The biblical authors often use creation imagery that clearly didn’t come from Genesis 1. Did they borrow from the creation accounts of other cultures? In this episode, join Tim and Jon for a deep dive into Genesis 1:1-2 and discover its similarity to other ancient cosmologies, plus one key difference: Yahweh is infinitely greater than all other gods.
For Marduk, disorder is a threat that he has to deal with. For Yahweh Elohim, it’s just his neutral canvas. He can make the abyss work for him. And that is the ultimate kind of power––to be able to go to something that is in complete disorder and turn it into potential … God can make the unproductive state of disorder work into his purpose to bring about ultimate order. It’s not a threat to him.
In part one (0:00-9:00), Tim and Jon recap the main facets of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian cosmologies––two rival understandings of the origins of the universe that shed light on ancient Hebrew cosmology due to their remarkable similarities and key differences.
All ancient Near Eastern creation accounts focus on a pre-creation state, depicted as chaotic waters, in which a god or gods creates order and maintains that order. In ancient Near Eastern cosmologies reality is a kingdom, a system of hierarchical powers functioning in harmony.
In part two (9:00-26:00), Tim and Jon take a closer look at ancient Hebrew cosmology, starting with Genesis 1:1-2.
In the beginning God created the skies and the land,
and the land was wild and waste
and darkness was on the face of the abysmal waters
and the wind/spirit of God was hovering on the face of the waters.
These verses assume that the pre-creation state of the cosmos was wild, chaotic, and dark water. While our modern understanding of creation is to bring something from nothing, an ancient understanding of creation is to bring order from chaos.
Did the biblical authors think of this chaotic pre-creation state as negative or neutral? The descriptors in Genesis 1:2 give us a clue. The “wild and waste” is also called “darkness,” which is always a negative image in the Hebrew Bible. Night is the dangerous time when destructive things happen, but even the darkness is under Yahweh’s control (Sodom and Gomorrah, Exodus through the sea).
The pre-creation state is also depicted (negatively) as “abysmal waters” (tehom). The word tehom occurs 36 times in biblical Hebrew, and it is associated with dangerous floodwaters that threaten to overtake the land. For instance, the next occurrence of tehom after creation is during the Flood (Genesis 7), when God allowed the chaotic waters to overwhelm the order of his creation once more.
In part three (26:00-40:00), the team discusses the second occurrence of “waters” in Genesis 1:1-2.
2b and darkness was on the face of the deep abyss [tehom]
2c and the wind/spirit of God was hovering on the face of the waters [hamayim]
This two-line structure is called a parallelism, in which the key terms are matched in order to contrast them. Ocean waters appear in both lines, with two very different connotations depending on what or who is above them. In verse 2b, darkness is present, so the waters are threatening and destructive. In verse 2c, God’s Spirit is present, so the waters are controlled and can be life-giving.
The abysmal waters represent the impossibility of human life and flourishing. But God’s Spirit transforms chaos into a source of life for humanity. God’s presence is the only difference in this equation, but his presence makes all the difference. Every act of order and beauty is a gift of God’s own generosity.
In part four (40:00-50:00), Tim and Jon explore the absence of a plot conflict in Genesis 1: the only semblance of conflict is the potential for continued chaos. But for Yahweh, chaos is just a neutral canvas.
“Significantly, and quite in contrast to the Babylonian conception, where Tiamat is slain and annihilated before the cosmos is created, the biblical picture does not portray the destruction of the waters or of tehom, but only their control and ordering by Yahweh within the created cosmos.” –– George Landes, Creation Traditions in Proverbs 8 and Genesis 1, 286-87
In the Hebrew conception of the universe, Yahweh didn’t start with a blank canvas, a canvas of nothingness––he started with a chaotic, disordered one.
The Hebrew phrase we translate as “in the beginning” refers to an unspecified previous period of time. God’s first priority in bringing order to chaos was to bring light to the darkness. Every other time God says “let there be” in Genesis 1, he’s bringing something new into existence, but this time God brings light to darkness by becoming the light himself. (God doesn’t create the sun until the fourth day)! In this action, God creates time and confines the darkness to one specific period of time: night.
In part five (50:00-56:30), Tim and Jon contrast the nature of Yahweh revealed in Genesis 1:1-2 with the nature of the creator gods of the Egyptians and Babylonians.
Like Egyptian and Babylonian cosmologies, Genesis 1 assumes that the pre-creation state is a dark, watery wasteland (called tehom, like Babylonian tiamat) that represents an impediment to the creation of order, with the land emerging as a disk afloat in the deep. However, God does not emerge from the waters (like Atum or Enki). God exists before nothingness, and the land is his creative work.
In Babylonian and Egyptian cosmologies, the chaos waters and the darkness are a threat that must be violently overcome. In Genesis 1, God is not threatened by anything. He subdues and separates the waters, creates land, and overcomes the darkness with light just by speaking.
In part six (56:30-end), Tim and Jon conclude by exploring how we know the biblical authors had other ancient cosmologies in mind when they penned the Hebrew Bible.
Multiple times throughout the Hebrew Bible, its authors draw upon the literary motif of the creator god at war with a chaos dragon––except that particular image clearly doesn’t come from the creation account in Genesis 1, but from the primary literature of other ancient cultures.
Yet God is my king from of old,
Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength;
You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You broke open springs and torrents;
You dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, Yours also is the night;
You have prepared the light and the sun.
You have established all the boundaries of the earth;
You have made summer and winter.
Here, the psalmist draws imagery straight from the Babylonian creation story, but Yahweh is in the place of Marduk. Simultaneously, the psalmist is using imagery from Genesis 1 by describing Yahweh’s authority over both darkness and light with a battle story.
By using imagery from both Hebrew and Babylonian cosmologies, the psalmist is making a clear comparison: Yahweh is infinitely greater and more powerful than any other conception of a creator god.
Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zack McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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