Saturday, March 16, 2013

Guest Post: The Creation Myth Demystified

This will be the last of my guest posts from some friends who volunteered to help me out while I'm out of town for a few days. Today's entry comes from Cephus, who writes Bitchspot and of course is one of the hosts of the bitchspot report. He is a great writer and he comes from a conservative atheist perspective which is somewhat of a rarity it seems. If you have yet to check out his stuff I definitely recommend it.

Not long ago, we had a wonderful visit from Hausdorff on our podcast, The Bitchspot Report, where we discussed the absurdities of the Biblical account of creation.  However, at the time, we looked at them mostly as a simple Biblical narrative without acknowledging where the stories actually came from.  Most Christians simply accept that the stories in the Bible were original to the ancient Hebrews without the understanding that most ancient cultures were quite adept at plagiarism.  Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, referred to it euphemistically as “borrowing”, but there were many mythic elements that were  commonplace among ancient cultures that they “borrowed”  back and forth between their tales to lend them legitimacy.  This kind of thing is rampant throughout the Bible; even many of the miracles supposedly performed by Jesus were “borrowed” from other mythologies to make Jesus appear more acceptable.

I did promise to expand on the Babylonian mythology that predated the Hebrews and the clear similarities that exist between the Enuma Elish and the two creation stories that appear in the Bible.

Two, you ask?  Most certainly.  The first story appears in Genesis 1:1-2:3, but was actually the later of the two accounts, dating no earlier than the 6th century BCE and is part of the Priestly narrative.  The second, which starts in Genesis 2:4 is a far earlier and more primitive story which directly contradicts the first in many of the details and in the order of creation.  It can be dated to around the 9th century BCE and is part of the Yahwist narrative.  What many people don’t realize, especially most theists, is that there are four distinct styles of storytelling in the Pentateuch that have been woven together, the Priestly (P), Yahwist (J), Elohist (E) and Deuteronimist (D).  Each of these styles dates from a different time and has a different voice.  There are books written about each of these narrative styles, but to study them in detail goes outside of our stated purpose, therefore I think we’ll pay the most attention to the first creation story here; it is the most detailed and bears the most similarity to the Babylonian predecessor.  Please, don’t get the idea that they only “borrowed” from the Babylonians; there were many other myths common in the Middle East at the time from which they flagrantly stole.  There are elements of Hindu stories, Akkadian myths, Egyptian tales, etc. that run through the Bible.  However, that would be a book in itself so I’ll limit myself primarily to the Babylonian creation myths here, but may throw in a reference here and there to the others.

In order to really understand where these ideas come from, it’s important to have at least a basic grounding in the Babylonian mythic structure so I’ll give you a quick overview and try not to bore anyone too badly.

The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian epic, found on seven tablets.  Anthropologists believe it was read as part of a ritual performed at the Celebration of Akitu, the Babylonian New Year.  It details the Babylonian creation story, among other things, as a great war among the gods.  It begins with two great water dragons, the married gods Apsu, the dragon of the fresh water and Tiamat, the dragon of the salt water.  Within Tiamat are born other gods who live within her, but they make so much commotion that they perturb both Tiamat and Apsu.  Apsu wants to kill them so they can be in peace, but Tiamat disagrees.  And thus, a war begins.  The god Ea uses a spell to put Apsu to sleep and he is slain, pissing off Tiamat to no end.  She and her new consort, Kingu, set forth to conquer the gods that killed her first husband, creating 11 monsters.  In the end, Marduk, the son of Ea and the greatest of the gods, challenges Tiamat and kills her, using her body to create the world we see around us.
The order between the two tales is identical and it is clear where the ancient Hebrew writers “borrowed” content and modified it to their own purposes.  It is important to understand that ancient peoples didn’t look at stories the way we do today.  To them, a mythic story was a way of getting across an idea; it was not necessarily a means of transmitting facts.  Modern people can recognize that something like Aesop’s fairy tales can pass along a message without being a story about real things; they have problems accepting the same thing for ancient myths.  Unfortunately, when debating theists, we are often frustrated by their inability to treat the Bible as anything but a modern-day history when it is demonstrably anything but.        
Let’s start looking at this in more detail, shall we?  We can touch on each day of creation and see where the similarities lie.

Before Day 1:  Genesis 1:1-2 begins before the first day and so shall we.  It describes, as the Babylonian epic, that the world was not, in fact, nothingness; it was a vast sea, over which the “Spirit of God” hovers.  In the Babylonian, it was the great water dragons; here it is the vast waters.  This idea of divine spirits floating over the waters is commonplace, particularly in the aftermath of a terrible battle between the gods.  We have many such examples in mythology, Soshiosh battling Tiamat, Odin fighting Ymir, the gods of the Rg-Vedas battling Parusha, etc.  But wait, you might say, there is no sign of the “Spirit of God” fighting anyone here!  No, but there are signs elsewhere in the Bible, such as in the more ancient writings in Isaiah 27:1, where God is shown to be fighting with Leviathan.  In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, we find “In that day shall be distributed for food two monsters, a feminine monster whose name is Leviathan, dwelling in the depths of the  sea, above the springs of waters, and a male monster whose name is Behemoth.”  Remember those names, those will be important later on.

Day 1 (Genesis 1:3-5):  It seems odd that the Genesis account would list the creation of light before the creation of the sun, as though they were two different things.  In the Enuma Elish, light is said to emanate from the gods themselves and is quite different from the illumination that would later come from the sun.  This is a clear case where the ancient Hebrew writers “borrowed” a concept, yet did not understand the concept they were borrowing, otherwise why would there be light before the creation of the sun?  Modern day apologists try all kinds of hand-waving rationalizations for this but really can’t come up with a better explanation than the obvious, that the ancient Hebrews blew it.  However, the ancient Hebrews did leave us some clues as to their sources.  In the earliest manuscripts, “Day” and “Night” are capitalized, which gives us an indication of something more than the mundane meaning.  Remember, at this point, the earth had not been created, nor was there a sun or moon, thus this cannot refer to a traditional day/night cycle.  What we’re seeing here is called by the Hindus, “the Day and Night of Brahma the Creator” and refers to long periods of time in creation, measuring, according to some Hindus, 4,320,000,000 earthly years.
Day 2 (Genesis 1:6-8):  At this point in the Babylonian myth, Marduk, son of Ea, the god of wisdom, killed the evil dragon Tiamat and split her into two pieces.  The upper half was fixed into the sky, to keep the waters above separate from the waters below.  Both Hebrew and Babylonian cultures viewed the universe as a series of nested spheres, very similar to a set of Matryoshka dolls.  The earth was a curved bowl, above which was a solid, dome-shaped structure that held back the torrential waters of the sky.  The sun and the stars, which will be created later, were simply lights attached to the inside of the dome.  The word used for “firmament” in the Hebrew is “rakia”, which literally means “to beat metal into thin plates”.  Today, we know that the Earth is a mere speck of dust in a vast cosmic sea.  It’s understandable if a primitive people didn’t comprehend that, it’s not understandable if some all-knowing, all-powerful deity doesn’t.
Day 3 (Genesis 1:9-13):  On the third day, the gods in both pantheons have created the three levels of the cosmos, the heavens, the seas and the earth.  They are then populated in that order in both mythologies.  It is important to note that in Genesis, the concept of “ruling” is introduced, with the heavens “governing” the day and night and the cycles of the seasons.  In the Priestly tradition, the various religious rituals were based around the seasons and the cycles of the sun and moon.

Day 4 (Genesis 1:14-19):  Here, the gods put lights in the firmament.  The word used in Genesis is “ma’or”, which means “lamps”.  The Babylonian story, however, refers to gems and precious stones that shone.  As you can see in the illustration, the ancient view of cosmology is quite different from what we know today.  Surely an action deity would have known better, this is certainly the uninformed beliefs of primitive man, not some omniscient God.

Day 5 (Genesis 1:20-23):   We do not know if the Enuma Elish discusses the creation of animals, that story would appear on Tablet 5, but it is largely damaged and portions are missing, so I cannot speculate what may appear there.  Instead, we’ll touch on something I brought up earlier.  Remember I told you to remember the monsters fought by God?  This is a very common mythic theme that also appears in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation myths, but which is not as clear in the Hebrew myth unless you know where to look for it.  Far too many people assume that the Bible is a chronological work, where each book is written after the one that precedes it and before the one that comes after.  This is simply not true, there are books that are actually written before the creation account and these give us clues to the beliefs and culture of the Hebrew people.  As I said before, if we look at Isaiah 27:1, we find a story with God fighting the great serpent Leviathan, which is very similar to the Babylonian war with Tiamat.  In Psalm 74 we find “Thou breakest the heads of Leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.”  These passages betray a background very close to the idea of Apsu and Tiamat in the Enuma Elish.  So why does this not appear in the creation story?  Because the writers of the Priestly account need a superior being, one that does not need to fight for supremacy, it is already supreme.  However, all traces are not missing; let’s look at some more Hebrew.  To plug some Hebrew into Genesis 1:1, we see “In the beginning Elohim (many gods) bara (cut out, not created) the heavens and the earth. And the earth was tohu and bohu and darkness was on the surface of the tehom.”  Tehom, the word used for “deep” comes from the Akkadian word Tiamat, the dragon of Babylonian myth.  Tohu and bohu are two words mistranslated as “formless and void”, but as Professor Jeremias, the German orientalist says, “There can be no doubt that tohu is connected with Ti(h)amat and bohu with Behemoth.  Bohu is the equivalent of the Babylonian Apsu, the male mate of Tiamat.”  We come back to the concept of a council of gods cutting out the world from the skin of a great serpent, virtually identical to what appears in the Babylonian story.

Day 6 (Genesis 1:24-31):  And so we come to the creation of man.  In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man.”  Us?  Yes, the word “Elohim” comes from the word “Alheim” and means a council, in this case, a council of the gods.  Numerologically, the council had 12 members and this number shows up throughout many cultures.  It makes sense, lifting this from the Babylonians, where there were multiple gods, but the Hebrews were very influenced by numerology and its symbolic meaning.  This is the same point in the Greek myths that the 12 Titans started creating man.  The name Adam first appears in Sumerian mythology as Adamah, which means “clay” or “clod of dirt”.  So too appears Eve as Heve.  In Sumerian, the word “ti” means both “rib” and “to make alive”.  In the Babylonian myth, the goddess Ninti is called “the lady of the rib” and also “the lady who makes alive”.  In their creation story, she is made by the god Nimhursag to heal Enki’s sick rib.  So too is Eve created from Adam’s rib to be his helpmate.

Day 7 (Genesis 2:1-3):  And on the seventh day, all the gods in both pantheons rested, although at least the ones on the Babylonian side got to party.  The Hebrews get their word for this day of rest, “Sabbath” from the Sumerian word “Sabbatu”.

But what of the second, earlier, creation story in Genesis?  Surely it must owe it’s origins to some earlier mythic tradition.  In fact, we find that it does very closely resemble a secondary, and again older, creation myth in the Babylonian tradition called the Atra-Hasis epic, which demonstrates parallels throughout much of Genesis, right up to the flood story and its aftermath.  They share many attributes including the divine garden and man’s place therein, man’s creation from the dust and a chance for man to gain immortality.

One thing I did want to touch on, Hausdorff was curious when I mentioned that Christian apologists have long since claimed to know the date of creation, dating back to Bishop Ussher.  I came across a quote from Dr. John Lightfoot, written in 1654, which lays out the details.  “Heaven and earth, center and circumference were made in the same instance of time and clouds full of water and man was created by the Trinity on the 26th of October, 4004 B.C., at 9 o’clock in the morning.”  How they came to that figure, and I have seen formulations which state that it was, in fact, 9:04am in a particular time zone that creation poofed into existence, I shall never know.  Working through the genealogies only gets you so far.

And so, you can clearly see that the stories that appear in the Bible are not fully-crafted tales passed down to man by an omniscient, omnipotent deity in the sky, they were tales which were crafted by primitive man out of stories that started in distant lands.  When groups started to trade and communicate with each other, they passed along their myths and the Hebrews, like virtually every other culture, simply kept the parts that appealed to them and re-wrote the stories using their own social biases.  The idea that the stories in the Bible are original in any way, or that they are the product of anything but the human mind, is absurd if you bother to look at the evidence.  Too bad the religious are unable or unwilling to do so.


  1. Damn. Either Cephus really knows his history, or he did an incredible amount of research, either way it's a great post, I'll share it.

    1. I imagine it is a mix of the 2. Definitely a great read. Thanks again Cephus.

    2. Honestly, it comes from years and years of having to deal with apologists and a ton of research over the past 30 years. I could have included a lot more data but I figure people's eyes would have glazed over even more if I had. :)

  2. Awesome read! I learned a lot myself. I'll have to bookmark this :)

    1. Thanks John, I felt the same way :)

      Make sure to check out Cephus' blog as well, his writing is top notch.


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