Chapter three of the new book by Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, looks at the relationship between the stories of origins contained in the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament – and the stories of origins in the surrounding Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures. In the post Tuesday we looked briefly at the general relationship the ANE stories and the Hebrew Old Testament focusing on Enuma Elish and the creation story in Genesis 1. The relationship between the flood story of Genesis 6-8 and flood stories in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis is particularly clear, but this doesn’t really bear on the central question of this series of posts – which is Adam. Thus I am not going to discuss all of the details of the comparison, but rather move on to Israel’s second creation story in Genesis 2-3, the relationship of this account with Atrahasis and some general conclusions.
There are two major points to the argument Enns makes in this part of the chapter. First, scripture contains parallel accounts of the same events and these don’t always harmonize. The side by side accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25 contain two different creation stories. Second, Genesis contains elements common to other ANE texts. The way that Genesis uses these elements is not consistent with the idea that Genesis tells the one true story from which everything else is derived and corrupted.
Careful study of the text of scripture itself, and the comparison of Genesis with other ANE texts calibrates the genre and thus the theological purpose of the creation stories in Genesis. This removes the pressure to see Genesis as addressing modern scientific and historical questions.
What do you make of the two creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2?
What do you make of the similarities between Genesis 1-11 and various ANE texts?
Table 3.1 in The Evolution of Adam, slightly adapted from a table by Daniel Harlow, illustrates the differences in the parallel creation accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25.
Some of the differences are minor, some of them are more significant. But the two accounts cannot be easily harmonized into one self-consistent creation narrative. Parallel accounts not easily reconciled are found in other parts of Genesis 1-11 as well – in the genealogies of 4:17-26 and 5:3-32; the repopulation after the flood 10:1-32 and 11:10-32; and for that matter within the flood story. The point here is not to claim that scripture is errant, but to illustrate the fact that when Genesis was compiled and as it became accepted in the canon of Holy Scripture these differences were both obvious and not considered a problem.
Whoever is responsible for Genesis 1-11 certainly seems comfortable allowing distinct accounts to rest side by side. The reason for this may simply be that the final editor of Genesis wished to preserve Israel’s own diverse traditions, or perhaps needed to, owing to the weight of tradition behind them. I certainly think this is true … (p. 52)
The forms of the two creation narratives are different, Genesis 1 is more stylized, perhaps poetic, although this isn’t clear. Genesis 2 is written in a narrative style. But this doesn’t make one more historical and the other less historical. Fiction can be written in a narrative style and history can be written using a stylized poetic form.
Genesis 1 is not the symbolic, less historical, “poetic” account of creation and Genesis 2-3 the narrative and therefore more historical one. Both reflect ancient ways of thinking; we need to understand them first on their own terms and appreciate the tensions between them for what they tell us about their theologies. (p. 53)
Comparison with Atrahasis. The second major point in the argument Enns makes in this chapter is that Genesis contains elements common to other ANE texts. The arise from the same cultural context. In the last post Genesis 1 was considered in the context of the ANE tale Enuma Elish. The creation story in Genesis 2 has more in common with Atrahasis. In fact some have suggested that Genesis 2-8 may be modeled after Atrahasis, a suggestions Enns acknowledges as reasonable but not definite. Many of the points of comparison are listed in Table 3.2 in the book. These include humans created out of clay to cultivate the land, the institution of marriage and the flood story. But Atrahasis is not the only ancient text that carries themes common to Genesis 2. Enns also includes a summary of comparisons of Genesis 2-5 with a number of other ANE texts from Babylon, Sumer, and Egypt. The breath of life, streams of water, plant that confers immortality, serpent, and female made from the male’s rib/side are other plot elements found in ANE tales.
The bottom line: In Genesis we have parallel creation accounts allowed to stand side by side. These accounts are not consistent with each other and each has elements in common with other texts from the ancient Near East. In fact the entire primordial history in Genesis 1-11 has clear evidence of commonality with various elements from different ANE texts. The authors and editors who compiled Genesis were not concerned with harmonizing them. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 are not designed to answer modern scientific questions about science or detailed questions about history. The texts reflect an ancient world view, not a modern one because they were written in an ancient culture. Enns summarizes the situation:
Although there is no absolute scholarly consensus about how to read the creation and flood stories in all their details, the evidence points us clearly in the following direction: the early chapters of Genesis are not a literal or scientific description of historical events but a theological statement in an ancient idiom, a statement about Israel’s God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s people.
The core issue raised by the ancient Near Eastern data has helped to calibrate the genre of the biblical creation accounts. (p. 56)
But Genesis is not a patchwork quilt of material from disparate texts and sources. This post started out comparing the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. These two creation accounts have distinct differences in tone, style, and content. Yet they are allowed to stand side by side. This isn’t accidental, each text serves a theological purpose. This is one of the key ideas that shapes Enns’s overall argument in The Evolution of Adam. Completing the quote just after the table above:
I certainly think this is true but there is still more going on. The placement of these stories side by side has theological value: Genesis 1 tells the story of creation as a whole by the one sovereign God, and Genesis 2 focuses early and specifically on Israel’s story. (p. 52)
This is an argument we will consider as we move through the next several chapters of The Evolution of Adam.
What approach should we take to the apparent inconsistencies in the text of Genesis?
Do the elements of similarity between Genesis 1-11 and various ANE tales challenge the truthfulness of Genesis?
Do you think we can view Genesis as stemming from the correct original? Does our doctrine of scripture require this?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If you have comments please visit Adam and Atrahasis at Jesus Creed.