<%-- Page Title--%> Theology <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 119 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 22, 2003

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A History of Creation

Part II

Zeeshan Hasan

Now that we've gone through the Bible's priestly (P) creation story, we come to something very interesting. (Modern Biblical scholars refer to the priestly source, meaning those sources from the Old Testament) priestly's account is neither the only nor the oldest creation story in the Bible. The oldest creation narrative is that of the source which Biblical scholars refer to as “J” or the “Yahwist”, as it always calls God by the Israelite tribal name of “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (although English translations usually use “The Lord” for Yahweh). J's creation story comes in the second chapter of Genesis, right after the priestly account:

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up for Yahweh God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground - then Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:4-9)

The tahwist is very different from both the priestly and the Qur'anic creation story. It has nothing about the heavens and earth being separated and the week-long story which P is concerned with, quite possibly because it pre-dates the weekly ritual of the sabbath which was the reason for P's structure. J had its origins as the ancient tribal history of the Israelites, and portions of it date from as early as 1200 BC. As a tribal history, it essentially begins with the creation of Adam, the tribe's earliest ancestor, and is not terribly concerned with the rest of the cosmos. P's view of God as cosmic creator reflects much later concerns; it probably dates from the Babylonian conquest of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 8th and 6th centuries BC. After the fall of Judah, the last independent Jewish kingdom, the Israelite ruling classes were exiled in Babylon. There they needed to redefine their God as more than a tribal deity in their homeland of Israel, which was lost to them. The solution was to establish the Israelite God as the explicit creator of the entire world, thus extending his influence over the Israelites even in exile. Hence P's need for a more cosmic creation story. Since the Qur'an, like P, also sees God as a cosmic creator, it naturally follows P's seven-day account, even though J's is earlier in origin.

So P's creation story was the basis for the Qur'anic summarised story. But this leads to remarkable conclusions concerning the cultural roots of the Qur'anic story, because when we start asking how the move was made from J's tribal history to P's creation of the cosmos, we can see traces of non-Israelite influences. P's week-long creation story was apparently the result of expanding J using images derived from more ancient and decidedly polytheist Babylonian creation myths. These portrayed the creation of the world as the slaying of a deity representing formlessness or chaos (often depicted as the sea) and the molding of the heavens, earth etc. from the slain corpse. Accordingly, in the P story God does not create the world out of nothing, but from a pre-existing primordial “deep” or sea. The word “deep” (Hebrew tehom) which P uses to describe the primordial chaos/sea, is apparently derived from the name “Tiamat”, a goddess who personified the pre-existing primordial sea in Babylonian myth. The association with water and sea leads her to be described as a sort of dragon-like sea monster. In the Babylonian mythology, Tiamat and her consort Apsu personify the primordial sea/chaos from which all else is shaped. Even the gods of Babylon are formed in the belly of Tiamat, as recounted in the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish (Akkadian for “When the gods on high”) which dates back to around 2000 BC:

When skies above were not yet named,
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 1, lines 1-9)

The emergence of the gods from the primordial waters of Apsu/Tiamat is followed by the slaying of first Apsu and later Tiamat. Tiamat's slayer is Marduk, who was thus justified in his position as chief god in the Babylonian pantheon. Marduk's use of wind as a weapon seems to have a parallel in P's narration of how a “wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:3);

Face to face they came, Tiamat and Marduk, sage of the gods.
They engaged in combat, they closed for battle...

her face he dispatched the imhullu-wind, which had been behind:
Tiamat opened her mouth to swallow it...
Fierce winds distended her belly...
He shot an arrow which pierced her belly,
Split her down the middle and slit her heart,
Vanquished her and extinguished her life. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 4, lines 93-104)

After slaying Tiamat, Marduk cuts her to pieces and shapes the world from the portions. The similarity to P's account of God separating the waters to form the heavens, seas and earth (Genesis 1:6-8) are apparent. As in the Bible, the separation of heaven from sea required establishing the roof of the firmament to prevent the waters of the sky from crashing down.

The lord rested, and inspected her corpse.
He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it).
He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:
Half of her he put up to roof the sky,
Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.
Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.
He crossed the heavens and sought out a shrine...
The Lord measured the dimensions of Apsu
And the large temple (Eshgalla), which he built in its image, was Esharra:
In the great shrine Esharra, which he had created as the sky...
(Enuma Elish, Tablet 4, lines 135-145)

Comparison of the Babylonian creation account also helps us to understand the puzzling question of how P could think of days and nights passing even before the creation of sun and moon. In the Enuma Elish, Marduk defines day and night by means of stars, reflecting a Babylonian fondness for astrology, and leaves the moon for later.

He fashioned stands for the great gods.
As for the stars, he set up constellations corresponding to them.
He designated the year and marked out its divisions,
Apportioned three stars each to the twelve months.
When he had made plans of the days of the year...
He made the crescent moon appear, entrusted night (to it)
and designated it the jewel of night to mark out the days. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 5, lines 1-5, 12-13)

It may well be in imitation of Marduk's order of creation that P narrates the first days and nights taking place before the creation of the sun and moon (Genesis 1:14), even though that seems illogical from our modern perspective. The Bible's lack of concern for astrology apparently causes this confusion, as it leads P to lump the creation of stars together with the sun and moon, leaving no heavenly bodies to define the first days and nights. After all this comes Marduk's creation of dry land from Tiamat's body, as it is brought forth from the primeval tehom by God (Genesis 1:9):

He opened the Euphrates and Tigris from her eyes...
He piled up clear-cut mountains from her udder (Enuma Elish, Tablet 5, lines 55-57)

P's retelling thus combines J's Israelite tribal origin with images from earlier cosmic creation stories of the ancient world. This does not imply that P believed in the gods of Babylon; in fact his whole motive seems to have been to strengthen the religion of the Israelites in exile by giving them a more omnipotent image of God. J's tribal origin tale was apparently not sufficient to establish Yahweh's stature as higher than the Babylonian gods, whose creation myths were told on a much larger, cosmic scale. P's solution was to appropriate the images of Marduk's slaughter of Tiamat and his creation of the heavens from her corpse for Yahweh, while simultaneously dividing the creation into a seven day framework in order to establish the Jewish sabbath.





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