What do Pagan Creation Myths Say About the Genesis Story?

Posted by Clark Bates
September 29, 2017

 

Enuma Elish, Ptah, the stories of Atrahasis, tell Mardikh and Ebla.  No, I’m not speaking in tongues; actually, I’m listing various creation stories that have existed in cultures all over the world.  Many of which pre-date the nation of Israel and the very writing of the book of Genesis.  Since every culture has an ancient creation myth in their history, is the creation account in Genesis just a copycat of older myths?  Could it be that the Hebrew people merely adopted the myths that had already existed and only modified them to fit their particular view of God?  This is certainly the view of many in the academy, but since truth is not defined by a majority vote, we should still ask the question,

“What makes Genesis different than all the other stories?”

For a little background, those who engage in cultural investigation of the Ancient Near East often employ a methodology known as “comparative studies”.  Comparative studies is a branch of cultural studies that takes data from different segments of the culture under investigation and juxtaposes them, “in order to assess both similarities and differences in: behavior and belief; literary genre, traditions and texts; and use of metaphors, idioms and words.”[1]  The point of this method is to try to recreate the world surrounding the people, both in the Bible and also the surrounding nations.  When applied properly, it can illuminate a great deal about the world of the Old Testament Patriarchs, the Egyptian dynasties, and many other smaller kingdoms that existed very early in the lifetime of mankind.

However, it’s also the use of this comparative model that leads many archaeologists to conclude that the religious worship of the nation of Israel was no different than that of the surrounding people.  As it applies to the creation account, the conclusion has been suggested above: Genesis 1-2 is nothing more than an appropriation of the other creation myths that came before.  In response, I’d like to offer two points to consider:

  1. The Devil is in the details: consider the differences as well as the similarities
  2. Similarities point to a common truth.

As the definition of comparative studies states, it should involve the study of similarities and differences between various segments of a culture.  The differences are often more important than the similarities.

The Devil is in the Details

Let’s take just a couple of the examples listed above and observe the stories they tell.  The Enuma Elish stories date to the 11th century BCE and originated in the nation of Babylon.  It is said that the story compares to the biblical account in Genesis, portions of Exodus, and various Psalms.  According to their account, creation was ordered out of the chaos of water in Mesopotamia.  Divine beings governing salt water and fresh water are born, as well as a divine assembly of warriors.  Here is a sample of the comparative passage to Genesis:

“When on high, no heaven had been named,

When no earth had been called

When there were no divine elders…

When there was nothing…”

Clearly, there are some similarities in this writing to Genesis 1:1-2, but understanding that the larger story of Enuma Elish is one of divine formation out of existing water, changes the perception dramatically.
Let’s also look at the Egyptian creation story of the god Ptah.  Much writing on the subject lists Ptah as the creator-god par excellence.  He is said to be the god that existed before all other gods.  He created all things when there was nothing.  From his own thoughts he is said to have created everything.  With that basic summary, it seems rather daunting that the comparisons are very close to what we read of Yahweh in Genesis.  However, the use of common terms does not result in common meanings.

For the Egyptians (and almost all other Ancient Near Eastern cultures) creation out of nothing is not the same as Yahweh’s creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) in Genesis.  Why?  Because, much like it is for modern quantum physicists, “nothing” didn’t actually mean no-thing.  In Egyptian mythology, the “nothing” from which Ptah, and other gods, created was made up of a type of “pre-matter” that eternally existed.  Therefore, when the god Ptah created from his thoughts, those thoughts were actually existing matter.[2]  This is also the case for the creation myths of Atrahasis and the accounts recorded in the Ebla tablets.  Only in the Hebrew account of creation, do we find a supreme deity creating all that is, from absolutely nothing.

Similarities Point to Common Truth

A secondary, and often overlooked, conclusion when conducting comparative studies is the larger truth that can be observed through the similarities in these accounts.  While it’s true that their differences rule out the possibility of them being reliant on one another, their similarities reveal one major commonality:  God created everything.  Whether it be through different means, or with pre-existing matter, the common themes in all creation myths are these:

  1. Before there were many gods, there was one primary god.
  2. Everything that we know of reality came into existence at a specific point in time.
  3. The primary god/God is the creator of all reality.

When we discuss the reliability of documents or reports, it’s often stated that the most reliable evidence is that which can be confirmed by two or three, or more, separate witnesses.  The more witnesses to an event, the more reliable that event is considered to be.  I can’t think of anything more reliable than the attestation by every known culture across the entire planet recording the creation of all things by a singular, supreme God.

Conclusion

So, what do we do with all these alternate creation myths in ancient history?  Far from discrediting the reliability of the biblical narrative, they demonstrate the unique properties of the Genesis account.  As with the stories relating to a large-scale flood, it is the account of Scripture that stands above all others, both with its testable data and peculiar details.  What’s more, the multiple different creation stories, separated by generations, geography and genre, indicate one thing quite clearly:  There is a God and He is the creator of reality.

 

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 19.

[2] All discussion of these stories comes from Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East.  Information regarding

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