What is existence? What existed before humans did? Ancient people groups asked the same questions we do today with totally different answers. In this episode, Tim and Jon survey the cosmologies of Israel’s neighbors, ancient Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon—people groups the biblical authors shared more in common with than modern readers—to shed light on the Bible’s creation account.
To place Genesis 1 and 2 on the map of ancient cosmologies, we have to learn something about the cosmologies of Israel’s neighbors that formed the context in which [the biblical authors] wrote, ancient Egyptian cosmology and ancient Babylonian cosmology. Genesis 1 is participating in a dialogue with those cosmologies, but making its own unique claim.
Understanding that Genesis 1-2 is an ancient cosmology, described by ancient words, is crucial to understanding the narrative itself. The Bible’s creation account shares far more in common with Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite cosmologies than with our modern approaches to understanding our origins.
In part two (6:30-19:00), Tim and Jon survey known accounts of other ancient cosmologies, which parallel Genesis 1-11 in a number of key ways.
In 1847, Austin Henry Layard discovered the first of thousands of cuneiform tablets, near Mosul, Iraq, that belonged to the library of Ashurbanipal (King of Assyria, seventh century B.C.E.). In 1872, George Smith compiled those tablets to produce the well-known Epic of Gilgamesh, and in 1895, Hermann Gunkel published Creation and Chaos, in which he claimed that Genesis 1-11 displayed extensive dependence upon Babylonian traditions in the following ways.
In part three (19:00-39:30), Tim and Jon take a closer look at the cosmology of the ancient Egyptians, with a brief examination of the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts.
Like Babylonian cosmology, Egpytian cosmology is similar to Genesis 1-11 on many fronts. (The following summary is adapted from Bernard Batto’s In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible):
Egyptian and Hebrew creation accounts both start with non-existence represented by chaotic waters. Like Genesis 1-11, whenever Egyptian gods overcome evil and chaos, they crush the heads of serpents. However, a notable difference between the two worldviews is that the Egyptian creator is not an uncreated, eternally preexistent being (like Yahweh). Atum created himself from the chaotic waters. Atum is the first self-caused cause, which is a form of pantheism.
In part four (39:30-50:45), the team discusses the cosmological traditions of Sumerian societies from Mesopotamia.
In Sumerian cosmology, non-creation is a state of disorder, and creation is the process of the gods bringing order to the cosmos.
Any stories that describe a pre-existent state portray a desert wasteland. ‘Creation,’ therefore, is a process by which water was added to a barren desert, turning it into a fertile field. At the center of such stories is Enki, the god of fresh underground water who makes the land fertile through the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ninhursag is the goddess of dry land who receives the waters and gives birth to plants, animals, and civilization. Related to this motif are texts that depict animals and humans as emerging from the ground like plants.
(Bernard Batto, “Mesopotamian Ideas of Creation,” 24-25)
In modern cosmology, we think of existence simply as the existence of matter. In ancient cosmologies, existence is ordered reality.
In part five (50:45-end), Tim and Jon conclude with another examination of Babylonian cosmologies from the 17th century B.C.E.
Following the tradition of the Egyptians and Sumerians, Babylonian cosmology from this era centered around primeval waters generating a pantheon of deities, which would later be taken over by a young upstart god named Marduk, patron god of Babylon. When the gods get annoyed with humans, they send a flood to wipe them out. Tiamat, goddess of the chaotic ocean waters, threatens to overtake the newly established order with an army of other deities she recruits.
The creation narrative we find in Genesis 1-2 is in dialogue with the creation accounts of Babylon, Egypt, and Sumeria. It’s not as simple as the biblical authors “borrowing” from these traditions––rather, they comment on and transform them in a way that sets Yahweh apart from the other gods.
Interested in more? Check out Tim’s library here. Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton Bernard Batto, In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible
Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zack McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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