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The Creation of Humankind in the Ancient Near East

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsWe are all familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis two and their creation stands in contrast to the scientific theories of human origins in western culture. We will see as we look at the comparative data that the information offered in the biblical text would have been very comfortable in the ancient Near Eastern environment, though several noticeable differences are observable.

Creation of Humankind in the Ancient Near East

It is common that some part of deity is used in the creation of humankind. Although there is little information on the creation of humankind in Egyptian literature, the breath of the deity or his tears represents the endowment from the deity.1

More information is available from Mesopotamia, where physical elements from the gods such as blood or flesh are used to create humans, thus requiring the death of a deity. The Mesopotamian presentation in the Atrahasis Epic suggests that the elements used to create people correspond to the various parts of the being (e.g., soul, spirit). T. Abusch has proposed that Babylonians believed that man’s ghost (etemmu) derives from the flesh of the god, while the blood (Akk. damu) of the god provides the human intellect (temu), self, or soul.2 "The blood is the dynamic quality of intelligence, and the flesh is the form of the body that is imposed on the clay."3

Genesis, by contrast, represents the divine element in human beings as seen in the image of God and the breath of life (closer to Egyptian than Mesopotamian thinking). Regarding the latter, God breathes the breath of life into man’s nostrils and he becomes a living soul (nepeš). If it is true, as some have suggested,4 that the Hebrew nepeš is equivalent to the Akkadian etemmu, we see the breath of God in Genesis functioning the same way as the flesh of the god functions in Atrahasis.

1_025 bmc khnum closeu#272E One of the distinctives of the biblical account of the creation of humankind is that only one human pair is created (= monogenesis). In the ancient Near East people are created as a group; that is, Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources are overwhelmingly polygenistic. The ancient Near Eastern texts typically speak of human origins in collective terms. The only extant text that has been suspected of depicting an original human pair is KAR 4. This idiosyncratic text has both Akkadian and Sumerian versions, with the main exemplar from Asshur dated to about 1100 B.C.5 The most important lines (19–49) describe all the intended functions of the human beings that the gods are planning to create (the text never reports their actual creation, only the plan to do so). Line 39 says, "They will be named Ullegarra and Annegarra."

The problem is that these names, which seem as if they ought to be the names of the first humans, are preceded by the divine determinative, suggesting they belong to the divine realm. This text still has many uncertainties connected to its reading and interpretation. The text then sees people multiplying (line 40) and anticipates that "learned person after learned person, unlearned after unlearned will spring up like the grain" (line 44). This is still far from the Israelite view of Adam (or Noah for that matter) as the progenitor of the race.

Finally, in Mesopotamian traditions people are created to serve the gods by doing the work that the gods are tired of doing. Turning again to KAR 4, "the corvée of the gods will be their corvée: They will fix the boundaries of the fields once and for all, and take in their hands hoes and baskets, to benefit the House of the great gods."6 The labor that had been required for the gods to meet their own needs was drudgery, so people were expected to fill that gap and work to meet those needs.

In Israel, people were created to serve God, but not as slave labor to meet his needs. They served in a priestly role in sacred space.7 God planted the garden to provide food for people rather than people providing food for the gods.8 All of this demonstrates that though the Israelites viewed some issues differently from their neighbors, they operated in the same thought world. All were interested in exploring the divine component of humankind and the relationship between the human and divine. Those questions gave direction to the discussion. Whether similarities or differences emerge, the biblical perspective can be clarified by investigating the larger ancient Near Eastern worldview. (Excerpt from ZIBBCOT, Genesis, by John Walton, forthcoming).

We should not expect the Bible to answer the questions that arise from our own time and culture. Genesis was written to Israelites and addressed human origins in light of the questions they would have had. We should not try to make modern science out of the information that we are given, but should try to understand the affirmations that the text is making in its own context.

1 Other traditions speak of people being formed on the potter’s wheel of Khnum (S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1973), 183–84; R. A. Simkins, Creator and Creation (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 70–71.

2 T. Abusch, "Ghost and God: Some Observations on a Babylonian Understanding of Human Nature," in Self, Soul and Body in Religious Experience, ed. A. Baumgarten, J. Assmann, and G. Stroumsa (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 363–83.

3 Ibid., 371.

4 J. C. Greenfield, "Un rite religieux arameén et ses parallèles," RB 80 (1973) : 46–50.

5 Keilschrifttexte aus Assur Religiosen Inhalts (Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen der deutschen Orientgesellschaft 28, 34; Leipzig: 1919, 1923). Text and discussion in G. Pettinato, Das altorientalische Menschenbild und die sumerischen und akkadischen Schöpfungsmythen (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1971); translation of the text and a limited commentary (no discussion of monogenism/ polygenism) in Clifford, Creation Accounts, 49–51.

6 Clifford, Creation Accounts, 50 (lines 21–23).

7 J. Walton, Genesis, 172–74.

8 Note the combination of digging ditches and caring for sacred space in KAR 4, where people are doing manual labor in the care of sacred space (lines 27–51). See D. Callender, Adam in Myth and History (HSS 48; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 57.

Photo credit: Brian J. McMorrow

Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.

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