Genesis of Genesis: Where Did the Biblical Story of Creation Come From?

The Bible actually has more than one creation myth, and the one you're thinking of seems to have arisen not from ancient Israelite lore but from the central Asian steppes.

George Lazerby, Wikimedia Commons

The Hebrew Bible opens with an account of creation, starting with what is arguably the most memorable line in the entire tome: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

But this iconic account of God creating the world is not the only account of creation in the Bible. If anything, it seems to be the most recent in a succession of creation myths held sacred by the ancient Hebrews over the eons.

Baal and the sea monsters

The oldest creation myth in the Bible isn't in the Book of Genesis at all. It is alluded to in the Book of Isaiah, in the Book of Job and in Psalms.

The clearest and fullest biblical account of this ancient myth appears in Psalm 74: “For God... Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers. The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun. Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter” (74:12-17).

An archaeological discovery made in the 20th century shed light on this strange account of creation, revealing it for what it is: an abridged version of the Canaanite creation myth.

Among the ruins of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit, tablets were found in a language very similar to Hebrew, recording the many myths believed by the city’s inhabitants - including that creation began with the storm god Baal vanquishing the god of the sea Yam and his sea monster-serpent-dragon helpers.

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There are striking parallels between the Ugarit text and certain biblical verses. In the Book of Isaiah, for instance, the prophet says: “In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). That is nearly verbatim to what an anonymous Canaanite bard has to say about Baal: “When you killed Litan, the fleeing serpent, annihilated the twisty serpent, the potentate with seven heads."

Generations of heaven and earth

Another completely different account of creation found in the Bible in Genesis 2, starting with the line: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (Genesis 2:4).

According to this account, God created man from clay, placed him in the Garden of Eden, and only then created animals, plants and a spouse for his benefit.

The writer of this simple prose has quite an anthropomorphic conception of God, most clearly seen when the author has him taking an afternoon stroll in the Garden of Eden, where he bumps into Adam and converses with him: “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:8-10).

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This creation myth evidently has a different source than the Canaanite version. Some elements of the story are familiar from ancient Mesopotamia myths, but they play out in a different way. For example, in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, man is cheated of immortality by a snake who eats a plant. If Gilgamesh had eaten it, would have made him immortal.

Our biblical account famously has the serpent beguile Eve into eating the fruit of a tree; she persuades Adam to do likewise. They gain knowledge but get expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Another Babylonian myth has the hero Adapa being tricked by the god of wisdom Ea into refusing food offered to him by other gods, which he does. This food, the narrator tells us, would have made him immortal.

No feet, no monsters

This leads us to the creation myth that opens the Bible. It is completely different from the two discussed above. Unlike in them, God is not called by his personal name, the tetragrammaton YAHWEH, but is instead called Elohim – simply, “god.” He isn’t anthropomorphized and he doesn’t fight monsters.

If anything, the author seems to go out of his way to negate the older creation myths. For example, if the ancient Canaanite myth pits God against sea monsters before creating the world, the author of Genesis 1 has God creating them: “And God created great whales” (1:21).

However, those “great whales” are a mistranslation of the Hebrew word "taninim", which today means "crocodile" but back in ancient times, meant "serpentine sea monster".

In other words, Genesis 1 describes God creating the very sea-serpents that he vanquished in the ancient Canaanite myth (and that also appeared in Isaiah, Job and Psalms).

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Another connection between Genesis 1 and the older Canaanite myth is the separation of the sea into the sky and the ocean.

In the Canaanite myth, God cuts the sea god Yam in two and creates the oceans and the sky. In Genesis 1: “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (1:6). It is the same basic idea but depersonified.

The author of Genesis 1, probably a Hebrew scribe living in Babylon during the Babylonian Exile in the 4th century BCE, was apparently creating a new version of the old creation myth that could conform with the strict monotheism which was taking hold of Judaism at the time.

The primordial sea god

It wasn’t only the Canaanites who believed in the myth that creation began with a god vanquishing a primordial sea deity and forming the seas and the sky from its remains. The Babylonians believed in this story too, only in their case, the hero creator god was Marduk, not Baal, and the sea was not male like the Canaanite Yam, but a female goddess called Tiamat. (She may be alluded to in Genesis 1:2, where the Hebrew for what is translated as “the deep” is tehom - a Hebrew cognate of Tiamat’s name.)

This basic creation myth of a god slaying serpent-like sea monsters is not restricted to the Canaanites and the Babylonians. The Middle Eastern peoples apparently adopted it from Indo-European peoples from the north, since it crops up in the ancient myths of many of the Indo-European peoples: In Greek mythology, Zeus kills Typhon; in Norse mythology Thor kills Jörmungandr; in Hindu mythology, Indra kills Vrtra; in Slavic mythology, Perun kills Veles; and in Hittite mythology; Tarhunt kills Illuyanka.

In each of these cases - and there are more - it is a weather deity that kills a monster serpent, and thus brings order to the world.

The similarities between Indo-European languages led linguists to hypothesize the existence of an ancient language, Proto-Indo-European, which was spoken in the central Asian steppes thousands of years ago and from which all Indo-European languages are descended. Similarly, scholars of comparative religion hypothesize that these are manifestations of an original Proto-Indo-European religious myth involving a weather god killing a monster snake and bringing order to the world.

Apparently, one or more of these ancient Indo-European people, perhaps the Hittites, brought the myth to the Middle East. Here it was adopted by the Canaanites - and made its way to the Bible, only to be profoundly misunderstood by latter-day translators.

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