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Ancient Cosmology • Episode 2
Does the Bible Borrow from Other Creation Stories?
81m • May 24, 2021
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.
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QUOTE

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.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • 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.
  • While the cosmologies of other ancient societies share much in common with biblical cosmology (the ordering of chaotic waters, rival serpents, judgment of humanity by flood), key differences surround the nature of the creator. For instance, the Egyptian creator, Atum, 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 modern cosmology, we think of existence simply as the existence of matter. In ancient cosmologies, existence is ordered reality.

Ancient Neighbors

In part one (0-6:30), Tim and Jon recap the last episode of our series on ancient cosmology, which laid the foundation for how to read Genesis 1-2 like the ancient text it is.

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.

Babylonian Creation Stories

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.). 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.

  • Creation begins from battles with the chaos water dragon
  • Creation of humans from the dust
  • Flood stories
  • Ancient, pre-flood kings living for thousands of years

The Creator Who Created Himself

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):

  • The Egyptian creator is called Atum, or Nun, the unordered, watery substance from which all things emerged. The pre-created reality, or non-creation, was a chaotic watery condition, devoid of life but containing the potential for life.
  • Atum began to evolve and differentiate himself from his watery incubation onto a primeval mound of dirt, and from there he began a process of self-development, or creation.
  • Atum generated the rest of the Ennea, a cluster of eight other deities. These included Shu (goddess of air) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture), from whom come Nut (goddess of sky) and Geb (god of earth). Atum took on the role of the “eye of all creation” as the sun-god Re. All the gods worked together in a form of order called Ma’at, the eternal divine order that upholds all creation.

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.

Ancient Understandings of Existence

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.

Back to Babylon

In part five (50:45-end), Tim and Jon conclude with another examination of Babylonian cosmologies from the 17th century B.C.

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.

Referenced Resources

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 Music

  • “Defender (Instrumental)” by TENTS
  • Evil Needle by Sound Escapes
  • Lightness by Anonymous

Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zack McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.

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Ancient Cosmology E1  –  35m
Genesis 1 and the Origins of the Universe
35m
Ancient Cosmology E2  –  1hr 21m
Does the Bible Borrow from Other Creation Stories?
1hr 21m
Ancient Cosmology E3  –  1hr 8m
The Greatest Elohim
1hr 8m
Ancient Cosmology E4  –  41m
One Creation Story or Two?
41m
Ancient Cosmology E5  –  46m
Rivers Flowing Upward
46m
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