Genesis and ancient Near Eastern stories of Creation and the Flood: An Introduction

Much has been written about the relationship between the early chapters of Genesis and creation and flood stories from ancient Mesopotamia. This is the first of a series of articles presenting an up-to-date overview of this subject.


Creation has been one of the most interesting and intriguing subjects in the Old Testament. In modern Biblical scholarship, a number of new interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis have been suggested, especially in the areas of comparative study and literary analysis.

Genesis 1-2

Double Creation Stories? A theory has long been advocated that the early chapters of Genesis contain a “doublet” of creation stories and that these stories, characterized by the distinctive divine names, Elohim and YHWH, are of different origins with two independent, and even opposing, cosmologies. According to this traditional critical theory, the former is the priestly account (P source) of creation from the postexilic period, while the latter is an earlier Yahwistic account (J source). Hence, it is usually assumed that there exist some discrepancies or contradictions between the two accounts. [1]

Recently, however, it has been emphasized by scholars like Alter that whatever their origins may be, “the two accounts are complementary rather than overlapping, each giving a different kind of information about how the world came into being.” According to him, “the two different creation stories,” i.e., the P and J stories, constitute a “composite narrative” that encompasses “divergent perspectives” by placing in sequence “two ostensibly contradictory accounts of the same event,” such as two stories of the creation of woman. [2]

When one takes a closer look at both stories, it is evident that they are not two “parallel” versions of the same or similar “creation” stories, since the theme and purpose of the two are certainly different. Castellino distinguishes Genesis 1, “un vrai recit de creation” (“a true creation account”), from Genesis 2, which is in a strict sense not a creation story but “un texte d'organisation” (“an organizational text”) and serves as an “introduction” to Genesis 3 (Castellino 1957). A story without any reference to the sun, the moon and the stars, or the sea is certainly not a true cosmological myth. Genesis 2 and following, therefore, should not be treated as the same literary genre as Genesis 1, which locates the creation of humankind at the grand climax of the creation of the cosmos,[3] while the former is concerned with the immediate situation of mankind on the Earth.

However, as I recently demonstrated, both chapters do reflect essentially the same cosmology. In Genesis 1:2, the initial situation of the “world” is described positively in terms of the still unproductive and uninhabited (toh- waboh-)[4] “earth” totally covered by “ocean-water,” while in 2:5-6 the initial state of the “earth” is described negatively in terms of the not-yet-productive “earth” in more concrete expressions, “no vegetation” and “no man.” And the underground-water was flooding out to inundate the whole area of the “land,” but not the entire Earth as in Genesis 1:2.[5] Thus, Genesis 1 describes an earlier stage in the one creation process in which the waters cover the Earth, Genesis 2a a later stage (in 1:9-10) in which the waters have separated and the dry land has appeared.

The Double Creation of Mankind? The Genesis account as it stands mentions the creation of mankind twice, in 1:27 and 2:7. Kikawada hence suggests that there are two creations of mankind in Genesis, comparing Genesis 1-2 with the myth of Enki and Ninmah and the “Atra-Hasis Epic” (I 1-351) (Kikawada 1983; Kikawada and Quinn 1985: 39ff). According to him, Genesis 1 refers to “the first creation of mankind,” while Genesis 2 refers to “the second creation of mankind,” namely the creation of the specific persons Adam and Eve, and these two Biblical creation accounts are parallel to each other.

It should be noted, however, that in Genesis those “double creation stories” deal with the same topic, the origin of humankind ('adam), and do not necessarily refer to “two” separate creative actions regarding human creation. The debate is whether the reason for this twofold description is (1) that there were actually two independent creation stories of the same event or (2) that there were actually two separate creation acts or (3) that a technique of narrative discourse was used that recounts one and the same event from two different viewpoints. To this third possibility I now turn.

Discourse Grammar.[6] It has been noted by scholars such as U. Casssuto (1961: 89-92; also Kitchen 1966: 116-17) that Genesis 1 gives a general description of mankind in the framework of the entire creation of the world and Genesis 2 gives a detailed description of humankind and their immediate context on the Earth.[7] From a discourse grammatical point of view, this relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 may be explained as a generic-specific relationship (Longacre 1983: 119, 122) and the two constitute a “hyponymous”[8] parallelism, so to speak.

This feature might also be explained as a phenomenon of what Grimes calls a “scope change” in narrative discourse, which is a phenomenon of “zooming in from an overall perspective to a closeup, with a corresponding shift in reference” (1975: 46-47). This is the way I have described the nature of the relationship between the two “creation” stories of Genesis elsewhere (1985); they have different scopes or viewpoints by which the author or narrator describes one and the same creation of mankind, first with relation to the cosmos, and then with a narrower focus on the man’s relationship with the woman, the animals, and the environment in the second story. Therefore, the flow of discourse runs from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2 and following, not vice versa, as assumed by the traditional source critics.

As for 2:4, whose two halves constitute a chiastic parallelism, Wenham takes this verse as serving "both as a title to 2:5-4:26 and as a link with the introduction 1:1-2:3.[9] In another context I have suggested that it serves as a link between the two stories and that this linkage is a kind of transitional technique that according to Parunak points to a surface pattern of repetition or similarity that joins successive textual units together (Tsumura 1985: 48; Purunak 1983). Genesis 1-2 could thus be explained as Parunak’s A/aB pattern; in 2:4a (a) the narrator repeats the keywords of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (A) and initiates a new section of story, 2:4b-4:26 (B).

Genesis 1

Genesis 1 and “Enuma Elish.” Ever since H. Gunkel’s famous book Sch“pfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895), scholars have taken it for granted that the Hebrew teh”m in Genesis 1:2 has its mythological background in the ancient Babylonian goddess Tiamat of the “creation” myth “Enuma elish,” in which the storm-god Marduk fights with and wins over the sea dragon Tiamat, establishing the cosmos.[10] I have thoroughly reexamined the problem from a linguistic point of view, and it is now clear that it is phonologically impossible to conclude that teh“m “ocean” was borrowed from Tiamat. The Hebrew teh”m “ocean” together with the Ugaritic thm, the Akkadian tiamtu, the Arabic tihamat, and the Eblaite ti-'…-ma-tum /tiham(a)tum/ is simply a reflection of a common Semitic term *tiham- (1989: 45-52).

While the Hebrew and Akkadian terms refer to the “primeval” water, as Lambert notes, “the watery beginning of Genesis in itself is no evidence of Mesopotamian influence” (Lambert 1965: 293). He also notes that while the horizontal division of the cosmic water in Genesis 1:6-8 has its parallel description in Ee IV 135-V 62, “the case for a battle as a prelude to God’s dividing of the cosmic waters is unproven.” In other words, “neither on the Hebrew side nor on the Mesopotamian is there any clear proof that a battle is necessarily tied to the dividing of the waters.” So, Genesis 1 and “Enuma elish,” which was composed primarily to exalt Marduk in the pantheon of Babylon,[11] have no direct relation to each other. Not only is the creation by divine fiat in Genesis unique in the ancient Near East, the creation of light as the first creating act appears only in Genesis (Lambert 1980: 71; 1965). Thus the creation in the Genesis story is quite different from the idea of “order out of chaos,” though the latter is also often called “creation” (McCarthy 1967).

It is not correct to say that “Enuma elish” was adopted and adapted by the Israelites to produce the Genesis stories. As Lambert holds, there is “no evidence of Hebrew borrowing from Babylon” (1965: 296). Sjberg accepts Lambert’s opinion that “there was hardly any influence from that Babylonian text on the Old Testament creation accounts” (1984: 217). Hasel thinks rather that the creation account of Genesis 1 functions as an antimythological polemic in some cases (e.g., with the “sun,” the “moon,” and tnnm (“sea monsters”?), etc. (1974). One thing is clear with regard to the religious nature of the creation story of Genesis: in Genesis 1 and 2 no female deity exists or is involved in producing the cosmos and humanity. This is unique among ancient creation stories that treat of deities having personality.

Canaanite Background to Genesis 1? According to Jacobsen, “the story of the battle between the god of thunderstorms and the sea originated on the coast of the Mediterranean and wandered eastward from there to Babylon” (1968: 107). Along the same line, Sjberg as an Assyriologist warns Old Testament scholars that “it is no longer scientifically sound to assume that all ideas originated in Mesopotamia and moved westward” (1984: 218).

Recently Day asserted that Genesis 1:2 was a demythologization of an original Chaoskampf (“chaos-battle”) myth from ancient Canaan (1985: 53). However, the conflict of the storm-god Baal with the sea-deity Yam in the Ugaritic myth has nothing to do with a creation of cosmos like that of Marduk with Tiamat in “Enuma elish.” Kapelrud notes that “with the existing texts and the material present so far we may conclude that they have no creation narrative” (1980: 9). Also de Moor recently demonstrated that Baal in Ugaritic literature is never treated as a creator-god (1980). I have noted elsewhere that if the Genesis account were the demythologization of a Canaanite dragon myth, we would expect the term yam “sea,” which is the counterpart of the Ugaritic sea-god Yam, in the initial portion of the account. However, the term yam does not appear in Genesis 1 until v. 10. It is difficult to assume that an earlier Canaanite dragon myth existed in the background of Genesis 1:2.[12]

Chaos in Genesis 1:2? (a) toh- waboh-. The expression toh- waboh-, which is traditionally translated in English as “without form and void” (RSV) or the like, is often taken as signifying the primeval “chaos,” in direct opposition to “creation.” I have demonstrated, however, that the phrase toh- waboh- has nothing to do with primeval chaos; it simply means “emptiness” and refers to the Earth in a “bare” state, without vegetation and animals as well as without humans. This “unproductive and empty, uninhabited” Earth becomes productive with vegetation and inhabited by animals and humankind by God’s fiats (Tsumura 1989: 41-43).

I have also pointed out that in Genesis 1:2 ha'ares and teh'm are a “hyponymous” word pair and hence the “ocean” (teh'm) is a part of the “Earth” (ha'ares), since the term ha'ares, which constitutes an antonymous word pair with hassamayim “the heavens” in Genesis 1:1, must refer to everything under the heaven.[13] However, vv. 6ff. suggest that the water of teh'm in Genesis 1:2 covered all the “Earth” (Tsumura 1989: 78-79). This water-covered Earth is described in this passage by a pair of expressions, toh- waboh- // hosek, not yet normal, that is to say, not yet productive or inhabited and without light. But it was not chaotic. It should be noted that even in “Enuma elish” the initial mingling of Apsu and Tiamat (Ee I 5) was orderly, not chaotic (Tsumura 1989: 60 n. 70).

(b) r-ah 'elohm. Albright, who rejected the “world egg theory” (Gunkel) and the view that “the r-ah corresponds to the winds which Marduk sends against Timat, suggested as the most probable view that 'r-ah 'elohm means “spirit of God,” but is substituted for an original r-ah, “wind,” in order to bring the personality of God into the cosmogony from the beginning.” Albright, however, thinks that “the r-ah 'elohm was evidently still thought of as exercising a “sexual” influence upon the tehm.” The verb rahap (“hovered”), according to him, suggests that "the r-ah 'elohm was conceived of originally in the form of a bird (Albright 1924: 368 and n. 10).

Recently, DeRoche suggested that just as the r-ah “wind” in Genesis 8:1 and Exodus 14:21 “leads to the division within the bodies of water, and consequently, the appearance of dry land,” so “the r-ah 'elohm “wind or spirit of God” of Genesis 1:2c must also be a reference to the creative activity of the deity” (1988: 314-15). However, he holds, r-ah 'elohm is not “a wind sent by God,” that is to say, a creature, but “a hypostasis for 'elohm.” He does not think that it is “part of the description of chaos.” According to him, “It expresses Elohim’s control over the cosmos and his ability to impose his will upon it. As part of v 2 it is part of the description of the way things were before Elohim executes any specific act of creation” (1988: 318).

Reprinted by permission from I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood, ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura, Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, pp. 27-34.

David T. Tsumura is Professor of Old Testament at Japan Bible Seminary, Tokyo. He is author of The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (1989), as well as numerous articles on the Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages.


  1. For a useful summary of recent critical discussions, see Wenham 1987: xxv-xlii; Wenham 1988; Whybray 1987: 17-131.
  2. Alter 1981: 141-17. As an example of contradiction between Genesis 1 and 2, he notes that in Genesis 1 the woman was created “at the same time and in the same manner” as the man (p. 145). However, in Genesis 1:27, which constitutes a three-line “parallelism,” the human being is simply described as being created as male and female. The text does not necessarily imply the simultaneous creation of both sexes.
  3. For the literary structure of Genesis 1, see below.
  4. See below.
  5. Tsumura 1989: 168. This conclusion is entirely different from the traditional critical view, represented by von Rad that the nature of the Earth-waters relationship in 1:2 (“watery chaos”) is totally different from that in 2:5-6 (“dry chaos”). See von Rad 1961: 76-77; also Otzen 1980: 40-41.
  6. For recent works on the discourse analysis of Genesis, see Longacre 1989 and Anderson 1987. For a brief summary of discourse analysis with bibliographies see Bodine 1987.
  7. For this “general-detailed pattern” in Ugaritic, Akkadian and Egyptian literatures, see Tsumura 1984: 18-19 n. 37. The same pattern appears also in Japanese narrative stories such as the initial section of “Suma” in The Story of Genji; see Tsumura 1984: 77 n. 64. For the pattern in the genealogical doublets, see Hess 1990: 146-47.
  8. On this term, see Tsumura 1988: 258-60.
  9. For the chiastic structure of 2:4, see Cassuto 1961: 98-99; Wenham 1987: 55.
  10. For a useful translation and discussion of this text, see Heidel 1963; also Speiser 1969. The most recent translation can be found in Dalley 1991: 233-74.
  11. Lambert (1980: 71-72) discusses the nature of “Enuma elish,” which is “in reality occupied with the ascent of Marduk in the pantheon” and whose “creation account takes only a subordinate position within the whole.” The myth, according to him, was probably composed around 1100 BC and it is “extremely eclectic.” In A New Look (1965: 291), he concludes similarly: “The Epic of Creation is not a norm of Babylonian or Sumerian cosmology. It is a sectarian and aberrant combination of mythological threads woven into an unparalleled compositum.”
  12. For a detailed discussion, see Tsumura 1989: 62-65. I also note that if any comparison with Genesis 1:2 should be drawn from Ugaritic materials, it would be with the Canaanite god El’s residence at the source of “two oceans” (thmtm). This association of a creator-god with his watery abode or domain can be seen also in the case of Ea, one of the Mesopotamian triad deities. This motif of a watery beginning appears also in Egyptian, Anatolian, and Greek myths. For a detailed discussion, see Tsumura 1989, chapter 8.
  13. The cosmology in vv. 1-2 is bipartite, not tripartite, describing the entire world in terms of “heavens and earth.”


Author: David T. Tsumura, with permission from Associates for Biblical Research

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