Many critics of Christianity have tried to claim that concepts or stories from the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, were copied from other ancient religions or myths. The Old Testament of the Bible does interact with the stories and myths of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and was written in a cultural context in which these myths and stories would have been well-known. However, it does not mean that the biblical writers simply used the stories to then “make up” a Jewish (and later, Christian) version of the same story. Rather, when we look more deeply into the texts of the Old Testament, and Genesis 1-11 in particular (these are the texts most often cited for ancient plagiarism), we see some major theological points being made about the God of the Bible that definitively distinguish these texts from other ancient religions or myths.
Old Testament scholar and Egyptologist James Hoffmeier, among others, understands that Moses (traditionally considered to be the author of Genesis) employed ANE creation motifs “for polemical reasons against the prevailing worldviews of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, all of which influenced ancient Israel.” In the details that follow, we will begin to see Hoffmeier’s claim substantiated in the very obvious changes Genesis makes to the ancient view of creation.
The most oft-cited example of alleged plagiarism is regarding the Babylonian poem, the Enuma Elish. This poem describes how Marduk, the younger god, slew the older goddess, Tiamat. Marduk then formed the earth from the remains of Tiamat. After the discovery of this poem, it received a lot of attention since it describes the creation of the world. John Bloom and C. John Collins explain that one of the reasons for this is because some believed that there was a parallel between the Akkadian name Tiamat and the word tehom, which is the word used for the deep in Genesis 1:2. However, linguists have found that it is highly unlikely that there is a link between these two words. Moreover, the context in which the word is found is different. When Genesis 1:2 says that the earth was “without form and void” it is a phrase that means something closer to “an unproductive and uninhabited place” rather than “unruly and disorderly chaos,” as was the case in Enuma Elish.
Gerhard Hasel noticed this key difference in the use of the word tehom as well. He notes that the use of tehom in Genesis lacks any connotation of the “primeval ocean” that was so prevalent in ANE creation myths. This word had deeply mythological elements attached to it which Genesis completely disregards, leading Hasel to conclude Genesis is “not only non-mythical in content but antimythical in purpose.” Furthermore, this evidence shows Hasel that Israel interacted with ANE myths but “forcefully rejected and fought off that which it felt irreconcilable with its faith and understanding of reality.”
Hasel also identifies the word tannin as a demythologized word used in Genesis. In ANE creation mythology, tannin described sea creatures with mythical powers. However, in Genesis 1:21, they refer to regular sea creatures. Genesis explicitly states that God created (Hebrew bara) the sea creatures, which, according to Hasel, contradicts “the notion of creation in terms of a struggle as contained in the pagan battle myth.”
The Enuma Elish also makes clear that the creation of mankind was not central to the overall plan of creation. Man was created, Hasel states, as an “afterthought to provide the gods with food and to satisfy their physical needs.” They are not created with intrinsic worth and sacredness and for relationship with God as humans are in the Bible.
In Atrahasis, the pre-Genesis Akkadian/Babylonian epic, humans are created due to divine strife. In this telling, lesser gods are forced to dig irrigation canals. Apparently, it is hard, thankless work. Eventually, they refuse to do it anymore. As a solution, Enlil, the “divine foreman,” creates humans as slave laborers to the gods. In order to make humans, the divine midwife, Belet-ilit and the wise Enki (or Ea) work together to find a way. The solution? They kill a lesser god and use his blood and some clay from the earth—and the spit of every other god—to make humankind. Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman is right to point out the stark differences between humankind made of the blood of a lesser god and spit and humankind made in the image of God from the earth and God’s breath: the former is full of contempt for human beings, the latter is full of divine dignity.
Overall, there are many stark, fundamental differences between ANE creation myths and the singularly unique account found within Genesis. Bloom and Collins detail how ANE myths are told in order to “justify and establish the current sociological setting.” The purpose of humans in these stories was merely to serve the gods what they needed for sustenance. Furthermore, “the ex nihilo creation of the material world by a transcendent, immaterial, pre-existing God is unique to the Bible and has no parallel in the ancient Near East.” The closest parallel is the Egyptian god Ptah. Ptah did create other gods through thought and speech, but Ptah himself came from primordial water. He is not pre-existent like the Hebrew God.
Another key difference between Genesis and ANE creation myths is that the Hebrew God is adamant that He alone is God. As Arnold and Beyer point out, “At the beginning, only God existed. He alone is the all-powerful One who is capable of speaking the universe into existence without help or assistance. This powerful truth was new to the ancient world, and represented a direct attack on doctrines such as polytheism.” The gods of the Mesopotamian world were also immoral gods who acted very much like humans. They would “lie, steal, fornicate, and kill.” Indeed, there may be other beings known as “gods,” but there was only one Yahweh, the uncreated Creator of all things. And as Paul tells us later in the New Testament, these other “gods” are actually demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush succinctly summarize, then, the purpose of the early chapters of Genesis and their purpose when they write,
the author [of Genesis], inspired by God’s revelation, employed current literary traditions to teach the true theological import of humanity’s primeval history. The book’s purpose was not to provide a biological and geological description of origins. Rather, it was intended to explain the unique nature and dignity of human beings by virtue of their divine origin. They have been made by the Creator in the divine image, yet marred materially by the sin that so soon disfigured God’s good work.
You can read part 2 of the Old Testament Copying series here.
Image: Gustave Dore (1832-1883), “The Creation of Fish and Birds,” no date
Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.
 James K. Hoffmeier, “Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology” in Stanley N. Gundry and Charles Halton, eds., Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 27.
 John A. Bloom and C. John Collins, “Creation Accounts and Ancient Near Eastern Religions,” Christian Research Institute, accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/creation-accounts-ancient-near-eastern-religions/.
 Gerhard Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” The Evangelical Quarterly 46, no. 2 (April-June 1974): 85.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 90.
 Tremper Longman III, “Atrahasis” in Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (eds.), Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 54-55.
 Bloom and Collins.
 Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 80.
 William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 21.
 Ibid., 22. This does not mean that there can be no historical scientific truth found in the Genesis account. Indeed, many look to it as the first attestation to Big Bang cosmology and the understanding of immaterial information, such as in the work of astrophysicist Hugh Ross. Rather, the point is that the main concern of the text—what Yahweh wants His people to know about Him—is who He truly is and who they truly are, not the intricate details of creating and organizing matter. For instance, Old Testament scholar and pastor Michael Lefebvre has made the case that, rather than having to understand the creation days of Genesis as six literal days, we can understand the creation week narrative as “contain[ing] the history of God’s ordering of the world, mapped to Israel’s observance schedule for stewarding that order with labor and worship, without any concern to preserve the events’ original occurrence timing.” Michael Lefebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 117. In other words, God’s creative acts are explained in a way that would have made sense to this agricultural society: creating the space for fruitfulness, populating that space for flourishing and blessing, and a day of rest for worship and thankfulness. Indeed, as Lefebvre continues, “The Torah adapts historical narratives to the dates of festival calendars for the sake of observance, not chronology. The creation week is another narrative ascribed with observance dates that do not preserve the original occurrence timeline” (Lefebvre, 138). Another option given is one by Old Testament scholar John Walton, who believes that the creation narrative is actually a “cosmic temple inauguration,” in which God is establishing the earth as His temple. See John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017). Conversely, Hans Madueme makes a fair point when he says that Christians do not need to let go of a literal, “young earth” view of creation simply because science finds it untenable. Christians believe in many things science cannot explain. See Hans Madueme, “All Truth is God’s Truth: A Defense of Dogmatic Creationism” in Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (eds.), Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018). As a matter of fact, some of our most inflexible beliefs fly in the face of scientific knowledge—such as a virgin birth—and natural law—such as resurrection, which appears to break the 2nd law of thermodynamics relating to entropy. That said, we shouldn’t consider the work of Lefebvre, Walton, and others as attempting to make the Bible palatable to a secular, scientific worldview. That may be an outcome, and may be something they find their work aiding, and it may have even been the catalyst for their inquiries, but they are ultimately seeking to understand the Old Testament text in and on its own terms. And they are not the first ones: long before the world was introduced to scientific theories of evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and a universe billions of years old, Christians in all eras (most famously, Augustine) were trying to understand the biblical text on its own terms and were finding non-literal interpretations of the creation narrative to be the correct readings. See Craig D. Allert, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018); Kyle R. Greenwood, Since the Beginning: Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 Through the Ages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018); Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008). This is not to say that there were not proponents of a literal six-day creation week, but rather just to say that it was far from a settled question long before the modern “creationism” debates since Darwin.