At the beginning of the new year, we turn our attention to The Beginning by looking briefly at two creation accounts. One thing a good Christian education should do is provide a keen awareness of both the familiarity and foreignness of Christianity (as G.K. Chesterton put it, both the “welcome and the wonder” of it). As we are prone to take Christian teachings for granted, they can lose their power in our lives, so it is an important act of the spiritual imagination to occasionally stop to appreciate the strangeness of it all. * A brief comparison of the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, with the account in Genesis can do this for us.
Before we compare those accounts, there is another reason for this exercise. There is an expression that “ideas have legs” and this is certainly true of origin stories—they have an impact not only on our thinking about how the cosmos came into being but also about its present and future states, as well as our place and purpose in it. In other words, creation accounts are not only about a world but also a worldview. As we’ve noted before, Trinitas students in the logic stage (grades 5-8), learn to ask “Ultimate Questions.” As they engage history, scripture, literature, and popular culture, they are encouraged to ask what is being said about God, Humanity, and Nature, and what are being identified as problems and proposed as remedies. In this post, we conduct something like a logic-stage exercise, looking at the two creation accounts to see what answers they give to such questions.
The Enuma Elish was thought to have been sung or chanted during the New Year Festival in Babylon. Hear a summary of that epic creation account by author Abigail Favale: “In the beginning, there was water, and this water is where the gods are born. Two kinds of water: the turbulent feminine sea and the docile masculine river, fresh and saltwater intermingling, together forming a teeming pool from which the gods spring forth—all kinds of gods, noisy and raucous gods, gods who beget other gods. One of these gods [Marduk] arises as more powerful than the others, filled with a restless, conquering spirit. The watery orb of his origin becomes too small for him, too confining, and he decides to revolt. He gathers an army of monsters to do battle with the sea, his foremother [Tiamat], who has whipped herself into a terrifying frenzy, a primordial hurricane. He wins. He kills her. As an afterthought, he decides to make use of her corpse. He splits her down the middle, gutting her like a fish, and from her dead flesh forms the dome of the heavens and the sweep of the earth. He kills her consort [Quingu] as well, and from his blood, the warring god makes a multitude of tiny slaves [human beings] whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, to keep them gratified and well fed.”
Now hear the creation account from Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” God then separated the sky from the sea and continued speaking into existence, ex nihilo (out of nothing), the land, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees, the sun, the moon and the stars, the fish and the birds, blessing them with increase. At the close of each of those days, we are told, “God saw that it was good.” On the sixth day, after creating the land animals, God created the first Man, Adam, from the dust of the earth and his own breath. And this time, God saw that what he had created was “very good.” What was “not good” was that the Man was, despite the company of all the animals, “alone.” And so God placed Adam in a deep sleep and brought forth from his body Woman, whom Adam joyously recognized and received as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The two, unique among all of the creation, were made in the “image and likeness of God.” They lived in harmonious intimacy with each other and with God, tending and walking together in the garden.
While there may be similarities in the two accounts, let’s focus on the differences. As Favale points out, the initial state described in the Enuma Elish is chaos. It’s not only lacking in order, it’s noisy, violent, and destructive (apparently it was the incessant noise that provoked some of the murders). The initial state in Genesis, by contrast, is more tranquil, a peaceful void, the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. The Babylonian gods exist in greedy, power-hungry, warring factions, while the Christian God is a generous, self-giving, loving Trinity, sometimes imagined in a harmonious dance. Marduk, the Babylonian creator, is himself the product of two other gods. The Christian God is uncreated, eternally existing.
The creation of the cosmos, according to the Babylonians, is the result of deceptive plotting and violent acquisition of power that uses a maternal corpse as its building blocks. According to the Hebrew account, the cosmos is a generous gift from a God who is so wise, loving, and powerful, his creative acts require no prior material. It is enough for him to simply say it is so. Human beings in the Enuma Elish are created from the blood of a murdered god to live out their lives as slaves to the other capricious gods. By contrast, the human beings created in Eden were formed from the earth and from God’s own breath, formed to be not merely matter but a unity of body and spirit with inviolable dignity, free stewards of creation and unselfconscious friends of a loving God.
It may be difficult to think about Eden without also thinking about the next part of the story: the Fall and the exile from Eden. But as soon as we hear about the Fall, we also hear the promise God makes to restore what has been ruined and, ultimately, to return humanity from exile. God’s speaking things into existence in Genesis becomes even more interesting when we get to the New Testament. In the opening lines of his gospel, John basically says, “Remember how God spoke the cosmos into existence? Well, that word was The Word, the second person of the Trinity, the one God promised at the Fall. The one through whom everything came into being, the awesome creator of the cosmos, came as a baby in a manger and dwelt among us. He is the second Adam received as gift by the second Eve, and he’s the one through whom everything will be made new. The Word created it all, and The Word is the Way to fixing it all.” In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonians don’t have anything like a creation-fall-redemption arc to their story. It’s chaos and turmoil and conquering all the way down, with no hope for restoration and rest from struggle because there is nothing to restore, no harmony to return to.
The Genesis account also indicates something about language: the purpose and power of words. God created everything out of nothing through the Word and he saw that it was good. As his image bearers, our words are to be used to point to truths about the world as it exists and to participate in God’s ongoing redemptive work in it.** Contra postmodernist theories of language, we do not create reality with our words. Our words can align with reality more accurately and more fully or less so, and they can work to restore and fulfill creation’s purposes or further its fallenness, but they do not have the power to create reality (as if ex nihilo) or to change God’s original design.
This discussion may seem like a mere academic exercise (though hopefully a somewhat interesting one), but it is part of a classical Christian education to form imaginations, hearts and minds, for God. We encourage you to continue observing and thinking about the answers that are given, explicitly or implicitly, to ultimate questions all around you. And we invite you to join our book club in reading C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. While we approach the 80th anniversary of Lewis’s lectures, they remain a timely reminder that ideas have legs and, if we are not paying attention, they can sometimes take us unawares to places we do not wish to go.
*Junia, by Michael E. Giesler, is a good fictional account of the life and death of an early Christian which shows how utterly strange the teachings and lives of Christians were in the culture of ancient Rome, especially humble and sacrificial care for the weak and vulnerable.
** C.S. Lewis says something similar about the purpose of art in The Great Divorce: art is not merely the self-expression of the artist; it should provide a window to what is really real.