Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East

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Cultures throughout the world have their own creation stories, each trying to understand how the world came to be. The Ancient Near East is no exception, and numerous accounts of creation exist in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Comparing these accounts with Tanakh's story of creation highlights the different worldviews and belief systems of Israel and its neighbors.1

Mesopotamian Accounts of Creation

  • Enuma Elish – Perhaps the most well known and extensive of the Mesopotamian creation accounts is the Babylonian epic known as Enuma Elish.2 
    • Summary – The epic tells how before the creation of heaven and earth, there was only water: Apsu (sweet water), and his female associate, Tiamat (salt water, associated with chaos). The intermingling of the two create divine offspring whose clamoring disturb Apsu and Tiamat, leading to Apsu's decision to destroy them.  His plan is thwarted by Ea, one of the male gods, who kills Apsu.  Tiamat plans revenge with an army of monstrous creatures, while Ea's son, Marduk, heads the opposition.  Marduk kills Tiamat and creates heaven and earth from her carcass. He then establishes the luminaries and sets the calendar.  Finally, he decides to make man (from the blood of Kingu, Tiamat's consort and general) so as to free the gods from manual labor. Marduk is then appointed head of the pantheon.3
    • Cultic and political function4 – The poem became the national epic of Babylon,  serving to celebrate and promote both Marduk as head of the pantheon, and Babylon itself as the preeminent city of the region.  It was recited (and perhaps dramatized) annually during the Spring New Year. The struggle it told between the gods was seen as emblematic of the continual struggle between the forces of chaos and order, felt especially at the time of the Spring flooding.  By reenacting one victory of cosmic order, the people hoped to effect another one.
  • Enki and Ninmah – This Sumerian myth5 focuses solely on the creation of humans, formed so as to relieve the gods from hard labor. The first part briefly details how, under the guidance of Enki (god of crafts, wisdom and water), man was created from pieces of clay taken from Apsu (the underground waters) and formed/born by Namma, the primeval mother goddess. Enki and his consort, Ninmah, celebrate the creation, becoming drunk. Ninmah declares that the fate of man is in her hands, and proceeds to create several deformed humans, implicitly challenging Enki to solve their problems and see if he can determine a different fate.  In each instance he finds a use for the crippled human. When he, in turn, creates an abnormal human, Ninmah is unable to correct it, proving Enki's superiority.
  • Other Creation Myths – Two other well known Mesopotamian epics touch on creation, but only briefly, making them less useful for comparison with the Biblical text:
    • Epic of Atrahasis – This Babylonian epic6 deals primarily with the story of the flood, with only the first of its three tablets speaking of creation.  It does not detail how the world came into being, but does describe the making of humans, sharing how they were created from clay and the blood of a slain god so as to relieve the lesser gods of the burden of caring for the land.
    • The Eridu Genesis – As this Sumerian myth has mainly survived in but one clay tablet7 which is missing its top section,8 its is difficult to reconstruct the entire epic. What remains is primarily a flood account and it mentions the gods' creation of "the dark-headed people"  and "small animals" just in passing.

Egyptian Accounts of Creation

Many of the Egyptian accounts of creation are not attested to as complete compositions, but must be pieced together from individual sayings or vignettes found in other texts, such as the Pyramid9 or Coffin Texts,10 Book of the Dead,11 or other religious works.12  As in Mesopotamia, in Egypt too, different locales had different versions of creation. Two are summarized below:

  • The Heliopolitan Cosmogony – This account associates creation with the sun god Atum (or the related sun deities Ra or Khephri). It believes that the universe began as a chaotic, watery expanse known as Nun or Nu, from which Atum engendered himself.13 He emerged on a primeval mound of earth (benben or tatenen)14 and mated with his shadow,15 spitting or sneezing forth the air god Shu and his twin sister Tefnut.16 They couple to produce the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, with Shu lifting Nut up to the sky and letting Geb form the earth.17 Shu and Nut's coupling brings forth other gods,18 while the tears from Atum's weeping form men and women.19 He further creates "creeping things of every kind".20
  • The Memphite Theology – This account of creation21 revolves around the craftsman deity, Ptah.  He is identified with "Tatenen", the first hill to emerge from the primal waters, and said to have born the rest of the gods "through this heart and through this tongue".  He made food, provisions, towns, and shrines and "was satisfied after he had made all things".  Throughout the myth, there is continued emphasis on Ptah's creating with the spoken word.  There might be a hint of pantheism in the assertion that "(Ptah) is in every body and... every mouth of all gods, all men, all cattle, all creeping things..." Notably, there is no mention of the creation of humans anywhere in the myth.

Points of Contact with Bereshit

There are several points of contact between the various myths of creation and the story of creation in Sefer Bereshit:

  • Watery abyss – Both Enuma Elish and the Egyptian myths assume that before creation, there existed some sort of aquatic realm (Apsu and Tiamat or Nun/Nu). These primeval waters are described as dark and chaotic.22 In Tanakh, too, we are told of deep waters and darkness existing at the beginning of time. Some have further suggested that the word "תהום" might be etymologically related to "Tiamat" of Enuma Elish.23
  • Emergence of earth  – In all the accounts, earth emerges from these original waters.  In the Egyptian mythologies, a mound (benben) rises from Nun, while in Enuma Elish, part of the carcass of Tiamat (the original salty waters) forms the earth.  In Bereshit, Hashem gathers the waters to reveal the dry land.
  • Splitting of waters – In Enuma Elish, there is a separation of waters as Tiamat is literally split, one part being placed above to form the heavens and one below to form earth.  In Tanakh, Hashem creates the firmament to separate the waters below and above.
  • Seven Days – The creation story of Bereshit spans seven days, with six days of activity and one of rest.  Enuma Elish is recorded on seven tablets and speaks of six generations of gods, the last of which creates humans so that the gods can rest thereafter. Importantly, though, creation itself is not said to happen over a seven day period.24
  • Luminaries – In both Tanakh and Enuma Elish the luminaries are created and said to play a role in setting time.
  • Man from clay - The Epic of Atrahasis describes the making of man from both clay25 and the remains of a slain deity, while in the myth Enki and Ninmah, they are formed from clay and born by a goddess.26  In Tanakh, Hashem forms Adam from the dust of the earth and in the image of God.
  • Creation by speech – The Memphis Theology uniquely parallel's Bereshit in portraying its god, Ptah, as creating via speech rather than action.
  • Satisfaction of the creator – In the Memphis account, after creation, Ptah is said to "satisfied" with his work, similar to Hashem's seeing that "all that He had made was very good" in Bereshit.

Points of Contrast with Bereshit

The points of contrast between the accounts are many:

  • Theogony vs. cosmogony – The Egyptian creation myths are essentially theogonies, focusing on how the gods came into being, rather than how the world was created. Enuma Elish, too, is heavily focused on how the deities were born and rose to power.   Bereshit, in contrast, takes Hashem's existence for granted, saying nothing of how Hashem came into being. Bereshit 1 is a story of the world's creation, not Hashem's birth story or biography.
  • God within / without of the abyss – In the other accounts, the various deities emerge from or co-exist with the chaotic, watery realm. Hashem, in contrast, is separate from this realm, in command of it rather than generated from it.  Life emerges from these waters only at His behest, not of its own accord.
  • Primary or secondary? In Enuma Elish the god who creates the world is not primary.  Marduk only comes into existence after five generations of other deities and monstrous creatures.27  In Tanakh, Hashem is the first and sole God.
  • "Marriage" of the gods – In the various Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, many of the members of the pantheon are paired with a consort. They are described as having human-like traits, copulating to reproduce.28 Hashem, in contrast, has no female counterpart and bears no offspring.
  • Story of conflict – The Enuma Elish epic is mainly a story of conflict and in-fighting between the gods, with the drama of their rivalry almost eclipsing the account of creation. Bereshit contains no hint of conflict29 and reads not as a drama, but as an orderly, methodical account of how the world came to be.  U. Cassuto suggests that the explicit mention of "הַתַּנִּינִם" among the creations of day five might be an implicit polemic against this mythological motif.30 Bereshit goes out of its way to highlight that the "תַּנִּינִם" were natural creatures, created by God like all else, not mythological monsters rebelling against God.31
  • Creation of humans – Though in both the Babylonian accounts32 and in Bereshit, man draws his life force from a god, in the former this takes the form of a slain god's flesh and/or blood, whereas in Tanakh, this life force is the breath of God. Moreover, in the Biblical account, man is formed in the image of god, not from a god.
  • Role of humans – In the various Ancient Near Eastern accounts, the creation of humans is often secondary, and in some cases, absent from the tale altogether. In Tanakh, in contrast, humans are presented as the pinnacle of creation. In addition, whereas elsewhere they are created to slave over the rest of the world, in Bereshit, they are tasked with ruling over it.
  • Need for work – While the Babylonian accounts suggest that man is destined for hard work so as to relieve the gods of such labor, Bereshit suggests that this is a result of human sin and being expelled from the Garden of Eden.
  • Shabbat – Only in the Biblical account is there a notion of the deity ceasing from work on the seventh day and sanctifying it.33


Many of the differences between the various Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical accounts of creation reflect the cultures' differing belief systems and notions of a deity:

  • Polytheism versus monotheism – Most of the differences in the creation stories stem from this basic difference in outlook. Only in a polytheistic culture will one find an account of the birth of the gods and not just the birth of the world. With a multiplicity of deities, there can be disagreements between gods, leading to rivalry or conflict. Finally, distinct gods will be associated with different aspects of creation and the creator god need not be primary. All this is, of course, impossible from a monotheistic perspective where God is not born, has no rivals, and is the sole Creator.
  • God and nature – In most Ancient Near Eastern societies, the line between god and nature was blurred. The gods were perceived not as above nature, but as aspects of nature, being gods of storms or seas, their bodies forming heavens or earth and their blood creating man. As the gods were engendered from (or identical to) preexisting matter,34 they were not necessarily in control of it35 and, by definition, limited. Torah, which views Hashem as separate and supreme, instead, portrays Hashem as above nature.  He commands the primal waters, with His spirit hovering over, not beneath them.  He does not emerge from nature, but forms it through His word.36
  • God and humans – Polytheistic societies viewed their gods as similar to humans, with physical needs and emotions.  In such a society, creation might unfold from a war between gods or through the copulation of gods. As the line between god and humans is blurred, it is natural that humans can be formed from the blood or flesh of a god. In Tanakh, where there is a clear divide between man and god, and Hashem is above the physical and has no human traits, this type of creation is unfathomable.
  • Capricious vs. just  god – Ancient Near Eastern gods were understood to be capricious, often acting upon impulse or emotion. There was no assumption of Divine justice37 or purpose.38 Thus, though both the Mesopotamians and Egyptians believed that the gods brought forth order from chaos, they nonetheless assumed that many aspects of creation were arbitrary39 or acts of selfishness.40 Torah, in contrast, assumes that Hashem is a just, purposeful God.  As such, it presents every aspect of creation as stemming from intelligent design and ends with Hashem's assertion that "it was good," highlighting the Israelite belief in the essential goodness of the universe. Man's suffering is viewed not as a fate set by a selfish god, but a result of his own sin.
  • Perspective on humans – Israel's neighbors viewed humans as being integrated with the rest of nature and the cosmos, at the mercy of its power, and not necessarily as a dominant force therein.41 As such, humans do not merit special mention in their creation accounts. Torah, in contrast, elevates man, giving him dominion over nature and a unique relationship to Hashem.