Many readers will remember my Back Row series on the Doctrine and Covenants. I wanted to continue writing about the scriptures connected with Sunday School, but the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is far more complex than the Doctrine and Covenants, and I’m just an interested amateur. So I’m calling in reinforcements. This week, I’m joined by Seraphine and Kiskilili from Zelophehad’s Daughters. (Because the documents are all complicated and in some ways different, this series will focus on Hebrew Bible texts discussed in Sunday School, with Pearl of Great Price and JST texts referred to when they are of interest for the Hebrew Bible but not placed at the center of attention.)
JNS: The Old Testament begins with a slight surplus of creation narratives. Chapter 1 and the first three verses of Chapter 2 tell one complete story of the creation of the world and all life. Chapter 2 begins a basically different story that continues into Chapter 3 (and therefore beyond the confines of this Sunday School lesson). So let’s quickly acknowledge two familiar explanations for the excess of creation. First is the Documentary Hypothesis, which I think convincingly argues that the two Hebrew Bible creation stories were drawn from different texts and then placed side by side in the Book of Genesis. Note, among other classic evidences for this argument, that God in Chapter 1 is named God, whereas in Chapter 2 he’s named the LORD/YHWH.
There’s also the more Mormon explanation that the account in Chapter 1 is a story of spiritual creation, while the account in Chapter 2 tells of physical creation, an explanation that is an extrapolation from part of Moses 3:5 — “For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” Using this sentence, the assumption is made that the earlier text somehow narrates the spiritual creation and the later text natural creation. But this goes far beyond what the text says; the Moses account doesn’t claim that either narration is a story of spiritual creation. Nor does it explain what spiritual creation is. Is it like drafting the blueprint for material creation, or does it involve making a preliminary layer of reality? In the latter case, we are forced to suppose that everything in the world, whether alive or not, has a spirit. This is possible, I suppose, but it’s also a lot to draw from a rogue sentence without a great deal of further elaboration and systematization.
In my view, it’s better to regard the two Moses narratives as both relating material creation, just as seems to be the case in Genesis. After all, there is nothing about the Chapter 1 account that is especially spiritual or somehow incompatible with physical creation. Instead, whatever spiritual creation entails, it seems to be a process not narrated in scripture. Unless, I suppose, the somewhat different Abraham 4-5 account of creation is regarded as providing insight regarding what spiritual creation is. If that’s the case, then it seems that spiritual creation is really material creation minus rainfall.
There is obviously a great deal to say about the two Genesis creation stories. I’ve read a bit recently on the parallels and divergences between the Genesis 1 account and the Enuma Elish creation story. To a large extent, the Genesis 1 story may be a polemical revision of the probably-older Enuma Elish account: the sequence of creation is basically the same, and there are even moments where different Babylonian gods’ names appear by allusion in the text. The “face of the deep” in Genesis 1:2, for example, in Hebrew sounds substantially like the name of Tiamat, the water goddess of the Enuma Elish. But in the Genesis 1 version of the story, Tiamat is totally depersonified and inert. The deep doesn’t act or collaborate in creation, but is instead acted upon. So the story might be seen as a monotheist’s polemic against Mesopotamian polytheism.
Another of the probably uncountable threads in these two chapters is the point that the kind of creation involved here seems to be somewhat limited in comparison with contemporary expectations. We don’t really have God making the universe in a 21st-century cosmological sense, or even making the Earth in the sense of actually forming our planet. In particular, on my reading, neither the Genesis 1 nor the Genesis 2 account seems to really give us a God who is — as many modern believers expect — the ground of all being. Instead, God seems to find the planet sitting there more or less half-baked, and the act of creation seems to involve the biggest, most miraculous act of redecoration ever. God takes a sort of confused planet that’s all watery and dark, and gives it light, dry land, and life. Clearly an upgrade, from a human-centric point of view, but quite a lot different from, for example, bringing about the Big Bang by an act of will.
What stands out to you all about the creation stories?
Kiskilili: I’m not sure I have anything original or non-obvious to add to the discussion, although I could ramble at length! But here goes.
I think Tiamat is absolutely the cognate of Hebrew tǝhôm, the “Deep,” which occurs in this text with no definite article, perhaps indicating it was understood effectively as a proper noun. (Tiamat seems to represent the saltwaters specifically where her consort Apsû represents the freshwaters–these two primordial gods are the ultimate progenitors of the rest of the pantheon in Enuma Eliš, and Tiamat also apparently parthenogenetically produces her brood of monsters. So Tiamat participates in creation in that a male and female principle unite primevally to engender the generations of gods, and then the known universe is also later fashioned from her dead body.) It’s true in the P account in Genesis 1 the Deep precedes Creation, but the cosmos isn’t fashioned from it as in Enuma Eliš. There are of course scholars who consider the Deep a dead cliché in Hebrew with no resonance with other sources. It’s hard to assess on the basis of evidence this slender.
But if the Deep is in fact all we have left in this reworked account of an older story of a “monster” that was defeated preceding Creation, the analogue to the Deep in the Hebrew Bible itself can be seen hinted at in a smattering of passages (Psalm 74:12-17; 77:16-20; Proverbs 8:22-29; Job 38:1-11; Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-11; Habbakuk 3; Psalm 8; Ezekiel 28:2-19), in which God slays a sea-(monster), often Leviathan or Rahab, at Creation (and this is of course the cosmic template for understanding God’s attack in Exodus on the Yam Suf, the body of water traditionally translated “Red Sea”). Which brings us to the old question of whether evil is endemic to the cosmos, which was born in violence and fashioned out of the body of a “monster” of chaos, or whether evil is introduced by human agents following Creation.
The question of how monotheistic the text is is an interesting one. On the one hand it’s been suggested the circumlocutions for “sun” and “moon” here may be efforts to avoid terms construed as deities in related languages–so there could be a demythologizing process at work. On the other hand, whom is God addressing in 1:26 (the “us”)? Himself? Or is this evidence for a Divine Council on a par with the Ugaritic council presided over by El (“God”), or the heavenly council we see evidence for in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82?
I absolutely agree with you that the idea of reading Moses as indicating the P (1st) account corresponds to spiritual creation and J (2nd) to physical creation makes little sense. In this vein it’s interesting to note that the temple has collapsed the two accounts in Genesis to avoid the repetitions.
Another fun way (I think) of solving the problems of repetition that the DH accounts for smoothly is to suppose it was Adam’s first wife, Lilith, and not Eve who was created in Genesis 1:26!
The issue of sacred time is fun here. The traditional view holds that the Sabbath became prominent during the Exile in the absence of the Temple, and dates the P account to this period. Enuma Eliš was recited as part of the New Year’s festival in Babylon and probably had incantatory power (we hear lines like “may Tiamat recede forever”); the new year, as in many cultures, was likely a dangerous liminal period in which the triumph of the forces of creation over chaos had to be reasserted. Perhaps P functioned somewhat (but not exactly) similarly but on the scale of the 7-day week, which the story effectively legitimizes? Does the observance of the Sabbath sustain the created order?
The fact that God creates merely by his word in P is the basis for the development of the Logos theology by Philo, a hellenized Jewish thinker who was an older contemporary of Jesus. The Logos (“word”/”speech”/”reason”) is the hypostatized means whereby the incorruptible transcendent Creator God is able to interact with the corrupt cosmos. This is of course picked up in the fourth gospel and identified by Christians as Christ. (In Mormonism, in contrast, it’s less clear to me why it’s necessary for Christ to be the one specifically to undertake Creation.)
Each day of Creation is rounded out by the mention of “evening” and “morning,” which to my mind militates against the reading that these are creative periods and not literal days. Incidentally, the rationale in Judaism for starting the day at evening is based on the order in which evening and morning occur in this text.
In J God shows a considerably less steady hand in creation than in P, accidentally chancing on animals in a bumbling effort to come up with Adam’s complement!
An oddity of the J account is that God never directly tells Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil–Adam hears that piece of information before her creation.
At the end of Genesis 2 we get a charming attempt to connect the words “man” and “woman” in Hebrew (“she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man”), but in fact historically the two words come from completely different Proto-Semitic roots; the similarity in sound is coincidental.
Another association the author of the J account is probably making is that between “human” (‘adam) and “ground” (‘adamah). There are perhaps adumbrations of Adam’s eventual mortality found already in the fact that he’s formed of “dust,” the substance to which the next chapter has him returning . . .
JNS: The last email may not count as original or non-obvious in some global sense, but in the proverbial Gospel Doctrine back row, you’ve got my full attention! For anyone who’s curious, here’s a bare-bones English text of the Enuma Elish. Much of the meaning is tricky because I don’t know the Babylonian gods and have to constantly look them up to see who/what they are. But, here’s my rough, internet-enabled reconstruction of the Babylonian sequence of creation as given by the birth of gods who represent/control/etc. different aspects of the world:
1) Fresh and salt water just exist, kind of wildly mixed together.
2) Mud and silt are born from the waters.
3) The sky and the earth are born from the mud and silt.
4) The heavenly lights are born to the sky and the earth.
5) Water and creation (connected with sea creatures such as fish, as well as land creatures like goats) is born to the earth and sky.
6) The maker of humanity is born to the creation god.
I may well not have that all right, and I hope I’ll get some fine-tuning from people who know what they’re talking about. But here, for comparison, is the P sequence of creation:
1) Water just kind of exists.
2) Day and night are made.
3) The sky and the earth are separated.
4) Plants are made.
5) Heavenly lights are made.
6) Lower creatures are made.
7) Higher creatures, including people, are created.
So, from my rough reconstruction, the two accounts differ in that the Babylonian account cares more about mud as a very early step in the creation sequence, while the P account pays more attention to the creation of day and night and to plants. But the parallel in sequence is close enough that it’s hard to not see the texts as speaking to each other, and the Genesis 1 version then becomes a specific subversion of what would have been the dominant cultural narrative of creation in Babylon at the time.
Just for kicks, what if I throw out some questions from the Gospel Doctrine manual? Some of them even come with conveniently supplied correct answers. The first one raises issues we’ve already discussed regarding multiple creation accounts. It’s nice to know that the differences arise because Moses and Abraham wrote down “slightly different details.” The second also parallels our discussion of how the Genesis accounts don’t seem to be ex nihilo creation; I’d love anyone’s insights on Joseph Smith’s translation of baurau.
- How do the accounts of the Creation found in Genesis, Moses, and Abraham differ from each other? (Abraham and Moses saw in vision the organizing of this earth and then recorded their visions. Each included slightly different details. The account in Genesis was originally written by Moses, but some of the fulness of his account was lost. This fulness is restored in the book of Moses.)
- Was the earth created out of nothing? (See Abraham 3:24; 4:1. The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “The word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 350–51).
But here are the questions I’m dying to have answered:
- Which of God’s creations are especially beautiful to you? Why would we be benefited by noticing the beauties of creation more carefully each day?
- How does the account of the Creation affect your feelings toward Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? How can we show gratitude for the gift of the Creation?
As far as I can tell, these questions really boil down to: is it a good thing that there is something rather than nothing? How do you feel about the fact that there is anything at all? I can’t really even decide how to think about this. How would I feel if there weren’t a cosmos?
Seraphine: So, I’ll just come out and say that I don’t have anything to add about the Documentary Hypothesis or Babylonian creation myths (I think I just learned about the Documentary Hypothesis this year). I do have one preliminary response, though, to the manual questions :
I’m unpersuaded by Joseph Smith’s argument about “bārā(‘)” because it never occurs in the Bible with any subject other than God, so in establishing the semantic range we have no such examples speaking of people organizing materials for ships, or doing anything else for that matter! I’m not sure where that idea comes from—perhaps JS was aware of information I’m not?
The question scholars have about “bārā(‘)” (I’m pulling this out of the air because I’m still in Utah without access to my books) hinges on the previous word, “bǝrē(‘)šît,” which many consider to be a construct form, meaning it’s syntactically bound to the following word. If so, then the Masoretes mispointed “bārā(‘),” since in Hebrew nouns can’t be bound to finite verbs, and the form should actually be “bǝrō(‘),” an infinitive construct, in which case the verse should be translated something like “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, then the earth was without form and void.” (I’m pretty sure the NRSV renders it along these lines?) I’m just thinking out loud here, but this rereading creates somewhat awkward syntax, since we now have an infinitive governing both a subject and an object; I don’t know another example of that in Hebrew—Akkadian syntax permits such constructions (there’s one in Hammurabi’s Code), but they’re extremely rare. Also the use of the particle “’eṯ” with an infinitive construct is interesting; I’d like to see other examples of that. I’ll look this all up when I get back to Boston because I’m curious.
(This might be either obvious, but I’ll say it anyway in the hope that we’re all still on the same page: The Masoretes were groups of medieval Jews who supplied diacritical marks, including vowels and punctuation/cantilation marks, to the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible. It’s clear from reconstructive comparative evidence and fragments of early Hebrew transliterated into Greek that the vowels they were supplying were not the vowels the text would have been read with in the biblical period; also their morphology isn’t totally reliable—one entire verb conjugation seems to have been forgotten and its forms reinterpreted by this period, for example.)
The basic sequence of the engendering of the primeval pantheon in Enuma Eliš:
A. Apsû and Tiamat (some association to fresh water and saltwater, respectively)
B. Laḫmu and Laḫamu (hairy creatures? sea creatures? mud?)
C. Anshar and Kishar (their names have some relationship to heaven and earth, at least etymologically)
D. Anu (remote presiding deity of pantheon; etymologically “heaven” in Sumerian)
E. Ea (Nudimmud/Enki) (god of the ancient city Eridu, trickster, aid to humankind, associated with magic and cunning)
F. Marduk (god of Babylon whose rise to prominence in the pantheon reflects Babylon’s political rise; assimilated here to Ea’s son Asarluhi from earlier mythology)
Unfortunately our ideas about the deities before Anu are fairly vague. The Sumerian word abzu, Akkadian apsû, refers not just to fresh water but especially to the underground water associated in Mesopotamian thought with knowledge, magic, and the god Ea, who slays him in this text; incidentally this might be the ultimate source of our words “abyss” in English, through Greek.
Laḫmu and Laḫamu are tricky to get a fix on; the most common root “laḫāmum” in Akkadian means “to be hairy,” and there are classes of laḫmu-creatures specifically associated with the apsû as well as laḫmu-demons portrayed in visual art usually naked with three curls on either side of their heads, apparently in Ea’s coterie. Tiamat also in this very text has a laḫmu-creature in her train. How all of these fit together, and what exactly their relationship to “mud” and “silt” is, is an open question, hinging partly on the degree to which we find it helpful to read myth as the personification of natural phenomena which can be decoded as lying beneath the surface of the story about various personalities.
Similar problems cloud our understanding of Anshar and Kishar—although the elements “an” and “ki” certainly refer in Sumerian to “heaven” and “earth” respectively. But these aren’t the good Akkadian terms for heaven and earth that we learn in lines 1-2 have not yet been named as the poem opens. And Anu’s name is the Akkadianization of the Sumerian for “heaven,” although even in Sumerian his name is written differently when it refers to the god and when it refers to the actual heavens; he’s usually the high god of the pantheon who’s so remote as to be virtually inaccessible and probably never had a cult of his own.
The creation of the cosmos proper I don’t think occurs until the end of Tablet IV and into Tablet V, where we hear about the establishment of the sky, constellations, the moon, the Tigris, the Euphrates, mountains, springs, etc. And finally in Tablet VI humankind is created from the blood of the slain god Qingu, who fought for the opposition (there’s a clear parallel to this in the Akkadian text Atraḫasis—to some degree Enuma Eliš is a compendium of earlier Akkadian literature).
It’s true the P account ends “these are the generations of heaven and earth,” almost as if these various creations had engendered each other?
Scholars have noted the way the P account can be folded in half: the first and fourth days deal with light and darkness, the second and fifth days with the firmament apparently dividing upper and lower waters and then with aquatic life in the waters, and flying creatures on the face of the firmament, and the third and sixth days with dry land and life thereon.
In Enuma Eliš naming is of primary significance—it’s not that the cosmos doesn’t exist, but specifically that it hasn’t been named—organized, brought into a comprehensible system—as the poem opens. And of course the climax of the poem is the awarding of “50” names to Marduk (names and epithets of other earlier gods, and 50 being the sacred number of Enlil, the god Marduk has supplanted). Is this something on the order of the non-ex-nihilo-creation in Genesis? Is it parallel to Adam’s naming of the animals and of Eve?
Following up on Seraphine’s comment, I agree that discussions of creation like what the lesson manual encourages raise all kinds of questions. They also seem to push us toward temporarily regarding the entire world as if it were all a national park or even a nature-centered theme park. We’re encouraged to see beauty and disregard ugliness and danger. This is just exactly the peril of such natural theology: it only works if our attention to the natural world is highly selective. When we see more broadly, the view that makes God the author of nature for our benefit immediately generates the problem of evil. The flip-side of testifying about how butterfly wings and three-month-old babies make us feel about God is something like this call to boycott God in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami. If God made the cosmos for us, then he also made that tsunami for us and is therefore probably malicious. This is a problem that Job sees more clearly than most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, so I’ll try to withhold further comment until then.
So the reading for next time is Genesis 2-3; I suppose we’re intended to revisit Genesis 2 seeing it this time as part of the Adam and Eve story rather than as a creation account in it own right. Will the serpent beguile us, and will we eat?
(Aside from the difficulties in establishing relationships between texts themselves, there’s a separate problem in determining how belletristic texts like Enuma Elish were and thus the degree to which they were accessed by ordinary people. Enuma Elish is in an extremely highfalutin artificial literary dialect of Akkadian and at the time of the Exile—the traditional but by no means certain date for P—even colloquial Akkadian was probably moribund at best; Aramaic was the new vernacular. It’s an open question how or the degree to which ideas behind texts like Enuma Elish were transmitted to the populace.)
At the same time, I think you’re perfectly safe taking a conservative position that texts like Enuma Elish and Genesis, in spite of clear and significant differences, undeniably belong to the same broad cultural ambit and points of connection can be observed that are illuminating to both texts, without attempting to establish exactly how, when, and why such observable parallels developed (a more difficult task for which there’s little in the way of scholarly consensus, as far as I can discern). In particular: “Deep” (the term never appears with an article in the Hebrew Bible) is cognate linguistically to Tiamat, which in turn echoes Leviathan/Rahab/the Sea in other biblical passages (and there are also Ugaritic parallels in which the god Yamm, “Sea,” is conquered); there are hints that God is presiding over a council (as in EE and Ugaritic literature and other biblical passages); near the end of Tablet III, Tiamat is split in half and stretched out apparently in a similar manner to how the waters are divided in P; “generations” of heaven and earth are referred to, “generation” in Hebrew deriving from the root “to beget/give birth,” perhaps a faint echo of the situation in Enuma Elish in which there are literal generations of heaven and earth engendering one another; other potential connections?
If I had to recommend one text on creation accounts in the Bible and in the Near East (ha! not that I’ve read so widely), it would be Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. It’s not an attempt to reconstruct the historical basis for the apparent relationship between the creation stories in Genesis (P among them) and other Near Eastern accounts per se, so much as it is a theological treatment comparing those various accounts—which is, to my mind, a more interesting project in any event.