2-3-1 Digression: Genesis and Creation Myths
Let’s remember that under inspiration, Moses wrote Genesis, presumably during the 40 years wandering. He therefore wrote it in a context- of explaining things to Israel as they stumbled through that wilderness, wondering who they were, where they came from, where they were headed. This explains why there are so many links within the Pentateuch- e.g. the Spirit “flutters” over the waters in Gen. 1:2, just as God like an eagle [a symbol of the Spirit] “flutters” over Israel in bringing about their creation as a nation (Dt. 32:1). The point is, what God did at creation, He can do at any time. As He made the waters “swarm” in Gen. 1:20, so He made the waters of the Nile “swarm” with frogs (Ex. 7:28) in order to save His people from a no-hope, chaotic, disordered, hopeless situation. The command to subject the animals in Eden [the land promised to Abraham?] corresponds to later commands to subject the tribes living in the land (Gen. 1:28 = Num. 32:22,29; Josh. 18:1). The “fear and dread” of humans which fell on the animals after the flood is clearly linkable with the “fear and dread” which was to come upon the inhabitants of Canaan due to the Israelites (Gen. 9:2 = Dt. 1:21; 3:8; 11:25). When Moses “finished the work” of the tabernacle (Ex. 40:33), there is clear allusion to God ‘finishing the work’ of creation (Gen. 2:2). The whole phrase “Behold I have given you…” (Gen. 1:28) occurs later when the Priests are told what God has given them (Ex. 31:6; Lev. 6:10; Num. 18:8,21; Dt. 11:14). The reference to Cain as the builder of cities in Canaan (Gen. 4:17) was to pave the way for Moses’ later commands to Israel to destroy those cities. Moses records the braggart song of Lamech, uttered in the presence of his wives, as a warning as to what had happened as civilization developed in the very same area that Israel were now to colonize and build a society within- the warning being that as any society develops, there arises increased temptation to demand retribution for the slightest offence, and to assert oneself rather than trust in God (Gen. 4:17-26). And obviously the sanctification of the 7th day was based upon God’s ‘resting’ on the 7th day in the Genesis record. The later command not to covet what looks good is very much rooted in a warning not to commit Eve’s sin of seeing the fruit and yielding to temptation (Ex. 20:17 = Gen. 3:6). The repeated references to the “journeys” of the people in the wilderness had as their basis the description of Abraham taking his journey through the desert to the promised land (Gen. 13:3); the very same two Hebrew words in italics recur in the command to Israel to now ‘take their journey’ (Dt. 10:11), following in the steps of their father Abraham. Moses’ books were helping the wilderness generation to see where they were coming from historically.
The early chapters of Genesis were intended as the seed bed from which Israel would understand that they had grown. The nature of the record of creation was therefore primarily for their benefit. The lesson for us likewise must be- that what God did at creation, He can in essence do in our lives and experiences too.
I recall as a young convert being deeply disturbed when I realized that there were many myths of creation existing in the peoples that surrounded the Israelites [the Sumerians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Hittites etc.] which were extremely similar in some aspects as the Genesis record of creation. Indeed, in a few places the correspondences are almost verbatim the same- “There was not yet rain…there was not yet a man to till the ground” (Gen. 2:5) reads very similarly to an Egyptian text that speaks of “When there was not yet rain…when there was not yet the fear that came to be…”.
I assured myself that all those peoples must have copied their ideas from the Genesis record, rather than vice versa. But I was never totally comfortable with that view. Having now read through some of the myths (1) and reflected upon the situation, and faced up to the fact that some of them were around well before Moses wrote Genesis, I’ve come to another view. It seems to me that the Genesis record, under inspiration, is a commentary upon those myths, telling Israel the truth, bringing out where they were wrong, and why. One Egyptian myth claimed that man was created from dust, and then the goddess Hat-Hor holds the symbol of life to the mouth and nose of the created body. You can see the similarities with the Genesis record. The Gilgamesh Epic also has a primeval man seeking to eat forbidden fruit. Many creation myths included the idea of the first woman having two sons, who then have conflict with each other and even commit fratricide. The tension between farmers and cattle raisers in southern Babylonia was at the root of a number of myths very similar to the Cain and Abel account. But Moses, under inspiration, is giving Israel the true account, after their long period under Egyptian influence. So Genesis may allude to the other stories closely- as they were myths and legends which would’ve been well known to Israel as they walked through the desert. They would’ve discussed them, and some probably believed them. And so Moses wrote Genesis to show them where the truth really was from God’s viewpoint. This explains something which has been widely observed by students of the ancient Middle East: the Israelites had no myths in their culture. The surrounding nations [cp. the world around us] were full of poorly defined and contradictory myths relating to life’s origin. But the Israelites were different. They had ultimate truth for them clearly laid down.
As we’ve said, Genesis itself was part of a five volume, Divinely inspired masterpiece. The purpose of Genesis was to teach God’s people something in their day, whenever and wherever that was or is experienced by the readers / hearers of the book. This is why so many parts of the Bible allude back to the Genesis record of creation, in seeking to inspire faith now that God will powerfully act creatively and dramatically in our lives today.
God created matter. Ultimately, all that exists was made by Him; and by faith we believe that things which now exist were not made from what already existed apart from God. The Genesis record of creation, however, emphasises how God brought order out of chaos. He brought this present world of beauty and order out of a darkness that brooded upon a sea, and from an earth that was “without form and void”, the Hebrew images behind the words implying ‘a chaos’. The frequent references to the earth and sea ‘bringing forth’ (e.g. Gen. 1:12,24) use a Hebrew word which means ‘to let something which is within to come out’. The present world was created by a re-organization of things which existed in some form before. This means that when our own lives, or the collective life of God’s people, appears to be in chaos- then we can in faith reflect that God has brought beautiful order out of chaos, and He can likewise powerfully bring order to what seems hopeless. This is the context of the creation allusions in the laments of Ps. 74:12-17; 89:10-15; Is. 51:9 etc.
Genesis And Creation Myths
There are some very marked differences between the Genesis record of creation, and the contemporary creation myths. Those differences would have been so apparent to the Israelites, as they heard Moses first give or read them the inspired account of Genesis.
Creation By The Word
One major differences was that Moses told them that God created everything by His word. He spoke, and it was done. This was markedly different to the [then] popular myths of gods hatching eggs, or procreating to produce the world. Repeatedly, later Scripture alludes to the fact that it was by the word of God that the world was created; and that same powerful, re-forming, saving word was and is that heard by His people still (Ps. 33:6,9; 104:7; 147:15-18; 148:3-5; Is. 40:26; 44:23; 48:13; 50:2; 55:10). A. Heidel comments: “The word of the Babylonian deities was not almighty. On the contrary, the word of the creator in Gen. 1 is almighty. He commands and the result is in perfect conformity to his command…there is a profound difference between the Bible and non-biblical religions” [on this point of the word being the agency of creation] (2). This feature of Genesis 1 paves the way for Ex. 25:1 and many other passages later in the Pentateuch recording how “God said…”, and Israel therefore ought to obey His word of command in ‘creating’ the tabernacle out of existing materials. Thereby they would show themselves at one with the Angel-elohim, who had earlier likewise obeyed God’s word of command in creating the world. God spoke, and it was done. And so when God speaks now to His elohim, His people- it ought likewise to be done.
The Value Of Persons
Another unique feature of the Genesis account of creation is that God is described as resting on the seventh day. No creation myth includes this feature (3). Moses developed this theme later, when he taught that therefore, man was to rest on the seventh day likewise. Whilst God is omnipotent, there is what I have called elsewhere ‘the limitation of God’- in that He portrays Himself as somehow limited, only allowing Himself to use some of His limitless power. This idea of a God who seeks to come so close to us that He limits His limitless power is altogether wonderful. The pagan gods were all some kind of supermen, untouched by human emotions and limitations. But the true God is not like that; He has always wished to come so close to His creatures. In a related way, the Genesis record brings out how God has delegated so much freedom and freewill to His creations. Gen. 4:20-22 explains how it was human beings who themselves developed skills of metal working, cattle breeding, music etc. The creations myths of the world surrounding the Israelites assumed that these very things were “the outcome of the internal conflicts of the gods”. The Sumerian legends taught that things like ploughs and axes were created by the gods, and they should be praised for them. Moses teaches a far higher respect for humanity, in keeping with the hugely-significant teaching that man was made in God’s image.
The sheer concentration of God’s will that went into the creation of humans is brought out by a correct reading of Gen. 1:26: “Let us make man in our image”. The Hebrew construction used here has been described as “a plural of deliberation”. C. Brockelmann describes it as “a form of speech which occurred primarily in self-deliberation”. In other words, an individual may use a plural to describe his or her decision. Take David’s words in 2 Sam. 24:14: “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord…but let not me fall into the hand of man”. Ezra 4:18 has a King saying: “The letter ye sent unto us hath been plainly read before me”. In Is. 6:8 we read the same of God Himself: “Whom shall I [singular] send, and who will go for us?”. And this would enable us to better understand God’s decision making in Gen. 11:7: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their speech”. The same sort of thing occurs in modern English slang: “Let’s see…” = ‘let me personally consider’; ‘Give us that pen’ = ‘Give me that pen’; ‘We was just…’ = ‘I was just…’. So “Let us make man…” may refer to God’s personal self-deliberation in making human beings; to a Semitic reader of the original, it would emphasize the vast passion which God Almighty put into this decision. And it therefore follows, that He passionately wishes to have a very definite purpose with us, that He so loves us, and wishes only our eternal good.
The creation myths tend to leave man as created, as a servant to the gods. The implication is that the true meaning of life is the same as our mere existence. We are created to exist, so, we just exist. That’s what life is about. This isn’t existential, philosophical nonsense. That’s a sad, real, concrete fact of what this life is about for many people on the earth. They’re just existing. The Genesis record, however, gives more purpose to life than just existing. Adam was created, and he started existing. But, as the account brings out, he couldn’t find the meaning of life by merely existing in an ideal physical, material situation. Just like people today don’t find satisfaction in that, either. He needed Eve; he needed some form of human community, of fellowship, of binding with others, in order to find fulfilment. And so it is with us, driven as we are towards isolationism and individualism by the abuses of society around us.
No creation myth includes the idea of the Divine Creator then blessing His creation. Here we see the surpassing grace of God. He lavishes His love upon what He created. None of the creation myths include such a wonderful feature. Within Genesis, this idea of blessing of course paves the way for God promising to “bless” the children of Abraham, and the blessings upon them with which Deuteronomy concludes (see too Lev. 9:22; Num. 6:22-24). The pagan creation stories sometimes spoke of the things created by the gods then blessing them. The Sumerians recorded that at ‘creation’, “The whole universe, the people in unison, to Enlil in one tongue gave praise” (4). But the true God, the God of all grace, not only creates His people and other creatures, but then blesses them! And the spirit of that grace should be seen in all our relationships. The Sumerian and Babylonian myths speak of people being created in order to serve the gods, “to bear the yoke of the gods” (S.G.F.Brandon, op cit p. 115), to relieve them in their everyday work. But the Genesis creation has God creating man and giving him great freedom, and blessing him. It has often been rightly observed that the first use of a word in Scripture should influence how we later understand it as we read through the Bible. ‘Blessing’ in Gen. 1 is clearly related to the ideas of fertility and reproducing. When we later read that God has ‘blessed’ us His people with the Abrahamic blessing of forgiveness (Acts 3:24-26), the implication is that this must lead to some bringing forth of fruit. We can’t simply be passive to what we’ve received. We must go forth and multiply it, in sharing it with others, in bringing forth spiritual children, in creatively forgiving others…
The Supremacy Of God
Moses states early on in his inspired account that God created light. The Egyptians considered that light was in itself a great god, Re. And “in Persian cosmology…light…is uncreated and eternal” (5). So to say that the one true God created light, and light is not a god in itself, was a radical thing. And hence the account of the fourth day of creation is longer than the accounts of the other days; because the sun, moon and stars were seen as gods in themselves. The moon god, Sin, was thought to be the one who “fixes day, month and year”. But Genesis 1 teaches that it is the one God who created the moon, who set the moon and stars to define time periods. There was only one God, one creator. We are to look beyond all created things to the Creator behind them. The peoples around the Israelites worshipped created things as if they were God. Moses was teaching that no, there is only one God, and we must primarily worship Him rather than anything which He has made. Paul brings out the error of worshipping the created rather than the Creator. And this echoes down to our day; where we can so easily worship the ‘idols’ of which this world is so full, rather than the ultimate Creator. That there is only one Divine Creator is a challenge to any form of idolatory.
When we read that we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), the Hebrew word for ‘image’ is that to be used later throughout the Old Testament concerning the ‘images’ of idols. Hence the awefulness of Israel making images of the false gods, in human likeness (Ez. 16:17)- because this was a studied statement that they rejected the one true God as their creator, in His image. If we are made in God’s image, then we simply cannot admit the existence of any other image of God- which, in the end, is what all the gadgetry and idols of this world amount to.
The Account of the Flood
The Biblical account of the flood can be analyzed in similar terms to the creation record. The Gilgamesh Epic and other Babylonian myths also record a universal flood, in which one man, named Ziusudra in Gilgamesh, and his family are saved. And after the flood, this saved man [called Utnapishtim, Deucalion, Demarius, Manu etc] offered sacrifice. They believed that all mankind perished, and that the roots of their present culture went back to the time of the flood.
And yet when we compare the truth Moses taught Israel, and the surrounding myths of the flood, there are significant and instructive differences.
The value of persons
Whilst nearly all the flood myths feature the offering of sacrifice, none of them record the prohibition of eating blood which was given straight after the flood (Gen. 9:4). Indeed, only in Israel did blood feature as a major element of sacrifice at all. Blood representing life, the clear teaching was that God wished His people to value human life, and never to seek to take another’s life to oneself. The value of persons is brought out in a very powerful way, even though we are reading the record of God’s judgment of His creation. The Biblical account of the flood is introduced by the 10 generation genealogy of Gen. 5, tracing Noah’s ancestry back to Adam. The Babylonian myths preface their flood record likewise with a 10 generation genealogy, ending in Ziusudra, the man who survived the flood. But those 10 men listed in their genealogies are supposed to be great kings. They are described as having ridiculously long lifespans- e.g. Alalgar was supposed to have lived 72,000 years. The Biblical record is much different. The genealogy presents ordinary and imaginable men, with longer but realistic lifespans. The ship of salvation in the Gilgamesh Epic is loaded with food and silver and gold. The Biblical record says nothing of this- rather is the focus upon the salvation of people. In another myth, Utnapishtim, the one who survives the flood, is turned into a hero and becomes a god. But of course Moses’ inspired record is different. The flood story ends with Noah dying- not becoming a god. And Noah not only remains human, but he remains very human- because he goes out and gets blind drunk after he comes out of the ark. Moses’ point is surely to show that real human lives really do intersect with Almighty God’s work, words and actions.
The Biblical hope is that we as persons, as individuals, will be saved, and not turned into something essentially unrelated to who we are today. ‘God manifestation’ is not in that sense about us losing our personhood and becoming subsumed amongst the gods. True Christianity isn’t about Jesus being God Himself, but about Him being the very human son of God, who is titled to this day “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5)- for all the height of His exaltation to Divine nature. It’s not about feeling that just because we are human, we are inevitable sinners and total filth in the eyes of God, attracting His wrath just for being alive. It ain’t no sin to be glad that you’re alive. The anger of God is not upon every foetus that is conceived; rather does He share our joy. Neither does He breathe a sigh of relief when a man dies; rather does He share our grief at the tragedy of our human position. This isn’t a Biblical view of ourselves. Nor is true religion about ‘playing God’ as in the New Age approach to life. And it’s not about this earth being burnt up and us being whisked off into space; it’s about the transformation and salvation of this very planet, corrupt and polluted as it is. All these wrong approaches reflect a basic dis-ease with ourselves as persons, a desire to escape and be assumed amongst the gods into something other-worldly, as Utnapishtim was. Who we are is in a sense who we will be, in that we are even now associated with the Name of Yahweh [who He is, is who He will be]. Instead of playing God, we are to get on with being who we are, not being ashamed of our humanity. Of course, like Noah arising from his drunkeness, we should be ashamed of our sins; but the whole wonderful purpose of Moses’ record is to show that God’s heroes aren’t superhuman, they are in fact very human, a Noah who shamefully goes out and gets stoned after God has shown him His wondrous grace; and yet the likes of Noah are the very ones whom God saves.
The Genesis record deals with the sin of Adam, Cain and the world of Noah’s day within a certain pattern- God notices sin, judges it, condemns the guilty, yet mitigates the punishment somewhat, preserves the righteous, and there is a theme of new life and the bringing forth of children occuring after judgment. It is in fact through God’s judgment of sin that we have a window into His mercy and sensitivity. In wrath He remembers mercy.
The nature of God
Gilgamesh speaks of how there was a discussion amongst the gods as to what to do with humanity. Human sin is not given as the reason for their decision, but rather mere capriciousness of the gods. The Atrahasis epic gives the reason as the gods becoming angry that the humans are not serving them enough. In Gilgamesh, the majority of gods wanted to destroy humanity, but some, led by the god Ea-Enki, wanted to save. What is totally unique about the Biblical record is that there is only one God involved. Within Him there is this tension between judging sin, and lovingly saving His wayward creation. And thus we read the incredible statement that God “repented” that He had created man (Gen. 6:5). In Gilgamesh, there is a tension amongst the gods; Ea-Enki becomes so passionate to save humanity that he rebels against the other gods. In the true, Biblical record, that tension between gods is expressed as a tension within the heart of the one true God. He created mankind; and then He wanted to destroy them for their sin; and yet He struggled with this. The record leads us to enter into the Divine pain, the struggle of God. This is totally and utterly unique; this is the truth, which all other religions and myths could never get hold of. Moses’ record was paving the way for his own experience of this aspect of Israel’s wonderful God. For he too had experienced God stating His judgment of His people, ‘repenting’ that He had created them as a nation, seeking to destroy them, and yet being sensitive to Moses’ pleas. One sees the same Divine pain in later Scripture, especially in Hosea. There, God alternates between having no mercy on His people, and showing mercy; not being their God any longer; yet being their God. And like a wounded lover, God declares: “I will love them no more”; and yet in the final, tear-jerking outpouring of God in Hosea 14, we read the wonderful conclusion: “I will love them freely”. This is such a hard thing to really come to terms with. For how can a God who is all powerful and who knows the end from the beginning, have such feelings? Yet those Divine feelings are legitimate, they really were felt, and they are felt by God Almighty about us at this very moment. It is so much easier to do as Gilgamesh did, and have a judgmental god and a saviour god; or to have a ‘good God’ and a bad, evil satan, as in the theology of today’s apostate Christianity. But the wonder of Yahweh is that this one and only true God has these two aspects within Him. To know something of this Divine struggle, this surpassing love of God, is something that flows out from a belief in there being only one God. The issues of grace and truth, love and judgment, mercy and justice, are all brought together in the awesome personality of this God with whom we have to do.
This essential struggle of God is brought out by the account of God’s ‘repenting’ that He had cursed the earth. According to one translation, Gen. 8:21 can read: “I will never again declare the earth to be cursed (as I have done hitherto) on account of humanity, because the imagination of the heart is evil from one’s youth”. The reference to cursing the earth surely alludes back to the curse of Gen. 3:17. Could it be that God is saying that He ‘repented’ not only of the flood, but of the cursing of the earth in response to Adam’s sin? The final outworking of that repenting of course was through the work of the Lord Jesus, and the ultimate enablement of Paradise restored on this earth. It’s as if God is as it were coming to terms with the evilness of man; although He perceives that man is bent on sinning from his youth, by grace, He promises never to destroy mankind. In wrath, He remembered mercy. The sign of the rainbow is described as God hanging up His bow (Gen. 9:13). To hang up your bow was an idiom for ceasing from conflict (Hab. 3:9-11; Ps. 7:13). It was as if Yahweh the warrior was laying aside His bow, ending His conflict with mankind. The contemporary flood myths articulate all this in terms of there being a dispute amongst the gods; some wanted to destroy mankind, others wanted to show mercy; some regretted the earlier judgments against mankind, others didn’t; some wanted to assure mankind that he wouldn’t be destroyed; others argued that he must face the consequences of his sin. Here the Biblical record is so amazingly different. All these emotions are portrayed as occuring within the one and only God. As humanly incomprehensible as it is, that an all powerful, all knowing Being could have such conflicting emotions, this is without doubt the God whom the Bible reveals to us.
It has also been observed that in none of the flood myths is there anything like the table of nations of Gen. 10, which seeks to explain how the area affected by the flood was subsequently repopulated. However, the 70 peoples mentioned in Gen. 10 are clearly meant to be understood as representative of the wholeness of peoples. The point is being made that all tribal groups have one common origin, either in Adam or in one of Noah’s sons. Remember that Moses was writing against a background of tribalism, where groups were persuaded that their group alone was the master race, and all foreigners were to be despised. The value of persons inspired by the Genesis record rose far above this petty tribalism. And for all our apparent sophistication, it’s evident that our world is just as much full of tribalism as it ever was.
(1) A good summary of them is to be found in S.G.F. Brandon, Creation Legends Of The Ancient Near East (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1963). Also worth referencing is the work of W.G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis”, published in the Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 16 pp. 287-300.
(2) Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 126.
(3) Rafael Pettazzoni, Myths of Beginning and Creation Myths in Essays On The History of Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1967) p. 32, and especially his The All-Knowing God: Researches into Early Religion (London, 1956).
(4) S.N. Kramer, Sumerian Literature and the Bible (London, 1959) , p.107.
(5) J. Skinner, Commentary On Genesis