It is widely known that the early chapters of Genesis do not stand alone in the history of the ancient Near East (ANE). Other texts parallel the biblical account of creation and the existence of similarities between Genesis, and ANE literature has led critical scholars to conclude that Genesis was dependent upon the Mesopotamian texts.1
Today, however, there are many professing evangelical scholars who argue that the early chapters of Genesis were influenced by these ANE myths.
The similarities between these ANE texts and Genesis 1–2 have convinced many of these scholars that Adam never existed.
The points of similarity between Genesis 1–2 and other ANE accounts have led these evangelical scholars to conclude that Genesis is not historical but “is an ancient Near Eastern form of science.”2 In other words the role of these texts in the ANE was, as John Walton explains, “like science in our modern world—it was their explanation of how the world came into being and how it worked. . . . Mythology is thus a window to culture.”3 The connection then, for these scholars, between the biblical and the ANE worlds is that, just as with ANE literature, so Genesis 1–2 helps us “see how Israelites thought about themselves, their world, and their God.”4 The similarities then are associated with the fact that the biblical and ANE accounts “share a conceptual world,”5 which is why Genesis 1–2 is seen as “ancient cosmology.”6 The similarities between these ANE texts and Genesis 1–2 have convinced many of these scholars that Adam never existed7 or that he is anything other than the first human, who was supernaturally created.8 These scholars believe their view of Adam is based on careful analysis of the ANE context of Genesis 1–2. For example, after describing several ANE texts about the creation of man, such as Atrahasis and Gilgamesh Epics, Denis Lamoureux states,
Clearly, these last three examples of the de novo creation of humans are similar to Genesis 2:7, where the Lord acts like a craftsman and forms Adam from the dust of the ground. . . . So what exactly am I saying about Adam? Adam’s existence is based ultimately on an accident conceptualization of human origins: de novo creation. To use technical terminology, Adam is the retrojective conclusion of an ancient taxonomy. And since ancient science does not align with physical reality, it follows that Adam never existed.9
There are three questions that need answering. First, although the texts have similarities, what about the differences? Second, how can we account for the similarities without conceding the uniqueness of the Genesis creation account? Thirdly, how should we understand the biblical and ANE worldviews?
The Creation of Adam and the Atrahasis Epic
As we have seen, certain scholars believe the similarities between Genesis 2:7 and other ANE accounts, such as the Atrahasis Epic, show that Genesis was influenced by these myths. The Atrahasis Epic, for example, says of the creation of man
We-ila (a god), who had personality,
They slaughtered in their assembly.
From his flesh and blood
Nintu mixed clay. . . .
After she had mixed that clay
She summoned the Anunnaki, the great gods.
The Igigi, the great gods,
Spat upon the clay.
Mami opened her mouth
And addressed the great gods,
You have commanded me a task, I have completed it;
You have slaughtered a god together with his personality.
I have removed your heavy work,
I have imposed your toil on man.10
The significance of the differences between Genesis and the ANE accounts of the creation of man should lead us to conclude that Genesis is not dependent on them.
It is important to note that many of these scholars put much emphasis on the similarities between the ANE accounts, like Atrahasis, without highlighting the significance of the differences. There is much dissimilarity between the ANE accounts and the Bible. For example, the Atrahasis Epic has humans made from both material and divine elements, and there is no suggestion of the gods breathing into man the breath of life, as Genesis 2:7 describes. Whereas, it is the flesh of a slain god that is the source for the “spirit” of man in the Atrahasis Epic. Furthermore, in the Atrahasis Epic, “man is created to relieve the gods of heavy work.”11 This is not why God created man in the biblical account of creation, because “God’s actions serve the needs of the man and woman by providing the idyllic Eden.”12 Although, some argue that the differences can be explained by the fact that the biblical writers used a process of demythologizing so that the author of Genesis “substituted God’s breath for either divine spit or blood.”13 However, “the differences are monumental and are so striking that they cannot be explained by a simple Hebrew cleansing of myth.”14 Therefore, the significance of the differences between Genesis and the ANE accounts of the creation of man should lead us to conclude that Genesis is not dependent on them.
Why the Similarities?
These similarities raise the very important question of what exactly the relationship is between the ANE texts and Genesis. Several suggestions have been made for how to understand the common elements between the accounts:
- Babylonians borrowed from the Hebrew account.
- The Hebrew account is dependent on the Babylonian account.
- Both [accounts] are descended from a common original.15
The argument that similarities indicate borrowing is based on the common fallacy that if B resembles A, therefore B has borrowed from A. The dependency fallacy occurs when scholars believe that the Genesis account was borrowed from or was dependent upon the ANE accounts. This fallacy has dominated comparative mythology and religion studies for many years. The fact that two documents have similarities does not mean that the younger is dependent on the older. There are other explanations; for example, they could come from a common source16 or a common universal memory.17 Since the events of creation, the Flood, and the dispersion at Babel occurred in history, we should not be surprised to find some reference to these in and throughout the ANE. Old Testament scholar John Currid explains this well:
If the Biblical stories are true, one would be surprised not to find some references to these truths in extra-biblical literature. And indeed in ancient Near Eastern myth we do see some kernels of historical truth. However, pagan authors vulgarized . . . those truths—they distorted fact by dressing it up with polytheism, magic, violence, and paganism. Fact became myth. From this angle the common references would appear to support rather than deny the historicity of the biblical story.18
Because of the fallen nature of humanity and their suppression of the truth, it is understandable why the ANE texts are corrupted and distorted (Romans 1:18–32). This does not mean that the ANE texts are untrue but that they make false statements, whereas the Scriptures give a true, historical account of the event through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). The creation account is not unique because it speaks of a unique culture but because it was given by God and gives witness to the coming Savior (Genesis 3:15). The similarities then are different accounts and explanations of the same event.
Another Old Testament scholar, Jeffery Niehaus, accounts for the similarities in terms of “revealed truth in the Old Testament and the Bible, and distorted truth in the ancient Near East.”19 Niehaus believes that the distortion came about through demonic revelation.20 These ANE texts from pagan idolatrous nations are demonically distorted versions of the truth. Genesis is not a modified version of the pagan myths. There is no biblical evidence that God ever uses myths as a basis for teaching truth. On the contrary, Scripture clearly distinguishes truth from myth (2 Timothy 4:4; 1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16).
Biblical vs. ANE Worldview
Not only the differences between accounts but also the differences in worldviews rule out the creation account’s dependence on the ANE accounts. In his book The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt shows that the ANE texts myth reflect a worldview that contains several fundamental elements, some of which are polytheism, eternity of chaotic matter, a low view of the gods, conflict as the source of life, low view of humanity, no single standard of ethics, and a cyclical concept of existence.21 These fundamental elements of the ANE worldview, however, are completely absent from the Genesis account of creation. Oswalt argues that
When we compare the characteristics…with what we find in the Bible, it becomes clear that on every one of these points the biblical worldview differs – and not merely slightly, but diametrically . . . beneath any possible surface similarities are radically different ways of thinking about reality.22
The polytheism, the theogony (creation of the various gods), the cosmic wars, and the magic that is at the center of these ANE texts are not found in the Bible. By using ANE literature, scholars are going outside the Bible, committing eisegesis—reading meanings “into” the biblical text as opposed to “out of” the biblical text exegesis, in order to substantiate what they want the Bible to say to accommodate those views. The Scriptures, on the other hand, give a true historical, chronological account of the event. These scholars come to the biblical account, read all the ostensible associated ANE creation parallels, and then interpret the passage in the light of the parallels. The parallels then dictate what the passage must mean because all those parallels show the worldview, the frame of reference in which this is operating, thereby reading the parallels into the text. Evangelical scholars, such as Lamoureux and Longman, are guilty of reading Genesis in light of ANE texts.23 The revelation of God, however, says something completely different from those ANE texts. Far from being domesticated by the background of the ANE texts, Genesis confronts, revises, and challenges the background of those other texts.
Far from being domesticated by the background of the ANE texts, Genesis confronts, revises, and challenges the background of those other texts.
Many evangelical scholars today are unnecessarily dependent on ANE literature to interpret Genesis 1–2. While the worldview of the ANE can inform the background to our understanding of the Bible, it should not dictate its meaning. The problem with understanding Genesis as ancient cosmology means that it “is culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth.”24 Ultimately, this downplays the supernatural revelatory nature of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). What is more, Israel was told not to be like the other nations (Exodus 23:20–33; Deuteronomy 18:9–14). If Israel was to reject the thinking of the other nations, then why would God give them an account of creation containing a worldview they were told to reject? The worldview God gave Israel was a revealed one which would mean a revealed cosmology and a revealed account of the supernatural creation of Adam (Exodus 20:11, 31:17–18; cf. Deuteronomy 4:3225).
A growing number of evangelical scholars today are undermining Scripture by uncritically accepting the conclusions of critical scholarship. As Christians we need to stand on the God-breathed truth of Scripture and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).