Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of Creation

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With the recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate and the conservative religious reaction to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new educational TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the spotlight is once again on Creationists — a vocal minority of the Christian public that believes “biblical creation” as described in Genesis ought to be taught in place of scientific theories about the origins of life and the universe.

Although the scientific absurdities of Creationism have been widely addressed, the biblical and theological failings of this doctrine are less well known. Even outside Creationist circles, most Christians (even most theologians, perhaps) know very little about the subject. What exactly did the ancient Jews believe about the creation of the world, and how are those views expressed in the Bible?

It is a common misconception that Genesis 1–3 is the key passage for understanding biblical creation. After all, this story (two stories, actually) is found at the very beginning of the Bible and seems to provide the basis for what comes after. This simplistic approach, however, ignores the complicated history of the Bible’s compilation and canonization — not to mention the rich cultural background of Palestine. Genesis 1, in fact, is a rather late retelling of a story that is woven throughout much of the Bible — the Psalms, Job and Isaiah in particular — and does not really mean what many people think it does.

The Cyclicality of Time

To understand biblical creation, we must adopt the mindset of ancient cultures foreign to our own. For the peoples of the ancient Near East — the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Canaanites/Israelites, and so on — time was not a linear sequence of events with a starting point. They understood time as being cyclical, just like everything they observed around them: the seasons, astronomical signs, planting and harvests, and life itself. Creation myths did not answer the question “how did everything begin?” They answered the question “how is everything sustained?” As Jakob H. Grønbæk put it in a paper some years ago:

It is an established fact that ancient Near Eastern concepts of creation did not originally arise from some intellectual need to answer the question of how the world came into being at the dawn of time. Creation was a feature of the mythic realm, and as such its home was in the cult whose sacred words and deeds (myths and rites, respectively) were intended to ensure the continued existence of the world, rather than to explain the origin of things.¹

Before we look at some of the Bible’s many creation passages and the elements they contain, it would help to examine the Near Eastern creation myths that preceded and shaped Israelite beliefs.

Ugarit: Baal’s Conquest over the Sea and Death

Baal Hadad is often understood as the Syro-Palestinian equivalent to Yahweh, and we are fortunate that many of the Baal myths were put into writing at Ugarit, a Phoenician city-state that was very similar to Israel in culture, language and religion, and where Baal was the patron deity.

In the Ugaritic texts, creation is linked to a conflict between Baal and Yam, the deity of seas and rivers who represents the destructive power of chaos. Yam is also identified with sea monsters, particularly the seven-headed monster Lotan (Leviathan). Baal wishes to build a palace for himself, but first must contend with Yam. Yam is eventually defeated, and Baal is proclaimed king over the gods. In this myth, Baal represents conquest over chaos, a motif found frequently in creation myths.

Baal is also involved in a second, related conflict: a battle with Mot, the god of death. Baal is initially overcome by Mot and descends to Mot’s underworld domain. However, the goddess Anat finds him, and the two of them fight and vanquish Mot. Baal is thereupon resurrected to the world of the living. Here, Baal represents agricultural fertility — particularly the autumnal wet season that follows the death-like droughts of summer and causes crops to flourish.

Mesopotamia: Marduk’s Victory over Tiamat and Enthronement

Marduk was the patron deity of Babylon and the creator god in Mesopotamian mythology. Many ancient Akkadian texts recount stories about Marduk, with Enuma Elish being the most famous. Enuma Elish (“When On High”) tells of Marduk’s ascendancy to kingship and the creation of the world. In this story, Tiamat is a sea monster who represents the primeval chaotic ocean. Marduk fights Tiamat and, after defeating her, splits the husk of her corpse into two halves, one of which becomes the sky and holds back the cosmic waters from the dry land. Tiamat’s eye holes become the portals through which the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow. Thus, the world is created, and Marduk becomes its king.

Religious Festivals and Yearly Renewal

The creation myths of Ugarit and Babylon were understood not as historical events, but as the yearly renewal of creation. They were celebrated in religious festivals associated with the temples of Baal and Marduk — New Year’s festivals in particular. Liturgical texts and poems would be recited and sung at such festivals, and these observances along with sacrifices offered to the gods were the means by which people participated in the sustaining of creation. As S. W. Holloway put it, “the world is recreated every year by agency of the temple, whose activities serve to define the primordial and liturgical New Year.”²

The Babylonian Akitu festival, for example, took place over the first twelve days of the year and involved the reenactment of Marduk’s battle and enthronement. The Enuma Elish would be read on the fourth day as part of these ceremonies.

The Psalms and the Feast of Tabernacles

If liturgical poems and hymns played a key part in the celebration of creation and the patron deity’s enthronement, it should come as no surprise that the core biblical literature related to creation is found in the Psalms. As Yahweh came to supplant Baal as the patron god of pre-exilic Israel and Judah, the Israelites wrote liturgies that focused on Yahweh’s role in creation and his kingship over both the nations and the gods.

It was at the Feast of Tabernacles, held to celebrate the New Year (which coincided with important agricultural harvests), that the renewal of creation was observed in ancient Judah. Although the Psalms are notoriously difficult to date, many seem to originate from this early period and would have been sung during the Feast of Tabernacles in connection with temple rituals.

It is important to note that Yahweh’s enthronement as king, his defeat of chaos, and his creation of the world were all part of the same mythic understanding of creation. As we look at the Psalms, we find dozens of texts that express these elements in various ways.

Psalm 93, for example, celebrates Yahweh’s kingship, establishment of the world, and victory over the mighty waters:

Yahweh is king, robed in majesty…
You have made the world firm, unshakeable;
your throne has stood since then,
you existed from the first, Yahweh.

Yahweh, the rivers (seas) raise,
the rivers raise their voices,
the rivers raise their thunders;
greater than the voice of the ocean,
transcending the waves of the sea,
Yahweh reigns transcendent in the heights.

Psalm 89 celebrates Yahweh’s defeat over the seas and the chaos monster, called “Rahab” here and in some other parts of the Bible. Note how it even involves splitting the monster’s carcass in two, as in the Marduk myth. Also interesting is that the Hebrew word for “north” in verse 12 is “Zaphon”, the name of the sacred mountain to the north of Israel where Baal’s palace was. In Psalm 89, this is followed by Tabor and Hermon, Israel’s sacred mountains.

(v. 9) You control the pride (raging) of the ocean,
when its waves ride high, you calm them;
you split Rahab in two like a carcass
and scattered your enemies with your mighty arm

The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
you founded the world and all it holds,
you created north (Zaphon) and south (the sea);
Tabor and Hermon hail your name with joy.

Psalm 74, though not an enthronement psalm, also recounts Yahweh’s conquest over the sea monster. Of interest is the fact that Leviathan has multiple heads, just as he does in the Ugaritic texts. The cutting of holes for springs is also reminiscent of Marduk’s creation of the Tigris and Euphrates using Tiamat’s eye-holes.

(v. 12) Yet, God, my king from the first,
author of saving acts throughout the earth,
by your power you split the sea in two
and smashed the heads of monsters on the waters.

You crushed Leviathan’s heads,
leaving him for wild animals to eat,
you opened (cut openings for) the spring, the torrent,
you dried up inexhaustible rivers.

Creation Passages Outside the Psalms

The conquest of Leviathan/Rahab in the creation combat shows up in other books as well, including Job and Isaiah (which we shall examine a little later on).

By his power he stilled the Sea;
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. (Job 26:12-13)

Job 38 is rich with allusions to Yahweh’s creation of the cosmos, including the foundation of the earth (v. 4), the doors that hold back the cosmic ocean (vv. 8–11), the recesses of the deep sea (v. 16), and the storehouses of snow and hail (v. 22).

Proverbs 8:22–30, a later text, adheres very much to this early Israelite view of creation, but also incorporates the Jewish notion of Wisdom, a semi-divine being in Hellenistic Judaism.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
 the first of his acts of long ago…
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
 when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
 before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
 or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
 when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
 when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
 so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth…

Ancient Cosmology

Many of the Bible’s creation passages also describe the cosmos as ancient Near Eastern peoples envisioned it. The world was believed to sit amidst a vast chaotic ocean, which was kept separate from the dry land by a great dome, the firmament. The Hebrew word, raqia, suggests a bowl of beaten metal. Into this dome the celestial bodies were set, and the water above the dome gave it its blue colour. Rain would fall through windows in the firmament, and above the firmament were storehouses of snow and hail. Windows could also open and close to let the sun, moon and planets traverse the inside of the dome.

Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, shining stars,
praise him, highest heavens,
and waters above the heavens! (Psalm 148:3–4)

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (Job 38:22)

The earth’s dry land was often thought to be ringed by a sea or river (sometimes called the “flood”), and beyond that lay the “ends of the earth”, the mountains that held up the firmament. Earth itself was set upon a foundation or pillars, and below it was the “deep”, the primordial sea.

The abode of the gods itself was above the firmament. The Jews imagined Yahweh as having a throne above the dome of heaven, as described in the vision of Ezekiel 1:

(v. 22) Over the heads of the animals a sort of vault (raqia), gleaming like crystal, arched above their heads; … Above the vault over their heads was something that looked like a sapphire; it was shaped like a throne and high up on this throne was a being that looked like a man.

This view of the cosmos persisted into the Christian era. In chapter 3 of 3 Baruch, written in the 2nd or 3rd century, men debate about whether the heaven is made of clay, brass, or iron. Early church fathers Origen and Augustine affirmed its solidity (in First Homily on Genesis and The Literal Meaning of Genesis, respectively). Revelation 4:6 and 15:2 describe the floor of God’s throne room as a “sea of glass”, almost certainly a reference to the firmament.

Exilic and Post-Exilic Development

Jewish exiles in Babylon would have been surrounded by the grandiose worship of the Babylonian gods — particularly the chief god, Marduk (also known as Bel). As mentioned earlier, the Babylonian New Year was celebrated with a festival commemorating the creation of the world by Marduk, his installation as king of the gods, and the supremacy of his city, Babylon. The creation epic Enuma Elish would be recited in public along with a ritual drama, and thus it would have been familiar to almost everyone.³

It seems that the author of Deutero-Isaiah wanted to combat this pro-Marduk propaganda with descriptions of Yahweh’s supremacy and role in creation. To do so, he drew upon his own poetic skills and the creation mythology of both Syro-Palestine and Babylon, including the Chaoskampf myth:

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, 
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, 
the waters of the great deep? (Isaiah 51:9–10)

He described how Yahweh, and not Marduk, was the creator of earth, heaven, and the heavenly host (stars and other celestial bodies).

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name. (Isaiah 40:26)

I made the earth,
and created humankind upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host. (Isaiah 45:12)

He even mocks the Akitu procession in which Marduk (Bel) and his son Nebo are carried on chariots through the city:

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops,
their idols are on beasts and cattle;
these things you carry are loaded
as burdens on weary animals. (Isaiah 46:1)

Throughout these passages, Deutero-Isaiah links creation with renewal of the land and the salvation of Israel — highlighting the ancient understanding of creation as something that occurred continually throughout time. Jews are even invited to witness Yahweh’s creative acts (Isaiah 43:10). The urgency of the prayers in Isaiah and the Psalms show that “Chaos, the dissolution of order that makes meaningful social and individual life possible, is never far away. The Dragon sleeps but does not die.”⁴ The creator must continue to contend against chaos on behalf of Judah.

Psalm 104

Psalm 104 is an interesting stepping-stone between the shorter, less structured descriptions found in the early creation psalms and the highly structured story of Genesis 1. It is longer and more detailed than most other creation psalms, and it tones down the role of the sea monster Leviathan, making him one of God’s creations. The order of creation and some of the terminology is very similar to that of Genesis 1, but it lacks some of Genesis 1’s innovations and almost certainly predates it.⁵ John Day provides the following chart in his commentary on Psalms (p. 41):

 Ps. 104:1-4 Creation of heaven and earth  Gen. 1:1-5
 Ps. 104:5-9 Waters pushed back  Gen. 1:6-10
 Ps. 104:10-13 Waters put to beneficial use  Implicit in Gen. 1:6-10
 Ps. 104:14-18 Creation of vegetation  Gen. 1:11-12
 Ps. 104:19-23 Creation of luminaries  Gen. 1:14-18
 Ps. 104:24-26 Creation of sea creatures  Gen. 1:20-22
Ps. 104:27-30 Creation of living creatures  Gen. 1:24-31

Psalm 104 is often recognized as being very similar to Akhenaten’s hymn to the sun (Aton) — a hymn written as part of the short-lived religious reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to impose monotheism on Egyptian religion.⁶

Genesis and Hellenism

Despite its position as a prelude to the other stories of the Bible, Genesis is increasingly seen as a late work, with its final redaction and canonization (along with the entire Pentateuch) taking place in the Hellenistic period (334 BCE to 63 BCE). It establishes a history of the primeval world and early patriarchs that most other Old Testament books show no awareness of; nowhere does the Hebrew Bible ever cite Genesis 1 (the closest you get is the Sabbath reference in Exodus 20:11), and the only other OT reference to Adam is in the opening genealogy of 1 Chronicles and some of the deuterocanonical books, all Hellenistic works. Given its apparent lateness and independence from the other literary traditions of the Old Testament, we should question the position Genesis occupies as the definitive biblical creation story in people’s minds.

Despite its independence from the rest of the Old Testament, Genesis 1 does draw upon typical Mesopotamian imagery and the earlier creation motifs found in the Bible — particularly Psalm 104, as shown above. Like other Near Eastern creation accounts, Genesis 1 does not speak of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), but rather, of God parting the waters of a primordial ocean — the Tehom (“Deep”), which scholars say is cognate to Tiamat, the name in Akkadian of the Babylonian sea monster. A dome called the raqia is put in place to hold back the waters and create dry land. Creation continues in roughly the order of Psalm 104.

Many scholars also seek Greek influence in Genesis, including the creation story. The creation of humankind in God’s image — a novelty not found in other OT accounts — can be found in the writings of the fourth-century Greek philosopher Plato, as can other motifs in Genesis 1–3.⁷

In addition to Plato, we can find the influence of Egyptian theology in Genesis — not too surprising, given the vibrant Jewish communities that existed in Egypt particularly in the Hellenistic period. According to the Memphite Theology of the Egyptian Shabaka stele, the creator and original god, Ptah, creates the world through his divine thought and word. When it is done, he sees that it is good, and he rests.⁸

That the creation account of Genesis 1 modified earlier biblical creation motifs to fit a historiographical narrative and introduced elements of Greek and Egyptian thought should not diminish the importance of biblical creation as ongoing renewal. Like the Israelites and Babylonians, the Egyptians also believed that the world was in a state of continuous creation that could be observed through the day-night cycle and the yearly cycle of the Nile.⁹

Conclusions

There is much more to explore here, including the Garden of Eden story and the development of later Christian theology. However, I would offer the following conclusions:

  1. Descriptions of creation are present in dozens of passages throughout the Old Testament, particularly in Psalms, Isaiah, Job, and Proverbs.
  2. Creation in the Bible is primarily understood as an ongoing renewal of creation rather than an Urzeit (origin) event.
  3. Creation was closely linked with both Yahweh’s kingship and seasonal cycles. It was celebrated during the Festival of Tabernacles, the New Year Festival in ancient Judah.
  4. Biblical creation is based on the same motifs as the Syro-Palestinian and Babylonian creation myths, particularly the Baal-Yam and Marduk-Tiamat combat myths.
  5. The cosmology described in the Bible is identical to that of ancient Egypt, Syro-Palestine and Mesopotamia.
  6. The opening creation account in Genesis is atypical in its use as part of a historiographic narrative and for the Greek and Egyptian concepts it incorporates. However, it retains many of the same creation motifs we find throughout other biblical passages and reflects the same cosmology.
  7. The creation account in Genesis is later than the other biblical creation accounts and contributes less to biblical creation theology than the Psalms or Isaiah.

References:

  1. Grønbæk, Jakob H., “Baal’s Battle With Yam — a Canaanite Creation Fight”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Oct. 1985).
  2. Holloway, S.W., “What Ship Goes There: The Flood Narratives in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis Considered in Light of Ancient Near Eastern Temple Ideology”, ZAW 103: 328-55.
  3. R.N. Whybray, The Second Isaiah, pp. 53–54.
  4. Day, John, Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, p. 333.
  5. Day, John, Psalms, pp. 41-42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò, “Primeval History in the Persian Period?”, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament Vol. 21, No.12, 106-126, 2007.
  8. John Strange, “Some Remarks on Biblical and Egyptian Theology”, in: Gary N. Knoppers, Antoine Hirsch (eds.), Egypt, Israel, and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Studies in Honor of Donald B. Redford (2004), pp. 345-358.
  9. Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, “Patterns of Creation in Ancient Egypt”, Creation in Jewish and Christian Tradition (2002), p. 174.
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5 thoughts on “Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of Creation

  1. Maybe I missed it, but where in the Bible can we see that creation is understood as an ‘ongoing renewal’? Of the passages you quote there are at least two which indicate creation is understood as origin: Psalm 93 says “you existed from the first, Yahweh.” In Proverbs 8 Wisdom says that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work.” How do those and similar passages indicate recurrence?

    • Not only are many of the creation and enthronement psalms in the present tense, but they functioned as prayers and as hymns in festivals that celebrated the renewal of creation. The ancient cultural context is key to understanding them. Also, that myths are put in the past tense doesn’t mean they were primarily understood as historical events.

      The context of Proverbs 8, a much later text, is quite different. Its focus is on Wisdom as a pre-existent observer or participant in Yahweh’s creative works. She is “the fundamental principle which governs the design of the world”.

  2. Excellent post Paul! My own contribution to the discussion, which compares ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian views of the cosmos with Biblical ones is titled “The Cosmology of the Bible,” and it appears in the controversial collection of essays, The Christian Delusion. But I like how your blog post fills in information concerning how the psalms and shorter creation tales in the Bible preceded Genesis 1, which I also mention, but do not delve into in as much detail. Excellent!

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