March 16, 2023
My colleague Joseph Lam is an expert on the languages and texts of the Ancient Near East, including the Hebrew Bible. In terms of languages, he not only teaches ancient Hebrew, but also (brace yourself), Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, Semitic linguistics, and, well, so on. He is particularly expert in the relationship of the texts and myths other Ancient Near Eastern religions with those of the Hebrew Bible.
Joseph is also a superb teacher, and so he was invited to to a course for the Great Courses (Wondrium) called “Creation Stories of the Ancient World.” The course just came out, and so I have asked Joseph to do a couple of blog posts for us, to introduce all of you to the kinds of things he covers there. Here are the links to his course and, then, his first post:
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
Creation stories tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. They not only describe the origins of the world in a distant past, but they encapsulate a culture’s self-understanding in story form, offering insight into how different societies made sense of the human condition across history. In my new course for Wondrium/The Great Courses, titled “Creation Stories of the Ancient World,” I explore a range of creation stories from the great literate civilizations of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world in order to illuminate the underlying conceptions they describe—from the nature of reality, to the identity of the gods, to the role of humans in the created order. Among the texts I discuss are myths from Mesopotamia, such as the Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish) and the Atrahasis Epic; literary traditions from ancient Egypt, including the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Memphite Theology; an early Greek view of creation as represented in Hesiod’s Theogony; lesser known texts such as the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle; and, of course, the biblical creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.
As an example of the kinds of insights that one can glean from these stories, consider the opening lines of the Babylonian Creation Epic, known in antiquity as Enuma Elish (translation is mine):
When the heavens above had not been named,
nor the earth beneath been called by name,
there was Apsu, the pre-eminent, their begetter,
and creator Tiamat, who bore them all;
they mixed their waters together,
before pastures had formed and reed thickets had appeared.
When none of the gods had been made manifest,
nor been called by name, nor destinies decreed,
the gods were created in the midst of them.
Those who are familiar with the biblical account of creation in seven days (Genesis 1) may already recognize certain broad similarities, such as the pairing of “heaven” and “earth,” the idea of naming as synonymous with creation itself (compare how God speaks things into existence and names them in Genesis 1), and the presence of water in the initial state of the universe. Indeed, on this last point, the two primordial deities in this tale, the male god Apsu and the female goddess Tiamat, are both personifications of water, with Apsu representing the fresh waters and Tiamat representing the salt waters. Note that the name “Tiamat” is actually related to the Hebrew word for “deep” or “abyss” in Genesis 1:2 (Hebrew tehom).
Dr. Joseph Lam
But, while these similarities might suggest that the Mesopotamian and Israelite accounts share a common cultural vocabulary for speaking about creation, they do not imply that the same story is being told. In Enuma Elish, after the gendered pair of Apsu and Tiamat begins the process of procreation of the gods, the story proceeds to describe the two major rounds of conflict that take place among the gods. The resulting battles lead to the deaths of both Apsu and Tiamat—the latter at the hand of Marduk (technically their great-great-grandson), the patron god of Babylon who is proclaimed supreme over the divine pantheon. After Tiamat’s defeat, Marduk severs Tiamat’s body in two in order to make heaven and earth respectively; he also establishes the stars and planets to mark time as well as the other familiar features of the physical world, from mountains to springs to the weather. Most importantly, creation culminates in the founding of the city of Babylon itself as an earthly abode for the gods to be venerated regularly. Humankind is then formed from the body of a sacrificed god—specifically, the god who induced Tiamat to confront Marduk to begin with—in order to alleviate the work of the gods and to maintain the activities of divine worship. Finally, as thanks to Marduk for his lordship, the rest of the gods build the Esagila, Marduk’s temple, in the midst of Babylon. In these ways, Enuma Elish can be seen as an encapsulation of the major points of ancient Babylonian religious and political ideology. It is not surprising, then, that we have evidence that this text was recited as part of the most important festival in Babylon, the spring New Year celebration called the Akitu festival.
By contrast, Genesis 1 describes creation not as a series of battles between the gods but rather as the activity of a single god (Hebrew elohim) establishing an ordered world over the course of six days. Any potentially competing divine forces—whether the “waters” or the “deep” in 1:2, or the sun/moon/stars in 1:16, or the “great sea monsters” in 1:21—are subordinated to this one creator god. In modern times, by virtue of its prominent placement at the beginning of the Bible, this text is often read as a timeless description of how the world came to be. But it would be a mistake to overlook the strong polemical force of the story. I would argue that Genesis 1 is just as historically situated as Enuma Elish, and that its historical setting goes a long way toward explaining the emphases of the story itself. In particular, if we posit the time of the Babylonian exile to be the background for the story, two major features of the text come into alignment. First, its many allusions to Enuma Elish can be explained not only as general reflections of common ancient Near Eastern creation imagery (though that is still a useful fundamental assumption) but specifically as an effort by the Judean literary elite, living as exiles in Babylonia, to articulate an alternative vision of creation in line with their traditions. Second, the lack of an overt mention of a temple in Genesis 1 could be seen as an attempt to make sense of the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple: the Israelite Elohim does not necessarily need a temple, for the entirety of heaven and earth are Elohim’s abode! Moreover, just as every ancient Mesopotamian temple had a cult image of the deity residing in it, so human beings are the “image” (Gen. 1:26-27) of Elohim in the newly-established cosmos.
In my next blog entry, I will introduce another ancient Near Eastern creation text that has often been compared with Genesis 1—the Egyptian text known as the Memphite Theology.