I am shamelessly paraphrasing the title of a book by John Walton on Genesis 1, because it fits so well with the point I want to make in this issue. This point is: the world in which the early chapters of Genesis were written was very different from our world. Or more accurately, since it was, of course, the exact same planet Earth, the world was understood in an entirely different way.
A case in point: what comes to mind when you read, “the Earth”? It is quite possibly something like the picture illustrating this issue. In other words, we think of the Earth as a planet, and we have a clear concept of what a planet is. In addition, we have a concept of a universe filled with stars (meaning, to us, immense and hot bodies akin to our sun). We also know about galaxies beyond our own in something so vast that the term “deep space” was coined to refer to it.
None of this was known at the time when Genesis was written. People did know about Mars and Venus, but they would not have understood them as planets in our sense of the word, nor would they have put Earth into the same category. Beyond the Earth was not deep space, but something like a watery abyss or a primeval ocean (often referred to with the Greek word chaos, the opposite of kosmos), out of which the Earth had been created. And beyond the firmament (usually understood as a solid dome) and the waters above was the place where God (or the gods) had his (their) dwelling place.
I often teach Isaiah, and I think it is one of the least understood books of the Bible. In comparison, Genesis appears simple and easy to understand, but I would argue it is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. The reason is that we come to this book with our questions, many of them related to science (biology, geology, history, and archaeology) – questions no one in the world of Genesis was asking. We also come with the expectation that this text must be a fairly straightforward and mostly literal, even if simple account of origins and beginnings. Instead, it is anything but simple (much less simplistic), and if we take it at face value, we may completely miss much of what is going on in this text. Especially if we expect this text to deal with and answer our questions.
Let’s face it: the ancient Israelites did not worry about a theory of evolution. They did think the Earth was old, but “old” meant some thousands of years. The question whether it might be considerably older – millions or even billions of years – did not occur to them. In fact, words for numbers this large did not exist, so they could not even think this question. And as for the “universe”, the following two links lead to a sketch of how people in the Ancient Near East imagined the world.
Nothing in the Old Testament shows that the Israelites thought differently about the physical world than their neighbours or that God ever attempts to correct these views (e.g. Gen. 1:6-7; Ps. 24:2; Ps. 104:1-9). Instead, he accommodates his revelation to their understanding, because he has more important things to reveal than scientific information.
As with other books in the Bible, we have to put Genesis into its original historical and cultural context in order to understand it. Fortunately, we are now able to do this, because thousands of texts written in the Ancient Near East have been discovered in Mesopotamia over the past 200 years. This includes several libraries that have been found. The earliest of these to be excavated was the library established by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) in Nineveh, discovered in 1851. This multitude of texts enables us an approximate reconstruction of the lost world in which Genesis was written.
Unfamiliar to most of us, this world would have been even more unfamiliar to students of the Bible living before the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The languages of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites were deciphered for the first time only in the past 200 years. The intimate relationship between the ot and the literature and ideas of these civilizations became accessible only after such developments in ancient language studies. This opened an extraordinary window for understanding what the biblical writers meant. These connections significantly impacted our understanding of the early chapters of Genesis. (Heiser 2012)
The greatest surprise in these discoveries is several poetic narratives telling the story of creation, of a major flood, or both. These accounts show clear parallels to elements or even entire narratives in the early chapters of Genesis. It is obvious that they share a basic understanding of the world, at least in part. They all assume, for example, that the world is created out of water and is surrounded by water on every side, as illustrated in the links above. This is what everyone believed at the time, and Genesis does not challenge this view.
More striking than these similarities, however, are the differences – not in terms of “science”, but in terms of worldview, theology, and beliefs. These narratives in Genesis retell familiar material with a strikingly different theological (and political!) message. They are the antithesis to the Mesopotamian thesis of polytheism, astrology, and magic.
- Take for instance this hint from Genesis 1: sun, moon, and stars (worshipped by many in the Ancient Near East) are not gods and they are not divine; they simply exist to mark time and to give light. Genesis downgrades these would-be gods to lightbulbs, a calendar, a chronometer.
- Here is another hint. Humanity’s miseries are not the result of the fickle and whimsical behaviour of unreliable gods whose decisions can be arbitrary and impulsive. Humanity has itself to blame for its predicament.
- Or consider that God is not himself part of creation. He does not have a beginning. And he does not have to battle for his life against personalised forces of chaos that instil the gods with terror, as described in the Babylonian creation myth.
Subversive and Polemical Anti-Myth
This makes it clear that the early chapters of Genesis are not simply repeating what others believed. Their purpose is subversive and polemical – polemical, because they seek to counter and demolish the established belief system; subversive, because they do so in a subtle way, indirectly undermining the entrenched alternatives.
There is no way I can do justice to the manifold points of contact – both similarities and intentional differences – between Genesis and other texts of the ancient world; this would require a book (at least). What I can do is point the way to several of these ancient accounts, so you can get a taste for yourself. At the end of this issue, I will also tell you where to find a more extensive introduction to these questions that I recorded for the e-SBS.
Eridu Genesis, named after the Sumerian city Eridu where it was found, tells the story of creation, the beginnings of kingship and city building, and a flood that almost ended human existence.
Text of Eridu Genesis: http://www.piney.com/EriduGen.html
Atrahasis (the name of the survivor of the flood) is quite similar to Eridu Genesis but more extensive. In Atrahasis, the reason for the flood is that humans multiplied and made too much noise, so the sleep of the gods was disturbed. This makes clear how different the theological interpretation of the flood in Genesis is. In the end, the gods regret their actions. They go hungry because no one brings them sacrifice.
Article on Atrahasis: http://www.ancient.eu/article/227/
Enuma Elish is the longest of the accounts listed here. It includes an extensive description of the fierce battle Marduk fights against Tiamat, a dragon-like monster representing the original unformed ocean, and other forces of chaos associated with her.
Introduction and text: http://www.ancient.eu/article/225/
The Gilgamesh Epic includes a flood narrative that is told to Gilgamesh by the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim. It shows remarkable parallels to the one in Genesis.
Text of the flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab11.htm
Together, these accounts show that Genesis 1-11 follows a storyline that was familiar for its time, but simultaneously offers a radical reinterpretation of the events it describes.
Gen 1–11 as we read it is a commentary, often highly critical, on ideas current in the ancient world about the natural and supernatural world. Both individual stories as well as the final completed work seem to be a polemic against many of the commonly received notions about the gods and man. But the clear polemical thrust of Gen 1–11 must not obscure the fact that at certain points biblical and extrabiblical thought are in clear agreement. Indeed [sic] Genesis and the ancient Near East probably have more in common with each other than either has with modern secular thought.
It has already been mentioned that Gen 1–9 records a bare outline of world history from its creation to the flood that finds a parallel in the Atrahasis epic and even more strikingly in the Sumerian flood story. Within this bare outline the stories of the flood in Gilgamesh (perhaps borrowed from a lost edition of the Atrahasis epic) and in Gen 6–9 are astonishingly similar. This is not to say that the writer of Genesis had ever heard or read the Gilgamesh epic: these traditions were part of the intellectual furniture of that time in the Near East, just as most people today have some idea of Darwin’s Origin of Species though they have never read it. (Wenham 1998: xlvii-xlviii)
Genesis: An Underestimated Book
I know that I only scratch the surface with this letter, not just of Genesis, but also of the question what the ancient world was like.
Last year, I took the time to read through Gordon Wenham’s two-volume commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary series. After 30 years of studying Genesis, I started off thinking that I knew this book reasonably well. What I found is that after 30 years of studying Genesis, I still underestimate this book. I was amazed at how much detail I had missed until now and at how much structural and linguistic insight I gained from reading Wenham’s commentary. And this, I now suspect, is likewise only the beginning; there is so much more.
But at least it is a start, and when it comes to Genesis, we may not be able to do better than to make a start.
A New Take on Babylon
I will finish with one more example of how Genesis is rooted in the world of the Ancient Near East. The ancient Babylonians considered their city the centre of the world and the dwelling place of the leader of the gods, Marduk. The ziggurat towers or pyramids in this part of the world, although not exactly towers reaching into heaven, were probably thought of as the dwelling place of a god or a meeting place between humans and gods. The meaning of the name Babel or Babylon in the language of the Babylonians is Gate of the Gods, another proud claim regarding Babylon’s importance.
The biblical story of the Tower of Babel turns all of this on its head. Babel becomes the centre of dispersion. The tower that supposedly reaches into heaven is so low that God has to come down a long way to see what this thing is. The name Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for confusion. Its meaning is reinterpreted accordingly: not gate of the gods but place of confusion. God is not impressed by human civilisation and empire. Babylon is summarily demoted and ridiculed in this biting satire. As Gordon Wenham (1998: 244) puts it:
As elsewhere in Gen 1–11, there is in this narrative a strong polemic against the mythic theology of the ancient world. Often this polemic is implicit rather than explicit. Only ancient hearers and modern scholars familiar with Mesopotamian accounts of the flood can appreciate the world of difference between the characterizations of Noah and Utnapishtim [the Noah-like survivor of the flood in the Gilgamesh epic] or between the Lord and the gods of Mesopotamia who cower before the flood and swarm like flies around the sacrifice. But Gen 11 throws discretion to the winds: the assault on Babylonian pretensions is open and undisguised.
Want to hear more? Go to YouTube and enter “Genesis e-SBS” in the search field to find an introductory series of videos on Genesis – or follow this link:
One More Thing
I almost forgot: this issue marks two years of Create a Learning Site! I am really enjoying the process of digging into a book or subject and reporting to you at the beginning of each month; I hope you do, too. So this launches my third year of creating a learning site online for myself and others!
Heiser, M. S. (2012) “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology”. In: Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software)
Walton, J. (2009) The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic)
Wenham, G. J. (1998) Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 1: Genesis 1–15 (Dallas, TX: Word)
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. If you purchase anything through such a link, you help me cover the cost of Create a Learning Site.