The Babylonian Creation Myth, Genesis, and Reading the Bible

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Intro to Hebrew Bible and Jewish Thought course, we were asked to consider the importance of a Babylonian creation myth (available here) in rechaos_monster_and_sun_godgard to the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4a-24. Extensive scholarship exists on the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the Genesis creation accounts and the Babylonian creation myth. As I read these texts a few nights ago, I noticed words of praise in the Babylonian creation myth. The apparent genre of this portion of text read more like a Psalm than a creation account. The words praise Marduk and celebrate his success after defeating Tiamat, who seemingly instigated a civil war amongst the gods and goddesses (translation from Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses, p. 468):

Over all things that your hands have created,
Who has [authority, save for you]?
Over the earth that you created,
Who has [authority, save for] you?
Babylon, to which you have given name,
Make our [stopping place] there forever.

I find this portion of the Babylonian creation myth intriguing because it occurs within the epic narrative that constitutes the myth. The text switches from a mode of narration to a mode of praise. Perhaps, at some point in time and space, this poetic worship (liturgical, perhaps?) made its way into the Babylonian creation myth.

When we consider the greater landscape of the ancient Near East, in particular ancient Israel, it seems to be even more of a possibility. A poem in Exodus 15, for example, is one which many scholars suggest stood outside of the Hebrew Bible originally as a poem. According the the margin commentary in the Jewish Study Bible, “the language style of the poem are archaic and share many features with Ugaritic poetry of the Late Bronze Age, suggesting that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible” (136).

Like the Babylonian creation myth, the poem embedded in Exodus occurs in the process of narration. Although I am not suggesting any sort of special relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian creation myth based on these observations, I do suggest that the way in which poetry in embedded into the narrations demonstrates that they are within the same general framework of the ancient Near East. Thus, whenever we read the Hebrew Bible, we must consider how contemporaneous literature (i.e. the Babylonain creation myth, Egyptian texts, Akkadian texts, etc.) was was constructed into coherent texts.

“Theologies of Creation” edited by Thomas Jay Oord

Edited by Thomas Jay Oord, Theologies of Creation: Creation Ex Nihilo and its New Rivals explores the new options for a Christian theology of creation. As the majority of scholars within this work argue, creatio ex nihilo, a theology which basically states that God chose at some moment in time something from a literal nothing, has no biblical precedent. And while many theologians recognize the complications of God’s creative acts, such as the idea of creatio continua, “relatively few believers… have thought deeply about how God initially created our universe” (1). The following 10 essays explore other viable options for creation theologies via a philosophical and biblical perspectives. Because each explanation for God’s initial creation is a unique author, each will be addressed briefly upon their own terms, divided by chapter.

1) Mary-Jane Rubenstein approaches the issue with an attempt to synchronize the biblical account of creation with modern understandings of physics, ultimately arguing for creatio ex multitudine. In essence, she argues that God did create out of nothing; however, the “nothing” was akin a molecule so low on the Planck scale that it actually flashes in and out of existence. This gives proper grounds to argue that there was “nothing” before God, “nothing” being something.

2) Philip Clayton argues along similar lines regarding what “nothing” is. In his words, “nothing separate us. Nothing. But what nothing it is” (17). His perspective in defining “nothing” relates more to a philosophical understanding. That is, “the finite and contingent… not only exist but also participate in its infinite source; and that consequently we… could actually affect the course of the evolving divine experience” (21). With a Christian pantheistic approach in which the worlds is with the divine as God transcends the world, he argues that God is necessarily free; thus, his choice to create is as well free, with less dichotomy between God and creation than some others. Thus, creation participates with and within God.

3) Catherine Keller concludes these first three essays by attempting to unite the preceding essays. So she doesn’t deny the absence of creatio ex nihilo; rather, she emphasize the idea of multiple true interpretations, including, but not limited to, creatio ex nihilo and profundis. After exploring the practical implications of a creation theology, she concludes by saying that sometimes “we become too polemically neat in our constructions” (39). For her, humans don’t necessarily hold the knowledge, or even ability, to fully grasp the breadth of God’s creative act. And, ultimately, our understanding of creation may be more of a reflection regarding our shared humanity.

4) Marit A. Trelstad approaches creation theology from a scientific and biblical perspective. After exploring claims of quantum cosmologies, she shows how theology does not always fit hand in hand with quantum physics, such as the simplicity of existence and non-existence. From this framework, she demonstrates how “nothing” within mathematics is not a mere nothing but potential. So, she pushes for a more accurate understanding of creation, creatio ex potentia, in hopes of uniting theology and science.

5) Eric M. Vail attempts to maintain the title of creatio ex nihilo; however, in doing so, he remodels it to be more accurately represented. Primarily operating from Lyle Dabney’s pneumatoogy and his perspective on the Word, Vail pushes forward a creation theology focused on the Spirit of God. In short, he emphasizes the ongoing role of the Spirit in the world. how the Spirit blow through and makes possible. Rather than emphasizing origins, he focuses more upon creatio ex nihilo as a way in which to explain that the world is not autonomous from God; however, the Spirit does give life by moving through the world.

6) With a high Christology, Stephen Webb approaches creation from a perspective that the world was created through Jesus Christ. In what he calls creatio a materia ex christi, Webb uses a Trinitarian framework do demonstrate through New Testament sources that Jesus is the “material” by which the world was created. Importantly, this demonstrates the relational aspect of Christ over the world. The greatest downfall to this approach is the lack of honest discussion of the Hebrew Bible and the restrictive Trinitarian framework.

7) Similar to Stephen Webb, G. Michael Zbaraschuk takes a stance of creatio ex deo, creation out of God. This creation, Zbaraschuk argues, is “more true to the incarnation, a better expression of embodied Christian spirituality, and more pro-feminist and should have better ecological consequences” (79). Pentecostal Spirituality presents a solid framework for him because it is a personal example of God creating out of his own self, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Pointing out the dangers of the emphasis on God’s freedom, Zbaraschuk emphasizes that conceptions of it may easily result in a hierarchical society where women are subordinate to men. Thus, creatio ex deo, that God creates out of God’s own self, draws out the relational aspect of God that ultimately culminates in the incarnation.

8) Richard Rice returns to creatio ex nihilo in support, though nuanced from the traditional understanding. In dealing with Genesis, he points out that it is not about material origins, but functional order. Other Old Testament passages like Psalms 103:14-30, 139:13, and 147:8 also emphasize God’s freedom in creating, and understanding which soon came to be recognized as creatio ex nihilo. So, rather than focusing on how God began, Rice’s explanation seeks to explain what kind of God created and what kind of world did he created.

9) Michael Lodahl, in continuity with Rice and Webb, argues for creatio ex amore, God creates out of love. Pursuing an understanding of creation as grace, Lodahl argues that, while creatio ex nihilo may uphold God’s free gift giving, it does not take seriously enough the fact that God wholly created out of love. Rather than a focus on the time of existence for the universe, he draws out the eternal Divine Love, something that has always been clear and present. Creatio ex amore answers questions like why God simply doesn’t eradicated evil; thus, it is a superior creation to creatio ex nihilo.

10) Thomas Jay Oord concludes by discussing his view that God always creates out of creation in love (creatio ex creatione a natura amoris). Starting with Scripture, Oord begins by briefly showing how Scripture presents God and creation, pointing out that it does not support creatio ex nihilo. After presenting to unconvincing reason to support creatio ex nihilo, an inherently evil world and God’s omni-sovereignty. With their own nuances, Oord presents 5 aspects of his framework that shape his creation theology: creation depends on God, God does not need creation to exist, the world is not coeternal with God, God creates all things, and the creator differs from creation. These standards are all met by creation ex creatione a natura amoris, which is simply “that God ahs always – everlastingly – been creating out of that which God previously created… and God’s creating is endless; it had no absolute beginning” (117).

In conclusion, Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and its New Rivals presents 10 possible creation theologies, each with their own focus, that assist in expressing a more biblical and accurate theology. While each has aspects that are not fully demonstrated or believable, the dialogue between the various scholars is a step towards a fuller understanding of who Yahweh is and how he loves.

Click here to purchase Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and its New Rivals

“Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by Jon Levenson

Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).

After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).

Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.

Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.

In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.