One of the most important literary themes in the ancient Near East was cosmogony (i.e., the story of how things came into being). Among the cosmogonies of the ancient Near East, the earliest and most enduring were produced by those cultures to whom we owe the invention of writing, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Mesopotamian cosmogony, in particular, bears a number of resemblances to the creation account found in Genesis 1 and continues to be a subject of perennial interest to scholars and archaeologists.
The Mesopotamian cosmogony, Enuma Elish or “when on high”, originated in ancient Babylonia probably sometime around 1800 BC. The story tells how the world was created by the gods of fresh water and salt water, Apsu and Tiamat, and how through their union the other gods and goddesses were born. Almost immediately, however, discord arose between the primordial gods and their descendants, and Apsu and Tiamat decided to kill off their offspring. Upon discovering this, one of the lesser gods, Ea, killed Apsu, while another god, Marduk, was chosen to lead the others in war against Tiamat. Marduk, the god of storm, eventually defeated Tiamat with weapons of thunder, lightening, and wind, and took his place as king among the gods. Marduk then attended to the task of creation. Out of one half of Tiamat’s body he made the earth, and out of the other half he made the heavens. Out of the blood of one of Tiamat’s appointees, Marduk appointed Ea to fashion human beings… “savage man I will create, and he shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease!”4. Finally, Marduk appointed different roles to the gods, set the cosmos in order, and celebrated with a divine banquet.
While the theological differences between Enuma Elish and the Biblical account of creation are obvious enough, there are nevertheless numerous parallels. The larger part of these are purely linguistic in nature, but the most striking, and the one for which Enuma Elish is the most famous, concerns the order of creation. In both accounts, the creation of the universe occurs in discrete phases, with the gods or God resting on the last. Furthermore, the details of each specific phase of creation are identical: the first involving the creation of light; the second, the dome of the sky; the third, the creation of dry land, and so on. The strength of this parallel has led to an unending debate among scholars concerning the precise nature of the relationship between Enuma Elish and Genesis chapter 1. Scholarly opinion ranges from the view that there is no close relationship between the two5 to the view that the latter is directly dependant upon the former6.
Interestingly, more than 200 flood texts have survived from cultures around the world. The earliest flood texts come from Mesopotamia and Egypt and record the occurrence of a world-wide deluge parallel to the one spoken about in Genesis 6-9. Of the two, the Mesopotamian account is again the one that bears the closest resemblance to the story in the Bible.
The Mesopotamian flood story is actually only one part of a much larger literary work called the Epic of Gilgamesh. The work was written somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Babylonia by no later than the end of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2000 BC). In the epic, the story tells how the hero king and semi-divine being, Gilgamesh, overworks his subjects to such an extent that the gods endeavor to divert his attention by creating for him a companion, Enkidu, of equal strength and ambition. Quick to become friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on a series of successful heroic adventures. Eventually, Enkidu dies prompting Gilgamesh to undertake the greatest and most challenging quest of all—the search for eternal life. In his quest, Gilgamesh searches to the ends of the earth to find the legendary Utnapishtim, who alone among humans is said to have attained eternal life. When Gilgamesh finally finds Utnapishtim, Utnapishtim recounts to Gilgamesh the story of the great flood and how he alone among humans survived and was granted the gift of eternal life by the gods. As for Gilgamesh, however, Utnapishtim remarks that he can expect no such gift from the gods. However, Utnapishtim does tell Gilgamesh of a secret plant hidden at the bottom of the sea which, if one eats it, can rejuvenate the life of one that has grown old. Thereupon, Gilgamesh recovers this plant and attempts to return home with it, but is deceived by a serpent who eats it while he is bathing in a pool. At long last, Gilgamesh despairs of his search for eternal life and endeavors to take joy in the work of his hands.
As in Enuma Elish, the thematic differences between the Babylonian account of the flood and the Biblical account of the flood are readily apparent. Nevertheless, some remarkable parallels exist. For example, in Utnapishtim’s flood narrative, he tells of how, being warned by the gods that a flood was imminent, he built a ship and sealed it with pitch in order to survive (cf. Gen. 6:13-14). In addition, just like Noah, Utnapishtim kept animals on the ship in order to preserve the various species (cf. Gen. 6:19-21). Utnapishtim also sent birds out of his ship in order to ascertain whether or not the flood had stopped (cf. Gen. 8:6-12). When at last the flood had ceased, the ship came to rest on a mountain where, upon exiting his ship, Utnapishtim offered sacrifices to the gods (cf. Gen. 8:20). As in Enuma Elish, the relationship between the book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh continues to be a source of scholarly interest and debate.