The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis – 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

The other Babylonian creation epic which is often discussed when the ANE parallels to Genesis 1-11 are discussed is Atrahasis. Unlike Enuma Elish, this epic, which dates to the 18th century BCE, covers both creation and the flood. The first tablet begins with the allocation of realms to the gods Anu (sky), Enlil (earth) and Enki (water). These gods in turn created lesser deities to perform menial agricultural labour, but after forty years, they went on strike, refusing to perform any further work. Enki’s advice was to create human beings in order to carry out this menial work. One of the lesser gods was killed, and his blood mixed with earth. From this, the first humans were born.

Overpopulation of the world is a dominant theme of the second tablet. Enlil attempts to solve this problem by inflicting drought and plague upon the earth.  The flood story is found in the third tablet. Enlil attempts to solve the human overpopulation story once and for all by sending a flood. Enki warns Atrahasis to build a boat in order to escape the impending flood. Atrahasis does this, and along with his family and animals enters the boat. The flood ends seven days later, and Atrahasis offers sacrifice to the gods. The gods Enki and Enlil then decide to work on other methods of population control.

The parallels between Atrahasis and Gen 1-11 as Enns notes1 are striking:

Atrahasis                                                                           Genesis

Agriculture by irrigation                                                     Eden watered by irrigation

Lesser gods (Igigi) original labourers                          Yahweh original planter of garden of Eden

First humans created from blood and clay                   Yahweh makes man from dust and breath of life

Original humans anger the gods                                    Man rebels against God by eating fruit

Original humans punished with plague                         Man expelled from Eden and subject to death

Flood sent by gods to destroy man                                  Yahweh sends flood to destroy man

Enki tells Atrahasis to build a boat to escape flood      Yahweh commands Noah to build ark to escape flood

Atrahasis survives flood, offers sacrifice                          Noah survives flood, offers sacrifice to Yahweh

The similarities are hardly trivial.  Enns notes:

Still, the obvious similarities between them indicate a connection on some level. Perhaps one borrowed from the other, or perhaps all these stories have older precursors. The second option is quite possible, since, as mentioned above, there exists a Sumerian flood story that is considerably older than either the Akkadian or biblical versions. In either case, the question remains how the Akkadian evidence influences our understanding of the historical nature of the biblical story.2

Both the old critical argument that Genesis is a demythologised version of Enuma Elish, and the conservative claim that the tablets are a corrupted version of a Hebrew original fail to do justice to the data.

Series Navigation<< The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis – 2The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis – 4 >>
  1. Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012 []
  2. Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation. Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2005 p 29 []

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