The Bible and Babylonian Myth

The scrolls of the Hebrew Bible most probably reached their final form after the Israelites’ 6th century BCE return from exile in Babylon. While there, they’d have encountered the ‘Enuma Elish’, the Babylonian myth of creation and the rise of the storm god Marduk to become the chief of their gods. In those days, the destruction of the Israelites’ capital city of Jerusalem, and the Temple of their God Yahweh, meant that they and their God were past history. Their response to this was to bring to completion, one of the world’s great literary and spiritual masterpieces. ’Attack is the best form of defence’, and so the writers/editors used the Babylonian myth in their ‘reinstatement’ of Yahweh, not as chief of the gods, but as the only God.

The opening lines of ‘Enuma Elish’ are : “When above, the skies had not been named, nor earth below pronounced by name”. This is reminiscent of the “empty and desolate” with which Genesis 1 describes the primordial Earth. The idea of ‘pronouncement by name’ certainly suggests the “God said …” that introduces the successive days, and constituent stages, of creation.  

As in Genesis 1, water plays an important role in the ‘Enuma Elish’. The Babylonians lived beside the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the delta where they flow into the Persian Gulf. The fresh river water was personified as the god Apsu, and the salt sea water as the goddess Tiamat, and from the ‘intercourse’ of these waters came other divinities, including Earth and Sky. The Israelites, however, did not go down that road : nothing in nature was ‘divinised’. 

As the gods multiplied, the younger ones (no surprise, some would say) became increasingly raucously ill-behaved. Apsu decided to kill them off, but they found out, and killed him instead. His consort Tiamat was not best pleased, and decided to get rid of the younger gods herself. One of them, Marduk, offered to take her on provided that he’d be made chief god. This was agreed. Let battle commence …

At the beginning of Genesis 1, there are faint echoes of this conflict. We’re told that,  “Darkness was on the face of the deep”. The Hebrew word for ‘deep’ is תְּהוֹם (tehom) which is related to Tiamat, and there’s no definite article, which suggests not ‘the deep’ but a personification named “Deep”. There is also, “the spirit of God”, but an equally valid translation is ‘a powerful wind’ (or a god-awful wind), as in the extract from ‘Enuma Elish’. There’s no clear mention of a god against monster conflict here, but there are other places in the Hebrew Bible, where the echoes become deafening. Here’s Psalm 74, which links creation with such a conflict:

‘Sea’ is a multi-headed dragon called Leviathan here, but also Rahab in Psalm 89 and other places. Here’s another loud echo of ‘Enuma Elish’ in Job:26 :

To be properly understood and appreciated, the Hebrew Bible must be seen against the widespread culture within which it was created, and from which it wasn’t insulated. Nor did its writers / editors wish to be insulated. They were very ready to borrow language, symbols, themes, stories and myths from others, and to turn these to their own account, They selected what they needed, while making changes in keeping with their own religious ideas, thus giving their foundational, national epic added vigour, colour, dynamism and drama, while combining contemporary relevance with timeless meaning. To be continued …..

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