The creation account in Genesis 1 is unlike other creation myths from the ancient world.
There are little hints in the chapter that the author was aware of more dramatic myths of gods fighting monsters and in the process creating the cosmos, but unlike those myths Genesis 1:1-2:3 appears to be . . .
. . . a radical purification and distillation of all mythical and speculative elements, an amazing theological accomplishment!
This account of creation is unique in this respect among the cosmogonies of other religions. . . . But the atmosphere of Gen., ch. 1, is not primarily one of reverence, awe, or gratitude, but one of theological reflection. . . . But just this renunciation also mediates aesthetically the impression of restrained power and lapidary greatness. (Rad 1972, 64)
In an earlier edition of his commentary Gerhard von Rad skirted along the sides of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis:
Ionic refers to one of the four Greek tribes: Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Aeolians
Natural philosophy: theories about the natural world, nature
Cosmogony: theories on the origin of the universe
Theogony: Account of the origin of the gods
Theomachy: Account of war among gods
One can speak . . . only in a very limited sense of a dependence of this account of creation on extra-Israelite myths. Doubtless there are some terms which obviously were common to ancient Oriental, cosmological thought; but even they are so theologically filtered . . . that scarcely more than the word itself is left in common. Considering [the author’s] superior spiritual maturity, we may be certain that terms which did not correspond to his ideas of faith could be effortlessly avoided or recoined. What does the term “tehōm” (the “deep”) in v. 2, the word for the unformed abysmal element of creation, still have in common with the mythically objective world dragon, Tiamat, in the Babylonian creation epic? Genesis, ch. 1, does not know the struggle of two personified cosmic primordial principles; not even a trace of one hostile to God can be detected! The tehōm has no power of its own; one cannot speak of it at all as though it existed for itself alone, but it exists for faith only with reference to God’s creative will, which is superior to it. In our chapter this careful distillation of everything mythological (but only this) reminds one of the sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers. (Rad 1961, 63)
But Rad was writing from the conventional perspective that what we read in Genesis was the product of centuries of thought, writing and re-writing. Rad seemed to think that his 1961 reference to the Ionic natural philosophers was even a potential distraction so he dropped it in the revised edition. For Gmirkin [RG] the Ionic philosophers were indeed the key to understanding why the creation account of Genesis is, as Rad observed, “unique”. But that possibility, as we noted in the previous post, has not entered into the discussion as a possibility until now.
Before addressing those “sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers” RG explores the different types of cosmogonies that the people of Israel surely knew about from their neighbours. His text is packed with details and references. It is not a quick, light, read. Ideas set out in one place reappear in support of a more comprehensive view later in the chapter. Fortunately, I am the kind of reader who appreciates more detail rather than less and recontextualized repetitions rather than dangerous shortcuts. To address the key ideas here, though, I need to stand back and rethink and distil all that I have read. (That’s part of my excuse for not posting sooner. Another reason is that I have been sidetracked with other books that have newly arrived on loan and in the post.)
RG begins his survey of ancient creation myths with theogonies. The famous Greek one is Hesiod’s Theogony. The first god was Chaos and from Chaos was “born” Gaia or Earth, and so forth. You can see how it goes from a diagram I have borrowed from Karen Sonik‘s publication:
RG discusses the comparable anthropomorphisms of Babylonian and Canaanite gods. Those cultures have left us no comparable theogonies, however. Of particular interest, of course, is that for the Greeks it all began with Chaos: we are aware of a similar origin in the opening words of Genesis.
A better-known class of myths are the theomachies. The Titan Kronos (the Roman Saturn) castrates Ouranos and inaugurates a new (golden) age in which humankind was created; later Zeus led his supporters in a war against Kronos and the other Titans; each successive event introducing a new era. But these Greek “wars of the gods” were not related to the creation of the cosmos. For that we turn to the Babylonian story of Marduk killing the sea monster Tiamat, cutting her body apart and using it to form the sky and earth – and from her blood creating the first humans who also incorporated some divine element from the slain god. Tiamat reminds us of the Hebrew word for deep as we saw in Rad’s quotation above. RG also draws our attention to further instances of overlaps with Genesis – Marduk being interpreted as light and wind which he used as weapons against Tiamat.
All of the above is far from the kind of creation narrative we read in Genesis 1.
When we come closer to our home of special interest, Canaan, we finally encounter stories that have surfaced to some extent in the Bible, but not in Genesis.
God does not restrain his anger; even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.
Psalm 74: 13f
It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan . . .
Awake, awake, arm of the Lord . . . Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through?
But whoever wrote Genesis 1 shied away from such myths.
Another type of myth RG identifies as known to the biblical authors was the world being built as a palace for gods. The sky — either a solid bronze surface or woven fabric — was the roof of the palace. The god might live in a throne room above with his feet resting on the sky. Chambers above the sky stored winds, ice, and rain. Gates opened to allow the sun and moon to enter each day. Angels or lesser gods were tasked with making sure everything worked and moved appropriately.
Again, this image is far removed from the opening chapter of Genesis, even though it was familiar to biblical authors:
can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.
When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm.
He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.
Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens;
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
But Genesis 1 is not a “palatial world-myth”.
On a more modest scale there are many “local palatial myths”. God lives in Zion, or in Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans, or on Mount Olympus for the Greeks. Yahweh had Jerusalem as his sacred dwelling place and Babylon was the holy city of Marduk. Disasters befalling the city were interpreted as the consequence of the god being absent for some reason. (Compare my recent posts on Revelation where we saw that the divine Roman emperor’s entry to a city and his dwelling there was hailed as a time of salvation.)
We come closer to Genesis 1 here because in the ensuing chapters we find God apparently dwelling in or beside a garden:
In Genesis 2-3, a mythical mountain from which the Tigris, Euphrates, Phasis and Nile rivers spring appears to have been pictured as God’s dwelling place, and Eden as his palace garden, reminiscent of the famous paradises of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings and Persian aristocracy. (p. 37)
But that’s not Genesis 1 or part of the six days of creation.
Myths are told as stories. There is no story in Genesis 1. There is no interaction among gods, no establishment of social and political institutions as a follow up from the creation of the world, no dwelling place for God.
Scholars working with the traditional dates for the Pentateuch have remarked on how the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 has “demythologized” the stories of the time. They point to the faint remnants of such mythologies in certain terms like “tehom || tiamat” for the deep.
Yes, the creating God is a figure who speaks but not in a dramatic narrative form. What RG wants us to keep in mind, and what he will explore in depth, is that some Greek scientific accounts about the origins of the cosmos also include God as the one who fashions it all.
RG analyses 1:1-2:3 in detail to draw out just how different it is from ancient myths. God is portrayed as expressing intentionality, speaking of different stages of his intent to bring about the division of the elements and to craft the designs of the sun and moon, etc. But he is “not a storybook figure” in these first verses as he is soon afterwards when he is walking in the Garden of Eden and talking to Adam and Eve. Physical or natural processes compete in the reader’s mind with what God does directly:
Gen 1:1-2:3 contained several instances in which physical elements in the cosmos came into existence by purely physical processes. The emergence of the familiar present cosmos was described mainly as the result of a series of physical separations: the separation of light from dark, of earth from sky and of sea from dry land. The emergence of life forms from the sea and land appears to be initially described as a process of spontaneous generation (Gen 1:20, 24), a phenomenon that was widely accepted as an observable natural occurrence in Greek scientific and medical literature; in what appears to be a distinct literary strand, doublets also contradictorily assert that God made these same life forms (Gen 1:21, 25). The combination of scientific and mythological content calls into question whether Genesis 1 falls into the category of mythological cosmogony. . . .
. . . . The emphasis on physical processes in Gen 1:1-2:3, the many missed opportunities for storytelling, and the lack of conformity to the usual literary tropes of mythical cosmogony are all striking indications that the biblical cosmogony was fundamentally concerned with science rather than myth.
(p. 42, 43)
But science was in its gestation period. And there is no question that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is also a theological work. So how is it to be explained? In RG’s favour is the fact that cultures are not known to produce unique works without any parallel. The options that face us:
- a unique work that evolved through centuries of reflection
- a later work similar to certain Greek “scientific” cosmogonies that include God as the first cause and craftsman.
If the Genesis creation was “demythologized” and “unique among the cosmogonies of other religions”, will 1:1-2:3 be able to maintain its “amazing” status if compared with Greek scientific thought that was introduced to the Hebrews in the third century BCE?
Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis : A Commentary. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1961.
———. Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1972.
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