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I have come to realize that the Achilles heel of the literal approach to Genesis 1 resides in Day 2, when God creates the firmament by separating the waters below from the waters above. I had always been puzzled by this passage in my YEC days, concluding that the firmament was just the sky and that the waters above were the clouds or water vapor. Ironically, this approach fails (in my mind) because it is not a literal reading of the chapter. Consider the following two points:

  1. God creates the firmament as a separation between the waters below from the waters above. It is not the water vapor above, nor is there any indication that the water changes into vapor. It is the waters above. In the original state of creation, there was only one body of water, and now there are two. I am told that the ancients of the Middle East believed that this is just what there was above the dome of the sky–a body of water that accounted for the heavens’ blue color. (Recall also that in the Revelation, God sits with an ocean at his feet.) How is it possible that the waters can be separated into two? Why, you need a separator, of course! Which is why the firmament must be interpreted as something solid, not mere air, for how could air lift up the waters and hold them back?
  2. In Day 4 (verse 14-15), God creates the luminaries and places them in the firmament. Now if the waters above are read as the water vapor of our atmosphere and if the firmament is simply the sky or the air, then it follows that the sun, moon, and stars are located in our atmosphere.

I just finished reading the Enuma Elish for the first time. As has been said before, the main point of contact between it and Genesis 1 is the primordial ocean, represented by the goddess Tiamat. (Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom are etymologically related, coming from a common source word.) When the Babylonian god Marduk defeats her in battle, he splits her body into two and builds the sky from one half and the earth from the other. Likewise, Genesis 1 presents God moving over the surface of the waters and in Day 2, separating the waters below from the waters above, thus creating the firmament. What I found particularly interesting is the following passage from the fourth tablet of the Enuma Elish:

137  [Marduk] split her open like a mussel (?) into two (parts);

138  Half of her he set in place and formed the sky (therewith) as a roof.

139  He fixed the crossbar (and) posted guards;

140  He commanded them not to let her waters escape. (emphasis mine, translation from Alexander Heidel’s The Babylonian Genesis)

It is pretty clear here that the Babylonian conception of the sky consists of something solid holding back the waters above. Half of Tiamat’s corpse has been made into the sky, but Marduk has to make sure to keep the waters of her body in place, and therefore, he creates some sort of crossbar and posts guards. The passage presents us with one example of this early conception of the universe.

Many Christians will find it troubling that this is reflected in the first chapter of the Bible, but for me, it gives the Genesis account a much richer meaning. Seeing it as an interaction with the surrounding myths, even as a counter to them, gives a much more powerful message of truth than a literal step-by-step account of the process of creation. (Gordon J. Glover’s book Beyond the Firmament does a good job reflecting on just what that message is.) It also makes much better sense of Day 2.

The following is Part 2 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1A:  Creation (Genesis 1-4)

Sarna begins this first chapter by noting that there are several versions of creation in the Bible, most of them in abbreviated form. The two most famous accounts, and the longest, are found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In this post, I am going to focus on his comments on Genesis 1.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 lies in another creation story, the Enuma Elish of the Babylonians. Sarna gives the following summary. Before the creation of heaven and earth, all that existed was primeval water, represented by the male god Apsu of the sweet waters and his wife, the monstrous Tiamat of the salt waters. From them arose several generations of gods, the youngest of which so disturbed the peace of their first parents that Apsu tried unsuccessfully to destroy them, but Ea, god of the earth and sea, thwarted his attack.

Tiamat then amassed an army to destroy these young gods, who themselves turned to Marduk for help. After he first made them promise to make him their king, he killed Tiamat, cut her into two pieces, and used one of them to build the heavens and the other to build the earth’s foundation. Marduk next fixed the stars in their place, an activity whose details are lost due to the fragmentary nature of the fifth tablet. The other gods, who had now been given fixed assignments, complained about the continual work that was sure to await them. To solve this problem, Marduk made man out of the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband and captain of her army. Finally, the gods built Marduk a temple in Babylon and sang a hymn of praise for his victory.

Before explaining the meaning of the Enuma Elish, Sarna defines myth itself. The Greeks viewed it not as a fairy tale or a lie but as a story of the gods and their interactions with nature and man. They “have as their subjects the eternal problems of mankind communicated through the medium of highly imaginative language.” These myths were re-enacted in festival and ritual so that the creative processes they described would continue and the community be blessed.

The Enuma Elish was central to the Babylonian Spring New Year, when it was read aloud and presented in their festivals. “It was, in effect, the myth that sustained Babylonian civilization, that buttressed its societal norms and its organizations structure.” The myth explained the origin of the gods and of the world, a natural theme for the new year. It also mirrored and justified their societal structure:  man’s place in the Enuma Elish was the same as the slave in the Babylonian Empire, whereas the place of Marduk as king, which he had won by his display of power, mirrored the rule of Babylonian royalty. It explained Marduk’s ascension from the obscurity of god of Babylon to head of the Babylonian pantheon, as well as Babylon’s own ascendancy to the supreme place at the head of the world. Finally, the myth of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat meant the imposition of order over chaos. The re-enactment of the myth through the yearly festival during the vernal equinox (when the forces of night were equal to the forces of day) guaranteed the continuation of order winning out over chaos. In an environment that was no stranger to the unpredictable whims of nature, this ritual was of utmost importance.

Next, Sarna compares and contrasts the Enuma Elish with the Genesis 1:1-2:4 account of creation. The first difference he highlights is that the creation of the cosmos is not central to the Hebrew account; instead, it is introductory to the exodus of Israel. Genesis, he writes, “proclaims […] the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history. It asserts[…] that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God.”

Secondly, the Genesis account does not justify or explain Hebrew political structure or institutions, and it was not acted out ritualistically to harness and continue the creative power of the story. It is, in fact, non-mythological in that it does not include an account of the birth of God or include any stories about him growing up, marrying, or having children. He is assumed to exist beforehand.

Because the Genesis story is not theogonic (i.e., having to do with the birth of a divinity), God is not part of or subject to nature, nor is he able to be manipulated by magic. In the Enuma Elish, by contrast, the gods arise from the pre-existing forcesTiamat and Apsu, and the universe itself is formed from Tiamat’s body. The gods and man were of the same origin and lived in the same realm. The gods were not omnipotent, nor was theirs the only power. In fact, man could learn to manipulate this other power by magic and ritual. Not so with the God of Genesis 1, who retains complete control over the chaotic forces and who creates by merely speaking the word.

Sarna points out that this creative act by means of the spoken word is wholly different from other stories where the divinity utters a spell to do his will. The Hebrew God is not harnessing the powers of creation by finding the right word; he is commanding matter, which has no choice but to do his will.

Creation by divine fiat is in itself another stark contrast between Genesis and other myths of the Middle East, in which all creative processes are the result of sexual intercourse. The first act of creation in the Enuma Elish, for instance, is the mingling of the waters between the male Apsu and the female Tiamat. In Genesis 1, on the other hand, the writer seems to go out of his way to say that “male and female he created them,” emphasizing that God actually created the differences between the sexes.

The primeval waters of the Enuma Elish seem to be present in the Genesis 1 story also. They exist before God begins to create, and like Tiamat, they are divided into two parts, the waters above and the waters below. However, unlike the unruly Tiamat, the waters in Genesis 1 are completely subject to God’s command. His spirit hovers over them before he divides them into two. He commands, and they separate from the land. He commands again, and they produce swarms of fish.

The Genesis 1 story, then, is truly illuminated by the Enuma Elish. It is the Hebrew answer to the Babylonians, a presentation of who Yahweh is by contrasting him with the gods of the ancient Middle East.

The next installment will deal with how Sarna reads Genesis 2-3. 

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