To be human is to wonder. Whether it was the primitive people who first squinted up toward the heavens or today’s scientist who opens the roof of the observatory, humans have been enraptured by the question of our own existence. It is no surprise, then, that great literature does not fail to address those questions which are most germane to the human experience: What is our purpose? What constitutes humanity? What is God like? For what do we live, love, toil, and die?
The book of Genesis is one well-known example of such ancient literature. The opening chapters have served as a benchmark story of human origins for centuries. However, the end of the nineteenth century saw a surge of textual discoveries from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt that made it clear that Genesis is not the only example of such ancient literature. In fact, some of the striking parallels between Genesis and other ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) creation documents are enough to make many Christians squirm a bit as the uniqueness of their sacred text is seemingly dissolved.
However, I don’t think that needs to be the case. In fact, reading Genesis 1 and 2 in light of other ANE parallels presents a grander vision of God than simply viewing it through our modern mechanistic lenses. For now, let me give just one example.
Two of the most prominent ANE parallels to Genesis 1 and 2 are the Babylonian epics Atrahasis and Enuma Elish. Like Genesis, both texts explain how human beings came about. In Atrahasis, conflict abounds among the gods. The lower gods are forced to labor for the higher gods, and the workload becomes too great. So they go on strike. The lesser gods gather outside the great god Ellil’s door, and they’re so annoying that Ellil eventually comes out and, in order to appease these obnoxious little gods, suggests that the womb-goddess create primeval humans so that they may “bear the load of the gods.” In other words, humans are made to be slaves.
In Enuma Elish,we find a similar situation, albeit a bit bloodier: the great god Marduk has just slain the goddess Tiamat by clubbing her to death, sliced her body in half like a “fish for frying,” and created the cosmos out of her dead corpse (the next time your college prof accuses the Old Testament of being misogynistic, remind them of this). Once Tiamat is conquered, Marduk has to decide what to do with all this newfound power, so he decides to get the party started by creating humans to “bear the load of the gods.” No doubt, that’s sure to win him some points in the polls. Once again, humans are made to be slaves.
Before we turn to Genesis, notice one thing. In both texts, humans are created to work. Specifically, they are created to do the work of the gods as slaves.
When we turn to Genesis, we’ll notice a similar theme: work. In fact, the language of the three texts are strikingly similar:
Genesis 1:26: Let us create mankind… …so that they may rule
Atrahasis I: Let her create primeval man… …so that he may bear the load
Enuma Elish: Let me create primeval man… …so they (gods) shall be at leisure
However, while their wording may be similar, the theology (and anthropology) of Genesis could scarcely be more different from the other two. First, humans are not made out of the blood of a dead god, nor are they an afterthought. Rather, they are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God and are given dominion over the earth. We could go on for days about the meaning behind those words, but suffice it to say that the implication is that humans are not to do the work of slaves, but the work of rulers. Rather than afterthoughts, they are the crown jewel of creation—placed in God’s cosmic temple to rule as his vice regents.
They are created to do the work of God as kings and queens.
Genesis has nothing of the violence and bloodshed of the Babylonian epics. Rather, there is simply God—who creates life, beauty, and community—as opposed to the gods of Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, whose insecurities lead to infighting, murder, and oppression. The God of Genesis stands over creation, in complete sovereign control, and declares it to be “very good,” as opposed to the dominant narrative of the day, which saw the gods as being locked in an epic power struggle, creating for their own selfish ends. This God goes on to give humanity royal status, as opposed to that of a slave. Who knew how “progressive” the Old Testament could really be?
The God of Genesis is unrivaled in power, and his image bearers are unmatched in dignity. It’s a message that seems, at the very least, far beyond that of its neighbors.
Or, we might say, inspired.