The Hebrew Genesis and Ancient Near East Creation Accounts
Before delving deeper on the two complementary creation narratives of Genesis, I wanted to address a fairly common argument I’ve encountered on and off the past couple years, both in personal conversations and in the media. By “media” I mean blogs, forums, and scholarly journals, to include theses from theologians and Christian apologists! Every so often I encounter claims like the following:
- “Most Egyptian Creation stories predate [the earliest Genesis texts] by many centuries.” http://www.free-online-bible-study.org/egyptian-mythology.html
- “Since the Nile river, with its annual floods played a critical role in this cosmic order, water was the first element in the cosmos that existed before anything else, and this was passed to the Hebrews in a slightly different form…in fact we have to wonder how much the ancient Hebrews borrowed from Egyptian mythology to explain the creation of the universe” http://www.aldokkan.com/religion/creation.htm
- “Evidence for this lies in the many allusions to Egyptian creation motifs throughout the Genesis creation accounts. But, rather than being a case of direct borrowing, they demythologize the Egyptian concepts and form a polemic against the Egyptian gods.” (From Dallas Theological Seminary, via https://bible.org/article/genesis-1-2-light-ancient-egyptian-creation-myths)
Besides Egyptian sources, other Ancient Near East (ANE) mythologies are claimed to have influenced Genesis:
- “findings at Ugarit… predate the Hebrew settlement at Canaan… some of the same gods that appear in the (Old Testament), produced after the Hebrew contact with the Ugarit region.” http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2007/08/27/ugarit-and-the-bible/
- “My research indicates that, at times, “reversals” are occurring in the Hebrew transformation and re-interpretation of the Mesopotamian myths.” http://www.religioustolerance.org/com_geba.htm
There are dozens of more resources available on these topics; these are merely a sampling.
Such comparisons highlight the similarities between ANE (hereafter defined as Ancient Egypt and its surrounding area) and Genesis, such as linguistics, literary structure (the order of the stories), and topics. Truth be told, the arguments are intriguing. There are in fact many similarities between Genesis and ANE pagan myths: all feature an earth created out of a primitive “water world”, the sky is separated from the earth, land emergences after a recession of water, the seat of a chief god from which flows waters, as well as several others.
Some names of deities are also shared. Especially in the case of Ugarit, there is reportedly a “court of elohim” (the gods) with various names, such as Baal, Asherah, and Yhw (yahweh). They all sit under the throne of Ilu, the chief god (comparable to the Hebrew ‘El’).
Not surprisingly, these interpretations are spun in a way to show how the Hebrews reinterpreted monotheism from polytheistic sources, and adopted ‘Yahweh’ as the chief God of Israel. [Note: Most theologians and apologists cite the many differences; most atheist and skeptical sources do not].
The fact is, creation accounts of the ANE and Genesis do share too many similarities to be coincidence, except of course for the differences in monotheistic and polytheistic nuances. For example, in Genesis God creates the sky, but in Egypt the chief god Ra creates the sky god, Nut. In other words, the objects of God’s creation in Genesis seem to equate to a corresponding ANE deity and/or power.
All these critiques are based off of one key assumption: ‘the ANE myths preceded the Biblical narrative’. Even an apologetic article from Answers in Genesis (AiG) speculates that “Moses challenged all the false ideologies around him.” Such comparisons leave many in an defensive position apologizing for Genesis as type of an anti-myth. However, this is an untenable position; the Bible teaches in several places that the six-day creation was real history, confirmed by the Torah (i.e. Exodus 20:11), Prophets, Psalms, and the words of Messiah Yeshua (i.e. Matt. 19:5-6).
While it is a possible that Moshe “myth busted” local creation myths with the original story, I think there is a better explanation, as all writers are missing the point on this topic – especially theologians and apologists (exemplified in the sources above) – for reasons I address below.
Does “Older” Mean “Original”?
The first assumption to address is that ‘because ANE sources are older than any Hebrew source, the Hebrew source borrowed the material’. I believe it is intellectually dishonest to even attempt this comparison.
First of all, the Egyptian sources are hieroglyphics, which are useful waypoints in history but hardly proof of originality. The answer to ‘what inspired the hieroglyphics?’ lies beyond our current knowledge.
Secondly, Hebrew sources are missing because of the nature of Israelite civilization. The Hebrews did not build pyramids made of mortar and brick; their “original sources” would have been written on scrolls of skins or papyri – biological materials that could never designed to withstand the test of time, nor could they – as Jerusalem was destroyed over two dozen times and its only prized hardened structure – Solomon’s Temple – was demolished long ago.
Thirdly, the Hebrew Bible (aka tanakh) is assumed to be a recording of oral histories finally appearing in written form between Moshe and the the Babylonian captivity. For this reason, we will see statements like “the Egyptian sources predate the Hebrews’ by many centuries” because no one really knows the dates of either! [White Rabbit: Yet whenever written artifacts are found Biblical dates magically bump up overnight…]
Because of the lack of evidence, dating the Bible depends – ironically –on textual criticism (aka biblical testimony). As an example, Judges 17:6 reads “there was no king in those days…” Therefore, textual criticism demands a date when there was a king in Israel, with a minimal time of the reign of Saul. [White Rabbit: the reason I say “ironically” is because while a statement like “I know the Flood happened because the Bible records it” is begging the question, yet “the Bible is X years old because its own textual criticism demands it” is considered scholarship].
We should keep in mind, though, that textual criticism, like the documentary hypothesis, is only evidence of compilation, not originality, no more than Egyptian hieroglyphics are a date of inscription, not originality. The term “original” is one of speculation, not fact.
However, other textual criticisms are largely ignored, such as indicators that the Bible was compiled from pre-existing written sources, and evidence of a common oral history.
Evidences of oral tradition appear very earlier in the biblical text. For example Lamech, the father of Noach (Noah), said “This one will comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, caused by the ground which the LORD has cursed (Gen 5:29).” According to “textual criticism”, Lamech (and Noach) knew the history of Adam and his curse which happened centuries earlier. At the burning bush, Moshe – and later the elders – was not surprised he had ancestors named “Avraham v’Yitzhak v’Yaakov”. Israel knew enough oral history to carry Yosef’s bones from Egypt. All of these – plus many more – are evidences of oral history.
In Genesis, “These are the histories of the heavens and the earth” (2:1) dictates that Genesis was compiled from pre-existing historical scrolls, as does “the book of the history of Adam” (Gen 5:1). Therefore, Genesis itself testifies that it cannot be an original source – just an original compilation. Other verses indicate the Tanakh had much older written ancestors (Exodus 24:7, Num 21:24, etc.), leaving us evidence that the Tanakh is a compilation of much older “originals”.
All attempts to judge “historicity” of original ANE sources is flimsy scholarship. In the case of Egypt and Israel, comparisons are made between assumed originals versus known compilations, respectively. This is merely “apples-to-oranges”, a faulty comparison fallacy.
I believe the theologians and apologists should dismiss claims that Egyptian “originals” predate Biblical “originals”. There is simply no reason to accept the presumptions and associated faulty logic, nor can originality be proven in antiquity.
A Note on Egyptian Chronolog(ies) (?)
The chronology of Ancient Egypt is still a contested subject. Egypt’s chronology has been bumped forward several times by secular Egyptologists, popularly in 1906 by J.H. Breasted, and in the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000). In fact, in last thirty years there has been a flurry of activity in revising Egypt’s chronology, as every few years “New Dates for Egypt’s Pharaohs” are announced. Critical reviews always reveal various inconsistencies and problems in the dating record, such as corresponding Egyptian dates with historically knowns and contemporary empires.
You don’t have to be an Egyptologist to understand the shaky nature of its chronological record. For example, it is well established that the oldest written synchronism linking Egypt’s timeline to another empire – Babylon – is a stele of Neferhotep I of the 13th Dynasty. On his Wikipedia page, seven alternative dates are given for his reign! Wikipedia cites links to regal predecessors, and Neferhotep I’s predecessor, Sobekhotep III, has a timeline of “1740 BC or 1700 BC” (give or take 40 years). His predecessor Seth Meribe, ruled “less than 10 years, probably less than 5 years, ending 1749 BC” (Assuming Sobekhotep III began his reign in 174o BCE, there are still nine unaccounted years between him and Seth Meribre!). We might surmise that these unaccounted years begin to accumulate, especially when clicking through the predecessors makes you surf in circles! However, anyone can see that successions of pharaohs are contested, and contain a lot of “circa” and (?) symbols. In my opinion, nobody really knows what happened before the 13th Dynasty – if then!
The concerning fact is that Egyptian chronology helps determine all the other chronologies of the ANE – including Ugarit and Canaan – the sources of other creation myths which “inspired” Genesis. But if Egypt’s timeline is shaky, then the others are shaky as well.
With such inconsistencies, the historical “evidence” of creation myths inspiring Genesis based on assumed ANE chronologies is a flawed premise. However, Dallas Theological Seminary and the aforementioned article from AiG have argued under this assumption. However, AiG does offer another article written by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell. She cites work by David Down, who postulated an alternate chronology of Egypt based on overlapping (non-successive) dynasties and known historical events. In such models (there are others), Dynasties V-VI appear well after the time of Bavel (Babel) and Avraham’s sojourn in Egypt (Abraham). This is significant because of my next points.
Who Influenced Whom?
The oldest written ANE creation myth comes from Egyptian hieroglyphics called the “Coffin Texts” dated to Dynasties V-VI (?). In traditional scholarship, these appear 200 years before Bavel and 400 years before Avraham. In revised chronologies, these dynasties appear after Avraham visited Egypt (ref. Gen 12:10-20).
In the biblical text, Avraham left in the original exodus. Though Pharaoh had clear indications that Elohim was with Avraham, he expelled Avraham rather than make him an ally, showing that Egypt’s hard-heartedness began long before Moshe. Nevertheless, Gen 12:16 says that Pharaoh treated Avram well for Sarai’s sake, sustaining Avram, his servants, and livestock in the famine. Since the Bible holds that Pharaoh’s house related to Avram’s, exchanges of oral traditions are not out of the question. If the power of God was clearly demonstrated to Pharaoh and his advisors, who is to say Avraham’s traditions did not influence Egypt?
Everything that deals with Egypt’s chronology is pure conjecture anyway, why not use the Bible as a historical source to make a hypothesis of “textual criticism”?
One Language, One Speech, One Common History
I understand the above scenario is imagination, but the real key to understanding history lies with Bavel, where “the whole earth was one language, and one race” (Gen 11:1). Research also attests to people groups sporadically appearing all over the world, inexplicably linked to linguistic histories.
Besides one language, the world shared one common history, and one oral tradition. After the dispersal, these families developed their own versions from the earth’s common history, which may be why every culture has similar creation, giant, flood, and tower legends. In fact, the various creation stories should bear some resemblance to each other – an indicator of a common oral history up to the dispersal of Bavel. However, because the nations distanced themselves from a Holy and All-Powerful God (the essential teaching of Genesis 11), we should also expect variations reflecting the lusts of the nations, which are present in ANE creation myths. Pagan mythologies are highly sensual and portray entities grappling for power by violence… which generally reflects Mankind before and immediately after the Flood!
One of those who left Bavel was named “Mizraim” (Gen 10:6). Mizraim was the uncle of Nimrod, who “began to be a god in the earth… a mighty warrior against YHVH (vv. 8-10)” Mizraim and its Semitic cognates comprise the universal term in ANE sources for that civilization in the Nile River Valley, known today as “Egypt”. According to the Bible, Nimrod did not make war with his fellow descendants of Ham. Nimrod conquered Eastward, where Asshur, the descendant of Shem had settled (cff. Gen. 10:8-10, 22). A few generations later, the Mitzrim flourished in a fertile Nile valley, capitalizing from Nile inundations, arable lands and abundant crop harvests, all the while separated from Nimrod’s wars. The rest is history, or shall we say – a perverted history (?) of sensuality, Nile gods, and sun worship.
From times following Nimrod’s Bavel, each dispersed world culture developed its own history, but kept variations of the common world history within their creation, giant, flood, and linguistic myths. This indicates why ANE mythologies lose similarity to biblical narratives beginning with Avraham in Genesis 12, but leads to speculative academic opinions based on nothing but conjecture, summed up as ‘ancient polytheistic sources influenced monotheistic Genesis!’
However, this is based on several assumptions and flawed logic, based on 1) commonly held assumptions about ancient chronologies built on shaky dating methodology, 2) oral histories of civilizations are not considered, especially with regards to the ancient Hebrews, 3) alternative ANE chronologies are not considered, and 4) the Bible indicates that all myths were influenced by a common world history.
While secular academia are making claims about religious inspirations based on assumptions and conjecture, theologians and apologists should weigh all the indicators, before making unnecessary claims about Moshe, Genesis, and therefore God that would portray them as “mythbusters” or adoptees of pre-existing literature.
Either the Bible is a record of infallible truth, or its integrity is questionable. I suppose it’s a matter of whose report you believe, but as for me, I will continue to believe the report of YHVH Elohim. All arguments made against His report fall short of the indicators that He was there before the world began, and with mankind… well, at least until they chose to run from Him!