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Anti-Myth In Genesis
by Paul Sumner
The book of Genesis contains echoes of “mythological” elements.
For a long time, scholars tended to see this as proof that the Hebrew Bible exemplified merely another primitive religion and culture in the ancient Near East.
Now, however, the view has changed. After more thoughtful comparison of Genesis with writings from Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt, the mythological allusions appear to serve an important theological function within the Bible.
An excellent example of this is the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
When read in parallel with other Near Eastern documents, striking similarities emerge. But these chapters appear to be a “reply” to non-Israelite religions. It’s as if Genesis 1-11 were written (in part) to counter pagan misunderstandings and distortions of primeval history. More specifically, its author seeks to rein in his fellow Israelites who were buying into world-views held by their pagan neighbors.
Genesis 1-11 contains anti-mythological, polemical refutations of contemporary pagan views of God and Mankind, as seen in their creation myths. 
Some Mythological Elements Under Attack
(1) The Heavens
In the religions of the ancient Near East (ANE), the heavens were not only the abode of the gods but were the gods themselves.
Astral deities controlled specific aspects of human life and were commonly worshiped. The Sun was supreme god and the Moon was his queen. They were the “high gods.” The Stars were smaller deities. The people of Israel frequently engaged in astrology and sacrificial devotion to “the Heavens,” the “Queen of Heaven,” and the celestial “hosts” (Deut 4:19; Jer 44:17-19).
But in the Genesis creation account, the heavenly bodies are not supernal beings. They have no supernatural influence.
The author diminishes any significance the Sun, Moon and Hosts might have by calling them the “greater” and “lesser lights,” and “the stars” (1:14-18). They are just astronomical objects whose assigned function is to enable humans to navigate, plant crops, and tell time. Or they simply “give light upon the earth” (1:15).
And since God “created the heavens” (1:1), he is not a part of them as a pantheistic deity. He is outside them, as a potter is his clay. They are simply “the work of [his] fingers” (Ps 8:3).
The Bible does not deny the existence of spiritual beings who pose as “gods” and exercise mystical influence over deceived people. But it fires barbs at them.
The prophet Isaiah portrays scenes of ridicule, in which the true God invites the gods to come to His court and prove themselves: “that we may know that you are elohim” (Isa 41:23). When they enter God’s courtroom “they stand at attention” (Isa 48:13).
(2) Divine Councils
The standard conception in the ANE was that the divine world was organized into a pantheon or divine assembly.
These celestial governments were headed by a god-king who fathered many children deities by a consort-wife. The father-god sat on a throne surrounded by his divine viziers, courtiers, assorted soldiers and slaves. He and the subordinate gods held council to plan how to administer the cosmos. They would make proposals, bicker among themselves, vote on each plan, then dispatch their servants to carry out their decisions.
The Hebrew conception in Genesis 1-11 (and the rest of the HB) is similar — on the surface. Indeed the most used word for “God” is a plural noun: Elohim.
But Israel’s God is not a pantheon of deities. Most linguists believe the word signifies an “intensive plural” or “plural of honor,” rather than a plural of divinities or persons. It may be that the word Elohim (when used for Israel’s God) signifies the one true God.
That is, within Israel’s one Deity is concentrated all possible attributes of deity: he alone is worthy of being called “God.” He is “the God of gods” (literally, Elohim of elohim, Deut 10:17). [More details are found at "Elohim" in Biblical Context.]
Like his foreign competitors, Elohim also has a court or assembly around him. He includes them in his plans of action (Gen 1:26; 3:22; 11:7). Yet the Genesis author downplays their status by alluding to them only indirectly with brief quotes from God’s conversations with them (e.g. “Let us make man”). We don’t hear them speak or give God advice. [Consider these studies: Visions of the Heavenly Council in the Hebrew Bible & New Testament and The Genesis Plurals.]
Outside Genesis the council is also referenced many times. Its members are sometimes called elohim, elim, or benei elim (gods, sons of gods/God; 1 Kgs 22:19-23; Ps 82:1; 89:6-7; Dan 7:9-14; Neh 9:6; etc.).
But here in Genesis 1 — in a highly charged, polemical context — the author never calls these beings “elohim” or grants them the status of divinity. There is only one true Deity, who administers creation through these vaguely-described beings around him.
(3) Origins of the Gods
Most ANE creation accounts (cosmogonies) are also theogonies. That is, they tell of the origins of the gods themselves: how they were born, who their parents were, how they came to power.
Some gods attained their position through inheritance. Others plotted a palace coup against an elder deity who was too senile to resist the younger upstarts.
In Canaanite mythology, the two brothers Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death) battle their brother Baal (Lord) and kill him. But his sister Anat raises him from the dead, and his father El eventually enthrones him as god.
In Babylon, Marduk slays the dark goddess Tiamat and her horde of monster-gods, and receives the throne of Anum. Such cosmic battles are typical in the old myths.
Not surprisingly, these anthropomorphic deities produce their offspring and even create the universe primarily through sexual acts. Father and mother gods copulate to have heirs who help them run the cosmos. In one Egyptian account, the original god Ptah masturbates and from his seed creates his divine family and the world.
In the Bible, none of this crude anthropomorphism occurs.
Nothing is ever said about God’s origins or parentage. He just is, from the beginning. And when he creates the universe, he merely speaks a word — “Let there be” — and it happens. A divine fiat is all that is needed.
The Elohim of Genesis has no wife or consort, although some Israelites later believed that he did. Archeologists have found statuettes of the Semitic goddess Asherah in the ruins of many ancient Israelite homes. Nor does Elohim have children deities. The term “sons of God” is used for members of his council (Gen 6:2; Ps 29:1; Job 38:7; Dan 3:25). But the Bible never calls God their father, nor do they ever compete with him for the throne.
God alone is heaven’s sovereign; a palace coup cannot take place. Nor will he grow old and die and leave his post to a successor.
Significantly, the term ben elohim (“son of God”) is used for the nation Israel (Exod 4:22; Deut 14:1; Hos 11:1) and for the anointed king, David and his successors (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7, 12). But here too, God’s human children do not rise up to overthrow the Sovereign. Contrast the attempts portrayed in Isa 14:4-21; Ezek 28:2-19.
(4) Sea Monsters
In pagan cosmologies, the sea-serpent was a fearful symbol of primordial chaos who opposed the cosmic order of the creator god(s).
The serpent also represented an inimical force to humans, and inspired many prayers to the gods for protection.
But in the Genesis account, God’s presence “hovers over” the “deep” (tehom; the abode of the monsters) to quell its chaos (tohu vavohu) and create order (1:2). And the “great sea monsters” (1:21) are not fearful, divine rivals to Elohim that must be defeated in bloody battle. They are only creatures swimming about, completely under his control (cf. Ps 148:7).
In fact, the psalmist humorously says Leviathan (one name of the dreaded sea-monster) was created by God as a pet to “sport” in the ocean (Ps 104:26).
The creation of man in ANE records resulted from often petty, ignoble reasons.
In the Babylonian text Enuma Elish, the gods needed someone to cater food for their orgies then clean up the mess afterwards. So they created “savage man” to be their lackeys and janitors. And deep trouble would descend if the divine palace was not in proper order! The gods might be in a bad mood and wreak havoc on earth.
But in Genesis, the creation of humans is not a divine afterthought or selfish utilitarian act. Just the opposite. Humans are the goal, the very apex of God’s whole creative activity. In fact, the first two chapters of Genesis portray human creation from two different angles in order to emphasize the high place accorded to them by God.
Biblical theologian Thomas Olbricht has described these as the “Curtain Call” and the “Wedding Ceremony” orders of creation.
Genesis 1 — Curtain Call Order
In chapter 1 the order of creation begins with the vast cosmos (the undivine heavens), then narrows to the furnishing of the good earth, and finally ends with Earth-Man (Heb, Adam) — consisting of male and female.
Most would consider this a descending order of significance: from the novas to the nothings. But this pattern is similar to a Curtain Call order in which the various members of a cast appear on stage following a performance. The first to come back out are always the less significant “bit players,” followed by more important actors and so on, until the “leads” return to (hopefully) resounding applause.
So it is in Genesis 1.
The bit players (in this case the cosmic bodies) are mentioned first, followed in order of greater importance by other members of the creation, until Adam (Earth-Man) and Havah (Life-giver; Grk, Eve) appear last. Since the Leads alone bear the image of the creator (1:27), they receive final mention and highest honor. Contra modern astrophysicists, human beings are more important than are novas.
Genesis 2 — Wedding Ceremony Order
The order of creation in the next chapter is slightly different, suggesting the author had a different purpose. Chapter 2 (vv. 4-24) might be compared to the reenactment of a Semitic Wedding Ceremony.
Here, the Creator is a great estate owner who has prepared a wonderful inheritance for his only son, his pride and joy. Unlike Babylonian gods who want humans to bring them food, God provides abundant food for Adam. He plants a luxurious garden-park (Heb, gan) filled with fruit trees and crystal rivers. Eden was not a common vegetable patch out behind the house.
The father then provides his son companionship and helpers in the form of animals, which ultimately prove to be inadequate. So the father-creator takes bone and flesh from his son (ben) and “builds” (banah) a woman (2:22). Then like an ancient friend of the bridegroom, the father himself escorts the new bride to her delighted husband. “The LORD God...brought her to Adam” (2:22). Chapter 2 serves as a divine endorsement of pristine earthly life — and especially marriage.
While in most ANE cultures the male king alone is divine, in the Bible, Adam’s companion Havah is on equal footing with him before God. Though she is his “helper” (2:20), she is not inferior to the male nor a mere sexual functionary. She also shares the divine image: “He named them Adam,” both created in the image of God (5:2; 1:27).
The Scripture has democratized the ancient world ideas and affirms that every man and woman bears God’s stamp. In God’s estimation of worth there is neither male nor female (cf. Gal 3:28).
Both Creation Stories Have the Same Message
The biblical view of humans portrayed in these two chapters is in stark (joyful) contrast to that of ANE mythologies.
To the author of Genesis, Adam is not a low-life janitor for capricious and malevolent gods. He is created out of deep love and bears the divine image. He has supreme dignity and exalted responsibility. Psalm 8:5 says he “was made a little lower than God [elohim].” He is God’s earthly representative and governor over creation (Gen 1:28-30; Ps 8:6-8).
The Genesis portrait of human beings is also in stark contrast to the modern mythology of evolution, which demeans their status and place in the created universe. Genesis gives hope to human beings. Evolution makes them irrelevant and expendable: merely biological bubbles in the great cosmic soup cauldron.
(6) The Flood
The various ANE creation stories tell us about our ancestral past and explain why our existence is as it is. Something happened to early man that brought watery wrath from the gods.
A devastating Flood is recorded by many ancient cultures. In some Mesopotamian documents, it was sent because men were making too much noise and disturbing the gods’ siesta. After an irritable council session, the Storm God was dispatched to end the annoyance once for all.
One god, though, secretly warned a human king to build a boat and escape the impending wrath. He did so and survived the flood. The other members of the heavenly assembly were furious at this subversion of their plan. But they eventually calmed down and were coaxed into favoring man and (in some texts) into giving him eternal life.
Genesis Version of the Flood
Genesis tells a quite similar story, except that the Flood comes for much more serious reasons than disturbed naps.
The trouble actually begins earlier with the rebellious human lunge for equality with and autonomy from God. Their subsequent expulsion from Gan Eden (chap. 3) begins the deteriorating alienation from the Creator, manifested in murder and vice (chap. 4).
A later intrusion of evil from rebels of the divine world (chap. 6) leads to such moral corruption among humans that God has no choice but to destroy most of them and start over with a new and better stock.
Grievous human sinfulness is thus the true cause of divine judgment manifested in the Flood.
Yet God is not quick to drown out his premiere creation. He allows time for repentance. For unlike the pagan gods, he does not “delight in the death of the wicked” (Ezek 18:23). He even subverts his own wrath, so to speak, by telling Noah to build an ark to escape death. In the Bible, the same God issues stern punishment, as well as mercy and saving provision — depending on human responses to him.
(7) The Future
In Mesopotamian creation accounts there exists a “polytheistic optimism” about mankind’s ability to overcome through trickery the cruelty and capriciousness of the weak and silly gods that rule them. These myths depict a world that originally was chaotic but is since getting better and better through man’s efforts. Future hope lies with people.
This self-confidence is reflected in the Tower of Babel story (chap. 11). Even after the purifying judgment of the Flood, humans seek to ascend to heaven by their self-will and ingenuity. The Bible views this simply as man's persistent, God-rejecting hubris.
Genesis entertains no optimism about human beings. In fact, the whole biblical view is precisely opposite.
Creation began as perfect and grew steadily worse through man’s rebellion (not God’s incompetence), until a catastrophic consequence resulted. And only by the Creator’s hand (not their own) could humans escape their just dessert. Israel’s own biography in the following pages of the Hebrew Bible bleakly confirms the Genesis view.
In the end, the Hebrew Bible is optimistic only about God’s planned future for those humans who wish to be under his sovereign rule.
Genesis 1-11 sets out these (and other) themes as an introductory backdrop to the larger story of Abraham and the election of Israel, the main focus of the book (chaps. 12-50).
While it shares with other ANE texts a common outline of primeval history, its interpretation of the ancient past is different. It deliberately alludes to contemporary mythological ideas in order to change peoples’ conceptions of who they are and who the true Elohim is.
It overturns popular, mythical history as if to say, “No, this is what really happened; this is the truth of the matter.” As an apologetical tool, Genesis demythologizes pagan myths. That is, it takes the myths and empties them of their superstition, and corrects faulty and perverted knowledge of the ancient past.
This is how the Hebrew Bible begins. This is the premier portrait of its God and its analysis of the human condition.
Firstly, the one true Elohim — the God of Genesis — is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good. All that he does is good. He is a creator of unity and order in nature. Science works because of his orderly mind.
Secondly, he loves and wants to care for the man/woman, the Human, whom he has created. In response to the consequences of human rebellion outlined in the first eleven chapters, Elohim prepares an antidote for the human race. For we see immediately in the very next section the introduction of a promise that through the family line of one Hebrew named Abraham, the Creator-God will “bless all nations” (Gen 12:3).
In the religious market-place of the ancient world, all this was an alternative world-view, a cosmogony, a version of primeval history that denied all other mythologies any ultimate validity.
Genesis was and is dogmatically exclusive. But it’s written with a deep conviction that among all the competitors, only in this particular Story and in the vision of God given to the Israelites can any human being recover what the Creator intended for them.
Its view of God and of the dignity — and predicament — of humans has a universal appeal because it strikes a true tone and rings with hope.
Instead of being the cosmic debris of mindless evolutionary processes, humans have infinite worth to their creator. Instead of a coterie of anthropomorphic gods who merely enslave people to their own mirrored passions, Elohim is a God outside of us who, out of his pursuing love, seeks to reclaim and empower us to be like him: not as gods but humans with godly character.
Thus the world-view of Genesis is not merely a Hebrew mythology for local tribal consumption. Its view is offered to all tribes of the creation for their acceptance. And if accepted, a door then opens for Genesis’ God to make good on his promise to Abraham.
Anti-myth in the New Testament
A number of passages in the NT can also be viewed as being anti-mythological polemics. Chapter one in the Gospel of John corrects both Hellenistic and Jewish myths about the Logos and the Torah being agents of God’s creation.
The Book of Revelation is filled with correctives for Jews involved with Merkavah or Chariot Mysticism, as exemplified for example in the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” from Qumran. The book also empties contemporary myths of divine apotheosis of the Roman emperors to the status of Lord and God. In Revelation, there is one Lord God and his Lord Messiah, the Lamb (Rev 11:15; 12:10; 19:16; 22:1, 3).
Thus, both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament vigorously speak to their times, often with force and fire.
The best known ancient Near Eastern creation texts are:
• From Mesopotamia: Eridu Genesis, Story of Atrahasis, Enuma Elish, and Gilgamesh Epic
• From Canaan: Stories of Ba`al and Anat found the city of Ugarit (Syria)
• From Egypt: Memphis Creation Story and the Story of Ra and the Serpent
[Return to Text]
Gerhard Hasel, “The Polemical Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974): 81-102
——— “The Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis 1 in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Parallels,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 10 (1972): 1-20
Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985)
Thomas H. Olbricht, He Loves Forever (Austin, TX: Sweet Pub., 1980)
Bruce Waltke, “The Creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (1975): 25-36
John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 19-44
——— Genesis I as Ancient Cosmology (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2009)
——— The Lost World of Genesis I as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011)
Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1a; Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 1-40, 159-66.
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