Note – the information below is essentially what is taught in Biblical studies courses at major universities and seminaries. I derived most of the material in this article from the following college textbooks:
Stephen Harris – “Understanding the Bible, a Readers Introduction”, Mayfield Publishers, second edition, 1985
Gerald LaRue – “Ancient Myth and Modern Life”, Centerline Press, 1988
Almost fifty percent of American citizens believe that the creation stories in the Book of Genesis are literally true. Other Christians believe that while these stories may not be literally true, they are consistent with modern scientific knowledge (for example, the sequence of creation is roughly consistent with what is known from science). In this paper, I will explain what today’s Biblical scholars know about these ancient accounts and argue that they bear no resemblance to the modern scientific view of the cosmos.
Interestingly, the Book of Genesis contains two different creation stories. There is general agreement amongst scholars that Genesis 2:4b to 3:24 was written during the time of King Solomon, about 950 BCE. Scholars refer to Genesis 2 as “J” for Jahweh, the German spelling of Yahweh. Genesis 1 (1:1 to 2:4a) is called “P”, for Priestly account; it was written about 550 to 400 BCE, much later than Genesis 1.
Here is a condensed version of the two creation stories placed side by side (From Ancient Myth and Modern Life, p63c):
Gen 2:4b-23 (circa 950 BCE) Gen. 1:1-2:4a (circa 550 to 400 BCE)
1. Heavens and earth 1. Primeval ocean, formless earth,
* light formed to separate day and night
2. Mist to dampen ground 2. Firmament created in primeval ocean
* – water above and below
3. Man (Adam) molded from 3. Waters gathered, earth appears,
earth vegetation created
4. Garden planted including 4. Sun, moon, stars created
tree of knowledge
5. Rivers of Eden 5. Birds and sea creatures created
6. Assignment of Man 6. Animals created
7. Beasts, birds molded 7. Humans created
from the earth
8. Woman formed from 8. Sabbath created
Many Biblical apologists claim that Genesis 2 is a more detailed elaboration on Genesis 1. However, as the illustration above clearly shows, the sequences of creation in the two stories are contradictory and do not harmonize anywhere. Harmonizing these two stories requires dismissing modern scholarship and/or ‘elasticizing’ the text to fit with theological presuppositions. Genesis 1 and 2 are two completely different stories written by different peoples at different times – Genesis 1 was written hundreds of years after Genesis 2!
There are many parallels to earlier stories from other cultures in the two Genesis myths. The story of Adam and Eve shares a similar motif to the earlier Egyptian myth of Ra. In this story, men and gods lived together in a primordial paradise. Several ancient myths tell of an evil, seductive serpent that tempts man. The story of Noah and the flood is paralleled in two ancient Babylonian writings. One is about a high priest named Ziasudra that rescues his family and animals from a great flood. The other is found in the writing called, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this story, the god Ninigiku-Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat and rescue, “The seed of all living things” from the coming floodwaters. The Gilgamesh flood story, dating back to the third millennium BCE, shares many parallels to the story of Noah, which was written much later. In Babylonian mythology pre-dating Genesis, gods create man and animals from clay. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam from clay.
For decades, scholars have known that the creation account in Genesis 1 was derived from a much earlier Babylonian creation myth called Enuma Elish. Here are the similarities of the two accounts placed in sequence and side-by-side. (From Ancient Myth and Modern Life, p63c):
ENUMA ELISH GENESIS
Divine spirit and cosmic matter are Divine spirit creates cosmic
coexistent and coeternal matter and exists independently
* of it
Primeval chaos, the god Tiamat Earth a desolate waste,
enveloped in darkness with darkness covering the deep
Light emanating from the gods Light created
Creation of the firmament Creation of the firmament
Creation of dry land Creation of dry land
Creation of the luminaries Creation of the luminaries
Creation of man Creation of man
Gods rest and celebrate God rests and sanctifies
* the 7th day
These two stories share far too many similarities to be dismissed as merely a matter of coincidence. Babylonian literature was known throughout the near east before the Hebrews became a nation. Genesis 1:1-2:4b likely came into existence during the Hebrew exile in Babylon. At that time, it is known that Babylonian thought influenced and impacted the Judean priesthood.
A popular modern interpretation of the opening verses of Genesis 1 is that God created the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). This idea stems from the fact that the King James Version of the Bible contains an incomplete translation; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” However, today’s more accurate translations read; “When God began to create the heaven and the earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the deep (Hebrew, “tehom”) and a wind from God sweeping over the water…” (Understanding the Bible, p52). Just like their ancient Canaanite, Babylonian and Egyptian counterparts, the Biblical God creates the world in the midst of a primordial watery abyss, not out of nothing! Creation from nothing was not part of ancient Hebrew thought.
Genesis 1 goes on to say that God separated the primeval waters with the firmament above and the earth below. The Hebrew word for firmament means ‘beaten out, like metal’, or ‘beaten metal bowl’. Genesis doesn’t mention the specific shape of the earth, but the common view at the time in this part of the world was that the earth is flat. In the Genesis 1 story, the earth below and dome above in tandem hold back the watery abyss that lies beyond. Recall that when God begins the flood in Genesis 6:11, “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens (dome) were opened”.
All of this is consistent with neighboring ancient pre-scientific cosmologies; an earth-centered cosmos, the optical illusion that the earth is flat and that the sky is a dome that meets the earth at the horizon. For example, in an Egyptian depiction (Papyrus of Ani, Book of the Dead, dating back to about the fifteenth century B.C.E.), the sky goddess Nut is posed in a semi-circular arching ‘dome-like’ position representing the heavens. Her body is supported by the outstretched arms of Shu, the air god. Below him is Geb, the earth god, posed in a reclining position to represent the hills and valleys of the otherwise flat earth.
The two creation stories in Genesis were written at different times by different authors. Much of the material is derived from more ancient myths and motifs. They are inconsistent with one another and modern scientific knowledge. Nothing in Genesis describes a vast expanding universe; deep time and space; a sun-centered solar system; the formation of the earth from the gravitational attraction of matter; and the subsequent evolution of life. The Biblical creation stories don’t even come close to getting it right! However, they are consistent with the cosmological thought of surrounding cultures that existed before and during the times in which the Genesis accounts were written.
There certainly is no objective reason to believe that these stories are divinely inspired. The evidence is crystal clear that men limited by the parochial knowledge of their time authored these ancient myths.