Genesis vs. the Babylonian Creation Epic

I had said that I would soon address the Biblical account of creation in comparison to the Babylonian epics, as I had earlier done with the flood accounts. However, although it is a little dated, J. W. McGarvey had written a published response to an article which addressed this very topic along with a synopsis of the Babylonian accounts that I believe some of you might enjoy reading. McGarvey was no lightweight and had while alive been listed by The London Times as “the ripest scholar of his generation.”

He addressed in this essay the then current theories of Professor Willett, and the theories today are no different. The idea is that the writings of Moses were mostly fabrications, and that the “legends” of the book of Genesis were later compilations from sources that wrote prior to the days of Josiah. When the copy of the Law of Moses was found during Josiah’s reign, Professor Willett suggested that Genesis was first published before the people. Of course, this is all done to discredit the Bible historically which then also serves to discredit it religiously. Professor Willett used identical language to those in our own day, indicating that there is “a narrative of creation so strikingly like that of Genesis that its relationship cannot be questioned.”

The Babylonian epic is then suggested to predate the accounts of the amalgous “J” and “P” who from it compiled the initial chapters of the book of Genesis which itself was then discovered and distributed under the guise that it had all been written nearly 700 years earlier by the hand of Moses. In this fashion, this pipedream is not in any way different from the nonsense surrounding the Epic of Gilgamesh. You must buy into the theory to make it all work.

But we’ll report. Or, rather we will let the words of John William McGarvey report — and then you can decide. You may note that there is in fact some room for a question or two and perhaps that there also is no real point of comparison between the two records at all.


I now take up what Professor Willett has to say through the Chicago daily paper about the relation between the Babylonian account of creation and that in the Book of Genesis. After mentioning several nations of antiquity that had traditions respecting the origin of the world, and last in the list, the Babylonians, he says:

Among the latter people there is found a narrative of creation so strikingly like that of Genesis that its relationship cannot be questioned. Yet the differences are great, consisting for the most part in grotesque, polytheistic and immoral elements, which are entirely absent in the Genesis narrative. This suggests the explanation of the problem. The narratives which first found their way into Hebrew life from the common Semitic stock had the same general form and features which we see in them today. But the religious life of Israel demanded the purification of this material at the hands of the prophetic teachers, whose task it was to prepare the nation for its great vocation of a prophetic people and a spiritual teacher of the world. No vehicle of instruction was as familiar and important as these narratives of creation. To purify them by subtraction of their grosser elements, and to make them the vehicle for teaching the emphatic and impressive truths of God’s personality, unity and relationship to Israel, of man’s supremacy in the moral order and his probationary position–this was the task to which the inspired teachers of Israel gave their attention at a most important stage of the national education.

Here it is distinctly assumed that these Babylonian narratives existed prior to the one in Genesis, and that the latter was derived from the former by “subtraction of their grosser elements;” that is, by leaving out what is said of the heathen gods, and ascribing the whole work of creation to the God of Israel. This was done, not by Moses, for the crooked critics all deny that Moses had anything to do with the composition of Genesis, but in the verbose style of the Professor, by “the prophetic teachers whose task it was to prepare the nation for its great vocation of a prophetic people, and a spiritual teacher of the world.”

He might just as well have said what he meant. That this was done by the hypothetical J, who wrote about six or seven hundred years after Moses, and P, who wrote three or four centuries later. To these two imaginary writers are expressly ascribed the first and second chapters of Genesis. These two writers had no revelation on the subject, and what they wrote is not to be taken as matter of fact. They had nothing to go by but the Babylonian narrative, and they did nothing with this except to subtract from it its base and polytheistic elements.

Whether there is any truth in this theory or not can be settled, I think, by any man who has common sense and will use it in a sensible way, by simply comparing the two accounts. Our readers, at least very many of them, have seen this Babylonian account, as the English version of it has appeared in many critical books and magazine articles, though probably few of them have read it on account of its tediousness and obscurity. It is about as easy reading as that many lines of the Koran. I will not inflict the reader with a copy of it, but I will summarize its principal features, and any one who chooses to verify the accuracy of my summary can easily do so. I follow the translation given by Professor Sayce in his “Higher Critics and the Monuments,” pages 63-71. The story goes forward in chronological order, as follows:

1. There is an abyss of waters called Tiamat, which existed before there was any being in heaven or any plant on the earth. There were no gods as yet.

2, Tiamat generates the great gods, and then, after a long time, the lesser gods.

3. The gods, with Merdach as leader, make war on their mother Tiamat. She arms herself with snakes whose bodies are filled with poison, raging vampires, flashes of lightning, the scorpion-man, the fish-man, the zodiacal ram, eleven monsters, etc., etc., and marched them forth under her husband Kingu, who walks by her side.

4. The gods, some of whom are afraid of Tiamat and her forces, place Merodach, also called Bel, in supreme command. He arms himself with a club, a sword, a bow, and lightning. He carries a net in which to enclose Tiamat. He makes all the winds blow to confound her, mounts his chariot, fastens the reins to his side, holds the weapons in his hands, and rushes to the charge. He seizes Tiamat by the waist, trying, I suppose, to hug her so tight that she could not breathe. She makes a loud outcry, calls on her husband to help her, “recites an incantation,” and “casts a spell;” but Merodach throws his net over her, opens her mouth, and makes her swallow an evil wind, which prevents her from closing her lips, and of course from bawling any more. “He swung the club, he shattered her stomach, he cut out her entrails, he dissected her heart, he took her and ended her life. He threw down her corpse, he stood upon it.” The beings who had backed her now fled. He let them escape with their lives, but he built a “fence” around them so they could not escape. We are not told what kind of a fence this was; but I suppose it must have been a close plank fence with a barbed wire along the top, so that the vampires and snakes could neither climb over nor creep through. After walloping the old woman in this fashion, and fencing in her supporters, Merodach was tired. “He rests and feeds his body ’’-takes his dinner, as it were. What kind of diet he fed on we are not told; but I should think that, after such a struggle, bacon and, beans, cornbread and buttermilk, would have been in order. And there is another curious thing about it. We are not told for what offense the gods thus fell afoul of their old mother. The worst thing that I can see in her behavior is that she brought forth such a brood of bad children.

5. After resting and eating, Bel broke the dead body of his mother “like a dried fish in two pieces,” he “took one-half of her and made it the covering of the sky,” which then became bright. He “established a great building in the heaven,” and he caused Anu, Bel and Ea to inhabit it “as their stronghold.” Then “he fixed the stars that corresponded with them, even the twin stars.” He “ordained the year, appointing the signs of the Zodiac” over it. He “founded the mansion of the Sungod, who passes along the ecliptic,” and “illuminated the Moon-god that he might be the watchman of the night, and ordained for him the ending of the night that the day might be known.”

6. It was now time for other gods beside Bel Merodach to take a hand, so we are next told “at that time the gods in their assembly created the beasts, the cattle of the field and the creeping things.”

Here the story ends. Nothing is said about the creation of man, of water animals, or of vegetation. Neither is Merodach credited with the creation of the sun, the moon or the stars. He simply arranged the stars in constellations, made a mansion for the Sun-god and lighted up by the Moon-god. The heaven and the earth were in existence before any of the gods were born  and, of course, no god created them.

This now is the string of nonsense by the curtailing of which “the prophetic teachers of Israel’’– that is, J and P drew up the accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis! Professor Willett may believe it if he can, and if he so desires, but to my mind it would be about as sensible to say that the parable of the prodigal son was derived from Peck’s “Bad Boy,” or from Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer.”

If I were to pass judgment on this “Creation Epic,” as destructive critics fondly call it, I would say that it was written by some unbeliever in the gods of Babylon, some Bob Ingersoll of that day, for the purpose of ridiculing the gods out of existence in the minds of the people. Certainly no sensible man who read it and believed it could ever afterward offer incense or prayer to any one of the brutal gang.

This is not all. I scarcely think that the craziest of the critics would claim that this satire on the Babylonian gods was written before the days of Moses. It is only after robbing Moses of all connection with the Bible account of creation, and relegating it to unknown authors of later centuries, that they can claim priority for the Babylonian account. For, be it remembered, this account was found on clay tablets dug out of the ruins of Asurbanipal’s library at Nineveh. But Asurbanipal reigned from 667 to 625 B. C., and within this period his library building was erected and his tablets collected or written. There is no historical evidence that these creation tablets had been in existence for any considerable period prior to this. But Moses lived at least seven hundred years earlier, and if he wrote the Book of Genesis, his account preceded by a long interval this Babylonian satire. And if, as is highly probable, Moses received the account of creation either from oral tradition or in a written form, this carries the origin of it back to a still earlier date. The critical theory on the subject, then, although it has been adopted by men who ought to have more judgment, is but a wild and groundless conjecture resulting from their equally groundless analytical theory of the Pentateuch.

[This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Christian Standard Magazine June 14, 1902, and that was later included in the book Biblical Criticism]