here is what Bp. Michael Dahulich has to say about Genesis as compared to other creation myths:
One of the most famous myths coming out of the Ancient World is the Babylonian epic known as the Enuma Elish (from its opening words: “When on high”). The cosmogony found there is extremely important for our study of Genesis, for it has been preserved almost in its entirety and belongs to the same ancient Near East of which Israel was a part.
This Babylonian creation epic tells how, before the formation of heaven and earth, nothing existed except water. This primal element was identified with Apsu, the male personification of the primeval sweetwater ocean, and with his female associate Tiamat, the primordial saltwater ocean, represented as a ferocious monster. From the commingling of the two waters were born divine offspring, who, in turn, gave birth to a second generation of gods; the process was repeated successively. There came a time, however, when the young gods, through their constant, noisy behavior, disturbed the peace of Tiamat and Apsu, who decided to destroy the gods. Their evil design, however, was thwarted by the quick action of Ea, the earth-water god.
Tiamat now plotted revenge and organized her forces for the attack on the gods who, in response, asked Marduk to lead them in battle. He agreed, provided that he be granted sovereignty over the universe. This was readily agreed to, whereupon Marduk took up warfare against Tiamat and her helpers. After a fierce battle in which he defeated the enemy forces and slew Tiamat, Marduk sliced the carcass of the monster in two and created from one half the firmament of the heaven and from the other the foundation of the earth.
This work of creation having begun Marduk then established the heavenly luminaries, each in his own place. The gods then complained to Marduk that, each having now been assigned his or her fixed place and function in the cosmos, there would be no relief from the unending toil. Accordingly, Marduk decided to create man to fee the gods from menial labor. Thus a human being was fashioned out of the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband and captain of her army. The gods showed their gratitude to Marduk by building for him a great shrine in the city of Babylon, “the gate of the god.” The Enuma Elish ends with a description of a testimonial banquet given by the gods at which they recite a hymn of praise to Marduk that confirms his kingship for all eternity.
Images of this can be found in the Old Testament and the writings of the Fathers, In Isaiah, for example, we find, “Was it not Thou that didst cut Rahab [Tiamat] in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon?” (Is. 51:9) or Psalms, “Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan” (Ps. 74:14), “Thou didst crush Rahab like a carcass” (Ps. 89:10), and “By His power He stilled the sea; by His understanding He smote Rahab” (Job 26:12). Later, this sea creature (called variously Rahab, Leviathan or dragon) became a symbol for the forces of evil; Cyril of Jerusalem, for example, spoke of Christ crushing the head of the sea monster while standing in the Jordan at His baptism, and this is often portrayed on icons of the Theophany.
The Meaning of Myth
In the popular mind the word myth has come to be identified with fairy tale and associated with the imaginary and the fantastic. But to the Greeks, Mythos meant originally nothing more than a tale. More specifically, it came to be used in describing the deeds of the gods in their relations with one another, their associations with man, and their roles in the cosmos. Myth, in the ancient view, was intimately connected with ritual. In the ancient world, in general, myths were believed to have actually happened in primeval times and continued to influence the world and human destinies. Thus, myth was mimetically re-enacted in public festivals to the accompaniment of ritual. The whole complex constituted initiative magic, the effect of which was believed to be beneficial to the entire community. Through ritual drama, the primordial events recorded in the myth were reactivated. The enactment at the appropriate season of the creative deeds of the gods and the recitation of the proper verbal formulas, so it was believed, would effect the periodic revitalization of nature and so assure the prosperity of the community.
Function of Enuma Elish
The Enuma Elish was one of many versions of cosmogony current in the ancient Near East, but its importance transcended all others, for it became the great national epic of Babylon. It was solemnly recited and dramatically presented in the course of the festivities marking the Spring New Year , the focal point of the Babylonian religious calendar. The epic performed several functions. First, it was a theogony, for it described how the generations of gods came into being. Second, it was cosmological, for it provided an explanation of cosmic phenomena and gave answers to human speculations about the origins of things. Both themes were naturally appropriate to the New Year festival. But still important, the conception of the universe in the Enuma Elish as a kind of cosmic state corresponded to the structural forms of Babylonian society. The position and function of man in the scheme of creation paralleled precisely the status of the slave in Mesopotamia, while the reception of authority by Marduk and his consolidation of power by the show of overwhelming force were symbolic of the Babylonian conception of human rulership of the state.
At the same time, the Enuma Elish served to validate Marduk’s assumption of the divine government of the universe by explaining his ascendancy from relative obscurity as the city-god of Babylon to a supreme position in the Babylonian pantheon, “king of all gods.” It also reflected Babylonian imperialism and supported Babylon’s claims to political pre-eminence in ancient world.
Finally, in its cultic re-enactment, the Enuma Elish recalled the conflict between Tiamat and Marduk as an expression of the war between the forces of cosmic order and the forces of chaos. The struggle was believed to be repeated constantly in the annual life-cycle of the earth. The mimetic New Year re-enactment of the story was in reality a ritual drama. At the critical time of the Vernal Equinox, when nature seemed to be suspended between inanimation and animation, between inertia and creativity, the ritual recitation of the epic served as an analogical repetition of the primordial victory of cosmic order. The participation of society in the struggle between the forces of death and those of revival, to the Babylonian mind, actually brought into effect the renewal of communal life and its re-invigoration.
Function of Genesis Narrative
The ideas presented in the Enuma Elish, as well as its role in Babylonian society are important for a proper understanding of the Genesis account. We must remember that the Mesopotamian and Hebrew cosmogonies, each in its own way, express through their symbolism the worldviews and values that animated the civilization each represents. However, an important distinction must be made here between Israel and Mesopotamia, for the theme of creation, important as it is in the Bible, is only introductory (a prologue, so to speak) to what is to come, namely, the Exodus from Egypt, when God breaks into history. God’s acts in history, rather than His role as Creator are predominant in Biblical thought.
The Bible opens with the account of Creation, not so much because its primary purpose is to describe the process of cosmogony, nor because its chief concern is with the nature of the physical world or the origin and constitution of matter. Genesis will be a prologue to the historical drama that unfolds in the following pages of the Bible. It proclaims, loudly and without ambiguity, the absolute subordination of all creation to Supreme Creator Who makes use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history – what will be, for us, “Salvation History.” Unlike the Enuma Elish in Babylon, the Genesis Creation account is primarily the record of the event that inaugurates this historical process, and which ensures that there is divine purpose behind creation that works itself out on the human stage.
There are other basic distinctions between Genesis and the Enuma Elish, for Genesis has no political role. It contains no allusions to the people of Israel, Jerusalem or the Temple. It does not seek to validate national ideals or institutions. In addition, it fulfills no cultic function. The tie between myth and ritual, the mimetic enactment of the cosmogony in the form of ritual drama, finds no counterpart in the Israelite epic. Here, too, Genesis represents a complete break with Near Eastern tradition.
The reason for this is not hard to find. The supreme characteristic of the Mesopotamian cosmogony is that it is embedded in a mythological matrix, whereas the outstanding peculiarity of the biblical account is the complete absence of mythology in the classical pagan sense of the term. The religion of Israel is essentially non-mythological, for there is no sense of any “biography of the gods.” And nowhere is this non-mythological outlook better illustrated than in the Genesis narrative. It has no notion of the birth of God and no biography of God. It does not even begin with a statement about the existence of God. To the Bible, God’s existence is self-evident as is life itself, and Genesis begins immediately with an account of the creative activity of the pre-existent God.
In the Mesopotamian accounts, theogony is closely tied up with cosmogony. The gods themselves had to be created. Even Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon, is not pre-existent. The first beings are demons and monsters, while the god of creation is born only at a fairly late stage in the theogonic process. Moreover, his activity is introduced almost casually and incidentally.
The birth of the gods implies the existence of some primordial, self-contained, realm from which the gods themselves derive. The cosmos too, is fashioned from the same element, personified in the Enuma Elish as the carcass of Tiamat. This is to say, both the divine and the cosmic are animated by a common source. In addition, the concept of the immanence of the gods in nature was one of the basic convictions of the religious of the pagan world. It meant the existence of divine powers, operating in nature, upon whom the well-being of man and society depended. The periodic changes in nature were conceived as episodes in the lives of the gods. Nature and man belonged to the same realm. Hence, the goal of man on earth was to integrate himself harmoniously into the cosmic rhythm.
This dependence upon the material explains the prominence in the polytheistic religion of the tales of the personal lives of the gods, their subjection to birth, growth, sex, hunger, disease, impotence and even death. Now, if there are many gods and these gods are dependent upon physical existence, then they can have neither freedom nor omnipotence. Their immanence in nature limits their scope. Their sovereign powers are circumscribed by the superior forces inherent in the primordial substance of existence. Since, according to pagan concepts, man’s destiny is controlled by two separate forces, the gods and the power beyond the gods, it was inevitable that magic became an integral part of pagan religion. Man had to be able to devise the means of activating those forces superior even to the gods. Religion, as a consequence, became increasingly concerned with the elaboration of ritual designed to propitiate the numerous unpredictable powers that be.
Anyone who reads the Bible, especially the Psalter, is aware that the ancient Israelite was as struck by the majesty of natural phenomena as was any of his pagan neighbors. But unlike them, he did not profess to see God within those phenomena. The clear line of distinction between God and His creation was never violated. Nowhere is this brought out more forcefully than in the Genesis account. Here we find no physical link between the world of humanity and the world of the divine. There is no natural connection between the Creator and His handiwork. Hence, there is not room for magic in the religion of the Bible. The God of Creation is eternally existent, removed from all corporeality, and independent of time and space.
Anyone reading the 1st Chapter of Genesis is immediately struck by the complete de-mythologization found there. The planets, stars and other heavenly bodies are “stars” unnamed and simply “lamps” hung in the sky by the Creator to give light to man. Only the Sun and Moon are mentioned by name, calling to mind that the Sun, Re was a great Egyptian god and the moon, Astarte was a Canaanite goddess. To the Greeks there was Helios the Sun god and Hecate, the Moon goddess of the shades; it was she who ruled over the dead. The Earth and Sea are no longer powerful deities – Mother Earth and Oceanus – but simply, “God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the assembled waters ‘sea.’” And together with them all the secondary gods – the gods of the rivers, mountains, springs, trees, and so forth – have been swept away. The great sea monsters are no longer relics of the mythical chaos and a primeval battle of the gods, but are simply animals directly created by God.
1:10 And God saw that it was good.
If the entire world gives testimony to God, God, in turn, gives testimony to the world. He acknowledges it as His work and declares it good! He does not disown it. All the dignity of creation is affirmed. Having dispelled all the falsities of idolatry which created man overestimated in making them equal to the Creator, the Sacred Author defends Creation against those who would deface it. The world is good and holy as the work of a good and holy God. It commands our respect. Placed in existence by the free will of God, it has value and lastingness, and is a participation in the being of God.
When we spoke earlier about the Enuma Elish, we noted that the notion of conflict was inherent in the pagan view of the cosmos. Implicit in the notion of a multiplicity of gods is a plurality of wills which, by human analogy, is bound, in turn, to cause strife. The strife of the gods, personified forces of nature, is an outstandingly characteristic feature of pagan, polytheistic cosmogonies. That is why polytheistic accounts of creation always begin with the predominance of the powers of nature, and invariably describe in detail a titanic struggle between two opposing forces. They inevitably regard the achievement of world order as the outgrowth of an overwhelming exhibition of power on the part of one god who, through violence, manages to impose his will upon all others. This theme of the cosmic battle is the underlying motif of the Enuma Elish.
The Book of Genesis has no direct reference to the notion of creation in terms of struggle. Indeed, the very idea is utterly alien to the whole atmosphere of the creation narrative. Yet the Sacred Author was not unaware of the place of the combat myth in pagan cosmogony, for he emphatically tells us that God created the “great sea monsters” (1:21), that these mythological beings, which elsewhere in Scripture are counted among those who rebelled against God, e.g., Is. 27:1, 51:9, were not at all pre-existent rivals of the one Supreme Creator, but His own creatures.
Despite the familiarity of the Hebrew account with some of the motifs of the cosmogonic myths of the ancient Near East, all notions of a connection between creation and cosmic battles was banished from Genesis with extreme care. The idea of strife and tension between God and nature is unthinkable, and to emphasize the point, the words “and it was so” are repeated after each divine command.
Furthermore, it is highly significant that the biblical fragments of a cosmogonic combat myth have survived solely as picturesque metaphors exclusively in the language of poetry, something which strongly indicates a minimal impact upon the religious consciousness of Israel. Never once are these creatures accorded divine attributes, nor is there anywhere a suggestion that their struggle against God in any way challenged God’s sovereign rule in the universe.
The real qualitative difference between the pagan cosmogonic combat myth and the Israelite fragments is shown by the use to which the fragments are put in biblical literature. They, almost always, appear as a literary device expressing the evil deeds and punishment of the human wickedness in terms of the mythical conflict of God with the rebellious forces of primeval chaos. The plunderers and despoilers of Israel are compared to the noisy seas and the turbulent, mighty, chaotic waters which flee at the divine rebuke.
[quotes Is. 17:12-14]
The sinful ones of the earth, the objects of divine wrath, are designated by the names of the mythological monsters, while the defeat of the creature (YAM) in ancient times is cited as evidence of God’s overwhelming power in dealing with the wicked.
[quotes Is. 27:1]
Similarly, God’s decisive overthrow of His mythical primeval enemies is invoked as an assurance of His mighty power for the redemption of Israel through a similar victory over the present historical enemies of the nation.
[quotes Is. 51:9-11, Hab. 3:8-15, Ps. 74:12-19]
The gross polytheism of the combat myth, in all its implications for religion and society, was excluded from the Bible. The motif itself underwent radical transformation and in Israelite hands, a backward-looking myth of the dim past became a symbolic affirmation of the future triumph of divine righteousness in human affairs. Evil in the world is no longer apprehended metaphysically, but belongs on the moral plane. The events of pre-history become, in the Bible, the pattern for history. The Lord of creation Who utterly controls nature is by virtue of that fact an unfailing source of confidence that His word is eternal and His incursions into history effective; so that His absolute power over the forces of chaos carries with it the assurance of the historical triumph of righteousness over evil.
1:27 So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
It is important to point out that the creation of man in Genesis account is an exception the rule of creation by divine command, and solely in the case of man is the material from which he is made explicitly mentioned. This implies emphasis upon the unique position for man among created things and a special relationship to God, and is reinforced in many and varied subtle ways. It seems as if we have for the final creative act the usual act of God’s will reinforced by an act of divine effort. Man, alone, has the breath of life blown into his nostrils by God Himself, and only by virtue of this direct animation did man become a living being, drawing directly from God and the source of his life. Nothing else in the creative process is preceded by a divine declaration of intention and purpose, Let us make man... (Gen. 1:26). So much does the Sacred Author wish to signify the special status given man in the cosmos, that the verb BARA is used three times in the course of a single verse. Man, in fact, is the high point of creation and the entire story has a human-centered orientation. (We note also, that in similar degree, both man and woman share in God’s Image and Likeness. There is no discrimination!)
The situation contrasts strongly with the story of creation of man in the Enuma Elish. There, he is almost incidental, fashioned as a king of afterthought, as a servant of the gods to provide them with nourishment and generally to satisfy their physical needs. The Sacred Author seems to be emphasizing the antithesis of this, for part of the very first communication of God to man is an expression of divine concern for man’s physical needs and well-being: Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seeds in its fruit; you shall have them for food... (Gen. 1:29f).
We recollect that man is created in the image of God, for this idea is closely connected with what follows: God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Man is endowed with power over the animal and vegetable worlds and is conferred with the right and duty to use the resources of nature for his own benefits.
Thus, the Bible’s concept of the divine image in man constitutes another revolutionary break with the contemporary world. The pagan bond between man and nature has been severed once and for all. No longer is man a creature of blind forces, helplessly at the mercy of the rhythms and cycles of nature, but rather is a being possessed of dignity, purpose, freedom and tremendous power.
The pre-eminence of man over beast, however, is not the same as total independence. In the 1st Chapter of Genesis when we are told that God created man in His image, nothing is stated of the matter used in the act of creation. In the narrative to follow in Chapter 2, however, it is related that God formed man from dust taken from the earth (Gen. 2:6). The word translated here as dust is used quite often in Biblical Hebrew as a synonym for clay, and in various parts of the Old Testament we are confronted with the motif of man being shaped out of clay. In the Enuma Elish man is created from the blood of the rebellious Kingu. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the goddess Aruru washed her hands, nipped off clay and fashioned it into the man Enkidu. An old Babylonian myth, paralleled in an Assyrian version, explicitly describes the creation of the first men from clay. And the motif is also found in a third millennium, B.C., Sumerian composition. There are also Egyptian paintings which depict the god Khnum sitting upon his throne before a potter’s wheel busily fashioning men.
The very verb used in the second narrative of the creation of man by God – YASAR – is the same from which the Hebrew word for “potter” is drawn. This figure is a well-known Biblical symbol evoking the notion of God’s absolute mastery over man, so that through the ingenious use of a common mythological motif, the Sacred Author has effectively succeeded, not just in combating mythological notions, but has also conveyed both a sense of man’s glory and freedom and the feeling of his complete dependence upon God. Human sovereignty over the world can never be absolute, for there is also God’s moral order over him.
After every creative act, God pronounces His verdict: It is TOV (good)! And later: TOV MEOD (very good)! The creation, as such, corresponds completely to God’s creative design for it.
Evil has no place in the world created by God and does not correspond to God’s design. Evil is not an essence – it is not something. Evil corresponds to the choice the creation itself makes. Evil is not existence or being, but is only a condition of being, a state of existence. And, it is an unnatural condition of being.
And so, in Biblical teaching on the World and Man, Creation and Providence, (1) God Himself has not created evil, sin or death. (2) God’s representative, man, bears in himself God’s Image and Likeness, and has a vocation to continue the creation. (3) Man is called to cooperation and not opposition to God.