The Old Testament
The Old Testament is a compilation, and like every compilation it has a wide variety of contributors who, in turn, have their individual influence upon the final work. It is no surprise, then, that there exist certain parallels between the Enuma Elish, the cosmogony of the Babylonians, and the Book of Genesis, the first part of the Pentateuch section of the Bible. In fact, arguments may be made that other Near Eastern texts, particularly Sumerian, have had their influences in Biblical texts. The extent of this ‘borrowing’, as it were, is not limited to the Bible; the Enuma Elish has its own roots in Sumerian mythology, predating the Enuma Elish by nearly a thousand years. A superficial examination of this evidence would erroneously lead one to believe that the Bible is somewhat a collection of older mythology re-written specifically for the Semites. In fact, what develops is that the writers have addressed each myth as a separate issue, and what the writers say is that their God surpasses every other. Each myth or text that has a counterpart in the Bible only serves to further an important idea among the Hebrews: there is but one God, and He is omnipotent, omniscient, and other-worldly; He is not of this world, but outside it, apart from it. The idea of a monotheistic religion is first evinced in recorded history with Judaism, and it is vital to see that instead of being an example of plagiarism, the Book of Genesis is a meticulously composed document that will set apart the Hebrew God from the others 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 in somewhere in time, and then define the cultures in that time. The influences, possible and probable, must be illustrated, and then we may draw our conclusions.
If we trace back to the first appearance of the Bible in written form, in its earliest translation, we arrive at 444 B.C.. Two texts, components of the Pentateuch referred to as ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts, can be traced to around 650 B.C. Note that ‘J’ refers to Yahweh (YHVH) texts, characterized by the use of the word ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Lord’ in accounts; ‘E’ refers to Elohist texts, which use, naturally, ‘Elohim’ in its references to God.1 But 650 B.C. isn’t our oldest reference to the ‘J’ and ‘E’ texts; they can be traced, along with the other three strands of the Pentateuch, to at least 1000 B.C. Our first compilation of these strands existed in 650 B.C.. We must therefore begin our search further back in time. We can begin with the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. We can deduce when he lived, and find that he lived around 1900 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia2. If we examine his world and its culture, we may find the reasons behind certain references in Genesis, and the mythologies they resemble.
The First Babylonian Dynasty had begun around 1950 B.C. and would last well into the late 16th century B.C.. The Babylonians had just conquered a land previously under the control of the Assyrians, and before that, the Summering. Abraham had lived during a time of great prosperity and a remarkably advanced culture. He was initially believed to have come from the city of Ur, as given in the Bible as “…the Ur of Chaldees”. Earlier translations read, however, simply “…Land of the Chaldees”; later, it was deduced that Abraham had come from a city called Haran3. In any case, he lived in a thriving and prosperous world. Homes were comfortable, even luxurious. Copies of hymns were found next to mathematical tablets detailing formulae for extracting square and cube roots.4 The level of sophistication 4000 years ago is remarkable. We can also deduce that it was a relatively stable and peaceful society; its art is characterized by the absence of any warlike activity, paintings or sculptures.5 We also have evidence of an Israelite tribe, the Benjamites, in Babylonian texts. The Benjamites were nomads on the frontier of its boundaries, and certainly came in contact with Babylonian ideas- culture, religion, ethics. The early tribes of Israel were nomadic, “taking with them the early traditions, and in varying latitudes have modified it”6 according to external influences. The message remained constant, but the context would subtly change. In addition to the Benjamites in Mesopotamia, there were tribes of Israel in Egypt during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period7, which certainly exposed these people to Egyptian culture as well as Babylonian culture as a result of trade between the two kingdoms. Having placed Abraham and certain early Semites in this time, we can now examine the culture they would have known.
The Babylonian Dynasty had as one of its first leaders a man known as Hammurabi. In addition to being the world’s first known lawgiver, he installed a national god for his people named Marduk 8. Marduk’s story is related in the Enuma Elish:
It begins with two primordial creatures, Apsu and Tiamat. They have children, who are gods. These children became too noisy and disruptive to Apsu, who wished to kill them. One of these gods, Ea, kills Apsu first. Tiamat becomes enraged, and increasingly threatening towards Ea and the remaining gods for killing her mate. One by one, the gods seek to quiet Tiamat, 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 her corpse. In addition, Marduk slays one of the gods who allied himself with Tiamat, and from this dead god’s blood, Marduk creates man. 9
On the surface, it looks and sounds nothing like Genesis. However, we can begin to draw our parallels as we go into more detail. For example, Babylonian poetry has no rhyme, but it has meter and rhythm, like Hebrew 10. 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” 11
“All the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and the floodgates of the sky were opened…” Genesis 7:11
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 He rested from all the work he had done in creation.”
We can summarize the similarities like so: each created the firmament, dry land, the celestial bodies, and light. Each makes man the crowning achievement. On the seventh day, God rests and sanctifies the day. In the seventh tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods rest and celebrate. These similarities strongly suggest a common knowledge of the Enuma Elish among writers of the Book of Genesis (each section of Genesis is composed of four different sets of writers). In addition to Babylonian influence, look at the following taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which can be traced back to 3000 B.C.:
“I am Re.. I am the great god who came into being by himself…”13
Compare that to the familiar “I am who am.” These similarities are of secondary importance, however; we now begin to see the departures. For one, if Marduk is all-powerful, why does he do battle with Tiamat, when a word 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, 1:6
God’s word alone is sufficient to render unto the world any change He wishes. This is a radical innovation in a world where pantheistic religion more closely resembles a super-powered family that doesn’t get along very well. The Egyptian god Re may have been self-created, but he is by no means all-powerful, and not at all the only of his kind. Marduk is a warrior who can defeat primordial serpents, but the Hebrew god has but to speak:
“…and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Psalms, 33:9
The word of God is all-powerful.. And here we begin to see our greatest departures. We have a monotheistic religion, the first of its kind, created amidst a culture that, in the case of the Babylonians, has up to fifty gods!14 Not only is there but one god, but he is all-powerful, so much so that he does not find it necessary to wrestle with nature or defeat mighty primordial gods. He simply speaks and it is done. It is our first occurrence of divine will impose upon the world. Furthermore, it is a god without a precursor, without creation. He is something apart from this world. 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 in the Bible, “bara”, meaning “to create”. Later translations modify this to “bero”, meaning “to create from nothing”. When written in Hebrew, only careful scrutiny would distinguish the two. The distinction is important, however, because it changes the implications involved in creating. Does God create the world from something or nothing? In the following passage, “When God began to create heaven and earth- the earth being a desolate waste, 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 be light!’ 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 one verb16. As another departure, examination of creation stories by Summering and Babylonians show that they begin with subordinate clauses such 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 it the actual start of all time and space as we know it. It also puts the Hebrew god outside of time and space.
There would be no point in arguing that the Old Testament was influenced by the contemporary cultures of its writers; the facts clearly point to innumerable external sources of inspiration. But while we can acknowledge these similarities, we must also acknowledge that the writers of the Book of Genesis are making a radical departure from the norm: they have created a monotheistic religion, and their god is all-powerful, beyond the scope of human comprehension. Typically, gods are represented as something akin to humans on a grander scale; the Hebrew god is simply not measured or scaled; He is an unknown quantity, set apart from the bounds of human knowledge. These similarities serve a function as a contrast to the differences between these religions. It would seem that the writers acknowledged these other religions, and addressed each one by creating a god that surpasses all others. The god that creates himself is one of many; the Hebrew god stands alone in his might. The god that created the world defeated another god, and formed the earth from the corpse; in Genesis, God speaks and his words transform into actions. God exists before 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-powerful deity such as this. By drawing comparisons to other texts, the message can be lost in attempting to find the roots of certain ideas. But the origins of the stories are not nearly as important as the overall message being stated, and while the ideas they resemble may be old, the message is clear and unique: there is but one, and He is beyond all that is. His will alone suffices, and He predates even time itself. And that message has changed the world.
“The Old Testament”. Planet Papers. May. 2001. .