Genesis 1 is subversive

What questions does Genesis 1:1-2:3 seek to answer? Should we ask of it 21st century questions regarding the chronology and mechanics of creation? Examining the opening chapter of Genesis in light of its historical context, it emerges that it is a piece of ‘subversive theology’, poking holes in the pagan conceptions of God, creation and humanity held by the peoples of the Ancient Near East. This isn’t surprising considering the Old Testament often denounces pagan religion.

Enuma elish

In the early 1850s, archaeologists working in Mosul in Northwest Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) discovered seven clay tablets on which were written a Babylonian account of creation which came to be known as Enuma elish, after its opening words. These tablets, narrating the violent adventures of the original family of gods, predate the biblical account by several centuries.

Similarities between Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Enuma elish

In addition to similarities in literary structure, they contain the following similarities in content:

  • Both Enuma elish and Genesis begin in the first paragraph with a watery chaos at the dawn of time.
  • Both stories proceed in seven movements: seven days in Genesis 1and seven scenes written on seven tablets in Enuma elish.
  • The narratives share the same order of creation, beginning with the heavens, then the sea, then the earth, and so on.
  • Both accounts climax with the creation of men and women, which occurs in the sixth scene or day in both accounts.

This has led scholars to speculate that Genesis borrowed the pagan accounts, purged and adopted them. However, deeper study of the Genesis account reveals that its theological function is to serve as a parody or a polemic of pagan cosmology and theology. This comes out in the differences between the two accounts.

Differences between Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Enuma elish

  • Genesis contains no theogony: no one begot God, nor does He have a corresponding goddess.
  • Creation is the work of one God, not of multiple gods. According to the Enuma elish, Marduk, the storm god who was credited with the creation, was counselled by his father Ea, the god of wisdom.
  • There is no theomachy, or battle of the gods. The God of the Bible doesn’t have to win His supremacy by combat with an equal. Marduk emerges as the chief deity after battling violently with other gods.
  • In Genesis, God is Creator and exists separate from creation.
  • In Enuma elish, creation was an afterthought, a by-product of battle of the gods. Genesis, in contrast, presents creation as an orderly act of God’s will. Additionally, God is in control of all of creation, not just parts of it.
  • God declares creation to be ‘good’ (Genesis 1:4, 7, 12, 16, 21, 25) and ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). This counters the low view of creation present in just about every pagan culture of the time.
  • Genesis 1:16 describes the sun and moon as ‘lights’—a big light for the day and a small one for the night. Many ancient societies worshipped these heavenly bodies as gods in their own right; the author of Genesis doesn’t even use the normal Hebrew words for sun and moon which may have been construed as divine names. This was a put-down of pagan religion.
  • After the war of the gods in Enuma elish those on the losing side were sentenced to an eternity of servitude, collecting and preparing food for the victors. The defeated gods complain about the indignity of their situation; Marduk responds by creating man from the blood of one of the vanquished gods, Kinju. Thus, humankind’s central task in life is to serve the gods with food offerings.

In contrast, God creates man intentionally in Genesis. Man isn’t created remotely like the rest of creation, but springs from the heart, hand and breath of God. Man and woman are created in the image of God (1:26-27), in contrast with the views held in ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt that only the king was in the image of God. Mankind is also given dominion over the earth, unlike the Babylonian creation myth in which they were essentially slaves.

Conclusion

The opening chapter of Genesis is less concerned with scientific truth than with theological truth: the nature of the Creator, the value of creation and the place of humanity within the creational scheme.

For further study

The Genesis of Everything by John P. Dickson (PDF)

An introduction to the only true God by Dale Ralph Davis (WMA; length 58:32)

The Theology of Genesis One (PDF)/ Theology of Genesis 1a (MP3; length 44:55), by Bruce Waltke

The Theology of Genesis One – continued (PDF)/ Theology of Genesis 1b (MP3; length 37:55), by Bruce Waltke

The Song of Creation by Tim Keller (MP3; length 30:56)

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4 thoughts on “Genesis 1 is subversive

  1. thanks for this post. 🙂 I’ve been looking for a link on the net that talks about the difference between Genesis and Mesopotamian accounts. Yours does exactly what I wanted to find! Once I learn how to reblog or link to your site, I intend to do just that 🙂

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