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THE AMERICAN 

JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 

Volume DC JANUARY, J 905 Number J 



THE BABYLONIAN AND BIBLICAL ACCOUNTS OF THE 

CREATION 



A. H. SAYCE 
Oxford University 



Nearly thirty years ago Mr. George Smith, one of the most bril- 
liant and successful pioneers of Assyriology, discovered the fragments 
of an Assyrian legend of the creation. It was in the form of a poem, 
and from the portions of it that remained he concluded that it had 
been composed in seven tablets or books. Between these seven tablets 
and the seven creation days of Genesis a comparison was natural, 
more especially as the order of creation in the Assyrian and biblical 
accounts seems to be the same, and there were, moreover, other points 
of resemblance between them. 

After Mr. Smith's untimely death other fragments of the Assyrian 
poem came to light. It soon became apparent that it was really a 
sort of paean in honor of the god Bel-Merodach who, in the eyes of 
the later Babylonians, was the creator of the world. Other gods 
had played that part in the earlier days of Babylonian history, but 
Merodach was the patron god of the city of Babylon, and when 
Babylon became the capital of the country it was needful that its 
god should be supreme. Merodach, accordingly, usurped the place 
which had previously been held by the older divinities, absorbing 
all the offices and attributes that had belonged to them. Among 
these the creative function naturally held a foremost position, and it 



2 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 

was therefore as creator of the world that the god of Babylon now 
stepped forward to the exclusion of his brother-deities. Henceforth 
in the eyes of the Babylonians Merodach alone was the creator of the 
world. 

Hence it is that the work of creation necessarily occupies a large 
space in a poem the object of which is to celebrate the supremacy 
of Merodach. The poem, in fact, becomes an epic of the creation, 
since it was in virtue of his being the creator that Merodach proved 
himself to be the first of the gods. It was because he alone had 
made the world that he was supreme in both heaven and earth. 
Not only was the earth with its inhabitants the work of his hands; 
the heavens also, where the gods dwelt, were equally his creation. 

The creation was conceived of by the Babylonians as the evolu- 
tion of order out of chaos, of light out of darkness, of law out of 
anarchy. The present world with its law and order has been evolved 
out of an earlier and chaotic world in which the anarchic forces of 
nature were allowed full play. The evolution has been the result of 
a struggle; the anarchic elements have been subdued and confined 
within the limits of law only after fierce resistance, out of which the 
gods of light emerged triumphant and the demons of darkness were 
put to flight. In the Epic of the Creation the triumph of the gods of 
light is ascribed to Merodach. Other gods before him had essayed 
to fight with the dragon of chaos; he only had succeeded in over- 
coming her. 

The dragon of chaos was a personification of the deep, of that 
abyss of waters over which the storms sweep, and which, unless 
checked and restrained, would swallow up the earth and all that it 
contains. In the deep the Babylonians saw the primeval origin of 
all things. The belief went back to days long before Babylon became 
the leading city of Babylonia and its god had usurped the creative 
functions of the older deities. But it was a belief deeply planted in 
the Babylonian mind, and all theories or stories of creation were 
required to presuppose it. 

It was a belief that first grew up in the city of Eridu, which, some 
seven or eight thousand years ago, was the seaport of primitive 
Babylonia. Eridu then stood on the shore of the Persian Gulf, 
though the silting up of the coast and the retreat of the sea have long 



ACCOUNTS OF THE CREATION 3 

since removed its site far inland. Its maritime trade made it the 
nursery and home of early Babylonian culture; its god Ea was the 
culture-god of Chaldea, to whom were ascribed the invention of 
writing and all the arts and habits of civilized life. For the inhabit- 
ants of Eridu and for the culture which emanated from it Ea was, 
therefore, the creator, and here accordingly the earlier Babylonian 
system of cosmology first grew up. 

The maritime situation of this earlier home of the Babylonian 
story of the creation thus explains how the deep came to be regarded 
as that out of which the universe has been evolved. The deep was 
the Persian Gulf, and to the native of Eridu who saw the land growing, 
as it were, out of the sea by the accumulation of silt it was natural 
to suppose that this was the way in which the whole earth had come 
into existence. The fields reclaimed from the Persian Gulf at Eridu 
were a type and illustration of the world and its creation. As they 
were in a sense the gift of the sea, so, it was argued, the whole world 
must have had its origin in the deep. 

Babylon was probably a colony of Eridu. At all events, its patron 
god Merodach was identified with the son of Ea of Eridu, and came 
in time to absorb the attributes of his adopted father. The creative 
functions of Ea passed to Merodach; Merodach and not Ea became 
the creator of the world. In the Epic of the Creation, accordingly, 
Merodach is the creator of the world, though the system of cosmology 
is still that of Eridu. 

The first tablet or book is a philosophical introduction to the story 
which follows. It breathes the spirit of a later age when the old 
myths had ceased to be believed and the supernatural figures that 
moved in them had been transformed into cosmical principles and 
abstract symbols. Tiamat, the dragon of the deep, has become the 
impersonation of chaos and anarchy, the ocean which encircles the 
world has ceased to be divine and has been changed into the element 
out of which all things have been produced, and the gods themselves 
are resolved into material elements. And creation itself is represented 
as a process of development, instead of being the result of a war in 
heaven, as the rest of the poem declares it to be. 

It is only in the introduction, however, that mythology thus makes 
way for the materialistic philosophy of the schools. Elsewhere the 



4 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 

poem knows only of the myths in which the Babylonian stories of 
creation were embodied and of the mythological figures with which 
they were connected. Tiamat assumes her mythological character, 
and the larger part of the epic is occupied with the legend of the war 
of the gods and the victory of Merodach over her. The introduction 
is, I believe, the work of an Assyrian who may have lived as late as 
the time of Assur-bani-pal; the rest of the poem is of Babylonian 
origin and of comparatively early date. 

Much of the missing portion of it has recently been discovered by 
Mr. L. W. King, and we can now, therefore, follow the thread of the 
story in a way that was impossible before. Among the new frag- 
ments found by him are the beginning and end of the sixth tablet, in 
which the creation of the man is described. We now learn that the 
revolt of Tiamat had been preceded by an earlier revolt of Apsu, " the 
Deep," and Mummu, "Chaos" — evidently a variant version of the 
war of the gods in which Apsu and Mummu took the place of Tiamat. 

The account of the war and of the final victory of Merodach 
occupies the first four books. At the end of the fourth we are told 
how the conqueror divided Tiamat " like a flat fish into two halves, " 
forming out of them the waters above and below the firmament. 
Then in the fifth tablet comes the appointment of the heavenly 
bodies to illuminate the world, and to measure time. They were 
not created like the firmament, for in the eyes of the Babylonians the 
sun and moon and stars were deities, and consequently had come 
into being at the same time as Merodach himself. What the creator 
did, therefore, was to fix the places to be occupied by the signs of the 
Zodiac, to "ordain the year" and its divisions, assigning three stars 
to each of the months, to cause the moon-god to illumine the night 
and determine the length of the month, and to set the sun-god over 
the day. At the same time, the courses of the celestial bodies through 
the sky were laid down for them, and the whole universe was bound 
together by inviolable laws, " so that none might err or ever go astray." 
The reign of chaos was over; henceforward the world was to be 
governed by fixed law. 

The latter half of the fifth tablet is wanting, and until Mr. King's 
fortunate discovery nothing was known of the sixth. We now find 
that it begins with a description of the creation of man. 



ACCOUNTS OF THE CREATION 5 

When Merodach heard the word of the gods, his heart prompted him (and) 
he devised [a plan]. He opened his mouth and [spake] to Ea, what he had 
conceived in his heart he imparted [to him]: "Blood will I take and bone will 
[I fashion]; I will make man that man may [exist ?]; I will create man to inhabit 
[the earth], that the service of the gods may be performed and their shrines 
[built]: I will also change the ways of the gods and reform [their counsels], that 
they may be all honored together and against evil [be protected?]." 

The creation of man is thus connected with the overthrow of the 
powers of darkness, and its object is expressly stated to be the wor- 
ship and service of the gods of light. Did man not exist, the gods 
would be deprived of their offerings, and the temples wherein they 
were adored would remain unbuilt. 

The seventh and last tablet of the epic is a hymn of praise sung by 
the gods in honor of Merodach, in which the attributes and powers 
of the other "great gods" are transferred to him. It formed origi- 
nally no part of the story of the creation, or even of the legend of 
Merodach; it was an independent poem, going back to Sumerian 
times and incorporated by the author of the epic into his work. 
Numerous explanatory commentaries of it existed, fragments of 
which have survived to us, and the author of the epic has connected 
it with the rest of his poem by explaining that it was chanted by 
the gods in their council chamber after the overthrow of Tiamat, 
and by adding to it at the end a few lines of epilogue. 

The story of the overthrow of Tiamat, like the story of the creation 
itself, was primarily told, not of Merodach, but of another god, 
El-bil, the older Bel of Nippur. Hence it is that, after describing 
how the task of opposing Tiamat had been undertaken in vain by 
Anu and Ea, no mention is made of Bel of Nippur, the third member 
of the Babylonian triad. Bel, in fact, has been identified with his 
supplanter, the younger Bel-Merodach of Babylon. But the identi- 
fication goes back to the age of Abraham. It was under Kham- 
mu-rabi, or Amraphel, that Babylon became the capital of a united 
empire and its god supreme in the divine hierarchy of Babylonia. 
When Abraham migrated to Canaan, the story of the creation and 
of the war in heaven must already have assumed much the same form 
as that which it has in the epic. 

The importance of the fact becomes clear as soon as we compare 
the Babylonian story with the first chapter of Genesis. The resem- 



6 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 

blance that exists between them has been recognized from the first. 
Indeed, it is more than a resemblance; much that we find in the bibli- 
cal cosmology presupposes the conceptions of the cuneiform story and 
meets with its explanation from them. Even the technical terms of 
the biblical narrative are Babylonian in origin. 

But there is more than this. While the Babylonian story is poly- 
theistic and mythological, the biblical account is intensely — we 
might almost say aggressively — monotheistic. Here and there, it 
is true, expressions have been left which imply a polytheistic source: 
tehdm, " the deep," for instance, is used as a proper name, like Tiamat, 
without the definite article, and God is represented as saying, " Let us 
make man in our image;" but it is no less true that in most cases the 
polytheistic and mythological element in the Babylonian story is not 
only set aside, but implicitly contradicted. Let us take, for example, 
the account of the appointment of the heavenly bodies. In the Baby- 
lonian epic there is no mention of their creation, for they were divine 
beings who had come into existence like the other gods before the 
creation of the present world. In the book of Genesis, on the other 
hand, though the appointment of the heavenly bodies occupies the 
same position in the order of creation as it does in the epic, and 
though, too, God is represented as saying — not that they should be 
created, but, as in the Babylonian story — that they should be lights 
dividing the day from the night and regulating the seasons of the 
calendar, it is nevertheless added that God then "made two great 
lights" and "the stars also." And not only so; the very names by 
which the "two great lights" were known are scrupulously avoided. 
They were names of deities, of the sun-god and the moon-god, and 
as such are excluded from the biblical narrative. The "stars" 
similarly take the place in it of the Babylonian Istar, the goddess of 
the evening star; for the biblical writer all alike are lights and nothing 
more, which have been created, as well as assigned their duties, by 
the one and only God. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 
biblical writer had the Babylonian story of creation before him, 
and, while preserving it in the letter, intentionally changed it in the 
spirit. Vss. 14 and 15 in the narrative of Genesis read like an 
extract from the Babylonian legend; vs. 16 is the addition of the 
Hebrew monotheist which deprives them of their monotheistic sense. 



ACCOUNTS OF THE CREATION 7 

The same features distinguish the rest of the biblical account from 
its Babylonian prototype. There is the same evidence of acquaint- 
ance with the Babylonian story, the same conscious elimination of 
its mythical and polytheistic elements. Nor is it only the mythical 
and polytheistic elements that are banished; the materialistic philoso- 
phy of the introduction to the epic is banished likewise. In place 
of matter generating itself and developing into the divine, we have 
God from the very outset creating all things, matter and chaos 
included. According to the Babylonian poet, "in the beginning" 
were the formless deep and chaotic matter which together were the 
source and origin of all things. Even the gods developed out of 
them, like the rest of the universe, in the slow course of time. 

Against this doctrine the biblical writer protests in uncompro- 
mising tones. On the forefront of Genesis he declares that "in the 
beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The earth was, 
indeed, a formless chaos resting on the dark waters of the primeval 
deep, but the chaos and deep were not the first of things; God was 
already there, and his breath or spirit brooded over the abyss. The 
cosmology of Babylonia is adopted which saw in the dark and form- 
less deep the origin of the universe, but it was corrected and modified 
by the declaration that above and apart from the abyss was the divine 
creator. 

Surprise has often been expressed that the biblical account should 
represent the light as having been created before the heavenly bodies, 
and that there should have been evening and morning before the 
sun was made. But the discovery of the Babylonian story of the 
creation explains why it should have been so. There, too, we hear 
of "day" and "night" even before the gods had been born, much 
more before the creation of the world, the reason being that the 
heavenly bodies were not made by the Babylonian creator, but only 
appointed to their work of measuring time. They were themselves 
divinities, and so had come into existence along with the creator himself. 

The difficulty in the biblical narrative has arisen from the addition 
which asserts that not only were the heavenly bodies appointed to 
their work of measuring time, they were also created at the same 
time. Nothing can show more clearly that the assertion is an addi- 
tion, and that the Babylonian story must have lain before the writer 



8 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 

who made it. The writer in Genesis accepts the statement that the 
heavenly bodies were appointed to measure time, but he qualifies it 
by adding that they were also made. The sting of polytheism and 
materialism is thus taken out of the Babylonian story, but it is at the 
expense of introducing into it a contradiction and a difficulty. There 
were evening and morning before there was anything to separate and 
distinguish them. 

But this is not all. In the book of Genesis we are told that the 
sea and land were divided from one another and vegetation created 
on the third day, before the creation of the sun and moon. It is 
evident that we have here an inversion of the natural and necessary 
order of the creative acts. Vegetation implies sunshine; before it 
could have come into existence the sun must have been made. In 
the Babylonian epic, however, the formation of the sea, with its fixed 
boundaries, is, like the formation of the sky, closely connected with 
the creation of the firmament out of, the two halves of Tiamat. The 
description of it is, therefore, deeply tinctured with the fantasies of 
Babylonian mythology and superstition, and there was good reason 
for the different version that we find in the Old Testament. The 
formation of the firmament is, indeed, left in its original place and 
ascribed to the second day, but the formation of sea and land is 
separated from it and made a later and independent act. 

It is needless to say that the dragon of the deep is banished from 
the cosmology of the Hebrew writer. The monster Leviathan may 
be met with in other passages of the Old Testament; in the first 
chapter of Genesis, where it could have only a mythological meaning, 
we look for it in vain. There is no Tiamat out of whom the firma- 
ment of heaven may be made, even though the Babylonian conception 
of a firmament is retained; and equally there is no impersonation of 
the deep whose waters should be gathered into seas. The God of 
the Hebrew writer creates by the mere utterance of his word; he 
speaks, and it is done. 

Creation by the word is known also to the Babylonian poet. In 
the assembly of the gods Merodach proves his power to overcome 
the dragon by destroying and re-creating a garment through the 
power of his word alone. But in the actual creation of the world 
the word is not employed. Here the god works like a craftsman with 
pre-existing materials, fashioning them according to his will and 



ACCOUNTS OF THE CREATION 9 

putting them, as it were, under bolt and key. Doubtless there was 
a version of the creation-story current in Babylonia which made the 
divine word the creative, power, but it was used by the author of the 
epic merely to illustrate the superiority of Merodach to the other gods. 
In the book of Genesis, on the contrary, the creative power is exer- 
cised through the divine word alone; there may, indeed, have been 
pre-existing materials, but it was through the word of God that they 
took shape and became the world of today. 

I need not carry any farther this comparison of the Babylonian 
and biblical accounts of the creation. It is sufficiently clear that the 
Babylonian story was known to the Hebrew writer, if not in the form 
of the epic, at all events in one very like it. It is also clear that 
between the two the contrast is profound. In the first chapter of 
Genesis the polytheism and mythology of the original are gone, or 
at any rate have left but few traces behind them; in their place we have 
spiritual conceptions and the emphatic assertion of the unity and 
omnipotence of God.> Between the Babylonian epic and the Hebrew 
Scriptures there is a gulf which cannot be spanned. 

When was it that the Babylonian story first became known to the 
inhabitants of Canaan, or could have been adapted and transformed 
by the writer in the book of Genesis ? The answer to this question 
would need an article to itself, and the lines it would follow can only be 
briefly indicated here. The Tel el-Amarna tablets have shown that 
the legends and traditions of Babylonia were read and studied in 
Canaan in their literary form even before the Mosaic age, while 
Gunkel has pointed out that references to Tiamat and other char- 
acteristic features of the Babylonian story of the creation are to be 
found in the earlier portions of the Old Testament. It can further 
be shown that the Babylonian stories used by the author of Genesis 
have been, as it were, domesticated in Palestine, and have there 
received a local coloring before they were incorporated into his work. 
So far as we know at present, there are only two periods when a 
Hebrew could have had access to the literary productions of Babylonia 
and been able to read the cuneiform script — the age of Moses and 
the epoch of the exile. And in the epoch of the exile it is little likely 
that a Jewish monotheist would have borrowed the cosmological 
legends of his Babylonian oppressors, interpenetrated, as they were, 
with a polytheism and mythology which he abhorred.