Babylonian influences on Genesis

  • Question 156, from Ed, United Kingdom

    I have a question about comparing the Babylonian ancient writings with the Bible. My theology lecturers suggest much of the beginning of Genesis is based upon these Babylonian writings. Does that undermine the creation story as a authority and does it have to suggest that Genesis cannot be interpreted literally?

    There are definite similarities between some (not all) of the Babylonian creation stories found by archaeologists and the stories found in the first chapters of Genesis. However, there are also significant differences, and many of the ‘similarities’ claimed are theoretical at best.

    Nearly every ancient civilisation had some kind of creation myths. By the law of averages some of those creation myths would share characteristics with the ones in Genesis. That Babylonia is in close proximity to where the Hebrew writers of Genesis lived, and also the ‘setting’ for Eden and so on, gives weight to the idea that the writers of Genesis borrowed from Babylonian legends.

    But similarities do not necessarily imply that one story relies on another. Insisting that the Babylonian myths are the source of Genesis requires some creative work. Put simply, the differences between the stories are often so great, that a new problem arises for the Biblical scholar – why did the writers of Genesis change so many details? Is Genesis a story written in Babylonian terms to explain Hebrew beliefs about origins, in much the same way as John’s gospel purloins Gnostic language and terminology, but isn’t Gnostic?

    Similarities and differences
    There are actually several versions of the Babylonian creation myths, but two stand out: The ‘Babylonian Genesis’ and the ‘Atra-Hasus Epic’. Reliably they can be dated to about 2,000BC and 1,600BC respectively. The main story-line tells that, during an epic battle between various gods, Marduk slays Tiamat, the water goddess, and from her dead body fashions the world. Later Marduk creates human beings for good measure.

    Tiamat is a sea goddess, and probably represents ‘primordial chaos’. There may be a parallel with Genesis 1, where the ‘spirit of God’ hovers over ‘the deep’ (‘tehom’ in Hebrew), at the start of the creation story (chapter 1, verse 2). Marduk divides Tiamat’s body in two, to create the ‘heavens’ and the ‘earth’ – again this is the kind of division made in Genesis (chapter 1, verses 6-8).

    Human beings are then created to work the land so that the gods can take it easy. Marduk kills another god, Kinga, and from his blood creates humans to serve the gods. This is similar to the imparting of the divine ‘breath’ in the creation of human beings (chapter 2, verse 7), and perhaps even the ‘taking flesh’ account of woman’s creation in Genesis chapter 2, verses 20-23.

    The differences are fairly obvious and substantial. There is no other god mentioned in the Genesis stories. The earth is ‘formless, dark and empty’ – seemingly basic matter, not the dead body of a vanquished god. Humans are not created from a slaughtered divinity, nor are they created as servants or slaves. In Genesis, humans are tasked with tending the garden of Eden, but the implication is that they need to do so because that’s where they are living. ‘Hard labour’ in Genesis is a result of ‘the Fall of Man’ and disobeying God (chapter 3, verses 17-19), but even then the work is for human benefit (food), not God.

    The Flood in Babylonian literature

    Another Babylonian story is the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic’, which includes a tale about a cataclysmic flood that wipes out most of humanity. There are also two other Babylonian stories that include a great flood, but they seem to borrow from Atra-Hasis.

    Interestingly in the Babylonian stories ‘noise’ is a cause for most of the violence. Marduk slays Tiamat after Tiamat got fed up with her noisy children and decided to kill them. In the story of Atra-Hasis, human beings, who were working as slaves to the gods, were considered too noisy and were drowned.

    There are some interesting parallels to Genesis. The reason for the flood is rooted in divine anger. One family survives (Atra-Hasis or Noah, or Utnapishtim in another Babylonian story ‘the Epic of Gilgamesh’). The ‘noisy men’ sound like the people building the tower at Babel (Babylon), although this occurs after the flood in the Genesis story. There are also several ‘kings’ of Babylonia listed with incredibly long lifespans, exceeding even the longlived ancestors of Noah in Genesis chapter 5.

    Some creationists argue that the similarities between the accounts in Genesis and other ancient myths corroborates Genesis as ‘remembered events’ or ‘folk memories’. (This is particularly true regarding arguments for a global flood, with stories from South America often dragged into the mix.) However, this argument may be a step too far. Similarities are bound to occur when stories with a similar theme are told. The differences between them – especially the mythological elements like warring gods – actually make it less likely that there is a common factual basis for such myths.

    However, it is likely there are some links between the Old Testament and Babylonian literature. It seems that parts of the Bible were rewritten or redacted during or after the ‘Exile’ in Babylon. During this time Genesis could well have been rewritten to either take into account, or refute, stories that were told in Babylon.

    On a final note, it may not be that important where the material comes from. There is a view that unless Genesis is accepted as literally true, then it casts doubt on the truth of the whole Bible. However, a great many Christians do not ascribe to a literal interpretation of Genesis. Instead Genesis can be seen as a ‘theological’ rather than ‘historical’ book, which make the divergence from the Babylonian myths even more important. The God of Genesis is very different in both character and purpose to Marduk or other Babylonian deities. That is perhaps the point that the writers of Genesis were trying to get across.

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    1. Paul Nov 22

      Great answer to what is basically a really tough question!

      I had a mind-expanding moment in my theology training, when (in a thoroughly evangelical, bible believing and somewhat reformed leaning school) the professor took us through the initial chapters of genesis and hit on a lot of the points you made here. His point was simple: good hermeneutical method asks what did the original readers of this passage make of it? In other words, in its original time period, what was being communicated. Clearly at that point in time no-one was asking scientific cosmological questions, arguing thermodynamics or any other modern scientific topic. To come to Genesis from that standpoint is simply bad hermeneutics, and a great example of eisegesis if ever there was one.

      The Genesis account uses the Hebrew term ‘bara’ – to create out of nothing – a word reserved for the creative process of God alone. The babylonian myth, things are created out of other things (slain gods, etc).

      The Genesis account shows that God wanted Eden to be a paradise, and a place of rest – hard labour only appearing after the fall – and the babylonian myths have man created FOR labour, so that the gods could rest.

      The Genesis account is clear that God wanted a relationship with the humans that had been created, no such relationship is desired in the babylonian myth.

      To the people of its time period these are pretty radical concepts, and the conclusion you hit on here too. Great job! 🙂

    2. walter mattfeld Feb 22

      Some scholars have suggested that Genesis is a refutation of Babylonian religious beliefs about how man came to be created and why he was denied knowledge and eternal life, why there was a flood, and what happened? The Hebrews seem to be taking motifs found in earlier Babylonian myths an recasting them in such a way as to refute them. My website explores these points of view. Also see at YouTube my videos on the subject under Walter R. Mattfeld.

    3. Jon the freelance theologian Feb 28

      Thanks Walter. That is a commonly held view. Thanks also for the link to your website where you are very upfront about your belief the Bible is not the Word of God. For the purposes of open debate I have left the link as is, but would like people to know your viewpoint before going there.

      Also many Christians are untroubled by the literary examination of the Bible and the likelihood that large chunks of Genesis were written to counter Babylonian religious ideas.

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