for God
(The word means "gods"). But Elohim in P
Is what is called a "plural of majesty" 4--
Though clearly it evokes a Hebrew past
In which not only one God but a cast
Of deities was recognized. (Yahweh,
God's proper name in J, may be someway
Related to "to be." 5 It came to be
Too holy to pronounce--that's why we see
"The Lord" instead. "Jehovah"? That's a name
Mistakenly derived. But I don't aim
To spend more time on names.) Now let's go back
To P. Creation here would seem to track
Somewhat (though P had freedom to embellish)
The Babylonians' Enuma elish, 6
An epic in which the god Marduk's got
To slay the awful dragon Tiamat,
Personifying the primeval sea
Of chaos. (The god Baal similarly
Must slay his rival Yam in Canaanite
Mythology, Yam meaning "sea.") 7 The fight
Is won by Marduk, who splits Tiamat
Right down the middle. Half of her is what
Marduk then uses to create the sky,
The chaos waters being held back by
This ceiling. This is paralleled in P, 8
Where God creates a dome (this came to be
The "firmament" in English, but the text
Refers to hammered metal) 9 that protects
The Earth below by a division of
The waters. P's God is, of course, above
Combat with chaos dragons; it is not
Coincidental, though, that Tiamat
And the Hebrew tehom (the "deep" in P)
Are two forms of one word, 10 or that we see
God having combat with Leviathan
The dragon in Job and Isaiah. 11 When
We note the order that P follows for
The world's creation, it resembles more
Or less the order in Enuma elish. 12
(I hope you see already why I relish
This kind of study: texts from Babylon!
Old Canaanite clay tablets! give me one
Dead Sea Scroll! It's a treat to read such things,
And contemplate the light such study brings
To bear upon the Bible and its times.
Literalists think we're committing crimes
Against God's truth; I say we make the Bible
All the more fascinating. But I'm liable
To stray off course here--let's get back to P,
Where J joins in.)
Now chapter two's where we
First come to J. Some say J "complements"
The P account, but that, I fear, invents
New meaning for the word. J contradicts
P on creation; although J conflicts
In details only--so of course it's true
In both accounts that "God created"--you
Can see that where the stories vary, this
One's wrong if that one's right, so Genesis
Can't be inerrant. (This is not just true
Of the Old Testament, also the New
Has many contradictions, the events
Or sayings often vary 13--"complements"
Is once again a favorite word in use.)
Now which one's playing rather fast and loose
With all the "facts"? The Earth initially
Was a dry plain, says J. 14 Does that mean P
Was wrong about the Earth first being a
Watery chaos? 15 How can P first say
That man (both "male and female") was the last
Thing God created, 16 and then J comes fast
Behind to say man was the first? 17 Since P
Says man and woman simultaneously
Came into being, does J tell a fib
When it says Eve came later (from a rib
Of Adam)? 18 Obviously we're dealing here
With two distinct traditions, and it's clear
The purpose of the Bible's editors
Was to preserve them both. While one prefers
Consistency today in what one reads,
That didn't rank too high among one's needs
In ancient times, if judging by our text. 19
The message was the thing.
I'll mention next
That just as P reworked the myth about
Marduk, in part the J source used from out
Of Sumer, it appears, an ancient myth
About a god named Enki, dwelling with
A god named Ninhursag in Dilmun (much
Like Eden, so it seems). 20 This Enki's such
A fool: he eats some plants, which brings a curse
From Ninhursag; the pain gets worse and worse
In Enki's rib, until there is a cure
From goddess Ninti. Certain things here sure
Do sound familiar--oh, and Ninti's name
Involves a pun: "lady of life," the same
As "lady of the rib." 21 Forbidden fruit
In paradise, a curse, a rib to boot,
And Ninti's name "lady of life" (as Eve
Means "life" in Hebrew): motifs, I believe,
That aren't coincidental. More motifs
From ancient pagan texts and bas-reliefs
Include the cherubim, a tree of life, 22
And--just as he ruined Adam and his wife--
A wily serpent who brings man to grief. 23
Now let us move along to the belief
In a worldwide deluge. Both J and P
Tell us how Noah and his family
Took animals aboard an ark when God
Sent waters "to destroy all flesh." 24 (It's odd
To me that this is taken literally
By some folks who then say there's cruelty
In evolution--something, so they say,
God never would allow. 25 What crueler way
Could God behave than to destroy all flesh?
It's myth, you see. And J and P conflict
(Or "complement" again) as they depict
The flood. For seven pairs, Yahweh declares,
Of all clean animals and single pairs
Of all the rest should go aboard the ark:
So we are told in J. Yet all embark
By twos in P. 26 J says the waters rolled
For forty days and nights, in P we're told
A hundred and fifty days. 27 In any case,
That ark sure must have been a smelly place,
It couldn't be a very balmy cruise,
With every kind of animal in twos
On board and with a crew of only eight
To clean the stalls. 28 One cannot overstate
The mess on Noah's hands. But then, of course,
No ark like Noah's could withstand the force
Of such a mighty flood: a wooden boat
Three hundred cubits long (or, I should note,
Four hundred and fifty feet) would have such stress
That it would break apart before one mess
Could be cleaned up. And anyway we know
The tale of Noah's flood resembles so
The tale of Utnapishtim, some degree
Of Hebrew borrowing, whether it be
Direct or not, must surely have occurred.
From the god Ea Utnapishtim heard
A flood was coming, built a vessel, saved
Some animals, in general so behaved
That the familiar Noah would seem fresh
Out of the Babylonian Gilgamesh
Where Utnapishtim's found. 29 What's different is
That God is judging sin in Genesis,
And that's the message. In an older myth
(By way of contrast), the concern's not with
Man's immorality: it's Atrahasis
Who builds the boat, the flood caused by the masses
Having become so noisy that Enlil
The god can't sleep! 30 (A myth that's older still
Has Ziusudra, a Sumerian king,
Construct the boat; here we're not told a thing
About why man is drowned; some of the gods
Are mad about it, though--they are at odds
With such a cruel decision--that's why one
Warns Ziusudra.) 31
Yahweh isn't done
With judging man after the flood: we find
Man ever prideful, the rebellious kind,
And so we have the Tower of Babel myth; 32
It's not a history lesson dealing with
The origin of languages (though that,
Of course, is what the myth was aiming at
Originally): 33 the myth is used to stress
God's judgment on man's pride and wickedness.
For what's the Bible all about if not
That which we're told in Micah? Here is what
The prophet says: "What does the Lord, O man,
Require of you? Do justly as you can,
Show love and mercy, and walk humbly with
Your God." 34 And it's through prescientific myth
The Bible speaks about creation by
This personal God whom science can't deny
And can't confirm. That myth speaks to us now,
Says "God created." It can't tell us how
God did it. 35 We can't limit God, and so
We can't prescribe his methods, even though
We seek to know them. 36 Our mythology
Is different now, it's called cosmology:
The Big Bang, stellar nucleosynthesis,
These are our scientific Genesis.
So each of us should thank his lucky star;
Made of the elements, we truly are
Star children, that is no exaggeration,
In heaven, not on Earth, was our creation:
In fiery furnaces of stars were first
Produced the elements; by stars that burst
As supernovas, these ingredients
Were hurled out into space, and ever since
New stars have formed, some later to explode,
The elements along this starry road
Forever being born again. It's this
Process we call nucleosynthesis. 37
So where's the contradiction that's involved
If science also tells us we evolved?
Creation, evolution: both are true.
I'll have my cake, by gum, and eat it too.
1. Childs 1960, p. 17.
2 Ecker, 1963, p. 1. In 2005 the Catholic bishops of England, Wales, and Scotland published a teaching document, The Gift of Scripture, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum on the place of Scripture in revelation. The bishops wrote that the Bible "is God's word expressed in human language," that it is true in passages relating to human salvation, but we "should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters" (Gledhill 2005). The late scholar Bruce Vawter (1983), a Catholic priest, called belief in inerrancy "the superstition of bibliolatry" and a "perversion of biblical religion." In the words of B. Davie Napier (1962, p. 54), it turns the Bible into "alas, an idol--a deified book." See Placher 1995.
3 According to the generally accepted documentary hypothesis, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) contains four main literary sources: J or the Yahwist (c. 950 B.C.), E (the Elohist, c. 900 B.C.), D (the Deuteronomic source, c. 550 B.C.), and P (the Priestly source, c. 400 B.C.). See Friedman 1987, 22-28; Hiers 1988, 219-223. For a theory that the J source is actually one long narrative, the original core of the Bible and "the first great prose work of world literature," extending from creation in Genesis to the establishment of Solomon as David's successor in Kings, see Friedman 1998.
4 Perdue 1985, 686.
5 Metzger and Murphy 1991, 72; Mettinger 1988, 32.
6 The Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish (the title comes from the opening words, "When on high") was annually recited during Babylon's New Year festival. See Speiser 1969, 60-72.
7 See Ginsberg 1969, 131. Baal, a dying and reviving god of fertility and the storm, was called Rider of the Clouds, an image later applied to Yahweh (Ps. 68:4, 104:3). See Ecker's Baalim and Ashtaroth.
8 Genesis 1:6-7.
9 Rad 1995, 51.
10 Hooke 1947, 34.
11 Isaiah 27:1; Job 41:1-34; see also Psalm 74:13-14. Yahweh combats the chaos dragon Rahab in Isaiah 51:9-10 and Job 26:12-13.
12 Hooke 1947, 35.
13 See Throckmorton 1993.
14 Genesis 2:4b-6.
15 Genesis 1:2.
16 Genesis 1:26-27.
17 Genesis 2:7.
18 Genesis 2:21-22.
19 Napier 1947, 33.
20 See Kramer 1969, 37-41.
21 Hooke 1963, 115.
22 The tree of life is found in Assyrian and Cretan art (Miller and Miller 1973, 780) as well as in the heaven of the ancient Egyptians (Budge 1895, xxvil); the cherubim (Genesis 3:24) appear in Canaanite art (Wright 1962, 95).
23 In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a serpent robs the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh of a plant that would have made him immortal (Speiser 1969, 96).
24 Genesis 6:5-8:22.
25 The late creationist leader Henry M. Morris called evolution a "cruel spectacle" (1978, 73)--evolutionists should "leave God out of it" (1982b, 44)--while a life-quenching flood is seen rather as "sovereign destruction" (1978, 33) by a God admired as "a consuming fire" (1984, 211, quoting Hebrews 12:29). One wonders why an omnipotent God could not "have simply swept (life) painlessly out of existence with a word" (Asimov 1981, 105).
26 Genesis 7:2 (J), 7:8-9 (P).
27 Genesis 7:17 (J), 7:24 (P).
28 The eight people aboard the ark were Noah, his wife, their three sons, and three daughters-in-law (Genesis 7:7). Young-Earth creationists try to solve the problem of care for the animals on the ark by assuming that God put them into hibernation (Whitcomb 1989, 32). There is no biblical basis for this assumption other than the fact that the whole flood story, as creationist John N. Moore (1976, 57) rightly states, is "consistently supernatural."
29 See Speiser 1969, 72-99. For the Babylonian flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, see The Babylonian Story of the Deluge. Most evangelicals, writes Christian archeologist Frank Lorey (1997), espouse the "One-source Theory," according to which the Hebrew and Babylonian flood stories both have a common source, that being an actual worldwide flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh, says Lorey, contains a "corrupted account," whereas the Genesis account "was kept pure and accurate" by God's providence till "compiled, edited, and written down by Moses."
Local floods were frequent in Mesopotamia, and there is no reason to suppose that the ancient Near Eastern tradition of a great deluge was based on any one event there (MacDonald 1988). Two Columbia University geologists have advanced the theory that a catastrophic flood of the Black Sea around 5600 B.C. inspired the Babylonian, biblical, and other deluge myths, as refugees from the Black Sea event helped spread agriculture to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Europe, and other parts of the world (Pitman and Ryan 1999; Kerr 1998; Wilford 1999). In 2000, undersea explorer Robert Ballard announced discovery of artifacts showing that humans, apparently some 7,000 years ago, did inhabit an area now 300 feet beneath the Black Sea surface (Kerr 2000; see Ballard 2001).
30 For the Atrahasis myth, see Speiser 1969, 104-106.
31 See Kramer 1969, 42-44.
32 Genesis 11:1-9. The mythical tower was likely modeled after Babylon's great temple-tower or ziggurat called Etemenanki (the "Great Temple Foundation of Heaven and Earth") (Roux 1966, 358-359). The story reflects J's typically anthropomorphic, less-than-omniscient deity, who must come down to Earth to see the city and tower (Asimov 1981, 211). (Yahweh later sends angels to Sodom--he may even go with them [the text is garbled]--to see if things there are as bad as he's heard [Genesis 18:20-19:29].)
33 On the origin of language, see "The Paleoanthropologist's Tale," note 24.
On writing, the earliest known alphabetic inscriptions, found in Egypt in 1998, indicate that the first alphabet originated among Semitic-speaking people who lived or worked in Egypt almost 4,000 years ago (Johns Hopkins 11/22/99).
34 Micah 6:8.
35 See Skehan 1986.
36 This echoes the sentiment of United Methodist Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks (quoted in Keith 1982, 124): "The words 'In the beginning, God created,' I hold dearly. From that point on, I feel it belittles God and does injustice to both religion and science to circumscribe the way he did it."
37 See Ferris 1997, pp. 114-115.
Achtemeier, Paul J., ed. 1985. Harper's Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Asimov, Isaac. 1981. In the Beginning. New York: Crown.
Ballard, Robert. 2001. "Black Sea Mysteries." National Geographic 199(5):52-68.
Budge, E.A. Wallace. 1895. The Book of the Dead. London: British Museum.
Childs, Brevard. 1960. Myth and Reality in the Old Testament. London: SCM Press Limited.
Ecker, Ronald L. 1963. The Myths of Genesis. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Religion 341, Term Paper.
Ferris, Timothy. 1997. The Whole Shebang. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. 1987. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Summit Books.
_____. 1998. The Hidden Book in the Bible. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Ginsberg, H.L., tr. 1969. "Ugaritic Myths, Epics, and Legends." Pp. 129-155 in Pritchard 1969.
Hiers, Richard H. 1988. Reading the Bible Book by Book. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Hooke, S.H. 1947. Middle Eastern Mythology. Baltimore: Penguin.
Keith, Bill. 1982. Scopes II: The Great Debate. Shreveport, LA: Huntington House.
Kerr, Richard A. 1998. "Black Sea Deluge May Have Helped Spread Farming." Science 279:1132.
_____. 2000. "A Victim of Black Sea Flood Found." Science 289:2021-2022.
Kramer, S.N., tr. 1969. "Sumerian Myths and Epic Tales." Pp. 37-59 in Pritchard 1969.
Lorey, Frank. 1997. "The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh." Impact 285.
MacDonald, David. 1988. "The Flood: Mesopotamian Archaeological Evidence." Creation/Evolution 23:14-20.
Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. 1988. In Search of God. Tr. by Frederick H. Cryer. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., eds. 1991. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, Madeleine S., and Miller, J. Lane. 1973. Harper's Bible Dictionary, 8th ed. New York: Harper & Row.
Moore, John N. 1976. Questions and Answers on Creation/Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Morris, Henry M. 1978. The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.
_____. 1984. The Biblical Basis for Modern Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Perdue, Leo G. 1985. "Names of God in the Old Testament." Pp. 685-687 in Achtemeier 1985.
Pitman, Walter C., and Ryan, William B.F. 1999. Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Placher, William C. 1995. "Is the Bible True?" The Christian Century, October 11, pp. 924-925 Pritchard, James B., ed. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Roux, Georges. 1966. Ancient Iraq. Baltimore: Penguin.
Speiser, E.A., tr. 1969. "Akkadian Myths and Epics." Pp. 60-119 in Pritchard 1969.
Throckmorton, Burton H., ed. 1993. Gospel Parallels. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Whitcomb, John C. 1989. The World that Perished. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Wilford, John Noble. 1999. "Plumbing Black Sea for Proof of the Deluge." New York Times, January 5.
Copyright 1993, 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker
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