Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Bible's Human Origins: Genesis 1 - 11

In the previous article, I provided evidence that Genesis 1 was connected with an earlier Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish.

Whatever your view of the "divine inspiration" of the Bible is, it must somehow account for this. But is the Genesis 1 account the only similarity with Babylonian mythology? Not at all. This article will explore more connections between the first 11 chapters of Genesis and ancient mythology.

Before I begin...

I want to start by making it crystal clear that I am not claiming that the authors of Genesis merely copied their material from older legends and mythology. If that were the case, we would expect them to match word for word, and they clearly do not.

What I am attempting to show is that the early chapters of Genesis were written by people who were familiar with Babylonian / Sumerian mythology, and that very similar motifs and ideas can be found in their writings. The point I want to make is that some of the ideas in Genesis are not original to the Bible, and that the material found in the Bible reflects the world view and culture of the human authors. In fact it is my opinion that an understanding of that world view and culture is essential to properly understanding Genesis.

If we are to believe that these chapters in the Bible were "divinely inspired", then we must accept a conclusion somewhere along the lines of God inspiring people to write down their religious texts in such a way that it reads exactly the same as if they had not been divinely inspired. It's funny how that works...

Of course, there is a much simpler explanation for why Genesis reflects the views of a primitive civilization, but I'll leave that one aside for now.

I feel I should also mention that my personal view that the biblical texts were not divinely inspired should not be seen as an attempt to belittle or diminish the value of these texts. On the contrary, I think all such ancient texts are fascinating in their own right, and can teach us a lot about our human origins and history.

Genesis 1 - Creation

I've already provided some detail for this one in the previous article, but here I want to just show some of the contents of the Enuma Elish that contain similar imagery and sequence of events to that in Genesis 1.

Tablet 1

1   When the heavens above did not exist,
2   And earth beneath had not come into being—

The text goes on to describe the creation of the Earth from a watery abyss. The language in the Enuma Elish is dramatically different from that of the Bible, but when we read expert analysis of the text we find that the order of creation is very similar, and some aspects are even described in similar ways.

Tablet 5

1   He fashioned heavenly stations for the great gods,
2   And set up constellations, the patterns of the stars.
3   He appointed the year, marked off divisions,
4   And set up three stars each for the twelve months.
5   After he had organized the year,
6   He established the heavenly station of Ne-beru to fix the stars' intervals.
7   That none should transgress or be slothful
8   He fixed the heavenly stations of Enlil and Ea with it.
9   Gates he opened on both sides,
10   And put strong bolts at the left and the right.
11   He placed the heights (of heaven) in her (Tia-mat's) belly,
12   He created Nannar, entrusting to him the night.
13   He appointed him as the jewel of the night to fix the days,
14   And month by month without ceasing he elevated him with a crown,

Here we see a parallel to Genesis 1:14, describing the assignment of heavenly bodies to their places, and their purpose being to mark out seasons, days, and years.

Tablet 6

1   When Marduk heard the gods' speech
2   He conceived a desire to accomplish clever things.
3   He opened his mouth addressing Ea,
4   He counsels that which he had pondered in his heart,
5   "I will bring together blood to form bone,
6   I will bring into being LullĂ», whose name shall be 'man'.
7   I will create LullĂ»—man
8   On whom the toil of the gods will be laid that they may rest.

Note the deity Marduk speaking with other gods about the creation of 'man' (c.f. Genesis 1:26). Man's role will be the toil (of Earth), which will allow the gods to rest after he has been created. In this story, the gods previously performed the work that man is now being created to do, which differs from the biblical story, but don't let the differences blind you to the similarities. The differences simply mean the story was not copied verbatim (and was probably written for a slightly different purpose), but the similarities mean the author(s) of Genesis were very much aware of the earlier myth. It is interesting that several scholars suggest that Genesis was written as a polemic against Babylonian mythology, because in putting forward their alternative view, the authors of Genesis admit to a very similar world view compared with that of the Babylonians. The differences appear to be primarily theological, rather than empirical.

Apparently God saw no need to correct their understanding of cosmology. Apologists claim that God accommodated the views of his readers to teach them theological "truths" (whatever those are). This is just another way of saying that God apparently inspired people to write things down in such a way as to look exactly like they would if they had not been divinely inspired. How convenient!

Other notable mentions in the Enuma Elish are the stretching out of the heavens (the Bible uses similar language to describe the creation of the heavens in Isaiah 40:22), and also the mention of the formation of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (see also Genesis 2:14).

Genesis 2 - Eden

Genesis 2 gives us an alternative creation account and also the story of the garden of Eden. There appear to be several parallels between the Eden story and the Sumerian epic, "Enki and Ninhursag".

As in Genesis, the Sumerians' world is formed out of the watery abyss and the heavens and earth are divinely separated from one another by a solid dome. The second chapter of Genesis introduces the paradise Eden, a place which is similar to the Sumerian Dilmun, described in the myth of "Enki and Ninhursag". Dilmun is a pure, bright, and holy land - now often identified with Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. It is blessed by Enki to have overflowing, sweet water. Enki fills it with lagoons and palm trees. He impregnates Ninhursag and causes eight new plants to grow from the earth. Eden, "in the East" (Gen. 2:8) has a river which also "rises" or overflows, to form four rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates. It too is lush and has fruit bearing trees. (Gen. 2:9-10) In the second version of the creation of man "The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being." Enki and Ninmah (Ninhursag) use a similar method in creating man. Nammu, queen of the abyss and Enki's mother, bids Enki to "Kneed the 'heart' of the clay that is over the Abzu " and "give it form" (Kramer & Maier p. 33)
Source (also note the references to Kramer & Maier)

And also:

In the myth of Enki and Ninhursag it is related that the mother-goddess Ninhursag caused eight plants to grow in the garden of the gods. Enki desired to eat these plants and sent his messenger Isimud to fetch them. Enki ate them one by one, and Ninhursag in her rage pronounced the curse of death upon Enki. As the result of the curse eight of Enki’s bodily organs were attacked by disease and he was at the pain of death. The great gods were in dismay and Enlil [the chief god] was powerless to help. Ninhursag was induced to return and deal with the situation. She created eight goddesses of healing who proceeded to heal each of the diseased parts of Enki’s body. One of these parts was the god’s rib, and the goddess who was created to deal with the rib was named Ninti, which means “lady of the rib”.

Genesis 4 - Cain and Abel

The quarrels between herder god and farmer deity pairs such as Lahar and Ashnan or Enten and Emesh are similar in some respects to the quarrels of Cain and Abel. In the Sumerian versions death appears to be avoided, although we do not have the complete Lahar and Ashnan story. (Kramer 1961 pp. 49-51, 53-54)

Genesis 5 - Genealogies

The Sumerian King List provides a list of eight kings (some versions have 10) who reigned for long periods of time before the flood, ranging from 18,600 to 43,200 years.  This is similar to Genesis 5, where the generations from Creation to the Flood are recorded. Interestingly, between Adam and Noah there are eight generations, just as there are eight kings between the beginning of kingship and the flood in the Sumerian King List. 
After the flood, the King List records kings who ruled for much shorter periods of time. Thus, the Sumerian King List not only documents a great flood early in man’s history, but it also reflects the same pattern of decreasing longevity as found in the Bible - men had extremely long life spans before the flood and much shorter life spans following the flood (Wood, 2003).

Genesis 6 & 7 - The Flood

The flood is perhaps the most well-known story to have a parallel in Mesopotamian mythology. Several elements in the story align very closely with the Epic of Gilgamesh. According to Wikipedia, this story dates roughly to 2100BCE.

The epic itself is quite long, and flood story is only one small part of it, but the similarities with the Genesis story are striking and unmistakeable.

Utnapishtim recounts how a great storm and flood was brought to the world by the god Enlil, who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they brought to the world. But the god Ea forewarned Utnapishtim, advising him to build a ship in readiness and to load onto it his treasures, his family and the seeds of all living things. The rains came as promised and the whole world was covered with water, killing everything except Utnapishtim and his boat. The boat came to rest on the tip of the mountain of Nisir, where they waited for the waters to subside, releasing first a dove, then a swallow and then a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then made sacrifices and libations to the gods and, although Enlil was angry that someone had survived his flood, Ea advised him to make his peace. So, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them everlasting life, and took them to live in the land of the gods on the island of Dilmun.

I'm sure there are many creative ways for believers to interpret this, for example perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh, despite being written much earlier than Genesis (and the earliest tablets are much earlier than our earliest copies of Genesis), was somehow corrupted and the Genesis story represents the "true" account as revealed by God to Moses. If that kind of "explanation" works for you, then there's probably nothing I can tell you that would make any difference to your beliefs. Still, I wonder what you think would be different if the Epic of Gilgamesh was the "original" version and the Genesis story was the corrupted one. Moreover, if you are willing to claim that the later text is more correct because it was divinely inspired, then by the same logic you're effectively giving a free pass to Islam and Mormonism.

Genesis 11 - Tower of Babel

If you've been paying attention when reading the first 11 chapters of Genesis, you'll notice that not only are there many parallels with Babylonian mythology, but also most of the events take place in the general area of Mesopotamia. When we come to the story in chapter 11, the name "Babel" is a dead giveaway.

Etemenanki (Sumerian: "temple of the foundation of heaven and earth") was the name of a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon. It was famously rebuilt by the 6th-century BCE Neo-Babylonian dynasty rulers Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II. According to modern scholars, such as Stephen L. Harris, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by Etemenanki during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.
Source (Wikipedia - see footnote within)

What about parallels with Sumerian mythology, you ask?

There is a Sumerian myth similar to that of the Tower of Babel, called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, where Enmerkar of Uruk is building a massive ziggurat in Eridu and demands a tribute of precious materials from Aratta for its construction, at one point reciting an incantation imploring the god Enki to restore (or in Kramer's translation, to disrupt) the linguistic unity of the inhabited regions—named as Shubur, Hamazi, Sumer, Uri-ki (the region around Akkad), and the Martu land. 
One recent theory first advanced by David Rohl associates Nimrod, the hunter, builder of Erech and Babel, with Enmerkar (that is, Enmer the Hunter) king of Uruk, also said to have been the first builder of the Eridu temple. (Amar-Sin (c. 2046-2037 B.C.E.), third monarch of the Third Dynasty of Ur, later attempted to complete the Eridu ziggurat.) This theory proposes that the actual remains of the Tower of Babel are, in fact, the much older ruins of the ziggurat of Eridu, just south of Ur, rather than those of Babylon, where the story was later transposed. Among the reasons for this association are the larger size of the ruins, the older age of the ruins, and the fact that one title of Eridu was NUN.KI ("mighty place"), which later became a title of Babylon. Both cities also had temples called the "E-Sagila."
Source (New World Encyclopedia)

The important connection here is that there is a similar story in Sumerian mythology that also describes the disruption of the unity of languages in the region. What are the chances?

Conclusion and Reasoning

My aim in this article was to demonstrate the clear an unmistakeable connection between the early chapters of Genesis and Mesopotamian mythology. If you have not come across this material before, I would encourage you to research it more. It's quite interesting.

As I've already mentioned a couple of times, it seems that many apologists attempt to reconcile these similarities by arguing that God, in his infinite wisdom, chose to accommodate the views of his audience and not impart any actual facts about the cosmos in any way. Instead he apparently chose to use the very same world view and culture familiar to the people of that time period, to reveal details about himself as the one and only true god. It seems a little odd for God to present a false account of creation (and the flood, and other myths), one that agreed with the Babylonian account no less, but apparently that wasn't "lying". It's difficult to know exactly how the original audience actually interpreted the empirical aspects of the stories, but the limited evidence we have suggests that they shared a very similar cosmic world view to the nations around them, just with different theology.

This "accommodation" theory might sound enticing to you if you are desperate to cling to the biblical story as "divinely inspired", but the blunt fact is that it takes actual falsifiable claims about the cosmos and hides them behind an unfalsifiable smoke screen. This is classic modern biblical apologetics. I mentioned this in the previous article and here we see it again. Apparently having falsifiable beliefs is bad, because science (our best method for discovering truths about reality) has not tended to align with the views people generally held in the Iron Age.

Of course, it may well be true that these texts really were inspired by a god who wished to accommodate the views of his readers. But there is a much simpler explanation that requires no supernatural assumptions. It's so obvious it barely needs to be said. Perhaps the people who wrote the Bible actually were just writing down their own views. So simple.

The "divinely inspired accommodation" theory should probably avoid close company with a certain "William of Ockham".

The final point I want to make on this is that arguing for "divinely inspired accommodation", being an unfalsifiable claim, does not count as evidence for divine inspiration in any way. It is merely an attempt to "get the Bible out of jail" after the discovery of the many tablets containing ancient Sumerian texts (or in some cases after the discovery that a literal interpretation was not sustainable in the face of empirical evidence). So long as there are "ad-hoc", how-it-might-have-been scenarios available to Bible believers, it seems their faith will continue on more or less undisturbed. It does not seem to bother such believers that these ad-hoc "explanations" have little to do with truth or reality, and much to do with providing comfort in the face of doubt.

Those of us with more of an eye towards empirical reality, however, will note that without any positive evidence for the claim of divine inspiration, there is simply no reason to believe it.

Next Article: Genesis continued


  1. real interesting stuff... yes it could all be copied... if it was never taught to you as a child you would say..its all a load of rubbish....

    1. I would caution you against using the word "copied". Genesis was not copied in the strict sense. The authors of Genesis probably didn't have a copy of the Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh to one side as they wrote. But they certainly had read these texts and were very familiar with them. In fact their world view was no doubt heavily influenced by them.

      At most, the authors of Genesis were repurposing earlier myths to promote their own theology over that of Babylon. Something like a kind of "our god is more powerful than all of your gods" if you like. That does seem to be the case at least in parts. You can actually find several "god challenges" in the Bible (Egypt plagues, Philistine gods, Elijah on Mt Carmel etc.), and even the ten commandments contain a prohibition from worshipping "other gods". This sounds to me like a very human concern, and one that was shared by the nations around them. Each nation was quite protective of its god(s).

      However, there are great differences between the texts as well and it's important not to ignore that aspect. If you read most apologist material on this you will find that they almost always focus on the differences and ignore the similarities, or they pretend the similarities don't exist. We don't want to end up doing the reverse and committing the same error.

      The differences are important too. The differences tell us that Genesis wasn't a direct copy. The similarities tell us that the authors were definitely familiar with the Babylonian myths. However, even in the differences we can learn something about the views of the authors. For example, the order in which the creation is described is quite similar, and the empirical details are also quite similar. If we imagine the kind of process they both describe whereby the world and its inhabitants were created, the views are not so different at all. I've read several articles from various scholars on this, and it seems that the most common view is that although the texts are not copies, the authors "breathed the same air". I interpret that as meaning that they shared a similar world view, and described the creation and other "events" through that same or similar lens.

    2. The point I wanted to bring out of all of this is that the early chapters of Genesis are exactly the kind of thing we would expect from people writing at the time. It contains the same primitive world view that was common throughout the ancient near east. The differences are primarily theological, and it contains no new information that was not generally known or believed at the time.

      To insist that it was inspired by a god is to try to insert a redundant piece into the puzzle. What did this god need to tell them, that they would not have otherwise written? What does this hypothesis explain that is not equally or better explained without it?

      It also gets a bit slippery when you look at the supposed "revelation". Did the authors of Genesis (or their audience) believe they were writing about events that literally took place in every detail? or were they under the assumption that they were writing pure theology? Or was it somewhere in between? If it was figurative, what was it figurative of? The text does not say.

      Some say that the way Genesis 1 is organised into 2 sets of 3 days, with days 1-3 being a parallel to days 4-6, is a clue that the text was intended as a parable. Well, maybe. But we have no way to know whether it was understood that way by its earliest readers. We also have no definitive answer as to what its "hidden meaning" might have been.

      If it was divinely inspired, then at worst God was outright lying to them about how the world was created (and where languages originated etc), and at best he was perhaps misleading them.

      For the modern believer, there is absolutely zero evidence that it was divinely inspired at all, making that belief one of blind faith, and leaving the alternative human origins hypothesis as the simplest, and most plausible, explanation.

      What's more, the divine inspiration hypothesis, by claiming God accommodated the views already held by the authors, becomes unfalsifiable. There is no conceivable evidence that would not fit the hypothesis, meaning the hypothesis explains nothing.

      By contrast, the human origins hypothesis could be falsified by demonstrating that Genesis contains knowledge that could only have originated from a divine (or at the very least non-human) source.

    3. One last thing...

      In Exodus 20:11, the Sabbath is offered as a metaphor for god resting on the 7th day, as per the Genesis 1 account (actually it's in Genesis 2:2). If the Genesis account is itself metaphorical, then we have a metaphor of a metaphor, which would be rather odd.

      Likewise the clearly metaphorical language in Job 38. And Psalm 104.

      Should we insist that those later writers did not think Genesis 1 (and 2:2) were intended literally? Why then describe it using metaphor, if it was already itself a metaphor? That makes no sense.

      But the only other alternative (as far as I can tell) is to say that these later authors misinterpreted scripture. It gets a little awkward if we then ask "were they inspired?".

      So once again the naturalistic explanation is the simplest one. The Bible was written by fallible humans and nothing more.


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