“The Hebrew Story of Creation and Its Parallels Among Other Civilizations”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bereishith, is the very first parasha of Genesis, the very first book of the Torah. The Book of Genesis opens with the memorable verse (Genesis 1:1): “Bereishith ba’rah Eh’lo’kim ayt ha’shamayim, v’ayt ha’aretz,” In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth. For Jews, Christians and Moslems, these words represent not only the historical record of the birth of the world, but the very essence of their faith system, as well.

The story of creation, however, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, raises many complex issues for believers. Foremost among these is the seeming contradiction between the Biblical story of creation and the Theory of Evolution. However, other challenging issues are raised as well, especially those based on accounts of creation that are found in the recorded history of other ancient civilizations, particularly the Babylonians.

While many are familiar with the Epic of Gilgamish, the Babylonian version of the flood story, few are familiar with the Babylonian epic of creation known as “Enuma Elish,” which are the opening words of the Babylonian story of creation that mean “when on high.” Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, is written in Old Babylonian, on seven clay tablets, each holding between 115 and 170 lines of text, with a total of about 1000 lines of text. Aside from the majority of the fifth tablet, the text is almost complete.

The first tablet of Enuma Elish begins with the following statement:
When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being.

The Babylonian creation epic states that before the formation of heaven and earth, nothing existed except water. When these waters, represented by Apsu the primeval god of sweet water, and Tiamat, the god of salt water, were co-mingled, they spawned divine offspring. These newly created gods cause great turmoil. The older gods tried to destroy them, but were thwarted by the all-wise earth-water god, Ea. Ultimately, another god, Marduk, is selected to address the threat. Marduk kills Tiamat, and forms the earth from her corpse. Babylon is then established as a residence of the chief gods, and Marduk becomes the king over all the gods.

One of the most important scholars of the ancient Near East was Professor Nahum Sarna (1923-2005). A traditional Jew himself, he wrote an important work entitled Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. In the opening chapters of this book, Professor Sarna points out a number of critical differences between the Babylonian story of creation and the Biblical story of creation. Professor Sarna writes:

[The Hebrew Genesis account] tells us something about the nature of the one G-d who is the Creator and supreme sovereign of the world and whose will is absolute. It asserts that G-d is outside the realm of nature, which is wholly subservient to Him. He has no myth; that is, there are no stories about any events in His life. Magic plays no part in the worship of Him. The story also tells us something of the nature of man, a G-d-like creature, uniquely endowed with dignity, honor and infinite worth, in whose hands G-d has entrusted mastery over His creation. Finally, this narrative tells us something about the biblical concept of reality. It proclaims the essential goodness of life and assumes a universal moral order governing human society. (page 3)

While there seems to be a parallel between the Babylonian epic of creation and the Bible with respect to the pre-existence of water and water’s critical role, the stories of creation are significantly different. It seems evident that the entire purpose of the Enuma Elish document is to confirm the coronation of Marduk as the king of all gods. Professor Sarna points out that, in bold contrast, the biblical story of Genesis makes no mention of G-d being the Supreme King or of any battles between the Al-mighty and any other powers. This difference is not only literarily significant, but theologically revolutionary. That is why there is no biography of G-d in the Hebrew scriptures, nor does the story of Genesis play any kind of political role in establishing G-d as king. There is also no mention of the people of Israel, Jerusalem or the Temple, neither is there any attempt to validate any of Israel’s national ideals or institutions. Furthermore, there are no established rituals as part of the Jewish religion to constantly hail G-d’s position as the Supreme G-d. In this respect, the biblical account represents a complete break, not only with Near Eastern traditions, but with all the other ancient traditions that had already developed by that time.

Again, in his inimitable style, Professor Sarna writes:

The Hebrew account is matchless in its solemn and majestic simplicity. It has no notion of the birth of G-d and no biography of G-d. It does not even begin with the statement about the existence of G-d. Such speculation would have been unthinkable at that time. To the Bible, G-d’s existence is self-evident as is life itself. The Hebrew concept of G-d is implicit in the narrative, not formulated abstractly and explicitly. The whole of Biblical literature is really the attestation of the experiences of individuals and of a nation with the divine. Genesis, therefore, begins immediately with the account of the creative activity of the pre-existent G-d. (page 10)

To Professor Sarna, the theme of creation portrayed in the opening chapters of the Bible, as important as it is, only serves as an introduction to what is the central motif of the Bible, the Exodus from Egypt. Says Sarna, “G-d’s acts in history, rather than His role as Creator, are predominant in biblical thought.”

The purpose of the story of creation according to Dr. Sarna is not to describe how the world was created or to address the issues of the constitution of matter or the origins of the physical world. Amplifying upon this contention, Dr. Sarna explains:

Genesis is but a prologue to the historical drama that unfolds itself in the ensuing pages of the Bible. It proclaims, loudly and unambiguously, the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfil His mighty deeds in history. It asserts unequivocally that the basic truth of all history is that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of G-d. (page 9)

To Professor Sarna, the essential purpose of the story of creation is to record the event that “inaugurated this historical process, and which ensures that there is a divine purpose behind creation that works itself out on the human scene.” (page 9)

We see from this extraordinary biblical excerpt that is known as the creation story of Genesis, that the Torah is not simply a primeval myth that ancient people used in order to explain observed phenomenon in the natural world or to calm those who were frightened or uninformed. It is rather remarkable that the biblical account of creation contains absolutely no mythology in the classical pagan sense of the term. Instead, the story of creation is an introduction to the most important doctrines of ethics and morality that were ever given to humankind.

Far more important than G-d being the Creator of humankind and the physical world, is that G-d created a human being endowed with a moral conscience, who, hopefully, with his good and noble deeds, would enrich and sanctify the world that G-d has created.

May you be blessed.