May 11, 2023
Was the account of creation found in Genesis comparable to (or even borrowed from?) other ancient accounts in scattered throughout the world at the time?
Last month my colleague Joseph Lam, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and the languages and literature of the Ancient Near East provided us with a guest post about some of the creation stories found outside Scripture in non-Israelite cultures — stories in circulation before the ones written in Genesis (https://ehrmanblog.org/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world-part-1-on-enuma-elish-and-genesis-1-guest-post-by-joseph-lam/)
Here now is a second and equally interesting post dealing with stories from ancient Memphis Egypt (not Tennessee!)!
This is the topic of his lecture course for the Great Courses/Wondrium, “Creation Stories of the Ancient World” (links at bottom)
In my last blog entry, I offered a brief description of the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, and reflected on how one might imagine its relationship to the seven-day creation story of Genesis 1. In this post, I turn to an enigmatic but fascinating text from ancient Egypt known as the Memphite Theology that has also been compared with Genesis 1, though in this case I would argue that no direct connection exists between the two texts. Instead, what we see in the Memphite Theology is an alternative expression of the idea of a supreme and intentional creator deity that is reminiscent of (and roughly contemporaneous with) Genesis 1.
The text of the Memphite Theology is preserved on a rectangular stone slab now known as the Shabako Stone, named for the Egyptian Pharaoh Shabako under whom the text was promulgated in approximately 710 BCE. The stone was subsequently converted for use as a lower millstone, which effaced a significant portion of the writing (see the British Museum photo here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA498). Nonetheless, the portions that remain reveal an idiosyncratic picture of creation centering on a god named Ptah, a deity associated with the city of Memphis (hence the “Memphite Theology”), one that departs from a dominant understanding of creation in ancient Egypt associated with another ancient city, Heliopolis. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Memphite Theology was written precisely to supplant the earlier traditional understandings. The following passage from near the beginning of the text is revealing (translation here taken from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. I):
“This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it became better than it had been before…”
What we have here is a trope that is found with some regularity in the ancient world—that of the “discovery” or “recovery” of an even more ancient text as a way of conferring legitimacy to what was in fact a new literary creation from the writer’s own time. (The most famous example of this is the “discovery” of the Book of the Law in the time of the biblical king Josiah in 2 Kings 22, which is widely regarded by scholars as representing the context of the promulgation of the Book of Deuteronomy.) Applying this assumption to the Memphite Theology helps to explain its contents, because the primary focus of the text is the exaltation of the god Ptah over an earlier creator deity named Atum (of the tradition of Heliopolis) by re-envisioning Atum and the other gods as proceeding from Ptah himself. This tendency can be observed in the following key passage (again, based on Lichtheim’s translation):
“There took shape in the heart, there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah…. Sight, hearing, breathing—they report to the heart, and it makes every understanding come forth. As to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised. Thus all the gods were born and his Ennead was completed.”
Although some of the language in this passage is obscure, it is clear that the god Ptah is at the top of the divine hierarchy that the text envisions. Ptah is “the very great one,” the one who gives life to all the other gods, and important gods such as Atum, Horus, and Thoth are all subordinated to Ptah in different ways. Since Atum is, in the Heliopolis tradition, the original creator deity and the one who gives birth to the other members of the core group of nine deities (the “Ennead”), to subordinate Atum to Ptah is to elevate Ptah to the primary role.
What is also notable about this passage, and what makes it distinctive among the conceptions of creation we encounter in ancient Egypt, is the manner in which these primordial acts of creation are described. The “heart” and the “tongue” of Ptah are both crucial in this process, with the heart being the ultimate source (“they report to the heart… as to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised”). While the interpretation of this language is difficult, I would take the heart to represent the seat of the will or of intention, an idea that is characteristic of many ancient forms of understanding. While today we tend to associate emotions with the heart, in ancient cultures the heart encompasses faculties that we would attribute to the brain, such as thinking, deciding, and desiring. As for the tongue, I would take that to symbolize speech as an expression of an act of thought or intention. Thus, what we have is a fascinating conception of creation as a sort of mental act of Ptah with multiple stages: the heart devises, the tongue speaks it forth, and the result is various manifestations in the form of the gods and, in fact, all things. This idea is elaborated further in the text:
“Thus all the faculties were made and all the qualities determined, they that make all foods and all provisions, through this word… Thus all labor, all crafts are made, the action of the hands, the motion of the legs, the movements of all the limbs, according to this command which is devised by the heart and comes forth on the tongue and creates the performance of every thing.”
This passage applies this heart-tongue concept to the creation of a range of other elements in the world—from food, to crafts, to bodily movement, to all things. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why these elements are mentioned and not others, it does suggest that the heart’s devising leading to creative speech is envisioned in this text as a fundamental means by which the world comes into being.
In light of these passages in the Memphite Theology, the parallels to Genesis 1 are evident in that the biblical creation in seven days also takes place by means of a creator deity speaking the elements of the world into existence. One should note that in Genesis, explicit language about the “heart” or other descriptions of intention (before the act) are missing, though God does “see” the things that are created and subsequently declares them to be “good.” But the underlying conceptions of the creative process in the two texts, insofar as they both reside in the will of a specific creator god, are similar enough to warrant describing them as expressions of a common tendency emerging in the middle of the first millennium BCE.
In these two short blog posts, I have discussed two creation texts, one from Mesopotamia and one from Egypt, that in different ways illuminate the background to the creation narrative in Genesis 1. While these posts have been brief, I hope I have managed to illustrate the compelling nature of the numerous creation stories we possess from the ancient Near East. If you are interested in learning more, see my course for Wondrium/The Great Courses:
Wondrium link: https://www.wondrium.com/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world
The Great Courses link: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/creation-stories-of-the-ancient-world