An Introduction to Genesis 1’s Creation Myth

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The first sentence of the Bible states that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). As such, it concerns the creation of the universe by a powerful creator deity. Genesis 1:1-2:2 speaks of a single beginning to everything. The origin of the universe begins with darkness and emptiness (1:2), and following God’s creative actions over the following days life is brought into existence.

It is fascinating that within such a pithy introduction readers are immediately introduced to the main character of the story: God, and then to his relationship with everything else. As the story is communicated it is clear that God not only looks favourably upon his creation but that he is also actively involved within it. Genesis 1:1, unlike some of other ancient origin myths, therefore does not provide a representation of an uncaring or vindictive deity but rather one that is both loving and creative. It is also clear that the universal scope of Genesis 1:1 establishes the domain of God’s rule, which is over the “heavens and the earth,” and thus over all of his creation.

Biblical scholars believe that the Genesis creation myth was likely penned at some point during the 6th century BC while the Israelites were held in exile by Babylon (1), and not to Christian and Jewish tradition which holds to Mosaic authorship (2). It noticeably shares much in common with Mesopotamian mythology which it adapts some of its themes from (3). However, it also shows remarkable differences. In contrast to other mythologies there are deliberate changes the author makes particularly in ascribing the existence of the universe to the will of a good God (4). In the Babylonian origin myth of the Enuma Elish the god Marduk, who the Babylonians believed was the supreme god in their pantheon, enslaved humanity, whereas the biblical God is depicted in a close and loving relationship with his human creation. The story also suggests that humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and that rather than enslaving humanity God goes on to entrust humans with his creation.

Contextually, the Genesis account provided a hopeful message concerning God’s purposes for his people and the world for the Israelites in exile. It reassured them that while they were held in foreign lands they were not beyond God’s reach and care. After all, Genesis says that God created all the land, including the foreign land in which the Israelites found themselves.

God’s power is frequently communicated throughout the account. He simply speaks and major events of immense creative feats occur. For example, punctuated throughout are phrases such as “and God said,” which creates a rhythm to the story. God simply speaks things into existence, and throughout the rest of the Bible the word of God is seen as both powerful and dynamic in its ability to renounce blessing, judgement, and forgiveness (5). Each day in the story is an effort of creativity. First God calls out, “Let there be light,” and light appears. God then creates the sky. On the third day, God calls the water to gather into one place, and then created land on which plants and trees could grow and flourish. The fourth day has God creating the “greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night,” and goes on to make stars, all of which he sets into the vault of the sky to give light on the Earth. God then populates the skies with its birds, and the oceans with its creatures. Readers are then introduced to the pinnacle of God’s creation on the sixth day as after populating the land with living creations he creates humanity “in his image” (1:27). The story suggests that humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and he goes on to entrust creation to human beings before resting on the seventh day.

There is also the important detail that God deems his creation good, or “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Genesis thus affirm the goodness of the created world, despite the later event of the Fall which brings evil and sin into the world. It is not surprising that the beauty of God’s creation is frequently referred to in other biblical texts. The Psalms, for example, delight in the beauty of the created world while other writers see God’s attributes evidenced within the created order.

A final detail worth mentioning is that it is from the Genesis creation story that the number seven finds its significance. The pattern set by God’s creating the world in six days which is followed by a seventh day of rest forms the understanding of the number seven as a perfect, complete number throughout the rest of the Bible. The biblical authors frequently use seven (or its multiples) to show or demonstrate something that is complete in the way that God wants it to be. For example, God has seven different names, Jesus Christ tells his disciples to forgive transgressors 70 times (sevens multiple which he was using to teach his followers to forgive completely and repeatedly), and the book of Revelation includes a series of sevens in the form of seven letters, lampshades, judgements, and trumpets, all of which represents the completeness of God’s plan. The creation story and the rhythm it sets also became enshrined in Jewish religious practices of daily prayer, rest on the Sabbath, and annual cycle of religious festivals.

References

1. Schneider, T. et al. 2018. The Bible Book. p. 22-26

2. Anderson, B. & Gooder, P. 2017. An Introduction to the Study of the Pentateuch. p. 38-39.

3. Schneider, T. et al. 2018. Ibid.

4 .Nahum M. Sarna. 1997. Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs. p. 50.

5. Schneider, T. et al. Ibid.

13 responses to “An Introduction to Genesis 1’s Creation Myth

  1. The notion of the holiness of “seven” was deeply imbued in Mesopotamian civilization before Genesis was written.

    The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, was written on seven tablets. And it mentions such things as ” the Seven-fold Wind,” and “The Seven gods of destinies were appointed to give decisions” https://www.ancient.eu/article/225/enuma-elish—the-babylonian-epic-of-creation—fu/ , and, “On the seventh day the crown will be half size” — a reference to the phases of the moon that Marduk set up so that people would know when to celebrate certain holy festivities, same as in Genesis 1. Compare:

    He [Marduk] patterned the days of the year… established the positions of Enlil and Ea [referring to the rotation of stars in the sky]… made the moon appear, entrusted (to him) the night… assigned to the crown jewel of nighttime to mark the day (of the month)… [Marduk] d[efined?] the celestial signs [for religious festivals]… the doorbolt of sunrise… the watches of night and day.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet V:3, 5, 8, 12–13, 23, 44, 46

    God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons [the literal Hebrew means ‘religious festivals,’ as used elsewhere in the Pentateuch], and for days, and years… And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.
    —Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:14, 16–17

    In ancient times planets were not known to be what we define as planets, but were called “wandering stars” because they appeared to be tiny lights in the sky like all other “stars,” but the ancients noted that some “stars” did not rotate in the same enormous circle each night round the pole star like all the rest. In fact, the word “planet” is derived from the Greek word for “wanderer.” The “wandering stars” known by the ancients included Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Add the above five “wanderers” to the sun and moon which also traced their own unique paths across the sky, and you get a total of SEVEN major heavenly objects that stood out from the stars. The ancients imagined that these SEVEN were special gods overseeing the earth below. For instance, the Babylonians referred to the “watchful eye” of Shamash, the sun, who notes all things; and a prayer to Nergal (Mars) states, “With Sin (the Moon) in Heaven thou perceivest all things.” Compare the Hebrew notion that “these SEVEN [lights] are the eyes of the Lord which range [wander] to and fro throughout the earth” (Zechariah 4:10). Nor does the Bible reveal that its authors were aware of the earth being one more “wandering star” like the rest. Instead, “the heavens and the earth” are spoken of as the two halves of creation with the earth forming a firm foundation and the heavens “spread out” above it in an equally “firm” fashion.

    There were additional Mesopotamian creation accounts, one of which celebrated the founding of a new temple in SEVEN days of festivities. Another has human beings created directly from the ground rather than from the blood of a god.

    Also compare:

    He [Marduk] made mankind… creatures with the breath of life… creator of all people.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VI:33,129 & VII:89

    God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
    —Hebrew Bible, Genesis 2:7

  2. I should have written that Mesopotamian civilization was deeply imbued with the holiness of certain numbers like “seven”…

    The phrase “imbued in” is incorrect usage. “Imbued with” is correct.

  3. I also added a comment concerning your remark that Marduk enslaved humanity. But I do not see that it has appeared yet. Perhaps it is in a queue waiting to be approved?

  4. Genesis 1:1 (KJV) states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”42 This opening line is often misinterpreted as stating literally that God instantly created heaven and earth, boom! Instead, it is merely a summation in one line of the story that one is about to read–because how heaven and earth were created is all explained afterwards. The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish also begins with an opening line that summarizes the story one is about to read, “When on high no name was given to heaven, Nor below was the netherworld called by name. . . . When no gods at all had been brought forth, None called by names, no destinies ordained.” (See Prof. Mark Smith’s discussion in The Priestly Vision of Genesis of both the cultural and linguistic justification for translations of Genesis 1:1 that read, “When God began to create. . .”).

    Genesis 1:2 agrees with the beginning of Enuma Elish, that in the beginning nothing had yet been formed/named, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Speaking of these primeval waters, note that they have a “face” upon which the spirit of God could move, implying that the waters were flat, as was their cosmos as we shall see. Also that both Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 begin with primeval waters—with what one might call a Big Splash rather than a Big Bang—out of which heaven and earth are eventually made (compare 2 Peter 3:5 in the NT, “The heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water”). The Egyptians likewise envisioned their flat-earth cosmos as being surrounded by primeval waters lying above and beneath and all around the earth.

    The “deep” is mentioned not only in Genesis 1:2 but also in Genesis 49:25, which, according to Smith, “lists blessings of various divine figures, including the ‘blessing of Heaven above, blessings of Deep crouching below’ (see also Deuteronomy 33:13), and ‘Deep’ in this passage is feminine [as was the Babylonian sea goddess, Tiamat]. . . . [Moreover,] Heaven and Deep are both divinities related to cosmic origins in earlier West Semitic tradition.”43 Smith adds, “It is not necessary to see a particular Mesopotamian background at work behind Genesis 1 in order to compare tehom [the Hebrew “deep”] with Tiamat. This word for ocean occurs in the Ugaritic texts not only in the god-lists, but also in mythological contexts. . . . [And,] tehom in a battle context is an old West Semitic idea and not just a Mesopotamian one.”44 Nor do all creation stories employ battle contexts. Some are as serene as Genesis 1. One Babylonian story that was recited during the building of temples and that featured Marduk as creator began, “All lands were sea. Then there was a movement in the midst of the sea.” Some Egyptian stories began with a god (Amon) moving over the face of divine waters (Nu).

  5. Just as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians told different stories about creation, there is evidence of more than one creation story in the Bible. Mark S. Smith in “The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1” points out that the book of Psalms includes some creation hymns that were probably composed earlier than Genesis 1 and adds that those hymns and other creation passages in the Bible may represent some of the earliest beliefs of the Israelites about creation. However, because Genesis 1 was composed with greater sweep, significance, and priestly precision, and placed at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, those other creation passages lost the prominence they once held.

    Some of the earliest creation passages in the Bible depict Yahweh in conflict with watery foes, not unlike Marduk’s battle with the primeval water goddess Tiamat, or Baal’s battle with the sea-god, Yam. Professor Smith has an excellent discussion of such biblical passages in a section of his book subtitled, “Creation as Divine Might.” Concerning Psalm 74:12–17, for example, he says that it “makes the divine conflict over the cosmic enemies of the water the basis for the establishment of the sun, moon, and stars as well as the boundaries of the earth”39:

    Yet God is my king from of old,
    Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.
    You divided the sea by Your strength;
    You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.
    You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
    You broke open springs and torrents;
    You dried up ever-flowing streams.
    Yours is the day, Yours also is the night;
    You have prepared the light and the sun.
    You have established all the boundaries of the earth;
    You have made summer and winter.

    Smith adds that other texts, “such as Psalm 89:11–13, Job 26:7–13, and 38:1–11 [also] refer to a divine conflict at the beginning of creation.”40

    Though the Lord’s defeat of cosmic foes was sometimes applied metaphorically to the Hebrew defeat of the Egyptians (as in the book of Exodus story about Yahweh splitting the waters of the sea in half and then closing them to smash the Egyptians), the names of the sea monsters defeated by Yahweh in Psalm 74 are found in texts from ancient Ugarit where they are identified as foes whom Baal defeated. Mythical tales of Baal’s conquests of sea gods and monsters also parallel those of Marduk, who conquered Tiamat (an ocean goddess and monster), subduing her with his mighty wind and then piercing her. Compare such tales with the image in Job 26:12–13 (from the Jewish Publication Society Hebrew Bible or Tanakh): “By His power He stilled the sea; By His skill He struck down Rahab. By His wind the heavens were calmed; His hand pierced the Elusive Serpent.”

    Smith goes on to explain the evolving nature of the creation story in the Bible:

    Genesis 1 built on and supplanted other Israelite versions of creation that understood the primordial universe as a field of battle between two divine wills. It envisions instead a royal-priestly power beyond all powers, enthroned over the world understood as a holy place similar to a sanctuary. . . . The royal politics of creation expressed in texts such as Enuma Elish and Psalm 74 were replaced partially in Genesis 1 with a priestly order imbued with the proper religious life of the Sabbath [“rest on the seventh day”], and festivals of the priestly calendar [the “appointed times” of Gen. 1:14].41

  6. How do you see the text stating that God empowered the Earth, sea and air to produce different living species and creatures? It would appear he only on three occasions was directly involved in creating; all chemistry, life and man?

  7. Which came first, I wonder? The creation of the universe, and Earth itself, or the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. Strangely these subsequent civilisations incorporate many similar stories and features which suggests their myths were grounded in the actual creation events which took place long before their societies existed. Although Genesis itself was not written for many centuries after the events it portrays it was inspired by God who I would trust with the truth – far more than hand-me-down myths, stories and fairy tales from early human “civilisations”.
    Surely, if the Genesis accounts are all just myths then the rest of the Bible must be viewed in the same way. None of its teachings can therefore be trusted as being true, and Jesus himself must be regarded as a fraud as he taught from and referred to Genesis and on many occasions.
    The whole Bible is either the true, inspired Word of God or it isn’t – I’m happy to believe it is, and nothing in my life so far causes me to doubt.

  8. James, One of my Post’s appears lost in some queue. It was a post that questioned what you meant by saying that Marduk enslaved mankind. I pointed out that Marduk was called shepherd like Yahweh, and his justice was proclaimed like Yahweh. I cited specific examples from ANE lit. As for Yahweh, the Genesis story appears like He created mankind to “tend” His garden.

    • The Garden and the field are two different spiritual States in the Genesis account. One is in relationship with the Creator and the other is outside the relationship. The whole Biblical text deals with bringing man back into that relationship in the garden.

      • I don’t know when your hypothetical relationship drama took place, to whom, what happened, nor do I know how you interpret Genesis.

        It looks like humanity gained the ability to have extended relationships and live together in relative peace in cities containing millions of us, something our ape cousins never learned to do. So it looks like a gain, relationship wise, over time, rather than a loss.

        • I see Genesis 1 is adapted by a Hebrew writer during the exile period from contemporary Babylonian sources by the use of Elohim. The Hebrew account starts in Genesis 2: 4 with YEHWEH; developing an allegory the idea of sin and broken relationship with the Creator which needs restoration. The rest of Biblical text has that theme in mind. Restoration through sacrifice, restoration through conscience, restoration through law, restoration through repentance, restoration by being born of the spirit and nature of God.

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