Genesis is unique, not borrowed mythology

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink

In a previous post, I countered some claims of an atheist critic who tried to dismiss my testimony. Two of these claims — criticisms of Schroeder’s model and the uniqueness of Genesis — I wanted to address separately, since they are important. In this post, I counter the claim that Genesis is borrowed from earlier mythology. The following includes excerpts from a book I’m currently writing on how Christians can defend themselves against atheist attacks.

[Update: a brief summary of this article is here.]

How many times have you heard the claim that Genesis is just borrowed from different ancient mythologies and isn’t the unique record of God’s creation of the universe you were taught as a Christian? I’ve heard it so many times I’ve lost count. To me, it’s such a silly claim that I didn’t see any need to counter it. However, the sad fact is, I know people who say they began to lose their faith after hearing this from their professors. It turns out to be not only a fable, but a dangerous one. As I said in my previous post, it needs to die a horrible death.

Here is what my critic claims:

The book of Genesis was composed by unknown authors.  It’s a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions.

This is a typical way to ridicule belief that the Bible is the word of God. Atheists claim the Bible starts off with a myth the authors of Genesis were too incompetent to come up with on their own, so the ancient Hebrews had to borrow much of it from the myths of earlier civilizations. In other words, Genesis is not a unique and true expression of God’s work, it is an act of common plagiarism.

The claim of plagiarism dates back to the 19th century archeological discovery of clay tablets in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh. Some of these tablets detailed the Babylonian creation story, now referred to as the Enuma Elish. When scholars studied this story, they discovered it had some similarities to Genesis, including the theme of darkness and chaos preceding order, the appearance of light before the Sun, Moon, and stars are made, and a progression of the development of the world that culminates in the appearance of humankind and God/gods resting.

The composition of the Enuma Elish dates back to around the 13th century B.C., predating the earliest written account of Genesis. Taken at face value, the timing and the similarities give the impression that Genesis borrows from the Babylonian myth. However, this ignores significant differences between the creation accounts as well as historical and cultural context. The similarities arise from what biblical scholar Peter Enns calls “a common, ancient, way of speaking about the cosmos.” He reminds us that, though Genesis is scripture, it’s still “an ancient story that reflects ancient ways of thinking” that would have been shared amongst all Mesopotamian people of that time.

As interesting as the similarities are, the differences between Genesis and the Enuma Elish are far more striking and informative. I’ll go over those in detail below.

It is important to refute this athiest fable, because Christians will encounter it over and over, particularly young Christians who go to university. Barbara Sproul is a good example of what young people face when they enter the academic world. She’s a professor of religion at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and she wrote a book about creation myths from around the world. In her book, Primal Myths, she describes the similarities between the Genesis account of creation and earlier myths this way:

The parallels between the first creation account in Genesis and the Mesopotamian epic are not confined to their naming process. Not only are there marked similarities in specific details but also the order of creation events is the same, leading many to presume a dependence of the Old Testament account of that of the Enuma Elish or similar Babylonian documents.

Atheists also vigorously promote the argument that the Genesis account of creation is completely at odds with modern science, which I have refuted here and here.

Christians can defeat such assaults on their belief, because, as Enns points out, the evidence shows that Genesis 1 is unique among the thousands of creation stories that have been told through the ages.

Sproul describes the Genesis 1 account as:

  • God-centered
  • with little interest in human personalities
  • having a general flatness of tone
  • and austerity of prose.

She is correct in these observations. Genesis is completely different from all other creation stories in its style of writing.

Genesis is also completely different from every other creation account in its content. Compare this passage from Genesis 1 with the passage from the Enuma Elish that follows.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (2) The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. (3) And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (4) And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (5) God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

The truth of Professor Sproul’s assessment of the way Genesis 1 was written is obvious at once. The above passage and the rest of Genesis 1 are God-centered, matter-of-fact in tone, austere in the words that are used, and completely devoid of any description of personalities. If you read Sproul’s account of the creation myths of the world it is equally obvious that the biblical account of creation is not written in the same way that pagan creation myths were. Pagan myths are written in a completely different way, which should be obvious to you as soon as you read the passage below.

You can easily understand how weak the atheist claim of a plagiarized Genesis is by comparing the style and content of the Genesis 1 account of creation with the following passage from the Babylonian Enuma Elish that Sproul wants you to believe is so similar to the biblical account.

Discord broke out among the gods although they were brothers, warring and jarring in the belly of Tiamat, heaven shook, it reeled with the surge of the dance; Apsu could not silence the clamor, their behavior was bad, overbearing and proud.

But still Tiamat lay inert till Apsu, the father of gods, bellowed for that servant who clouds his judgment, his Mummu.

“Dear counsellor, come with me to Tiamat.”

They have gone, and in front of Tiamat they sit down and talk together about the young gods, their first-born children; Apsu said,

“Their manners revolt me, day and night without remission we suffer. My will is to destroy them, all of their kind, we shall have peace at last and we will sleep again.”

When Tiamat heard, she was stung, she writhed in lonely desolation, her heart worked in secret passion, Tiamat said,

“Why must we destroy the children that we made? If their ways are troublesome, let us wait a little while”

Then Mummu advised Apsu, and he spoke in malice.

“Father, destroy them in full rebellion, you will have quiet in the daytime and at night you will sleep.”

When Apsu heard the die was cast against his children, his face flamed with the pleasure of evil…

It is immediately obvious that the Babylonian account is the furthest thing from God-centered. The main character is Apsu who is described as the ‘father of gods.’ There is obviously more than one god. In later passages it turns out that the other major character in the story, Tiamat, is the personification of natural forces in whose ‘belly’ much turmoil is taking place.

The Enuma Elish is certainly not flat in tone with all of the ‘warring,’ ‘jarring,’ anger, malice, and individuals flaming ‘with the pleasure of evil.’ Nor is the Babylonian account in any way austere in prose when it uses words like clamor, bellowed, writhed, and secret passion.

The Babylonian passage, unlike the Genesis 1 account of creation, is all about the personalities involved in a titanic heavenly struggle. In this short passage, we are introduced to three important characters and given enough information to begin to understand their complex personalities and motivations. We are also told that there will be many more personalities involved in the Babylonian creation myth as it unfolds.

By Sproul’s own observations about Genesis 1, there are few significant similarities in the way the biblical account of creation and the Babylonian myth are presented. If you take the time to read the rest of Sproul’s book, it is evident that every other creation myth provided in Primal Myths sounds similar to the Enuma Elish and nothing like the true account of creation provided by Genesis 1. Just the brief, straight-forward, unemotional, and rational way the Genesis account was written makes it different from every other account of creation.

The differences between the divine Genesis account of creation and the thousands of other pagan myths about creation are even greater in regard to the events described and the order given for natural events. Once again the evidence provided in Primal Myths is conclusive. Contrary to Sproul’s assertion, there are no meaningful similarities between the details of the Genesis and Babylonian accounts of creation.

Here are a few of the more important differences found in Sproul’s book:

  1. Genesis tells us that God is prior to everything else. The Enuma Elish says that personified natural forces and the ‘father of the gods’ existed before the Mesopotamian/Babylonian gods.
  1. The Bible tells us that our universe came about as an orderly act of creation by a rational Deity. The Enuma Elish says that humankind and the world in which they exist came about as the result of a chaotic war between ill-behaved and overbearing gods, personified natural forces, and monsters made to destroy the gods.
  1. Genesis maintains that there is only one God. The Enuma Elish numbers the gods in the hundreds.
  1. Genesis locates God outside of and superior to the universe. The Enuma Elish locates the main god, Marduk, in the city of Babylon.
  1. Genesis says that humankind was made in the spiritual image of God and for a divine purpose. The Enuma Elish says that human beings were made unintentionally from the blood of the slain monster Kingu.

Considering these vast differences and the historical/cultural context, no reasonable and fair-minded reader could conclude that the similarities between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish, or any of the other creations myths described in Sproul’s book, mean that Genesis 1 is a mash-up of other traditions. On top of this, archeological studies are increasingly supporting the Pentateuch as factual, historical record, contradicting the notion that it is borrowed mythology. The argument that the biblical account of creation is a plagiarized myth is dishonest, based on ignorance, and unsupported by the evidence.

Sproul and her fellow atheists simply find only what they desperately want to believe. This false conclusion is then passed on to other atheists who don’t bother to investigate the claim for themselves, but simply repeat it. Worse, this groundless anti-Christian prejudice is passed on by academics like Sproul to unsuspecting and defenseless students in the guise of serious scholarly work. Christians must be able to confidently counter this atheist lie with the truth that Genesis 1 is a reliable account of the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

At this point, I want to offer you the perspective of a friend of mine, who is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and also a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. I asked him to comment on this article, originally intending to work his perspective into the main flow of what I’d written, but I think it’s best to let his words stand on their own.

The idea that the Genesis account is unique is critical and there is also something very fundamental and important to highlight as well, something which I think exposes a fundamental flaw in all of the other so called “accounts” of creation.

Creation ex nihilo is critical.  Creation through G-d’s Word is critical.  The Hebrew word b’reishit, translated ‘in the beginning’, proclaims that nothing existed prior to G-d’s act of creation.  The heavens and the earth were created only through G-d’s WORD … no other worldview, none, ever makes that claim.  Only through the Word of G-d.  This is mind blowing.  The Scripture teaches that the world came into existence from nonexistence.  Again, no other world view has taught or teaches this. If the claim is original and unique it wasn’t plagiarized. The Biblical claim is astoundingly so.  It is far more likely, that these Babylonian and other myths borrowed from the Torah’s account, not the other way around.

The cornerstone of all pagan belief up until this very day is the belief in the eternity of the physical world which we inhabit.  This Babylonian myth is clearly no exception and posits such a belief, which is false.  This belief is a metaphysical falsehood.  It is a gross misrepresentation of the origin of the universe, and worse yet this belief undermines and denies all morality.  This belief, the cornerstone of paganism, also negates freedom in both G-d and man.

The false belief is based upon the assumption that matter antedated creation.  If that were true, then the Creator of the universe would have only been able to fashion from the material already available and given to Him, and not a world that was absolutely good, as the Genesis account testifies and the other so-called myths do not; He would only have been able to fashion the best possible world within the limitations of the material provided Him.  Again, the Biblical account is unique and original in this regard and paganism’s account is never based on these claims, no matter which myth is cited.

Again, if the pagan world view were true, then G-d would not be the master over the material of the world, and man would not be master over his own body.  Freedom would disappear and the entire world, including its G-d and the men who live in it would be animated, constrained, and propelled by a blind, immutable fate.  This pagan conception as evidenced in the Babylonian myth and others like it, is dispelled by the Torah with its very first words: b’reishit barah Elohim!  In the beginning G-d created ….!  Absolutely everything that follows hinges on these words.  Everything – the matter and form of all that exists – was created by the free Almighty Creator.  And He still rules freely over all matter.  Paganism never made such a claim nor could they even have invented such a claim.  Such a claim is understood from the revelation given to us by G-d, Who of course is the Creator and originator of the claim.  He rules over every existing thing, over the laws by which those forces operate, as well as the resulting forms.  And men hate being ruled, so they developed their own myths and pagan beliefs to circumvent these uncomfortable truths (cf. Romans 1).  His will set the laws by which forms are fashioned.

Therefore, the world that was created is not the best possible one that can be fashioned with the given material – but according to a careful and thoughtful reading of the Genesis account, is the only good world.  Paganism makes no such claim.  Not even close.  So, it follows that this world corresponds with the wise plan of the Creator and He most certainly could have created a different world, has such a world corresponded with His will.  Remember, everything was created according to His Word … G-d spoke, G-d said, Let there be .. and there was.

The world was created wholly by G-d’s Word,and this cannot be emphasized enough.  Our sages relate that b’reishit is the very foundation of our awareness of G-d, world, and man.  When man forfeited this awareness, it had to be reestablished.  According to our sages, this was the purpose of the revealed miracles: to demonstrate G-d’s free and unbounded mastery over the world with all its elements, forces and laws.

Barah, created.  This Hebrew word denotes aspiration to emerge, emergence from potentiality into actuality, or release from bondage.  Barah also denotes bringing to light, actualizing and bringing something out into external reality.  Even in Aramaic (the language of Babylon) it means “outside”, “that which is outside”.  Barah then means to carry out and actualize  thought, which is hidden in the inner recesses of the mind.  Barah denotes creation, preceded only by thought and will, which clearly couldn’t be further from a pagan conception of things as evidenced in the so-called myths.  This is precisely the concept of creation.  Accordingly, beresheit, in the beginning, is applied only to G-d’s creation.  In other words, before the world existed, this world had existed only as a thought in the mind of the Creator.  It is the act of creation, therefore, that actualized this thought and brought it out into reality, thereby giving it an external, concrete existence.  The entire world, as a whole and in all of its parts, therefore, is nothing more than the materialized thought of G-d.  Again, this conception is unique to Biblical account recorded in Genesis.  The pagan accounts brook no such conception.  Not even close. Imitation indeed.  They look like blind handicapped children crawling around in the nursery by comparison.  This same idea that we have just elaborated in relation to barah is also presented in the root hayah, the Jewish term for being (cf. verse 2).

(Interestingly, this meaning of barah, to become external, concrete, tangible – is related to another meaning of barah: being healthy and stout.  And from this meaning is derived the term for the first meal of the day in the morning after a fast.  It is the meal which refreshes the person physically and makes him feel strong again.)

Let’s briefly consider paganism, of which the Babylonian and other myths represent.  Paganism fragments the whole world into many groups and spheres.  At the head of each sphere stands a ruler who has concentrated into his respected hands special powers.  This pagan conception, this pagan idea, this pagan notion is a direct consequence of the basic error we have been alluding to.  If matter had existed before creation, then the god who shaped this matter was bound and limited to it.  Consequently, the concept of god is lowered,and god is transformed into a natural power who is unfree in the act of creating.  Such a god is unable to create true contrasts and fundamentally different phenomena; accordingly it must have been established  by many gods (as the creations myths of the Babylonians and others often posit) – as many gods as there are groups of opposing phenomena.

Not so the Biblical account.  The Bible, in point of fact, denies the existence of these numerous gods, and ascribes the power that is attributed to them to the one and only G-d.  He alone is called Elohim.  The Bible then unites all the attributes of power that were separated by paganism.  The unification of these attributes in the one G-d raises the one G-d of Israel above any notion and limitations of a mere natural power.  For, our sages are clear, only the free and omnipotent will of a single being can create a world of contrasts; and only He can unite these contrasts into one great purpose.  Elohim refers to a single individual Who unites in Himself all the power and authority that give one control over a person or object.  Consequently, the person or object is under the exclusive authority of this individual in every respect.  Which helps explain why men are so keen to deny this authority and the Biblical account of creation.

11 thoughts on “Genesis is unique, not borrowed mythology

  1. I grew up in a Christian home and went off to study physics at a liberal arts college in north Texas. (Austin College) I distinctly remember the first attack on my faith was in the required Heritage of Western Culture series all students were required to take. We started off reading Genesis, and I was excited that reading the Bible was part of serious study. But then we read the Epic of Gilgamesh, and that shocked me. By the time I’d graduated, I’d fully accepted Darwinian evolution as true and walked away from my Christian faith. It took me years to recover. Thank you for posting this, and I look forward to your book.

  2. I’d also like to note and discuss a point lightly hinted at by our Rabbi brother. Simply because the oldest existent copy of one document is older than the oldest existent copy of another, to assume that the original source version of the older one was written first is nothing short of extremely sloppy science. The procedures used by the Jewish people in propagating their holy documents is by no means a secret. Copies were very carefully made and when the older versions became worn and tattered they were disposed. This process helps in maintaining accuracy, but does not allow for the examination of older copies for dating purposes. Until the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s, some of the oldest existent copies of the Hebrew scriptures (OT) were dated from around 800.
    The strict truth is that if you have two copies of ancient documents, the dates of those ancient documents alone tells you nothing about when the source versions were originally written, and to make baseless assumptions that one is older than the other is nothing short of negligent speculation. As our Rabbi brother points out, there is tradition and other information that would point that the Genesis account may well be much older than the Babylonian one.

  3. Agreed, Chris. The best you could say is that you can’t rule out the Babylonian account predating Genesis; but the relative ages of the accounts proves nothing about which came first.

  4. One of my friends who is a former Christian had the exact same experience, and said this is where faith began to crumble. The superficial parallels can be a little shocking when you first encounter them, but once you examine the facts, the uniqueness of Genesis becomes even more obvious.

  5. Funny thing is, after reading the “Epic of Gilgamesh” the more I came to appreciate the veracity of Genesis.

    Don’t get me wrong, “Gilgamesh” contains some truths about human nature (If you are in power, it’s good to have a friend that keeps you grounded, for example) and it’s a ripping tale, but Genesis is on a whole other level.

    How do you explain the vast complexity of creation to people with limited scientific understanding but aren’t idiots by any stretch? “Let there be light.”

  6. Well, it wasn’t until years later that I realized many of my professors were committed Darwinists and treated the Biblical text with pretty much the same disdain as a run of the mill atheist. I’ve read studies that academia has more than their fair share of atheists, and indoctrination is what happens with undergrads. I think you have to go for an advanced degree before you get past the shocking superficial parallels.

  7. Hmmm. Do we need to argue that Genesis is unique? Isn’t it better to argue that Genesis is simply affirmation of what God has taught (or revealed, or allowed reason to infer) many times in many places? After all, the OT has figures like Melchizedek (good) and Balaam (bad) to show that knowledge of YHWH was not restricted to God’s chosen people.

    Sure, Genesis has (or preserves) features not found elsewhere, which is important, but the similarities to Gilgamesh (or other myths) don’t undercut anything; to my mind they reinforce the universality of the message.

  8. Kristo – agree with you that knowledge of YHWH is not restricted to any specific people group, but it seems to me that Sarah’s point about Genesis being unique is simply based on the evidence that it is indeed different from the other creation stories.

  9. Dennis, I just worry that “unique” is too strong a claim when “different” and “better” would do just fine. The claim of uniqueness commits an apologist/evangelist to defend unnecessary territory.

    If the real point (turning people to God) can be argued equally well without uniqueness claims, then the “criticism” of similarities can be easily deflected by accepting that the Babylonians also knew something of God, perhaps to include variations on the history of creation. The criticism of Genesis as being similar to other myths doesn’t have to be refuted, it can simply be deflated, after which the conversation can move on. A big part of getting folks to see God is getting them to stop turning their eyes toward intellectual distractions.

    In other words, I’m not disputing Sarah’s point (though I do think that the thesis is too strongly worded) so much as the decision to make the point in the first place, which I fear contributes to a distractor (arguing about a point that need not be decided).

    Note that I am taking the point in the context of apologetic dispute, which is the context in which Sarah introduced her original point.

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