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Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 1

29th January 2007

Next to a close reading of the biblical text, one of the most important steps in its interpretation is knowledge of the ancient cultural and literary context of the Bible. For proper interpretation, we need to know a text’s genre. Genre functions to mediate between speakers and hearers by establishing common guidelines that control both the production of a certain texts and their interpretation. We work with and recognize different genres all the time in day to day life. But when we come to the Bible – an ancient document that is linguistically, culturally, and historically remote from us — our ability to identify certain genres is attenuated due to our unfamiliarity. Misreading a text’s genre leads to incorrect interpretation. Thus, when approaching the biblical creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, it is essential to have some knowledge of other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. This isn’t necessarily easy to do, since many of the ancient texts are difficult to understand conceptually. In connection with ancient cosmologies, Richard Clifford notes “ancient oriental literature is alien and difficult to understand, though the many biblical phrases and ideas in our discourse may trick us into thinking otherwise… Particularly difficult are ancient cosmogonies. Major differences separate them from modern conceptions” (Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible, p. 198).

This is the first of four posts on ideas of creation in ancient Mesopotamia. This post will discuss some methodological issues surrounding the study of Mesopotamian texts and highlight some of the resources available for studying this literature. The second and third posts will survey Old Babylonian texts and Neo-Babylonian texts, respectively. The fourth post will synthesize some of the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts. I should note that I am by no means an expert in ancient Mesopotamian literature. A lot of this work originally derived from a graduate course I did with Dr. Ronald F. G. Sweet at the University of Toronto a number of years back.

Approaching the Diversity of Materials

There a number of methodological issues surrounding the interpretation of ancient Mesopotamian creation texts. First, in relation to the nature of the textual evidence, the problem is not that there is a paucity of material, but that the available material is of such a wide scope historically and culturally that it would be erroneous to speak of a uniform view of “creation in Mesopotamia.� The ancient culture of Mesopotamia covers a period of more than five thousand years and at least two groups of entirely different peoples and languages. Therefore, it is necessary to recognise that the myths and stories relevant to this topic are by no means homogeneous, and should not be described as an absolute unity. The tendency to create uniform views where none exist needs to be guarded against, and the generalisations that result from this study must be recognised to be just that—generalisations. A related dilemma is the composite nature of many of the extant texts. Many later works borrow—or even copy directly—motifs and themes from earlier texts. The supreme example of this is the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic. Tigay’s reconstruction of the evolution of the epic identities a number of separate Sumerian stories that underlie the final form of the Gilgamesh Epic (see his The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic).

Second, uncertainty of our ability to understand across the borders of conceptual conditioning (to echo Oppenheim) highlights the important hermeneutical issue of imposing modern questions on ancient texts. While questions about origins were certainly not avoided in ancient Mesopotamia, they were almost always subsidiary issues. The primary purpose of much of the ancient mythological and epic literature was to exalt one deity over another or to explain the organization of human society, rather than provide a systematic teaching concerning creation. For instance, Jacobsen notes, in relation to Enuma elish, that “world origins . . . are essentially accidental: gods were born out of mingling of the primeval waters and they engendered other gods� (The Treasures of Darkness, p. 191). Similarly, only the first twenty lines of the first tablet of Enuma elish actually deal with the creation of the universe, while the bulk of tablets four through six covers its organisation. Furthermore, it is impossible to speak of the Mesopotamian view of the creation of the cosmos without speaking of the creation of the gods: in Mesopotamia theogony and cosmogony were inextricably intertwined.

(This perhaps is not so different from the biblical worldview considering that the two major biblical creation accounts are incorporated into the book of Genesis, the first book of the primary history.” Because of our modern preoccupation with creation (and especially as it relates to science) we tend to isolate discussions of ancient Israelite ideas of creation from their narrative context in the much larger biblical picture.)

Arrangement and Dating of the Sources

Another major difficulty in doing a study such as this is the question of how best to arrange and present the data. Should the compositions be grouped according to language, subject matter, cultural origin (i.e., are they Sumerian, Assyrian, or Babylonian), or date? Each of these options has its own pitfalls, but for the purposes of this study the texts will be presented according to their date.

This does not solve all problems though, as dating Mesopotamian literature also has its associated uncertainties. Dating can be based on two variables: (1) the date of the extant text; and (2) the date of its original composition. This study will use the first criteria. While this is not ideal, it is the most reliable, as in many cases there is no scholarly consensus concerning the original date of composition of many texts. This is due primarily to historical circumstances and the type of literature we have. Historically, the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the various other political groups that had their turn at ruling in ancient Mesopotamia almost without exception accepted and built upon the older religious traditions of the Sumerians. It is therefore almost impossible to draw a clear distinction between, for example, the specifically Sumerian and the Assyrian and Babylonian elements in the religious texts.

Most of the texts containing materials that are useful for this study tend to come from two periods of Mesopotamian history. First, most of the earlier Sumerian myths, epics and hymns date from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 BCE). Ringgren notes that “it is precisely in these last centuries [of the Sumerian ‘empire’] that most of the works of Sumerian literature seem to have been written down. It is probable that they existed earlier . . . but were transmitted in oral form� (Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East [London: S.P.C.K., 1973], 3). The tablets themselves principally come from archaeological excavations in places such as Nippur and Ur. Second, a lot of the materials representing the views of the Babylonians and Assyrians have been found at Ashurbanipal’s (668–626 BCE) library at Nineveh (Kouyunjik, in modern Iraq). The date of most of these texts fall into the Neo-Babylonian Period (ca. 1000–500 BCE).

It should be noted that there is some correlation between the date of the text and its language. For example, most of the compositions coming from the Old Babylonian period are written in Sumerian, while those from the Neo-Babylonian era are typically composed in Akkadian. This approach will also allow — albeit in a limited fashion — both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of the information. Synchronically, all the texts can be probed for similarities and differences that might be significant. Diachronically, any change in thought between the two major historical periods can also be noted.

Annotated Bibliography of Texts and Discussions

The resources for the study of these ancient stories may be broken up into three categories: guides to the literature, primary texts in translation, and discussions of the ideas of origins and creation in the texts themselves as well as in connection with the biblical creation stories.

Guides to ANE Literature

  • Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible. A Guide to the Background Literature. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2005). This is one of the best and most recent guides to all of the background literature. It includes an introduction to comparative study of ANE texts and ANE archives and libraries, as well as a discussion of all of the relevant texts organized by genre. Original publication data and other useful bibliography is included for each ancient text. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context. A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). Similar to Sparks, though a bit dated and written for a more conservative audience. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). While not a guide to the literature, this work is an excellent introduction to the worldviews and value systems of the ancient Near East and how the worldviews expressed in the Bible are similar, yet at times distinct, from them. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.

Primary Texts in Translation

  • Bill T. Arnold and Bryan Beyer, Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study (Encountering Biblical Studies; Baker, 2002). A college-level collection of excerpts (with introductions) of the most relevant ancient texts; written by a couple evangelical scholars. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). A highly readable, yet critical, translation of the major Mesopotamian mythological texts (e.g., she represents the various lacunae and reconstructions in her translation). Highly recommended. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Ocford University Press, 2003). The definitive critical edition with translation, including apparatus, photographs, and line drawings for all of the tablets in existance. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World (3 volume set; Brill, 2004). A detailed reference work for the study of the OT/HB and the ancient Near East, this book provides reliable access to ancient Near Eastern texts that have some bearing on the interpretation of the Bible. Translation of recently discovered texts is included, alongside new translations of better-known texts. The recognized replacement of Pritchard’s ANET. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once… Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). A classic collection of Sumerian texts by the noted scholar. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Rev. ed.; New York: Harper, 1961). A somewhat dated translation and discussion of Sumerian texts by the renowned Sumerian scholar; needs to be read in light of Jacobsen’s and other more up to date work. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • W. G. Lambert, and Alan R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (New ed.; Winnona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999). The standard critical translation of this important Mesopotamian epic. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (Fully Expanded and Revised; Paulist Press, 1997). An accessible college-level collection of brief excerpts from ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the OT. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement (3rd edition; Princeton University Press, 1969). This is the classic collection of ancient texts that shed light on the OT/HB. Dated, though still highly recommended. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com

Discussions of ANE Texts and Biblical Ideas of Creation

  • Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (CBQMS 26; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1994). An excellent introduction and discussion of the ANE creation accounts and their relevance to the Bible. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • Richard J. Clifford and John J. Collins, eds., Creation in the Biblical Traditions (CBQMS 24; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1992). A good collection of essays dealing with different ideas of creation found in the Bible. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant. Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987). Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Ronald A. Simkins, Creator & Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1994). An intriguing examination of the cultural world of the Bible and the ancient Near East, especially as it related to conceptions of creation. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com

The next instalment will survey Old Babylonian texts relating to creation.


8 Responses to “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 1”

  1. Joe Cathey Says:

    Tyler,

    Might I also suggest A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts – 2 vols. Oxford: OUP, 2003. The set is vastly expensive but a good academic library should have the set. I have the set myself (one of the perks of being an academic librarian). The set is a truly remarkable set with correct critical apparatus, photographs, and line drawings for all of the tablets in existance.

  2. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Joe… I was thinking of including George’s work, though I figured it was a bit too advanced and expensive for the average reader of this blog. That being said, if someone buys it through my blog, I could probably retire! :-)

  3. Charles Halton Says:

    Just a comment on Joe’s comment concerning George’s work. This work includes most of the Gilgamesh texts in the Babylonian tradition, but there are a few that it does not include. There are a couple more newly found texts, nothing really earth-shattering though, that I don’t think made it into the volume.

  4. Awilum.com » Biblical Studies Carnival XV, in Memory of Bruce Manning Metzger Says:

    [...] Williams has a great post on the ideas of creation in Mesopotamia–part 1 and part 2 along with my response here on awilum.com. Can’t afford the cover charge to [...]

  5. ilan Says:

    http://ancienteast.blogspot.com/

  6. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Neo-Babylonian Creation Texts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 3) Says:

    [...] is the third post in the series “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.� The first post in the series detailed some methodological issues and highlighted some bibliographical resources, [...]

  7. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Theogony, Cosmogony, and Anthropology in ANE Creation Accounts (Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 4) Says:

    [...] (probably) final post in the series “Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.� The first post in the series detailed some methodological issues and highlighted some bibliographical resources. [...]

  8. Walter R. Mattfeld Says:

    What a shame that millions of Christians, Jews and Moslems are unaware that Adam and Eve are recasts of Enkidu and Shamhat from the Epic of Gilgamesh. cf. my website for articles on the subject.