As I discussed yesterday, the Hebrew Bible contains many stories and passages that are clearly parallel to and most likely derived from pagan Near Eastern mythology. Although these parallels are well-reported in academic literature, they remain unfamiliar to most non-academics because of the popular media’s reluctance to discuss issues that call into question the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. One of the most interesting parallels is the story of the creation of humanity from clay, which appears in both Genesis and in Babylonian myth.
Here is the Genesis account: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (2:7).
Centuries earlier, the peoples of the Near East already had this story, as reported in the Enuma Elish, where the god Ea makes humanity from the dirt of the earth:
In the later version of the Babylonian priest Berossus, a slightly different version is given: “the deity above-mentioned (Bel, i.e. Marduk) took off his own head: upon which the other gods mixed the blood, as it gushed out, with the earth; and from thence were formed men.”
This myth was widespread, appearing also in ancient Greece, likely a transfer from the Near East, probably during the Orientalizing Period, the great period of contact with Near Eastern cultures. It is not seen in Hesiod or Homer and therefore is a relatively late transfer. References can be found in Sappho, Aesop, Plato, and others, and Apollodorus includes the story in his Library: “Prometheus moulded men out of water and earth and gave them also fire, which, unknown to Zeus, he had hidden in a stalk of fennel” (1.7.1).
In the Babylonian creation myth, human beings were the creation of the gods, made from the earth just as in Genesis. However, the Babylonian version differs in two essential respects from the Hebrew version. First, the Babylonian creation envisions human beings as given life through the blood of a god, not from the breath of a god. Second, the Babylonians envisioned humanity as a slave race created to serve and service the gods, while the Hebrews envisioned humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation, made as the lords of the earth (Genesis 1:26). The Babylonians may have been born of their god’s blood, but the Hebrews saw themselves as nearly equal to God, perhaps too close.
As with the twin stories of Moses and Sargon of Akkad, the two somewhat contradictory Genesis accounts of creation (in chapters 1 and 2) repurpose a common Near Eastern myth, turning it on its head to define the Israelites in opposition to other Near Eastern peoples.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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