My colleague Joseph Lam is an expert on the languages and texts of the Ancient Near East, including the Hebrew Bible.  In terms of languages, he not only teaches ancient Hebrew, but also (brace yourself), Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, Semitic linguistics, and, well, so on.  He is particularly expert in the relationship of the texts and myths other Ancient Near Eastern religions with those of the Hebrew Bible.

Joseph is also a superb teacher, and so he was invited to to a course for the Great Courses (Wondrium) called “Creation Stories of the Ancient World.”  The course just came out, and so I have asked Joseph to do a couple of blog posts for us, to introduce all of you to the kinds of things he covers there.   Here are the links to his course and, then, his first post:

Wondrium link:

The Great Courses link:


Creation stories tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. They not only describe the origins of the world in a distant past, but they encapsulate a culture’s self-understanding in story form, offering insight into how different societies made sense of the human condition across history. In my new course for Wondrium/The Great Courses, titled “Creation Stories of the Ancient World,” I explore a range of creation stories from the great literate civilizations of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world in order to illuminate the underlying conceptions they describe—from the nature of reality, to the identity of the gods, to the role of humans in the created order. Among the texts I discuss are myths from Mesopotamia, such as the Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish) and the Atrahasis Epic; literary traditions from ancient Egypt, including the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Memphite Theology; an early Greek view of creation as represented in Hesiod’s Theogony; lesser known texts such as the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle; and, of course, the biblical creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.

As an example of the kinds of insights that one can glean from these stories, consider the opening lines of the Babylonian Creation Epic, known in antiquity as Enuma Elish (translation is mine):

When the heavens above had not been named,

nor the earth beneath been called by name,

there was Apsu, the pre-eminent, their begetter,

and creator Tiamat, who bore them all;

they mixed their waters together,

before pastures had formed and reed thickets had appeared.

When none of the gods had been made manifest,

nor been called by name, nor destinies decreed,

the gods were created in the midst of them.

Those who are familiar with the biblical account of creation in seven days (Genesis 1) may already recognize certain broad similarities, such as the pairing of “heaven” and “earth,” the idea of naming as synonymous with creation itself (compare how God speaks things into existence and names them in Genesis 1), and the presence of water in the initial state of the universe. Indeed, on this last point, the two primordial deities in this tale, the male god Apsu and the female goddess Tiamat, are both personifications of water, with Apsu representing the fresh waters and Tiamat representing the salt waters. Note that the name “Tiamat” is actually related to the Hebrew word for “deep” or “abyss” in Genesis 1:2 (Hebrew tehom).

Dr. Joseph Lam

But, while these similarities might suggest that the Mesopotamian and Israelite accounts share a common cultural vocabulary for speaking about creation, they do not imply that the same story is being told. In Enuma Elish, after the gendered pair of Apsu and Tiamat begins the process of procreation of the gods, the story proceeds to describe the two major rounds of conflict that take place among the gods. The resulting battles lead to the deaths of both Apsu and Tiamat—the latter at the hand of Marduk (technically their great-great-grandson), the patron god of Babylon who is proclaimed supreme over the divine pantheon. After Tiamat’s defeat, Marduk severs Tiamat’s body in two in order to make heaven and earth respectively; he also establishes the stars and planets to mark time as well as the other familiar features of the physical world, from mountains to springs to the weather. Most importantly, creation culminates in the founding of the city of Babylon itself as an earthly abode for the gods to be venerated regularly. Humankind is then formed from the body of a sacrificed god—specifically, the god who induced Tiamat to confront Marduk to begin with—in order to alleviate the work of the gods and to maintain the activities of divine worship. Finally, as thanks to Marduk for his lordship, the rest of the gods build the Esagila, Marduk’s temple, in the midst of Babylon. In these ways, Enuma Elish can be seen as an encapsulation of the major points of ancient Babylonian religious and political ideology. It is not surprising, then, that we have evidence that this text was recited as part of the most important festival in Babylon, the spring New Year celebration called the Akitu festival.

By contrast, Genesis 1 describes creation not as a series of battles between the gods but rather as the activity of a single god (Hebrew elohim) establishing an ordered world over the course of six days. Any potentially competing divine forces—whether the “waters” or the “deep” in 1:2, or the sun/moon/stars in 1:16, or the “great sea monsters” in 1:21—are subordinated to this one creator god. In modern times, by virtue of its prominent placement at the beginning of the Bible, this text is often read as a timeless description of how the world came to be. But it would be a mistake to overlook the strong polemical force of the story. I would argue that Genesis 1 is just as historically situated as Enuma Elish, and that its historical setting goes a long way toward explaining the emphases of the story itself. In particular, if we posit the time of the Babylonian exile to be the background for the story, two major features of the text come into alignment. First, its many allusions to Enuma Elish can be explained not only as general reflections of common ancient Near Eastern creation imagery (though that is still a useful fundamental assumption) but specifically as an effort by the Judean literary elite, living as exiles in Babylonia, to articulate an alternative vision of creation in line with their traditions. Second, the lack of an overt mention of a temple in Genesis 1 could be seen as an attempt to make sense of the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple: the Israelite Elohim does not necessarily need a temple, for the entirety of heaven and earth are Elohim’s abode! Moreover, just as every ancient Mesopotamian temple had a cult image of the deity residing in it, so human beings are the “image” (Gen. 1:26-27) of Elohim in the newly-established cosmos.

In my next blog entry, I will introduce another ancient Near Eastern creation text that has often been compared with Genesis 1—the Egyptian text known as the Memphite Theology.

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2023-03-16T15:48:46-04:00March 16th, 2023|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

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  1. kt March 16, 2023 at 7:52 am

    Thank you for a good post.

    I think your perspective is valuable, and I would like to add that Zoroastrianism also shares some fundamental similarities with the Hebrew creation myth (s) in Genesis 1 ,,,and the other in Genisis 2. For example, it teaches that the universe was created by a supreme God and features a battle between good and evil in relationship with creation. In Zoroastrianism, creation occurs in six stages, and humans hold a significant place in this process and also that the human soul, which is immortal and is believed to be a part of Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrian supreme God). This would also fit into the time you suggest the Hebrew creation myth (s?) was written.

    Moreover, still talking about creation myths, my perspective on the book of Revelation has evolved over the years (or perhaps decades). Initially, I interpreted it as a preterist account of the Roman occupation, but I now see it as a symbolic representation of inner transformation. In this sense, I view Revelation Chapter 12 as another symbolic creation story, which may have parallels with the Gnostic system, such as in the Apocryphon of John.

  2. TomTerrific March 16, 2023 at 8:08 am

    For Dr. E,

    Do you consider yourself as a Christian atheist? I get that from a YouTube of a presentation you made to, I think, North Georgia University. I loved your story about what parts of the Apostles’ Creed you believed. That paralleled my experience exactly.

    You were going to discuss your deconversion on Misquoting Jesus this week but discussed homosexuality in the Bible instead.


  3. fishician March 16, 2023 at 10:41 am

    It sounds like in the Babylonian myth the gods create people “to maintain the activities of divine worship” as you put it. In the Genesis 1 story the world is created seemingly for humankind’s benefit, and they are instructed to be fruitful and multiply and govern the earth. There is no commandment (at this time) to worship God (or the gods, as elohim is plural). The Genesis creation seems to be a more selfless act by God, for mankind, not for Himself. Do you agree, and is this a significant difference between the stories? Perhaps the Jews used the story to assert their independence from the Babylonian gods, making themselves partners with God rather than mere worshippers?

    • jclam March 16, 2023 at 4:03 pm

      The conception of the purpose of humankind’s creation is certainly quite different in each of the stories. I also agree that the early writers/readers of the story would have used it to distinguish the characteristics of their god rather than the Babylonian gods. I would be more hesitant to describe the God of Genesis 1 as acting selflessly, not because the story can’t reasonably be read that way, but more because the idea of a “selfless God” strikes me as anachronistic in that ancient context.

      • Martin Brody March 17, 2023 at 5:47 pm

        So does the quote below include making beer?

        “alleviate the work of the gods.”

        And unlike The Genesis Flood story where God shows a little remorse, at least Mami realizes the consequences of their actions.

        She was surfeited with grief and thirsted for beer.

  4. JackD March 16, 2023 at 10:58 am

    I am a few lessons into the Wondrium course and I am greatly enjoying it.

    Dr. Lam is certainly well-versed in the subject and presents the material clearly.

    I find myself amazed at the diversity of creation scripts.

  5. jhague March 16, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    “…the “great sea monsters” in 1:20…”

    The NRSV reads, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…”

    Is the correct term here “sea monsters” rather than “living creatures?”

    • jclam March 16, 2023 at 3:49 pm

      It should say 1:21, which has now been fixed in the post. Thanks for the correction!

      • jhague March 17, 2023 at 8:33 am

        Thank you. I should have read ahead to verse 21!

        1. When the authors mention great sea monsters, were they thinking of whales or something else in their imagination?

        2. Since elohim is the god name used in Gen 1, was this passage originally written in the northern kingdom of Israel?

        • Joseph Lam March 17, 2023 at 9:17 am

          1. The word for “sea monster” there is Hebrew [tannin], which appears maybe a dozen or so times in the Hebrew Bible and seems to refer to a mythological serpent or dragon of some sort aligned with the (mythologically personified) sea. E.g., Job 7:12, Ps 74:13. This aligns well with the usage of a similar word/name [tnn] in Ugaritic mythological literature. Interestingly, in Exodus 7:9-12, Aaron’s staff transforms into a [tannin] before Pharaoh’s magicians.

          2. In this case, not necessarily. In the traditional Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP source theory), both the “E” (northern) source and the “P” (priestly–probably southern and/or exilic/post-exilic, though this is debated) source use Elohim to refer to God from earliest times.

  6. OmarRobb March 17, 2023 at 7:57 am

    The stories of creation are instinctive and persistent subject in almost every civilization: it is instinctive to ask where we came from, where are we going, how the stars have been created, what is sickness and death, etc.

    Almost all of these stories start with one or more supreme beings. The only story of creation that doesn’t start with a supreme is the atheist story, and it a very recent one. Surprisingly, many believers agree with it, but they add the Supreme behind the scene.

    As all stories start with supreme beings, then it is not surprising to have many shared themes among them and they don’t need to be highly influenced by an old past civilization. These stories could just have been originated from one of the authoritative teachers and later been adopted to be the official story for that particular civilization.

    The earliest uncontested evidence about the Israelites is about 850BC. Some events in the Jewish scripture have been confirmed, therefore, some of the oral tradition of the Jews is clearly accurate. So, wouldn’t be reasonable to assume that the story of creation was a private story for the Israelites that originated many centuries before the Babylonian exile?


    • OmarRobb March 17, 2023 at 8:06 am


      The other surprising thing that I did search for but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer is this: Scholars regards the stories in the Torah to be an outcome of the Jewish oral tradition, and oral traditions have a level of confidence probability.

      But this is not accurate. The stories in the Torah have two distinctive oral traditions: the Jews and the Samaritans. These two camps hated each other, fought each other, and they destroyed each other farms and homes. However, they have the same themes of the creation story. These two camps split about 900BC (many centuries before the Babylonian exile). Although the Jewish Torah was written after the exile with Aramaic influenced scripts, but still, the Samaritan Torah continued to be written in the original Hebrew scripts.

      If we accepted that there are two distinctive oral traditions for the stories in the Torah then the probability of confidence for these stories will highly increase, which could support the assumption that these stories are “”private”” stories for the Israelite that might not be (highly) influenced by nearby civilizations.

      Why Scholars don’t regard the Samaritan Torah to be another distinctive oral tradition separate from the Jewish Torah?

    • Joseph Lam March 17, 2023 at 9:27 am

      One needs to distinguish between (1) the political split between the northern and southern kingdoms in the pre-exilic period and (2) the much later development of a distinct form of the Torah that became the Samaritan Pentateuch. I would place the development of (2) sometime in the Hellenistic period. A good place to go for a detailed discussion is Gary Knoppers, Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Early Relations (Oxford).

      • OmarRobb March 17, 2023 at 10:26 am

        The way I see it is that we have two camps with clear and serious hostility between them. So, from a logical perspective, we can generate the following two options:

        1# These two camps started (in 900BC) with the same general stories that we see in their Torah today, but there have been some deviations in the details over the years. However, the general nature of these stories is still the same.

        2# They started (in 900BC) with very different stories than the ones in their Torah today. However, after the Babylonian exile, both camps formed new stories of creation that is different than the stories of their ancestors. Surprisingly, these new stories that both camps have formed were similar in nature. This is surprising because the hostility between these two camps didn’t stop over the years.

        I think option 2 is a bit bizarre and I don’t think it should be taken in face value as it does require sufficient proofs.

  7. brandon284 March 19, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    Fantastic I can’t wait for subsequent posts!

  8. apmorgan April 7, 2023 at 2:20 am

    Claiming that your city is older than humanity seems awfully bold! Wondering how long Babylon had been established before that part of the mythology was composed.

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