In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…

-Genesis 1:1-5, NRSV

The first chapter of the Bible is perhaps its most controversial. In the modern era, there is much debate centered around the argument of whether or not God created the world in seven days. Many interpreters of the text lock themselves into a binary view: either the text is compatible with a modern scientific understanding of the origins of the universe, and is therefore useful, or it is not, and is untrue-and therefore no more edifying for the church or for humanity than any other ancient creation myth. I have an alternative theory: the first chapter of Genesis is integral to understanding the entirety of Scripture, especially as it concerns God’s view of humanity.

 

The book of Genesis is believed to have been assembled during the Babylonian Captivity or shortly after, in the middle of the 6th century BCE.[1]This was a period of extreme hardship for the Jewish people. The Judeans not only suffered a staggering military defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, with their cities being sacked and their holiest shrines being desecrated, but many of the people were sent into exile, never to see their homeland again. It would be approximately 70 years between Jerusalem’s fall and the return of the exiles. In the years in between, an entire Jewish community would be shaped in a land that was not their own, in the service of their captors, all the while trying to come to grips with what must have felt like an abandonment by their god, Yahweh.  As they did so, it seems apparent that they also began the systematic collection of every text they could find on this god, likely writing new texts and developing new understandings that helped them to worship in a way that was true even in their new context. These texts were then redacted, edited, and codified, until they were eventually passed down to us in their current form. Today we call this collection of texts the Torah.It seems likely that the first Jews to hear or read Genesis 1 would have been those living as exiles in Babylon. Therefore it stands to reason that the most significant understanding of this text would likely rise out of the context of exile and defeat.

These texts weren’t written in a vacuum. In fact, there were many creation narratives in the ancient Near East, some with striking similarities to Genesis 1. The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead and Memphite creation narratives featuring Ptah; the Babylonians had the Atrahasis and the Enuma Elish.   The Akkadians and Sumerians also had cosmogonic[2]texts, as well as others.[3]

In that respect, the text of Genesis 1 seems to conform neatly with the cosmological expressions of its contemporaries, particularly with the Enuma Elish. However, there are notable differences, which we will address later in this writing.

Genesis 1 reads a lot like a hymn or a poem. There’s a cadence and a rhythm to this chapter that stands out even more in the original Hebrew. Stylistically, this helps move the narrative along. The opening scene is one of stasis: the Spirit of God is hovering over the water. And then the stasis is broken- God speaks, and with each word spoken, something new is created: first, light, then sky, then land and seas, then vegetation, then heavenly bodies, then aquatic life and birds, then wild beasts and domesticated animals, and finally, human beings.

The text seems to build on itself. Every new creation progressively builds off of the previous one or points towards the next. Humanity seems to be the thing that Yahweh was building towards, not only making the man and woman in Yahweh’s own image, but also choosing to take a break from any more creative activity once they’ve been created.

Both proponents and detractors of Genesis 1 tend to make the same mistake when it comes to its interpretation: thinking that the narrative is intended to be a scientific account of the origins of this world. And I would agree in some ways: read outside of an understanding of its original context, this text does appear to be a clinical explanation of how the world and humanity came into being.

But the best scientific evidence we have suggests that it took at least 13 billion years for the cosmos to reach the point where humanity came into being.[6]A seven day creation seems to fly in the face of scientific fact. Some Christians have taken this to mean that science is wrong. In an effort to defend the text, they have developed theologies that disregard scientific data and propose, instead, that the Biblical text must be accurate. I myself have some empathy for these “Young Earth Creationists.” As a person of faith, who not only believes that God created the world but that the Bible is a divinely inspired text, it seems far easier to trust holy writ than men and women in lab coats. But unless God is intentionally deceptive, scientific observation should lead us to deeper truths about the universe, not falsehoods.

The other obvious option for Biblical interpreters is to cast Genesis 1 aside as nothing more than myth. Those who lean towards this school of interpretation might argue that Genesis 1 has some value for understanding what the ancient Israelites believed, but should play very little role in shaping the beliefs of modern Christians.

If, indeed, Genesis was intended to be a clinical scientific account of the origins of the universe, then these interpretations would seemingly be the most valid ones available to us. But, I think we miss the point. God is big enough to communicate to us in whatever way God wants. If God wanted to relay to us a scientific account of creation, there’s nothing that would get in the way. But why would God do that? What message would it have communicated in its original context? How would it have been useful to an ancient community of exiles? “Genesis was never meant to be a scientific handbook describing how God created. If it were and the author foreshadowed references to the Big Bang, gravity waves, dark matter, and dark energy, the text would have been confusing at best, and at worst maybe even frightening. If concepts that we struggle to understand today were written about thousands of years ago, the text of Genesis would have been completely incomprehensible to its original audience.”[7]

Reading Genesis 1 in such a way does a disservice to the text itself and a disservice to the community for which it was originally written. When read through the lens of a Jewish exile, this text becomes simpler in ways as well as much more nuanced, and points us towards a much greater truth. When we use the text as a weapon against Charles Darwin or other scientific voices, we miss the point. “We are not called to separate the theological material from the ‘scientific’ material and rewrite the chapter from our own scientific perspectives.”[8] Both sides have been asking the wrong questions of Genesis 1, and when you ask the wrong questions, you are bound to get unsatisfying answers.

In addition to the scientific problems associated with Genesis 1, we face a textual/historical obstacle for some interpreters: on the surface, Genesis 1 doesn’t seem terribly original. It fits entirely too neatly within the canon of other ancient near east creation accounts. In fact, it mirrors one account so closely in form and structure that it seems nearly impossible for it to have been written without knowledge of this other text. “There is not only a striking correspondence in various details, but- what is even more significant- the order of events is the same, which is enough to preclude any likelihood of coincidence.”[9]So that’s the end of Genesis 1 as a divinely inspired text, right? I mean, what good is it if it’s just a cheap copy of some other myth? This logic seems to hold, until you consider the source of this other text: ancient Babylon, the captors of Israel and the imperial superpower of the day. Closer inspection shows that Genesis 1 is not a cheap copy; rather, it’s a theological response.

This parallel text is called the Enuma Elish, a title springing from its opening line in Akkadian language, “when from on high.” The Enuma Elish is a poem consisting of over a thousand lines.[10] It concerns itself primarily with a god named Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, who fights and schemes his way to the top of the divine hierarchy, culminating with his ascension as king of the gods and his creation of the human race to serve the gods that “they might be at ease.”[11]There are some very obvious structural parallels between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1, which I will lay out in the grid below:

Enuma 1

Enuma 2[12]

These textual similarities are striking, but necessary, I believe, in order to highlight the theological differences inherent in both narratives. Not only that, but I believe that these differences, when understood in their original context, are the key to discovering the understanding that the original readers of Genesis 1 would most likely have held. For me, these differences seem to express themselves in four different areas: chaos, control, character, and kingship.

Central to the understanding of both Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish is the figure of Tiamat. Tiamat is the chief antagonist in the Enuma Elish, often depicted as either a dragon, a sea monster, or the ocean itself[13]. She is a “higher god” bent on revenge against the lower gods because one of them (Marduk’s father Ea) has killed her husband Apsu[14]. In many ways, it is Tiamat’s desire for revenge that serves as the catalyst for the entire creation aspect of the narrative. It is only after Tiamat sends her army of beast men to attack the gods that Marduk is able to take kingship of the divine council. The other gods agree to be led by Marduk because they are terrified of Tiamats army. Marduk defeats them in short order, first destroying the beast men, then Tiamat, and finally Tiamat’s new consort, Kingu. Using Tiamat’s body, Marduk fashions the heavens and the earth, and using Kingu’s blood, he creates humankind. In many ways, Tiamat is a worthy rival to Marduk, nearly equaling his power, and the creation of the world and mankind would have been impossible without her.

Yahwweh stands in stark contrast to Marduk in this regard: he will brook no rivals, and there is no other entity within the text of Genesis 1 imbued with anything like his divine creative power. In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat hovers over the whole scene. She represents chaos and disorder, and it is only after a great struggle that the world comes into being. In Genesis 1, Tiamat is just present enough to make a point- blink, and you’ll miss her. We see a glimpse of Tiamat in verse 2, when the Spirit of Yahwehhovers over “the deep.” The Hebrew word for “the deep” is tehom, which probably has linguistic ties to the word “Tiamat.”[15]In fact, “Tiamat” would eventually become a byword for “ocean” in the Babylonian tongue.

In the Enuma Elish, the water goddess Tiamat is wild and rages against Marduk. In Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovers over a tehom without personality, agency, or the power to resist God’s will. Rather than creation arising out of a “conflict with a series of chaotic forces,”[16]like we see with Marduk, Yahweh simply speaks, and with each word more order is brought to creation. Unlike Tiamat, tehom has no divine characteristics. In fact, in the Genesis account of creation, nature is not deified at all. Only God is divine. “The Genesis creation account stresses that God created the moon, sun, and stars. The significance of this point is too easily overlooked. Each of these celestial entities was worshiped as divine in the ancient world. By asserting that they were created by God, the Old Testament is insisting that they are subordinate to God, and have no intrinsic divine nature.”[17]

The implications seem obvious: the forces of this world that Marduk fought so hard to gain control over are Yahweh’s to command with a single word. Marduk seeks to bring order to a chaotic world, and chaos fights back; for Yahweh, chaos only exists because he has not yet decided to exert his control over it. Yahweh is the superior god. “In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth.”[18]

Another set of differences arises when we examine the character and kingship of Yahweh and Marduk. Marduk schemes and kills to become king of the gods; Yahweh’s kingship is intrinsic in his nature. Power isn’t something Yahweh seeks out, it is something he already has. Marduk creates the earth and humanity in order to appease the other gods; there is no external pressure on Yahweh to do anything. For Marduk, creation is done out of obligation; for Yahweh, creation is an act of giving. This understanding of power is brought into even sharper focus when we examine how the two deities view humanity. Let’s look at how each text communicates humanity’s relationship with the divine:

Enuma 3Enuma 4

For Marduk, humanity is “created as cheap slave labor- to do the work of the gods for them. To give them food and drink from sacrifices at the temple. That way the gods can sit back and ‘be at ease.’”[19]

For Yahweh, humanity is something entirely different. Humanity isn’t created to make life easier for God; in fact, “instead of creating humanity to offload all his work because it’s beneath him, the story opens with God himself working to create a world for humanity, a place for us to experience and enjoy his presence. Humanity isn’t created as cheap slave labor to do his bidding, but rather as his co-creators, his partners.”[20]

The language of the man and woman being made in the image of God would have been subversive. “The phrase selem Elohim, meaning ‘image of god,’ was used all over the ancient Near East, but not for just anybody- for the king.”[21]In context of its day, Genesis 1 was making a bold claim: rather than seeing the king as a unique representative of the divine, as most sovereigns would have been viewed, this text asserts that all of humanity served as image bearers, and therefore every human carried a spark of the divine. “The theology of the image of God in Genesis was, and still is, subversive and stunning. It claims that all human beings- not just those of royal blood, not just the oligarchy of society, not just white men- all of us are made in the image of God. This is the democratizing of humanity. We are all kings and queens, and the entire earth is our kingdom.”[22]

Marduk had a low view of humanity; slaves to do the bidding of the divine. Yahweh had a much higher view; that even an exile at the mercy of the most terrible earthly power imaginable could partner with the divine.

So what does this mean for us? When we see the authors of Genesis 1 appropriate the language of the Enuma Elish, we are watching a marginalized people subvert the most terrifying power of their day. Genesis 1 elevates Yahweh, the god of a conquered people, and by doing so elevates the conquered people themselves. It is has become popular to read Jesus in the context of empire, and to read books like Exodus and Leviticus in the context of exile. But I wonder if we’ve missed something very important- that God’s message of hope to the marginalized, the hurting, the broken, and the lost, starts with the Bible’s very first chapter.

We weren’t designed just to observe this world. I don’t know how long it took to create, but I do know that the God who created it fashioned us in a way that we can co-create with him. We can work alongside God to bring about truth and beauty in this world, and when we see places where the world seems to be broken- when we encounter division, hopelessness, and pain, or those who are unsure of where they stand with the Creator- we can partner with God to make those things right again. That seems like a far greater thing to ponder than whether or not it’s unholy to believe in dinosaurs.

[1] Davies, G.I “Introduction to the Pentateuch”. Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford Press: Oxford, 1998)

[2] That is, the account of the origin of the cosmos.

[3] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP: Illinois, 2009), p. 26-27

[4] E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible Commentary: Genesis (Double Day: New York, 1987) p. XX

[5] Ibid, p. XXVI

[6] Seeds, Michael A. Horizons: Exploring the Universe, 10th Edition (Brooks/Cole: Belmont, CA 2008) p. 327

[7] Wickman, Leslie God of the Big Bang: How Modern Science Affirms the Creator (Worthy Publishing: Brentwood, 2015) p. 8

[8] Birch, etc., al New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Genesis-Leviticus (Abbingdon: Nashville, 1994) p. 327

[9] Speiser, p. 9

[10] Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005) p. 888

[11] Comer, John Mark Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2015), p. 38

[12] Speiser, p. 10

[13] Archaeological Study Bible, p. 888

[14] Who, incidentally, was already planning on killing the lower gods because they made too much noise…

[15] Speiser, p. 10

[16] McGrath, Alister Christian Theology: An Introduction, Fifth Edition (Wiley Blackwell: London, 2011) p. 217

[17] Ibid, p. 217

[18] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Creation and Fall,Temptation (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1959) p. 18

[19] Comer, p. 38

[20] Ibid, p. 38

[21] Ibid, p. 40

[22] Ibid, p. 41

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