If an ancient Babylonian heard the stories in the primeval history of Genesis, they would think some parts sounded very familiar. Indeed, parts of Genesis resemble the Enuma Elish, an epic poem from ancient Babylon that is often called the Babylonian creation myth.
What is the Enuma Elish?
The name “Enuma Elish” comes from the first words of the poem, which in Akkadian mean “when above.” The poem describes a battle between the gods at the beginning of time, culminating with the hero-god Marduk defeating Tiamat, the goddess of salty waters, and creating the world. No one knows exactly when the Enuma Elish was composed, but a date in the second millennium BCE is likely, long before the earliest parts of the Bible were written down.
What do the Bible and the Enuma Elish share in common?
The Enuma Elish resembles a few parts of the Bible, especially Gen 1. Both begin with temporal clauses: “when above” and “in the beginning.” In the ancient world, the sea was associated with chaos and destruction. The Bible includes a number of texts in which God battles and tames the chaotic sea, like Marduk battling Tiamat, who embodies the sea. But in Gen 1, God is already superior to “the Deep,” which in Hebrew is tehom, a word related to Tiamat.
Rather than creating out of nothing, both God and Marduk create by giving order to the chaos, which for Marduk means creating out of Tiamat’s corpse. Both God and Marduk separate primordial waters and place a barrier in between the upper and lower waters. Both create luminaries to give light. Gen 1 occurs over seven days, and the Enuma Elish is told across seven tablets. On the sixth day God creates humans, which Marduk does in the sixth tablet of the Enuma Elish. While God marks humans as special by making them in God’s image (Gen 1), Marduk has man created from the blood of a slain god. God orders humans to work and care for the earth (Gen 1 and Gen 2). Marduk assigns the work of the gods to the humans, so that the gods can rest.
Finally, both the Enuma Elish and the Bible (Gen 11:1-9) include stories about the founding of Babylon (Babel in Hebrew), including the building of a tower or ziggurat. But while Marduk names the city Bab-ili, which means “gate of the gods,” the Bible connects Babel to the Hebrew word “to confuse.”
Scholars offer different explanations to account for the similarities between the Enuma Elish and the Bible. Because Babylon was a significant power in the ancient Near East, it is possible that some biblical writers knew the Enuma Elish. Others think the similarities result from common ancient Near Eastern beliefs that influenced both texts. If the writers of Genesis did know the Enuma Elish, we must also ask whether they were simply adapting the poem to tell their own stories of creation or if they purposefully reworked the Enuma Elish to claim supremacy for Israel’s God instead of Marduk.